Chapter 46: Interlude at Ninny’s Tomb
In Which Strephon has a conversation with a chatty partition and finds it like talking to a wall.
The stars were just starting to glimmer in the evening sky, and moonlight glistened on the leaves of the garden topiaries. Strephon could not recall whose garden it was, but it seemed familiar, like one he had walked in before. The gravel of the garden path crunched beneath his feet. That seemed odd; but looking down at his feet, he saw that he was not sitting in his customary wheelchair but walking. And that he was wearing the armor of an ancient Greek warrior. That made some sense. He certainly would not be in a wheelchair if he were an ancient Greek.
He had not proceeded far along the path when he found his way blocked by a simple-looking fellow in a workman's smock, daubed with splotches of plaster and mud, standing like a fencepost in the middle of the path with a bland smile on his face.
"Excuse me," Strephon said, stepping to one side to walk around the fellow.
To his annoyance, the simpleton moved to block him. Strephon tried going around his other side, but the man intercepted him again.
"In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall;
This loam, this rough-cast and this stone doth show
That I am that same wall; the truth is so."
The man recited the words like a carefully memorized speech.
Strephon frowned. Where had he heard that passage before? On a hunch he looked over his shoulder at the Moon, and realized that what he at first had taken for the Pale Empress of the Night was in fact a lantern hanging from a long pole, held by a tall, skinny fellow on a stepladder, who bore a bundle of sticks slung over his back and carried a small dog in his other arm. The man seemed embarrassed to have been noticed, and by way of apology explained: "All that I have to say, is, to tell you that the lanthorn is the moon; I, the man in the moon; this thorn-bush, my thorn-bush; and this dog, my dog."
"I see," Strephon said, returning to the Wall. "Then you are the hempen home-spuns performing 'Pyramus and Thisby' before the Duke in 'A Midsummer Night's Dream."
The simpleton gave a bashful smile and nodded.
"That's all very splendid, but if you would let me pass..." Once again Strephon attempted to step around the obstructive fellow, and once again he moved to block Strephon's way. Back and forth the two of them shuffled in a kind of inept dance.
"I, one Snout by name, present a wall!" the Wall insisted.
Strephon was becoming vexed. Then he heard a woman's voice, seemingly at a distance. It was Cassandra.
"O wall, full often hast thou heard my moans,
For parting my fair Pyramus and me.
My cherry lips have often kiss'd thy stones,
Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee."
"Cassandra!” Strephon said. She must be just on the other side of this impudent impediment, yet he could not see her. Again he faced the obstacle. "You will step aside, or I will tear down this wall!"
The fellow looked strangely thoughtful and said: "Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up."
Strephon frowned. "Shakespeare never said that."
The man grinned. "No, that was Chesterton. I've been reading up on walls to study for my part. Would you like to hear some Robert Frost?"
"No, I would not! What, then is the purpose of the wall?"
The man regarded Strephon with a curious wonder. "You should know. You built it."
The rogue was right. Strephon had constructed a mental barrier to keep his dreams from slipping into Cassandra's: this vile Wall which did these lovers sunder. But dash it all, he wanted to see her!
The fellow cleared his throat. "And such a wall, as I would have you think, That had in it a crannied hole or chink." He held up two fingers to represent the crack in the wall.
Strephon saw that there was no help for it. He would have to play along. He crouched to peer between the fellows upheld fingers. Oddly enough -- or logically, he supposed, given the circumstances -- through the space he could see Cassandra, dressed in ancient Greek garb and looking pensively about.
"Oh, Pyramus, Pyramus! Wherefore art thou, Pyramus?"
That wasn't even the right play. "Cassandra! Cassandra, can you hear me?"
"My love thou art, my love I think! Shall we meet at Ninny's Tomb?"
"That's Ninus' tomb." A dreadful thought struck him. "No, don't! There's a lion roaming about. Go back home and lock yourself in until it's safe!" In the play, Thisby was attacked by a lion, and although she escaped, Pyramus thought her dead. Strephon did not want to re-enact that tragedy.
