Hylas was indeed astounded by the merchant Polyxo’s house, and not just by its size. It stood in a different cove, maybe fifty leagues from where the brass carcase lay. Built from wooden planks, its walls curved under at the base, like the hull of a ship; the ropes that tethered it to the cliff were thick as tree trunks.
“It’s doesn’t just hold my collection, you see,” said Polyxo, skippingly happy to be home among his treasures. “It’s part of my collection. The rarest piece of building in the history of the world. And I own it! Fetched it back, plank by plank, all the way from Mount Parnassus. D’you know what it is, boy, do you? It’s the ship Deucalion built to survive the Flood. That’s where I keep my trinkets! Treasure chest to end all treasure chests!”
With twelve dozen rooms each the size of the Argo, the hulk was indeed vast, but it was the things contained in those rooms which set Hylas back on his heels.
“I am a collector, as you see,” said Polyxo, hauling the immense brass finger out of his deep pocket and laying it on a marble table top. On other tables and on shelves around the room were the parts and pieces of beautiful things. Seahorses and butterflies; the skin of some kind of horse (though Hylas had never before seen a horse striped black-and-white from nose to tail); the fluke from a whale; a plant that ate flies. It was as if some curious corner of the world had exploded and rained down the rubble into Polyxo’s open hands. Fragments of statues; strange fruit floating in brine; knots so complicated it would take a lifetime to untangle them; magician wands; a warrior’s shield. Polyxo drew out from his other pocket the scalp he had sliced from the dead Siren, and laid it with pride on a silver tray. “Anything strange or rare! Anything beautiful!” he purred, leading Hylas from room to room, proudly showing him beetles in amber, belts plaited from gold wire, a pearl as large as a bird’s egg, a bird’s egg as green as emeralds.
It was quite true that none of the girls in Polyxo’s house were of the common, everyday variety. Either they were statues carved from pink-veined marble, or they were water nymphs or mermaids trapped in tanks under the floor, under grids of iron. “I like the live things best,” the collector confided, ushering Hylas into a room painted with frescos and shrill with the birdsong from forty cages strung from its ceiling. “It is only the flame of life that adds that ultimate lustre, that sparkle.” A stuffed crocodile battened to the wall regarded them with dull lifeless eyes, proving the point. “This will be your room. I hope you like it.”
And with that he shut and bolted the door from the outside, leaving Hylas a prisoner in the charge of the birds and stuffed crocodile.
Hylas ran to the door. “But you will send to find Heracles? You are going to look…”
Polyxo’s face appeared suddenly at a window opposite the crocodile wall hanging. “Like as not… not. No. People get possessive about their belongings, don’t you find? Heracles has had his turn. It was careless of him to lose you. Finders keepers, eh? I’ll look after you – look in on you, never fear.” Scuffing away down the passage, he could be heard congratulating himself on his latest capture: “Beautiful. Exquisite.”
Polyxo’s face loomed up often at the little window, admiring Hylas’ extraordinary beauty, some days for an hour at a time. He did not pester, like the Dryopes. He did not bring friends along to impress with his collection, his stuffed animals, his aquarium of mermaids, the beautiful armour-bearer of Heracles… His pleasure came simply from owning them.
Hylas started to suspect that the room next-door was occupied. Another live prisoner. He would hear humming – “omm… omm…”, the occasional grunt, the scrape of furniture. But Hylas was chary of investigating. Given the range of curiosities in Polyxo’s mansion, the exhibit next door might be any one of a thousand kinds of ugly. Best not to look. He did not need to share his little prison with nightmares as well as birds and a stuffed crocodile.
To spite Polyxo, he loosed all the birds from their cages and pulled the crocodile down off the wall. .. only to discover that the thing had been covering a small porthole. By standing on the creature’s nobbly, hunched back, he was able to see into the adjoining cell.
A man of no particular age was sitting cross-legged in the centre of the floor, hands palm-upward on his knees, eyes closed and a smile of ineffable contentment on his face. He was neither ugly nor beautiful. He had neither wings nor tail: no obvious quality to make him ‘collectable’, as far as Hylas could see. The freed birds darted through the porthole, instantly doubling the size of their world. The man opened his eyes and watched them with delight – even when they dropped bird lime on his close-cropped head.
“Do you sing?” called Hylas, making a wild guess.
The man smiled. “If thou wish it I shall sing. I prize all things that bring increase of happiness.” And he did.
But his singing voice was not the reason Polyxo had incarcerated him: Abaris was a priest. He had been ambushed with a trip-net and brought to the mansion as an example of his species. “As proof, I suppose, that my nation exists,” said Abaris with a patient smile. “For I come from the country of Hyperboria, land of everlasting sunlight. Many doubt its existence. Daily I sayeth unto Polyxo, ‘Go thither to my homeland, if thou wouldst lay hold on true happiness!’ But he pays no heed. I fear that he thinks that Happiness cometh of possessing many things. Fain would I teach him the truth but… Ah well.” He closed his eyes and remarked, “The sparkling of dew upon a spider’s web! Sunlight shining through the ears of a rabbit!” There did not seem to be an answer to that.
“Are you a prisoner here forever, do you think?” said Hylas. He did not say ‘we’ – ‘Are we prisoners…’, for fear the answer was too dreadful to bear.
Abaris smiled serenely. “The days of Hyperborians are many. One thousand years, in sooth. And shall I not give up a dozen years to this misguided man? Snowflakes! The dark-dipped legs of newborn lambs! There is joy in the contemplation of Beauty even when thou art not free to see it.” A canary perched on his food bowl and began to eat out of it. When Hylas pointed this out, Abaris assured him: “Be at ease. Outside Hyperboria, I eat not, neither do I drink.”
Hylas felt no easier at all for knowing that Hyperborians had a lifespan of one thousand years. Hylas probably only had fifty years in store, and he did not want to give Polyxo one single week out of his life if it meant sitting in a prison cell with a stuffed crocodile and some overexcited canaries. He tried thinking of beautiful things, but it only made him miss the outside world even more.