Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

SHORT STORY WEDNESDAY: POTHOOKS AND HANGERS

 "Pothooks and Hangers" by William Archer (from Unwin's Annual for 1887, 1986; simultaneously issued in hardcover as The Witching Time:  Unwin's Annual for 1887, edited by Sir Henry Norman)


William Archer (1856-1924) was a Scottish writer and theater critic, based mainly in London.  He was an early advocate of Ibsen's plays and was an early friend and support of George Bernard Shaw.  He became on of the most influential critics in London, publishing (along with his newspaper columns) more than fifteen books of criticism and biography.  One of his plays, 1921's The Green Goddess, was extremely well received and two early films (one a silent in 1923; the other, a talkie in 1930) were made, both featuring George Arliss and Ivan F. Simpson, reprising their Broadway roles.  [Interesting side note:  Green Goddess Salad Dressing owes its name to this play; the chef of San Francisco's Palace Hotel, who created the dressing in the 1920s, gave it the name in honor of both the play and George Arliss.]  As far as I can tell, "Pothooks and Hangers" was Archer's second and last short story; his story "My Fascinating Friend" had appeared the previous year in Unwin's Annual for 1886 (the simultaneous hardcover edition prefaced the title with "The Broken Shaft"); these were the only two Unwin's Annuals (again, as far as I can tell) and both were edited by Norman.

"Pothooks and Hangers" is, at its heart, a "club story."  We are introduced to the narrator and his friend Sir Marmaduke Middleton (a confirmed bachelor) enjoying an evening drink and a cigar at a Paris bistro located near the Theatre-Francais.  It is an excellent place to observe some of France's most notable artists, writers, and leaders  An old friend of Sir Marmaduke wanders by and the recognize each other.  He is Phillips, who went to school with Sir Marmaduke, met up again when both were in their forties, and again now -- after a nine-year interim.  Phillips is attending the opera with a group of friends and vows to meet up with Sir Marmaduke and the narrator after the show at their hotel.  The two old friends mad some cryptic remarks that puzzled the narrator, and once Phillips went to rejoin his party, Sir Marmaduke explains...

Phillips had always been a necromancer and dabbler in both the white and black arts, and it was at their meeting nine years before that Phillips managed to stop Sir Marmaduke from marrying and, in the process, may have saved his life.  At the time Sir Marmaduke was renting a pretty chalet near Venice; the chalet on the neighboring hill was unoccupied, but soon taken by a lady, the Marchesa Trabelli, an Italian woman of exquisite taste and wealth.  The Marchesa eschewed the local society and remained an enigma to all those in the village.  When Sir Marmaduke first saw the Marchesa, he was awed by her beauty:

"She was tall and finely proportioned, black-haired, olive-skinned, red-lipped. oval-faced; and, oh! if you could have seen how her head was set on her shoulders, and with what a lovely motion of her neck she would turn her face majestically toward you, and let her two great eyes blaze upon you -- positively blaze -- like -- like -- do you know the way the new Calais phare sends shaft on shaft of blinding light sweeping slowly round the farthest horizon?"

Suffice to say, Sir Marmaduke was smitten.

The Marchesa was in half-mourning for her late husband, who had died the year before.  But soon Sir Marmaduke and the Marchesa were engaged.  Then came the day went Sir Marmaduke was out performing some errand for the Marchesa when he happened upon Phillips, whom he had not seen since school.  Phillips was still interested in necromancy and was now quite an expert at reading handwriting.  Sir Marmaduke had on him a letter his fiancee had written.  He pulled it out and asked his old schoolmate to "read" it and tell him about the woman he was to marry.  Phillips examined the handwriting carefully and said that the woman who wrote this was a murderer.  When Sir Marmaduke explained that this woman was his fiancee, Phillips warned him not to marry.  You would be dead within a year. he said.  The woman who wrote this letter was a murderer and uses a stiletto for her crimes.  Phillips then produced a finely-wrought, jeweled stiletto and gave it to Sir Marmaduke, saying that he should present it to his fiancee without any warning and to watch her reaction.  If her only reaction was gratitude, she should keep the knife as a wedding gift; if her reaction was in any way strange, Phillips and Sir Marmaduke should met again to discuss the situation.

