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Edition 9

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Fiction

The angel in the travelling show

IN THE NORTH of Queensland, at the cusp of the modern age, many singular events were recorded and others, no less true for not being recorded, fell outside the legal jurisdiction and moral grip of both the old world and the proconsuls in the south. We are aware of the sugar growers' trade in Islander slaves, of summary justice and the random shootings of blacks. Assuming you lived at the time, if you were in the habit of attending the itinerant sideshows that visited the larger settlements and towns – if you sought light relief from the banality of the cane fields or, perhaps, temporary concession from the absurdity of affecting European society in the tropics – then you will have seen the various plebeian contests of strength and vulgarity, of woodchopping, brawling and beer guzzling. You will have seen the wild Indian wolf-boy who snapped at the hands that fed him, and Rosie Sanchez, who was said to be the fattest woman in the world; and perhaps, if you were very fortunate, a small, sunburnt man dragging across the strange land what had once been a veritable caravan of human curiosities, but in the year 1896, consisted of just one iron-barred trailer wherein was trapped an angel.

The man was erect and dignified, yet bucolic in dress. He might have been a German peasant, though an American accent coloured his broken English, and the eyes that shone from beneath his worn felt hat were worldly intelligent and unsettling. Now such a man, who calls himself a purveyor of exotica, actually earns his living on the basis that there is nothing truly extraordinary in the world. He knows that the wolf-child in its cage, trained to snarl and bite, would just as readily fawn and smile if it meant a meal. He knows the Indonesian homunculus imagines the well-dressed gentlemen and ladies on the other side of the bars as more fabulous animals than he; and he knows the giantess of Ghana reads the celebrity magazines when she is bored and is liable to drink more than is good for her, just as so many idle and discontented wives do. And he knows that people who intuit all these things will pay good money to be duped. He also knows, and this is most crucial, that people are timid creatures and do not actually wish to be confronted with the unknown, only being able to tolerate its semblance. Indeed, so he believes, modern man has retreated so far from life he barely recognises anything for what it is. The purveyor of exotica knows that what people will call "strange" is predetermined, that they have already seen it and it is part of their established lexicon. A green-coloured man would be considered strange and may appropriately find himself in our exoticist's exhibition. This is because he is a combination of concepts we already possess; we comprehend the state of "greenness" just as we comprehend the state of "manness"; so the creature is merely a combination of prosaic elements, a variation on banality. But what is truly strange risks invisibility.

We can barely speculate on what we do not know. There is not the language to describe it; but we are unlikely to see caged next to our green man a man who is at once not-only-a-man and not-even-a-man. Though, if we did witness such a thing we can safely assume, for the sake of a very modern sanity and comfort, it would be appropriated by most minds alike, that is, assigned some inappropriate lexical value to keep the creature's strangeness obscured. So most would leave the exhibition convinced within themselves, and by way of each other's reassurances, that they had seen something already known and accounted for.

Now, it was said the exoticist of our small historical episode had been in Borneo collecting oddities and was travelling the north of Australia, away from the law (at least its effectual aspect) in order to collect money for the ship back to Europe. It was the first the other denizens of the road had heard of this particular villain being short of money. Those who claimed to know something of the man said he had some months ago landed in the port of Surabaya with a full entourage of pygmies, giants and Siamese twins and returned from the wilds three weeks later, all but destitute, and dragging a green-eyed, auburn-haired girl by a chain and collar. In Jakarta he had sold what was left of his unfortunate troupe into slavery for only enough money to buy a cage and a passage for himself and the girl to the nearby continent. The few silver coins he had left convinced the captain of a merchant ship that despite her unlikely appearance the girl in the cage was really cargo of the most common kind: a half-breed islander destined for the cane fields – for, despite the Church's frowning, the slave trade flourished to that year and after, especially in girls.

In the Port Douglas Gazette dated May 18, 1896, obscured in the narrow columns between an article on the eminent visit of a one-time celebrated English mezzo and a society man's phrenological apology for the ill behaviour of Aboriginal servants at a shire dance, is found the only documentary evidence of the improbable European and his angel. Judging by the inconsequence of the assignment and the style of writing, the author of the piece was a young man, probably new to the trade of gossip; that is, the scandal and mystery are played down rather than up and the article assumes greater than the customary degree of imagination in its audience. Also, it reveals too much of the author. The article is by-lined "Geoffrey H". It reads as follows:

