Welcome to Part Nineteen of our current Tale for Our Time, my serialization of Baroness Orczy's thrilling romance set against the bloodbath of revolutionary France. Incidentally, if you've a chum who's a fan of classic fiction in audio form, we've added a Christmas bonus to our Mark Steyn Club gift membership. More details on that below.
Meanwhile, in tonight's episode of The Scarlet Pimpernel, in a grotesque, squalid tavern on the outskirts of Calais, Marguerite witnesses her husband, a man posing as an English fop, come face to face with her sworn enemy, a man posing as a French priest:
'Long to reign over us, God save the King!' sang the voice more lustily than ever. The next moment the door was thrown open and there was dead silence for a second or so.
Marguerite could not see the door; she held her breath, trying to imagine what was happening.
Percy Blakeney on entering had, of course, at once caught sight of the curé at the table; his hesitation lasted less than five seconds, the next moment, Marguerite saw his tall figure crossing the room, whilst he called in a loud, cheerful voice,—
'Hello, there! no one about? Where's that fool Brogard?'
He wore the magnificent coat and riding-suit which he had on when Marguerite last saw him at Richmond, so many hours ago. As usual, his get-up was absolutely irreproachable, the fine Mechlin lace at his neck and wrists were immaculate and white, his fair hair was carefully brushed, and he carried his eyeglass with his usual affected gesture. In fact, at this moment, Sir Percy Blakeney, Bart, might have been on his way to a garden-party at the Prince of Wales', instead of deliberately, cold-bloodedly running his head in a trap, set for him by his deadliest enemy.
He stood for a moment in the middle of the room, whilst Marguerite, absolutely paralysed with horror, seemed unable even to breathe.
Every moment she expected that Chauvelin would give a signal, that the place would fill with soldiers, that she would rush down and help Percy to sell his life dearly. As he stood there, suavely unconscious, she very nearly screamed out to him,—
'Fly, Percy!—'tis your deadly enemy!—fly before it be too late!'
But she had not time even to do that, for the next moment Blakeney quietly walked to the table, and, jovially clapping the CURE on the back, said in his own drawly, affected way,—
'Odd's fish! . . . er . . . M Chauvelin. . . . I vow I never thought of meeting you here.'
Gary Alexander, whom I had the pleasure of seeing in New Orleans earlier this month, writes:
The great English language skills exhibited by the Hungarian-born Baroness, as well as the Polish-born Joseph Conrad, remind me of Mark's other great artistic interest -- the Great American Songbook -- and how many so many great song lyrics are crafted by immigrant wordsmiths to whom English is a second, third or even fourth language (don't forget Yiddish) -- such as Al Dubin, Gus Kahn, Fred Fisher, Mitchell Parish, Irving Berlin (and so many more). It makes you wonder why so many native-born American writers are so incompetent with the contents of their one and only tongue.
On that last point, many years ago I saw an American stand-up comedian at Montreal's Juste pour rires/Just for Laughs "comedy" festival (generally a grim business, in my experience). He said, "Wow! I can't get over the way the clerks in McDonald's here are bilingual. Where I come from, they're not even lingual."
Be that as it may, I think there's a difference between the chaps you cite and Baroness Orczy. For the East European Jews in the teeming tenements of the Lower East Side, there was a great muscular vigor about American vernacular English in the early twentieth century that was tremendously seductive and made you want to be in on it. For someone of Emmuska Orczy's background, being multilingual was just part of life, even before she embarked on her peripatetic childhood. So she spoke Hungarian, German, French and other languages, and thought nothing of it. It may be so, at least from my own experience, that, when you get interested in a language, it sometimes leads you to the more obscure corners thereof. For example, one reason why I wanted to sing Pierre d'Amor's French lyric to "Roses of Picardy" was because I was hitherto unfamiliar with the first word of "essaimant leurs arômes si doux" and, when my friend Monique Fauteux explained it to me, I thought it was just a perfect and lovely poeticism. Likewise, I picked André Grétry's La Rosière républicaine as our theme music for The Scarlet Pimpernel because the archaism "rosière" - a young lady who's been given a crown of roses because of her virtue - was so pleasing and apt.
So that's what I notice about Baroness Orczy - her interest in the English of a century or more before her own time. For example, "Odd's fish!" is an ejaculation now almost wholly associated with the Scarlet Pimpernel or, alternatively, Captain Hook in the Disney version (though not the original) of Peter Pan. The latter is because the Disneyfied Hook looks a lot like King Charles II, and his late Majesty's favorite oath was "Odd's fish!" It's what we used to call a "minced oath", as in "Don't mince words with me" - ie, speak bluntly and directly. "Minced oaths" are de-profaned profanities: "'Strewth!" (from "God's truth!") is the great Australian minced oath, and "Jeepers creepers" a very American one. "Odd's fish!" is a mincing of "God's face!"
But Charles II died 107 years before the Scarlet Pimpernel's adventures, and it's not clear to me it was an especially au courant expression in the salons of the late eighteenth century. Evidently it tickled Emma Orczy sufficiently to embark on a one-woman campaign to bring it back, which she did very successfully, to the point where it's now associated not with restored monarchs but with swashbuckling adventurers.
That's enough of fishy oddities: If you've yet to hear any of our Tales for Our Time, you can do so by joining The Mark Steyn Club - and don't forget our special Christmas Gift Membership. This holiday season it comes with a special personalized Christmas card from yours truly and a handsomely-engraved gift-boxed USB stick with a trio of our most popular Tales for Our Time for your loved one to listen to in the car or perambulating through the wilderness or almost anywhere else. (The three tales are The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, The Time Machine and The Thirty-Nine Steps.) For more details on our special Christmas Gift Membership, see here.
And do join me tomorrow evening for Part Twenty of The Scarlet Pimpernel.