The Shadow of Nemesis

The Linear B Tablets include many names of gods: about half were to go on living as Olympian gods, the other half were lost. We know nothing about them: they are mere names that appear alongside those of Zeus, Poseidon and Hera. As if the Olympian gods had once been far more numerous and now carried around with them the shadows of their lost brothers and sisters.

Roberto Calasso, "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony"

Jonathan Lawman and I took a canal-boat out of Dover in mid-April of 1846, he with a multitude of travel guides and blank notebooks, I with my sketchbook and pencils. Our plan, as Jonathan explained it to me, was to disembark at Calais and follow a "Grand Tour" of sorts, stopping at Paris for a few weeks before heading to Geneva, and from there, to Florence or Pisa. Jon attributed his sudden travel fever to an unfinished novel of his that he thought might benefit from a change of scenery: grateful as I was for a chance to travel and collect material for my sketches, I didn't press him further. But there was something strange about his attitude as we boarded the ferry, an extra jumpiness in his already animated expression, that told me quite clearly what the expedition was really about.

He was looking for stories again.

I had known Jonathan for almost thirteen years, from the time we were both students at Oxford. We met, not through the typical circuit of clubs and fraternities, but through a mutual shyness which eventually resulted in the both of us fleeing from society to the dusty clutches of the library on the same late September day. Jon was known in some circles as a writer of short stories, but of too low quality to be considered for anything but circulation throughout the collage. My own work faired little better, and at the time of our meeting I had exhibited only one painting at the National Gallery, with moderate success. Having run short on inspiration and incentive, we both turned to the back shelves of the library in search of encouragement. We were so lost in our own thoughts that we didn't notice each other until our hands met on the spine of Eratosthene's Adrasteia.

From that moment on, we became inseparable, bound by a mutual interest in the forgotten and the obscure. I illustrated many of his unconventional stories, which fed my muse like nothing else could. He, in turn, used my paintings and uncompleted sketches as the basis for some more successful works. After leaving Oxford in the summer of 1835, we continued on together, sharing a rented house near the edge of the Soho district, which was then just beginning its decline. I made some half-hearted attempts to sell our joint work: when those meager profits ran out, we lived on credit. We continued in this way until February of 1846, when Jon's inexhaustible stream of ingenuity finally dried up.

The change in him was remarkable. He wrote nothing for nearly two months, spending most of his time either at the theater or locked in the study of our small flat, pouring over the books he once enjoyed so much. The idleness was unbearable for both of us. Finally, in the last week of March, he announced that we were going on a holiday.

As neither of us had gone on the extensive European tour that was at the time considered an Englishman's birthright, Jon made sure to include a number of galleries and museums in our itinerary. It wasn't until we were relaxing in the lounge of the canal-boat, halfway across the Strait of Dover, that I realized Jon had no intention of sticking to that plan.

"Just look at it, Gabriel," he said, gesturing to the map before him with a wave of his cigarette. A cloud of blue-tinted smoke hovered in a line over the Somme river. "All of Europe, just waiting to be written about. Or illustrated," he amended, glancing at the folder of sketches leaning against my chair.

I shrugged noncommittally and drummed my fingers on the table.

Jon swung a playful punch at my shoulder. "Well, where do you want to go first?" he laughed. "Calais? No, there's nothing to see there, except for the Côte d'Opale, which looks just as well from Dover on a clear day. How about Amiens?" He traced the Somme on the map, dispersing the cloud of smoke.

"Only if we go to the cathedral," I said.

"Of course. How could we pass it up? You've heard the stories about that place."

I closed my fingers into a fist. "Is that what this is about?" Jon returned my shrug and raised his cigarette to his lips. "Fine, then, but don't expect me to keep a midnight vigil with you on the labyrinth. I can appreciate the place just fine without having my nerves tested."

"Ah, well," Jon said. "Where we're headed, there's more of interest than haunted cathedrals."

I meant to ask what he meant, but just then a young man poked his head into the room and announced that we would be docking at Calais in just under ten minutes. Jon folded the map into a neat square and followed him out to the deck, leaving me alone in the lounge with a cloud of cigarette smoke.

Immediately after disembarking at Calais, Jon rented another small vessel to take us south-east along the coast to the mouth of the Somme, and from there, to Amiens. We had a surprisingly easy time finding a crew willing to take us, even after we confessed to a shortage of ready money, French or English.

