Translated and introduced by Sarah Death
This article appeared in the 2014:1 issue.
Insatiably curious, intellectually sophisticated author Gabriella Håkansson says she found the main inspiration for her new trilogy, one part of which has already been published in Sweden to critical acclaim, at the Royal Cast Collection in Copenhagen, which displays some 2,000 plaster casts of famous sculptures spanning 4,000 years of western culture. In her epic tale she vividly evokes an age in which old beliefs and a new industrial age are locked in battle. November 1800 sees the birth of William Fitch-Aldermann, who is soon orphaned and inherits The Temple, his father’s imposing, neoclassical mansion in Harley Street in London. William grows up alone in the mysterious house, surrounded by an army of domestic staff, a profusion of antiques and an array of adult advisers. Who can he trust? His father was the leader of a group called the Dilettanti, a fictional version of an actual society devoted to the worship of the classical deity Priapus in a fervent spirit of enlightenment. The richly textured plot entangles William with libertine fanatics and political traitors, eventually taking him on adventures all over Europe.
A destructive fire, a dramatic birth and sudden death set the story in motion. The extract below is from Chapter IV, entitled ‘Obol’ after a type of silver coin used in Ancient Greece.
Aldermann was also asleep, snoring in a chair just outside Martha Dorothea’s room. After three days and night without sleep, his body had finally given in. His breathing was wheezy and uneven. His heart was thudding in his chest and every so often one of his limbs gave an involuntary jerk.
‘Mr Aldermann, sir!’
Aldermann awoke with a violent jerk. His head was aching damnably and a man with a large monocle was towering over him. Dr Silas. He had his shirtsleeves rolled up and large wet patches on his trousers. In one hand he was holding a bit of linen cloth, soaked in red. Aldermann regarded the blood in surprise and got to his feet. Then he remembered.
And then he remembered everything else, as well. His heart started to gallop like an angry mob raising a hue and cry, out of control. How long had he been asleep?
‘How is she?’
The doctor took a breath and a heavy shadow settled over his face. There were times when silence was preferable.
Aldermann experienced a black, sinking, dizzying sensation. The doctor suddenly felt awfully close. When Silas did not reply, the dizziness resolved itself into uncontrolled terror. His heart ran amok in his chest. He lost all sensation in his arms and legs. A loud roaring filled his head.
‘I’m sorry Gideon,’ said the doctor, putting a warm hand on the top of Aldermann’s arm. ‘She left us about half an hour ago.’
Aldermann gave an involuntary start. The doctor’s hand was disproportionately big and white. Dead man’s grip.
‘I am truly sorry,’ the doctor said again.
He tried to catch Aldermann’s eye, but the old man had turned his head away.
‘Mr Aldermann,’ the doctor said sharply, suddenly scrutinising him with a clinical eye.
Aldermann was standing unnaturally still, as though listening out for something. His breathing was fast and shallow. Then it stopped altogether and he sank back down onto the chair. Finally able to look him in the eye, the doctor saw that his gaze was far, far away. His pupils had dilated into two big, black discs and a blueish vein was pulsating at his temple. It took only a few seconds for the doctor to appreciate what was happening and shout for his assistant.
‘The bag, George! He’s had an attack.’
The doctor grasped Aldermann’s distorted face and tried to shake some life into it. But Aldermann could neither hear nor see any more. In the vacuum between what was said and unsaid, a strange sensation of weightlessness reigned. The outward world faded away and time stopped.
Inside Aldermann, all was silence, and from the dark depths there now emerged a strange vision. He found himself inside the body of his young wife. In a short, intense delirium, he lived through Martha’s final hours. Her pain and anguish radiated into his own flesh. The blood refused to stop flowing and everything became inflamed, swollen and painful. There were brief, concentrated moments of relief just before consciousness faded – moments when the pain abated and all was quiet and still. Suffering turned to rest and tension relaxed into uneasy sleep. Then body and lesions and all the heat and swelling reasserted themselves and the acute, unbearable pain bored tunnels through space. Aldermann’s pain was Martha’s pain and it was as red as the fires of Hell. His fear was Martha’s fear and it was as black as the walls of a hermetically sealed room.
But the strange vision still had not reached its climax.
