Signet of a Suzerain

10 07 2010


In the drawing-room stood two men, both bald with the same effect of a fully receded hairline.  One was relatively tall, and the other was more than just relatively short.  The tall man was moustached, with spots of aging on his bare head.  The short man was clean-shaven, with a scalp as fresh as a baby’s buttocks, as though he had spent his entire life out of the damaging rays of the sun.  The tall man seemed fairly bored, and the younger man was obviously excited, not to mention guileless, rubbing his hands together and speaking enthusiastically with a mildly piercing tenor voice.

The taller man was a philatelist, a collector of stamps, who had the fate of ending up in possession of a rare gold coin for which he had no interest.  The shorter man was the numismatist, a collector of coins, who had a personal cache of coins worth about a hundred dollars by their face value, which were, due to their antiquity, worth about a thousand times as much by modern reckoning.  There, before them in a lighted glass case stood a mysterious gold coin, by modern standards roughly made, delicately displayed on a clear acrylic stand.

The numismatist clapped his hands together, said, “I….” and followed his pause with the clicking of heels, as though the thought had passed all the way through his body from hands to feet, merely stopping by the mouth for a brief visit.

“You don’t know what to think of it, do you?” said the philatelist, knowing full well that the coin collector was too proud to admit that he had no idea what he was looking at.  If he had been presented with a stamp that he didn’t recognize, he probably would have retrieved a picture book and attempted to solve the mystery on the spot, but the coin collector was out of his element and could not have found a book on coins at that moment, even if there had existed any book in the world describing this coin, which there hadn’t.

The numismatist paused with a frozen mask of excitement, which broke after a second, when he turned to his friend and asked, “What is it?”

“The coin is one of a kind,” said the philatelist, “No writing exists for it, because there is only one of it, and the only people privileged enough to study it have not been coin collectors.  Novices don’t tend to get their findings published, especially when they aren’t at least hobbyists.”  He pointed to the coin and explained, “This coin has been imprisoned within the private estate of one rich fellow or another for several centuries.  The story of the thing is as much a commodity as the coin, itself.  You must understand that a coin is usually a symbol of wealth.  Real wealth is an abstract thing.  The coin, itself, is nothing.”

“Oh, but I beg to differ!” the other protested.

“And I knew you would,” the philatelist cut him off, “Which is why I thought you would appreciate this thing more than I.  Real property is useful for practical purposes.  The coin is just a liaison between what I give you and what you give me in return.  We might think of it as a potential possession, a temporary substitute for what we really want.”


“Yes, I know you beg to differ.  However, before it became a priceless historical treasure, it once was just a smashed lump of metal that symbolized wealth.  This coin, however, was the currency of a special commodity.  It was a symbol of power.  You might call it a diadem, of sorts, or perhaps a signet.  When the Roman Caesars paraded about with fasces held aloft, those bundled axes were the public symbols of power and authority, but in private, this coin was the definitive symbol.  Only the people highest in rank even knew about it, and the thing took an almost mythical significance.  Had the Caesar merely dropped it on the ground and a senator retrieved it immediately, it’s not clear but the senator might have become the new Caesar immediately.  Granted, the right of ownership of the coin was no different from the right of succession, so there’s some dispute as to whether the coin followed the power or the power followed the coin.  In the beginning, there were three of them, one for each member of the Triumvirate.  After the death of Crassus, Julius Caesar had his coin fused with the other.  As you can see, this coin has a double edge, being really two coins joined.  The one belonging to Pompey was lost in battle, we believe, though there are some in the family who have suggested rumor that it eventually ended up in the possession of the tsars of Russia.  As far as I know, this is the only one, or two, depending on how you look at it, left.”

The little man clapped his hands together and mumbled, “Amazing.”  The taller man waited for the chain reaction to pass to the little man’s feet, but when nothing was forthcoming, he nearly resumed his story before being interrupted by a click of the heels.

“Well, I don’t know the full details of this coin’s history, but I understand that it eventually ended up in the hands of one named Frederick Barbarossa, who thought that it lent him the authority to retake the full territory of the old Roman Empire.  His attempted crusade to Jerusalem was merely the excuse for his eastward push.  Naturally, he sacked Constantinople as a matter of due course, because he deemed it a natural part of his domain.  He figured that because he owned the coin, he therefore had a right to the land.  After the old fool managed to drown himself in a lake, an insightful general took from his person this coin, before they threw the corpse in a barrel and pickled it.  I suppose some would consider it a shame to have buried this in a barrel under the Dome Of The Rock, where the king’s body was placed.

“Some time after that, it found its way into a Prussian nobleman’s hands, and from there it ended up in the possession of Kaiser Wilhelm.  Naturally, wherever the coin went, the story followed.  Otherwise, I would not be able to tell you this story, and we’d be dealing with a mysterious coin of unknown origin.  Likely, I would have traded it in for something I could actually spend at the store.”

“You wouldn’t!” exclaimed the numismatist.

“Of course I would,” rebutted the philatelist, “How many perfectly good stamps go to waste for the practical purpose of postage every year?  For the same reason, I’d rather use a coin for its intended purpose than have it lying around collecting dust.”

“It’s a precious relic!” exclaimed the numismatist.

“It’s money!” replied the philatelist with matched enthusiasm.  “What good is it if I can’t spend it?”

“But this isn’t money,” objected the little man, “It’s the mark of a king.  It marks the seal of a royal decree.  This is a piece of history.”

