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Fiction

The voyage of the Spaniel

By the Sea: Part II, Chapter 6

Henry Gee 26 August 2007

www.lablit.com/article/293

She is a scientist – she hates that she now has to continually remind herself of this

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of an original novel by Henry Gee, By The Sea. Set in present-day Norfolk, Gee blends science, murder, sex and Victorian secrets into a dark, gothic thriller.

Advisory: this chapter contains explicit sexual references

Chapter 14

‘After the expedition had passed the latitude of the Chiloes, during which time some extensive and profitable trawls of deep-sea sediments were essayed and many interesting specimens of fauna catalogued and bottled,’ Alex reads:

several members of the crew fell to a sudden, severe and indeed fatal illness such that by the time the Spaniel had reached the latitude of Valparaiso, the Captain was obliged to seek harbour for the purposes of rest and recuperation and – perforce – recruitment. The first case was American Gothic Midshipman Lawrence, who had been my most recent assistant. He performed his duties without demur but was on a sudden seized with a violent agitation and collapsed in a dead faint, not to be revived. Anyone else who fell to this fever also died, such that the crew came almost to the edge of mutiny.

Alex shifts around in bed. The sheet has become tangled, thrown into tight coils and ripped from the bed through her constant febrile movement and increasingly futile attempts to achieve rest and comfort against its hot and gritty surface. Her pillow, now rank with sweat, is knotted and lumpy.

She feels terrible.

Nights are haunted by rain-spattered dreams; the days, drear and wan, her tiny, dirty room littered with crumpled tissues, books, notes, scattered clothes, remains of meals half-eaten, coffee cups; hating herself for not even trying to tidy it up, but utterly spent of any energy except that required to fuel a generalised, low-level self-loathing. She cannot remember how long she’s been like this. Any tiny movement she makes seems to demand the accumulated energy of centuries.

Some of the men, being very superstitious and hardly Christian, bayed for a scapegoat, a sacrifice. Look at your baby, Alex! When a mulatto called Hawkins was suspected of witchcraft and put overboard, the Captain felt constrained to have several men flogged. Well done! Well done! It’s a...It’s a.... Morrison, he’s dead. But the causes of this sudden ailment were never found. After departure from Valparaiso with new rations and crew, cases ceased, and the ship and its company went forth in a fresh wind full of new resolve: but far from easing men’s minds, this new hope caused not a few to whisper that the despatch of the unfortunate Mr Hawkins had been justified. It’s all your fault, Alex!

She is desperate to lie down flat and forget herself in cool sleep, but whenever she tries, viscid mucus slithers snarling into her sinuses and her head throbs. And so she sits up, and sits up, and sits up again, still desperate for sleep. The turbid sweat springs into her armpits and runs slick down between her breasts and over her abdomen and between her legs; down the channel of her spine, pooling beneath her upper thighs so she feels she’s floating in a fetid pool of her own effluvia. By keeping her ringing head as still as possible she tries as well as she might to follow the lines of tiny (very, tiny; very, very tiny) print in Garry’s copy of ‘The Voyage of the Spaniel’ (subtitled ‘A Philosophical Memoir of a Voyage of Discovery to the Americas and the South Seas with Remarks on Topography, Natural History, Navigation &c.’, by Banneman Houghton, FRS, published John Murray & Co., first and only edition 1837, this copy octavo, slight wear on boards, inscribed ‘To Mr Chas. Darwin’ on flyleaf) as the words writhe mockingly across the fragile, brown-spotted pages, sometimes so close she can see every pore in the paper, sometimes so distant she thinks she is reading them through air of preternatural clarity across a vast plain – but finding in them no more meaning than were they ancient runes.

After a brief call at American Gothic, the Captain set a course westward, across the Pacific. This gave me the opportunity to roll it out, run it up the flagpole, set new targets, resolved to order some of the Chiloes specimens and attempt some preliminary notes.

Alex has no idea where she might have got this hideous infection. It is like the flu – except that she cannot recall having been breathed on by anyone with a cough, or who later went on to develop one, and she hasn’t been beyond the Institute’s gates for a fortnight – not since – well, not since Bland’s funeral. Perhaps it’s this place: this horrible, horrible place. Something in the rank, unmoving air full of silent, invisible spores; the blank glass eyes that seem to stare from behind dusty panes wherever you look; eyes that follow you round the room, cursing as you pass; or, worse, preserving in a silent smugness a knowledge of your own fate with which everyone seems to be familiar except you, yourself.

