by Janet Boyd
For our Beasties Weird and Wonderful zine I decided not to research my sf/fantasy books but to introduce you to some of the Beasts of Veryan.
Particia Veryan is an excellent writer, her characters, human and non-human, are finely drawn examples of how a good writer can introduce their readers to many a new friend. She has over twenty books published, one is set in England during WWII and concerns an American Bomber Squadron. It is a marvelous tale of love, mystery, outstanding war action and fascinating background details of the UK at war. Her other books are set in either the Georgian or Regency periods and these too are absorbing mixtures of history, adventure, love, humour and mystery. Above all Patricia Veryan is a marvelous story teller, her research is so well absorbed that she imparts it effortlessly, leaving her readers free to be swept along with her tales.
As I said earlier, I count many of her characters among my favourites (she does a very good baddie as well, her baddies have unpleasant personalities, unpleasant habits and very unpleasant methods of trying to extract revenge on our heroes and heroines), among my favourite characters are some of her "beasts". For instance, there is Horatio, the watch goose, Mrs McCrumb, the one-eyed duck, Satan the cat who richly deserved his name, Mr Fox, the paper-eating donkey, Homer a dog who knows how to upset a Noble lady, horses such as quest who likes to taste his riders, Santana the great black stallion - it was woe to any stranger who attempted to ride him - and many other great characters.
Not only are these beasts well worth meeting but they always give us important information. Either their actions are vital to the plot or their interactions with "their" humans are such that we are given considerable insight into these peoples characters, which helps us understand both them and their stories. I have selected some examples which I hope will let you see what I find so enjoyable about these Beast of Veryan.
This first example shows how Quest, yes the horse that likes to taste his riders, helps to introduce Our Hero to another very important person for the plot and to a dog, who when you lean his name, you will agree had to be included in these pages.
"Good mor--" a mild voice began from somewhere close, the effect on Quest was, to say the least, explosive. The stallion shot straight into the air, legs rigid beneath him, back arched, ears flat, his scream of terror blasting the air. Caught totally by surprise, for one of the few times in his life the Earl was thrown. He landed cruelly hard. The brilliant sky and green of leaves and grass became a vague blur ...
"Are you better now, young man?"
... Something cold and wet and restoring touched his brow. He looked up into an arresting face, crowned by thick greying hair, neatly tied back, and possessing a hooked nose, busy eyebrows, deepset eyes of a faded blue beneath a high forehead, a long chin and a wide mouth, just now curving to a rather anxious smile.
... glancing to the side, the Earl was astounded to see Quest standing meekly, reins secured to a branch. The stallion's head swung toward him. The eyes, usually so bright and fierce, scanned him with, he would have sworn, a sheepish air. He looked in mute incredulity from the muscular might of the big horse to the fraility of the shabby gentleman beside him.
"He's splendid," the stranger admired. "But I could not have managed him. My dog helped me, you see. And my name is Muffin."
Aynsworth (the earl) followed the indicatory nod to discover a large, nondescript dog that laid nearby, apparently dead. "Oh-gad! Did Quest savage him? I am most sorry if -"
A thin white hand closed upon his arm as he started up in dismay. "You mistake it, my lord. Ah, you wonder how I know who you are. Your ring bears the Aynsworth crest. Which is also prominently displayed above the main doors of the manor, yonder. And Beast is not dead. Unlike most people, he knows how to rest."
Aynsworth continued to view the dog uneasily. It certainly looked dead. He'd never seen an animal sprawl with such total ungainliness. Perceiving his scepticism, Mr Muffin clapped his hands. "Beast! Up, old lad! Sit up, boy! Show the Earl what you can do! Speak! Ah-there, you see, sir?"
He surveyed his pet with pride, although the dog had done nothing more than open one eye, give a half-hearted flop of his scrawny tail, and went back to sleep.
Sometime later Aynsworth leaves, having invited Mr Muffin to come to the Manor when he wishes ...
