The Children of Osiris
“An Englishman, as a free man,” said Voltaire, “goes to heaven by the road which pleases him.” If there are many roads that lead to perdition, then there are as many that lead to salvation; and England probably houses more diverse, odd and little known religions than any other country in the world. And of all places in this island most conducive to the flourishing of these many beliefs, none can equal the little town of Welworth. Welworth is not an ordinary town. It is that rarefied, mushroom-like, highly individualistic conglomeration of bricks and mortar known as a Garden City. There is no house in Welworth over thirty years old. There are no slums, monuments, garden-fences, bill-hoardings or public-houses. There is a plethora of flowering shrubs, litter-baskets, broad avenues, Arty-Crafty Shoppes, mock-Tudor, mock-Georgian, mock-Italianate villas. There is, of course, a Health Food Store selling Brazil Nut Butter, cold spaghetti fritters, maté tea and a most comprehensive and staggering range of herbal pills and purgatives. Per head of the population, Welworth probably consumes more lettuce and raw carrot than any other community in the country. A very high percentage of the Welworth élite are not only vegetarians, but non-smokers, non-drinkers and non-pretty-well-everything-that-makes-life-worth-living for less high-minded citizens.
They weave their own cloth, knit their own jumpers and go their own ways with that recherché look common to all who have espoused the Higher Life. Many favour shorts and open-work sandals. A large number do barbola-work or dabble in batik. Some are genuine, some are not; but all bear with them the undeniable stamp of individuality and burn with the unquenchable fire of their particular faith. It may be Theosophy or Babaism; it may be Seventh Day Adventism, Christian Science, Pantheism or what you will—but in a naughty world full of atheists and agnostics, Welworth is a refreshing centre of spiritual élan and a complete refutation of the theory that sectarianism in this country is on the wane.
It is claimed (with all due deference to Mr. Heinz) that there are fifty-seven varieties of religion in Welworth. It speaks highly of the town’s tolerance. Some are orthodox. Some are unorthodox but well known. Others are unorthodox and unknown. And among the latter, probably the least orthodox and the most exclusive, is that queer, somewhat exotic sect, founded by Eustace K. Mildmann in the early nineteen hundreds, called the Children of Osiris.
For the sake of brevity in a busy world, the Children of Osiris, adopting the initials of their full title, referred to their doctrine as the Cult of Coo, or more simply, Cooism. (Not to be confused, of course, with Coué-ism.) The gods of Cooism were those of Ancient Egypt—Osiris, Isis, Horus, Thoth, Set, and so forth—but this rich mythology had been modernised and modified by the inclusion of many dogmas borrowed from less remote religions. The result was a catholic hot-pot compounded of a belief in magic numbers, astrology, auras, astral bodies, humility, meditation, vegetarianism, immortality, hand-woven tweeds and brotherly love. It was, in short, an obliging religion because one could find in it pretty well anything one looked for. Eustace Mildmann found everything in it. It was his child, his passion, his whole life. He had created Cooism and because, before seeing the light, Eustace had been a nonentity, it might be said that Cooism had created Eustace Mildmann. It had lifted him out of a small provincial bookshop and set him down in Welworth with five elderly female acolytes, an enormous and contagious enthusiasm for his faith and a small overdraft at his bank. His sincerity was not to be doubted. Cooism to Eustace was the key to all life’s mysteries. It was the only straight road that led to salvation. He believed it could solve everything—even the overdraft at his bank. And like many men of unswerving belief he found his optimism justified. He found in Welworth an intellectual coterie ready and willing to listen to him. His five female acolytes soon became ten, fifteen, fifty zealots of both sexes. He found a small tin hall left by some improvident sect that had gone theologically and financially bankrupt. It became the first Temple of Cooism. And finally, like a Parsifal who at length discovers his Holy Grail, he found the Hon. Mrs. Hagge-Smith. After that Cooism, so to speak, was on the map.
