Viriconium, p.43

Viriconium, page 43

 

Viriconium
 



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  Ashlyme said neutrally, “She doesn’t respect the judgement of the High City.”

  “Just so,” said the Marchioness, looking out across the jumbled roofs of the Quarter. “I expect you are right.” She smiled sadly. “We must hope she has more faith in yours.”

  When she had gone, Ashlyme sat in the studio like a stone. “Married to Paulinus Rack!” he said to himself, and, “ ‘Something less gloomy in the theatre’! Has no one told them up here that the world is coming to an end?” He got up suddenly and hurried out. The Marchioness had convinced him, as she had perhaps intended, that action was still possible.

  THE FIFTH CARD

  THE HERMETIC FEAST

  A legacy will come to you from a far-off country. Light, truth, the unravelling of involved matters. In this card everything is revealed. If it comes next to No. 4 it predicts you will fall in the sea.

  “I believe that the ‘Waste Land’ is really the very heart of our problem; a rightful appreciation of its position and significance will place us in possession of the clue which will lead us safely through the most bewildering mazes.”

  JESSIE L. WESTON, From Ritual to Romance

  Afternoon was slipping away into evening as he made his way up the long hill to Alves. He saw immediately that there was something wrong. A strange flat light hung round the old towers, so that he seemed to be looking at them through dirty glass; the cries of the jackdaws as they wheeled round the dome of the derelict palace had a remote and uninflected note, as if they came from much further away; the peeling middle-class villas on the slopes below had aged since his last visit, and their overgrown gardens were full of household rubbish and decaying bricks. A dog trotted aimlessly about in the road ahead of him, sniffing the dust as it whirled round in cold circles. The hill seemed endless. Halfway up it he broke into a run. He could not have explained why.

  Emmet Buffo’s door was open and the damp had blown into his rooms. A stale smell came from the alcove where he did his cooking. He lay under a cheap coloured blanket in the low iron bed by the washstand. He was dead. On the floor beside him were scattered the remains of two or three meals and-as if he had dropped them and never found the strength to pick them up again-a few small ground-glass lenses of different colours. Beneath the blanket his body had assumed an awkward posture, twisted partly on its side: it was as if it had contracted unevenly after death, curling up like an insect. One thin arm was bent behind his head, while the other hung over the side of the bed, its long, clumsily knuckled hand touching the floor. Perhaps he had been trying to turn over. He looked old. He looked, with his intelligent, tired eyes, his worn, unshaven face, and big raw ears, as defenceless, honest, and undemanding as he had ever done.

  On a table by the bed were some sheets of paper which he had covered with numbered notes in a spiky, erratic hand. Though the notes were unrelated, the numbers gave them a mad air of continuity, as if they were intended as steps in a logical argument. No one has come to visit me in my illness, read one. Hindering the scientist is a crime, it is murdering knowledgein the bud! claimed another. Why have I never received sufficient finance? he asked himself, and answered: Because I have never convinced them of the significance of the stars, among which mankind once flew.

  How long had he lain there, writing when he could, staring at the mouldy shapes on the wall when fatigue overcame him and sleep evaded him, unable to prevent himself from speculating, formulating, rationalising? I must always remember that Art is as important as Science, and containmy impatience!

  Poor Emmet Buffo!-The world had puzzled him by its indifference, but he blamed no one.

  Strewn haphazardly round the room were the curious flannel bandages in which he had swaddled himself for the “rescue” of Audsley King. Ashlyme stared dumbly at them. In his mind’s eye he could see Buffo quite clearly: arguing with the women on the dusty staircase; pushing the empty handcart in erratic spurts along the Rue Serpolet in the rain; hopping from one foot to the other in the deserted observatory as he fought to free himself from the stinking confinement of the horse’s-head mask. How long had he waited for Ashlyme to come and reassure him he was safe?

