The Worm Ouroboros, by E. R. Eddison

The Induction

THERE was a man named Lessingham dwelt in an old low house in Wastdale, set in a gray old garden where yew-trees flourished that had seen Vikings in Copeland in their seedling time. Lily and rose and larkspur bloomed in the borders, and begonias with blossoms big as saucers, red and white and pink and lemon-colour, in the beds before the porch. Climbing roses, honeysuckle, clematis, and the scarlet flame-flower scrambled up the walls. Thick woods were on every side without the garden, with a gap north-eastward opening on the desolate lake and the great fells beyond it: Gable rearing his crag-bound head against the sky from behind the straight clean outline of the Screes.

Cool long shadows stole across the tennis lawn. The air was golden. Doves murmured in the trees; two chaffinches played on the near post of the net; a little water-wagtail scurried along the path. A French window stood open to the garden, showing darkly a dining-room panelled with old oak, its Jacobean table bright with flowers and silver and cut glass and Wedgwood dishes heaped with fruit: greengages, peaches, and green muscat grapes. Lessingham lay back in a hammock-chair watching through the blue smoke of an after-dinner cigar the warm light on the Gloire de Dijon roses that clustered about the bedroom window overhead. He had her hand in his. This was their House.

“Should we finish that chapter of Njal?” she said.

She took the heavy volume with its faded green cover, and read: “He went out on the night of the Lord’s day, when nine weeks were still to winter; he heard a great crash, so that he thought both heaven and earth shook. Then he looked into the west airt, and he thought he saw hereabouts a ring of fiery hue, and within the ring a man on a gray horse. He passed quickly by him, and rode hard. He had a flaming firebrand in his hand, and he rode so close to him that he could see him plainly. He was black as pitch, and he sung this song with a mighty voice —

Here I ride swift steed,

His flank flecked with rime,

Rain from his mane drips,

Horse mighty for harm;

Flames flare at each end,

Gall glows in the midst,

So fares it with Flosi’s redes

As this flaming brand flies;

And so fares it with Flosi’s redes

As this flaming brand flies.

“Then he thought he hurled the firebrand east towards the fells before him, and such a blaze of fire leapt up to meet it that he could not see the fells for the blaze. It seemed as though that man rode east among the flames and vanished there.

“After that he went to his bed, and was senseless for a long time, but at last he came to himself. He bore in mind all that had happened, and told his father, but he bade him tell it to Hjallti Skeggi’s son. So he went and told Hjallti, but he said he had seen ‘the Wolf’s Ride, and that comes ever before great tidings.’”

They were silent awhile; then Lessingham. said suddenly, “Do you mind if we sleep in the east wing to-night?”

“What, in the Lotus Room?”

“Yes.”

“I’m too much of a lazy-bones to-night, dear,” she answered.

“Do you mind if I go alone, then? I shall be back to breakfast. I like my lady with me; still, we can go again when next moon wanes. My pet is not frightened, is she?”

“No!” she said, laughing. But her eyes were a little big. Her fingers played with his watch-chain. “I’d rather,” she said presently, “you went later on and took me. All this is so odd still: the House, and that; and I love it so. And after all, it is a long way and several years too, sometimes, in the Lotus Room, even though it is all over next morning. I’d rather we went together. If anything happened then, well, we’d both be done in, and it wouldn’t matter so much, would it?”

“Both be what?” said Lessingham. “I’m afraid your language is not all that might be wished.”

“Well, you taught me!” said she; and they laughed.

They sat there till the shadows crept over the lawn and up the trees, and the high rocks of the mountain shoulder beyond burned red in the evening rays. He said, “If you like to stroll a bit of way up the fell-side, Mercury is visible to-night. We might get a glimpse of him just after sunset.”

A little later, standing on the open hillside below the hawking bats, they watched for the dim planet that showed at last low down in the west between the sunset and the dark.

He said, “It is as if Mercury had a finger on me tonight, Mary. It’s no good my trying to sleep to-night except in the Lotus Room.”

Her arm tightened in his. “Mercury?” she said. “It is another world. It is too far.”

But he laughed and said, “Nothing is too far.”

They turned back as the shadows deepened. As they stood in the dark of the arched gate leading from the open fell into the garden, the soft clear notes of a spinet sounded from the house. She put up a finger. “Hark,” she said. “Your daughter playing Les Barricades.”

They stood listening. “She loves playing,” he whispered. “I’m glad we taught her to play.” Presently he whispered again, ”Les Barricades Mystérieuses. What inspired Couperin with that enchanted name? And only you and I know what it really means. Les Barricades Mystérieuses.”

That night Lessingham lay alone in the Lotus Room. Its casements opened eastward on the sleeping woods and the sleeping bare slopes of Illgill Head. He slept soft and deep; for that was the House of Postmeridian, and the House of Peace.

In the deep and dead time of the night, when the waning moon peered over the mountain shoulder, he woke suddenly. The silver beams shone through the open window on a form perched at the foot of the bed: a little bird, black, round-headed, short-beaked, with long sharp wings, and eyes like two stars shining. It spoke and said, “Time is.”

So Lessingham got up and muffled himself in a great cloak that lay on a chair beside the bed. He said, “I am ready, my little martlet.” For that was the House of Heart’s Desire.

Surely the martlet’s eyes filled all the room with starlight. It was an old room with lotuses carved on the panels and on the bed and chairs and roof-beams; and in the glamour the carved flowers swayed like water-lilies in a lazy stream. He went to the window, and the little martlet sat on his shoulder. A chariot coloured like the halo about the moon waited by the window, poised in air, harnessed to a strange steed. A horse it seemed, but winged like an eagle, and its fore-legs feathered and armed with eagle’s claws instead of hooves. He entered the chariot, and that little martlet sat on his knee.

With a whirr of wings the wild courser sprang skyward. The night about them was like the tumult of bubbles about a diver’s ears diving in a deep pool under a smooth steep rock in a mountain cataract. Time was swallowed up in speed; the world reeled; and it was but as the space between two deep breaths till that strange courser spread wide his rainbow wings and slanted down the night over a great island that slumbered on a slumbering sea, with lesser isles about it: a country of rock mountains and hill pastures and many waters, all a-glimmer in the moonshine.

They landed within a gate crowned with golden lions. Lessingham came down from the chariot, and the little black martlet circled about his head, showing him a yew avenue leading from the gates. As in a dream, he followed her.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/e/eddison/er/worm/preface.html

Last updated Friday, March 7, 2014 at 16:03