Viriconium, p.33

Viriconium, page 33

 

Viriconium
 



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  The ship fell. He would not touch the controls. He held the knife tightly to keep his hands occupied. One moment his thin face was in eclipse. The next it had been thrown into prominence by a flash of rose-red light from the decaying node beneath.

  We are not talking of his motives. All his life he had looked not for life itself but for some revelation to unify it and give it meaning: some-any- significant occurrence. Whether he was able or willing to recognise it now it had come, we cannot say. It is immaterial anyway. In the event he sacrificed himself to release the old airboatman from an undeserved nightmare. It was a rescue.

  At the instant of impact the boat split open around him like an empty gourd, but he did not feel it.

  Instead, as the crystal splinters entered his brain, he experienced two curious dreams of the Low City, coming so quickly one after the other that they seemed simultaneous. In the first, long shadows moved across the ceiling frescoes of the Bistro Californium, beneath which Lord Mooncarrot’s clique awaited his return to make a fourth at dice. Footsteps sounded on the threshold. The women hooded their eyes and smiled, or else stifled a yawn, raising dove-grey gloves to their blue, phthisic lips. Viriconium, with all her narcissistic intimacies and equivocal invitations, welcomed him again. He had hated that city, yet now it was his past and it was all he had to regret… The second of these visions was of the Rue Sepile. It was dawn, in summer. Horse-chestnut flowers bobbed like white wax candles above the deserted pavements. An oblique light struck into the street-so that its long and normally profitless perspectives seemed to lead straight into the heart of a younger, more ingenuous city-and fell across the fronts of the houses where he had once lived, warming the rotten brick and imparting to it a not unpleasant pinkish colour. Up at the second-floor casement window a boy was busy with the bright red geraniums arranged along the outer sill in lumpen terra-cotta pots. He looked down at Hornwrack and smiled. Before Hornwrack could speak he drew down the lower casement and turned away. The glass which now separated them reflected the morning sunlight in a silent explosion; and Hornwrack, dazzled, mistaking the light for the smile, suddenly imagined an incandescence which would melt all those old streets!

  Rue Sepile; the Avenue of Children; Margery Fry Court: all melted down! All the shabby dependencies of the Plaza of Unrealised Time! All slumped, sank into themselves, eroded away until nothing was left in his field of vision but an unbearable white sky above and the bright clustered points of the chestnut leaves below-and then only a depthless opacity, behind which he could detect the beat of his own blood, the vitreous humour of the eye. He imagined the old encrusted brick flowing, the glass cracking and melting from its frames even as they shrivelled away, the shreds of paint flaring green and gold, the geraniums toppling in flames to drop like comets through the fiery air; he imagined the chestnuts fading to nothing, not even white ash, under this weight of light! All had winked away like reflections in a jar of water glass, and only the medium remained, bright, viscid, vacant. He had a sense of the intolerable briefness of matter, its desperate signalling and touching, its fall; and simultaneously one of its unendurable durability.

  He thought, Something lies behind all the realities of the universe and is replacing them here, something less solid and more permanent. Then the world stopped haunting him forever.

  It is so hard to convey simultaneity:

  As Hornwrack dreamed, so did Tomb the Iron Dwarf, dying a thousand miles away in his one hundred and fiftieth year, old friend of kings and princes; as Cellur and the Queen stood in the chilly throne room, staring into the North and whispering in the dry voices of the old, so Fay Glass and Alstath Fulthor stood in the distant waste and watched Benedict Paucemanly open his arms as if to embrace the falling airboat. His voice hooted morosely across to them on the wind. “You’ve come home,” he tried to say: to whom or what is unclear, unless it was himself. It was too late anyway. The Heavy Star buried itself in the bloated arch of his chest and broke apart with a muffled thud. He rolled like a stricken whale with this enormous blow, making a soft, almost female noise of grief or pleasure; and a white light issued suddenly from him, a nimbus which filled the pit and spread so rapidly that within a minute the whole of the city had been transfigured, its alien arcades and papery constructions appearing to glow from within.