  The observatory was in disorder. The roof lights had been left open to admit a wet, chilly air, which had stripped from the walls the last of Buffo’s charts. Some crisis in his illness had prompted him to stagger in here and collapse among his telescopes: or perhaps he had simply destroyed them out of despair. Bent brass tubing littered the floor, and when he went over to examine it, Ashlyme felt the little lenses crush beneath his feet like sugared anemones. He rubbed the condensation from a pane of glass and looked out over the Low City. He could see nothing. He could feel nothing. Night was approaching. The ramshackle greenhouse seemed to rush through the twilight like a ship. He had an overwhelming sense of disaster. He knew that if he admired Audsley King, then he had loved Emmet Buffo.

  He bent to the eyepiece of one of the broken telescopes.

  For a second he thought he could see a vast white plain, arranged geometrically, on which were hundreds of stone catafalques, stretching away to a curved horizon. An implacable light slanted down on them, but it began to fade before he had understood the scene before him.

  He heard a sound in the other room.

  When he went to see what it was he found that a detachment of the quarantine police had arrived. They filled the place up. Black uniforms, blue-tinted spectacles, and huge dogs on leads gave them an air of bravado and efficiency. But behind the spectacles their eyes were harassed and nervous, and after a hurried examination of Buffo’s corpse two of them began pouring oil on the bedclothes, the woodwork, and the walls above the bed. Two more pushed past Ashlyme into the observatory and set about smashing windows to create a good through draught. The rest stood about, chuckling over Buffo’s underwear, riffling through his papers, and dragging the dogs off the stale food in the alcove. Despite all this they were not unkind men, and they were surprised to find Ashlyme in the house.

  “What are you doing?” he demanded. “Leave those things alone! Who sent you here?”

  They took him quietly aside. In cases like this, they explained, cremation was the rule: although they didn’t, personally, enjoy the work. “Your father died three days ago, we don’t know what of,” they said. They had only just got round to him, due to pressure of work. “It’s so difficult now to get places to burn properly.” Recently an old woman in Henrietta Street had taken three attempts; a baker’s family at the lower end of the Margarethestrasse, five: all this was very time-consuming. “These rooms should have been sealed until we arrived.” They didn’t know how Ashlyme had got in. It was not that they didn’t admire his courage. But there was nothing he could do here now.

  “He wasn’t my father,” said Ashlyme dully. “Why are you burning him? At least his work should be saved! Look, this is his ‘exterior brain’: it’s not by any means an ordinary library.”

  “It all has to go,” they repeated patiently. They were used to the protests of the bereaved. “We don’t know what he died of, you see. Alves is in the plague zone now. You want to foot it while you can!”

  The plague zone.

  A few minutes later Ashlyme stood in the street staring up at the top of the building. A subdued, almost reluctant explosion shook it suddenly, and glass showered down from the penthouse. Strange slow blue flames issued from the upper windows, flames so pale they seemed transparent against the great black bulk of the hill behind.

  “This house was always in a plague zone,” said Ashlyme bitterly. “That is why all our schemes came to nothing.”

  All at once he was terrified that the same thing might be happening across the city at Audsley King’s house: the thick oil, the smashed windows, the dilatory flames. The only person he could think of who might help him prevent that was the Grand Cairo. He ran off down the hill. When he looked back, the peculiar fire had already lost its force and he could see only a knot of dark figures in the middle of the avenue.

  The Hig
h City was cold and bright under the colourless moon of autumn. The echo of Ashlyme’s footsteps came back to him changed and muffled, as if from a place a long distance away. We were all accomplices to Buffo’s death, he thought wildly as he ran, we are all to blame. He had no idea what he meant by this, and it gave him no relief. When at last he came to the Grand Cairo’s tower in Montrouge, he was frightened to go in. All its doors and windows hung open in the pitiless light.

  Inside, hundreds of the dwarf’s followers had killed each other during the early part of the night. They lay mainly on the stairs and in the corridors between the hastily constructed offices and interrogation rooms, their violent and confused shadows frozen on the walls. They had not had time to prepare. Some of them clutched handfuls of hair pulled out or collars torn off during the fighting; others had knives or razors, or improvised strangling cords; most were bitten about the face and hands. Huge glittering unearthly flies, their energy dulled a little by the cold, went from wound to wound in strict rotation in the bright moonlight, making a dry, desultory buzzing as they rose and fell.

