Monday, 1 November 2010

Colonel Kirkby and the Peacock Room

 Simon has been imprisoned. Rosamund goes to see Colonel Kirkby of Kirkby Hall, her local magistrate.  Rumour has it that Kirkby is a secret Catholic, which in those times was extremely dangerous. In the following passage, Kathleen evokes that sense of extreme danger, as well as giving us a vivid picture of the hall. The pictures in the link show the accuracy of her historical research: she has been there, so she takes us!  Kathleen talks about her research in an interview with Raymond Thompson, already mentioned in my earlier post Deja Vue

She had never seen a room quite like it before. Apart from one carved and cushioned armchair, it certainly did not suggest a private study. It was very large, nearly the whole length of the west wing. There was no ceiling; the heavy black timbers of the roof, supported by a huge king-post, made it look like a barn or a church. The likeness to a church was increased by the writing painted on the wall plaster in red and black letters: the Ten Commandments, the Lord's Prayer, the Creed and quotations from the English Bible, all good Protestant texts. The room might have been a Puritan chapel for a family too strict to approve of the parish church.
But the paintings that blazed out under the texts were not Puritan at all. Pairs of peacocks in all the glory of their spread tails faced each other on either side of trees with their summer foliage. Most visitors would have seen the peacocks as fitting images of Kirkby pride and ambition. Rosamund however, had learned to read pictures for their messages as well as enjoying their colours and shapes. Peacock flesh, according to legend, never decayed. Peacock plumage, renewed every year, was a symbol of resurrection. Pairs of peacocks with a tree between them: Christ and the Virgin, the new Adam and Eve under the Tree of Life in a restored Eden. If you wanted to hide a Catholic chapel, one way of doing so was to pretend that it was a Protestant chapel.
She thought over what she had heard about Colonel Kirkby; his appalling temper, his ruthless harrying of local Baptists and Quakers, the gout that always tortured him. If Colonel Kirkby really were a Catholic, as devoted to his church as his cousin Lucia, yet driven by his energy and ambition to betray it with his lips and outward actions, the results could be expected. They were self-hatred battening on his body; persecuting heretics to soothe his conscience or taste a hidden revenge; practising his true religion furtively, yet flaunting it on his walls, daring ruin and a hideous death if the wrong person read his riddle. Perhaps he even had a dark hope that one day someone would denounce him, so he might die for his faith at last. No wonder he lived in torment.

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