the unlucky world

According to an essay by Arthur Machen (the English ghost story writer who fascinates Javier Marias, the great Spanish novelist), Grimaldi, the most famous clown of Regency England, was performing one night in 1803 in a play called “A Bold Stroke for a Wife” when he was told that there were two men waiting to see him at the stage door that led from the back of the theatre into the street. Grimaldi went to see what they wanted, and confronted two apparent strangers. One was in a white waistcoat, and had evidently been living in the tropics, such was the complexion of his skin. He greeted Grimaldi familiarly. Grimaldi was at a loss as to who this person was until the man unbuttoned his shirt and showed the clown a scar. The man was Grimaldi’s brother John. This was pretty amazing – John had supposedly gone down on a Naval ship years before.

Grimaldi, of course, was overjoyed, and invited the men in. John’s companion demurred – and John, after giving him instructions on when they would meet again in the morning, mounted the stairs with Grimaldi and came into the Green room while his companion disappeared into the London night. Grimaldi still had to complete his part in the play, so he left his brother with another man, a Mr. Wroughten, while he went to do his stage business. John showed Mr. Wroughten that his duffel bag was full of coins, and bragged about his various successes. Grimaldi was in and out of the green room according to his entrances and exits. His idea was that John should come with him, after the play, to see their mother. John asked for her address, which Grimaldi gave, but then he said that they should go together, and that he merely had to change out of his costume in the dressing room.

To quote Machen: “And then the strangeness of it all came with a sudden onset on Grimaldi. "The agitation of his feelings, the suddenness of his brother's return, the good fortune which had attended him in his
absence, the gentility of his appearance, and his possession of so
much money; all together confused him so that he could scarcely use
his hands." He seems to have fallen into the state which the Scots
call a "dwam," a manner of waking vision, in which actualities are
taken for dreams and the man wonders when he will awake and recognise
that he has been amongst the shadows of the night.” It was in this state that Grimaldi returned to the Green room, only to find that his brother had left.

This is my favorite part of the story. Grimaldi found an actor named Powell in the Green room, and asked if he’d seen John.

"I saw him," he replied, "but a moment ago; he is waiting for you on
the stage. I won't detain you, for he complains that you have been
longer away now than you said you would be."

So Grimaldi hurried to the stage area. John wasn’t there. Another actor was there named Bannister. Bannister asked who Grimaldi was looking for, and after Grimaldi told him he was looking for John, Bannister said:

"Well, and I saw and spoke to him not a minute ago," said Bannister.
"When he left me, he went in that direction (pointing towards the
passage that led towards the stage-door). I should think he had left
the theatre."

So the clown went out of the theater, but he didn’t spot John. The doorkeeper said he’d gone out just a minute before. Grimaldi, out in the street, decided that John had, perhaps, decided to visit an old friend of his who lived close to the theater, Bowley. So he rushed to the Bowley house and knocked, even though it was rather late. Bowley came to the door:

“Mr. Bowley himself opened the door, and was evidently greatly

"I have, indeed, seen your brother," said he. "Good God! I was never
so amazed in all my life."

"Is he here now?" was the anxious inquiry.

"No; but he has not been gone a minute; he cannot have gone many

"Which way?"

"That way--towards Duke Street."”

The clown rushed onwards, then, thinking that his brother was going to see another friend there, a Mr. Bailey. He rattled the door of the house, which was dark, rousing the girl, who spoke to Grimaldi from the window:

“"I tell you again, he is not at home."

"What are you talking about? Who is not at home?"

"Why, Mr. Bailey. I told you so before. What do you keep on knocking
for at this time of night?"

In great bewilderment, Grimaldi begged the girl to come downstairs, as
he wanted to speak to her, telling her his name. She came down after a
short interval.

"I'm sure I beg your pardon, sir," said the maid. "But there was a
gentleman here knocking and ringing very violently not a minute before
you came. I told him Mr. Bailey was not at home; and when I heard you
at the door I thought It was him, and that he would not go away."

Then Grimaldi asked the girl if she had seen the gentleman's face. She
had not; she had looked out of the upper-window, and all that she
noticed was that the gentleman had a white waistcoat, whence she
inferred that he might have come to take her master out to a party.

Back went the amazed and frightened actor to the theatre. There
nothing had been seen of the lost brother; and then Grimaldi began a
sort of mad midnight tour of the houses of old friends round the Lane,
knocking and ringing people out of their beds and enquiring after his
brother. Some of the people thought Grimaldi was mad; and said so. His
manner was wild, and nobody had heard of John Grimaldi for fourteen
years. They had long given him up as dead.”

And so Grimaldi finally lost the trail of his brother. He went home. He told his mother. She fainted. The next day, and the next, no sign of John. And no sign ever again. Grimaldi pulled some strings to see if John hadn’t been impressed into the Navy that night. He talked to the London police. But never a hide nor hair of the man was discovered. It was as if he’d never been.

This is what Machen says:

“It is an extraordinary tale. It may be true in every particular. But
there are strange circumstances in the history. For example: why
should John knock up his old friend, Mr. Bowley, only to dart away
from his door in a minute's time? Note that minute in advance all
through the chase. It persisted up to Mr. Bailey's house. The
servant-girl there said, "there was a gentleman here knocking and
ringing very violently not a minute before you came." I do not quite
know why; but this fixed period of a minute inspires me with distrust.”

But it is, of course, the minute that makes the tale. That echoing minute behind, that tardiness as a suddenly autonomous and separate domain of time chunked off of secular time, in which you have a chance to “be on time” – as though one were caught in a world of “too late,” with only one possibility – the unlucky one. If one is looking for the “effect” of the Enlightenment, vide our last post, one of them is surely that the ghost story, the uncanny that so fascinated Freud, fills the place in Western culture that the ghost once filled.

We return to this in our second post.