I – THE GATHERING
At a recent gathering—at which four life-long friends had a rare chance to meet and talk of their divergent lives over a game of cards—the conversation turned, by gradual degrees, to a discussion of the esoteric.
By daylight, you must understand, each of us has secular beliefs; all being-well educated and having time neither for religion, nor for superstition. At night though, sitting by smoke-diffused lamplight and lubricated by a healthy share of wine, it let slip that none of us was quite so certain in our world views as we’d thought.
We circled the topic for a while, each of us naturally embarrassed to admit to our superstitions. Always the storyteller—perhaps feeling a certain safety in my reputation for exaggeration—I was the first to break that unquiet silence:
‘Several months ago,’ I started, in the tone of one telling a casual anecdote, ‘I ran into a rather strange occurrence, which this conversation has brought back to my mind.’
‘Oh?’ they asked me, and, ‘Do tell.’
‘Well, I’m sure it’s nothing really. Just—’ I paused, in part to collect my thoughts, in part for dramatic effect. ‘You all remember my old habit of going for night walks when I couldn’t sleep?’
They indicated that they did, so I carried on:
‘Well, I had another bout of sleeplessness a week or two ago, so I went out on one of these walks.’
‘In the dead of winter,’ Wakefield put in, tutting, ‘at your age?’
‘I’m not old yet. Now please, don’t interrupt. It was something of a foggy night—enough-so to rival the haze of London Town. Empty, too, since I kept to side streets, mainly—not to mention cold. But then as I’m walking along, I see a person standing in the street ahead of me, just far enough away that between one step and the next I could make her out through the fog and the darkness.’
‘Her?’ Armistead asked.
‘Yes, I think it was a woman. I—’
‘What did she look like?’ Bonney put in.
‘I couldn’t quite make out her face at that distance. I know she was pale, and had long ringlets of dark hair, hanging loose but… perfectly unmoving around her head. You’d think they’d stir a little, even if it was fairly wind-still… trick of the eye, perhaps.
‘I was so shocked to see a living soul after such a quiet night that I stopped on the spot and simply stared at her for a moment. I swear that she was looking back at me—right into my eyes, though I couldn’t pick out hers. And we just stood there, like two statues; the only motion was the swirling fog between us.’
My friends frowned at me, unsure of where my tale was going. I let the silence linger for a while.
‘Well?’ Bonney asked at last. ‘What did this Belle Dame do?’
I leaned forward. So did they, without thinking.
‘I finally took a step toward her, thinking the scene would seem less strange after some proper movement. And maybe I thought she needed help or some such, or else why would she be out there in the night?’
‘Well, that’s the thing: after four steps my foot slid on a patch of ice, and I had to look away from her to catch myself. When I looked back, she was gone. As though she’d never been there. And stranger yet: as I had been stepping toward her, I swear some trick of optics made it look as if I hadn’t actually been getting closer—like when you’re walking toward something immensely big in the far distance; for long stretches it will appear as if it’s moving away at the exact pace you’re approaching it.’
Wakefield nodded. I could see that Armistead had something to say, but he held it back, waiting for me to finish.
‘And then, as I said, she was gone. It made me so uneasy that I turned right around and hurried home again. Damn near slipped a second time in my rush, and my heart wouldn’t stop beating for an hour afterward.’
‘Perhaps she simply walked away,’ Armistead suggested. His frown had deepened, though, as if he were disturbed by something in my story.
‘Maybe. But I’m sure I would have seen her, even if it was just a shadow moving away through the fog.’ I shrugged. ‘Just a strange event. Maybe she was never there, and my mind was simply playing tricks on me. I’m sure you could explain it in a dozen ways, but I don’t think any of them would sit right with me.’
‘Well I know that feeling,’ Bonney said, running a hand through his greying hair. ‘I’ve seen some strange things too, in my time.’
This caught all of our attentions. Bonney was a medicus—running his own rather successful practice in the capital—but when asked about his occupation he would usually grow quiet.
‘Do tell,’ I said.
‘Oh, I didn’t mean—well, I mean, it’s nothing really.’
