by Paul Marlowe

From Issue 13 (Sept 2011)

THE ALIGHIERI GLOSS

London! Paragon of cities. How many wonders there are, in its villas, its marketplaces, in its streets and tunnels. London – this uncommon weal of fateful miracles, and of horrors that I know only too well. Cheek by jowl a multitude lie, a thousand-thousand strange tales between them, unknown but for the chance mis-step into an unfamiliar alleyway – the passing glimpse along a half-lit, fog-swathed street. So has it always been in the great cities that draw in every kind of creature. Those who toil; those who live upon them. The builders, the wreckers. Town- and country-men. The eager, the wicked, the mad; and not from this isle alone, but from all the ends of the world. Indeed, not only from this… but now, let me see. How to begin.

Rafe – Dr Maddox – was leading me upon another tour of the city, the latest of our annual excursions that began after the blessèd meeting in Tower Tunnel. We viewed the palaces; of the Empress, of entertainment, of crystal, of iron and steam afloat on the Thames, and others among the marvellous constructions of the age.

Not the Underground, of course.

But no museum, no theatre brought us out that November night to St. Raphael Square. We went rather to the Etheric Explorers Club, for Rafe was to stage there a little show of his own. He called it Cotton Avicenna B iv : A Novel Method of Revealing Decayed Calligraphy. Something to do with books, he led me to understand.

Maddox is a great scholar, and much, much more.

Until the lamps were lowered, members and guests of that club had eyes only for myself, in my veil and mourning, try as they did to pretend otherwise. It was no surprise, as no other women were in attendance. None, at least, of which they were aware. For my part, I watched Rafe. It was strange that his was no longer a young man’s face. He introduced me as his niece!

A magic lantern, he called it, this thing he used. Not true magic, he took pains to assure me, but rather a bright lamp and glasses that cast images over the wall. Images of writing. Magic, apparently, is no longer considered quite in good taste in this day and age; spirits are another matter.

“Here we see a photographic slide made using the red portion of the spectrum… and here the green…” he explained, switching between images which were, according to Rafe, slightly different.

A fat man across the table from me cleared his throat. “This mottling. It’s due to the fire?”

Rafe paused. “No, not fire, Morrison. Damp. It’s not widely known, but an ancestor of mine received the Avicenna manuscripts from Cotton’s collection, in exchange for some debt or other – this was before the fire occurred. Also the eponymous bust. This particular volume,” he said, touching a brown and scarred codex before him on the table, “is apparently an anthology of geographical works, collected in Arabic. I’ve yet to have it translated. It is the legibility of these glosses,” he said, indicating the luminous scribbles with a stick, “in Medieval Tuscan, which I have been endeavouring to improve with my technique. It was only some years after the collection was split that the Ashburnham House fire occurred. I’m afraid that, since those days, my family has not always been conscientious in its care of the Avicenna manuscripts.”

How typical it is of these obtuse, modern people, to deny the existence of fate and mystery to such an extent that they would consign a treasure trove of priceless books to a house with the inauspicious name Ashburnham. What did they expect would happen? Children, the lot of them. It’s what comes of allowing immigrants to take over the country – these Jutes, and Angles, and sundry Saxons. The Norse men, and all the rest. No regard for the workings of fortune, any of them. No sense. At least Maddox is a scion of the true Britains, whatever else may be mixed into his blood.

We came, betimes, to the end of the talk. Rafe was attempting to disengage himself from an associate with a brass machine and the maniacal look of the enthusiastic inventor – a look with which I have become very familiar after several visits to this club– when the footman entered, bearing a card on a salver. He resembled a sad and dissipated legionary, this footman, and something about his silent, looming bulk made the inventor’s gabbling tail away.

“Messenger for you, Dr Maddox.”

Rafe took the card and examined it with slight interest.

“His master is waiting, Billingsly?”

“There is a carriage at the door, sir.”

