Also includes Scene One of WHH: Scenes from a short life
Copyright 2013 Roger Wood
Published by RogerWood at Shakespir
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Table of Contents
“I had become one of those ‘left behind’, a member of the legion of the bereft and broken whose ceaseless demands exhausted Carnacki’s gift.”
The Saiitii Manifestation.
Such a quiet street, a respectable street, a street in which respect was shown, in which residents – respectfully – went out of their way to ensure they minded their own business. This was a street unused to motor vehicles, to motor cabmen hammering and banging on doors and screaming blue murder, a street never previously swamped with police wagons, never before host to a phalanx of constables barging down the door of Number Eleven with lowered shoulders and flexed backs. Despite their best intentions, the residents of Camber Lane could not help but step outside and watch events unfold. Number Eleven was where that nice Mr Taylor lived, an unassuming young man with impeccable manners in an unassuming yellow-brick suburban villa. Young Mr Dodgson, someone reminded others, had once lived there too. A strapping young fellow – all the girls were besotted with him. Yes – Dodgson. Haven’t seen him for years. What became of him, I wonder? Went away to war, you say? Ah… Don’t suppose he—-? No. Well, so many didn’t. A supper party – at Number Eleven? Good lord! I never took Taylor for the sociable type. Come to think of it, I haven’t seen him for some time either…
Meanwhile police officers came and went through the wreckage of Taylor’s front door. Uniformed officers gave way to men in overcoats, with hats pulled down at the front and serious moustaches. Plainclothes detectives, witnesses declared with unwarranted assurance. Those nearest the scene passed information back to their neighbours like links in a human chain. They’re saying it’s a mess inside, plates thrown about, furnishings torn and smashed. But no blood – and no bodies. The cabman swears he heard voices but there’s no sign of anyone inside. The doors locked, front and back, keys still in the inner locks, and – you’ll never guess – all the windows barred, actual wrought iron bars like a prison cell, only these, they say, are in the shape of five-pointed stars. It fair makes my flesh creep…
And that’s what the gentlemen of the Press thought when they arrived to gather up the gossip. The Putney Mystery they dubbed it, and within six hours that’s what the hawkers of newspapers were carolling on every street corner in London. It was an overnight sensation which lasted for weeks. Every edition brought new information – the names of the four missing men, their antecedents; the fact that one of them, the so-called ghost-finder Carnacki, had made a minor sensation before. When facts ran dry, theories began to flow. There had to be a supernatural element, surely, with Carnacki involved. Carnacki was a foreign name, was it not, and thus suspicious in itself. Veiled suggestions appeared in more esoteric journals regarding alleged relationships between Taylor and Dodgson, and Dodgson and the foreign conjuror Carnacki. All in all, in the summer of 1919, the Great British Public gorged itself on the Putney Mystery. Books were hurriedly written and cheaply published. One purporting to quote verbatim from the Carnacki casebook was serialised in The Idler and syndicated across the Empire. There was a shortlived Carnacki craze in which young men wore their hair flopping against their cheeks from a centre parting in the manner of the mysterious black magician whilst young ladies wore jewellery decorated with niello pentacles echoing those found in the windows and on the back parlour floor of the Camber Lane villa. Only unfounded fears of a third wave of Spanish flu drove the Mystery from the front pages, from dinner table discourse, and ultimately from popular memory.
Not everyone forgot. Not everyone could forget. Isolated clusters of people the length and breadth of the British Isles had daily cause to remember, wonder, and complain. Without proof of death – without bodies – English law requires that seven years must pass before death can be assumed and estates disbursed. For the Arkright family of Westmorland it meant a title in abeyance, an estate unclaimed. For the Jessop family of West Kensington it meant a fortune unable to be accessed, a lifestyle increasingly unaffordable.
Servants were let go, social obligations neglected. Last season’s dresses were made to serve another year. Pennies, quite frankly, were pinched – and yet at least half-a-million pounds lay sleeping in the account of the missing Jessop paterfamilias. A certain amount of credit could be raised on such security but few reputable lenders offered favourable terms when they knew they must wait years for the return of the principal. Percy Jessop had colleagues, partners, associates, who ought to have offered help, but company law, so they said, forbade them parting with Percy’s share of the booty until such time as his ‘situation’ became clear. Margaret Jessop suspected they privately assumed Percy had left her for a younger, cheaper, less demanding woman. Margaret knew, however, that Percy would never leave her. He wouldn’t dare. Percy had died that night in Putney. His widow knew that for a fact. She kept this certainty from her younger daughters, though, in case they bolted. She shared her fears sometimes with Dora, when the others were out. Sometimes she spoke for hours. Voicing her innermost thoughts helped assuage that gnawing sense of guilt – as if Percy’s disappearance and the mess he had left behind was somehow her fault – though she might as well have harangued the Parianware bust of Lord Palmerston in the downstairs drawing room.
Margaret had friends, of course, but she could not turn to them for assistance. They were not friends in that sense – indeed she could well imagine them sniggering behind hands at her plight. Margaret, she had to admit, had been wont to crow in her heyday. As for family, well she had turned her back on them the day she left Salford, newly engaged to Percy and newly pregnant with their first daughter.
By the spring of 1921 the townhouse on Melbury Road had closed its top two floors, reduced its staff to a single cook-housekeeper, and more or less abandoned care of the large square garden to the rear. “We’re going for the natural look,” Mrs Jessop told her neighbours when they complained. “It’s all the rage in America.” Yet still money went out a hundred times faster than it came in. That is to say, a good deal of money went out while very little – virtually none – came in. Mrs J and the girls had savings accounts, of course, but interest these days was negligible. The smart set were plunging their rainy-day funds on stocks and shares and making new fortunes. Mrs Jessop had a nose for profit – her husband always told her so – and had she had funds she would have shown the stock-jobbers and short-sellers of the City a trick or two.
As it was, in the continued absence of Mr J or his mortal remains, his widow-apparent would have to take in lodgers or send her daughters out into the working world. Either or both she considered unacceptable.
It was not that Margaret Jessop was afraid of hard work; she had been a chambermaid in a Manchester hotel until she met an ambitious young commercial traveller called Percy Jessop. Rather, she was terrified of the social stigma of being a woman who worked. For herself there could be no question of working, not with Dora needing looking after every minute of the day. But her younger daughters, Felicity and Lorna-Alice, in whom she had invested such ambition, for whose future she had imagined such luxury, such prestige – how could they hope to meet a potential husband when they worked alongside men, for men, or even (heaven forefend!) over them? Yet it had to be. There were loans secured on the West Kensington property, running costs, bills to be paid for Dora’s care.
The worst of it was, her younger daughters were mad keen to launch themselves on the town. Felicity spoke of cutting her hair and becoming a writer for one of Lord Northcliffe’s ghastly magazines for women. Lorna-Alice spoke of nothing but the repellent theories of Herr Doktor Freud of Vienna, though how such horrors could possibly transmute into paid employment was beyond her mother. “It’s as if,” Margaret told her eldest daughter, “as if the Liberal government and its wretched war have sucked all the decency out of the world.”
Dora, of course, made no comment. Dora had not spoken since she was thirteen years old, and she was now twenty-nine. She had not ventured out of doors since 1904, not left her room since 1912, her bed since the day war was declared, though that was probably pure coincidence. Dora Jessop was by far the most hopeless member of an entirely female household with very little hope. For six-and-a-half years she had lain abed, her muscles wasting, her beauty fading, subsisting on sips of water and one or two spoonfuls of Scotch broth, gazing at her curtailed and twilit world with complete disinterest. It broke her mother’s heart. Dora’s plight had so unmanned the lately-missing Percy Jessop that he had taken to associating with crackpots and deceivers, anyone who offered him hope of contacting his beloved child, wherever her spirit had flown. Harmless, pathetic duffers like Reggie Arkright. Dangerous, deluded meddlers like Thomas Carnacki.
Imagine, then, Margaret’s reaction when her youngest daughter, Lorna-Alice, brought her a freshly-delivered letter with the return address Flat 9, 472 Cheyne Walk written in lavender ink on the flap. “I say, Ma,” Lorna-Alice said. “Isn’t that where old Carnacki hung his hat?”
The way young people spoke nowadays! Margaret slit open the envelope with a mother-of-pearl letter-knife. Lorna-Alice read over her mother’s shoulder and reported the contents to her sister Felicity. I hope you, or a member of your immediate family, will join me on Thursday evening 8pm when it is hoped we may all learn something to our mutual advantages. The simple message was signed, baldly, M Carnacki.
“I thought the old fraud was called Thomas,” Felicity said.
“Perhaps it’s not him, Flick,” Lorna-Alice said. “Perhaps it’s one of his immediate family.”
“Perhaps it’s a swindler,” their mother said. “After our money.”
Both daughters thought What money? – but knew better than to voice their thoughts.
“Still, you might as well go, Ma,” Lorna-Alice said. “I mean, you never know—-“
“How can I possibly go?” Mrs Jessop protested. “Who will look after poor Dora?”
