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Authors: Peter Ackroyd

Tags: #prose_contemporary, #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective

Hawksmoor (23 page)

BOOK: Hawksmoor
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So it was in some Discomposure of Mind that I coach'd it to Crane Court where the Greshamites, or Fellows of the Royal Society, or Virtuosi, or Mountebanks, or Dogs, dissect the Mites in Cheese and discourse upon Atomes: they are such Quacks as you would desire to Piss upon, and I would rather stay in my Closet than indure one of their Assemblies where they tittle-tattle on their Observations and Thoughts, their Guesses and Opinions, their Probabilities and Conceptions, their Generations and Corruptions, their Increasings and Lessenings, their Instruments and Quantities. And yet it was of Necessity that I waited on Sir Chris.: if I showed him the Draughts, he would approve them instantly, but if I neglected to make them known to him he would at some later time examine them with great Intensity and discover all manner of seeming Faults.

Is Sir Christopher Wren withinne? I ask'à of a mean-faced Porter when I arrived at the Door.

He is with Gentlemen of the highest Importance, says he, and you can on no account be admitted to him. And then he added with a haughty Look: some foreigners are present.

I have Papers of the highest Importance, I replied, and with a severe Countenance (from biting my Lip) I brush'd by him.

There was a great number of People in the Hall, some of whom were known to me by Sight, and i walk'd to the Stairhead so that they might not take Notice of me: for look, they would say, here is Master Dyer, a mean Architect, and no fit Man for our Discourse. I could hear Sir Chris, his Voice and it put me in so sudden a Fear that I could not go near him but walked up into the Repository and Library (which is three Rooms struck into one). I sat here upon a Stool and, to calm my self, surveyed the Books around me: A Discourse on the Air Register lean'd against Hypothesis on Earthquakes which was near to toppling upon A Discourse on Fire and flames. And I could have laughed out loud at these Reasoners engaged in their wise Disputes. I took down from its Shelf Dr Burnet's New System of the World, and saw that some skilful Philosopher had written upon the Frontispiece, IN CONFUTATION OF MOSES; you could as easily set a Mouse-Trap Maker against an Ingineer.

The Repository smelt of Damp and Cole-dust but when I rose quickly to take a sudden Cramp from my right Leg, I knocked my Head against some living Thing above me; I might have scream'd out but, glancing up in Terror, I saw it was a strange Bird petrified and suspended upon a Wire. You have found one of our Rarities, a Voice in a Corner said to me and, squinting into the Gloom, I saw an odd-shaped and melancholy-visaged old man pointing to the Bird upon the Wire. It is a white-fronted Goose from Aegypt, says he, and now beleeved quite Lost from the World. And yet, he adds coming towards me, you know the Poet's words: Nothing is lost when once it is Designed, It is Eternal work when perfect of its Kind.

Quite eternal, says he stroking the Bird's drooping Wing with his Finger, quite, quite eternal: tho', he added quickly, it is also of great Use for our Aerial Mechanicks. I touch'd the Wing of the Bird also, for I could think of nothing to say. You see around you, he goes on, the Relics of many of Nature's kingdoms: in this Bottle you may view a Serpent found in the Entrails of a living Man and there, in that Box yonder, Insects which breed in Man's teeth and flesh; in the wooden Chest beside it, you will see all manner of Mosses and Mushrooms and in there, on that Shelf, certain Vegetable Bodies petrified. There in that Corner, he continues wheeling around, is a Monkey from the Indies which is as tall as a Man, and in this Cabinet here some marine Gems from the Islands of Barbados: the Mysteries of Nature will soon be Mysteries no more; and he snuffled a little as he spoke. But I forget myself, he adds, have you seen the Abortive put up in Pickle which is but newly come? No? Then you must view this Homunculus. At which point he leads me by the Arm to a glass Jar set upon a Table in which the Thing was suspended. We dissect tomorrow, says he, all being well; I am interested for myself in its Mathematicall Ratios.

And then I thought: this Embrio has no Eyes and yet it seems to look upon me. But I spoke out loud to cover my Confusion: What are these Instruments, sir?

You see here, sir, he replied, the Tools of our Profession; here is a Hygroscope which is a practical Invention to show the Moisture or the Dryness of the Air; and at this he gives a little Cough. Then as he entered the main part of his Discourse on Selenoscopes, Muscovy Glasses, Philosophical Scales, Circumferentors, Hydrostaticall Ball- ances, and the rest, my Mind wandred into the following Reflections: such vain Scrutinyes and Fruitless Labours are theirs, for they fondly beleeve that they can search out the Beginnings and Depths of Things.

