A Letter to the Editors of Anciens Boudoirs
from Eric Cecil-Seymour
I write to you, as a longtime reader of your publication, to tell a somewhat upsetting story about our recent search for a new employee. Though not directly related to the collecting of antique furniture and furnishings, I believe my tale will be of interest to your readers, particularly given the extraordinarily troubling times in which we are fated to live.
As you may know, generations of Cecil-Seymours have striven to turn our home into a monument to the histories of all civilized peoples. We have, for instance, salvaged many pieces from the 'black market' after the now infamous 2018 looting and burning of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but our efforts in that case are simply the latest in a long, and—if I may be allowed some pride—venerable tradition of saving inestimably valuable cultural treasures from certain destruction. Our estate is most famous, perhaps, for its hermitage, which, as visitors will know, was deliberately constructed so that anyone observing it from the main building's windows would be gazing in the direction of distant Jerusalem. It was hoped that this would prompt us all to holy thoughts of an immediate pilgrimage; though, of course, actual pilgrims would have had to pack their bags for the port—or, while it still stood, JFK. Who would have thought that such an excrescence would be so sorely missed! More importantly, of course, the hermitage owes its fame to the collection of Russian ikons, saved from the Bolshevik revolution, that it houses. Now, the objects for which we Cecil-Seymours care belong, ultimately, to the people. And so we have kept our home and its hermitage open to the public for over a century—not stinting, especially, during the recent troubles, which have seen such a cataclysm in the human species' patrimony.
I have—it seems unavoidable—alluded to the extraordinary difficulties our nation, indeed, the world as a whole, is facing. Although the walls around Seymour Grove have protected us from the worst reactions, and we still greet the odd Asiatic tourist as she makes her way gratis through our grounds, one ought not to assume that we have been unaffected. The nearby communities are wont to sponsor our artistic and cultural activities; but last year, for the first time since the financial crisis, they were obliged to refrain. The situation has certainly not improved in the meantime. Though I am sad that we will not be able to carry out our planned exhibition of 8th-century Persian bronze home-wares (a field ripe for a revisionist reading), I was, and am, far more stricken by the fact that the good men and women of New Kent should be in such dire straits that they cannot even patronize the arts.
Together with my nephew and his wife (a noted senator), I decided to take action: I assumed that I could, at the very least, double the number of staff at the Seymour Institute. Imagine my despair when I was informed by my financial advisers, in no uncertain terms, that no more funds would be available from our investments, which were plunging in value; nor from our bank accounts (reports of the chaos in Switzerland are not as exaggerated as some would lead us to believe); nor, indeed, from any outside sources of funding. In short, I could hire as many people as I wished, but I would be in no position to pay them. Distraught, I retired to my bedroom.
I have already mentioned Seymour Grove's hermitage, and last year, while I was undertaking research into our family's history (preparatory to the composition of a book thereon, which, thanks to the strict new rules governing library usage, will have to be postponed), I discovered a very interesting fact about it: at the time of our nation's entrance into the first World War, the St. Cecil hermitage was famous not only for its latitudinal precision and architectural oddities, but also for its actual hermit. I hardly need tell you or your readers that this nation was not, in the 19th century, welcoming to those of our Catholic faith, so I am proud to say that for hundreds of years my family housed an individual man, usually an Austin friar (compared to the better known grey, black or even white friars, the Augustinians are very poorly supported), on our property. He was not required to work, nor even to pray for the family. Occasionally he would be asked to perform traditional mendicant duties or tasks for the benefit of visitors from other families or nations; once, indeed, our hermit was able to produce a vellum manuscript of the third gospel while an Italian Monsignor observed! I confess, the idea thrills me.
So, as I pondered the extraordinary unrest without our walls, where innocent men and women have fallen victim first to wealthy, parvenu ne'er-do-wells and then, immediately afterward, and still worse, to vitriolic rabble-rousing fools of the worst kind, I quickly connected my melancholy reflections to our melancholy, unoccupied hermitage, which my great-grandfather had emptied, as he confided to his diary, for the sake of the war effort, a war that he would later regard as among the gravest crimes against nature and virtue that our species had ever perpetrated. Our hermitage, unjustly unoccupied—our people, unjustly abused and unemployed: my nephew and his wife agreed immediately that we should do what we could, with what we have, to ease the suffering of New Kent. We could house a neighbor, who would then be in a position to buy more from the grocer, and so the virtuous cycle of economic exchange could be encouraged, in a small way at least. I recognized that our efforts would be woefully inadequate, that some may perceive them as an insult—a perspective with which I can fully sympathize, however unmerited the slander may be. But it is what I can do, indeed, all I could do.
So began our search for a new hermit. Naturally, we did not wish to limit our search to the friars; all are suffering, and so all must be considered as candidates for the position. The privacy of the family required that we not advertise openly in the local paper, or on-line. But we wanted the process to be as unbiased as possible. I asked my valet to choose at random ten names from the local voting registry, thus ensuring that the position go to a community member of good standing rather than a Johnny-come-lately or passing vagrant. As ever, Curtis performed his task elegantly, and provided me with a list. I wrote each person a letter, asking if they would like to interview for a position on the Institute's staff, and all ten responded almost immediately in the affirmative. Two even appended heart-rending tales—one of abject poverty, the other of passing marauders persecuting his family.