‘Does it beat Charlie’s story?’ Wakefield asked.
‘I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that,’ I said. ‘Now go on, tell us what happened.’
‘All right, if you insist. I’m not sure how far my oaths of confidentiality apply, since I never administered any treatments. Nevertheless I will avoid the use of any real names, and I would ask the three of you to swear that no part of this conversation leave this room.’ After each of us had given his word—and indeed, I shall arrange that no part of this narrative is brought before another’s eyes as long as one of us four is alive—Bonney started the story:
II – THE ILL PATRIARCH
A time back, Bonney told us, I was contacted by a wealthy family for whom I’ve previously offered services. Their representative explained that the family’s patriarch had fallen suddenly ill with something like a fever of the brain, and asked me to come have a look at him. At the time I was rather occupied with other patients, so I instead referred them to a colleague of mine, thinking no more of it.
Two weeks after this contact, I received a communiqué from my colleague, asking my advice.
The patriarch, it seemed, had initially taken to the treatment—but had then had a sudden shift in temperament. He had now locked himself into his rooms, admitting no one, with the claim that—should anyone come in to see him—he would surely die. He only received food through a service lift, and would take no medicaments or other treatments.
My colleague worried that the opposite of the patriarch’s prediction would unfold: that, unless he agreed to see a physician, he would expire. The family, however, would not consent to breaking down his door or acting in any way that went against his wishes. As I had many times treated the man before, my colleague asked if I could offer any advice.
I wrote back right away, explaining that my work-load had lightened somewhat in the last weeks, and that I had a window in my schedule. I offered, then, to take a carriage down to the estate; thinking that perhaps the patriarch could be coaxed out by a familiar voice.
After receiving a reply which thanked me and accepted my offer, I made arrangements to go down there.
When I arrived, the place was in a state of considerable agitation. A disagreement had broken out among the man’s two eldest sons: the younger was adamant that they break down the door, while the elder insisted they obey their father’s wishes. Both had their supporters among the larger family and the hired folk, and I believe it may have been an ugly scene had I not then arrived.
As both brothers knew and respected me from before, they were willing to put the argument on hold to give me a chance to see the situation for myself, and perhaps convince the patriarch to come out. These two, along with my colleague, all joined me as I ascended the manor’s stairs.
We reached the man’s rooms, and I knocked on the door. When no answer came, I called the man’s name, and identified myself. At first, it seemed this would earn me no answer either, but just as I was drawing breath to call again, the man spoke through the door.
‘Doctor Bonney,’ he said, though I could never do justice to how he said it. The voice was so distorted by his illness and the wood separating us that at first, I didn’t recognize my own name. Even when I did, I could hardly believe it came from the lips of the same man I had treated for gout only some months before.
This patriarch was even in his advanced year a man of sturdy build and a healthy, powerful voice. But what I heard through that door… if you’ll allow a measure of hyperbole, it was like the rasp of mausoleum doors; a voice I would ascribe to Thanatos himself. I will admit it sent a shiver down my spine and had me sweating cold, though this was still in August.
‘You don’t sound well,’ I said, once I had gathered my nerve. ‘What say you let me in and let me have a look at you?’
Those five syllables were all I could coax out of him: “Doctor Bonney”, and “No.” Though I tried for several minutes after that to entice him to come out—or even speak to me some more—only dead silence answered.
Finally, the four of us outside the door stepped away to discuss how to proceed.
‘He sounds even worse than before,’ my colleague said. ‘If you will refuse to force the door, I will have no choice but resign; I cannot take part in allowing this farce to go any further.’
Reluctantly, the elder brother turned to me.
‘What do you think, Doctor Bonney?’
‘I’m afraid I agree with my colleague,’ said I. ‘Your father isn’t in his right mind—the decision to refuse treatment should not be his. And I do believe he needs it.’
The man ground his teeth, then dropped his eyes.
‘Fine,’ said he, ‘I’ll leave it to the judgement of you three.’
After agreement, we returned to the door.
I knocked and called out the man’s name again. ‘If you don’t come out,’ I said, ‘we will be forced to break the door down!’
