Read Codex Online

Authors: Lev Grossman

Codex (37 page)

BOOK: Codex
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“Right. Okay, well, maybe it's a metaphorical connection,” he said glibly. “Ocean as mother, something like that.” He shaded his eyes as they got used to the light.

She frowned.

“I don't think so. It would be anachronistic to—”

“Fine, fine! Hurry up, you're making me nervous. Just tell me what it means.”

“It means nothing in itself. But I checked the other illuminations, and the same thing is true of them. None of them has any real relationship with the text around it.

“After I stared at them for a while, I decided to make a list of all the letters that the scribe had chosen to illustrate. I was thinking of the
Hypnerotomachia Poliphili,
in which the author spelled out a love letter using the first letters of each chapter. He was a monk, and no one noticed until after he was dead. But that's not what happened here. The codex has thirty-four historiated initials, but they don't spell anything at all. Look, I wrote them out in order.”

Margaret showed him a page from her notebook with the letters copied out in order:




“I kept turning them over and over in my head, playing with them, trying different combinations. I don't know why. It took me a long time, but eventually I came up with this.”

She turned a few more pages, all of them densely covered with letters and scribbles and erasures. At the bottom of the last page, underlined twice, was this sentence:




Edward looked at the page, then at her, then back at the page again. He relaxed. His chest filled with a warm puddle of relief.

“Margaret,” he said gently. “You don't understand, this could just be by chance. You could make any number of words by rearranging those letters. It's like a Rorschach blot—it doesn't prove anything. And even if it did, what would it prove?”

“I thought of that,” she said. “But there's something else, something I need to show you. I tried to think of a way to test the theory, so I went back to the illustrations. I reordered the pages of the codex so that the illuminated letters spelled out the words I came up with. I want you to look at what I found.”

She stood up and indicated that Edward should sit down in her place. He did so, reluctantly, and she put a stack of pages in front of him; given their condition, it was more of a heap. He began to read through them in order, ignoring everything except the illuminated letters.

His resistance crumbled. He saw what she saw, and what she saw was real. Arranged in their new order the pictures formed a coherent, recognizable narrative—a story. The first illustration was of a young man with short wavy hair and a fringe of reddish beard, standing by himself inside the arc of a giant red
He had the simple cartoon eyes that faces in medieval paintings have, plain but expressive—he looked a little apprehensive, as if he had a fair idea of what was in store for him and he wasn't all that happy about it. He was dressed humbly, and he held a quill pen in one hand and a small knife in the other. On a table beside him lay an open book. Its pages were blank.

“G for ‘Gervase,'” whispered Margaret.

He shushed her.

“I get it.”

The second letter—an O—introduced a noble couple. They were posed like figures in a cameo, the woman pretty and slender, with a becomingly weak chin, the man very erect, with dark ringletty hair and a long, sharp nose. He wore a navy blue doublet and a weird floppy hat. He regarded Edward from the page with dignity.

Over the next few pages the same three characters recurred again and again, alone and in groups, posed in a variety of settings. Sometimes there was a miniature castle behind them, waist-high like a doghouse and hopelessly nonperspectival; once the nobleman was alone, hunting, surrounded by a circle of whippet dogs. The young man joined the couple, apparently in the capacity of a high-ranking servant. He was shown laboring at clerical tasks, treating with merchants and counting stacks of coins. Sometimes he wrote with his pen in the book, and sometimes the noblewoman read from the book. The whole effect was like seeing a montage of still frames from a movie. Time passed. The sun rose and set. Seasons changed. After a while the husband with the ringlets appeared less and less often.

Edward knew what he was looking at. It was an Easter Egg, just like the Artiste's, but hidden inside the codex for him to find. It reminded him of something the Duchess had written in that bizarre letter—hadn't she said something about getting her pages properly sorted, getting them back in order? How much had she known? At least, he thought, this proves she wasn't crazy. Halfway through the story there were two especially lavish and realistic paintings set inside the twin Os in the word
. In the first the young servant and the pretty, weak-chinned noblewoman were posed alone together. Her hand rested protectively on his chest. In the second she was nursing a child, her hand supporting a neat hemispherical tit like a Madonna's. As if the point needed any further clarification, the child had wavy red hair.

Edward paged through the rest of the codex quickly. The remaining pages recapitulated a similar sequence of images, but in reverse order: The young man was seen less and less often, and when he appeared he was alone, writing. The film was running itself backward. The Duchess was pictured more often with her husband, or reading by herself. The penultimate image showed the noble couple together, with the growing child between them. The very last initial, a lavish golden
showed the young man alone again, quill in hand. His eyes were the same as before: hooded, unhappy, penetrating. The sky behind him had darkened to an inky blue-black, swarming with bright white stars. The book open on the table next to him was now full of writing.


at the last picture for a long minute. The blank eyes of Gervase of Langford looked back at him, and their gazes met across the centuries. Edward folded his arms and stared back at the page.
he thought.
What do you expect me to do about it?

Or maybe Gervase wasn't asking him for something, maybe he was trying to tell him something. Maybe he was trying to warn him. Despite the lateness of the hour, Edward made an effort to concentrate. After all, this was the great secret that they'd rescued from within so many other nested secrets within secrets—from a game within a game, then a book within a book, then another book hidden inside that one. Gervase had tried to escape out of his own world with the Duchess, and in the end he'd finally done just that. And look what it had gotten him. The eyes just looked blank now, but there was darkness there, black misery, Edward recognized it—misery was still misery, and six hundred years of history hadn't done anything to improve it. The more he stared the more the blackness in Gervase's eyes frightened him, like the darkness of that blind canyon in the
that the knights had plunged into, never to return. Pain was there, Edward thought. And death. He shifted uncomfortably on Margaret's hard chair. Gervase knew about escape, he knew about trying to live out a fantasy life, and all he'd gotten for it were loss and hurt and an early grave. He'd wandered off the straight path, and he'd fallen on the sharp hungry rocks that waited below. There was danger there for him too, for Edward, and it was close, very close....