Mr Muffin watched that thundering gallop until the great grey disappeared into the trees below them. Then he seated himself upon a convenient tree stump close to the inaminate form of the dog, and began to fill a very old and dirty pipe. "What d'ye make of tha, my friend? He asked thoughtfully.
"Correct," nodded his owner. "Not what one would expect from his reputation." He drew on his pipe, noting absently the blue sheen on the feathers of a blackbird as it hopped among the brightening leaves of an elm. "He seemed, in fact, quite a decent sort."
Beast quivered slightly.
"Ah, you agree! Still ... if what the child says is true, that poor girl is in for a hellish life with him. There is talk he murdered his brother, you know, yet did you mark his eyes when he spoke of him. And if that rumour is false, perhaps ...." He frowned, and for a while pondered in silence. At length he went over to the easel and began to pack up his things, having done which, he exhorted his canine companion to stand up, sit up, or at least, wake up.
Impervious, Beast continued for quite some time to give an excellent imitation of a dead dog.
As you can see, between them Quest and Beast help us to learn a lot about Aynsworth and hints that Muffin knows a great deal more than you would expect an elderly, shabby stranger to know about the Earl and his family, living and dead, are given to us in Muffin's one sided conversation with Beast, and who could resist Beast? Anybody with such an art of total relaxation, whether human or animal, has to be admired! And with that name he had to be included. (Hmmm, `tis obvious from the information we are given that Mr Muffin is nothing other than a wizard. I mean, with his elderly and shabby look AND with the pipe, he is a dead ringer for Gandalf, the archetypical wizard these days. And as for Beast, he is obviously the wizard's familiar - of course Beast "can't be resisted"! Presumably the rumours that Muffin aludes to are that the Earl is a werewolf, a vampyre or some such "evil" creature and the girl is to be his next "snack". - Ed.).
In this second example I offer you Jasper, the bad tempered canary. And if you find the thought of a bad tempered canary who breaks out of his cage at every opportunity amusing, just read the following lines to see how such a "beast" can have a considerable impact on a plot (I can guess - my dad used to breed canaries, and not the polite ones that sit in cages and sing, they can be positively feral given a chance! - Ed.).
From the instant Quentin (our hero) entered the bedchamber, Jasper had fixed him with a baleful eye, and when the tall man had crossed to open the cage, the canary went into his war dance, shouting his rage and scattering debris in all directions. Quesntin narrowed his eyes against the dust, told the bird in soft but explicit terms exactly what was his probably ancestry (likely, knowing canaries - Ed.) and reached into the cage to grasp the swinging perch as Jasper fluttered about, screeching.
With a deft twist Quetin disconnected the bar from the swing. Whether this apparent destruction of property he considered his own offended Jasper, or whether he was terrified would be hard to tell. Whatever his motivation, the canary took drastic measures. With a shrill squawk he alighted on Quentin's withdrawing hand and gave it a good peck.
The beak of a healthy bird is more powerful than the uninitiated might think. With a startled oath Quentin pulled his hand back and Jasper, triumphant, swooped out also and began to zoom giddily about the room.
Quentin retrieves the secret hidden in Jasper's perch and cautiously leaves the bedchamber, watching out for the canary ... Turning about, he halted abruptly, all thoughts of the need to confine Jasper driven from his mind.
How it could all have happened without his hearing, he could only set at the canary's door, for all the screeching must have drowned the inevitable sounds.
Duncan Tiele lay sprawled either dead or unconscious in front of the sofa. Across the room, Roland Otton stood behind Penelope (our heroine), one hand clamped over her mouth, the other aiming a pistol at her head.
Otton (the villian) demands that Quentin hand over the secret.
Moving smoothly, Quentin obeyed, alert for any least chance to attack ... The long deadly pistol in Otton's hand held very steady, the barrel gleaming in the firelight. Quentin held out [the secret] and for a second everyone stood motionless. Except Jasper. Having been deprived of his own perch, his beady eyes located another. Elated, he zoomed across the room to alight on the barrel of the pistol.
