Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: Short story

‘Westward’

In 1924, at Port an Eilean Mhoir on Ardnamurchan, the remains of a Viking ship burial were found.
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1

We buried Hoskuld, our captain, on the north coast of that ness the Gaels call Àird nam Murchan – the Ness of the Great Seas – on a day when axe-blades of sunlight cleaved the heavy clouds, and arrowheads of rain spattered us as though shot by the defenders of some dark and forbidding broch. We sacrificed the smaller skiff for his funeral, being fewer than when our expedition set oar to water in the little fjord where the River Stjør licks the lips of the sea. We used our axes and ship-mending tools to scratch a narrow trench in which to sink it, and we placed Hoskuld’s corpse in it, with his spear, sword, and axe laid beside him, and a shield over him, all as befits a Jarl; for although our little home-village and the outlying farms nestling at the foot of the tall, steep mountains that narrow the arms of the sea was a poor one, Hoskuld, our leader and captain-adventurer could fairly be called its Jarl.

As well as his weaponry we left him a knife and a whetstone from our native Norway, a drinking horn, some meagre dishes of porridge, and the bronze cloak-pin he had seized from a slain Ulsterman during a raid on Donegal. Then we filled the bows and stern with stones as is our custom, and piled the earth in a mound over him. Thorvald, our singer with the high voice, chanted of Baldr, the god slain by a spear of mistletoe, and we stood for a while, all trying to remember Hoskuld’s face as it used to be, before it had become little more than a bleached skull with a mouth set in a grin – a mouth from which few recognisable words had come, but much keening – and with eyes that stared past us to some horror only he could see.

Hoskuld’s dog, whom he called ‘Hopp’, would not come back to the longship with us, but stayed ranging round the mound, whining, occasionally scratching at the raw, brown earth. I tried whistling to him, slapping my thigh, and calling “Come on, Hopp! Good dog, come on!” but he only yelped at me and went back to his ranging and whining.

“Leave him, Skorri,” said someone. “We can’t stay here. Ours are not the only ships in the Minches – Mac Somerled is Lord of these waters, and no doubt the Gaels will already be sending word from clachan to clachan that we are in their sea, and he’ll be readying his galleys.”

So leave him we did. Even so he came for us as we pulled away from the shore, barking, howling, skipping round in mad circles with foam flecking his jaw. Mad he must have become, and none of us would now risk taking him in the longship. Even when we had pulled so far out that we could no longer see him, we could hear his howls, until one was cut short and we heard no more. We shivered and looked at one another. I do not know how many of us were thinking that it would be a clean and honourable end for us if Mac Somerled’s galleys did catch us, for there was a doom upon us, perhaps as great a one there than had been on the dead, buried Hoskuld.

When we had set out – a larger boat and a smaller skiff – from the Stjør village, Hoskuld had insisted on taking Hopp. One or two men grumbled that there was little enough in the way of provisions for our crews, but Hoskuld silenced them with a glance. Indeed we had had two years when harvests had been bad, and salmon and herring scarce. It is only such things that drive us out to range the seas around the kingdoms of the English, the Gaels, and the Irish, looking for food to carry home, or gold, or a couple of Gaelic slaves to barter at the river-mouths of the Baltic. Once or twice we have come looking for better land to farm, maybe thinking of sending back for our wives and children; but these lands are spoken for, being by-and-large claimed by this king or that, and the clans and tribes seemingly owing allegiance now to something greater than themselves. Some of those clans have names that are as Norse as ours – Thirkell, Gunnr, even Somerled – though their Jarls now speak the outlandish Gaelic and have forgotten their old kin from the fjords. The land they call Alba, though it is still wild, is changing – and with it, our own lives.

2.pngAs Hopp’s howling and barking died, so suddenly died the daylight. Someone struck a flint to his axe-head and kindled the iron-banded torches fore and aft. They guttered in the wind. I had been chosen as Captain in Hoskuld’s place, though I could tell that the others thought there was little to choose between myself and anyone else. I am no Jarl, and all wished Hoskuld had lived, or if not Hoskuld then his younger brother Solmund who had died in the Donegal raid, or one of the wheat-haired sons of Eyvind lost to great ocean rollers when one dived overboard to save the other, or even one of our axe-brothers who fell during the last day of slaughter at that Gaelic clachan. How long ago was that now? Any of those would have made a better captain than I for such a desperate band as we now were. We had stood out a little to westward from Port an Eilean Mhòir – the harbor of Mikill-Ey as we called it – where Hoskuld’s corpse now lay. No light from any Gaelish peat-fire could be seen through the gloom, but we needed to be at sea, as though we now feared the land.

“What orders, Captain Skorri?” asked Thorvald eventually, as the strengthening easterly wind drove us aimlessly away from the ness. I could almost hear resentment in the way he had said ‘Captain’, and gladly would have cursed him and said “I do not care – let us drift, choose another captain, let us sink – I do not care!” But instead I gave us a heading.

“Set the sail,” I said. “Haul it as close as you can and keep the wind to our steer-board. We’ll round the great Winged Island these Gaels call Eilean a Cheo, then North-East to Hvarf-ness. There, if the wind veers, we’ll sail for home, by the Orkneys.”

“If it’s against us?” queried Thorvald.

“We have oars. We row.” I said. “For now, let’s set that sail as I have ordered.”

On board a Viking longship, a captain, even a Jarl, does not simply give out orders and stand back to watch. I seized a halyard with the others and did my share of the hauling, and that seemed to settle their mood a little. It was either that – my establishing myself again as one of them – or the thought of home. We had left our fjord in mist and drizzle, and our village in poverty and hunger, but as my own thoughts turned to my wife Gudrid, and to the barefooted, noisy children who ran in and out of the bustling boatyard, I saw them only in sunshine, their cheeks fat and pink with good health. I wondered whether the others shared this vision, each seeing his woman and his children, happy under a blue sky.

We were foolish of course to be out at sea on a night like this and I had been foolish to order it – we should have been safe in some inlet until morning – but there was that fear. Where had it come from?

