Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

A fascinating read. In it, Diamond sets out to answer a question asked of him 25 years ago by a native New Guinean who, reflecting on the way Europeans seemed to have much more advanced technology at their disposal than his native islanders, said:

“Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea, but we black people had little cargo of our own?”

In other words, and on a grander scale, over the course of human history, what has allowed some communities to develop literate industrial societies with metal tools, others to develop only nonliterate farming societies, and still others to remain seemingly frozen as hunter-gatherers with stone tools? It’s a big question, and Diamond has a big answer for it, but it is an answer that boils down to one sweeping concept.

History followed different courses for different peoples because of differences among peoples’ environments, not because of biological differences among peoples themselves.

It is an answer that avoids most of the racial bigotry that has clouded the same question for hundreds of years. When human cultures that had been separated for millenia began clashing with one another—as when Europeans first came to what they called the New World—who conquered who was not biologically determined (i.e., white Europeans were not racially superior to Native Americans). Rather, each human society developed according to the advantages of their respective environments, and because the environments were different, the advantages developed by each were different.

For the bulk of his book, Diamond compares the advantages of the world’s different environments, chasing proximate causes back to what he believes is the ultimate one—the one advantage that set all the others in motion, and allowed the “Old World” to develop technologically literate societies before the “New World.” It is, quite simply, that the Old World is wide and the New World is tall.

On the surface this seems crazy, but let’s follow the logic. Eleven thousand years ago, after humans had spread out of Africa to nearly every corner of the globe, they lived universally in hunter-gatherer communities—tribes of no more than a few dozen individuals, moving across the landscape in the near-constant search for wild plants and animals for food. What we now think of as civilization began when some of those communities transitioned from this hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a more agrarian existence, after the domestication of plants and animals. That transition didn’t happen overnight, and it happened in different places at different times, and it seems clear that it began first in what we now call the Fertile Crescent, the area in Southwest Asia roughly between the Mediterranean and Caspian Seas. And why did it begin there?

One advantage of the Fertile Crescent is that it lies within a zone of so-called Mediterranean climate, a climate characterized by mild, wet winters and long, hot, dry summers. That climate selects for plant species able to survive the long dry season and to resume growth rapidly upon the return of the rains. Many Fertile Crescent plants, especially species of cereals and pulses, have adapted in a way that renders them useful to humans: They are annuals, meaning that the plant itself dries up and dies in the dry season.

Within their mere one year of life, annual plants inevitably remain small herbs. Many of them instead put much of their energy into producing big seeds, which remain dormant during the dry season and are then ready to sprout when the rains come. Annual plants therefore waste little energy on making inedible wood or fibrous stems, like the body of trees and bushes. But many of the big seeds, notably those of the annual cereals and pulses, are edible by humans. They constitute 6 of the modern world’s 12 major crops. In contrast, if you live near a forest and look out your window, the plant species that you see will tend to be trees and shrubs, most of whose body you cannot eat and which put much less of their energy into edible seeds. Of course, some forest trees in areas of wet climate do produce big edible seeds, but these seeds are not adapted to surviving a long dry season and hence to long storage by humans.

I find this fascinating. Hunter-gatherer humans in the Fertile Crescent were able to domesticate plants and become farmers because the wild plants in their region had been adapted by their environment to produce the kind of seeds that human could eat, store for long periods of time, and, eventually, plant and grow under their own control. It makes me wonder that if there had not been a place like this on earth, with plants naturally adapted in this way, would human civilization have ever arisen at all? Diamond would probably say yes, but, consistent with the overall theme of his book, it would have similarly been driven by natural selection and not by any human ingenuity.

In all this discussion of the Fertile Crescent’s advantages for the early rise of food production, we have not had to invoke any supposed advantages of Fertile Crescent peoples themselves. Indeed, I am unaware of anyone’s even seriously suggesting any supposed distinctive biological features of the region’s peoples that might have contributed to the potency of its food production package. Instead, we have seen that the many distinctive features of the Fertile Crescent’s climate, environment, wild plants, and animals together provide a convincing explanation.

There were, in fact, a few other places where food production arose independently like this—places like New Guinea and the eastern United States—but none of these places had the other environmental and climactic advantages Diamond attributes to the Fertile Crescent and, as a result, he says, the people of the Fertile Crescent “entered the modern world with more advanced technology, more complex political organization, and more epidemic diseases with which to infect other peoples.” One of those extra advantages that led directly to this future dominance was the domestication of animals, especially the domestication of large mammals to help in the labor associated with food production.

Diamond tells us that prior to the 20th century, only fourteen species of such animals had been domesticated by the world’s populations—sheep, goats, cows, pigs, horses, Arabian and Bactrian camels, llamas, donkeys, reindeer, water buffalo, yaks, bali cattle and mithan—and of these, the wild ancestors of thirteen of them (all but the reindeer) were domesticated in Eurasia (including North Africa, which is biogeographically more similar to Eurasia than to the rest of Africa).

This very unequal distribution of wild ancestral species among the continents became an important reason why Eurasians, rather than peoples of other continents, were the ones to end up with guns, germs and steel.

Why? The germs part is maybe the easiest to understand. All of the communicable diseases that would later decimate the native populations of the New World had their genesis first in these domesticated animals living in close proximity to one another. Like the more recent examples of the AIDS and SARS viruses, diseases like measles, rubella, mumps, pertussis and smallpox were all animal illnesses that made the leap to humans. They killed thousands if not millions of Eurasians when each first broke out—think of the Black Death in the late 1340s—but Eurasians had hundreds of years to evolve immunities to these diseases. The Native Americans did not. And because the Native Americans never domesticated animals and keep them penned together in the way the Eurasians did, they never developed their own deadly diseases that could have decimated the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in their ships. The chapter in which Diamond describes this process is called the “Lethal Gift of Livestock,” and with good reason.

And once these factors are in place—an agrarian lifestyle assisted by domesticated animals—the next major step in societal development can take place: human specialization. As hunter-gatherers, a population of humans has to spend almost all of their time in the acquisition and preparation of food. But as farmers with livestock, food production can easily reach surplus levels, and far fewer people need to be involved with it to feed a much larger community. This allows individuals to specialize into a new variety of “careers,” before unheard of in human history. And the two most influential for shaping the growing society are those of politician and priest.

Centralized political organization, including religion, is the major factor driving the clash of cultures that began with Columbus’ journey in 1492, and which still persists to this day. Indeed, it is only through institutions such as these, and the fervor that is built up around them, that members of one population are made willing to sacrifice their own lives for the subjugation of another. This willingness, Diamond says, is…

…so strongly programmed into us citizens of modern states, by our schools and churches and governments, that we forget what a radical break it marks with previous human history. Every state has its slogan urging its citizens to be prepared to die if necessary for the state: Britian’s “For King and Country,” Spain’s “Por Dios y Espana,” and so on. Similar sentiments motivated 16th-century Aztec warriors: “There is nothing like death in war, nothing like the flowery death so precious to Him [the Aztec national god Huitzilopochtli] who gives life: far off I see it, my heart yearns for it!”

