The Couturier

 

by M. Lazarus

 

 

 

 

Lark Publishing 2016

 

For more stories, visit http://subsidingsun.co.uk/lark/

 

The Couturier

 

 

As some poet or another once said, our lives are short and small in the greater scheme of creation. We do not endure, once we have departed this earthly plane, and that is precisely why the works we undertake are of such importance as an outpouring of the human spirit. Only that which is made with a true pursuit of truth, beauty and grace can survive beyond our own span of years. While I make no pretensions myself in that direction, yet I feel it is my duty to pass on the record of one who was of the poor, rare, and glorious examples of human kind, blessed and cursed in equal measure with a quenchless thirst to create art for the eternal. He was also, after all, my friend and comrade, and I knew him from his first lowly days until the strange and sad final hours of his decline. I stood as witness to much of Augustus Nightingale's artistic brilliance, and of the more uncanny aspects of his later life I had the story in his very own words. It would not do for the memory of such uncommon creativity to be lost in the wash of time.

 

It is now commonly accepted that the truly remarkable creative essence expresses itself through a variety of tools, from the painter with brush and canvas, the poet with rhyme and meter, to the sculptor's wrestling with giving form to the bounty of the earth. Augustus Nightingale's canvas was the human frame, and his artistry, an ingeniousness entirely unlike anything that ever existed before and may never exist after, was expressed in the cut and line of material. Even today, many might scoff at the idea of a suit of clothes or a dress as possessing artistic merit, or even having any worth beyond the quotidian practicality of warmth and our particular demands for modesty. Indeed, it cannot be denied that there is much empty foppishness and frivolity among the more empty-headed sets who have made fashion a byword for triviality. Augustus Nightingale stood in distant contrast to such an idea of fashion, and was no mere weightless reed blowing to and fro, directed by the winds of substanceless opinion. Augustus Nightingale was as much a master of his craft as any musician or painter, and his designs were masterpieces made from cloth and material that had the power to move the human heart to precisely the same kinds of deep feeling that all true art stirs in the breast, with the same undeniable embodiment of inner truth that is found in all the greatest of works. I have seen one of Augustus Nightingales' gowns make a hardy ageing washerwoman weep like a lost child. I have seen the most dreary and respectable clerk made giddy with confusion at the sight of a coat created by Augustus Nightingale. I have seen the boldest, stout-hearted individuals start in horror at his clothes, and I have seen jaded elderly aristocrats become lightheaded with transcendent joy at his works. That is the power and the duty of all true art, no matter what form in which it is incorporated.

 

Of course, to call him Augustus Nightingale sounds grave and ponderous to my ears now. When we first met, he was simply Gussy to his friends. He disliked his full name immensely in those days. Gussy was painfully thin and always stood bent over, as if the burden of his ambitions was ever upon his back. His eyes were dark and fearful, and you would not think, to look at his scratched worn fingers, that these were the hands of an artist - it was only when they were in motion and at work that they came alive, as indeed did Gussy himself, with a sort of fierce and eery determination.

 

We met through mutual acquaintances and were bound as fast friends through mutual impoverishment. Gussy was then apprenticed to an establishment where he was employed in the most gruelling hours of sewing, trimming, and cutting the cloth to suit the ladies and gentlemen who chose to have their clothing needs satisfied by the House of Tarquin and Philomena, fine tailors and outfitters. To his credit, Gussy never complained about the long hours he spent with scissors and thread, hours traded for little money and no credit from his employers. Like so many in this bustling but often cruel city, Gussy had no choice but to work as much as he was commanded, being a poor northern boy. I had less excuse, in that my family were well-off enough, but they strenuously disapproved of my studies at the university, with the result that I had been cut off without a cent, and spent many an hour as occasional secretary for several elderly ladies and gentleman of failing eyesight in order to make ends meet. Gussy, despite the seeming frailty of his appearance, could tolerate working until his fingers ached and his eyes were red from lack of sleep. He was driven to the limits of endurance precisely because he knew that he was at least learning something from his painful and thankless labour. I confess that I envied three things in Gussy - the first, that he was a brilliant artist when I will leave not even a dusty footprint in the track of history; the second that he knew from his earliest childhood precisely to what work he wanted to devote his life, while my own choices have been accidental and stumbling at best; and the third - well, we will perhaps come to that at another time.

 

Our purses being so stricken, Gussy and myself decided to room together, as we found each other's company most excellently tolerable. Our rooms were small, but comfortable enough, found in the attic of a lodging run by Mrs. Fearnie, or Lady Fearnie as we playfully called her, much to her delight. Mrs. Fearnie was a kind and most indulgent woman, her black hair lined with grey and her face creased by the passing of time. She treated Gussy and myself as something like favourite nephews. It was because she had fortunately taken such a liking to us that our little home on the top of the building was available on such reasonable terms. Gussy was Mrs. Fearnie's particular favourite, because her father had been a tailor and her mother a seamstress and she approved of Gussy's devotion to the same trade.

 

In those days I would often be poring over my books by a late-burning candle when Gussy would come home, tromping wearily up the stairs to our crow's nest, exhausted after a day and an evening of stitching and restitching to Tarquin and Philomena's customers' exacting and fussy standards. Yet, before he could put his head down for a few precious hours of sleep, Gussy would play with the carefully collected stock of cloth and patterns he kept piled all about his end of the attic, his eyes dark and hollow with sleeplessness, muttering to himself about how this piece might perhaps be cut in such a manner to resemble a dragonfly's wing or the autumn floor of a forest. I knew better than to disturb him in this state. In such weary moments, there was none of the ordinary human trappings about Gussy - he was stripped back to his purest self - he was an expression of nothing less than love for his chosen art.