Captain Otton was apparently no more proof against the shock of whirring wings beside his face than was Penelope (earlier Jasper had scared Penelope half out of her wits with a similar dive). With a startled yell, he swayed to the side.
Penelope wrenched free from his loosened clasp and ran clear.
Simultaneously Quentin sprang forward and, not daring to delay for the instant it would take to unsheath his sword, with one savage swipe of the scabbard slammed the pistol from Otton's grasp.
A marvelous sword fight follows, the villian is beaten and our hero and heroine manage to escape, which you must agree was because of the part played by Jasper, a very bad tempered canary! (Forgive me for being coy about what "the secret" is, but one day you may read this book and I would hate to have given such an important part of the plot away, to do so would spoil your enjoyment).
This third example could not be resisted, not only because Lady Godiva is a rather unusual "beast" but because at one time she wears an antipodean disguise.
Devenish (our hero) and his ward, Josie (our heroine), live for the most past in the country at the great house of Devencourt, which Josie has caused to harbour a number of what Devenish refers to as his encumbrances. These include a one-eyed abagail, a former prostitute, a tottery butler, a (hopefully) reformed pickpocket of a footman and several other unlikely characters. The management of the household tends to go to pieces when Josie is not there to keep things in hand so it is no surprise to find Devenish in his study with a sulky fire has been served a musty ham sandwich and having his ale spilt on the floor by his butler. While Devenish struggles with his letters, another of his encumbrances puts in an appearance.
The snuffling slurps could not be mistaken. Flinging around in his chair, he gave an irked shout.
"Damm you, Lady Godiva! Get away!"
The encumberance raised injured eyes and quivered her ale-wet snout at him.
"You know very well what I said." he snarled. "Out!"
By the way of bribery, Lady Godiva wrinkled her forty pink pounds and her curly tail jerked. She then resumed the business of cleaning up.
"You blasted pig!" quoth Devenish with perfect accuracy. He sprang from the chair, grabbed his thigh, and sat down again with considerably less verve.
Lady Godiva, who was fond of him, trotted over to peer up into his face, then sat down and rested her snout on his knee.
"Drunken ... sot," Devenish said unevenly, pulling one of her ears.
Not one to take offense, she snorted.
Not as young as I used to be, indeed! One might think I was ninetythree, rather than thirty-three!"
Lady Godiva wriggled in her most beguiling fashion. Absently, he gave her a piece of the musty ham sandwich, then exclaimed, "Egad, ma'am, my apologies! It might be a friend."
The pig was apparently cannibalistic and waited hopefully for the next offering.
"Let that be a lesson to you," said Devenish, having fortified himself with some of the warm ale. "Never adopt a chit. However appealing. Before you can turn around, they grow up and make you feel a dashed Methusel- ah!"
Edging closer, Lady Godiva voiced a coy grunt.
"Had you been what you should have been," he advised, "I'd have a dog keeping me company in my senile solitude (33, senile?!?! - Ed.). Since you had the poor taste to be born a pig, you'll get no more of my lunch, miss! Off with you!"
And so Devenish and Lady Godiva part company for the time been, having given us a lot of valuable information. The fact that Devendish's leg is playing up on him, the fact that he is 33 and that his appealing ward is rapidly growing up are all facts important to the story and the conversation between Devendish and this "beast" has therefore not only been amusing but has moved the plot along very nicely (makes a change from the traditional soliloquy, that's for sure! - Ed.).
Later on Lady Godiva and Devenish once more combine to move the plot along in an amusing manner.
