Viriconium, p.54

Viriconium, page 54



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  “Incredible,” I said.

  He pointed south, past the fortifications.

  “There were dozens of places like this once,” he said, “all the way down to the sea. They’re overrun now.”

  He made an angry, miserable gesture.

  “If the city won’t help, why are we bothering? We don’t build out here anymore: we only pull it down.”

  “I’m not sure I agree,” I said.

  I was tempted to ask him why, if he didn’t want to destroy the old walls, he didn’t reopen the quarry and use fresh stone, but his face was now full of a kind of savage self-hatred and self-pity, and he said,

  “What’s the point of discussing it?”

  A retired bravo knows nothing about building. The city had made him what he was. Perhaps he knew it.

  “You’ve heard it all before, I expect. Anyway you can see how close they’ve come. They’ll be across the river and over the fortifications in a month, less if we don’t get help. See: there, and there? You can see the sun glinting on their camps.”

  “Will you show me the house before I go?” I asked.

  He looked at me in surprise. He was pleased to be asked, I thought, but he said, “Oh, the inside’s a ruin now. We do our best, but it’s all dust and mice.”

  He seemed reluctant to go down the hill now he had got up it. He watched the little grey hawk hovering and stooping, hovering and stooping, as it worked its way up and down the slopes of sun-warmed bracken. He took a last look at the great stone symbol which filled the valley and which he had lived in for twenty years without understanding, then began to descend slowly. New shoots, he observed, were beginning to appear green and delicately curled between the ruined bracken stems. The turf, flattened and bleached by the previous month’s snow, was springing up again.

  “That air!” he exclaimed, breathing ecstatically a gust of wind which brought the scent of may blossom up from the valley. Then he stopped suddenly and said:

  “What’s it like in the city these days?”

  I shrugged.

  “We have similar problems to yours,” I heard myself tell him, “but not so extreme. Otherwise it is very beautiful. New buildings are springing up everywhere. The horse chestnuts are in blossom along the Margarethestrasse and in the Plaza of Unrealised Time.”

  I did not mention the torn political cartoons flapping from the rusty iron railings, or the Animal Mask Societies with their public rituals and increasingly unreasonable demands. But he was remembering a different city anyway “I suppose the place is still full of clerks and shopkeepers?” he said. “And those wonderful tarts who overcharge you in the Rue Ouled Nail?”

  He laughed.

  “We’ll always look to Uroconium,” he said sentimentally, and quoted, “ ‘Queen of the Empire, jewel on the beach of the Western Sea.’ ”

  The walls that surrounded the house had already warmed to the weak sunshine, trapping a fraction of its heat to give up to the elder and ivy in the overgrown gardens. Two or three hawthorns filled the air with the scent of the may, which in that confined space seemed drugged and dangerous. Insects murmured in the little orchard and among the fruit bushes which had long ago run to bramble in the shelter of the walls. Above the garden rose the honey-coloured stone of the main building, covered in creeper and bright yellow lichens. The wind blustered round its complicated roofs.

  Inside the house he had someone bring out a bottle of lemon genever, and invited me to have some.

  “Foul stuff, but the best we can get out here.”

  We drank silently for a while. The Yule Greave seemed to sink into himself, into his own sense of abandonment and futility. “Dust and mice,” he said, staring round in disgust at the high gloomy walls and the silent, massive, oppressive old furniture, “dust and rats. This is the only room we ever light a fire in.” Later he began to talk about the old queen’s reign. It was the common story of infighting at court and violence in the city. He had known, or said he had, Sibylle, Axonby, and even Sten Reventlow. Many of the actions in which he had taken part struck me as being little more than outrages, committed by people hardly able to help themselves, whose philosophy was that their blood was a book. He kept his souvenirs of these “little wars” in one of the upper rooms, he said. There was some peculiar stuff among it all, stuff that made you think. We could go and look at it later if I was interested.

  “I’d like that if there’s time,” I said.

