James, Fifth Earl Rutherford, was born in 1871 in the ancestral home, Coblins. A house has stood on the site since the 11th century, but although parts of the present house date back to the 14th century - notably the Chantry Chapel - most of the house is the late 18th century construction designed by Ferdinand Cokeswell. Cokeswell, who was more a gardener than actually an architect, nonetheless gauged accurately the tastes of the day and knocked up a few pretty houses before he was finally jailed for theft in 1802.
Cokeswell believed himself to have been framed by his client, the Second Earl Rutherford, whose daughter Theresa he had seduced.
“I’d say I’ll see you in hell,” Cokeswell told his accuser from the dock, “but as you came from there that’s hardly surprising.”
“See he gets a horse-whipping,” Rutherford replied, eliciting a gasp from poor Theresa and a snicker from the court. Even in 1802 nobody horse-whipped anyone any more.
Rutherford’s wrath had only just started. It became obvious from her ‘illnesses’ and expanding waistline that Theresa was expecting a baby. Uncharacteristically - perhaps - Rutherford swore that he would not let mother nor child become destitute, and inveigled his way into the Clink where Cokeswell was being kept, under the guise of being a philanthropic visitor named James Taylor. The real James Taylor was a black African, an associate of Oladiah Equiano and the Chartists, so it was unfortunate that the prison warders hadn’t been reading the illustrated papers.
What happened in Cokeswell’s cell we may never know, but Rutherford left it some hours later white of face and babbling incoherently. Cokeswell merely sat smiling serenely; and would not tell what had passed between him and the aristocrat, repeating only,
In time it became gospel that Cokeswell had cursed Rutherford. Rutherford died five years later, found in his bed, staring idiotically at the ceiling with a look of horror on his face. There were no marks on the body and the coroner decided that he had died of heart failure; he was 69 years old and his diet showed little restraint, so it was quite likely.
In 1893 the twenty-two year old James Rutherford inherited the estate from his grandfather, his father having died in a hunting accident some years before.
Now James was not the kind of a guy to content himself with books and sitting at home of an evening listening to the foxes fighting in the woods. Upon his grandfather’s death he spent much of his father’s legacy - which the older Rutherford had controlled up until his twenty-first birthday - on a series of lavish parties, each more outrageous than the last, until the very stones cried out, or so it was said, with horror at the acts committed.
It is perhaps difficult for us in our liberal age to imagine how terrible his sins could be, given that they didn’t seem to involve rape, murder, accidental goat sodomy, handing undressable small boys around in a form of sexual pass-the-parcel, being very very cruel to dogs, the public defilement of nuns, or other acts of that kind, but he was adamant that every Commandment was broken. It is rumoured that the Chantry Chapel was used for an obscene Black Mass, where the body of a 20-year-old Japanese girl was used as an altar and black candles mixed with blood were burned. Rutherford was said to go into the Chapel alone of an evening and masturbate before the Cross itself.
Even as a child he had made casual friendships with persons of restricted growth, claiming - not without reason - that they were ‘on my level’. Two dwarfs from a travelling circus had befriended the otherwise friendless James when he was nine years old, and shown him tricks that his indulgent father and grandfather found very amusing. Even then he knew enough to keep the more remarkable and arcane knowledge he claimed later to possess, to himself.
At thirteen, he met Sally Beaumont, a music hall actress and - in her own words - ‘public inconvenience’. Sally stood an endearing four feet and two inches high, and was billed as the Little Girl with the Big Voice. By the time he was fourteen James Rutherford and the 24-year-old Beaumont were lovers. However, what Rutherford saw as a true and enduring love seems to have been a casual fling for Beaumont. In September 1885 Beaumont took up with “theatrical impresario” Lucius Conke, who was himself less than five feet six inches tall and married him the following spring.
