Declare, p.3
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       Declare, p.3

           Tim Powers
 
Page 3

 

  Andrew didn't know what place this was, and from the frown on his mother's thin face as she glanced around at the paneled chamber he guessed that she had never been here and had expected something grander.

  The man who stepped forward and took her arm had been in his late thirties then, his raven-black hair combed straight back from his high forehead, his jawline still firm above the stiff white collar and the knot of his Old Etonian tie. "Miss Hale," he said, smiling; and then he glanced down at Andrew and added, "And this must be. . . the son. "

  "Who has no knowledge that would put him at peril," Andrew's mother said.

  "Easier to do than undo," the man said cheerfully, apparently agreeing with her. "My dears, C wants you shown right in to him," he went on, turning toward the narrowest, steepest stairway Andrew had ever seen, "so if you'll let me lead you through the maze. . . "

  But first Andrew's mother crouched beside him, the hem of her linen dress sweeping the scuffed wood floor, and she licked her fingers and pushed back the boy's unruly blond hair. "These are the people who got us home from Cairo," she said quietly, "when. . . Herod. . . was looking for you. And they're the King's men. They deserve our obedience. "

  "Herod!" laughed their escort as Andrew's mother straightened and led the boy by the hand toward the stairs. "Well, Herod is no longer in the service of the Raj-and he's doing any harrying of Nazrani children in Jidda nowadays, for an Arab king. "

  Hale's mother snapped, "Uskut!"-an exclamation she sometimes used around the house to convey shut up. "God blacken his face!"

  "Inshallah bukra," the man answered, in what might have been Arabic. He and Andrew's mother nearly had to shuffle sideways to climb the tight-curving counterclockwise stairs, ducking their heads around a caged and buzzing electric light, though Andrew was able to tap up the stairs comfortably.

  Andrew was excited by the air of secret knowledge implicit in this place and this man, and he was impressed that his mother had had dealings with whoever these mysterious King's men were; still, he didn't like the cruel sort of humor that seemed to be expressed in the lines under the black-haired man's eyes, and he wondered why these stairs had evidently been built to keep very big men from ascending.

  Their escort stopped at a door on the first landing and pulled a ring of keys from his trouser pocket, and when he had unlocked it and pushed it open Andrew was startled at the sudden sunlight and fresh river-scented air. An iron pedestrian bridge stretched away for twenty feet over the rooftop to a rambling structure that looked to Andrew like a half-collapsed crazy old ship, patched together out of a dozen mis-matched vessels and grounded on this roof by some calamitously high tide. Partly the structure was green-painted wood, partly bare corrugated metal; Marconi radio masts and wind-socks and the spinning cups of anemometers bristled on its topsides, and interrupted patterns of round windows, and several balconies like railed decks, implied stairs and irregularly arranged floors within. From various brick and iron and concrete chimneys, yellow and black smokes curled away into the blue sky.

  The three of them strode clattering across the bridge, and Andrew watched his mother's graying brown hair toss in the wind. Got us home from Cairo, he thought; when Herod was looking for you. And the man she called Herod is with an Arab king now, in a place called something like jitter.

  Andrew's mother had instructed him in geography, as well as mathematics and Latin and Greek and history and literature and the tenets of the Catholic faith, but except for the Holy Land she had always dealt cursorily with the Middle East.

  At the open doorway on the far side of the bridge two men stood back to let the trio pass, and Andrew saw what he guessed was the steel-and-polished-wood butt of a revolver under the coat of one of them. His mind was whirling with potent words: Cairo and revolver and the Raj and the body and blood of Christ, and he wondered anxiously if it was a sin to vomit after taking Communion. He did almost feel seasick.

  The black-haired man now led Andrew and his mother through a succession of doors and narrow climbing and descending hallways, and if Andrew had known where north was when he had come in, he would not have known it any longer; the floor was sometimes carpeted, sometimes bare wood or tile. Then they turned left into a dim side-hall, and immediately right under a low arch, and scuffed their way up another electrically illuminated staircase, this one turning clockwise. Net zero, Andrew thought dizzily.

