Viriconium, p.35

Viriconium, page 35

 

Viriconium
 



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  “Everyone sees the Barley brothers,” he said puzzledly. He shrugged. “I have no opinion of them at all,” he said.

  Were they practising these obliquities to frighten him? Ashlyme couldn’t tell. When he coughed and asked if he could go home, no one answered him. Each time they transferred him to another room it seemed to him that he was taken deeper into the building. Its inner architecture had a curious hollow quality which the dreary new passages and staircases could not quite fill up. If he closed his eyes he could easily imagine himself afloat on a ringing emptiness, in which strange old languages were being spoken. And he could get no idea of who lived here: empty bottles and rotting apple cores rolled about underfoot, yet every so often he glimpsed through some half-open door a richly furnished suite of rooms, or observed fleetingly a servant hurrying along the landing with a dog on a jewelled lead. Finally he found himself in an office equipped with a brass voice pipe, into which his answers were conveyed. When he mentioned his profession, this apparatus set up a tinny, excited squawking. He could not catch its drift, but his custodians listened carefully and then conferred among themselves.

  “Ask him his name,” they advised one another, and after it had been given for the hundredth time, and repeated twice into the voice pipe, told Ashlyme: “His nibs would like to see you.”

  The Grand Cairo was a very small man of indeterminate age, thick-necked, grown fattish in the middle. “I like to think of myself as a fighter,” he was always saying, “and a veteran of strange wars.” He did move with a light, aggressive tread, much like that of a professional brawler from the Plaza of Unrealised Time, and sometimes quite disconcerting: but he had too sly a glance even for a common soldier; and drinking bessen genever, a thick black-currant gin very popular in the Low City, had ruined his teeth, lent his eyes a watery, spiteful caste, and made his forearms flabby. Nevertheless he had a high opinion of himself. He was proud of his hands, in particular their big square fingers; showed off at every opportunity the knotted thigh muscles of his little legs; and kept his remaining hair well oiled down with a substance called “Altaean Balm,” which one of his servants bought for him at a stall in the Tinmarket.

  Ashlyme found him waiting impatiently by a window. He had on a jerkin with heavily padded shoulders, done in gorgeous dull red leathers, and he had arranged himself in the curious hollow-backed pose-hands clasped behind his back-he believed would accentuate the dignity of his chest.

  “Come here, Master Ashlyme,” he said, “and tell me what you see.”

  By now it was dark outside. The windowpanes reflected the lamplight and furnishings like a pond. If he strained his eyes, Ashlyme could make out rooftops, some of them quite close, which he took to be those of the less fashionable side of Mynned, near Cheniaguine and the Hospital Coictier. Off to the left, hardly visible at all and looking like the preparations for some long-drawn-out nocturnal war, there were the strange trenches and abandoned foundations which had been visited on the district of Montrouge.

  “If it were not for their interference,” said the Grand Cairo, giving the word a particularly virulent emphasis and at the same time glancing over his shoulder as if he suspected someone might be listening, “this part of the city would have been transformed by now. Transformed!”

  “I know very little about town planning,” said Ashlyme, careful not to enlist himself in some quarrel between the Barley brothers and their dwarf.

  The Grand Cairo tilted his head alertly on one side. “Just so,” he said in a flat voice.

  Suddenly he threw open the window, letting in the warmish air from a small balcony, where some early roses, planted in curious old baptismal fonts and trained to the wrought-iron railing, gave off a heavy vulgar scent.

  “Come out here and see if you can guess how I do this,” he invited. He gave a low, plaintive whistle, oulouloulou, which echoed away across the housetops like the call of a summer owl. Nothing happened. He laughed and tried to catch Ashlyme’s eye.

  Ashlyme, embarrassed, avoided this by looking out over the balcony. “We’re not at all high up here,” he said, and found himself slightly disappointed.

  “Look! Look!” said the dwarf gleefully. “See?”

