Symposium of the Gargoyle: A Tale of Nineteenth-Century Averoigne

Simon Whitechapel

Mais Reynard lui-même n’avait pas oublié les gargouilles. Souvent, en passant devant le superbe édifice de la cathédrale, il les contemplait avec une satisfaction secrète pour laquelle il aurait pu difficilement en attribuer ou en cerner les causes. Elles semblaient conserver pour lui une signification rare et mystique, indiquer un triomphe obscur mais plaisant.  “Le Sculpteur de gargouilles”, Clark Ashton Smith (trans. Patrick Rodrigue)

Évariste Laroche had been destined for some high professorship in a French or German academy, but was orphaned at the age of fifteen when the new bridge carrying passengers and freight between Vyones and Ximes collapsed into the river Isoile. It was discovered that the contractor had swollen his already high profits by employing under-strength girders in the construction of the bridge, but the miscreant had fled Averoigne — and soon thereafter France — on receiving a warning by telegram from an anonymous confederate, and no damages for criminal neglect ever found their way to the young orphan.

He was forced to leave school and set his foot to the first rung of a career in accountancy, but the dust, gloom, and long hours of the office in which he worked, concomitant with the lingering grief of his parents’ loss and dashing of his long-cherished hopes, undermined a never robust constitution and by the age of seventeen he was chronically ill and forced to leave the firm. With the aid of his meagre savings and a small annuity bequeathed him by an aunt in Touraine who had been, till her death, his sole surviving relative, he did not wholly starve, but none of those who knew him expected him to see out thirty. As his savings dwindled he was forced to seek out cheaper and cheaper accommodation, and he sometimes joked that though his rents were constantly falling, he himself was as constantly rising, inhabiting smaller and smaller rooms at the head of longer and longer stairs, till at last he was ensconced in a garret of a crumbling tenement owned by the notorious old miser Salfuyche (the maternal grand-oncle, though Évariste knew it not, of the contractor responsible for his parents’ death).

Here, often confined to his bed for weeks by his worsening illness, Évariste occupied his mind by reading, drawing, and mathematics — once his best hope of academic distinction — till one day his friend Jean-Pierre brought him that for which he had saved for months. Jean-Pierre’s was a worse misfortune, Évariste always insisted, than his own: an apprentice stone-carver, he had fallen from height working to repair a flying-buttress of the cathedral of Vyones, and had never recovered full use of one arm or full possession of the wits shaken loose by the fall. He was Évariste’s agent in the city during his worst illnesses, buying him food and making the rare purchases of books for which Évariste had managed to save. The long-saved-for object he brought that never-to-be-forgotten day was old and much dinted but now infinitely precious to Évariste: a telescope with which he now spent many absorbing hours watching the birds of the cathedral of Vyones, which his tenement window overlooked at two kilometres’ distance, or the stars that by night descended in the western heavens above the cathedral.

And yet, though it drove the birds away, he liked to see the cathedral best when it rained and the gargoyles began to spout. Then it was that they filled the role for which they were created, and he fancied sometimes, staring through his telescope, that the grins on their demonic faces grew wider, that their horns tilted more jauntily, their wings spread more exuberantly, quivering with scarce-restrained life, as though one day, in the very act of spouting, the gargoyles would leap from their stony vantage and swoop down through the rain-lashed air on the city they had so long presided, like that legendary pair of the mediæval sculptor Blaise Reynard, whose legend still circulated in Vyones.

But one gargoyle did not share in the general hilarity of the rain: Le Saturnien, the Saturnine One. All the others, in his hours of telescopy from his invalid’s bed, Évariste had christened by name: Adramelech, Asmodée, Baphomet, Bélial, Belphégor, Lucifuge, Méphisto, Moloch, Samaël. But where their faces grinned with glee of wickedness, that of Le Saturnien scowled with unappeasable rancor; and where their horns were the jaunty curves of the goat, those of Le Saturnien were the oddly curling helices of some unclassifiable bovidé. Even the shadows seemed to lie heavier in Le Saturnien’s corner and the snow of winter to thaw slower in spring from his skull and shoulders. Évariste had spun a tale around him, imagining him no true gargoyle, but a lithosarphic prince of the planet for which he had been named, condemned to long centuries of exile on Earth for some crime of dark passion, and now endlessly brooding on his return and the vengeance he would wreak by shores of sullen-lapping acid or beneath crags of levin-scarred obsidian.

