Et In Arcadia Ego
The new Covent Garden megalith loomed over the rooftops as Mary’s horse and carriage clattered past.
Claire was right – you could see it from New Oxford Street. The Godwin’s driver, Hendrick, turned and swung the carriage onto the wide arc of the new Charing Cross Avenue. Mary sighed. Lances of sunlight pierced the incandescent clouds to turn the monoliths, towers and church spires to the palest gold, and in the distance loomed the giant mausoleum that marked the city’s northernmost point – Londoners referred to it, with good reason, as ‘the Pyramid of Primrose Hill’.
The central part of the capital of Nova Albion was contained within a ring of new megaliths, made of blocks of sandstone fitted together and capped with lintels, known as the Sarsen Circle Line. Within this circle stood a horseshoe formation of five enormous standing trilithons, curving around from Marylebone, through Mayfair and St. James’s, over to Bloomsbury and Russell Square. This was the latest development in the renovation of the London metropolis, overseen by Prime Minister William Wordsworth in collaboration with the Mayor’s Office. They had ordered the sandstone taken from the same region that had fathered the original Stonehenge – the Prescelly Mountains, in south-west Wales – and had adhered to the scale of the original structure, to ensure that telluric power, light and warmth be provided to every London household. It had taken almost thirty years to plan and build, and was scheduled to be completed in another seven months.
Caught in a tangle of horse traffic, the carriage was forced to stop. Mary watched the sunset, the cables of the cargo transport system slicing across the translucent sky, crates suspended from metal sleeves and harnesses moving slowly from rooftop to rooftop overhead. She tilted her head back, watching a number of crates heading away from the Covent Garden pylon – laden, no doubt, with leftover flowers and fruit.
Across the road, a man shouted in anger. A passing horse had splashed him with filthy-looking water as it trotted through a rutted puddle. Mary was struck by the strongest feeling of déjà vu. Had she seen that man before? Had he been in one of her dreams?
Her dreams. Her nightmares. Mary shook her head in silent chagrin. Her father thought that the nightmares were about Mr. Willoughby.
Mary knew – in fact, her father had often told her in no uncertain terms – that her unusual childhood had inclined her toward the phantasmagorical side of life. She was William Godwin’s only child; her mother had died a few days after giving birth to her. She had a half-sister and half-brother by way of her father’s second wife, Jane Clairmont. William Godwin could have ignored his daughter, consigning her to the care of servants, but he had valued Mary as all that remained of the beloved wife he had lost, and Mary’s intelligence had secured his affection.
Her childhood memories were bright, scattered fragments of experience, like shards of a stained glass window that had shattered but not fallen, that remained perpetually in the air, catching and reflecting the light of days long past and blinding her when she least expected it. There were the long walks in the Peak District, the high, multicolored cliffs, the waterfalls cascading into the lakes, slopes of forest pines and aspens, air like crystal, clouds, rainbows and flowers all sharing her joy. There were the paints her father had given her at the age of four, and the smell of paint and fresh canvas was even now, at seventeen, enough to send her into a state resembling a trance. There were her father’s books, the illustrated volumes of flowers, trees and standing stones he had shown her when she had toddled into his library at the age of five.
But one memory she did not have was the memory of her mother.
There were only paintings, and portraits, and the memories of her father sitting alone with his brandy in front of his fire, staring at those portraits, his eyes distant and damp. Memories of her father sending her to bed every time he had ‘special visitors’. These visitors were often foreigners: some spoke to her father with strong Gallic or Slavic accents, and once they even had a visitor from far Peking. Her father’s friends from the Army often attended these meetings. She knew, from the whispered gossip of Mrs. Hillman and the other servants, that the assembled visitors would turn down the drawing room lamps, and sit around the large circular card table, and hold hands. Once Mary had lain awake in her bedroom and listened to her father hold a conversation with a high, keening, female voice. It sounded as if her father was asking it questions, but in answer, the eerie voice gave a long melodic chant in no language that Mary could recognize.
These meetings became less and less frequent as Mary grew older. Her father seemed to have turned away from these pursuits and regained his joy in life; he smiled more, laughed more, and always encouraged Mary’s learning, even if he looked older, greyer, and more tired.
But then, two months ago, Mary’s nightmares had started.
Her father had helped her as much as he could. He encouraged her to keep a journal, to write her nightmares down, and to talk about them, so they could discuss them in a relaxed atmosphere and try to dispel the gloom and foreboding they threatened.
But even so …
Once past St. James’s Park and into Belgravia, Mary’s spirits rose. She would soon arrive at one of her father’s business ventures, the antiquarian bookstore Et In Arcadia Ego. Here she had enjoyed her childhood, among parchment, vellum and leather. The books had an uncountable number of stories to tell – not simply the stories contained within the pages, but the lives they had lived, changing owners time and again before reaching this shop.
The carriage stopped at Belgrave Square and the driver helped her down onto the muddy street. She looked around; even in Belgravia, a couple of ragged urchins stood watching her from a nearby doorway, and on impulse Mary gave the driver, Hendrick, two pennies to hand over to them. He grimaced, tipped his hat and crossed the street.
Mary entered the bookshop, and London seemed to fade behind her as she entered a world both familiar and strange at the same time. The dusty sunlight was filled with the woody, inky smell of gently yellowing books, and a distant clock ticked faintly somewhere in the hushed atmosphere.