... [Devenish was] roused by a shove against his knee. Lady Godiva grinned at him. He patted her thoughtfully and told her he had nothing for her to eat. She had entered through the unlatched French door to the terrace, with the result that a chill stream of air was now blowing into the room. Devenish closed the door, and Lady Godiva sat down beside the hearth. She looked despondently at the empty grate and, amused, he enquired if she would wish that he order a fire laid. The pig turned a tragic gaze upon him and curled up, but he saw that she was shivering. He limped over to cover her with a brown fur rug that Josie had set before the fireplace to conceal the hole burned in the carpet last winter by a falling log. "I wish," he grumbled good-naturedly, "that someone would tell me what earthly use you are."
The pig reguarded him with such obvious gratitude that he could only chuckle and tuck the rug closer about her. She burrowed under it happily.
Now you may be wondering what the above is leading up to, or for that matter when the matter of the antipodean disguise is going to be made clear, well read on and find out what happened when Devenish's neighbour, the irate and blustering squire, Sir William Little, came calling and relaxed his stiff manner to settle comfortably in the study. Dev had reason to ask his guest ...
"What's the matter now?"
Staring at the hearth, the Squire asked in a voice of mystification, "What the deuce is that?"
Following his gaze, Devenish gave a gasp. Lady Godiva was stirring. If the Squire knew a pig ran tame at Devencourt, he'd be laughing forever! Happily, she dozed off again, whereupon he said airily, "You mean the dog?"
"Dog ...?" Sir William stepped closer. "Don't look like no dog I ever - where's its face?"
"He's a-er, rare type," said Devenish, adding hurriedly, "I'd not get too close, were I you. If I'd known you were coming, I'd have put-ah, Hercules, out."
"Vicious, is he?" said the Squire, halting. "I'm quite a dog man m'self, y'know. What breed did you say?"
"Eh? Oh-a ... Tasmanian Devil."
"Never heard of it." The Squire, fascinated, took another step, his gaze fixed on the furry brown shape by the hearth; "Where's it hail from?"
"Van Diemen's Land," said Devenish promptly, blessing the erring Cornish (the pickpocketing footman) who having once been transported, had contrived to bribe his way bak to England, and had once or twice engaged in converse with his employer reguarding the great Australian continent.
Lady Godiva shifted and emitted a drowsy grunt.
"Pon my soul!" the squire exclaimed, and again stole forward.
The rug shifted agitatedly. Devenish cried, "I say, I wish you wouldn't venture so close," adding a desperate, "He's er, a tiger when roused!"
"Is he, by God! I wonder you allow him in the house at all! Jupiter, but he's an odd-looking chap. Can't wonder at it if he's a bit grumpy, eh?"
Devenish smiled hollowly.
"Tasmanian Devil, y'say ... I'll have to tell m'sister. She's quite an authority on-" He checked as the "Tasmanian Devil" contorted, reared up and stood there, the picture of the grotesque. "Lord - what an ugly brute! Which end is - By Beelzebub! He's got a curly tail!"
Devenish stifled a groan. "Sir - I do apologise, but it really ain't safe! you'd best-"
The "Tasmanian Devil", hearing a friendly voice, trotted in the direction of it, squealing indignation at being unable to see. With a little yelp of alarm, the Squire hopped onto his chair. Lady Godiva, eager to come at the source of the friendly sound, gave a great shake. Even as Devenish, fighting hilarity, made a dart for her, the rug flew off.
"It's a tripple-dammed pig! howled Sir Willaim, springing down and turning a purpling face on Devenish's mirth. "Playing a curst game with me, was you? Tasmanian Devil?" he brandished his fist. "I'll Tasmanian Devil you!"
And so saying, Sir William stormed out the terrace doors only to be tripped up by Lady Godiva darting for safety. As a result Sir William strained his back and was forced to stay for several days at Devencourt.
This enforced stay resulted in Sir William's sister, Mrs Bliss, and Guy Sanguinet (a minor hero and former baddie) meeting, loving and adding to the plot. Thus you can see the advantage of a "beast" that can play the part of a "Tasmanian Devil" with such flair.