It had come, of course, as a consequence of the clachan raid. None of us had expected resistance at the little settlement. Each village we had come across had been poorer than the last, and this one was the poorest. In each place the Gaels had fled, giving us the freedom to take what little they had. We didn’t even bother to pursue and take as slaves the handful we saw scrambling up the hillsides. This time, however, it seemed as though desperation had bred a madness in this particular flock of ragged Gaels; farmers had found wicked little swords somewhere, boys and old men had armed themselves with hoes and reaping-hooks, women had taken up flails or kitchen-knives, and perhaps there were even a couple of wild and well-armed warriors there who had stopped on the way to some Gaelic chief’s hall. For whatever reason, they flew at us, and though we hacked many down they did not back away. Even little children buzzed around us like wasps, throwing stones, jabbing with sticks.

Then a strange figure came out of one of the hovels, and as it did so the sound of the fighting muted, sword- and axe-blows seemed to cease, our eyes as well as the Gaels’ seemed drawn to it. Bent at first, the figure straightened. Long, grey-white hair, as long and as grey-white as Langfoss, fell from its head, over its face, over its shoulders, over its earth-brown clothes. It leaned on a staff, as wandering Odin does, and its face was lean and pale, almost the same colour as its hair. I paused in belabouring a villager – and he paused also – to watch her. Her? To me the figure looked like a woman but more, I thought, more like a Dark-Elf from Alfheim, or a corpse from Hel, the land of the dead, nothing that could be called ‘him’ or ‘her’. A breeze sprang up from nowhere, and the sweat on my body grew cold, I couldn’t tell whether that was from fear or from the chill of the wind, but I saw others shiver as I now did. The breeze blew back some of the hair from the figure’s face, and we saw the eyes. They were milk-white and blind.

And yet they saw! How else could the figure have moved slowly and deliberately, through those locked in combat but now pausing as it passed, unerringly towards Jarl Hoskuld? How else could the figure have stopped a blade-length from the Jarl and turned its face directly to his? But this it did. More, it raised its right arm. From the loose, falling sleeve a slender, white forearm rose, scarce more than skin on bone it seemed. The fingers spread wide, seemed to direct themselves at Hoskuld’s forehead. The figure opened its mouth, said a few words in the Gaelic tongue. Everyone – everything – else was silent.

Then it spoke again, very clearly, but only a handful of strangely-accented words in our own language.

“No home,” it said. “Never home.”

For a few long seconds Hoskuld stared. Then, breaking free of his immobility, he swung back his axe, and brought it in an arc as wide as the rainbow bridge to Asgard must be, up and then down in a killing blow. It struck the figure upon its skull. The figure fell. It crumpled, rather, or dissolved, so that its form on the ground was little more than a mound of earth over which rainwater flowed. Hoskuld stared at it, then around him, and filled his lungs with air.

“Blood!” he cried in a great voice. “Blood!”

And the fighting continued, but with each of us Vikings suddenly berserk. My pulse thundering in my ears like Thor’s hammer on its mountain-anvil, I clubbed down the villager in front of me with the back of my axe-head, then hacked at his neck with the blade, until his head rolled away. All around me, my axe-brothers and shipmates were swinging and jabbing with sword, and shield-edge, and fist, and knife, and heavy blade. The villagers were giving way, throwing aside their weapons, beginning to run. We took up Hoskuld’s cry of “Blood!” and cut them all down, every single one, every man, every woman, every child. We spared no one. Even then, even when that slaughter was over, Hoskuld, his helmet, face, and mail sark the bloodied colour of the sunset, still gave his terrible cry, and we set about butchering every beast in the clachan. That was not enough for our Jarl, as he – then we at his example – began to cut and tear down every hovel, every byre, every beast-pen. It was as though the simple curse laid upon Hoskuld by the brown-clad, white-haired figure was so terrible to him, that he had to obliterate every trace of anything connected to it.

Afterwards we stood around. I think we were shocked at the utter devastation we had made in laying waste to this little, poor, community. We took nothing from it. There was nothing to take. But when we looked at Jarl Hoskuld, already we saw the stare and grimace of a cursed man, a mask instead of the face of the captain-adventurer we knew and had followed. To a Viking, a curse is a serious thing, often working unseen; this was the first time I had ever seen the evidence of a man’s doom with my own eyes. If the Norns truly twine the thread of a man’s fate, then Hoskuld’s was severed, sheered apart from his life, its ends fraying in the wind.

As we walked by the corpses, pulling turf roofs and stone walls down upon them, or throwing them along with their meagre possessions into the midden-pit, or piling logs upon them and setting fire to the pile, no one could swear that there wasn’t one corpse with long, grey-white hair. But equally, no one could swear that there was. Perhaps that’s why, later, as we sat around our camp fire, no one dared to look up, for fear of seeing an extra person in our number, next to the muttering, keening Jarl Hoskuld, its hand on his shoulder. And perhaps that’s why no one stared into the darkness for too long, for fear of seeing an eldritch walker stride into the firelight. And perhaps that’s why no one spoke during daylight, if they thought they saw, out of the corner of their eye, the shape of someone sitting on a rock, or walking across the narrows of one of Alba’s fjords without either disturbing the waters or sinking. And perhaps that’s why no one mentioned a still shadow that turned into a tree, or a running shadow that turned into a fox, or a mist that swirled, gathered, and faded. At least… I never spoke of such things. Hardly anyone else spoke at all, except of everyday necessity – hauling a rope, foraging for food, digging a grave.

So, all the night after we had buried Hoskuld and abandoned mad Hopp, we fought the wind. When dawn came – grey, cold, dull – we found ourselves no further north, simply stuck there in the Minches, going nowhere, making no headway, no matter how close-hauled we were, no matter how we pulled on the oars. I heard several of our crew groan, and one curse. I saw little light in anyone’s eye, as I looked from one man to the next. When I spoke to them it was with a kind of mildness.

“Come on, friends, brothers,” I said. “One more try, eh?”

And they gave one more try, but with only half a heart, and we slipped, drifted, looked desperately at the shapes of the islands and the mainland never seeming to vary. Hope died in us. Doom came over us. By the end of the day, when sunlight died, a thin rain soaked us, and the fore and aft torches barely gave any illumination at all. I was glad that they didn’t, because I now hated to see my shipmates’ faces. I scarcely recognised them now. There was no more Thorvald, no Ottar, no Frodi Hard-head, no Frodi the Small, no Ulf, no Magnus, no Isleif. There were only bare, white skulls, hair wisping back from them in the wind, to reveal mirthless grins and staring eyes. There was only doom. There was only madness. And I was glad there was nothing shiny to see my own face in, because I knew that if I had looked, I would have seen the same thing. So, when one man took his knife and slit his own throat where he sat, and another clasped his axe and sword to him and stepped overboard, I could not have named either of them.

