The Reader

220px-Marbled_PaperCaptain Abend had asked to arrest his old friend Professor Bildnis himself, out of some confused desire to conduct the matter with the respect that had always characterized their dealings with one another. But now, as he stood at the great front door of the professor’s ancestral Schloss and waited for the ancient housekeeper to answer the bell, the uneasy feeling possessed him that this had been a mistake, and that he would have been better occupied burying himself in the pile of paperwork that was waiting for him on his desk in an obscure corner of the general’s mansion. He tried to imagine the look on the professor’s face when she realized what he had come for: hurt betrayal; tragic loss; or worse still, a barely-perceptible nod to indicate that yes, she had known this time would come from the moment she first saw him lingering on the threshold of her library, eyes wide with mingled awe and bitterness, as if he had already known at nine years old that he would never make a room like this his intellectual home. As old Marta led him across the hall he shrank, in his mind, to the size he had been then, recalling the prickly suit into which he had been crammed by his nervous mother before the visit, and how it had seemed to lock him into itself as he walked towards the monumental figure in front of the window, forcing his overheated legs to stride forwards even as his protesting mind yearned to make them sprint in the opposite direction, towards the manicured lawns and regimented woods of the Bildnis estate. ‘Captain Abend,’ Marta quavered as she pushed open the library door – he would have liked to help her, since the door was heavy, but knew that any attempt to do so would have inflicted appalling pain on her proud old servant’s heart – and he stepped through into the land of enchantment, the forest of books in which he had lost himself so often over the eighteen years or so since he had first entered it.

Professor Bildnis was standing at the great bay window with her back to him, poring over a gigantic volume which seemed to contain brightly-coloured pictures and exquisitely painted initial capitals – though of course he couldn’t make out any details at such a distance. The Professor herself was just as massive, on a human scale, as the book was on the bibliographical one. She wore a shabby plush dressing gown as dark and voluminous as an academic robe, and her tangled grey hair hung like cobwebs across the great flat boulders of her cheeks. Yet there was something light and nimble about her: the way her big hands caressed the leather binding of the book she held, the way she was poised almost on tiptoe in her old worn slippers as if about to take flight, etherealized to weightlessness by her excitement at what she had found there.

As he walked towards her, his polished boots boomed aggressively on the floorboards and he shrank still further inside. The echoes of his footsteps rolled about the room like out-of-control dirigibles, bumping against the age-dimmed spines of the books that lined the shelves from floor to ceiling, bumbling up and down the steps of the wheeled wooden staircases that stood around the edges like patient giraffes ready to help any undersized reader – such as the captain himself, as he felt at this moment – to reach the upper shelves. Captain Abend came to a halt in front of the professor, clicked his heels together – not very smartly – and saluted. The professor raised her grey eyes from the page at which she had been gazing, her lips still curved in the smile of pleasure the words and images on it had conjured up.

‘You’re here to arrest, me, aren’t you?’ she said, in a voice both distracted and kindly, as if this were a minor disturbance which was drawing her attention away from important business, but which she must pay attention to, for a while at least, out of courtesy and a lifelong affection for the young man who had brought it about. ‘I’ve packed my bags, if I’m allowed to take them. No?’ she added quickly as Abend gave the slightest shake of his head. ‘No bags? Not even a toothbrush? Never mind. I’ve made arrangements for the books here. I once hoped the city library would take them: I always meant to hand them over to the people, but I somehow doubt most of the people in their present mood would be inclined to accept the donation. Marta and her family will keep them safe for those in the future who care to read them.’

Captain Abend stared at her as she spoke, then sensed that his mouth was hanging open and closed it hurriedly. She had always had this effect on him: one unexpected observation (you’re here to arrest me, aren’t you?) and all his carefully-planned excuses and words of comfort fell round his feet, where they lay twitching their ascenders and descenders like exhausted mayflies. The professor watched him for a while, the same sweet smile playing on her lips, though there was a hint of sadness to it now. In fact, when he came to think of it, there had been a hint of sadness mixed with pleasure in her face when she first looked up. Sadness was what she lived on, it was meat and drink to her; her arrest, it seemed, was merely the culmination of a succession of sad moments born of the excessive hopes her books had awoken in her at a tender age.