There were many more beasts in Mrs Veryan's tales. Her felines, for instance, saunter through story after story. I've already mentioned Satan, the cat from Hell, the there is Leaf who has a habit of carrying objects from place to place, wherein hangs a most ingeneous twist to a tale of traitors, patriots, a desperate hunt and lives tottering on the brink of a horrendous death. Another cat, Patches, is a small kitten when we first meet her, but young as she is, she enables our heroine, an unmarried maiden, to masquerade as her pregnant (married) sister, thus preventing a really nasty baddie from having a new born babe to use as a pawn in his plans. Another heroine shocks a stiff-necked dowager when defending her cat, who has only a walk-on part in the story, but who nevertheless influences the plot from afar. Having been taunted by the hero about her feelings for her cat, the heroine emphatatically declares, as she pauses on the threshold of the saloon that ...
... "I'll have you know, sir, I am prodigiously fond of Whisky!"
"Oh! My heavens!" Exclaimed a horrified female voice, "How very dreadful!"
This is how Rebecca meets Lady Ward who is as tyrannical as she is formidable, and who is now convinced that the heroine is a tippler! As Rebecca was now at this time plotting to marry Lady Ward's nephew, you can see how Whisky has complicated her plans.
The following scene, one of my favourites, shows how another kitten influences those around him and earns his name.
The hot water was relaxing and Farrar leaned his head against the back of the hip bath and closed his eyes...
He jerked awake just in time to keep his left arm from sagging into the water. Steel had said he must keep the wounds dry for a day or two.
He heard the door click open and felt the draught of cooler air. This would be Jordan coming back with the large bath towel that had for some stupid reason been denied him. The man had taken his time about it.
A clear childish voice announced, "An' this is my uncle's bedchamber. You c'n see it's large an' very nicely 'pointed room. He painted that picture over the desk. He's a very good painter."
The sponge held motionless, Farrar sat frozen with shock.
"Waazzat?" piped a very young voice.
"Eh? Oh, it' a hip bath. An' you c'n see by the steam my uncle's 'bout to have a-" Carlton's bright face hove around the edge of the tub. "No," he corrected with his engaging grin, "he's not 'bout to - he is having a bath. This is my uncle, Sir Anth'ny Farrar and I'm his nephew Carlton Farrar."
Six boys, five small and one miniature, pressed in to view the exhibit.
His glazed eyes taking in this audience and the raucous kitten that struggled in his "nephew's" grasp, Farrar found his voice. "Carlton!" he roared. "What the devil do you mean by this?"
"You told me to use my 'magination." Shaken but defensive, Carlton advance and held out his treasure. "I got traded a kitten for a tour of Palfrey. You said -" But at that point he caught sight of the scar on his uncle's shoulder and gave a gasp. He had never seen a gunshot wound before, much less the horror that could be wrought by a pistol fired at close range, and he was so unnerved that he dropped his prize. Onto Farrar's soapy chest.
The kitten was tiny, soft and affectionate. It was also possessed of some very sharp claws. When it suddenly discovered itself sliding down a slippery surface towards what smelled horribly like water, it unsheathed those claws - purely for braking purposes. The captain gave another roar, and instinctively sprang to his feet.
Cissie, having just returned from her parents' farm, had not been advised that Sir Anthony was having a bath at such an unusual time of day. She heard the outraged roars followed by the sudden appearance of a stream of little boys, who scattered, whooping, from Farrar's bedchamber. She was a warm-hearted girl and, afraid that Carlton had done something dreadful, she ran to investigate. On the threshold of the room, she halted, stared, emitted a piercing shriek, and fainted.
"Good ... God!" howled Farrar.
"My kitty!" screeched Carlton.
Farrar scooped the wet and madly swimming little creature from the bath and grabbed for the small towel in the nick of time as Dimity, her fears of some contretemps verified by the uproar, charged to the rescue.