The Gaels tell of one of their Dark Elves – they call her the Bean Sith, the Fairy Woman – and they say she walks amongst the dead, the dying, and the soon-to-die, lamenting. Others say that she can be seen washing the bloody clothes and armour of slain warriors, like one of the Valkyrja. Others still that she is a bringer of curses, and it is not she who keens, but those she has doomed. On our longship now, that is the only voice that can be heard. I do not dare open my own mouth, for if I were to hear my own voice, I would lose the last fingerhold I have on life, and fall into madness. I long to call my wife’s name, but I dare not even try that.

I know madness will come, nonetheless, or maybe death before it – much better death before than after. My last actions while in my right mind have been gestures of surrender to the East wind. I have lashed the steering-blade amidships, I have set the sail square, I have headed the ship between the outer islands of Uist and Barra. We shall sail westward. We shall go into the black ocean where the waters boil and there is no daylight, from which no ship returns. We shall go to death, to the cold of Hel or Niflheim – for us there shall be no Valhöll – we shall go to where dead Hoskuld waits for us, but without cheer or greeting. Westward, westward, driven by the merciless, murdering wind. Wordless, wordless and keening, men doomed and nameless. And we shall never go home. Never, never home.

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© Marie Marshall

“Down with Experts!” – a fable

There was once a village where they had their own way of doing things. Every week the villagers would get together and hold a meeting where everyone had the right to speak and every voice was equal. Here they decide how best to do things. By and large this worked pretty well.

One day in November, the villagers realised their boots were becoming worn out. Winter was on the way, so they raised the issue of new boots at the next weekly meeting. Now, their normal way of doing things, when such a need came up, was to ask the advice of someone who knew something about the subject, and then make a decision. So this time naturally they asked the village bootmaker.

“Well,” said the bootmaker, “for boots you can’t go far wrong with good, strong leather.”

That sounded reasonable to the villagers, and after having discussed it for a while they were about to take a vote, when a sly fellow got up and addressed them.

2“Down with experts!” he said. “For too long these so-called experts have been telling us what to do. What do they know? They come here with their fancy ideas, laying down the law like they own the place, like they’re somehow ‘better’ than the rest of us! Who do they think they are? Take this boots thing – there are plenty of other materials you could use that are as good as leather, if not better. Good old honest wood, for example. Cheap and plentiful cardboard. But oh no, Mr. Expert wants you to pay through the nose for fancy leather! Ha! Down with experts!”

The villagers began to mutter amongst themselves.

“Down with experts!” said the sly fellow again.

The muttering began to grow to a grumbling, and one or two villagers started to join in with the cry of “Down with experts!” Encouraged by the sly fellow, they voted to have boots made of alternative material, and the meeting broke up to much cheering. The sly fellow got a lot of pats on the back as he left the village hall.

To give the bootmaker credit, he did his best with the wood, leaves, cardboard, and other stuff the villagers brought him. He made the strongest boots he could make. However, winter was upon the villagers, and the boots soon wore out and fell to pieces. An emergency meeting was called. Before anyone had an opportunity to speak, the sly fellow got to his feet.

“You see what Mr. Know-it-all Expert has done?” he cried. “I blame the bootmaker for this disaster. All we asked him to do was make us some boots, and look at us now! Can’t he even do a simple job like that? Down with experts!”

“Down with experts!” cried the villagers, and asked the sly fellow what they ought to do.

“Well, first hang the bootmaker,” he said, and they frog-marched the bootmaker out into the villager square and lynched him from an old oak tree.

“What now?” they asked the sly fellow.

“Make me the Head Man of the village,” he said. “I’ll do right by you.”

So they did just that, to much cheering, comforted by the thought that there were no more experts interfering with their lives. And every week there was a village meeting, in which their Head Man addressed them from a newly-built platform. He told them how he had single-handedly made their village great again, the greatest village in the land.

“Down with experts!” was his cry at the end of each speech.

“Down with experts!” they all shouted, happily, nursing their cold, blistered feet.

The Emerald…

… the story of the last Scotsman in the universe!

1

I met the last Scotsman in the universe in a bar on Cargo, a hole of a planet about sixteen jumps from Galactic Home. You can’t get much further away. There’s only one more jump in that direction, and that drops you by a cluster of unimpressive, wobbly rocks on the edge of a supervoid. Cargo isn’t a whole lot more impressive than that, it’s just a planet where people dump stuff, stuff that might, or might not, go on to the prospecting stations on Coral or Juke, the two other planets in the same system. Anyhow, that’s where I met him. Mack Gregor Elcho was what he called himself. He was much like any of us that turn up in such places – those of us with a shred of dignity try to smarten up our one suit, our one shirt, our one pair of dirtboots, and those without don’t. I guess Mack Gregor Elcho was on the cusp. He had a beard, because he said all Scotsmen had beards, and he wore a skirt woven from some obscure sideworld fibre. He carried his scrip, which he kept fingering and shifting, on a hide thong round his neck. His eyes, when he bothered to hold your gaze, seemed to have a cold fear lurking in them, as though he was not only on the cusp of desperation there on Cargo, but also of insanity.

And he had an emerald.

He showed it to me. It fitted into the palm of his hand. I had never seen an emerald as big as that in my life, not anywhere, not even on Gemstone Five, not even in the markets and bazaars of Jackson’s Moon, not even in the crown of the Merovingian Queens in the Great Museum of Innsmouth City on End-All. I wondered why the hell he held onto it – and oh brother did he hold onto it! – why he didn’t sell it, buy himself a handsome skirt and scrip and dirtboots and book a jump back to civilisation. But he didn’t. He showed it to me for a brief second, then closed his fist on it again, and it winked at me, deep green, between his fingers. I couldn’t keep my eyes of that glint of deep green, and he knew it.

“Buy us both a drink, laddie,” he said in his strange accent, “and I’ll tell you all about it.”

That was an invitation hard to resist, so I didn’t resist it. I weighed up the few roundels of base metal that I had, the dull discs that pass for currency out there on Cargo, and blew them on a shot of hard liquor for us both. I pushed his over to him, and told him to go on. He did. Thus.

