Almost exactly eight years ago, as autumn was gathering its troops for an assault on the Northern European summer – perhaps the closest thing to Paradise we may experience on this earth – I drifted into this film festival with a certain plan in mind. The two films selected differed significantly in their premises but were indicative of my particular bias for the region: two Russian sisters, baptized into a life of luxury by an unscrupulous father, were the subject of the first tale; the second featured the most beautiful city in Europe and a black feline whose origin was, well, probably somewhere beyond our realm. That the sisters' reality reflected the brutal capitalism of the New Russia, or whatever it calls itself, was of lesser importance than the manifest superstition of the typically skeptical Dane. Even small tractable beasts in their sleekness and perfection hint at some distant power, which brings us to this story.
Our protagonist is an impecunious gentleman, Marshall King, of "expensive tastes, great expectations, aristocratic connections, but no actual money." We cannot lament the fact that he is given to "pigeon-shooting and polo-playing" any more than the condition of other landed elite who just happen to be stony broke. Yet King is more sensitive than your average peer. His desire to stave off his mounting creditors – a strange parallel to what would occur later in his story – is attenuated by a longing for a plain, happy life bereft of the social responsibilities that accompany wealth. Since in the family there is a considerable amount of money, King cannot help but feel that he is being precluded owing to little faith in his capabilities, a rather damning verdict for a man of leisure if true. For that reason then does he leap at an unexpected invitation: his first cousin Everard, who is anything but impecunious, has just arrived from Brazil, bringing with him fauna of the most outlandish caliber, from birds to serpents to creatures wholly unknown to contemporary Europe. But while Everard's panama hat, white linen clothes, cigar and back-slapping mirth all cater to an unfortunate stereotype, it is his Brazilian wife who may be his most exotic import:
Nothing could be more hearty than his manner, and he set me at my ease in an instant. But it needed all his cordiality to atone for the frigidity and even rudeness of his wife, a tall, haggard woman, who came forward at his summons. She was, I believe, of Brazilian extraction, though she spoke excellent English, and I excused her manners on the score of her ignorance of our customs. She did not attempt to conceal, however, either then or afterwards, that I was no very welcome visitor at Greylands Court. Her actual words were, as a rule, courteous, but she was the possessor of a pair of particularly expressive dark eyes, and I read in them very clearly from the first that she heartily wished me back in London once more.
If you are familiar with Conan Doyle's most famous collection of tales, you may detect similarities between this Latin American woman and a couple of others – but I will leave that to the Holmesians. King gladly treks out to Clipton-on-the-Marsh dreaming of a blank check, his wretched frame inspired with hope from Everard's reputation as a benevolent and unstinting soul. The invitation is for a week, during which time he will get to know his cousin and his wild adventures, ostensibly a socially acceptable means of currying favor with a more moneyed relative. He is not disappointed, but rather whisked into a manor of immense proportions, and immediately asked to do nothing except be himself – all of which, coupled with Everard's manic requests for telegrams ("he had never fewer than three or four telegrams a day, and sometimes as many as seven or eight") might lead less gullible minds to a certain conclusion.
Apart from a few flashes of incomplete understanding, King never questions his cousin's behavior. He never really wonders why the man has so many animals but no children, why he invited a cousin he barely knew to exist and who could be expected to hit him up for an intrafamily loan, or, considering his eccentric hobbies, why he would bother to come back to England in the first place. King is certainly more chary of the wife, who is portrayed by Everard as kind but "incredibly jealous," her ideal for the couple being "a desert island and an eternal tête-à-tête." The shrewd reader will already have two or three scenarios in mind as Everard reveals the main attraction of his private zoo, a beast kept apart from the rest of the animals for very obvious reasons. Although details of this monster will not be divulged here, one should ask oneself what type of megalomaniac would risk life and all four limbs to cordon off part of his manor for a dangerous pet (another Holmes story might aid in answering this question). King does everything he can to display his helplessness and lack of knowledge on the nature of the beast, and despite the fact that the whole scheme smacks of skulduggery, we will only be as informed as our first-person narrator. Even if we know what type of brutes Everard would keep on his desert isle.