The last reference to the Aztecs is especially curious, given the words of Spanish conquistador Pizzaro upon the capture of the Inca emperor Atahuallpa.

Do not take it as an insult that you have been defeated and taken prisoner, for with the Christians who come with me, though so few in number, I have conquered greater kingdoms than yours, and have defeated other more powerful lords than you, imposing upon them the dominion of the Emperor, whose vassal I am, and who is King of Spain and of the universal world. We come to conquer this land by his command, that all may come to a knowledge of God and His Holy Catholic Faith; and by reason of our good mission, God, the Creator of heaven and earth and of all things in them, permits this, in order that you may know Him and come out from the bestial and diabolical life that you lead. It is for this reason that we, being so few in number, subjugate that vast host. When you have seen the errors in which you live, you will understand the good that we have done you by coming to your land by order of his Majesty the King of Spain. Our Lord permitted that your pride should be brought low and that no Indian should be able to offend a Christian.

Incas are not Aztecs, I know, but how easily could this speech have been given by a conquering Aztec warrior, or the conquering warrior of any state whose citizens pledge themselves to their god and country? All it takes is the swapping of a few proper names and the text is instantly understandable by nearly any culture.

And this ubiquity of experience seems to be the central thesis of the book, a synopsis of human history that is still being played out today. People once spread across this globe given the pressures of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. As populations grew they had to expand because they had to find more food for more and more individuals. And then, based on environmental factors, not on human ingenuity, some small pockets of those hunter-gatherers developed practices for better food production, leading apparently inevitably to animal husbandry, technology, religion and empire. And then the expansion began again, empires needing to conquer in order to sustain themselves, and clashes began between one group of humans with better technological advancements and another with less.

One of those technological advancements developed by some and not others is literacy. To hear Diamond tell it, written language only came into existence because of the surpluses of food created by plant domestication, and one of its first uses was to keep track of the extra food and who was entitled to it.

Early writing served the needs of those political institutions (such as record keeping and royal propaganda), and the users were full-time bureaucrats nourished by stored food surpluses grown by food-producing peasants. Writing was never developed or even adopted by hunter-gatherer societies, because they lacked both the institutional uses of early writing and the social and agricultural mechanisms for generating the food surpluses required to feed scribes.

When it comes to the centralized political structures that these new literate societies could support, Diamond describes a multitude, based primarily on the size of the available population, and the different factors and attributes that can define them. He classifies them, in ascending order, as either bands, tribes, chiefdoms or states, and describes these classifications as stages a single culture could conceivably move through, starting with one of various forms of egalitarian leadership and moving eventually to outright kleptocracies. In his study of these human societies, it’s worth nothing that he does an excellent job of describing the essential challenge of the kleptocrat.

For any ranked society, whether a chiefdom or a state, one thus has to ask: why do the commoners tolerate the transfer of the fruits of their hard labor to kleptocrats? This question, raised by political theorists from Plato to Marx, is raised anew by voters in every modern election. Kleptocracies with little public support run the risk of being overthrown, either by downtrodden commoners or by upstart would-be replacement kleptocrats seeking public support by promising a higher ratio of services rendered to fruits stolen. For example, Hawaiian history was repeatedly punctuated by revolts against repressive chiefs, usually led by younger brothers promising less oppression. This may sound funny to us in the context of old Hawaii, until we reflect on all the misery still being caused by such struggles in the modern world.

Indeed. What I like best about this section is how applicable it is to our modern societies. This is fascinating because Diamond’s book is so much a study of the past. It goes to show how little new there is under the sun. In seeking solutions to this dilemma, Diamond says, kleptocrats throughout history have resorted to a mixture of just four solutions.

1. Disarm the populace, and arm the elite.
2. Make the masses happy by redistributing much of the tribute received, in popular ways.
3. Use the monopoly of force to promote happiness, by maintaining public order and curbing violence.
4. Construct an ideology or religion justifying kleptocracy.

Sound familiar? If not, just listen for the rhetorical themes that will dominate America’s next presidential election cycle and you’ll hear them in spades.

But what does all of this have to do with the Old World being wide and the New World being tall? Well, as Diamond explains, all these developments begin with food production, with the move from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle to one where humans stay in one place to tend domesticated crops, building up much larger surpluses of food than ever before. At the very earliest stages of this process, there is very little difference between the harvesting of wild plants and the intentional planting and harvesting of crops. The idea needed to spread fluidly and easily from place to place in order to take hold, and the same plants that worked in one area had to work in another.

And there was more room for this kind of expansion in Eurasia than there was in the Americas, because so much land in Eurasia extends to the east and to the west along similar lines of latitude. Look at a map. The plants that grew well in what is now Turkey also grew well in Greece, Italy and Spain to the west and in Iran, Afghanistan and China to the east. Side to side, Eurasia spans about 6,000 miles, and the discovery of food production could be easily communicated and successfully adopted by neighboring societies all across that length.

Meanwhile, in the Americas, no such wide stretches of latitude can be found where a similar climate prevails over many thousands of miles. What grows well in Mississippi won’t grow so well in Alberta, even though those two present day places are much closer to each other than many dozens of places in Eurasia that were able to share the same food production techniques. With today’s modern technologies we can surmount these obstacles, but to the aboriginal Americans, just making the transition from hunter-gatherers to farmers, it was just too difficult. The Incas did it in Peru. So did the Mayans in Latin America, and the Mississippian culture in the southeast United States. But none of them could share their discoveries with the others. They didn’t even know these other cultures existed. The geographic and climactic barriers of their north/south continent prevented it.

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Finally, there are a few interesting and seemingly unrelated tidbits that are just too good to pass up. The first is about the power of vested interests.

This book, like probably every other typed document you have ever read, was typed with a QWERTY keyboard, named for the left-most six letters in its upper row. Unbelievable as it may now sound, that keyboard layout was designed in 1873 as a feat of anti-engineering. It employs a whole series of perverse tricks to force typists to type as slowly as possible, such as scattering the commonest letters over all keyboard rows and concentrating them on the left side (where right-handed people have to use their weaker hand). The reason behind all of those seemingly counterproductive features is that the typewriters of 1873 jammed if adjacent keys were struck in quick succession, so that manufacturers had to slow down typists. When improvements in typewriters eliminated the problem of jamming, trials in 1932 with an efficiently laid-out keyboard showed that it would let us double our typing speed and reduce our typing effort by 95 percent. But QWERTY keyboards were solidly entrenched by then. The vested interests of hundreds of millions of QWERTY typists, typing teachers, typewriter and computer salespeople, and manufacturers have crushed all moves towards keyboard efficiency for over 60 years.