“Laddie, I was the last man to leave the planet of Scotland. It’s a world that has some kind of curse on it, for folk either worked themselves to death under its blue sun, or died young of despair, or left as soon as they had siller enough to their credit. All who left, few enough of them at the end, gave up the name of Scotsman, gave up our lingo, gave up our names and our way of dressing. Where they are now, who can say? I’m the last one to keep his Scotland name, the last one with tales and songs of the old place, the last man to wear skirt and scrip.”

“I had a place kept for me on the very last evacuation jumper, and if I did not take it, I would be marooned there for ever. But I had to make one last quest. I had heard a tale… in a bar much like this except that the owner was nailing boards over the windows and pouring the last of his liquor into glasses for us last-gaspers… of this emerald. This very emerald. It was to be found, I was told, way off in the jungle, in a castle called Elcho. Yes, a castle with my name on it! How could I resist? I fuelled and provisioned an abandoned, ramshackle skimmer and, despite the protests of the other last-gaspers and of the Captain of the jumper who said he would not wait for me, I set off along the coast towards where the castle supposedly lay. I skimmed until I found the mouth of the bronze, oily river Tay, where it spews its metallic water into the sea. There I turned inland, and wound my way along the river, as the grey jungle closed in on me. To one side the great Kinnoull Volcano rose, filling the air with acrid dust, choking the filter of my mask and fogging my visor. I knew that the castle was to be found on the other side of river, and from time to time I had tantalising glimpses of something rising above the great ferns and weeds that made up the jungle, but as soon as I caught sight of it there would be a bend in the river, or a higher patch of vegetation, or a drift of smoke and dust from Kinnoull, and it would disappear again.”

“At last I figured that I must be close enough to it to attempt a landing. That wasn’t easy, as the jungle didn’t just grow down to the Tay, it overhung it. Tendrils hung down that looked as though they might snake out to grab, and things moved and rustled in the overhanging limbs and stems. But I found somewhere where the ferns and weeds had died back, and I cut the skimmer’s drive and beached it there. Walking on the dead vegetation was like walking on corpses, stepping on what felt like human arms and legs. Something told me to go back to the skimmer, to get out of there and join the others on the jumper. But equally something – greed, I guess, and stubborn curiosity – drove me on. Keep in mind, laddie, that these two feelings pulled and tugged at me all the time. I cut through the living jungle with a small plasma-spade, using it like an axe, leaving a fingertip-to-fingertip trail behind me, ignoring the scuttling and snarling in the untouched vegetation. I don’t know how long I kept this up, but it got to the point I was sure that the charge in the spade was about to give out and I would never find the castle. I was close to despair at that point, the tears of frustration being the only thing to wash the sweat out of my stinging eyes, when suddenly the grey ferns gave way, and I came out into a clearing. It was a place of bare, hard, blue dirt, as though the jungle somehow didn’t dare grow there. And in the centre of it stood Elcho Castle.”

3“It was a ziggurat of grey-blue stone, with a way – part ramp, part stair – that wound upwards to the topstone, in which an apparent doorway gaped. The air was heavy and still. Even the dust from the volcano seemed to shy away from this place. As I climbed the sloping path cut into the side of the castle, I was aware of the eroded carvings on the walls. Figures seemed to dance, to bow, sometimes to stand erect like guards; but all seemed to be gesturing upwards, urging me on. It felt as though these figures had been waiting for no one but me to come here and climb this winding path. But this was a structure unlike anything I had ever seen on Scotland. It was unlike the castles and granaries and towns that generations of Scotsmen had built in the south, since the planet had first been peopled. It seemed to be made of living stone, not of Scotland Iron and off-world concrete like any civilized building had been until everything had started to crumble from neglect. It was old, far older than our generations. It felt durable, almost eternal. The erosion spoke to me of not of centuries but of millennia, or of hundreds of millennia. Who had built it? What civilisation had been here before the first Scotsman? What people had they been, who had left no other trace on the planet apart from this everlasting place?”

“When I reached the topstone, the final stupa, and stood before the dark maw of the opening I had seen, I hesitated. The fear I had felt urging me to go back was now stronger than ever. But also that insatiable feeling that I should go on had increased. I gripped my spade, hit the on-button again to make it into a torch to see by, and stepped inside the chamber. I was surprised to find that I didn’t need any extra light. Something in there was making its own illumination. At the far end of the chamber something was glowing green. It was this emerald. The story had been true.”

“I stepped towards it, and found myself teetering on the edge of a void, my right foot swaying over black nothingness. I had been so intent on the emerald that I had not seen an opening in the floor. Sweat streamed down my body, prickling as it ran. Whimpering in fright, I sat down on the lip of the opening. I cried, I laughed, sanity slipped away a little as I realised how close to death I had come, rather than to a fortune. Recovering myself after a few minutes, I picked my way carefully round the opening, until I reached the emerald. I had thought it might have been fixed somehow, but in fact it lay cupped in a hollowed-out niche in the stone. All I had to do was to pick it up. And I did just that.”

“Laddie, it continued to glow. It threw a light onto the walls. There were carvings there, just like those on the outside, but less worn. They beckoned and gestured, but not upwards this time, rather they pointed towards the opening in the floor, in which I saw steps leading down. As though under an unspoken obligation or command, I held up the glowing emerald and walked down into the interior of the castle. I reached the first level down, where I stopped, held up the emerald, and looked around. Beams from the jewel shone onto the carvings on the wall. Before my eyes was an incredible scene. It was the meeting of two races. One race, the hosts, had faces that were like the lemurs of Azimov Seven, dog-like, mouths turned up in smiles. They were bowing in welcome, honouring an embassy from a second race. Tall, erect, proud, the second race was unmistakably… human. I walked round and round this level, taking in the details of the carving, studying, making mental notes, imagining myself stopping the flight of the last jumper and leading an expedition back here to study this archaeological marvel. A fascination had almost swept away my fear. But then something caught my attention. I held the emerald close and looked intently at the lemur-faced people. There was something sly in their eyes, there were backward glances, furtive looks shared with each other, their smiles seemed suddenly less those of welcoming hosts, but more of smirking conspirators. My fear returned. What was I seeing?”