Again, both daughters kept their thoughts to themselves. Instead, Felicity piped up: “Then we’ll go. Me and Lorne!”
Lorna-Alice and I, Mrs Jessop muttered under her breath. A small fortune lavished on their education, yet the girls spoke like that Cockney flibbertigibbet in Mr Shaw’s tedious comedy. But she said nothing. Saying nothing was a shared trait of the Jessop women. On this occasion, however, Lorna-Alice broke with tradition the instant the sisters were out of their mother’s earshot. “You could have asked me first, Flick! Why on earth should I want to traipse across town to meet with some…” Her occasional readings in the emerging science of psychoanalysis had not equipped her with the appropriate term so she settled, reluctantly, for “sham.”
“It’ll be a lark,” her sister told her. “You never know, I might get a story out of it for Reynold’s News or Tit-Bits. Of course,” She could not resist teasing the youngest sister, “if you’ve already made arrangements for Thursday…”
The evening was fine with a fresh spring breeze blowing off the river, dispersing any fumes that might be minded to try and form a fog. The Jessop girls took a bus down to the Embankment, alighted at Cremorne Gardens, and approached their destination from the south. 472, they reasoned, had to be at what Flick called ‘the fag-end’ of Cheyne Walk, and so indeed it was, scarcely Chelsea at all, more Battersea. A red-brick house in a row of stucco-fronted townhouses, it stood back from its neighbours as if not quite daring to assert itself. At first glance, from beneath the trees on the river side of the road, it seemed to consist of two intrinsic storeys with a third added by the crude expedient of lifting off the original roof and replacing it with part of a bandstand from a local park. The top row of windows, which presumably included those of Flat 9, seemed alien, bordering on absurd. There was a wrought iron balustrade on the right-hand side of the housetop. A roof garden, perhaps?
As they crossed the road, arm in arm, Flick realised that the front door was largely below street level, that there was in fact an unseen ground floor, presumably dating from the earliest stages of development of the Royal Borough. What had seemed, from the riverside, to be a three-storey dwelling in fact had four. The original element was the part one saw last; the frivolous, fatuous addition on top was what snagged the eye. This, Flick concluded, was a paradoxical dwelling. Lorne, meanwhile, was more interested in the young man standing by the unlit gas lamp immediately in front of the gate of the quondam Carnacki residence.
He was tall, slightly stooped. He wore an overcoat with shoulder flaps not properly arranged and a low-crowned topper that might have looked better tilted to one side. His cuffs did not properly cover his wrists, which were thin and very pale, leading to hands with long thin fingers – and no visible rings, Lorne noted. His face, to begin with, was downcast, and she could only see a curl of chestnut hair beneath the hat and a clean-shaven cheek. As they stepped up onto the kerb the young man’s head shot up and he asked them, in a pleasant, rumbling baritone, “Excuse me, ladies. I wonder, could you tell me if this is Number 472?”
Flick, for some reason, took exception to the unexceptionable young man. Perhaps it was the way he avoided eye contact, seeming to stare over their heads where there was nothing but empty sky. “It says so plain enough on the door,” she snapped. “What’s the matter? Are you—-?” She bit off the question as she realised that was exactly what he was. Before she could apologise, the young man laughed delightedly. A very becoming laugh, Lorne considered it.
“Yes, I’m afraid – to all intents and purposes – I am. I never had sight, so I don’t miss it. Indulge me, ladies. Am I addressing the Jessop sisters? From that gasp, I take it I am.” He extended his long thin hand in very nearly Flick’s direction. “Neville Arkright. Our fathers were acquainted.”
“I wonder who else is coming.” Lorne was keen that young Mr Arkright should not forget her presence. He answered, with a note of sadness, “I don’t believe there is anyone else.”
Flick opened the gate and led the way down to the front door. She wondered if she should offer Mr Arkright her arm, but he seemed able to manage without assistance. His fingers fluttered over the scabbed surface of the adjoining wall and he took the seven stone steps without hesitation. How had he got here, she wondered? By cab perhaps, but wouldn’t the cabman have helped him to the right door? Perhaps he lived locally. Perhaps he lived here, she thought. Perhaps he was the one behind the perplexing invitation.
They gathered in the shallow recess at the foot of the stairs. They hesitated, all three of them, as if wondering who would or should ring the bell. Lorne moved forward, squeezing ever so slightly against Mr Arkright’s chest. She squinted to see which of the several buttons on the door jamb connected to Flat 9. Then a voice said, “It’s open.” Flick turned the round Georgian knob and the door swung back. Then the three realised simultaneously—-
There’s no one there… So who—-?
The sisters automatically turned towards Arkright. He asked, “You heard it too, didn’t you? Tell me, to your minds, was it a man or a woman’s voice?”
A man, obviously… How could it be other when there were only two women present and neither of them… But actually, now you mention it…
“It’s very odd,” Lorne said.
“Cheap theatrics,” Flick said. “Meant to unsettle us before we start.” And with that she marched through the open portal and started up the stairs. It seemed plain commonsense that Flat 9 should be towards the top of the house. Indeed, Flats 6, 7 and 8 shared a common landing on the first floor. A narrower stairway with a ninety-degree kink halfway up, no doubt originally meant for live-in servants, led to the final, apparently much-altered level of accommodation. Flick searched for a light switch. “No need for that,” Neville said. “I’ll lead the way.” Lorne made a point of going second. Flick did not object. She still wondered about young Mr Arkright. He coped so well with his disability, you might almost suspect—-
A blaze of golden lamplight suddenly spilled round the corner above them. “Come, come,” a voice – undoubtedly female – commanded them. “Is almost time now.” A foreigner, then. Nothing unusual in the heart of Empire. Authoritative, no nonsense. Flick liked the sound of her. The look, however, was not so appealing. The woman who awaited them at the top of the attic stairs was tall, almost six feet, and dressed in a long sheath of a gown made of three-coloured velvet, purple, black and mulberry. There was a frizz of black lace at collar and cuff, a pendant of some sort dangling against a flat chest, a gilt chatelaine at a waist so narrow it barely warranted the term. With the light so bright behind her, her face was occluded. All the sisters could see was the helmet of hair, chopped off level with the bottom of the ears but still determined to curl upwards from a pair of long-drop earrings.
None of this, naturally, meant anything to Neville Arkright. He stepped forward onto the cramped landing, hand outstretched, and introduced himself, adding, on behalf of them all, “And you are…?”
“Madame.” She turned on her heel and strode inside. “Come.”
The three young people followed, entering a room very different from the one the two women, at any rate, had envisaged. It was a large room, lit with electricity. Over-lit, if the truth be known, so bright after the gloom of the staircase that the sisters had to shield their eyes. Even the blind man recoiled, perhaps feeling the heat of the lamps. The curtains were closed, not unreasonably, and were made of the same dark material as Madame’s gown, but they stopped two feet clear of the floor and only just covered the window behind. In other words, there was no superfluous fabric behind which anything or anyone might hide. Whitewashed walls, bare floorboards and the only furniture four plain stand chairs arranged to face one another – it was as if Madame intended them to see that the room contained no gimmicks or contraptions. “Nothing up her sleeve,” Flick murmured. To her sceptical self, she reasoned that the trick – and she had no doubt there was a trick at the heart of the matter – must lie elsewhere. Above their heads was an obvious possibility. She glanced up – a series of incandescent bulbs blazed back at her and she had to feel her way to a seat. She took the seat facing the door to the apartment’s other room. The door stood wide open, offering a clear view of what was apparently sleeping quarters. The curtains in the second room were open – Flick could see the windows reflected in the cheval mirror in the far corner. All very reassuring, no doubt, but she would accept nothing at face value. She had read Harry Houdini’s exposé of American mediums in the News of the World and would not easily be taken in.
Lorne took the chair opposite her sister. The woman rejoicing in the title Madame, clearly unaware of its less respectable connotations, led Neville Arkright to the chair on Flick’s right, where his back would be to the flat’s main door. So she knows he’s blind, does she? Flick speculated. Is she more sensitive than Lorne and I, or are they previously acquainted? Madame took the seat on Flick’s left, her back to the window. Her dress seemed to have an all-over sheen of midnight blue in this light, Flick noticed. The curtains behind her, on the other hand, now seemed reddish. Which was odd…
They sat in silence so long that it became distinctly uncomfortable. Finally, Neville spoke: “The invitation was signed M Carnacki. I wonder, is that M for Madame?”
Madame nodded. For the first time Flick felt able to look the older woman in the face. She was much older than she at first seemed. The hair was black but lifeless, clearly dyed. The skin of her face seemed unnaturally tight, emphasising the angularity of the nose and cheekbones. The lips – painted raspberry red – were weak and ill-defined, puckered with creases. The eyebrows were painted on, the originals no doubt entirely plucked. The eyes, though, seemed to swim with an overabundance of life force. Sapphire, amethyst, violet … it was hard to determine the colour from the side.
“You were married to Carnacki?” Neville asked. “I always thought… I mean I understood—-“
“Yes,” Madame said. “We had understanding. Thomas and I.” She pronounced the name with the h transposed. Toe-mash. Flick wondered where she was from originally. Where had she met Toe-mash? She would have enquired but Lorne, ever-practical, beat her to it.
