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Chris Eaton: A Biography

by Chris Eaton

She would always be alone. Like her parents. From childhood’s hour, she felt, she dreamt, that she had not been as others were, was drawn, from every depth of good and ill, towards some mystery that she could not quite reach. Could not even see. She had a purpose. Of that she was sure. But the finer details — or even the larger, more vague ones — were beyond her. And such was her difficulty in trying to circumvent this ambiguous calling — so clear, she could not help but see right through it — that she looked on the rest of humanity, her acquaintances and friends and even the occasional circumstantial lover, chasing the paths set out by their parents, or their likes and dislikes, or their economic station, with a heaping tray of contemptful jealousy. As if she existed outside the world in which they squatted. She would never quite understand it until her final days, when suddenly her purpose would form like a cataract on her vision, or the hand of God, confusing but unmistakable, and close enough to touch, and then, and only then, would she see that everything she had resisted doing up until that point, for fear that any decisive course of action might unwittingly take her further away from her destiny, had been the straightest line she might ever have shot. From adolescence to this point, even with a failed marriage and a son in the middle, she acted as if her own life, and where she placed herself within the spectrum of it, did not matter, which is probably why, in the late eighties, by the time she had accidentally fallen into her Environmental Studies PhD and helped fashion the amalgamated degree of archaeology, history, biology and political science, despite the protests of her advisors at Haverford in Pennsylvania, that she still selected, as the subject of her thesis, the Welsh inventor, the pioneer of sustainable, the hermit, the crackpot lunatic: Saith Crone.
It was a paper that was nearly never written. Saith Crone’s inventions had undoubtedly changed the course of history. An early pioneer in mechanical sewing machines and the creator of both parcel post and mail-order retailing, Crone’s contributions to the lives of housewives in the mid 1800s might have been enough to ensure his immortality. It is, in fact, arguable that these domestic breakthroughs, allowing women to become more politically active, contributed as much to women’s suffrage in Britain and the colonies as the hearsay and rumours of similar political movements in Sweden. Crone invented the precursor to the modern sleeping bag, which he would always regret. And, most interesting to the field of Environmental Studies, at the height of Crone’s retail empire, he took the considerable fortune he’d amassed in his short life, sold off all holdings he had in international commerce, and constructed an environment that would allow him to pursue the several new agricultural theories that had lately begun to obsess him, and in 1872, after nine years of steady construction, Saith Crone completed his fortress on the northern coast or Wales, near Rhyl, from which he claimed he would never leave, before the term “environmental sustainability” had even been coined. The fortress itself (whose ruins can still be visited for a small fee but few actually take the Sefydliad chan ’n Crone Astudiaethau up on this offer) is not without its architectural interests. The interior buildings, from the larder to the stable to the main living quarters, are walled almost exclusively with sandstone shipped from New Brunwick, Canada, despite the presence of a perfectly good sandstone quarry in the Brecon Beacons. There is, curiously, however, despite dozens of buildings given up to seed storage, and a library around nearly every corner, only one bedroom, and Crone appears to be the only person to have ever set foot in the place after its completion, let alone the only one to have laid his head there. It is also the only British castle constructed in the Elizabethan Renaissance period (in its truest sense, as opposed to the more common Renaissance palace), as the decline of the feudal system and new weapons technology made those old manners of defense entirely useless. Thus, its Joseph Paxton-inspired design stands out demonstrably from other Welsh fortresses like Caernarfon and Raglan, with its outer walls constructed largely of moulded steel, rather than simple stone and mortar, to more easily defend against higher grade firearms and cannons. The inner court is, likewise, a very good example of the symmetrical Renaissance reaction to the Gothic and Greek ornamentation of, say, the Cardiff clock tower, with even its gardens laid out in grids approximating Japanese Sudoku puzzles, in cubes split into groups of nine. Despite the unnurturing Welsh climate, Crone succeeded in growing everything from beetroot, leeks and swede to bananas and mangoes, papayas and passion fruit. He’d calculated the height of the walls to keep the harsh Welsh winds at bay while maximizing the reluctant sun. The moat was fed by several nearby rivers, which subsequently drained through perforated sheets of coco fibre in the castle foundation beneath the lush gardens and orchards. Plus, Crone had developed a complicated system of crop rotation, transplanting entire gardens of barely-sprouted plants, possibly once a month (the diagrams he left behind provided no time frame), until the soil reached a fertility level — 0.1% nitrogen, 0.2% phosphorous anhydrides and o.6% potassium — comparable to that of the Nile. But no one in the environmental studies field had ever approached him as a subject before because this half of the story always seemed overshadowed by the other, which was that Crone had also built his self-sustainable fortress without any exterior doors or windows, sealed off totally from the outside world, surrounding it with a moat eighteen feet deep and a wall thirty feet high (with squared crenels spaced three feet apart and three feet deep), because he never intended to leave it or let anyone else cross its threshold. Because he feared for his life at the hands of French assassins sent by the nephew and step-grandson of Napoleon Bonaparte.