  Ashlyme looked at them numbly. He got himself upstairs to a room he recognised from a previous visit, hoping to find someone there who could take him to the Grand Cairo. Attempts had been made to set it on fire. Its occupants had smashed the desk open and soaked their own coats in oil, then applied the charred garments to the flimsy partition wall, which was now full of blackened holes. They had also attempted to burn the documents which spilled out of the fireplace and across the floor. In the end they had given up and killed each other with a paper knife before the flames could take hold. Ashlyme picked up some of the documents.

  Day by day our position becomes more precarious… The Barley brothers have named names… We now have a handpicked guard at every gate… He threw them down again, but not before they had set up in his head a kind of hideous drone which followed him from corridor to corridor and staircase to staircase up the tower.

  All the offices were the same. From a brass voice pipe Ashlyme thought he heard a whisper, but when he spoke into it there was no answer, only a long echoic sigh. He knew that he was now in the country the dwarf had spoken of so often. Intrigue and backstabbing and great flies in everything you eat. Ashlyme wiped his hand over his face: if he wasn’t careful, he knew, he could be caught there forever. It was a country that accompanied the dwarf wherever he went; it was an atmosphere that surrounded him, miasmic and pervasive, like the smell of Altaean Balm; he had brought it with him, down from the North or the sky, and visited it on the city. Two thousand men were thrown into fires in one day. Those people had abandoned themselves to conspiracy.

  Flies rose in clouds as Ashlyme made his way into the older places of the tower. Even there, dead men lay facedown among the orange peel and other rubbish in the gloomy carmine-lit passageways. They had daubed slogans on the walls in their own fluids as they waited to dieUp the North, Ya bas, Go back, yellows -their motives so tribal as to be indistinguishable from motivelessness. We are the boys from the second floor!

  A fly settled on his wrist. Its wings were long and papery, and it seemed to have more legs than any fly he had seen in Viriconium. He shuddered and threw it off. Its eyes glittered at him.

  Eventually he found his way into the Grand Cairo’s suite, where for a week or more the dwarf, afraid of the plague, afraid of the Barley brothers and their informants who by now knew almost everything, afraid most of all of his own disintegrating gang, had forbidden anyone to enter. The rooms were dirty and cold, and he had allowed his cats (who, he said, were the only creatures you could trust in this life) the run of them. Just inside the door a servant was sprawled. He had been there for some days. Someone had passed a piece of stiff wire through his head from one ear to the other. A thick sour smell rose from the polished floor, where the cats had dragged chop bones and pies from among the broken crockery on the tray he had been carrying and dipped their unfastidious little tongues in the long sticky spill of “housemaid’s coffee.” Ashlyme went to open the windows.

  When he looked out, expecting to see the High City stretching away in the moonlight, he discovered that he was staring instead across the bleak watersheds of some high plateau in the North. Rain streamed over it from a leaden sky, washing away at the aimless muddy paths which wound between the foundering cairns and ruined factories. He heard a noise like the far-off ringing of a bell. At this a few small figures appeared, ran this way and that in the mud, and then lay down. A poisonous metallic smell came up into the room. Ashlyme drew in his breath quickly, shut the windows, and turned away.

  Two or three cats had run in off the balcony outside, and now accompanied him purring into the salle or side chamber.

  White dustcloth hung off the walls in great swathes; underfoot was a muck of chewed bones, bits of cake, and fruit peel, among which Ashlyme saw books, squares of paper covered with designs half-Gnostic, half-obscene, and-to his horror-two small canvases of Audsley King’s: “Making a chair in the Vitelotte Quarter” and an early gouache of “The great arch beneath the Hidden Gate,” the latter slashed and daubed beyond repair. In a corner with some hanks of hair and a rusty spade lay the sheep’s head which had been the centrepiece of the dwarf’s banqueting table on the night he had made Fat Mam Etteilla read his future. He had flung it there in some fit of rage or pique, and now, one withered orange still stuck in its left eye socket, it stared cynically up into the blackened vault of the original room, the rafters of which had received to themselves during the Afternoon Cultures a millennium of strange smokes and incenses.

