Viriconium, p.28

Viriconium, page 28



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  Cabbage! The whole of the Low City has smelt of this delicacy all winter. It is on everyone’s breath and in everyone’s overcoat. It has seeped into the baize cloth of everyone’s parlour. It has insinuated itself into the brickwork of every privy, coagulated in alleys, hung in unpeopled corners, and conserved its virtues, waiting for the day when it might come at last to the High City. This evening, like an invisible army, it filtered by stages along the Boulevard Aussman, where it woke the caged rabbits in the bakers’ backyards and caused the chained dogs to whimper with excitement; flowed about the base of the hill at Alves, investing the derelict observatory with an extraordinary new significance; and passed finally to the heights of Minnet-Saba, where it gathered in waves to begin its stealthy assault on the High Noses. On the way it informed some strange crannies: inundating, for instance, a little-used arm of the pleasure canal at Lowth, where its spirit infected incidentally a curious tragedy on the ice.

  The air was bitter inside the nose, the sky as black as anthracite. The Name Stars glittered cynically, commemorating some best-forgotten king. Down below on the frozen canal a grubby satin booth was pitched, its yellow shutters up, its cressets cold. From its door a long-legged brazier, kept fed with frigid horse dung, looked out like a red eye. In it, under the zodiacal representations and the testimonials to its proprietor’s efficacy, a poet and a fortune-teller sat, cheating one another feverishly at “blind Michael.”

  The poet was a rag of a man, little, and hollow-cheeked from a life of squalor, with his bright red hair stuck up on his head like a wattle and greed lurking in the corners of his grin. He gave his small hands no rest- when he was not trying to palm cards or filch the bottle, he was flapping them about like a wooden puppet’s. At slow moments during the play he would stare silently into the air with his face empty and his mouth slack, then, catching himself, leap up from the three-legged stool on which he sat and go jigging round the booth until by laughing and extemporizing he had got his humour back. In mirth, or delivering doggerel, his voice had a penetrating hysterical timbre, like a knife scraped desperately on a plate. He had made a “ballade of stewed cabbage” earlier that evening, but seemed to hate and fear the smell of the stuff, grimacing with dilated nostrils and turned-down mouth when a wave of it passed through the booth. His name was Ansel Verdigris, and the fat woman across the card table was his last resort.

  Fat Mam Etteilla, with her aching ankles and her fatal cough, was known to be the wisest woman in the Low City: yet she paid the poet’s debts; admired his verses without in the least understanding them; and, though he gave her nothing in return for it, forgave both his perversions and his frequent distempers. All is made possible in the shadow of the Dark Man. On his calmer days Verdigris sat on her knee and ventriloquised her customers. When his nerves were bad, and he drove them away by spewing on the cards, she slapped his head. He made her laugh. She feared death, but he feared everything: and the closer to death she came, the better she looked after him. One of her great soft hands made three of his! They were an odd pair to be keeping the night alive like that down on the deserted pleasure canal while worthier people slept. There was a cemetery behind the booth, and Verdigris could not keep his eyes off it.

  At midnight he scratched his armpits and parted for the hundredth time the grubby satin curtains. The gravestones seemed to stretch back indefinitely under the moonlight. Where they ceased the Artists’ Quarter began, its piebald roofs hanging on the dark skyline like an evil conundrum. Up the slope went his eyes, through the graves and into the city; back again. “You sleep well enough out there!” he jeered, and then said a name the fortune-teller could not catch. His narrow angular shoulders shuddered convulsively. She called him back but he hardly heard. He had not slept well himself since the night he murdered Galen Hornwrack. It was a yellow night, that one, grimed into his raddled brain and smelling of that unspeakable bundle with its rotting eyes. Ever since, he had had a feeling of being followed around. “Someone walked over my grave,” he said. He laughed. “Well, I’ll not mourn!” The moonlight flooding past him into the booth was of a peculiar cast: in it, as we shall soon see, things seemed almost more solid than they did in broad daylight. “They sleep well enough out there on All Men’s Heath,” he said, and made to draw the satin closed.

