Thursday, January 28, 2010

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

After many changes, edits, adits, davits, etc, here is another installment in our mysterious on-going story, Capability.

I have a feeling that the narrative is beginning to veer off into an actual direction. Or is it a hope?

Time will tell.


Art in the blood is liable to take the strangest forms.
—Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Greek Interpreter

Miniver tapped an inch of ash into an urn which had once contained the cinders of a hero. Or so this Turk insisted—through his guide—a quick-witted urchin whose eyes and ears and burlesque English allowed him to eke out an existence translating for tourists in the bazaar.

When pressed about its origins, the old man raised his hands in theatrical protest. The relic in question, which unfortunate circumstances forced him now to sell, had been preserved in his family for one, two, three generations, centuries, or millennia. Although the precise frame of time was left vague, Miniver felt sure he meant the last. The fellow had counted out a trio of stiff logarithmic fingers. The boy nodded in agreement. Father and son, in business together, no doubt.

The urn itself was a crude replica of a more famous original which Miniver had first perceived, as a child—though his own pale reflection—behind a pane of glass. The neat ivory note-card in the oak case said it was a gift of the Sultan to the Queen upon the occasion of her marriage. It had been donated by Her Majesty to The British Museum, as a widowed afterthought, four years after the Prince Consort’s death.

The exact source of the Sultan’s gift could not be established—with definite authority—beyond the soils of Anatolia. That it was immensely old, scholars agreed. It was regarded as the Rosetta of ancient ceramics, as it detailed a famous scene attributed to Homer before the bard himself (according to classical tradition) had even been born. It is justifiably celebrated—not for its beauty per se—its craftsmanship poor, its figures almost cartoonish—but for the truth it represents, what it silently suggests: that the Trojan War occurred, that Helen herself once walked the earth. The late Herr Schliemann’s discoveries at Hisarlik appear to confirm this hypothesis.

Thanks to the peculiar popularity of a pair of engravings executed, anonymously, for The Illustrated London News—travelers in the Mediterranean may now find copies of this vessel, in various sizes, offered for sale from Alexandria to Asia Minor. The best are hand-painted. These are manufactured for export by an ex-patriot Greek, a Mr. Kratides, formerly of Hampstead, presently and comfortably living in Rome. Collectors may identify his creations by his trademark, a tiny cuneiform K, incised as three wedges in the semi-cured clay before firing.

The specimen Miniver inspected in the market bore no such distinguishing feature. It had evidently been abused to make it look more ancient and more actual than it really was. Here and there a flake of glaze was missing; the lip was neatly cracked; much of the meander necklace that formed the lower border of the scene sanded away by events.

A smudge of maroon dust remained on Miniver’s black calfskin gloves as he revolved the artifact in his hands. The essential elements of the story depicted on the surface remained intact: here we see Patroclous, disguised in Achilles’ armor, about to be gored by Hector, his spear perpetually frozen on the point of entry into his opponent’s flesh; there, Achilles himself, eaten by offended Pride, broods over a brazier in his tent, forever opposite—but powerless to prevent—the sorry fate his beloved friend is about to meet.

Miniver admired the outlandish inventiveness of these two Turks. The improbable tale the collaborators told of the vessel’s provenance made it irresistible to him: it gave the purchase a kind of poetry the object lacked—like the Iliad itself. This was life: the perfect souvenir. He paid the dealer a pound and tipped his tot a shilling and considered it a steal.

He returned the urn to his marble mantle and tossed the end of his Havana into the fire. It was his last. The smoke from these cigars had circled the world. He had smoked one on every continent, save the southernmost. (Always leave some landscape in reserve for the imagination to occupy was Miniver’s attitude.) The final cigar he reserved for Europe. The first he lit in Constantinople. When he closed his eyes he could see that last tendril of Christian smoke curling around a minaret, embracing it, a new religion, before dissolving in the arms of the heavily scented night air.

He swirled his brandy, sniffed and swallowed. Through the liquor, in the library, he watched a heavy log of cherry crinkling to extinction in his hearth. His heart. One letter separated these two words, like the waters of the Dardanelles, into two worlds: West and East. Life and Art.

A discrete knock at the door, followed by momentary flare in the fireplace, announced a visitor had arrived. Cartwright coughed softly into a curled white glove, “Mr. Keats.”

The vaporous being clutching the battered Gladstone could not have provided a more ethereal contrast to the voluptuous presence of Lord Miniver. Even Cartwright—whose own particular blend of poise and tact rendered him rather less substantial than a blur of fine gray infinitely attenuated mist—stood like a gravestone next to the impalpable Mr. Keats, a man who did not so much as remove an ulster as transcend it, as a shaft of electric arc-light passes through a globe of frosted glass. Cartwright, coat and hat evaporated in the warm glow of welcome that transfigured Miniver’s features.

“Keats, my dear fellow, how kind of you to come. Please, draw a chair up to my—the remains of my fire. Would you care for a brandy? You look like a ghost.”

“Your Grace is too kind,” the young inventor smiled uncertainly, “Thank you, I would.” He withdrew a puff of speckled handkerchief from his tattered tweed to dry his hands. He wore no gloves.

Speaking to the decanter on his desk as he poured a fresh drink, and added a splash, considered it, then added second, to his own, Miniver addressed Mr. Keats, “When I had no reply to my wire this morning, I began to despair of you this evening, John.” He presented him his brandy. “Your health.”

“Your Grace.” Keats nodded, sipping the liquor cautiously.