 

2.

In the rare and precious moments when we were both free from our duties, we would repair to the local alehouse where we had our regular table amongst like-minded individuals, all of us holding in common the fact that we never had quite enough to pay our way, yet snatching delight and comfort from raucous conversation and the sort of outrageous foolishness that my family would very much have disdained. Naturally, the quiet and serious Gussy was not given to noisy displays, although we would indulge the demon drink a tad more than was best for us, I must admit; yet, at that youthful age, is it so unusual to rattle a little at the bars of mortality? Of course, in many regards Gussy was neither usual nor ordinary. No, it was Gussy's particular delight to stare intently at all those who passed through the ale-house, reading their clothing just as the doctors of medicine would dissect a benighted corpse. Despite my fellow boarder having some small awkward discomfort in crowds, Gussy and myself were well liked in the alehouse, and we were known to many at that refuge, most especially several of the house-models and shop-girls who were employed in a more public capacity at Tarquin and Philomena, while Gussy and his compatriots toiled away in the depths of the house. One shop-girl in particular, Miss Penny Waters, treated Gussy as a little brother and often lent him money, a bad habit I must confess all of Gussy's friends were prone to fall into, myself not excluded. Gussy always had need of money and never seemed to have any. Penny used to joke that thin little Gussy should devote more time to looking after his own clothes, rather than spending so much time playing around with scraps in his own late-night experiments, for surely the young Mr. Nightingale must have terrible holes in his own pockets to ever lose such streaming sums of money.

Gussy rarely remembered to pay people back, which was not one of his better qualities. I do not, however, believe that this was due to his own stinginess or avarice, but rather because he had neither time nor inclination to devote his mind and his hands to anything but toil and the dream of what he could create in his medium of clothing. Indeed, the fault was as much on the side of we lenders who ever yielded to Gussy's requests, for our hunched, thin, staring young man could be cruel and thoughtless, as so many great artists may be, but he was also capable of boundless affection and, in many ways, he had much of the air of a lost child about him. What other path was open to us who saw his genius and his weakness, his need for support, but to open our hearts and our purses to give him what little we had?

 

It was also in the alehouse that Gussy met Paul, the one man he ever truly loved and in whose company he could loose all that was tightly wound within himself. On that evening when they first met, I was in my cups after having submitted a piece of work to the masters of the Academy, and Gussy had once again borrowed a small sum from Penny Waters so that he could join me in celebration, my own funds being already almost exhausted. Penny sighed, but placed some monies in Gussy's hand, closing up his hand as a grandmother does when she makes a gift to a child. Despite the similarity of their ages, Miss Penny was ever the elder to Gussy.

"Now, now, young Mr. Nightingale," Penny chided, "Do try to make this remain just a little longer than the last, will you?"

"What, no gift for me, Penny dear?" I called out, being in a foolish playful mood.

Miss Waters remarked that she felt certain that I had imbibed enough merriment for the moment.

 

Gussy purchased himself a mug of ale and returned to our table. He took a deep draught and turned to Penny.

"You have a new hat, Miss Waters," Gussy remarked. Although he was deeply careless of most practical affairs, Gussy Nightingale had an uncanny power of observation when it came to matters of form and aesthetics. Penny nodded and picked up the item in question from besides her.

"Expensive. Good silk ribbons," Gussy went on as he stared at the item in question, "Features feathers from the lyre-bird. Far too costly for you to have bought ordinarily. It is of the fashion that Mrs. Elstone prefers, and I would surmise that she found the material not quite to her liking and returned it, allowing you to purchase the thing at a great discount. The colour of the ribbons doesn't quite suit you, nor does it quite fit the shape of your face, Miss Waters." Gussy took another reflective drink and Penny stared at him, waiting to see if he had any more to pronounce.

"If you would do me the service of allowing me to take this hat away with me," Gussy added finally, "I shall endeavour to alter it to the best of my abilities to ensure that is a hat that is no longer something cast aside by Mrs. Elstone, but is instead a hat that uniquely suits you, Miss Waters."

"You are too kind, young Nightingale," said Penny with a wry look. For that was Gussy in essence, cleverness, cruelty, and kindness all uncontrollably mixed together.

"Why, Mr. Nightingale, what an eye you have," said Penny in mock-operatic style, fanning herself with her hand. Like all Gussy's friends, she had the strength of character necessary to deal with his shifting moods.

"Would you do me the kindness, as a young fellow who has such knowledge of fashion," began Penny.

"And form," I put in.

"And line," said Penny.

"Not to mention colour."

"With such a wide variety of interests, Mr. Nightingale, would you do us the service to pass your learned eye over this noble, if scruffy and somewhat ill-smelling, pothouse, to give us the benefit of your expertise?"

Gussy rolled his eyes but smiled indulgently. This was a favourite game of ours.

"Why don't you start with that lady sitting by the fire?" I suggested.

Gussy swivelled to face the lady in question and studied her intently.

"A woman who has been careless enough to lose her husband," recited Gussy after a brief inspection, "Whether she has lost him by death or a falling out, I cannot say, but she wears the bright spritely apparel of her youth before her marriage, which jars with her actual age and hints at a need to recapture that past attention - she is seeking to rekindle that sensation of being pursued she half recalls from her youth by returning to the wardrobe of that time."

Indeed, such was Gussy's talent that he could read an individual's dress as easily as one would read the items listed on the chalk-board by the bar.

"Much too easy for you, of course, Mr Nightingale. What about that fellow there?" Penny said, pointing to a red-faced individual at the bar.

Again, Gussy's dark eyes read over the form of the subject in question.