Fifteen-year-old James was heartbroken. No, really. Imagine being fifteen, fatherless, and left by your girlfriend for, essentially, a short-arsed carny promoter. His best friend, three-foot-nine-inch Gerald Korner, who’d previously performed as a human cannonball under the name Gipso Krampo, stuck by him and in all probability introduced him to the curative powers of strong liquor (Beaumont didn’t drink alcohol, and James probably hadn’t done so up until then).
For a few years, he and Gerald lived a fairly restricted life, given that he couldn’t get hold of any money until he was twenty-one. Whatever devilment James got up to was under the watchful eye of his grandfather and also of the Scots majordomo, McKinnon, that grandfather had set to watch over the boy. McKinnon once beat the boy with the flat of his sword when James described the Scots as ‘cunts in skirts’. Running to his grandfather for support, he was astonished when grandfather said to McKinnon,
“Just the flat of the sword? You have some restraint, sir.” He then permitted himself a little chuckle at the thought of the fiercely moustachioed McKinnon pursuing the youthful James the length of the Great Hall, sword upraised, face beetroot. McKinnon, for the record, had never worn a kilt at Coblins.
Once Thomas died, James could dismiss McKinnon and the rest of the house’s staff. He placed advertisements in the Times and the Telegraph for staff, with the stipulation that none must be over five feet in height.
From all corners of the nation they came, and from overseas. Dwarfs, midgets, little people, persons of restricted growth, pituitary and endocrine and rachitic. Those who believed small persons were lucky must have had the luckiest days of their lives.
“Lucky?” growled Gipso Krampo, ensconced in a club chair and necking a pipe of port. “You try being one, see how lucky you feel then.” He couldn’t deny his own luck, though, in a way; instead of having to put up with a draughty caravan and being shot out of a cannon every so often, he had a room and a comfortable bed in a big house, good friends, parties, and lots to eat and drink. Gipso had, indeed, run away from the circus. I let him carry on though; Rutherford had gone into some other part of the house and I was alone with the small gentleman, who was proving good company indeed.
He confessed himself baffled, however, by his friend’s new recruitment policy.
“It’s like I’m having my face rubbed in it,” he said. “Like the only important thing about me is that I’m small. Oh sure, I know all about Sally. He’s well off without her, if you ask me. He was just a hors-d’oeuvre for her, with the accent on ‘whore’ ... but the others ... I don’t understand that. Perhaps he thinks he can bring her back, if there are enough dwarfs in one place at one time. If wishing made it so,” he finished, curling up tighter in the club chair. It was late evening and the sky was pinking, the sun a cicatrice of viridian atop the Quantock Hills. The only other sound was the incessant tick-tocking of the grandfather clock, like the deathknell sounded by deathwatch beetle in the timbers of the old house. Beyond the open French windows, somewhere in the shadows where the lawn met the forest, a deer barked. There was the quick ‘ke-wick!’ and answering ‘whoo’ of a pair of tawny owls in the majestic elm trees which stood billowing against the evening sky.
Pretty soon there came a clumping echoing through the hall, and a door creaked open. Two persons of restricted growth, both wearing blue uniforms, staggered in, bearing a palanquin, which they set down on the floor. The palanquin’s concealing curtain swung aside and James, Fifth Earl Rutherford, stepped out.
“Thankyou, ladies,” said the Earl. “I think that will suffice as a demonstration.” The Earl was dressed in a purple velvet smoking jacket and tweed trousers; a large bottle of claret, already a third emptied, he clutched in his hand. I noted that there were spots of claret on the weave of his trousers already.
“Coblins,” he said, spotting me and splashing down into a chair facing me. “Coblins. Do you know what it means, sir?”
I admitted I didn’t, and wondered if the Earl would remember his own explanation, half cut as he was. I suspected it was related to the town of Koblenz in some way - perhaps a Germanic ancestor had come thence - but was quite prepared to learn otherwise.
