The Unburied, by Palliser, Charles
- ISBN: 9780743410519 | 0743410513
- Cover: Paperback
- Copyright: 11/1/2000
|List of Characters||401|
While my memory is fresh I am going to describe exactly what I saw and heard on the occasion, less than a week past, when I encountered a man who was walking about just like you and me -- despite the inconvenience of having been brutally done to death.
My visit began inauspiciously. Because of the weather, which for two days had draped a cloak of freezing fog upon the southern half of the country, the train was delayed and I missed a connection. By the time I reached my destination -- two hours late -- I had been travelling for several hours through a premature night. As I sat alone in the ill-fit carriage, holding a book in front of me but making little attempt to read, I gazed out at the shrouded landscape that grew increasingly unfamiliar and indistinct as the dusk fell and the fog thickened. Gradually the impression took hold of me that the train was bearing me not forwards but backwards -- carrying me out of my own life and time and into the past.
Suddenly I was recalled to myself when, with an abrupt jerk, the train began to slow down and, after a series of shudders, came to a halt in a darkness that was barely mitigated by the dim lights from the carriages. We were so far behind the timetable that I had no idea if this was my station. As I stood at the door trying to see a signboard in the liverish yellow glow of a distant gas-lamp, I heard a window further along the train being lowered and a fellow, passenger call out to ask if we had reached the terminus. A voice from somewhere along the platform replied in the negative, saying that this was the last stop before the end of the line and naming my destination.
I took my bag from the rack and descended with only two or three other travellers. They passed from my sight while I stood for a few moments on the platform, shocked by the cold and stamping my feet and clasping my arms about me as I tried to breathe the foul air in which the acrid smell of hard frost was mingled with the smoke of the town's thousands of coal-fires.
Austin had told me that he would be unable to meet me at the station because his duties would detain him, and that I should therefore go straight to the house. I had preferred that, since it had occurred to me that I might not recognize him and it would be better to encounter him at his own door. I could not decide if the prospect of finding that he had changed was more or less disturbing than discovering that he had not. I believe, however, that what I was really afraid of was not so much the changes I would find in him as seeing in the face of my old friend the transformation which the years had wrought upon myself.
The train whistled and shunted out of the station leaving me gasping at the soot-laden smoke it had belched fortha dark, bowels-of-the-earth mineral smell. Darkness fell again and all that was visible now was a flaring gas-jet above what must be the gate from the platform. I directed myself towards it and at the barrier a railway employee, muffled up with a scarf across his face, took my ticket with one of his gloved hands.
When I passed out to the forecourt I found that my fellow, passengers had vanished like phantoms. There was only one cab waiting and I engaged it. The face that the driver turned to me had a bulbous nose and hanging lower lip which, together with the stench of sour beer on his breath, inspired little confidence. I gave the address and we lurched into motion.
Although the town was unfamiliar to me I knew that the station was about a mile from the centre. Through the little window of the swaying vehicle I could see almost nothing, though I could hear that there were few other vehicles on the road. In three or four minutes we started going up a slight rise and I guessed that we were ascending the hill at the summit of which the Romans had built their fortress to guard the ancient crossroads.
On both sides of the road were rows of cottages in several of whose lighted windows I caught sight of families sitting down for their evening meal. Though my welcome so far was cold, I told myself that at least 1 would not be spending the week in College with the dreary remnant of my unmarried colleagues who had not been invited anywhere.
The cab slowed as the hill grew steeper and I realized, with Sur, prise, that my heart was beating faster. I had often wondered what sort of a hand my old friend had made of his life. As undergraduates we had talked much of the stir we would make out in the great world-both of us passionate about our studies and ambitious for recognition. Did he regret the way his life had turned out? Was he happy in this remote little town? Had he found other compensations? From time to time I had heard rumours about his way of life from our common acquaintance, though I gave them little credit. I had speculated often about him and when I had received his invitation -- so surprising after such a long estrangement -- I had not been able to resist.
