Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Gilbert Norrell, 'The first shall bury his heart in a dark wood beneath the snow, yet still feel its ache'

Fandom: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell
Characters: Norrell, Childermass, Lascelles
Gen, c. 2000 words

This prompt grabbed me, but I couldn't quite decide how to approach it. I couldn't think how the book or the series approached this particular prophecy. Then I found this quote from Susanna Clarke, and it all fell into place:

"This is a prophecy about Norrell's character. He thinks he has no need of anybody. Hates people. Is scared of them. But when he meets Strange he finds a friend; his only friend. It's that simple. The friendship is an odd one, since much of the time neither man perceives it as such. When Norrell casts Strange away (buries his heart) he is incomplete. When they come together again, he realises that this friendship is all that matters and he gives up all other plans."

The Buried Heart

Mr Lascelles was at a loss. Mr Lascelles, it need scarcely be necessary to write, did not enjoy being at a loss. In fact there were few things he liked less. He was a man who took his greatest pleasure when placed securely in the glare of reflected glory, basking in borrowed fame, borrowed pride, and borrowed admiration – in short, when he was in control, and all around him could see that he was in control, at the right arm of England's premiere magician. England's only magician, in Mr Lascelles' somewhat jaundiced point of view; for what was Jonathan Strange but a stain upon the fine character of English magic? This last Mr Lascelles was at great pains to impress upon Mr Norrell whenever it was at all convenient; whereupon Mr Norrell would nod his venerable head in quiet understanding, before sighing heavily and looking away. He was, observed Mr Lascelles, not without irritation, like a moth without a candleflame – or a candleflame without a candle. For all that Strange was a menace to their work – a danger to society, it might even be said – it had become abundantly clear that Mr Norrell missed him greatly. It was not at all what Mr Lascelles felt he deserved.

It was a situation that was not getting any better; and nor did it give any indication that it might. To Mr Lascelles this was extremely distressing; firstly because it was proof beyond all doubt that there was one who stood far above him in Mr Norrell's esteem – and, therefore, might feasibly be able to supplant him altogether – and secondly, because Mr Norrell's mood, more melancholy even than usual, might all too easily allow others to spy that truth for themselves. Mr Lascelles wished England to know him as Mr Norrell's primary companion – his only companion. In fact he would very much like it to be known to the entire world.

And so, Mr Lascelles was at a loss. His benefactor left the house now more rarely than ever, eschewing even those few social occasions that he had deigned to grace with his presence before. And if Mr Norrell did not go out in public, then how was Mr Lascelles to be seen at his side, being his bedrock, his confidant, his assistant in all important matters? This would not do. This would not do at all.

"You would perhaps like a little sherry-wine, sir?" he asked of the dark shadow at the foot of the library stair. Mr Norrell, who was seated in his second favourite reading chair, with volume ii of Whitcombe's Histories... spread open upon his lap, shook his head.

"Mr Norrell gave orders he was not to be disturbed," said Childermass, his voice bursting forth from a place beside Mr Lascelles, where Mr Lascelles was quite certain that he had not been a second before. He was greatly relieved that he did not jump at the shock of it, and give the villain undue satisfaction.

"That scarcely applies to me," he declared haughtily. Childermass, who possessed a powerful disregard for anything that might be considered the due courtesy of Mr Lascelles' rank, offered him a warning glower.

"It applies to you, to me, and to the dairyman's nephew," he announced, and Mr Lascelles found himself escorted, with great expertise, towards the library door. He resisted – put more properly, he flailed – and having extricated himself, appealed to the shadowy shape of Mr Norrell.

"Sir, you cannot wish to see your friends treated so. You cannot. Send this... this..." If he was about to seek some adjective to thrust upon Childermass, he did not complete the task, either through lack of inspiration, or simple fear. "Send Childermass away, and you and I can talk. It would cheer you, Mr Norrell, I am quite sure of it. Why, London is most concerned for your welfare. You have not been seen these many days, and there is talk of questions being asked in Parliament. Whatever ails you, sir, you must let me help." There came no answer from the foot of the library stair; except, perhaps, for a quiet and rather forlorn sigh.

"Mr Norrell?" inquired Mr Lascelles, quite baffled as to how to interpret this woebegone interpolation. Childermass glared daggers, but Mr Lascelles, who had his reputation in London society to think of, had steeled his resolve. "Is there something that you require? A book that I could find for you? Or perhaps Childermass could fetch some coffee and pastries? It is quite that time of day." In fact it was nothing like, being close on to seven in the evening, but Mr Lascelles was anxious to be rid of the servant, and Mr Norrell did not appear likely to notice such a trifling thing as the time.

"No. No, I require nothing." Mr Norrell laid aside his book, and toyed a little restlessly with some of the bits and pieces upon the nearby table. He was not by nature a fiddler, and if Mr Lascelles did not notice this sign of his unhappinesss, then Childermass most certainly did, and conspired at once to urge the visitor from the room. Mr Lascelles objected quite stridently, but Mr Norrell did not seem to hear him, and the harder he objected, and the more irritably he struggled, the faster he seemed to find himself propelled towards the library door. In no time at all he was in the hall, and a footman was shewing him out into the street. It had all been most bewildering, to say nothing of upsetting. Straightening his clothing, where Childermass had left decided creases, he headed around to a side door, and thence once again toward the library. He would not be removed from the magician's counsel. He had come too far, and worked too hard, for that.

