A collector of note

Percival Kitt-Brooks, Professor of Anthropology at Exeter College and a collector of note, was immensely pleased with his latest acquisition. A colossal Maori war spear – ceremonial, undoubtedly, for it was quite certainly much too large and heavy to have been of any practical use – had been shipped to him by a missionary currently active near Wellington. Some eight feet in length and made of a fantastically tough and almost black exotic hardwood, it was carven along most of its length with scenes depicting ancestral spirits of the tribe and a variety of patrician deities, all of whom were doing various disgusting and incredibly painful-looking things to human figures representing members of neighbouring rival tribes. Although highly stylized, the carvings were remarkably lifelike in terms of facial expression, with leering eyes, fang-like teeth and other features picked out with masterful artistry in abalone and jadeite. The professor had been so impressed with the thing that he’d had it installed vertically, point uppermost, in the atrium of the grand Georgian villa he and his family called home, just off Holywell Street to the immediate north of the ancient heart of Oxford. It couldn’t stay there for good, of course, but he would enjoy showing it off to visitors or simply poring over it by himself for a few weeks while he wrote up a paper on it and a few other artefacts he’d acquired in the last couple of months, before having it displayed permanently in the museum he’d recently established (and, with characteristic modesty, named after himself). The various curses associated with the object, which the missionary had had the foresight to jot down and send to Kitt-Brooks before having the chief who’d described them baptized at riflepoint, were previously unknown to anthropology and analysis of them would form a vital part of the paper.

“Ugh, you’re not going to leave the vile thing there are you, darling?”, came a politely distressed voice from upstairs. Percival sighed and looked up to see his wife, a vision of mildly disapproving beauty in a crinolette and bustle, leaning over the bannister and frowning.

“Oh come now darling, isn’t it gorgeous? To say nothing of fascinating? We’ll be the envy of every anthropologist and collector of primitive art in the country! And it’s only for a few weeks while I write up this paper.”

“But the carvings on it are simply beastly and then there are these… curses the letter mentioned. I, I’m not sure I even feel safe with it in the house! And what about the children? It’ll scare them silly, the poor dears.”

“Pah, Gideon’s seen it already and he thinks it’s quite the ratherest thing. Said he was going to boast about it to every boy in the school tomorrow.”

Mrs Kitt-Brooks – Hetty, to her adoring (although at present slightly exasperated) husband – sighed, shook her head and swished off to the drawing-room to take something for her nerves. Percival busied himself in inspecting the jerry-rigged tripod he and the servants had set up to hold the spear vertical and, satisfied that it was sufficiently sturdy, went to the study to work on his paper, reflecting philosophically on the kindred irreason of woman and savage.

The following morning Percival had the house quite to himself, as his dear wife had gone for a stroll in the University parks after breakfast to clear one of her customary headaches, the children were all out playing in the rear garden and the servants were at church. (Percival was no more susceptible to the Christian superstition than he was to the Mahometan, the Hindoo or the heathen, but considered regular attendance of religious services to be beneficial to the psychic wellbeing of the working classes and therefore encouraged it in his own domestic staff.) Consequently there was no-one to hear his yell when, as he strode back along the landing having popped upstairs for a volume on fetishism among the Andaman Islanders which he’d been reading in bed the night before, he absent-mindedly placed his foot upon the wheeled toy train Gideon’s younger brother Eustace had carelessly left there and which no pious maid or valet had been available to pick up. The professor’s foot scooted backwards rather than forwards and the reaction catapulted his body towards the head of the staircase, such that he tumbled head-over-heels down the curve of the stairs, bounced off the wall and struck the bannister at the precise spot where several of the rails had been severely weakened by woodworm.

Crashing straight through the rotten rails, Percival Kitt-Brooks fell a full sixteen feel, right on top of…

… the large pile of ceremonially embroidered Esquimau caribou hides that he’d been intending to catalogue (but had also thought might look quite good on the walls in the dining room), right next to the spear.

Cursing loudly, Percival picked himself up and gingerly touched his left ankle, which felt rather sprained. He also had what was sure to be the beginnings of a real beauty of a lump on the back of his head and had torn one of his best cotton shirts. Ah well, no major damage at least, he reflected thankfully. Still, the bannister looked in rather a shocking state where he’d crashed through it, and in the absence of anyone else to send, he resolved to pay a call on the excellent carpenter he knew who lived above his shop in Summertown and would surely be amenable to coming out for a job on the Sabbath if offered a suitably generous fee.

With that resolution made, Percival Kitt-Brooks wrote a brief note explaining his absence from the house and the damage to the bannister, changed his shirt, put on his jacket and hat, walked out the front door and was immediately knocked down and killed by a speeding hansom cab driven by a drunken Maori.


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