Before he left his bookshop and moved to Welworth, Eustace had become a widower. It was shortly after the death of his wife, in fact, that he set out to evolve the first principles of Cooism. His best ideas had always come to him when sunk in a self-imposed trance, or, as he more pithily expressed it, “during a phase of Yogi-like non-being”. (“Non-being” figured as a very important factor in the Cult of Coo, though nobody seemed able to define its exact significance.) Whether the original idea of Terence, his only child, had also occurred to him when in a state of “non-being” seems doubtful, for at such periods Eustace was a receptacle for good ideas and Terence was probably the worst idea he’d ever had. For Terence was the antithesis of his father. Where Eustace was mild, dreamy and soft-spoken, Terence was athletic and practical, with a booming bass voice. When Eustace had first moved to Welworth, Terence was still a very junior schoolboy. At the time when this narrative opens he was a gradely young man of twenty-one, with a healthy appetite, wholesome ideas and the physique of a boxer. In the interim, his father had done everything to undermine his normality. He had sent him to a co-ed school with an ultra-modern, one might almost say, post-impressionistic curriculum; clamped down on his tremendous appetite with a strict vegetarianism; made him a Symbol-Bearer in the Temple of Osiris; and with the inhumanity of a fanatic with a one-track mind, kept him very short of pocket-money. To say that Terence disliked his father is not an exaggeration. He simmered with resentment under the restrictions placed upon him. He thought Cooism the most incomprehensible twaddle. He thought the Children of Osiris the most embarrassing collection of cranks in a town where ordinary men seemed odd. He rated vegetarianism as an unnatural vice. He thought co-education sloppy. He considered the Hon. Mrs. Hagge-Smith a blot on the face of creation. And yet, being naturally inarticulate and obedient, Terence dared not come out in open rebellion. He just suffered in silence like a goaded ox. Sometimes there was a look in his eye that was strangely reminiscent of an ox—a look of patient resignation that gave way every now and then to a gleam of ominous hostility.
The Mildmanns, father and son, lived in the mockest of mock-Tudor mansions on Almond Avenue. It was a big, secluded house standing in an acre of well-kept garden as befitted the High Prophet of Cooism. It was run by an efficient lady-housekeeper, a widow by the name of Laura Summers, a handsome, even striking, blonde, with perfect manners and a cultured voice. In the emancipated atmosphere of a Garden City this arrangement raised no breath of scandal. Merely a rip-snorting tornado of vilification that would have pulverised any man less innocent and unworldly as Mr. Mildmann. As it was he never even thought of Mrs. Summers as a blonde. She was his housekeeper and a convert (though not a particularly reliable one) to Cooism. Between Terence and Mrs. Summers there was considerable sympathy and understanding. Her late husband had been a man with a big appetite and few ideas. She felt sorry for Terence in his over-tight shorts, his sandals and open-neck shirts. He looked so like a little boy that has grown out of his clothes that the mere sight of him roused all her maternal instincts. They formed a sort of nebulous alliance against the soft-fingered influences of Eustace Mildmann. They shared little private jokes over many things that the Children of Osiris held sacred. Misplaced, perhaps, but very human. In particular over Mrs. Hagge-Smith—the very sight of whom always reduced Terence to a state of unutterable boredom.
Ostensibly the Archbishop—or in the nomenclature of the order, the “High Prophet”—of Cooism was, of course, its founder, Eustace Mildmann. But the force behind the movement, the financial prop, the true director of policy, was Alicia Hagge-Smith. She paid the piper and so, naturally, she called the tune. She was quite accustomed to calling the tune. She had been calling it all her life, for the simple reason that her late husband had made a million out of mineral waters.
Right from her earliest years Alicia had taken to religion as other women take to golf, bridge or pink gin. She had, so to speak, a nose for odd religions—the odder the better. She had feasted at the tables of many a faith, but always in the long run she had suffered spiritual indigestion and retired in search of a more assimilatory diet. At one time she had actually turned her back on the problems of salvation and taken up Eurhythmics. Unfortunately, a generous build coupled with an artistic fervour out of keeping with her mature years, had led her to rick her back during one of the more advanced exercises, leaving a vacuum in her life which was quickly filled with Cooism. And in Cooism, Mrs. Hagge-Smith seemed to have found a spiritual pabulum that suited her to a T. She gobbled up the movement lock, stock and barrel and, thereafter, allowed Eustace five thousand a year to act as figurehead whilst she steered the ship. Luckily, Eustace (probably during a phase of “non-being”) recognised on which side his bread was buttered, and sensibly accepted Mrs. Hagge-Smith’s patronage with open arms. In less than no time Cooism thrust out tentacles, though its central body still remained in Welworth, and, within four years of Alicia’s enrolment as a Child of Osiris, its membership numbered over ten thousand and Temples sprang up in London and the provinces. Within five years its subscriptions and donations covered all disbursements. In six, Cooism was making a handsome profit and Eustace found himself saddled with a far more elaborate hierarchy for the running of his movement. He needed his Bishop of York, so to speak—a worthy successor who, in the event of his sudden demise, could step into his sandals. It was thus that the office of Prophet-in-Waiting was created and paved the way for the sudden, flamboyant entry of that enigmatic personage, Peta Penpeti.
