A Blue Pantomime

This page contains the following resources:

Summary of the Plot

Dating

People and Places

Themes

 

Summary of the Plot

Section I

The Rev. Samuel Wraxall, a Londoner with no connection to Cornwall, is travelling west to carry out a school inspection of the recently established Board School at Pitts Scawen (Fraddam). He alights from the train at St. Austell station and proceeds by gig along the present A3058 and A39 roads to the Indian Queens inn at Fraddam where he intends to spend the night. To the north of the A3058 is the great granite boss of the St. Austell Moor and Hensbarrow Beacon, already dotted with claypits and white refuse tips, while to the south three valleys run down to the Fal estuary, the central one carrying the River Fal. In the valley of the Fal Wraxall sees Tremenhúel House, formerly the home of the Cardínnocks, but now the property of the Parkyns.

During the journey and when at the inn, Wraxall recognises features as though from memory. In chronological order these are: Tremenhuel House as seen from the road; the trisyllabic trem – en – húel; the inn sign board; the hepping-stock and drinking trough; the staircase; the Blue Room; the letters Fui on the frame of a looking glass; the name Cardinnock.

Having settled into the Blue Room, the landlord informs Wraxall that the inn was built by Ralph Cardinnock of Tremenhuel, whose son Philip wasted the inheritance, rented the family house to the Parkyns and joined the militia at Tregarrick (Bodmin) as an officer. Philip Cardinnock, then twenty-seven, tried to elope from the inn with Cicely, daughter of Sir Felix Williams. The elopement was discovered and frustrated by Sir Felix and his son, with Sir Felix being wounded in a struggle and dying ten years later. Philip Cardinnock was never heard of again. Cicely never subsequently spoke to her brother and on her father’s death moved to the north of England. Wraxall was then left to his meditations.

Section II

Following the departure of the landlord, the mirror with Fui on its frame starts to reflect not Wraxall in his chair but two figures entering by the door and dressed in early Georgian costume. They turn out to be Philip Cardinnock and Cicely Williams on the occasion of their elopement. The door opens again, revealing Sir Felix and his son, rapiers drawn. In the ensuing struggle Sir Felix is wounded by Philip, who in turn is pierced through by the son, with Wraxall feeling the pain of the death wound.

Section III

Wraxall-Cardinnock dies, but awakens as Wraxall to find himself in the same room with the door open, through which he staggers. In a short time he finds himself staggering up a moor slope behind the ‘Indian Queens’ inhabited by two souls, Wraxall and Cardinnock. Near the summit is a tarn with a coffin floating on its surface. Prising it open he beholds his own visage.

Section IV

The landlord of the inn discovers the door of the establishment open and institutes a search of the moor, with Wraxall’s prostrate form encountered at the lip of the tarn. He remains at the inn, in a state of delirium, for some weeks and is forced to give up his inspectorship following a long period of recuperation, presumably in his home are. A new inspector is appointed who eventually returns to Pitts Scawen and puts up at the Indian Queens inn, where he is informed of Wraxall’s former illness.

Following the inspection, the inspector, a Mr. David Mainwaring, writes a letter to Wraxall, dated December 3, 1891. The letter informs Wraxall of the extraction of china clay from the moors above the inn and of the discovery of a coffin containing almost certainly the body of the last Cardinnock.

Dating

Whilst it is easy to identify the story’s location, the dating of the various events is problematic as the reader is confronting a period from 1714 to 1892. The aborted elopement is said to have occurred in the early Georgian period (Section II), presumably from 1714 to 1750, while the concluding letter is dated December 3, 1891 (Section IV). The school inspection of Pitts Scawen which Wraxall failed to execute must have followed the Liberal government’s educational legislation of 1870-1 authorising such things at newly established Board Schools. It took Wraxall over a year to regain his health, while the successful school inspection did not happen until 1891. Wraxall’s reflections on the incidents can be dated to 1892.

The Indian Queens inn, from which Philip Cardinnock and Cicely Williams proposed to elope and at which Samuel Wraxall was later to stay, dated from the time of Ralph Cardinnock, Philip’s father. Ralph died when Philip was twenty-three. Philip inherited the estate and by the age of 27 had squandered the inheritance and joined the army, renting Tremenhuel to the Parkyns (Section I). There followed Philip’s courtship of Cicely. The Parkyn tenant was the great-great-grandfather of the Squire Parkyn of Wraxall’s time (Section I), which at 30 years a generation gives us between 120 and 150 years. If the aborted elopement occurred in about 1740, Wraxall’s visit to the inn can be dated to about 1880.

