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Authors: John Cowper Powys

The Brazen Head

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JOHN COWPER POWYS

THE BRAZEN HEAD

Dedicated to

 

GILBERT TURNER, F.L.A.

It did not take Lil-Umbra long with her fifteen-year-old legs and her slender figure to scamper down the quarter-of-a-mile avenue of over-arching elms that led due eastward from the Fortress of Roque, where she lived, to the ancient circle of Druidic stones that had come to be known as “Castrum Sanctum”. Once only did she pause: and that was because something about the manner in which all the smaller twigs at the end of one of the branches clutched at each other and then let each other go arrested her attention. It made her think of a young man called Raymond de Laon: but she could not have explained to anyone, just why it did.

The avenue sloped down all the way from the Fortress of Roque to the camp, but before it reached the latter, which was a grassy enclosure littered with broken stones, the smoothness of its gradual descent was checked and impeded, or, if you were bold enough to take them in a flying leap, accelerated, by a couple of rather high and very massive marble steps.

Lil-Umbra had already made up her mind, after seeing each of her brothers come down with a disturbing if not a disastrous collapse, that such wild jumps were beyond what was expected even from a maid “of true Abyssum spirit”, as she had once heard herself described by her father to her mother. So she turned half round as she clambered down each of these two steps, touching with the tips of the fingers of one hand the slippery marble and giving a little tap on the ground with the toe of the foot that first came down, to make sure she wouldn’t slip or slide. Once safely on the level grass of the Castrum Sanctum she ran with a quick bounding step to three tall
perpendicular stones which stood side by side in the centre of the enclosure.

During the whole of that January there had scarcely been one night of thaw, and as this was the dawn of the
twenty-ninth
and in a couple of days it would be the first of February, the day which was her father’s birthday, she had a particular reason of her own for approaching at this early hour those three upright stones.

It was Lil-Umbra’s special desire to see the sun rise that morning while the waning moon was still visible in the sky, but she never would have dared to dodge both Nurse Rampant and the Nurse’s assistant, old Mother Guggery, not to speak of Lady Val, her own devoted mother, if she hadn’t made an appointment to meet a person, not only respected by them all, but one who was intimately lodged in Sir Mort Abyssum’s trust and confidence.

This was none other than a gigantic Tartar whose life Sir Mort had saved when they both were surrounded in a
half-crusading
, half-plundering skirmish in Dalmatia, by an
overpowering
group of reckless Arab spearmen; and who in
desperate
gratitude had become his devoted slave for life.

Both the man’s parents had been now for a long time dead. Giants of his size were very rare among Mongolian Tartars but, all the same, Peleg inherited his gigantic stature and strength from his Tartar mother, while his name Peleg showed that his father was a Jew, and indeed the original Peleg, too many thousands of years ago to be numbered in centuries, was none other than the grandson of Salah who was the grandson of Shem who was the son of Noah.

But it was certainly no thought of Noah or any other Hebrew patriarch that drew from Lil-Umbra her cry of excited delight the moment she saw Peleg crouching behind one tall Druidic stone in that broken circle. She scampered up to him at once and when she found he was asleep she had no compunction about snatching at his sleeve and jerking it up and down to waken him.

Had the rounded rim of the suddenly-risen Sun not become at that moment a living presence in the very place where, only a pulse-beat before, there had been nothing but the deepening of a wide golden glow diffused over the whole horizon, it is
likely enough that Peleg might have received a bewildering shock from Lil-Umbra’s leap into the enchanted pool of his dreams.

She certainly plunged in with a splash and the way she shook the giant’s sleeve was enough to have jerked any ordinary mystery-loving Mongolian out of the happiest
phantasmagoria
of delectable dreams.

But the sight of that red rim, all the redder from the patches of snow on the slope of the ridge and the nakedness of the
tree-trunks
between which it appeared, conveyed to the man in a flash the whole situation. The first move he made was to alter with scrupulous care the position of the colossal iron mace which was his habitual companion and which was surmounted by a round ball as big as any ordinary man’s head entirely covered by iron spikes. This weapon, which had been lying across his knees as he slept, with his back to the tallest stone of that forlorn remnant of a Druidic Circle, he now laid
carefully
on the frozen grass at his side and welcomed his master’s daughter with a grave smile.

