The Speakable Cad

Author and naturalist, ALAN DEVOE has contributed to the Atlantic and other magazines.


MY STORY began to take shape about a week ago. It has been my haunting companion ever since. I am beginning to wonder whether I shall ever be able to get rid of the thing while I continue my profession of writing; or whether it will be necessary for me to switch jobs for a while and take some sort of hearty open-air work, like laying railway ties.

It all started when I saw a newspaper reference to the construction in Russia, or the Balkans, or somewhere, of an “impregnable fortress.” I suppose I have been seeing the words “impregnable fortress” at least once a week ever since I can remember. But this time it suddenly crossed my mind that it would be a great and glorious day for journalism if only some day, somewhere, some writer would make a reference to a pregnable fortress.

That did it. In the eye of the mind, I could see the pregnable fortress rising before me. I went about with the vision of it all day, picturing now this pregnable detail and now that one. By evening, I had decided what kind of roof a pregnable fortress would have. The roof, of course, would be pervious.

You begin to see the deadly fascination of the thing? Our English language contains a great horde of words which exist (or at least exist popularly) only in negative form. In that fatal moment when the vision of the pregnable fortress swam into my skull — that fortress with a roof not only pervious but also undoubtedly maculate — I was a lost man. Every time I used a negative word in a serious manuscript, I instantly now saw it with its prefix gone, and there was created a new detail for the idiotic story of the Pregnable Fortress.

How well — how horribly, horribly well!—I have come to know my story’s mise-en-scène. The grounds of the pregnable fortress, though large, cannot properly be called immense. They are mense. And the owner of the fortress has not suffered his place to become unkempt. These mense grounds of his, as I see them, are kempt. His servants keep them that. way by attending to them terminably.

In the pregnable fortress lives an unpleasant man. Other authors might call him an unspeakable cad. Actually, however, his caddishness is describable; so in my story he is known as the Speakable Cad. As my story opens, the Speakable Cad is just coming out of the pregnable fortress and is throwing away, upon the kempt lawn, the only cigarette he has smoked today. He smokes satiably.

(I have tried all week, with all my heart and soul, to stop the story right here and forget the detestable thing forever. But I can’t do it. I sit down at my typewriter, to try to write some grave and serious paper upon the nature of the universe or the destiny of man, and after a sentence or two I find myself using the word, say, “impeccable,” and right there my serious work is shot to pieces and the accursed story of the Speakable Cad has picked up irresistibly another detail. The Speakable Cad, having thrown away his cigarette, now stands looking up morosely at the pervious roof, and in the clear daylight we see how rumpled his suit is. It becomes essential to add to our narrative that he is dressed peccably.)

Will the Speakable Cad get the pervious roof mended or won’t he? He can’t make up his mind. He is a man of exorable purpose. Whatever goal he sets his mind on in life, he pursues it placably.

So now we see him standing there, musing and feeling vincible. Even the numerable ingredients of his breakfast, though splendidly sipid, have not heartened him much. As we look into his mind, we realize why. He is worrying not only about his told wealth, but also about certain ugly rumors which he has recently heard. These rumors are founded.

The Speakable Cad, looking neither quite innocent nor altogether nocent, now steps slowly across the kempt. . . .

But enough. I must bear the burden of this endless and idiotic story alone. Whether I can ever shake off this story of the Speakable Cad, and get back to my regular writing, I do not know. Perhaps the thing is hopeless as long as I remain a word-user. I just don’t know. All I know is that if I cannot get rid of this story pretty soon, my fate and future are only too, too scrutable.