  At the centre of all this stood the Grand Cairo, surrounded by a circle of shrouded furniture.

  He had on dark green stockings, and a jerkin made all of green leather lozenges; on his head was a straw hat with a wide brim and a low, rounded crown, surmounted by bunches of owl feathers, ears of corn, and varnished gooseberries. Whatever he had once been, he now seemed to Ashlyme like an ancient, impudent child. In one hand he held tight to something Ashlyme couldn’t quite see; while with the other he clutched the big, work-reddened fingers of the Fat Mam, who cast on him an indulgent, matronly glance. In the Plaza of Unrealised Time she had been known by a voluminous yellow satin gown: she was wearing it now. Ribbons of the same colour were tied loosely about her powerful upper arms, and on her head she bore a wreath of sol d’or.

  At their feet she had arranged the five surviving cards of the fortune-telling pack which Ashlyme had pulled from the bonfire of elder boughs and old letters in the walled garden of Audsley King:

  DEPOUILLEMENT (Loss) -A bleak foreshore. Creatures of the deep float half submerged in the ebb tide. The sky is full of owls.

  THE LILYWHITE BOYS, “Lords of Illusionary Success”-Some pale children jump back and forth like frogs across a fire of sea holly and yew.

  THE CITY (Nothingness) -A dog between two towers.

  THE LORD OF THE FIRST OPERATION-In this card a monkey in a red jacket directs with his wand the antics of a man and a rat.

  ECLAIRCISSEMENT (Enlightenment, or “The Hermetic Feast”)-The doctor of this mystery lies beneath the sea. In one hand he holds a spray of rose hips, in the other a bell.

  “What are you doing?” asked Ashlyme in a whisper.

  The dwarf gave him a coy smile, then moved his free hand slightly, so as to show him a cake of soap filled with broken razor blades.

  “Wait!” cried Ashlyme. Something appalling was going to happen. He flung himself across the room, shouting, “What about Audsley King?”

  The fortune-teller raised her hand. The dwarf winked. Out of the tarot cards on the floor came an intense coloured flare of light, as if they had been illuminated suddenly from behind. Ashlyme felt it flash across his face, green and yellow, scarlet and deep blue, like light from a melting stained-glass window. There was an unbearable newness to it as it scoured that ancient room. Ashlyme staggered back.

  “Wait!” he cried, flinging up his arm in front of his eyes, but not before he had seen the dwar
f and fortune-teller begin to shrink, blasted and shrivelled by that curious glare into bundles of hair and paper ribbon which whirled faster and faster round the floor like rubbish on a windy street corner, until they toppled over suddenly and fell down into the cards with a faint cry.

  The room was filled with a white effulgence so intense that he could see, through eyelid and muscle tissue, the bones of his forearm. He groaned and fell heavily on the floor.

  When he was able to open his eyes again, he was alone with the cards. They had been scattered and and charred by the force of the light which still radiated from them into every corner of the room. He knelt and collected them together, hissing and blowing on the tips of his fingers. He thought he could see two new figures running between the towers of the card called THE CITY. “Wait!” he whispered, demented with fear and frustration. The light died as abruptly as it had come.

  The death and defection of his only allies left him alone in a place he hardly recognised. In one night the plague zone had extended its boundaries by two miles, perhaps three. The High City had succumbed at last. Later he was to write:

  A quiet shabbiness seemed to have descended unnoticed on the squares and avenues. Waste paper blew round my legs as I crossed the empty perspectives of the Atteline Way; the bowls of the everlasting fountains at Delpine Square were dry and dust-filled, the flagstones slippery with birdlime underfoot; insectscircled and fell in the orange lamplight along the Camine Auriale. The plague had penetrated everywhere. All evening the salons and drawing rooms of the High City had been haunted by silences, pauses, faux pas: if anyone heard me when I flung myself exhausted against some well-known front door to get my breath it was only as another intrusion, a harsh, lonely sound which relieved briefly the stultified conversation, the unending dinner with its lukewarm sauces and overcooked mutton, or the curiously flat tone of the visiting violinist (who subsequently shook his instrument and complained, “I find the ambience rather unsympathetic tonight.”)

 

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