That little lady, delighted at having so successfully thrust her slight warmly-clad boreal body between the ancestral pillars of the mystic avenue to her friend’s oriental dream-dome, didn’t restrain herself in the least, now that he was awake, from pelting him with a shower of questions, confessions, declarations, and suggestions.

But it was not long before the gigantic Oriental and the young European were equally under the spell of that magnetic red orb which did not take many minutes to be half-way over the ridge that formed the eastern horizon of the Manor of Roque.

The Manor had only been in Sir Mort’s hands for a little over twenty years; but that had been quite long enough for himself and Lady Val, and their sons Tilton and John who were approaching twenty and their daughter Lil-Umbra, who would be sixteen in a month, to have grown intimately familiar with the fitful moods of the seasons in this part of Wessex, and with the particular enchantments worked upon this landscape by the Sun and the Moon in their variable seasons.

All five of them, the parents equally with their children, had established between themselves and both these heavenly bodies
those private, individual, and even secretive personal
relations
that most human beings on this earth, whether old or young, though with very different degrees of intensity,
instinctively
reach.

“Well, here I am, Peleg!” gasped the young girl. “And O! how red the Sun is! It’s almost frighteningly red, isn’t it—rather like the Sun in that window in the Priory chapel—you know the window I mean?—that they say is a picture of the Last Day, when both Sun and Moon are to be soaked in blood. What things they do tell us, Peleg! I don’t believe a word of it; do you? I bet you don’t, any more than I do! It’s getting too much what these priests and monks tell us! Has John talked to you about what they’ve done to his master Friar Bacon, the learnedest man in the kingdom? Shut him up, they have, because he won’t believe their lies; and when he wants books and things—things he
has
to have if he’s to work at his inventions—they do their best to stop him from getting them!

“Do you know what came into my head the other day, Peleg? And it was because of that that I wanted you to show me the Moon this morning—no! wait a second——” and the girl laid her hand on the back of the tightening and stiffening fingers by which the man was preparing to heave himself up from the ground—“It came into my head that perhaps even my father didn’t really believe in all the things they try to make us swallow—and I can tell you myself of one person who doesn’t, and that’s Raymond de Laon of Cone Castle over there”—and she waved her hand, the one that wasn’t being used to prevent his getting up, in a direction to the left of the now blazing Sun—“Raymond doesn’t even believe that Pontius Pilate wrote ‘King of the Jews’ upon the Cross—and think, Peleg, how exciting it would be if I were more like Father in my secret thoughts than like Mother or Nurse or old Guggery or Prior Bog. What do you yourself think about all these things?”

The giant Tartar evidently thought that if he could get to his feet and convey this eager sceptic to a small eminence, only about three hundred yards away, the sight of the waning Moon, which he had himself just seen from that particular vantage-ground, would turn her mind away—at least on this
particular occasion—from Pontius Pilate and the
Crucifixion
. He therefore proceeded to heave himself to his feet, murmuring as he took Lil-Umbra’s hand tenderly but firmly in his own, “’Twere to see the Moon it was that you came, little lady, weren’t it? To see the Moon from where your old Peleg do know every look of her, and every look of the belly and horns of her, aye! do know to a sliver which way her horns do point when she be rocking and floating like a ship without a mast and without a sail, a ship that’s got lost in a sea of air, a ship that can do naught but watch that air change into an ocean of black darkness.”

Muttering this musical monody to the Moon as if the Moon could hear every word of it, though neither Lil-Umbra nor himself could yet catch the faintest sign of her, Peleg led his companion down declivity after declivity filled with dead bracken-stalks and flowerless gorse-bushes, and across a few small rivulets that the girl could easily jump, and through one extremely unpleasant strip of boggy marshland, across which she allowed him to carry her, till they reached at last the place he had in his mind, which was a stone seat, made not by man but by nature, and a seat so prophetical that it might well have been the throne of a great paleolithic astrologer.

Upon this throne of stone they both sank down; and there was a deep silence between them. While this silence was
lasting
on and on, and while both these two beings, this
middle-aged
giant whose Jewish blood had endowed him with a more intellectual brain than people realized, and whose Mongolian instincts had from the start provided that brain with a reservoir of thick, rich, massive, sensuous impressions, and this
high-strung
, wrought-up, magnetically vibrant little daughter of Sir Mort and Lady Valentia, were giving themselves up, in the same absolute abandonment, to the spell thrown out by this faint, incredibly fragile waning moon, there had arrived at the Fortress of the Manor of Roque an unexpected company of visitors.