“Ah, but don’t think that fascination died, laddie! I could see another opening in the floor, and another set of steps leading down. I followed them – what else could I do? – into the second level down. In a chamber larger than the last, the walls had carvings of the lemur-people setting a great feast before the human ambassadors. They brought to their seated guests great chargers full of food, goblets of drink. They waited upon their guests with courteous bows. They toasted their guests and were toasted in turn. The guests sat and reclined at their ease. As they consumed the feast, a troupe of lemur-women danced for them. It seemed a noble celebration. But again in the eyes of the lemur-folk were the same knowing, conspiratorial glances. I wanted to warn the human guests that they were in some kind of danger, but how could I warn figures of stone?”

“The walls of the third level down made me gape. The feast had been cleared away. The lemur-people were now debauching their guests, coupling with them, mating with them, pleasuring their bodies. And still… still… those smug looks of conspiracy passed between them. It was as though the lemur-people themselves had made these carvings themselves, to show how clever they were. Or maybe some third race was responsible for this show, and had placed the carvings here as a warning. But why, and to whom? I was, as far as I knew, the only human ever to have set eyes on them. I can tell you, laddie, it was with my heart in my mouth that I went a further level down. Aye, I did, though…”

“The walls of the fourth level… how can I tell you how the sight of them paralysed me, how that prickle of terror broke out all over me again. By the light of the emerald this is what I saw.”

Mack Gregor Elcho took a breath, a swig of his liquor, and went on.
“On the walls of the fourth level, laddie, the conspiracy had been launched. The human guests, where they had sprawled in lust, were now trapped, pinioned, bound. They were being subjected to all kinds of torture at the hands of the lemur-folk, who sunk teeth and claws into them, pierced them with instruments of torment. The humans’ faces were contorted in a rictus of agony, or frozen in screams. They writhed, struggling to escape, but impotent to do so. It was a scene of total horror, and it was made more horrible by the smug satisfaction in the faces of the lemur-people.”

He paused again, picking up his glass and looking at it but not drinking from it. His other hand clutched the emerald as tightly as ever. I broke the silence and said that I imagined he would now tell me what was on the fifth level down. He sighed, and with his eyes still on his glass, he went on.

“Laddie, you have no idea how I have tried to hide behind glasses, and bottles, and needles, and tokes, and cyber-probes, and every trick known to sentient beings, short of suicide, to eradicate from my head the nightmares I have every time I shut my eyes. Every sleep-cycle they come, and they won’t stop. Yes, yes there was a fifth level, and I looked down into it, laddie. I didn’t go down, otherwise… well… who knows. But I looked into it. And do you want to know what I saw? I saw… moving down there… tormented and tormenting, locked into an eternal scene of torture, the writhing, agonized humans, and the lemur-folk reveling in their pain, rending them with teeth, claws, knives, complicated instruments, licking their blood!”

“I have no idea how, but I must have climbed back into the daylight, fled from that unholy place back down the path I had cut through the jungle, not caring about any danger from jungle creatures or the hanging tendrils of predatory plants. I must have piloted the skimmer back to the jumper port. I vaguely recall hands tugging me inside the last open hatchway and the hatch slamming shut behind me. When at last I came to my senses, I was three jumps past Scotland, lying in a filthy bunk, my right hand buried deep under my tattered clothes, clutching this emerald in my fist.”

The self-styled last Scotsman in the universe stopped, pausing for a long time, fixing me with a gaze that was watery but piercing.

“Do you believe me?” he asked.

I took a deep breath.

“No. No, I don’t believe you. I don’t believe a word!” I said loudly, pushing myself back in my chair. “For a start, who could have told you about the emerald except someone who had already been there? Why didn’t this person take the jewel for himself? No, I don’t believe you! There’s no such planet as Scotland, no such river, no such jungle, no such volcano, no such castle. If there were, you would take back your lousy emerald and leave it where you found it. If it is an emerald at all. Look at you, you’re a space-tramp, a derry, a has-been. If that was a real emerald you would be a rich man with a jumper of your own, not some old chavo in a skirt and scrip begging drinks in bars. It’s a worthless piece of glass, and you’re trying to get me to buy it, or something like that. Last Scotsman in the universe – ha! ”

He waved his fist in front of my face, the jewel still glinting between his fingers.

“Oh it’s true right enough,” he said. “Every last word is true. But I can’t put it back, and I can’t sell it. Laddie, you believe me… I can see it… you believe me!”

“No, no!” I yelled. “I don’t believe you!”

But I did, you see. I believed it all, from beginning to end. That is why, I guess, the last I knew of Mack Gregor Elcho was the swish of the airlock of that bar on the planet Cargo as he left. And this emerald tight in my fist. That’s what my belief brought me. That and his nightmares. Every sleep-cycle I take every step of his journey, I live it, I live every moment. I am myself, if you like, now the last Scotsman in the universe, and my own name, the one I have carried throughout the whole of space from one end to the other, is scarcely relevant. I know, sure as I know my own unshaven face in a mirror, the same bronze, oily river, the same volcano, the same jungle, the same planet Scotland. And the same dreadful ziggurat of blue stone under a blue sun, in which, in sleep after sleep, I see the same proud human embassy debauched, seized, and tortured by the lemur-people, the same blood, the same agony. Oh brother, the torture in my mind is as great as theirs. It’s eternal, it never stops. And it’s all as true as true can be, it’s as true as this emerald you see winking in my hand, as true as its green light, as true as its awful fire that reveals what should never be revealed, the truth at the heart of that cursed planet, Scotland…

Hey… buy me a drink now. And hey… do you believe me?

Do you believe me?

Do you?

2

The Last Bullet

(c) Dynamite comics

image ©Dynamite Comics

“The Wild West, that’s what they called it,” said the Ranger, his breath rasping like a blacksmith’s file on a horseshoe.

“Called it, you said. Called it. Called, not call,” said the figure in buckskins, kneeling beside him. The Ranger drew in his breath sharply and winced, his eyes shutting hard and his teeth clamping together in a rictus. When the pain eased a little, he opened his eyes again and looked long into the face of his kneeling companion.

“Yes, Tonto,” he said softly, “Past tense. The Wild West is dying, just as I am.”

His companion did not contradict him, did not say anything for several minutes.