  The balcony was full of cats, purring and mewing, lifting themselves up momentarily on their hind legs to rub their heads against his knees. The dwarf picked them up one by one, chuckling and saying their names: “This is Nounoune… Sexer… here’s Zero with his bent tail… and here’s my fierce Planchette… Namenloss… Eamo… Elbow,” and so on, an eerie list spoken thoughtfully into the scented night. More than a dozen lean little animals had come to him out of the darkness. It was in its way quite impressive.

  “Not one of these cats is mine,” he said. “They come from all over the city, because I speak their language.” He looked intently at Ashlyme. “What do you think of that? Of that possibility?”

  “What lovely animals!” exclaimed Ashlyme evasively. He tried to stroke one of them but it turned on him such a cold, knowing glance that he moved his hand away at once. “Very impressive,” he said.

  At this, the dwarf seemed to lose interest. He required Ashlyme to come and sit down next door in what he called his “side chamber,” a monstrously tall room, original to the tower, in which he looked like a spoiled child wandering about a palace at night. Even the furniture was too large, huge wing chairs and armoires with pewter fitments. There were intricately carved circular tables, old, heavy brocade curtains, and cushions embroidered with metallic thread. The walls had been done out in black and dull gold, with panels of red in which were mounted paintings by Audsley King, Kristodulos, and Ashlyme himself. “I am a collector, you see!” said the dwarf proudly. There was even a sentimental watercolour signed by Paulinus Rack, almost invisible against its overblown setting. The room smelled of incense and stale cakes, the smell of great age. The cats loved it: they filed in one by one and filled up the air with a drugged purring, but Ashlyme felt dizzy, and-when he saw his own work hung in those ancient spaces-a little uneasy.

  The Grand Cairo sighed. He stared thoughtfully at an Audsley King landscape, done in oil and pencil, which showed an old swing bridge being mended at Line Mass Quay.

  “What do you see when you look at me?” he said at last. “I’ll tell you. You see a man who has rubbed hard against the corners of the world; a man who has had to endure privations and attacks, and constantly fulfil the role of outcast.” He laughed scornfully. “Outcast!” he repeated, and went on: “Perhaps you look admiringly round this room and tell yourself, ‘A streak of the sinister is mixed in this man’s composition with many good qualities.’ You are right!” And he gave a satisfied nod, as if this dramatic assessment had indeed been Ashlyme’s. “Nevertheless: I am a man of strong sensibilities-do not forget that-who might once himself have been artist, athlete, mathematician!”

  He gave the Audsley King a last admiring glance.

  “If only we could be as she is! Still, we can only do our best. I’ll order some refreshments, then stand-or sit-wherever you want me to. Will you have the right profile or the left?”

  And, when he saw Ashlyme staring at him helplessly:

  “I want you to do my portrait, Master Ashlyme. You are the one to catch me as I am!”

  He was an exasperating subject, full of nervous energy and forever dissatisfied with his pose. He began by standing up, one hand stretched out like a populist orator. Then he sat down and put his chin on his hand. But soon that was not good enough for him either and he had to stand up again to display the muscles of his upper back. At first he thought too much light was falling on him to emphasise the essential duality of his character, then too little to bring out the line of his jaw. He smiled until he remembered that this would reveal his teeth, then frowned. “I cannot decide how to present myself,” he admitted, with a sigh. He was talking constantly.

  “Do you know why I am so handsome?” he would ask. “It is because of the straightness of my legs.”

  It was clea
r that he hated and feared his masters. One of his favourite topics was the steel ring he wore on the thumb of his right hand. It was a wicked object, with a sharpened spur mounted on it instead of a stone. His employers, he hinted darkly, had attacked him before; the day would come when he would have to fear them again. Suddenly he leapt to his feet and cried, “Imagine the scene! I am attacked! I slash at the forehead of my opponent! Immediately his own blood fills his eyes, and I have him where I want him!”

  He accompanied this explanation with a violent sweep of his arm, which knocked over a little pewter vase of anemones.