From its inauguration Cooism had attracted a very distinct type of initiate. It was a cult for the few rather than the many; and the few for the most part were well able to afford the exclusive entrance fee that was deliberately imposed by Mrs. Hagge-Smith in order to sort the sheep from the goats. Alicia, when backing her enthusiasms, preferred quality rather than quantity. She liked her religion to have a certain ton, a certain je ne sais quoi of good-breeding about it. She often felt that Eustace, as High Prophet, was a trifle too democratic in outlook. To him all converts were grist to the mills of his particular creed, irrespective of their accents and incomes. Even as High Prophet, Eustace himself was not quite…and here Mrs. Hagge-Smith would twiddle her fingers and shake her grey locks.
Then, enhaloed in mystery, there had arrived in Welworth Garden City a man after Alicia’s own heart. A man with poise and personality; a man with a black beard and dark, hypnotic eyes; a man with an exotic accent and the manners of a French count.
“Penpeti,” declared Mrs. Hagge-Smith, “is not only a man—he’s an experience!”
Be that as it may, Peta Penpeti soon rose in the ranks of the order. He brought a new and exciting mysticism into the meetings, an oriental spice that had previously been missing from the hot-pot. His name alone stirred the imagination, for wasn’t Penpeti a genuine ancient Egyptian surname? It meant “divine father”, and that, in fact, is what Penpeti soon became to many of the more impressionable and younger daughters of Cooism. Although there was nothing divine in his appearance, his attitude to these young ladies, however, was strictly paternal and his devotion to the Movement seemed irreproachable. He claimed to be a reincarnation of a certain Pen Penpeti, a priest in the temple of Amen-Ra at Thebes, but his more immediate origins remained shrouded in mystery. It was rumoured that he had actually been born within sight of the Nile, that he had later led a life of dissipation in Cairo, run through a considerable fortune, repented of his ways and arrived in England in search of salvation. He had been tutored, so it was said, by a Scotch dominie, which doubtless accounted for his faultless use of the English language.
Mrs. Hagge-Smith found him delightful. His polish and urbanity were refreshing after Eustace’s rather dreary humility. She liked the jaunty angle at which he wore his fez and the long black caftan he wore beneath his black cloak. She liked his oriental exaggerations, his long, mystical silences, his air of culture and assurance.
In Welworth, Penpeti was probably the finest single advertisement that the Children of Osiris had ever received. Comment on him invariably led to some mention of Cooism, and Cooism to some mention of Eustace Mildmann. So, in a way, Eustace was bathed in reflected glory. After the advent of Penpeti, Mrs. Hagge-Smith was able to double the annual subscription and, out of the resultant profits, Penpeti was voted a salary of five hundred a year. He seemed to have no money of his own, which was not surprising since he was supposed to have squandered a fortune. He lived modestly in a Garden City Council House in Wistaria Road—that is to say, an ordinary Council House with blue-painted frames and doors, two bay-trees in scarlet tubs and a flagstone path. He took most of his meals at the Rational Feeding Restaurant, a vegetarian dive on Broadway, Welworth’s main thoroughfare. A daily woman came in and “did” for him. Penpeti, in short, for all his extravagant appearance, lived in an atmosphere of monastic isolation. But whether by choice or necessity nobody was prepared to say.
But there they were, this exclusive, intelligent coterie of seekers-after-truth—eccentric, temperamental, “different”, perhaps, but at bed-rock moved by those passions, great and small, which are the arbiters of human action. On the surface the Children of Osiris seemed to reflect indeed all the uncomplicated and lovable traits of the very young. They seemed to be banded together by their common faith, imbued with an almost excessive consideration for each other’s feelings. But appearances, even in a Garden City, are deceptive. Beneath this concealing crust of Cooism a ferment was at work; small hostilities were growing; vague jealousies were gaining strength; little intrigues swelling into obsessions. And far off, no more than a dark speck beyond a distant horizon, wasn’t there a nebulous hint of approaching tragedy in the air? Big oaks from little acorns grow, and viewing events in retrospect there seems little doubt that the jumping-off point of this tragedy was Alicia Hagge-Smith’s “vision”. Without her “vision” circumstances favourable to a murder would never have materialised. And without a murder, Inspector Meredith would never have heard of the Children of Osiris. As it was, he always considered it to be one of the most interesting, bizarre, and exacting of all his cases.