“How come we got so old, you and me, Kemo Sabe?” he said at last. “How come the world got smaller the older we got?” There was no trace now of ‘Fort Indian’ in his voice, there was no one around to object to his talking like a white man – the only white man for miles was lying there by him, his head resting on a saddle, and that white man was his brother, as good as. Gently he tried to staunch the blood that ran from the deep gashes in the Ranger’s side, with a piece of cloth torn from a spare saddle-blanket. The Ranger winced again, and turned his head to look at the corpse lying about ten feet away from them.

“I never killed a man before today,” he said.

“You didn’t kill a man today,” said Tonto, looking over at the corpse as well. It seemed to be shrinking in size, becoming more emaciated, as though the desert sand was trying to claim it. A wind nagged at the clothes that covered it – the Levi’s, the old cattle duster pulled up around its waist, the battered sombrero that covered its head, the bandana knotted loosely round its neck. The corpse’s fingers were curled, as though they were clawing at the sand. It’s frame was big and broad still, even with the illusion of shrinking. Tonto did not want to lift the sombrero to check. He knew what he would see, and knew he wouldn’t like it. He shivered a little and told himself it was the fault of that nagging wind.

“That wasn’t a man,” he went on. “More like – my kin have a word – more like a Wendigo.”

“What will you do, Tonto?” said the Ranger, softly and hoarsely, changing the subject.

“Me? Go back to Canada, I guess.”

“You never told me what brought you to Texas in the first place.”

“You never asked.”

“True enough.”

Tonto continued to press the piece of blanket against the Ranger’s side, but the Ranger pushed his hand away.

“No. No. I’ll hold that,” he said. “There are three things I want you to do for me, Tonto, and you have to do them without question. First thing is, dig a grave for me, while there is still daylight. No, no, just do it. Second thing, once you’re through doing that, take my mask off, let me show my old face to the setting sun. Last thing – here! – take this. Take my gun. There’s one bullet left. One silver bullet.”

Tonto reached for the gun, but stopped.

“No. Not that. I can’t,” he said.

“Tonto, you must! You must! Or you’ll have no peace, ever. You can go to Canada, or Alaska, or China if you want to, but you’ll have no peace. This gun, this last bullet, they’ll protect you, and they’ll end this once and for all. They’ll put the final period at the end of an old legend, one we shouldn’t have been in. This is one story of The Lone Ranger and Tonto they’ll never tell, and by golly I’m glad of that. Leave me riding off into the sunset of some other tall tale, with someone asking who the masked man was. Let the other thing, that thing over there… well… I guess that’s died its own death… part of a different legend. With luck, me too.”

The Ranger’s voice had become very quiet, barely a whisper, as though giving these instructions to his companion had taken what remained of his strength. Tonto tucked the six-gun into his belt, propped the Ranger against the saddle with his face towards the setting sun, and untied the mask. Then he fetched the shovel an old prospector had given him, and set about digging a grave. He knew why he needed the grave. It would buy him time. From time to time he stopped digging and looked over at the Ranger. There was still something there in his sere face of the young man he had been at their first meeting, but it was buried beneath a few decades’ wear-and-tear, and now beneath pain too. Each time Tonto stopped to look, he listened for the Ranger’s breathing. Eventually there was none. He laid down the shovel and half-carried half-dragged the Ranger’s body to the grave, letting it fall in as gently as he could. But down in the grave it looked broken and untidy, nothing of his old friend left, so he quickly shoveled the dirt and sand on top.

When that task was over, Tonto sat with his back against the saddle. He took the pistol out of his belt and checked it, checked it again, and checked it a third time. He looked over at the corpse of the rougarou – there was no danger there, it was dead. It had taken four silver bullets from the Ranger’s gun and had kept coming. The fifth, fired at point blank range, had found its heart, but not before its teeth had ripped into the Ranger’s flesh. The sixth was still in the chamber. Tonto checked it again.

A little way off, the Ranger’s white horse – the third to have been given the name ‘Silver’ – whinnied. It was getting dark. The last glow of sunset faded from the horizon. The moon had risen behind Tonto in a cloudless sky, lighting up the desert, casting a shadow behind the little mound of earth he had piled over his dead friend, his dead brother. It was the last night of the full moon.

Tonto blinked a couple of times, wiped away something wet from his cheek, and cocked the pistol. Any disturbance to that little mound would give him some warning, he would be ready. This night’s watch was his. He would do what he had to do.

(c) Topps Comics

image ©Topps Comics

The wheat-child

wheat-childThe Sun came to the Earth and had a child with her. That child was a field of wheat, and it grew from its mother towards its father, becoming more and more golden.

The wheat-child learned from its mother and father how to mind its manners and show respect to its betters. So when that fierce knight, Sir North Wind, moved through the field in his shining steel armour, the wheat-child bowed to him as he passed. And when Lady South Wind came with her warm kisses, the wheat-child bowed to her. And when Boyar East Wind strode in from the Steppes, singing mournful songs, the wheat-child bowed to him. And when Widow West Wind let her tears fall on him, the wheat-child bowed to her.

But one night, while the Earth slept and the Sun was away on business on the other side of the world, the cruel landlord Squire Frost patrolled the fields, and because such as he walk silently, the wheat-child did not bow to him. Squire Frost was angry at the wheat-child for not showing respect, so he called on all his labourers, the Hailstones, to come with their scythes and sickles and reaping hooks to lay waste to the field and kill the wheat-child.

In the morning, when the Earth awoke and the Sun returned home, they saw the wheat-child lying on the ground, and their sadness was great. The Earth made to quake and to throw up mountains, and the Sun made to cover everything with fire, but suddenly they saw, in a corner of the field, one solitary stalk of wheat that Squire Frost’s cruelty had treemissed. So the Sun and the Earth called upon their friends the Four Winds, and together they made seasons to nourish all that was left of the wheat-child. And eventually that single stalk of wheat became a great Tree.

The great Tree grew straight and tall, and lived longer than any child of Sun and Earth ever had, even longer than Empress Slow of the Galapagos, whom the Tree could remember as a tiny tortoise when he was already as tall as a hill. The longer the Tree lived the more the Sun and the Earth whispered a secret to him, and that secret is that trees need not bow to anyone.

What’s that, little one? Yes, I expect the great Tree is living still. Unless some one has cut him down. Now go to sleep – even the Sun and the Earth have to do that, so why shouldn’t you!