Edward closed his burning eyes and shook his head. Snap out of it, he thought. No point in making connections where there weren't any. As Margaret would say, not everything means something. He pushed the pages away from him.

Margaret lay on her side on the bed, her eyes closed. He thought she'd fallen asleep, but somehow she sensed he was done and raised her head.

“Did you see it?” she asked.

“I saw it.”

“But did you see?” She sat up all the way. “Do you see what this means? My God. Gervase of Langford fathered the Duchess of Bowmry's child and left it to be raised as the Duke's. He must have been in love with her after all.”

“I saw.”

“But it's so perfect. It makes so much
” Her hands were pale fists on her bare knees, and her eyes burned with scholarly zeal. “There's so much longing in the
such a sense of loss! Why? Because it was written by a man who'd lost his child and his lover, but who still had them in front of his eyes every day, and could never touch them! His life was an emotional wasteland. That's where Cimmeria came from. Maybe this was for his son—Gervase must have thought he might find it one day.”

“Right.” Edward rubbed his sandy eyes. He checked the windows, but it was still dark out. It felt like a week had passed in the last twelve hours.

“This could be it—don't you get it? The missing piece of the puzzle! No wonder his reputation was ruined in London, it must have been all over the city. My God, this changes everything. Instead of writing pious little fables, or press releases in verse for his patrons, or love poetry, he was writing this—this glorious, godless, escapist romance about knights and monsters. No wonder he was passed over! Gervase was the first educated man in England to discover reading for pleasure. The Duchess must have known, too.” He could see the gears of her mind gripping and turning, picking up speed, gathering mental torque. “Maybe that's how he won her—like Paolo and Francesca, remember? The couple who were seduced by a book?”

“That's a big leap to make from a bunch of cartoons, don't you think?” Edward said. He should have been elated, but instead his mind was muzzy and irritable. He found himself perversely wanting to deflate her, to poke holes in her theory.

“Maybe.” Margaret flopped down on the bed and stared up at the blank white ceiling. “It's right, though, I know it is. It's too perfect. What do you think the Duchess will do with it?”

“I don't know,” he lied. “I'm not sure.”

Of course he knew what she would do with it. It would become a weapon, or a hostage, in her little internecine war with the Duke. If the Duchess had borne Gervase's child, then the Duke's precious lineage was compromised, tainted by bastardy and infidelity, and she had the means to prove it. God knows when or if Margaret would ever get her chance at the codex. Edward sat at her desk and rested his chin on his folded hands. He had decisions to make, but he lacked the will to make them. He gazed dumbly at the ancient leaves. He could sense her rewriting her dissertation in her head. She probably wanted him to leave so she could get to work right then and there.

“It's an amazing discovery,” he said, playing along. “If it's true. It'll absolutely make you famous.”

She nodded, but he could tell she wasn't listening. Outside in the night a distant siren wailed. Somebody or something knocked the lid off a trash can and sent it rolling noisily for an improbable length of time, on and on, until it finally came to rest with a grand tympanic crash. It was after five now, and the sun would be up soon. A crushing wave of fatigue rose up and broke over him, obliterating all further thought. He stood up, switched off the light, and collapsed back into bed.

Margaret lay facing away from him. Her ponytail poked him gently in the face, and he tenderly disentangled the pink rubber band that held it together and launched it away into the darkness with his thumb and forefinger.

“You can't stay here,” she whispered after a while.

“Why not?”

He kept on stroking her hair.

“I have people coming tomorrow morning.”

“What kind of people?”

“Just people. Visitors.”

She wriggled a little under the covers, getting more comfortable.

“That's okay,” said Edward. “People like me. I'm a people person.”

There was a long pause. He was almost asleep.

“Just a couple of hours,” he whispered. “Then I'll go. I promise I'll go.”

She didn't answer, but he heard her setting the alarm clock she kept by her bed.



Edward didn't even sit up in bed. He just turned over on his back and put the phone in the general vicinity of his ear and left it at that. He was back in his own apartment: Margaret had kicked him out at dawn, as promised, and after searching for a cab for what felt like hours up and down shuttered, deserted, trash-strewn stretches of Flatbush Avenue he'd finally given up and taken the subway home. He'd been asleep for half an hour, a delicious, cloud-strewn, rainbow-tinted half-hour of unconsciousness, when the phone rang.

“Edward?” the Duchess repeated, less patiently. “Are you there?”

“I'm here.”

“You sound strange. Is something wrong?”

Edward thought about that for a while, weighing both sides of the question equally and taking into account the full scope and complexity of the circumstances before he answered.

“I'm fine,” he said.

“You left a message on the machine.” She was in her imperious mode, her voice hard and urgent, brushed steel. “What's happening? Do you have another lead?”

He was still at the disadvantage of an asleep person talking to an awake person, but he cleared his throat.

“Blanche, I have it,” he managed. “We have the codex. We found it last night.”

“Oh, thank God!” she whispered.

The Duchess disappeared, and there was the clunk of the phone hitting something hard. In the background he heard a big, theatrical sigh of relief, then a hysterical laugh which sounded scarily close to a sob. Edward sat up in bed. He thought he could hear her breathing heavily. It took another half minute for the Duchess to pick up the phone again.

“Thank God, I thought we'd never find it!” she said cheerily, as if nothing had happened, as if he'd just told her that he'd found his lost contact lens. “Not that I was much help, was I? Where are you?”

BOOK: Codex
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