And indeed, when Évariste turned the musty pages of Yves Saint-Cizeau’s L’Architecture d’Averoigne à l’époque Gothique or Adolphe Cailloux’s Histoire sommaire de la Cathédrale de Vyones — treasured volumes for whose purchase he had endured weeks of semi-starvation — he could find no trace of Le Saturnien on the lithographs of the cathedral, though Belphégor and Asmodée and the rest were clearly visible. Perhaps Le Saturnien had been overlooked by the artists; perhaps he had been added to the cathedral sometime in the past century, after the books had been published; perhaps Évariste’s fantasies were true and he had descended there of his own accord one night, wings still glistening with the rime of interplanetary flight.

But the mystery of the gargoyle’s origins was by no means the sole enigma to attach to it: Évariste had also puzzled over what the gargoyle itself, or its sculptor, meant to convey by the disposition of its talons. Those of the right hand were curled shut save for the raised index, while those of the left formed the following curious gesture: the middle talon was folded to the palm and the index, third, and last were raised; and Le Saturnien either had no left thumb or had lost it to the nipping frost of an Averoigne winter. Since acquiring the telescope Évariste had sketched the gesture of the left hand many times in pencil or charcoal, and had tried to imitate it as many times with his own left hand, but he had always failed to reproduce the gesture. Either his middle-finger would not fold fully down or his ringfinger would not fully raise, and the manual tendons of gargoyles or Saturnians were, he had concluded, fashioned different to those of men.

Concomitant with his growing fascination with the gargoyle grew his fascination with the planet of its putative origins. When the cathedral and its environs grew too dark for survey and the birds that flocked there by day were at roost, he would turn the lens of his dinted telescope on the western sky above, seeking out in its season the white pearl of Saturn, strung on the invisible cord of the ecliptic. The telescope was no precise instrument of science, for it had passed through a half-a-dozen hands before his and been the cheapest available in Vyones, though almost beyond his means to purchase from the mont-de-piété in the quarter (owned through an intermediary, though again Évariste knew it not, by his landlord Salfuyche). Yet time and again his heart would catch in his throat to see the ring-girdled globe of Saturn floating minute and perfect against the black of the heavens. Was Le Saturnien indeed exiled thence or from a moon thereof, condemned for some nefandous crime under a darker sky, beneath a dimmer sun? Or had he committed no true wrong, but been a tyrannicide or rebel manqué, or victim of some dynastic plot he had escaped only by flight?

Ah, peut-être. If Évariste fell asleep musing thus, he would turn his telescope even more eagerly on the cathedral when he woke, hoping to find his hypotheses confirmed by seeing that Le Saturnien had shifted position in the night, proving life lay hid beneath apparent stone, or that the gargoyle’s talons now signaled in different and decipherable fashion. And one day, as he had long hoped, a change did indeed come to the gargoyle, though in no wise that he had foreseen. He turned his telescope on the cathedral to refresh his mind after a morning of geometrizing and a frugal lunch of bread, cheese, and sour red wine, and was absorbed in a dispute between two of the cathedral crows for a time before passing his lens over the line of gargoyles along the roof, saluting each sotto voce as his eye fell upon it.

Bonjour Belphégor, j’espère que tu as bien mangé… bonjour Moloch… et Asmodée, ça va? Tu es plus gros cet été…

And so he came to Le Saturnien:

Bonjour, mon prin—

But what was this? The gargoyle was altered somehow amid its shadows… and then he saw the cause: the left horn was gone from the head, and not even a stump remained. There was a strange excitement in the sight, for the thought flashed upon him that the horn might be retrieved from where it now lay, for if it had fallen during the night who else in the city of Vyones would know of its loss? He knew the spot directly beneath Le Saturnien’s perch well, having visited it often in the days before his illness came upon him. There was deep earth there, in which a sharp object falling from height might bury itself with scarce a trace.

So it was that he barely possessed patience to wait out the hours till Jean-Pierre called on him again. Their friendship aside, Évariste’s sous were highly valuable to the youth, for he had, of course, no pension from his cut-short apprenticeship, and work was hard to find even for the able-bodied in the Vyones of that period, let alone for a half-cripple of uncertain wits.

That week, however, he had found a week’s work assisting in the renovation of a house for a new-wed lawyer, and was visiting Évariste but once a day, in the evening, to bring him the next day’s provisions or oil for his lamp. When his feet sounded at last on the stair, Évariste was bursting out the tale of what he had seen even before the door was fully open, and Jean-Pierre was simultaneously frowning and smiling, as he puzzled out the torrent of words and caught Évariste’s excitement. When he understood the tale, he promised in his stammering parole that the next day, very early, before he began work for his employer, he would visit the cathedral and search the earth for the fallen horn, bringing it in the evening without fail should he find it there.

