The Capsa Coffee House in Bucharest, the ancient decadent den of the cosmopolitan intelligentsia between the wars. Cafe Astarte was modelled after the Capsa House (established in 1852).
The Entrance to Capsa.
Miriam of Cordova was based on Maria Tanase, the Romanian interwar chanteuse, spy, lover of life, femme fatale.
Biserica Sf Melchior is found in the old quarter of Bucharest. More known as Stravopoleos Monastery.
The interior courtyard at Biserica Sf. Melchior.
The Church's door handle. A reminiscence
Leon Lichtblau was born in Bucharest, in the family of a Jewish architect. He was a socialist and a militant anarchist. He was executed during the Great Purge.
The doors are opened.
Infinite dada umbromancy. Divination by shade and dark light. One of the earliest experiments of Lichtblau and his troupe. Here, the same experiment, reproduced by the Authors, in the Summer of 2009, in the House of Hasdeu.
In the abandonded garden of Lichtblau.
The White Ambassador was based on the real Poklewski-Koziell, a Polish-Russian by birth. He was the last White tsarist ambassador in Europe. An obscure, unknown figure in the Romanian history, Poklewski-Koziell spent the last years of his life as the right hand of Queen Maria of Romania. He was found frozen to death on a street in Bucharest. Forgotten and without any family left, nor any money, he was buried by his loyal friends at Jockey Club.
The building where he lived the last year of his life, in a small room on the last storey.
The entrance to the building where Poklewski-Koziell lived his last year, after his Tsarist Embassy in Bucharest was demolished by the Bolsheviks.
The funeral cortege for Poklewski-Koziell.
At the Chateau Noir. Also known as Malmaison. Str. Zefirului, Bucharest.
Inside the Chateau Noir, where Altarnun's fate has been decided by the throw of a die.
Inside the House of the Circle
of Contemplative Thought.
"You are welcome here. As for myself,
I am a servant of Zoroaster."
The Botanical Garden in Bucharest.
"On a bench in the botanical garden, the pages of a book that someone had left behind flapped in the wind, like white flickering
"Trebizond, where it all died out –
that’s a good place to start. Fare well.”
Altarnun, on his last journey.
Waiting for the return of the black swans.
Early summer morning at the Fronius Villa in Sighisoara, Romania. Mark Valentine signing copies of The Nightfarers, while John Howard was browsing some files on "The Edda as the Key to the Coming Age" by Peryt Shou.
The seven treasures of bucharest
Mark Valentine &Geticus Polus
The Master of Zatrikon
There was a tall, narrow house with a façade of triple arches on its second floor, each shaped like a ship’s prow, with that delicate fingertip touch of stone known as the ogee. These were sustained by taper-slender columns, and in the hollow of the middle arch was a door in pale green glass. It opened out to a delicate balcony with curving black wrought iron like Moorish calligraphy. Opposite the house stood a bookshop. at its back, the house of three arches looked out onto a walled garden belonging to a small hidden church, shaped and hued in soft gold like a chrysolite, the Biserica S. Melchior.
Inside the second floor room that was so fortunate to gaze over a bookshop and a church, there dwelled the scribbler Michael Thessarion. his gold-rimmed eyeglasses glinted as he shook his axe-shaped head, with its stubble of silver lichen. For some days now, the newspapers had been full of talk of a new
grand plan, like the one that had made wide boulevards and broad squares and raised great neo-classical edifices in the city a decade ago. This was now nearing completion, and they were still tearing down all the old and fustian and decrepit places that lurked in the dimness. But this time the new grand plan, that certain persuasive commentators proposed, would not be for the
spaces and structures of the city. It would be applied to its inhabitants. Surely, they argued, there was no reason why a civilised society should not give as much thought to the correct construction of the people of a city as was given to its stones and roads? There must be modernisation, rationalisation, selection. Of course, in the process (it was lightly implied), just as the ramshackle, out-of-keeping, untidy and degenerate quarters had been swept away, so might the same be true of some of the inhabitants, often the ones that clung on still in the last of the condemned places. Somehow, they must go.
Thessarion read this sort of polemic grimly. He had never liked the grand plan for the redesign of the city, and he liked still less this scheme for streamlining its people. For some years, he had set himself to memorialise the ancient, secret places of the old quarter, with his camera and his pen, before they disappeared. And he now saw that this was only the beginning of his work. For he must start to go amongst all the human relics, residues and peculiarities of the quarter too, in all their quaint lairs and hidden refuges.
He would start with the Master of Zatrikon. And he would certainly be found at the Café Astarte.
Thessarion remembered once reading a guide to the city which solemnly informed its readers that intellectuals and artists were always to be found at the Signet Café, with its faintly middle-european columns, stone caryatids and low balcony. For his part, he would never go there. only the state’s licensed heads frequented its musty luxury, its dark polished wood and rubbed
velveteen, the official philosophers and accepted artists. For the real dreamers, mystics and craftworkers, the azar (its nickname) was the only haunt. Some of its patrons indeed, were so deep in their dreams and visions, that they created nothing, nothing except an indefinable character and ambience.
a great waft of almost tangible aroma embraced Thessarion’s gaunt face as soon as he opened the creaking door of the Astarte, like an opiate, like the onset of sleep. It was mingled of the deep dark coffee and the nameless stew that the proprietor kept up constantly in their own murky cauldrons, and the bitter tang of the Syrian cigarettes that so many of the clientele adopted. This
assault on the nasal sense might be matched in the evenings by an aural hubbub of equal intensity; but today, since it was merely late morning, a slow silence pervaded the café. Nodding briefly to a few of the old habitués, Thessarion made his way to where the Master sat, in a corner from where he could regard most of the room.
He wore, as always, a black silk skull-cap, from which a seaweed of tawny, tentacled hair protruded as it pleased. His form was enveloped in a tangle of dark clothes that it was quite hard to distinguish – somewhere in among them might be a waistcoat, a cloak, a shawl, but they were all gathered up in great
folds around him. The Master’s pale blue eyes contemplated a circular chess board. for he was the sole rediscoverer, or reinventor, of that medieval version of Moorish or Byzantine chess that is played exactly like its standard square version, but on a round board in which the pieces, instead of being ranked in
serried rows, splay out like the segments of an orange. Since he was one the few known players of Zatrikon, this ancient variation – or, as he would say, original version – his friends had long bestowed on him the ironic, though affectionate, title by which he was now often known. The Master was usually forced to play games against himself, but occasionally others of the café’s clientele would indulge him, or some unsuspecting stranger might be
inveigled into a game or two. Aside from the perfection of this game, the Master appeared to have no other purpose or vocation, and would certainly be among those whom the earnest young commentators in the newspapers would see as not quite necessary in the new order of things they envisaged.
“In a city,” the columnist who signed himself “Ion” had said, “there are always more crows than swans. Why shouldn’t we feed the swans and starve the crows? Better still, why shouldn’t we breed the swans, and shoot the crows?”
Thessarion reflected that, although he had known the black cloaked Master by sight for many years, and had in his time tried his hand against him at the game (never winning), he really knew nothing at all about him. As part of his mission, He must try to find out a little more.
He pulled up a wobbling wooden chair opposite the Master, and mimed and beckoned toward the counter for a coffee each. The Master looked slowly up. he held a black bishop in his hand, which he regarded thoughtfully, then placed with deliberation upon the board.
“It is you. A game?”
“Not today, Master.”
A nod. Then a pause while the coffee arrived. For Michael Thessarion, there was the unusual feeling that the pause in the game laid out before the Master had created a fissure in the day itself, in the order of things as they sat there, an active absence waiting for its own particular presence to complete it.
