“The Story of a Panic”

The years 1894 through 1912 saw English writers writing many stories using the god Pan. I’ve already covered The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen and Kenneth Grahme’s The Wind in the Willows.

We’re doing something unusual at the weird fiction discussion group, the Deep Ones, over at LibraryThing. We’re starting a look at a slew of other stories using Pan, and this is the first one.

Review: “The Story of a Panic”, E. M. Forester, 1912.

Our narrator, never given a name that I recall, starts out saying he is going to tell his story “with no pretensions to literary style”. He is going to give “an unbiased account” of something that happened eight years ago. The very first line mentions “Eustace’s career” and how it goes back to an incident one afternoon in Italy eight years ago.

At an Italian hotel are a party of Englanders. Besides the narrator and his wife and two daughters, there are the two Miss Robinson – two sisters, their nephew Eustace, the “would-be artist” Leyland, and the former curate Sandbach whose is there to prepare Eustace for public school. The narrator doesn’t like Leyland, and he especially does like the fourteen-year old Eustace. He thinks Eustace is “indescribably repellent”, a whiner, indolent, and incurious about anything. 

I suspect we are not to find the narrator very sympathetic, that he’s a satire of a certain type of Englishman Forester knew. The first indication of that are his constant remarks about how Eustace needs to be more sporting. 

One day, they all go on a picnic to a wooded and beautiful valley – the Vallone Fontana Caroso. It’s rather like an upside-down hand with finger-like ravines, wooded, radiating out from it. When they arrive, the narrator’s daughter Rose, an amateur photographer, notes the beauty of the valley and how it, its hills, and the sea in the background would make a beautiful picture. Sandbach agrees, but Leyland says it would make a very poor picture indeed. Rose asks why (with more charity than deserved notes the narrator). Because the top of the background hill is “intolerably straight”, the perspective is all wrong from their current position, and the colors dull and monotonous says Leyland. The narrator retorts he doesn’t know anything about art but the scene makes him content. One of the Miss Robinsons and Sandbach agree. Leyland replies that they “confuse the artistic view of nature with a photograph”. 

Wishing to avoid an argument, the narrator goes off to help his wife and Miss Mary Robinson get lunch ready. His aunt asks Eustace to help but, with his usual churlishness, he dawdles and grumblingly complies. The narrator says that, if he had a son, he would “insist on prompt and cheerful obedience”. Since he gets there too late to actually help, the narrator chides Eustace for strolling in at the end and profiting by others labors, and the narrator doesn’t think much of Marry Robinson still giving him a chicken wing to eat.

All this disputation is getting on the narrator’s nerves and spoiling what should be a nice day.  After lunch, Eustace goes off to lean against a tree and “loosen the bark from his whistle”.  The narrator is glad to see Eustace actually doing something.

The party takes a dolce far niente. The party is in one of the two clearings in the valley’ wooded groves. Leyland chimes in about how the “vulgarity of desolation is spreading” with landowners draining lakes and marshes and cutting down trees. The narrator, reasonably, answers (though Forester may intend, again, to satirize a middle-class businessman here) that cutting down trees provides income to the landowner and makes the forest more healthy. Leyland repeats his claim about the vulgarity and corruption of modernity, not excepting himself, and that it is our shame that

the Nereids have left the waters and the Oreads the mountains, that the woods no longer give shelter to Pan. 

“Pan is dead”, says Sandbach. That’s why he doesn’t shelter in the woods, and he alludes to some mariners off the coast when Christ was born and how they heard, three times, a loud voice declare “The great God Pan is dead.” Rose said she wishes she knew some ancient history.  Sandbach, perhaps being satirized, says it’s not worth her notice. 

The conversation eventually dies down. It’s a cloudless, beautiful May afternoon. Then the sounds of birds go away. Two branches of a chestnut tree start to grind together. Everything becomes still and “that feeling of suspense which one so often experiences when Nature is in repose” steals over the narrator. 

Suddenly, an excruciating blast comes from Eustace’s whistle. Leyland wakes up and gripes that Eustace is insensible to anything beautiful or elevating. 