"A derelict member of a wealthy family - note the good quality of his coat and trousers, but note too that they have been poorly looked-after, and are stained and frayed. His suit is too much of a piece to be everyday charity and far too expensive, and while it fits him passing well, it bags about the stomach somewhat, indicating that it first belonged to a more corpulent, well-fed relative - a brother or cousin, I would warrant. His shoes, however, are the sign to his true state - they are dirty, cheap, worn, and full of holes and nothing like the clothes above, for while he can struggle into the cast-offs of his family, nobody of that set has the same size feet as this wretch, meaning he must put his own grubby base to a more pretty picture."

We applauded this recitation by Gussy. He bowed his head modestly.

"You astound us as ever, Gussy!" I said, "But I think I have spied a challenge for you at last. That dull-dressed young fellow over there , the one who looks like nothing less than a square-jawed farmer-lad sent by his mother to make his way in the city."

Gussy frowned as he stared at the young man and that frown soon became a scowl.

"I have never yet had the misfortune to lay my eyes upon an individual who has put so little thought into their presentation to the world. Look at how cheaply made and bland his coat is! And those trousers may have well been cut from old grain sacks! He might have the construction of a barn in his lumbering height and broadness, but does he think it suits him well to go about like a block of dull farm architecture, and with his hair as scruffy as wild grass? Why, the simpleton is hardly dressed like a civilised member of society at all!"

Gussy was so incensed by the mere sight of this rustic young man innocently chewing away at a chicken leg and downing great gulps of small beer that he struggled to sit still in his seat. Our laughter did little to help matters, and so much did Gussy twist and squirm, that he declared that it was not to be borne, and that he simply had to go over to the young man and rebuke him for his entire lack of understanding of the basic requirements of comportment and dress.

He sulkily crept over there and although we could not hear his speech, it was clear from the wild gesticulations that Gussy was pouring out every displeasure he had upon this young fellow. To his credit, the young man's eyes widened, and while he could have snapped Gussy in two as easily as a dried twig, he listened to this cantankerous litany with open-eyed and good-natured interest. The two fell into talking, and as we would learn later that evening, after Gussy convinced this young man to stand us all drinks when we had expended the last of Penny's funds, his name was Paul Stokes, and he had indeed only been in the city for some short time and had taken a rather dreary job as a clerk. None of us would have ever guessed when we first met him in that pothouse that this unassuming Paul was the only individual to whom Gussy could ever be close enough to give true and open affection. The very same thing that so offended Gussy on their first meeting, Paul's complete blankness when it came to appearance and dress, was precisely that which created such a strong bond of affection between himself and Gussy. For Gussy, cursed and blessed to see every detail of everyone he met, the simplicity of Paul and that young man's patent good nature soothed our friend's troubled heart.

 

3.

Gussy called Paul his prosaic charm, and it was not long much after the two had found each other that the artistry of my friend came to obtain some small amount of the recognition it was due. Monsieur Du Lac, one of the managers of the House of Tarquin and Philomena, began to notice the elegance of Gussy's work, and with Penny's support up in the shop as she laid out the name of Augustus Nightingale subtly to the ladies and gentlemen who came through the door, our friend began to have something of the small seeds of fame.

 

The true turning point came with the first Show, as I recall, and it was a turning point in the ancient sense of katastrophe - where Gussy carried us to a peak of delight and friendship and we were all entirely unaware that soon after these giddying heights, there was to be a terrible wreck made of our camaraderie. Indeed, as events would teach us all so cruelly, no one ever truly knows if they have ever reached the crest of their lives, or at what point the wave will collapse.

 

It was one evening at the alehouse when we had met for dinner - myself, Penny, Paul, and Gussy, to toast our friend's improved circumstances  and we joked that he might finally stand us this meal and drink. We were discussing some of the things Gussy had been playing with in our attic, some half-finished clothes he laboured over in his rare spare time. Paul was expressing in his simple way his appreciation of the beauty of some of what Gussy was working on. As ever, Gussy was half-contemptuous of his Paul's inarticulateness about matters artistic, and half-proud that there was something moved even within that simple heart by his endeavours.

"You could scarcely credit the number of things our Gussy has been working on," I said with a laugh, "Why, I should think I would no longer know how to live if I wasn't surrounded by pins and scraps of fabric and drawings on every surface!"

"Has our Mr. Nightingale been all that busy?" teased Penny, "What delights has the good young gentleman been hiding away from our eyes?"

Gussy waved his hands.

"Just a few ideas I have that float before me each night and prevent me from sleep. Unlike those blessed with soothing emptiness, I have never had the admirable gift of dislodging an idea once it is in my head. It digs away, burrowing like a grub, fattening and swelling until I can no longer ignore it and the only way to relieve myself of the thought is to bring it from idea into the physical. In this manner, the grub of an idea undergoes transformation and flies away, leaving me in peace."

Paul looked on with a sympathetic and affectionate smile, contented with his bafflement at Gussy's internal life.

"Anyway," Paul added, "There's some fine and marvellous stuff in there."

I nodded in agreement.

"It seems rather a shame to leave Mr. Nightingale's work in such obscurity," Penny mused.

I took a contemplative sip from my mug.

"You are quite right, Madame Penny. Why, a show's the thing. We should all band together and present a little collection of Gussy's work!"

"A splendid idea!" Paul chimed in.

"Since Gussy's mess is all there as it is, we may as well make the stage of our little Nightingale exhibition in our humble attic. I'm sure the good housekeeper Lady Fearnie would not object, so dearly does she love her artistic tenant."

Penny tapped at the table thoughtfully.

"Yes, I rather think it would do. I have already got in mind a nice list of friends and interested parties we could invite to our little soirée. Capital! Of course," here she turned to Gussy with a mocking bow of her head, "We can only proceed with our plan if the good artist gives us his seal of approval."