“I have often meant to ask about you,” Thessarion began, but saw at once that this was not the right way to begin. “To know you better, I mean.”
A tilt of the head, causing the skull-cap to glint with watery dark rays.
“Yes? and what do you wish to know?”
“Well, for example, where you came from. Before here.”
“Where I came from?” The old savant seemed genuinely bewildered by the question. “Originally? I came from– from Paradise, where we all come from. Whether I shall ever be able to get back, that is the real question.” The soft eyes became distant.
Morvod, the proprietor, small and stocky, like one of his own contraband brandy barrels, had been hovering to listen to this and snorted vehemently through his hirsute nostrils. “Smyrna! Smyrna is where he really comes from. Isn’t it so? he’s one of the survived.”
“It was one of my last resting places, that’s true. There have been many. I used to play there on the promenade, and many eminent citizens were notchary of giving me a game. Even Rezir'ali himself, a few times. An ottoman gentleman, and wily enough to force a draw from me. That is rare enough. He liked the thought we might be Byzantine courtiers gazing over the same sea, weighing the same strategies.”
Absorbed in these reflections, the Master entered an inward silence.
“‘Rare enough’, he says,” interjected Morvod, who liked to hide his affection for his distinguished customer behind a mask of scorn, “Oh, rare enough indeed, but it happened last night, I believe. I believe so. I believe I saw it.”
“Indeed you did,” admitted the Master, at last. “A most brilliant young man, too, though he scorned my game even as he played it. He adjured me to try games of chance, instead, or at least those that mingle chance and skill. You, Thessarion, will be interested in what he told me. Yes.”
There was a pause while the Master brooded upon the young stranger’s words. “Well, he started by saying that backgammon was an older and more popular game in Byzantium than this chess. I did not deny it. That was a sport: this is a study. They fulfil different objects. Then he reminded me of the strange throw of the emperor Zeno, immortalised by some later philosopher’s
apothegm. The ill-fated ruler, in some idle session at the tables, so cast the dice that he went from a winning game to an inevitable defeat at a single stroke. It was a really most remarkably bad throw, this youth said. here was the highest of all, invested with the purple, anointed with Jerusalem chrism, possessor of more of the holiest relics than any man alive, and he was cast low by a set of humble dice such as might roll in any tavern. So it might be, Zeno said – sententious enough this, he was not of the true line – with the empire itself. and indeed it was. all went awry from then on. Not remorselessly so, of course: Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le Hasard. But some would say, and he certainly said, this young man, that nothing had gone as well as it might
with the whole civilised world since. But, then he says – do you not see the necessary inference?”
The Master looked at Thessarion, and looked at Morvod. A pause.
“No? And neither did I.”
A further silence yawned and the two by his table exchanged glances, the portly proprietor sighing and making a show of his wiping his hands on a far from white apron.
“Mmmm? ah. Well, he said, there must be an antinomy to Zeno: the most fortunate possible twist of luck, the ultimately improbable leap of fortune. And as far as we know it has never yet been thrown.”
Thessarion made a surreptitious note to himself; the Master was right, he must seek out this curious youth.
The Master sighed. “I expect it was such chatter that caused me not to win. even so, I find I am drawing now a little too often: several times a year, in fact. It is time to ply my board elsewhere.”
He lifted a black rook and wagged it pensively. “But where, if not here? Paris? Crete? Alexandria? Jerusalem?”
The dark piece of highly polished wood glinted as he twisted it in his fingers, catching the light like the facet of a black jewel.
The Song of Miriam
When Thessarion made his way back through the old quarter that evening, he was deep in thought and abstractly surveying the rutted, pitted slabs of the path,cracked by the dry heat, worn away by ice and rain, littered with grit by the hard hot winds, so that they seemed like a palimpsest in which each of the elements had written their utterances. To read and try to understand these
messages would be the work of a lifetime, studying every crevice and striation like a hieroglyph; yet who was to say this was any more futile than the work of those who laboured at deciphering ancient and arcane languages? Often painstaking transliteration of an inscribed stone or stylus revealed only an obscene message or a grain merchant’s prices, not even an offering to the gods; but surely the words carved by the work of the weather would reveal more? And those who would efface all these with the smooth, bland surface of the avenue and the boulevard – did they not understand what secrets they destroyed?
So reflecting, he paused to murmur his annoyance aloud to himself, under a flickering lamp, and his gaze wandered idly toward the countenance of the house by the side of the road where he had stopped. It was unillumined except for one ground floor room, whose peeling green shutters tilted open and awry.
The window was also uncurtained and Thessarion could not help himself from glancing in. Two figures moved – graceful, slender shadows, like enspirited darkness. he moved out of the cast of the lantern and into the dimness beyond. There was a brittle silence which was sharpened by the guttering of the gaslight. Then there came from the room the sweet, strong, soaring
sound of a woman’s voice, pouring out a song that was at once a lament and a defiance. The lyric was in no tongue that Thessarion recognised, but he did not need to understand the words to hear the sense of them. They reached high in sorrow and then descended to long, controlled lines of passion contained, wrung through. The song seemed to echo in the murky street like a peal of church bells, and he felt that it ought to bring people scurrying
out to see what was being proclaimed; but he remained the sole interloper.
For how many moments he stood in the gloom, like a wild animal hiding furtively from some strange great predator it did not know. But when the last, long, waning note had died, Thessarion found that he could not move. It was not that he expected any further sound to emanate from the room; it was simply that he was enraptured. The spell was only broken, after a few moments, by the grating of a sash window, judderingly raised. A woman,
her hair tied up, thrust her head out of the aperture and stared straight at him.
“You can go now, Mr Spy,” she said, with a taunt in her tone.
“There will be nothing more to report.”
Thessarion stepped quickly forward into the light. “I am not a spy. But I must know more about that voice, that music.”
She hesitated. “Then who are you?”
“I am a writer, a chronicler of the old Quarter. I walk its ways waiting for encounters with the beautiful and strange.”
“Oh? Then here, as you have heard, you have found what you are looking for. You are perhaps too poetic to be a spy. I shouldn’t trust you, but I will. Come in.”
He found the two women seated at a table covered in white lace. Starkly against this there were scattered many black shards, like pools of dark blood. They were staring at them, and placing pale fingers delicately upon them. The writer bent to look at them. They were the shattered remains of gramophone records. A few bore the shreds of coloured emblems, their labels, and he
craned forward to read them. He saw SEFARD, ROMA, V, MIRIAM, ORDOVA.
He stared more frankly at the younger of the two women. She had a long, white face with pointed features and very pale blue eyes, and her dark hair hung in straight strands which stopped, poised in a slight frail upward tilt, around her chin. There was a melancholy beauty to her, which was accentuated by the sadness with which she now handled the fragments of the records. he reached forward tentatively towards her, but halted before their hands could meet. She held up one of the dark splinters to the light, where it seemed to emanate black rays, like glints from a great abyss. They all watched as she held the piece carefully in her white fingers, as if it were a curious gem.
“They do not want me in thiscity,” she said, quietly, “and this is how they show me that. each day new fragments arrive. They confiscate my records, break them and send them here. My song will not be heard to sing in their city.”
Her companion stirred, and, standing by her, briefly stroked her hair. “They cannot still your voice, Miriam,” she said, “and there will still be many who want to hear it.”
“What was that music?” abruptly demanded Thessarion.
The singer’s pale eyes gazed steadily at him. “It is medieval,” she said, “from the courts of Cordova. My mother’s people made these songs. a sort of troubadour tradition, a sighing for the unattainable. Then, when they were expelled, centuries ago, they came to Salonika and added the sadness of exile to their songs. From there, to here, and a new spirit entered the music. At first,
we were welcomed...”
