The Earth Will Shake

Volume One of the Historical Illuminatus Chronicles

The Inquisition Was Proceeding Alphabetically

One day in 1760 all the boys at Eton were excused from their classes and taken to the chapel. The masters were very grim, and everybody knew that somebody was going to catch blue hell.

The chaplain, Father Fenwick, had once been a Papist — everybody knew it — but he had been a good Anglican for more than twenty years now, and all the old rumors about his involvement with Jacobite plots were discredited. He was around fifty and was considered a good sort by the boys — your cheerful, kindly clergyman, not your stuffy, stiff-necked variety. But today he looked like thunder and lightning when he stood up in the pulpit.

Some of the boys have been stealing wine from the sacristy again, John thought.

“I must speak today about a terrible, terrible subject,” Father Fenwick said, in a tone that suggested that at least grave robbery and black magick were involved, if not ax murder. “I would to God that I did not have to let words of such vile matters pass my lips, but it is necessary to speak out at this time.
“There are many kinds of sin, but some are so loathsome that even to name them is revolting to people of sensibility. There is one sin in particular that is known to appear often in schools such as this, where many boys are living together in close proximity for long periods of time. I speak of the abomination that is both against Nature and against Scripture. You all know the story of Sodom and Gomorrah….”

Oh, Jesus, John thought. They know. Perhaps I will shoot myself with a pistol as soon as I get out of here.

Father Fenwick talked at length about the sin of sodomy. He said that God had destroyed the whole city of Sodom with fire and brimstone because this sin was so hateful to Him. He said that this vice was so vile that gentlemen never even talk about it, although they may make jokes about other sins of the flesh. He said that at first the authorities at Eton did not want to believe, at first, that a nest of monsters was among them, but there were so many rumors that an investigation had been made. He said that eighteen practitioners of this hideous vice were now known.

My God, John thought, who are the other sixteen?

Father Fenwick said that if the culprits came to him and confessed, they could receive absolution; but they must swear to God to forsake their unspeakable vice, or the absolution would be a deception of God and magnify their guilts. And we will all be watched, John thought, from that day forward; we will be policed as if we lived in the lands of the Inquisition. He was wondering if some of this cant might not be a huge bluff. Suppose his name were not on their list? Then by confessing he would just be sticking his neck in the noose for no reason at all. But if his name were on their list and he didn’t come forth —

“Those of the eighteen who do not come to me to confess in privacy,” Father Fenwick said, “will be regarded as obdurate in their vice. The school will have no choice. Such boys will be expelled, and their parents will be informed of the reason for their removal.”

Suppose Geoffrey doesn’t confess, John thought; then, if I confess, I must name him — they will insist on that — and he will be sent home in disgrace.

But: Suppose I do not confess, and Geoffrey does. Then I will be the one sent home in disgrace.

Father Fenwick talked on and on and on. John realized that this had all been rehearsed, plotted out like a Neopolitan conspiracy. The talk would go on, and on, convoluted and repetitious and rambling as an old man’s yarns, and the monotony would raise the apprehensions of the guilty. None of the boys would be let out of the chapel until the emotional effect was exactly as planned.

They have done this before, he thought. Maybe they do it every six years, or every ten years; they may have made a science out of it.

He was beginning to analyze the situation. Probably, he thought, they will have some way to keep us apart so that we cannot talk. If two of us promise not to betray each other, the whole system fails. It depends on each of us thinking that he cannot be sure the other will not inform first.

He dared not look around, to try to catch Geoffrey’s eye. They were probably watching like hawks, to see which boys were looking at which other boys.

Father Fenwick went on talking about the dreadful effects of the vice. He spoke of emasculation, feeble-mindedness, insanity and incurable diseases. He said that practitioners seldom survived into adulthood unless the sin was relinquished. “Their hands tremble,” he said gravely. “Their eyesight begins to fade. They cannot concentrate on their studies….”

How much can I trust Geoffrey? He said he loved me, but…..

Suddenly, the talk was coming to an end.

“I will now go to the rectory,” Father Fenwick said. “You will be let out of the chapel, one by one, in intervals of five minutes. You will each come to the rectory, and either you will tell me that you have nothing to confess, or else you will make your confession, and we will pray together that God will forgive you and give you the strength to resist this bestial vice in the future.”

The priest left the pulpit.

“Ainsley Minor,” shouted Mr. Murdstone.

Bleeding Christ, John thought, they are doing it in alphabetical order, of course. I will go very soon; and Geoffrey Wildeblood will have a long, long wait, wondering if I peached on him or not.

It seemed an eternity before Murdstone called “Babcock Major.”

John crossed the quad very aware that the chestnut trees were blooming beautifully, very aware that the sky was the same shade of blue as Geoffrey’s eyes (“eyes that go all the way back to heaven,” Dubliners say), very aware that he was about to make the most difficult decision of his young life.