  Instantly the reek of stewed cabbage redoubled, rooting him to the spot. A lethal claustrophobia overcame him. “Hornwrack!” he shrieked. He spun round, blundered past the fortune-teller (who had got laboriously to her feet and spread her arms in an elephantine gesture of comfort), and tumbled out onto the ice, where his feet slipped from under him. In an attempt to keep his balance he grabbed the brazier by one of its iron legs. This only served to upset it over him. Squealing with pain and fear, he slid out of the light, plucking feverishly at the glowing embers in his clothing.

  The Fat Mam was used to his convulsions. Grumbling hardly at all, she righted the table. Queer little scenes glowed up at her from the scattered cards, ancient hieratic conjunctions of tower and insect stimulating her to worn prophecies. A good marriage, she thought, and a bad one; and there a blond-haired man. (Each card was like a small bright doorway at the end of a corridor. She was perhaps too old now to step through and be enshrined in pasteboard with a hermit crab and a flight of swans.) On her way to the back of the booth to see what had upset him this time, she stopped to turn one card at random; stare at it for a moment, panting; and nod heavily to herself. Then she parted the curtains and looked out.

  For a month or more, agents and emissaries of the Sign of the Locust- now grown massively in power though its outlook became daily more esoteric, and seeking revenge for (among other things) the bloody confrontation in the Bistro Californium-had sought Ansel Verdigris through the warrens of the Low City. They were oblique but patient. Every clue had pointed to the pleasure canal. Now, their gait curious in the extreme, they raced silently down the slope of All Men’s Heath toward the quivering Mam. They were wrapped in rags and bandaged about their peculiarly misshapen heads, and as they hopped high in the air over the graves, their arms flew out at odd angles and their knives were white in the moonlight.

  Verdigris, with one short anticipatory gurgle, squirmed further into the shadowy undergrowth on the far bank of the canal…

  Soon after they had entered it the booth began to agitate itself in a violent and eccentric fashion, lifting its skirts and tottering from side to side as if it was trying to remember how to walk-while out of it came a steady rhythmical thumping sound, like two or three axes hitting a wet log. A dreadful astonished wail rose up in accompaniment to this, modulating with each blow. Verdigris bit his lips and drew back further into the weeds. He put his hands over his ears, but this changed nothing. The knives of the Sign rose and fell regularly; and the booth, like some remarkable engine in the night, continued to propel itself with an uncertain shuffling motion this way and that across the ice. After a little while, having reached the centre of the canal (where only lately it had been all boiled chestnuts and skating anemone boys), it collapsed. Amorphous figures struggled momentarily beneath it; then it gave them up and they poured away through the cemetery in a quiet tattered wave, like the shadow of a cloud crossing a stony field. The booth gurgled and was still. It had somehow become tangled in the legs of the spilt brazier. Fire licked, reluctantly at first, at its grubby skirts. Then it was engulfed in a sudden silent rush of flames.

  Ansel Verdigris stood on the ice in the unsteady yellow glow. He drew his knife and, in an access of some emotion he did not quite recognise, went off shouting up the hill and was ambushed and killed among the gravestones.

  Not far away from All Men’s Heath in the sharp and cabbagey night, Tomb the Dwarf kicked at his pony. His feet were cold. He had recently entered the city through the Gate of Nigg after three or four weeks in the deep wastes with Cellur the Bird Lord. Adventures and privations had attended him there, as they always did: old lizards following his steps, blinking at night in the small light of the fire; th
e pony quagged perpetually to its elbows in seepage hollows; and a great bird, first hanging high up in the air above them, then settling nervously on a rock to inspect them from intelligent puzzled eyes, every feather made of metal! He had a friend buried in every acre of the North-knights of the Methven, sour old prospectors, all the thieves and princes who had traipsed with him at one time or another the useless places of the empire. They had followed him, too, as night drew in across the old battlefields of the Great Brown Waste.