The carriage breasted the rise, and as the wheels began to clatter over the cobbles, our speed increased. Now there were street-lamps whose misty haloes cast scant light in the thick fog and I could see that although we appeared to be in the High Street, there was little traffic in the carriageway and few foot-passengers on the pavements. As the hooves of the cab-horse rang out in the silent street, we might have been travelling through a sacked city deserted after a siege. Then, without warning, I was thrown from side to side as the vehicle made a succession of sharp turns and passed through a great arch -- the clattering hooves echoing around me. I thought the driver had brought me to an inn by mistake but at that moment I heard -- I might almost say I was stunned by-the heavy thud of a great bell. It struck four more times-each chime seeming to overtake the last like ripples spreading outwards through the fog -- and I realized that I was right underneath the Cathedral and that in the near-darkness of the fog we had come upon it without my being aware.
The cab swung round sharply for the last time and drew up. A few yards away was a porchthe south door of the transept. In the flaring light of a gas-mantle I saw a stack of bricks and some wooden slats, covered by a tarred cloth.
'Are they working on the Cathedral?' I asked the driver as I descended.
'Aren't they always?' he answered.
As I was paying the fare the door of the nearest house opened and a figure came hurrying towards me.
'Old fellow, how glad I am to see you,' said a youthful voice that I remembered so well I shivered. The voice was the same but I saw before me a stranger, a middle-aged man with lined cheeks and a high forehead from which the thin greying hair was receding. Austin seized me and hugged me, and as I felt how slight his frame was, I remembered that un-English impulsiveness and emotionalism of his that I had always envied and been a little afraid of.
'Thank you for coming,' he said, one hand patting my back as we embraced. 'God bless you. God bless you.'
At his words I felt a profound regret for what had happened. It could not have been foreseen during the period of our friendship that we would be parted for so long-parted by an estrangement that had come about because he had been implicated in the most painful experience of my life. Afterwards it was I who had written to him in a gesture intended to show that I wanted our friendship to survive. It was only when he had failed to respond that I had begun to wonder if he felt guilt for the part he had played and then to speculate more and more about what role exactly he had been assigned or had taken upon himself. Despite that, I wrote him a short note that first Christmas and every subsequent one, and after a few years he had begun to do the same-more briefly-and had continued to do so about every two or three years.
I heard news of him through common acquaintances, though less and less often as they lost touch or went abroad or died. And then a month ago-long after I had assumed that the embers of our friendship had turned to ashes -- I had received a letter inviting me to visit him -- indeed, urging me to do so in the warmest terms -- on any date of my own choosing since he never went away, provided only that I had 'the patience to endure the company of the dull and crotchety old fellow I've become'. At first I had wondered if blowing on those embers now would revive or extinguish them, but I had an idea of why he might have decided to invite me and so I had written back to say that I would come with pleasure and that it fortunately happened that I was anxious to survey and measure the ancient earthworks at Woodbury Castle just outside the town. I said that I would come early in the new year on my way back from my niece and that I would give him as much warning as possible. (In the event, I had altered my plans and had been able to give him only a few days' notice.)
Behind me I heard the cab turning in the narrow way between the houses and the Cathedral.
Austin drew back, still holding me by both arms, so that for the first time I could see him, though only in the feeble light cast by the gas-mantle some fifteen yards away. There was the old Austin smiling at me. The same brightness in his large black eyes, the same boyish eagerness. He was smiling and yet, for all his apparent pleasure at seeing me again, I thought there was something evasive, something shadowed in his gaze that did not quite meet mine. Was he thinking what I was thinking: What have the years done to you? What have they given you to match the bright youthfulness they have taken?
'Dear Austin, you're looking very well.'
'All the better for seeing you,' he said. 'Come in, my dear old friend.'
He seized my bag and winced theatrically at its weight. I tried to take it from him but he drew it away too quickly for me so that for a moment we were a couple of playful undergraduates again. 'What on earth is in it? Books, I suppose?'
'And Christmas gifts for my niece's children. Though one of them is for you.'
'Oh, capital! I love being given presents,' he exclaimed, He carried the bag ahead of me to the door where he thrust out an arm to invite me to enter before him.
I peered up at the building. 'What a pretty old house,' I said. In fact, as I spoke the words I perceived that the house was quaint rather than pretty. It was tall and narrow and the casement windows and doors were so manifestly out of alignment with each other and with the ground that, squashed between two bigger houses, it looked like a drunken man being held up under the armpits by his companions.
'It comes with the post. It's regarded as a benefit, but I often think I should be paid more for living in it. The best houses are in the Lower Close.'