“And in all the cafes applauded and adored,” put in her companion, “they all wanted to hear the voice of Miriam V. She was fêted...”
“Certainly, fated,” the singer said, with a quiet smile. “How soon they change.”
They fell silent. Thessarion’s fingers found a triangular black shard and felt the fine dark whorls scriven upon it, as if tracing an intricate inscription. “May I?” he asked. She nodded, and he placed the piece reverently in his pocket-book.
A Wanderer in the Dark
Thessarion awoke with the song of Miriam still resonant in his mind, and wrote a few fragmentary sentences about what he had heard. he looked at them wanly. Then he gazed out upon the courtyard of S. Melchior below. To his surprise – he was an early riser – a figure could be seen flickering in the dusty glass of the day. It moved from the walnut tree in one corner to the dark flame of the cypress in the centre, then retraced its steps. The scribbler put on hiscoat and made his way softly down the bare-walled back stairs, with their yellow distemper. Thrusting his hands into hiscoat pocket, to check his pen and pocketbook were there, he found an unfamiliar object, and brought it out into the dim glimmer on the stairs. Then he muttered to himself. It was
a chess piece, the black rook. It was a token, perhaps, of the Master’s going: he must have secreted it there when they had met.
He let himself out of a thick, riddled door, stiff on its hinges, and headed to a little blue wicket gate, which linked the house with the high-walled garden kept by the church. Here he paused. The figure, dim from the distance of his room, resolved itself from this vantage into the form of a man in the dark robes of a priest, though none he had seen before. He had a narrow face,
accentuated by a sharp silver beard and black eyebrows, but the eyes were wide – almost lozenge-shaped, and frank. The writer opened the gate and stepped gently inside. hiscompanion in the garden watched him approach and then made a gesture which might be in blessing or in welcome; and Thessarion bowed his head briefly, as it might be in acknowledgement, or in obeisance.
The priest beckoned him to a wooden bench and they sat in silence together, contemplating the quiet enclave.
“They are seeking me,” the figure said. “So, I may only see the sky and feel the sun in secret, in these little cloisters where I am not easily seen. My friends warned me, however, that you might notice me, no matter how young the dawn; but you, they said, will keep the seal.”
Without knowing anything of the man, Thessarion knew nonetheless that he was on his side. “Certainly,” he replied. It would be the little brotherhood of S. Melchior who were hiding this gaunt-faced guest; they must know their purpose.
“Why are they after you?”
The figure shrugged, and his beard jutted.
“Because I go amongst those they would harrow, and bring them what succour I can.” Then he abruptly changed the subject.
“You are a historian, they tell me?”
A historian? Thessarion had never thought of himself in that way. He was a sketch writer, that was all, a collector of curios. But he did not like wholly to differ; something in the figure next to him seemed to call from him a careful courtesy.
So he said: “Yes, perhaps that is what I am. I like to record stories. Before they are lost.”
The priest tilted his long face up to the sky, already bright as lapis-lazuli. The light delineated the striations in his taut amber skin.
“Brother Felix, who has hidden me well, and been so hospitable, knows only that I am a man of the church under a special protection, and in a certain peril. That is good. If he is questioned, he can in all faith say he knows no more. Nor would I put any other holy man under any such difficulty.”
“Whereas, as an unholy man, I...?” Thessarion enquired mildly.
He was torn between pique at the implication and curiosity about this strange guest.
The dark man held up his left hand in deprecation. His right went to a tarnished silver cross around his neck, so bent and encrusted with black rime that Thessarion guessed it must be very ancient. Despite the coat of darkness upon it, the piece glinted in the sunlight as the priest’s fingers touched it. And
Thessarion observed an unusual embellishment upon it, for from the meeting point of the arms there emanated a host of fine, needle-slender rays.
“Say, rather, as a man of courage and resource,” his companion corrected him. “I too move among the shunned of this world, and I hope I understand the task you have taken upon yourself. When the fraternity told me of you, I said to myself that a fellow – spirit – had been sent to me.”
Thessarion sighed. It was gentle and silent in the garden and the warmth had raised already the scents of the evergreen trees and the herbs the brothers grew. He caught tinges of rosemary, lavender, angelica, rue. They laced the air with a high keenness. He inclined his head and drew in a great breath, as if to appreciate this better. The priest took this as a sign to continue.
“The story I have to tell,” he began, “is simply related, and it is of an old legend. Many years ago, a prophet, a man of the country, brought to a vast, rich empire a message of the light. at first, only his own family heard him, but as he wandered and preached, there soon came others. he brought a simple clarity with him, the plainest of words and yet with the most profound
of meanings. his message was not popular, however, with the old order, and he was persecuted.”
“I think I know this story, father,” interjected Thessarion, who had listened bemused.
“Yes. But it is not the one you think. In this case, the prophet persuaded even the most high to accept his message, and it soon swept through the great empire where he had been born. Then, one day, as he prayed before a lamp in a bare cell, one with a heart envenomed crept up behind him, and stabbed him many times. The prophet did not seek to resist. he wore a rosary and, as he succumbed, he took this from his neck and placed it around his assassin. The lamp flared in its stone niche, filling the cell with a great light. What his followers thought they saw, through the narrow door of the cell and into this light of white flame, was the form of the prophet and he who had brought his passion to him, dissolving – perhaps, as they said, ascending.”
“And the followers,” Thessarion added, “went on to bring fire and the sword to the rest of the world, as far as they could reach.”
The priest’s lined face grew grave, each line a groove of sorrow.
“It was so. Men did notchange. Yet –,” here he hesitated, while moments passed in the garden, where the old rare scent of the cypress sent out its emanations and the healing herbs exuded their sweet or bitter fragrances.
“Yet – the prophet left behind a promise.”
“They generally do,” said Thessarion shortly, “of return?”
“Not of return. a promise that his spirit had not deserted the earth.”
The older man’s fingers went, without his own volition, to the tarnished cross with its delicate filigree of silver rays. Then he drew from the pocket of his black gown a wooden box, small enough for him to rest in the palm of his hand. he raised the lid and, half-closing his eyes against the hardening sunlight,
Thessarion looked at what lay within. Upon a sarsenet of purple velvet, there rested a black orb. The priest brought it out, with a certain silent ceremony , for his companion to see. It was for all the world, Thessarion thought, like a child’s marble, pitted and scriven through long years of rolling in the gutters and grit of the street, at play against brighter rivals. But still it kept a dark gleam, and the writer glimpsed faint whorls within it.
“A bead of jasper?” he asked.
The priest nodded.
“A bead of jasper: from the Rosary of Zoroaster.”
In a gentle, measured gesture, he took Thessarion’s hands in his and held them while he murmured quietly. When he took his hands away, the bead, as Thessarion knew it would be, was within his own cupped palms. he held it there without looking at it.
The priest stood up, a sudden shadow of a flame, like the cypress.
“And you, sir?” asked Thessarion, “Who are you?”
The tall figure let a gradual smile write itself upon the worn parchment of his face.
“A hoaxer, you wonder, my friend? No. Let us have a short history lesson. Heathen that you are, even you will remember the five ancient Patriarchates of the Empire.”
Still holding the sacred bauble he had been given, Thessarion frowned. “Um, Constantinople. Rome. Jerusalem.” He hesitated.
“Alexandria. Ah – Carthage?”
His teacher’s smile grew slightly broader. “Not Carthage.”
Thessarion felt he had made a strange descent. First in the garden he had become the bearer, if the priest were to be believed, and if indeed he were a priest, of a most holy relic. And now he was a child repeating, or, rather, not repeating, his lessons. That was it. a child with a marble. His mind roamed over a few other imperial cities and alighted upon the one he sought. “Antioch.”
