Authors: The Amulet of Samarkand 2012 11 13 11 53 18 573
It was a painting of boats sailing up a creek, surrounded by mudflats and low
countryside. The varnish was so dark with age that the details could hardly be made out, but Nathaniel loved it instantly. He watched Mrs. Underwood hang it on the wall above
"You're to be a magician, Nathaniel," she said, "and that is the greatest privilege that any boy or girl could have. Your parents have made the ultimate sacrifice by giving you up for this noble destiny.
No, don't cry, dear. So in turn you must be strong, strive as hard as you can, and
learn everything your tutors ask of you. By doing that you will honor both your parents and yourself. Come over to the window. Stand on that chair. Now—look over there; do
you see that little tower in the distance?"
"No, that's an office block, dear. The little brown one, over on the left? That's it.
That's the Houses of Parliament, my dear, where all the finest magicians go, to rule
Britain and our empire. Mr.
Underwood goes there all the time. And if you work hard and do everything your
master tells you, one day you will go there too, and I will be as proud of you as can be."
"Yes, Mrs. Underwood." He stared at the tower until his eyes ached, fixing its position firmly in his mind. To go to Parliament... One day it would be so. He would
indeed work hard and make her proud.
With time, and the constant ministrations of Mrs. Underwood, Nathaniel's
homesickness began to fade. Memory of his distant parents dimmed and the pain inside
him grew ever less, until he had almost forgotten its existence. A strict routine of work and study helped with this process: it took up nearly all his time and left him little space to brood. On weekdays, the routine began with Mrs.
Underwood rousing him with a double rap on his bedroom door.
"Tea outside, on the step. Mouth, not toes."
This call was a ritual stemming from one morning, when, on his way downstairs
to the bathroom, Nathaniel had charged out of his bedroom in a befuddled state, made
precise contact between foot and mug, and sent a tidal wave of hot tea crashing against the landing wall. The stain was still visible years later, like the imprint of a splash of blood. Fortunately his master had not discovered this disaster. He never ascended to the attic.
After washing in the bathroom on the level below, Nathaniel would dress himself
in shirt, gray trousers, long gray socks, smart black shoes and, if it was winter and the house was cold, a thick Irish jumper that Mrs. Underwood had bought for him. He would
brush his hair carefully in front of a tall mirror in the bathroom, running his eyes over the thin, neat figure with the pale face gazing back at him. Then he descended by the back stairs to the kitchen, carrying his schoolwork. While Mrs.
Underwood fixed the cornflakes and toast, he would try to finish the homework
left over from the night before. Mrs. Underwood frequently did her best to help him.
"Azerbaijan? The capital's Baku, I think."
"Yes. Look in your atlas. What are you learning that for?"
"Mr. Purcell says I have to master the Middle East this Week—learn the countries
"Don't look so down. Toast's ready. Well, it is important you learn all that 'stuff'—
you have to know the background before you can get to the interesting bits."
"But it's so
"That's all you know. I've been to Azerbaijan. Baku's a bit of a dump, but it is an important center for researching afrits."
"What are they?"
"Demons of fire. The second most powerful form of spirit. The fiery element is
very strong in the mountains of Azerbaijan. That's where the Zoroastrian faith began too; they venerate the divine fire found in all living things. If you're looking for the chocolate spread, it's behind the cereal."
"Did you see a djinni when you were there, Mrs. Underwood?"
"You don't need to go to Baku to find a djinni, Nathaniel—and don't speak with
your mouth full.
You're spraying crumbs all over my tablecloth. No, djinn will come to you,
especially if you're here in London."
"When will I see a freet?"
Not for a long time, if you know what's good for you. Now, finish up quickly—Mr.
Purcell will be waiting."