The second is about China, and why, although it clearly “developed” more quickly than Europe, it eventually lost its technological lead.

Why didn’t Chinese ships proceed around Africa’s southern cape westward and colonize Europe, before Vasco de Gama’s own three puny ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope eastward and launched Europe’s colonization of East Asia? Why didn’t Chinese ships cross the Pacific to colonize the Americas’ west coast?

The answer, much like the idea that Eurasia being wide gave it the lead over the Americas being tall, is that China is smooth and Europe is jagged. That refers specially to coastlines, but it can be thought of in the context of political unification as well.

China’s frequent unity and Europe’s perpetual disunity both have a long history. The most productive areas of modern China were politically joined for the first time in 221 B.C. and have remained so for most of the time since then. China has had only a single writing system from the beginnings of literacy, a single dominant language for a long time, and substantial cultural unity for two thousand years. In contrast, Europe has never come remotely close to political unification: it was still splintered into 1,000 independent statelets in the 14th century, into 500 statelets in A.D. 1500, got down to a minimum of 25 states in the 1980s, and is now up again to nearly 40 at the moment that I write this sentence. Europe still has 45 languages, each with its own modified alphabet, and even greater cultural diversity. The disagreements that continue today to frustrate even modest attempts at European unification through the European Economic Community (EEC) are symptomatic of Europe’s ingrained commitment to disunity.

And this disunity, initiated by the numerous islands and peninsulas that dominate Europe’s landmass, as culturally distinct societies grew in power and in isolation from one another, is what gave Europe the technological edge over China when all those societies started coming in conflict with one another.

Europe’s geographic balkanization resulted in dozens or hundreds of independent, competing statelets and centers of innovation. If one state did not pursue some particular innovation, another did, forcing neighboring states to do likewise or else be conquered or left economically behind. Europe’s barriers were sufficient to prevent political unification, but insufficient to halt the spread of technology and ideas. There has never been one despot who could turn off the tap for all of Europe, as of China.

And finally, there are these wonderfully juxtaposing quotes, the first by Thomas Carlyle:

“Universal history, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at the bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.”

And the second by Otto von Bismarck:

“The statesman’s task is to hear God’s footsteps marching through history, and to try to catch on to His coattails and He marches past.”

Seems to me Diamond is much more in Bismarck’s camp than Carlyle’s. Great men, if they exist at all, are the result, not the cause, of history.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Good and Evil

“There’s never been a nation without religion, that is, without a conception of good and evil. Every nation has its own conception, and its own particular good and evil. When these conceptions become common to many nations, the nations begin to die and the very distinction between good and evil begins to fade away and disappear. Reason has never been powerful enough to define good and evil or to demarcate good and evil, even approximately, on the contrary, it’s always confused them shamefully and pitifully; science has always provided solutions by brute force.”
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Devils (Shatov)

Monday, May 9, 2011

Jefferson Davis, American by William J. Cooper, Jr.

A couple of really profound insights struck me as I was reading this comprehensive biography of the man who served as President of the Confederate States of America. Here’s what triggered the first:

In Davis’ view the justification for his state’s decision [to secede from the Union] was simple yet profound—“a belief that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights which our Fathers have bequeathed to us.” He asserted that the anchors of liberty for the South and southerners, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, had been pulled up in the cause of antislavery and racial equality to support “an attack upon [southern] social institutions.” The Declaration, Davis proclaimed, had trumpeted the great truth that “no man was born—to use the language of Mr. Jefferson—booted and spurred to ride over the rest of mankind; that men were created equal—meaning the men of the political community.” These “great principles,” in Davis’ interpretation, were now “invoked to maintain the position of equality of the races.” Davis, on the contrary, insisted that the precepts of the Declaration referred solely to “each member of the body politic.” In his reading “they ha[d] no reference to the slave.” To Davis the meaning of the Constitution had been equally corrupted. He noted that the Constitution provided for “that very class of persons as property.” “They were not,” he pointed out, “put upon the footing of equality with white men.”

And the insight? This tug of war between the “all men created equal” language of the Declaration of Independence and the various definitions for “members of the body politic” that have graced the pages of the Constitution, is one of the great transcending narrative arcs of the American story. Slave, woman, homosexual, enemy combatant—we keep having the same argument over and over again, don’t we? Who has rights in our society? It was going on then and it’s still going on today.

Here’s another insight. When it comes to secession, Davis was not wrong. States likely did have the power to secede from the Union, and the war waged against them to bring them back was likely an illegal one. Before the Civil War, a great many more people viewed the United States as what it was originally intended to be—a collection of independent states. Davis was certainly one of them.

“This government was established as the agent of the States in their foreign relations, and as an umpire between the States in their relations one to another…”

he said once in Congress, and he lived very much by the creed these words defined. The title of this biography, American, is uniquely poignant in this regard, since Davis had a clear fealty and affection for the United States of this formulation. Indeed, in many of his public comments about the Union—both before and after the war—his words would stir the patriot hearts of yesterday and today.

In each of his public appearances Davis emphasized the same themes, starting with the single heritage of all Americans. When called for remarks on the Fourth of July aboard the Joseph Whitney, he talked about the “common sense of nationality beat[ing] in every American bosom.” Those in any section who wanted to divide the country, he denounced as “trifling politicians” engaged in a futile endeavor: “They are like the mosquitoes around the ox; they annoy, but they cannot wound, and never kill.” He touched upon the shared Revolutionary legacy of all Americans and “the fraternity of our revolutionary fathers,” when all states aided one another in a common cause. And he assured listeners that should danger arise anew, Mississippi would rush to the side of Maine, as he was sure Maine would do the same for Mississippi. Fanatics who wanted to do away with the constitutional Union, like Senator Seward, who appealed to a “higher law,” he branded as “traitors.” “We became a nation by the constitution,” he declared. “Whatever is national springs from the constitution; and national and constitutional are convertible terms.”

To our modern sensibilities, it seems all the more strange that a man such as this should lead the upstart nation responsible for dissolving this precious Union. But in doing so, it is clear that Davis believed he was acting constitutionally, that secession was a right guaranteed by the document he so revered.

And after the war, as the nation struggled to find a crime to convict Davis of, their perennial lack of action seemed to do little more than prove Davis’ point. Granted, there was a lot of politics going on, partisan divides with demagogues of both stripes jockeying for power. We often forget this about the past—that historical actions were driven by partisan loyalties similar to those that drive us today. Reconstruction after the Civil War was really no different in this regard, as the new party in the White House (Andrew Johnson and the Democrats) sought to reassert their power over the party of Lincoln.