The next day stretched endless for Évariste, for he woke early and had many hours to fill before he learned whether Jean-Pierre had succeeded or failed in the search. Again and again he turned the telescope on the cathedral and the now unicorn Le Saturnien, trying to count the spirals in the remaining horn. But the angle at which the horn protruded and the shadows of Le Saturnien’s corner defeated him now as always they had in the past, and he turned to sketching the gargoyle itself, neglecting the geometric proof that had been absorbing him but a day-and-a-half before.

Then at last the feet of Jean-Pierre were on the stair again, and were they hurrying? Yes, hurrying, for now the door burst open and the grin on the face of his friend told him the horn was found. Stammering worse than ever in his excitement, Jean-Pierre drew the thing from beneath his stained and patched blouson de travail. The horn was about a metre-and-a-half long, carved of an oddly unweathered marble, and Évariste nodded his thanks as he took it eagerly, careless of the crusted earth that fell from it to his coverlet. Now he could count the spirals of the helix, murmuring them off under his breath. Yes, there were exactly thirteen from the base to the sharp tip, and was not the spiral the mirabilis, that which one of the Bernoullis — he forgot the name in his excitement — had had carved on his tomb?

But now he frowned a little, for the balance of the horn in his hands was somehow wrong.

“It displeases you, m-mon p’tit?” Jean-Pierre stammered, catching the frown.

Non, vieux ami,” Évariste returned, shaking his head; “mais il me semble…

And yes, as he scratched at the broken-off base, a skin of soft plaster yielded to his fingernail. The horn, or the lower part of it at least, was hollow. Flakes of plaster joined the earth lying on his coverlet as he broke the skin away and probed within the base. His fingers met resistance, and a moment later were drawing forth a tube — a rolled tube — of dark leather. It was stiff with age and as he began to unroll it he felt it crack beneath his fingers. He looked up.

“Jean-Pierre, my lamp, s’il te plaît.”

When Jean-Pierre brought him the lamp, he sprinkled the leather with oil and massaged it in, softening the leather so that he could begin to unroll it again, little by little. It seemed many minutes before the square of leather lay open before him, held flat with a finger on opposite edges, so he could read the letters seared upon it who knew how long before with a tip of red-hot iron or steel:


“But what does it say, mon p’tit?” Jean-Pierre asked, craning his neck over the bed.

“Ah, I’m sorry, see for yourself, vieux ami.”

He turned the square so that Jean-Pierre could read what was written thereon, and he smiled ruefully at the look of disappointment on his friend’s face.

C’-c’est de l’hébreu p-pour moi,” Jean-Pierre stammered out.

Évariste laughed, releasing the edges of the square so that it rolled slowly into a tube again.

“Ah, I wish it were Hebrew, and unciphered. As it is, the Greek is all I understand, and it must be the key to the puzzle. ‘Number governs all.’ But what numbers do we have?”

He fell silent a moment.

“First six,” he said slowly. “A six-by-six square. Thirty-six letters in all. And are we to include the letters of the maxime Pythagoricienne? No, I think not. It is not part of the square, and not in the Roman alphabet. Ah, oui.”

He unrolled the square again.

“Roman alphabet,” he repeated, running his eyes over the square. “Yes, Roman. I believe the square is in Latin. The age and origin are right and see: four E’s, two I’s, one each only of A and O, but seven V’s. But how is it enciphered? Code de César? Une scytale? After all, the leather was rolled…”

He shook his head slowly, falling silent again, then looked up at his friend with a smile.

Je suis bête, Jean-Pierre. Number governs all. I must think of Le Saturnien also. Two horns that are now one horn… thirteen spirals of the fallen horn… one talon raised of the left hand… and… and what does he seek to convey by the talons of the left? One talon raised, one lowered, one raised, one raised… One thousand, one hundred, and one?”

[All necessary clues have now been given and interested readers may care to attempt a solution of the puzzle before reading on, though the solution will be easier in this form:
  N U E W C S]

Évariste nodded slowly, then reached for his pencil and a piece of the scrap paper he used for his calculations.

“You will learn le secret, mon p’tit?” Jean-Pierre said as his friend began to write, recreating the square of letters from memory.

Évariste glanced up for a moment, then looked back to his work, saying, “I will try. Ah, I will try.”

