And when I woke it was in a room which might well have been anywhere in New England. I sat straight up, took a few deep and welcome breaths, and then chuckled. How foolish! I, a man of no less than fifty-five years, frightened near to hysterics by some silly nightmare! Some twisted dream in which I had gone under the earth! What foolishness!
But foolishness it was not. Mine eyes found the window, and at first mistook the darkness beyond for the dead of night. I rose to my feet, strode to the window, flung it open and stuck my head out – and was again confronted by the madness of this city. There it was, looming, nightmarish and alien, across some stretch of the black and silent sea.
I shut the window again and stood well back from it. No dream, this. Fact – hard, cold, lunatic fact.
I stepped – no – stumbled backward, straight into the edge of a credenza standing at the foot of the bed on which I had woken.
It was the bump, I suppose, which alerted the house to my wakefulness. Not five minutes could have passed before there came knocking at the door, and I, being much alarmed and uncertain of my status as possible captive of these people, did not answer it. Instead, I rose from the seat I had taken on the edge of the bed (taken on account of the sudden and unaccountable wobbliness of my knees after my peek out the window), and cast about for something which might be used as a weapon. I found none, but discovered that the credenza which I had of late came near to tripping over played host to a big, thick book. This I took, and holding it in both hands, I prepared to meet my destiny.
Much to my surprise and embarrassment, the door came open to reveal a young woman. Moreover, she was a short, plump, kindly-faced specimen of same, and was carrying a tray of what I saw to be food – sandwiches, specifically.
She looked at me, and I looked at her. Neither of us said anything, for some time.
“Sir?” She hazarded.
“Ma’am,” I replied, still holding the book absurdly in the air between us.
“Um,” she said.
“Hmmph,” I said, on account of the newly growing embarrassment which had of late taken up residence in my gut. I put the book down on the credenza and touched the brim of an imaginary hat toward the young lady.
“Miss,” I managed at last. “I am terribly sorry to have, uh… well. But. Well.”
My words failed me.
“Sir,” the young lady said, performing something along the lines of a curtsy. “Are you hungry?”
I was no such thing.
“Why- yes. In point of fact I am,” I said.
She made the something-not-unlike-a-courtsy-again and stepped into the room. There was a writing desk against the wall beside the door, and atop this she set the tray. Then, she stepped back and enfolded her hands in the folds of her skirt.
“My name is Andrew Barclay, miss.”
She brightened a might.
“Brigitte Allison,” she said, by way of introduction.
“Ms. Allison,” I began. “I hope you’ll excuse my language – but where in the sam hell am I?”
She turned pink as a rose and, unaccountably, curtsied again.
“Sir,” she said. “This is the house of my husband, John Allison. He saw you on the docks, and said you’d come down with the vapors.”
I believe that I spluttered. Vapors, as if I were some French harlot aghast at her first gunfight.
THough, (and thank Heaven this occurred to me before I opened my mouth), perhaps vapors was not so unkind a turn of phrase.
“Yes, well,” I said. And then: “Where is your husband? I must thank him for his kindness.”
She told me that the kindly Mr. Allison was away from the house, on business of some description. THough, she hastened to add, I was welcome to wait for as long as it took for him to return.
So I did.
John Allison returned to the house in what I was informed was the evening. This is a peculiarity of the Deep, where the sun does not rise and the one hour blends seamlessly into the next under the eternal darkness. The Saints, in whose company I had of late found myself, have built a great clock tower in the middle of Jordan. The bells in this tower toll the hour, every hour, with such deafening timbre as to shatter a champagne flute. The saints drunk out of clay mugs, I suspect as a consequence.
The Allisons were of the Saintly persuasion, as I discovered in short order. These are a peculiar people, on several counts. First, it is their custom not to consume alcohol, or any hot beverage. I do not know why this should be, nor does anyone else. It is just something they do. Or rather, do not do.
Secondly, Saintly men are allowed as many wives as will consent to have them. John Allison had two; the plump and kidly Brigitte with whom I was already aquainted, and the stern and spectral Sally with whom I was shortly thereafter to cross paths. It is not my custom to speak unkindly of those who host me in their own home, and so I shall speak of Sally not at all. Let that be that.
Thirdly, the Saints are an enormously secretive bunch. For perhaps three hours I pottered about the little room they had granted me, stewing and waiting and, after a time, eating the sandwiches. On the fourth I could stand it no longer adn went outside, into the prim little hallway beyond my door. I went downstairs, and came out into a living room which was both fine and modest at once, and from there managed to locate the kitchen. Within, I discovered young Brigitte Allison hard at work preparing a dinner for her family.
Once there I loitered, grilling the young Mrs. Allison about all manner of things. She demonstrated an extraordinary ability to answer my questions without actually telling me anything at all. So adept was she at the politician’s art that I scarce noticed the remaining hours passing, and when at last we heard the front door close upon Mr. Allison’s return, I was rather startled to discover that young Brigitte had managed to assemble an entire feast in the interim.
She cleaned her hands on her apron and led me out into the living room, where a tall, slope-shouldered man in middle-age was taking off his coat and hanging it beside the front door. This I took to be Mr. Allison himself, and I was not mistaken. He finished hanging his coat, coughed into the crook of his arm, and turned to take me in.
“Mr. Allison,” I said, stepping forward and proferring my hand for the shaking. He took it, and his grip was firm and dry.
“John Allison,” he said.
“Andrew Barclay,” I said.
“Mr. Barclay,” John Allison said, holding his hands wide and smiling a sad, sad smile. “Welcome to my home.”
“Thank you, sir,“ I said.
John Allison baid me sit, which I did. Then he vanished into another room, and when he returned, I was startled to see what he held in his hand.
It was a bottle of bourbon.
He held it aloft and smiled his sad smile again.
