Catherine and the Satyr
By Theodora Goss
1 October 2007
"You've come back," said the satyr.
Where was he? Somewhere in the shadows. She could identify him only by the intolerable stench.
"I have an ostrich," said the Earl of Aberdeen. "An ostrich from Africa, that Von Plettemberg sent me. Packed it in the crate he used to ship his port. Damned animal smelled of port for a month. I have an orang-outang, looks as intelligent as the boy here. I bought him off a sailor on an East Indiaman. His name is Ram—Ramnath—some long damned nuisance of a name. I just call him boy. Used to get pelicans from India, Buffon would send them to me. Delicate creatures, pelicans, they never live long. Everyone used to go to Buffon, even William of Orange. He always got the best shipments. Have you read his Histoire Naturelle? Got one in the library here, and one in London. Damned expensive book. But since the war, you can't get a thing from France. Now, here's my wolf. He came from America. Damn the Americans, since the war I can't even get decent brandy."
"And the price of stockings! Shocking, I call it," said Miss Montrose. "Don't you think so, Mr. Kemble? Mr. Kemble knows all about the price of silk stockings, I assure you, Mrs. Byron." She tapped Mr. Kemble playfully with her fan.
"Looks a bit mangy now," said the Earl. "Did you feed him those lamb shanks I gave you, eh, boy? He's frightened of the wolf, doesn't want to go near him. What do you think I bought you for, you rascal? To sit on your arse all day in the sun? Get the zebra some water. If Georgie were interested, I'd give him one of my gazelles. But all Georgie cares about is politics. What kind of life is that, for a son of mine? What I want, of course, is an elephant. Not even King Louis, damn the French, has an elephant. But I've got something—I think you'll agree, Kemble, that you won't see anything like this in London, or Paris or Amsterdam either. Now don't get too close. The beast can spit."
Mr. Kemble stepped back from the cage. "Caliban, as I live and breathe. What ho! slave! Caliban! Thou poisonous slave, got by the devil himself, come forth! You amaze me, sir. Where did you find such a monster?"
"I got him off Buffon, before the war. He cost me almost as much as the zebra. But Prince William has nothing like him, I'll wager. Boy, stir him up with a stick. I warn you, ladies, you're about to see the face of the devil."
"What do you intend to do, if I may ask? Poke me with a stick again?"
What surprised her was not that he could speak. The Earl had said that he could speak, "A kind of guttural Greek, that my tutor would have caned out of him." But that he could speak English, with the accent of a gentleman, in which was mingled faintly, mockingly, the accent of the Earl.
She shook her head, then realized he might not have seen her. The moon was full—it cast the shadows of his bars over the floor of the cage, over the straw and feces. But he still crouched in a back corner.
"No," she said. "No, I wanted"—what?
"It's your own damned fault, Catherine," said the Earl. "Who told you to marry Mad Jack? If you wanted to marry a gambler, you should have married a rich one."
Catherine turned to the window and put her hand over her mouth. It was a useless gesture—what could she have said? She had married him, when everyone in Bath had warned her against him. "Jack Byron is a devil," Grandmother Gight had told her, "and your life with him will be a hell. Are you ready to live in hell, my girl, for a red coat and the finest legs in Bath?" And for a year, a year that was heaven and hell both, she had been.
"What has he left you, eh? Tell me that."
"My clothes. He has left me my clothes, or most of them. Whatever I've brought with me. And Gight."
She could hear the Earl shuffling papers on his bureau.
"Well, I don't want the place, you know. What good is Gight to me? I could give it to Georgie, I suppose. Not that Georgie wants to leave London, damn him. And the roof leaks, like as not. I'll buy it, but I don't want it, and you'll take what I offer, you hear? And I won't give it to you all at once. Two hundred a year—no, a hundred and fifty, that should be enough, if you live in the country. No more silk dresses for you. No more fine balls. That's what comes of marrying a blackguard."
The Earl rose—she could hear his chair scraping against the parquet. "When are you going back to him?"
It was spring. The lime avenue was in blossom. She could see it through the window, as though the trees had burst into cloud. "I'm not going back to him. He's gone to Paris, with one of his—with an actress. I'm never going back to him again."
"That's damned foolish. You married him, my girl. Now it's your duty to make the best of him. Even your grandmother would tell you that."
When he had left the parlor, she opened the window and stepped out into the garden. She could smell the lime flowers and, beneath them, subtle but persistent, the smell of the menagerie.
"I don't know," she said.
He had come to the front of the cage. Moonlight shone on his face, grotesque: the flat nose; the slanted eyes, black in the moonlight; the curving horns. He crouched, bestial, shorter than she was although he would have been taller, if he had stood like a man.
"Desire," he said. "There is nothing in the world but desire. In Paris a man came to me, a man in a black coat, a M. Rousseau. He spoke to me about reason, and told me that I was a pure, an uncorrupted savage. Do you know what I did? I spit in his face. I was in a cage then, in the house of M. Buffon. He wanted to keep me, he would talk to me sometimes in the old language. But he needed money."