After breakfast, Nathaniel would gather his school books and head upstairs to the
first-floor workroom where Mr. Purcell would indeed be waiting for him. His teacher was a young man with thinning blond hair, which he frequently smoothed down in a vain
effort to hide his scalp. He wore a gray suit that was slightly too big for him and an alternating sequence of horrible ties. His first name was Walter. Many things made him nervous, and speaking to Mr. Underwood (which he had to, on occasion) made him
downright twitchy. As a result of his nerves, he took his frustrations out on Nathaniel. He was too honest a man to be really brutal with the boy, who was a competent worker;
instead he tended to snap tetchily at his mistakes, yipping like a small dog.
Nathaniel learned no magic with Mr. Purcell. His teacher did not know any.
Instead he had to apply himself to other subjects, primarily mathematics, modern
languages (French, Czech), geography, and history. Politics was also important.
"Now then, young Underwood," Mr. Purcell would say. "What is the chief
purpose of our noble government?" Nathaniel looked blank. "Come on! Come on!"
"To rule us, sir?"
us. Do not forget that our country is at war. Prague still commands the plains east of Bohemia, and we are struggling to keep her armies out of Italy. These are dangerous times. Agitators and spies are loose in London. If the Empire is to be kept
whole, a strong government must be in place, and
means magicians. Imagine the country without them! It would be unthinkable:
would be in charge! We would slip into chaos, and invasion would quickly follow. All that stands between us and anarchy is our leaders. This is what you should aspire to, boy. To be a part of the
Government and rule honorably. Remember that."
"Honor is the most important quality for a magician," Mr. Purcell went on. "He or she has great power, and must use it with discretion. In the past, rogue magicians have attempted to overthrow the State: they have always been defeated. Why? Because true
magicians fight with virtue and justice on their side."
"Mr. Purcell, are
His teacher smoothed back his hair and sighed. "No, Underwood. I was... not
selected. But I still serve as best I can. Now—"
"Then you're a commoner?"
Mr. Purcell slapped the table with his palm. "If you please!
asking the questions! Take up your protractor. We shall move on to geometry."
Shortly after his eighth birthday, Nathaniel's curriculum was expanded. He began
to study chemistry and physics on the one hand, and the history of religion on the other.
He also began several other key languages, including Latin, Aramaic, and Hebrew.
These activities occupied Nathaniel from nine in the morning until lunch at one, at
which time he would descend to the kitchen to devour in solitude the sandwiches that
Mrs. Underwood had left out for him under moist Saran Wrap.
In the afternoons the timetable was varied. On two days of the week, Nathaniel
continued work with Mr. Purcell. On two other afternoons he was escorted down the
street to the public baths, where a burly man with a mustache shaped like a mudguard
supervised a punishing regimen. Along with a bedraggled posse of other small children, Nathaniel had to swim countless lengths using every conceivable style of stroke. He was always too shy and exhausted to talk much to his fellow swimmers, and they, sensing him for what he was, kept their distance from him. Already, by the age of eight, he was
avoided and left alone.
The other two afternoon activities were music (Thursday) and drawing
(Saturday). Nathaniel dreaded music even more than swimming. His tutor, Mr. Sindra,
was an obese, short-tempered man whose chins quivered as he walked. Nathaniel kept a
close eye on those chins: if their trembling increased it was a sure sign of a coming rage.
Rages came with depressing regularity. Mr. Sindra could barely contain his fury
whenever Nathaniel rushed his scales, misread his notes, or fluffed his sight-reading, and these things happened often.
"How," Mr. Sindra yelled, "do you propose to summon a lamia with plucking like this? How?
The mind boggles! Give me that!" He snatched the lyre from Nathaniel's hand and
held it against his ample chest. Then, his eyes closed in rapture, he began to play. A sweet melody filled the workroom.
The short, fat fingers moved like dancing sausages across the strings; outside,
birds stopped in the tree to listen. Nathaniel's eyes filled with tears. Memories from the distant past drifted ghostlike before him....
"Now you!" The music broke off with a jarring screech. The lyre was thrust back at him.
Nathaniel began to pluck at the strings. His fingers tripped and stumbled; outside,
several birds dropped from the tree in a stupor. Mr. Sindra's jowls shook like cold tapioca.