Meanwhile the cab-driver had effected his awkward manoeuvre and I heard the vehicle roll away. As I passed over the threshold I went down a couple of steps, for the level of the cobbled court outside had risen over the centuries. In the dark little hall I found myself facing a staircase -- indeed, the house was all stairs, for it was of an ancient construction with only two rooms on each floor. When I had removed my greatcoat and hat, Austin led me into his front-parlour. I could see that the kitchen was the little room beyond it. The front-parlour -- or dining,room as he called it, and it was apparent from the table laid for two that this was where he ate -- was cold, though there was a newly-lit fire burning. In the light of the gas-lamp I could see Austin clearly at last. His nose was redder than I remembered it, and though his skin was still as pale as paper, it was now coarse and wrinkled. He was as slender as he had been as a young man. (I cannot say the same in my own case, I fear.) Oddly, he was taller than I remembered. Seeing my scrutiny he smiled and I did the same. Then he turned away and began to tidy up as if he had made no preparations for my arrival.
All the while he asked me questions about my journey and I responded with enquiries about the house and its position and its amenities. I seated myself in one of the two old chairs at the table. The furniture was shabby and broken down, with a greasy shine upon the fabric. The old panelling was blackened by a couple of centuries of candle-flames and on the bare boards there was only a threadbare Turkey carpet. Absurdly, I felt my heart thumping. The place was so mean, almost squalid. I thought of my own comfortable apartments and the college servants who kept everything clean and neat.
Austin poured me a glass of madeira-wine from a decanter which stood on a side-table. As he handed it to me, the smell of the place suddenly struck me -- thick, heavy, intimate. Holding the glass, I drew breath with difficulty through my nostrils. I shut my eyes and thought of the Cathedral so near, of bones and flesh rotting beneath the stones, of what might be beneath this house which was in the shadow of the great building. The smell was sweet, obscene, like a rotting corpse pressing down upon me, holding me in a clammy, slippery embrace, and suddenly I believed I was going to be violently ill. I managed to sip a little of the wine and somehow to turn my thoughts elsewhere and the moment passed. I looked up and saw that Austin was watching me curiously and I forced a smile and then we toasted each other and my arrival.
What could we talk about after so long? It seemed absurd to engage in the trivial chatter of mere acquaintances-the weather, the journey, the proximity of the house to the Cathedral and the various amenities and inconveniences thereof. Yet that is what we did. And all the white, I was scrutinizing him and wondering how the passage of time had changed him. And I supposed he was looking at me with the same questions. Could we fall back into the boyish intercourse that we had enjoyed or, much more to he hoped, could we find a new mature note of friendship? Or would we flail uneasily between the old and now inappropriate manner and a new realization that we had little in common?
'How good it is to see you,' I said when there was a pause.
He smiled at me and his smile stayed even as he lifted his glass to his mouth and drank.
I felt I was smiling idiotically back at him. Simply for something to say, I blurted out: 'How long it must be since we last saw each other!' As soon as the words were uttered I wished them recalled. How strange that when one has resolved not to speak of a particular subject it should be the very first thing one brings up.
As if the remark awakened no memories, he put down his glass and made a show of counting on his fingers. 'Twenty years.'
'Longer. Twenty-two. Nearly twenty-two.'
He shook his head with a smile.
I hadn't intended to raise the subject at all, but now that I had, I wanted us to remember it correctly. Then I would say no more about it. 'You came to the station at Great Yarmouth to see me off. To see us off. I have always remembered my last sight of you on the platform as the train drew out.'
He gazed at me as if with nothing more than polite curiosity. 'How strange. My recollection is that you and I returned to London alone.'
'Absolutely not. I can see you standing there and waving good, bye. The date was July the twenty-eighth and it was twenty-two years ago come the summer.'
'You must be right. You're the one who knows about the past.'
'It's very hard to know the truth about the past, Austin. But the events of that summer are, I assure you, engraved upon my memory.
I had spoken with more emotion than I had intended. As I drank, the glass clattered against my teeth. I was suddenly terrified that he would utter one of the two names that were never to be mentioned between us. I lowered the glass, trying to keep my hand steady.
'We won't argue about it. It isn't worth it.' Then he smiled and said: 'But now to the future. You can stay until Saturday?'
