This is Chapter 23 of GOMERY KIMBER‘s latest novel, No Air Native, No Man Kindred
August 1935. A young James Valentine pursues his cousin, Clarissa Wyvern, to Munich. Clarissa is the black sheep of the Wyvern clan, dishonouring the family name by joining the British Union of Fascists. She wants nothing less than to capture the heart of Adolf Hitler, in the belief that doing so will prevent war between England and Germany. But those closest to Hitler, such as occultist Professor Lustgarten, are certain she is a spy. It was Lustgarten who set Hitler on the path to dictatorship, and the Professor is determined that Clarissa will not ensnare the Fuehrer. But Lustgarten is distracted by the brilliant James Valentine, a young man of genius whose ambition is to become the foremost novelist of his generation. Lustgarten has a secret ambition of his own, nothing less than to become a god…
The Institute’s director lived in a secluded villa hidden amongst pine trees on the edge of the walled grounds.
It was hot and sultry when they arrived from the city in the early afternoon. Lustgarten parked the Opel in front of the villa. It was a rather ugly building, tall and narrow, with wooden beams and a steeply pitched roof, but its off-putting appearance was softened by the white roses climbing trellis work on either side of the front door.
Lustgarten led the way to a carved wooden gate, and James Valentine followed him round the side of the building and onto the terrace at the back of the house. The French windows stood open. They went inside. On the dining-table was an arrangement of summer flowers in a vase. The walls of the dining room were lined with glass-panelled bookcases on top of which were displayed a collection of primate skulls. On a side table, James saw books – Ernst Juenger’s war memoir and a volume of pseudoarchaeology by Ignatius Donnelly.
‘Let me get you a drink,’ said Lustgarten.
Valentine was thirsty and hot. The prospect of a cold beer was delightful.
‘It is my housekeeper’s afternoon off,’ said Lustgarten, going through into the rear hallway which led to the kitchen.
‘You leave the doors open?’ said Valentine, following him.
‘Why not? As you saw, the front gate is guarded. This is a secure institution. No unauthorised person can get in, or out.’
As he was speaking, Lustgarten removed bottles of Munich beer from the Linde refrigerator. He was very tall with large feet, but as he went over to the dresser for the glasses he moved gracefully, like a dancer.
‘Here,’ he said, smiling at Valentine, offering him a glass and one of the bottles.
‘Wonderful,’ said Valentine, popping the porcelain cap.
He poured the iced beer into the glass, and as he waited for Professor Lustgarten to do likewise, he looked at the golden liquid foaming, and became quite enchanted with it. He heard Lustgarten chuckle.
‘What?’ asked Valentine, looking at him.
‘You are like a child. I am not being rude, it is merely an observation. You have a poet’s sensibility, I think; or better yet, that of a mystic.’
‘I’d have to agree with you,’ said Valentine.
He was amused. It was obvious that Lustgarten was taken with him. At school, such an infatuation would have been called a ‘pash.’ Valentine had found it mildly ridiculous when it was a fifth former who had a passion for an angelic eleven-year-old, but the present situation struck him as even more absurd. Lustgarten must have been over fifty, and he, Valentine, was no longer a pretty youth but a robust young man nearing twenty. Was the Professor about to make a fool of himself? Valentine hoped not. He liked the man. He was brilliantly accomplished and successful, even if he did have some strange ideas. What could be more risible than falling for a man the way a man fell for a girl?
Lustgarten raised his glass. ’Your very good health,’ he said, looking into Valentine’s eyes.
‘Cheers,’ said Valentine. The beer was icy and refreshing, and Valentine almost groaned with pleasure after taking a draught.
‘Let me show you the experiment I mentioned,’ said Lustgarten, after a moment.
‘The planaria? All right.’
Once again, Valentine followed the German into the hall.
‘Yes, they are interesting creatures,’ said Lustgarten. ’Incredibly simple organisms, without brain or nervous system, they make for excellent laboratory subjects. But I wondered, you see, how they could learn without a brain. What I discovered is . . . well, let me show you.’
The laboratory was a large room with high windows at the front of the house. It was warm in the room and Lustgarten crossed to the windows, raised the blinds, and opened them wide. The flat worms were kept on a carved wooden bench at the back of the room. Valentine examined the glass tubes in which they were housed.
