The Folding Star: Historical Fiction, p.20Alan Hollinghurst
It was a voice I knew, and I prickled with displeasure even before I figured who it was: the pushy little Englishman who had detained Luc in the street on the very morning after the St Ernest escapade. I reached for my glasses again. Yes, it was him, fit and compact, dripping from the pool.
‘Oh, hi!’ – Luc’s indiscriminate pleasantness, like a dog; it seemed to rob our lovely earlier greeting of half its value.
‘I saw you in there,’ said the man, nodding and making little muscle-shifting hunches. ‘You’re pretty good.’ Luc smiled and vaguely shook his head. ‘But you’re not getting those turns quite sharp enough.’ He put a hand on the boy’s shoulder as if to say that it was only a small thing, he’d help him get it right if he liked; then glanced down at me, taking in the fact that I was here, on the scene, again; and dropped his arm in a gesture of temporary concession. ‘Well, better take a shower!’ What a world of exclamations he lived in. I looked at him coldly as he retreated.
‘I think you’ve got an admirer there,’ I said, shamed and somehow treacherous. At which Luc frowned. And then the bastard was back:
‘Oh, I found the Fratry, by the way.’ He smiled as if this really was their own private success. ‘Absolutely fascinating!’ And Luc now not knowing how to react, whilst his admirer, my hateful and forward rival, gave a little wave and darted off.
‘When is it we meet again?’ I boomed out wretchedly. But somehow Luc failed to hear. He strode away from his empty locker with all his clothes in his arms, entered one of the four changing-cubicles preserved, I had imagined, for the clinically insecure or for those who perhaps for some religious reason … and bolted the half-door. Ten seconds later, like the rape of Danaë, there was a scattering of coins from an upturned pocket and a smothered ‘Fuck’. A few centimes came spinning towards me across the damp tiled floor.
A day of steady rain, a constant whisper in the street, rising in a hiss and then fading when a rare car came past. Sitting under a lamp at Paul Echevin’s desk I imagined the indolent persistence of the rain out along the roads of Flanders and at the coast, on hotel porches and empty esplanades. Paul saw me daydreaming – I think, hard worker though he was, he had caught the mood of it too: we exchanged a wistful smile above the stacks of cardboard folders.
I turned the pages of an album of Orst’s prints, looking for a reference but lulled and taken care of like a child with a picture-book. It was a subtly different world from that of the paintings: a haunted domain of gleams and shadows and briar-tangled paths. In some of the little etchings people were hinted at in the dark hatching but not quite defined, like figures seen tilted against the rain in the blur from a moving car. There was ‘Le Carrosse de l’Archevêque’, where the spidery last light came in at the coach’s window, but it was hard to know if the dark bulks on either side were benighted travellers, cloaked and veiled, or merely spectral presences against the dim upholstery. There were glimpses of legends that I didn’t know, or maybe no one knew: I had to take them on trust like manifestations from the beyond, to be scried and construed according to my needs. Often the titles were mere phrases, taken perhaps from a tale or poem, ‘Il resta debout devant la troisième porte’, ‘Encore dans la chambre de ma vieille parente’; a scene in which a man stumbled down a spiral ramp into deepening darkness bore the frightening inscription, ‘Que fera-t-il là, l’insatiable?’ I had a sense of mysteries without solutions, or sometimes of ecstatic solutions to problems that had never been formulated. There was a series on ‘The Kingdom by the Sea: d’après Edgar Poë’, that had no bearing on my memory of the poem, and another on ‘The Kingdom of Allemonde’: the instinct for lost realms and haunted, ailing royalty was deep. Allemonde was a dream-terrain of sunless forests and ruined towers, steeped in a mood of fate, though somehow without causality; the groping figures on cliff-tops and stairways seemed too passive to be tragic – at times a flare lit them against the dusk and lent them a certain pathos, like marionettes.
