Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Yes Cecil, A Long Story Short, Part Forty-One

It wasn't the quality of the light, nor the sound of the distant birds, nor even the emerging aroma of brewed coffee slowly rising into the house, weaving along corridors and slithering under doors that awoke Jerome, it was the undeniable pressure upon his bladder. He found the will to drag himself to the bathroom, his mouth a dehydrated cave of undesirable exhalations. After peeing he splashed warm water upon his oily face, scrubbed the sleep from his eyes and massaged his temples, water dripping down into his ears. Whatever had been in the curative drink the night before, had eased him into a sleep of the dead. There were dark crescent moons under his eyes, and his left one was bloodshot, a maze of red lines leading from his brown iris like lava flows from a dark volcano. He drank cold water from his cupped hand and decided to get right in the shower.

As the hot water massaged his scalp, neck and back with a rejuvenating pleasure, images arose with the steam around him, like wavering reflections in water, a confusion of Thérèse, Lucrezia and Proserpine knocking on his door and entering, the liquid diaphanous dress flowing beneath the long auburn hair as she approached the bed, her hand reaching out towards him. At times such as these he felt his art and his dreams distorted the longitude and latitude of his reality, the remnant images like colours at variance on a lost canvas. He turned and let the hot water flow over his face, washing the images down to the miniature vortex at his toes, a whirlpool for the visions of the night.

As he dried himself with the plush towels, additional dream images resurfaced. Pavor, Mélisande and Thérèse were talking to Lucrezia and Declan, standing in what he felt to be an art gallery, Bartholomew and Thaddeus behind them, playing billiards on a circular table. They didn't seem aware of his presence, and he felt himself hitting something, a wooden frame, a gilt wooden frame, and they all turned towards him and began to talk and point and he realized he was behind a picture frame, in a picture, captured in paint, immobile, and they stared at him like a painting themselves, grouped together like Rembrandt's The Syndics of the Draper's Guild, expressions of surprise, indifference, sadness.

He must ask Declan what was in that late night tonic.

He dressed quickly trying to slough off the night and embrace the day. He approached the window as he slipped into his leather coat; he could see the dawn was hiding behind the heavy morning mist which hovered over the garden maze like a wedding tent. He made his way out and along the corridor, and as he descended the main staircase, he heard noises from the kitchen below, and a faint aroma of coffee. The longcase clock remained at six o'clock and he approached it quietly and listened, but couldn't hear it ticking. He walked down a corridor leading to a sun-room which provided access to a patio on the side of the house; from this he stepped out into the damp morning air. The leaves upon the path were no longer messages of an oracle, but mere smudges of burnt umber, the lawn, a swath of cobalt green slick with dew.

As he walked across the lawn towards the maze, he stopped and turned to look back, a beautiful golden stone manor house with pinnacled gables, the vapours hovering above the roof line, no faces at the mullioned windows, no signs of activity on the grounds. The architecture was Jacobean in style and gave Jerome the sense that each stone had been imported, with perhaps a spirit or two. His three-arched window was in a castellated tower to the right, an eclectic feature that was like a Gothic exclamation mark to a long Jacobean sentence. He turned and continued walking, drawn towards the opening of the maze.

Before the entrance was a large flat stone in the grass with an inscription in Roman letterforms:

Go. There. With. Here.

Go there with here? The dense evergreen hedge material, some kind of Cedar he thought, was aromatic and soft to the touch and about nine feet high. He advanced, his sudden entry disturbing a small fluttering of chickadees, and then he hesitated, feeling the dense humidity of the air, the claustrophobia of the cave. He reached out his arm and followed his inclination to turn left, his fingers combing the wet evergreen foliage. Go there with here? He was not unfamiliar with labyrinths having attended, with Thérèse, Mélisande's facilitated walks, but he was less familiar with mazes, though he did remember that if you kept a hand, either hand, on the hedge, you would eventually find the centre. Walking on, he thought of Thérèse and the Rossetti poem he had read the night before, the last lines of each stanza having stayed with him, lines about a soul drawing another soul closer. “My soul this hour has drawn your soul a little nearer yet.” He said the words softly like an offering to appease the forest gods, rousing a memory of exploring his grandparents basement when he was a child, frightened by the darkness, saying the Lord's prayer under his breath as he had quickly made his way to the stairs.