“Is that how you came by this flat, Madame? Inherited from Mr Carnacki?”
“Yes. From Thomas.”
“No – hang on,” Flick protested. “You can’t have inherited. That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? The law says—-“
“The law is not English everywhere, Miss Jessop.”
“Enough,” Madame nipped this line of inquiry in the bud. “Is time.”
Flick doubted that. How could Madame know the time with no clock in the room? Now that she thought of it, there was no table or mantel to put a clock on. Where had the fireplace been, she wondered, glancing round. Was that where whatever trickery they were about to be treated to was hidden?
“Should we join hands?” Lorne asked, on behalf of them all. “Or something?”
Madame did not answer. Her eyes were open but not focussed on anything so far as Flick could tell. The older woman simply sat and stared, her breathing very steady, very calm. And suddenly there were voices everywhere. Above their heads, over there by the bedroom door, under the seat of Lorne’s chair…
Couldn’t quite… quite, quite
They popped in the air, then darted off, often leaving words incomplete.
Chaos melting everywhere never…
The words came so fast they overlapped, sometimes loud, sometimes no more than a whispered syllable. Flick recalled Neville’s question from earlier. Was this the voice of a man or a woman? She tried to determine. Impossible – the voice was neither male nor female. It was sexless, like a thought. Do thoughts have gender, she asked herself? Do men and women have different thoughts? Does this voice I am speculating in, inside my head, have identity of any kind?
Flisssss flissssss FLISSSS!
“It’s Flick, Pa.” She answered automatically, not thinking. Across from her, Lorne’s eyes grew round. “Pa?” she demanded. “Is it you? Are you here?”
Not here, never, somewhere… The voice abruptly switched tone. Did it also swap identity? Now it was harsh, authoritative. In a desperate hurry to say its piece. No time… listen listen… Not important… Forget them, listen, somewhere safe… Listen listen listen!!
“We’re listening,” Neville assured him – her – it? “You have our attention. I take it I am addressing Mr Carnacki?”
[_Yesssssssss _]– a long exhalation, a sigh of relief. Neville had turned his head towards the corner of the room on the far side of the curtained sash windows. The sisters, assuming that blind men have augmented hearing, followed suit. There was nothing to see so they closed their eyes, concentrating on what this so-called Carnacki had to say for himself. Their threefold concentration seemed to steady the voice. What followed almost made sense.^^1^^
Taylor, such a damned fool, should never have meddled. Disastrous. Saiitii – even the electric pentagram cannot contain them. The thing went for me first. Don’t know what became of the others, save that I have not encountered them here, where I am. I have to tell you Pythagoras was wrong. There are no spheres beyond. The physical plane is itself the sphere, one of many, many millions, only…
Flick sneaked at glance at Madame. The older woman sat bolt upright, spine like a ramrod, utterly immobile. She paid particular attention to the painted, puckered lips. Totally still, firmly closed. If this was ventriloquism, Flick had never seen the like. The voice, meanwhile, grew progressively more agitated, still issuing from the far corner.
Imagine a furnace – no, a volcano – a seething, spitting inferno. Sometimes the molten stuff flies up in something more than just a spit or spurt. I don’t mean a full-blown eruption – no, that would be catastrophic, the end… just something beyond the mundane. And each one of those random spouts is a potential universe, each drop of cooling magma a plane every bit as real as the one you – we – cling to so desperately. But none of it is truly real. THIS is reality – the stuff that lies within. Chaos – everything everywhere that ever was or will be, all existing at one and the same time, each reckoning its own time in its own terms. Imagine, then, what might happen if two spouts collide. Chaos unbridled. Planes interacting, holes forming in the deep past of one system, the modernity of another, the far distant future of a third. The SAME hole. That’s what Taylor achieved, what I cannot undo. THE PORTAL IS OPEN. They are coming through. Do you understand me? They’re—-
“—-here,” Neville completed the phrase. “I see them.”
This was so outrageously nonsensical that the sisters turned and stared at him, wide-eyed, open-mouthed. He seemed to be following something, several things, around the room. There was no hint of game-playing on his face. He was not amused. If anything he was concerned, disturbed. He sprang to his feet – his chair crashed to the floor. He darted for the door – “Oh no you don’t!” – ran both hands over the varnished surface until he found the key in the lock. He jerked the key clockwise, locked the door, removed the key and buried it in the depths of his trouser pocket. He stepped back. The sisters saw the door handle twisting, violently, this way and that. Flick was sure she heard something squeal in frustration. Neville staggered, seemed to lose his balance – for all the world as if something substantial had barged into him. He lashed out with his left arm. Flick heard, positively, the blow land. She heard – she was sure of it – a squeak of pain. Then she heard her sister whisper, hiss, terrified. “Flick! Something’s … sniffing my neck!”
Again, Neville lashed out. Again the blow landed. The invisible yelped. “Turn off the lights!” Neville said. “I can see better in the dark.” Lorne ran for the switch. As the lights died there came a sudden rattle of feet – trotters – hooves? – clattering across the bare floorboards, charging at Neville. He was swept up off the floor and bundled towards the bedroom beyond. Flick heard chattering, snorting, snickering. She saw her sister launch herself at the gibbering pack. Saw Lorne kicking and scratching at nothing at all yet clearly having an effect. Howls of protest mixed with furious bellowing. Neville’s feet dropped towards the floor without actually touching it. He was able to wedge himself in the doorway, arms wide, hands splayed against the bare wall on either side. His lower half jerked and swung. Something was trying to force him through, trying with all its might. But Lorne was on the back or neck of whatever it was, lashing out with nails and knees and elbows. Finally Neville dropped. Lorne was thrown backwards. Flick got to her feet, convinced the invisible horde would attack her next. But they charged straight past her. She felt the breeze of their passing, heard grunts and barking sounds. She smelled them – a nauseous blend of mouldering vegetation and suppurating flesh.
The curtains were torn from the window, literally ripped to tatters and flung back into the room. There seemed to be a disorganised scramble of several things trying to fathom how the windows worked. The simple concept of a latch was evidently beyond them. This became obvious when they charged, as one, at the window on the left and burst clean through. The glass shattered in a cloud of glittering shards. Sashes snapped, the case splintered. Where the window had been was now just empty early evening sky.
From the corner of her eye Flick saw Madame, who had not moved an inch for the duration of the infestation – had not so much as raised a painted eyebrow as her home was broken, her guests attacked – take hold of her chatelaine and draw the chain from her pocket. It was a long chain and must have reached down beneath the gown as far as her calf, which would have been uncomfortable, for fastened to the end was a pistol, not a lady’s weapon, refined and somehow discreet, but a full-sized revolver. She detached the chain, held the weapon out to Flick.
“I can’t,” Flick said. “I don’t know how—-”
“Your father wants you to have it.”
“Come with me, Miss Jessop,” Neville said. “We must chase after them. We cannot allow monsters to rampage round London.”
This, bizarrely, amused Madame. She twisted her lip in a sort of smile and said, “Be quick, children. Before they have chance to … come together.”
“Come on, Flick!” Lorne insisted. Flick took the gun. It seemed preordained that she should. Already Neville was clumping downstairs. Lorne followed in a swirl of skirts. Flick went more sedately, fearful that any jarring movement might trigger the weapon. In the doorway of the flat she turned, looked back at its remaining occupant, and asked, “Who the hell are you?”
In reply Madame raised her bony shoulders, spread her hands, palms upwards, and shook her pudding basin mop of hair from side to side. From below, Flick’s sister was calling her name. Flick told herself, I’ll have this out with you, madam, when I return, and then answered the call. She joined the others on pavement of Cheyne Walk. The street lamps had been lit during their absence. The river shone like polished lead beyond the trees.
Flick immediately challenged Neville. “How do you mean, you can see?”
Neville, very like Madame, shrugged his shoulders. “I can’t see objects, things that we can all agree exist in this plane. But I can see visions, phantasms, just like anyone else. Indeed, my employer—-”
“If you two are going to tittle-tattle,” Lorne put in, “give me the gun and I’ll go hunting.”
“Don’t be silly, Lorne. You can’t shoot what you can’t—-“
“The river!” Neville cried. “Is it tidal this far upstream?”
“I don’t know,” Flick said. “Why does it matter?”
“If it’s tidal, they won’t go in – too much like home for their comfort. But if it’s not, they might wallow.”
“It’s tidal,” Lorne told him.
“Lorne, how do you—-?”
“I’m not a complete—-”
“Damn!” Neville cut short their bickering. “The creatures could be anywhere.”
“What sort of creatures are they?” Flick asked. “What do they look like?”
“How can I compare them to something you are familiar with but which I have never seen? I suppose I can say that they do not seem to be developed creatures. Whilst they can clearly operate as a pack I don’t take them for predators. No, I believe they are scavengers, always on the lookout for the leavings of other, more dominant creatures. Does that help?”
