Hello once again! Welcome to week 3 of the Perilous Gard read-along. We’re over halfway done with the book now! These are some very pivotal chapters, as Kate enters a new world and has to navigate some difficult situations.
Chapter 6: The Leper’s Hut
Towards the beginning of this chapter, we encounter Randal again. As I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t love his depiction, and perhaps especially the way he’s used for exposition and little else. Here he drops several hints by singing “Tam Lin,” mentioning the teind, and then dropping the big bombshell of the chapter. However, through all of this, he remains mostly a distant and pitiable figure. The one moment of his that does really shine through is when he describes how sometimes the People in the Hill will allow him to join them for a dancing night, “and when I awake I am lying out on the cold hillside again.” I wish that Pope had leaned into this emotion more, and given us a sense of how Randal actually feels as a human being.
Once again, we see the way Kate has very little patience for Christopher’s tendency towards the melodramatic. At the same time, I don’t want to discount the very real pressure and trauma that Christopher is living with here, and particularly the way it echoes his terrible childhood. It’s a delicate balance to portray and I think that overall Pope does a fair job of reminding us why he reacts as he does.
Anyway, Randal reveals that Cecily is actually alive and living with the Fairy Folk, in what is a pretty marvelous scene, in my opinion. I really like how Pope trusts the reader to understand the subtext of what’s happening with Christopher’s reaction to the news and his interactions with Kate and Randal. (Kate’s response is, “Of course she’s alive!…What did I tell you!” Amazing. I love her.)
Last week I noted the description of the valley, with the loneliness of the landscape and the single hawk overhead. Here we get an echo of that just as Randal reveals that Cecily is alive: “The sun was now nearly overhead and the whole valley lay in clear light from the archway in the distant wall to the dark mouth of the cave among the rocks.” I love the way the clear light and the sunshine contrast with the earlier description! It’s also a nice little tie-in to the description of Christopher a little bit earlier: “His eyes were still wet, but they looked as though they had seen the Resurrection itself, and his whole face was dazed and radiant.”
Parsing this out a bit, I don’t think it’s at all an accident that the Resurrection is brought up here, or that the radiance of Christopher’s face (tying in again to the story of St. Christopher) and the sunlight in the valley are linked. And also, I think, there’s an echo of the Resurrection in the “dark mouth of the cave among the rocks.”
Of course things aren’t quite that easy, and Christopher is primed and ready to be self-sacrificing. Cecily was stolen to pay the teind on All Hallows’ Eve, and he immediately decides that he’ll take her place. Kate knows exactly what he’s doing, but she can’t find an immediate way to stop him, despite arguing about it furiously. (Perhaps my least favorite Christopher moment is when he sends her back to the castle “like a good girl.” Come on, man.) She settles for letting him get rid of her for the moment so she can write a letter to Sir Geoffrey.
Chapter 7: The Evidence Room
And then Kate has to go back to the castle and get through dinner and a whole evening without revealing that anything is wrong, knowing Christopher is out there being his dramatic and self-sacrificing self. It’s so tense!!! I do love how Pope weaves in the everyday details of meals and sewing and how to get hold of ink and paper. The description of the meal also helped me make sense of something that has puzzled me for a long time–why meals in big households like this were so massive. I mean, it can’t all be just conspicuous consumption, right? As it turns out, the food is offered to the high table before everyone else gets it, which means that it’s feeding the whole castle! Anyway, I found this detail pretty delightful.
Then Kate follows Christopher back to the valley, leading to perhaps one of my favorite exchanges in the whole book.
“Kate,” said Christopher. “Dear Kate, kind Kate, clever Kate, will you for the love of heaven go away without asking any more questions?”
“No,” said Kate flatly. “You’re planning something.”
Have I mentioned recently that I LOVE HER? Also, why exactly does my brain take this dynamic and circle it and label it ROMANCE? Is it too much Anne and Gilbert at an impressionable age? Please discuss. (There’s another great line from Kate in this section: “‘How can I be quiet when I don’t even know what it is I’m supposed to be quiet about?’ Kate hissed back.”)
Christopher, of course, exchanges himself for Cecily, in a creepy ceremony with the creepy Creature in the Well, which I do not care for at all, nope, no thank you. Also, remember that moment in chapter 2 when Kate gets caught gossiping with Dorothy? Well, Pope pulls off that same kind of tension here when Master John catches her watching the scene and takes her back to his evidence room.
