Read Lord of the hollow dark Online

Authors: Kirk, Russell

Lord of the hollow dark

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Table of ContentsEPIGRAPHDEDICATION1: Balgrummo Lodging2: The Mystical Master3: The Ecstasy of the Animals4: Sweeney Guards the Hornéd Gate5: Revelations in the Den6: Broken Coriolan7: The Dinner of the Disciples8: Conversation in the Sewer9: The Archvicar’s Vision10: Sweeney Agonistes11: Marina’s Flight12: The Demon-God of the Weem13: The Prince of This World14: Into the Abyss15: The Prisoners of the Muniment Room16: The Dry Mock of Ash Wednesday17: The Infernal Ceremony of Innocence18: The Valiant Spirit Between Worlds19: Ozymandias at Last20: Roses and Bones

Your soul deserves the place to which it came

If having entered Hell, you feel no flame.

—Adam Mickiewicz

This mystical romance, conforming faithfully to the canons of the Gothick tale as expounded by Walter Scott in his memoir of Ann Radcliffe, I dedicate to my sister, Carolyn, whom I endeavored to affright in her tender years. She will know this narrative to be perfectly true.

—Russell KirkPicty HillMecosta, MichiganJune, 1979

1Balgrummo Lodging

Two disfigured stone beasts were Marina’s first glimpse of the forgotten house called Balgrummo Lodging: a lion and a griffin atop gateposts, the griffin’s head missing. It was late in the evening, and Marina was uncertain how many miles they had driven beyond Edinburgh.

Mr. Sweeney stopped their car at those battered gates, which opened upon a kind of large vaulted structure like a gatehouse—what in Scotland they called a “pend,” Marina guessed. To right and to left, very high stone dykes seemed to stretch to infinity; Marina noticed that the wall-heads were embellished with shards of broken bottle glass, set thickly into the mortar. This vaulted carriage-pend, broad enough to admit their car easily, seemed to be the only entrance to the policies of this country house. Beyond vast ancient trees, now leafless, Marina thought she could make out the gray shape of a tall range of buildings.

Two sturdy young men with mops of hair came out from the gate lodge and looked at Sweeney, saying nothing. Taking a sheet of paper from his pocket, Sweeney exhibited it to them. One of the young men stared heavy-eyed at Grishkin and herself and the baby; then he waved them on. Mr. Sweeney drove slowly up a lane half choked with unpruned rhododendrons. Marina heard the rusty creaking of hinges; glancing through the rear window, she saw the two glum young men shutting and barring the massive old wrought-iron gates, as if no one else were expected for that night.

“There’s the Lodging,” Sweeney was saying, in his bored way. “You might call it Nightmare Abbey. The front is seventeenth century-Sir William Bruce’s work, some say, but probably just in Bruce’s manner. What’s back of it is older, centuries older, certain parts. I’ve never been inside myself. The Archvicar hired it for us and had it tidied up.”

Mr. Sweeney was an architect, or an archaeologist, or something of the sort. Marina was not sure she liked Mr. Sweeney, although he was good-looking in a rough fashion. All the way north from London, he had watched her out of the corner of his eye, grinning a little, but glancing away whenever she looked directly at him. And he never had looked at her baby; he had never even mentioned her baby. She would have felt uneasy about riding all this way north with Sweeney, and stopping overnight in York, if Grishkin hadn’t been with them. Handsome under her paint, Grishkin looked like a fashion model. She had said next to nothing all the way from London. Of course this woman’s name couldn’t really be Grishkin, any more than her own name really was Marina.

Yet she mustn’t think that way. She was supposed to think of herself as Marina, tobeMarina. Mr. Apollinax, his marvelous eyes glowing, had told her that everybody at this gathering would assume some name from T. S. Eliot’s poems, and not simply take the name, but live the part,bethe part. She had replied that she hadn’t read Eliot very much, so she didn’t understand quite how to be Marina.

