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Three or fourtimes a week, it comes.
Not a dream: closer to a vision, apart from her but obscurely meant for her, too.
And each time the vision converges on a man. Working late into the evening. Streaks of sweat across his brow and neck. His head bowed—in prayer, she thinks, except she has never heard a prayer quite like this.
"Ex nihilo . . ."
Lapis stones clatter in a copper pan.
". . . nihil . . ."
Beneath the copper, a tallow flame crackles into life.
". . . fit."
A pewter mist billows up, then resolves into a powder. The air grows heavy with current. The man thrusts up his hands and roars. Four centuries later, she can still hear him.
"Long live the School of Night!"
Three new marriadges here are made
One of the staffe and sea Astrolabe
Of the Sonne & Starre is an other
Which now agree like sister & brother
And charde and compasse which were at bate,
Will now agree like a master & mate.
"Three Sea Marriages"
Washington, D.C. September 20091
Against all odds, against my own wishes, this is a love story. And it began, of all places, at Alonzo Wax's funeral.
Now I'd known Alonzo pretty much all my adult life, but in the months after his death, I learned a surprising number of things about him. For instance, he chased his morning shots of Grey Goose with Rocky Road. He had never read a word of Alexander Pope—too modern—but he followed every single comic strip in The Washington Post (even "Family Circus"). He was a sneak and a liar and a thief and would have slain every grandmother he had for an original edition of Bussy d'Ambois. And he loved me.
But in those early months of mourning—or whatever it was we were doing about Alonzo—the biggest surprise was this: He had become Catholic. And had never gotten around to telling his parents, loosely observant Rockville Jews who found the baptism certificate while sorting through his filing cabinets. After some family debate, Alonzo's sister Shayla began shaking the trees for priests, until a friend told her that suicide was a mortal sin for the Church. So she opted to hold the memorial service at the Folger Shakespeare Library, which, in addition to being marble, was home to the world's largest collection of printed Shakespearean works and to a small mountain of preserved and cataloged Elizabethiana. The Folger, in other words, was engaged in roughly the same business as Alonzo had been: ransacking boxes and chests for centuries-old documents that were, in most cases, considered highly disposable by the original writers.
Shayla was glad to have missed the incense, but something else struck her as she stood greeting mourners at the entrance to the great hall.
"Henry," she whispered. "I forgot. I hate lutes."
It could have been worse, I reminded her. The last memorial service I'd attended at the Folger was for a Buddhist restaurateur, and we were subjected to an hour of Tibetan music: finger cymbals and skull drums and, glowering over everything, a massively built throat singer, swaddled in goatskin, belching up chord after chord.
"And besides," I added, "the lute quartet was your idea."
"You know, I thought maybe they'd bring a viol. Or an hautboy."
"That's how it works. An Elizabethan collector dies, out come the lutes."
More than lutes. Significant People had come to pay respects to Alonzo, and here and there, framed by long swords and halberds, one could make out the graven profiles of More Than Usually Significant People. An assistant librarian of Congress, a Smithsonian undersecretary, an ambassador from Mauritius . . . even a U.S. senator, longtime friend and beneficiary of the Wax family, who worked the room as deftly as if it were a PAC breakfast. Alonzo, I thought, would have been appalled and flattered all at once.
"Did I mention you're his executor?" Shayla said.
She turned just in time to catch the look on my face.
"If you want to pass," she said, "I'll understand."
"No. I'm honored."
"There's some money in it, I think. Not a lot . . ."
"Does it matter if I don't know what I'm doing?"
"No," she said. "Your remarks—that's all you need to worry about today."
She narrowed her eyes at me. The stripe of unretouched hair along her scalp shone like war paint.
"You did prepare, right, Henry? Alonzo hated stammering; you know that."
For that very reason, I had written my remarks on index cards, but as I laid them in ranks across the podium, they filled me with a strange revulsion. And so, at the last instant, I decided to wing it. I gazed out across those three-hundred-plus mourners, spread across nearly three thousand square feet of terra-cotta tile, under a massively vaulted strapwork ceiling . . . and I went deliberately small. Which is to say, I spoke about meeting Alonzo Wax.