Despite a cool wind and sudden rainstorm beginning around noon on the second day, the trip went smoothly. Jon returned to his old self again, a strange mixture of animation and timidity that unnerved nearly everyone he came in contact with. He babbled excitedly with the sailors in a rough combination of English and French, exchanging old sea stories and superstitions. As for me, my fascination with supernatural extended only so far as it could inspire paintings. I shied away from it all, preferring the calm silence of our cabin for most of our sea journey.

By morning of the sixth day, we had gone twenty miles up the river. The Somme was wide in those parts, and a smooth, even cobalt, except where it reflected the thick foliage along the banks. The land sloped gently, and we found places along the river where the water didn't seem to know if it should flow north or south. There were no cities nearby, but a few peasant villages could be seen resting farther up in the valley, their thatched or tiled roofs standing out against the green hills like autumn leaves.

A little after noon, I became aware of a faint rushing sound coming from the outside, as though the storm had suddenly tripled in intensity: but after running out to the lower deck, I saw that, far from growing stronger, the rain had faded into a few stray drops that left pockmarks on the river's mirror surface. The sound was coming from downstream.

"Le son," I called to one of the sailors. "Que le cause?" That sound, what causes it?

Though my French was rough, he seemed to understand well enough. He leaned over the rail and shaded his eyes with one hand, clinging to a rope with the other. After a few moments he shook his head. "Je ne sais pas."

"Le son," I called to one of the sailors. "Que le cause?" Though my French was rough, he seemed to understand well enough. He leaned over the rail and shaded his eyes with one hand, clinging to a rope with the other. After a few moments he shook his head. "Je ne sais pas."

At that moment, Jon appeared from the front of the boat, the captain at his side. Both men were frowning, and Jon was twisting a strand of his thick brown hair around his forefinger, a sure sign of anxiety.

"There's something up ahead, Gabriel," he said, while the captain relayed a similar message to the sailor. "Something that shouldn't be there. At least, it isn't on our map." He reached for the paper folded in his pocket, but I waved the motion away.

"Never mind if it's on our map or not. What is it?"

"That's the problem: we don't know. It looks like a tributary."

"A what?"

"Like another river, flowing into the Somme. The bank becomes steep all of a sudden, and there's a sheet of water rushing over the side. It's all rapids."

"Rapids?" I went to the rail and leaned out as far as I dared. The sound was growing louder, now unmistakably the hollow rush of water pouring over stone. I barely had time to turn my head when the left bank vanished behind a wall of white spray, half again the height of our boat. The captain ran past us to the foredeck, but it was too late: already, we could hear rocks scraping against the bottom.

I leapt back from the railing, shaking droplets of water from my hair. Jon stood leaning against the cabin wall with the map unfolded in his hands. He mumbled something under his breath before crumbling it up and returning it to its place in his pocket.

"Why on earth is this cliff..." he began, but I cut him off with an excited shout.

"Look! Behind the waterfall-is that a staircase?"

Jon glanced at the point indicated by my trembling finger before calling up to the captain. "Hold up there!" he shouted. "There's something behind the waterfall!"

There was no need for the command, as the boat was already trapped on the treacherous rocks. It was little more than a miracle that we weren't taking on water already.

But even from where we stood, it was obvious that the shape behind the waterfall was manmade. A series of steps, worn down in the middle by heavy use, had been carved into the foreign wall of stone.

Jon took one more look before dashing back to our cabin. He emerged a few moments later with our luggage balanced in his arms, the hideous carpet bag that held his notebooks slung over one shoulder.

"What in God's name do you think you're doing?" I grabbed my portfolio from its place at the very top of the pile. "If you plan on leaving the boat now, I'll have you know you can do it alone. Do you have any idea where those stairs lead?"

"None whatsoever." As he dropped the luggage onto the deck beside me, the sailors around us exchanged looks in a way that was not at all encouraging. "Now stop staring like an idiot and give me a hand. This isn't all mine, you know."

I lifted my valise from the pile and followed him to the rail. "We can't just leave the boat stranded here, you know."

"We're no sailors, and there's no way our presence is going to help. Come on, Gabriel, didn't we pay them enough in Calais?" His tone was almost pleading, but I heard the playfulness beneath. An unmapped river, a staircase hidden behind a waterfall: this was all just a game to him, the makings of a grand adventure.

I glanced once more around the deck, but all the sailors had put themselves to work trying to push the craft away from the rocks. "Fine," I said, drawing out the word for as long as my breath held. "Do you have everything? Then let's go."

A brilliant smile spread across Jon's face as he gathered up his belongings and pulled himself over the side, landing on the partially submerged rocks beside the falls. "You won't regret this!" he called, laughing brightly as I followed him to the staircase.

He was wrong.

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