A reappearance of numerous southerners in Congress could of course lead to substantial strengthening of the Democratic party. Moreover, in these new [state] governments whites attempted to exercise close and harsh control over the freed slaves through laws known as Black Codes, which severely restricted the rights and economic opportunities of blacks. Neither of these developments troubled President Johnson. A resurgent Democratic party might well look to him for leadership. And because he shared the general white southern view of race relations, the shackling of freed people caused him no great difficulty. For the political and ideological goals of the Republican party, the party identified with the North and the victorious Union war effort, he had little sympathy.

It was against this political backdrop that the former Democratic Senator from Mississippi was jailed and held for several years with no charges pressed against him. From time to time the United States Government would make motions that it planned to try him for treason, but it never made good on the promise, realizing that the ramifications of losing such a case—and thereby providing a clear court precedent that secession was not treason—would be far worse than letting Davis go free. Eventually, they released him on bail, and he was never again called to appear in court.

Life and Death in the 19th Century

Something else that always strikes me when I read about life in the 19th century is the way the specter of death hovers around people. In Davis’ case, it took his first wife at a young age and four of his children. But to call death commonplace is a mistake, for although it took so much more of the young than it does today, it seems to me that the wounds it inflicted on the living went just as deep—if not deeper. Here’s a description of the after-effects of the death of his first wife, Sarah Knox Taylor:

Her loss had delivered him a massive emotional blow. In his “Autobiography,” written in the last year of his life, he spoke of “liv[ing] in great seclusion” for “many years” after her death. Her memory and his vision of that memory obviously stayed with him for the remaining fifty-four years of his life. A number of years after the tragic event, according to a family story, Davis was rummaging through an old trunk when the sight of one of Knox’s slippers so staggered him that he lost consciousness.

And here upon the loss of his first son, before the boy had turned two:

Mother and father were devastated. Varina [Davis’ second wife] depicted herself as “tortured,” while Jefferson spoke of her “irreparable grief” that caused periods of “painful depressions.” An acquaintance portrayed Jefferson as “overwhelmed with affliction and look[ing] worse than I have seen him in many years.” He had not faced such an emotional trauma since Sarah Knox’s death almost two decades before. Varina recalled an anguished man who “walked half the night and worked fiercely all day.” “A child’s cry in the street well-nigh drove him mad,” she wrote. To the end of his life he never forgot the brief existence of his first-born.

And here upon the loss of another son, five-year-old Joe, who fell from a railing at the White House of the Confederacy:

A servant brought news of the accident. Mother and father rushed home to watch and hold their boy in his last moments of life. An eyewitness recorded Varina’s “flood of tears and wild lamentations.” “Unutterable anguish” marked Jefferson’s face, which “seemed suddenly ready to burst with unspeakable grief, and then transfixed into a stony rigidity.” His wife recalled his crying out, “Not mine, oh, Lord, but thine.” Turning away a courier, he moaned, “I must have this day with my little child.” Exercising “terrible self control,” the father with his burden of “heavy sorrow” paced the floor of his bedroom throughout the night.

And here on the loss of a third son, ten-year-old Billy, of diphtheria:

Mother and father were devastated. Davis called him “the bright boy…the hope and pride of my house.” His “heart bowed down at the loss.” Davis said all his disappointments and sorrows had not increased his ability to bear them.

And finally, late in life, on the death of their fourth and final son, stricken with yellow fever at the age of twenty-one.

His death staggered his parents. Davis cried out in anguish: “The last of my four sons has left me. I am crushed under such heavy and repeated blows. I presume not God to scorn, but the many and humble prayers offered before my boy was taken from me, are hushed in the despair of my bereavement.” Yet even in his torment, Sarah Dorsey spoke of his “bear[ing] it manfully.” He spoke of his son’s letters to him, a toothpick and walking stick the boy had made for him, and a pocketknife that had been a present. “These are put away to be preserved and looked at, as long as I live,” he wrote. A devastated Varina lay helpless in bed, prostrated by a dangerous fever. Sarah Dorsey said she did not leave Varina’s sickbed for six days and nights, except to bathe and change clothes. Mother and father had only their two daughters remaining.

There is something unsufferably sad about these passages to me, something that makes me see Jefferson and Varina as something closer to the simple human creatures that they were. They lived so long ago, dressed in funny clothes, and had strange thoughts, and only look out at us stiffly through those grainy photographs. But they were real, weren’t they? In their struggle to deal with the grief of losing their children, they weren’t just real people. They were people just like you and me.

The War

And finally, there’s the war. Two key thoughts here. First, the political shuffle that started the whole thing should be filed as one of the gravest crimes against humanity the world has ever seen. This book is decidedly from Davis’ point of view, but provides enough detail about Northern strategy to show that Abraham Lincoln was playing the same game. Loud, public protestations about never wanting to begin the war, but being “forced” into it by the political machinations of the other side. And all the while, never a thought given to the 600,000 Americans who would die as a result of those first few shots fired in Charleston Harbor. They didn’t know it would cost so many, of course—not then. But as the casualties started mounting up, and the charade of peace negotiations flared up from time to time between Richmond and Washington, we would again hear the same rhetoric—we have a moral duty to stop the blood shedding—and again see the same result—the shots continuing to get fired.

Davis, in all of these situations, was both self-deluded and adamant about his own innocence.

He agreed with his guests that he could not leave untried any approach that might result in peace. He told them he wanted peace and deplored bloodshed as much as they did, but claimed that “not one drop of the blood shed in this war is on my hands.” “I can look up to my God and say this,” he went on, because he had striven for a dozen years to prevent war, but he had failed.

The war came, he asserted, and “Now it must go on till that last man of this generation falls in his tracks, and his children seize his musket and fight our battle, unless you acknowledge our right to self government.” Insisting that Confederates were not battling for slavery, Davis claimed that slavery had never been the key issue. In his words, “it was only a means of bringing other conflicting elements to an earlier culmination. It fired the musket which was already capped and loaded.” “We are fighting for Independence,” he proclaimed, “and that, or extermination, we will have.”

This passage brings up the great theme of what the war was really all about—States’ Rights or slavery—and that’s not a subject I intend to wade deeply into. In the end, I think, it depends on who you ask. Ultimately, the war was about both, and which was the cause and which was the effect will probably be debated for generations to come. But here I’m more interested in pointing out that the two men who had it within the power to end that war before too many men had lost their lives, both claimed that they were powerless to stop it. They were either liars to history or liars to themselves or both. But now it no longer matters. For the winner is revered as the greatest President of all time, and the loser, as shown above, was never convicted of any crime.