The corridors around the library were quiet, as they almost always were. Mr Norrell preferred to remain undisturbed when he was with his books, and of all the household staff, it was generally only Childermass who was regularly to be found within the sanctum. There was, then, no need to fear discovery as he reached the door and quietly opened it. If he could not be inside, he should at least know what was happening; ensure that Childermass had no opportunity to poison Mr Norrell against him, or that – most terrible of all – Mr Norrell had not made up his mind to move into ever greater seclusion, or perhaps even to return to Yorkshire for good. The library remained quiet. If there were mischief about, Mr Lascelles was quite sure that he had arrived in time to catch it.

"My books seem to give me little pleasure," said Mr Norrell after a few moments, and Mr Lascelles heard the dry rustling of leaves being listlessly turned. "Can it be that my one great pleasure in life is deserting me, Childermass? Am I under some cruel enchantment?"

"Of a sorts, sir." Mr Lascelles heard the familiar footsteps of the hated servant, soft but confident, swift and sure on the hard, polished wood of the library floor. "But no magic of man's making, and none of Faerie, neither. Write to him."

"I beg your pardon?"

"You heard me. And you know what I mean, too." As ever, Mr Lascelles could not understand why Mr Norrell put up with such an insolent manservant, but Mr Norrell, true to form, seemed unconcerned by the manner of Childermass's address. Rather that shew any affront, he merely sighed.

"You do not understand," he said finally, and Childermass snorted an indecorous burst of laughter.

"Understand? Oh, I understand right enough. I know he's angry, and you're afraid, and there's neither of you with sense enough to see that you're ten times the greater for being two heads rather than one. Write to him. Offer an olive branch. He'll accept."

"I doubt it." There was a flicker of light, cool and silver in the shadowed gloom of the library. For a moment Mr Lascelles saw Mr Norrell illuminated within it, his head bowed over a small basin of water. Mr Lascelles recognised the enchantment; it was one that allowed a view of some person or persons afar. Oh, how he wished that he could go closer, and see into that bowl! He had an unpleasant suspicion that he knew what it would reveal.

Inside the library, in the sort of gloom that is all but impenetrable to any but the most dedicated of bibliophiles, used to huddling over favoured tomes as the daylight ebbs, Mr Norrell was staring into his enchanted bowl. His expression was a curious one – one that was half contempt and half desire. It was as well that the expression was not visible to the spy, for it would have enflamed Mr Lascelles' temper all the more.

"He is reading," said Mr Norrell, and his tone of voice was just a little bit wistful. "I cannot see. I wonder which book it is?"

"It looks like Blaketon," observed Childermass, whose eyes were slightly the better for not having spent the last several decades poring over small print in dim rooms.

"Blaketon." There was a note of satisfaction in Mr Norrell's voice now, and he reached out one hand towards a book that lay close by upon the table. Mr Lascelles did not have to guess at what book it was. If he felt any relief when Mr Norrell did not pick it up, then it was only of the mildest sort. "I wonder what he is about?"

"Write and ask him," put in Childermass bluntly. Mr Norrell sighed again.

"Even if I was of a mind to do so, I have no reason to suppose that he would pay it any mind. He has been no more well disposed to me than I to him."

"Then give him reason to be. What'll it cost you to mend a bridge or two? Send him a book–" This was greeted with a sharp intake of breath – "and ask his opinion on it. You'll get it back soon enough, and more besides." There was a lingering silence, and then Childermass gave a loud and frustrated sigh. "Fine. Stare at your bowl of water for the rest of the evening. Pine away over it, when you could have the real thing here instead. I'm off. I've a man to meet with anyway." At this utterance, Mr Lascelles gently pulled the library door closed, scuttling away down the corridor in his eagerness to avoid discovery. It pained him to miss any further conversation, but it seemed that he had heard enough. Having reached the outside, he set off down the street, welcoming the freshness of the early evening air after the stuffy confines of the library. So Mr Norrell was missing his apprentice. He might even be considering – and Childermass was clearly pressing for – a reconciliation. That, Mr Lascelles could not allow. Strange had been nothing but trouble before, monopolising Mr Norrell's time and attention; keeping him from Mr Lascelles' most solicitiously cultivated counsel. Mr Lascelles did not intend to allow that to happen again.

The breeze freshened, and he felt the chill in it now that the warmth of the house was far behind him. He quickened his pace, eager for his rooms, for his fireplace and his brandy, and for the chance to pace and think. This needed careful consideration. Strange must not be allowed to come back into Mr Norrell's life. Mr Lascelles must find a way to destroy the two magicians' relationship completely. He smiled grimly into the approaching dusk. Life had been kind to him, these recent years. It would continue to be – he would see to that. He must stand firm, and strike fast, before Mr Norrell weakened any further. Driving a deeper wedge between master and pupil would be simple enough, he was sure, and if not... Mr Lascelles smiled all the more grimly, and quickened his pace still more. If not, it would give him very real pleasure to destroy not only the relationship, but that accursed Jonathan Strange once and for all.

The End
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