Rafe nodded. “Pack away my slides and projector, would you, Billingsly?” Taking Rafe’s proffered arm, I accompanied him towards the doorman’s nook, where a strange man in a colourful coat and short trousers stood. He did not look English, or even British.

The man bowed with sullen care. He wore an absurd white wig that was on the verge of tumbling off. A long queue of his own black hair ran down his back.

“Lord Mo Gui deeply regrets his being unable to attend tonight’s lecture,” said the man, thickly pronouncing the words with the same careful deliberateness with which he managed his wig. “Lord Mo Gui sends his carriage, and invites you to kindly do him the honour of accepting his hospitality this evening, to discuss certain facts concerning the…” The man hesitated, dropping his eyes to the book tucked beneath Rafe’s arm before enunciating “the Cotton Avicenna B iv.”

“How curious,” said Rafe. “A student of ancient manuscripts, is he?”

“The master has special knowledge of it.” He looked again to the book, though whether in questioning or covetousness I could not judge.

Rafe turned to me. “If you have no objection?”

I shook my veil.

Outside, the night street was alive with clattering wheels and iron-shod hooves. Foot-travellers surfaced in ones and twos at the gaslights, then sank back into the river of shadow.

“Whitechapel Slaying!” keened a child on the pavement, a bundle of papers piled in his arms. “Vigilence Committee Baffled!”

They can shout in square capitals, these modern Londoners.

As though overcome by his own eloquence, the boy’s eyes fluttered, then rolled away, white, into his head. He tipped back in a rigid fit, nearly striking the pavement before Rafe caught him.

I watched, appalled. “Come away, Rafe! This is a black omen!”

My attention flew from the boy to the far street corner. A gaslamp had winked out. A couple, tall, fair, in dark cloaks rounded the turn.

“Rafe…”

But he never heeds me. Instead, he carried the boy, with difficulty now the seizure was in full force, to the bland footman who still stood in the open club doorway.

The next streetlight died as the pair advanced. A hack-horse near the pavement lurched madly away from them into the traffic, hooves slipping, the cabman screaming.

“Rafe, we must go now.”

“I can’t stay, Billingsly,” said Rafe, passing the shaking boy to him.

I sometimes wonder if that footman would so much as blink if one of the members plucked the Moon from the air and handed it to him for safekeeping.

“Get some brandy into him when he comes ‘round. And give him this,” said Rafe, depositing a couple of half crowns into the footman’s pocket.

“Quickly,” the gaudy messenger urged.

At the waiting carriage, Rafe assisted me inside while the messenger mounted hastily in front. Setting off into traffic, I touched the smooth window glass that showed the lighted street so agreeably even as it barred the smoke, and noise, and smell. The fair couple had stopped at the club doors, a row of dead lamps in their wake. They were watching us accelerate away. Rafe seemed not to have seen them in his preoccupation with the newsboy.

“That lad was ill-starred,” I said. “You too often involve yourself in the affairs of others.”

He turned to me from his own window. “There is only one affair, Brenna, and we are all involved.”

I suppose it is his religion that makes him do these inscrutable things. There being no purpose in probing strange beliefs, I went instead to practicalities.

“You’re certain,” I said, “that your wife does not object? To entertaining me?”

“Violet understands. She’s a very modern woman.”

I drew back my veil, to see the street-life the better. “Not like me, then.”

Rafe’s appraising eye fell upon me. “No,” he said after a moment. “Not like you.”

The book was on his lap now. He stroked the scarred leather. “Odd,” he said, his voice lower now. “That Chinaman, in knee-breeches and livery. One doesn’t see that much on anyone outside of court, much less on Chinamen.”

He lapsed into introspection. For my part, my mouth was soon stopped with awe of the city. So many passing faces, such shops and homes of brick and stone. Somewhere, the quarries and clay-pits must be dug down to the underworld to raise such a city. A vast, empty, anti-London. There is always a price. Always balance.