But put all that aside for a moment, because here’s my second point about the war—the Confederates never had a chance to win. This has always been my impression. I used to think the war only lasted as long as it did because of how corrupt, disorganized and incompetent the Union Army and its generals initially were. But this book has helped me see that the Confederates were just as bad—if not worse. Here’s a passage that describes how Davis comparatively saw Robert E. Lee and Joseph E. Johnston, at the time that Davis relieved Johnston of his command and turned the defense of Atlanta over the John Bell Hood.

In relieving Johnston, Davis compared his campaign to Lee’s. Although both generals had retreated before a superior foe, the president viewed their circumstances and performances as quite different. Lee had battled all the way and with Early had even tried a daring, albeit unsuccessful, move to regain the initiative. At Petersburg, he had Grant as much at bay as Grant had him. With a bloodied and weary army, Grant could neither overpower nor dislodge the Confederate defenders. Lee knew he could hold on for a considerable time. Moreover, throughout the weeks from the Wilderness to Petersburg he had kept Davis thoroughly informed and had promptly posted the president on his intentions and actions.

In contrast, Johnston, in the same amount of time, had fallen back over twice as great a distance and through country more advantageous for defense. He never seriously tried to grasp the initiative, and he constantly cried for help from outside his army. He never slowed down or weakened Sherman, who reached Atlanta relatively more powerful than Grant at Petersburg. According to a compatriot, Davis worried that Johnston thought “his army is not for the defense of the country, but that he must at all hazards protect the army.” Perhaps most important, Johnston never confided in Davis. He never gave the president any reason to have confidence in him. Of course, that would have been difficult because he had so little in himself.

Johnston in this book is a real liability to the Confederacy, and he’s not the only one. If you thought the North was plagued with in-fighting among political generals, you need to read some more about Braxton Bragg and his crew of lieutenant commanders in the Army of Tennessee. In a famous episode, all of Bragg’s lieutenants wrote to President Davis after Bragg sacked one of their number, expressing their lack of confidence in Bragg and their desire for him to be replaced. Davis, whose judgment appeared clouded by the idea that their nation’s circumstances would “lift men above all personal consideration and devote them wholly to their country’s cause,” decided to keep Bragg in charge. Soon after this decision, the Army of Tennessee would be utterly routed by Ulysses Grant at Chattanooga and Missionary Ridge.

Cooper goes into a good amount of detail about the fractiousness of the situation and Davis’ ill-informed reaction to it, but for me one message rings clear. A good deal of Grant’s success and rise to power came because of incompetence and in-fighting on the Confederate side—especially in the West.

Cooper points out in his preface that previous historians have been unkind to Davis. He is “generally portrayed as an ideologue with poor political skills and as a second-rate leader with a bureaucratic mind-set, who failed spectacularly in his star role, especially when compared to Abraham Lincoln.” Indeed, one such historian, David M. Potter, is mentioned by Cooper as having suggested that if Lincoln and Davis had exchanged positions, the Confederacy might have prevailed.

This being the first serious treatment I’ve read of Jefferson Davis, it’s probably appropriate for me to reserve my judgment on the merits of his skills. Each biographer, I know, has his own biases, and will ultimately present his subject in the light that displays them best. But to suggest that any man—even the secular god that we have created out of Abraham Lincoln—could have led the Confederacy to victory seems like the height of folly to me. Forget about Lincoln, if we’re horse trading in the fantasy Civil War league, I’d let the North keep Lincoln and try to draw a second Lee.

But, of course, there was no second Lee.

By 1864 he had become a national hero, the selfless and valiant patriot. Lee was without question his nation’s most successful soldier, a general who had so often won stirring victories against tremendous odds. To many beleaguered southerners Lee was the only person who could overcome the seemingly insuperable difficulties pressing upon the Confederacy. As one official confided to his diary, “Nearly all desire to see Lee at the head of affairs.”

And the fact that there was no second Lee, and that the war could not be won with only one, it conjures up an odd thought in my head. How long would the war have lasted if Lee had decided not to fight? How many fewer men would have died? Given how perceptive and intelligent Lee was, was there ever a point when he considered for a moment his own affect on those around him, and the chance that it may simply be prolonging the inevitable, at the cost of thousands of lives? And couldn’t that realization have been reached before Appomattox.

For apart from the incompetence of other generals, ultimately the war was lost because the South lacked the number of personnel they needed to prosecute it successfully. As this book plainly portrayed, late in 1864, after Hood’s abysmal performance in Tennessee, with people and soldiers clamoring for his replacement, Davis was forced to leave him in command. There simply wasn’t anyone capable of replacing him.

Another Novel I’ll Never Write

It’s not unusual when reading one of these historical biographies for me to stumble across a minor episode that strikes me with the uniqueness of its human story, filling me momentarily with the desire to turn it into my next great novel. First it was Teddy Roosevelt and his son Kermit and the time they spent together on the River of Doubt. Then it was John and John Quincy Adams crossing the Atlantic for the first time on the Boston. Now, its Sarah Ellis Dorsey and the life she led and the lives she nurtured at Beauvoir.

January 1877 found Jefferson Davis once again at Beauvoir, the Gulf front home of Sarah Dorsey. Idolizing Davis as the Confederate president, and believing him the great man of the age, she invited him to make her home his home. Tired of wandering, with no other attractive options, and ready to start on his memoirs, he accepted her invitation. He had already decided to make the Mississippi coast at least his temporary abode when Sarah Dorsey’s offer provided him a most suitable situation. He did not have to buy anything, and he could easily move.

Forty-eight years old in 1877, Sarah Ellis Dorsey had been born in Natchez into a wealthy plantation family with holdings in Mississippi and Louisiana. Her family had known the Davises, and she was a contemporary of Varina’s. An unusually gifted young woman, she received a superior education in Natchez and Philadelphia. She married in 1853, and with her Maryland-born husband Samuel Dorsey settled on a Dorsey-owned cotton plantation in northeast Louisiana. A staunch Confederate during the war, she never stopped venerating the cause and its noble leaders, particularly Jefferson Davis. Sarah became an author of some note, writing both fiction and nonfiction. In 1873 the Dorseys bought and moved to Beauvoir, where Samuel died two years later. As it had for most southern plantation magnates, the war had greatly diminished the Dorseys’ wealth and property. Yet a sizeable fortune remained.

