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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Ballard James
 

«The Garden Of Time», James Ballard

Towards evening, when the great shadow of the Palladian villa filled the terrace, Count Axel left his library and walked down the wide rococo steps among the time flowers.  A tall, imperious figure in a black velvet jacket, a gold tie-pin glinting below his George V beard, cane held stiffly in a white-gloved hand, he surveyed the exquisite crystal flowers without emotion, listening to the sounds of his wife’s harpsichord, as she played a Mozart rondo in the music room, echo and vibrate through the translucent petals.

The garden of the villa extended for some two hundred metres below the terrace, sloping down to a miniature lake spanned by a white bridge, a slender pavilion on the opposite bank.В  Axel rarely ventured as far as the lake, most of the time flowers grew in a small grove just below the terrace, sheltered by the high wall which encircled the estate.В  From the terrace he could see over the wall to the plain beyond, a continuous expanse of open ground that rolled in great swells to the horizon, where it rose slightly before finally dipping from sight.В  The plain surrounded the house on all sides, its drab emptiness emphasising the seclusion and mellowed magnificence of the villa.В  Here, in the garden, the air seemed brighter, the sun warmer, while the plain was always dull and remote.

As was his custom before beginning his regular evening stroll, Count Axel looked out across the plain to the final rise, where the horizon was illuminated like a distant stage by the fading sun.  As the Mozart chimed delicately around him, flowing from his wife’s graceful hands, he saw that the advance columns of an enormous army were moving slowly over the horizon.  At first glance, the long ranks seemed to be progressing in orderly lines, but on closer inspection, it was apparent that, like the obscured detail of a Goya landscape, the army was composed of a vast confused throng of people, men and women, interspersed with a few soldiers in ragged uniforms, pressing forward in a disorganised tide.  Some laboured under heavy loads suspended from crude yokes around their necks; others struggled with cumbersome wooden carts, their hands wrenching at the wheel spokes; a few trudged on alone; but all moved on at the same pace, bowed backs illuminated in the fleeting sun.

The advancing throng was almost too far away to be visible, but even as Axel watched, his expression aloof yet observant, it came perceptibly nearer, the vanguard of an immense rabble appearing from below the horizon.В  At last, as the daylight began to fade, the front edge of the throng reached the crest of the first swell below the horizon, and Axel turned from the terrace and walked down among the time flowers.

The flowers grew to a height of about two metres, their slender stems, like rods of glass, bearing a dozen leaves, the once transparent fronds frosted by the fossilised veins.В  At the peak of each stem was the time flower, the size of a goblet, the opaque outer petals enclosing the crystal heart.В  Their diamond brilliance contained a thousand facets, the crystal seeming the drain the air of its light and motion.В  As the flowers swayed slightly in the evening air, they glowed like flame-tipped spears.

Many of the stems no longer bore flowers, and Axel examined them all carefully, a note of hope now and then crossing his eyes as he searched for any further buds.В  Finally he selected a large flower on the stem nearest the wall, removed his gloves and with his strong fingers snapped it off.

As he carried the flower back on to the terrace, it began to sparkle and deliquesce, the light trapped within the core at last released.В  Gradually the crystal dissolved, only the outer petals remaining intact, and the air around Axel became bright and vivid, charged with slanting rays that flared away into the waning sunlight.В  Strange shifts momentarily transformed the evening, subtly altering its dimensions of time and space.В  The darkened portico of the house, its patina of age stripped away, loomed with a curious spectral whiteness as if suddenly remembered in a dream.

Raising his head, Axel peered over the wall again.В  Only the furthest rim of the horizon was lit by the sun, and the great throng, which before had stretched almost a quarter of the way across the plain, had now receded to the horizon, the entire concourse abruptly flung back in a reversal of time, and now appearing to be stationary.

The flower in Axel’s hand had shrunk to the size of a glass thimble, the petals contracting around the vanishing core.  A faint sparkle flickered from the centre and extinguished itself, and Axel felt the flower melt like an ice-cold bead of dew in his hand.

Dusk closed across the house, sweeping its long shadows over the plain, the horizon merging into the sky.В  The harpsichord was silent, and the time flowers, no longer reflecting its music, stood motionlessly, like an embalmed forest.

For a few minutes Axel looked down at them, counting the flowers which remained, then greeted his wife as she crossed the terrace, her brocade evening dress rustling over the ornamental tiles.

“What a beautiful evening, Axel.”  She spoke feelingly, as if she were thanking her husband personally for the great ornate shadow across the lawn and the dark brilliant air.  Her face was serene and intelligent, her hair, swept back behind her head into a jewelled clasp, touched with silver.  She wore her dress low across her breasts, revealing a long slender neck and high chin.  Axel surveyed her with fond pride.  He gave her his arm and together they walked down the steps into the garden.

“One of the longest evenings this summer,” Axel confirmed, adding: “I picked the perfect flower, my dear, a jewel.  With luck it should last us for several days.”  A frown touched his brow, and he glanced involuntarily at the wall.  “Each time now they seem to come nearer.”

His wife smiled at him encouragingly and held his arm more tightly.

Both of them knew that the garden was dying.

Three evenings later, as he had estimated (though sooner than he secretly hoped), Count Axel plucked another flower from the time garden.


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