It doesn’t matter, he thought in an instant of total despair, whether I confess at once. He will see it in my eyes. And he will keep me there, hounding me until I do confess.

He opened the door to the rectory.

Father Fenwick was seated at his desk. He looked up blandly. “Yes, Babcock Major?”

“I have nothing to confess, sir.”

Pause. A long, searching look from dark eyes.

“Are you sure, Babcock Major?”

“Yes, sir!” You old swine.

Another pause. Let me sweat a minute.

“You may go, Babcock Major.”

“Thank you, sir.”

John crossed the quad again, heading back to his room. I never knew I could lie to an adult and get away with it, he thought. And: I was able to do it because I remembered the caning and realized what they are.

This is not just a school, he thought. This is an institution for the production of automatons. It is run by automatons, who were produced by other automatons, long ago, and now they have forgotten what it is to be human and are engaged in turning us into automatons in turn.

He remembered the story that had been in the London newspapers a few months ago. It had been written in very veiled language, but everybody knew what it meant, and many of the older boys made jokes about it. A brothel had been uncovered that specialized in caning men. Of course, he thought: some of the automatons get to like being caned. And some of them get to like doing the caning, and they come here and become masters or headmasters. And when the gears turn a certain way, a boy gets caned, and nobody dares to question whether it is fair or not, because we are all becoming automatons here and automatons do not ask questions. They move as the gears move them.

He was back in his room, alone. Henson Minor and Montgomery Minor, who shared the room, would not be back for a while, since the Inquisition was proceeding alphabetically.

No, they were not exactly automatons, but they did not know what they were doing. They take down a boy’s britches. They stare at his buttocks. They cane him until the buttocks bleed. And they believe this is virtue, because it is done in a school, and it becomes vice only if it is done in a place with a red lantern over the door.

How long would it be before he learned if Geoffrey had confessed?

John tried to distract himself. He opened a book by his favorite writer, the man whose tombstone spoke of fierce indignation. He found himself reading over and over, with no amusement at all:

Last week I saw a woman flayed, and you will hardly believe how much it altered her person for the worse. Yesterday I ordered the carcass of a beau to be stripped in my presence, when we were all amazed to see so many unsuspected faults under one suit of clothes. Then I laid open his brain, his heart, and his spleen; but I plainly perceived, at every operation, that the further we proceeded, we found the defects increase upon us in number and bulk; from all which, I justly formed this conclusion to myself: that whatever philosopher or projector can find out an art to sodder and patch up the flaws and imperfections of nature, will deserve much better of mankind, and teach us a more useful science, than that so much in present esteem, of widening and exposing them (like him who held anatomy to be the ultimate end of physic). And he, whose fortunes and dispositions have placed him in a convenient station to enjoy the fruites of this noble art; he that can with Epicurus content his ideas with the films and images of things; such a man truly wise, creams off nature, leaving the sour and dregs for philosophy and reason to lap up. This is the sublime and refined point of felicity, called, the possession of being well deceived; the serene peaceful state of being a fool among knaves. 

John had enjoyed that passage before, but now the irony seemed tinged with something more than a little sinister. This was as comic as the murder of Christ; it was the joke of a man who jokes because the only alternative is to scream down the house.

Lord, how many hours will this go on?

“I saw a woman flayed”: yes, and you could still see that, anytime you cared to go to Newgate Hill. One could be quite sure it would alter her person for the worse; and it would alter all the other persons on Newgate Hill for the worse, although they might not realize it. You could see a boy caned any day, at Eton, and caning was not really very different from flaying.

Henson returned finally; and a little later, Montgomery. They both put on great airs of amusement and cynicism; but John was wondering if either of them had been guilty, unbeknown to him; and he knew they were wondering the same thing about him — and maybe about each other.

Mystery and suspicion will hang over this class for years, he realized.

Finally, it was time for dinner. No word had come for John to come to the headmaster’s office; Geoffrey had not confessed. John felt a faint guilt for doubting Geoffrey at all.

Mr. Murdstone made a brief speech when all the boys were in the dining hall. He said that thirty confessions had been obtained — not the eighteen they expected, John noted. Murdstone added that one boy had run away somewhere but would probably soon be found. Then he told them all, in solemn tones, that no further discussion of this matter would be allowed, inside the school or out, and warned them all that the school itself would be disgraced if any breath of this scandal ever went beyond the walls.

Father Fenwick then made another speech. He said that all thirty culprits were truly repentant and that nobody should attempt to learn their identities. “That must remain a matter between the boys themselves and Our Father in Heaven,” he said

And everybody will know in a week, John thought. Or at least everybody will pretend to know.

Then he noticed that Geoffrey was not in the dining hall. Geoffrey was the boy who had run away.

