The Kindly Elder

 by P F Jeffery

When I was five the Arabian Nights claimed me, and I spent hours in playing Arab – calling myself “Abdul Alhazred” which some kindly elder had suggested to me as a typical Saracen name.
– H.  P.  Lovecraft, Some Notes on a Nonentity

“Whatever is young Howard doing with that shovel?” asked the young lady in the blue dress.

She stood to the left of a lady in green, beyond whom stood a young man with spectacles.  The three were regarding a five year old boy on the hearthrug.  The infant had taken the companion set and was menacing the empty air with the miniscule shovel.  The lady in green smiled indulgently.  “I rather think, Helena, that the shovel is some fearsome Arabian scimitar.  Ever since Howard devoured the Arabian Nights he has been playing Arab.  Surely there goes another infidel’s head!  Careful, now, Howard!”

As she spoke Howard made another violent lunge with the shovel and nearly lost his footing.

“I hope he doesn’t hurt himself,” commented Helena.

“He hasn’t yet,” replied the lady in green, “but he does get rather carried away by his games.  He even has a name for this oriental persona of his.  Abdul Abuzrid, or something of the sort.”

“Abdul Alhazred, Mrs.  Lovecraft,” corrected the young man with spectacles.

Helena pouted before replying petulantly, “It seems to me that you pay more attention to the child’s prattle than you do to what I have to say.” Evidently this speech related to an earlier quarrel which, to judge from the expression on the young man’s face, he had hoped forgotten.

Howard settled himself firmly on the hearthrug, the short edge of which he clasped firmly with both hands, as if clinging to a flying carpet.  Mrs.  Lovecraft was the only one to notice.  Helena gazed fixedly at a framed photograph of a lady dressed in the fashion of 1880 while the young man addressed the back of her head: “While the softness – er – gentleness of your voice is – er – no doubt, a most becoming trait in a…  er – most becoming…”

“You needn’t try to squirm out of it through flattery,” Helena coldly informed the fifteen-year-old photograph.

Young Howard, sensing that adult attention was elsewhere, was trying to climb the mantelpiece with the intention of rubbing the gas bracket in the hope of a genie.  “Stop that Howard,” directed his mother, continuing, to both Howard and the two young adults, “now, now, let’s have no more of this.”

The young man fixed a rather forced smile on his face.  “I am sorry, Mrs.  Lovecraft, I did not mean to raise the matter again.  But really, it doesn’t aid my hearing when Helena turns her back to me whilst speaking.”

Helena snorted, possibly in derision, while Mrs.  Lovecraft raised her hands and cried, “Enough!”

Howard was making his way over to the table where the oil lamp seemed easily accessible.  “I am sorry to have mentioned it,” the young man apologised, without a great deal of humility.  

The fond smile returned to Mrs.  Lovecraft’s lips.  “Howard has such an active imagination.  I wonder what he thinks he’s going over to the table for.  Perhaps it represents a jewel-encrusted palace…  I supposse that he took his Saracen name from some Arabian Nights tale.”

“Indeed not,” the young man with spectacles corrected her, “I suggested it to him myself.  I do not,” he added archly, “listen so attentively to the child as some people would suppose.”

“Well, if other people devoted less of their attention to becoming experts on heathen nomenclature, they might have more to spare for the discourse of Christians,” Helena informed a nondescript sepia landscape print.  

Mrs.  Lovecraft raised her hands as if attempting to push an invisible object a foot or so before her shoulders.  But as Howard, having reached the table, stretched out his hands towards the oil lamp, it was to him that she cried, “No!  Come away from that!” as she screwed up her eyes.

The young man apparently heeded her evident distress, for he seemed to change the subject abruptly.  “You know those awful old books on the shelves upstairs – the Latin ones?”

Mrs.  Lovecraft relaxed visibly.  “You mean the old Phillips collection of incunabula – some of them are rather valuable, I believe.”

Howard was slowly returning to the hearthrug…  Helena seemed bored, irritable and restless.  “Valuable?” asked the young man.  “It’s one word, I suppose…  Anyway, the biggest of the lot, the one at the top left hand corner, covered in some evil-smelling skin.  I’m sure it’s not leather…”

“Father said it was long pigskin,” returned Mrs.  Lovecraft, encouragingly.  “He said that it isn’t often used in bookbinding, though there’s quite a lot of it about.  He didn’t say what it was generally used for, and it does have an odd odour.”

Howard was back on the hearthrug with each of the tools of the companion set in turn, starting with the hearthbrush.  Helena seemed more bored and more irritated.  She stalked from the room, ostentatiously yawning.  The young man grimaced at her retreating back, addressing his hostess absently, “Sausage skins, perhaps?”

“Very likely,” agreed Mrs.  Lovecraft.  

Helena closed the door behind her, while Howard returned his attention to the small shovel.  “Anyway,” added the young man, almost as an afterthought, “that’s where I got the name from.”

“Which name?” Mrs.  Lovecraft had obviously lost the thread of the conversation.

“Abdul Alhazred.  It’s the name on the spine of that book.  The book’s in Latin but it isn’t a Latin name.  Abdul Alhazred, it does sound Arabian.”

Young Howard Lovecraft had taken up his small shovel once more and appeared to be engaged in a furious battle with invisible demons.