Turning a corner, he could see in the distance a dead-end, but he continued on in case of a blind opening, and finding an opening to the right, followed it to a crossroads and he kept left again, the path leading to a true dead end, one that provided another stone in the grass, with another inscription, the Latin in large letterforms, the English beneath:

Nosce. Teipsum.
Look. Into. Thy. Self

He took out his pocket sketch pad and pencil and wrote down the two inscriptions just in case they could be clues to some grander puzzle, intuitive guides for a macrocosmic conceit. They could, however, only be early Latin examples of the plethora of pithy sayings he had been seeing of late in shop windows and on t-shirts, those 'keep calm and carry on' emblems of free thought. Then again, the stones could also be tell-tale crumbs to help him find his way out.

He walked back the way he came, passed the opening and then turned left, then left again, then a right and walked a considerable way until he came across a stone in the grass even though the path led ahead for quite a distance. He wrote down the inscription:

Ibant. Obscuri. Sola.
Sub. Nocte. Per. Umbrum.

To this there was no English equivalent provided, but his rudimentary Latin gave him the gist of the meaning, and he wrote underneath, “Under lonely night, they went dimly under the shadows.” He thought he wouldn't want to walk the maze at night.

The cawing of a crow startled him, and he continued on.

He wasn't sure how much time had elapsed as he traipsed within the maze, but he had come across three more stones and three inscriptions:

Non. Tardum. Opperior.
Not. For. The. Slow. Do. I. Tarry.

Ut. Umbra. Sic. Vita.
Shade. Is. Life's. Pattern.

Homo. Quasi. Umbra.
Man. Is. A. Shade. Of. A. Shadow.

It was not long after finding the last of these inscriptions that he found his way to the centre, where he discovered a carved stone pedestal with a large bronze sun dial on top. Around the bronze dial he read the words:

Salvagesse. Sans. Finesse.

The words seemed very familiar. 'Nature not Art.' A dog barked in the distance and he heard faint voices, echoes of rising vowel sounds. He noticed that around the base of the pedestal there were English words carved in the stone:

And Thou Like Adamant Draw Mine Iron Heart

He braced his hands on either side of the top of the stone pedestal gazing down at the sundial, and he sensed a spiral of mist circle round him, as if he had set in motion a roulette wheel and it had created a disturbance in the air. "Salvagesse sans finesse," he said trying to read the shadow on the dial. It seemed to him that both nature and art were reluctant to work together. Feeling faint, he walked over to one of the stone resting benches and sat down to copy out the inscriptions. His stomach growled. Breakfast must be soon he thought, but he rested and read the inscriptions over. Eight inscriptions and yet, any overall meaning was lost to him. He quickly sketched the pedestal and sundial, noting the Celtic carvings between the base and the top and then made his way to the opposite opening in the hedge where another stone was inset in the grass:


He noted the inscription in his booklet and walked on, more quickly. After numerous turns and dead ends, he came to yet another stone:

Vestigia. Nulla. Retrorsum.

As he pencilled the words down, he heard a strange sound of heavy breathing, a sound of many feet running, something that reached down into the depths of his instinct for alarm. The sound of an animal. He stumbled backwards and against the hedge as if trying to force his way through, and then the animal came around a corner running towards him.

“Beaumont?” he called out.

The black Labrador Retriever slowed and wagged his tail, his amber eyes were sharp with intelligence, his pink tongue, white teeth and his glossy black coat revealed a happy, healthy dog. Jerome bent down on his knees and called to Beaumont who, recognizing a fellow spirit, came to him and licked his hands and face. Jerome ran his hands into his fur and told him what a handsome dog he was.

“Have you come to lead me out Beaumont? Do you have the key to this maze?” And at this question, Beaumont turned and began to retrace its steps looking over its shoulder as if to beckon Jerome to follow. Beaumont was off with a confidant stride and Jerome had to pass over four further inscriptions without stopping before reaching the opening in the maze where he found Declan waiting, leaning upon a large bow, a quiver of arrows over one shoulder.