“It isn’t bloody coblins, with a ‘c’,” he said, falling onto a club chair opposite me and Gerald. “It’s goblins. With a ‘g’. Some Christian chappy changed the consonants. Subtly spelling the site’s specific in a spurious similitude.”
“Goblins?” I asked. The wine was very good.
“Yes, y’know, mythical little people, begging y’r pardon, ladies and young Gerald. Ones who live underground. Ones it is not wise to cross, lest you be turned into ... a chicken!”
I hadn’t a clue what he was on about until I spotted a plate laden with roast chicken portions, that one of the staff had laid on a low table between us.
“Only in my case,” he said, raising a doomladen finger, “it is me, the person of ... greater height, that is laid low by the midget.”
If I hadn’t had so much to drink I’d have realised there was something wrong already, much earlier. But given the option of drinking or not drinking, I will drink.
“Do not try the patience of dwarfs,” he went on, “for they are short-tempered and can bite you in the nuts from a standing start. Am I right, Gerald my pal?”
“Certainly, chum,” said Gerald, who’d been offered a chicken leg by one of the female dwarfs and was now attacking it with gusto in between sly amused looks at the young woman, looks which she seemed to find very hilarious indeed. Well well, I thought. All very nice, until Jimmy boy gets jealous.
“A chicken,” said James, “like I said. Go on, have some.” I did; it was greasy but good scran. After all, there wasn’t likely to be a chippy for miles, so they had to do their own.
“The midget,” he said, as Gipso Krampo trundled off, “who has truly laid me low. For it is not true, as you will have heard, that the love of my life, Sally Beaumont, went off with a theatrical impresario.”
“No?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “No ho, my one and only love went off with someone she could really see eye to eye with. My so called mate.
“One night I went along to Sally’s room, pushed open the door expecting to find my diminutive lady love sitting in bed waiting for me. Oh, Sam, she may have been small, but there was never a lovelier woman.
“Perhaps I should realise something when I hear a peculiar noise from within the room just as I am opening the door.
“And what do I see, but Mister Gerald Korner and Miss Sally Beaumont making the beast with two very short backs.
“Indeed, that was not entirely what they were doing. All I could see at first was Gerald, his back and arse. Then I realised Sally was lying down with her back to him and he was entering her from behind. She was making a funny series of ‘mips’ like a mating fox.
“That was how I most loved to love Sally, to feel her sweet body against me. I thought it was something she did with me, and me alone. But no, it was also something she did with Mister Gipso Krampo, dwarf son of a gipsy bastard, the only midget to run away from the circus, my very best pal. Yes, I’m angry. I’m spitting. I loved that woman. She wasn’t just some one night stand. She was my honey. My love. I lost my cherry to her and she stoned me.”
“But Conke,” I protested.
“Yes, Conke,” he said. “She married him in the end, but only because I threw her out. I shouted, I yelled ...”
“Hit her?” I said. He rounded on me with a purple face and a pointed finger.
“I’ve never,” he said, “hit anyone who wasn’t attacking me physically at the time. That’s more honest than saying ‘never hit a woman’. I don’t hit men either, unless they’re doing the same to me, and god knows I’ve had provocation from time to time.”
He slouched into his chair.
“I know it’s rude to point,” he said. “Forgive me, chum, and have a drink.”
Well, I did, but I needed to learn about the goblins. I mean, it was hardly my shtick to be dragged this far, to the arse end of nowhere, to a gothic pile haunted by a bibulous lord, a staff of midgets, and hear no story at all.
“Tell me,” I said, “ tell me again, I beg you, about the name of this place. Why is it called Coblins?”
He turned away, poked the fire. A crackling like an entire house collapsing in miniature, and fitful jags of shadow across the room; his own shadow bulked large against the walls, and, for all I could imagine it, against the windows which now admitted only night. For all the ramping heat of the fire there was a chill on the room, as though the walls themselves had foundered and a cold wind swept across the hilltop, all human relics retreated and worn down to simple stone; as though millennia had changed the patterns of the stars themselves and I stood on that draughty hilltop, the last man alive by many, many years.