“Antioch. Well, it does not matter. There were never only five anyway. There have always been seven. The bead you hold in your hands was entrusted to me by the sixth. The Patriarch of all Persia, the Metropolitan of Ctesiphon.”
Michael Thessarion found he wanted to know very much more, but the priest had already begun to make his way to the arched side-door into the church.
“But you still have not told me who you are...” he called.
The figure in the black robes turned, and the blackened silver rays of his pectoral cross glimmered in the growing sun.
“I am the seventh. The Patriarch of the Lost. Just a wanderer in the darkness, like you.”
“It is perfectly impossible,” the aesthete who called himself simply “Hermes” had complained to Thessarion, when they met outside the Astarte later that day. “I simply must have some for my parlour, but do you know there is not a single peacock feather to be had in this city? Not one. I have tried the curio shops, hatters, theatrical costumiers, even the botanical garden. I am utterly bereft. Bereft! How am I to meditate upon that beautiful, melancholy, painted bird without even a plume to gaze upon? Eh? Now, you old snooper, you, I know your games – see if you can’t sort out that little mystery. And if not, try this one. They are turning up all over in the old quarter.” This last remark was
uttered in a conspiratorial whisper.
Thessarion looked quickly at the letterhead that Hermes passed over, then raised his gaze again to question the old dandy, but he had sashayed away down the street without waiting for a reply. Another who would not perhaps be left alone for long in the new regime, he reflected. Then he examined the sheet of paper again, and frowned. He saw another search in front of him.
Though acquainted with the many streets, corners, byways and dead ends of the town, it proved to be no easy task for Thessarion to find the place. for hours he had been roaming the ancient quarters, with their Phanariot houses, labyrinthine alleys, elegantly absurd streets and luminous birch gardens, in search of a lead. Soon he had to accept that if he ever did find it, this would
be out of mere chance. he drew from his pocket the small piece of vidalon paper and began examining it once again. There was no exact address. Instead he read the familiar thick black letters: “dada electricity”. Down on the left corner, a sort of signature, in various tonalities of red, written in a firm hand: “the infra-noir”. He recognized the style and the modus operandi of those last practitioners, or rather survivors, of a once tenacious and terrible art. Whatever happened to them? No one knew and certainly no one dared to ask. Isolated by their disinterestedness, by their haughty refusals of alliances and sinecures, they had not been slow to make themselves hated of all. for a decade they had been persecuted in this town and for more than a decade they
have done everything in order to be persecuted. Did they finally choose the easy way of the exile? No, thought Thessarion, surely they were not so naïve to think that in Paris or in Zurich the triumph would come cheaper. And of course, there was their fiery pride to be taken into consideration. He flipped the letter-head in his fingers, thoughtfully. There was certainly an indication there, but what? He decided to continue his walk.
It was about midday, when weary and despondent, he found himself lost at yet another dead end. He stopped at once, cursing his foolishness.
The street resembled a forever wide-open atlas. But then again, all the streets of this town were like atlases for those who know where to search. A few old houses twisted like cockles, edged with white at the corners and at the window-frames, were concealed by large bushes of blue and violet rhododendrons. Under the bright spindles of the sun, their windows shone not
unlike the waves of a sea, with a secret transparency which, in turn, was lent to the pavement and the fluttering leaves. Two piebald cats were chasing each other through the luxuriant gardens, while the soft voices of the moneylenders and of the mongers from the hay Market nearby blended with the inter-
mittent sizzles of the grasshoppers. Somewhere, not far away, a military band was playing dream music.
There was nothing to be seen here. Dabbing the glow on his face, he turned back, looking around for the way out from this cul-de-sac.
Then, there was a flickering in the air, as of the splitting of atoms in the fabric of the light, followed by a slow darkening of the sun, like a trickle of oil. He smiled, contented. He would return here later that night.
It still took Thessarion many minutes and turnings to remember the route to the old clopotari Street. as in a fregoli show, during which the actor changes his costumes with an astonishing briskness, the quarter seemed to have restyled its geometry according to laws unknown. And yet, the great silver dome of Barasheum, the Jewish Theatre, in the distance assured him he was indeed in the right place. He remained still for an instant, forcing his eyes to see through the opaline darkness.
“Thessarion?” a mellow voice called.
A tall, gangly young man with dark hair and expressive green eyes stepped toward him. An extra long cigarette was burning in his delicate white hand, the strong raw smoke intoxicating the night air.
He murmured softly in response.
“So you found us. You better come in,” he spat the words, throwing down the butt of the cigarette and stamping on it viciously.
He followed the young man in silence.
It was a small courtyard, enclosed by yellow brick walls and overgrownwith vine-leavesto a considerable height. Ripe carmine grapes hung down on it, strong wooden posts supported the living roof. An olive-eyed man with a remarkably thin moustache and dressed in a black shirt was seated on a wicker chair, deep in thought, as a missionary among savages. a gas lamp was placed before him.
He approached the man, bowing his head reverentially. For an instant their eyes met and Thessarion was startled. On the visages of those who taste from the fire of life one can see instilled marks that resemble burns. especially on
the cheeks, there are marks in which it seems that gunpowder is threatening to explode. The eyes had something of the look of the beast who has to jump through circles of fire.
“Why don’t you take a seat, scribe?”
While pulling up a chair, Thessarion saw the few odd objects strewn on the heavy table. An iron presser, a monocle, a comb with missing teeth, a curiously distorted crystal mirror, a bicycle wheel, a piece of torn and worn paper, and a concave porcelain plate in the middle of which was placed the photograph of a woman.
Observing his confusion, the younger man nodded vigorously to him, the shadow of a smile sparking in the corner of his mouth.
“I see you are wondering...” the elder of the two began.
“Well”, interrupted Thessarion, “I know you must be Leon Lichtblau. The last of the poets of the Dada group, they say.”
“Quite so, quite so,” responded Lichtblau, unimpressed.
Then gesturing toward the strange utensils, he asked:
“But these – these, do you know what they are?”
Thessarion shook his head, uncertain whether to make a blind guess or keep silent. He chose the latter.
A choked laugh escaped the poet.
“Well, isn’t it incredible that an immortal and incommunicable rite is happening under the very eyes of the citizens of this town and yet, they don’t know anything? Typical bourgeois cosiness.”
Once again Thessarion remained silent.
With a mocking fling, the young man bent and gently kissed the photography, like a hunter blessing his shooting prey after a long and tiring day.
“Oh yes, keep that in mind, scribe. It was victor who had the brilliant idea to gather the last objects our dear Samyro – or Tristan, if you prefer – touched before his final death in the apartment in Paris and then bring them here, to this city he despised and loved. A way out of the great drama which separates
the dream from the dreamer and the poet from the poetry was thus found. Suddenly, the possibilities become infinite.”
“The last phoem of Tzara,” confirmed the young man, passing his thin fingers over the objects, as over some holy remains.
“And – the electricity?”
The embarrassed expression on Lichtblau’s face was hardly needed to make Thessarion perceive that he had somehow insulted the poet.
“So, what are you asking us is – are we indeed working with electricity or is this just a capricious fancy, a publicity stunt?”
The two men exchanged a quick look of defiant conspiracy.
“Friend,” exclaimed Victor, shaking his head in resignation, “we are not oracles nor sages. What do we know about science?”
This, with a scowl at the word.
“That’s not what I implied, gentlemen...” said Thessarion, but his phrase was cut in the middle.