Miniver set his brandy on the mantle next to the vase and carefully brushed a bit of extraneous ash to the hearthrug. He regarded his visitor in silence. It was a few minutes before his guest could nerve himself to speak.

“Forgive me, your Grace. The results of my investigations, in your absence, have been most discouraging. I cannot account for the difficulty. When I received your note, I picked up my pen to reply, but I was so overcome with shame that I could not put together the proper words to express my—your Grace has been so kind, so patient, and—” words tumbled forth from the tongue of the reticent young man in a torrent.

The corners of Miniver’s mouth dipped toward a frown.

“John, I have been—I shall continue to be—happy to support you in your efforts—in so far as sovereigns and my poor understanding allow. Your studies in the science of art—the art of science—are—what can I say? They alter one’s conception of time itself.” He searched himself for an illustration. “Beautiful as this instrument is,” he said removing a thin sliver watch from his waistcoat and placing it in his pink outstretched palm, “even my Breuget cannot make such a claim. It can measure a minute for me, but it cannot give meaning to the hour. Only you can do that, John. I have seen it. That is why we are here.”

Keats lowered his eyes toward the flame guttering in his glass.

“John, whether we succeed or fail tonight is immaterial to me. No one, so far as I am concerned, need ever know. I am already amazed by what I have seen. Whatever happens, in the future, if nowhere else, I hope you will regard me less in the capacity of a patron and more as a—,” he punctuated his sentence with a muffled snap, “—as a friend.”

“A man could not hope for a better—a better friend than you, sir. But I am afraid, in all honesty, that what I bring tonight is disappointment, not discovery. It is a poor start to any friendship. That is the source of my dismay.”

Keats placed his scarcely sampled brandy on the table, beside the reading lamp, and reached down for his bag.

The curious contraption Keats extracted resembled nothing so much as an ordinary policeman’s dark lantern—that squat black cylinder with its one large—all-seeing—eye.

The body of the lamp, however, differed from its relatives in three respects: a tiny hole, in the left side, admitted a key, which Keats withdrew (with a length of chain) from his right trouser pocket. Nor was this lamp fashioned from the black enameled tin typical of its constabulary kin: this was made of brightly polished brass. Below the key were engraved three scarcely discernable mathematical symbols: a + and – separated by a zero.

The eye, or lens, was also unusual. Rather than the glaucous hemisphere of silicate one would expect to see, a gutta-percha gasket gripped a gorgeous gem—a single crystal of Herkimer quartz consisting of six low equilateral triangles—cut precisely at the point where the shaft of the crystal begins to taper toward its prismatic end.

This mechanism, to achieve proper distance and elevation for demonstration, Keats balanced at a slight angle on the edge of a folio edition of water-colors, The Birds of North America, on Miniver’s monumental mahogany desk. The souvenir urn on the mantelpiece stood directly in its projected line of sight.

Thus, divided by a beam of diamond blue, the two men studied the characters—Hector, Patroclous—illuminated on the vase.

“As you can see, your Grace, when the key is turned in the positive direction we achieve the desired end. Even using so—I hope I may be candid without reflecting any disparagement on your Grace’s good taste?”

“Please, continue, John,” Miniver responded with a flicker of amusement, “I may attach some sentimental significance to this particular curio, but I still regard it as an ashtray, nothing more.”

“Even using so crude a creation as this,” Keats motioned though the light, toward the mantle, with his intangible hand, “We are able to supply the one dimension the artifact lacks: time. Observe how the story continues.”

Slowly, as if arousing themselves from a stony stupor, the tiny limbs of Hector and Patroclous began to move. The tip of the spear slid silently, like a secret lover, into the breast of Patroclous. The shocked spine of the Greek arched backward as the shaft tore through his viscera, his helmeted head flying back, reflexively fleeing the fearful momentum of death with increasing velocity. He hit the hot sand with a thud. To the ignorant army of invisible spectators, it appeared that Achilles was dead. Hector had finally killed him. One could almost hear the hosts of Ilium beating their shields and roaring with joy.

Just there, at that moment, Keats turned the key to zero: the light went out. There, the isolated scene froze—exactly as it stood. Patroclous was dead. Achilles, one may imagine, still brooded on the other side of the vessel, perhaps a dim suspicion dawning on him as the thunder of the Trojans, transmitted through the broken glaze, reached his ears.

The story begun by the artist—the potter, the painter, the poet—whoever he might be—had advanced less than fifteen seconds in narrative time. Miniver’s watch recorded ninety. (The reader’s chronometer may register a different interval. The writer can only speculate.)

“Before I left for Turkey we performed a similar test on an engraving—a reproduction—a single panel of Hogarth—if I remember correctly. His rake came to life and we followed the young gentleman’s progress from prosperity to dissolution to insanity. All very tragic, but hardly disappointing from an aesthetic point of view, John. The clarity of the projection produced by the lantern is in fact much improved from what I remember. I would call the experiment a success.”

“It is the quartz. The quality of crystal quarried in New York State is higher than any place on Earth. The problem, your Grace, lies in using this equipment to reverse the narrative process. I am afraid it doesn’t work.”

“You mean Patroclous is dead? My vase is forever altered? Even though it is an ashtray, I do prefer it the way it was.”

“Then you shall have to travel back to Turkey and buy another one. A vase is not a book, your Grace. One cannot leaf backwards in clay so easily. I have tried,” Keats added, with an explosion of sputum into his speckled handkerchief...


::: TN ::: said...

"Keats added, with an explosion of sputum into his speckled handkerchief..."

Imagine a being told that Jane Austen broke wind.

Shropshirelad said...

I am well rebuked, sir. I think I will remove this from the story...