“I don’t like the look of those columbia,” I said, observing a ring of birds perched in a noose around a statue’s neck.

Rafe sniffed.

“If we don’t heed the signs, Rafe, we will fail to see what is in store for us. Like that one-eyed crossing-sweeper we saw crushed under the cab.”

“What was he a sign of?”

“Of inattention.”

Rafe drummed his fingers on the book.

“Brenna, I know I’ve sometimes asked before, but…”

“You’re wondering what it is like.”

“There.”

As with each time before, it was like grasping water.

“Like a dream. It slips away.”

“Is there nothing? No way to compare it with…”

“It is better.”

After a time, Rafe grew restless in the silence, frowning and squinting out the windows. Finally he examined the card once more. “This isn’t the way to Finsbury Square.”

“Is it not? Look, there is The Tower.” It had been my first sight of London. This London. An awesome sight.

“We’re continuing eastward.”

We passed streets that Rafe named, but which meant nothing to me. Houndsditch. Aldgate. Onto Whitechapel.

“Aldgate? Is that one of the wall gates?”

“It was.”

“I remember the gates. Is there…?” I felt something. “A great pit of bones.”

The suggestion slitted Rafe’s eyes. Presently we left the street, turning into a tunnel-like carriageway, the close gloom sending shudders through me even as we emerged into a black-shadowed courtyard at the heart of an insula. Gates crashed together behind us in the alley, sealing the yard like a sepulchre…or columbarium.

Stopping, the carriage rocked as someone stepped from it onto crunching road-metal. The man in livery, a lantern in hand, released us.

“This way, sir, madam.”

Rafe stepped down and assisted my exit. I took his arm once more and we fell into step with the lamp-bearer, passing into the house’s dark corridors. Rafe’s features pinched up in repugnance at the place. He hates the close dark. All smell is disease, they say, and all darkness evil. They are correct.

Finally, deep inside the edifice, the Chinaman knocked upon a scarred door, black with soot or paint. From within there issued a growling reply. “Come.”

We were led into the fire-lit room, long and lively with shadows that hid much of the place, and sat in a pair of padded chairs near the middle of the chamber, facing a third at the far end where there was a great hearth. Logs of immense proportions blazed, crackling with a life so much more alluring than the stingy smoulder of coal grates. I ached to be near the flames, to be warm; even my veil, closed again, bent towards them, drawn by the fierce draught. But the way was blocked. A silhouette, rimmed in fire. A vast wing-chair, its back to the hearth; a large man was installed there, hidden in the lea of the chair.

“Welcome, Doctor Maddox,” said the man, in a low voice, gravely, like a stone wall collapsing. “And guest.”

Rafe leant forward, peering into the shade of the wing-chair. “Your Finsbury Square calling card address is a little out of date, Mr Hamilton. Or is it Lord Mo Gui?”

“That is what they call me,” said the man, lifting a great hand from his chair in the direction of whatever dark corner his servant had retired to. “Something in their tongue. I am Jock Hamilton, as my card states. Or Jack, as you English prefer.” Rafe seemed about to comment when the man broke his pause. “I knew your grandsire, Maddox.” A hacking rattle interrupted Hamilton. “And some of his little friends. The Athenians.”

“Did you know that he still lives?”

“Does he, by gad? I expect he has changed a good deal in fifty-eight years. I know I have. Not so much spring in my heels as there was.” Another rattle.

Hamilton clapped his huge hands, a sound like a falling body striking cobbles. In reply, a new servant appeared. “Pipe,” ordered Hamilton. One was produced, and Hamilton drew through it the flame of a spill lit from the fire. He snuffed out the stick with his fingers and began a rhythmic tapping on the arm of his chair, the spill chattering like teeth against the furniture. But it was not the spill – he had dropped that. His nails made the noise. Of scuttling crabs.

A cataract of smoke spewed from the hidden old man, over the chair back and into the draught heading for the chimney, but a little of the reek of it reached us.

