by Charles Beadle
The author of eight novels and dozens of short stories, CHARLES BEADLE was a world traveler who was born at sea in 1881. When he was eighteen years old, he expatriated from England and spent a dozen years exploring Africa and the Far East. In his mid-twenties he organised an expedition to Fez and traveled there disguised as a dancing girl to interview the sultan of Morocco. In the 1910s he lived in Montmartre, where he befriended Beatrice Hastings, the mistress of Modigliani and translator of Max Jacob. Modigliani later portrayed Beadle in a drawing. During World War I he traveled to the United States, where he published his stories in Adventure and in the International, a cultural journal edited by Aleister Crowley.
He returned to the City of Light in the fall of 1919, where he lived throughout most of the 1920s, eventually moving to the French Riviera. Beadle’s last novel, Dark Refuge (1938), originally published by the legendary and notorious Paris-based English language publisher Obelisk Press, is an unrecognized modern masterpiece that quickly fell into obscurity. It contains thinly-disguised portraits of Modigliani, Max Jacob, Beatrice Hastings, Léopold Zborowski, and various other figures who haunted the Parisian demimonde. Its brazen portrayal of drug fueled pansexual orgies prevented the censorious chronicle from being distributed in the Anglo-Saxon world despite its literary merit and lyrical beauty.
Beadle later pseudonymously coauthored Artist Quarter (1941), a nonfiction work that is still considered to be the urtext of Modigliani biography. His place or date of death is unknown. His last known published work was “Nameless Spy,” a ten-page story in Short Stories (June 10, 1947). Thanks to Couteau’s extensive annotations and deep research, we have both this long-forgotten novel and the context that created it.
— Rob Couteau
An excerpt from Charles Beadle, Dark Refuge, edited and annotated by Robert Couteau (New York: Dominant Star, 2023).
I am amusedly watching a drabbish face resembling an overstuffed stool, puffy around the neck. The indefinite eyebrows are slightly contracted; the rather full lips pursed as he observes a young girl laughing as she enters from the street on the arms of two young men, who are even more hilarious than she. Her fur coat is open, revealing her naked belly on which is painted an interrogation mark, using the navel as the beginning of the crescent. Around her loins is a brief skirt, bearing the inscription: “Quo Vadis?”1
“Disgusting!” mutters my friend.
“Well, I warned you that this was a medical students’ ball 2 which would singe your British prejudices!” I tell him. “Come on, let’s go in – unless you’re going to funk! Open your coat to pass muster.”
I had invited this chap on a mischievous caprice, and curious to see how a hundred per cent respectability would react. He is clad in a sheet knotted over one shoulder and list slippers, a costume improvised at the last moment. The effect isn’t at all bad – rather suggests an overfed Roman pleb at the tail end of the Decadence, or an early Christian being driven into the arena.
“An English doctor!” I introduce him mendaciously to the grinning entrance committee as I hand an invitation card for two people. We leave our overcoats at the cloak room and enter the huge ballroom. On the threshold he balks as if he didn’t like the look of the lions. I laugh, enjoying him vastly; reflecting that if we hadn’t dined pretty freely I’d never have got him here at all.
A hundred or more men and women are dancing and prancing. Most of the women are young and nude. A few wear sketchy bathing costumes, or a shawl; a Hawaiian skirt made out of straw; a single girdle of colored beads. One tall man sports a highlander’s kilt around his shoulders, and the bonnet is attached to a belt; an athletic fellow, a bunch of fig leaves.
Along one vast wall is a drawing of a colossal phallus which a gargantuan comic nurse is about to cut off with scissors; on the opposite side is a gigantic pyramid on the steps of which is a sculptural mass of men and women in nearly all the conceivable sexual positions; at the far end of the hall red curtains represent an enormous vagina into which guests as they go to, and come from, the lavatory, dive and pop. “Oh, I say!” bleats respectability, “that’s a bit too thick really, what?”
“You shouldn’t have come,” I retort impatiently, “if you must carry the Albert Memorial on your back!”