‘They cannot survive without water,’ said Lustgarten, returning from the windows. He pointed to one of the tubes. ’Open the tap.’
‘Seems a bit unfair,’ objected Valentine, but he did as he was asked.
As soon as the water started to drain, the flatworms began to rush along the tube in search of water. Quite soon they came to a fork in the tube. One branch was of clear glass and therefore lighted, the other had been painted black. It was the black tube that had been drained of water.
‘See what has happened?’ asked Lustgarten.
‘About half have found the water.’
‘Yes, that’s right. But yesterday these same worms chose the water nine times out of ten.’
Valentine thought for a moment, considering the implications of this. ’What you mean is, they aren’t stupid, but they’ve chosen the wrong tube deliberately?’
‘Exactly, even though choosing the wrong tube means no water, and death.’
‘Are you saying they’ve got bored?’
‘I am indeed, my young friend. That is precisely what I’m saying. They are bored to death.’
‘You see the implications of this experiment?’
‘If it is the same for humans, you mean? Yes, I do.’
‘It is the same for human beings,’ Lustgarten insisted. ’You said so yourself earlier at lunch when you spoke of the difficult beginnings of writers like Shaw and Dickens and H G Wells. You said that this had made them artists of the first rank.’
‘Of course,’ said Valentine, delighted. ’And you seem to have proved it, Professor.’
‘Not quite; not yet. I have ordered new glassware for a further experiment to test the boredom hypothesis. It will make the learning process more difficult. If I am right, and I think I am, then only the very best of the planaria will be able to find the water, but because it is so difficult to do so they will not regress. They will continue to find the water because they have had to put greater effort into learning how to do so, and therefore they will have achieved a higher degree of what you might call ‘imprinting,’ which I think is just another word for purpose.’
Valentine was excited. ’This is marvellous,’ he said. ’I can see why you made the experiment. It has implications for the treatment of mental illness, hasn’t it?’
‘I think so,’ said Lustgarten. ’So many of a psychiatrist’s patients suffer from what might be called discouragement, the feeling that life is empty, and, of course, so many of these people are members of the idle classes. Depression is a symptom of an affluent society, as I am sure your father would agree. I remember in August 1914 how cheerful everyone was. It was a paradox. We were going to war and might well be killed, but we were happy because we had a purpose, a difficult task upon which to concentrate our energies.’
Lustgarten was smiling distractedly. Valentine looked at him in admiration. Here in the flesh was one of Bernard Shaw’s ‘world-betterers.’
‘I’ll be sure to tell my father,’ he said. ’In fact, I shall write to him this very afternoon.’
‘Why not this evening?’ suggested Lustgarten. ’You aren’t about to hurry off?’
‘No,’ said Valentine, doubtfully.
‘Good. Have another beer.’
‘But I haven’t finished this one.’
‘Drink up, drink up,’ ordered Lustgarten, cheerfully, heading for the door. ’It is too hot in here. I think we need to cool down.’
Puzzled, and once again amused that the older man was flirting with him, Valentine followed Lustgarten down the corridor, past the kitchen, and out the back door. Beyond the terrace, the garden was laid to lawn, at the bottom of which was a wooden gate in an immaculately trimmed hedgerow, shadowed by tall pine trees. It looked idyllic.
‘But tell me, James,’ Lustgarten was saying. ’I may call you James?’
‘Tell me how you solved the problem. Your father is a professor of medicine and so, presumably, if you’ll forgive me, your family is not impoverished.’
‘No, we aren’t poor. But how do you know I’ve solved the problem, in any case?’
‘By examination, of course. I have been observing you and thinking about what you’ve told me. You say you are not a university student, you are merely here in Germany for a few months to study our language. You have no profession, you are not a soldier, you are not in any sort of formal training. Oh dear, I think to myself, the young man’s parents must despair of him, but then I make the observation that this youngster is no wastrel. And the way he talks of men like Schopenhauer being second-rate, this shows some mental acuity, and a degree of self-confidence unusual in one so young.’
‘I think you are being too kind,’ said Valentine. ’The natural conclusion must be that I am like most young men, arrogant, self-opinionated, and worthless.’