It did. “The Embankment!” the sisters declared as one. They set off northwards, towards Westminster. Lorne took the lead, dragging Neville behind her. Always the least athletic sister, Flick struggled to keep up. In the end she hoisted her skirts and ran.
At Battersea Bridge Cheyne Walk became Chelsea Embankment for a few hundred yards. Halfway between Battersea Bridge and Albert Bridge Cheyne Walk resumed, forking off to the left whilst the Embankment continued to hug the riverside. It was Victorian London’s greatest engineering work, not only channelling the effluvia of a million Londoners out to the wilds of Essex but also incorporating the underground railway and the gas pipes and electricity mains for West London. With the panache of their age the engineers had topped all that functionality off with a broad walkway serving no other purpose than public pleasure. Originally the walkway had been ornamented only with trees, the ubiquitous London planes; over the years these had been supplemented with dense shrubbery, screening the luxurious houses on the landward side. The householders were glad to lose their sewage, pleased with the convenient railway and delighted with the power supply, but they drew the line at having their expensive privacy impinged upon by the gaze of the passing hoi polloi. Tonight, however, the flaneurs had a different spectacle to gawk at: that of one purposeful young woman towing along a man who seemed oblivious to everything around him, and a second female galloping after, showing a scandalous amount of calf and toting, if they were not mistaken, a full-sized revolver.
“Here!” Neville shouted, digging in his heels and stopping the headlong dash. “This is where they’ll go below. There’s an entrance to the system here somewhere, I believe.” Lorne let go his hand to begin the search, albeit she had no idea what form the entrance might take. Flick caught up with the other two and bent over, hugging her knees, recovering her breath. Neville squeezed her shoulder. His voice was calm, the pressure of his grip was emphasis enough. “There’s one,” he whispered, pointing into the treetops.
Flick followed his finger. She could see nothing, naturally.
“You need to shoot it,” Neville said.
“How can I?”
“You must. It’s stalking your sister.”
Flick’s head and her right hand – the hand holding the gun – went up together. She found Lorne by the bridge, looked up and worked backwards towards the area of leafage Neville had pointed out. It was early in the season for much greenery but if she concentrated… There! She saw leaves move, branches tremble. To make absolutely sure, she waited and watched. There – it had to be! Another disturbance, this time four or five feet closer to Lorne. Flick shot without thinking, which was probably the best thing she could have done. The recoil sent her spinning, the crack of gunpowder deadened her senses. But still she caught a whoop of pain from the treetop, the burst of blood-red and purple gore. She heard the thud of the creature hitting the ground but all she could see was a loop of intestine and a growing puddle of blood. Lorne came running over. “Flick! What the devil—-“ “She saved your life,” Neville said. “And killed a monster.” It should have warranted gratitude, congratulations, but all Lorne could come up with was, “Oh.” Then: “Follow me. I think I’ve found it.”
She led them to the end works of the bridge. Directly below the long-abandoned tollbooth was a recess in the wall. As they came closer it was obvious that until very recently access to the space had been barred by a wrought-iron grille. That now lay torn and tangled at their feet. Inside, to the right, was a broken down door and through the door—-
Neville grabbed both sisters and pulled them back. “They’re in there!”
Flick stepped forward and pumped five shots in quick succession into the darkness. Squeals, whoops, screeches flew back, and not a little gore. It was not the blood that made her recoil but the appalling stench billowing up from below. She heard – they all heard – splashes. “They’re in the sewer,” Neville said, then: “They’re dividing their ranks. Some heading north, others—-“ He had no need to complete the sentence. “It’s over,” Lorne said. “We’ve failed,” said Flick.
They gravitated back towards their starting point, the flat at Number 472. There was no reason for them to return. None of them consciously wanted to go back. Even so, without discussion, all three automatically turned south. Lorne hooked Arkright’s arm in hers. He did not seem to require support or guidance but, as Mrs Jessop sometimes said, better safe than sorry. A soft evening had turned into a sumptuous night. The river breeze had faded, the stars were out. A gibbous moon flitted between the trees. The perfect night, Lorne considered it, for a romantic riverside stroll. If only Flick would put a sock in it and leave poor Neville be…
“What about the bodies of the creatures?” Flick wanted to know. “What if someone stumbles on them – or over them, if they remain invisible? Will they remain invisible, do you think? And what of the others, the ones that got away? I don’t suppose they will stay below ground, do you? Supposing they … multiply … you know, breed? It doesn’t bear thinking about. What do you think, Mr Arkright?”
Give the poor devil the chance to get a word in edgewise and you might find out, Lorne thought. She thought, further, that the return journey would never end. On and on and… Flick, on the other hand, was startled to find herself once more by the gate below the gas lamp at the top of the short flight of stone steps leading down to the half-hidden front door.
“Well,” she said, “Here we are. So soon.” Lorne loved her sister as sisters should but could cheerfully have raked her shins with her boot heel. “I suppose we might as well—-“ Flick began, only for Lorne to cut in, with minimally concealed sarcasm, “Yes. Why not?” This time Lorne led the way indoors. The door, to no one’s surprise, remained unsecured. As the others trailed after, Lorne started up the stairs. The subdivided house was silent, which was not unexpected at what must have been by now a latish hour. No lights showed, not even under the doors of the various flats they passed. There was a mustiness, the scent of stale air, which they had not noticed earlier. No light spilled down to the first floor landing. Had Madame also retired for the night? It seemed unlikely, given the events of earlier, but then Madame clearly moved in more esoteric circles than the Jessop sisters. At the top of the final flight all was darkness, a darkness deeper than usual on a moonlit night, not just a lack of light but somehow a denial of the existence of light.
“Have you a match, Mr Arkright?” Flick asked.
“I don’t smoke,” Neville said. “Why?”
Rather than explain, Flick reached for the doorknob of Flat 9. Flick prided herself on her sense of direction. When all about were losing their bearings, she—-
—-banged her knuckles against a plaster wall. “Odd,” she murmured. “I could have sworn…” She searched the darkness with both hands but was unable to locate the door. She accepted she might misjudge the location of the doorknob, but to lose the entire door—-
A match flared. Flick turned and found it burning between her sister’s forefinger and thumb. Lorne answered the unspoken question. “Sometimes, at the Psycho-Analytic Society, some members like to smoke. I don’t myself, obviously, but—-“
Flick had lost interest. She saw the door now, the brass number 9 glowing golden in the feeble light. It was at the end of second landing furthest from the stairs, whereas Flick was convinced, absolutely positive, that earlier, when Madame met them at the top of the attic stairs, she had simply turned and entered her flat, a step or two at the most.
Flick squeezed past her two companions and reached for the doorknob. She paused. “I can hear footsteps,” she told the others, sotto voce. “No, they’ve stopped.” Now she could hear breathing, on the far side of the door, but very close, as if the breather had her or his cheek pressed against the upper left panel of the door, immediately above the knob. The breathing was quick but more excited than anxious, Flick thought, almost expectant. Her hand floated automatically to the doorknob. As her fingers closed around the porcelain she fell back a pace, startled by a sudden hiss from within.
“Oh, for goodness sake, Flick!” Lorne bundled her sister out the way and rapped, peremptorily, on the woodwork. “Hullo? It’s Miss Jessop – the Misses Jessop – and Mister—-“
The door fell open. Shards of silver moonlight pierced the gloom. In the doorway stood a man. A man of above middle height but not so tall as Neville Arkright. A man with broad shoulders and an easy stance. A man who was very evidently a grown man but who had the round blue eyes and the simple smile of a contented baby. A man without a single hair anywhere on his body, as could all too clearly be seen, given he was totally, unabashedly nude.
They went inside, largely for fear the naked man might come out. He stood aside to let them enter. As Neville passed, the nude made a sweeping bow which seemed to amuse him greatly, though his laughter was silent. Lorne quickly explained the problem to the blind man. “Completely…?” Neville asked. It was unclear if he meant naked or bald, so Lorne merely said “Yes.”
“Who are you, sir?” Neville asked. The naked man clearly heard him but he made no attempt to answer. Instead he took himself off to the corner of the room and sat down, bare buttocks on bare floorboards, because—-
—-because there was no carpet, no mat or rug, no table, no chairs, no sideboard, no curtains at the windows (though there was, inexplicably, glass in all three), no paper on the walls. “Where’s it all gone?” Flick asked no one in particular. Again, Lorne explained to Neville. “And that’s not all,” Flick said, turning to her right. “Where’s the bedroom gone? Even the bedroom door—-” There simply was no door leading to another room, nor any sign one had ever been.
“It’s not the same room,” Lorne decided. “It can’t be. It’s bigger – well, the ceiling’s higher at any rate. The windows aren’t where they were in Madame’s flat, and let’s face it, sis, they can scarcely have moved.”
“The door,” Neville said, moving towards it. He ran his fingers over the exterior surface. “It’s Number 9 right enough. The number’s here in brass or perhaps steel.”
“Any fool can change a number,” Lorne snapped, letting shortness of temper get the better of her. “Perhaps it’s a six turned upside down. But no one can strip a room in, what, an hour at most? Where have all the lights gone? There’s not even a socket. And the bedroom…” She paused, suddenly conscious of an obvious but unsettling truth. “It’s the same room, isn’t it?”