"You idiot! Stop! Do you want the lamia to eat you? She must be charmed, not
roused to fury!
Put down that poor instrument. We shall try the pipes."
Pipes or lyre, choral voice or sistrum rattle—whatever Nathaniel tried, his
faltering attempts met with bellows of outrage and despair. It was a far cry from his
drawing lessons, which proceeded peacefully and well under his tutor, Ms. Lutyens.
Willowy and sweet-tempered, she was the only one of his teachers to whom Nathaniel
could talk freely. Like Mrs. Underwood, she had little time for his
"nameless" status. In confidence, she had asked him to tell her his name, and he had done so without a second thought.
"Why," he asked her one spring afternoon, as they sat in the workroom with a fresh breeze drifting through the open window, "why do I spend all my time copying this pattern? It is both difficult
dull. I would much rather be drawing the garden, or this room—or
She laughed at him. "Sketching is all very well for artists, Nathaniel, or for rich young women with nothing else to do. You are not going to become an artist or a rich
young woman, and the purpose for your picking up your pencil is very different. You are to be a craftsman, a technical draftsman—you must be able to reproduce any pattern you wish, quickly, confidently, and above all,
He looked dismally at the paper resting on the table between them. It showed a
complex design of branching leaves, flowers, and foliage, with abstract shapes fitted
snugly in between. He was re-creating the image in his sketchbook and had been working on it for two hours without a break.
He was about halfway finished.
"It just seems pointless, that's all," he said in a small voice.
"Pointless it is not," Ms. Lutyens replied. "Let me see your work. Well, it's not bad, Nathaniel, not bad at all, but look—do you not think that this cupola is rather bigger than the original? See here?
And you've left a hole in this stem—that's rather a bad mistake."
"It's only a
mistake. The rest's okay, isn't it?"
"That's not the issue. If you were copying out a pentacle and you left a hole in it, what would happen? It would cost you your life. You don't want to die just yet, do you, Nathaniel?"
"Well, then. You simply mustn't make mistakes. They'll have you, otherwise." Ms.
Lutyens sat back in her chair. "By rights, I should get you to start again with this."
"Mr. Underwood would expect no less." She paused, pondering. "But from your cry of anguish I suppose it would be useless to expect you to do any better the second time around. We will stop for today. Why don't you go out into the garden? You look like you could do with some fresh air."
For Nathaniel, the garden of the house was a place of temporary solitude and
retreat. No lessons took place there. It had no unpleasant memories. It was long and thin and surrounded by a high wall of red brick. Climbing roses grew against this in the
summer, and six apple trees shed white blossom over the lawn. Two rhododendron
bushes sprawled widthwise halfway down the garden—beyond them was a sheltered area
largely concealed from the many gaping windows of the house. Here the grass grew long
and wet. A horse chestnut tree in a neighboring garden towered above, and a stone seat, green with lichen, rested in the shadows of the high wall. Beside the seat was a marble statue of a man holding a fork of lightning in his hand. He wore a Victorian-style jacket and had a gigantic pair of sideburns that protruded from his cheeks like the pincers of a beetle. The statue was weather worn and coated with a thin mantle of moss, but still gave an impression of great energy and power. Nathaniel was fascinated by it and had even
gone so far as to ask Mrs. Underwood who it was, but she had only smiled.
"Ask your master," she said. "He knows everything."
But Nathaniel had not dared ask.
This restful spot, with its solitude, its stone seat, and its statue of an unknown
magician, was where Nathaniel came whenever he needed to compose himself before a
lesson with his cold, forbidding master.
Between the ages of six and eight, Nathaniel visited his master only once a week.
These occasions, on Friday afternoons, were subjects of great ritual. After lunch,
Nathaniel had to go upstairs to wash and change his shirt. Then, at precisely two-thirty, he presented himself at the door of his master's reading room on the first floor. He would knock three times, at which a voice would call on him to enter.