  This light rippled out over the earth, thinning as it went. By the time it had crossed the bitter coasts of Fenlen it was nothing more than a faint disturbance of matter which, speeding through the very stones of the world, liberated everything in its path from the “new reality.” It cleansed the ruins of Iron Chine, where for a month great green beetles had fumbled through the whitish remains of Elmo Buffin’s ill-starred fleet. Spilling over the battlements of the cold city of Duirinish, it relieved the proctors there of their visions-crane flies stalking distant fantastic littorals, trees into men, men into geometrical figures. It swept between the shattered buttresses of the Agdon scarp, and when it had passed the stunted oakwoods on the slopes below were untenanted again. It flickered among the high passes of the Monar, scouring them with a glacial light, and finally crossed the walls of the Pastel City to empty those ancient streets of all illusions but their proper human ones.

  (Out there on the alien plain, Fay Glass and Alstath Fulthor felt it pulse through them, and were pulled away into the past. “Arnac san Tehn!” he called triumphantly. “We meet in the Garden of Women! Midnight!” But she whispered, “So many wings,” a little sad, perhaps, to leave. “So many wings,” seeing the cruelty of it all. They lingered for a while as grey phantoms amid the sinking cairns of the watershed, the Afternoon Cultures reclaiming them by degrees. Now they are lost to us for good.)

  Benedict Paucemanly writhed silently as if determined to vomit something up. All was done but this one thing: his death. He groaned and strained. Abruptly the larvae of the swarm burst out of his distended pores, fell off him into the pit, and dried up like dead leeches. He hooted in triumph. The light fountained up from him for some minutes more, all the light he had absorbed during his long imprisonment in the moon, all his pain. He was beatified, dissolving in his own light. Repository and symbol, he released all the energies of the two realities colliding within him: and in releasing them released the earth.

  The plain darkens. We see it from a long way off. The old airboatman is dead. There is a slow fading of the sky, a cold wind springing up; a deeper night arrives. The mysterious city winks like an ember on the edge of the plain, fading from white to purple to a dim red and then nothing. For a moment the swarm hangs above this, its first and last stronghold, forming itself into a complex grid-like pattern in the obsidian air-some last attempt to communicate with the human world, a glowing symbol, meaningless yet full of import against the darkness. Down floats its stridulant hymn, bony celebration of the waste spaces of the universe. Then, its ontological momentum lost, its position in the material continuum untenable, the life goes out of it. Those individuals which survive will become mere insects and wander about the plain forever with folded wings, as lost as all the other races that ever came down to the earth, and whose descendants now inhabit the Deep Wastes. When they meet they will stare lengthily at one another as if trying to remember something; or, copulating hopelessly beneath a black rain, become suddenly immobile, so that they resemble tangled silver brooches mislaid on the desert by the hetaerae of some vanished civilisation…

  EPILOGUE

  Viriconium.

  Its achingly formal gardens and curious geometries; its streets that reek of squashed fruit and fish; its flowers like purple wounds on the lawns of the “Hermitage” at Trois-Vertes; its palace like a shell: how can one deal with it in words?

  Viriconium.

  If you go and stand up in the foothills of Monar you can see it hanging below you wrapped in a mantle of millennial calm. From the brow of Hollin Low Moor you may watch it fade into another night. Its histories make of the very air about it an amber, an entrapment. Light flares from the vivid tiered heights of Mi
nnet-Saba, from the riverine curve of the Proton Circuit, the improbable towers and plazas of the Atteline Quarter; under a setting sun banks of anemones and sol d’or planted about the graves of tegeus-Cromis and Tomb the Dwarf glow like triumphal stained glass; and someone far off in the still twilight is reading aloud a verse of Ansel Verdigris, the poet of the city.

  Viriconium.