Then a terrible silence falls again. A “catspaw” of wind moves through the trees on the opposite ridge. Foreboding is felt by the narrator, and he and the rest of the party get to their feet. The narrator feels terror, more terror than he has ever felt.  So do the others.  They move their mouths to speak but can’t, their hands flutter. 

Then they all start running down hill in terror, insensible, like beasts. 

The second part of the story takes up ten minutes later when the party stops, no longer terrified, at a point from which it took 40 minutes to ascend the valley to their picnic spot. Their injuries are slight after their run through the woods. 

Mary Robinson notices Eustace isn’t there. Rose says they must go back and find him. Leyland objects but goes with them. As they talk going back up the hill, Rose says she felt, when she was running, that she could stop and, if she did, she would feel differently, not frightened. But she followed her mother. 

Eustace is still back at the clearing, flat on his back. The narrator asks what he has been doing all this time. Just standing or sitting, he replies. Eustace’s aunt exclaims

Stood and sat doing nothing! Don’t you know the poem ‘Satan finds some mischief still for——.

Sandbach urges her to be quiet, and Rose comforts Eustace by running her fingers through his hair.

Eustace smiles.

I have often seen that peculiar smile since, both on the possessor’s face and on the photographs of him that are beginning to get into the illustrated papers. 

Eustace says something, in a low voice, to Rose, and the narrator moves closer to them and notices the prints of goat’s hooves in the ground. Sandbach proclaims that the thinks the Evil One has been near them in bodily form and they should thank God for deliverance. Eustace notices his whistle has been cut in half. (This seems to be some kind of superstitious act by Leyland.) But Eustace is fine with not having his whistle. 

The company agrees, on the way back to the hotel, to mention nothing of the incident there. Meanwhile, Eustace is racing around, and some peculiar sense of shame prevents the company from mentioning their past fright to him. 

Eustace wants to talk to Gennaro, the waiter at the hotel. That’s odd because Gennaro, a fill-in, has only been there two days, and Eustace has not been interested in talking with him before though Eustace has picked up some Italian. Eustace continues running around giddily, picking flowers, and offering one to an old woman they meet and kisses her cheek. When they get back to the hotel, Eustace embraces Gennaro and jumps into his arms, and puts his hands around his neck.

This really perturbs the narrator: 

I always make a point of behaving pleasantly to Italians, however little they may deserve it; but this habit of promiscuous intimacy was perfectly intolerable and could only lead to familiarity and mortification for all. Taking Miss Robinson aside, I asked her permission to speak seriously to Eustace on the subject of intercourse with social inferiors. 

The narrator tells Miss Robinson he’s going to keep an eye on Eustace. The company at the picnic have various reactions to Eustace. Sandbach’s suspects an “infernal influence”. Leyland just says it’s one more example of Eustace being a Philistine. Rose excuses his behavior. The narrator wants to give Eustace a good thrashing. 

At dinner that night, Eustace uses an informal pronoun with Gennaro, and the narrator goes off to talk to Gennaro to remind him of his and Eustace’s stations in life – and they’re not such that justifies encouraging such informality. Gennaro says it’s not important. If Eustace asks to be addressed by the informal “Voi”, he will. 

The party goes to bed, and the third part of the story begins.

(Spoilers ahead)

After sleeping for about four hours, the narrator wakes up in fearful anticipation. Outside, in a garden, he sees a strange white shape moving about. Sometimes it looks like a cloud, then a dog, then a bat. Then he realizes it’s Eustace. The narrator says he feels strangely cowardly about confronting Eustace, but he does it. 

Eustace complains – which he hasn’t before now – about how small his bedroom is and that it has no windows. The narrator goes to get Leyland and Sandbach to carry Eustace to his room by force. But Eustace just runs about “singing and chattering”. Sandbach sends for a doctor.

Eustace’s singing gets louder, incredibly loud, as he sings “ five-finger exercises, scales, hymn tunes, scraps of Wagner”. The narrator demands Eustace stop. 