Gussy crossed his arms and chewed at his lip. Paul placed an encouraging hand on his shoulder.

"Yes, why not?' said Gussy finally. He knew the worth of his work, after all, and a portion of him dreamed of releasing it out from the trap of his mind and into the public eye.

 

Penny set a date, which was fearfully soon, although that did little to cow Gussy, and in any case, we all deferred to Penny's expert knowledge of the social calendar, as she had assured us that this particular evening was simply the most suitable day to collect the greatest number of attendees for Gussy's show.

Although Gussy was already contemplating the great bulk of labour that lay before him, there was also a gleam of excitement, the glow of young flames lit in his eyes. I would only later realise how close this bright vigour was to the smouldering madness to be found in his bloodshot eyes in only a few short months.

 

3.

If I had marvelled in the past at Gussy's ability to strive with almost no sleep or rest, his efforts were now redoubled. Myself, Paul, and Penny assisted where we were able, but I suspect that during the short period allotted to him to complete his works for the Show, Gussy rarely gave himself into the arms of sleep for more than an hour or two, and I became so used to the wild and manically elated look in my friend's eyes, that I could scarce recall a time when he had ever looked any other way.

 

In the meantime, our housekeeper Fearnie had agreed with all the glee of a schoolgirl to the proposed plan of our hosting Gussy's first show in our attic rooms, and Penny had been working tirelessly to decorate the place and make it fit for visitors, while also acting in her role as Gussy's foremost herald, proclaiming in every ear that the brilliant young designer of clothes was going to exhibit some of his latest creations and that it would surely be a sight most worthy to see. Paul and I helped Gussy mostly with collecting materials, as, due to our uniform difficulties with money, Gussy had to make do with what he could lay his hands on to construct his art. Fortunately, a great part of his schooling and genius was that desperation and an impoverishment of resources drove him on to frenzied invention. For instance, one dress that was well regarded and which gained much more fame in the days afterwards shone with a series of glinting lights that looked nothing so much as like a full scattering of stars reflected in a still country pond. This radiant surface was not constructed with diamonds or other rare gems, but from small pieces of glass that we collected for Gussy from all sorts of refuse. Through the alchemy of his genius and who-knows-what techniques, Gussy transformed these broken pieces of discarded glass into physical poetry, and managed to achieve this remarkable feat with little assistance and less time at hand.

 

Gussy slept less and less as the day of the Show drew near, and although he was adjusting and altering to the very final moment, at last the inevitable evening arrived. Paul and I had pooled our meagre funds to ensure that our guests would not run short of refreshment to quench their thirst, and we had even remembered to obtain some humble delicacies to be consumed. Penny had transformed our garret as utterly as was possible, and by the judicious use of small lanterns and deep green-blue drapes, had given our home a grace and depth of space it had never before possessed.

 

I confess that I recall only fragments of that night, although the bulk of my memory is suffused with the recollection of a great and irresistible delight in Gussy's success, and an almost divine joy in the celebration of our little company. Penny had done her job of trumpeting Gussy's future very well, in fact, almost too well, and there was an endless swarm of people through the Show, many of whom were completely unknown to us. It seemed to ourselves that people from every walk had come to see Gussy's work. In the warm subdued light around us, along with the drink and dream-like atmosphere that appeared to have transported us to another unfamiliar place, we were bewildered at how it was possible that all the city should be able to occupy the attic where we resided.

 

Our Lady Fearnie clapped her hands at the strange and wondrous sight of Gussy's show, and we held her as our guest of honour, treating her for that one night like the noble woman we always called her in play. Many of Gussy's creations were held on mannequins about the place, but Penny had also arranged to have some young men and women wear a few of his pieces, human mannequins, as it were. I barely remember where Gussy was during all this, his great moment of triumph. I have half-flashes in my memory of him dressed in claret-coloured velvet in the background, his face drawn and hungry, eyes ever darting between his pieces, only half listening to the drunken giddy conversation of those who approached the creator to congratulate him.

 

With a bottle in hand, pouring out a glass for Penny with admittedly little accuracy, I have an impression that when we four were all gathered together by the flow of the celebration, I swept my arm about the place and declared to the room that Gussy's clothes moved like strange fish darting and floating in unknown waters, naiads twisting in their suspended element, glittering, sinuous, and unearthly. He gave a crooked smile at that and we toasted to Gussy's otherworldly creations.

 

In time that exhibition became known as Gussy's 'Sunken Treasure' collection, and it was the beginning of the making of his reputation. Penny had worked her craft so well that she had baited into Gussy's modest show of floating treasures some of those great opinions who form the reputation of fashion. Indeed, most extraordinarily for one so young and unknown, although Gussy found it painful to part with his work, he had somehow managed to sell the entire collection of works from the exhibition. The money was not so important in and of itself for Gussy; rather it was the opportunity it represented to create new and better art in clothing, without the necessity of scrounging and borrowing every last little thing. Indeed, from that one little show that had been as much a youthful celebration for its own sake as it was a display, soon the city was a abuzz with his name, and as his reputation spread by means unknowable and mysterious, commissions began to be proferred to our friend by some of the lofty, powerful, and reclusive aristocratic members of society.

 

4.

One day, Gussy breathlessly extended an invitation to myself to join Penny and Paul for a lunch in a quarter of the city we were unaccustomed to visit, announcing that he had great news to impart to us.

