The History of the Emporium

Seeking Narcissa

It all began one Thursday on a stony road in Wiltshire. A man in a hurry tripped over an annoyingly placed stone and cursed the heavens as his chest slammed into the chalk and limestone. Time passed as he drifted in and out of conscious while dawn crept in to shame those who knew her nighttime sister twilight. Eventually, a curious Badger wandered out to seek the worms who attracted the early morning birds down through the dewy plants and herbaceous borders. This one was somewhat surprised to find a rather large, what was it? A dog, cow or possibly a rather disease-ridden fellow Badger, but certainly not on the menu if it wanted to see another moon rise. It snuffled and sensed that peculiar stench associated with those upright monkeys who made such noise and imbibed such foul concoctions. The Badger shuffled past in search of a respectable grub worm or snail that wouldn’t upset its stomach.

A bleary eye opened, and Stoat Fecksup de Setterly felt the groan rise from the depths of his intestines. Death would be kinder than a Scrumpy-inspired hangover. And there was something else, something niggling at the corners of his diminished mind. A nagging, a clawing followed swiftly by horrendous recollection. He had been running away last night. People would be looking for him. He picked himself up after a few failed attempts and set to stumbling down the road towards his original destination. Three hours later and sitting in a post express heading to Bristol with a few possessions stuffed into a carpet bag, he put the previous evening in order. A gambler and a bit of a drinker at heart, he tended to do more of the former; the more of the latter had consumed and neither usually ended well. He had lost a lot of possessions over the years: gold, silver, horses and now the house. His wife was going to have a lot to say about that when the Marquis de Branchies-Bittantes came knocking on the door with this family in tow. Doing what all brave cowards do, he was skipping town and seeking warmer climes and something served in a tankard. Arriving at the port in the driving rain, he found the first ship heading out of port and paid all he could to sit in the hold and drink his way through a barrel of rum. Making no further enquiries, he drifted into oblivion. God does have a sense of humour despite what religions may say and that ship carrying a comatose stoat never made it to the Port of Madeira, where the nefarious captain was planning on a spot of raping, pillaging and plundering. Instead, a ferocious riptide combined with a blistering storm bore down on the stricken vessel somewhere off West Africa and washed the hapless crew overboard before they had time to swear any divine allegiances. The ship bounced and flipped southwards to the Atlantic before coming to a very final crunching rest on some big grey rocks on a small island. Stoat, assuming they had arrived on the Portuguese island, climbed onto the deck to begin enquiring after breakfast. As he poked through the dense forest, he reflected that he really wasn’t very good at this whole ‘life’ business. Even a simple running away seemed to have gotten out of hand. ‘At least, the streams were fresh water’, he contemplated as he allowed an indulgent lie down in one which eventually turned to naptime.

He awoke some hours later but no longer in the water. In fact, he was very comfortable indeed. Opening his eyes he was confronted by the sight of 500 native islanders in tunics and feather hats prostrating before him. Stretching out, he was sat on a bamboo throne piled with leaves and had been dressed in a long purple tunic with sash. He also realized his underwear had been removed, which was an unscheduled event. He shifted uneasily and spoke, ‘Where am I?’ Almost immediately every man, woman and child began chanting monosyllabically, ‘Where Am I, Where Am I’. He blinked rubbing his eyes, ‘No, I mean, where is this?’ he asked. ‘No I Mean Where Is This’. Stoat sighed and decided he must be hallucinating these anthropomorphic parrots. He stood up unsteadily as the crowd became silent. Behind him was a sort of longhouse flanked by flaming torches. ‘There must be food and drink in there’, he reasonably surmised and stumbled awkwardly in the wooden clogs that had been placed on his feet. As he reached a banana leaf door, two figures appeared bowing at the hips. By his side, they were dressed more ornately than those lying on the ground. The material for their tunics was finer and flecked with gold. On their bald shaved heads, they wore half-moon metallic headbands. Murmuring and incanting, they pulled open the leaves for him to enter. It was fairly gloomy inside, and very warm. Several small torches burned away in the corner, but there was definitely an organic odour to the place. The two better dressed natives hadn’t followed him inside, and Stoat thought it may actually be a toilet and they were just giving him privacy. After relieving himself for quite some time in a corner, he groped his way back until he was nearly killed by a grotesque statue of a demon that had been placed in his way. Allowing the girlish scream to die, he pulled a torch from the wall and had a good squint about. Only now, could he see that this was some form of museum or temple festooned with religious looking symbols, paintings and disturbing looking statues of mythical creatures which all seemed to be linked to the sea. Normal in an island community he supposed. His attention was drawn to a rather elaborate painting painted on a primitive canvas made from papyrus descending from the ceiling. The glowing orb of silver light in the sky had a heavenly feel. The conical mountain below, it showed a blue stream plunging down the cliff side and in its centre, a heavenly figure cascaded palms out in beatific wonder as he gazed up in divine knowledge. Stoat moved in closer to look at the figure who did not in any way resemble the people waiting outside who were dark skinned with brown eyes and fairly short. This chap was very white, had blue eyes, wavy black hair and a beard. ‘Oh…goodness…yes, he does resemble me in many ways’, thought Stoat, ‘although much cleaner and mountain sized’. The dawning realization that a European man who was found lying in stasis (unconscious) in a stream that could only have originated in the mountains of the island was a rather potent sign for more simple-minded folk driven by legend and myth. ‘Bugger’, he thought. ‘I try to slip away into the night and end up an island god’.