As Dr Silas’s assistant extracted a flask of smelling salts from the bag and was about to uncork it, a great rent was torn in the wall of darkness. A path appeared and Aldermann followed it. Suddenly he was standing before a man in a black cowl holding an old-fashioned paddle. He recognised him at once. It was Charon, the ferryman who transports the dead to Hades. Now he could see the boat, too. It was bobbing gently at the edge if the water. The leaky wood creaked as the hull was rocked back and forth by the swell.
‘Are you waiting for Martha?’ he asked the man.
‘Martha has already crossed over.’
Then the ferryman extended his crooked hand and something round and cold fell into Aldermann’s palm. A coin.
‘What’s this?’ thought Aldermann, perplexed, and looked over at the boat.
But the boat was no longer there.
There was a man in a white apron in front of him instead. He was remarkably young and looked unnaturally agitated. Little beads of sweat glistened on his brow and he held a brown glass bottle of ammonium carbonate.
‘No reaction, Dr Silas! He isn’t moving’
The young man’s voice rose almost to falsetto pitch.
‘There’s something wrong. Do you think he’s fallen into a catatonic stupor?’ Another, deeper voice answered.
‘Stupor? No, no. It must just be his nerves. Lie him down on the floor.’ It was the doctor. He had taken out his pocket watch and had his hand round Aldermann’s wrist. He looked fixedly at the watch and counted.
‘His pulse is weak. Give him the salts to smell again.’
The assistant craned his sweaty face over Aldermann and looked down into the blackness of his eyes. There was not a flicker of life to be seen. He quickly uncorked the bottle and brought it as close as he could to Aldermann’s nostrils. The old man’s cheek gave a slight twitch but his eyes remained lifeless. Then the salts began to work. All at once, Aldermann’s pupils contracted and his eyes regained their unnatural, icy blue colour. The doctor’s assistant, now even more agitated, was shouting again.
‘He’s coming round, Dr Silas. Good God, he’s coming round!’
‘We’ve got the curtain material! Curtain material for old Aldermann!’
Two sweaty men in coarse work clothes had appeared in the corridor on the second floor, carrying between them a bale of Bohemian linen that they had lugged up the snailshell of the spiral, mahogany staircase.
Dr Silas waved them away irritably. ‘Just go past,’ he muttered impatiently. ‘Hurry up!’
But the workers seemed frozen to the spot. On the floor in front of them lay Gideon Aldermann. His eyes were wide open, staring unseeingly into thin air. Neither of them had seen such eyes before. They sent cold shivers down the men’s spines. At that moment, further down the corridor, a door opened and a man covered in builders’ dust emerged.
‘Get that girder out, Beale!’ he shouted, and waved to the men with the bale of cloth. ‘And you lot down there, come here!’
His voice was rough with alcohol and lack of sleep. He pointed to the far end of the corridor but then he, too, caught sight of Aldermann and abruptly fell silent. Inside the room, one tool after another was laid down. The master mason, the day labourers and all the others involved in the renovations came out into the corridor one after another to view the ailing gentleman. Aldermann was stretched out on the floor, as stiff as a ramrod. His fingers were spread as wide as those of a three-day-old corpse and his feet were pointing straight up to the ceiling. The younger ones took off their caps and crossed themselves, while the older ones looked thoughtful. The doctor tried to make light of the matter.
‘Mr Aldermann has strained his nerves. He’ll come round before long.’
But nobody paid him any attention. It was plain the old man was dead. Then suddenly, a great jolt ran through Aldermann. His feet in their lowheeled yellow slippers began to quiver like the claws of a chicken when you wring its neck. His whole body trembled and shook. With a deep, rattling intake of breath followed by an attack of coughing, the master of the house came back to life. Finding his strength restored to him, he immediately leapt to his feet.
‘Hail Zeus!’ he cried in sepulchral tone. ‘Hail Hera.’
‘But Mr Aldermann,’ exclaimed Dr Silas in amazement, ‘whatever are you saying?’
The doctor made a kindly attempt to push him back down onto the floor. ‘You have just had an attack. You must lie still.’
But Aldermann took no notice. He had the image of Charon etched on his retina and could still feel the chill of the black coin in his hand. He turned to the great statue protruding above the banister by the stairs and fell humbly to his knees.
‘Hail Hermes, messenger of the gods, son of Maia and Zeus – hail to him who pilots human souls to the underworld after death.’