As we traipsed to our distant destination in a group, arm in arm, Gussy declared that in fact all of the works of his 'Sunken Treasure' exhibition had been bought by a single individual, who represented a wealthy group with an interest in developing, in their own words 'youthful individuals of noted potential', and that these same influential personages had declared that they saw a spark worth tending in Gussy. This group was offering to support Gussy not simply financially in his labours, but more importantly, as far as he was concerned, planned to help him further his education in his art and his knowledge of techniques, so that he could construct clothed expressions of ideas that were unlike anything ever made before. Gussy explained that it was to meet this new patron who promised so much that we were now journeying, to lunch together and formalise the arrangement. Flushed with giddy excitement at the prospects of the future, he desired most strongly that his greatest supporters and adherents should accompany him on this most significant of his days. Our friend walked gleefully on the air of promise.

 

In this silent, grand part of town the buildings were of dignified and aloof construction, but gave no signs of life behind their stern walls and darkened windows. Gussy, running about like a small mad dog and gabbling all the while about his hopes for what the new arrangement could allow him to do, eventually led us down one of these broad empty streets to a large bronze door. It was an ugly squat thing that had a somewhat sickening colour, and when Paul pounded on it, the door ate most of the sound up as if it hungered and had consumed the sounds of life all about us.

We waited in anxious anticipation for some time, before the bronze door swung open slowly and noiselessly.

An old, stooped doorman bade us enter. This fossilised ancient had a face so worn that his features were difficult to distinguish, particularly in the darkness of the doorway, and when he smiled at us it was with eyes mostly closed, as if he smiled more from blind memory than from any sense of genuine hospitality.

 

We followed him through the door and down the staircase and arrived in an atrium panelled in a deep, seeping rosewood. Upon the wall were innumerable portraits. Gussy examined them with fascination.

“This individual seems most familiar to me,” he mused.

I wandered towards the portrait in question. It depicted a young fellow perched with almost impossible skill en pointe, his entire form held on the tip of one foot in total self control, a sculpture made of his very own form and movement.

“I do believe he was that dancer fellow from some years back,” I muttered, “What on earth was he called?”

Gussy shrugged his thin shoulders and continued his examination.

It transpired that the room was wrapped all about with depictions of painters, musicians, dancers, poets – rare specimens from almost every field of artistic endeavour valued upon this earth.

"Why, I think I recognise this lady," declared Paul, peering over Gussy's shoulder at a picture of a buxom woman, "My mother thought she was splendid. She's that opera singer whose name escapes me."

"Margarita Esperanta," whispered Penny, who felt an inexplicable fearful reverence in this den.

Indeed, we had all heard of Ms. Esperanta and the rumours of the sad conclusion of her brilliant but short career.

Gussy waved his arms at the portraits lining the walls.

"Don't you see? They're all people who strove to reach the pinnacles of artistry! And now their cultivators and guides desire for me to make the same attempt!"

The ancient doorman reappeared, and with a graceful bow unexpected from such a dusty being, he announced that lunch was served and ushered us into the dining room.

 

We took our seats at the long table in the windowless room, our places lit by the blaze of a great and golden chandelier hanging from overhead. The chandelier was intricately decorated with writhing metallic serpents, their tongues frozen in metal as they flickered out towards the guttering lights.

The ancient disappeared into a cleverly concealed door in one of the walls, and as we turned to take our places, we were greeted by our hostess. Gussy introduced her as his patroness, and indeed, I do not recall him ever calling her by any name but La Patrona. To be entirely frank, I am unsure if any of us knew if she had any other name.

La Patrona stood and asked us to take our seats, with Gussy naturally sitting at her right hand. I was instructed to sit to her left with Penny by my side, while Paul sat alongside his Gussy. We all took our seats and each of our group, save Gussy, it seemed, was in a state of great anxiety that our humble ways would be exposed in this atmosphere of whispering regalness, and perhaps in some manner lead us to do something unknowingly gauche in the eyes of our hostess. Beneath that gold-gleaming chandelier, we all feared to make the slightest wrong movement or utterance, lest we should unwittingly heap embarrassment on Gussy's head and forever tarnish his chance of securing the patronage he so zealously desired for his work.

 

Our hostess, La Patrona, was one of those individuals in whom signs of age were so contradictory as to be impossible to interpret. Her hair was silvery and made up in an elegant, old-fashioned style, and the long, layered white dress she wore cascaded all the way to the ground and was of a cut from another bygone era. Yet, her face showed no signs of the weathering of years, and she moved with the most precise elegant poise and without the slightest hint of the weakness or pains of age. Her eyes were dark and yet would suddenly reflect blinking flashes of light from the chandelier. When she spoke, her voice was measured, and her accent had tantalising traces of many different nations without betraying the slightest inkling of her true origins.

 

Gussy, giving his thanks to our hostess, introduced La Patrona to us as the representative of the retiring but refined aesthetes, as he put it flatteringly, who had purchased his entire collection from his first showing.

"We expect great things from Augustus," La Patrona said quietly with a minimal and practised smile, "And I do not merely speak of matters financial. Those I represent do not measure our assistance rendered in such lowly terms as mere lucre. We will provide Augustus with the ability to use whatever materials he desires, to hire as many assistants as he finds needful, but most importantly, we will insist that Augustus study as he has never done before in order to improve his understanding and the scope of his art, so that he may see the world as no others are able and to translate that vision into something tangible." Here she raised her wine glass towards our comrade. "That is the purpose of humanity and the essence of artistry. We will provide Augustus with all the advice, all the materials, all the best teachers, and every last tome he could need to climb the level of artistic flourishing we require. With no false modesty, I can assure your young friend here that we have access to levels of knowledge unheard of in other circles, knowledge that will give Augustus the opportunity to remake himself into one entirely devoted to artistic creation."