‘May I ask, at least,’ she said at last, placing her big hand on his arm – she held the giant volume open in the other hand as if it had been a child’s hornbook – ‘may I ask why I’m being arrested? Is it for what I’ve written? If so, I have to say I’m pleasantly surprised. I hadn’t expected the generals to take such a sudden interest in the obscurer byways of historiography. They have risen several notches in my estimation.’

Captain Abend shook his head again and cleared his throat. ‘Well, yes and no,’ he said at last, his throat so dry the words hurt as they forced themselves past his larynx. ‘Of course they’re aware of what you’ve written. In fact you’re doing them an injustice to accuse them of ignorance. Some of them are actually fans – General Halfisch, for instance, told me the other day that you’d been an inspiration to him in his student days at Heldenbein University. The fact is, though, it’s you yourself they disapprove of. A woman of your ancestry and standing who has chosen to lead a life of scholarship, to involve herself in radical politics, to invite workers and poets and thinkers to her Schloss without regard to the view of their activities taken by the government, to draw the attention of foreigners to their so-called “cause” by virtue of her international reputation as a historian… Need I go on? You’ll know the charges against you well enough, Professor. I’m only sorry you didn’t listen to all my warnings.’

The Professor nodded her head slowly, still looking distracted. ‘That’s a pity,’ she murmured, though Abend saw at once that she wasn’t talking about her failure to pick up his mumbled hints at the growing hostility to her among the ruling party. ‘They should have read my books more carefully. If they had they would have arrested me long ago.’

All at once her eyes hardened, as if she were really seeing him for the first time. ‘But you’ve read them properly, haven’t you, August? Not just my books, but my dreams, my quest – I’ve spoken about these things to you many times, you are well acquainted with the book of my mind. You know what I’ve been looking for all these years. You know that my writings are little more than a record of frustration, scribbled notes on a lifelong search that kept leading me up blind alleys in chase of a glimpse, a damaged map, a riddling clue, a forgotten archive which, when I reached it, invariably turned out to contain no more than second-hand information, scraps of gossip, castles in the air. You’ve followed me on my mental journeys. You’ve embarked on mental journeys of your own from time to time. I could have wished you’d journeyed more, boy, and not let yourself get mixed up in this bad business. You can see plainly now, I think, the blind alley to which that particular path has brought you.’

Abend felt a flash of rage and clenched his fists, half tempted to strike her. He could never have dedicated himself to the journeys she spoke of – unlike her he had to make a living, he had younger brothers and sisters to think of, who had depended on him since his father’s death and his mother’s illness. Besides, his military career was not so much of a dead end as all that. He was well paid, he had glittering prospects – the general had told him so when they’d met by chance on the mansion staircase. And who was she to talk to him about blind alleys? Where had her reading got her? To this room, to this moment in time when her young friend stood awkwardly before her with an order for her arrest in his inside pocket. This was a cul de sac if ever there was one. He ought to pull out the paper at once and show her the wording, with the general’s extravagant signature at the bottom.

But his anger quickly faded as he noticed her eyes straying back to the book in her big left hand, as if pulled by strings. She would hardly notice the paper, even if he waved it in front of her eyes or struck her head with it; she had already half forgotten about it and him. This was not even a proper conversation, really, because she’d been talking to herself all along, as she always had, as she always would. He had never really been of any interest to her, and it was mere hypocrisy in her to express regret about his failure to follow intellectual paths for which she had always shown a supreme indifference. He might as well let her go on talking. There was no great hurry. This job once over, he had only the other dull papers on his shabby desk to attend to for the rest of the day. If he took his time over this arrest he could at least make sure that the rest of the day didn’t last too long.