Perhaps the most shameless thing I saw at the weekend's fair on the banks of the Hodgkinson River was a little old European going about with a young girl in a cage, trying to convince people she was an angel. Though the child was most likely his daughter, or granddaughter, and was, as they say, earning her keep, there was something sinister in it. For the most part the European kept the cage covered by a great grey blanket while he leant against its bars like a man guarding a secret he hopes someone will shortly inquire about. Rather than bellow into the crowd as the other carnies did to attract attention, this one stayed quiet, only whispering here and there when asked, saying that the thing he had hidden beneath the blanket was in fact an angel of our Lord. He spoke to each inquirer as though they were the first and last he had shared the secret with, as though they were not meant to reveal it to a single other. And, of course, upon each hour there gathered a group of at least ten and as many as thirty all begging to be shown the contents of the cage. At this point the crafty old devil went about procuring as little as a penny and as much as a pound from the members of the crowd for the privilege of looking upon the entrapped creature. So convincing was the act that when he withdrew the blanket and revealed the rather ordinary looking child with a sickly pallor and hair and dress wringing wet from the afternoon sun absorbed through the dark fabric, the crowd literally gasped. Overprotective mothers covered young sons' eyes with their hands, and gentlemen who should have known better stepped closer and adjusted their eyeglasses as though momentarily dazzled by some radiance that was certainly not evident, all making exclamations of disbelief. To complete the absurd charade the old man had tied harlequin wings to the child's backthe ropes were clearly visible; all that was needed was a harlequin knight with wooden sword to present himself as her delivererand her eyes were painted in dark blue almond shapes in a garish oriental style. The liner and shadow ran pathetically down her cheeks. The illusion of sacrilege was maintained, though, for as long as it might be, by way of the possessive, almost cruel stares the queer old josser beamed at his daughter from below the platform of her stage, poking her emaciated ribs every so often with his thorny yew-wood walking stick to make her move, the well-trained girl showing believable fear.

I must say this black joke angered me greatly. Perhaps the greatest part of my anger came by the fact that those possessive glares were not possessive at all. On reflection I see in them delight in his work; the exhibitor of wonders took a queer pleasure in presenting the degraded girl to an audience, quite beyond the fact of the money he was collecting. Of course, in time, the gasps became sighs and then whispers and then chuckles; the anxious women let their sons to their own fate, which was rapid boredom, and one by one the crowd dispersed. Then the old man re-covered his exhibit and waited for curiosity to stir again within base minds.

It should be said, though, that few people were had twice by the old man and his fraudulent angel. Only one lonely boy, I recall, returned to join the changing audience. The boy stands out among my recollections of that day as, by the end of it, when most had been fooled once already and a copper coloured evening was stretched above all the visible world, he was quite alone before the cage. Indeed, the show kept on until the boy was stony broke; and the last three revelations were for him alone. Down to his last three pennies, he paid a penny for each unveiling; the intermittent time between these was shortened to a few minutes. The old man had made his money for the day, and even such a hungry charlatan as he was he might have taken the boy's three pennies in one final show and saved himself the time and bother of the last two unveilings. But he did notas though the whole performance was designed to extend the torment of that one boy. Though certainly once the boy's money was gone the exhibitor shooed him away with genuine impatience, and, perhaps, with pleasure. He toyed with the boy's wonder, but always with the end in mind and the knowledge that the end must be sudden, complete and irrevocable. What I witnessed then I can neither explain nor rid myself of: at the night's ultimate showing the idiot boy was crying.

In any case, I put it to the council to have these rogues checked into before they come robbing blind the less discerning and more impressionable members of our society with their trumped-up nonsense. We are far enough away from the world here as it is. Must we endure such barbarous entertainments?

 

HERE THE COLUMN ends, but there is sufficient evidence to suspect the story continues.  As for the author of the column, four subsequent pieces appear in the Gazette, each of them concerning some banality of local life. After the fourth they stop. Geoffrey H. never wrote for the paper again. Nor, it seems, for any other paper in the country. His identity remains a mystery, though records show there was one Geoffrey Harper, a Lance Corporal from Port Douglas responsible for a volume of devotional poetry, published at his own expense and distributed locally in 1895, who was killed in the Boer War. But not before a newspaper in Brisbane ran an "oddities" story, only three weeks after the last story Geoffrey H. wrote for the Port Douglas Gazette, concerning a raving old "vagabond Dutchman" who appeared one night in that city, claiming to have been robbed of his daughter and who, by the paper's account, had been living "on the road in a mobile cage". Three days saw the apparently lunatic Dutchman dead of grief that was more like "a fit of sustained demoniac rage", according to the nurse who attended him.

There are good reasons to suspect the man who committed the so-called theft of the so-called Dutchman's daughter was in fact Geoffrey H; that the cessation of the columns in the Gazette and the appearance in Brisbane of a man matching the description of Geoffrey H's sideshow devil are consistent in time is the least of these.

