Review: “An Underground Adventure”, Arthur Machen, 1890.
Machen returns to writing “smart tales”.
Like his “A Double Return”, it centers around mistaken identity.
The story opens with the narrator seeing a item in the newspaper thanking a gentleman who helped the writer in distress when she was at Victoria Station on the evening of November 15th. She would like to meet him again at the station at 6 PM on November 21st. The narrator saw the notice about a week ago since he likes to read “agony columns”, and he decides to watch this meeting which is suggestive of the “plots of shilling dreadfuls”.
The narrator, an accountant, tells us he’s a man of no vices and excellent morals.
He goes to Victoria Station the next night.
A few men are loitering about and then a “smartly dressed young woman” greets one of them. They seem to be old friends.
Just then, a “tall, somewhat stout, well-dressed, mournful-looking, middle-aged widow” touches his elbow.
She’s the one who put the ad in the paper and has been expecting him. She recognizes him though he is clean-shaven now. She asks him to go into the waiting room. He agrees, but he ponders how he’s going to get out of this. He is not the man she thinks she is.
In the waiting room she starts out by stating he knows her history and “lonely, disconsolate life”. She is a Marquise. She has been pestered with suitors since her husband died. The worst is one “young wretch out of whose hands you rescued me the other evening at the station”. She’s given him money to go away.
The narrator ponders::
Perhaps I really had been at the station the other evening and rescued this stout marchioness, and for a few seconds I wondered vaguely and wildly whether I was myself or some one else.
He says something soothing to her. The Marquise says he has a good face and noble qualities, and she asks him if he is married. No, he doesn’t even have the prospect of being married.
Then she proposes to him.
He’s aghast, and she warns him to think before he speaks. If he says yes, he will be
the happiest man on earth. Say no, and you will repent it all your life, and make me the most miserable of women.
He tries to leave. She insists she has her heart set on him.
He responds he will never marry her if he lives to be a 100. She screams and turns red, and he bolts.
The story ends humorously:
This is the first time a lady has proposed to me, and that I have had to refuse. Heaven grant that it may be the last! The result has been an undermining and general collapse of my whole constitution.
The humor, of course, is that most men would jump at the chance of marrying into money.
There is something to note. This is the fifth of Machen’s contemporary tales that uses the idea of misidentification or imposture. Helen Vaughn in “The Great God Pan” is known under many names, and the very identity of her as a human woman is, of course, the central question of that story. Walters, in “A Remarkable Coincidence”, briefly assumes the invented identity of Henry Smart. “A Double Return” has a man pretending, successfully, to be a woman’s husband and involves both imposture and misidentification. Even the eponymous “A Wonderful Woman” has changed at least her first name from Mary to Agnes to hide her past. The theme shows up in the very title of The Three Impostors, or, The Transmutations, not yet written in 1890.
You can say, for a brief instance, the narrator even doubts his own identity by briefly wondering if he is the man the Marquise met. He wonders if there has been a break in his personality. The clergyman of “The Autophone” wonders if he is really, in some way, the same man who committed those acts in his youth.
One of Machen’s predominant literary themes, first used in “The Great God Pan”, is that we do not perceive true reality, the reality of the physical world about us. But it’s interesting that, even this early in his career, he is exploring a similar vein with characters who doubt the reality, the stability, of their own personalities.
Imposters and misidentification aren’t a definitive mark of a weird fiction story, of course. Realistic stories use them as do, obviously, the crime and mystery genres. But it is a highly mutable bit of literary DNA that can quickly change the genre phenotype of a story into a bit of fantastic fiction.
Symbolic importance can lurk behind the figurative masks deliberately used by a character or mistakenly placed on their face by other characters. Those symbols can direct the way to something beyond our normal ken, something beyond quotidian deceit and fraud and gullibility.