Yet another tradesman in Elizabethan garb, this one holding several sheets of parchment, came stumbling through the shrubbery. "That's not your line, Pyramus!" This one must be Peter Quince, the organizer of the play.
"I am not Pyramus." Strephon was beginning to lose his temper.
"You can play no part but Pyramus; for Pyramus is a sweet-faced man; a proper man, as one shall see in a summer's day; a most lovely gentleman-like man: therefore you must needs play Pyramus. And Pyramus and Thisby die most tragically for love. That's the play. You can't change the play."
"I can and will change it. No one is going to die if I have any say in the matter."
From beyond the Wall, Strephon heard a roar. Returning to the "chink", he saw Cassandra being menaced by a man in an unconvincing lion suit.
"Leave your mantle and run away!" Strephon shouted. "I'll come and find you when I can!"
"You won't!" Peter Quince said. "You'll find her blood-covered cloak at Ninny's tomb... Ninus! Ninus' tomb! You have me doing it now! You'll find her mantle at Ninus' tomb, and thinking her slain, you'll kill yourself most piteously!'
"So she can find my body and kill herself as well? The devil I will!"
"It's in the script," Quince insisted. "You can't change the play!"
"Bother the script! I know the lion doesn't really kill Thisby, so I won't commit suicide. Without that misunderstanding, the entire tragedy collapses. I can change the ending."
Snout shook his head sadly. "Odie-puss thought the same thing."
"Oedipus! Oedipus!" Quince turned to Strephon and explained, "We were considering doing Oedipus except we couldn't find a good sphinx costume and Snug couldn't remember the riddle."
Strephon wasn't listening. He had returned to the chink in the wall. Cassandra was still there. Why wasn't she running? She gave the lion a punch to the gut and he doubled over. Well, that was another way to foil the play.
The lion grasped at his costume and tore it apart, but instead of revealing a timid Athenian carpenter, the rent in the suit let loose a crowd of skulls with robotic spider legs which swarmed out of the mangy pelt. Cassandra screamed and scrambled backwards, away from the skittering horde.
Strephon gripped Snout's arm and pressed his face closer to see through the gap between the man's fingers. "Cassandra!" he shouted.
"Thisby," Quince corrected. "She's Thisby and in this play, Thisby dies. In a tragedy, everybody dies."
In a frustrated rage, Strephon yanked at Snout's arm, which came right off the bewildered tinker's torso and became a large stone in Strephon's hand. He tossed the stone aside and grabbed Snout's other shoulder, which also became a stone, and which he tore savagely from the wall, leaving an incongruous gap in reality. Stone by stone, he pulled the wall apart, as it became less of a man in a costume and more a pile of masonry; yet no matter how many stones he took away, there always seemed to be more, each bearing Snout's imbecilic grin.
"There's another way to save her, you know," a voice said from behind him. Strephon turned and saw a jolly, bearded man in a buff hunting coat with a curved hunting horn curled over one shoulder and wearing a mask, horned like a stag. He wondered how the mask stayed on under the weight of the antlers.
Peter Quince paged through his script. "You aren't in this play! Who are you?"
"Bardolph, Pistol, deal with this lout," the interloper said.
A pair of ruffians threw a sack over Quince's head and dragged him away, leaving Strephon to face the newcomer alone.
"You're Falstaff, aren't you," Strephon said.
"Me? Nay, I'm Herne. Herne the Hunter." He tapped his mask. "Mark the horns?"
"I don't care if you're the Queen of the May! Get out of my way! Thisby needs me." He shook his head. "Cassandra! Cassandra needs me!" Too many realities were overlapping in this dream. He was having difficulty keeping them straight.
Glancing back over the wall, he saw that Cassandra had managed to climb on top of the cenotaph over Ninus' tomb and was swatting at the skull spiders that were crawling after her with her sandal. Some of the smaller tombstones were tipping over as undead hands clawed their way out of the earth and goblin-faced creatures in Stormtrooper uniforms erupted from the ground.