I alluded before to the fact that the author is present in the Gazette article to an unusual degree. As such it bears a closer resemblance to truth than regular journalism, for the very reason that it avoids so called "facts" of reality in favour of impressions; which, after all, is all we have. But this is not to say the writing is without an attempt at deceit. And here again I will say that the author is not only present but the very hinge and subject of the writing: that he is present literally, but perhaps the reader has already deduced this. How else could the author be sure no other than the story's "idiot boy" attended the unveiling of the angel more than once if he himself were not present for each of those unveilings and, therefore, (the boy being completely alone) had not acted the part of the boy himself. With sharp eyes one could discern the number and kind of copper coins in a boy's hand, but how, unless he were the boy, could he know the concealed number – or lack – of coins in the boy's pocket; how could he have known the boy gave all he had to the iniquitous devil? Here then we perceive another fallacy just as plainly. The creature to whom an apparently intelligent young man devoted an entire day and night, and we suspect longer, amidst what must have been a multitude of distractions, cannot have been so utterly unappealing, even un-angel like, as Geoffrey H. would have us believe. Geoffrey H's most heartfelt complaint about the devil in the story was of the joy he took in exhibition. No one reprimands a farmer for the pride he takes in a commonly good calf or melon. Why then the emotive response if there was not perceived an element of turning something singular to coin?

 

WHAT I SUGGEST can be known is that one Geoffrey Harper, author if the Gazette and minor poet, chased down the devil and the girl he had seen one day at a Port Douglas fair and separated the two by physical force – perhaps living with the girl for a time, but perhaps not – before enlisting in, being deployed to, and dying in the Boer War in 1901.

What is unknown and perhaps unknowable is the reason for his tears at the fateful fair five years prior to his destruction. Three possibilities are suggested to me: that the boy wept for the girl in bondage, condemned to laughter as a parody of Grace; that the boy wept for those few children in the crowd who, perhaps like himself, were previously devoted, innocent and credulous and had momentarily been fooled, knowing then the deceit that never more allows whole faith; or, perhaps he saw through the clownish makeup and the fake wings and perceived their true and dread purpose of masking a real angel, so he wept that the most beautiful creature seen on earth for two thousand years was only recognisable to Men as a parody of itself, in the image the convoluted mind of the world had made for it. If so, he must have looked into those infinite eyes – the one thing that could not be effectively obscured, this even the devil knew and tried literally to cover them in "garish" un-angelic makeup – and seen the infinite love of Christ and the pain of the prospect of eternity in bondage.

So then, the description of "the rather ordinary looking child" of "sickly pallor" is yet another mask, but this time given rather out of love than cruelty. Just as the mask of the devil was meant to obscure the angel's nature by making it obvious, meant to lose its wearer in the chaos of the world made again in the image of Man – that ultimate prosthetic inaccessible to Christ's return, from which there can be no escape – so the words written by the star-crossed young man were meant to hide the truth from all eyes, to preserve it undiminished in the vault of his own heart.

Lance Corporal Harper may have intuited that a devil would be the most likely thing on earth to recognise and seek to imprison a true angel, as antonymy is a relationship that is not yet wholly fathomed but is intuitively closer than synonymity. And the devil, in turn, must have realised the next-most-likely mortal creature to recognise an angel would be an honest-hearted poet. So even a devil must obey the laws of the universe and this one, like all things, was drawn to its end: to an arrogant joke and the one young man that could see through it.

The greatest mystery, after the mystery of the tears, is the intervening years between the rescue of the girl and Geoffrey Harper's death. There are five of them during which Harper goes out of all recorded knowledge. In the original Greek angelos meant "messenger". The holy books corroborate the appropriateness of the term. Assuming that no angels appear on earth without purpose, we may speculate upon the message an angel might have had for Geoffrey Harper and so the world, and why he went willingly to war and his likely death without delivering it. The possibility that, in time, he came to view the incident of the angel as childishness on his part and so put it out of his mind is discounted by the notebook of devotional, Catholic leaning poetry he kept on his person and was discovered with his bullet-ridden body, where no fewer than 30 of the 47 penned poems take angelic visitation as their subject. Notably, the poem entitledAnguish of the Seraphim, which speaks of a man who is visited by accident and, being unworthy, falls in human, passionate love with his visitant. The poem's subject gags her and ties her to his bed, refusing to deliver her message, knowing that directly this is performed she will leave him. The notebook sits on the desk in front of me, on loan from the Queensland Museum where I found it stored with other soldiers' possessions at time of death. As yet have been unable to find a publisher for such esoteric verse. I persist in the belief that somewhere in its pages may be the key to the mystery, though I cannot see it.

Seraphim, as theologians know, is the name given by medieval angelology to the first rank of angels. They hover above God's throne in the vision of Isaiah.

If there was a message the angel wished to deliver, was it too much for a young man to bear? Was he, like the subject of his poem, bewitched by archetypal beauty and rendered hopeless, and so, unable to find commensurate joy in the world once she had left him, sought death and reunion with the object of his love? Even so, what was the message? Was it one that might have avoided the century that came? Or did it foresee something even worse, something yet to pass? Is it possible Jeffrey Harper, the purest-hearted man among Men, felt its implications, its imperatives, too great and awful to advance? What then of the audacity of the demon who would display the salvation of all Mankind before Mankind itself, and call it by its true name as a form of disguise?

I only propose that in 1901, in the dry, winter veldt of Eastern Transvaal, died the last credible, non-Pentecostal man on earth who believed he had seen an angel.

 


From Griffith Review Edition 9: Up North © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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