  “Oh, there’ll be time,” he said. “It’s mostly clothes, weapons, stuff we picked up in their houses. You wouldn’t credit the hanks of hair, the filthy pictures they were always looking at.”

  He asked if I had done any fighting in the city, and I said that I hadn’t. There was a silence, then he went on musingly: “The women were the worst. They would hide in doorways, and reach out for your face or your neck as you walked past. Hide themselves in doorways. They’d have bits of glass embedded in a cake of soap, do you see, and slash out at your neck or your eyes.” He looked at me as if he were wondering how much more he could tell me. “Can you believe that? Women who would slash your eyes?” He shook his head. “I hated going up the stairs in those places. The lamps would all be out. You never knew what would be in a cupboard. A woman or a child, screaming at you. Or else they’d show you something foul, obscene, and laugh. The old queen would never bear them near her, not at any price.”

  “So I have heard,” I said. “It is less of a problem now.”

  He chuckled.

  “Old men like me cleared it up for you,” he said. “We can be proud of that. I was with the Feverfew Anschluss until Antic Horn’s entryists broke it up.”

  A little later his wife came in. By this time he had drunk most of the bottle. He stared at her with a kind of muddled resentment.

  She was a tall woman, though not perhaps as tall as him, very thin and ethereal, dressed in a fashion long out of date in the city. She seemed not quite real to me, like a picture of my mother in a darkened room. I guessed she had been one of the old queen’s women-in-waiting, given to him like the house and the valley in return for his loyalty in the backstreets and tavern brawls. Her hair, an astonishing orange colour, was worn long and crimped, to emphasise the height of her cheekbones, the whiteness of her skin, and the odd, concave curve of her features.

  Over one arm she was carrying a piece of heavily embroidered cloth which I recognised as being part of the “mast horse” ceremony: it would be used to hide the operator of the animal’s snapping jaw. I had never seen such an elaborate cloth in use. When I mentioned this she smiled and said:

  “You’ll have to ask Ringmer if you want to know more about this one. He was born near here, and his father worked the horse at All Hallows.”

  “Ringmer’s father was a half-wit,” said the Yule Greave, yawning and pouring himself more lemon gin.

  She ignored him. “Lord Cromis, are you young men at all interested in such things in the city now?” she asked me. Her eyes were green. She had unfolded the cloth to show me a complex pattern of leaf-like shapes.

  “Some are,” I said.

  “Because I’ve filled a whole gallery with them. Ringmer-”

  “Have they shifted the rubble in the south avenue?” the Yule Greave broke in suddenly.

  “I don’t know.”

  “It was important to get that rubble moved today,” the Yule Greave said. “I want it as infill further down the valley. We’ve got mud up to our ears down there: I told Ringmer this morning.”

  “Nobody told me that’s what they were supposed to be doing,” she said.

  The Yule Greave muttered something I couldn’t quite catch and emptied his glass quickly. He got up and stared out at the ruined raspberry canes and lichen-covered apple boughs in the garden. This left his wife and me marooned at the other end of the room with only the embroidered cloth in common. A few transparent blue and orange flames stirred round the unseasoned logs in the hearth.

  “Ringmer will show you the rest of the horse,
she said. “I’m so glad you’re interested.”

  She folded the fabric up again, her long thin hands white in the shadows. “Sometimes I feel like wearing it myself,” she laughed, holding it up against her shoulders. “It’s so glorious!” I had a brief vision of her as she must have been in the days of the old queen’s court-waxy and still in a stiff, grey, heavily embossed garment down to her feet, like a flower in a steel vase. Then the Yule Greave came and stood between us to tip into his glass whatever dregs remained in the brown stone bottle. He was walking heavily up some private hill again.

  “Don’t you want to look at the stuff I was telling you about?” he said.

  “I shouldn’t stay more than a few minutes,” I answered. “My men will be waiting for me-”

  “But you’ve only just arrived!”

  “We have to be back in Uroconium by tomorrow morning.”

  “He wants to see the horse, whatever else,” the Yule Greave’s wife insisted.