  This was how they passed the rest of the night. Extra lamps were brought in at Ashlyme’s request, and at the dwarf’s a tray of aniseed cakes and a preparation he called “housemaid’s coffee,” made of heavily sugared milk heated slowly while buttered toast was crumbled into it and then browned until it formed a thick crust. This he drank with great gusto, rolling his eyes and rubbing his diaphragm, while Ashlyme watched him covertly from behind the easel, yawning and pretending to draw. As the room cooled, the cats crowded round him, or ran about picking up the pieces of food he threw them.

  Towards dawn there was a dull crash outside the building. The dwarf got up and went hurriedly into the adjoining room. Ashlyme found him standing on tiptoe on the little balcony, looking down at the Barley brothers. “Give us a tune, dwarf!” they shouted. “Give us a story!” Drunken singing came up, mixed with laughter and dry retching sounds. They tried to scale the rotten wall below the balcony. They redoubled their efforts to get the door open, and a hollow booming echoed away across the deserted building sites of Montrouge. The dwarf greeted this without a word, staring out over the rooftops, his jaw muscles twitching spasmodically. Ashlyme, intimidated, kept quiet.

  Doors opened and closed elsewhere in the tower. Servants ran about. Eventually it was quiet again, but the dwarf stood on at the railing. When he turned away at last it was apparent that he had expected to find himself alone. He regarded Ashlyme with blank hatred for a moment, then said effortfully, “Do you see how they plague me? I won’t have them in my portrait. Hurry. It will spoil everything if they find you here!”

  Ashlyme nodded and went to fetch his easel.

  The dwarf stood in the doorway watching him pack chalks and paper. “What’s your game in the plague zone, Ashlyme?” he asked quietly. His expression was detached. When he saw Ashlyme’s confusion he laughed. “Go anywhere you like! My men will leave you alone unless I order it. But don’t forget your new commission.”

  Outside, the night was totally silent; and as Ashlyme picked his way between the derelict towers and rubbish-filled trenches, it seemed to him that the whole city had shrunk to a black dot on the vast featureless map of the end of the world.

  This week, he wrote in his journal, the High City can think of nothing but the Barley brothers. What they wear, where they go, what they do when they get there, all this is suddenly of paramount interest. The most vexing question is: where do they live? Yesterday at Angina Desformes’s I was told in confidence that the Barleys live in a workman’s hut in the cisPontine Quarter; this morning I learned to the contrary that they stay on a houseboat down at Line Mass and spend their time throwing things in the canal. Tomorrow I expect to hear that they have bought all the houses on Uranium Street, where, in a grave beneath the pavement, they have secretly arranged a sepulchre for themselvesand their dwarf…

  It was a silly preoccupation, he felt, and one which could only confirm the Barley brothers in their bad behaviour. Now that I have visited the tower in Montrouge, and seen the curious roadworks beyond the Haadenbosk, he added, I do not encourage such speculation. To the extent that he could, he pushed his encounter with the Grand Cairo out of his mind. He was not anxious to admit, perhaps, that the pattern of his life could be so easily disturbed. As an antidote he worked hard at his round of commissions in Mynned.

  Most of these, he recorded, are middle-aged women, bored, educated, “artistic.” I am quite the fashion with them. At present, of course, they are besottedby the Barley brothers, and filled with delighted fear by the proximity of the plague zone: but they remain eager to talk about Paulinus Rack, who is still their darling despite the growing row over Die Traumunden Knaben, which many of them consider too risque a production to be put on the High City. Like all of us, Rack relies for his funding on these women, and his feet are getting colder by the minute. If the play fails, Audsley King will fail with it. The Dreaming Boys are her last link with the High City, her last investmentin life rather than death. The women of Mynned, who have not thought about this, are scandalised by what they imagine her plight to be. May they send her money? they enquire of me. “I’m afraid it is against quarantine regulations,” I tell them. They find this quite unsatisfactory.

  He always lost two or three of these clients when the finished portrait turned out a little less “sympathetic” than they had expected.

