The curtains of the little room had been left open; outside were Low Petergate and an English winter’s evening, of which all that could at present be seen were the raindrops tracing their shifting lines over the dark glass of the window. The man sitting at the desk ignored them, intent on his work, pausing now and then only to refer to the letter to which he was replying. He went on in this way for some time, as the candle burned steadily lower and the rain outside continued.
The letter was from John Segundus, describing (amongst other things) his progress on the biography of Jonathan Strange which he intended to write, and which he thought would resolve some unclear points vital to the debates currently ongoing between Strangite and Norrellite magicians. Childermass was rather pessimistic about this hope, taking the view that English magicians must have something to quarrel about, and if one disputed fact were settled they would simply move on to another. Segundus would have accused him of cynicism, and doubtless would do so when next he wrote—but in any case, Childermass’s reply for now was finished, and he could turn his attention to other things. He reached over to the low shelf above the desk, brought down the stack of loose papers covered unevenly in strange but now familiar letters, and spread the first few sheets out before him.
Since the disappearance of Mr Norrell and Mr Strange, his time had been taken up by the various problems that faced English magic in its revival; these being so many and so complex, it was only in the last few months that he had been able to turn to the one which he still regarded as central to them all. The new Book of John Uskglass had been, as so many things, a topic of heated discussion by England’s new magicians. Some denounced it as a forgery, others as an irrelevant distraction from the pressing problems of modern magic; some declared it to be the one great puzzle which all the effort of their era must go towards solving; and none at all were any closer to discovering the smallest fragment of its meaning than they had been when the words first appeared.
As for Childermass himself... it was an odd thing, but the more progress he made, or thought he was making, towards deciphering the letters, the more vague and insubstantial the idea of them became. He had written them down on paper at the first chance he had got after discovering Vinculus on the moor, and had made several copies to be hidden away against the possibility of disaster—one in his own rooms, one in the library of the York Society, one kept by Segundus—knowing that this was unnecessary, that the writer of those words would not allow them to be destroyed by some chance calamity, but nonetheless feeling that he ought to. And, at first, they had seemed simply that: words on paper, if in a strange outlandish script that had not the familiar shape of letters written in lines. He had begun by making a list of all the distinct symbols that appeared in the text, trying to construct an alphabet; this list of letters was before him now. Yet, as he stared down at the shapes twisting in the flickering candlelight, they took on the appearance of something else entirely, although what exactly Childermass was not sure. Leaves swirling in the wind, perhaps, or a flock of birds. It had been a mistake, he was beginning to think, to confine them to paper; they were alive with magic and wanted to be out in the world, beneath the wide sky. Understanding them would not be a matter of working out the system of a foreign script or of a code, so much as seeing through the pattern to the magic beneath, just as when he reached for a spell and saw it written on the sky above him, just as when—
He did not know when. There had been other letters on Vinculus’s body before, he remembered, the prophecy that he had worked so long to discover for Norrell; how, then, had these new letters come to be? The thing was like a mirage that vanished when you looked straight at it, and could only be seen out of the corner of the eye, as though by pretending you were not really looking for it at all; and so out of the corner of his mind Childermass saw the lone tree standing on the moor, the place where he had found Vinculus years ago, and was no nearer to seeing what he looked for. He remembered cutting the man down from the tree; he remembered Vinculus recovering, the writing new; and in between there was a gap from which his vision slid gently but inevitably away, unwilling or unable to perceive what was there.
He felt sure that this block in his memory was closely connected to the block in his understanding of the letters, that perhaps they were one and the same thing. Images, come from he knew not where, would haunt him as he sought to get round it: the bleak grey sky over a wide moor; the swirling snow; a lapwing, flying away from him. Such impressions would remain clear in his mind for many days after they appeared, and cast over all his thoughts a vague unquietness. If he could understand what they meant, he would surely understand the meaning of the writing.
Having been a magician of sorts for something more than twenty years, he ought to know magic by now, and in his experience magic always did have something of this dreamlike quality to it, at once obscure, uncertain, and insistently real. Perhaps there must always be something at the edges of it, only just out of sight. Yet he must keep striving for an answer. What had John Uskglass given them these words for, after all, if not that they might one day read them?
The papers still lay on the desk, but he no longer saw them; in his dreaming his gaze had wandered to the dark window, where the rain continued unabated as the night grew colder. The pattern of raindrops falling on the glass outside was superimposed on an image of the room within, and of Childermass’s own dark figure, indistinct in the dim reflected light. The sound of the rain, soft and constant, remained as Childermass, in the little circle of candlelight, bent once more intently over his papers and returned to his work.