Saith Drava Crone was born in 1827, in Chantiesor, a small suburb of Newtown (or rather an even smaller suburb of Llanllwchaearn, which was itself a suburb of Newtown, until it absorbed Chantiesor in the 1870s), the fourth of five children to a well-known cricket player and the wife of a well-known cricket player. Young Saith’s dreams of following in his father’s footsteps were shattered, however, along with his hip, when he was only eleven, pushed from a tree by his sister while picking apples on the family orchard. While recouping, his mother taught him to sew and knit, and at thirteen, he apprenticed for a short time with the village draper. At eighteen, his parents provided him with enough money to buy his own shop, but instead he spent all of it on the most luxurious cloths and fabrics he could find, had them sent to gentry across the country, and then handled his growing clientele from his childhood bedroom. He spent his days talking to the sailors who imported his bolts of material from around the world, and his evenings at the local pub playing darts. Eventually he bought his own house, and then a separate work loft, then a warehouse, and then a factory. Then he invented his ill-fated sleeping bag, which was really nothing more than a reworking of seventeen thousand brown blankets, the remains of an order for sixty-thousand from the Russian army, delivered to St. Petersburg at the rate of six thousand per week until Great Britain joined the French in the Crimean War to aid in the defense the Ottoman Empire and all trade with Russia was ceased by order of the Prime Minister. In order to move the stock as quickly as possibly (the warehouse space was required for shipments of velvet coming in from Lucca and Genoa, as well as the finest sarcenet from Bhagalpur and antique silks from the Chinese Jiangxi province, for the manufacture of high end breeches for men), Crone’s team of tailors worked round the clock, folding the long brown rugs in thirds and stuffing the space between two of them with feathers and straw, and then marketing them to the poor as a combination bed/pillow/blanket. Sales in the first year were still relatively meager, however, so he spread the word of his Euklisian Rug among the journeymen and seasonal workers, shepherds and amateur astronomers. Sleeping outdoors for fun was not yet a pastime. Unfortunately, the new and improved rugs continued to take up space in the warehouse, carefully packed in bales of fifty. His accountant urged him to cut the stock loose, dumping as many as he could into the Severn — or the Cardigan or down off St. Ann’s Head, where there would surely be no one to see it — at a loss to make room for items with more profitable margins. Crone and the accountant packed the first wagon themselves, but just as they were about to launch the cursed sleeping bags into the drink, they were approached by a man in uniform. Back then, it was understandably not yet a crime to clog the waterways with most waste. The disposal of textiles, however, had been brought under British legislation a few years earlier, in 1854, after wig merchants in London dumped barrels of rotting hair (the wig had gone horribly out of fashion after the American Revolution) into a well in the Soho district, where it attracted flies and eventually caused an outbreak of cholera and salmonella that left thousands gasping for their lives in makeshift hospitals and eventually killed over six hundred and twenty-one. The penalty was two years minus a day. They were sure the jig was up, and quickly made as if they were simple salesmen with bad timing, stacking two of the bales into a makeshift table and unrolling a selection of the sleeping bags under the waning moonlight. What they themselves could not see until the uniformed men staggered closer was that they were just foreign soldiers on leave, drunk and barely coherent, poorly begging for a place to stay for the night. Relieved and repentant, Crone gave them two of the bags for free, tossed the rest of them back in the wagon, and headed back to Newtown. Three days later, an emissary from the Prussian Chief of the General Staff arrived at his factory to sample one, and ordered enough — the remainder of Crone’s excess stock — to test them with the Prussian Second Army, who arrived well-rested at the Battle of Könnigrätz to rescue a swift victory from Austria in the Seven Weeks War. Once reparations were made to them, Prussia sent an order to Crone for four hundred and fifty thousand more. This was the transaction that made him one of the wealthiest men in England. All because of this sleeping bag. He was invited to Prussia by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck himself to see an army at rest, fêted by the King of Prussia, gave a speech to sleep scientists at the Frederick William University. He even set up another factory in Berlin to handle growing orders from the public sector, as word of his fabulous schlafsack practically invented the outdoor enthusiast in Europe. To the Prussians, he was a minor celebrity. He returned to Wales with an honorary title, and more stories for the boys at the pub than you could imagine. This was when he unknowingly crossed the Napoleonic Dynasty. Following the assassination of Queen Isabella of Spain, the Prussian Chancellor frantically suggested Prince Leopold of Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen as a replacement. Despite Leopold’s legitimate ties to the Spanish throne, Emperor Louis Napoleon III of France, son of the brother to the original Napoleon (while also the grandson to the original’s first wife, Josephine de Beauharnais), feared encirclement by a Prussian led alliance. He was also advised that a war with Prussia, which they would assuredly win with their superior breech-loading chassepot rifle (so successful in the recent American Civil War) and mitrailleuse (an early form of a machine gun), could help dam his declining popularity and distract the French population from their cries for democratic reform. So he sent an emissary to the King of Prussia demanding that they retract the Prince’s candidacy. When they did not, Louis Napoleon left Paris for Metz to assume personal control of the Army of the Rhine. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, Crone’s bright-eyed Prussians eventually trapped half of Louis Nap’s decimated forces in Metz, leading to the French Emperor’s surrender at the nearby Battle of Sedan. Parisians rebelled and selected an interim minister for their second republic, September 11, 1870. When the news reached Newtown several days later, in the form of an order for nine hundred thousand more bags, Saith Crone crossed himself and put out the light.