Peace, War, Honour, and Death

Peace, War, Honour, and Death – a fable

Honour 1It happened that War saw a beautiful woman, whose name was Peace. Desiring her, he took her away to live with him. But Peace was never happy, and when he asked her why, she answered that it was because she was cold, for though War is hot he can never pass his warmth on to anyone.

One day a knight, whose name was Honour, rode by.

“This man serves me,” thought War, and called out to the knight, “Sir Knight, take off your cloak and give it to my lady Peace!”

The knight stopped, took off his cloak, and unsheathed his sword. Having cut his cloak in two, he put one half of it around Peace’s shoulders to warm her, the other half round his own, and rode away. From that moment, to his name was added Martinus Martianus, Warlike, and the word Generous was written on the cloak about his shoulders, for it takes an act of generosity to give warmth to anyone.

Soon the knight found himself in a battle, as all of his kind do. There he met with impartial Death, as one day do we all, good and bad. Death caught the knight with his scythe and he fell. The knight’s halved cloak was not enough to soak up his blood, which flowed like a stream. The stream became a great river of clear water, known as Generosity, and it flowed through the desert known as Indifference…

You ask me why? It is because, little one, all things are held in the Great Balance, and it must be so. Time for you to go to sleep, for sleeping and wakefulness are held in the Great Balance too…

The Lost Manuscript of Aë

Ae

The Lost Manuscript of Aë – a fable

There was once a very rich man who had in his castle an incomparable collection of beautiful things. He loved them, and would spend hours in his galleries and libraries, and amongst his showcases. There were paintings before which he would stand, lost in the world that they depicted or suggested, whether the painting was an intricate interior, a landscape, or a mere splash of primary colour. There were ancient musical instruments which, when he plucked, struck, or blew them, released into the room tones that had never been heard for centuries – he had a lyre, for example, that was said to have been carried to hell and back by a minstrel looking for his lover. There were statues so beautiful that the urge to kiss their lips was almost irresistible – one of them was so beguiling that the sculptor had fallen in love with it himself, and gone mad when his love remained unrequited. There were books of poetry, philosophy, and fable that transported the reader between all the realms of Fun and Profundity. There were weapons that the heroes of the world had wielded in defence of the weak and in pursuit of the wicked – there was a bow said to have been strung by a demiurge and drawn by a demigod. There were machines that were marvels of ancient and modern invention – each one had changed the world when they had been introduced. There were jewels, royal regalia from the past, emerald rings that burned brighter than forest sunlight, jade necklets that seemed warm to the touch as though the emperor who had worn them had only just taken them off – the, scepters, orbs, diadems, and touchstones of the most enlightened princes and the most terrible tyrants.

There was just one thing he lacked, something which he coveted and desired beyond all else. He had heard of the vanished civilisation of Aë, which some men say flourished thousands of years ago and others say is legend. He had been told how their last artefact – a manuscript that contained everything that gave joy and wisdom – had come down through the ages, or indeed had never existed. Rumour had reached him that this manuscript, which had been lost, was now found, and was circulating amongst men, or was so in someone’s drunken dream.

If it existed, he had to have it. He called his most trusted employee to him, and charged him with the task of tracking down and obtaining the manuscript. His man set out and, to cut a long story short, found the lost manuscript of Aë. It is not recorded how he found it – some say he won it on the turn of a card, others that he seized it in a brawl with an inebriated sailor, others still that he found it hidden in a cave, and others still that he paid a Romany woman half his patron’s fortune for it. No matter how he came by it, he went out a boy and came back a man. And he gave the manuscript to his rich patron.

The rich man unrolled the manuscript. It was old, it was beautiful, it was in Aëan. The rich man looked around at his people – his servants, his employees, his acolytes, his friends whom he had gathered together to see his new possession, others who had simply come on the off chance – did anyone read Aëan? No, certainly not amongst them. But someone did know of a scholar of antiquities who was adept at old languages and undecipherable glyphs, and so he was sent for.

The scholar, with the rich man always in attendance, worked for months at the manuscript. Piece by piece he began to make sense of it, and piece by piece he told the rich man what it said. Yes, there was joy in it. Yes, there was wisdom in it. The rich man was glad. But eventually, when the scholar had translated some three-fifths of it, he sadly came to the conclusion that the manuscript, though old, was not Aëan. It was a fake.

The rich man was devastated. He was not angry with his employee, who had done his best, but he did send him out to see if he could find the real one. In fact he found two, both of which were also fakes. The rich man never did possess the lost manuscript of Aë, and one day he gave his entire collection to the nation, which dispersed it amongst its many museums. One spin-off, however, was a general interest in all things Aëan, a fashion for Aëan gew-gaws and imaginary robes and adornments, market stalls full of scrolls and parchments with supposed Aëan glyphs all over them.

Is there a moral to this story?

A moral? Yes, never underestimate the power of bathos in fiction.

Ah.

A victory

boys-playing-war-gamesThe boys put down their Commando comics, in which the heroes were square-jawed and wore their helmets at a jaunty angle, and the enemies’ eyes were always in shadow, and determined to play war in the woods. One or two were lucky enough to have their dads’ old berets, a helmet, or a toy gun, the others grabbed dry sticks of the right size, with which to extemporise a weapon. They picked sides and fanned out into the trees.

One of them – the youngest – struck out on his own. He could hear the others. Sometimes a twig would snap as a boy stalked through the bushes. At other times there were yells, whoops, or the staccato cry of “Er-er-er-er-er!” in imitation of a machine gun.

After about fifteen minutes alone, the young boy began to climb up a bare-topped knoll, dodging from tree to tree, imagining that he was storming a stronghold under heavy fire. When he reached the top he brandished his stick and began to cheer loudly. After a couple of minutes his cheering attracted the other boys, who began to climb up towards him, wearing puzzled frowns.

“Why are you cheering?” one of them asked.

“I’ve won! I’ve got to the top of the hill.”

“That’s not what the game’s about,” said another boy.

“Yes it is,” said the youngster. The others shook their heads at this, decided to re-start the game, and they all trooped back to the outskirts of the coppice. Fanning out again, they disappeared into the trees. Their occasional yells, imagined military commands, and mimicked gunfire could be heard, muted by the trees, saplings, and undergrowth. Once more the youngest boy made for the knoll and climbed, ducking and dodging the imaginary hail of bullets, taking the enemy’s machine-gun nest for the second time that afternoon. Once again at the top he waved his stick and cheered. Once again his racket attracted the other boys.