“It surprises me,” said Rafe, “that you have lived this long, taking opium.”

Madak, rather, if you will allow me the nicety. But a man of your, ah, reputation, should not suffer to be surprised so easily.”

As Rafe retreated back into his chair, considering this, he shifted his book from one hand to the other, bringing it momentarily into the firelight. Old Hamilton fell suddenly still, his nail-clatter silenced.

“Is that it? The Cotton Avicenna B iv?”

Rafe hesitated. “It is.”

Hamilton twitched a finger. Behind us, bolts were slammed home on the doors.

“Give it to me,” growled Hamilton.

“What claim do you, sir, have…” protested Rafe, stopping as another gesture from Hamilton brought his pair of servants slinking back into our circle of light. Rafe remaining impassive, the liveried men advancing upon him, only at the last moment drawing long knives from beneath their embroidered coats.

Who can say whence comes strength on these occasions? The courage to carry on when violence bares its dreadful teeth? I cannot, though I have had occasion to regret past failures in the face of violence, failures that have long troubled me in the, the… leisure that I have been afforded. Perhaps it was those regrets, and the desire to see them never repeated, which set me suddenly on my feet, my chair tumbling away behind me along with my veil. Those memories, propelling my left hand to the liveried messenger’s wrist, crushing it like a reed, the dagger dropping to clatter on the floorboards. That resolve, driving my right fingers like porcelain blades through his neck before his shock from his broken bones had even turned to pain.

We were statues in the firelight, motionless but for the hot, sanguine cascade from the throat of the messenger, suspended limply now from my upraised arm, as if we two were the centrepiece of some terrible fountain.

In the stillness, the clacking of Old Hamilton’s nails began again.

“Well,” he said. “Well, well.”

I was more concerned with the other servant, watching, his knife hovering uncertainly between Rafe and me. I let the messenger slip away into the dark pool at his feet.

Hamilton’s clattering ceased. He shifted. I looked to the servant, waiting for his response to Hamilton’s cue. Then, the old man leapt. Leapt! The ancient consumptive launched like a bolt from his chair, landing just short of me. He seemed exhausted by the effort, hunched, froglike on the floor, panting. Hamilton’s face pressed the floorboards, prostrate in obeisance to…what? His pale, coarse jaws worked, as if mumbling supplications.

He lapped…blood. The messenger’s warm blood.

The other Chinaman stared from me to Hamilton, a great shudder racking his body as he understood what his master did. Eyes wild, he dropped his dagger and ran for the door, fumbling impotently with the bolts for so long I thought he must be mad. At last he worked the lock and was gone.

Hamilton took no notice.

I looked to Rafe. His face was set, thoughtful, watching the creature at our feet. Amid its slubbering, Rafe stretched out his legs, crossed his ankles, and inserted a pipe between his lips.

Even at a moment such as this… This is an age of fire. The very people smoke.

Stuffed with tobacco, the pipe flared at the touch of a match, which Rafe tossed, sizzling into the puddle of gore.

“Hamilton!” barked Rafe.

The awful lapping slowed. Hamilton’s head turned up, jowls crimson and oozing. Only now did we properly see his huge face. Swollen… hairless. Cadaverous.

“Pull yourself together, man,” said Rafe. He waggled his pipe. “Have a smoke.”

The… Hamilton looked about as if waking in strange chambers. His thick tongue darted out again to run along his lips. Straightening, he averted his eyes from Rafe, and from the messenger’s jumbled body. He delved into a pocket, producing a handkerchief, wiping ineffectually at his face.

“Forgive me, I… yes. A pipe,” rumbled Hamilton. He threw away the soiled handkerchief and crossed to the doors, shutting and barring them once more, before leading us to carry our chairs over to the hearth. “Away from that,” he said, a talonned hand twitching towards the body.

Once settled, Hamilton breathed a thin blue flame into the pipe to light the tobacco and opium, examining me the while.