Rutherford sat back into his chair.
“Goblins, Mister Rewell,” he said. “Goblins. They live in the tunnels and sometimes they come up. Gods preserve us, but they do.”
The last train had departed. I was at his mercy.
“Cokeswell’s curse,” James Rutherford said. “No sooner had he died than the ... little ones started coming up out of the earth. Hideous they were, bulbous-headed and staring-eyed.”
“So he said,” I said. “Sounds like the sort of thing you’d frighten your children with.”
“And so I was,” Rutherford replied. “Utterly frightened with it. Maybe that’s why I made friends with the small folk ... to prove they weren’t all bad.”
“But you never saw goblins?” I hazarded. He sounded lucid enough, untroubled by the family legend. But then he turned on me a face so pallid that I started back in fright.
“I did,” he said. “Indeed I did. And you may too, if you stay here. The drink may help, it serves as a buffer against the effect of seeing the creatures.”
“I do not wish to see any such creature,” I said, seizing hold of the pitcher of claret and pouring myself a glass, realising with some befuddlement that this was a new pitcher and that one of the servants must have refilled it. I felt a sudden irritation. This was the year of grace 1906, a new century and all that, and we were still behaving as though we were at the court of Louis XIV, servants and wigs and flummery. Did William Morris die for this? And then all this talk of goblins ... surely, as I said, talk to frighten the children, ghoulies and ghosties and long- leggety beasties, and things that go bump in the night, good lord deliver us.
“But,” I said, trying to keep the flame of science alive, “what were they? I don’t believe in the supernatural, Lord Rutherford. If it lives and has breath it is some kind of creature.”
“Some kind,” said Rutherford. “Did you ever hear tell of ... golluts?”
“No,” I said.
“Very well,” he replied. “As I’m sure you can tell, you’re about to.”
“There is a town,” he began, “in the mountains of northern Spain, called Izarroa. I know you are not unfamilar with languages and so you will detect that this is not a Spanish name, but a Basque one. A very ancient language, which some hold to be the tongue of the long-vanished Neanderthal race.
“Be that as it may, I arrived in the town of Izarroa in June of 1889, when I was nineteen years old. I found it a shabby place, a town of ugly blocky buildings and poor tracks. Those few people I saw were dwarfish, dressed in, if not rags, at least poor and shapeless clothing; I saw few who were taller than four feet in height. Many of them had a disfigurement in which the neck bulged out to the front. They were poor, unfortunate people and I felt such pain for their miserable lives. What could I do? I spoke Spanish, I had a few words of Basque, but I felt that their language would be something else entirely.
But any village, no matter how miserable, will have a tavern; and by asking the small and taciturn inhabitants I eventually found this place out, a low-ceilinged - for me, anyhow - structure where a red-bearded man of greater height than the villagers held jovial court.
I stumped in there and asked in my roughest Castilian for a glass of his finest.
He slammed it down on the counter without a word.
I thanked him, and drank.
Eventually he spoke.
“I was waiting,” he said, “for the words. I knew you would feel ‘we don’t get many strangers round here’ was a cliche’, but I couldn’t think what else to say.”
The man spoke English, and an educated English at that though with a strong accent.
“Bhrendain O Maille,” he said, extending a hand. “Formerly of Trinity College, Dublin.”
Dear gods. An Irishman, here. I felt like weeping with relief. Instead I just gave my name and shook his hand.
“Now,” he said, “I’m sure you’ll be full of questions, what in the name of some slightly insane god is an Irish gentleman doing in this fearful place? Where the locals shit in the ditches, because how can a toilet have a toilet of its own? And preferably you’d like an explanation that does not have the English as villains?”
“I’m no lover of the British Raj,” I told him. “I’m what used to be called a ‘Little Englander’. I believe we should mind our own bloody business.” I’d changed my tune since the McKinnon days, I can assure you, though I still thought McKinnon himself was an unpleasant individual.