And now she was speaking loudly, almost shouting, and waving the book at him as if it contained evidence of his sins of omission. ‘But August, August!’ she cried, cheeks wobbling with emotion. ‘I have finally found it! To think it was always there, right in front of my nose, in a book I knew as well as the inside of my head – a book I’ve known since I was younger than you were when I first met you! I would be embarrassed by my blindness if I weren’t so happy. Come over to the window; let me show you. It’s a matter of looking at the words and the pictures, both at once. I knew how to do that once, as a little girl; but you may have noticed how such skills melt away like frost with the passing years. It’s because we don’t read with all our attention, we don’t inhabit our books and populate them as we did when we were young. They don’t live in our minds, words and pictures together, when we go to sleep. They don’t talk to us in our dreams, as they did when we first discovered the heaven-sent miracle of reading.’

In a dream – half mesmerised by the flow of her words – he saw that she was looking at him now with what seemed genuine attention, as she beckoned with her head towards the bay window. ‘It’s not our fault, you know,’ she went on companionably. ‘We read too much, as adults – we know too much to be able to inhabit the books we read as we did before. We’d go mad if we tried. But every now and then, when we concentrate hard, we recover that skill again for a few short minutes. And those minutes stay with us for a while after we’ve stopped reading – long enough, sometimes, for us to set down some bald impression of what we’ve learned.’

As the Captain moved with her to the sunlit bay he experienced another sudden flashback to his nine-year-old self. Again and again she had beckoned him to some corner where she was poring over a page, often in another language he didn’t know. Forgetting his age, she would read it out to him, the mellifluous clatter of Greek, the dancing curlicues of Italian, the baroque efflorescences of formal French or Latin. He had listened enrapt, with pictures forming and fading before his eyes. The shape of the scripts told him stories more energetic and convoluted than the comics he secretly scanned in the shops when his mother wasn’t looking (she thought them vulgar and feared exposure to them would impede his development as a reader). Later he became resentful of the Professor’s blithe assumption that he could understand the erudite syllables she intoned. But now, striding after her, a sensation caught him by the throat, a thrill of excitement as of some imminent revelation, a door about to open on some world of wonders. He remembered it well now, that sensation, though he had thrust it down to some hidden cellar of his being, where it had mouldered under the stacks of soulless documents he had been piling up through his wearisome years as a military administrator. Each of the Professor’s readings had been, for him, a musical performance with a visual accompaniment, like the ballads sung by old men as they rapidly flipped through the great shimmering pamphlets full of crude hand-coloured pictures displayed on easels in the market squares of Helden. Suddenly he felt sure that he would now recover that half-forgotten pleasure, the one he had denied himself in his teenage years because of mounting frustration with his limited prospects. He drew close to her shoulder and found himself too short, still, to peer over it. Instead he squinted round the side of her massive gown-draped arm, allowing the script and illustrations on the page to fill his vision.

The words were arranged in short, neat lines that formed a column from top to bottom, which told him they were verse. The columns were broken at regular intervals, which told him the verse was arranged in stanzas. Alternate lines were indented apart from the final couplet of each stanza, so he had a good idea of the rhyme scheme. The Professor didn’t recite verse to him, however, nor did she speak in the archaic dialect of the poem. She spoke rapidly in the language he knew best, turning the pages to match the pictures to her words. Yet the story made little sense: something about a princess in a castle on an island, whose loneliness drew birds and beasts to her through the waves, till at last it drew a young fisherman who took her away with him on his skiff to the place where fishes have wings and birds have fins and beasts can sing. The story ended badly – ‘all stories from this period ended badly, it’s as if they didn’t know how to write a happily ever after’ – with the fisherman dead and the princess imprisoned once again on her lump of rock. ‘But look here!’ the Professor cried, tapping the final illustration. ‘The picture of the room where she lies dead after giving birth; do you see the door? It’s exactly like the door to this library. The carving on the lintel, the details of the paneling, the smallest glimpse of the room beyond. Her child is walking towards the door, growing as she walks – she’s almost grown already, see how tall she is, how long her hair. And the door is the door to the library – I can only assume the painter copied it from life, if that’s the right expression, still life I suppose it should be. If you look closely at the picture you can see the edge of this bay window. Do you see it, August? Her child is walking into this room, this very room where we’re standing now. I’m assuming – it’s a reasonable hypothesis – that the writer and illustrator knew very well that it would end up in this location; they must have been commissioned by one of my ancestors. The books themselves – the books are the key. I always assumed, when I was a child, that the king had won, that the child in the picture was myself, trapped in this castle without escape like her mother before her. But the books hold the key to the end of tyranny. She’s even carrying one in her hand. Can you see the title? With eyes like yours you can surely read it even without the magnifying glass – though of course you can borrow mine if necessary.’