I had pages of the catalogue beside me in typescript, with their scrupulous details of date and measurement, and provenances that often trailed into appropriate vagueness, present whereabouts unknown. I had to confirm some quotations from a volume of Légendes flamandes that Orst had illustrated. It had just enough purpose to it to keep up my self-esteem: that is to say now and then Paul had made a mistake, an extract was not from the page his note claimed it was, or a name was misspelt – little lapses in scholarship that made me useful and were changing my understanding of him. We both seemed to know that this dusty, fiddly checking was in a way intimate work, it steadied some private tremor: just the years going by, perhaps.
I was reading the story of the False Chaplain. A great Knight was married to a beautiful Lady, and they lived in a castle by the sea. The Knight went out hunting and generally doing good, and the Lady walked in her garden or sat with her women and made lovely tapestries. All seemed well, but as the years went by they were troubled by one thing: they had no children. And however hard they prayed, nothing could alter that fact. The Lady was sorrowful and spent long days in supplication to God, asking her Chaplain how she could atone for the great sin in her heart which God was punishing her for in this way. And the Knight was angry; and then he too would ask the Chaplain for absolution.
At length the Chaplain, who was a fair and soft-spoken young man, said to the Knight that he must go away on the Crusade that was about to set forth and seek forgiveness from God within the walls of Jerusalem itself. Only then, he said, could the Knight and the Lady hope to be blessed with offspring. So the Knight armed himself and rode off and left the Lady in the care of the Chaplain to wait and pray.
Now praying was not really what filled the Chaplain’s thoughts, for he had conceived on the first day he saw her a great passion for the Lady, the more terrible for being damned by the highest precepts of his order and his honour. And as the weeks went by he worked upon the Lady, and slyly disclosed his love to her, as if he were speaking only of God’s love. And she, who liked and trusted the Chaplain, found her feelings soured and disturbed by the young man’s passion. Then one day, when they were sitting in the garden bower that overlooked the sea, the Chaplain said that if he himself were to lie with her, then God’s will might surely be done, and her womb would flower.
When she saw the true nature of his love she shrank from him, and kept apart, and met with him only at the hours of their daily devotions. But the Chaplain’s fever burned all the more fiercely for her spurning. And as the weeks turned into months, he found ways of being with her, banishing her women with terrible threats of God’s vengeance, and ordering the Castle as if it were his own. He visited great humiliations on her, but always she prayed, for her husband, for herself, and for the Chaplain too, that he might repent; and always she turned him away. Then for days he would deny her food, or keep her in a guard-room without light, saying it was God’s will that she should mortify herself. And he would put wild animals with her at night, snakes and toads that the local children trapped in the woods. And still she said no. And still she prayed. And at the day’s end he would make her come to him to confess her sins.
Then, when a year had passed and another spring had come, word reached the Castle of the Knight’s return. He had ridden to Jerusalem and prayed for God’s forgiveness at the Holy Sepulchre itself. Within the day he would greet his Lady, and their union would be blessed with children.
When he heard this the Chaplain was filled with fear: his heart was so eaten up with his love for the Lady, however wicked it might be, that he had never given thought to the day when the Knight should come back. But the Lady was joyful and filled with God’s blessing, and rose up proudly, for she knew that when her husband returned not only would her womb flower but her heart too be lightened of all her sufferings at the hands of the false Chaplain, and the Chaplain would be banished for ever.
Now the Chaplain came to her humbly and begged her for God’s love to say nothing of the t
Seeing this, he withdrew silently, and came to her again meekly at the day’s end, at supper-time, and offered her a beaker of good Burgundy wine to drink. And she drank it joyfully, as a health to her husband, and to the child that should be hers. And not a moment had passed before she fell to the floor, crying out with her hand upon her heart; for the false Chaplain had poisoned the wine with an ichor drawn from a toad’s brain, that she might not tell the Knight of his wickedness, and never more be her husband’s if she might never be his. And as she lay there a footstep was heard on the stair, and the Knight entered laughing and calling out for his wife; and when he saw her there he took her in his arms and she looked on him and then she died. And the false Chaplain said a blessing over her and prayed for her soul.