  At the top was a door upholstered quilt-fashion in polished red leather, with a green light glowing above it. Their guide pressed a button beside the door frame, and by this time Andrew wouldn't have been very surprised if a trapdoor had opened under them, sending them to their destination down a slide; but the door simply swung open.

  The black-haired man swept a hand into the little room beyond. "Our Chief," he said. Andrew was the first to step inside, his nose wrinkling involuntarily at the mingled smells of curry, oiled metal, and a cluster of purple fox-glove flowers that stood in a vase on the big Victorian desk.

  A stocky man in the uniform of a British colonel was standing beside the room's one small window, and he appeared to be trying to disassemble a spiderweb with a brass letter opener. Without stepping away from the window he turned toward his visitors; he was bald, with bristly gray hair above his ears, and his weathered jaw and nose were prominent like granite outcroppings on a cliff face. After a moment his chilly gray eyes narrowed in a smile, and he held out his free right hand. "Andrew, I think," he said.

  "Yes, sir," said the boy, crossing the old Oriental carpet to shake the man's callused hand.

  "Splendid. " The old man returned his attention to the spiderweb then, and Andrew watched him expectantly, soon noticing that the loose left thigh of the old man's uniform trousers, though clean and pressed, was riddled with little half-inch cuts; but after half a minute had passed Andrew let his eyes dart around the dim room. Six black Bakelite hook-and-candlestick telephones hung on extendable scissors-supports against the wall, and several glass flagons half-filled with colored liquids stood on a table beside them; one wall was all shelves, and models of submarines and airplanes served as haphazard bookends and dividers for the vast collection of leather-bound volumes and sheaves of paper that were crowded together and stacked every-which-way on the shelves. On the walls were hung rubber gas masks, tacked-up maps, diagrams of radio vacuum valves, and a photograph of a group of European villagers lined up against a wall facing a Prussian firing squad.

  "There's a fly here," said the Chief, without looking up from his work.

  Not sure who was being addressed, Andrew glanced back at his mother, who just widened her eyes in helpless puzzlement. Even the man who had led them here was simply blank-faced.

  "Andrew, lad," the Chief went on impatiently, "look here. Do you see this fly, in the web? Waving his legs like a madman. "

  Andrew stepped up beside the burly old man and pushed back a lock of his long blond hair to peer at the windowsill. A bluebottle fly was struggling in the spiderweb. "Yes, sir. "

  "Can you kill it?"

  Bewildered, assuming this was some token sort of test of ruthlessness, the boy swallowed against his nausea and then nodded and held out his hand for the letter opener.

  "No," said the Chief impatiently, "with your will alone. Can you kill the fly just by looking at it?"

  Andrew really didn't know whether he wanted to laugh or start crying. He heard his mother shift and mutter behind him. "No, sir," he said hoarsely.

  The old Chief sighed, and turned to stare for several seconds straight into the boy's eyes. "No," he said at last, gently. Then he hugely startled Andrew by stabbing the letter opener into his own left thigh, which gave out a knock that let the boy know it was a wooden leg. Through ringing ears Andrew heard the Chief go on, "No, I see you could not-and good for you. Are you interested in radio, lad?" He rocked the letter opener out of his leg and tested the point with his thumb.

  Chipping Campden had only got
electricity the year before. "We don't own one," Andrew answered. He had fainted in church once, and the remembered rainbow glitter of unconsciousness was crowding in now from the edges of his vision-so he abruptly sat down cross-legged on the carpet and took several deep breaths. "Excuse me," he said. "I'll be all right-"

  Andrew's mother was crouching beside him, her hand on his forehead. "The boy hasn't eaten since midnight," she said in an accusing or pleading voice.

  "Good Lord," came the Chief's voice from over Andrew's head. "Where did they drive from, Scotland? I thought you said they live in Oxfordshire. "

  "That's right, sir," the black-haired man said, "in the Cotswolds. This is some Catholic fast, I believe. "

  "Of course. Polarized, you see? Like Merlin in the old stories, christened. Nevertheless-Andrew. "

  Andrew looked up into the old man's stern face, and he felt clearheaded enough now to get back up onto his feet. "Yes, sir," he said when he was standing again. His mother had stood up too, and he could feel that she was right behind him.