When Jean-Pierre left him an hour later, he was absorbed in the work and barely acknowledged his friend’s departure; and when Jean-Pierre returned to the garret the following evening, he found Évariste deeply asleep, still sitting upright in bed with his lap full of scribbled papers.

Jean-Pierre laid down the provisions he had brought and gently shook his friend’s shoulder. Évariste sprang awake with a start.

“Ah, Jean-Pierre, c’est toi. I worked most of the night and could not hold off sleep during the day. But… non, he has collected it while I slept. Salfuyche’s nephew,” he went on, in response to Jean-Pierre’s look of enquiry. “It is my day to pay rent. When I felt sleep overcoming me, I left the money on my table.”

“B—but he w-will have seen tes feuilles!” Jean-Pierre said with concern.

“My papers? Ah, I see.”

Évariste looked down at the papers that filled his lap.

“They would mean nothing to him. They mean little enough to me, alas. And… yes, I think they are all here, and the horn was safe beneath my pillow. See?”

He twisted himself to one side, lifting the horn forth from beneath his pillow, making two or three strokes through the air with it, like a sword.

“Such workmanship,” he said. “Perhaps we can sell it, old friend, and earn a little that way, though I fear someone might reason that, save for those of the narval and licorne, horns come in twos, and so guess its ori—”

He was broke off, suddenly frowning, then murmured, “Horns come in twos. Two. That is it. Le système binaire de Leibniz. Not one thousand, one hundred, and one, but… one and four and eight. Thirteen. Thirteen, like the spirals of the horn. It has been staring me in the face all the while. The right hand signifies one and the left thirteen. One and thirteen, one over thirteen. L’inverse de treize, in the base of two, and yielding…”

He started to push through the papers, searching for something.

“Jean-Pierre, please, my pencil. It has rolled to the floor.”

Jean-Pierre retrieved it and handed it to his friend, who began to write rapidly, setting down a line of numbers, then a second, shorter line beneath it.

Oui, comme je pensais, it is at a maximum. Look, Jean-Pierre. The remainders of the division.”

He held the paper out for Jean-Pierre, who read with a shrug:

2 4 8 16 3 6 12 24 11 22 9 18 5 10 20 7 14 1  2 4 8 3 6 12 11 9 5 10 7 1

“Now,” Évariste went on. “Two more lines.”

Jean-Pierre watched as he repeated the second line of numbers twice, then began to add letters beneath them. When he was finished the paper looked like this:

1 2 4 8 3 6 12 11 9 5 10 7
V B C T I D V  C  S A E  I  1 2 4 8 3 6 12 11 9 5 10 7
N D M V V O N  V  M S N  L

1 2 4 8 3 6 12 11 9 5 10 7
C E T V S E M  V  N F D  C

“See? C’est une anagramme, arranged according to the remainders of the reciprocal in the base of two. First and second remain where they are, but third goes to fourth, and fourth to eighth, and fifth to third and…”

He wrote rapidly, murmuring the re-arrangements as he did so. Jean-Pierre, still understanding nothing of what he had been told, watched with a puzzled smile on his face that broadened uncertainly as Évariste looked up in triumph after he had completed the first line and a portion of the second.

Vois, it works! It works! C’est un message en latin!

Now the paper read:

1 2 4 8 3 6 12 11 9 5 10 7
V B C T I D V  C  S A E I
V B I C A D I  T  S E C  V
1 2 4 8 3 6 12 11 9 5 10 7
N D M V V O N  V  M S N  L
1 2 4 8 3 6 12 11 9 5 10 7
C E T V S E M  V  N F D  C

He carried on, filling in the remainder of the second line and the whole of the third, then adding two more lines of letters, so that the paper looked like this:

1 2 4 8 3 6 12 11 9 5 10 7
V B C T I D V  C  S A E  I
V B I C A D I  T  S E C  V
1 2 4 8 3 6 12 11 9 5 10 7
N D M V V O N  V  M S N  L
N D V M S O L  V  M N V  N
1 2 4 8 3 6 12 11 9 5 10 7
C E T V S E M  V  N F D  C
C E S T F E C  V  N D V  M

“See, Jean-Pierre? See? A message, a message for us, from Le Saturnien! ‘Where falls the second, the earth now is fecund.’ It must mean, the second horn. And look, see how bright is the moon tonight! Take my telescope — your eyes are sharper than mine. Find Le Saturnien, and tell me what you see.”

Bewildered, still understanding little of what Évariste had said or done, Jean-Pierre took up the telescope and focused it through Évariste’s open window on the cathedral.