I began to count down:
‘Five. Four. Three. Two—’
‘No,’ he rasped through the door. ‘You must not.’
‘Then let us in!’
‘Two.’ I looked at the others. The two brothers indicated they were ready. ‘One!’
I waited a beat, then stepped away from the door. The brothers started a quick count of their own, then both threw their shoulders into the door. It shook, but the sturdy oak held.
‘No!’ came the patriarch’s voice, hysterically shrill.
‘Again!’ called the younger brother, and though the elder hesitated, the younger threw himself once more into the door.
The lock gave way, and a wave of sickening stench assailed us as the door flung open.
‘By Jove!’ my colleague said, coughing, ‘What is that?’
I put my handkerchief over my mouth and ventured inside, stepping past the younger brother who had tumbled to the floor. It was dark in there. All curtains had been drawn, so the only source of light came from the hall.
I looked around for the old man, but he was nowhere in the entryway.
‘Hello?’ I called, advancing toward the door which led into his bed chamber. Here the stench was stronger—a mix of chemicals and decay which reminded me of nothing quite so much as a surgery ward. I swallowed, my hand hovering over the handle to his door. Then I turned it.
The man was in his bed, eyes closed, the covers pulled up to his chin. When I called his name, he did not stir.
I stepped closer then. Alarmingly, I saw that his hair had gone shock white—though when I’d seen him last it had only just started to grey. That was not the worst, though.
I remember that I nearly fainted as I pulled away his quilt. The man was dead—no doubt of that. He had already begun to decompose.
We stared at Bonney.
‘But,’ said I, ‘no more than a few minutes could have passed since you broke down the door.’
He met my eyes, his gaze carefully steeled.
‘Then how could he have started to decompose so soon after speaking to you through the door?’ asked Armistead.
‘I can’t stop wondering the same. By the decay, I’d say he had been dead at least a week. And yet, it had been his voice, distorted though it was. There was no one else in the rooms who might have been the source of it.’
We thought on this, and each sank the remainder of his drink. No one spoke until Armistead had refilled each of our glasses. Then Wakefield said:
‘And here I had fancied telling a story of my own. I fear it will sound silly now, coming on the heels of that.’
‘Tell it,’ I said, ‘It might lighten the mood.’ The others murmured their agreement. None of us was comfortable discussing Bonney’s tale—nor could we think of any other topics.
Shrugging, Wakefield acquiesced:
III – THE EGYPTIAN TOME
There was a book discovered recently in Cairo. Decades old, perhaps. Half-destroyed. The bulk of it seemed to be a poor translation of a different, as of yet unidentified text—translated into our own English, of all things; though I dare say it only just resembled English.
‘What was it about?’
Oh, I never got a clear picture from my colleague: one Mr. F—. You know him, Bonney. He was the one in charge of the document; arriving as late as I did, I only had time to personally study a few pages in depth. And believe me, each passage merited weeks of probing in itself.
What I did see was rather esoteric. Religious imagery, I should think—highly metaphorical—of some pre-Abrahamic sect. I don’t think it was a part of the Ancient Egyptian mythos either… Whatever the origin, the text had a certain attraction in its strangeness. I recall one passage describing the moon as the “Womb of the World and the Unceasing Mother”.
I remember it because of that last phrase: “The Unceasing Mother”. A strange one, don’t you think? It’s weirdly evocative of a certain… je ne sais quoi. I can’t quite put my finger on what.
‘Was the moon the Unceasing Mother or merely her womb?’ Bonney asked.
Good question. I would presume the former, based on patterns in more familiar myths, though it wasn’t clear. Very little in the tome was worded clearly.
‘You said that these mythological texts were only half of the tome. What was the rest?’
Oh, I guess I’d call it poesy, for lack of a better word. Quite possibly the translator’s own original work, since it was such a sharp departure from the first half. It was written in his hand, though by that portion of the book his writing had steadily deteriorated into a dreadful kind of scrawl. Hm… let me see if I can recall a snippet of one of the poems—ah yes.
Here, my friend’s face scrunched up into a mask of intense concentration. He shut his eyes, and with an almost dreamy tone of voice, he slowly recited:
“Three groups of Four and Four groups thence.