But Nature will not be so discover'd; it is better to essay to unwind the labyrinthine Thread than hope to puzzle out the Pattern of the World.

And you are acquainted with the Science of Opticks? he asks putting his Face close up to mine.

Do I see Visions, sir? This Answer pull'd him up short and he made no Reply, for those who are not engaged in what is call'd Practical or Useful Learning are now dismissed as meer Verbalists and students of Umbratick Things. But if Usefulnesse be their Rule, I do not know that a Baker or a skilful Horse-leech may not contest with them. I do indeed have some Observations of my own, I now replied as he was about to take his leave of me, which in due Course I shall publish.

Oh sir, says he pricking up his Ears, and what may these be?

They will be my Observations, I told him, on Toasting Cheese By A Candle Without Burning Fingers. And the old man looked at me astonished as I left the Repository and stepped quietly down the Stairs.

Sir Chris, had not yet begun his Discourse to the Assembly, but as I entred the back of the Room he was showing an Experiment with the Air-Pump: a sprightly black Cat was placed in the glass Chamber and in a few Moments, upon Sir Chris, exhausting the Air, it fell into Convulsions and would have expir'd but that the Air was again admitted. He did not Bow to the Assembly who gave him great Applause at this, but brought some peeces of Paper from his Pocket as the Cat, meanwhile, ran screeching through my Legs and out of the Door.

The Company buzzed like Flies above Ordure but, when it had settled itself again, Sir Chris, thus began: Mr Bacon, Mr Boyle and Mr Lock moved the first Springs of this illustrious Society, which is call'd the Royal Society. They are reason enough why we should be gathered here, for it is by their Example that we have learned that the Experimentall Philosophy is an Instrument for Mankind's domination of Darknesse and Superstition (and I crie out inwardly as he speaks: but look behind you), and that through the Sciences of Mechanicks, Opticks, Hydrostaticks, Pneumaticks as well as Chymistry, Anatomy and the Mathematicall Arts we have begun to understand the works of Nature (but not your own corrupcion). This has not been the work of one enlightened Generation only: in the Air, the more accurate history of Winds and Meteors has been achiev'd by the Lord Bacon, Des Cartes, Mr Boyle and others. In the earth, new lands by Columbus, Magellan and the rest of the Discoverers, and the whole Subterranean world has been described by the universally learned Kircher (listen to a few sighes from Hell). The history of Plants has been much improv'd by Bauhinus and Gerhard, beside the late account of English vegetables published by Dr Merret, another excellent Virtuoso of this Society (another giddy son of a Whore). Natural History has found a rich Heap of Materialls in the particulars of the Venae Lacteae, the Vasa Lymphatica, the several new Passages and Glandules, the origination of the Nerves and the Circulation of the Blood (he that is filthy, let him be filthy still). We proceed by Rationall Experiment and the Observation of Cause and Effect: the Ancients pierced meerly in the Bark and Outside of Matter, but the only things that can stick into the Mind of Man are built upon impregnable Foundations of Geometry and Arithmetick: the rest is indigested Heaps and Labyrinths (this is a plain lie). Thus there are many secret Truths which the Ancients have passed over for us to uncover: we have seen the spots of the Sunne, and its conversion about its own Axis; we have seen the laterall Guardians of Saturn and Jupiter, the various Phases of Mars, the Horns of Venus and Mercury (and does not your Heart stop at the Immensity of the Void that surrounds them?) And at last, Gentlemen, Astronomy has taken to herself another Assistant, Magneticks, so that true Science has at last dis- cover'd the Secrets of the Attracted Sea and the Magnetical Direction of the Earth (oh the horror of Waves and the Night). Terrors only confound weaker Minds but such Bugbears were produced by Speculation, and chiefly prevailed in Time past when the old way of Learning flourished (how can you speak of Time past who does not understand the meaning of Time?) Men began to be frighted from their Cradles, which Fright continu'd to their Graves. But from that period in which the real Philosophy appeared there has scarce been any Whisper remaining of such Horrours (and yet for most Men Existence is still no better than a Curse) and every Man is unshaken by those Tales at which his Ancestours trembled: the course of Things goes quietly along in its own true Channel of Cause and Effect. For this we are beholden to Experiments; for although the New Science has not yet completed the Discovery of the True world it has already vanquished those wilde inhabitants of False worlds. And this brings me to the second great work of this Royal Society (the Company shift hither and thither on their Chairs: they long to begone, and their Bollocks are itching for Whores), which is to judge and resolve upon Matters of Fact -whether Camphire comes from Trees, do Horns take root and Grow, can Wood be turned to Stone, do Pebbles grow in Water, what is the nature of petrifying Springs, and such like Questions do concern us (these are meer winter Tales for schoolboys). We take an exact view of the Repetition of the whole Course of the Experiment, observe all the chances and regularities of Proceeding, and thus maintain a critical and reiterated Scrutinie of those Things which are the plain Objects of our Eyes (7, Nicholas Dyer, will give them Things to look upon). This is a learned and inquisitive Age, Gentlemen, a prying and laborious Age, an Age of Industry: it will be as a Beacon for the Generations to come, who will examine our Works and say, It was then that the World began anew. I thank you.