“I do not partake myself,” he said. “But you are not the first gentile to have found himself in my house.”
Later, I would wonder at that. Why this man was allowed so taboo a luxury, even if, as he professed, it was not for his own consumption. In truth, I should have known from the start what I now know of the man.
He conjured a glass from somewhere and poured, rather too much, and passed the glass to me. He took no refreshment of any kind for himself, and eased into an armchair across from me with the air of a man exhausted.
I began by thanking him, profusely, for his kindess in rescuing me from the docks. John Allison inclined his head.
“It happens to some,” he said. “When they first come down. Do not be ashamed.”
I wasn’t, but I took his words as they were intended and sipped my bourban.
“Will you eat with us this evening?” Allison said.
I surely would, and told him so.
We were joined at the table by three young men, whose names were given as James, Charles, and William. No mention was made of their relation to the Allisons, and I take them at first to be sons, or cousins. They were neither.
John Allison was seated at the head of the table, and I at the foot. Lanterns and candles were lit, and caste dancing golden light over all – except in the corners of the room, where the shadows clung like spiderwebs. The light leant a sense of closeness, of intimacy to the proceedings, as if we were all family in that place.
The meal was, I would later learn, fine by the standards of the Deep; I have since learned that there are merchanters and other wealthy men down there who might, on a whim, afford the occasional side of salt beef, but as a general thing the cuisine of the Deep is the cuisine of the sea.
And a strange cuisine it is. I thank the savior that I sat down to that meal without first having seen the beasts from which it was cut. Had things been reversed, I would surely have gone very hungry that night.
It is perhaps needless to say that there is no wheat in the Deep, where the blessed sun has never shown. In place of it, I learned, there is a variety of sea weed which grows in abundance along the rocky coasts of the islands in the Deep, which may be dried and ground into a sort of meal. From this a grey, unleavened bread is made, which is salty but not unpleasant. I had encountered it before in the form of the sandwiches which wich the younger Mrs. Allison had delivered to me earlier.
Onto slices of this bread were piled all manner of things. Sea-grown approximations of vegetables, meats both tender and rubbery, fish in great abundance.
Also, there were sponges.
The sponge is the most grotesque being which the Lord our God ever saw fit to put on this earth. Since that supper in the house of John Allison I have ahd the occasion to observe the horrible little vermin as the are in life, and I shudder still when I think of them.
The living sponge is perhaps the size of a balled fist, or a little larger. Its skin is leathery and tough, and the same sick pallor as that of a man under high fever. They are punctured all over with puckered, sucking mouths, which open and close ceaselessly. In life they pulsate, or convulse, and I am told that it is in this way that they manage to move about their watery home in the Mer Silencieuse, where they have a habit of converging in swarms numbering in the thousands. THe sponge is faintly luminescent in life, and I have had the great displeasure of being aboard a ship which passes over such a swarm; looking down over the side, it is as if the sea itself is diseased and tumorous.
As grotesque as the sponges are, they are not without their uses. They are edible, and indeed I et several of them while I sat at John Allison’s table. Most importantly, though, the sponges are filled all but to bursting with blubber, which may be rendered into a light, clear oil. It is this oil which is burned in most lamps in the Deep; and it is this oil which castes the pale, unearthly corpselight I observed upon my arrival here. The burning spongeoil is, unaccountably, without heat or smoke, and I know not what to make of that.
(The Allisons themselves preferred to burn conventional lamp oil. This, I have learned, is a tremendous luxury).
The meal began with a prayer, the words of which I did not know. I sat in some discomfort as the words rolled over me, for I am nothing if not a Christian and the foreignness of those words unsettled me. But soon enough came Amen and my eyes came open and then I commenced eating. Knowing nothing, then, of the nature of that which I ate, I enjoyed myself greatly.
I did my best to beam at young Brigitte, and said:
“Ma’am, an exceptional feast you have prepared this evening. Lewt me say that I am immensely grateful at your charity.”
She turned pleasingly pink again and smiled at me. Meeting her husband’s gaze, I raised a glass (of water).
“To you, Mr. Allison, for having so gallantly rescued me. Not since King Arthur’s court has such honor and grace blessed our little world.”
Allison lifted his own glass, half-heartedly, I think, and smiled.
“Christians, we,” he said. “It was the Christian thing to do.”
And it was, I must admit.
Allison sipped from his glass and set it down with deliberate care upon the table. He studied it for a time, as he assembled the words which he spoke next.
“Mr. Barclay,” he said. “May I ask: what do you do?”
I finished chewing a mouthful of food and dabbed at my mustache with the napkin provided to me.
“I am writer, sir.”
Allison nodded slowly. I had the sense that he had guessed that much already.
“And what do you write, Mr. Barclay?”
I suppose I must have shrugged.
“All manner of things. Critique, mostly, for the New York set. Commentary on the issues of the day. Occasionally I travel, and when I do I write about the places that I travel to.”
“And you intend to write about us.”
It seemed, suddenly, as if the air were different in the dining room. I became aware, in that moment, that the three other guests had stopped eating. One among them, William, met my eye.
“Well, I suppose I must,” I said, smiling as broadly as I could. “It was my editor’s idea, for me to come down here and write about the place. THe Deep is something of a mystery to those of us who live elsewhere.”
“Your editor,” young William said. I looked on him – I think now that he could not have been more than fifteen. Young, too young by far to have made the great voyage from Illinois with all the others. THis hard-eyed young man must surely have had no memory of the world above, for he must have been born down here, in the darkness.
“He instructed you to spy on us,” young William finished.
“William,” John Allison said, before I could respond. Allison’s eyes were on his plate, but at the word the boy stiffened.
“Mr. Barclay is a guest in this house. I would ask you please remember that.”
The rest of the meal was had in silence.