Neville nodded. “The same room – but not in the same place.”
Flick looked out of the no-longer-broken windows and confirmed Neville’s deduction. “It’s where the roof garden was earlier. Look – you can tell by the lamppost.”
“So what is where Madame’s two rooms were?” Lorne said. “And where, for that matter, is Madame?”
“Perhaps she is where this fellow used to be,” Neville suggested – unhelpfully, Flick thought. Then, decisively: “We should fetch help. My employer—-”
“We can’t bring anyone here,” Flick argued. “For one thing, here might not be here by the time someone arrives. For all we know, one or both of the rooms we’ve been in tonight might be – probably are – some sort of hallucination.”
“Perhaps Madame put something in our tea,” Lorne suggested.
“She didn’t give us any tea,” Flick pointed out.
“Perhaps a gas of some sort,” Neville offered. “It has been known…”
“How it may have happened is not our immediate problem,” Flick insisted. “The main obstacle to inviting someone into premises which aren’t ours is, how do we explain him?”
The naked man had watched the crisscrossing of argument like a cat watching a clock pendulum. He was interested but uninvolved. Now he realised everyone was looking at him, even the male who looked without seeing. So he felt obliged to smile, curling his lips as far as they would go and showing them his widely-spaced teeth. The females recoiled, which only made him contort his face all the more horribly.
“My employer,” Neville said again. “He lives nearby. We can get clothes. And transport.”
Lorne seized his elbow. “I’ll come with you,” she declared, brooking no dissent. “You don’t know his size. Flick, give me the gun.”
“The gun. We know there are monsters outside. All there is inside is him. And we know for an absolute copper-bottomed fact he’s not armed.”
“There are no bullets. I fired six shots—-”
“Let me see.” Neville held out his hand. It seemed absurd, giving a blind man a revolver. The man squatting in the corner certainly thought so. He rocked with laughter – silent laughter. Neville meanwhile ran his fingers over the gun, paying particular attention to the revolving cylinder. “It’s as I thought. This is the Carnacki Patent from 1913. There are two cylinders which revolve in opposite directions. The bullets are half the normal size. When the first cylinder has discharged its load, the second load is fired through the empty chambers.”
“So there are six shots left?” Lorne asked.
And before Flick could ask how Neville Arkright could possibly know so much about the late ghost-finder, her sister and her escort were gone. Leaving her with the overgrown baby. She looked at him despairingly. He cocked his head to the right and pursed his lips. Thankfully he had his ankles crossed and his arms across his knees, sparing her the sight – a second viewing – of his … masculine organs.
“You just stay there,” she told him. “Don’t move whatever you do.”
He stuck his tongue out in response, confirming to Flick that he was some sort of imbecile. And imbeciles are harmless, she told herself. Aren’t they?
She prayed the others would not be long. How close by, exactly, did Neville’s employer live? What, she wondered, was the nature of Neville’s employment? Obviously there were hundreds of things a blind man could do as well as a sighted person; offhand, however, she couldn’t think of one. To pass the time, she studied the room. Neville had suggested it was the same room they had been in earlier, albeit not in the same place. The idea was ridiculous, Flick decided. Rooms don’t move. Rooms usually seem bigger in semi-darkness but this illogical room in the paradoxical house was definitely narrower and shorter than the room they had shared with Madame. Indeed, she could not see how four people could fit in here, let alone furniture as well. There was barely enough space for her and—-
Rather than look again at the idiot in all his nakedness she looked out of the window, the window on the far left, nearest to where commonsense dictated the Carnacki flat should have been. She twisted her neck, put her cheek against the glass, but could not make out what lay beyond. It wasn’t for lack of light – the stars were out, the sky clear. It was as if something was blocking the light. Condensation, perhaps. She rubbed the pane with the cuff of her coat. It made no difference. Condensation or similar on the outside, then? Nothing would surprise her in this place. She had the window open and her handkerchief out before she realised. She felt hot breath on her face. Caught the stench of something foul. She recoiled with a gasp. She fell back three or four paces into the room. A second realisation struck. Can’t let it in! Must close the—-
Too late. Too late. It was already wriggling in. She could see nothing except a sort of shadow against the starlit treetops of Cheyne Walk. But she could hear it, the surface of its skin or hide scraping over the glass. She could smell it. The stench was appalling, overpowering. It filled her nostrils and permeated her brain. She felt her knees buckle, she felt herself—-
—-rudely bundled out of the way as something all too visible passed in front of her. The idiot imbecile had been stirred to action, and he didn’t seem so imbecilic now. Far from it – he apparently knew exactly what he was doing. He planted his feet a yard apart, bent his knees as if to receive the invisible intruder. As if he could see it coming.
Something snarled. Man or monster, Flick could not tell. She pulled herself further away from the window, her nails digging into the bare plaster on the walls, as battle was joined. She did not want to watch but did not dare to look away. The man had whatever it was in a hold, his arms wrapped around what was presumably its torso, pinning it to his own trunk and chest. And wherever the creature was touching the man’s bare skin it seemed to become visible, as if the man was forcing it to show itself. The dominant colour was white, with patches of tan and darker brown. Abruptly the man shifted his hold. He had it by the head now. Flick saw a pinkish snout, small lop ears, a roiling eye that seemed to scintillate green and red. The man seized it by the snout with one hand, the lower jaw with the other. The creature squealed and roared with pain and indignation. The man forced its jaws apart, revealing teeth, great flat molars and incisors of incredible length. Flick saw the tongue, more purple than red. He saw the muscles in the man’s buttocks, back and shoulders flex as he put all his strength into one decisive thrust. She heard bone break. Saw the creature’s jaw hang loose, useless. Heard the creature scream, a scream somewhere between a toddler’s tantrum and a cat on heat. The man was smiling now, enjoying his triumph hugely. He flipped the creature onto its back – now fully visible, it was almost as large as he was and, given its girth, probably weighed considerably more. The hairless loon fell upon his victim, grabbing handfuls of spare flesh, twisting and tearing. Flick saw the creature’s feet. She expected something cloven, like a pig or a goat; instead she saw distinct digits with pads on them like frogs’. Was that how it had clung to the exterior wall of Number 472?
The creature stopped screaming, ceased writhing. The naked man had killed it, literally torn it apart. There was blood everywhere, thick, glutinous blood. Pooled on the floor, dashed across the walls, some even speckled the ceiling. It was all over the man. Some of the blood was his own. He was cut on the face, the top of his head, no doubt elsewhere. Instinctively, Flick reached out to him. She froze, mid-movement, as the man hefted a chunk of raw, fresh monster meat and opened his mouth.
“No!” she screamed. “Don’t do that!”
The man glared resentfully – would no doubt have lowered his eyebrows had he possessed any. But he obeyed, dropping the meat and scuttling back to his corner, bottom lip out like a petulant child. The man of action was instantly gone, in his place a sulky brat. Flick could have laughed out loud, had it not been for the hideous reek of the monster’s ruptured gut and the distinct sound of blood dripping through gaps in the floorboards onto the ceiling below. Her stomach lurched. Her senses reeled.
“Flick? Hello?” Her sister had her by the shoulders. “FLICK!!” Shaking her. Roughly. Why, what had she done wrong? “Wasn’t my fault,” she mumbled. “I didn’t…” Then she was fully conscious. She hadn’t realised she had … what? Fallen asleep? Fainted? No, she decided: neither. She was standing up, her feet solidly planted on the bare boards. Yet it was night now, outside. The moon was fully risen. So what had happened to her? Had she suffered an ‘absence’? Was she turning into her other sister – Dora, the absent one? “Christ, no!” she cried out loud. “No!”
“No what?” Lorne wanted to know. “We come back and find you standing like some sort of statue when you’re supposed to be—-”
“Yes!” Flick seized her sister’s forearm. “Him! He did it!”
Lorne wrenched her arm free. “Flick!” she cried, backing off. “Have you gone completely doolally?” Scarcely a Freudian term but one that hit home. Flick made herself calm. She took her bearings. Young Arkright was across the far side of the room, helping the bald man – forcing him, really – into a suit of clothes. The man was happy enough with the shirt and trousers but had indignantly spurned drawers and socks. Much of his skin remained on show – all of it unblemished. Flick recalled cuts, expected bruises, abrasions, but—-
And of the creature itself there was no trace. No blood, no lingering smell. Had she dreamed it, then? She was certain she had not, but she told Lorne, “Sorry. I seem to have slipped into some sort of waking dream. Too much excitement, I suppose, and I am very tired.”
She chose her excuse well. Lorne was more than satisfied. “We call it a fugue. Dr John presented a paper about it to the Society last year.”
Flick had no wish to encourage Lorne to expound on the subject of her favourite psychical physician, especially not in the presence of Neville Arkright, her latest enthusiasm. By now Neville was forcing the imbecile’s arms into the jacket. The jacket matched the trousers, which matched the waistcoat and which, all together and lit only by moonlight, were quite a sight. Flick had to ask: “Where on earth did you come up with that rig? The betting ring at Newmarket?”