The shock seems to have sobered him a bit. He turns quite indignantly.
“D’you mean to tell me, William, that this sort of thing is tolerated by the authorities in this country? Why, in England –“
“In England,” I catch him up, “this sort of thing is done in secret. Not with such a crowd, I admit, for you’d have to go through London with a tooth comb to find a few hundred who are sufficiently free from taboos as not to take sex too seriously.”
“But it’s absolutely obscene!” he snorts.
“It’s your mind that sees it obscenely. For these people, it’s merely a Rabelaisian frolic! You English – or we English, if you like – would snicker over a smutty photograph, or even pay to go to a voyeur show. What your Anglo-Saxon mind can’t stand is that all this is done in the open – almost public. I’ll bet that you and I are about the only Anglo-Saxons present. They have a sainted horror of British prudery, and the sponsor gets hell if any of his guests make asses of themselves.”
“But the women? What are they? Prostitutes?”
“No. Mostly models, and – free women. Although it’s understood that any woman who comes must obey the rules of the game!”
“Oh, my God! disgusting! Look at that!”
A band of half-naked youths are carrying a nude girl on their uplifted hands. Close to us is a canvas and wood affair, a property gypsy van. Through a large window a satyr with a beard of rope yarn and horns on his head receives the living offering to Eros, and bangs the window shut. The band go off, joyously chanting a Rabelaisian song.
“Oh, that’s a jolly sight too thick!” exclaims my British specimen. “I’ve had enough!”
“All right,” I agree irritably. “Go to the devil if you like. I’m going to join in the fun. Ta-ta, old boy!”
I laugh as I imagine the stories he will tell when he gets back to shock his fellow clubmen, no matter how indignant he pretends to be. I wager mentally that he won’t be able to drag himself away as I plunge into the throng….I look up. Seated above us on a staircase is the handsomest woman I’ve ever seen….She is an ash blond with cerulean eyes. Scandinavian, I imagine. Drop diamonds glitter on either side of a jowl sensual and determined; as masculine as the shoulders. An Indian shawl of brick red and black envelops like a sheath a lithe body: small pouting breasts. One magnificent nude thigh and leg are exposed; boyish. On each side of her is a tall cavalier. Their trunks are clad in leopard skins clasped on each left shoulder by a single large diamond. One man has long jet-black hair cut in the Assyrian manner; the other is white haired with a youngish face. Both are handsome and insolent.
“Theodosia!” I mutter, “with her favorite centurion and the Court poet!”3
….My gaze follows “Theodosia” as she stalks off. Her companions walk at each shoulder like an Imperial bodyguard. She is nearly as tall as they; slender; supple as a Praxiteles nymph. I wonder who she is. Breeding and wealth are stamped on every gesture. Either she is known and respected exceptionally, or her regal manner and her escort scare off marauding packs. I speculate, with a pang of jealousy, regarding their relations as they make for another stairway leading to a balcony which runs across the ballroom.
A very pretty kid, of perhaps sixteen, in a green bathing suit, is dancing with a black-bearded man. On a sudden they are surrounded by a whooping band. The girl is lifted bodily. Her partner makes no objection. Evidently that is part of the game. She is laid on the floor. The leader calls loudly for scissors. No one has even a knife, as everybody is practically naked. Deftly he tears up a leg of the costume; runs his hand up; then cries:
“A virgin! Name of God, a virgin!’
Instantly she is released. As half scared, but laughing gamely, she is helped to her feet, the crowd shout: “A kiss! A kiss!” Giggling with relief she blindly kisses faces thrust at her. The bearded partner claims her; they dance away as if nothing had happened.
I have not, I muse, detected a single case of jealousy nor ill temper during these libertine frolics. Nor a glimmer of shame; nor prudishness; neither normal coupling….Of course what went on in the gypsy van, or private rooms, or in the corridors, was just nobody’s business.
A wild shouting attracted my attention. A tall fellow, with his body made up to look like a skeleton, is rattling a wooden scalpel in a douche can. Around his waist upon an apron are painted the words: The Quick and the Dead.