Gussy gave a hearty cheers at this, but I must admit that I was unnerved by La Patrona's speech. I flatter myself that I have had some small reading about the history and duties of art and the artist that might have provided some counterpoint to the views of La Patrona and her organisation. Yet, when I turned to La Patrona and her dark eyes, and endeavoured to express myself in contradiction, it felt almost as if my throat had stopped up and become so very dry and hoarse that I was driven to drink down great desperate mouthfuls of water to attempt to loosen it again.

I confess it was perhaps nothing more than my own discomfort at the indefinably unsettling air in that room that had such a surprising arresting effect on my psyche, but it seemed that I saw similar signs of disquiet on Penny's face. Paul, on the other hand, had the sort of rare honest and loving heart that was happy so long as Gussy was contented.

Gussy and La Patrona fell to discussing a series of artists from many areas, many of whom La Patrona gave indication she had known in some personal capacity. This thought of joining a circle of the grand and successful clearly gave great delight and excitement to Gussy, for to be acknowledged for his skill and driven on to greater things was the totality of that which he desired.

We drank toasts with fine wines of vintages none of us could afford, and ate a succession of intricately formed dishes, but I could not shake that sense of inexplicable choked fear in my throat.

 

In later nights, when I would find myself nodding off late at night over my books, my memory often-times would return to the image of La Patrona, and a part of my sleeping mind was transfixed by that long dress she wore of a style from another time. In these dark wonderings, my mind became fixated upon that strange old dress that cascaded like something frozen in its melting. Strangely and indeed absurdly, I was unable to stop thinking about how I had never seen her feet in our brief meeting, not for a single moment in that den behind the bronze door, and this odd obsession revolved in my brain so often in the tired depths of night that it grew into a great childish fear about what she had beneath that dress in the place of feet. No matter how much I would chide myself at this foolish imagining when I found myself suddenly awakening, the half-nightmare of the mystery of La Patrona never truly left me.

 

 

5.

Not long after the disquieting luncheon behind the bronze door, I had been forced to turn with renewed concentration to my studies, and my work became so enveloping that I passed a substantial portion of time in my attic surrounded by nothing but my pages and papers. Of course, even in my reclusive state, I heard some word of the spreading fame of Augustus Nightingale, the great designer of clothing. He was Gussy no longer, and had assumed a more formal name to fit his higher station in life. I heard word that he had designed a trousseau for a Duchess' wedding, his clothes embroidered with subtle elements representing the union of two families with such grace and formality that they became a greater point of interest for talk than the wedding itself. The fame of this particular design grew particularly as no two people could come to agreement on how precisely Augustus Nightingale had brought about such effects as incorporating a subtle image of one family's emblematic tree in a dress, but achieved this with such strange art that this sight could only be perceived by one standing directly beside the dress.

I heard scraps of other successes of Augustus, even if I rarely saw him in our attic in these busy days. He no longer had any financial necessity to remain under our humble roof, but Lady Fearnie assured me that he had continued to pay for his share of the attic rooms, even if he barely attended them, and I was not in a position to protest an arrangement that was helping to lighten the burdens of my own poor pocket.

 

Next, I received word that Augustus was fêted for creating a suit of rust and iron colour, worthy of the god Mars himself, for a deceased General to be buried in, a suit that gave his corpse on display far more fearsome gravity than the military man was said to have ever possessed in life. I later heard that Nightingale was responsible for the ethereal costumes that were worn by the famed company of actors who played their story of fairies and dreams with such success. Their costumes, as if made from fog and night-time mist, half-convinced the most sceptical and rationalist of onlookers that these players were indeed creatures from another world. I read that Augustus' exhibition of a range of ghostly creations of cloth entitled 'Memoria Prima' was rumoured to have such an atmosphere of chilling spectralness that it incited several viewers to uncanny fits of terror and mute paralysis, and knowing the emotional power of Augustus' skill, I could not simply dismiss this as the usual sort of publicity-hunting of the newspapers.

 

It was some time after these distant sounds of the rise of Augustus Nightingale that I had treated myself to a small interlude from my studies following the completion of a piece of long research, and while I was walking happily about town, delighted to be outside the confines of my room for such a rare treat, I happened to come across Penny. It transpired that, to my shame, we had not found the time to meet again since our lunch with La Patrona, and so I insisted that we stop to have a drink over which we could converse, just as we used to do so often.

Yet, from the moment Penny had caught sight of me I sensed that there was some apparent discomfort that weighed heavily on her mind. We found a likely spot and over some drinks that helped remind us of our friendship, at my prompting Penny eventually explained her distraught state.

She gave me reassurances that her displeasure had not arisen because she had any particular grievance with myself, it was simply that running into me had brought Nightingale to mind. Penny informed me, with some restrained anguish, that there had been a terrible falling out between them. I confess that her news threw me into a whirl of confusion. How could this be? Penny had been one of Nightingale's staunchest supporters and loyal friends when he had few of either.

