The Sundial

Simon Whitechapel

The monotony of mid-afternoon was broken by the news that the workmen clearing the garden had uncovered something unusual; and when she went out, hoping at best for an old greenhouse or moss-smothered statue of Pan or Bacchus, she was delighted to find something very much better. Amid a tangle of briars the workmen’s scythes had exposed what looked very much like — what was — part of a marble sundial in excellent, in almost uncanny, condition.

But true, to her nature, she peered no more than a few moments at the puzzling carvings on the three visible sides of its pillar before nodding and addressing a few words to the head workman, congratulating him on the discovery and asking him to send word when the sundial was fully exposed. Word came an hour later, but she feigned indifference and did not go out again until she saw, standing well back from the window, that the workmen had left for the day. Even then she waited a further hour before drifting out as though to inspect their work in the slanting warm sun of early evening.

When at last she came to the sundial again, she could feel her heart throbbing in her throat. It stood fully clear of briars now, casting a double shadow with its many-sided pillar and its gnomon. First she circled it, counting the sides of the pillar as her neat, narrow shoes fell on the ground trampled by the workmen’s heavy boots and working out the significance of the carvings thereon. There were mountain scenes, one of which she recognized from a holiday three years before to the Alps, and deserts, but some of what she could see in the carved skies puzzled her greatly and it was not until she had finished counting the sides — eight — that she realized what the artist had been depicting, or rather pretending to depict from a superlatively detailed imagination.

Each side showed a scene, carved with minute and almost pedantic realism, from one of the eight planets or a moon thereof. Yes, yes, that was it: she circled the sundial a second time, murmuring to herself as she counted the planets off. This was surely Saturn looming ring-girdled in the sky of one of its moons, and here on the next side was Uranus seen from a similar position and girdled, oddly, with a thin but definite ring of its own, and Neptune ditto and ditto, and this, where she ought to have begun, a scene from the surface of Mercury itself — she laughed a little uneasily, for the unknown artist had managed to convey a powerful impression of unearthly heat in the twisted jumble of rocks carved on this side of the pillar (literally unearthly!) — and this was a weirdly distorted scene of lifeless rocks from Venus, and this was the dear mundane Alps, which she had once thought so exotic, and this a millennium-parched river of Mars, with a sandstorm brewing on the horizon, and finally Jupiter ruling the sky of one of its moons and girdled, like the three succeeding giants, with a ring.

But she had never read anything of that in the books of astronomy she had glanced in her father’s library, and they must have been published at least a century after the construction of the sundial, which looked eighteenth century, at the latest. She came forward, placing her feet on the foot-wide edge of the marble octagon on which the sundial was set and stooping to look more closely at the Jovian scene. Was there a date somewhere? No, but when she circled the pillar for the third time, examining the other scenes, she found that Terra bore a date in Roman numerals flanked by two stars:


1777. The date struck her oddly, somehow, but she could not work out why and straightened with a shrug to examine the white marble top of the sundial, with its border of black marble. Here the artistry was more delicate but no less accomplished: the brass gnomon evidently represented the Sun, with the orbits of the eight planets laid in fine silver threads around it and the planets themselves inlaid into the marble top in appropriately colored stone. And semi-precious stone at that, she thought: Mercury was cornelian; Venus mother-of-pearl; Terra turquoise with jade continents and with a coral Luna following a silver orbit around it; Mars rhodolite or pyrope; the asteroids were chips of black coral; Jupiter banded with varicolored chalcedony; Saturn ditto; Uranus jade; Neptune ditto; and the comets, on silver orbits finer than hair, were dots of progressively brighter or darker brass, according to their distance from the sun.  Each of the five last-named planets was circled with the hair-thin silver orbits of moons too: two for Mars, which was correct, but Jupiter and Saturn seemed to have far too many, and she could recall nothing of moons having been discovered around Uranus and Neptune. She bent closer, trying to count the silver threads around Jupiter, but gave off with a laugh after she reached twenty. What nonsense! She must definitely learn more about the history of the house and the eccentric squire or clergyman who had commissioned the sundial. Perhaps there was some code concealed in the excessive or non-existent moons and in the rings that circling planets that did not in actuality bear them? A political or theological heterodoxy to be read by the initiate?  The thought prompted her, she did not know why, to examine the border of black marble around the top of the sundial. Now she learned why: evidently her subconscious had noted something she had not, for there was an inscription herein, inlaid in only slightly less dark marble and difficult to puzzle out in the declining sun. The first letter she deciphered was Ω, which made her despair a little, for her Greek was decidedly rusty, but she discovered that if she wet her finger with spittle and rubbed at the band it became a little easier to read, and somehow the action of rubbing at the sundial cleared her mind, so that she read the words off almost as easily as if they were Latin or French.  But she shivered a little, despite the warmth of the evening, as the first complete phrase became comprehensible. ΣΚΙΑΝ ΘΑΝΑΤΟΥ — “shadow of death”. Her guess anent the eccentric clergyman might have hit a bullseye, for that was surely Biblical. She circled the sundial for the third time, anointing it was her spittle as she read the complete inscription:


