The Doomsday Canticle: Part IIIThe third installment in a Lovecraftian novella round-robin I and my friends at Rhetorical Device, Ftrain and Brokentype are publishing as we write it. Jack wrote the beginning. Paul wrote the previous installment. Alex wrote the next installment.
May 6, 2004
The first mention of Shapira's name appeared in the middle of a long chapter on forgeries. The Royal Antiquarian Society had been diligently compiling reports on attempts to fool eager collectors perpetrated through the years, sometimes with spectacular ingenuity and success. In the strange world whose records he was poring over, forgers elicited contradicting views united at their extremes by the hot passion with which they were held. A skillful hoax might produce breathless admiration or acrid fury, sometimes conjoined so seamlessly it was impossible to tell where the one ended and the other began. From the scant information given him, Charles knew that the person of the demented Jewish clockmaker he was researching engendered nothing but extremes.
“A curious footnote to the history of Pseudepigrapha and an agitation for debate even to this day,” the page informed him, “is the affair of the Codex Shapirius, a book of transcribed Byzantine scrolls and the mysterious artifacts that accompanied them. They were brought to the attention of Dr. Charles Clermont-Ganneau, a professor of ancient history at the Sorbonne and this Society's esteemed corresponding member, by Moses Wilhelm Shapira, an adventurous clocksmith whose provenance is traced to the Josefov ghetto of Prague. Most known facts of Shapira's life are gleaned from his writings. The son of a rabbi, he came into his trade through prodigious fascination with time's ineluctable passage. He travelled first to Switzerland and then widely across the Continent and beyond to study his trade, its history, and its legends. He claimed to have fixed the old and notorious defect in the backwards-running Hebrew clock of his native town that forced it to accumulate an excess hour by midnight on certain days of the year.”
Further biography followed. Charles consulted his pocket watch, frowned and skipped several paragraphs.
“The illuminated transcription of lost scrolls, rumoured to have originated in Byzantium and themselves but a copy of older Roman palimpsests, was bound in a book bearing the signature of Athatakos, probably a Greek scribe. The initial estimates put the book's age at four hundred years.
“It came in a trunk filled with several objects of unusual shape and unknown purpose. Clermont-Ganneau accepted the trunk on May 21, 1893 from the hands of a man so consumed with fever that he collapsed on the doorstep upon the trunk's delivery without saying a word. A doctor was summoned and after a considerable amount of blood-letting and a two-day rest the stranger had utterly recovered. His name was Moses Wilhelm Shapira.”
Impatient now, Charles scanned further, looking for information that he did not already possess. A clue, he thought, give me a clue or a reference, the slightest hint.
“The artifacts had caused a furor, due largely to the fact that no one was able to ascertain their exact origin nor decipher the contents of their companion volume, later christened the Codex Shapirius. The illustrations in the book left little doubt that it was related to the artifacts yet the purpose of either remained a mystery.
“Shapira claimed to have acquired the items from a trader in Jerusalem. He refused to name the trader or reveal any further details of the transaction. This had caused some to suggest that the artifacts were stolen; others, notably Clermont-Ganneau himself, questioned their authenticity altogether.
“Shapira's asseverations of having translated parts of the text were as bizarre as his story of its acquisition. He insisted to Clermont-Ganneau that the book recounted the history of an obscure Semitic tribe that worshipped a horned god of death and was extirpated by the conquering Israelites under King David. He also insisted that the tribe was readying the world for the coming of their voracious deity in flesh; in preparation they had produced peculiar objects some of which could tell the time remaining until the Day of Death. The ancient chronicler, according to Shapira, had described in detail the mechanism of those objects. The artifacts were supposed to be nothing more than their faithful reproductions. Shapira desperately sought knowledge of the history of this tribe and its practices, yet Clermont-Ganneau could affirm to him only that no such knowledge existed.
“The sad ending of this affair left only unanswered questions. Because he refused to provide clews to the text's language or give a full translation, Shapira was dismissed by most as a fraud. Clermont-Ganneau, who served all the while as his host, began to question Shapira's honesty and then sanity as his guest's behavior grew increasingly odd. Even after recovering from his unexplained ailment he seemed weakened in constitution and afflicted with melancholy and a pervasive fear whose causes he refused to name. These emotions might have accounted for his secretive disposition. His departure from Paris was abrupt and unexpected: he left one day without a warning, leaving behind all his possessions, including the trunk and its contents.
“It is impossible to know where his flight took him before the discovery in a short while of his body in a Rotterdam garret off Mariniersweg. The death was due to a bullet to the head; the poor suicide's hand was still clutching the gun.”
The page continued with the discussion of the controversy that unfolded over the clockmaker's trunk. Some claimed Shapira discovered a lost book of the Old Testament. Others, led by Clermont-Ganneau, made it their mission to discredit the finds. The article mentioned that at one point the old professor had abruptly ceased all scholarly activity and retired to the country. He lived there refusing all visitors and finally passed away in his bed, in a room overlooking vineyards, at age eighty four.
Charles consulted his watch once more. It was almost four; the time of his appointment was drawing near. He looked at his notes scattered across the desk and felt the quiet thrill of a job well done. His superiors made the right choice in him. Luck had as much to do with it as anything, but now he knew exactly what questions to ask to the stranger he was going to meet, and in an interview that promised to be very difficult at best.
He gathered his notes and approached the librarian, Transactions on Biblical Antiquities clutched in hand.
“Please hold this book for me.”
The librarian looked up. “We can do it only for two days unless you have an extension from the head librarian.”
“That's quite all right,” Charles said serenely. “I don't expect I'll be needing it after two days.”
Outside, fog still swept the length of Great Russell Street. The trees lining the street seemed to melt away as they rose into the milky swirl, only their black trunks solid. Chilly wind made Charles shudder and draw his coat more tightly around his body. This is London in June, he thought. I can only hope I don't linger here long.
Ghosts of foreign lands—forests and minarets, mountains and palazzos—rose before his imagination out of the shifting fog as he strolled towards Russell Square.