There was a stark silence in the courtyard. The dim light seemed to waken somewhat upon the cluster of objects the old Dadaist had gathered, as if each had an inward lustre. Lichtblau stretched and took the scrap of paper from the table. Holding a hand before his eyes in a theatrical posture, he began to recite in a cracking voice what Thessarion knew to be one of the lost pastoral poems of the great Dada founder:
The evening stamps signs on the lighthouse
over the vague bugles of water
when fishermen return with stars on their arms
and ships and planets pass by.
Nothing happened for several moments. The two men were now still like soldiers in a trench, their martial faces outlined by a sort of diffuse black gleam, like a distilled essence of ink. All at once then, lightning gently stroked the sky above the quarter, illuminating everything with an albino light. Everything began to sparkle that could sparkle: the rooftops, the spires, and the many domes.
“Language converted into electricity,” muttered Thessarion.
“You keep calling it by that name with such an easy self-confidence,” said Lichtblau slightly amused, while carefully placing the artefact back on the table. “So be it, but let me tell you – it is nothing like that. Merely revelation. That and the heat redolent of the scent of memories.”
With a sarcastic smile around his compressed lips, which at the same time drew down at the corners in a bitter disdain, he said:
“Our art, our poetry, our own life is ended in this city. Our books are confiscated; our actions are taxed as obscene; our faces are those of the state criminals. The question remains – do you think we ever complained because of this treatment? Hardly so, my dear scribe.” A pause, a sigh and he continued –
“Everything considered, what choice did we have? When they took our papers and broke our pens, we knew the need for an improved vision was imperious. A vision which should not depend on petty literary cloaca, political parties and so on. At first we had no idea it could work. Then, however, we understood
that all we needed were the right objects and the right words. Everything else came from itself. Poetry, prophecy and light. Since then, every day, here in this abandoned courtyard, we pay homage to our friends and to our lovers in the only manner we can. We must make sure their spirit will live on.”
“I see...” said Thessarion.
“No. You don’t,” retorted the poet. “If you understood, you would have asked us: ‘With such power as yours... if a war broke out tonight and all the lights from this city went out in a blink, what would you do? How will you help this saddened city free itself from its fear and anguish?"
He stopped, waiting for an answer but Thessarion knew better.
“You don’t ask, because you fear our answer...”
After what seemed like many moments of thinking and hesitation, Lichtblau took the paper from the table and handed it to Thessarion, who slowly unfolded it. he recognised at once the handwriting in black ink of the lost Dada poet of the city. He was being given a very rare early manuscript. Not only as a literary collector, he stared with a quiet awe at the relic. The letters
gleamed as if their darkness was coated with a curious light.
“We know why you came here in the first place,” Lichtblau said with a wink of an eye. “Even if you do not, exactly. So let this be our gift to Thessarion, the scribe who met the last Dada and lived to tell the tale.”
The Heart of the White Ambassador
As always, the street came into shape only when Michael Thessarion drew close to it, as if the apartment of the old diplomat was the source of light which brought it from a misty substance, almost invisible to the eyes unused to the many colours of dawn in this town. Between the sombre violet of the trees, the yellow back-drop of the old houses and the bright coloured doors of the closed shops, there was a curious lustre. Although autumn was already encroaching, he could still taste the perfume of cypresses, maples and the last roses in the brisk air, reminding him politely that, irrespective of the season, he was
still at the gates of the Orient. The street was deserted. Not even the security patrols, silent, solemn, armed with bayonets and pistols, and seemingly everywhere in the city, were to be found here. The only bloom of lightcame from the decaying apartment of his aristocratic friend.
With measured steps, he followed the narrow brick and stone path to the small two-storied building. he turned around to see that he was not followed, then climbed the six lichen-eaten steps and entered.
Precious memories of long nocturnal parties, cosmopolite soirées, literary cénacles and sleepy games ofcards in the orchid-hued rooms, and on the marble balcony of the Imperial russian Legation passed before his tired eyes, deceptive and meddling. Those times were gone. The house and the rooms, demolished. The actors of those nights, in definitive exiles.
He stopped before a patterned, fissured wooden door, waiting.
Soundlessly, the door opened wide and the emaciated figure of Koziell appeared in the threshold, waking him from his nostalgias:
“Quick, come in.”
Guided by the sparks from his friend’s porte-cigarette, he followed the man through the dimly lit hall, with pockmarked walls masked by large portraits of obscure consuls and forgotten Tsars, old loves, relatives from faraway, and stocked shelves with books written in the host’s native language.
It was only when the switch was turned on and the olive light flooded the small room they entered, that Thessarion saw the livid bruise that was not quite concealed by the white silk hand-kerchief the old diplomat was wearing on his right hand. He could not hide his anger. For many days now, since the arrival of the new ambassador, shadowy agents of the new power from Moscow had been trying to shatter the mind and heart of the old Tsarist emissary, in order to make him renounce his royalism at his public appearances and discredit him in front of his few loyal friends. When these gentlemen of the Steppes confessed to him one day, through their nasal “listen to me, my friend” manner of discussion, that they wanted a peace to be negotiated with all speed, the ambassador astonished everyone with the audacity of his advanced views: “Peace? now, my dearest! That would ruin
things for everybody.” Thus ended their parlance. Soon, however, it became obvious that in spite of their snobbish hierarchy, the sham lack ofculture and the raw hunger for social ranks, they were not what you would call naïve. They
were aware that not in medals was the strength of this man, vain of his handsome loyal face, of his careful manners, of fancy uniforms, and of the bank deposit. It was his staunch faith they feared. And so, more than anything else, it was his past they were looking to deaden, to make forgotten.
“Why do you accept all this?” asked Thessarion bitterly.
The ambassador raised his clear blue eyes to him, Neva eyes, as Queen Maria herself used to call them, making a soft gesture of desertion.
“They are always very discreet,” he faltered, nodding to his visitor or perhaps to someone else. “I am not complaining.”
It was not an answer but rather an acceptance. Slowly, with the lame trembling fingers of his bruised hand, as if to prove there was nothing to worry about, he raised the familiar long-neck glass from the ramshackle iron desk, urging his guest to take up his too.
There was still time for this after all. Bear hunting was the name of the liquor. a solution made of honey and alcohol, the ambassador brought from his youthful trips to eastern Prussia. The hunters of those lands, he told Thessarion, used to leave silvery pots of it at the outskirts of the forests, to allure the bears. Thus, the honey stirred the beast from his lair, while the alcohol was meant to stun him. He sometimes joked that if the enemies
from his own country ever tried to affront his masters, and drive him away from this town, this liquor would be a handy weapon.
For a time, the two men remained still, sipping silently the curious drink.
There was no toast, for they both knew well the sorrowful significance of their reunion. Ten months ago, on a September evening like this, Thessarion witnessed together with his foreign protégée the evacuation of the Imperial diplomatic corps from their centuries’ old home in this town. The great symbol of the holy kingdom from the East, incrusted in silver on each of the gates, crumbled before their eyes, letting behind a thin wave of dust and powder which almost choked to death those connoisseurs of ruins who dared defy the kingly double-eagled effigy. It was in this fashion that the last outpost of Tsarist power passed into history. What centuries could not undo, was carried out with a few strikes of chisel and hammer.
The old courtier shed no tears that day. Not for the ruins of his house where he had lived for a decade and a half, nor for the magnificent furnishings and his fastidious lifestyle, nor for the memories. It was as if none of these things ever mattered to him.
“Answer me, please,” pressed Thessarion. “How can you be sure next time things will not turn worse? Now they have started on you, they will surely not stop at that.”
The ambassador was silent. Stroking his trimmed pale moustache absently, he drew close to the window. He lifted the corner of the muslin curtain and glanced into the dark alley.
