(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bishop Heard goes to Nepenthe to meet his cousin, Mrs. Meadows. Since her second husband was unable to leave his post in India, the bishop is to escort Mrs. Meadows and her child to England. The bishop himself is returning from ecclesiastical labors in Bampopo, Africa. The bishop is introduced to Nepenthe society by Don Francesco, a priest he met on the boat. The social leader is the American-born duchess of San Martino, who is about to join the Church through Don Francesco’s influence. Other figures are Mr. Keith, a wealthy hedonist; Denis Phipps, a frustrated college student; Mr. Eames, a faithful compiler of material for an annotated edition of a forgotten work on the Antiquities of Nepenthe; Count Caloveglia, an antiquarian interested in the Golden Age of Greece; and Freddy Parker, proprietor of a drinking club that serves a strange brand of whiskey bottled by his stepsister.

There is also much talk of some religious fanatics, disciples of an unwashed Russian mystic named Bazhakuloff. Because of a virile apostle, Peter, the group is favored by Madame Steynlin and has access to her villa by the sea. One of the few Englishwomen on the island is Miss Wilberforce, who frequently drinks to excess and undresses in the streets at odd times of the day and night. Fortunately, the bishop developed a tolerant point of view while living among African natives, and he is able to accept these strange characters as he finds them. Except for a festival in honor of Saint Dodekanus and a visit with his cousin, who does not seem pleased to see him, the first days of the bishop’s stay are uneventful. Then one of the old springs on the island suddenly dries up, and the natives report several unusual births. Next, Mr. Parker’s stepsister is bitten by a strange insect. She dies swiftly and would be as swiftly buried if the volcano did not erupt at the same time.

Mr. Parker watches ashes falling over the city and is saddened both by his stepsister’s death and by news that a cabinet minister of Nicaragua was removed from office. Since the minister made Parker the Nicaraguan finance commissioner for southeastern Europe, the proprietor fears that he is about to lose his pretentious but empty title. Hoping that the Vatican will intercede for him if he were to become a Catholic, he consults the parish priest and suggests a procession in honor of the island’s patron saint to bring an end to the eruption. The priest is delighted to hear such a pious suggestion from a non-Catholic, and before long, the holy procession is winding through the ashy streets. Miraculously enough, the ashes stop falling and rain that follows washes away all traces of nature’s upheaval.


(The entire section is 1104 words.)