That there is more than one concept of the abstract and eternal among the peoples of our lonely planet is as natural as the multiplicity of language or national hymn. We may be conditioned to some degree by the culture in which we become independent adults, and it would be dreadfully tedious to have only culture, one language, and, for that matter, one anthem. Yet the enlightened few among us understand that some basic human morals do not and cannot mutate, and are certainly not relative to the realm in which they reign (this universalism is perhaps most pithily summarized in the watchword, "peace and prosperity," although there is much more to life than peace and prosperity). When a difference in faith is involved, the bridges over the rivers that split cities and countries and families are based on what that deity desires for us and how he manifests and cloaks that desire – if those two verbs somehow do not become interchangeable. For those, however, who worship something evil – even if that evil is themselves – little can be done. Which brings us to this odd tale.
The time and place are late nineteenth Victorian England, where a small priest native to those isles and a hulking Frenchman take their rest somewhat outside of London:
Certain of the great roads going north out of London continue far into the country a sort of attenuated and interrupted spectre of a street, with great gaps in the building, but preserving the line. Here will be a group of shops, followed by a fenced field or paddock, and then a famous public-house, and then perhaps a market garden or a nursery garden, and then one large private house, and then another field and another inn, and so on. If anyone walks along one of these roads he will pass a house which will probably catch his eye, though he may not be able to explain its attraction. It is a long, low house, running parallel with the road, painted mostly white and pale green, with a veranda and sun-blinds, and porches capped with those quaint sort of cupolas like wooden umbrellas that one sees in some old-fashioned houses. In fact, it is an old-fashioned house, very English and very suburban in the good old wealthy Clapham sense. And yet the house has a look of having been built chiefly for the hot weather. Looking at its white paint and sun-blinds one thinks vaguely of pugarees and even of palm trees. I cannot trace the feeling to its root; perhaps the place was built by an Anglo-Indian.
It is the last word that should most concern us, because it aptly describes the house's owner, the celebrated poet Leonard Quinton. Quinton himself was never one of those tanned, gruff, alcoholically violent military officers who spent the majority of their careers quelling the indigenous urges of the Indian subcontinent – quite the opposite. In shape and habit Quinton has much of the Romantic poet who seeks communion with the feelings that surge within against any wilfulness he might exert. If he were a child, and many Romantic poets certainly begin and end as children, he would draw. He would take the nearest blank slate and infuse the entire spectrum of colors into one picture because colors do not mean night, death, or the white shroud of morbidity; over time, he would select his favorites and make them the markers of his world (personally, I have always had a fondness for purple or lilac).
Understandably then were so many Romantic poets attracted to the Orient. Raised in the austere blandness of Protestant Northern Europe, they sought refuge in the mad medley of Islamic and other Eastern tinctures. Some would even argue – and this argument is still relevant today, given the splotches that inhabit many a modern museum – that it is typical of the less developed artistic mind to prefer the onrush of color to that of substance, the bedlam of every permutation of the earth's light to the crystal clarity of, say, an icon. Quinton proves himself to be no exception:
He was a man who drank and bathed in colours, who indulged his lust for colour somewhat to the neglect of form – even of good form. This it was that had turned his genius so wholly to eastern art and imagery; to those bewildering carpets or blinding embroideries in which all the colours seem fallen into a fortunate chaos, having nothing to typify or to teach. He had attempted, not perhaps with complete artistic success, but with acknowledged imagination and invention, to compose epics and love stories reflecting the riot of violent and even cruel colour; tales of tropical heavens of burning gold or blood-red copper; of eastern heroes who rode with twelve-turbaned mitres upon elephants painted purple or peacock green; of gigantic jewels that a hundred negroes could not carry, but which burned with ancient and strange-hued fires.
The scene depicted may remind the reader of this nightmare of a novel, the only difference being that Beckford's work actually makes its way into hell – but I digress. What is most mystifying amidst this tale of mystification is its title. The wrong shape may indeed refer to the chaos detected amidst the dazzling array of oils and threads, yet it also something else. When the poet's body is discovered next to a cryptic note ("I die by my own hand; yet I die murdered!"), the sermon paper on which his last scanned line is written has an edge snipped off to give it an irregular shape. The wrong shape? Well, the family friend and doctor attending Quinton seems to think so; it would probably behoove us to solicit opinions from the fakir Quinton employs, his drunken and impecunious brother-in-law, the poet's long-suffering wife (a "handsome, hard-working, and indeed, overworked woman"), or perhaps even Father Brown and his chum Flambeau. None of them agrees on who Quinton really was, a genius poisoned like this poet and this English philhellene by eastern flowers, or a decadent and jaded aesthete who had elements of both the Romantic and the fraud. Perhaps that's why it has long been a conceit of detective novels to study not only the scene and method of the crime, but also the victim, because apart from random acts of madness, it is the victim's personality that will explain who could not bear to see him live. And some souls have far too much personality for their own good.