Through the fading rumbles and the murmurs of the city, he seemed to be listening to the steps on the pavement or maybe to the howls of the stray dogs, as if trying to decipher some secret meaning in their lament. For a moment, the room was lighted by the huge flash of a solitary tram, shaping his profile like the puppets in one of those masques one can find in the old villages
of the winegrowers. It was not their mimicry that was disquieting, but rather the immobility of their wooden visages, painted in brown, sallow colours.
It was hard to imagine that this was the man described once by great lords and gentlemen from all over Europe as the most prolific present-giver the world of the old regime had ever seen. He recalled the times when he would arrive at country house parties loaded with things from faberge and Pallady: two large
suitcases filled with them. how the ladies of the party scanned the list of visitors with eagerness to see if his name was included, how the men were jostling to shake his hand. But that was history, because now –
“Everywhere I go they are switching out the lights,” came the belated response, less than a whisper.
Thessarion looked at the diplomat, and then looked at a small rectangular envelope, covered with stamps in many shades of blue.
“Do you know what this is?”
The host stepped forward from the window, holding the piece of yellow paper under the emasculated flickering light.
“Of course,” he remarked, slightly amused. “It is a letter from our english friends from the Danube commissions. The second I have received in the last week, thanks to a certain... mmm, confidential agent-courier. This time, a free passport to Nice.”
He paused, his eyes gaily behind the tapestry of wrinkles.
Then, with the air of someone revealing a great secret to a friend:
“All I have to do is take that old yacht from Galatzi and – I will be free.”
But Thessarion knew it would not be so easy. He remembered the zeal of Prince Bibesco, that wily and bohemian rake, to put at his disposition his own private airplane, even offering to fly him to safety, no matter the destination, up to the north Pole and back, if that had been the wish. He counted all the diplomatic missives, and all the pleas through which the diplomat’s friends
attempted to come to his aid, all the money raised, and the promises for arranged fake documents to be used in an escape from this city, but he soon lost count. And he knew the old man would always decline all the kind, compassionate, helping hands, to the bemusement of everyone.
“You will not consider accepting their offer, I take it?” he asked hesitantly.
The diplomat shook his head slowly.
“How could I ever do that, my dear accomplice?” a pause, indicating he was unwilling to go into the matter in greater detail.
He threw the letter on the desk, and with a sigh he let himself fall on the chair.
It came then to Thessarion that he had never actually asked the venerable socialite the reason why he would not leave this city.
“Why not, excellency?”
The man smiled at the title, yet favoured him with a rather melancholic look, surprised by such an obvious question. There was an appreciable pause. at last he said:
“Sometimes I see myself riding on a train with windows darkened with red paint. At some small station in a village near Budapest, the train halts, there is the sound of hobnailed boots, the beam of a flashlight falls on my face, and the words I hear: ‘Get out,coward! The line ends here!’ ...that and nothing more.”
No, it was not that, thought Thessarion, not cowardice.
The diplomat sensed it was a poor attempt, his eyes smirking in the shadows.
“You do not believe that is why I will not leave this town?”
“No,” responded Thessarion, adjusting his glasses with a nervous gesture.
“My friend,” continued the man, with a seeming calm, “in this city there existed for fifteen years a house that was the last redoubt of eternal Russia: my embassy. It was, and it remained, sovereign Imperial territory. True, it has now been taken from me by bandits, in league with opportunists in the government. But things may change again. They may change here; they may
change there. Am I to desert my post, the man who holds the last sacred office of a great and holy empire? Hardly, my dear colleague, hardly so.”
Nothing was said for many moments then.
It was time for Thessarion to leave.
“Wait...,” called his friend, rising from his chair. He walked a few steps to the corner of the room and kneeled. Murmuring words in the language of his fathers, he ran his fingers over the wooden parquet, in search of something. Delicately then, as if opening a lock with a complicated key, he pulled a tile, drawing a small object from the secret niche below.
“This might be in better hands with you. Take it and keep it safe,” he said with an almost servile pathos in his voice. “After all, you might be right. What if my days are counted in this city? What if I am, as you say, too blind to see the future they are preparing for me?”
Unable to utter aword, Thessarion took the gift from the trembling hands. a phial of black crystal shaped like a human heart. From each angle, as the writer tilted the ornate glass, gentle rays glimmered, like the debris in a swallow’s nest.
“The Tears of Saint Theognostus,” explained the White ambassador, the sound of his voice fading like an echo. “Smuggled out of holy Russia and brought here to safety. The most secret and most sacred of all the anointing oils, Thessarion. Without it, no Tsar can be properly consecrated. Without it, there will never be a return... home.”
At the Chateau Noir
After what he knew had been meted out to the old ambassador, Thessarion understood that time was running out for him to find all the mortal and immortal secrets of the old quarter, before they were extinguished. He spent several nights searching in the casinos, gambling dens and cabarets with concealed tables for the young man described to him by the Master of Zatrikon, in each making casual enquiries. There were very many such places in the city and he despaired of visiting them all; nor could he even be sure that these would be where he was to be found. he had found one clue only: a young woman had nodded quickly so that the delicate green aigrette she wore had seemed in danger of flying away: she said he was called Altarnun. But that was all.
By the end of the week he was growing weary of his task and wondering why he had allowed it to distract him from his gentler roamings in the forgotten quarters. Yet one night, the remarks of a drunken official made him see where he had gone wrong.
"A backgammon aficionado, you say? Looking for the luckiest throw. That’s a laugh, aren’t we all? Young, dark eyes, dark hair. Perhaps foreign? Mmmm, haven’t seen him here.”
“This is all tame stuff,” you know, he went on, as if changing the subject. “The turn of a card, the spin of a wheel: so what. Do you know, my friend...” – he wagged a cigarette in a long, engraved silver holder at him, and the writer lit it – “where the best and the most thrilling and the most lucrative wagers are
Thessarion thought he was to be told of yet another secret casino. To appear as one in the know, he reeled off a few he had already heard about. “The Dodo? The Blindfold? Malmaison? The Humidor? The Statistical Society?” The last, though the driest-named, was – he had been told – distinctly the rarest, and
he had not yet found it or gained admittance. His chance acquaintance nodded vigorously.
“All good, all good. I can see you know your way around. But not, my friend,
not those. I tell you, the best bets are to be had in our prisons. Try the Chateau Noir especially. The Deputy governor is an old associate of mine. give him my card.”
Thessarion nodded, took the card and glanced at it. Then he had to stop himself smiling. It read “Le comte de Monte Cristo”.
The official favoured him, however, with a smirk of complicity.
“Ah, you did not know I was an aristocrat, eh? Very few would guess it.” The journalist admitted he would not have guessed it, adding, “And such a distinguished title.” They both laughed, insincerely.
As he walked home, he felt again in his coat pocket the chess piece that the Master had given him. So he had known too – or predicted.
The chateau noir was situated in the northern quarter of the city and few visited it of their own volition. His cab driver would only drop him some streets away. Considering its reputation, the building itself was reticent. Behind the shade of plane and lime trees, it stood stolidly, its soot-blackened granite perhaps sufficient reason for its colloquial name, perhaps not. It was for all the world, with its discreet brass plaque and handrails, its varnished swing doors, and its marble entrance hall, like a respectable family bank, or the office of a prosperous import and export company. Which, in a way, it was: although it dealt, so it was generally understood, very rarely with exports.
Thessarion handed the “count’s” business card in a sealed envelope addressed to the Deputy governor, to an official who patrolled the vestibule. Then he sat down to wait. a pall of muffled sound hung over the building. It was not silence, exactly. There was an undertow of murmuring, of creaking, of doors
softly closing, of iron scraping, of quick footfalls. The functionary returned and stood by Thessarion without a word. reluctantly, he got to his feet and followed.