Of course Captain Abend could read the title: his vision was perfect, they had complimented him on it only the year before when he had undergone the annual test. Only his asthma had let him down, condemning him for ever to a desk job despite his impeccable scores in every element of his military training. He could see the title of the book, and knew full well why it had excited her so greatly. The title was hers – the name of the book she had written three years after he had met her. She had talked to him about it as she wrote, and later he had read it himself, head spinning with the visions she had put into it of better times to come. But this was hardly news – much less the miracle she was making it into. Clearly as a girl she had read that title, when her eyes were as good as his. Clearly she had recalled the title – though perhaps she had not known where she’d first read it – when she’d been writing her book. The Professor knew about the unconscious; she’d explained it to him often enough. How could she imagine the name of the book was a clue to anything?

The fact was, though, this was typical of her: to see her life as a perfect circle, beginning and ending in this room where her books had made her. What a charming justification that would be for a life of reading – for a life spent travelling, as she would put it, in the realms of gold, where ordinary men and women could not follow! How naïve she was, how profoundly selfish, to see such a life as having been worth leading, as having had any kind of purpose or significance for her people! While they had suffered and died outside her estate, here she had flipped the pages of ancient books with unsated hunger, searching and searching among forgotten texts – for what? For a fairy tale, a castle in the air, a chimera. She had never grown up, that was her problem; could not conceive what adulthood meant, or responsibility, or pain. Even her arrest wasn’t real to her; just the typical sad ending to one of the romances she had been reading since she could read.

‘That is… remarkable,’ he said coldly, hoping the irony of his tone would not be lost on her. ‘The library, the book, the title. I’m sure you’re right, and this old romance holds the key to everything you’ve been looking for all your life. I shall be sure to tell my friends at the officer’s club, and my brothers and sisters; they’ll be overwhelmed. But now, Professor Bildnis, I’m sorry to say that time’s against us. We have to go. Formally, of course, I’m supposed to show you the mandate for your arrest – but we can dispense with that formality if you don’t care to see it. Is there anything you wish to do before we leave? Any final instructions you want to leave for Marta? A note of farewell, perhaps, for someone close to you?’

The Professor turned her great grey eyes on him – they had always been her finest feature, the eyes of a woman slimmer and swifter than she, a dryad of the woods, a mermaid. To his surprise, they were full of tears. She shook her head gently, and he had the uncomfortable feeling that she was shaking it in pity at his willful ignorance. Her expression was exactly as it had been when he had had that outburst, on the last occasion he had seen her before enlisting.

‘You’re very kind,’ she said. ‘You always were, you know – though now I think of it I’m not sure you ever did know it. He hath ever but slenderly known himself. No, thank you; I’ve said my farewells, and my books will be my note to my friends and allies – especially that one. Read it again for me, will you, when I’ve gone? Just one last time. And try to read it with seeing eyes. I know you can.’