“Good man,” Brendan said as though I’d no more than agreed to a pint of plain. But he was my only man at present and so I said,
“Tell me. Why did you come here?”
“There is a woman in the story,” he said. “Her name’s Nancy. Half-Peruvian, half-Irish, and as you may imagine a more lovely woman never trod the Earth.”
“I’m in love already,” I said.
“Good,” Brendan said, pointing at me briefly then realising his finger might be loaded.
“She had a Chinese friend called Millie Lo who under ordinary circumstances would have had me on my knees with adoration, but she was the moon, and Nancy was the sun.
“Nancy was a cabaret artiste and exotic dancer, she took her clothes off for discerning audiences. Lovely, lovely girl.”
“Now, we hear many things. We hear the Swiss are planning to put a ring tunnel under Switzerland ... and for what? A tube train? I doubt it. I think they’re trying to produce industrial levels of anti-matter and immanentize the eschaton ...”
“Pardon me?” I said.
“I’m sorry,” Brendan said. “Interference. Now, Nancy.
“I had already given her the ‘tread softly, for you tread on my dreams’ thing and tried her out with Aleister Crowley, at whom she tossed her lovely head ... I knew therefore that she also had a genuine nose for poetry, because nobody who did would consider Crowley a better poet than Yeats. Crowley did think so himself, of course. She did, though, find other parts of the Great Beast’s work of interest, and she incorporated motifs into her act ... she would stand on stage covered in blood and scream for several minutes using the whole of her four-octave vocal range. She would pluck a bat from the air and bite its head off, though I suspect it was a chocolate bat suspended from an invisible wire. She would bathe in a giant champagne glass ... well of course naked, do you take a bath with your clothes on?
“But when she came off stage and hosed herself down it was me she came home to. I was the daddy. I shall not go into details but suffice to say that when she slipped home in the early hours she would cuddle up beside me and so I would find that most perfect of women alongside me when I woke. Ah, what they used to say about her:
“’Four foot two, with eyes of blue’... but ... you look puzzled, young friend. Is something the matter with my story?”
“No,” I said. “Go on.” Jesus. He’d all but described Sally Beaumont. I had a blood brother here and no mistake. I was wondering whether Nancy and Sally could ever have avoided crossing paths at some point. Not whether they might have, but what likelihood there was of the opposite.
“Good,” said Brendan. “I intend to.” He broke off his discourse as a pair of locals came to the bar; Brendan served them wine and spoke to them briefly in a language that sounded a bit like Basque but not entirely.
He caught me looking interestedly and when they had gone, said,
“The tongue, is it? The language, I mean.”
I admitted it was, that the languages interested me (although, but I did not say it, I was also keen to hear the story of Nancy and Brendan, though I feared how it must end, akin to my own sad failed love affair).
“It is similar to Basque,” he said, “but strangely, I hear echoes of the Irish in it. Which leads me to think that possibly their ancestors were Galician sheepherders from further north and west. And of course, myself being Irish, this is pleasant to me.”
“But the,” and I mimed the throat, not wanting to follow it up with the timehonoured gesture of a hand held, palm down, three feet or so from the ground. The universal gesture for little person. How I hated it.
“You may say ‘midgets,” said O’Malley. You might even think that an Irishman such as myself, though no bog-trotter from the superstitious West, would say ‘Leprechauns’. But the common word,” he said, “is Gollut. From goll, which means a goitre, the deformity of the neck you have already noticed. The golluts are thus the people with goitres. I cannot say why the goitre is so prevalent among them. I am a philologist, not a physician. Nor whether it is connected to their lack of stature, though I suspect both are down to a poor diet. Not much grows here, Mister Rutherford. Crops fail.” He looked keenly at me as though wishing me to remember potato crops that had also been known to fail.