It was the first day of our freshman year, and Alonzo was the very first student I met, and because I didn't know any better, I thought all students were like him. ("I'm sorry now they weren't," I said.) The first thing Alonzo did was to offer me a tumbler of Pimm's—he kept it in a tiny cut-glass container in his hip pocket. And when he found out I was planning to major in English, he demanded my opinion of A Winter's Tale. I got out maybe three sentences before he cut me off and told me how benighted I was. (" 'Benighted' was the exact word.") And when I told him I'd never read Chapman—well, I thought he was going to wash his hands of me then and there. Instead, he invited me to dinner.
"It was a real dinner," I said. "With courses. He explained to me that university food was a known carcinogen. 'Of course, the science has been suppressed,' he said, 'but the findings are unanimous. That shit will kill you.' "
Before I could retrieve them, the words—kill you—went shivering through the climate-controlled air. And in that moment, yes, I wished I could turn the clock back to Elizabethan days, when this great hall would have been a_hive of distraction. Masques and plays and dances. Rushes covering the floor, dogs roaming free, a smell of agriculture everywhere. My voice just one thread among many.
Alonzo, I hurried on, paid for our meal, as he usually did. The tip was about the same size as the bill. And he allowed as how my ideas on Winter's Tale weren't quite so daft as he first thought. But I should still read Chapman.
" 'You'll never get anywhere,' he said, 'until you find a nice minor poet.' "
I stacked my unused index cards in a nice little pile. I squinted down at the finish line.
"Alonzo's self-assurance seemed to me something colossal. I was just this kid from the burbs, and here was this guy my own age carrying himself like a professor. And the real professors, they were as scared of him as I was, and why wouldn't they be, he was—"
He was what? I can't now remember what I was going to say because she, in effect, finished the sentence for me. Or began another one altogether. Just by walking into the great hall.
At least forty minutes late.
To this day I'm not sure I would have noticed her if she'd dressed properly. Like the rest of us, I mean, in our black wool and crepe. She was wearing an old-fashioned A-line dress, cotton—scarlet!—tight in the bust, loose and jovial in the skirt. She walked like somebody who was used to wearing such a dress. She looked more comfortable than anyone else in the room.
Nobody said a word to her. We were all probably just waiting for her to see her error. Oh, the wedding's across the street! At the Congregational church!
But she gave no sign of having come to the wrong place. She took a seat at the end of the third row and, without embarrassment, turned her attention on the speaker.
Who was me.
I had briefly forgotten this.
"Alonzo," I said, "was a—a great collector, we all know that. That's why there are . . . so many of us here, right? But to me, nothing in his collection was . . . ever as unique as he was. So . . ."—Finish. Finish—"so that's what I'll remember."
Who spoke after me? I couldn't tell you. By the time I sat down, I was gathering data. A tough job, because she was two rows behind me and slightly northward, which meant I had to wheel about in my seat at regular intervals and pretend I wasn't being the most irksome guy in the room. Somehow, through the heads and hats, sections of her came back to me. A_profusion of dark hair. A creamy arm, draped across the back of her chair. And, most enticing of all, a ledge of collarbone, striking a note of pioneer resilience against the slenderness of her neck.
And then, from the podium, came the throbbing contralto of Alonzo's mother.
"My heart is so full," she said. "So very full to see all these people gathered to honor my son."
You might suppose I felt guilt. Given that, in this moment, I wasn't honoring her son. You would be half right. But here's the thing. You can get just as lucky at a funeral as at a wedding. In fact, luckier. Someone always needs to be comforted.
And Alonzo, more than anyone else, would have guessed how complicated the act of grieving him would be. He'd left behind no children. He'd never courted sentiment, he'd never courted anything—or anybody. But all the same he understood me. Just come back when you're done, I could hear him saying. There's a letter I want to show you in the Maggs and Quaritch catalog. Written to the Laird of Craighall . . .
