In the news recently:
Amber is a translucent yellow fossil resin, which frequently includes perfectly preserved specimens of insect and plant life, embalmed by the honey-gold droplets slipping down a tree trunk. Sometimes one has experiences that the mind inexplicably sets in amber, as it were, preserving them for ever – the ‘forever’ of the human psyche.
It is imprudent to finger all the amber pieces at once. The wise old Greeks knew that amber briskly rubbed produces static: elektron was their name for the rare substance. Better to merely contemplate the tumbled heap, taking flashes of reflected light as they come, seeking no pattern, indulging no sentiment. Pieces of amber, more precious than gold.
Introduction to Rafael Sabatini (1875-1950) and to his short stories
Rafael Sabatini was surely destined to be a purveyor of romances, given his parentage, the sad mystery of his illegitimacy, and the unusual education he received. Destined or not, he became a fine teller of spellbinding tales, whose memory – dimmed by some of history’s quirks – should be revived, that he may make new friends and be given his due.
The union of Anna Trafford (real surname Jelley), English pianist and singer from
Rafael acquired languages, five with fluency and two – Latin and Greek – as an integral part of a good education. It was inevitable that he should become multilingual as his home and school moved around
The soon-to-be writer had from the first an insatiable appetite for reading. He read much, and widely, and as is not unusual for one circumstanced as he was, he read when young books meant for much older readers. History, biography, and above all, tales of adventure and romance, soon became his favourite reading. This preference would influence his writing, too. And Rafael began to write when quite young. This man, jealous of his privacy almost to the point of being secretive, occasionally volunteered information about himself and thus one learns that his earliest writing was done in French, while at the academy in Zoug. But in his opinion all the best stories were written in English.
Not yet grown to be a man, the 17 year old Rafael, at his father’s direction left the school in
By 1895 or 96 he was certainly writing short stories and his first published stories appeared in some Liverpool newspaper or periodical but as nothing earlier than 1898 has been traced so far no more can be said about these earliest efforts. From 1898 onwards Rafael Sabatini’s short stories began to appear in some of the best British magazines. The earliest found until the present is:
THE RED MASK ~ The Ludgate, December 1898
The narrative of The Red Mask is in the first person, a mode much favoured by Sabatini in his early years as a writer. Events are recounted by one De Cavaignac, captain of the Cardinal’s Guards, a good-hearted but simple-minded soldier. He tells of a conspiracy against Cardinal Mazarin and of what transpired.
The story is slight and a bit predictable, but mercifully it has no more than a single ‘tis and ‘twas occurs twice; there is no meseems (ugh!) at all, nor any methought, only the one methinks. (Alas, Achilles had a vulnerable heel and Sabatini’s was a tendency to sprinkle tales not set in his own time with these tis-anes and me-grims, sometimes with a very heavy hand!)
The Red Mask is obviously the work of a very young Sabatini, full of spirit but somewhat short of discipline, whence the following niggles. Louis XIII died in 1643, a year after Mazarin had succeeded
With these facts in mind, the period in which The Red Mask is set becomes somewhat problematical. If the story is set in 1660, the last year of Mazarin’s “reign”, then Louis XIII could hardly be the “late’ king, having been dead seventeen years. If it is set in 1642, the last year of Louis XIII’s reign, that might make sense were it not for the reference to Mazarin’s “long pointed beard which he still wore, after the fashion of his late Majesty, Louis XIII”. I have not seen very many portraits of Mazarin but in those that I have seen it would be difficult to describe his beard as “long”, or his person as “tall, lean”. That description is better suited to Cardinal Richelieu.
On the other hand, what makes The Red Mask interesting is that it already manifests one of the characteristic charms of Sabatini’s story-telling, his dramatic use of direct speech. His characters acquire life through their speech – and it is no surprise that Sabatini wrote plays, loved the theatre and had many friends from the theatrical world. Clearly it did no harm to have both parents opera singers. Young Rafael must have had his ears filled with dialogue, sung dialogue no doubt but dialogue nonetheless. Perhaps his fondness for dramatic (some would say overly dramatic) utterance and richly coloured language is traceable to his heritage and upbringing.
The Red Mask may be no more than a trifle with which to launch a career as a writer, but it pleases.