Beauvoir was a raised cottage, but its considerable size, impressive flight of steps, Greek Revival details, and extensive grounds gave it the air of a “mansion…of vernal beauty.” Built in the early 1850s to take advantage of sea breezes, the house was supported on nine-foot brick pillars above an unfinished basement. Its front broad steps rose to a verandah that extended across the front and halfway around each side. The interior, with a wide central hall and floor-length windows, was also designed to take advantage of the natural ventilation. All eight rooms of the residential story opened onto the front or rear galleries.
Architectural refinements helped make Beauvoir impressive. The exterior featured square wooden columns aligned above the basement pillars. The balustrade that flanked the steps continued along the base of these pillars, which had Doric capitals topped by a broad but simple frieze. There were also symmetrically placed chimneys as well as Doric pilasters by the doorway and three-part wooden shutters at the windows. In the interior, the frescoed walls and ceilings of the hall and parlors were notable. Their rococo themes of shells, garlands, and even mythological figures were balanced by the elaborate marble mantelpieces of the parlors. Carved door casings added more impressive detail.

The grounds magnified the distinction of Beauvoir, though it had never been a working plantation. Two cottages on either side of the mansion featured floor-length windows, smaller-scaled versions of the galleries of the main house, and pagoda-like roofs. The one on the east was prepared for Davis; it contained a bedroom and a study. The usual kitchen, stable, storerooms, and servants’ quarters stood in the rear. Kitchen and flower gardens were nearby, and orange trees and vineyards covered many of the estate’s acres. Running just a half-mile behind the estate, and with a flag stop, the Louisville & Nashville Railroad made both New Orleans and Mobile easily accessible.
 Davis’ patroness wanted to give him more than room and board. She hoped that Beauvoir would become his haven, where he would be safe from the bruises inflicted by the larger world. She would become his protectress, providing sanctuary and worshipful care. Upon his arrival, she reported him in poor emotional shape. “So he is in a very troubled condition of mind…” she wrote, “troubled about his affairs & anxious about his wife’s health, which is not much improved.” She said she had difficulty getting him involved in his memoirs.

In time he did become stronger, both physical and emotional pain subsiding. With Sarah Dorsey and various guests, Beauvoir could be a lively place. She entertained many people who came to pay their respects to her hero. She, he, and at times others engaged in what one participant called “much interesting talk” on various topics, including women’s suffrage, which she supported but Davis opposed. And Sarah Dorsey could still put on a lavish dinner. Her Christmas table in 1877 included oysters, raw, fried, and in soup, turkey, mutton, beef, crabs, salmon, sweet and Irish potatoes, vegetables, cranberry sauce, and jellies. Sherry and superb claret helped it all go down. Then came the main course: a roasted peacock with feathers in full display, as if it were alive. At the close of a Christmas reception, she and Davis led off in the Virginia reel.

While Davis was getting used to Beauvoir, Varina remained in London. Even in the summer of 1877, illness still kept her from rejoining her husband. Her extended absence stirred thoughts of home: “I so often long for that old shackle-down house on Court Street where I had all my children in my own home,” she confided to Jefferson. Finally, in October, she sailed from Liverpool to New York, where Burton Harrison met her and sent her on her way to Memphis and her daughter.

Varina did not go to Beauvoir. While in England she learned from newspaper accounts that her husband had taken up residence there with Sarah Dorsey, whom she had known in Natchez and as a schoolgirl in Philadelphia. Varina did not welcome the regime at Beauvoir. She told Jefferson that though she was grateful for Sarah Dorsey’s kindness to him, she never wanted to see the place. “Nothing on earth would pain me like living in that kind of community in her house or that of another,” she asserted. Because she could say nothing positive about his benefactress, she wrote Jefferson, she would say nothing. Polly concurred, writing her mother that she did not like Sarah Dorsey. Moreover, she had given her father her opinion and said her mother should never go there. In Memphis, Varina stood her ground; she even moved into a boardinghouse when her daughter had houseguests for an extended period.

In April 1878 Jefferson urged his wife to meet him in New Orleans. Varina agreed, but made it clear she did not want Sarah Dorsey at their reunion. “I cannot see her and do not desire ever to do so again, besides I do not wish to be uncivil and embarrass you.” We just have to disagree, she concluded. “I will bear my separation from you as I have the last six months—as best I can—and hope for better times the history being once over.”

Varina’s boycott did not end easily, but ultimately she realized her husband had nowhere else he could work on his book, and she also had no place to go. In May she appeared at Beauvoir, where Sarah Dorsey had arranged a party in her honor, though uncertain that Varina would appear. Harmony seemingly reigned, but Varina’s performance dramatized the tension in the household. Just before the reception she ran into the nearby woods. Sarah Dorsey followed her and somehow sufficiently allayed her distress so that she returned for the gathering, where she sparkled. A truce was established between the two women that over time would lead to genuinely warm relations. Varina replaced her former nemesis as Jefferson’s helpmate on his book. Then, in the fall of 1878, when Varina was seriously ill, Sarah Dorsey nursed her with unstinting care and kindness.

That’s it. That’s the story I want to write, the story summarized in this short segment—three pages out of more than the seven hundred describing Davis’ life. The woman ahead of her time in intellect and vision, her seaside retreat for restoring mind and body, the fallen hero who fought bravely for the wrong cause, the timeless gatherings of forgotten intelligentsia, the partner separated from her cherished one because of politics and jealousy, the fear and regret of a life only partially lived. In this triangle and their tangles it seems there are the seeds of every human aspiration—both those worth celebrating and those not.

Source of images

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Chapter Ten


Speculative Fiction
Approximately 33,000 words
Copyright © Eric Lanke, 1990. All rights reserved.

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King Gregorovich Farchrist II did not rule his kingdom alone. There has never been a successful King who has. They are leaders, and like most leaders, they are usually figureheads for an organization of people trained to make their leader seem independent and absolute. Gregorovich II was no different. He had a group of advisors whose job it was to protect his image. None of them liked the King’s plan to send an armed party to Dragon’s Peak, but one of them, the King’s most trusted man, argued against the decision for weeks. The advisor’s name was Illzeezad Dantrius, and the day the party left for Dalanmire’s lair, Dantrius left his position behind and fled from the castle. He left no word of his destination or reason for his departure. Gregorovich II never saw his chief advisor again.

+ + +

Shortwhiskers, Roundtower, and Brisbane stood at the entrance of the shrine and watched Roystnof work his magic on the stone statue they had discovered earlier. Shortwhiskers had a nasty bump on his forehead from the swat the demon had given him, but some of his healing salve had been gently rubbed on it and some of the swelling had already gone down. Roundtower had hurt his knee in the fall he had taken when the demon dropped him, but like Shortwhiskers’ injury, it was not serious and would only ache for a few days.

Brisbane stood with his back straight in his leather jerkin and the sword called Angelika strapped to his side in her ornately-carved scabbard. Roundtower had told him as much as he knew about the sword, but most of it was still a mystery to Brisbane.