It was Louis Napoleon’s love of puzzles that confused Saith Crone the most, that someone would choose to be alone so much when Crone himself had never felt so alone while surrounded by people in his whole life. It is quite impossible to say whether Crone would have been mentally fine after the fall of The Second French Empire, and quite simply have continued to amass more wealth than anyone could ever need or want, had the deposed emperor not selected Great Britain as his exiled new home, and had the British parliament not welcomed him with open arms; because it is quite simply a fact that he did, and they did. Using his own considerable wealth, Crone made an attempt to petition against the French immigration. But since Louis had already lived in England during his first exile as a young bachelor in the late thirties and early forties, there was not much the Welsh entrepreneur could do. Besides, Nap had already purchased an estate in Chislehurst in Kent, where, according to an interview with Daily Telegraph and Courier, he planned to live the rest of his days in peace and quiet with his wife, Eugenie, and young son, Jérôme. Besides, he claimed, he was glad to have time to himself without having to worry about “helping people catch trains” or “making Paris look pretty for tourists.” Crone knew much about Napoleon’s habits largely through the British Post, who were grateful enough to him for introducing the idea of parcel post that the Postmaster General saw no issues in having all of Louis Nap’s letters appropriated, steamed, perused for any mention of the inventor and resealed before being sent on their way. It was through the British Post that the Napoleons received their crosswords from the Americas; tangrams from China; a French translation of The Charades written by Pope Leo XIII; a Russian minus cube; some ancient Greek assembly puzzles; a form of disentanglement puzzle from northern Korea, mixed with an impossible object, called the Acorn Heist; Iranian puzzle locks; a Sri Lankan magic box, with a gorgeous roach inset; lateral thinking one-minute mysteries, most of these homegrown in Britain, in which a pile of sawdust beside a bed indicated mind games with a circus midget leading to his suicide, or a nude man in the desert was obviously on a doomed balloon trip with some friends and drew the short match to save them all, or some equally ridiculous twist; and many, many others. There was certainly nothing that, through whatever means of coincidental logic, could link him to any plot on the Welsh inventor’s life. Similarly, Crone’s team of private investigators came back with nothing but the old emperor’s grocery lists, half-eaten mustard and brie sandwiches, cigar bands, gardening tools, and the first ten rows of what was assumed to become a sock, although it might have also been a mitten, a sweater sleeve or a stuffed animal of some sort for young Jérôme, who had become sick shortly after they came to England, diagnosed with a rare yet hereditary disease. Louis didn’t even appear to know anything about the sleeping bag’s role in the war, let alone Crone’s part in it, as evidenced by an incomplete crossword on October 1, 1872, with the 5-letter clue: 11 DOWN Put the Prussians to sleep, beside which, in the page’s margin, he’d scribbled the name of the German poet Gleim, along with the word booze, and even death. The investigators suggested he was safe to live his life, but Crone interpreted this emission of his name as a poorly contained fury, in which Louis Nap could not even bare to speak or write his name. And so Crone sold the company he had built from the ground up to another Welshman named Pryce Jones, liquidated all other assets he had, and started work on the steel fortress where he could live out his last days safe and alone. During that time, he continued to receive daily reports on Louis Nap’s life, piecing together, through these scavenged artifacts, what the deposed emperor must be thinking, how the Frenchman must, in his own way, have been piecing together elements of Crone’s own life and assembling them into his careful plan of revenge. Whenever he misplaced something, Crone flew into a rage at his workers, followed by a swift apology, followed by solitary brooding. Eventually, only his chief contractor was allowed in his direct presence, and it was this man, another Welshman by the name of Ian Rotches, who single-handedly welded the final walls into place. Rotches is listed in the information bureau of the Sefydliad chan ’n Crone Astudiaethau as the last person — and in several conspiracy books as the second last — to have seen Saith Drava Crone alive.
On January 9 of the following year, Louis died of kidney failure. But Crone was already locked up in impenetrable fortress, so presumably lived out the rest of his days alone and afraid. In 1917, forty-five years after he closed himself off from the world for good, one of the fortress’s walls was accidentally breached by German bombers. At that point, the gardens had become completely overrun, with most of the exotic fruits having completely disappeared. The only evidence that Crone’s notebooks were not just the writings of a mad man were traces of seeds in the stool of the monstrous flock of macaws that had taken up roost in the bell tower. Crone himself was discovered in the innermost recesses of his fortress, apparently suffocated by one of his own sleeping bags, in a room locked from the inside containing nothing more than his body, a piano wiped clean of fingerprints save for each F key, a bat, a mirror and a table sawed in two symmetrical pieces. After following the clues to various dead ends, the case was eventually dropped.