Full Forty-Eight fantastic Wiles.
One Wisdom master’d—Twelve more spent—
Leaving an Absence in the Mind;
“In geometric pattern’d Shapes
The loss of One collapses All,
Or more: a catastrophic Chain,
And devastating Madness calls.
“How many Corners does it have—
This endless, multiplying Thing
Without a Face, and doubled half?
The Folds on Folds become a Ring;
An Enemy to Self’s Design,
And to us Mortals simply Fiend—
And this: the quintessential Lie!…”
Wakefield trailed off, stumbling on the last few syllables. He frowned and blinked around at us, as if only just now remembering that his words had had an audience.
‘It’s certainly different from what I excepted,’ I said. The others intoned a general agreement. ‘You said his words barely passed for English—the poem suggests quite an advanced vocabulary.’
I know what I said, and I stand by it! The first part of the tome—the translation—is far less coherent. Not for a lack of vocabulary; rather, I think the man in many places chose to translate literally—word for word—a language whose conventions do not match those of our own. On top of that, half the words were illegible—or untranslated strings of nonsense syllables that may have been names or some such.
Would that I could question the author, but we had no way of identifying him.
‘It’s very… mathematical,’ Bonney said. ‘At least, the poem used mathematic terms, though I couldn’t make much sense of what it was trying to say.’
Neither could I, and that was one of the pages I poured over the most. Hence why I have it memorized. It doesn’t continue after the point I left it, or if it does, those pages are lost or damaged. Several were, you know.
In fact—he chuckled, cheeks reddening—I, ah, I had the chance to look at one such scrap; the last of the three pages I want to highlight. Much of it had been ruined by dampness, but one section survived. It read: “The voice I hear this passing night was heard / In ancient days by emperor and clown…” Wakefield paused, cleared his throat, then added: “Not so, Chippy?”
‘That first part’s Keats,’ Bonney said—himself a long fan of the poet. ‘Ode to a Nightingale.’
Oh, believe me—I know. We used a section of the same stanza as my sister’s epitaph, rest her soul.
‘Did it actually say “Not so, Chippy?”’ Armistead asked. Wakefield nodded.
‘Does it mean something to you?’ Bonney asked.
‘We used to call him that back in university,’ I told him. ‘Chester “Chippy” Wakefield.’
‘A curious thing indeed,’ said Armistead. Wakefield agreed with him. Shrugged.
Nor does the strangeness quite end there, he said. Shortly after I arrived and joined the analytical efforts, the book was stolen.
Yes. Mind you, it was kept very secure, as most such discoveries are. In fact there were a few archaeological artefacts stored beside it, awaiting transport—one of them a small mask made of solid gold. Untouched! They all were, except the book.
‘Was it recovered?’
Not as of yet. The thief got in and out without a trace except—from what I hear—some hints of pale blue powder in the case where the book was kept, which they couldn’t identify.
And then there’s another clue, though I don’t know whether I put much store in either of these. You see, there was a fog around the night the tome went missing. They do happen, even down in Egypt. Anyway, one of the guards later admitted to seeing a figure skulking around in it. A hunchback, he said, though he chased them away without getting a clear look at them.
‘A hunchback and blue powder?’ Bonney asked. ‘And the book used your old nickname. Very strange. It borders on the nonsensical. If you weren’t my friend, Wakefield—and if I hadn’t myself just admitted to a… nonsensical tale of my own—I’m not sure I would believe you.’
Wakefield shrugged. Believe what you will. Again, I’m not so sure I think much of the hunchback story myself. And the name, the fact I knew the poem… could be no more than coincidence.
A damn strange coincidence…
It is regrettable the book went missing, though… it had such fascinating passages. There are the copies of the pages we were studying, of course, but the remainder are lost. Perhaps forever.
As he had nothing else to say we all turned, by unspoken agreement, to look at Armistead. He was the one of us who had not yet told a story, and I think that none of us had any doubt that a story would be told. Even Armistead, reluctant though he looked, seemed to give in to the inevitability of his telling.