Strephon drew his sword. Drat! It was a wooden sword. Of course, he was only playing Pyramus on the stage, so of course he would have a prop sword. He tried shaping the reality of the dream to make the blade a real one, but the dream stubbornly refused to change. That was bad. Shaping a dream was one thing, but when one found oneself arguing with the dream, there was always the possibility that it might veer off in an unexpected direction. He might end up forgetting that he wasn't really Pyramus and then he really would be stuck in a tragedy.
"You're only in a tragedy if you make it so," Falstaff said, as if reading his thought. "Look at me! In the Henry the IV plays, Prince Hal must renounce his reprobate friends and take on the responsibilities of the crown, because those plays are Histories; and in in Henry V, poor Sir John is killed off-stage without even a dying soliloquy. Ah, but he comes back in Merry Wives of Windsor, because that, my friend is a Comedy, and so he is free to drink and boast and wench another day."
Strephon ignored his prattling. He was trying to climb over the wall now, but the higher he climbed the further he seemed to be from the top. Yet he could still see over it; he just could not seem to get over it. In the distance he heard the baying of hounds. Not wolves -- how strange to think that under the circumstances, wolves would seem less dreadful, more familiar. No, these were black, Baskervillian hounds, their eyes blazing hellfire and their sleek ebon fur gleaming with an unnatural phosphorescence, and with sulphurous vapors curling from their slavering jaws. Accompanying them, seethed a legion of monstrosities, twisted creatures out of an Hieronymus Bosch delirium. And beyond that pack, the dimly discernable shapes of the Hunters.
"The Hunt has started," Falstaff said, the self-important boor. "You'll never be able to fight them by yourself." The insufferably jolly rascal seemed to be hovering, just behind him.
There was another way, Strephon realized. He had to take control of the Hunt. "When sound the Horns of Elfland, all who hear their note are compelled to join the hunt..." He grabbed the horn slung over Falstaff's shoulder, and over the fat knight's objections, he put it to his lips and took a deep breath...
It took Strephon a moment of two to gather his senses; like having to adjust his vision upon entering a darkened room.. He was in his own chambers, in his own bed. The waxing crescent hanging outside his window was a real Moon, not an actor holding a lantern. And the sharp pain in his hip as he adjusted his position reminded him that he was in his own semi-mortal body and not in a dream.
His immediate impulse was to look after Cassandra to ensure she was safe, but the pain in his knees, accompanying that of his hip as he moved to swing his legs over the side of his bed, recommended caution. For all he knew, his dream was just a dream and Cassandra was sleeping soundly. He didn't want to disturb her slumber. He told himself that he just wanted to look through her doorway to see that she was all right; but in his heart he knew that what he really wanted was to look at her, and that if he did, he would be tempted to enter her dreams again. He had done far enough of that already.
He lay there a while, grappling with indecision, when he heard footfalls in the hall outside his room. Cassandra, no doubt. She must have awakened at the same time he did and was going to "get a drink of water", as his old nursery maid used to put it. Had they shared dreams again?
He wanted to discuss the matter with her, but he could hardly interrupt while she was visiting the necessity. Perhaps... perhaps she would look in on him on her way back to her own room. She would apologize for waking him, and he would say "Not at all, I was already awake," and then he would invite her in and she would sit on the edge of his bed and then...
He tried to curtail that line of thought. He did not want to go there. Or rather, he wanted to speak with her, but his imagination kept trespassing where it by rights did not belong. Now he heard the sound of water carousing through his house's elderly plumbing and then the sound of her footfalls padding beck down the hall. He realized with a start that she was not going to stop by his room after all, for the same reason he wouldn't go to her room: that she would be afraid of waking him. He should call out to her as she passed; then she would stop.
As he hesitated, he heard her door shut. Too late.
Strephon sank back into his pillow. He tried to return to slumber, but his thoughts kept returning to Cassandra.
And listening for the distant horns of Elfland.
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