'With pleasure. But I will have to leave early in the morning since it is Christmas Eve and I am expected at my niece's in the afternoon.'
'And that is where?'
'Exeter, as I mentioned in my letter.'
'Yes, of course. Well, that is agreed. We will meet in the evenings, but I'm afraid I shall be working during the day.'
'And I have things to do myself that will keep me occupied most of the day.'
'So you wrote. I hope this wretched cold and fog won't hamper your work too much.'
I smiled. It was an odd thing to say, but Austin had always had an elfin sense of humour. I had written to him only a few days earlier to ask if it would be convenient if I were to alter our arrangement and come at such short notice and he had replied that he would be delighted. What had prompted me to bring forward the visit was this. When I had received the invitation from Austin, I had remembered that my College Library had the uncatalogued papers of an antiquarian called Pepperdine who, I recalled, had visited the town shortly after the Restoration, and so I had decided to look at them. While doing so, I had come across a letter which -- as I had explained to Austin -- suggested that a long-standing scholarly controversy relating to my beloved Alftedian period might be resolved by the discovery of a certain document in the Library of the Dean and Chapter. I was so anxious to begin my researches that I had changed my plans and decided to visit Austin on my way to Exeter rather than on the journey back in the new year.
'After your long journey,' he went on, 'I thought you'd like to stay in tonight, and I'll cook our supper.'
'As you did in the old days,' I exclaimed. 'Do you not recaII? When we lodged in Sidney Street, we used to take turns to grill chops?'
Memories flooded back and I found myself quite misty-eyed.
'Do you remember your "chops St Lawrence" as you called them? Burnt to a crisp like the poor saint? You called your dinners anauto-da-féfor you said more faith was required to eat them than the wretched victims of the Inquisition ever needed.'
He smiled but it seemed to be at my own nostalgia rather than at the memories I was evoking. 'I have lambcutlets and capers ready. I have had enough practice in the intervening years to be able to promise no acts of martyrdom in the eating of them.'
It was odd to think of Austin keeping house for himself. I remembered how slovenly he had been -- crumbs always scattered on the floor of his rooms in college, his clothes thrown over a chair, cups and plates rarely washed. The room I was in now was not very much tidier than that.
'I will show you your room" Austin said. 'I expect you will want to wash while I am cooking.'
'Do I have time to look at the Cathedral? I need to stretch my legs after a long day on the train.'
'Supper will not be ready for about half an hour.'
'Won't the Cathedral be locked by now?'
'Good, I'm looking forward to seeing the ambulatory.'
Austin appeared surprised, even startled. 'I thought you had never been here before?'
'But, my dear fellow, I know the Cathedral intimately from written accounts and illustrations. It has one of the finest ambulatories in England.'
'Has it?' he asked absently.
'It is altogether a remarkable building, and almost completely intact.' Remembering what I had seen as I arrived and how uninformatively the cab-driver had answered my question, I asked: 'But is work being done on it now?'
He smiled. 'Oh, you've brought up the great issue that has divided the town more bitterly than anything in its history.'
'At least since the Siege.' I laughed. 'Don't forget that.'
'They are indeed working on it, which is why you'll be able to get in so late.'
'What is being done? Not some of that so-called restoration work?'
'They are merely working on the organ.'
'Even so, that can do considerable damage.'
'Hardly likely. And it will immensely improve the organ. They are introducing steam-power to blow it and carrying the action down from the old console to a new gallery.'
I could not help shaking my head in dismay. 'Quite unnecessary. It will sound no better.'
'On the contrary. It is also being tuned to equal temperament and extensively improved. At present it has a short compass and no clarion or cremona.'
I was surprised by his expertise, although I remembered that he sang and had some skill on the flute. 'I didn't know you played the organ?'
'I don't,' he said sharply. 'I have been told so by those who understand these things.'
'Once you start to interfere with an old building you never know where it will end. The introduction of steampower for ecclesiastical organs in the last thirty years has led to extensive demolition.'
'Well,' Austin said with that odd smile I now recalled which always seemed intended only for himself, 'if they find work that needs to be done to keep the building practical for modern-day needs, they must do it. It's not a mummy to be preserved in a glass case in a museum.' I was about to reply when he sprang up: 'I must show you to your room.'
