The Monkey King of the Pearl Sea
In which Lord Durnleigh visits a museum of all places, seeks some assistance, and as ever gets what he wants.
Lord Durnleigh thought that the British Museum, in his considered, educated and above all privileged opinion, was a magnificent edifice containing the glories and wonders of the world and the expanding British Empire. If asked what his particular favourite among the exhibits was however, all the questioner would have received would be a haughty, bemused and mildly insulted stare. Actually visit a museum? Don’t be ridiculous. Lord Durnleigh’s ‘interests’ were much more refined and specialised than what a mere museum could cater for.
If Dewbury experienced any surprise at his master’s sudden apparent interest in the past, he was far too stoic and controlled
to show it. He was British, and standards had to be maintained.
The ride in the hansom was relatively short, and conducted in a stiff if familiar silence. Despite years of intimate contact between them, Dewbury knew his station, as did Lord Durnleigh. Dewbury would never have presumed to speak to Lord Durnleigh without being spoken to first in such a casual manner, and Lord Durnleigh thought Dewbury was simply beneath him. Many things could be justified through the applications of ‘standards’.
Upon alighting at their destination, Lord Durnleigh strode confidently through the courtyard and up the steps of the museum, not even deigning to appreciate the neo-classical grandeur of the building. Lord Durnleigh strode confidently everywhere however, and rarely deigned to appreciate anything that he thought was beneath him, which from Lord Durnleigh’s perspective meant the vast majority of the world.
Upon entering the museum, rather than waste his precious time more than was necessary, he tersely instructed Dewbury to locate what he needed. Dewbury, being far more practical than his employer would or could ever be, approached the nearest museum guard and had a short and quiet conversation. Lord Durnleigh might agree with you if you posited that manners maketh the man, however - as with many things in life - Lord Durnleigh barely applied such things to himself. In a situation like this it was actually a benefit to him that his own standards forbore him from abusing his dignity by speaking to a lowly member of the working classes, as his blunt, direct and essentially rude approach would not have given him what he wanted, which would not have ended well for anyone.
His conversation concluded, Dewbury thanked the guard and returned to Lord Durnleigh who, despite being surrounded by some undeniably impressive artefacts from Babylon, was looking bored.
A generous person might suggest that he looked out of place, but in reality he just looked bored, and above all, boredom was a state that Lord Durnleigh rarely experienced with any grace for long.
“Well?” Lord Durnleigh asked curtly, boredom honing his tone to a fine edge.
“He’s in the basement, Sir.” supplied Dewbury, as stoically and as calmly as ever.
“The basement? Good lord. How the mighty have fallen it seems. Lead the way Dewbury.”
Dewbury, following the instructions from the guard, made his way past huge slabs of stone carved into bulls with the heads of bearded kings, the majestic and sad faces of pharaohs and languid Hellenistic nymphs. Lord Durnleigh cast desultory glances at them, but his attention lay elsewhere. He ignored the other patrons of the museum, perhaps thankful that etiquette did not demand that he greet them.
Approaching a grand staircase that led to the upper floors of the museum, the men, rather than ascending the wide steps rather descended the decidedly more modest set of stairs to the right that led downwards. A sharp-eyed observer might have seen Lord Durnleigh’s back become - if this was indeed possible - even more rigid with offence that someone such as he was being forced to use stairs that were clearly intended for persons far below his august personage. Needs must when the devil drives however, and without acknowledging Dewbury’s deferent invitation to proceed before him, Lord Durnleigh descended into the depths.
The men reached the bottom of the staircase and proceeded along an ill-lit corridor, passing doors on their left and right. At length, after several turns, they reached a door with the number 33 on it.
“He’s in here, Sir.” supplied Dewbury.
A gentleman, a cad, an opium addict and thorough snob he may be, but Lord Durnleigh was British, and that meant that despite what he may think of those he considered beneath him (practically everyone) that was no excuse for a display of bad manners that entering unannounced would display, so he knocked on the door and waited. It’s a measure of just how incredibly British Lord Durnleigh was that he could simultaneously be incredibly rude and immeasurably polite, often in the same situation and to the same individual.
There was only so much that a gentleman could be asked to bear, and Lord Durnleigh’s patience was a somewhat fragile thing to begin with. With an exasperated tut - he would berate himself over such
an inexcusable lack of control later - he knocked again, louder. After barely a pause he knocked yet again. Apparently no response was imminent.
