Aristocracy, Books, Death, Dinner, Dinner party, Dreams, E. F. Benson, F. Marion Crawford, Ghost Story, Ghosts, Literary criticism, Premonition, Premonitory Dreams, Premonitory Tales, The King's Messenger, The Witch of Prague, Wireless Telegraphy
[This essay on F. Marion Crawford’s “The King’s Messenger” was originally written for Tychy’s series on premonitory fiction, but it was excluded for want of space. Tychy is presently preparing all of the writing completed for this series – essays and footnotes – for a monolith which will be published on the Amazon Kindle. Ed.]
The premonitory tale had emerged as an established subgenre to the literary ghost story by the first decade of the twentieth century, when a revolutionary model of spiritualism, which was informed by new technologies such as wireless telegraphy, had anticipated the imminent decline of material reality. Increasingly stale notions such as death and time would be replaced by the truths which had been disclosed to the spiritualists. Although foremostly written to entertain, E. F. Benson’s “The Bus-Conductor” (1906) and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wood of the Dead” (1906) reflect a little of this extraordinary and apocalyptic idealism, whilst W. F. Harvey’s “August Heat” (1910) is similar in design, if darker and more appreciably fictional in delivery.
F. Marion Crawford’s “The King’s Messenger” (1907) completes our quartet of early premonitory tales. Out of the four, it most likely secured the largest readership. Crawford’s tale was published in the American Cosmopolitan Magazine at a time when this publication had a reputed monthly circulation of around 450,000 (although “The Bus-Conductor” may have reached over 200,000 readers in the “popular sixpenny” Pall Mall Magazine.) Unlike the other three tales, however, “The King’s Messenger” sank quickly into obscurity after publication. It was inexplicably excluded from Crawford’s posthumously published collection of weird fiction Wandering Ghosts/Uncanny Tales (1911), and this long lost story was only returned to the fold in White Wolf’s 1997 edition of the book.
“The King’s Messenger” is a pleasantly quaint yarn, but one which seems to lack the shine and novelty of its fellow premonitory tales. The prospect of a King’s Messenger “carrying his majesty’s dispatches from London to the ends of the earth” reflected poorly in the age of the telegraph. The Messenger cuts a sorry figure in the company of such comrades as Dickens’ Signal-Man and Benson’s Bus-Conductor, who were both employed on modern public transport networks. This Messenger is instead akin to the banshee of Blackwood’s “The Wood of the Dead,” and his provision of death entails a chauffeured spiritual journey, rather than the impersonal hurly-burly found on public transport.
Whilst the landlord’s daughter in “The Wood of the Dead” comes “willingly” to the banshee’s “breast,” Miss Lorna and the King’s Messenger are more explicitly presented as eloping lovers, in a somewhat unadventurous usage of the traditional “death and the maiden” motif. The tale also broaches the hoary old superstition that one of a table of thirteen will die within a year, which contemporary readers may have regarded as being long vanquished by Captain William Fowler, with the founding of “The Thirteen Club” in 1881. The Enlightened members of this New York banqueting club dined on the thirteenth of every month, with thirteen at every table, in a room in which, as the New York Times noted approvingly in Fowler’s 1897 obituary, “spilled salt was everywhere, and to enter they had to pass under crossed ladders.” Yet Crawford’s tale may have caused its American readers to recall a particular detail of this obituary:
When the hour grew late and it seemed that the banquet would be a failure a happy idea struck the Captain. One of the colored waiters, the whites of whose eyes were already showing, was drafted. Trembling like a leaf, he was dragged to a desk and told he should become a member. Despite his howls he was put through the first rites of initiation, and was just being shoved through the ladders when the missing guest arrived.
Putting aside these racist aspersions about Negro superstition, in “The King’s Messenger” it is Death himself who is the initially “missing guest.” The original superstition which the members of “The Thirteen Club” had set out to refute did not specify that the thirteen at table had to include a personification of death and, if it did so, then the unlucky number of human diners would have been twelve rather than thirteen. Barring the possibility that Miss Lorna or another guest is pregnant, and that their unborn infant is hence the thirteenth at table, then “The King’s Messenger” appears to reiterate the superstition about thirteen at table, but it actually confounds it.