I looked out of the window at the drifting gleam of the rain against the purple brick of the gables opposite. The limes had lost their leaves now. My thoughts about the ragged injustice of the story dissolved into the inhospitable weather, with its calm and comforting insistence we should stay inside – a frisson of childish safety. I turned back to the crackling quarto with its precious powder-blue wrappers and enormous margins, and then read Paul’s comments on the three illustrations to the False Chaplain. He pointed out how the theme of constancy was one which recurred in Orst’s work, and the disturbing way in which the artist seemed to admire the constancy of the Chaplain’s obsession with the Lady, more than that of the Lady’s love for her husband. She was the focus of all the engravings, whitefaced, pale-eyed, swirled in her own hair – a premonition of the Jane Byron figure. The first picture was simply an icon of her, though formally displaced, her head at the top left-hand corner, the rest filled with the oscillations of her hair and the vertical plunge of her gown. In the second she was sewing with her (oddly similar) women and the dark folds of the tapestry lifted in their hands set off the mystic pallor of her face as she paused and stared. In the third she lay on the brink of death in a kind of skewed pietà, the wings of the Knight’s cloak sheltering her; his face, though, was out of the picture and the black figure of the Chaplain rose exaltedly behind, with upraised hands and eyes. It was a very fin-de-siècle subversion of an old tale going back to the thirteenth century, and found beyond Flanders in French fabliaux and Italian collections. Its unusual ending attracted Orst, and he had simply had his way with it, giving a hint of perverse sexual triumph to the shaven phallic upright of the priest, and the supine surrender of the female, lips parted, eyelids lowering over eyes that still cast an ecstatic light.
Note too the use of the fortified tower of St Vaast as a basis for the sketch of a castle which forms the cul-de-lampe: a word that disturbed me for a moment, Luc being a backward offering of cul, Luc’s cul a dream palindrome – the two round cheeks of it and the lick of the s between: I was nonsensing and spoonerising it in my mouth all day long. I paused to note the publisher’s colophon, achevé March 13, 1897: Editions Guillaume Altidore, and the monogram, a Secessionist GA conjured into a hoop, that I had passed by unsuspectingly amid the exquisite discretion of the cover. ‘So,’ I thought, closing the book and laying my hand on it. It felt very remote from Luc, but at the same time gave me the illusion of closeness to him, a share in the glamour of the family history he felt so surprisingly proud and bitter about. My love-struck need for shapes and portents was eased by the curving together of two stories.
‘Have some lunch here,’ suggested Paul a bit later. ‘Lilli’s away, we’ll have to throw ourselves on the mercy of the fridge.’ We went through the door between the houses and into their austere little drawing-room, still coloured for me by an obscure sense of social discomforts, of embarrassments probably only I remembered. ‘As you must have realised, she’s very much a country person. She goes off once a week to her sister-in-law’s farm and stays the night. Even when she goes for a walk it’s along the edge of the town, so that she can smell the fields.’
‘Having grown up on the edge of a common I know what she means. I smell the meadow in the street, as Tennyson says.’ I picked up the Flemish Post from the kitchen table, and while Paul looked worriedly at various dishes in the fridge, read about the kidnap of an industrialist’s son: there was a sullen photo-booth snap you knew you could never recognise him by.
‘It’s a wintry day, isn’t it, let’s have some wine.’
‘Yes please.’ This was almost slatternly by Paul’s standards. ‘I see the Légendes flamandes were published by Guillaume Alti-dore, who I now know was the great-grandfather of my other pupil.’
‘Of course, I’d forgotten that.’
‘He was telling me all about the family’s decline.’ And my hand shook as I lifted the glass from the table.
‘I suppose they have rather declined. I expect you’ve seen their old house, just near here? It’s offices now, no one could live in a house that big.’ He stuck a finger in something and licked it. ‘I’m afraid Martin Altidore’s no good – the boy’s father. And the mother’s rather pathetic, isn’t she? I had a difficult time over one of her altar-cloths. As secretary of the Antiquarian Society I had to write and say we didn’t think it appropriate.’