And so, by the time the service was over, I believed I had his full dispensation to proceed. But as I stood up, another woman's voice rang after me.
Lily Pentzler. Short-waisted and long-abiding. Braced like a professional wrestler, tufts of gray hair straggling over carob eyes, a stack of cocktail napkins in each hand. An air of harassed charity, not specific to this occasion.
"Do you need help?" I asked.
"Do I need help?"
Lily was Alonzo's amanuensis. I use that word because that's how it was printed on her business cards. "It means picking up the master's scraps," she once explained. Exactly what she was doing now.
"The security kept us waiting for nearly an hour," she told me. "The florist screwed up and sent lilies. Alonzo hated lilies. The caterer just got here. Just. Got. Here. People, before they go and, you know, harm themselves in some definitive way, should be required—and I'm talking beyond congressional mandate, Henry, a level of divine mandate that says, 'Know what? Before you do it, organize your own memorial service, 'kay? Buy the wreath, set up the open bar. Hire the fucking caterers and then kill yourself.' "
"I can see your point."
"This"—the piles of napkins began to teeter—"this will have the effect of ending suicide as we know it."
"Do you need any help?" I asked again.
She looked at me.
"We've missed you, Henry. You haven't been by to see us lately."
"Oh, yeah. Kinda busy. Teaching gig. The freelance thing. This, that . . ."
"The next thing," she said, eyeing me closely.
"Well, come by later, anyway. There's a wake at five. We're taking over the top floor of the Pour House, and Bridget is going to sing something mawkish and out of period. 'Last Rose of Summer,' I think. On second thought, save yourself."
She smiled then, just a little bit, and, pivoting slowly, labored toward the banquet table, which was nearly as tall as she was.
By now, no more than a minute had passed, but it was enough. The woman in scarlet was nowhere to be found. Through the great hall I wandered, half inspecting the crossbow bolts and the digitalized First Folio with the touch screen that made the pages turn like magic, and I was aware only of my own defeat, growing around me.
Until at my eastern periphery, like dawn, a long pale arm materialized, pushing against the oaken entrance door.
She was leaving. As quietly as she had come.
And here again fate intervened. Not Lily Pentzler this time but Alonzo's grandfather, ninety-eight, who believed I was his great-nephew and couldn't be told otherwise. Loosening his ancient-mariner grip required the intervention of the actual great-nephew, a pet insurance salesman from Centerville, Virginia. I took three long strides into the entry hall, I shoved open the door, stood there in the blinding heat. . . .
She was gone.
No one but me standing on those marble steps in the early-September blast. Sweat tickled through my collar, and around me rose a smell like burning tires. Magnolias were growing, crape myrtles, and not much else.
Hard to explain the dejection that swept over me. I was a man in my mid-forties, wasn't I? Disappointment was my daily gruel. Back on the wheel, Henry.
And then I heard someone call after me:
"Well, there you are!"
So much familiarity in the tone that I braced myself for another of Alonzo's relations. (The Waxes were a mighty tribe in their day.) This was someone else, a man in early winter: silver-haired, handsome and rawboned, and erect. Hale with a vengeance: his skin looked like someone had gone at it with pumice. He took my hand and held it for perhaps a second too long, but his smile was benign and vaguely dithering. In a BBC sitcom, he'd have been the vicar. He'd have ridden in on a bike with big panniers.
"Mr. Cavendish," he said (and indeed the accent was British), "I wonder if I might have a word with you."
This is where my little track of linearity breaks down. Because when he next spoke, it was as if he'd already spoken. And it was as if Alonzo was speaking, too, from his watery grave. And maybe some part of me was chiming in. All of us in the same helpless chord, not quite in tune but impossible to disaggregate.
"The School of Night."
Excerpted from The School Of Night by Louis Bayard
Copyright 2011 by Louis Bayard
Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company
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