I haven’t featured a Robert Benchley piece in a while, so I’d like to return to Of All Things and a short story that can only come from falling into an endless research spiral.
A ROMANCE IN ENCYCLOPEDIA LAND
Written After Three Hours’ Browsing in a New Britannica Set
PICTURE to yourself an early spring afternoon along the banks of the river Aa, which, rising in the Teutoburger Wald, joins the Werre at Herford and is navigable as far as St. Omer.
Branching bryophytu spread their flat, dorsiventral bodies, closely applied to the sub-stratum on which they grew, and leafy carophyllaceae twined their sepals in prodigal profusion, lending a touch of color to the scene. It was dear that nature was in preparation for her estivation.
But it was not this which attracted the eye of the young man who, walking along the phonolithic formation of the riverbank, was playing softly to himself on a double curtail, or converted bass-pommer, an octave below the single curtail and therefore identical in pitch and construction with the early fagotto in C.
His mind was on other things.
He was evidently of Melanochronic extraction, with the pentagonal facial angle and strong obital ridges, but he combined with this the fine lines of a full-blooded native of Coll, where, indeed, he was born, seven miles west of Caliach Point, in Mull, and in full view of the rugged gneiss.
As he swung along, there throbbed again and again through his brain the beautiful opening paragraph of Frantisek Palacky’s (1798-1876) Zur böhmischen Geschichtschreibung (Prague, 1871), written just after the author had refused a portfolio in the Pillersdorf Cabinet and had also declined to take part in the preliminary diet at Kromerice.
“If he could believe such things, why can not I?” murmured the young man, and crushed a ginkgo beneath his feet. Young men are often so. It is due to the elaterium of spring.
“By Ereshkigal,” he swore softly to himself, “I’ll do it.”
No sooner had he spoken than he came suddenly out of the tangle of gynmnosperms through whose leaves, needle-like and destitute of oil-glands as they were, he had been making his way, and emerged to a full view of the broad sweep of the Lake of Zug, just where the Lorze enters at its northern extremity and one and a quarter miles east of where it issues again to pursue its course toward the Reuss. Zug, at this point, is 1,368 feet above sea-level, and boasted its first steamer in 1852.
“Well,” he sighed, as he gazed upon the broad area of subsidence, “if I were now an exarch, whose dignity was, at one time, intermediate between the Patriarchal and the Metropolitan and from whose name has come that of the politico-religious party, the Exarchists, I should not be here day-dreaming. I should be far away in Footscray, a city of Bourke County, Victoria, Australia, pop. (1901) 18,301.”
And as he said this his eyes filled with tears, and under his skin, brown as fustic, there spread a faint flush, such as is often formed by citrocyde, or by pyrochloric acid when acting on uncured leather.
Far down in the valley the natives were celebrating the birthday of Gambrinus, a mythical Flemish king who is credited with the first brewing of beer. The sound of their voices set in motion longitudinal sound waves, and these, traveling through the surrounding medium, met the surface separating two media and were in part reflected, traveling back from the surface into the first medium again with the velocity with which they approached it, as depicted in Fig. 10. This caused the echo for which the Lake of Zug is justly famous.
The twilight began to deepen and from far above came the twinkling signals of, first, Böotes, then Coma Berenices, followed, awhile later, by Ursa Major and her little brother, Ursa Minor.
“The stars are clear to-night,” he sighed. “I wonder if they are visible from the dacite elevation on which SHE lives.”
His was an untrained mind. His only school had been the Eleatic School, the contention of which was that the true explanation of things lies in the conception of a universal unity of being, or the All-ness of One.
But he knew what he liked.
In the calm light of the stars he felt as if a uban had been lifted from his heart, 5 ubans being equal to 1 quat, 6 quats to 1 ammat and 120 ammats to 1 sos.
He was free again.
Turning, he walked swiftly down into the valley, passing returning peasants with their baa-poots, and soon came in sight of the shining lamps of the small but carefully built pooroos which lined the road.
Reaching the corner he saw the village epi peering over the tree-tops, and swarms of cicada, with the toothed famoras of their anterior legs mingling in a sleepy drone, like so many cichlids. It was all very home-like to the wanderer.
Suddenly there appeared on a neighboring eminence a party of guisards, such as, during the Saturnalia, and from the Nativity till the Epiphany were accustomed to disport themselves in odd costumes; all clad in clouting, and evidently returning from taking part in the celebration.
As they drew nearer, our hero noticed a young woman in the front rank who was playing folk-songs on a cromorne with a double-reed mouth-piece enclosed in an air-reservoir. In spite of the detritus wrought by the festival, there was something familiar about the buccinator of her face and her little mannerism of elevating her second phalanx. It struck him like the flash of a cloud highly charged by the coalescence of drops of vapor. He approached her, tenderly, reverently.
“Lange, Anne Françoise Elizabeth”, he said, “I know you. You are a French actress, born in Genoa on the seventeenth of September, 1772, and you made your first appearance on the stage in L’Ecossaise in 1788. Your talent and your beauty gave you an enormous success in Pamela. It has taken me years to find you, but now we are united at last.”
The girl turned like a frightened aard-vark, still holding the cromorne in her hand. Then she smiled.
“Weenix, Barnaby Bernard (1777-1829),” she said very slowly, “you started business as a publisher in London about 1797.”
They looked at each other for a moment in silence. He was the first to speak.
“Miss Lange, Anne,” he said, “let us go together to Lar —– and be happy there —– happy as two ais, or three-toed South American sloths.”
She lowered her eyes.
“I will go with you Mr. Weenix-Barney,” she said, ” to the ends of the earth. But why to Lar? Why not to Wem?”
“Because,” said the young man, “Lar is the capital of Laristan, in 27 degrees, 30 minutes N., 180 miles from Shiraz, and contains an old bazaar consisting of four arcades each 180 feet long.”
Their eyes met, and she placed her hands in his.
And, from the woods, came the mellow whinnying of a herd of vip, the wool of which is highly valued for weaving.