"Oh ... my ...!" she gasped feebly, halting in the doorway.
Holding the towel before the most vital area, Farrar, scarlet, raged, "Carlton, confound you, get your creature and your tour out of my bedchamber!"
Clutching his kitten, Carlton effected a fast retreat, taking with him the minature tour member who still stood gaping at the nude figure in the tub.
Dimity's eyes had found the scar. In a desperate and ill-advised attempt to protect his chastity, Farrar swung around, thereby presenting her with a view of his broad back, slim waist, tapering flanks and long muscular legs. She noted absently that the bullet had torn right through, but her attention was (disgracefully) fixed on is trim buttocks. She thought, "My heaven, his body is beautiful!"
"What a'God's name are you doing in here, madam?" gritted Farrar, almost whipping his shield behind him until he realised the mirror would likely complete his exposure.
Dazed, she murmured foolishly, "I-did not pay you for my ... shoes."
"Blast and dammitall! NOT NOW!"
A gasp behind her recalled Dimity to her senses. She whirled to find that Lady Helen, her jaw sagging, had joined the spectators. With considerably belated propriety, Dimity threw her hands over her eyes.
"I-thought you were murdering someone," said the Lady faintly, also mentally approving her nephew's magnificant physique, but wincing at the ugly, puckered scar.
"You are only a trifle premature," snarled Farrar.
Cissie stirred, wailing.
"Will-everyone-have the goodness to-depart the public bath ...?" requested Farrar between his teeth.
Dimity peeped through her fingers at my lady, and together, they bent to aid the sniffling maid from the premises, passing Farrar's goggle-eyed valet, who ran up, a large bathtowel over his arm.
Before they reached the stairs, Dimity was giggling. Lady Helen strove, but was soon joining in, and Cissie was unable to escape the contagion. The three women succumbed and laughed until they wept, and were obliged to sit together, all three wiping their eyes on Cissie's apron.
After this initiation into the Household, you wont be surprised to learn that this kitten was named Swimmer.
Without Swimmer and Carlton (who may or may not be Farrar's nephew), Dimity would never have been in the position to (disgracefully) admire Farrar's physique, and she would not therefore have ever been in the position to see how badly he had been wounded in the Jacobite wars. Also she and Farrar's estranged Aunt, Lady Helen, might never have drawn closer together as they did with their, and Cissie's, shared amusement, or for that matter drawn closer to Farrar himself, who really came out of such an embarrasing moment rather well.
In many of the incidents between our beasts and their humans we can see how often admirable traits are observed, confidences aired, twists in the plotrevealed and the people and their stores enhanced by this interaction. I could go on and on about his side of Patricia Veryan's writing, for instance the relationship between the dedicated villian Roland Otton/Fairleigh/Mathieson and his horse Rumplestiltskin gives us repeated insights into this man's character and difficult past. But to cover this subject properly would take pages more, so I will end by saying that I hope you now understand why I find that the "beast of Veryan" are indeed a richly satisfying group of characters to meet and revisit.
And revisit them I do again and again, the main trouble with doing the research for this article was that I kept finding that another evening had gone because I had been reading the books instead of taking notes. Ah! The pitfalls of a research life! (Tell me ALL about them! - Ed.) But, Ah! the fun and pleasure of the life of a dedicated Reader.
Hmmm, that was certainly an account of a different style of beastie - but then, I never intended these two issues to be on dragon/vampyre etc type beasties, but anything and everything that you readers wished to make of the word. I have to confess that as I was typing the above, I could not resist a chuckle or two at the antics that some of Veryan's characters got up to. "Beast", that most "energetic" of beasts. A pig named Lady Godiva indeed! And that bath incident, it just has to be the best of the lot. But I do challenge anyone to have acted with as much aplomb at Farrar did, standing there in his bath, a miserable pussy swimming around and trying not to drown and surrounded by a varied crowd of sightseers and peeping toms (whatever the female version of that term is).
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