He had always been quick and active-ready to leap to his feet and hurry out of the house on some hare-brained idea. And his mind was just as quick -- though perhaps a little too hasty and easily bored. Mine was possibly a little slower but much more tenacious and prepared to burrow deeper into things -- perhaps precisely because it did not grasp them as readily as Austin's. So it was not surprising that I, not he, had become the scholar although he had shown great brilliance in his field of study.
And so now he seized my bag and hurried out of the room leaving me to follow him. In the hall, he snatched up a candlestick and lit it from the mantle, explaining that there was gas laid only on the ground floor. Then he bounded up the stairs while I laboured after him in near-darkness. He waited for me on the half-landing, where a grandfather clock barely left room for both of us. We climbed the last few stairs and he pushed open a door and showed me the cosy little room at the back which he used as his study. The larger room at the front was his drawing-room -- as he expressed it with a self-mocking smile.
We climbed the next flight of the queer old stairs where bare dusty boards replaced the threadbare carpet lower down. Austin showed me into the front,bedroom, saying: 'I hope you won't be troubled by the blessed bells.''I'm used to them,' I said. 'I should be, after more than thirty years.' With the ceiling slanting down over half of it, the little room was like a ship's cabin -- an effect enhanced by the sloping floors and tiny window.
He left me to unpack and wash. The room seemed not to have been used for some time and smelt musty. I opened the little casement window and the rasping, smoky air blew in. The Cathedral loomed up out of the fog giving the illusion of being in motion as the mist swirled about it. There was no sound from the Close. I shut the window against the cold. The small looking-glass above the wash-stand was clouded and even when I had rubbed at it with my handkerchief, the image remained shadowy. Beside the stand lay a leather dressing-case with the initials 'AP which I remembered from our college days. It looked hardly any older than when I had last seen it. As I unpacked my bag and washed, I reflected on how Austin had changed. He had always had a theatrical side but it seemed to me that it was accentuated now-almost as if for a purpose. I wondered once again if he had invited me in order to make amends for what had happened twenty-two years ago and asked myself how I could convey to him, without our having to rake over the past, that I did not blame him for what had occurred.
When I came down ten minutes later I went into the kitchen and found Austin chopping onions. He looked me up and down with a mysterious smile and after a few seconds he said: 'Where's my gift?'
'How foolish of me. I took it out of my bag and put it on the bed in order to remember it. I'll go up and get it.'
'Fetch it later. Go to the Cathedral now. Supper will be ready in twenty minutes.'
I did as he suggested. When I was out in the Close a moment or two later I saw a couple of people hurrying away from the doorway in the south transept which was almost opposite Austin's house. Evensong had presumably just finished. I entered, letting the heavy door swing shut behind me before I raised my eyes and looked ahead, anxious to savour the excitement I always felt when I entered an ancient edifice that was new to me.
As if they had been waiting for my entrance, the unaccompanied voices of the choir suddenly rose -- the pure trebles of the boys soaring above the deeper tones of the men in an image of harmony between idealism and reality. The voices were muted and I had no idea where the choristers were. I was surprised to find them singing so late.
The great building was almost dark and it was cold-colder, it seemed, than the Close. There was the smell of stale incense and I remembered that the Dean was of the High Church tendency. Keeping my gaze lowered, I advanced across the flagstones which were so worn down in the centre that I fancied I was walking across a series of shallow soup-bowls. When I reached the centre I turned and raised my head so that the vast length of the nave suddenly fell away in front of me with the thick columns rising like a stone grove whose trunks gradually turned like branches into the delicate tracery of the roof. Far away the great sheets of uneven glass of the rose-window at the western end, like a dark take under a clouded moon, caught the gleams of the gas-lights. The few lamps only threw into relief the vastness of the soaring arches. When I had gorged my sight, I leant my head back and looked up at the vault high above me. I smelt fresh wood and I thought of how, seven hundred and fifty years ago, the heavy beams and huge blocks of stone were lifted through that space a hundred and twenty feet into the air. How strange to think of this ancient building as once having been startlingly new, rising shockingly above the low roofs of the town. How miraculous that so much had survived the civil wars of Henry VI's reign, the demolition of the Abbey in the Dissolution and the bombardment during the Siege of 1643.