"Sadly, pathetically, it was due to a matter of money," Penny explained with a sour look on her face, the mere memory of the incident bringing a disturbing taste to her tongue. "Perhaps you recall my aunt - my dear, infirm Rosa? She had long been a sickly elderly lady, and in one of those sudden cruelties that Fate delights in inflicting, she had recently taken a turn for the worse. Since she had no other family to rely upon, it fell to me to look after her, to care for her in her ill health, and to make certain that she had the attendance of doctors who might prevent her from suffering bouts of pain and the many lingering punishment of illness. As you might imagine, despite my responsibility, I simply didn't have sufficient money to procure what was needed in order to tend to her. I am as proud as any woman upon the earth, but dire need cares not for pride. The only person I was acquainted with who might have the power to assist me was Nightingale. I am certain that you too you have heard all the talk about town as he has mounted from success to success." Here she looked wistfully into the distance past me. "How strange time is. In truth, it is not so very long ago, that I sat with you and he and dear Paul in humble places like this. Yet that sweet setting has now been left abandoned in a distant age. When once I sat here with our artistic fellow, I would never have realised that in such a short time our friendship should have become so cold and lifeless. In truth, it proved difficult to even gain an audience with that man. For the sake of my aunt, however, I swallowed my pride and persisted, and it was only after numerous entreaties that I was given a few fleeting moments to speak with him, so busy did they declare he now was with his collections and his commissions." Here Penny leaned forward earnestly. "Now, I swear to you by all that I hold dear, I never made mention of the many times in the past that I gave Nightingale small offerings of like assistance, but I fancy that those memories lurked at the back of his mind when he deigned to meet with me, and this reliance of his past had festered into a kind of shabby resentment." Her eyes flickered away and were downcast. "I confess that he gave me no help. Rather, he abused me most fearfully, and accused me of grasping designs on his fame, condemning me in his fervour as another of a legion of traitors who he appeared to believe grasped and clawed at him. His venom was a great shock, I assure you. We are both aware that he has always had a selfishness that accompanied his talent, but as he has risen to a higher station in life, so too has all his character become grotesquely inflamed at the same pace. The entire encounter shook me quite badly, but my thoughts soon turned to pity. You have not seen him lately? He looks nothing less than haunted and wild. He trusts no one now. Indeed, I do not think that he was entirely in his right mind. Some aspect of his success has become a cruel edge to cut out human mercy and tolerance from his person."

 

I could scarcely believe Penny's tale. Had our friend fallen so? What could have driven him to such behaviour? In response to my further inquiries, Penny added that it was not merely herself that Nightingale had turned on, but guiltless Paul had been dismissed from his presence. This shocked and surprised me no end, that the one individual who had ever given him soothing comfort and an endless supply of patience had been abandoned. Penny related that Paul, dear simple Paul, could not fathom why he had been removed from Nightingale's life. He had informed Penny that Nightingale's behaviour had worsened soon after that first flush of success, until he could no longer stand the sight of Paul, and had heaped hatred on his head before finally refusing to ever see him again. Poor broken Paul had blamed himself in some way, declaring that perhaps he wasn't fit to be near someone with such a brilliant mind. Indeed, so melancholy had the rejection been, that Paul had decided to move away entirely from the city and the site of such unjust sadness. He had taken up a position far off, not simply to avoid the painful possibility of encountering anything that might give him mournful reminder of the loss of Nightingale's affection, but because Paul still feared that his presence might somehow unknowingly hobble Nightingale's genius.

 

So great a storm of misery and strife had brewed among my friends as I had lain ignorant in my books, that I could scarcely credit it.

Naturally, I did my utmost to comfort Penny, but I fear that much of the poise and determination that had been at the foundation of her generous character had been badly corroded by Nightingale's spite. I wished I could do more than help with empty platitudes, but alas, I lacked the ability to do much more, although I assured Penny that my meagre self stood ready to assist in whatever fashion I could. She smiled sadly and we parted ways, promising each other that we would not let time slip away so swiftly before our next meeting.

 

As I walked over to the University to collect some books, I shook my head, so struck by the violent fall of our companionship and my own foolish ignorance of its occurrence. Penny had been worn down almost to the last fibres of her being in attempt to maintain her aunt, and good-hearted Paul had been discarded and departed from our company forever. How precious and fragile a thing is the joy of good friendship, how vulnerable it is to sudden irrational alteration, where with one element twisted the entire structure that once seemed so sure and sturdy collapses into dust.

 

6.

The problem of Augustus' changes in temperament continued to give me great anxiety, but I did not at the moment have the time or opportunity to confront him about the dire warping of his own nature. I was equally conscious that just as Penny had been rebuffed repeatedly before she could gain access to Nightingale through the wall of lackeys and intermediaries that had encrusted around him, I was scarcely likely to fare any better if I should attempt to reach him and try to discover what had become of my old friend.

I wrote several times to Augustus, but never received any response. At that point, I was unsure what my next tactic should be to breach the walls around Nightingale, but as has happened so often of late in my life, I was caught up in my researches again and my attempts to reach Augustus fell away.

 

Indeed, in the end, I was given the opportunity to meet with Nightingale through no efforts of my own. Being once again deep in my studies, I was now in the habit of keeping irregular hours into the depths of night, and when most of those in the land had long past laid their heads to bed, I was leaning at my desk. My eyes were weary from their long work, and the ink on the pages before me had begun to blur into incomprehensible hieroglyphs. As was my custom, I found myself falling into a stillness, where I did not all together commit myself into the arms of Hypnos, apportioner of sleep, yet gained enough rest in my chair with my eyes half closed that I could venture to sustain my work in those lonely hours. It is a characteristic of this nodding rest that I retain some small awareness of that which is occurring around me, and so it was one night when my eyes had sunk into weariness that I sensed a scraping and shuffling noise from the darkness behind me.

I roused myself to wakefulness and found that the sounds were emanating from the other end of the attic, far beyond the edge of the halo of my desk-light. Cautiously, I crept towards the other end of the floor, where, as my eyes began to become accustomed to the dark, I could make out the thin-edged silhouette of a figure that would remain completely motionless and lifeless for a few heartbeats of time, then would suddenly move with silent twitching gestures about the mannequins and dusty properties that had been abandoned by Nightingale. I caught sight of long, skeletal hands, covered in what appeared to be many minuscule scars. The fingers of these hands danced over the dusty surface of the forgotten objects like grotesque spider legs.