  Spring. Down in the Cispontine Quarter the vegetation has begun to flourish again. The fuel-gathering women are no longer seen. Ragwort clothes all the fallen walls and earthy scars, its stems already infested with black and yellow caterpillars (later in the year these become an attractive crimson moth which was once the symbol of the city). Up at Alves, jackdaws are squabbling all day over nesting sites in the cracked dome of the observatory. And in that demimonde which has its centre at the Plaza of Unrealised Time, the women smile down from their casement windows, lifting a hand to pat newly washed hair. Humanity has recolonized the inconceivable avenues of the High City-gaping up open-mouthed at the inexplicable architecture of the Afternoon Cultures while it empties its bladder in their millennial gutters-and hung out its washing again in the Low. The “Winter of the Locust” is over. Only a sudden increase in the number of beggars (some of whom have the most novel deformities) along the Rivelin Way persuades us that it ever took place, that we ever listened to that white thin song.

  We hear that Lord Mooncarrot is seen about with Chorica nam Vell Ban, that cold fish. He has received her mother at his house in Minnet-Saba: rumour is rife. We hear that the feverish Madam “L” has ceased her visits to the Boulevard Aussman, is cured of all but her bad taste, and this week reopens her salon. We hear that Paulinus Rack, the fat poetaster and undertaker’s agent, has come by a packet of manuscript in not-unquestionable circumstances, and plans soon to edit a volume of the cockatoo’s work. He can be seen any day, with his fat hands and jade cane, drinking lemon gin at the Bistro Californium. (He has a theory of the Locust Winter and its madness. Who does not? Invite him to dinner and he will spill it on his waistcoat with the custard.) As for the rest of the Low City: the younger poets favour a Bistro gnosticism-the world, they say, has already ended, and we are living out hours for which no chronology allows. They cut atrocious figures as they swagger about the Artists’ Quarter practising their polemic. And these days so many poseurs are wearing the meal-coloured cloak that the bravos have taken in defence to yellow velvet.

  In short, the Eternal City stands as it once did, infuriating, beautiful, vulgar by turns. Only the Reborn are missing. You do not see them now in the Atteline Quarter, or on the Proton Circuit hurrying from the palace on an errand of Alstath Fulthor’s. (He has never returned. The Low City always knew something like this would happen. It taps the side of its nose; sniffs.) After the persecutions they endured at the hands of the Sign, the majority of them will never come here again. They will live now in the deserts for many generations, their germ-plasm becoming as alien as that of the big lizards of the Great Brown Waste, refining their theory of Time, redefining their heritage, growing mad and strange.

  In the evenings Queen Jane, Methvet Nian of Viriconium, sits in the side chamber or salle she uses as a library and drawing room, sometimes meditating this loss, which is one of many in her life. “A world trying to remember itself”: surrounded by her sheets of music and delicate little corals, she has the wry but supple calm of an ageing danseuse; keeps in a rosewood chest with copper reinforcing bands a gourd-shaped musical instrument from the deep East; hears the past in every passing footstep; and wonders often what became of the sword and the mail and the assassin she gave them to.

  “I had hoped for so much from the Reborn,” she confides to her new advisor, the old man who is so very rarely seen in public. “We might have rebuilt our culture. Yet they were perhaps too concerned with their own salvation to teach us… and we always too uncomplicated for their delicate nerves…”

  She closes her eyes.

  “They enriched us even so. Can you still see them, Cellur, when Tomb woke them first? What a pageant they made, there in the brain chamber at Knarr, with all their strange weapons!”

  He can see nothing. He was not there. But he has forgotten even that (or perhaps he realizes that she has) and with a small diffident movement of his hands says, “I am sure I do, my lady,” then, remembering something else, smiles suddenly. “Did I not live then in a tower by the sea?”

  Ten thousand grey wings beat down the salty wind, like a storm in his head!

  IN VIRICONIUM

  THE FIRST CARD DEPOUILLEMENT

  This card indicates an illness of uncertain severity. Apprehension, fear, and indefinite delay. Expect difficulties in your business. “There is correspondence everywhere; but some correspondences are clearer than others.”

  CHARLES WILLIAMS, The Greater Trumps

  Ashlyme the portrait painter, of whom it had once been said that he “first put his sitter’s soul in the killing bottle, then pinned it out on the canvas for everyone to look at like a broken moth,” kept a diary. One night he wrote in it.

