Thursday, January 21, 2010


Busy, busy, busy these past few days with far too much work on my desk and far too little time to devote to writing.

Never fear, dear reader, though my fingers may be otherwise occupied in the drab task of earning my bread and cheese the wheels of imagination have been rapidly turning, turning, turning.

Today I would like present a highly revised version of our short story. I have given it a new title, too, and an introductory epigraph. The whole project stands at 1700 words so far. I am thinking a final tally of 3,000 will probably be sufficient to tell this tale. But we shall see, we shall see...


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 questioned about its origins, the old man raised his hands in theatrical protest. The relic, 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 seemed to trail off into oblivion, 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 thin 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 mythic soil 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 excellence of a pair of engravings executed, anonymously, for The Illustrated London News—intended to adorn a retrospective appraisal of the famous archaeologist’s excavations penned by his colleague (c.f., “The Tragedy of Troy,” by A. Evans, February 14th, 1891)—travelers in the Mediterranean may now find copies of this vessel, in various sizes, offered for sale from Alexandria to Asia Minor. The best of these 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 distinuishing 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 ingeniously sanded away by Time.

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 about to be gored by Hector, his spear perpetually frozen on the point of entry into his opponent’s liver; there, Achilles, 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 placed the urn on 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. The final one he reserved for Europe. The first he lit in Constantinople. When he closed his eyes he could see that last languid tendril of Christian smoke curling around a minaret, embracing it, a new religion, before dissolving in the heavy night air.

For Miniver Europe meant England and England meant London. He detested them both: the withered lilies of a race doomed to rot in the rain. Dealings in the East were different. Men were different—darker—devilshly ambiguous. Mustapha’s face was the only one he remembered well enough to assign its shifting features a particular identity. Perhaps because his name began with an M: Miniver couldn’t say for certain. Nor did he linger over the problem. All he knew was that that boy had been his first and best bargain. Mustapha stood for the world—all nations, all races, all men—all that is individual—all that lives and breathes and longs to touch—touch something. Not love, necessarily. Love was too limiting a word for the experience he craved, he felt.

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, how kind of you to come. Please, draw a chair up to the—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 pocket to dry his hands. He wore no gloves.

Speaking to the decanter on his desk as he poured out a fresh drink for his guest, 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 glass 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 he 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 twice 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.

Miniver gently frowned.

“John, I have been happy to support you—in so far as sovereigns allow—for all of your efforts. Your studies in the science of art—the art of science—are—they have altered our 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. That is why you are here.”

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

“John, whether you 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 so far. 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 with a silver snap, “—as a friend.”

“I shall, your Grace, I shall. A man could not hope for a better—a better friend than you, sir. But I am afraid that what I bring tonight is disappointment, not discovery. That is the source of my dismay. I cannot account for it.”

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

The curious device he extracted from his bag resembled nothing so much as a policeman’s dark lantern, a squat black cylinder with one large—all-seeing—lens.

The body, however, differed from its stylistic progenitor 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 lens also was unusual. Rather than the glaucous hemisphere of silicate one would expect to see, a gutta-percha gasket held a gorgeous stone, a three-inch diameter section of Herkimer quartz—a single crystal consisting of six equilateral faces—cut precisely at the point where the shaft of the crystal begins to taper toward its prismatic end.

This mechanism, to achieve proper elevation for demonstration, Keats balanced at a slight angle on the edge of a folio edition of water-colors, The Birds of North America, held between the two porphyry lions crouching on Lord Miniver’s monumental mahogany desk. The souvenir urn on the mantlepiece sat directly in its projected line of sight...

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