I called out to the absorbed silhouette, demanding to know what business it had to invade this place. The figure twisted its head to face me, and for a moment I did not recognise that harried expression. The figure hissed my name, and it was only then that I saw some of the worn remnants of the person of Augustus Nightingale. I could not suppress an exclamation at how much he had been altered. He was dressed in a suit made of something like ebon silk with a subtle formality of lines that looked as if it had been woven from soft endless night. I did not doubt that this distinctive dress was one of his own creations, but besides the expected elegance of his clothing, the man within was very much changed for the worse. Although Penny had told me how Nightingale's mind had grown poisoned and malformed, I did not expect to see that change so starkly expressed in his own appearance. Where he had ever been a thin, hunched figure, there had always been the hint of a smile playing at the edge of his sardonic mouth. Now, however, Nightingale looked as if his portion of life and health had been drained from him - his flesh was so painfully thin about the edges of his face that I momentarily had a terrified nocturnal fear that this was merely the corpse of the man I had once known, who had lifted himself out of the cold mud of the grave to visit the living.

Attempting to force myself not to indulge in such absurd, morbid, and febrile fancies, I greeted him.

"Good Lord, my dear fellow, what on earth are you doing here at such an unholy hour?" I whispered at the dried-out remains of Nightingale, who continued to touch his own possessions with the guilty fascination of an intruder. "Naturally," I went on haltingly, "This half of the attic is still yours, of course, but I have not seen you in so long, that I scarcely expected to find you here."

Nightingale crouched on the ground, staring silently at the worn brick wall of his first workshop. He had in his hands an old strip of long black fabric that he ran through his finger-tips, as if he could read some blind story through its touch. I reached a hand out to him, but he barely appeared to perceive my existence, and I felt such a rush of unease as I came near him that I was impelled as if by some unseen force to draw my arm back. Nightingale had rolled up his left sleeve, and I saw that there were the same innumerable little cuts on his forearm as on his pale hands. He then took the long piece of dusty fabric in his fingers and began winding it in strips about his bony arm, around and around and around, almost as if he was enacting some shrouding ritual and preparing himself for burial.

I forced down my disquiet and called out to him again.

He turned to me as if only now noticing my presence. His eyes were sunken, unblinking, and bloody.

"I did not think this was still here," Nightingale croaked, "I had not thought on it for an age, yet here it all is. All that is meagre and dirty from whence I came. I remember it, every thread, every scrap, but it is no longer mine. It is a dead ruin left behind me."

"Look here, my dear fellow," I said soothingly, "It is evident that you are not entirely well. I have heard that - that something has gone wrong for you, your argument with Penny, your throwing over of Paul."

Nightingale waved his hand as if those names meant nothing to him.

"Distractions. I cannot have distractions. There is only so much time and they want so much done, and only I can see how to do it. I have the new collection almost finished, a collection unlike anything ever seen before, because they have taught me how to see that which is unseen. I have made morning-coats that are the picture of the musculature of the person beneath, that moves just as if you were peering upon their dissected skin, as if the flesh was being worn inside out. I have the dress made of thousands of bones taken from creatures not identifiable as those found on this earth. The boots like cracking and weeping ice at every step. Hats festooned with one thousand blinking judgemental eyes. There are those who are always waiting for me to finish it all, and my assistants cannot do it. They are of little worth, traitorous little things who gag and croak at my work and would sell me for one stinking breath of petty fame of their own."

I crouched besides him and spoke as gently as I could.

"Look here, we have known each other well for some time. I can see that whatever world you find yourself in now is clearly too much for you to bear. Forgive my presumption, but you must step away from it all if you have any chance of recovering your health and your sanity."

Nightingale made a choking sound.

"No, no, no. They have given me all that I wanted. They have shown me the path to greatness, and it is through pain alone. They have given me the books that are not to be read and found me teachers from places that are no-places, and now I can see what others cannot. That is where I find my inspirations now, from the worlds hidden there from your sight." Here he motioned towards the blank brick wall. "There are places too horrible for ordinary eyes to see, but I can see them and how they dress in their monstrous palaces and festering courtly gatherings, and I have learned to make their terrible wonders here."

"You cannot go on like this!" I insisted.

Nightingale sneered.

"I cannot stop! They have lifted me to the peaks of my art, and that is all I ever wished, I stand there alone!" He turned to me here, confused and pathetic. "If I stop, if I run out of things to make, there is nothing left of me, don't you see? I must keep looking through there, I must live with the terror of these other places they taught me to see, so that I can continue to create."

I protested at this riddling madness, but Nightingale was not listening.

He stood up suddenly, and with one last longing look at what had been his half of our little domain, he sped off into the night without another word. I chased after him but he was too swift and there was nothing out there but the unspeaking stones of the empty street.

 

I never saw Nightingale after that. None of us did. Nobody has any knowledge about his fate. More strangely still, although there were stories about some of the last pieces he had made, there were dark rumours too that merely to look at these clothes inspired a sort of revulsion and fear, as if they had come from a mind that could not be borne by the sane, as if these clothes been cut from a material that was in some manner entirely antithetical and repulsive to our own everyday matter and existence. If these fantastical stories are to be believed, Nightingale had even at the last retained his brilliance at rousing feeling through his art from the pit of human emotions.

 

It is difficult for me to find any explanation or reasoning, yet, over time, his designs have gradually disappeared, where I know not. In time, people began to talk less and less of Augustus Nightingale, whether because they had become fascinated by new artists to chew upon, or whether because some inexplicable tide of amnesia had washed over his name and reputation, I cannot say. This receding of the work of Nightingale has even begun to affect me as life goes on, as the flickering moments of the brilliant and unusual are swept away by the hours and days of the everyday. Although it becomes increasingly difficult, I do my utmost to try to turn my memory to the life and work of Augustus Nightingale, to recall that within the shadow of his shattered final days lay the radiance of a brilliant artist that myself and a select few once called friend.