She slides; the lines of the book cant upwards and out of reach. The Spaniel swishes and washes in the cold Chiloe currents as Banneman Houghton, FRS, plunges both hands into an oak barrel whose contents she can’t quite see, and pulls them back as bones bleached bare. Alex sinks, and slides; and sinks; and as she does so the sun comes up, and ascends into the vault, and falls as a drop of deep red ink into the blind mewling fog; and the moon rises and careens across the sky pursued by mildewed clouds, and the sun once more rises and falls, pursued again by the moon.

At the third dawn (or it might be the fifth, or the ninth, or – who knows?) Alex wakes – but refreshed, renewed,, as if her past is a memory of something she cannot quite grasp. Her head feels that peculiar lightness conferred by an absence of pain; her body is smoothly and uniformly calm, passive, receptive, but encased within a seamless shell of encrusted sweat. She is unbelievably hungry. She looks around the room. It is filthy. But it will have to wait.

**********

Later, her room once more as tidy as it’ll ever be, she takes ‘The Voyage of the Spaniel’ down to the common room. It is night, and the great cold space is deserted. She stretches herself on a worn Chesterfield, its button-pocked back a foxhole against the constant draught from the tall windows; she looks up at the damp-streaked cornicing and the eggshell cracks as they trace their way across the ceiling far above. Chandeliers, glass corroded and spotted as if with some mineral smallpox, hang down on immense chains, and, as she looks up, she has that curious sense of inversion, as if she were floating at the sea’s surface, looking downwards to the shadowed sea floor, forests of kelp straining up to meet her. As she floats, she thinks of what she’s read, piecing the feverish fragments together of the many deaths that befell the crew of the Spaniel as they rode the Antarctic swell up the west coast of South America. They had just trawled something from the depths – specimens whose identities were not clear. Or, not so far, at any rate – Alex hasn’t read the extensive appendices of the book that catalogue the findings made at each stage of the voyage.

What strikes her about all the deaths described is their suddenness. That, the abrupt outpouring of blood from the eyes and mouth, and a description which Alex cannot shake free from her mind, of the victims

…being possessed of a round-eyed blood-circled stare, were their last thoughts on this world either of some great revelation, or of a witness to horrors too great for any one human mind to encompass, and, in so trying, expiring.

Later still, the wind blasting against the thin panes of the common-room windows, she admonishes herself for not realizing precisely why this description seems so real, so vivid. It is because she has seen it herself, that look of dawning horror on the face of a corpse, that only in articulo mortis can the truth of our pasteboard lives be laid bare. When there is no going back. Bland had looked like that. His face. When she had found him.

The sediment at the base of her mind stirs with vermiform thoughts, sparked into as yet sluggish life. The deaths on the Spaniel seemed so much like Bland’s death. But she’d never seen a dead body before...before...well, how’s she to know that all dead bodies don’t look like that? Maybe that’s why people close the eyes of corpses. Put coins on them. So the eyes don’t spring open into that unnerving, million-mile stare. But here, in the night, the gloomy penumbrae of the chandeliers, the surf crashing crimson thunder on the edges of life, the panes cracking and draughts scuttling like silverfish across the floor, she feels quite strongly that she is just casting around for excuses – and that there really are genuine factors in common between Bland’s death and the ones reported aboard the Spaniel.

Two things. Two reasons, chasing round her brain like dogs chasing each other’s tails.

The first is that Garry has been so insistent in pressing this book on her. And why is that? To make her realize the second thing, that the Institute where they both work is where all the Spaniel’s collections are housed. The unspoken subtext is that we are the same as Banneman’s crew, exposed to the same risks.

All the same, she thinks, if Bland had suffered the same complaint as the Spaniel’s crewmen, why had his death occurred just now? The Spaniel collection has been here for a century and a half – and she has no knowledge of any greater frequency of death here at the Institute than that observed in the population generally. But this complacent musing is immediately overwhelmed by a surge of doubt: she has no information that might bear on this fact. None whatsoever. And discovering it might be extremely difficult – the population of the LPI is largely transient, its constituent, coffeespoonerish lives allotted in the neatly parcelled parsimony of research visits and grant applications. Pinning the deaths of former LPI staff and visitors onto a sojourn at the Institute itself would probably be quite impossible.