“You will be instructed,” Mr. Apollinax had said, with his inimitable little smile. “At first, you need only be yourself; that’s close enough. The rest will follow. This is the commencement of yourvita nuova.All the triviality, all the shame of your past life is to be washed away. You become Marina; you never had another name.”

Now Mr. Apollinax—that, too, was an Eliot name, she thought—was somewhere inside the buildings that loomed before them. The austere ashlar facade of Balgrummo Lodging, ivy heavy upon it, stood dark except for two or three windows on the second floor.

“Why, it’s perfectly enormous!” Marina cuddled her baby closer to her breast as they halted by the broad doorway of the main entrance.

“They tell me it’s even bigger than it looks,” Sweeney answered, “with parts of the old priory at the back, and gardens running up the den. Would you believe that just one man lived in this place-well, one man and his keepers-for fifty years and more?”

“Who was that man?” Marina was clambering out of the car, a blue blanket wrapped about her baby. The massive carved door opened inward; another untidy young man lounged in the doorway, gaslight behind him.

“The last Lord Balgrummo,” Sweeney told her, “madder than any hatter. Something called Balgrummo Estates owns it now. Mr. Apollinax decided to hold the session here-Lord knows why. It’ll be clammy. I could do with a whiskey. Those boys will lug your suitcases in.”

“Is there a... hostess?” Marina had almost said, Is there a mother superior?

“There’s Madame Sesostris, they call her, from India and Africa. She’s like a walking mummy. They say she’s married to the Archvicar.” Sweeney drew long on a cigarette.

Grishkin swept by them, her painted perfect mask expressionless, and went over the threshold with a dancer’s step. Sweeney took Marina by the elbow—she flinched just a little—and led her past the staring young man into a high-ceilinged, ill-lit entrance hall, from which a tremendous oaken staircase led upward. There were busts on pedestals in dim niches.

“Whatever is that odor?” The baby, shifting in her arms, grumbled faintly.

Sweeney sniffed. “Dry rot behind the wainscoting, maybe. The Archvicar says something has been done to cure it, but old Balgrummo, in his time, couldn’t have cared less about rot...”

“Good evening!” The melodious voice came from above. Two people were descending the stair unsteadily.

One, Marina made out, was an old man who leaned heavily on a stick. He wore spectacles of smoked glass, with a curious frame that fitted closely over the eye sockets. His hair was beautifully white, and his face was bland.

Holding his arm to assist him was a lean old woman in a long dress. As she reached the bottom tread, her face could be seen distinctly by the light of the gas chandelier: a leathery face, looking as if it had been seared in the tropics. She seemed stiff in the joints.

“Who are they?” Marina whispered hastily to Sweeney. “That’ll be Madame Sesostris; I never saw her before. The man is the Archvicar. He was fat when I was with him a year ago at Haggat, but he’s had his troubles since then.” Sweeney was talking out of the corner of his mouth. “Somebody crippled his spine for him.”

“Mr. Sweeney,” the old man was saying, in a sprightly musical voice, “welcome to ‘a draughty house, under a windy knob.’” It was good English, but the intonation was exotic. Could it be what was called “chi-chi” in India? Once there had been a Bengali nun in her convent, Marina remembered, who had sounded something like this.

“It was a hell of a lot hotter, the last time I saw you,” Sweeney told the old man, “and you looked different.”

“Ah, Mr. Sweeney, but my heart is unaltered-black as ever. The dominations and powers in Hamnegri made life hot for the two of us, did they not? They put me to the question repeatedly, Mr. Sweeney, repeatedly, without benefit of clergy,ora pro nobis.I suppose your being a Canadian got you off so lightly. Me they classified as an Asiatic, despite my U.K. passport, more’s the pity; so my back aches. But will you present us to the young lady?”

“Marina, meet the Archvicar.” Then Sweeney, having tossed his cigarette into a tall Chinese urn, followed one of the unshaven young porters up the staircase. Marina was almost sorry to see him go so abruptly.