People and Places

The action of the story is set at the Indian Queens inn, near Fraddam, the Pitts Scawen of the story, in the parish of St. Columb Major. It stands on the present A30 between Bodmin, the Tregárrick of the story, and Truro. Q was brought up in Bodmin where his father had a medical practice. If St. Columb did not have a doctor, Bodmin would have been the nearest practice. The building was originally a post inn called The Queen’s Head, with the name change occurring around 1800, much later than the time of the murder, but before the arrival of Wraxall. The painted sign board seen by Wraxall could not have been the one seen by Philip Cardínnock, despite the claim in the story (Section I). This is a rare error in the factual bases of Q’s fictional writings. As with a number of others in Cornwall, the name change was owing to a legend that the wife of John Rolfe, the Algonquin queen Pocahontas, travelled the road, when in fact the pair landed at Plymouth in 1616. The Algonquin Indians appear in Q’s novel Fort Amity. Another Algonquin queen was seen by William Pengelly.

Themes

‘A Blue Pantomime’ is the revised version of a short story first appearing in a magazine called ‘Youth’ in 1891. Superficially, it is a tale of the supernatural aimed at a credulous market, but on closer inspection it comes closer to science fiction as it deals with issues such as time, space and consciousness. These issues are explored in other works, including The Mystery of Joseph Lacquedem and Castle Dor. For the conventional reader this presents something of a problem, especially as the story is the product of one who was an empiricist, although not a rationalist, believing all phenomena have equal validity.

Rowse suggests that Castle Dor is about ‘revenants’ and reversals of time (1988, p. 190), although he provides no clue as to the possible mechanisms. This could be true of ‘A Blue Pantomime’, although in some parts of the story Wraxall and Philip Cardinnock appear to be the same person, as at the end of section two, but at other times not.

If Spinoza’s idea of God and Nature being one is logically followed through, place must have memory,  which may explain Rowse’s thinking, although it was not a position he would have been happy in taking.

Alternatively, Q is presenting the reader with two sets of individuals, most of whom live in linear time, but some of whom live in cyclical time. Wraxall is returning to a previously known location, facilitating the re-enactment of a traumatic experience. Yet the Cardinnocks died out with Philip, and without any discernible connection to the Wraxalls. Samuel Wraxall seems to have come innocently to the scene. There are other stories by Q where the idea of cyclical time is more convincing.

In ‘A Blue Pantomime’ it is as though the soul of Philip Cardinnock wishes to make known the truth of the murder by possessing the body of Samuel Wraxall; although why Wraxall is chosen and how he possessed intimations of a former time from his alighting at St. Austell station is a mystery. What cannot be disputed is that Q believed the soul to be independent of the body but reliant upon it, and that consciousness is not solely dependent upon the five senses. This presents a considerable challenge to conventional thinking and one which the thoughtful reader will be unable to duck.

Wraxall alights from the London train at St. Austell, the nearest station, and travels along the present A3058, with the St. Austell Moors, called Huel Tor (huel – mine workings; tor – rock outcrop on a hill), to the north, and the valley of the River Fal, containing the house of the Cardinnocks and later the Parkyns, stretching down to the Fal estuary. The house has been given an invented name, Tremenhuel (tre – homestead; men – stone; huel – mine working). The name Cardinnock is also an invention (car or ker – fort; dinnock – without meaning). The house name suggests that the Cardinnocks made their money out of mineral, with the Parkyns later moving into clay mining. There appears to be no traditional Cornish family called Parkyn.

In about 1860, however, a Frank Parkyn was sent to Bodmin Moor for health reasons. He started prospecting for china clay and by 1870 had productive pits at Durfold and Blisland. In 1877, possibly about the time of Wraxall’s visit, Parkyn was prospecting the area behind the Indian Queens inn. Mainwaring’s letter of 1891 (Section IV) informs the reader of a china clay company run by Squire Parkyn in whose workings the body of Philip Cardinnock is discovered behind the inn. It is curious of Q to use the name Parkyn in a fictional story where the associations were at the time of publication so obvious.