“Useless as a chipped anvil in this weather,” Declan said, gazing over Jerome's head at the sky. “The sundial,” he added, feeling Jerome had failed to catch his meaning. “You did make it to the centre?”

Jerome, still recovering from the exertion of the run and the surprise at seeing Declan, managed to nod a response. “Forgive my curiosity. I hope you don't mind?”

“How did you sleep?” he asked, ignoring Jerome's question.

“Soundly, though the tonic you recommended must have helped. What's in that by the way?”

“Oh, I couldn't tell you,” he said, looking down at Beaumont, “my housekeeper's secret remedy.”

Jerome nodded again, looking at the man before him in his Wellingtons, brown corduroy trousers, green Beaufort jacket with corduroy collar, plaid scarf and tweed cap, black Labrador Retriever at his heels, an image of a country man from another country, from another time.

“Looks like we both worked up an appetite. Come on, let's go back to the house, I can tell you all about the maze over breakfast.”

“Were you out hunting this morning?” Jerome asked.

“Yes, the duck and the Dodo down by the pond,” he said with a wink, and with a pat on Jerome's shoulder, he said, “Don't worry, no exotic meats this morning, just a classic English breakfast. My wife calls them Marmalade mornings.”

“Marmalade mornings?”

“It's always morning somewhere in the world, though the fog here seems to be against the day.” Declan pointed at the sky with his bow, a barren gest, “Fog was so dense yesterday, bird landed on the stone balustrade near the house, then slowly fell, dead at my wife's feet. Must have hit a window. It should have been flying towards grace. Perhaps it did. Not a way to get a party going." Declan paused a moment looking up as if inspecting for damage. "Beaumont brought it over to Belford for burial.”

They continued again over the wet grass in silence, Jerome not knowing how to respond to such an alliterative statement. Was Belford a person or a place he wondered? What party? Declan turned to him and said, “It's just us for breakfast, my wife has her routine of yoga, though she does like to join me once in awhile for a marmalade morning.”

Beaumont ran ahead of them towards the house, at ease and content. “Beaumont certainly knows his way around the maze,” Jerome said.

“Beaumont's a clever soul. Sometimes I think he has access to other dimensions, of course his sight and smell is well beyond our scope.”

As they approached the house, Jerome mentioned that they had an old world array of classical statues in the garden nearby, and asked if Declan had imported the statuary.

“Auctions, private sales, a few from Castlebourne. Some of them are made of Coade stone, and others in marble. The Hermes, the libation bearers, and the Venus are old copies. Provides a setting for my wife's contemplative walks.”

“You must have a talented gardener.”

“Belford Owens, the husband of our housekeeper. He has a breadth of old world knowledge. Eccentric though. Some days he'll talk your ear off, while others, you wonder what you might have said to put him off.” Declan quietly chuckled to himself. “He smokes a pipe. Not many pipe smokers left. Almost a lost art.” He paused before the large oak door with carved rossettes. “My Father smoked a pipe after the war, but now, it's a rare bird who brandishes such an instrument.”

“Do you smoke a pipe?”

Declan opened the door wide. “Well, only with Belford from time to time. I like a nice aromatic tobacco blend with hints of chocolate and vanilla. Brings back memories.” Declan swept his arm towards the open doorway, inviting Jerome to enter. “I'll see you in the dining room in few minutes, I'll just take Beaumont and my hunting gear to the stables. You can take off your wet shoes and leave them by the door. We're informal here. Don't worry if you have holes in your socks, we all do, at some time in our lives.”

Back in his room, Jerome remembered, while washing his hands, where he had seen the words 'salvagesse sans finesse,' the bookplate in the Rossetti poems. Sitting on the bed, he opened the book and looked down at the old engraving showing two stags rampant beside a shield with a ship on waves, a helmet over the shield with closed visor and flowing ribbons, and the motto below on a thin ribbon-like scroll, salvagesse sans finesse. The family name beneath, Bertolais.

© ralph patrick mackay

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