“The Thirteen Club” have got it wrong. The curse is negated when there are thirteen humans at table, and for it to be activated, there has to be twelve and an empty seat.
But if “The King’s Messenger” is characteristic of the premonitory tale in being structured as a stunt, or a joke with a concluding “punch line,” then the surprise awaiting the reader is not that Miss Lorna will die, which is hardly news, but that virtually the whole story is a premonitory dream, rather than merely a dreamy account of a dinner party (amusingly, White Wolf failed to publish the last leaf of the story in their 1997 edition, rendering it, if nothing else, a lot more haunting and mysterious.) The reader is made to awaken from the premonition just as the dreamer had done. The typical premonitory tale invariably recounts a warning of disaster, only to end up emphasising the protagonist’s failure to influence destiny, but “The King’s Messenger” makes this failure complete: the whole story is the premonition and the narrator awakens to find that Miss Lorna is already dead.
It is implied that the narrator, who is sitting between Miss Lorna and Death at the dinner table, may have an opportunity to talk Miss Lorna out of her destiny, but he accepts her assurance that she “shall have peace and love without end” in Death’s care. She is so smitten with Death that her sudden demise is conceivably suicide. In any case, the narrator finds himself dazzled by a suave and charming Death, who has all the glamour of a high flying civil servant, and who smoothes over any unease about his presence by regaling the dinner party with “anecdotes of heroism and tenderness that were each a perfect coin from the mint of humanity.” When met in person, Death turns out to be surprisingly un-misanthropic, but we must remember that his master is not Edward VII but an even more worthy and benevolent sovereign.
The premonitory tale has been traditionally haunted by the question of whether any individual is important enough to merit a suspension of the laws of material reality in order to spare them from death. Why is Hugh Grainger alone plucked from the doomed bus? Is Lord Dufferin saved only because he is lord? The narrator has apparently not frequented the house where men dine with Death for many years, but his portrait is mounted above the dinner table and painted by no less a person than Franz von Lenbach (who had portrayed Bismarck). Resurfacing into reality aboard a boat anchored in the Mediterranean, the narrator cannot fail to impress us with his membership of High Society. Part of Death’s inner circle, he has received exclusive knowledge of a fashionable society belle’s demise. Whether a Calvinist elect or a satanic fellowship, the spiritual elite are now the crème de la crème. The premonition is not a warning, but hot gossip.
For all its quaintness, “The King’s Messenger” affirms the optimism of its age, in reassuring its readers that there was no need to be disconcerted with Death at their elbow. “Our bodies are something better than mere clocks, wound up to show just how old we are at every moment, by our hair turning grey and our teeth falling out…” Miss Lorna remarks, whilst the narrator hazards that “You don’t kill a book by translating it… Death is only a translation of life into another language.” One could imagine Hugh Grainger amusing his chums with some such merry theory, and the dinner party conservation observed in “The King’s Messenger” is of a standard which would be found in many of Benson’s ghost stories, in which delicious witticisms about the profoundest of questions are aired for the pleasure of well-to-do partygoers. In “The King’s Messenger,” Death never quite answers the point that bodily death is “not a real phenomenon at all” and that he is actually unable to kill anybody. Only his supposed social status prevents him from becoming as marginalised as a servant.
Something was in the air! Crawford’s novel The Witch of Prague (1891), like Benson’s later fiction, regards wireless telegraphy as an indicator of humanity’s progress. The narrator notes that it was previously held to be “quite impossible to converse with a friend at a distance beyond the carrying power of a speaking trumpet,” whereas now “a boy who does not know that one may talk very agreeably with a friend a thousand miles away is an ignoramus.” He hopes that the distance between life and death may be similarly overcome. The narrator of Benson’s “The Terror by Night” (1912) would likewise venture that “considering the wireless wonders (that act by material laws) which are already beginning to lose their wonder now that we have our newspaper brought as a matter of course every morning in mid-Atlantic, it would not perhaps be rash to conjecture that in some subtle and occult way the transference of emotion is in reality material too.” Benson believed, or hoped, that such a transference could bridge the chasm between life and death.