  The plague zone has undergone one of its periodic internal upheavals and extendedits boundaries another mile. I would care as little as anyone else up here in the High City if it were not for Audsley King. Her rooms above the Rue Serpolet now fall within its influence. She is already ill. I am not sure what to do.

  He was a strange little man to have got the sort of reputation he had. At first sight his clients, who often described themselves later as victims, thought little of him. His wedge-shaped head was topped by a coxcomb of red hair which gave him a permanently shocked expression. His face accentuated this, being pale and bland of feature, except the eyes, which were very large and wide. He wore the ordinary clothes of the time, and one steel ring he had been told was valuable. He had few close friends in the city. He came from a family of rural landlords somewhere in the midlands; no one knew them. (This accident of birth had left him a small income, and entitled him to wear a sword, although he never bothered. He had one somewhere in a cupboard.)

  She must be got out of there, he continued, writing a little more quickly. I have thought of nothing else since this evening’s meeting with Paulinus Rack. Rack, with his fat lips and intimate asides! How did he ever come to be her agent? In his oily hands he had some proof sketches of her designs for his productionof Die Traumunden Knaben-The Dreaming Boys. I stared at them and knew that she must be preserved. They are inexplicable, these figures in their trance-like yet painful attitudes. They suggest a line and form quite foreign to us warmer, more human beings. Could she have understood somethingabout the nature of the crisis that we have not?

  He bit his pen.

  But how to persuade her to leave? And how to persuade anyone to help me?

  This was rhetoric. He had already persuaded Emmet Buffo the astronomer to help him. But what is a diary for, if not effect? The world has already seen too much history dutifully recorded: that was the unconsciously held belief of Ashlyme’s age.

  When the ink was dry he locked the book, then picked up the light easel he used for preliminary studies and went downstairs. “Come sometimes at night,” she had said when he accepted the commission, and laughed. “A lamp can be as unflattering as daylight.” (Touching his sleeve with one mannish hand.) At the bottom of the stairs he stood still for a second or two, then let himself out into the empty street and echoing night. From here he had a view of the Low City, some odd quality of the moonlight giving its back and foreground planes equal value, so that it had no perspective but was just a clutter of blue and gamboge roofs filling the space between his eyes and the hills outside the city.

  He made his way down the thousand steps which in those days gave access to the heights of Mynned, hidden behind the facade of the Margarethestrasse and its triumphal arches, winding among the fish markets and pie shops where the Artists’ Quarter rubs up against the High City like someone’s old unwanted animal. There were people who did not want to be seen coming and going between
High City and Low. They could be heard ascending and descending this stairway all night, among them those curious twin princes of the city, the Barley brothers. (How are we to explain them? They weren’t human, that’s a fact. Had Ashlyme known his fate was mixed up with theirs, would he have been more careful in the plague zone?) At the bottom they would let themselves through a small iron gate. It was constructed so as to permit only one person through at a time, and its name commemorated in the Low City some atrocity long since forgotten in the High. Ashlyme had his own reasons for keeping off the Margarethestrasse. Perhaps his nightly visits to the plague zone embarrassed him.

  He was inclined to hurry through the Artists’ Quarter. Blue light leaked from the chromium doors of the brasseries and estaminets as he passed. In the Bistro Californium, beneath Kristodulos’s notorious frescoes, some desperate celebration was in progress. Out came the high-pitched voice of a poet, auctioning the dull things he had found in the back of his brain. There was a peculiar laugh; a scatter of applause; silence. Further on, in the Plaza of Unrealised Time, beggars were lounging outside the rooms of the women, curious bandages accentuating rather than covering their deformities as they relaxed after the efforts of the day. One or two of them winked and smiled at him. Ashlyme clutched his easel and quickened his pace until they had fallen behind. In this way, quite soon, he entered the infected zone.

  The plague is difficult to describe. It had begun some months before. It was not a plague in the ordinary sense of the word. It was a kind of thinness, a transparency. Within it people aged quickly, or succumbed to debilitating illnesses-phthisis, influenza, galloping consumption. The very buildings fell apart and began to look unkempt, ill-kept. Businesses failed. All projects dragged out indefinitely and in the end came to nothing.

 

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