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October 24 , 2008

Lore of the Unicorn


ON the table before me there lies a long straight wand of ivory. Cut to the length of a walking-stick, it is somewhat more than two inches in diameter at the top and it tapers evenly to a blunt point. Smooth-backed ridges, not more than a quarter of an inch in height, spiral round it counter-clockwise, making about two turns and a half between one end and the other. As a whole, it is a twisted spear. One can fancy that it has been taken in powerful hands and wrung, as one wrings a wet cloth. Thomas Fuller, having seen another such ivory wand as this, said excellently that to his dim eyes and at some distance it seemed "like a taper of wreathed waxe". This walking-stick has been fitted at the upper end with a gilded silver cap which bears the arms of a certain noble house and a motto in Welsh. Four inches below the cap a hole has been bored through the stick – one would say, at first, to receive the cord to which some gentleman of the grand old days attached the silken tassel that adorned his cane. I scarcely think, however, that this particular stick ever tapped its way along Birdcage Walk or through the gardens of Versailles, partly because there are no signs of wear on its point and partly because it weighs something like three pounds. More probably, the cord that went through this hole was used not to carry a tassel but to hang the stick against the wall in some great house of three or four centuries ago. And yet I do not doubt that some of the former owners of this wand carried it about with them, but when they did so they carried it neither for comfort nor display; rather, it was their companion on dark nights and in perilous places, and they held it near their hearts, handling it tenderly, as they would a treasure. For indeed it was exactly that. It preserved a man from the arrow that flieth by day and the pestilence that walketh in darkness, from the craft of the poisoner, from epilepsy, and from several less dignified ills of the flesh not to be named in so distinguished a connection. In short, it was an amulet, a talisman, a weapon, and a medicine-chest all in one. Small wonder that such a wand as this, in the days when such things were appreciated, sold for twenty times its weight in gold, and that one alone, as Thomas Dekker said, was "worth a city". Small wonder that perfect sticks like this were to be seen only in the treasure-chambers of popes and emperors and kings, or, when some opulent church like St. Mark's of Venice did manage to acquire one, that it should be shown to the public only on gala days and beneath a pall of purple velvet. The stick before me, although of ivory, was not cut from an elephant's tusk or even from the tusk of a mammoth or mastodon. It grew as it is, and according to the most learned. opinion of many generations it grew single on the brow of a beast so glorious, so virtuous, so beautiful, that heaven vouchsafed the earth, as in the case of the phoenix, only one specimen at a time. For this is the horn of the unicorn.
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