The Deputy governor’s office maintained the aura of trust-worthy commerce that the exterior of the “chateau” had suggested. The dominant notes were of old leather, polished wood, ordered papers and dull portraits in thick gilt frames. One, of an aged but still alert and trim gentleman, was introduced to him as the governor, so that Thessarion almost thought he should bow and
murmur a respectful greeting, as if he were actually present.
“Purely titular, of course,” said his Deputy. “We have the honour of a visit perhaps once a year, otherwise the general has much to occupy him in his carpathian estates.”
Thessarion understood. The Deputy took a seat and beckoned his guest to another. his fair hair had a straight furrow down the middle and fell in sleek folds from there, and he sported a drooping yellow moustache. His black clothes were slightly too big for a thin frame. His eyes were a very pale blue, so pale that they seemed to fade into the white, leaving only a pinprick of black
to suggest any gleam of vigour. A furled, scarlet rosebud clung to the lapel of his jacket. Wafts of sandalwood emanated from his flesh, in subtle currents.
“I do not think you have visited us before?”
Thessarion admitted he hadn’t.
“A shame. We welcome visitors. We are very modern here and have much to show.” The remark was accompanied by a sad smile.
“But perhaps you have friends who have been here?”
“I think I may. a young man, a gambler. Searching for a certain change in the ordering of the world.”
“We never have any shortage of such young men in here.”
“A M. Altarnun?”
The Deputy governor shrugged, or at least his coat moved loosely.
“So you know my friend, the – ah, Comte?”
“What a gambler the man is! how he loves the wheel.”
“Yes. Yet he suggested you knew a better game.”
An incline of the head.
“That’s his little jest, no doubt. I once confided in him, you know. I don’t mind telling you, too.”
There was a silence broken only by the gentle measure of a gold carriage clock with a glinting white face. The Deputy governor looked at it.
“Mine is an office with great responsibility. The orders I receive from on high, for example, are often inscrutable.” He paused at this word, as if he enjoyed it.
“Inscrutable. I myself never know who will be released, pardoned, condemned or reprieved. I sometimes say to my secretary – I’ll bet that guest won’t be leaving us. and he will say – just in jest, you know – oh yes, how much? Well, I’ll say – we’ve seen the charge sheet – I should think two or three hundred to one. And so he will say, my secretary, you’re on. It may seem a little macabre to you, I’m sorry if so. But in a place such as this, with such responsibility, carrying out such orders as arrive here every day, inscrutably you see...?”
Thessarion murmured to show he saw.
“Well, as I was saying. My secretary keeps a little imaginary ‘book’ of our ‘bets’. Of course, so few guests ever do leave us, that, even with my generous odds, I am still well ahead in the game. Yet, as he says to me, it will only take a real outsider to come up, and I’m a ruined man. figuratively speaking, of course.”
“What a fascinating game,” conceded Thessarion. “I entirely understand why you do it. I wonder. could someone – a friend of the count’s – perhaps join in, Just once? To try a bet that was a bit different. For amusement, you know?”
The Deputy governor’s narrow black inner eyes seemed to glisten.
“I don’t see there would be any harm in that, strictly between us.”
“And your secretary.”
“And my secretary.”
“Well, I would value your advice. Supposing I were to suggest a bet to him on a young man like the one I mentioned. What odds should I offer?”
His host drummed his fingers on the desk. Then he stretched – or at any rate, his clothes reached outwards – and Thessarion heard a deep sputtering intake of breath.
“Such guests are often very reckless. I think you would have to offer generous odds just on a reprieve. on the chances of a release –”
He scribbled a number containing many zeros and showed it to Thessarion.
There was a long pause.
“Those who bet on horses sometimes like to see the flesh,” remarked Thessarion.
“Yes. It can be arranged.”
It was a very long walk back to his home, but Thessarion needed to think. He had been allowed five minutes, no more, in the company of this strange M. altarnun, and had not dared to suggest, in his demeanour or his questions, that he came with any hope. The young man had a face of the strangest olive-green hue, so that you could not exactly guess his origin, and black hair
with the colour and clarity of old trees in winter. He had stared at Thessarion, then glanced towards the guard. Thessarion turned and offered the slouching figure a cigarette. The guard looked around quickly, then withdrew the taper, with its tightly furled wad. He nodded, and slowly turned his back. The boy had reached across the table. Now Thessarion withdrew from his pocket for the umpteenth time the gift he had passed. He stopped and held it up to the
failing light. A faint glimmer played from its facets. A black die.
The Statistical Society was somewhat unlike any other learned body, for it had its rooms in an 18th century palazzo, modelled after the venetian fashion. The name was a solemn jest, for its members had an interest only in the interplay of high numbers. There were no tables, there was no bank; and there was never anything so vulgar as a wager here: instead, there was private
research, into probability and chance. Assiduous in this academic toil was the Baron de kruyp and he was, unlike Thessarion’s friend the count, genuine: a flemish courtier, and a great collector who had, it was said, the finest examples of ensor’s art known – indeed, some that were unknown. But what he sought
out more than anything else was relics, for which his agents roamed the world.
Thessarion placed the bead of jasper upon the table. Next to it the Baron delicately dropped a promissory note.
“Five throws?” he said, in his gentle, musical voice, like the rippling of a summer stream.
Thessarion threw the black die. Five.
The Baron adjusted his gold pince-nez. Then he opened his palm and displayed a white bone cube, though it had yellowed with age and wear. Some claimed it was the knuckle of a gnostic saint.
Thessarion threw the dark square again. Three.
Opposite, the sad-eyed lord touched an opal on hiscravat and let the talisman tumble from his fingers. One again.
The third throw for Thessarion. Five. Which made thirteen in total. The Baron looked mildly puzzled. He picked up the white die and rubbed it between thumb and forefinger, then released it. Three, making five in all.
Thessarion thought fleetingly of the young man in the Chateau Noir and cast his die once more. Four.
The Baron de kruyp seemed to have lost interest. Negligently he let his die fall. A six. Too late. Thessarion’s score was seventeen, his own eleven. There was no need to play further. The fifth throw remained uncast.
The flemish connoisseur handed him the note courteously.
“I would offer the same sum again,” he said. “For that black die.”
Thessarion shook his head. The Baron nodded and a melancholy veil drew across his violet eyes.
At the station Thessarion took the young man, who walked with deliberate care, like a cat unsure of its terrain, to the Constanta train. From there, a ticket on a packet-boat around the Black Sea to Trebizond. The boy snuffed the oily stench of the locomotive and the moist white steam appreciatively.
“Altarnun? I shan’t say to you to give up this idea of the antinomy to Zeno. You may, for all I know, be on exactly the right track. You may even be living it, you see?”
The youth nodded.
“But you understand the risks. and what I think is this. If it was a usurper that made that wrong throw, all those centuries ago, then what you need is the true line. See? The heirs of Alexander and Augustus, and Constantine. and who knows where you will find them. But Trebizond, where it all died out –
that’s a good place to start. fare well.”
Altarnun got on board, leant out of the window, and shook his hand. The train drew away to the east.
The Bearer of the Peacock Plumes
With the rescue and departure of Altarnun accomplished, and the memory of what he suspected to be the last sad meeting with the old White ambassador still on his mind, Thessarion felt a sense of hollowness. His mission in the old quarter had brought him all the encounters he could have wished, and yet he felt there was some vital element still missing. and he knew, too, that he
was increasingly on a perilous path, that the warders of the new order, and their watchers, were waiting for his next move.