“He is in here isn’t he?” asked Lord Durnleigh with more than a touch of irritation.
“So the guard informed me Sir. Apparently he is rarely elsewhere. Perhaps we should enter?”
Recognising that standing in a dim corridor somewhere under the British Museum was not getting him anywhere, Lord Durnleigh grudgingly admitted that as lacking in manners as this course of action was, they had little choice but to enter or leave.
“Very well.” he said tersely, and reached out to turn the door handle.
The open door revealed a room cluttered with objects that even someone as inexpert in wider cultural awareness as Lord Durneligh could assume were from Asia at the very least. Various swords were balanced on statues, scrolls were sprouting from ceramic jars, voluminous robes were draped over sculptures of curiously happy portly gentlemen. Books had colonised every surface not occupied by artefacts. If there was some order or logic to the room, it escaped Lord Durnleigh’s somewhat withering gaze.
Sitting behind a huge desk also covered in yet more objects and books sat a small bespectacled man, engrossed in whatever he was looking at. Despite their entry to the room and movement through it, he remained focused. Even a pointed cough from Lord Durnleigh did nothing to shake the man away from what he was studying. There seemed to be little option but to be unforgivably rude about
it all, something that Lord Durnleigh was perfectly qualified to do.
“Dr Membly-Hawls, if you could be so kind as to tear yourself away?” An outsider - who was clearly not British - might have thought this
a polite enough salutation, but any member of the British upper classes might have gasped in shock at the level of familiarity and provocative use of censure and sarcasm embedded in such a statement, if said gasp itself was not the height of crassness.
At the sound of a voice in his inner sanctum - albeit a familiar one - Dr Membly-Hawls finally dragged his attention away from a simply fascinating account of grain distribution in Angkor Thom, and looked up at his guests.
“Lord Durnleigh! What a pleasant surprise. How do you do?” he said, as if he were in a mundane parlour visiting an acquaintance rather than greeting a peer of the realm amid the clutter and detritus only a basement of the British Museum could gather.
“Really Dr Membly-Hawls,” began Lord Durnleigh in mild yet still clearly irritated rebuke, “ We knocked and knocked.”
Dr Membly-Hawls looked a little bemused; he clearly received few visitors in his basement lair.
“I do apologise my Lord, when I’m studying I can get a little lost in
my work. I am dreadfully sorry.”
With an apology offered, even Lord Durnleigh could not continue to be angry, especially as this was one of his oldest friends - allowances could be made now and then.
“Yes, well. We came all the way down here to see you and we practically had to break the door down!” With a slight chuckle, Dr Membly-Hawls excavated a chair for Lord Durnleigh. As he too was from the upper classes, it didn’t even occur to him to find one for Dewbury, who stood, stoic and silent behind his master’s chair.
“It’s delightful to see you,” said Dr Membly-Hawls, who was oblivious to the incongruity of having a polite conversation surrounded by the artefacts of half a dozen countries. “But I must say, knowing you as
I do, it is somewhat out of character for you to venture into the museum.”
“Quite so!” admitted Lord Durnleigh with only a hint of irritation, although whether this was directed at himself for breaking the habits of a lifetime in even slightly broadening his cultural horizons or Dr Membly-Hawls for pointing this out was uncertain. “There’s something I would greatly appreciate your assistance with Hector.”
The lapse into familiarity was a deliberate one, if slightly shocking to both gentlemen - thank goodness no one else was here to witness such a lapse of manners! It demonstrated that this was a matter of some delicacy, and that Lord Durnleigh was approaching Dr Membly-Hawls in the capacity of a friend. Dr Membly-Hawls was not blind to this, and startled slightly - this must be a serious business indeed!
“I have… acquired an object.” began Lord Durnleigh, “That I think
you can help me to… understand.” While they might have known each other for years and considered each other friends, there were many reasons for circumspection, not least that he could not admit to where he had acquired said object.
“I believe it to be South East Asian in origin, and thought you might be able to tell me more about it?”
Dr Membly-Hawls interest was piqued. As his basement lair might suggest, he was a man who lived for his work, and while he expected the object to be some cheap reproduction, he was more than willing to point out to Lord Durnleigh each and every single mistake it would most likely have in production technique, material and decoration. Like many academics, he did quite enjoy pointing out
the many, many ways in which other people were wrong.