  "Remember your dreams. " The Chief scowled. "Dreams, right? Things you see when you're asleep, things you hear? Don't write them down, but remember them. One day Theodora will ask you about them. "

  "Yes, sir. I will, sir. " Andrew was simply postponing the effort of trying to imagine some no doubt frightening-looking woman named Theodora interrogating him about his dreams at some future date.

  "Good lad. When is your birthday?"

  "January the sixth, sir. "

  "And why the hell shouldn't it be, eh? Sorry. Good. Your mother has done very well in these seven years. Do as she tells you. " He waved his hand, suddenly looking very tired. "Go and get something to eat now, and then go home to your Cotswolds. And don't-worry, about anything, understand? You're on our rolls. "

  "Yes, sir. Uh-thank you, sir. "

  Andrew and his mother had been abruptly led out then, and the black-haired man had taken them down to a narrow dark lunchroom or employees' bar on the seventh floor, and simply left them there, after telling them that their meal would be paid for by the Crown. Andrew managed to get down a ham sandwich and a glass of ginger beer, and he had guessed that he shouldn't talk about the affairs of this place while he was still in it. Even on the drive home, though, his mother had parried his questions with evasions, and assurances that he'd be told everything one day, and that she didn't know very much about it all herself; and when he had finally asked which of those men had been his godfather, she had hesitated.

  "The man who led us in," she'd said finally, "was the one who. . . well, the wooden-legged chap-you saw that it was an artificial limb, didn't you, that he stabbed himself in?-he took the. . . " Then she had sighed, not taking her eyes off the already shadow-streaked road that led toward Oxford and eventually, beyond that, home. "Well, it's the whole service, really, I suppose. "

  On our rolls.

  Shortly after the visit to London his mother had begun receiving checks from an obscure City bank called Drummond's. They had not been accompanied by any invoices or memoranda, and she had let her father believe that the money was belated payment from Andrew's delinquent father, but Andrew had known that it was from "the Crown"-and sometimes when he'd been alone on the windy hill below the Broadway Tower he had tried to imagine what sort of services it might prove to be payment for.

  Remember your dreams.

  In his dreams, especially right at the end of the year and during the first nights of 1930, he sometimes found himself standing alone in a desert by moonlight; and always the whole landscape had been spinning, silently, while he tried to measure the angle of the horizon with some kind of swiveling telescope on a tripod. Once in the dream he had looked up, and been awakened in a jolt of vertigo by the sight of the stars spinning too. For a few minutes after he woke from these dreams he couldn't think in words, only in moods and images of desert vistas he had never seen; and though he knew-as if it were something exotic!-that he was a human being living in this house, sometimes he wasn't sure whether he was the old grandfather, or the ex-nun mother, or the little boy who slept in the wooden box.

  He always felt that he should go to Confession after having one of these dreams, though he never did; he was sure that if he could somehow manage to convey to the priest the true nature of these dreams, which he didn't even know himself, the priest would excommunicate him and call for an exorcist.

  And he had begun to get unsolicited subscriptions to magazines about amateur radio and wireless telegraphy. He tried to read them but wasn't able to make much sense of all the talk of enameled wire, loose couplers, regenerative receivers, and Brandes phones; he would have canceled the subscriptions if he had not remembered the one-legged old man's question-Are you interested in radio, lad?-and anyway the subscriptions had not followed him to his new address when he went away to school two years later.

  In her new affluence Andrew's mother had enrolled him in St. John's, a Catholic boys' boarding school in old Windsor, across the Thames and four miles downriver from Eton. The school was a massive old three-story brick building at the end of a birch-lined driveway, and he slept in one of a row of thirty curtained cubicles that crowded both sides of a long hallway on the third floor-no hardship to someone used to sleeping in an eighteenth-century box bed-and ate in the refectory hall downstairs with an army of boys ranging from his own age, nine, up to fourteen. To his own surprise, he had not suffered at all from homesickness. The teachers were all Jesuit priests, and every day started with a brief Mass in the chapel and ended with evening prayers; and in the busy hours between he found that he was good at French and geometry, subjects his mother had not been able to teach him, and that he could make friends.

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