In the first week, I mentioned that I’m still not quite sure to what degree this is a supernatural story, and the Creature in the Well is really the best evidence we have that there is actual supernatural stuff going on, as opposed to hypnosis, drugging, etc. It’s described in such an eerie and almost eldritch way that it’s hard to not read it as something that was never human. (Plus that one moment at the end, but we’ll talk about that later.)
I think the description of the evidence room is a really great one, so I’m going to quote it here basically in full.
“The little room was very plump and clean and commonplace, rather like Master John himself. There was a big table covered with papers and account books; more account books were ranged tidily on a shelf against the smooth whitewashed wall. Under the shelf was a great iron-bound chest. The floor had been polished and strewn with fragrant herbs–meadowsweet, rosemary, thyme. A pleasant handful of fire burned on the hearth…and Master John’s after supper morsel, a platter of cheese and ripe pears, was laid ready for him on a joint stool beside the modest wooden armchair.”
Master John then reveals himself as perhaps the truest antagonist of the story. I love how Pope uses the detail of his eating pears to make the homeiness of the room almost horrific. She was so good at building in tension and atmosphere in these tiny images that are so striking. I remembered this even before I read it–not the specifics, but the feeling of reading it, the way I was horrified but kept reading because I had to.
Speaking of effective and horrifying, here’s a sentence Master John sure does say!
“They have no intention of actually taking his wits away from him, or doing anything else that might weaken or spoil him for the–” he paused to select the exact word he wanted: “ceremony.”
No thank you at all!!
In a certain way, though, I do very much enjoy the back and forth between Kate and Master John. She really wants to fit him into her perception of the world. At one point, she thinks,
The talk was finally moving in a direction where she felt herself to be to some extent on her own ground, away from the dark, alien, mysterious world of the Fairy Folk. She knew better than to take Master John’s word that he was an honest trader…but at least he was a dishonest trader, not a heathen magician dealing in spells and charms and human sacrifice.
Unfortunately, Master John proves to be the wilier of the two. He plans to tell Sir Geoffrey that she and Christopher have run away together, thereby handily disposing of both of them. “Dishonest trading of this scope and quality was something she had never met with before. It had simply not occurred to her it was possible.”
As an aside, here’s another thing Master John sure does say. “‘Don’t blame yourself overmuch,’ said Master John in the kindest way.” GOSH, I HATE HIM.
It is interesting to me to look at Master John and Kate as sort of foils. They’re both incredibly perceptive and practical, but with very different moral codes and loyalties. We see Master John’s perceptiveness when he describes Christopher, “with all his fine talk and his tongue like a skinning knife…He might tear himself to pieces, if you choose to put it so extravagantly, but it would go very hard with him to make a display of the pieces…”
While overall Pope doesn’t put a ton of obvious weight on depictions of sexism in this book, I do think that she uses both Christopher and Master John’s relative social power as ways to compel Kate’s obedience in these chapters. Kate is smart, and thoughtful, and quick, but she doesn’t have authority, and that’s not a small thing in this world.
Chapter 8: The Lady in Green
We left Kate in the evidence room and that’s where we pick up this chapter as well. I have to admit to enjoying the moment when Kate talks herself down from being worried that Master John is about to murder her, thinking, “Master John was the last man on earth to commit a murder with his own hands, particularly a murder in his own private room, overturning the furniture, making a nasty mess of the sweet smelling, herb strewn floor.” She’s just so perceptive and slightly mean in a way that feels very gratifying to me.
She’s also correct! Master John returns with the Lady in the Green, the woman that Kate saw in the Elvenwood way back in chapter 2. The Lady proposes to take Kate as one of the mortal servants for the Fairy Folk, although Kate successfully avoids being drugged into compliance.
Throughout the book, the Lady is described in these slightly otherworldly terms, obviously very much connected with the forest and the natural world. Here, Kate thinks that “the walls and shelves and windows of Master’ John’s room…suddenly looked changed, unreal and grotesque, as if a young disdainful living tree had sprung up by magic through the flat boards of the floor.” Even the Lady’s clothing reinforces this connection with the forest and the trees:
The cloak was woven in varying shades of leaf color that wavered and shifted continually under the light, oak leaf, willow leaf, holly leaf, ash leaf, thorn leaf, elder and hazel, ivy and moss and fern…The fluctuating shapes and tints baffled the eye like the interlaced branches and foliage of a thicket.
And so Kate leaves the castle, and is led down into the Lady’s domain. And that’s where we’ll leave her this time! Next week, we’ll find out what’s going on down in the Hill.