Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 244
Publication Date: 1930
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ON the table before me there lies a long straight wand of ivory. Cut to the length of a walking-stick, it is somewhat more than two inches in diameter at the top and it tapers evenly to a blunt point. Smooth-backed ridges, not more than a quarter of an inch in height, spiral round it counter-clockwise, making about two turns and a half between one end and the other. As a whole, it is a twisted spear. One can fancy that it has been taken in powerful hands and wrung, as one wrings a wet cloth. Thomas Fuller, having seen another such ivory wand as this, said excellently that to his dim eyes and at some distance it seemed "like a taper of wreathed waxe".
This walking-stick has been fitted at the upper end with a gilded silver cap which bears the arms of a certain noble house and a motto in Welsh. Four inches below the cap a hole has been bored through the stick--one would say, at first, to receive the cord to which some gentleman of the grand old days attached the silken tassel that adorned his cane. I scarcely think, however, that this particular stick ever tapped its way along Birdcage Walk or through the gardens of Versailles, partly because there are no signs of wear on its point and partly because it weighs something like three pounds. More probably, the cord that went through this hole was used not to carry a tassel but to hang the stick against the wall in some great house of three or four centuries ago.
And yet I do not doubt that some of the former owners of this wand carried it about with them, but when they did so they carried it neither for comfort nor display; rather, it was their companion on dark nights and in perilous places, and they held it near their hearts, handling it tenderly, as they would a treasure. For indeed it was exactly that. It preserved a man from the arrow that flieth by day and the pestilence that walketh in darkness, from the craft of the poisoner, from epilepsy, and from several less dignified ills of the flesh not to be named in so distinguished a connection. In short, it was an amulet, a talisman, a weapon, and a medicine-chest all in one. Small wonder that such a wand as this, in the days when such things were appreciated, sold for twenty times its weight in gold, and that one alone, as Thomas Dekker said, was "worth a city". Small wonder that perfect sticks like this were to be seen only in the treasure-chambers of popes and emperors and kings, or, when some opulent church like St. Mark's of Venice did manage to acquire one, that it should be shown to the public only on gala days and beneath a pall of purple velvet.
The stick before me, although of ivory, was not cut from an elephant's tusk or even from the tusk of a mammoth or mastodon. It grew as it is, and according to the most learned. opinion of many generations it grew single on the brow of a beast so glorious, so virtuous, so beautiful, that heaven vouchsafed the earth, as in the case of the phoenix, only one specimen at a time. For this is the horn of the unicorn. To retrace the devious ways by which this piece of ivory, so reverently handled, has come to lie here on my writing-desk, I shall have to tell a story that ranges back through more "wild centuries" than we can count--a story that begins with a time before cities or agriculture, when barbarous tribes wandered with their herds from summer to winter pasturage and back again, a tale that includes at one end the most primitive myths and the first stirrings of the moral sense and at the other the trickery of the charlatan and the mountebank. Into the web of this tale I shall have to catch up many strands of the history of exploration, of medicine, of art, of commerce, and of scientific thought. The fact is that I cannot explain how this ivory wand came to lie before me--I purchased it not long ago from a London dealer in antiques for about three guineas--without indicating, in one vivid example, the ways by which magic rose into religious dogma and this gradually succumbed, or is succumbing, under the attrition of modern science. But even then, of course, I shall fall short of a full explanation, and any reader of these words who cherishes the few relics of superstition that we have left to us may be assured that this book will not "murder to dissect", will not substitute a dull explanation for one of the most beautiful legends in the world. The remote and solitary strangeness of the unicorn is perfectly safe from me, and I think from any one; for even if I did not prefer to do so I should have to let him stalk away, at the end, into the mystery out of which he comes.
The lore of the unicorn is enormous in range and variety, not only because of the great expanse of time it covers but because it involves so many different departments of knowledge, and the literature dealing specifically with the topic is surprisingly extensive. Like most of my predecessors, I have hunted the unicorn chiefly in libraries, realizing the delightful absurdity of the task quite as fully as any one could point it out to me. A zoologist would have written on my topic a different and probably a shorter book, but for me the unicorn is interesting almost entirely as a denizen of "the Monarch Thought's dominions". Whether there is or is not an actual unicorn--and this is one of the questions upon which I shall merely quote the opinions of others--he cannot possibly be so fascinating or so important as the things men have dreamed and thought and written about him. A dream, if it is no more than that, of such great age and beauty as this of the unicorn, is far more worthy of consideration than the question whether we shall have one species more or less in the earth's fauna. And the dream, at any rate, is an unquestionable fact, a phenomenon of the mind; it has grown like a tree, striking deep roots in thought and spreading huge boughs against our mental sky. This book about the unicorn is a minute contribution to the study of the only subject that deeply and permanently concerns us--human nature and the ways of human thought.