She held it in her mind until she had finished, then slowly translated it aloud: “Making all and transforming and turning into morning the shadow of death and the day into night.”  She did not recognize it but thought it must be something from one of the minor prophets. She shivered again. ΣΚΙΑΝ ΘΑΝΑΤΟΥ — “shadow of death”. An unsettling phrase for a sundial, and a singularly inappropriate one for a sundial set with such an attractive brass gnomon. Could that cast a shadow of death?  She looked at the gnomon again. Odd how it, like the rest of the sundial, had survived so well. No tarnishing at all and it glowed like gold in the slanting sunlight, inviting her finger to it. Ah, how smooth and soft it felt, and how well it caught the heat in the sultry air. Not like brass at all. But was it—  “Ow!”  She broke off her chain of thought, jerking the finger back to suck at it. One edge of the gnomon was apparently razor-sharp and she had cut herself. She frowned at it, cursing it under her breath.  “You’re like a rose. Beautiful but with a thorn.”  A drop of her blood glowed ruby-like on the surface of the sundial, landed by chance on one of the silver orbits that circled Jupiter. A small black insect suddenly landed near the blood-drop, twiddling its antennae for a moment before striding confidently forward to—  “No!”  She waved it away with her left hand, still sucking at her cut finger, and dabbed the drop up with her left forefinger before slipping that into her mouth too.  “Mistress!”  It was the distant voice of Mary, calling her from the house. Oh, drat, she had forgotten. She hurriedly dabbed up the last traces of blood, wiped her fingers dry on her dress, and ran back across the garden to dress for the visit of stolid Mrs Jardine and her three equally stolid daughters. But all through dinner and the polite conversation that followed her mind kept wandering out to the garden and the sundial in its patch of cleared briars. No, a moon-dial now: the gnomon’s lost sun-shadow would fall again as a paler moon-shadow on the planets and their moons. She longed to go out and see, leading her guests out into the dark and mysterious garden to... to... dance around the thing, as though it were an altar.  She had to bow her head at the thought of it, suppressing a bubble of laughter at the vision of a bacchantic Mrs Jardine and daughters spinning in the moonlight around the sundial, stripped to the waist, breasts bouncing or flopping. But when at last (at long last) her guests were gone, she suppressed her earlier impulse. It was late and the servants would talk if she went into the garden. That gnomon was gold, she had decided, and some of colored stone used for the inlaid planets was less semi than precious. Was Mars ruby? Uranus and Neptune emerald? In her bedroom she strolled to the window, hearing behind her the clatter as Dorothy tidied her dressing-table.  She looked out over the moon-silvered garden, but the patch of briars where the sundial lay was a little too far west for her to see it clearly. She turned away from the window.  “Thank you, Dorothy, that will do. Oh, and would you please call me half-an-hour earlier in the morning? I want to sketch some of the night-flowers, before they close in the sun.”