Jesus, Jesus, he thought. Just when I thought it was over. The worst is yet to come.

He never remembered what was served for dinner that night. Somewhere, out there in the darkness, Geoffrey was wandering, frightened. Where could he go? Not home, certainly. Was he fantasizing about running away with gypsies, becoming a cabin boy on a ship to America, or was he just in a blue funk and walking on and on like a horse with the blind staggers? God help him, John thought, if he falls into the hands of the highwaymen.

Probably the sheriff’s men would pick Geoffrey up tomorrow. With that starched collar, they would know at once he was from Eton and would bring him back here. And then, terrified, weak after the night’s ordeal, Geoffrey would confess everything.


John tried to imagine the look in Father’s eyes when he returned home, a convicted sodomite.

That was legally a hanging offence, but John had never heard of anybody actually being hanged for it. Probably you were just sent off to America or to the Continent. Still, according to the books, they could hang you if they wanted to.

Geoffrey was probably thinking about that, out there in the dark. Geoffrey knew all about sodomy and its implications: he said he had always known he was that way, as far back as he could remember. John was not sure about himself; he often had fantasies about girls. If girls had been available — well, then, he might be in another kind of trouble. But that was pointless now. Whatever calamity was going to befall him, it was because he had loved Geoffrey, not a girl.

It was not only sinful but dangerous with a girl, because she might get pregnant. It was unnatural with a boy, because he wouldn’t get pregnant. That seemed to leave the sheep; but no, that was abominable. There was your own right hand, but that led to blindness. I think they are lying to us about some of that, John thought.

Damn it, where was Geoffrey, and what was happening to him out there in the dark?

At eight in the evening, the news arrived at West Hall where John was lodged.

Geoffrey Wildeblood had been found in a pond, dead. “We must in charity assume that he fell in by accident,” said Mr. Drake, who had brought the story. “The poor lad will then be given a Christian burial. For the sake of his grieved parents, let none of you breathe a word to the contrary. Remember, I pray you, that all we know for certain is that the poor lad drowned; all else is inference. Spreading unfavorable inference is the sin of scandal condemned in Holy Writ.”

John realized that he felt nothing.

Maybe I am just numb with shock, he thought.

Or maybe I am one of those monsters without normal human feelings.

John pictured Geoffrey floating in the pond, and nausea swept over him; he thought for a minute that he would lose his dinner. But that was horror, not true grief. What has happened to me? he wondered. Has part of me died today, along with Geoffrey?

All those starched Eton collars, he thought, and nobody knows what goes on in the heads above them. Future prime ministers and future leading figures of all sorts. All learning to hide emotion and become English gentlemen. Thirty confessed; Geoffrey and I did not confess; and the others? God alone could answer.

He was awake long after the candles were extinguished, still not feeling anything. Perhaps grief is this way, he thought; it takes a few days before you feel it. “Then I laid open his brain, his heart, and his spleen; but I plainly perceived, at every operation, that the further we proceeded, we found the defects increase upon us in number and bulk…”

Geoffrey was too sensitive, basically. He could not stand the normal teasing and the cruel wit of the boys at Eton; he was easily hurt and depressed. Geoffrey killed himself because they put him in a trap and he broke under the strain.

Everything that appears imperfect here on earth has a perfect model in the mind of God; Geoffrey really had believed that. Then there is a perfect Eton in the mind of God, John thought. The system works perfectly there. Everybody confesses; nobody lies; nobody jumps in the pond. And they all graduate and turn into perfect English gentlemen. And the best of them, the cream of the cream, the pluperfect of the perfect, arrive eventually in a perfect House of Lords and snore perfectly while perfect bills are perfectly debated.

And the hangmen are all perfect there; when they flay a whore, they use perfect whips.

I know why Geoffrey killed himself, John thought. He would not betray me, but he could not walk into the rectory and lie to Father Fenwick. He might have walked toward the rectory door many times, but each time he would walk away, walk around the quad again, probably stopping to look at the old whipping block from the 14th Century. (Do they keep that there to show how far we have progressed since then, or to warn us of what they are capable of doing if rebellion ever appears?) He would walk back and forth, trying to get his courage up. But he could not look at the priest and lie.

So he threw himself in the pond and died.

Around dawn, John thought: I will never see him again. That is what death means. Shakespeare put it in five words: never, never, never, never, never.

No part of him that I haven’t kissed; no part of me that he hasn’t kissed. And I will never never never never never see him again.

John began to feel something, finally. Not grief; his mind still held that at bay. He felt a fierce indignation that lacerated his heart.

It will be a lonely life, he thought, living a lie. But that is the condition of survival in this place at this time. And I will throw the lie in their teeth eventually.

Someday. Somehow.

The Earth Will Shake

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