She gathers these thoughts somewhat distractedly, a beachcomber raking stray weed with a branch of bone-white driftwood, reflecting that the impossibility of making any such connection probably explains why Garry is being so evasive about it. In some ways that’s just like Garry. Despite the surf’s-up posing he’s a scientist through and through: he is fastidiously cautious about anything that really matters, about ascribing causes to effects. She remembers their curious chat about German storks – on reflection, it males a weird kind of sense.

But no, that’s not right, either: whenever Garry has mentioned the Spaniel, it’s been a far from casual affair. It’s as if he’s worked to choose his moment in otherwise routine exchanges, framing each word with uncharacteristic intensity, to be sure she wouldn’t miss it. Garry has been trying to tell her something – trying so hard that the effort has been as painful as shouting at her from a great distance through a headwind, straining to bursting with the throat-sinewed effort of it. It’s vital that she knows, that she understands – but for some reason he cannot simply come out with it.

Alex shakes her head, which on a sudden feels full of bees. She adjusts her position, propping herself up against the arm of the Chesterfield, and decides that at times like this, one must try to put aside all speculation until more data are acquired. She flips forward a few hundred pages, to the Appendices.

It takes her a while to make any sense of these at all. They are printed in type hardly big enough to be readable without a hand lens, and that ornamented with numerous even smaller indices and superscripts. She wonders whether these spidery ornaments might not be further qualified with superscripts too small to see without her microscope. The cumulative effect of these crabbed tabulations is frustrating and eventually exasperating: the constant necessity to swish pages this way and that to trace an argument through a skein of notes and references. She gives up. This calls for desk work: she abandons the common-room, but leaves the chandeliers on in her retreat, illuminating the corridor beyond so she can begin the tortuous but now familiar ascent to her own quarters. And as she climbs, she thinks, so that by the time she arrives in her own cramped room she has forgotten precisely how she came to be there. She settles a half-full kettle on the hob, scurries around for a match, lights it. The gas ring spurts into an orange simulacrum of eager life. This is comforting, as if she has managed at the end of a long day in the wilds to light, with a few sticks, a camp fire to stand as a private beacon against the elements beyond the black panes of the arched dormer window beyond.

Standing, hands in pockets, she reflects that the Appendices to ‘The Voyage of the Spaniel’ (in a pool of light on a desk now partially cleared of detritus) are not meant to be read in the same way as the adventure story that comprises the first half of the book. No, the key is that they are more like lab notebooks, undigested, written not so much in transparent language designed to be read and understood by anyone – like a novel – but pinned and girt round with conventions peculiar to these notes only, unique symbols and meanings. It is as if each lab notebook records a new language in the process of formation, starting with the most primitive runic scratches and progressing by uneasy stages to that most refined nuance of passive voice and subjunctive mood suitable (with some small erosion of the facts allowed by the necessary loss in translation) for publication.

This should be no surprise, really, for if science records any kind of advance into realms previously obscure, the leading edge of that science, in its reptilian, fractal detail – that is, in terms of the figures and notes and signs in a lab notebook – will, of course, document that obscurity, and – if it is honest – find new ways to translate that obscurity into meaning that can be understood. But it is in the very nature of unknown things to stretch familiar concepts, and to demand new ones, new ways of thinking – and new symbols in which such concepts might be expressed succinctly.

Therefore it takes Alex, in her pool of light perched four stories above the sea, some little while to cross-reference the dates, designations of packages, sample numbers and so, on to discover that most of the specimens trawled from the deep sea immediately before the fatal outbreak on the Spaniel had been

…microscopical in nature (see barrels SCT.LXXIV-LXXXIX and vials and microscopical preparations derived therefrom (ibid and p479; table 102); concentrated by sieving through a fine grade of Egyptian muslin; stained as described elsewhere (see p505 and table 12c for general microscopical techniques). Many small vermiform creatures of previously unknown form. Unequally bifid or segmented, the larger part consisting of a body or sacculus of simple undifferentiated cellular matter, attached to a smaller and more dense particle of more intricate arrangement in which the presence of paired bowed that is arcuate arrangements of denticles is characteristic (see Plate XXXVIIIj).

