The Yellow Sign


THE DUSTY BOOK_SMELL and moted sunlight of a corner of Bierce Library in Orpheus House, Arkham. A scene of bright yellow and dark chocolate. Tall windows of at least twenty lights stacked above the double banked and dark radiators, panes crazed with age and cobwebs and the sticky dust of the lime trees that line the quad outside. Desks in front of the windows, each with a green-shaded lamp, currently redundant. The inner space delineated with row upon row of  dark mahogany shelving and books, and books and books. At the furthest possible desk, Cecilia Markham, neat tweed skirt tucked under, tailored white shirt tucked in. Three books on the desk; a battered black hardback, and a larger but thinner volume bound in flaking calf leather which she is reading. The spines of both bear the same title: The King in Yellow, but are clearly far apart in age. The third book is a foolscap notebook, its pages curled by the ferocity with which she takes her notes, the pages filled with sharp black letters, in biro and ink and pencil. Her hair is up and tucked beneath the hood of a curious leather mask. This obscures her face entirely behind wide circular barrel-lenses and a protruding concertina snout. As she reads, the lenses whirr and click and flutter in and out and the snout wuffles and hisses, sniffing the air above the book. A thick black cable winds from a port below its right eye to a brass-buckled case on the floor by her feet.


Sighing peevishly, Cecilia Markham set aside the older King in Yellow and carefully put it back in its lead-lined slipcover before removing the parascope goggles and turning them off. She was vaguely disappointed when her notes didn’t send her mad, because, frankly, she needed something to take her mind off sex. Even through the protections of the parascope the weird, ancient folio had power. It seemed to pick up on the preoccupations of the reader and rearrange its own meaning in order to reflect that back. It could be disconcerting. Like the time she’d been measuring her apartment for shelves and all it had seemed to contain were arcane rules for screwing, and not the good kind.

Today, it had felt and melded two different things; that she’d read The Yellow Sign, and her preoccupation with the archaeologist. The Sign was the fourth of Robert Chambers’ King inspired tales and, goddamit, was probably the most erotic thing she’d ever read. An artist and his model, sexy. Despite the fact that no sex was mentioned and that one of the characters was dead. Undead. The archaeologist, though. He had been at Rutherglen during their training day. Engagingly tousled and utterly filthy. Dirty knees below grubby, disreputable shorts. Those legs, and their sweat-slicked hairs. Good grief.

The book had taken these and melded them and now, behind each slow blink she saw herself sitting for him. An unembarassed nakedness while he, with paint and stiff brush took her skin, her flesh, and conjoured her upon the page. With each revisit this vision brought more heat and music. Heat and music that came not only from the sun-beaten park and its bandstand outside but from within her too. Heat and music that filled her from the tips of her breasts to the backs of her knees. That made her pulse feather in her throat. She squeezed those knees together and realised that the book had woven yet a third reality, one which led her by the hand towards the precipice that was the end of her virginity. She gave a tiny moan.

These days, her legs and belly were full of music, all played by the orchestra between her thighs. An orchestra she’d been applauding with increasing vigour lately. She winced slightly and shifted in her seat. She shut the notebook and looked at the single page of typescript glued to its front:


The date was optimistic, she thought ruefully, packing her things up and smoothing her skirt, preparing for her next library shift. The chances of completing the thing and being promoted beyond Second Librarian seemed as far away as ever. Especially with the distractions of this throb she was feeling. She thought of him again, him leaving the easel, joining her on the couch, naked too and touching her there.

Notton Courtisane 008_0


On slightly wobbly legs she gave the desk a final once-over and headed off, laden. In her right hand the grey leaden safety case for the King, on her shoulder the leather satchel for the parascope, its battery and drives and her own stuff in a canvas Hardy fishing bag, its straps clutched in her left fist. With all of the leather and canvas and brass and tin buckles, and the full spread of tailored white cotton, she looked somewhat like a pirate ship in full sail.

Through long galleries of bookstacks and down winding staircases and through hallways and landings full of stony-faced portraits and expansive landscapes and the limbless wreckage of classical sculpture she headed inwards to the strongroom at the heart of Orpheus house. It was tucked away quietly, unannounced, in the stacks right at the far end of the Western Asia department and next to a shelf of biographies of the kings of Hattusa. Were it not for the mezuzah and the schrodinger box it would have seemed like any old fire door. Cecilia reached for the mezuzah and tapped out her private sigil. The door cracked with an indrawn sigh, and two tiny seashells fell into the tray below the schrodinger box. They fluoresced slightly and the air around them seemed to ripple. Slipping them into her ears, she stepped through the door into the Chained Library.

Image: Tavy Notton, from A Une Courtesan, Durand ca 1948




9 thoughts on “The Yellow Sign

  1. Indigo says:

    How very intriguing Quiller. You’ve conjured a space, a time and of course the incipient encounter between you in your wonderfully evocative, tellingly detailed manner.
    Thanks for sharing, as always I’m a huge fan…
    Indie x

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