He was blushing now, though he was not sure if it was with childish embarrassment or anger. He had reached out to take her arm, ready to steer her through the Schloss to the great front door; he fancied he could hear the horses pawing the gravel, impatient to return to their stables and the excellent fodder they would receive after this long divergence from their normal routines. But the Professor was holding up her finger as if in remonstrance. Not just yet, her finger was saying; you know very well there is one last thing I have to do before we depart. Do I need to tell you, after all these years?

‘I had better put the book back,’ she said softly. ‘I want to be sure other people will find it in the right place when I am no longer there to find it for them. Wait by the door, my dear; I shan’t be a minute.’ And she turned away, cradling the book in her two great arms like a much-loved infant.

For a moment Captain Abend stood looking after her, as if turned to stone, as if striving to fix her massive form in his memory once and for all, so he could summon it up at will whenever he needed to consult her later in life. He could not have known, of course, that his life would not last much longer – that he would be one of the few casualties of the bloodless revolution of the following year, and that old Marta would find his corpse beneath his desk in an obscure corner of the general’s mansion, a sheaf of papers clutched to its chest as if to defend it against the bullets that had sprayed the building. He had no premonition of such an ending as he watched the Professor walk stiffly to a free-standing bookcase and vanish behind it. He thought only of how he would miss her, in spite of her ugly face, her eccentricity, her air of always knowing so much more than he did about everything – even the things she could not possibly know as well as him, such as life in the army and the ways of generals.

He heard her characteristic sniff from behind the bookcase. He heard a faint thump, as if she had stamped one of her slippered feet on the ancient floorboards – like Rumpelstilzchen, he thought, when he stamped his foot so hard he fell through the floor into endless darkness. What in the world, he wondered, had called that tale to mind? It was not as if she were angry with him – at least, not angry enough to make a hole in the castle floor and tumble through it, disappear without leaving a trace, apart from a heap of golden straw and a woman with a young child in her arms, a newborn baby, sign of the future…

All at once, fear swept through him: a sudden wind of panic blowing in from nowhere. He tensed where he stood and listened intently. There was no sound from behind the bookcase – and this alone was enough to chill his bones. The Professor was incapable of staying silent; she huffed and puffed as she moved around the library, her joints creaked, her slippers scuffed, her dressing gown swished as it brushed against incidental tables and the wheeled wooden staircases that waited to serve her like tame giraffes. And she sniffed constantly; her sniffing had driven him mad when he was a teenager. Why was she not sniffing? Had something happened to her? Could that thump have been the sound of her death?

In rising terror – ridiculous, really, he would think that evening, since he had come to the Schloss, to all intents and purposes, with the task of escorting her to her execution – he lurched forward in a clumsy run. His boots drummed against the floorboards once again with the aggressive tread of an intruder. He rounded the corner of the bookcase, bracing himself for what he would find, and stopped dead, heaving great gulps of vellum-scented air into his lungs. He put out a hand to steady himself against the top of the bookcase. He stood there panting and staring, staring and panting, letting his heartbeats slow to a steady rhythm against his ribs as he struggled to take in the scene in front of him.

Lying on the floor lay the painted volume, wide open at the page where the child was approaching the door with a book in her hands.

Behind the child, the princess lay on her curtained bed, eyes closed, hands neatly folded across her stomach.

Before the child, beyond the door, you could see the edge of the great bay window.

All in the picture was exactly as it had been a few moments earlier.

All except for the monstrous shadow on the floorboards under the window, the shadow of an ogre or a rampant bear.

All except for the hem of an old plush dressing gown, trailing in the air as if its owner had whipped out of sight when the book was opened.

All except for the expression of wild excitement on the young girl’s face as she hurried towards what lay beyond the door, clutching the book as if her life depended on it, her black hair streaming out behind her like a banner.

A sudden draught from the open window caught the edge of the page and flipped it over. The Captain still stood transfixed, staring at the marbled end-papers as if searching for words among the swirls of blue, green, red and muted yellow that marked the space between the story and the world.

 

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