  “Oh, does he? You’d better go and show him, then,” he said, looking at me as if I had let him down and then turning abruptly away. He poked so hard at the fire that one of the logs fell out of it. Smoke came into the room in a thick cloud. “This stinking chimney!” he shouted.

  We left the room, the Yule Greave looking after us red-faced and watery-eyed. Her gallery, I found out, was a mezzanine floor somewhere in the west wing. The sun was just coming round to it, pouring obliquely in through the tall lanceolate windows. The Yule Greave’s wife stood in an intermittent pool of warm yellow light with her hands clasped anxiously.

  “Ringmer?” she called. “Ringmer?”

  We stood and listened to the wind blustering about outside.

  After a moment a boy of twenty or so came out of the shadows of the mezzanine. He looked surprised to see her. He had the thick legs and shoulders of the moorland people, and the characteristic soft brown hair chopped off to a line above his raw-looking ears. He was carrying a horse’s head on a pole.

  “I see you have the rest of the Mari,” she said with a smile. “Do you think you could show Lord Cromis? I’ve brought the coat back with me.”

  It was an astonishing specimen. Usually you find the skull boiled and crudely varnished, or buried for a year to get rid of the flesh, a makeshift wire hinge for the jaw, and the bottoms of cheap green bottles for eyes. This one had been made long ago, and with more care: it was lacquered black, its jaw hinged with massive silver rivets, and somehow the inside of a pomegranate had been preserved and inserted, half in each orbit, so that the seeds made bulging, faceted eyes. It must have been appallingly heavy for the operator. The pole on which it rested was brown bone, three and a half feet long and polished with use.

  “It is very striking,” I said.

  The boy now took the embroidered cloth and shook it out. Hooks fitted along its top edge allowed it to be gathered beneath the horse’s head so that it fell in stiff folds and obscured the pole. With a quick, agile movement he slipped under it and crouched down. The Mari came to life, humpbacked, curvetting, and snapping its jaw. It predated not only the Yule Greave but his house. Time opened like a hole underneath us, and the Yule Greave’s wife stepped back suddenly.

  “ ‘Open the door for us,’ ” chanted the boy:

  “ ‘It is cold outside for the Grey Mare

  Its heels are almost frozen.’ ”

  “I would admit you at my peril,” I said. The Yule Greave’s wife laughed.

  Later I went to examine some manuscripts which belonged to the house. They were kept at the other end of the mezzanine. When I looked back the Yule Greave’s wife was standing next to the mast horse. Its eyes glittered, its lower jaw hung down. Her hand was resting on its back, just as it might rest on the neck of a real animal, and she was saying something to it in a low voice. I never found out what, because at that moment the Yule Greave came puffing and panting into the gallery, limping as if he had banged his leg and shouting,

  “All right, come on, you’ve seen enough of this.”

  The Mari reared up for a second, bared its white teeth, then retreated into the shadows, and the boy Ringmer, presumably, with it.

  At the door of the staircase which led to the Yule Greave’s private room I took leave of his wife, in case, as she said, we did not meet again.

  “We see so few people,” she said.

  “Hurry up,” urged the Yule Greave. “It’s quite a climb.”

  The staircase was so narrow that he rubbed his shoulders on the walls as he led the way up, brushing off great flakes of damp yellow plaster. His fat pear-shaped buttocks shut out the light. The little square room was right at the top of the house. From its narrow windows you could see one of the stone avenues stretching away, a sliver of brownish hillside, and a bend in the shallow stony river. The wind boomed around us, bringing quite clearly the bleat of moorland sheep.

  The Yule Greave tried to open a trap door in the ceiling so that we could go out onto the roof, which was flat there. The bolts were rusted shut, but he would give up only after a lot of heaving and grunting.

  “I can’t understand it,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

  He hammered at one of the bolts until he cut the heel of his hand, then his eyes watered and he began to cry. He turned away from me and pretended to look out across the hillside, where the sheep were scattered like grey rocks. “If we fail,” he said, “the future will judge us very harshly.” He sniffed and blinked. He looked at his cut hand, then wiped his eyes with it, leaving a smear of blood. “Now look what I’ve done. I’m sorry.”