Carried on the shoulders of two chunky men, clad in a fig leaf apiece, follows an elderly, scraggy woman with shrunken breasts and wrinkled belly. She is shrieking with laughter as she waves her skinny arms. Upon her gray head is a gilded cardboard crown bearing the inscription:
“Sic transit –“4Around her dance joyously a band of nude young girls. Amid shouts and laughter the procession makes the tour of the hall; comes to a halt beside the gypsy van. The window opens; appears the gorilla-satyr of the rope yarn beard. Into his arms she is tossed. A pandemonium of yells is drowned by the band striking up a syncopated version of: Just a little bit of love.
More or less orthodox dancing is resumed. I look for my Puritan friend. Apparently I have lost my bet. Evidently Luther has chased him away from temptation. Someone slaps me on the bottom. I turn. He is the young surgeon who procured the coveted invitation for me. He is clad in an apron made of wooden surgical instruments of all sorts which swing wildly as he prances.
“Perfect, old man!” says he, laughing a bit drunkenly as he refers to my costume, a scarlet silk sarong. “On s’amuse! Quoi! And your English prude, he amuses himself, too?”
“Oh,” I tell him, “I think he’s run away with his morals shattered.”
“All the better!” declares the surgeon. “That’s why we don’t let in foreigners, unless they’ve had their cerebral vermiform appendices removed!”
Two nude girls seize him around the waist and the neck, and they go galloping down the hall. As I happen to glance up at the balcony I catch a glimpse of blond hair and diamond earrings, surrounded by a band of men. I ascend the stairs cluttered with couples, male and female, and both sexes. A young girl still panting breaks through perspiring bodies. My regal “Theodosia” has been presiding at a lesbian sacrifice, for the operator this time is a woman of shingled hair and mostly clad in jewels.
A party of young men rush[es] down the stairs into the hall. Attended closely by the leopard-clad escort she rises; they lean over the rail. The pack below look up for orders. She indicates a slip of a girl dancing near the gypsy van. Uttering cries and howls like hounds giving tongue they dash upon the selected victim. Bearing her high on their hands triumphantly they bring her before “Theodosia” who, smoking a cigarette in a long amber holder, interestedly watches the performance. The wide sensitive nostrils, the haughty aquiline nose and rather high cheekbones, the amusedly contemptuous smile of the sensuous lips, one bare leg crossed insolently over the other, provoke me: my ideal woman!
I wonder how I can get to know her. No earthly chance of making her acquaintance as she dances with no one. The bodyguard never shifts from her sides. The longer I regard her the more obviously excited I become. Then I rush off to look for my surgeon friend. He may be able to help me. At first I cannot find him. Hidden in some alcove, I reflect indignantly.
Peering about I perceive a familiar bald head. I’ve won my silly bet! He is posted in a corner behind a pillar. His face is apoplectic; his eyes almost goggle as he watches greedily as a cat a mouse hole, the gypsy caravan where the same traffic is going on with the satyr. I creep up behind him and slap him on the stern. He turns bellicosely.
“Oh, it’s you!” he says scowling.
“Why, I thought you’d gone home!” I laugh.
“Incredibly disgusting!” he states indignantly. “Why, I’ve counted seventeen naked girls who have been shoved into the caravan thing!”
“You look as if you had!” I retort, “and you’re furious because you haven’t been invited inside!”
“Don’t be a damned fool!” he snorts. “The place is nothing but a brothel. It shouldn’t be allowed!”
“Write to The Times, old chap!” I advise. “They would be interested!”
“It’s a disgrace to France! It wouldn’t be tolerated in any civilized –“
“Oh, shut up and have drink!” I invite him, taking an arm.
He holds back, fascinatedly watching another girl being put through the window.
“But, I say,” he demands, “do they really –?”
I laugh derisively.
“But, I say,” he repeats, unable to drag his gaze away, “there’s only room for one man in there and eighteen girls one after another –“
“You’re jealous!” I tease him, choking with laughter. “Why, they take turns, of course, each putting on the makeup for the role!”