But the interviews did not go at all as I had planned. I had no interest, you will understand, in forcing these good people to 'sell themselves' to me. Such vulgarity could hardly be the right start for a hermit; indeed, it is scarcely compatible with even the most rudimentary of human dignities. Instead, I explained the nature of the position, and asked, I had thought cheerfully, if they had any questions. Three refused me point-blank on learning that the hermit would be required to take drug-tests. Five examined the contract and refused the terms contained therein (one because it didn't offer the possibility of further training; three were concerned at the lack of transparency from upper management; and the fifth, noticing that there were no 'events'—he suggested wine tastings, food trucks, summer picnics and employee discounts—smirked and said under his breath that we were 'totally behind the times'). The remaining two young men considered the position for a few minutes before deciding that it offered them insufficient flexibility and lacked outlets for their creativity.
You can imagine my shock! However, the following day I realized that we had, as they say, 'dodged a bullet.' Curtis had performed his task elegantly, but perhaps too elegantly: I realized, with more than a little discomfort, that he had hardly selected 'randomly,' that, in fact, he had selected only white men with backgrounds in business or, in the case of the young men, education from very prestigious universities. Had I ended up hiring one of them, well, one can only shudder at the lawsuits which would have immediately followed! And quite justly given the discrimination involved, though through no fault of my own nor, be it said, of Curtis's, since I had given him such little guidance. I asked him to select ten further names, this time stating very clearly that he was to choose only women and Hispanics. What could be more picturesque, after all, than a mendicant beguine (though she be non-traditionally solitary) or an atavistic Spaniard, whose faith has barely changed since the Reconquista? It is just possible, I told myself, that, in addition to the help we would provide to the local economy, such an employee could increase the diversity of visitors to our humble estate, should worldly conditions ever improve.
However, I had no more luck with these men and women than I had had with the first applicants. Two had no intention of taking the position at all; they attended only to lambast what they claimed to be my family's fascist past, though, as a diligent reader of my grandfather's journals, I can confirm that he loathed not only Hitler, but also Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Franco, Peron, Churchill, FDR and, more even than these, though for reasons too personal for him to confide even to the page, Attlee. Three said that a website had listed the Seymour Institute as among the worst places to work for women, and that they could never support such a work environment, though I checked, and the researchers gave no grounds for their rankings—not to mention that the survey had been conducted almost ten years ago. Two recent immigrants concluded, through an interpreter, that they could not work at an institution so devoid of Spanish speakers (this grieves me, and, I admit, it is my fault for never taking the time to learn the tongue). The remaining three repeated almost verbatim what the young white men had said earlier about flexibility and creative outlets.
Once again, my best efforts had been defeated. Curtis apologized profusely for his mistake after the first ten interviews, but he insisted—correctly, I believe—that his second ten names were in fact randomly chosen women and Hispanic members of our community, rendered unemployed by events outside their, or indeed anyone's, control. Perhaps I was upset at my own inability to help. Perhaps I was, embarrassingly and regrettably, annoyed by the apparent unwillingness of these men and women to recognize what I was offering them. In any case, that night I took a book and flounced to my bedroom in search of solitude. From the bartizan in the corner, I could see, or perhaps only imagined I saw, the flames edging from the city toward New Kent. There is little between us.
Fortunately, the book I happened to have grabbed soothed my agitated mind, and helped me to resolve my dilemma. It seems that there is some connection between the 19th century tradition of hermitage follies and hermits on the one hand, and what we today know—I should perhaps rather say 'yesterday knew'—as garden gnomes, on the other. I could not, despite my best efforts, employ anyone in the hermitage, though its library is excellently stocked and the garden, cellar, and pasture provide all that even the most demanding gourmand could reasonably desire under present circumstances. I was able, however, to patronize our local nursery. I did so.
Though not as picturesque as an actual hermit, or even as someone acting as such, the life-size gnome who now stands in all weather, at the hermitage window, gazing back towards our drawing room windows, adds a little life to our grounds. Sadly, as you may know, the flames are now warming the roads around New Kent, though, thankfully, they are yet to claim any lives. Nobody has been to visit since the gnome has taken up residence, but I go to the hermitage myself, sometimes, when the world—whether the Seymour Institute, my family, or the horrors every day more common beyond my admittedly narrow confines—is simply too much for me to bear. I read from the library, I inspect and care for the ikons, I dust and dress the gnome in whatever outfit seems best to him that day.
Indeed, I write this very letter to you from the hermitage. Few of your dedicated readers will have the resources available to me, I know, and few will be lucky enough to enjoy the isolation that keeps me safe from the rioting and chaos (I am glad that Anciens Boudoirs continues to arrive on my doorstep at the start of each quarter!). But I write now to impress upon you all, even the most humble, the need to support our fellow men and women in these increasingly dark times. I have done little enough, but it is something. None of us can tell when these troubles will end, nor what will be left when they do, mais, as they say, il faut absolument cultiver notre jardin. For what will be left if we do not?
J. D. Evans is a writer living in Los Angeles. His essays have appeared in The Point Magazine. In his spare time, he worries greatly about the end of civilization.