  I couldn’t think of anything to say.

  The tower smelled of the old books he had abandoned to the mould in haphazard piles. I picked up Oei’l Voirrey and The Death and Revival of the Earl of Rone. I asked him if he would show me his souvenirs, but he seemed to have lost interest. He kept them in a wooden chest: a few dolls made out of women’s hair and bits of mirror; some cooking implements; a knife of curious design. The damp had got at everything and made it worthless. “It’s just the sort of thing we all picked up,” he said. “I think there’s a mask in there somewhere.”

  “The men of the community set out in the afternoon,” I quoted, “and, aftermuch parading and searching, discover the Earl of Rone hidden ineffectuallyin the low scrub…”

  “You can keep the Oei’l Voirrey if you like,” he said.

  We stared down at the ancient avenue stretching away from the house, its puddled surface reflecting the white sky. His wife appeared walking slowly along it with the boy Ringmer. They were smiling and talking like ghosts. The Yule Greave watched them sadly, until I said that I would have to go.

  “You must at least have something to eat with us,” he said.

  “I have to be in the city before morning,” I said. “I’m sorry.”

  We went out, and I got on my horse in one of the muddy gateways. As I set off down the long avenue I thought I heard him say, “Tell them in the city that we still keep faith.”

  The avenue seemed barren and endless. The sun had gone in and it was raining again by the time I led my men through a break in one of the walls; and with the cold wind of spring blowing into our backs we turned north and picked our way up to the rim of the escarpment.

  Up by the Yule Greave’s abandoned quarries I stopped to have one more look at the house. It seemed silent and untenanted. Then I saw a stone cart move slowly down the valley towards the fortifications. Smoke came out of one of the chimneys. Above me the little grey hawk dipped and swerved on the wind. My men, sensing my preoccupation, huddled in a bay of the quarry, wrapped in their sodden cloaks and talking quietly. I could smell moorland, wet wool, the breath of the horses. Soon most of the valley was obscured by mist and driving rain, but I could see the fortifications lying across it in straight lines, and beyond them, towards the sea where a fugitive and watery sun was still shining, the light was reflected off the waiting encampments.

  If I had the eyes of that hawk, I thought, I know what I would see do
wn there, moving towards us.

  One of my men pointed to the fortifications and said,

  “Those walls won’t last long, however well they’re defended.”

  I found myself staring at him for a long time before answering. Then I said:

  “They’ve already been breached. That place down there is raddled.”

  Even as we watched, the Yule Greave and his wife and their three children came out of the house with the boy Ringmer, and began to dance in a circle in the overgrown garden. I could hear the thin voices of the children carrying the tune, blown up the hill with the mist and the rain:

  “What time will the King come home?

  One o’clock in the afternoon.

  What will he have in his hand?

  A bunch of ivy.”

  Behind me someone said, “You’ve dropped your book, sir.”

  “Let it lie.”


  The city has always been full of little strips and triangles of unused land. A row of buildings falls down in Chenaniaguine-the ground is cleared for further use-elder and nettle spring up-nothing is ever built. Or else the New Men set aside some park for a municipal estate, then quarrel among themselves: a few shallow trenches and low brick courses are covered in a season by couch grass and “fat hen.” Allman’s Heath, bounded on two sides by empty warehouses, an abattoir, and a quarantine hospital, and on its third by a derelict reach of the canal, looks like any of them.

  A few houses stare morosely at it from the city side of the canal. The people who live in them believe that insects the size of horses infest the heath. Nobody has ever seen one; nevertheless, once a year the large wax effigy of a locust, freshly varnished and with a knot of reed grasses in its mouth, is brought out from the houses and paraded up and down the towpath. In the background of this ceremony the heath seems to stretch away forever. It is the same if you go and look from the deserted pens of the cattle market, or one of the windows of the old hospital. To walk round it takes about an hour.


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