So when he left his house to pursue his explorations the next day, Thessarion allowed himself to be distracted, and paused at the window of the bookshop opposite. A canopy in faded yellow yawned over half a dozen discarded pomegranate crates which had been unceremoniously filled with a huddle of shunned books that did not earn even the shelter of the shelves inside. Idly,
he flicked through them. The sun warmed his back as he stooped over the titles, and there was a hesitant breeze which riffled the coarse cotton of the awning and some of the pages of the books. He felt a brief moment of quiet contentment in the dusty street, where he had found a sort of belonging. In that brief pause, his fingers found a ragged, dog-eared pamphlet with a flaring vermillion design on its flimsy covers. against the bright red, stark black characters proclaimed – The Fire Dances of the Sanjak of Novi Pazar by Hugh Templeton. He lifted the bright leaf. Inside, the text was small and ill-printed, and in english. He read a little of it slowly, to get the sense of it. A work
of folk-lore. This young englishman had gone exploring among the picturesque inhabitants of the old Ottoman province, and had happened upon a ceremony that intrigued him, which he carefully described, with speculations on its origin. The preface was dated from the city just four years ago – it had not taken long for the book to become unwanted. Thessarion took it inside and
greeted the old bookseller, in his shawl and cap. A small coin changed hands. Then he took the book to the botanical garden and in an obscure corner, in the stillness of the slow heat, began to read:
“Lanterns lit the way to a plateau where a small fire of sweet-scented wood burned. Around this two serpents, one of men and youths, another of women and maidens, coiled in a curious, sinuous, complex, slow dance. A dull soft drum kept the time, but apart from this and the subdued shuffling of the dancers, there was no sound. As they ebbed and flowed around the fire,
it would at moments leap up with an intense blue flame, and the dancers would leap with it. These became more and more frequent until at last the fire itself was a roiling mass of lunging tongues and the people emulated it in a great and gleeful jumping and cavorting... The young and rather resigned orthodox priest, with his mild pale beard, told me these were the midsummer fires for the feast of St John, but we both knew they must have deeper origins.
I looked at him steadily and there seemed even to be a gleam of secret fire in his eyes. We were witnessing, I am sure, traces of ancient Persian fire-worship...”
Thessarion put the book down and shaded his eyes against the sun. In the uncertain light, he glimpsed in the distance a shimmer of pure white, a robed figure. He watched this approach him. The daylight spectre resolved itself into the proud form of an old man with a neat white cylindrical hat, a long, peppery
beard, and an old jacket worn over a brilliant white tunic. But these details did not strike Thessarion first. What he noticed more particularly was that the old man was carrying a great armful of peacock feathers. After he had passed, Thessarion found himself getting stealthily to his feet and quietly following. remembering the words of that jaded old dandy, hermes, he saw a chance to solve the little mystery of the strange dearth of these plumes in the city.
The old man proceeded at a stately pace, intent upon his goal, and oblivious to the remarks and glances of those he passed. He left the park by the elegant wrought iron bridge, and entered the maze of shaded side-streets that tumbled away to the west. Thessarion kept him in sight, but allowed also a respectful
distance, aware of a slight absurdity in his pursuit. His quarry came to a narrow stone house, the colour of cinnamon, on an unpaved byroad, flanked on either side by great gaunt warehouses. He pushed open a white wooden door and entered. The writer strode quickly up and looked at the building.
There was a small, well-polished brass tablet, the letters faded somewhat from frequent burnishing. They read: The Circle of Contemplative Thought.
Thessarion knew that he must enter too. A plain stone staircase led away from the door and he took the steps quietly. At a turn in the stair, there was a niche in the wall, where a little lamp glowed. At the next turn, there was another, but the staircase was otherwise unlit and windowless, and cast in a hushed gloom.
When he reached the top, one broad door faced him, with a stone lintel on which were carved curious characters he could not make out. Cautiously, he took the shining brass handle, twisted it and caused the door to move slowly open. A torrent of white light met his eyes and he blinked. He found himself in a high chamber, with tall windows both in the walls and overhead, in curving panes. It was plainly furnished, with simple wooden chairs in a circle and a few cupboards and tables. The old man sat upon one of these chairs, with his eyes lightly closed and his face bowed. The entire room, in contrast to its austere fittings, was festooned with the plumes of the peacock, hundreds of them, in tall vases and stone urns, displayed on the white walls like a gorgeous fan, or placed singly in slender glass columns, like a quill ready to write imperishable verse. The whole chamber was aglow with iridescent eyes. on a low stone table in the centre of the room, a single flame burned in a carved agate oil lamp. Tentatively, Thessarion drew up a chair in the circle opposite
the old man, closed his eyes and breathed slowly. His thoughts drifted back, like the slow serpentine spirals of an ancient incense, to all those he had met in his recent journeys to the old quarter. The Master of Zatrikon, meditating over his circular chess board, patient; Miriam v, preserving the shunned songs of her people in quiet resistance to those who would suppress them; the Patriarch of the Lost, calmly intent upon his mission despite the ministrations of those who would prevent him; Lichtblau, refusing to compromise his art, and believing in its real power; the ambassador, an emblem of solemn faithfulness; Altarnun, convinced that a great turn in the fortune of the world could still be found. Out of the stillness, their forms seemed to rise before
him like wavering flames. It was as if he was seeing, not simply their personal presence, but some essence of them expressed in a steady, gentle lamp-fire.
carefully, Thessarion took from his jacket or his pocket-book the things that each had given him, and placed them upon the table. The rook; the shard; the bead; the poem; the vial; the dice.
In the bright white light of the room, their sombre starkness shone even more deeply, and he regarded them fixedly, unable to take his stare away from the rays of black brilliance emanating from each. All seemed emptied of time or transience, and he found himself rapt before the profound mystery of the dark light in these simple gifts. At last, he became aware, without looking up, that the old man’s gaze was upon him. his eyes were brown, with the dull
lustre of sunbaked clay.
“Tell me about these,” he said, simply.
And Thessarion related the stories of those he had visited, and the meaning, so far as he could say, of each of the relics they had given him.
The old man listened carefully, then cleared his throat. “You are welcome here. As for myself, I am a servant of Zoroaster, the prophet who brought us the good faith, the most ancient of them all. It lies behind all of the others.” he said this plainly, nodding his head gently, as if it were beyond discussion.
Then he hesitated. “Our book of sayings tells us that we will sometimes witness the working of creative intelligences in the world. They
dwell in us and can be revealed partially orin full...Behind natural
phenomenon, too, they are to be found manifesting themselves in full splendour or in bedimmed glory. They are called the Principles. Sometimes, it is said, they manifest together, in some place where the movement of human minds in a certain moment has made for them a gateway.”
As if in an invocation, closing his eyes and murmuring, the sage of the Persian prophet began to recite. And the light in the room grew stronger still, so that Thessarion found he too must shut off his gaze. Unbidden, as the old man chanted, the faces he had invoked earlier returned one by one to his inner sight:
The Master of Zatrikon moving a piece upon a board. And the old man sang: “Asha, Truth, Order” –
The song of Miriam V echoing on, as the sage sang “Vohun Mana, Conscience”–
The Patriarch of the Lost, walking from the garden – “Aramaiti, Devotion” –
The ambassador, dreaming of the snows of home – “Xathra, Majesty, the Kingdom” –
Lichtblau, the last Dadaist, conjuring lightning – “Sraosha, Intuition” –
The young man, Altarnun, fearless on his quest for the antinomy to Zeno – “Anagoge, Destiny, the Hidden of the Hidden.”
On a bench in the botanical garden, the pages of a book that someone had left behind flapped in the wind, like white flickering flames. It was shadowed for a moment by the flight overhead of a flock of birds, descending towards the lake,their dark wings reaching out. A rare event: the return of the black swans.