“Neville’s employer. He’s a sir, you know, Neville’s employer, not Neville, though in a sense… I’ll explain later. Anyway, the suit belongs to the sir’s son. He’s a bit of a lad, apparently. On the artistic side. But it’s a good fit though, isn’t it?”
No doubt about that: it was a perfect fit. And it rather became its new wearer. Decently covered, he seemed more adult, more intelligent. Yes, there was certainly an air about him now. If only he had hair, Flick thought, even just eyebrows, he might almost be presentable.
Lorne nudged her, conspiratorially. “What till you see what’s waiting downstairs.”
Lorne led the way. Neville followed, in theory helping the bald mute but in reality, Flick saw, the man was leading his blind guide. She took a moment to reassess the layout of the landing. There was no light but she measured out the space and confirmed that it was not as it had been earlier that evening. Outside, at the foot of the steps leading up to street level, she tried to see the roof. Had the Carnacki flat, ridiculous though it seemed, moved across the upper storey, swapping places with what she had earlier taken to be a roof garden? She craned her neck to get a view but—-
“Come on, Flick. Come and meet Ganbaatar.”
Ganbaatar, Flick soon learned, was a mountainous man of Asiatic origin. His shoulders were twice the breath of Neville Arkright’s, and Neville was himself of above average size; his chest and stomach were a sheer cliff-face, his legs the trunks of mighty trees. He wore knee-boots and jodhpurs of a rich silvery grey, a jacket of the same, frogged across the front, leather gauntlets and a peaked cap. There had been so many surprises that evening – Flick found herself so far adrift from normality – that she took the presence of a uniformed Tartar at midnight on Cheyne Row in her stride. The car he stood guard beside, however, warranted comment.
“Good grief! Are you sure your employer is only a sir and not some sort of duke? It’s like a cross between a bus and a boat.”
Even in West London motorcars of any kind were rare. This car would have been exceptional on the drive of a royal palace. It was long, perhaps twice the length of the cars she saw buzzing round West Kensington. It stood, she thought, higher – prouder, indeed – than the usual run. It had white rims on its wheels, mudguards like the sweep of a fencer’s rapier. Its colour was the shade of the midnight sky. Such a car should not be black – common cars were black – thus it was coloured, but subtly, exquisitely so. It was beyond perfect, this car. It transcended the quotidian concept of car.
“It’s called a Cadillac apparently,” Neville said. “My employer had it brought over from America. Ganbaatar came with it.”
Of course he did, Flick thought. And I give nothing for chances of the man who tries to take it from him. The giant Ganbaatar bowed, as if he read her thoughts. He opened the rear passenger door for her. The scent of fine leather welcomed her in. The seats were a lighter blue than the bodywork, the colour of a summer evening. They sighed slightly as she sat. Neville and Lorne joined her. There was room to spare. The bald mute, however, insisted on sitting up front beside Ganbaatar. Flick sensed the Tartar stiffen slightly, doubtless resenting the invasion of his domain. “Where are we going?” she asked.
“No use asking Ganbaatar,” Neville began. “He doesn’t—-”
But apparently he did. He turned slightly and in a low baritone of beguiling resonance said simply, “Home.” Neville was clearly startled to hear the big man speak at all, let alone in English. Lorne was perplexed by Neville’s reaction. Flick, however, could not help but wonder if it had anything to do with the beaming jackanapes’ hand resting on Ganbaatar’s considerable forearm.
As the limousine made its stately way into Melbury Road Flick suddenly felt a twinge of foreboding. What would her mother make of their return in the middle of the night with an assortment of men who were all very unusual, if not plain bizarre? Lorne was thinking on identical lines. “Poor old Ma,” she said. “She’ll skin us alive.”
Flick led the way up the drive but was overtaken by the mute, who scampered on ahead, flapped his way up the front steps and yanked the handle of the doorbell. Flick grabbed her skirt and ran to catch up. She landed on the top step just as the door was flung open and her mother appeared like a locomotive in full steam. Margaret’s eye fell upon the idiot in the music hall suit and briefly boggled. She saw her younger daughter, leading a taller, thinner and certainly more hirsute young man with her arm through his. Beyond she saw the gleam of the car and the outcrop that was its driver. Flick ran her tongue across her lower lip and gathered herself to explain. “The thing is—-”
Margaret cut her off, not angry but delighted. “We’ve a visitor!” she announced. “Come see.”
She swept them all into the vestibule and then to the sitting room. The lights were ablaze, a fire in the hearth for the first time since February. A decanter of sherry sat among crystal glasses on the kidney-shaped side table. And an old man, bald on top and bearded, sat in the very best chair, the chair that had once been the preserve of the late Percy Jessop.
Margaret made a half-bow and the introduction.
“My daughters, Sir.”
From the emphasis larded onto that last word, Flick and Lorne knew at once who the visitor was. Neville confirmed it. “My employer.”
The old man sprang to his feet and loped across the Turkey rug, his right hand proffered. “Miss Jessop,” he purred, encompassing both. He was tall and long of limb. His bald pate was compensated for by a full, spade-shaped beard, the colour more iron than silver. The remaining head hair was gathered together at the nape in a single upward curl. It was an affectation Flick had seen before, and considered frankly ludicrous – a flag fluttering long after the ship had sailed. But with Sir it seemed to her an assertion of individuality, of authority.
Sir placed his hand on Neville’s shoulder by way of greeting, and said, “We ought, I expect, to consider what I suppose we should categorise as our subject.”
It took a moment for Flick to decrypt this sentence and realise that the ‘subject’ was not present. The thought flashed briefly across her mind: Did we leave him in the car? But then she remembered her mother’s expression on finding him on the doorstep. Then she heard a sound from upstairs. A sound no one had heard in years. The three Jessops surged as one. “Dora!”
They charged up the stairs and along the landing. The bedroom door stood slightly ajar. Lorne burst through, followed by her mother and Flick. They stopped as one, instantaneously, overwhelmed. For there, in front of them, was Dora, sitting upright on her bed, painfully emaciated and obviously weak, yet unmistakeably awake, entirely conscious. She was not only awake, she was chattering happily to the hairless fool who sat beside her, holding hands and grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
Years of social armour fell from Margaret and she spoke in the accents of her Northern working class youth, demanding: “What the bloody hell—-?”
Dora let loose a peal of rapturous delight. “My name,” she began, then corrected herself. “No, his name, he says, is Sigil.”
The story continues with “The Fourth Sigil”
Every life consists of a series of scenes, the vast majority of them mundane, a very few significant. Still fewer scenes are formative or life-changing. In the short life of William Hope Hodgson, pioneer of occult fiction and creator of Carnacki, three key events defined the man and his work. This is the first of them.
The biographer’s dream: our hero strides into the public eye fully-formed. And better yet, he really is a bona fide hero.
Saturday morning, November 5 1898, William Hope Hodgson, merchant seaman, not quite twenty-one, enters the Police Court at Blackburn, Lancashire, not to answer charges but to receive a medal from His Worship the Mayor. Six months previously, on the far side of the world, young Hodgson dived into the shark-infested waters of Port Chalmers, New Zealand, to rescue a mate.
The Ortago Witness, a Dunedin illustrated weekly newspaper, was first with the story:
“A seaman named Maclear^^2^^, of the ship Euterpe, while engaged on the main-topgallant yard on Monday, 28th ult., when the vessel was lying in the quarantine ground, by some means fell into the water, a distance of between 80 feet and 90 feet. One of the apprentices named Hodgson, who saw the mishap, at once pluckily jumped overboard and got hold of Maclear and held him up until the lifeboat was lowered from the ship, when the two, who had floated some distance away, were got into the boat, which at once proceeded up the harbour as far as HMS Tauranga, but as the doctor was not on board, Captain Browne had Maclear removed into the steam launch and conveyed to Port Chalmers, where he was attended to by Drs Cunninghame and Hodge, and subsequently removed to Water’s Hotel. Maclear is progressing favourably.”^^i^^
The master of the Euterpe, Captain Longmuir, put the apprentice forward for an award because Hodgson had known the dangers of the bay at Port Chalmers. Only the day before his shipmates had dissuaded him from taking a swim “in consequence of the prevalence of sharks.”^^ii^^ While Hodgson was completing the long journey home the Royal Humane Society awarded him its Bronze Medal, not the third-class honour we might suspect but the specific honour reserved for those who “put their own lives at great risk to save or attempt to save someone else.”^^iii^^ A curious coincidence: that other innovator of horror, Bram Stoker, had been awarded one for rescuing a man from the Thames in Chelsea in September 1882 (RHS Case No. 21808).^^iv^^
It was lads of mettle like Hodgson, the Mayor said, upon whom the country relied in time of war. This, it should be remembered, was the period of the Jameson Raid and the build-up to the Second Boer War. When and if war came, Mayor Radcliffe reminded the courtroom, the mercantile marine would be called upon to support the Royal Navy. His Worship was sure that whenever duty called Hodgson in the future he would not ask the reason why, but dare to do and die in the service of his country. On a more cheerful note, to general applause, the Mayor handed young Hodgson his medal, adding, no doubt with a hearty handclasp and perhaps a paternal wink, “Keep it as a memento of your bravery.”^^v^^
We do not know if Hodgson managed a few words – probably not, given there were drunkards and disturbers of the peace to be dealt with. Had he spoken, perhaps he would have explained how it was that a curate’s son from Blackburn found himself still an apprentice at rising twenty-one, working aboard an immigrant ship anchored at the southernmost end of New Zealand’s South Island – about as far south as civilization stretched in the closing years of the Victorian age. Only Tierra del Fuego is closer to the Antarctic, and Hodgson would have passed that on the voyage home.