He sighed. Without further pause—perhaps wishing to have the thing over with and done—he launched into his narrative:
IV – LA BELLE DAME
Unlike your stories, this wasn’t recent. This is a story from my youth, which I had thought I would take to my grave. But… if I would share it with three living beings, I suppose that I can share it with you three. Same deal as Bonney though: this does not leave the room.
Now, in my early twenties, I went through a dark period. You two—he indicated me and Wakefield—knew me then, and perhaps you noticed a change in me during those months, but I doubt you knew the full extent of it. I hid it well, even when I was at my worst. And then…
In my darkest moment, I met her.
I first encountered Isabel late one foggy eve when I was… drinking, and contemplating… well, I never went through with it. What does it matter?
When I came across her, all in her lonesome, standing pale and mournful in the fog—he glanced at me, then looked down at his hands—the lady was in a state of duress… though I cannot now recall quite what had happened to her. It wasn’t pressing, but she was in obvious need of consolation, and I, in my wretched state, saw opportunity for… carnal release… in aiding her.
Armistead cleared his throat. Against my expectation, I ended up in a longer-going courtship with this woman. An affair, really, as we would only meet at night, and as our love for one another was never made public.
In those two or three months, I forgot all about my other woes. They were replaced within my mind, along with any other thought or concern I may have had, with obsession. Where I had already not eaten or slept well, I now abandoned those things near-entire; eating just enough to give me strength to move, and sleeping only in the daylight hours, while all of my affairs went unattended.
When I was not asleep, I was with her—and when I could not be with her, all of my thoughts were utterly devoted to the image of her in my mind. She was like a wildfire: dangerously beautiful, fierce, and with an unquenchable thirst for my attentions.
I soon began to take ill, displaying many of the symptoms of consumption. At the height of my disease, I was an addled wreck, unable to even form coherent thought beyond the carnal ones which Isabel attracted. And then… between one night and the next, she had completely vanished.
Not only had she fled my life: there was no trace of her at all. Not even as a fraudster may depart without a trace: the very building in which garret we had oft embraced just… ceased to be. Where it should have stood was now a bakery, with no one but the baker’s family inhabiting the upper rooms. And I am sure… at first, I thought my fevered mind had simply mistaken her address, but weeks of searching could not lead me to the place where so much of our affair had taken place. Nor did she ever answer any of my countless attempts to contact her. Nor did she contact me.
My obsession with her led me to expend a small fortune hiring the best detectives I could find to track her down—and, of course, buying their silence. They brought me nothing useful.
At last I took to haunting the street where I’d first met her, night after cold night. It only served to worsen my health, until a point where I had to be forcibly coerced into a hospital, where I spent weeks burning through fever. My physicians thought it quite unlikely that I would recover. Armistead barked a quick, humourless laugh.
When I began to grow healthier, my illness had consumed the part of my brain that could recall her face. Truthfully, I cannot even say for sure her name was Isabel. Oft since I have wondered if I imagined her all together… I had no mementos of her, but for my own confused and muddled memories… but then, how did I spend all of those nights?
Armistead shook his head, and would say no more. We fell silent after that. When finally the conversation had resumed, its tone was halting. No further mention of the supernatural was made, nor of the similarities between my own account and Armistead’s.
Before long we each felt it was time to excuse ourselves. We made our hasty farewells, gathering what winnings we’d made off of our largely-forgotten card game.
I lingered longest, staying until there was only me and Armistead, who’d been our host.
‘Is it true,’ I asked him then, ‘what you said?’
His eyes avoided mine.
‘It’s late and we’ve all had a bit too much,’ he said at last, shrugging. ‘I doubt half of what was said was true.’
‘I suppose you’re right.’ Pulling my coat tight against the cold night, I turned toward the door.
‘And you, Charlie?’
‘Did it really happen like you told? With your own woman in the fog?’
‘Oh yes. Believe me or don’t, but it’s the truth as I experienced it. Frightened the hell out of me.’
‘Yeah,’ he said, letting out a weary breath. He turned away his eyes, and I made my exit. Outside, it was snowing. I welcomed the cold.