“Yes, yes?” Évariste burst out impatiently. “What do you see?”

La d-deuxième c-corne de la g-gargouille,” stammered Jean-Pierre, “elle est disp— disparue.”

“I knew it! The second horn, the second horn has fallen, and there is a treasure waiting for us where it lies. Vite, va, go like the wind and see. But take your bag, to carry the thing, if it be possible.”

Jean-Pierre lowered the telescope, shaking his head, and it was some moments before Évariste could fully explain the significance of the vanished second horn. Then Jean-Pierre was gone, his feet clattering diminuendo down the stairs. The hour that followed seemed like two, and time and again Évariste turned his telescope on the moon-bathed cathedral, straining his eye to see the now hornless skull of Le Saturnien; but at last the feet were returning, crescendo up the stairs, and Jean-Pierre was bursting back into the room with his bag, panting with exertion and emotion. For a minute he could not speak, and then he began to stammer out his news.

“Salf— Salfuyche, il est— il est m-mort!


“Salf— Salfuyche, he is dead!”

Gradually the tale came out: on arriving at the cathedral Jean-Pierre had discovered the old miser lying at the foot of the wall, transfixed by the second horn in the very act, it seemed, of delving in the earth for the treasure of which the paper had spoken.

“Then son neveu did see and understand my calculations and sketches while I slept!” Évariste cried. “Or at least understand their possible significance, and Salfuyche cracked a stolen copy of the square before us.”

He shook his head and laughed ruefully, shrugging.

“And now he has his reward. But we, do we have ours? What waited there, where the second horn fell?”

Jean-Pierre did not speak, but opened his bag and drew forth what it carried: a squat, lead-sealed bottle of dark glass, still crusted with earth. He handed it to Évariste.

“This was all you found? Well, it is a goodly weight, at least, but what does it contain?”

He shook it and held it up to the lamp-light.

“Wine, old friend? A bottle of wine, centuries old? Is this our treasure? Then it must be of great value and…”

But Jean-Pierre was shaking his head.

Non. Nous buvons.”

He strode to Évariste’s table and lifted the two cracked glasses in which the two of them had shared, in the past, so many indifferent vintages.

“No, old friend, do not be foolish. We cannot drink it, we must sell it. The bottle alone will be of great value, I believe, and the wine is surely long ago turned to purest v—”

Jean-Pierre did not argue, but plucked the bottle from Évariste’s hand, tested the leaden seal for a moment with his fingers, grunted, and then broke the neck off with a single blow on the edge of the table. Now he began to pour two glasses of the wine and Évariste’s startled protests ceased as the room filled with its scent, rich with spices to which he could put no name. His eyes widened in wonder as Jean-Pierre turned back to him, lifting a filled glass toward him. The wine glittered dark purple in the light of his lamp, but there seemed to be extra colors therein on the threshold of vision, troubling his brain like the scent with memories from new-recalled dreams: shores of sullen-lapping green, crags of levin-scarred obsidian, the splendors of an uncloaked heavens, the searing cold of interplanetary flight.

He took the glass, hand shaking, so that wine spilled to the coverlet of his bed. Jean-Pierre watched him implacably.

“This… this is no earthly vintage, Jean-Pierre,” Évariste said. “I fear to drink, and yet…”

He shook his head, raised the glass to his lips, and drank; and Jean-Pierre, with a nod and grunt of satisfaction, followed suit.

The slaying of Salfuyche by a fallen gargoyle’s horn, for reason of its bizarreness if not of the esteem in which the deceased was held in the city, occupied the front page of the Tribune de Vyones for a week, and even found its way into the Parisian and foreign press; but the disappearance of Évariste Laroche and his friend Jean-Pierre Bracqueur earnt only a paragraph on an inner page of the Tribune, and no connexion was ever drawn between the two events. If the second horn had been discovered in Évariste’s deserted room, matters would have been different, but either the horn vanished with Évariste and Jean-Pierre, or Salfuyche’s relatives seized it with his other possessions in lieu of notice and never drew, or never cared to draw, the attention of the police to its significance.

For certainly the old telescope reappeared in the stock of the mont-de-piété in a week or two, though if any future purchaser chanced to focus it on the cathedral and the gargoyles that decorated its roof, he would have found that the cathedral authorities, with uncharacteristic despatch, had given Le Saturnien both two new horns and two new companions in his shadowed corner, and even refashioned his features to match the grins on theirs, as though the three were confederates in some soon-to-be-realized enterprise of high diabolic endeavor.

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