“Of course! Anything to help an old friend!” Dr Membly-Hawls was delightfully childlike in his eagerness to demonstrate his erudition. Like many academics, he could appear fey and distracted at the best of times, but could suddenly become focused and intent in a rather alarmingly predatory manner.
Lord Durnleigh pulled the folded map from within his jacket and handed it to Dr Membly-Hawls. He waited with unusual patience while the map was unfolded and spread out on the desk once a suitable space had been cleared by piling artifacts on top of each other in an apparent disregard for logic, system or care.
In certain circumstances, Lord Durnleigh could be quite patient - he was British after all. In this situation however, his patience had clearly defined limits, and it was stretched to snapping point as he watched Dr Membly-Hawls peer ever more closely at the map. His faint murmurings to himself, which encouraging, did not give much in the way of actual information however.
“Well?” snapped Lord Durnleigh, his patience almost at its limit. “What is it?”
“It’s clearly a map,” began Dr Membly-Hawls, before being interrupted quite rudely by Lord Durnleigh. But if one can’t be rude to one’s friends, who can one be rude to?
“I know that. Where is it a map of?”
“It is difficult to say with any certainty after such a cursory examination,” said Dr Membly-Hawls, his astonishingly mild rebuke evaporating off Lord Durnleigh’s vast indifference to such things like a drop of water on a hot stove, “but from the form of the text, the style of the illustrations, the colours used, the technique of the embroidery…” sensing that the list of evidence might go on for some considerable time, Lord Durnleigh cut in.
“Yes, yes Hector, but where is it?”
“I would not like to say with absolute certainty,” he said, with an academic’s instinct to hedge his bets at all points, “but I can say with some confidence that it might possibly be suggested that this main island is Kandacharia.” he said, smiling at Lord Durnleigh.
The blank look on Lord Durnleigh’s face deflated Dr Membly-Hawls’ enthusiasm a little.
“Kandacharia.” Lord Durnleigh’s flat tone and blank look communicated that he was less than aware of what or where this was.
“Kandacharia.” Dr Membly-Hawls’ tone was much brighter. “Island nation in the Pearl Sea. Not influential now of course, but in antiquity was incredibly powerful and rich.”
“Rich?” Lord Durnleigh’s interest perked up a little.
“Oh yes, fabulously wealthy. Gold, jewels, spices, fabrics. Ideally situated to be a trading hub of course, and they did terribly well out of it for quite a long time as these things go.”
“Of course their wealth and fame didn’t last, they so rarely do. Kandacharia was raided by richer neighbours and pirates and eventually fell on rather hard times. Quite tragic really.” Dr Membly-Hawls looked suitably saddened by the demise of an ancient kingdom, but quickly brightened again.
“Still around of course, but far less of a presence in the area, practically no influence in fact. I think the Kandacharians prefer it that way, to go unnoticed and quietly get on with the business of living. Completely overshadowed by Ratnapore these days, naturally.”
“Naturally.” agreed Lord Durnleigh. Kandacharia might be a mystery to him, but Ratnapore was either famous or infamous depending on your source, and as one of Lord Durnleigh’s sources was Madam Wei and her wares and customers, he considered it to be both.
“So this is a map of Kandacharia?” prompted Lord Durnleigh, knowing full well that he had to forestall the impending lecture on rival empires and economics of ancient South East Asia.
“Possibly. Probably.” said Dr Membly-Hawls, still unwilling to commit himself to an opinion without thorough research.
“There’s also something on the underside.” said Lord Durnleigh, in the hopes of distracting the good doctor.
Turning the map over, Dr Membly-Hawls’ eyes widened at seeing the golden monkey on his throne.
“An… acquaintance said something when she saw this,” supplied Lord Durnleigh “Something I admit I don’t understand - which is why I sought out your expertise of course.” In Lord Durnleigh’s experience, it never hurt to grease the wheels of social interaction with a compliment or two. “Son wonky? Or some such heathen gibberish I think it was.”
Dr Membly-Hawls visibly tore himself away from the magnificent embroidery.
“Sun Wukong I think you’ll find.” he said with some assurance.