‘Oh no, not in this case. My observations tell me otherwise!’
Valentine was prepared to be annoyed, but something told him that Lustgarten was not flattering him but speaking the truth. By now they had reached the gate. Like the gate at the front of the house it was carved and decorated with runes. The handle was an iron ring which the professor turned while looking closely at Valentine’s expression. Valentine inclined his head in acknowledgement.
‘All right,’ he said. ’I solved the problem by taking a bed-sitting room near the British Museum. My father wanted me to study medicine, but it didn’t interest me enough to make a career of it. My mother on the other hand wanted me to go up to Cambridge and read English, which appealed to me slightly more. However, I decided not to take the path of formal education. It would have been too easy, that was my thinking. I should have been given a generous allowance and taken up my rightful place as a prospective member of the governing class. The idea repelled me.’
‘But why?’ asked Lustgarten. They were still standing by the gate which was only partly open.
‘It’s difficult to explain. Everyone I know takes life for granted. Heidegger has a phrase which captures it entirely: the triviality of everydayness. It is as if they are forgetful of existence.’
Lustgarten was nodding his long head in great seriousness.
‘Well, I’m not. I don’t want to forget I exist, or rather, I cannot forget. It’s like an itch I can’t scratch, and I can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t feel the same way. How can you train for a career, even a worthy career like medicine, when there is this great unanswered question ignored by everyone around you? No, I wanted purpose and meaning to my life. I think if I’d taken the easy route to university, I would have ended up like the poor devils you and my father treat! Sorry, I’m talking too much.’
‘Not at all, not at all.’
Valentine knew he wasn’t talking too much. The problem was, the longer they stood there in the cool shadows by the gate, the more uncomfortable he became. Lustgarten was standing close to him, and although Valentine was six foot three, the German appeared to tower over him. Valentine wanted to move a step back but was determined not to do so. The situation was becoming more ridiculous by the second, and he firmly decided that he would make an excuse and leave as soon as he reasonably could.
When Lustgarten asked, archly, ‘And what do you do in your bed-sitting room near the British Museum?’ for Valentine it was the final straw.
‘I write,’ he said, coldly. ’Every day I cycle to the Reading Room at the Museum, and I write. I write because I have the gift of finding words for divine truth. I write because I am destined to be the greatest English author of the twentieth century. Before I came to Germany, I sent a thirty-page letter to Bernard Shaw telling him I am his natural heir.’
Now it was Lustgarten’s turn to be amused. He finally pushed open the gate and stepped through into the heat of a sun-lit wide-open space that contained a wooden changing hut and a swimming pool.
‘You think it funny?’ Valentine asked him.
‘No,’ said Lustgarten. ’Please don’t be offended. It was just your reaction that made me smile, not the grandeur of your life’s ambition. That I can do nothing but applaud. There are so many little people, and so few great men. You have the makings of the latter.’
‘More flattery,’ said Valentine.
Lustgarten turned to face him. ’Now you are going to tell me you have decided to leave,’ he observed, with a touch of mockery. ’Believe me, you are quite safe.’
Valentine was angry. It was an automatic reaction and one he had no intention of giving in to. Annoyed, he said, ‘I suppose you have no swimming togs.’
Lustgarten began to take off his jacket. ’On the contrary, you will find bathing shorts in the pavilion.’
‘Then I shall be quite safe.’
Lustgarten chuckled. ’You will. You have nothing to fear from me.’
And so, Valentine went into the pavilion, disrobed, put on swimmers, and dived cleanly into the pool, which is what he’d wanted to do as soon as he’d set eyes on it. Lustgarten, also wearing trunks, came and joined him a minute later. The Professor was wearing a white handkerchief tied around his head, and as the German raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun, Valentine looked at him in surprise. He wiped the water from his eyes and looked again. It was remarkable. For all the world, Lustgarten looked exactly like Bakst’s painting of Vaslav Nijinsky, at the Lido in Venice. Lustgarten slipped into the water, and the moment passed. Now that all that was visible was his head and the handkerchief, he looked almost prosaic, nothing like the dancer at all.