Sir Marmaduke doesn't believe what Phillips had told him about his fiancee.  He goes along with him though, repeating the old maxim, "Put not your trust in pot-hooks."

[Let's pause here for a moment as I admit I have never heard that "old maxim."  Nor do I have the faintest idea what the hell it means.  Put it done to my lack of knowledge and sophistication, and to the fact that I am not of the generation that quotes poets at a drop of a hat, which those in this do.  They quote Horace in Latin, Musset in French, Marlowe in English, and Goethe (I think it's Goethe) in German.  All we need is some quote in the original Greek and I'd be thinking I'd fallen into an early Dorothy L. Sayers novel.]

Phillips naturally replies, "Pothooks are sometimes hangers also."

[Again, I have no idea what the hell that means.  I am in good company though, because Sir Marmaduke said that he had no idea either.]

Sir Marmaduke does present the knife to the Marchesa (whose first name is, ominously, Lucrezia) and she reacts violently.  She dropped the dagger, her eyes popped (not literally, I hope), her skin turned a livid green (again, not literally, I hope; and is it even possible to do that?  I mean green is not a tone I associate with lividity), she falls back, teeters out of the room, crying, "I did not do it!  I did not do it!" as she sank to the floor.  The Marchesa's maid scurries her off to her chambers.  A few days later, the Marchesa is gone who knows where, leaving a note chastising Sir Marmaduke and saying she never wants to see him again.  Also gone was Phillips.

Now, after the opera, the two meet up again, and Phillips admits that his interpretation of her handwriting was a sham.  He had suspected her of being a woman who had killed her husband some years before and she, by her actions, proved him right.  And it turns out, she wasn't really a Marchesa.  Sir Marmaduke forgives Phillips.  After all, his life is just fine as a bachelor.

An interesting story, but severely dated, albeit with some flashes of amusing characterization.  The story pales when compared to others included in The Witching Time (F. Marion Crawford's "By the Waters of Paradise," Von Degan's "A Mystery of the Campagna," and others), or with the previous (1886) Unwin's Annual, a.k.a. The Broken Shaft, which contains such gems as Stevenson's "Markheim" and F. Marion Crawford's "The Upper Berth."

Both The Witching Time and The Broken Shaft are available to read online.

5 comments:

  1. I "club story" a sub-genre. I have never heard the expression before but it certainly applied to a lot of stories in the 30s through 70s especially.

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  2. Great title, Pothooks and Hangers.

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  3. Wow, you must have revved up your Way Back Machine for this one! Thanks again for the details on Sam Gafford! You are a fount of Knowledge!

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    1. George, for Patti's Wednesday short story meme, I have been trying to concentrate on little-known, older authors (or least those very familiar to many modern readers) whose works are available to read on-line. Mot have been pretty interesting, although some are clunkers. Unlike my usual posts, which are written the evening before or the day that they appear, I write the WSS posts two weeks in advance, mainly because I want the time to check out the the author's background. In the queue are "A Bargain with Peg-Leg" by Frank Norris and Elisha" by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch. Authors I am considering for future posts include Thomas Hood, Basil King, Franz Kafka, Prosper Merimee, Thomas Alliborne Janvier, W. W. Astor, Octave Thanet, Erckmann-Chatrian, James Hogg, and Elizabeth Gaskell. I'm having a lot of fun with this.

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  4. I continue to admire your discipline, Jerry!

    Crime-fiction club stories mostly faded by mid-century, I think, aside from Asimov's, while they flourished a bit longer in fantasy/sf...along with bar stories.

    I'm going to guess the pothooks "maxim" refers to depending on things to work as they should...pothooks are also hangers sounds like an even more sinister take on a Murphy's Law notion, that such blithe trust can be fatal...

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