“Is that supposed to mean anything to me?” asked Lord Durnleigh with a touch of asperity, communicating clearly that it didn’t.
“Sun Wukong - the monkey king. A figure from Chinese mythology, not to be confused with Hanuman of course.” he said with a small chuckle at what was to him obviously a humorous confusion of two entirely separate personages. That Lord Durnleigh knew of neither of these august personages did little for his temper or patience.
“However…” began Dr Membly-Hawls, looking again at the golden figure on the fabric, and apparently losing himself in thought.
“However?” prompted Lord Durnleigh.
“What? Oh, yes. Your friend was more than likely talking about Sun Wukong, and I can quite see why - there aren’t a surplus of monkey figures in Asian mythology, so it could be reasonably assumed that this is one of them. Sun Wukong and Hanuman of course are the obvious candidates, but this depiction does not appear to show any of the usual trappings of either the Chinese or Indian mythological characters. Hmmm. Interesting.”
“Is it?” said Lord Durnleigh, his tone suggesting that all evidence to the contrary, this was not entirely fascinating to him.
“Most definitely. If this is Kandacharia being shown then that could mean that this is… oh my, what a find!” Always on the verge of bubbling over, Dr Membly-Hawls’ levels of excitement seemed to be reaching new levels.
“It could mean that this is showing the fabled Monkey King of the Pearl Sea himself!” Dr Membly-Hawls exclaimed with no small trace of exultation in his voice.
This pronouncement failed to have the impact he possibly desired in his old friend, as Lord Durnleigh continued to sit in his chair, unmoved.
Generally loathe to admit that he was lacking in any way, Lord Durnleigh sighed - a sign of his great frustration at the situation - and said,
“Hector, you keep saying things that you think I will understand. The reason I came to you is because I do not!”
“I do apologise my Lord. But, The Monkey King of the Pearl Sea! He’s a legendary figure from the area, famed for his palace and harem and treasury and royal gardens…”
Sensing the formation of an extensive list forming, Lord Durnleigh cut Dr Membly-Hawls off, and honed in on the one thing that did interest him.
“Treasury, Dr?” he said, guilelessly.
Derailed for only a moment, Dr Membly-Hawls got right back on track with this suggestion.
“Oh yes - The Monkey King of the Pearl Sea was said to be fabulously wealthy, quite extravagantly so even as legendary kings go. He’d quite put King Solomon and Croesus to shame, if the stories are to be believed.”
Having had the best education that an English Lord could possibly have, Lord Durnleigh was familiar with these figures from antiquity, and also now had a frame of reference, and could now begin to imagine just how glorious that amount of fortune could be. Maybe the South East Asian man had been right after all?
“Can you read all that gibberish on the map?” Lord Durnleigh thought himself cunning, but was in fact as blunt and direct as a brick to the face. Thankfully, Dr Membly-Hawls was the kind of academic who was somewhat naive in the ways of the world - preferring the safety of his research and books - and he failed to detect the note of anticipation and desire in Lord Durnleigh’s request.
Flipping the fabric over to look at said gibberish again, he squinted at the text.
“Looks like it’s some form of Sanskrit, possibly influenced by Khmer.” looking up once more at Lord Durnleigh, he looked eager and excited, which admittedly was his base state, but it was a genuine excitement nonetheless. “Given some time and my books, I should be able to translate it - would you like me to?” He phrased this more like a reward for being a good boy rather than the extra work to his own duties which in fact it was.
“Capital idea Hector!” exclaimed Lord Durneligh. “That would be splendid of you to do that for me.”
Having gotten what he wanted - someone who understood the map, or soon would, better than he did and could tell him what it meant - Lord Durneligh’s interest faded rather rapidly. He stood, signalling that his visit was clearly at an end.
“If you could just keep this map between the two of us?” he suggested, completely ignoring the presence of Dewbury.
“Of course, of course! Mum’s the word!” said Dr Membly-Hawls, not even questioning the need for such a measure.
“Good man Hector! I knew I could rely on you!” said Lord Durnleigh with a heartiness which he most assuredly did not feel, but thought appropriate at this juncture. “I shall leave it in your capable hands. Send me word when you’ve translated it will you?” and with that, he strode for the door, leaving Dewbury to bow a farewell to the still-smiling Doctor.