"Would he let you out?"
The grotesque face grinned, and Catherine stepped back, frightened. His teeth were black and broken, and in the moonlight she could see a protrusion from the hair between his thighs.
"He knew better. It was not only the men of learning who visited there, M. Diderot and his friend the mathematician. Poets visited me as well, and one wrote a poem—the incarnate image of man's desire, he called me. We talked together, he and I—his mother was from the old country. Oh, they knew better than to let me out! What I would have done to their systems, their philosophies!"
Suddenly his voice was low, musical. "Do you fear me?"
She shook her head.
"I can smell your fear." He reached through the bars toward her, his arm hairy and muscular, the fingernails cracked. "I can tell you what you want, Catherine. You want me."
"Who is Miss Montrose?" she asked.
Philip Kemble smiled the famous, lopsided smile that had made even Queen Charlotte remark that she liked Mr. Kemble, only not, of course, as Macbeth. "She plays Rosalind in pink tights. Is that enough of an explanation?"
They were walking beneath the avenue of limes. She played with a blossom, idly.
"Does she know that the Earl has a wife and five—no, it must be six—children? She was a cook, originally. Now when she drives in the park, everyone bows to the Countess."
"So does marriage eventually imprison us all! It was a doleful day when Miss Gordon became the matronly Mrs. Byron."
"Matronly!" He was teasing, of course. He was known as the biggest tease in London. But she was vaguely angry.
"Imagine these fingers, as slender and pale as new moons, frying an egg, now. How incongruous an image! As though Ophelia had taken up knitting, or Cleopatra put on a apron. Surely Miss Gordon, the enchanting Miss Gordon, who marvelled over Bath like Miranda introduced to a brave new world, will never be reduced to a housewife!"
He had kissed her hand, and then her arm, and then her shoulder, before she pulled away. But it was clear, he had made it clear, that if she could establish herself in London, "where the former Miss Gordon would certainly be welcomed by all the quality," she could see Philip Kemble any time she liked. "You have but to call me, Catherine," he had whispered, while she was attempting to untangle herself from his embrace, which had in it a calculated passion, "and I will come to you, like Ariel to his Prospero."
She remembered that he had just finished a run of The Tempest at Drury Lane.
"They would not let me out," said the satyr. "Will you?"
When she was a girl, growing up at Gight, she had run through the forest, her bare legs flashing. One day she had found a pool, and she had taken off her clothes, even her shift. She had lowered herself into the cold water. She remembered how cold it had been, how light had fallen through the green leaves, dappling her bare arms.
That afternoon, when she went in for tea, she had been told that she would be sent to Grandmother Gight, in Edinburgh. So she could learn how to be a lady.
"I don't know," she said. Although she had brought the keys. She had taken them from the Earl's bureau. They had been in her pocket all afternoon.
"Come, Catherine." How musical his voice was now, no longer harsh—like a wild music heard among the hills at Gight. "Come, what do you think I am? I am the darkness that existed before the light. How long do you think this age of light can last, this age of reason with its Encyclopédies and Histoires? How long do you think men can deny what is in their hearts? I am madness. I am freedom."
The key glinted in the moonlight. Then the door swung open with a grating, rusted sound, like the cry of an orang-outang.
His hands were strong, too strong. His stench surrounded her, the hairy thighs pressed against her dress, she felt the broken teeth against her tongue. She cried out, a strangled cry, answered only by one of the pelicans.
The cold night air on her legs, the gravel against her back, and above her the grinning face of the moon, the mad white moon, and she was drowning, drowning in pain and the stench of him, and an overwhelming panic. The night closed over her, and she drowned.
"Oh, they don't know the worst of it, my dear. They never do."
Miss Montrose was sitting on the side of her bed, in a pink tea-gown.
"You're lucky I'm the one who found you! What did he do to your dress, shred it? Aberdeen said he would have Ram whipped, for not locking the cage properly. Such a nice boy—once he brought me some of those white flowers for my hair. You should have heard Aberdeen! He was furious about losing his best specimen. But really, after the way that beast, whatever it was, attacked you. Anyway, Ram's disappeared, and I can't say that I blame him.
"Don't sit up. You poor dear. But as long as they don't know the worst. I won't let them in here, you know. I've got a will of my own, Mrs. Byron, anyone at Drury Lane can tell you that. And I haven't told them a thing, not about what the nurse said. How can you tell, I asked her. It's only been a week. But she said she could always tell. We women should stick together, I always say, although you don't know what they're like at Drury Lane. A bunch of cats!
"I've always wanted a baby of my own, with itty pink toes, but in the theater, you know, we can't afford to lose our figures. Well, you'll be fit to travel soon, now that the fever's over. And then you'll be joining Captain Byron, I suppose. Not much choice, is there, for us women, with one on the way? A friend of mine, who plays Olivia, said he was terribly attractive. Aberdeen says he's in France. Perhaps, you know, since I didn't tell, you could send me some stockings?"
Yes, she would be joining her husband in France. Catherine turned her face on the pillow and wept—for herself and the world, breaking open like an egg.