‘Poor woman. I’m not surprised though.’ I recalled her ironic first reactions to the name of Echevin.
‘The Altidores were always marked by eccentricity, or whimsicality. And I dare say the combination of that with immense wealth was not a very sound … recipe. Unlike this curried chicken salad, I suppose it is. Let’s eat.’ He went out into the hall and warbled ‘Marcel!’ up the stairs in a sweetly silly way. There was a distant impression of dropped objects and going to the lavatory.
‘I gather your last lesson went well?’ he said.
I was still thinking of the Altidores, and my last lesson with Luc came back to me with a twinge. Then ‘Oh, yes, fine. Yes, he’s getting much more confident.’ (Was he? Really he seemed much the same to me, but relations between the three of us depended on this pleasing fiction.)
‘What is the Altidore boy’s name?’ asked Paul when we had all sat down. As always I found it difficult just to bring it out – it was heralded by such inner flutterings and gongings.
‘He’s called Luc,’ said Marcel.
‘Now did Luc tell you about his much older forebears, in the sixteenth century, for instance? They were more interesting in a way. One sees how the family fortunes have gone up and down, very wealthy in the fifteenth century, then, as you know, the old sea-canal silted up and most of the money-makers moved out. They stayed on, living on the past, as their prosperity slowly declined. It was only with the Congo business that they suddenly shot up again, I believe, and that wasn’t for long.’
‘Luc’s father seems fairly well-heeled.’
‘Luc’s father sold a Memling. To Japan.’
‘A Nativity specially painted for his ancestor, for the altar of the private chapel of a guild, a kind of noble confraternity of which he was a member. There was an outcry – a private sale, no one knows how many millions. I’m sorry, my dear Edward, but the man is a barbarian.’
What an impressive and senior gust of anger. I tended to forget that Paul was twice as old as me, he had a lifetime’s lead on me. Still, I did rather lust for Martin, both in himself and in the reflected glow of my longing for his son.
‘She’s got lots of money,’ said Marcel, with his mouth full.
‘I’m wandering,’ said Paul. ‘Anthonis Altidore was the very odd one. He had the fantastic idea that he was a direct descendant of St James the Less, Our Lord’s brother – or, as I’ve always thought it should be, half-brother. Still, he went to great lengths to establish the thing historically, he was obsessed wi
‘How very funny.’ I knocked back my wine, getting out of control on all this Altidore adrenalin. The thought that Luc might actually be related to Jesus Christ was slightly unnerving.
‘The obsession seems to have stuck too. When you go to Brussels you can see an early Van Dyck painted for it must be Anthonis’s grandson. Actually it’s a Holy Family, bringing in St James the Less, a little unconventionally – you can tell him by his very splendid moustaches, the head is apparently a portrait of Altidore, who was very proud of his bristly … excrescences.’
‘They’re all incredibly vain,’ I said, with a treacherous thrill.
‘The boy used to be very good-looking, I met him once,’ said Paul. I had to put down my knife and fork.
‘I suppose he is in a way,’ I conceded.
‘I felt so sorry for his poor mother, who was having to cope by herself, when that business blew up on the ship. I think that’s what may have turned her colour sense.’
‘Arctic Prince,’ said Marcel.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Arctic Prince was the ship. Orgy on Arctic Prince.’
‘Darling, it didn’t say that. Actually Altidore managed to keep it out of the papers almost entirely.’ Paul looked with amused reproval at his son. ‘Marcel knows all about it from his, I’m not allowed to say girlfriend, friend, Sibylle de Taeye, the daughter of the Minister of Culture, who is something of an Egeria to young Luc, I gather.’ And Marcel blushed as he had weeks before when I’d blundered into this patch. Of course she wasn’t his girlfriend – he was up against some pretty stiff competition if that was his idea; he was blushing to have his fantasy disclosed.
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