Roundtower had found the sword on one of his first adventures with Shortwhiskers and Roystnof. They had been exploring some uncharted lands in the east and they had uncovered a burial tomb of an ancient warrior-king. Angelika had been buried with the corpse, and as soon as Roundtower had picked her up, the voice Brisbane had heard seated herself in Roundtower’s mind.

She had told him what she was, a holy sword created centuries ago to help pious knights vanquish the forces of evil. She had had many owners, and each time she exchanged hands, it had been to someone with more potential for conquering evil than the last. Just as she had passed from the warrior-king to Roundtower, she had now passed from Roundtower to Brisbane.

Her communication with her wielder was telepathic in nature and usually only occurred when there was evil near to be vanquished. The consciousness present in the sword was not a human one, Roundtower had told him. She was not quite alive, but neither was she a cold blade of simple steel.

Brisbane was not sure what he should make of any of this. Angelika was a fine weapon and she was obviously magical. He had been more amazed at his skill with the blade than anyone else had been. It had almost been as if he had been using Angelika for years—he was that sure and confident about what he could do with her. It scared him somewhat when he thought about it. Something was present in the sword, something living but it was not warm. Roundtower believed the presence came from the blessing of Grecolus himself, but Brisbane was not so sure.

The sword had not spoken to Brisbane since the defeat of the demon and Brisbane found that he liked it that way. There was something too intimate about the connection. It was almost as if Angelika was more in control than Brisbane was. He might be better off without her, but he already knew he would not let her go. He would keep her until she found someone with more potential, and then she would leave him like she left Roundtower.

But now Brisbane was more concerned about the man Roystnof was about to transform back into flesh. Shortwhiskers was still set against the idea and, if anything, he had been even more gruff about it than he had been the last time. Brisbane suspected that his getting knocked out of two battles in a row might have had something to do with his attitude, but he could not figure out why the dwarf chose the stone man to pour his frustrations upon. Roundtower was still all for the transformation, but now Brisbane was having his own reservations. He was no longer sure it was such a good idea to bring the man out of his sensory coma after such a long time. Roundtower had been livid when his senses had come flooding back in on him, a condition that had been thankfully temporary. But Roundtower had only been alone for two weeks. If this man had been imprisoned as stone for as long as perhaps decades as Roystnof said, Brisbane wondered if his period of lividness would ever end. Who knew what sort of world the man had created for himself for all those years, and who knew what would happen when that world came tumbling down?

But the spell was being cast. There was nothing to do now but watch. Roystnof mixed the earth with his blood and, just as he had done with Roundtower, he blew the mixture into the statue’s face. Brisbane and his two companions took a few anticipatory steps forward as the liquid soaked into the pores of the stone and the dirt flaked off onto the ground.

The color slowly began to return to the figure. The long tunic turned a dirty blue and his trousers took on the cracks of mistreated leather. His hair came in jet black and only served to accentuate the paleness of his skin. It was almost as if Roystnof’s spell had worked on the man’s clothing alone, leaving his flesh virtually the same gray-white color his stone had been.

Roystnof backed away from the figure and joined his companions. Brisbane was fully prepared for an agonizing scream when the spell worked itself to its conclusion.

There was, however, no deafening screech from the man as his senses hammered their way back into his deserted mind. The man made no sound at all at first. He stood there like the statue he had been for an unknown number of years and then slowly raised his head and looked off into the sky. He stood like that for perhaps ten seconds as Brisbane and his friends stood quietly by, waiting to see what the man would do. Eventually he lowered his eyes to the group of people in front of him and Brisbane noticed their icy blue coloration for the first time. Brisbane’s eyes locked with the freshly restored orbs of the man and he saw the stranger whisper something. He spoke too quietly for Brisbane to hear the sounds, but his lip movements were unmistakable.

The man said, “Bris-bane.”

Roystnof took a step forward with open palms outstretched. “Hello,” he said to the main. “Do you realize what has happened to you?”

The man looked Roystnof up and down. “Who are you?” His voice was cool and measured.

“My name is Roystnof.”

“Unusual name,” the man said. “Is it your first or your last?”

Roystnof opened his mouth to answer but was cut short when Shortwhiskers suddenly stepped forward and spoke aloud.

“Don’t answer him, Roystnof. He doesn’t deserve any of the help you are trying to give him.” The dwarf then addressed the man who had been stone. “I told him not to restore you, Dantrius. You couldn’t poison anyone with your presence petrified here in this garden. If I had been sure it was you, I would have taken a war hammer and pounded your statue into gravel.”

The man named Dantrius turned his icy blue eyes upon the dwarf. “Why, Mister Ambassador,” he said in a tone that was a mockery of cordial, “it is good to see you again. But whatever happened to that long beard of yours?” He began to chuckle.

Roystnof turned to the dwarf. “Nog, what is going on? Who is this man?”

Both Roundtower and Brisbane gathered close. Brisbane was as much in the dark about what was going on as anyone else. He did not like the way this Dantrius had come out of his coma. It mocked the suffering Roundtower had undergone. He was too calm and prepared, this Dantrius, almost as if he had known exactly when and how he was going to be revived. Brisbane also did not like the way Dantrius had seemed to recognize him.

Shortwhiskers spoke as if Dantrius was not there. “In the years that I served as an ambassador for my clan, Illzeezad Dantrius was the chief advisor on the court of Gregorovich the Second. He was a major opponent to the King’s decision to send an armed party to Dragon’s Peak and, after the Knights had set out, he vanished from the kingdom and was never seen again. How he got himself here, I have no idea.”

“I see,” Brisbane said. “That explains how he recognized you and why he called you ‘Mister Ambassador.’ But how does he know me?”

“What do you mean?” Shortwhiskers asked.

“After he came out of it,” Brisbane said, “he looked right at me and said my name. I couldn’t hear him but I could read his lips. He said ‘Brisbane.’”

Shortwhiskers looked back at Dantrius.

The man smiled innocently back at the dwarf.

Shortwhiskers turned back to Brisbane and shrugged his shoulders. “Must be your grandfather, Gil. You do bear a striking resemblance to the man. He and Dantrius never got along very well, as I recall.”

Roystnof stepped up to Dantrius. “Your time has passed, Dantrius. You have spent some time as a statue in the garden lair of a basilisk. The grandson of your King now sits on the throne, and the man you recognize as Brisbane is that man’s grandson as well.”

“I know,” Dantrius said.

“You know?” Roystnof was puzzled.

“I am aware of what has happened to me. The basilisk that turned me to stone was not the first one I encountered. I killed the first one.”

Roundtower stepped forward. “You killed one?”