Alex rifles through the book for Plate XXXVIII, which she has not noticed before, buried as it is among a cramped tangle of engravings at the back of the book. The pages here are sometimes ragged at the edges and of uneven thickness, the stiffened paper of each engraving interleaved with a blank sheet that clings to it as if reluctant to allow it seen; so that it is hard to turn the pages, to open the book fully without risk of breaking the spine – and so individual plates are easily missed on casual inspection. When she finds the plate she sits back in her seat as if slapped. Looking at her, straight out of the page, grinning with hideous knowingness, are the same carnostomids she’s spent several weeks drawing.

The kettle whistles its antiphon.

She has seen enough, and replaces the book in the plastic wrapper and buff envelope as Garry has instructed, switches off the reading lamp and makes her tea. Carefully, slowly – so as not to re-awaken any lingering germs of contagion – she undresses and purses herself gently into bed. She is glad she’d finally found the energy to change the sheets, giving them to the sepulchrally silent Miss Honiton to wash (how strange – she had been her only visitor during her fever, and was a great solace, for all that she never once spoke.) Miss Honiton had brought new sheets, as starched and white as old linen napery, within which she now enfolds herself as tight as an oyster.

She closes her eyes, and carnostomids dance before her like fairy lights. Carnostomids, then, are the connection. Carnostomids killed all those sailors, that midshipman and all the rest. And carnostomids had killed Bland. Was that what Garry was trying to say? If so, why didn’t he just come out with it, drop it into their daily conversation?

No, there was more to it than that. The only carnostomids she’d looked at were preserved, primped, mounted on slides in a way as contrived as any taxidermy specimen. Like Pickled Lily. And, like Pickled Lily in her tank, they were covered in glass cover-slips edged with thick layers of Canada balsam and gutta-percha. All the slides she’d seen had been pristine, uncracked. The sailors on the Spaniel must have drunk them raw and alive, in unfiltered water, if some of the filtered seawater had got into the drinking supply, or (now here’s a thought!) if specimens preserved in rum were filched and refiltered for drinking.

Specimens preserved in rum. The spirit store. At the end of the laboratory corridor. Had Bland been siphoning off the spirits? Surely not – the very thought was ridiculous. Though, come to think of it, she’d heard something somewhere about that very thing, but couldn’t place it. Her brows furrow: she rubs her closed eyes, and the carnostomids dance in phosphene specks before her, like carnival dragons. Oh yes, she remembers now – it was Mrs Squearn (‘Just Call Me Janice’) arguing with that creepy janitor, Bob, or whatever his name is. The one who seems to get on remarkably well with Garry (she suppresses an upwelling spike of – what’s that? Jealousy?) The same Bob who only ever looks at her at chest height before shuffling off, leering like an old Carry-On movie. The thought of Bob sets her mind racing in an unexpected and unpleasant direction, rich with images of eroticism and fear, and rising up behind all of these, like a thunderhead behind a parade of dancing Bob-goblins, is the face of Morrison.

The blood in her face congeals with fright: her hands break out in pins and needles. She sits up with a start and clicks on her bedside light. The sheet falls away from her like a plasterwork mould. Look at your baby, Alex, look at it. She is a scientist, damn it (she hates it that she now has to continually remind herself of this, something she’d hitherto taken for granted). She must consider all the options. No matter how improbable. No matter how...unwelcome. She must not flinch.

And so, at last, cold with terror, she looks down at her baby. There in her lap, lying in a pool of stale seawater, is Pickled Lily, not frozen in time and space, but animated, thin arms clothed in sagging, white flesh clawing at her own arms, her shoulders; long finger-bones raking her neck; the thin face with sunken nose and bared teeth – teeth gnashing up and down, up and down, like carnostomid teeth, searching blindly for something (the icy glass eyes, being sightless, are there simply for decoration). It is just for an instant, though, before the mermaid churning glutinously in her lap is washed out by a kind of monochrome static and is replaced, for an eternal quarter-second, by the head of Marion Morrison, jaws clamped on to her right nipple and sucking, sucking, sucking, but the head has been severed, and the more it sucks, the more blood spurts from the sectioned arteries in his neck, spattering her face and shoulders and the bedclothes and the room beyond. This vision, too, disappears, and she looks down at the amazing whiteness of the sheets in her lap untainted by any vision or contagion, and surveys her own off-white belly, her breasts, her arms, as carefully as any leper doing her daily round. Only her nipples betray her, rucked and rose-red. She looks down at them, lifting her breasts and examining them, as if they belonged to someone else.