“But,” he said, “I stay here because I am fascinated with the language, and the people who speak it. You may be expecting me to have found some native woman to keep my bed warm at night, but no ... there has only really been Nancy for me.”
“Dare I ask what happened?” I asked.
“Indeed you may,” said Brendan O’Malley. He poured more wine. It was rough stuff, but there in the mountains surrounded by the golluts speaking their jibber-jabber, I could hardly blame him for partaking of whatever blood he could.
“She left me," he said. "Left Ireland. Went to England, damn her. The last I heard she'd changed her name and was living with some toff down south."
"Oh ... " I said with a creeping sense of horror. "What did she change her name to?"
"Beaumont," O'Malley said, as I knew he'd have to. "Sally Beaumont. The Little Girl with the Big Voice. And no bloody heart. None at all. Now drink your drink."
I drank, being just some toff from down south.
"Oh, I knew she was starting to see other men," O'Malley said. "But as long as she was coming home to me there was no harm in it. I suspected she was making a bob or two on the side from taking the gentlemen customers round the back for a private dance away from all those prying eyes. Then she started not coming back at night.
"I raged. I went to O'Riordan's Tavern and got drunk, went in search of her and probably fortunately never found her. Wine and women, they say, but the two do not mix. Best kept apart.
"And then," he said, "I set off as far from her as I could, for I feared that if I saw her ever again or met someone who knew her, I might do such mischief as the very stones would cry out to hear of it. Here I found the Golluts. Here I stay.
"They call me Father."
"Why?" I asked.
"Because I'm a bloody priest," he said. "There are more Catholics in Europe than you English like to believe."
"A priest, but you also run the pub?"
"As you say." It sounded like a good scheme to me. Indeed I could begin to put a gloss on it, that this was a very nice setup and just like back home, where the vicar might well be partial to a glass of sherry or six before lunch, and so why not go the whole distance and set up in the tavern? But I was understandably troubled. He had intimated that he would do harm if he so much as met someone who had known Sally, and although my instinct was to unburden myself to him as one who had gone through the same heartbreak with the faithless dwarf, I was hesitant.
"They are my people," he went on, "and I have withdrawn from the world to be with them. No, I am not one of them, for I am too tall .... but one morning I looked in my shaving mirror and realised to my horror ..."
My eyes were drawn to his throat, above his greasy low collar, and I saw what I had not seen up until then: that it bulged out in a horribly suggestive manner.
"To my horror ... that I was developing the goll. The goitre."
"Can you not get treatment for it?" I asked.
"It is poor diet," Brendan O'Malley said. "I do go into town, into the nearest city sometimes, and treat myself to a proper meal, but I am poor myself and I can only go every so often. And when I do go in, now I hear people say a different word. They say 'Cagot', and they cross to the other side of the road and make the forky sign at their eyes against the evil eye."
Now Cagots I had heard of, because Elizabeth Gaskell, in one of her forays into anthropological reporting wrote a piece on them. They were the Scapegoat Race of the Basques. The Cagots were not dwarfs - indeed, Cagots were generally reckoned to be of good stature and pleasing appearance - but they, too, were associated with the goitre and shunned, made to wear particular clothing and to live apart from the main population.
"It is only a matter of time," O'Malley said, "before the stonings begin. Of this I am sure. So I defend my little people up here in the valley."
It was late. I hadn’t asked him for shelter, but O’Malley in his rough kind way took care of it, billeting me in the spare back room of his little one-storey house. I appreciated little of the place when he deposited me there, much the worse for wine, and only early in the morning woke, head pounding, to hear something scritching, far away, outside a room that was dark but for light filtering in through cracks in the wall, high up. Pieces of dark furniture seemed to loom in the near-dark. I told myself the scritching was some night-trotting rodent and went back to sleep. I was certainly a long way from home, from what I saw as the ghastly overblownness of Coblins, land of inherited privilege and faithless girlfriends; here, in an edge of the world, I was finding Adventure!