“Even so, it is useless to me,” said the taller man.

“Then sell it to me!” said the coin collector.

“It will cost you several thousand dollars,” warned the stamp collector.

“I have stamps!” offered the little man, pulling out a wad of mishandled used stamps.  “To me, they are just pictures printed on stickers, but I’m sure they must be worth a trade.”

“Unfortunately,” said the philatelist with a touch of contempt, “those particular stamps are just a bunch of pictures on stickers to me, too.  I don’t have much use for recent printings of generic postage.  I would much rather sell it to someone willing to pay with modern cash.”

Eventually, the terms for the transfer of ownership were made between the two, amounting to the cost of a new car.  During that time, outside by the numismatist’s car, his chauffeur and the other man’s butler were having a discussion on the matter.  Naturally, the question came up as to the matter being discussed in the drawing-room.  The chauffeur asked the butler what he knew of the matter, to which the butler replied that the little man was being sold a story.

The driver’s face registered a certain shock, and he pushed his hat back on his head.  “Surely you don’t mean the poor little chap is getting taken, do you?”

“Well,” said the butler “My employer tells me that the coin is nothing but the object of a story, and that it is really the story that is being sold, in this case.  He tells me that it is nothing but a flat piece of metal with a vague design.  If it weren’t for the tale that went with it, your master would not have thought it worth anything.”

“But, he’s an expert on coins!” remarked the chauffeur.

“Hence the need for the tale,” replied the butler.

“This is wretched!” exclaimed the chauffeur.

At this, the butler began to feel that he had possibly jeopardized his own employment.  “Listen, please don’t let on.  If word gets out that I spilled the beans, I’ll lose my job.”

“But this is unjust!” exclaimed the chauffeur.  “My boss is getting ripped off by yours, and you expect me to do nothing about it?”

The butler was beginning to sweat profusely, and he raced through his options, scrambling in his mind for a way to save his career.

Just then, the two wealthy hobbyists left the building, talking about this prize.  The philatelist was just then making a final statement.  “Now, I’m not superstitious, but the legend with this coin is that it tends to pass through the hands of great people, anointing them to positions of power whither it goes.  Though it never made me a king, I might ask that if you should find yourself the head of Europe some day that you would kindly remember the one who helped you get there.”  He paused for effect, and then grinned at his own dry humor.

The numismatist burst into giggles and shook the man’s hand, thanking him for the sale, the noise of which just managed to cover a muttered string of obscenities from the chauffeur.  The butler took note of the chauffeur’s response, though, and he turned as white as a sheet.  The little man hopped into the car with his prized possession and admired it for the first few miles of his return home.  It was then that the chauffer broke the news to him.  He told his employer that the butler had warned him that the story surrounding the coin was just a fabrication concocted to sell this worthless mintage.  In a matter of a few minutes, the poor man went from pure joy to a fit of depression.

“It’s not even real?” the numismatist whined.  “I should have known.  Here, I call myself an expert on coins, and I let myself be taken by a fancy tale!”  He knew that he would not have the assertiveness to cancel the check or fight for his money and his dignity back.  Instead, he chalked it up as a learning experience and rudely tossed the coin upon a bible that lay flat on his dresser at home.  There, it rested untouched for many years, until the man eventually passed away at a ripe old age.

The estate sale was a fancy one, garnering quite a load of money for its furniture and valuable coins.  In that sale the aforementioned coin, the signet of a suzerain, was sold for almost nothing.  No one knew what it was, so no one could possibly know what it was worth.  They might have guessed that it was real gold, but one might have difficulty assaying the gold content of a coin while at an estate sale.  They could have guessed it was valuable by who owned it, but the story would still have been lost.  Indeed, it was the story that sold the coin, but the butler had misread his employer’s disdain for the thing as meaning that it wasn’t really worth anything.  The story had been quite true, and it had miraculously survived for nearly two thousand years, only to die at the hands of a disillusioned numismatist.  He had found his treasure, only to discard it as a trinket.  Consequently, the story behind the coin was lost forever.


It is the burning desire of the modern human to pursue poetry, but it is the staunch habit of such people to accept only prose.  We all yearn for magic and intrigue, yet we only trust the dullest, most ordinary explanation of things.  We think we are more rational for rejecting the miraculous and accepting readily the common.  However, true rationality is a firmly supported line of reasoning leading to a conclusion.  Yet, we jump to accept the prosaic understanding without sufficient evidence, and we so quickly dismiss a history when it offers us too much charm or mystery.  This is the sickness of modernism.  It is pessimism that parades itself as Reason.

But, for practical purposes, we could say that apart from the story the thing really was just a coin.  In fact it was just a lump of metal, which just happened to be gold, an ore more abundant than tin and far more valuable just because people believed that it was valuable.  Take away the subjective belief, and all we’re left with is a dead thing that isn’t really useful for much.  Its practical value is not much.  Everything lies in what people believe about it.  A human can be reduced to a sack of chemicals.  A home is just a pile of bricks.  A planet is just a lump of dirt, and we’re all just a bunch of lucky monsters that chanced to form, that we might crawl over this clod and devour what we could.  This is the most prosaic way of looking at things, and our culture readily accepts it as the most logical truth, even if it is a baseless lie.  This is modernism: if something sounds magical, then it must not be true.

Therefore any history, no matter how true it may be, is threatened with certain death if it offers even a glimmer of something truly wonderful.




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