“Now listen to me, Maddox. There may not be much time. You must give me that book at once.”

Rafe’s extraction of his pipe to protest was in vain.

“I know…” Hamilton continued, “I am a thing to be despised. I despise myself. But the noose and the knife make no impression upon this hide of mine. Do not imagine that I’ve not tried, at times, in despair.”

His gaze suggested that he wondered at the efficacy of my hands.

“But why in heaven’s name do you…” Rafe began.

“The book. I know it. And curse it. For your own soul, and mine, and souls yet unborn, give it to me!”

“Why?”

Hamilton’s features, already dreadful, assumed a vicious anger before he mastered his hate and groaned. Taking smoke from his pipe to steady himself, he growled on.

“We were mad for ancient things in those days. I understand your generation has surpassed the ancients in wonders. You look to the future. But then, it was ruins that caught the fancy of the young. Greece. Rome. The tombs of pharaohs. And old books… that book. Damn that book!”

“Not a classical work,” Maddox interjected, “is it? Something Arabic.”

“The glosses, fourteenth century. The text, oh, eighth century, perhaps. But the substance of it, Maddox. Far older.

“It was 1829 when I found it in your Grandfather’s library. Borrowed it. Took it on my tour of Italy and the new Greek kingdom, or rather the relics they inherited. Had some notion of getting it translated in Stamboul. Until I met a Copt in Venice, a monk, who knew the language. He deciphered it.” Hamilton seemed to stare away into infinity, or the distant past. “Then I tried to go through Delphi, but couldn’t find the way. But there was another route. Near Parga. That was my first mistake.” Again the old man rattled and coughed, unless it was laughter. Or a sob. “You’ve read the Italian, Maddox.”

“The glosses, yes. Directions. Landmarks. Warnings. Is it an itinerary of some sort?”

“Of a sort. I compared them with a manuscript, now, alas, lost. They are directions, as you say. To, and through, a place with many entrances, few exits. There, I spent my life, and became…this. Those glosses are in the hand of Dante Alighieri.” Hamilton flung his pipe into the hearth. “For pity’s sake, Maddox, give me the book!”

Rafe had already abandoned his own tobacco. “How many others have you sent there, Jack?”

A smirk disfigured the creature’s face before Hamilton returned, in a melancholy I could well recognize. “I was not always thus, Maddox. It changes one. How could it not, fifty, sixty years in such a place. Even the body adapts, as much as flesh may,” he said, examining his great clawed hands, “as Lamark thought.”

“What is the main text, Hamilton?” demanded Rafe.

“The Orphic Mysteries, Maddox. The only surviving record. It is a guide to Hell.”

We watched the fire, each guarding his own thoughts, until Rafe spoke again.

“But why do you need the book? Surely…”

Another groan, or sigh, wheezed out of Hamilton’s bulk.

“I had no Virgil as guide, I was cheated, robbed, misled, and cruelly used from my first step. Only because I still live, after a fashion, may I come and go at all, for a few hours, or days, each year. There are tides in the affairs of men – isn’t that said? So with the realms of the damned. Now weak, now strong, they ebb and swell with influence. Here, there, one foot in sun, one among the shades,” Hamilton said, rattling again, “I feel every wax and wane.” I stood as the old man reached out to seize Rafe’s arm, but Rafe shook his head. “I swim against the current, Maddox,” said Hamilton, “but it gets the better of me. For the love of God, believe me Maddox, I never meant to kill those women! But the appetites of that place… fifty years of hunger, man! There is no meat there, but others’ souls. I would never have kept returning here, but for the book! The book.” Hamilton fell to his knees before Rafe. “Give me the chance to find a way to Purgatory!”

Distantly, as though from the street or some remote corner of the house, a desperate cry sounded, just as abruptly cut off. Hamilton turned wildly to the doors.

“They’ve come, man. They’ve come for me. From there.”