  “La Petroleuse” complains that I have made her look provincial. I have not. I have given her the face of a grocer, which is another matter entirely, and in no way a judgement. There are so many other things to think about that I cannot regret it. Audsley King seems lower in spirit every time I see her. Emmet Buffo is anxious about his part in our plan, and lately has sent me several letters on the subject of disguises. He does not want to enter the zone without one. He thinks we should both have one. He knows where there is an old man who can get them for us.

  After some thought Ashlyme decided, I don’t care for this idea. Nevertheless, to Buffo he wrote, I will meet you to see this man as soon as I can get away.

  It was a cool, bright morning in the High City.

  “How lucky you are to live up here!” exclaimed Buffo. “The plague hardly seems to have changed anything.”

  “I don’t know about that,” said Ashlyme.

  “Well, I love to come here,” Buffo insisted, “especially if I’ve been working all night. Look: there’s Livio Fognet on his way to lunch at the Charcuterie Vivien.” He waved cheerfully. “Not a care in the world!”

  Buffo was tall and thin, with a loose, uncoordinated gait which made him look as if the wrong legs had been attached to him at birth. His face was clumsy and long-jawed, he had limp fair hair and a pale complexion. Years of staring through homemade lenses had given his eyes a sore and vulnerable look. His researches, which had something to do with the moon, were regarded with derision in the High City. He did not suspect this. Lately, though, he had been short of funds. It had made him absentminded; when he thought no one was watching him his face became slack and empty of expression.

  “You even have better weather in Mynned,” he went on, stretching, expanding his chest, and blinking round in the weak sunlight. “It’s always so windy where I live.” He had bought himself a pound of plums and was eating them as he went along. “I don’t know why I like plums so much,” he said. “Did you see the sky just after dawn today? Extraordinary!”

  They were on their way to the cisPontine Quarter, a Low City district as yet untouched by the plague. To get there they had to cross Mynned and go down to the canal. It had rained quite heavily an hour or so before. As they made their way between the deserted quays and warehouses, the eggshell colours of the sky were reflected in the puddles on the towpath. A coolish breeze blew across the lock basin at Line Mass, giving it something of the windy spaciousness of a much larger body of water and reminding Ashlyme without warning of the Midland Levels, where he had been born. He thought suddenly of bitter winter floods, eels coiled fat and unmoving in the mud, and herons standing motionless along the silvery margins of the willow carrs. He shivered.

  Buffo was describing the man they were going to meet.

  “He is a great collector of stuffed birds. He makes them, too. He sells, among other things, the clothes the beggars wear. He lives behind ‘Our Lady of the Zincsmiths,’ and thinks as I do that the future of the world lies with science.” (Ashlyme, hearing only the word future, looked guiltily in the dire
ction Buffo happened to be pointing. He saw only an old lock gate, behind which had collected a creamy brown curd full of floating rubbish.) “His researches take him into the old towers of the city, and their derelict upper floors. You will not believe this, Ashlyme, but there among the jackdaw colonies and sparrows’ nests he claims to have found living birds whose every feather is made of metal!”

  “He should avoid those old towers,” said Ashlyme. “They can be dangerous.”

  “It’s interesting work, though. Do you want the last plum or can I have it?”

  Presently they came to the cisPontine Quarter and found the old man at home in his shop. The small dusty window of this place was full of birds and animals preserved in unrealistic poses, and above it hung a partly obliterated sign. It stood on one side of an old paved square, entry to which was gained through a narrow brick arch. Fish was being sold from a cart at one end of the square; at the other rose the dark bulk of “Our Lady of the Zincsmiths”; children ran excitedly about between the two, squabbling over a bit of pavement marked out for the hopping game “blind Michael.” As Ashlyme stepped through the arch he heard a woman’s voice, shrill, nasal, singing to a mandolin; and the air was full of the smells of cod and saffron.

  The old man was watery-eyed and frail. He stood amid the clutter at the back of the shop, clutching one stiff hand with the other and smiling uncertainly. The skin was stretched over his long skull like yellow paper. He had on a faded dressing gown which had once been embroidered with fine silver wire. A few twists of this still poked out of its lapels and threadbare elbows. He took Emmet Buffo by the arm and drew him away from the door.

 

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