Over the next few days, Stoat surprisingly adapted well to being worshipped and fed by Amazonian-like women, but the conversation was somewhat limited. The one very interesting daily ceremony though was the one Stoat had named “Show and Tell”, in which various local men and women led by what he was now calling the high priests brought him gifts and curios a plenty each more exquisite than the last. He was building up quite a collection of pearls, silver trinkets and small statues of what he supposed were local gods, demons and fertility symbols. To show willing, he was piling these up in the little temple that everyone seemed very afraid to go in, and Stoat couldn’t help feeling what a shame it was that nobody was able to visit his wondrous museum and also how much collectors would pay to get these ornaments on the dining table to seething envy from their friends and enemies. Queen Elizabeth, in particular, was very fond of gifts. The more exotic the better. Heavens, she had been overcome with vapours at the sight of a potato – statues of south Atlantic tribal gods and bags of precious pearls must come with an automatic pardon. Ideas began fermenting and maturing into fully fledged schemes at an obscene pace. While living here had its perks, he was beginning to be afraid that they might be expecting some more evidence of divine powers soon. He had seen the high priests muttering, and the local fruit was playing merry hell with his digestion which resulted in expressions of gas not normally associated with deities. Making his mind up and hoping god was going to be kind to one of his less-powerful cousins, he snuck off in the night with a large sack of precious gemstones, figurines and bizarrely phallic objects that would easily find a customer in the shadows of the city. He made it all the way to the ship which was battered but largely intact and probably sea-worthy. Using fallen palm trees, he levered it back into the water. It was a fairly blustery night and the waves were becoming quite wild. He made it up the rope ladder and scrambled onto the deck as the islanders led by enraged priests emerged onto the beach with torches and spears held aloft. Their shouts were lost to the wind, but Stoat had an imagination and began whistling as loud as he could as he willed the ship into open waters. A few thuds hit the side, but a swell mercifully dragged the ship onto the sea and he disappeared into the night.

Upon arrival back on English shores, he found he had been given up for dead. His wife had happily remarried the Marquis de Branchies-Bittantes and more importantly, Stoat had been forgiven for all because he really didn’t matter anymore. Without losing a step, he bartered his way to London and to an old seldom seen cousin of his Ferriaturm de Setterly, who ran a failing antiquities and printing press in Cheapside. Convincing him of the value of his new finds, they set about creating the first ‘Museum of the South Seas’, which received not a single visitor due to the belief that there was nothing there but water and possibly a bad-tempered halibut. Several barrels of wine were decanted before Stoat had the idea that they needed a special patron or benefactor who would wax lyrical about the wonders that lay in the museum. He presented a marble figurine of Bamboolah, the fertility goddess of the island to Lady Marquis de Branchies-Bittantes, who smitten with it, presented it as a curio at the court the next time she was in town. Led away in tears by her husband after Queen Elizabeth immediately appropriated it for her boudoir the source of said treasure, a one Stoat de Setterly was summoned to the palace to tell his story.

The museum was flooded with interested buyers desperate for their own slice of exotica and a hungry aristocracy harangued for more. The Queen commanded de Setterly to go forth once more, now newly knighted and plunder as much treasure as he could fit on his new sleek state of the art galleon and bring it back for the glory of England. Celebrating the night before departure, Stoat and Ferriaturm mused on what they should call their new venture. It was hardly a museum if patrons could buy their produce, and Stoat’s voyages were more trade missions than explorations. Upon the third bottle of Claret, they hit upon it and toasted their genius.

As Stoat made his way, woozily, up the gang plank in the morning a fresh coat of paint traced the letters on the side of the ship, now bearing the legend: ‘The Emporium’.

Over the centuries the itinerary of the Emporium outgrew Cheapside and the descendants of Stump and Ferriaturm , flushed with money and success moved, it to its current location 1 Rabbity Square, St. James where it currently sits in its enormous baroque palace. On a small rock near the main gate the original wood carving made by Stoat can still just about be made out, it reads “Where am I?”