Then Eustace speaks:

Never have I listened to such an extraordinary speech. At any other time it would have been ludicrous, for here was a boy, with no sense of beauty and a puerile command of words, attempting to tackle themes which the greatest poets have found almost beyond their power. Eustace Robinson, aged fourteen, was standing in his nightshirt saluting, praising, and blessing, the great forces and manifestations of Nature.

He spoke first of night and the stars and planets above his head, of the swarms of fire-flies below him, of the invisible sea below the fire-flies, of the great rocks covered with anemones and shells that were slumbering in the invisible sea. He spoke of the rivers and water-falls, of the ripening bunches of grapes, of the smoking cone of Vesuvius and the hidden fire-channels that made the smoke, of the myriads of lizards who were lying curled up in the crannies of the sultry earth, of the showers of white rose-leaves that were tangled in his hair. And then he spoke of the rain and the wind by which all things are changed, of the air through which all things live, and of the woods in which all things can be hidden.

Of course, it was all absurdly high fainting: yet I could have kicked Leyland for audibly observing that it was ‘a diabolical caricature of all that was most holy and beautiful in life.’

Then Eustace speaks of men and how he can’t “make them out so well”. 

Rose has the suggestion to get Gennaro to calm Eustace down. At first Gennaro won’t go, and his employer doesn’t think Eustace running around in the garden is a big deal. The narrator offers Gennaro ten lira. Gennaro still doesn’t want to go and doesn’t think the narrator will really pay him anyway. This astonishes the narrator. Englishmen always do what they promise. Gennaro thinks that, if he brings Eustace back to the house, Eustace will die.

Finally, Gennaro agrees and talks to Eustace in a low voice. Eustace tells him he understands “the trees, hills, stars, water” but not men. Finally, with Gennaro’s help, the men grab Eustace and take him back to his room which he still complains is too small. 

Sandbach will stay with him that night. “Anything but that”, says Eustace. Then he sobs about how he “nearly saw everything, and now I can see nothing at all”.

The narrator goes off to talk to the Miss Robinsons, Leyland, Gennaro and Signora Scafetti, the hotel’s owner. The narrator pays Gennaro, likening it, perhaps out of a sense of shame or because he senses he has stumbled into matters divine, to the “Thirty Pieces of Silver”.

Leyland asks Gennaro what Eustace meant about not understanding men. Eustace, Gennaro says, has a “subtle brain”. Gennaro understands what he meant but can’t explain. 

“If he wishes for mirth, we discomfort him. If he asks to be alone, we disturb him. He longed for a friend, and found none for fifteen years. Then he found me, and the first night I—I who have been in the woods and understood things too—betray him to you, and send him in to die.” 

It’s just like, Gennaro goes on say, a woman he knew who begged not to be put in a room and did, in fact, die in the night though Gennaro begged her to be released. 

A lamp is knocked over, the room goes dark, and Gennaro goes up to Eustace’s locked room and carries him out and through a window and into the garden. Eustace jumps over the garden wall and into an olive tree and then slides to the ground. When his bare feet touch the ground, he gives out a great cry. He is now saved, says Gennaro. Eustace will live. 

The narrator demands his money back. The money is his, says Gennaro. Then Gennaro falls dead. The story concludes with the sounds of a laughing and singing Eustace running into the night.

Clearly, something divine has entered the world, possessed Eustace. Eustace’s hostility towards Sandbach that night reverses the birth of Christ marking the death of Pan. Eustace is something of a pagan Christ, a connection alluded to by Gennaro being likened to Judas. We never learn why Eustace is increasingly famous eight years on. Is he an actor? Writer? My guess would be he is a noted lecturer or spiritual leader proclaiming the return of an old faith to the modern world.

Perhaps his growing popularity is with the young. After all, Rose seems to understand him and didn’t panic that afternoon. But the older members of the party may represent the world of Christianity about to swept away by an older faith. Leyland represents a border case. He is pagan in his sympathy to nature, but, as he says, he has been corrupted by the modern world – but not enough to not be fascinated and appalled by what Eustace says, to see a caricature of truth in it.

Gennaro understands because, in those woods, both he and Eustace have been touched by the same divinity.

I rather liked this story and its hint that, on a pleasant May afternoon, the prophet of an old, yet now new, faith has entered the world.

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