“Disgusting!” he mutters, reluctantly following. “These French are degenerate, and –“
We have to struggle to get near the bar. Someone smacks his portly belly below the belt. He glares around.
“Don’t be a bloody fool!” I admonish him angrily. “You shouldn’t have stayed if you can’t stand a mild joke. You’re having the time of your life, but you won’t admit it!”
“Nothing of the sort!” he growls. “I merely stayed out of a sense of duty to see actually how far they would go, and –“
But I have dived forward to get the drinks. He manages to join me. His face has resumed the normal expression of Anglo-Saxon complacency. I hand him a glass to stop his mouth, for I divine what is coming.
“I must say, William,” he begins in his musty office voice, “that when I asked you to show me a bit of Paris life I never imagined that anything so obscene existed –“
And Roman orgies?’ I query.
“Oh – er – but that’s a long time ago,” he defends, “and the Roman Empire was decadent, and we’ve progressed since then.”
“Oh, have we?” I retort flippantly, “Chin-Chin!”
I take a violent dislike to the man. His whole personality jars. I regret having brought the fool. Then I catch sight of my surgeon friend. I gulp my drink.
“See you again!” I tell my obnoxious specimen and start to elbow my way.
“No, no, we’ll go immediately,” he announces pompously.
“You may go to hell, if you like!” I call back, fighting a passage to the other end of the bar where my quarry is standing with a couple of men and three girls.
“Listen,” I tell him, “I want you to do me a great favor!”
He laughs as if I were trying to be funny. I seize an arm and pull him out of the bar. The others are too busy laughing and talking to notice my friend’s protests, and he is too tight, and too good-humored, to resist effectively. I pilot him to the middle of the hall.
“See, up on the balcony that linen blond smoking?” I inquire eagerly. “D’you know her?”
“That one with a fellow glued to each shoulder?” he queries. “Seen her around,” he adds shrugging. “Nice piece of flesh, too!”
“Don’t be stupid!” I reprimand him, offended for the moment. “She’s not a model. Who can she be?”
“Who knows!” he retorts. “Either a chicken or a grande dame. There’s nothing between here tonight!”
“Thanks, old man!” I say disappointedly, letting him go. I stand staring up at the balcony as he weaves back to his pals. Evidently she is still occupied with her strange Diana sport. I can’t resist. Again I mount the cluttered staircase where the couples are becoming more riotous. Fascinatedly I watch her playing High Priestess over the lesbian rites. Once more as if she exudes an erotic aura, I become randy. After the last orgasmic quiver of the victim “Theodosia” raises her eyes; her regard meets mine for an instant.
1 “Quo Vadis”: Where are you going?
2 The infamous Bal de l’Internat (“internat” referring to the medical resident or interne as well as the boarding house where they lived): A well-established Parisian saturnalia, first celebrated as a banquet in 1852. This annual ball was held in either September or October, after the final day of exams. Both the Bal de l’Internat and the equally notorious Bal des Quat’z Arts (the art students’ ball, which was celebrated in the spring) were held at the Salle Wagram, near the Etoile. Beadle was no doubt aware of Brassaï’s much talked about Paris de nuit, a collection of sixty photos and accompanying essays, which was published in 1933, just five years before the appearance of Dark Refuge. (Later published in translation as The Secret Paris of the 30’s.) One of Brassaï’s photo essays portrays these ribald medical and art student balls. The book also includes a brief photo essay about Brassaï’s visit to a Parisian opium den. Paris de nuit was widely displayed in Parisian bookshops and includes a text by the popular French author Paul Morand.
3 “Theodósia”: feminine form of Theodósius; from the Greek theós (“god “) + dósis ( “a giving “): “given by God.” This character bears a strong resemblance to the wealthy heiress and Parisian expatriate Constance Crowninshield Coolidge.
4 “Sic transit gloria mundi”: A phrase spoken at papal coronations, meaning “Thus passes the glory of the world.”
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