Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Box of Delights by John Masefield

A topical post for Christmas; The Box of Delights is Masefield's fantasy of magic, dastardly deeds and box full of wonders that allows its owner to travel great distances instantly, to shrink in size, or to see into the past. Schoolboy Kay Harker, on his Christmas hols from school, becomes the guardian of the box when it's passed to him by a Punch & Judy man, and he spends the rest of the book trying to keep it out of hands of master criminal Abner Brown.

In his desperation to get hold of the box, Brown has kidnapped the bishop of Tatchester, along with most of the local clergy, and the millennial celebrations of the first Christmas service held at Tatchester Cathedral might be ruined. Kay must release the bishop as well as keep the box out of harm's way...

The action comes fairly thick and fast, although I rather felt that Masefield was making the whole thing up as he went along having sketched out the basics of the plot on the back of an envelope. He makes frequent allusions to his naval background and a cohort of Abner Brown's band of ne'er-do-well's turn out to be the crew of a pirate ship. The international drink of piracy is of course rum. Kay, shrunk down to the size of a mouse, passes them on his way to Brown's hideout, and they're in their cups:

As they slipped past the open door Kay glanced in. Oh, what a terrible scene was within! There, gathered round a table, lurching, shouting, swaying and clutching at each other to keep their balance, were the Wolves of the Gulf, all Benito's crew, whom the Rat would have described as marine cellarmen. On the table round which they lurched and carrolled were the remnants of a ham-bone without any dish, and a big bowl of rum punch. As Kay glanced, one of the ruffians fell forward with his head into the bowl. He splashed the rum over his head and another tried to set fire to him with a candle, but was too unsteady in his aim. All these men wore sea-boots, rough red caps and red aprons. No words can describe the villainy of their faces, all bronzed with tropical suns, purple with drink, scarlet with battle and bloated from evil living. "Sing diddle-diddle-dol," they cried. Then they drew their pistols and fired them at the ceiling, so that the plaster came down with a clatter. 

Fortunately, they're too juiced up to notice Kay spying on them, and he manages to fly to safety on the way back by exploiting the box to 'go swift'. Naturally, Kay saves the day in the end; the bishop is returned to his cathedral, Brown meets a watery end, and the whole thing is revealed to have been a dream all along and Kay is back at the beginning of the Christmas holiday. Hurrah!

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