Strictly speaking, ‘Hope’ wasn’t a Lancashire lad at all. He was born in Essex on November 15 1877. In some records his birthplace is given as Blackmore End, in others Wathesfield; Wathesfield is now more usually rendered Wethersfield, and is near Braintree. Essentially, Wathesfield, Wethersfield and Blackmore End are the same place. Hodgson was born there because he had to be born somewhere. His were not Essex people. It is thought his father, Samuel, might have been connected to the parish church, St Mary Magdalene’s. Samuel was an Anglican clergyman and not a successful one. The family would pass fleetingly through other parishes. In 1881 they were resident at the parsonage in Skegby, Nottinghamshire. Ten years later they were in Blackburn, at 42 Longshaw Bank. They hadn’t been there long. The youngest child, Christopher, had been born in Blackburn but he was only nine months old at the time of the census. His closest sibling Sophia, who was three, was born in Galway, Ireland. Sisters Mary and Lissie, five and four respectively, were born in London. There is no pattern to Samuel Hodgson’s placements and certainly no progression. The impression is inescapable – Samuel was being moved on, got rid of. He had been the curate in Skegby and he remained a curate in Blackburn. His church there was All Saints’, Nova Scotia – the exotic name of a wharf on the far from exotic River Darwen. Samuel would never rise any higher. A year later would see him dead at forty-two, of throat cancer.
William was the second son. His older brother was named for their father, as was to be expected. William was named after his paternal grandfather. William senior was a professional scripture reader in 1861, hence no doubt his son’s calling, but before that he was a sailor. Suggestions that he was a tailor derive from a simple misreading of the 1851 census entry, when William is absent and his wife Ann describes herself as Sailor’s wife. To me the reading is clear, supported by the fact that Tailor’s wife is scarcely a social status whereas Sailor’s wife explains both Ann’s lack of an occupation and William’s absence, the sort of information the census exists to collect. Suggestions that William, a man nearing forty, was an apprentice in Ann’s father’s tailoring business are concocted to justify the misreading. In fact John Gillot was a stone mason in Ecclesfield, just outside Sheffield. Workers in Ecclesfield were either masons or cutlers at this period. The masons worked on the parish church of St Mary the Virgin, known as the Minster of the Moors because of the enormous moorland parish it served.
Ann Gillot was a Sheffield girl but her husband was born in 1812 in Portsea, Hampshire. He was christened in the Wesleyan Chapel there on September 27. In Portsea at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, the family’s involvement with the navy was inevitable, either aboard ship or servicing naval needs ashore. We do not know what William’s father (also William) did for a living. We know that William himself went to sea but we do not know whether he chose the senior service or the merchant marine. The latter is more likely, given that the 1830s were not a time of significant naval action. Whilst we know he was christened in a non-conformist chapel, which assumes his parents were Wesleyans, we also know that William became an Anglican later in life. We know this because he was a professional scripture reader and only Anglicans have that paid lay office. The role of reader is an ancient one but was revised in 1866, by which time William was already serving. Then as now readers were licensed to teach and preach and even conduct worship. The key requisite is that they “recognize a call to serve God and his world through the Church of England.”^^vi^^
When William heard the call is yet another unknown. Logic suggests it was the ministry that took him to Sheffield, where he married Ann Gillot in 1838. By 1861 he had left the sea and was working full time as a reader. He lived then at 32 Fitzwilliam Street with Ann and their only son, the luckless Samuel. William seems to have been more successful than his son. By 1881 he was retired. By the time of his death on December 16 1900 he was classed as a gentleman. His home in later life was Sandhurst House, 58 Cobden View Road in Crookes, which despite the name was certainly a gentlemanly district of Sheffield. His effects in the initial grant of probate were valued at £1172 but were amended in December 1901 to £1222. Probate was granted to a chartered accountant and a cashier, which suggests William had been living on investment income for his last twenty years.
Perhaps William possessed the charm and character that his son seems to have lacked. Perhaps the father eclipsed the son. For a man to prosper in the lay office of scripture reader surely required more drive than the cocooned existence of the professional clergyman. The office also carried pastoral responsibilities and is easy to imagine a man who had travelled the world bringing experience and authority to the role.
There must have been contact between grandfather William and his grandson and namesake. Why else would Samuel’s family feel the need to distinguish the younger from the elder by calling him ‘Hope’? William senior was essentially a professional storyteller, which William junior would become. William junior would develop a highly unorthodox view of Creation, in his fiction at least, but he certainly shared his grandfather’s yen for travel and adventure. In 1894, when Hope was sixteen, he became an apprentice seaman in the merchant marine. His indentures are dated October 16, so he was very nearly seventeen when he began his apprenticeship. Coincidentally, another William H Hodgson was indentured in 1891 when he was the more usual age of 15. We know that Hope was the late-starter because his namesake is marked as having drowned before his four year apprenticeship was completed. The ill-fated William was indentured in Liverpool whereas Hope was signed up in London. It seems his maternal relatives played a role in this.
Hope’s mother was Lissie Brown. Records struggle with the spelling of her forename – sometimes it is normalised to Lizzie, in one case a compromise Liszie is deployed – but in 1911 she herself completed the census return: she is Lissie S Hodgson, widow, aged 59 and of private means, living with her daughter, also Lissie S Hodgson, in an eight-roomed house in Borth, Cardiganshire.
Lissie was born in Chepstow and, as we have seen, ended her days in Wales, but she was no more Welsh than her second son was Lancastrian. Lissie’s father was the magnificently-named Burdett Lambton Brown, who at the time of Lissie’s birth was in charge of building the railway bridge at Chepstow.^^vii^^ Brown was born in Washington, County Durham, as was his second wife Elizabeth. By 1858, when their second son George was born, the family was living in what is now the West Midlands. Ten years later Burdett Brown appears as a supporter of the parliamentary candidate for Wednesbury, Thomas Eades Walker. Professionally, he is employed by the Crown Tube Works, also in Wednesbury.^^viii^^ By 1871 the family had moved to 23 Hanover Square in Leeds, Yorkshire, a substantial property with a prestigious address. Burdett now described himself as “Agent to Wrought Iron Tube Manufacturer”, presumably still Crown Tubes. His thirty year old son Ralph was a clerk to the same company. Ralph Lambton Brown, the firstborn son and Lissie’s older brother, seems to have remained in the family home all his life. He died there in 1914. When his sister was widowed at forty, with a handful of dependent children, Ralph naturally did what he could to help. When nephew William had completed his education and still wanted to go to sea, it was almost certainly Ralph, through his business contacts,^^3^^ who arranged for him to be apprenticed to the firm of Shaw, Savill and Company, of Leadenhall in the City of London.
Shaw, Savill were one of the leading shipping businesses of the day. In 1883 they amalgamated with the Albion line of Glasgow but continued to run sailing ships, and take on apprentices, under the original name. They specialised in taking immigrants to New Zealand and bringing frozen meat back to Britain. The sailing ships they used were old and cramped and took anything between 100 and 120 days to reach their destination. Subsequently Shaw, Savill and Albion would be famous for their luxurious steamers, but the boat which Hope Hodgson sailed on in 1897, the last voyage of his apprenticeship, was the absolute antithesis of luxury. The Euterpe was surely one of the unluckiest ships ever to risk a circumnavigation and even before it reached Otago its owners had sold it on, no doubt delighted to find a buyer.