**********

Later still, and finding she cannot sleep, Alex rises and dresses. The first signs of dawn are revealed as a lighter blueness against the black, a dimness which nonetheless causes the awful fingers of fading disease to vanish like dew. Rationality rises with the sun. Alex is a scientist (oh yes she is!) and must consider all possibilities, no matter how odd they seem at first. That’s it – Garry is trying to tell her something about Morrison. About what he thinks he’s doing. Trying to tell her in as devious a way as possible, to spare her feelings – which is sweet of him – and not look like he’s coming on to her.

Which is sweet, too, kind of.

But there’s a time and a place, and now it’s she, Morrison and carnostomids, a kind of eternal triangle, twined in a way she cannot yet fathom. She picks a few memories from the past few weeks like a hen pecking choice grains from the threshing floor – of Morrison’s increasingly insistent questions about her progress, but not – strangely – as if he were in some kind of a hurry, but simply – how had Garry put it? Ah yes, ‘sizing her up’.

And that’s just it. ‘Sizing her up’. Like broodstock. She stands facing the dormer, looking over the brightening sea, and feels her eyes glaze with a film of moisture. ‘Sizing her up’ has been about right, she thinks, now biting her lip. How could she have been so blind as not to have noticed, when Garry so obviously has? It has been Garry’s hunches, the instincts of a scientist of far greater wisdom than she, which, she knows, are far better judged than the results of her own experiments, her own controls. For only now with the shock of the dawn does she realize that each sign of progress on her part is marked by some sexual favor from Morrison in proportion to the perceived degree of advance. If ‘favor’ is indeed the right word, for Morrison’s attentions are as brutally efficient as they are controlled, such that after each encounter she feels as spent, as used up, as – broken – as so much litter discarded at the roadside.

She remembers their first encounter, in Atlanta, when he’d had her up against the wall of the shower-cubicle in her hotel room, when despite his small stature he’d raised her off her feet with each thrust, but vanished as soon as he’d climaxed, leaving her hot and cold and dizzy and bruised on the cubicle floor nursing bloody bite marks in her shoulder.

Every encounter since – and that’s the word, ‘encounter’, that she finds her mind using, with all the self-delusional euphemism of the possessed – has been much the same, so that she is no longer able to distinguish one from another, even the different degrees of pain and bloody residue left by each kind of humiliation her mind minutely records and, dispassionately, details.

Except, perhaps, that time quite recently, when she’d told him of her discovery – now, it seems, only a re-discovery – of some new detail of the bow-like tooth rows of carnostomids. She’d rushed – rushed! – to his office to tell him, as eager as a child in search of praise. He’d smiled that big smile and said he had something to show her too, which was the now too-familiar cubicle behind his office, and before she could do anything else, he’d made her strip and kneel on the floor, gripping her hair, the back of her head, with his hands, with his teeth, and again, and again, and more...and...well, all she can now really recall was the pain and being left like a newborn calf on the floor in its own slick, marbled essences and, when she’d recovered somewhat, aware of kneeling up in the blood and God knows what else and looking down at her own body, and feeling that she would not be able to stand the shame of it were anyone else to discover this mess and clean it up other than she herself, who was, after all, responsible; and most of all the humiliation she felt within herself that, despite the pain, despite everything, she enjoyed it.

The sun rises – were she able to lean over the chipped sink, the dripping tap, and lean to the right, she’d see it as an orange bubble cresting the flat horizon. And as it rises, she feels herself as a worm, turning, turning as yet slowly within the heavy oil of her self-loathing. She dares not now reveal to Morrison what she now knows from her fervid nocturnal investigations into the writing of the late Banneman Houghton, FRS. There is a reason she’s been unable to get hold of the Institute’s copy: Morrison is way ahead of her, it seems. As the first rays of the new rising sun hit her eyes, forcing her to step back into the shadows like the lowly invertebrate she feels she has become and surely deserves to be, she wonders whether Morrison has anything in particular to do with Bland’s death, certainly caused by ingesting carnostomids. The scientist rising with the sun reminds her of the principle of parsimony, that you should only act on what reason tells you is the simplest course, and that course does not directly implicate Morrison.

No, with the knowledge she has now, it is more likely to implicate her. But what angers her, more than anything, is not that Morrison uses her so ill, physically – because she is convinced that this is entirely her own doing – but that he has deceived her, as a scientist; failed to recognize her as a collegial participant in the whole carnostomid project. The worm inside her turns, and having turned, tells her that she must reclaim an intellectual stake of her own.