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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Ballard J.G.
 

«The Crystal World», J.G. Ballard

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By day fantastic birds flew through the petrified forest, and jeweled crocodiles glittered like heraldic salamanders on the banks of the crystalline river. By night the illuminated man raced among the trees, his arms like golden cartwheels, his head like a spectral crown…

I. Equinox

1 The dark river

Above all, the darkness of the river was what impressed Dr. Sanders as he looked out for the first time across the open mouth of the Matarre estuary. After many delays, the small passenger steamer was at last approaching the line of jetties, but although it was ten o'clock the surface of the water was still gray and sluggish, leaching away the somber tinctures of the collapsing vegetation along the banks.

At intervals, when the sky was overcast, the water was almost black, like putrescent dye. By contrast, the straggle of warehouses and small hotels that constituted Port Matarre gleamed across the dark swells with a spectral brightness, as if lit less by solar light than by some interior lantern, like the pavilions of an abandoned necropolis built out on a series of piers from the edges of the jungle.

This pervading auroral gloom, broken by sudden inward shifts of light, Dr. Sanders had noticed during his long wait at the rail of the passenger deck. For two hours the steamer had sat out in the center of the estuary, now and then blowing its whistle at the shore in a half-hearted way. But for the vague sense of uncertainty induced by the darkness over the river, the few passengers would have been driven mad with annoyance. Apart from a French military landing craft, there seemed to be no other vessels of any size berthed along the jetties. As he watched the shore, Dr. Sanders was almost certain that the steamer was being deliberately held off, though the reason was hard to see. The steamer was the regular packet boat from Libreville, with its weekly cargo of mail, brandy and automobile spare parts, not to be postponed for more than a moment by anything less than an outbreak of the plague.

Politically, this isolated corner of the Cameroon Republic was still recovering from an abortive coup ten years earlier, when a handful of rebels had seized the emerald and diamond mines at Mont Royal, fifty miles up the Matarre River. Despite the presence of the landing craft-a French military mission supervised the training of the local troops-life in the nondescript port at the river mouth seemed entirely normal. Watched by a group of children, a jeep was at that moment being unloaded. People wandered along the wharves and through the arcades in the main street, and a few outriggers loaded with jars of crude palm oil drifted past on the dark water toward the native market to the west of the port.

Nevertheless, the sense of unease persisted. Puzzled by the dim light, Dr. Sanders turned his attention to the inshore areas, following the river as it made a slow clockwise turn to the southeast. Here and there a break in the forest canopy marked the progress of a road, but otherwise the jungle stretched in a flat olive-green mantle toward the inland hills. Usually the forest roof would have been bleached to a pale yellow by the sun, but even five miles inland Dr. Sanders could see the dark green arbors towering into the dull air like immense cypresses, somber and motionless, touched only by faint gleams of light.

Someone drummed impatiently at the rail, sending a stir down its length, and the half-dozen passengers on either side of Dr. Sanders shuffled and muttered to one another, glancing up at the wheelhouse, where the captain gazed absently at the jetty, apparently unperturbed by the delay.

Dr. Sanders turned to Father Balthus, who was standing a few feet away on his left. "The light-have you noticed it? Is there an eclipse expected? The sun seems unable to make up its mind."

The priest was smoking steadily, his long fingers drawing the cigarette half an inch from his mouth after each inhalation. Like Sanders, he was gazing, not at the harbor, but at the forest slopes far inland. In the dull light his thin scholar's face seemed tired and fleshless. During the three-day journey from Libreville he had kept to himself, evidently distracted by some private matter, and only began to talk to his table companion when he learned of Dr. Sanders's post at the Fort Isabelle leper hospital. Sanders gathered that he was returning to his parish at Mont Royal after a sabbatical month, but there seemed something a little too plausible about this explanation, which he repeated several times in the same automatic phrasing, unlike his usual hesitant stutter. However, Sanders was well aware of the dangers of imputing his own ambiguous motives for coming to Port Matarre to those around him.

Even so, at first Dr. Sanders had suspected that Father Balthus might not be a priest at all. The self-immersed eyes and pale neurasthenic hands bore all the signatures of the impostor, perhaps an expelled novice still hoping to find some kind of salvation within a borrowed soutane. However, Father Balthus was entirely genuine, whatever that term meant and whatever its limits. The first officer, the steward and several of the passengers recognized him, complimented him on his return and generally seemed to accept his isolated manner.

"An eclipse?" Father Balthus flicked his cigarette stub into the dark water below. The steamer was now overrunning its own wake, and the veins of foam sank down through the deeps like threads of luminous spittle. "I think not, Doctor. Surely the maximum duration would be eight minutes?"

In the sudden flares of light over the water, reflected off the sharp points of his cheeks and jaw, a harder profile for a moment showed itself. Conscious of Sanders's critical eye, Father Balthus added as an afterthought, to reassure the doctor: "The light at Port Matarre is always like this, very heavy and penumbral- do you know Böcklin's painting, ' Island of the Dead,' where the cypresses stand guard above a cliff pierced by a hypogeum, while a storm hovers over the sea? It's in the Kunstmuseum in my native Basel- " He broke off as the steamer's engines drummed into life. "We're moving. At last."

"Thank God for that. You should have warned me, Balthus."

Dr. Sanders took his cigarette case from his pocket, but the priest had already palmed a fresh cigarette into his cupped hand with the deftness of a conjurer. Balthus pointed with it to the jetty, where a substantial reception committee of gendarmerie and customs officials was waiting for the steamer. "Now, what nonsense is this?"


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