The Euterpe was a fully-rigged iron ship built in 1863 by Gibson, McDonald & Arnold at Ramsey on the Isle of Man. That it is to say, she was a sailing ship in the traditional sense, with no motive power of her own and wholly reliant on wind to drive her, but her hull was made of iron. She was therefore both old-fashioned and slow. Originally used to transport jute from India to Liverpool, she was sold to Shaw, Savill in 1873 and spent the next quarter century trailing slowly from Glasgow to London and on to Port Chalmers. The voyage out and back, with repairs and reloading at either end, took the better part of a year. The Euterpe’s fastest run to New Zealand was 103 days, a time any other line would have been ashamed of. Her slowest, in 1879, took 143 days. On that occasion she was held back by storms, which would not have troubled a steam ship. Again, in 1894, bad weather meant the Euterpe took 27 days just to get out of British waters. In 1884 she collided with the steamship Canadian in the English Channel and in 1892 she was held back in the Southern Ocean by a field of icebergs. The voyage we are concerned with began at Glasgow on November 29 1897 and ended at Port Chalmers on March 27 1898, a period of 121 days. There is no record of any particular mishap until Maclear fell from the topgallant. Perhaps Captain Longmuir took his time because this was his first and only trip aboard the Euterpe. In any event, the day after they dropped anchor, Maclear fell and Hope rescued him. ^^ix^^ A fortnight later Hope sailed away aboard a different ship. He noted in the journal he had just begun: “We joined the Canterbury about 11 o’clock last night as the old Euterpe we came out to Dunedin in is to be sold.”^^x^^
The fate of the old Euterpe is worth recording. She had been sold to J J Moore of Honolulu and San Francisco. A year later she was sold again, to the Pacific Colonial Company, re-rigged as a barque and used in the salmon canning trade. Her ill luck continued. She was stranded on a reef in 1900 and blew up in 1902 with the loss of several lives. She fared slightly better under her new name, Star of India, and remained at sea until 1923. In 1926 the Star of India passed to the ownership of San Diego Zoo for display in their planned aquarium and museum. There she lingered, in a kind of half-life, until 1959 when local citizens formed the ‘Star of India Auxiliary’ to fund her restoration. And today, after an ill-starred career as a seaborne workhorse at the very bottom of the shipping chain, the former Euterpe, now the Star of India, is the star exhibit of the San Diego Maritime Museum. She is a US National Historic Landmark, no less, possibly the oldest active sailing ship, certainly the oldest iron-hulled ship still floating.^^xi^^
As for Hope Hodgson, it is significant that he began his journal on the way home. He also took a large number of photographs. With his apprenticeship finally served, he seems to have set his sights on entirely different horizons. He was awarded his Certificate of Competency as a Second Mate of a foreign-going ship on December 15 1898 but seems to have made little, if any, use of it. Within a year he had certainly left the sea and returned to his mother and sisters in Henry Street, Blackburn, and was putting his journal and photographs to profitable use by giving illustrated talks around the local area, a tremendously popular form of entertainment in the days before radio and television.
Hope may have left the sea but the sea, of course, never left him. Within a decade he would become the master of the maritime macabre, author of The Boats of the ‘Glen Carrig’, The Ghost Pirates and the various stories set in the weed world of the Sargasso.
Next: Scene Two: The Handcuff King
About Roger Wood
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Also by Roger Wood
The first story in the CARNACKI series is THE SAIITII MANIFESTATION.
Based on characters created by the legendary pioneer of supernatural horror William Hope Hodgson, this short story speculates what might have happened to the ghost-finder and his circle during World War I. In 1919 they meet again after the better part of five years – well, all bar one.
“You could not call it a reunion, Jessop thought. A reunion was for formal associations whereas their gatherings had always been informal and sporadic. Outside the flat in Cheyne Walk they had scarcely known one another. Jessop, now he came to think of it, had no clear understanding of how they had come together in the first place. Now, of course, the flat was gone. Its lessee Jessop had not seen for the entire four years of war. Would he turn up tonight, he wondered – Carnacki – at Taylor’s yellow brick villa in Putney? To be honest, answering that question was Jessop’s sole motivation in accepting the invitation. It came on a postcard, the invitation, which Jessop considered a nice touch.”
PATASOLA, a tale of infatuation, possession and parasites set in beau monde Paris.
I awoke this morning with the realization that I am losing my mind.
I pulled back my curtains and, though the day was grey and drizzly, was blinded by the light. A four-horse removal van passed below my window; the cannonade of hooves on cobbles sent me reeling. Instinctively, I groped my way back towards my bed and only just managed to stop myself. I knew, somewhere at the back of my mind where the old analytical Daladier still lives, that if I returned to bed I would never rise again. I therefore sank onto the upright chair I keep before my dressing table. When I had recovered somewhat I slid the towel from the mirror and surveyed the damage I have done to myself these last weeks.
My beard is now some two inches long. I have never cared for facial hair, even when it was fashionable, but have decided to keep the beard for now. It hides the sunken cheeks and slack neck of a man who has starved himself almost to the point of no return. I will shave it off when – if – I regain a normal, healthy layer of fat.
The hair on top of my head has started to fall out. I now have a distinct widow’s peak. My teeth are loose in their sockets. My gums bleed when I touch them. My tongue, when I examined it, was covered with a mottled grey coating which fortunately yielded to my scraper.
My ribs, of course, are plainly visible, as are my hips and sacrum. My lower legs are covered with a rash which I take to be psoriasis. There is a similarly unpleasant infection on the skin of my scrotum. But nothing, I believe, that cannot be cured by the resumption of a normal diet.
My mental condition, however, is a far greater cause for concern. The conclusion cannot be avoided that, temporarily at least, I have been clinically insane. This was not what practitioners euphemistically call a nervous collapse nor, I can state with absolute certainty, was it the product of the base disease that destroyed G and his brother. What it was – is – I am not qualified to say. I am, however, resolved to do everything in my power to prevent a recurrence.
Dr Gaston Daladier’s friend and patient, the famous author G, has died. He has left Daladier a legacy – journals which start the good doctor on a quest. He begins to wonder, has he caught G’s madness? Or is something else – something much more exotic – invading his dreams and corrupting his body?
RAZORBACK, a story of the weird and unnatural on the Yorkshire Wolds.
If nobody tells you, how can you know? You can guess, you can assume, but without anyone to share your assumptions with, how can you be sure you’ve guessed right? The arrival of the twins tore a massive hole in Stephen’s young life. Uprooted from London to a self-sufficient smallholding in Yorkshire, taken out of school, ignored by his mother, unable to bond with his submissive father, Stephen is truly alone. Then, just before he turns sixteen, his father falls ill and Stephen has to take on a man’s role in the wider world. And now, for the first time, his assumptions are challenged.
SAVAGE COMPANY, a novella on Amazon Kindle – medieval noir at its bleakest.
“THIS EDWARD IS NOT MY KING!”
Violent times breed violent men. In the third decade of the Fourteenth Century even kings can be murdered without consequences. The killers of kings rule in their stead, sleep with their queens, and suck the kingdom dry. Honourable men are driven into outlawry. Eustace Folville is an honourable man – but he ambushes and kills an Exchequer Baron. In the forests and the wastes an alternative outlaw society flourishes, with thugs and schemers and captains and even kings. James Cotterell is King of Peak, leader of the Savage Company. The Sheriff is powerless against such men. But there are men with greater power. The outcome, inevitably, is bloody.
We all know the legend. The question is, are these the real men and women behind the legend?
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1 The so-called “Kaos Address” is reconstructed from the various accounts in the Carnacki Club archive, foundation bequest (1926). It may not be exactly what the spirit said – there are variants between the accounts which some claim add to their credibility – but it is certainly most of what those present believed they heard.
2 Jane Frank identifies the sailor as Charles McAllear (The Wandering Soul: Glimpses of a Life – A Compendium of Rare and Unpublished Works by William Hope Hodgson, compiled and edited by Jane Frank, Tartarus Press, Hornsea, 2005).
3 Crown Tubes, founded by James Russell in 1823, was a very important business. Wrought iron tubes were essential for distributing gas. Crown held the patent for the Whitehouse process which enabled tubes to be produced on a truly industrial scale. In the 1880s and 1890s Crown dominated the field and exported their product all over the world. For details see [Accessed September 10 2015].
i Ortago Witness April 7 1898 p. 4
ii Blackburn Standard, November 12 1898 p. 5
iii [Accessed September 1 2015]
iv Details can be found at the website of the Life Saving Awards Research Society (LSARS), . Hodgson is RHS Case No. 29648.
v ‘A Blackburn Lad of Mettle: Saving Life in a Shark-Infested Sea’, Lancashire Evening Post, November 5 1898 p. 4
vi ‘On Becoming a Reader’ – [Accessed September 8 2015]
vii London Standard, Thursday September 11 1851 p. 1.
viii Staffordshire Advertiser, Saturday July 11 1868 p. 1
ix Brett, Henry (1924) White Wings: Fifty Years of Sail in the New Zealand Trade 1850-1900, Volume 1. The Brett Printing Company Ltd, Auckland. For the Euterpe see p. 127. For Shaw, Savill and Albion see pp. 26-27.
x Frank 2005: 77. The entry quoted is dated April 13 1898.
xi [Accessed August 31 2015]
A direct continuation of The Saiitii Manifestation, The Relict begins with those left behind by the weird events in Putney. Life is especially hard for the family of Percy Jessop, who cannot access his wealth until either his body is found or seven years have elapsed since his disappearance. Then Mrs Jessop receives an invitation signed 'M Carnacki'. If she or her representative can attend the former Carnacki residence in Cheyne Walk Chelsea they might hear something to their advantage. Mrs Jessop, naturally, can't go - she has her invalid daughter to attend to. But her younger daughters go. On Cheyne Walk they meet the son of Reggie Arkright, who also vanished that night in Putney. In the top floor flat they meet the Relict. And then ... and then the portal opens on an occult infestation and the evening gets weirder and weirder. Included with the story is The Bronze Medal, the first of three scenes from the short life of William Hope Hodgson, creator of Carnacki the Ghostfinder.