“Surely it was just… you mean they follow you?” Rafe stood, shaking off Hamilton’s clutching nails at the expense of his sleeve to take a few hesitant steps towards the doors. One of the knobs turned, and rattled. I rose, Hamilton hopelessly following suit.

A great force struck the doors, splintering the wood in places. Rafe strode to them, with me on his heels, the next blow loosing a hinge. He was nearly upon them when the third attack burst the bolts, flinging wood and ironmongery past us, across the room, to where Hamilton cringed by the fire.

Filling the passage left by the doors, the fair couple, in their black cloaks. They stirred, as if to enter, then kept their place. One inclined her head. She regarded me, then Maddox.

“Move aside. We want him.” She pointed past us.

“I will not,” said Rafe.

The other spoke. “This is not your affair… man.”

Rafe took a step closer to the pair. “Do you know who I am?”

The two said nothing, but looked briefly to each other.

“I will not grant you,” said Rafe, “what I denied to Him. You shall not enter this place.”

The couple watched him in silence, making no move to advance or retreat. Maddox fixed them with his eye.

“Brenna,” he said, holding out the book without releasing the couple from his gaze, “give this to Mr Hamilton. That he might never return to London.”

Rafe was shivering as if freezing. I hurried to Hamilton, who seemed himself transfixed by the couple’s gaze.

“Take it and go,” I said. “quickly. And redeem yourself, if you can, in whatever way your religion deems right. For his sake,” I added, indicating Rafe, “if for no other reason. He must believe it possible.”

Hamilton nodded. “It’s better this book leaves the world. Forever.” Clasping the manuscript to him, he moved closer to the fire.

“One last thing,” Rafe said, not turning his head. “Was it worth it, the suffering? To satisfy your curiosity? Your pride? To know…?”

The old man looked to me, then the hearth-stones. He made a strangled sound. “There was someone. Who died. She was… precious to me.”

Rafe said nothing for a long moment. “And did you find her?”

Hamilton shook his head. “Not yet.”

He took another step closer to the fire, nodded to me, and walked into the flames, springing instantly up the vast chimney.

At the doors, the couple inclined their perfect heads as if to bid Rafe adieu, or something else, until they should meet again. And they were gone.

Rafe remained, shaking. I guided him to one of the chairs by the hearth, and after searching in the dark corners of the room found a little uisce in a decanter, to calm him.

We sat while the logs burned low, and turned to embers, until at last Rafe seem to return from wherever he had gone.

Zetein. Anakaluptein. Nostein” said Rafe.

“Yes?”

“It’s the motto, of the Etheric Explorers.”

It had been a long time since I had heard any Greek spoken. “To… seek, to discover, to… return home?” I translated.

“The older I grow, Brenna, the more the final command speaks to me.”

It was late, and soon I too would have to go back to another place. There was just a faint glow in the hearth when Rafe turned to me in the dim light and spoke again.

“Hamilton left in, what, 1830?” Rafe elbowed himself up from where he had sunken into the chair. “He knows nothing of photography.”

I was about to reply that I knew nothing of it either, until I remembered his ‘slides’. Now I worry for Rafe.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Marlowe

Paul Marlowe

Paul Marlowe lives in Canada, and since his latest story in Something Wicked contains some religious themes he would like to clear the air by stating that he is not a practicing member of Canada’s official religion (Hockey – or, as some heretics in warmer climates erroneously refer to it, ‘Ice Hockey’).

He would also like to assure the reading public that his latest book, Knights of the Sea: A Grim Tale of Murder, Politics, and Spoon Addiction is every bit as silly as it sounds. And speaking of sounds, for a taste of the sort of fare you can expect in Knights of the Sea, listen to “The Resident Member”, a radio play of Marlowe’s short story of the same name, produced by Something Wicked, and available for free download, either on the Something Wicked website, or from Marlowe’s own website at www.PaulMarlowe.com

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