  The season now teetered on the cold iron pivot of the solstice, and Viriconium was asleep for once, huddled against the cold; you could hear its catarrhal snores from upper windows. The mosaic of its roofs, whited by moonlight and last week’s frozen snow, lay like the demonstration of some equivocal new geometry. The Low City had retreated from him even as he entered it (dogs shivering outside the gatehouse, no other sign of life; the tunnel smelling of pee, black ice, and that merciless vegetable), so that he seemed always to view it at a distance. He did not understand its mood. A muted expectancy, a cold glamour resistant to his dwarfish intuition, vibrated in its surfaces: he had for a moment (it was a moment only) a sense of two cities, overlapping in a sprawl of moonlit triangles and tangled thoroughfares. This conceit caused him to smile but remained with him nevertheless, quite distinctly, as if he had seen the future as a composite city uninhabited by human beings.

  More beggars were abroad than a single city had a right to, moving quietly about in ones and twos, the deformities that would by day be displayed up on Chamomile Street outside the pot-house doors now half-hidden under scalloped rags and strange tight bandages-as if when left to themselves they sought a finer aesthetic of suffering, and a subtler performance of it. Tomb stood up in his stirrups to see over the parapet of a bridge. (Toc toc went the pony’s hooves, little and sharp on the cobbles.) “Someone at least is keeping the night alive,” he observed. Underneath him the Pleasure Canal diminished toward Lowth in an icy curve, its surface tricked out with dim reflections of the moon. “The ice is miraculously hard. They’ve lit a brazier down there on it.” Cellur, though, seemed preoccupied. “Now it’s split!” Faint shouts and wails, as of laughter, floated up. “Look here, Cellur-some fool’s set fire to a conjuror’s booth!”

  “I see nothing.”

  “You wish to see nothing. You are a dreary companion, I can tell you that. It’s all gone dark now anyway,” said the dwarf disappointedly. He craned his neck. Nothing. His pony drifted to a standstill. When he caught up again the old man was hemming and clucking nervously.

  “Those alms-men are following us now. Be ready with your axe. I do not believe they are what they seem.”

  “Arms-men! Bloody beggars, more like.” He shifted the axe from one shoulder to the other. “Black piss!” He had looked back and got a glimpse of the beggars hopping after him, soft-boned and rickety-kneed, their arms flying out this way and that for balance. It was a horrible sight. “There are not that many beggars in the entire world!” They were all humps and goitres. Their misshapen heads were concealed under crusty swathes of muslin and hats with ragged brims. Up in the Artists’ Quarter and all around the derelict observatory at Alves they were gathering in large groups, lurching crazily about in white-breathed circles, watching idly as Tomb and Cellur rode past, joining the quiet procession behind. An occasional soft groan came from amongst them. Cellur’s horse slithered and stumbled from rut to frozen rut; and though the pony was surer-footed they still went slowly up the Rivelin Hill between the shuttered booths and empty taverns.

  Into the High City they went, but it proved to be no sanctuary. When they quickened their pace, the beggars quickened theirs, breaking into the parody of a run. Through the elegant deserted plazas of Minnet-Saba (where the road is made of something that muffles the sound of hooves and the wind has mumbled puzzledly for millennia round the upper peculiarities of the Pastel Towers) they poured, and out onto the great exposed spiral of the Proton Circuit, reeling from side to side, jumping and hopping and tripping themselves up, always out of the power-axe’s reach: maintaining a zone of quarantine about the old man and the dwarf, sweeping them along by the mere promise of contact. Tomb bit his lip and belaboured the pony’s sides. All around him was a sort of dumb rustling noise, punctuated by the gasps and quiet desperate groans of the deformed. (Above and behind that he thought he heard a parched whisper, as if some enormous insect hovered above the chase on huge thoughtful wings.)