As alwaies, Sir Chris, remained as still as a Statue as they clapp'd him, but he received with every possible mark of Friendlinesse those who came to him after the Company had departed their several Ways.

I held myself in Readiness at the back of the Room, but he seemed to pay no mind to me while I stood there; then, much trembling, I approached him with the Draughts ready in my Hand. Ah Nick, says he, Nick, I cannot be concerned with these now: but come this way, and see something for your Amusement. I was at a Loss for Words (having gone to much Trouble to transport the Upright Planns) but I followed him in company with a very few others into a further Room.

This is a curious Peece of Art, says he, as we enter'd, which I did not make Mencion of in my Discourse; and he pointed to a Landskip which hung before a Curtain. It is moved by clockwork as you shall see, he continues, and thus is it called the Moving Picture. Then he clapp'd his Hands and we watched: indeed it looked as an ordinary Picture but then the Ships moved and sailed upon the Sea till out of Sight; a Coach came out of the Town, the motion of the Horses and Wheels being very distinct, and a Gentleman in the Coach seemed to salute the Company. I stood up and said in a loud voice to Sir Chris.: I have seen this before but I do not know in what Place. And in front of the astonished'd Eyes of the Company I left the Room, walking out into Crane Court where I breathed but uneasily. Then I went directly to my Lodgings, and fell into a profound Sleep.

It was Nat who woke me at the Close of Day. As please you sir, says he putting his Head around the Door, there is a Gentleman below who wishes to speak with you.

I jumped up from my Bed with the Thought that this was the serpent Hayes come to my House to force me to confesse all. I desired him to walk up, in as loud a Voice as I dared, while I swiftly dried the Sweat from my Brow with a peece of Linnen cloth. Yet I came to my Senses pritty fast for I knew that Step upon the Stairs very well; it was not so fast now but still full of Purpose, and in comes Sir Chris, bowing: I came to see how you do, Nick, he says, since you left us so suddenly. And he gave me a cautious Look before smiling at me. I feared you were Sick, he continued, or grew faint from want of Air since the College sometimes stinks of Spirit and Chymick Operations.

I stood uneasily in front of him: I was not sick, sir, but I had other Business and so went on my way.

I was vexed with myself for not studdying your Draughts of St Mary Woolnoth, Sir Chris, went on smiling and speaking softly as if indeed I were a Sick man, are they with you now by any Chance?

I have them here, I replied and took from my Buroe the Uprights and the Ground Platts.

Is this new drawing Paper? he asked as he snatch'd them from me, It has a coarser Surface.

It is my customary Paper, I answer'A but he paid no Heed.

He scrutinised the Draughts but quickly: the little Turret marked A is a noble piece of Work, says he, and I presume the Cornices are of Stucco?

Yes, that is my Purpose.

Good, good. And the Steps? I see no Steps.

They are not marked, but there are Eight: they have a fourteen inch tread and a five inch rise.

That is good, that is resolved upon. Your Draughts are well made, Nick, and this work will stand tryal in a Hurricano, I have no Doubt.

And then he goes on after a Pause: certainly we would have had an old and rotten Church if it had not been for the Fire. He had Time on his Hands, as they say, and now he settled himself into my Elbow Chair: I have long been of the Opinion, says he, that the Fire was a vast Blessing and the Plague likewise; it gave us Occasion to understand the Secrets of Nature which otherwise might have overwhelm'd us. (I busied my self with the right Order of the Draughts, and said nothing.) With what Firmness of Mind, Sir Chris, went on, did the People see their City devoured, and I can still remember how after the Plague and the Fire the Chearfulnesse soon returned to them: For- getfulnesse is the great Mystery of Time.

BOOK: Hawksmoor
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