Now it happened that by some inexpliceble telepathic power the gigantic Mongol became aware of this unexpected
intrusion
; and it was a deeply trobling question to him whether to communicate to Lil-Umbra or not this sudden interruption. It was in psychic matters of this sort that Sir Mort completely
underrated Peleg. It had always been the physical
tremendousness
of the Tartar’s strength he needed.

He had never concerned himself very much with what went on in the man’s private thoughts. One curious thing just then about the feelings of Peleg and Lil-Umbra as they yielded together so utterly to the sorcery of the Moon, while the giant wondered if it would be wise or not to speak of his new
knowledge
, was the way they were dominated by an irresistible inhibition against turning round to look at the Sun!

They both felt in some obscure half-conscious way that it would be dangerous and unlucky to turn towards that now fully risen luminary whose warmth they could distinctly feel at the back of their necks. Naturally the warmer the air grew and the more light there was in the sky the paler became the moon at which they were staring.

And the more the presence of the young girl at his side wrought this magic effect upon Peleg’s attitude to the cosmos in general and to the landscape in particular, so the more divine did the Moon appear to him.

After a quick glance sideways at his companion as if to make sure of her sympathy but also secretly to ascertain if she were sharing his weird feeling that unexpected things were happening at the Fortress, he began to address the Moon in words more intimate and personal than Lil-Umbra had ever heard before used either to the Sun or to the Moon.

“O great Goddess,” he prayed, “grant us, we beseech thee, an influence, a virtue, a secret, a touch, a mystery, from the heart of that which continueth, forever! In a few years I shall be an old man. In a few years this maiden will be a proud and beautiful woman and very likely the mother of children. Out of the heart of the Unknown thou hast come upon us, O great Goddess, and into the heart of the Unknown thou wilt soon pass from us. Heal us, therefore, O Goddess, of the hurts and wounds in our souls that ache and bleed today because of the false doctrines about gods and men that have been
inflicted
upon us, false doctrines about all things in heaven and earth!

“Have they not taken on themselves, these priests of pain, these ministers of blood, to invent signs and tokens and
symbols
and sacraments out of privation and deprivation, out of
suppression and frustration, out of denial and negation? Have they not thus defied the revelations made by thy blessed mystery, and turned to nothing the secret of thy holy rapture, of thy sacred madness, of thy entranced, thy transporting ecstasy? Make them give us back the pulse of our life, great Goddess, give us back the beat of our heart, give us back the dance of our blood!”

Lil-Umbra remained silent for a couple of minutes with her face uplifted and her head turned sideways towards the colossal profile of the Tartar giant. There were several rooks and a few crows above their heads, sometimes flapping their great wings in disturbed agitation, and sometimes sailing with rhythmic risings and fallings, up and down between sky and earth.

“If I look at the Sun now,” cried Lil-Umbra eagerly, “it won’t make the Moon angry, will it, Peleg? I can feel it on my neck and I do so want to look straight at it!”

The giant smiled gravely. “Of course, my dear child! Let’s both of us have a good stare at the old Life-Sustainer!”

When they had both turned their heads an inch towards the east, Peleg said quietly: “You’d never believe, would you, that the Life-Lord could shake off all that bloodiness so quickly and be as he is now, nothing but blazing gold.”

It was at this point—perhaps under the influence of the advancing Sun, perhaps under the influence of the receding Moon—that Lil-Umbra felt an overpowering necessity to pour out from her own deepest soul a torrent of youthful revolt against the whole routine of maternal restraint and the whole authority of her old Nurse Rampant and of the still older Mother Guggery, Nurse Rampant’s assistant. What especially she felt impelled to rebel against was the dullness and routine of so much oatmeal and barley-bread and rye-bread and so much vegetable-pottage in place of the rich meats and the intoxicating wines enjoyed by grown-up people; and the sudden inspiration seized her to do this under cover of the rumoured wickedness of Baron Maldung and Lady Lilt and their daughter Lilith, of the Castle known as Lost Towers, which rose out of a swampy expanse of flat treeless country, due north of both the Fortress and the Forest of Roque.

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