“Mr. Chadwick,” called Mary. “Can I drag you away from your stocktaking? It’s me, Mary Godwin, and I would be very pleased to speak with you again.”
A side door behind a battered metal till opened, and Mr. Chadwick, who Mr. Godwin employed to run the shop, entered the room. He was over sixty now, grey of hair, slightly bent of shoulder, but always immaculately dressed and with a commanding gaze and cheerful grin that could persuade even the most reluctant customer to part with a shilling or two.
“Mary! Always a delight to see you. What can I do for you today?”
“You have probably guessed that I have finished all the books I purchased last week,” Mary said.
“I would be disappointed if you hadn’t,” he answered, his voice slightly tremulous with age. “What would you be looking for this time?”
Mary regarded the bookshop in silence for a moment, breathing in the inky, redolent air. “I am open to suggestions.”
“Can I interest you in my latest acquisitions?” Mr. Chadwick asked softly. “I have recently come into the possession of a secondhand copy of ‘The Curse of the Lonely Ones’, by Eliza Faust; and if you prefer something even more frightening, I could recommend a work by the brilliant but unfortunately insane Dominic Leeming, splendidly entitled ‘The Forms of the Formless’.”
Mary thought of what Mrs. Hillman and Claire would say, and she couldn’t resist a grin. “Is it really horrid?”
“It is so horrid,” Mr. Chadwick said, his voice descending to a dramatic stage whisper, “that even the dons of Perfectly Horrid Literature at Cambridge University are afraid to read it.”
Mary laughed out loud, and began to prowl the bookshop, letting her fingers brush against the bookshelves. Mr. Chadwick turned back into his little office and Mary heard the clatter of a tin lid upon a kettle; it was the custom to spend a leisurely afternoon in the bookshop, the two of them reading and chatting over tea and pound cake, with Mary helping with the customers who ventured in.
“How about a recent publication, Mr. Chadwick?” Mary put her hands behind her back and surveyed the shelf nearest the dusty window.
“The latest from Archbishop Blake has just come out,” he called. “It is at the front.”
Mary spotted the book as soon as he had mentioned it. ‘Through the Hill and Behind the Stars’, it proclaimed, the cover a hypnotic mixture of ethereal figures in creams, emeralds and violets. The illuminated books of William Blake, Archbishop of Canterbury, visionary churchman, engraver and poet, were eagerly awaited by most citizens in Nova Albion. They regularly topped the best-sellers list, and the esoteric sketches were the subjects of much discussion in the coffee houses. Mary took the volume gently down from the shelf, and began to browse through it, the fantastical, androgynous figures feeding her imagination like oxygen feeds a fire. She turned another page –
She froze. The image on the page – the bald, pale, somehow reptilian face, emerging from a huge cauldron full of steaming, bubbling liquid – she had seen it before. The greenish face with bulbous eyes, the brutish neck and the tongue protruding from between sharp teeth – she had seen it in her dreams.
She read the caption at the bottom of the page; the painting – titled ‘The Beast in the Crucible’ – had been inspired by a vivid nightmare, Blake had told the book’s editor. Her heart built up an unsteady, accelerating rhythm, and she suddenly had to fight for breath, feeling a vile taste seep into her mouth from her throat. I will faint, she thought, I will faint from the sheer terror –
“Is anything the matter?” Mr. Chadwick had returned, and was looking at her in concern.
“Could you excuse me for a moment,” Mary said hoarsely. She put the book back on the shelf, and walked unsteadily to the washroom at the back of the shop.
She splashed cold water from the jug next to the washbasin onto her face with trembling hands. She looked at herself in the mirror: her face had gone white, as white as one of the ghosts in Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels. Oh, what her family had said was true, she thought – she had filled her mind with poison …
“I am not feeling well,” she said to Mr. Chadwick when she left the washroom. “I am most terribly sorry, but I think I shall return home.”
“Why, of course, of course,” Mr. Chadwick said. “If there is anything you wish for, I shall have it sent on to you.”
“You are too kind, as always.” Mary stopped, her hand on the door, wondering if she ought to say something. “Mr. Chadwick – do you have many books on the subject of dreams?”
“Dreams.” The bookseller paused, looking at her shrewdly, his eyebrows knitted. “Well, there have been quite a few publication in recent years, trying to interpret dreams in terms of the wisdom of the ancients. I shall draw up a list.”
“But Mr. Chadwick …” Mary forced herself to smile, as if the matter was nothing to her, a mere trifle, just conversation for passing the time. “What is your opinion? Do you believe dreams can foretell the future?”
He relaxed, and nodded tolerantly; this was obviously not a subject unfamiliar to him. “I have heard many interesting accounts, but nobody can prove one way or the other, Miss Godwin, and I suspect it will remain so. You see, if we understood all the mysteries in this world – well, nobody would need any more books, would they?”
Reluctantly Mary climbed into the carriage, her head lowered in sad acknowledgement of the bookseller’s wisdom.
The sun sank slowly behind tattered clouds and, one by one, the stars emerged, as a diamond-scattered night fell upon London. Mary urged Hendrick to hurry home, and the carriage clattered northwards, through a city where Mary’s fevered visions lurked in the narrow, shadowed alleyways, watching her, mocking her, ready to swarm out into her waking life.
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