Dantrius’ eyebrows flew up. “And who might you be?”

Roundtower stood proud. “My name is Ignatius Roundtower.”

“Well, yes then, Ignatius Roundtower, I did kill one.”

Brisbane still did not like the man’s tone. He spoke to Roundtower like he was some kind of child. Dantrius claimed to have killed a basilisk, a feat that obviously impressed Roundtower, and yet he had no visible weaponry and treated the deed with the off-handedness of swatting a fly. Brisbane was quickly beginning to dislike the man.

“How did you accomplish it?” Brisbane asked.

Dantrius turned his gaze upon Brisbane. “Accomplish what, young Gildegarde?”

“You bear no weapons. How did you kill the basilisk? With your bare hands?”

Dantrius laughed. “No, no. I am afraid I am much too physically weak an individual for such heroics. Like your friend Roystnof here, I too am trained in the magical arts.”

“A wizard!” Roundtower thundered. “You mean to tell us King Gregorovich the Second had a wizard for his chief advisor? I don’t believe it.”

“Fortunately,” Dantrius reassured the warrior, “the King never suspected I had such talents. You’re right of course. Had he known, I doubt he would’ve allowed me so far into his confidence.”

Brisbane looked at Shortwhiskers and wondered how much the dwarf knew about these things. He was still being unusually close-mouthed about the whole affair. Even now, he seemed to be brooding about something. Brisbane would make it a point to question the dwarf later.

“What spell did you use?” Roystnof asked, cutting Roundtower off before he could exclaim anything else.

“A simple one, really,” Dantrius said. “I call it gaze reflection. I turned the basilisk’s gaze back upon itself and caused it to turn to stone instead of me. Simple.”

Roystnof nodded, obviously impressed. “Simple.”

Roundtower jumped back in as Roystnof paused. “How did you get here? What were you doing at this shrine?” His tone was very demanding.

“Gentleman,” Dantrius said, putting up placating hands. “I am sorry, but I feel very fatigued. Perhaps you have struck a camp somewhere nearby?”

The silence that followed was complete.

“Yes,” Roystnof said finally. “We have a campsite just outside this garden. Perhaps it would be best if we all got some rest before we continued this discussion. If you will come with me, Dantrius, I will take you there.”

Dantrius grinned. “Please. Call me Illzeezad.”

Roystnof then led the small group out of the clearing and toward the oasis wall. Dantrius walked with him, and the two wizards carried on a very hushed conversation as they made their way through the trees. Roundtower walked a few paces behind them, his eyes fixed on Dantrius’ back. Brisbane and Shortwhiskers brought up the rear.

“Nog,” Brisbane said. “What is going on? Who is this Dantrius? What do you know that you’re not telling?”

Shortwhiskers was silent for perhaps a minute before he answered. “Not now, Gil. I will tell you all I know and fear, I promise you that. But not now. Let’s just get out of this place.”

Brisbane could not argue with that. He knew Shortwhiskers would keep his promise and, right now, getting out of the garden did seem more important. The feeling that had visited Brisbane twice before had returned, the feeling that they would inevitably stumble across the basilisk creature. This time, however, he was not to be disappointed.

They were almost to the wall. Brisbane could see parts of it through the foliage up ahead. The path they were following curved away from a large clump of bushes and just as Brisbane made the turn, the bushes rustled and out of the corner of his eye he saw a sleek brown shape slowly move out onto the path.

A strange, almost alien compulsion came over Brisbane to turn and look the creature full in the face. It was almost painful for him to resist it. Without thinking about, he drew Angelika from her scabbard.

Immediately, the sword’s soft and reassuring voice filled his head.

—The beast will not harm you if you do not attack it and do not look at it. Stay calm, brave Brisbane.—

Shortwhiskers must have heard the creature behind them as well, for he began to turn around next to Brisbane.

“No!” Brisbane shouted as he suddenly tackled the dwarf, first clamping one of his hands across Shortwhiskers’ eyes and then knocking him off the path. They tumbled together into the brush. They rolled and got turned around and when they came to a stop, Brisbane instinctively brought his head up. He found himself looking directly at the basilisk.

It was large, much larger than Brisbane would have thought a lizard could be. Its eight legs were like small tree trunks and its body was like a barrel of ale. It was covered in brown scales and had beady yellow eyes.

But the monster was not looking at Brisbane. It was looking down the path at the figure of Dantrius. Dantrius was just standing there, a gaunt pale man with sunken cheeks, one hand extended before him with the palm flat to the basilisk. He was moving that hand slowly in a circle and he was softly chanting. The words were unfamiliar to Brisbane and were like none he had ever heard Roystnof use. As Brisbane studied Dantrius, he realized that his cheeks were not just naturally sunken. The erosion that had marred his stone face was now present in his fleshy one. It was as if the top layer of his skin had been melted and washed roughly off his face.

Brisbane looked back at the basilisk and saw the unbelievable happen. The brown scales were quickly turning stone gray and the movement of the lizard’s tongue and tail were becoming more and more jerky, until they stopped altogether. Before Brisbane could realize what was happening, the basilisk had become a solid chunk of stone, molded exactly in its own image.

“Gil, get off me.”

The voice belonged to Shortwhiskers and it made Brisbane jump. He quickly got to his feet and picked up Angelika, which he had been forced to drop when he had tackled the dwarf. The party quickly regrouped around the stone basilisk.

“I take it that was gaze reflection,” Roystnof said.

“Yes,” Dantrius said. “Have you not seen it before?”

Roystnof cleared his throat. “It is a different kind of magic than what I am used to. I think we will be able to teach each other quite a bit, Illzeezad.”

“I quite agree,” Dantrius said. “Now, come. Let us make for the camp.”

With that Dantrius spun on his heel and continued down the path, Roystnof falling into step right behind him. The three others stood around the stone basilisk, Brisbane watching Roystnof follow Dantrius like, he thought, some kind of servant.

“I don’t like that man at all,” Brisbane said.

Roundtower spat upon the basilisk. “He did destroy this foul thing for us. We owe him something for that, don’t we?”

“Do the chickens owe the farmer anything for keeping the weasel away?”

Roundtower and Brisbane looked at Shortwhiskers.

“What do you mean, Nog?” Brisbane asked.

“The farmer keeps his chickens safe from the weasel so he can steal their eggs and eventually eat them himself. He is nothing but a bigger and more intelligent weasel.”

Not waiting for additional comments, Shortwhiskers stomped off in the direction the two wizards had gone.

Brisbane looked at Roundtower. “Ignatius, what is going on here?”

Roundtower shook his head. “I don’t know, Gil. But I hope things are clearer tomorrow.”

The two men left the stone basilisk behind them and trotted after Shortwhiskers.