‘Ahhhh,’ said Lustgarten, with great pleasure. ’How lucky I am to have the use of this pool.’
The water was sun-warmed, and both men luxuriated in its refreshing coolness, floating on their backs, and talking without constraint. The comment about the pool had softened Valentine’s opinion of the Professor.
‘Do you know who you remind me of?’ James asked.
‘I am flattered. I saw him dance in Paris once. He was superb.’
‘Are you a dancer?’
‘Me? Oh no. In my youth, I climbed mountains. I like to keep physically fit. I swim, I use the gymnasium, and I row. I also follow a special diet, eating no meat, only fish. Now, do you know who you remind me of?’
James answered flippantly. ’John Tanner?’
‘Oh no, greater than that: Wotan. You remind me of Wotan.’
‘Wotan?’ James repeated, wondering if he had misheard.
‘Yes. Haven’t you read Shaw’s book on Wagner? He is mistaken in many respects, but he is correct in saying that Wotan is symbolic of the Godhead. You remember what he said of those rare persons who in comparison to the dwarf Alberich might be called gods?’
‘Those whose aims extend beyond the satisfaction of mere bodily appetites and personal affections, you mean?’
Valentine thought that he had offended the older man, who now stood up in the shallows cupping a hand and looking up with a scowl at the brilliant sky. ’What is it?’
Lustgarten made a growling noise at the back of his throat and violently washed his hand in the water. ’Idiots!’ he said to himself.
Something floated past Valentine. It was dark and sooty, and at first he thought it was a downy feather from a corvid. It landed on the surface of the pool, and he examined it more closely: an oily smut. Lustgarten was noisily climbing the ladder out of the pool.
‘Excuse me,’ he apologised, hurriedly. ’I must go and telephone.’
‘It is forbidden to use the incinerator in the daytime or at weekends,’ he explained, picking up a towel and draping it around his muscular neck. ’Against stupidity even the gods fight in vain!’
Valentine looked up at the sky. It was spotted black by the smuts that floated on the gentle breeze across a serene ocean of white and blue.
It was half an hour before Lustgarten returned. He was wearing a short towelling robe and carrying a camera.
‘I wondered where you’d got to,’ said Valentine.
‘My apologies. Now, before you leave, I would like to take your photograph. You don’t mind, do you?’
Valentine, who was drying off on a lounger, was surprised. At lunch, Lustgarten had made the effort to get him to come alone to the Institute, and since they arrived he’d been intent on keeping Val there, so why the sudden change of heart? For all his ambition and brilliance, in many ways James Valentine was an innocent.
‘Go ahead,’ he said.
Lustgarten raised the camera, focusing on him lying on the sunbed, and took the pictures.
Reluctantly, James got up. The thought of returning to his lodgings was unappealing. His room at the top of the house was hot and cramped. At the villa, Lustgarten hurried upstairs to change, and Val took the opportunity to visit the downstairs lavatory. When he came out, he noticed the door across the corridor. It stood ajar at the bottom of a short flight of steps. He was sure that earlier the door had been closed. Curiosity aroused, he descended the steps, pushed it open a few inches and peered inside. The basement room was lit by narrow horizontal windows shaded by blue blinds. It was the strangely coloured light which had attracted his attention.
On a bench lay a leather apron and a horse crop, but it was the strange wooden structure against the wall which caught his eye. He reached out a hand for the light switch. The structure turned out to be a sort of box about six feet high, inside which was a wooden throne upholstered in plush purple cloth and decorated with runic designs. The overall effect was somehow unsettling. He narrowed his eyes, trying to figure out why, but no idea presented itself. From upstairs came the sound of running water.
He glanced at himself in the mirror which hung on the wall above the bench. There was a book half-hidden by the leather apron. He looked at the title: it was a volume of de Sade. There were other books arranged on a shelf beneath the mirror. Deciding he ought to leave the room, he picked one at random and opened it. What he saw repulsed him, and he snapped the illustrated volume closed. But it occurred to him that he ought not be repulsed, and opened the book again, turning the pages until he found the photograph of the woman. He read the description beneath. The woman’s throat had been cut after she had been raped by Haarmann, the so-called ‘Vampire of Hamburg.’