The voices died away and there was silence. I turned and my gaze fell on an utter monstrosity: a huge and hideous new organ gallery thrusting itself forward in the transept. With its gleaming pipes, polished ivory and shining ebony it resembled nothing so much as a huge cuckoo-clock from some feverish nightmare.
And now another outrage: I became aware of harsh raised voices whose source, in that echoing, muffled space, it was impossible to discern. When I had ascended the steps of the chancel I noticed lights in the furthest corner. There were more shouts and then the musical ring of spades on stone, all of which the vast building seemed to receive and slowly absorb as it had absorbed the joys and the anguish of men and women for nearly eight hundred years. I turned the corner of the stalls and found three men working -- or, rather, two working and one directing them -- their breath visible in the light of two lanterns one of which was standing on the floor while another was perched insolently on a bishop's tomb.
The labourers, who had taken up a number of the great pavingstones, were young and beardless, but the older man who was supervising them had a piratical appearance with a great black beard and an angry, swaggering manner. But I was more intrigued by a tall old fellow in a black cassock who was watching. He was certainly seventy and very possibly older than the century and, with great pouched bags under his eyes and deep lines around his sunken cheeks, he looked like a man to whom a terrible wrong had been done and who had spent decades brooding upon it. His great height and smooth hairless skull made him resemble some part of the Cathedral itself that had come to life or -- rathertaken on some small degree of animation. His almost perfectly horizontal mouth was fixed in an expression of disapproval.
I approached and said to him: 'Would you be good enough to tell me what they are doing?'
He shook his head: 'A deal of mischief, sir.'
'Are you a verger?'
'Head-verger and have been these twenty-five years,' he an, swered with melancholy pride, stiffening his back as he spoke.
'And my father and grandfather before me. And all three of us singing-boys in our time.'
'Really? That's a remarkable dynasty. And the next generation?'
His face darkened: 'My son cares nought for it. It's a sad thing when your own child turns his back on the thing you've given your life to. Do you know what I mean, sir?'
'I can imagine. Though I have no children myself.'
'I'm very sorry to hear that, sir,' he said earnestly. 'That must be a sorrow to your wife and yourself, if you'll pardon me for saying so.'
'I have no wife either.' I added: 'I once had a wife. I...that is to say.' I broke off.
'Then I'm sorry for that, too. I can't have much longer on this earth, sir, but it's a great comfort to me to know that I shall leave three fine grandchildren behind me. Three grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren.'
'That is indeed a cause for congratulation. Now will you be good enough to tell me what is going forward here? If you've worked here all these years, you must know the building well.'
'I know every comer of her, sir. And it pains me to see them hack her open like this.'
'Why are they doing it?'
'It's that blessed organ. They've built a new console in the transept. You must have noticed that dreadful newfangled thing that's more like a traction-engine than an organ. And now they're laying down the pipes for it.'
'They're not going to take up all that length of paving, are they?' I asked, indicating it with my arm.
'They are indeed. They don't know what they might not be raking up. Nor they don't care.'
'But what's wrong with the original console? As far as I recall it's a beautiful piece of work from the early seventeenth century.'
'That it is, sir. But it wasn't good enough, it seems. Not for His Nibs who had to play it -- and that's more important than us that hears it, seemingly. Or us that will have to see that Babylonish monstrosity every day of our lives.'
'You are speaking of the organist?'
He went on without noticing my question: 'For some of the canons wanted the organ to be big and loud and to be right out here where the congregation could see it and would join in the singing, and them on the other side wanted to keep the old one because it sounds so well with the choir and doesn't drown out the voices the way this one will.'
'Such disputes between Ritualists and Evangelists have divided every Chapter in the country,' I said.
'How right you are, sir. We didn't have none of that when I was a boy. Then you was a good Christian and worshipped in the Cathedral or you was Chapel or a Papist and that's all there was. Now the Chapel and the Papists is all in the Church and fighting each other about vestments and candies and incense and processions. To my way of thinking, these new ways are all mummery and play-acting and not a respectful way of worshipping the Almighty at all.'
'But now it's the Low Church canons who are getting their way with the organ?'
'Aye, for he seems to have most of them in his pocket. And so, no matter what it costs or what damage it does, he has to get the organ he wants.'
I assumed he was still referring to the organi
Excerpted from The Unburied by Charles Palliser
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