The Height of Absurdity
"I am a little world made cunningly."
― John Donne
Tansy Popkin, who was sometimes a man and sometimes a woman, lived in 1872 in a house in Chelsea recently vacated by the reprehensible sort of artists—those who believed in things like free love and painting mediaeval personages as if they were Bow Street bauds. Tansy was often seen on the Lambeth bridge at dawn, yet found among the West End crowds at night. That a person of such irregular habits and suspicious residency should come to be a member of our club was due entirely to the influence of Lord R--- who insisted that Popkin be accepted as a member despite the misgivings of almost all of the club members.
'Infernal nonsense,' Lord R--- muttered to the various rumours and innuendo recounted by the membership in surprising detail. It was a remarkably thing to have acquired so many legends about one's behaviour in such a short space of time, and of a marked variety, too. 'Popkin is not an artist nor a poet and knows no more of those things than a well-educated gentleman ought to do. And I can assure you has never walked among the thieves in Whitechapel.'
As we had all at one time or another been grateful for the largess of that particular peer, none wished to counter his vigorous nomination of a person and grudgingly voted to accept the new member. It was a relief to have young Popkin appear and look rather shockingly normal for his debut (for him it was at that time). After greeting the members present with diffident politeness, he quietly took his place in a large leather chair and promptly fell asleep. Thus comforted, the club went back to its normal business of eschewing politics, reading novels they'd rather not been seen perusing in public, and making idle speculations about new inventions and the sad state of the world.
I was deep into a lovely tome of Mrs Radcliffe's when a conversation caught my ear and I turned to listen more attentively. Messrs. Nolan and Brien were admiring a device which Tansy Popkin demonstrated for them. Had I known then how much that little item would change my life, I might have regarded it with greater care at once. But my mind was filled with horrid adventures in the blasted gothic countryside just then and I did not wish to be drawn away at once.
'But how does it work?' Nolan frowned and put on his spectacles to regard the instrument more carefully.
'It has a spring, surely,' Brien said, his background in manufacturing showing in his technical knowledge, though springs seemed to be the far extent of his grasp of mechanics for he had proved unable to describe the workings of a simple weaving loom when put to the question by an esteemed member, so was widely considered by most to be strikingly unremarkable if generous.
Tansy answered in that soft drawl that spoke of other lands despite its Oxford polish. We had gleaned from casual remarks that our latest member's land of birth may have been India, though without specifics—for it was considered rude to ask a direct question at the club, as indeed it should be in all polite society—it might well have been another colonial outpost. 'Oh most assuredly, there's a spring. But so much more, for you see there is also an inexhaustible supply of tape.'
'Inexhaustible?' Brien snorted. 'It must be bound by the constraints of its shell, surely.'
I could not at once figure out precisely what the object they examined could be and as I found the blasted landscape receding from the front of my brain in favour of wondering what on earth they were occupied with discussing, I turned to regard the conversants. 'What is you've got there, Popkin?'
'It is a measuring tape.' Tansy held it forth on the palm of his hand.
I bent over the object. It was made of silver and had been polished to a high gleam. One did not have to have been as rapturous about artisanal crafts as I to recognise that here was an object made with rare skill and considerable elegance. 'How beautiful!'
'Indeed. Do you recognise the figures?'
Three women graced the silver object, their hair wild with a sort of Pre-Raphaelite abundance, their clothing similarly sumptuous. The detail was clear and cunning. 'They seem to be weaving.'
'Clotho spins the thread, Lachesis measures it, and Atropos cuts it at the proper length. They are the Moirai, the Fates.'
'Ah yes, I remember that from old Stinky's Latin class back at my old school,' Nolan said, nodding vigorously as he always did when pleased with himself. 'Weaving your fate, cutting your life short just when things are getting good.'
'So this is Lachesis then,' I said with a chortle. 'Hope you don't have a friend with a pair of scissors following along behind you.' That roused a chuckle from the others, which drew disapproving looks from the club members nearby. Nolan nodded toward the bar and we sauntered over there to examine the object further.
'I can measure anything,' Tansy said. There was nothing boastful in his voice and yet it felt like a challenge.
'Anything?' I asked.
YOU ARE READING
The Height of AbsurdityHistorical Fiction
THE HEIGHT OF ABSURDITY by Kit Marlowe "I am a little world made cunningly." ― John Donne Intrepid explorer Tansy Popkin (who is sometimes a man and sometimes a woman) traverses the world with companions of various affiliations to discover the...