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Wednesday, April 21, 2004
By Paul Ford
Jack @ RhetoricalDevice has challenged Alex @ Logodrome, Alex @ Brokentype, and myself to write a Lovecraftian novel round-robin, called The Doomsday Canticle. This is the second installment; you can read the first installment on Jack's site.
June 2, 1921, a Thursday. He left his small rented room and walked the slow path through London's morning fog to the Museum, skipping breakfast due to a sore stomach. The beef in last night's meal had left him dyspeptic.
The factotum at the entrance took his pass and scrutinized it, then nodded him past—a rudeness, because he was by now known as a regular in the reading room, and this same man would often wave others by. Charles pushed aside his feelings of persecution and wandered into the dome, which contained only a few other early-morning scholars. He drew out his notebook and copied over his slips, then idled the intervening minutes considering his fate.
Six months ago he had been at National Union Bank of Boston and New York, with rising possibilities. He was of solid, if diminished, family, and his preternatural oldness and steady diligence, which made him seem 35 rather than his actual 25, made him a natural for promotion. He had planned on becoming district administrator by the age of 30.
His book delivered, a heavy, leather-bound monster, he took a seat and turned to its title page without enthusiasm. Transactions on Biblical Antiquities. It was a dusty thing from the middle of the last century, and like many of its kind, it lacked an index. Sighing, he flipped through its pages, scanning for words of significance: Shapira, Clermont-Ganneau, Athatakos. None of them leapt off the cramped pages at his first perusal, so he resigned himself to skimming the thick volume in its entirety.
It was painful going, the height of uselessness. The devil-bearded Lenin had once studied in this room, masquerading as “Joseph Richter,” and gone on to lead the Bolsheviks in revolution. And he, Charles de Morning, former banker, was following in those footsteps, to address the curious needs of a bank Director. At least Lenin was a man of action, despite his vile notions of progress. de Morning was here in service of ignorance and superstition, the servant of a rich American with vile obsessions.
Five months ago, he had been called to the bank's offices in New York. On the southbound train, he had been filled with optimism. Certainly they would not call him all the way to New York to release him from his position, and he was a worker of uncommon diligence. Was it some sort of special promotion, he wondered? Some new enterprise that would require him to move to New York? He had kissed Kitty and their son, James, goodbye, leaning over James' crib and kissing the boy farewell.
In New York he had lodged at a hotel near the bank's main offices, which were on Water St., and in the rainy morning he had met with Mr. Penkins, a special assistant to the bank's director, across a wide, empty mahogany table.
Mr. Penkins shuffled through some papers, and then opened the interview by saying, “Mr. de Morning, you spent some time in the Europe during the War, didn't you?”
“I did, sir.”
“You were under Pershing? Belleau Wood?”
“I was, sir.” And Chateau-Thierry, and Amiens.
“And you saw action?”
“Yes, sir.” Action. The sound of mortars bursting, the stink of bodies. Charles felt a sudden disdain for the soft, bespectacled old man before him.
“And I see you have some experience in the classics. You are quite familiar with Latin?”
Charles assented, and simultaneously resigned himself to the oddity of this interview. “And Greek,” he added.
“No need for that,” he said. “Do you have any experience with Aramaic? Or Hebrew?”
Charles suggested that he could learn these, if needed, but that he was less than proficient.
“No concern,” said Mr. Penkins. “Of course, it would have been ideal had you been attached to Allenby in some way, but little chance of that. But I do believe you to be a good candidate.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“I wonder if you could wait in the adjoining room for a short while.”
Charles lifted his brief-case, which he had filled with relevant documents from his two-year career at the bank, and went back out into the waiting room, where his umbrella was planted in a polished brass stand. An idle half-hour passed, during which he pushed aside his confusion by reading the Herald.
There was disproportionate coverage of Ireland and the recently-formed Parliament in its North, and he reasoned that New York, like Boston, due to their demographics, must be prone to exceptional interest in things Hibernian. The peace with Germany was finally to be signed, which filled him with a strange sort of remorse, the sense of an era of his own life ending.
The editorial page was particularly galling: another call for Wilson to resign, drawing on the rumors of some unknown malady that had afflicted the president's reason. “The country must be led by strong men—men of Roosevelt's character, in the Roosevelt vein,” the editorialist had written. An Irish writer was in agreement with the prevailing sentiment against the immigration of more Jews, which Charles, who saw both groups as dark shadows on the quality of the nation, felt was more Irish brown-nosing, and rank hypocrisy. And in reaction to the riots in Palestine the previous month, a columnist called for an incursion of American forces into that country, “a new crusade, lit by the lamps of modern reason” to support the British and to preserve the rights of Christian pilgrims in Jerusalem, and to keep the country from being handed over to the “pagan Mohammadan” on one hand, or the “Bolshevik Jew” on the other.
As he read this tirade, Charles heard his name called, and looked up to see a young man in a costly suit. “I am the Director's secretary,” he said. The Director. He led Charles out to an elevator, and instructed the operator to take them to the 14th floor.
“The 14th floor” of the New York office was legendary within the bank, as one might say, “The White House.” All power emanated from its rooms. What could the Director want with him? The elevator was padded in deep blue velvet, and staffed by an elevator man, ridiculously uniformed, close to Charles' own age.
The elevator man's face was familiar—perhaps a Doughboy? It would not be the first time a man had appeared on the street who had served under Charles. So many faces in memory, and he had trained himself to forget them, to avoid the guilt when they went over the line and did not return, to ignore their influenza-paled visages. But no glimmer of recognition appeared. Just a face, one among many. The operator closed the dark grating and commanded his panel of buttons, and then they were lifting heavenward.
There— the name Shapira rose off the page, cutting his reverie short, returning him to the vast reading room of the British Museum. Suddenly nervous, he looked up, and saw a starling flying in the hollow of the dome, a tiny feathered meteor, and wondered if it kept a nest in here and ate from the crumbs of the librarians, or if it had come in through some secret passage. In truth he was afraid to look at the page—after two weeks of blind alleys and no leads, he had been giving up hope of finding Shapira, and now that he had, he was terrified that it was merely a footnote, some useless gloss.
Nervously, he flipped forward two pages, and saw the name again. Whatever he had found, it was substantive, something that might allow him to finish this quest, answer his employer's inane questions, and return to Kathleen and James before the child began to walk and speak, back to his settled position in Boston, with a promotion for his diligence in service to his employer.