★ ★ ★

The air was cold as she went out into the dusk of early morning, her sketch-pad under her arm and one of the page-boys following her, carrying a light chair. She spun on her heel suddenly.  “Robert,” she said. “It is, Robert, isn’t it? Yes, Robert, please run and fetch me my Indian shawl. Ask Mrs Reed where it is.”  The boy deposited the chair on the lawn and trotted off to fetch her shawl. She had only a few minutes before he came back, and had to contain her impatience, watching him safely into the house before walking quickly to the sundial. She had seen something odd about it, a glitter of white on its top, and not wanted the boy to see. When she came to see, she gaped with astonishment: the whole of it was covered in a thick crust of frost and the ground was frozen for two or three paces around its base. As she walked nearer, she jumped a little with surprise for her breath plumed extravagantly ahead of her on air evidently far colder than that brushed her face. She stopped, looking left and right around the garden in bewilderment before fixing her gaze on the sundial again.  There had been no frost last night, could have been no frost last night, not in midsummer. But the sundial might as well as have sat out in the Antarctic overnight. She shook her head, then felt the impulse to look over her shoulder and saw the page-boy trotting back out to her, with the shawl held carefully ahead of him on two hands. Trying not to show signs of haste, she left the sundial and returned to the chair where the boy had left it.  “Thank you, Robert. That will be enough — I can carry the chair for myself, I think, to where I wish to sketch. A little exercise will warm me too. Oh, and please tell Dorothy to come to me when the workmen arrive. I have further instructions for them.”  She waited again till he had gone back into the house, then dropped her sketchpad on the chair and returned to the sundial, wondering if she were still in bed and dreaming. It was an awfully realistic dream if she were: the cool morning air was still full of night-scents and bird-song was chattering or fluting loudly from every corner of the garden. Except this corner, the briar patch where she now stood, gazing at the frost-sheathed sundial again. That word occurred to her again: unearthly. She had never seen or heard of frost so thick, and when she came forward, feeling the air nip hard at her hands and face, and began to jab some of it away, clearing a space on the top of the thing with her sketch-pencil, the frost broke and grated almost like a brittle metal.  But look, the frost was reforming over the cleared patch even as she worked to clear more. She watched it, aware of something else that she could not yet understand. Something else was wrong — and then, with an unpleasant lurch of her stomach, she saw what it was. The gnomon was casting a contradictory shadow. Pale but unmistakable, its shadow was not angled to the sun, which was now at least a handsbreadth above the eastern horizon, but slanted away to the north. She backed away, shivering more than even the air’s intense cold warranted as she remembered the phrase in the inscription. ΣΚΙΑΝ ΘΑΝΑΤΟΥ — “Shadow of Death”. Her Indian shawl felt far too thin and she no longer wanted to stay out in the garden at all. She hurried back to the house, quickly inventing a story to explain her return. When Dorothy came to her later, she was in the library.  “The workmen are here, Ma’am.”  “Oh, yes. Thank you. Please tell Mr Hardacre that they can leave the briar patch for now. I want them to clear the pond. Some carp would be nice, and I would want to get them settled in before autumn.”  A shiver ran through her as she spoke the last word, for autumn had triggered thought of winter and the unearthly thickness of the frost sheathing the sundial.  “Ma’am?”  “What is it, Dorothy?”  “Are you cold, Ma’am?”  “No, but” — in a rush of inspiration — “I think there is something sickly in the briar patch and I may have caught a little of it. Tell the servants to keep clear, will you?, after you conveyed my instructions to Mr Hardacre. Thank you, Dorothy.”  She stayed in the library a further hour and emerged more mystified than ever. The inscription, forgotten the previous evening in the excitement (ha!) of Mrs Jardine’s visit, had been easy enough to track down, turning up in Cruden’s Concordance under shadow. It was from the fifth book of the prophet Amos, verse eight, and ran a little differently in the Authorized Version:

Amos 5:8 Seek him that maketh the seven stars and Orion, and turneth the shadow of death into the morning, and maketh the day dark with night.