He lowered his head and rested his forehead on the floor in fervent prayer. But it was no normal prayer old Aldermann uttered. The words that came out of his mouth were in lofty Greek and his homage was to the gods of antiquity, several thousand years old. For a few seconds, it was as silent as the grave. None of the onlookers dared breath, petrified as they were by such terrifying blasphemies. The next moment, the master of the house got to his feet and looked round.
Who were these people?
A whole crowd of strange men had formed a ring around him. Their faces were rough and ugly. Their bodies dirty and threatening.
‘What do you want?’
The doctor regarded his patient anxiously. Had he lost his memory, as well?
‘Mr Aldermann, look at me! Do you know where you are?’
Aldermann merely gave a snort and shoved the doctor aside. He glared at the crowd of men.
‘What are you gawping at? Be off with you!’
He threw out his arm threateningly.
‘Do you think I pay for you to stand there and sleep during working hours? Back to work with you, you lazy drones!’
There was nothing wrong with Gideon Aldermann and the workmen knew better than to argue with anyone in authority. In less than no time they had gone back to their building site and shut the door after them. The two men with the bale of cloth dropped their wares on the floor in horror and hurtled down the stairs. They were both newly-converted Swedenborgians and had the Lord of Hosts to thank for their escape from an alcoholic death in the gutter; they had no intention of staying another second in this godforsaken place. The moment they left 45 Harley Street, they went to see the elders of the congregation in Bloomsbury to bear witness to what they had observed. All they had heard was true: Gideon Aldermann was a heathen and idolater.
What they had seen could be confirmed not only by two Christian brothers, but also by twelve workmen in full possession of their senses, who would swear on oath that it was true. Aldermann was an unchristian barbarian who worshipped idols of antiquity.
The rumour which began spreading along Harley Street that very day and then made its way across London, street by street, collected up old assertions and new gossip on its way. Aldermann had sacrificed his wife. Aldermann ate babies. Aldermann worshipped heathen spirits. And everything added to the rumour mill was merely further confirmation of what people had been thinking for several decades. Aldermann had sold his soul to the Devil and could not die.
The ironic aspect of the whole story was that Gideon Aldermann himself had come to entirely the opposite conclusion. When he recovered from his nervous breakdown, he thought he could hear a clock ticking. It was a faint, indistinct sound, but ubiquitously present. For the first time in his long, eventful life, Gideon Aldermann realised that the sand in the hourglass would soon run out. Charon was already waiting for him at the riverside. In the ancient myths, the ferry man demands payment in the form of a coin, an obol, to row the dead across the Styx, and that was why the Greeks put the coin under the tongue of anyone about to be buried. Aldermann now grasped the significance of his vision. Charon had placed it in his hand, as a reminder that it was now his turn to take a seat in the boat. But when? How long did he have left? A month, maybe.
A year, at best.
‘Where is my son?’
Aldermann fixed the doctor with an earnest look.
Dr Silas attempted one last time to make his obstinate patient sit down, but in vain.
‘The wet-nurse took him.’
The doctor pointed lamely to the nursery and Aldermann moved decisively towards the closed door. He had been shaken by his vision and could still feel the coin in his palm. It was cold, hard and invisible. When he saw the three sleeping figures in the bed in the nursery, his heart gave a leap. Their warm, oblivious bodies looked like a Renaissance painting. Their arms rested calmly on the sheets and fine little veins ran beneath their porcelain-white skins. Raphael could not have done it better.
He carefully took his son in his arms and stroked the boy’s forehead. The baby’s eyes reluctantly opened and began slowly flickering between invisible points in his father’s rugged face. Aldermann smiled. The little bundle he held in his arms was the future. All his failures could be made good by his son. His son could put right everything at which he had failed. The boy would be able to do all the things for which he had run out of time. Aldermann was filled with joy. In the course of a few quick heartbeats, he felt content with what he had done in life. He had laboured for half a century to draw up a plan for an era of enlightenment, and through his son, that dream would come true. He saw it in his mind’s eye. Old laws would be burned and new decrees issued. Old buildings would fall and new monuments be raised. Everything for which he had secretly worked would become reality and take concrete form.
But innumerable worries then furrowed his face. The plan was not fully finished. The final pen stroke was yet to be added; the last lines that would complete the work and elevate it to perfection. Would he really have time to finish it all?