Archvicar Gerontion hobbled quite close to her. “Marina! How charming! I am happy that Mr. Apollinax has given you that name. May I present the companion of my joys, such as they are? This lady you are to call Madame Sesostris—and indeed she has a wicked deck of cards. Do you relish having your weird dreed? But of course: all girls do. Really, my dear, you must read Marina’s fortune soon.”

The desiccated old lady smiled faintly. The thought flashed through Marina’s mind, and then escaped, that it was an animal sort of smile. Madame Sesostris was long in the tooth, like a crocodile.

“How tired you must be, my dear!” said the old lady, in a high, domineering voice. “And your little one in her blanket—no,hisblanket, forgive me—precious, precious!” There was no trace of chi-chi in Madame’s speech; she must be British.

“Grizel,” the Archvicar suggested, “let me find one of those young people to fetch Marina’s luggage. Perhaps you’ll see her to her room. I must have a word with Apollinax.” He labored on his thick ebony stick toward a velvet bellpull against the linen-fold wainscoting.

“Yes, quite precious,” Madame Sesostris continued. Marina feared she might tweak the baby’s nose, but the wrinkled old hand merely tugged at the blue blanket. “Do keep this darling little one well wrapped in this draughty house, my dear.”

Indeed this hall was chillier than any convent. The February fog had penetrated it while the young men had carried the luggage through the open doorway. Those busts in niches, Marina could perceive now, were Scots faces in classical drapery, very old, perhaps lords and lairds of Balgrummo long dead. They did not seem friendly. Marina sensed that the Lodging was a masculine house, with no women’s fripperies.

In a quieter voice, Madame Sesostris was turning confidential. “A word to the unwary, if you please: cherish the Archvicar. Stay as close to him as you may. Those young men and women below stairs in this house—O tempora, O mores!Mr. Apollinax has complete domination over them, I suppose, and doesn’t even pay them wages, but still I shouldn’t grow familiar with them, if I were you.”

“I haven’t known a great many young people.” Marina held Michael close. She was thinking that she might not wish to know Madame Sesostris intimately.

That very odd, very old lady was adjusting an Indian shawl about her gaunt shoulders. “May I call you Marina? How good of you! And the baby’s name is Michael, if I heard you aright? He does look an angel. Do you know, my dear Marina, already I have taken a liking to you? Now I’ll tell that to the Archvicar. I will say, ‘Marina is so young, so innocent; she seems so nice.’ And the Archvicar will answer, ‘They allseemnice at that age, don’t they?’ He’s rather the skeptic, you must understand.”

Marina grew restless at this old lady’s garrulity, and needed to feed Michael, who was beginning to whimper. But Madame Sesostris ran on.

“Yes, cherish the Archvicar, Marina. He may not relish it; he says he has given enough hostages to Fortune already. Occasionally he’s testy-his poor damaged back, for one cause. But bear with him...

Across the immense entrance hall, the Archvicar was returning from the bellpull; his brass-shod stick sounded on the stone flags. “What domestics, Grizel—worse than our people in Haggat, eh? One might as well recruit so many Barbary apes for servants as these young people. I couldn’t rouse anybody by the bell. But our little black devil will do well enough just now. If you’ll pardon me, I’ll shout, as Balgrummo used to do in this very place. Phlebas! Phlebas!”

The Archvicar’s voice was surprisingly powerful, echoing down dark passages. A moment after his second call, a black man bounded out of some ground-floor corridor. Marina thought him the strangest of these grotesques.

He was very dark, but his nose was slightly hooked, his hair almost straight, the shape of his face rather Semitic. He wore a kind of green livery. On his cheeks there were contrived scars. He reminded Marina of an intelligent dog. Or might it be a wolf that he resembled, or an hyena?

Soldierlike, Phlebas stood to attention. Although the Archvicar was a small man, this Phlebas reached scarcely above his master’s shoulder. To this little creature the Arch vicar said something incomprehensible. Phlebas trotted toward the doorway and returned with Marina’s luggage.

“We’d best settle this young lady in our part of the house, Archvicar,” Madame Sesostris remarked. “That thick-walled room beyond us, with the small door-you know?”

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