  Ahead, lights glimmered. In the gusty winds at the summit of the spiral, the overlapping filigree shells of the palace creaked as if they were part of some flimsier structure. Methven’s hall: the moon hung above it like a daubed head. “Look!” For a moment its image wavered-two palaces were superimposed; behind it another landscape showed through. Blue particles showered from its upper regions, a rain of tiny luminous insects. They galloped toward it nevertheless. Where else could they go? It trembled like a dragonfly’s wing; was refracted like something seen through running water on a sunny day; and accepted them almost reluctantly. New Palace Yard was almost deserted. Tomb’s caravan still stood there, its shafts empty and its colours dimmed by the smoke of winter. No guards were there to observe the sparks fly up from the pony’s hooves or watch the dwarf-axe in hand and white hair streaming out behind-tumble to the ground and hurl himself back through the gate they had just come through, determined to hold it at all costs.

  The beggars, though, had forgotten about him the moment he entered the palace, and now idled about outside, staring blankly at one another. They were not beggars, he saw: they were bakers and greengrocers, in the remnants of striped aprons; they were dukes and moneylenders; they were butchers. The Sign of the Locust peeped through their curious rags. They stood in the bluish moonlight and they seemed to be waiting for something; he couldn’t tell what. (They no longer had any reasons for the things they did, but he wasn’t to know that. A white and single instinct had them now, like a thin song in the brain.) He watched them for five or six minutes, feeling the sweat dry on him as the seconds stretched uneventfully out and his body relaxed. Cellur came up behind him and looked over his head. “You can put up the axe,” he said with a certain morose satisfaction. “The city is theirs, High and Low.” And he strode rapidly off into the outer corridors, heading for the throne room. Tomb backed away from the gate with a halfhearted snarl and, stopping to collect the bundle of long silver rods he had carried behind his saddle to the Agdon Roches and back, followed him.

  The corridors were full of rubbish, mounds of decaying vegetables and heaps of ashes. Everywhere were the discarded uniforms of the palace guard. Much of the food was spoiled, half-eaten, as if whoever had prepared it was unused to human provisions, or had forgotten what to do with them. Cellur shook his head.

  “They have let us in,” he said, “but they will not let us out again so easily. I wonder what they are waiting for.”

  Methvet Nian, Queen Jane, waited also, in a cold room with five false windows. It had been a long time to wait at the heart of emptiness, nothing human moving in the corridors outside.

  Elsewhere, three figures cross our field of vision like the vanguard of an as-yet-distant refugee column. The deep wastes of Fenlen roll away from them in the weak, variable light of late afternoon, hollow as a fevered cheek. Their faces are haggard but human. They walk-if walk is the word for this slithering, staggering progress through the mud-heads down into the rain and some yards apart. They rarely speak to one another. Madness and pain have divided them and they will not now be brought back together. All day long they have followed a fourth figure (there!-bobbing in the saturated air above them, like some great inflated spectral frog!) through a belt of derelict factories. Often they half and stare anxiously about, in case this floating guide has abandoned them: for they are forty days out from the wreckage of Iron Chine, and they have almost forgotten who they are. The moor ahead of them is scattered with interlacing ashpits, chancred with shallow albescent tarns, and strewn as far as the eye can see
with broken earthenware pipes-the detritus, it may be, of some ancient ill-fated reclamation project. From the continental marshes and sumps to the north, the wind brings a deadly metallic reek, and mixed with that more often than not comes the faint smell of lemons, to usher in another period of delirium.

  The woman imagines she is the spokesman of some alien race. Her cropped hair is daubed with mud, and she makes complicated motions of the fingers to symbolize the actions of wings or antennae. She speaks of a city on the plain. “We did not wish to come here,” she says reasonably, “this is not our place!” There is a cold sore at the corner of her mouth. For the last half hour her gait had grown steadily more disconnected. “Your breath burns us!” she exclaims with a light laugh, as if stating some principle so obvious as to need no demonstration, and she collapses into the mud. Her limbs move feebly, then stop. Broken pipes are dislodged and roll down onto her. Her companions continue their ascent of the low ridge before them. At last one of them looks back.

  “Fulthor,” he says dully, “she can’t go any further unaided,” and the other replies, “I see the great-breasted chimerae with their ironic eyes, but I cannot go to them! This morning early I had a vision of Arnac san Tehn-him with the head like a god-sitting in a garden.”

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