Now that he had become used to the depiction of the gaping wound, he was able to think more clearly. It was difficult to imagine that the woman had once been alive, and that she had met such a violent end. The corpse did not seem real. Once again, the familiar feeling of devastation came, a laying to waste of reality.
He returned the book to the shelf, thinking, why existence? Why something; why not nothing? Why am I here? There was the familiar feeling of imprisonment. But he knew that analysis was pointless, the intellect powerless before the problem. It was infuriating. He wanted to penetrate life, to see it from the outside. There had to be a way to do it. But if there was, he had yet to discover how. If the intellect couldn’t help him, what could? Emotion? The body? It seemed unlikely. He was conscious that at lunch he’d been acting a role, pretending to be something he wasn’t, and he had lied to the Professor.
James had quarrelled so violently with his father over medical school that he’d been thrown out of the house, and it was only due to the kindness of his grandmother that he’d found somewhere to live. He ought to have been happy. He had got what he wanted. A room of his own, books, a typewriter, enough money for food (his mother sent him a postal order fortnightly), but half the time he was bored and listless, incapable of creative writing, even of thinking. It was quite ridiculous. There was something fundamentally wrong with human beings. To be free is nothing to us, but to become free everything.
That was when he became aware of the blue glow. He concentrated on its source with a kind of relief: he had struggled with the devastation many times before, and its immensity had always defeated him.
The blue glow appeared to be coming from a wooden box that stood on a workbench at the other end of the room. No longer worried about being discovered, he went over and examined it. The box was decorated with runes. He recognised only one with certainty – the life rune, Algiz, that looked like a stick man with raised arms. The hooked cross immediately above the life rune was easily identifiable, to be seen everywhere in Germany. He was about to lift the lid and discover the source of the blue glow when he heard footsteps in the passageway outside. He moved away. A moment later, Lustgarten’s head appeared round the door, and they looked at each other in the mirror.
‘There you are,’ said Lustgarten, amiably. ’I wondered where you’d got to.’
‘The door was open,’ explained James.
‘I know, I opened it. You suspect me of an ulterior motive, bringing you here? Quite right. You are a Wyvern like your cousin, Clarissa. When I heard that name, I was determined to make your acquaintance. Come along, I shall explain in the car.’
It was a twenty-minute journey back to town. Lustgarten spoke without pause the whole way. He spoke about his discovery of the very stuff of life, which he called Odinic energy, explaining that he had discovered it by considering Freud’s libido as a genuine physical phenomenon and not simply a metaphor. He spoke of his investigations into the theories of Reichenbach and Mesmer; he spoke of his Odinic Energy Accumulator Apparatus, and of his search for a cure for cancer; but most of all, he spoke of his admiration for Valentine’s ancestor, Sir Edward Wyvern, alchemist of Bohemia.
‘In his work I have discovered some of the most advanced ideas about Odinic energy,’ said Lustgarten. ’But there is something missing, something which he only alludes to, and which he never fully explains. It is said that the Wyvern family have in their possession certain documents . . .’
Valentine at last understood. By this time, they were in central Munich, and Lustgarten was parking the car near the railway station.
‘I have never heard of any such documents,’ said James, apologetically.
‘That is a pity,’ said Lustgarten.
‘I could enquire about them. My uncle is something of an expert on Sir Edward. He is writing a book about him.’
‘I know,’ said Lustgarten. ’I have tried to contact him more than once, but he has not deigned to reply.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said James, automatically.
He noticed that Professor Lustgarten’s expression had changed. No longer was he good humoured. He looked defensive, almost resentful, as though on the verge of losing his temper. Then Lustgarten laughed, and the air was cleared.
‘I have enjoyed our afternoon together,’ he said.
‘Me too,’ said James. ’Thank you very much.’
‘Sex,’ said Lustgarten.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Sir Edward’s secret doctrine. It is something to do with the sexual impulse.’
GOMERY KIMBER’s novel London Lies Bleeding, the first in a trilogy featuring Justin Martello, is published on Amazon on 22nd December. A free review copy can be downloaded here, or the book can be purchased here. Martello returns in Assassin of London at the end of February 2024. The third book of the trilogy, Live Not By Lies, is in the planning stage