But she had also been investigating a little astronomical history, and learning that the sundial could not possibly have been built so early as, quite plainly, it had. Uranus had been discovered in 1781 and Neptune in 1846, and how could representations of both appear on a sundial reared in 1777? Even supposing the date was false, she knew that the dial must have lain beneath its briars for at least thirty years, which carried it back well before the official discovery of Neptune. Then there were the asteroids: the earliest of them — Ceres — had been discovered in 1801, but the sundial represented them accurately in position between Mars and Jupiter, though she was not sure now if some lay actually over the orbit of Jupiter and that others were not scattered elsewhere in the solar system. No, those were comets, she reminded herself. Or were they?  She was passing a window that looked out over the garden and paused in front of it. There lay the briar patch in the shadow of one of the trees near the stables. She could see the little vertical finger of the sundial, but it was no longer white, as though the frost had melted. She could contain her curiosity and went out at once, forgetting what she had said to Dorothy. And yes, when she reached the sundial, the frost was completely gone, though her shoes squelched on wet ground as she walked the last two steps and bent over it to examine the top.  Comets and asteroids were scattered throughout the solar system, it appeared, for not all of the dots on strongly elliptical orbits of finer-than-hair silver were brighter when close to the sun. She bent closer, marveling at the delicacy of the work and realizing that there were details in it that almost defeated the eye. Even Luna, she saw now, was splotted and speckled minutely to represent the maria and craters, and the pearly smoothness of Venus was not so smooth as first appeared, as though the sculptor had contrived to capture subtle variations in its nebulous cloak. In fact, she was convinced that certain details were defeating her eye, and would do so even in full sunlight.  Those over-populous moons of Jupiter, for example: a magnifying glass might bring out details that presently escaped her. But now that she looked at them again, was there not some grosser detail about them worthy of note? For the moons seemed to have changed position since she had last examined the top of the sundial: their arrangement around the banded globe of Jupiter was quite different to that she recalled from the previous day. Had the frost distorted the surface of the sundial? It did not seem so: the inlay looked as perfect as ever, even when she lowered her eye to barely an inch away, straining her gaze hard.  She lifted her head back with a murmur. Impossible. But she moistened her fingertip and picked up a dark speck of dust, setting it exactly beside one of the inner moons on a radius from Jove himself; and ten minutes later, when she looked again, the moon had definitely crept out of true. Unbelievable as it seemed, the top of the sundial was not simply an art-work but a mechanism, an species of orrery sphere on which the celestial bodies moved in correspondence to reality. What unknown eighteenth-century genius had contrived the thing? For see how the mechanism had survived long years of neglect, turning and turning as briars rose around it, cloaking it for all those decades.  Now she put her ear to the surface, listening hard, but could hear nothing but the blood in her ears. Was it a mechanism after all? She lifted her head again, looking for the speck of dust, but she had carelessly disturbed it with her ear and could not check that the moon had moved further. She set it into place again, shaking her head in contradiction of her own thoughts. If the sundial had indeed been reared in 1777, then genius was scarcely the word for him who had designed it. She was convinced now that the additional moons of Jupiter and Saturn, although outside the knowledge of modern astronomers, existed in actuality, like the moons given to Uranus and Neptune in defiance of those same astronomers, and the rings that girdled these three planets. The sundial’s designer had known of them somehow, and directed that they be depicted here.  She looked again at her speck of dust and inner moon of Jupiter, but although it was too soon she no longer needed its evidence. The top of the sundial was a mechanism and the moons of Jupiter were moving, like every other body depicted on it. In a week Mercury would have moved appreciably on its solar orbit, and those comets, some of which, she was certain, were presently unknown, would have crept closer to or further from the sun. But what of the frost? How had that come about? Had it some connexion with the mechanism? She slowly shook her head and reached out her hand to the golden gnomon again. No, she knew now what the frost had meant. Her lips moved in a little moue of pain as she nicked her fingertip again on the razor-edge, deliberately this time, and then let a drop fall on the pearly globe of Venus, rubbing it well in and repeating, for additional assurance, the inscription around the edge of the sundial.  The next morning she asked to be called early again for her sketching in the garden, but Robert did not accompany her into the garden and she barely bothered to disguise her concern with the sundial. It looked unchanged from the previous evening, but ten paces away she felt the first sensation of heat on her face and saw the cracked earth and shriveled grass around its base. Five paces away the heat pouring out of the thing was unmistakable, and two more paces was as many as she could take. She stooped and plucked a dewy handful of grass, then straightened and tossed it forward. The sizzle as some of it landed on the top of the sundial made her smile.  “Αφρωδιτη Θερμοπυγος*,” she murmured to herself. The blades of grass were already browning and sending up wisps of smoke around the gnomon’s shadow, which was not slanted to the rising sun. She turned for her chair and the sketches she, cautious to the end, would leave out for Dorothy to see on the final day of her stay here, for she knew now where she would let the next drop of blood fall, when the venerean heat had faded in the thing.

*Aphrodité thermopygos.

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