“I’ve won!” he proclaimed loudly.

“Look, we told you – that’s not what this game’s about,” said the biggest boy there, coming up to him.

“Yes it is.”

“No it bloody isn’t,” said the biggest boy, punching him hard on the shoulder to make his point.

The boys all trooped back to the edge of the wood and, starting their game again, filed between the trees in improvised patrols. Doggedly, the youngest boy made his way directly to the knoll. This time when he arrived there he found several of the other boys already on the top, and more climbing up to join them.

“It isn’t about getting to the top of this hill,” said the biggest boy, “and anyway this time we beat you up here!”

The boys couldn’t understand why their young playmate gave a broad smile at that. Shrugging, they made their way back to the edge of the wood. Instead of beginning the game again, they decided to go home. The afternoon sun was getting lower, and they didn’t much feel like another skirmish. Let the imaginary enemy hold the wood. They threw their sticks away, the owner of the Commando comics retrieved his dog-eared property from the hedge, and they set off into the nearby streets that the woodland fringed. At each junction some went left, some went right, until the biggest boy and his brother were left walking not quite along with the youngest but in the same direction. The biggest boy tugged at his brother’s sleeve, held him back, and jerked his thumb towards the youngest boy.

“Why’s he still bloody smiling?” he muttered, and his bother shook his head.

The youngster marched home down the middle of the street, shoulders back, as though he was about to be invested with a medal. He alone had kept his stick, and it was now tucked under his arm, like a Field Marshal’s baton.

Three Bubbles of Earth: A 221b Baker Street story

“We could, I suppose, form a detective agency of our own,” said Mrs. Norton to me, under circumstances I’ll come to eventually, I promise you.

And at the time I felt that maybe we could. I certainly regarded myself as somewhat qualified, having absorbed, by what I believe Dr. Watson would classify as ‘osmosis’, a fair amount from my famous tenant. More, in fact, than you would imagine. I have spent several years navigating both his order and his chaos, distinguishing the one from the other, and recognising the tracks and traces of one within the other. I know what is secreted where, and where to find reference to things. I know how he files newspaper clippings, and what his system of annotation means. It is amazing what can be gleaned during simple housekeeping activities. I am not merely the adjunct whom he calls his busy, biblical ‘Martha’, to be yelled for from the top of the stair when he wants a Scottish breakfast or his Dewar flask filled with coffee in the depth of the night. I am not ‘Mrs. Turner’, as he once absently called me. I am Elspeth Hudson – née Turnbull, and Effie to my friends – I am a widow, I am a woman used to standing on my own two feet, I am educated, I am a Scot, and 221b Baker Street, London NW, is my address, not his. He rents rooms here. if he omits ‘care of’ on his calling card, then he does so by his own presumption and without my permission. In fact everything he does in this house, and by sally from it, everything he says from here, is done and said on sufferance. The same applies to Dr. Watson, though he is much more affable and polite. Superficially, that is. If I am to be honest, both of them have a typical bachelor’s disregard for women. They don’t mean to have, it’s simply the way menfolk are bred up, and again to be honest I don’t hold it against them.

221b 5Let me give you a wee example of my qualification, just picked from the air as it may be. Last week there was a chapping at my door, and I answered it to a man asking, as they all do, to see Mr. Sherlock Holmes. I admitted him and conducted him upstairs. As I left him there with my famous tenant, I heard the usual rigmarole.

“I perceive that you a married man in sudden and unexpectedly straitened circumstances, and that you arrived here from Birmingham this morning by the ten-fifteen express.”

“Good Lord, Mr. Holmes! How can you possibly know that?”

“By simple observation and logical deduction. You see…” etcetera, etcetera.

All well and good, of course. Mr. Holmes was entirely correct in his deductions – I did not need to hover at the top of the stair to hear his reasoning – as I had come to much the same conclusion himself. The sudden and straitened circumstances were indicated by his wearing a jacket that was fashionable for men two summers previously, but which had had one button replaced that was not quite a match. I recognised the thrift of the button jar! His being married was obvious by the careful and regular way in which the replacement button had been sewn on, not with the cobbled-together stitching a man on his own would have used, nor with the delicacy and loving touch of a sweetheart, but with the honest practicality of a longer-time companion. There was nothing about him generally to suggest that he was a ‘mother’s boy’, and the touch was definitely companionable I’d say; and if you add to that the fact that he was past conventional courting days by a good five years or more, it was a fair shot that he was married. The deduction about his origin and arrival was as easy as pie; were his voice not enough, he had an early morning edition of a Birmingham newspaper sticking out of his jacket pocket, and there was only one train that could have borne him here at this time. I could have primed Mr. Holmes also, if I had cared to the following. That our visitor possibly had a sweet tooth, by the smell of peppermints on his breath and by the click-clack a couple of them made in the left-hand pooch of his overcoat as I hung it up; or more likely that he had been drinking, if the uneven weight of something, probably a flask, on the right hand side of his coat was anything to go by. That he had walked here via Manchester Square Gardens, by the evidence of an autumnal leaf, attached to one of his dickersons, from a tree that grew in that location, alone of all the neighbouring gardens. That this route to our – I mean my – front door meant that either he had little sense of direction, or more probably that he was distracted by the matter that had brought him here, and had mistaken the the direct route from the railway station. That his distraction might be confirmed by the obvious lack of attention he paid whilst crossing the road, as witnessed to by a distinct whiff of the leavings of a dray-horse on the same dickerson that bore the leaf. That he had either sustained an injury to one leg, or that the right was a little shorter than the left, which I gathered from the rhythm of his footfalls as he climbed the stairs behind me. I could even have hazarded that he was right-handed. How? By the fact that if he reached more often for his flask than he did for a sweetie, then the flask would be in the pooch reachable by his better hand. However, I didn’t add that to a prominent catalogue of his personals, as most people are right-handed, and that fact was not necessarily significant. Worth handing to the clerk of memory for filing, but that is all.

Women, you see, notice such things. it’s not a skill we have to learn. Maybe ‘osmosis’ is just so much bunkum. Or maybe Mr. Holmes learned from me, and not the other way round. Now that would be something notable!

Anyhow, this wasn’t what I wanted to tell you. I wanted to tell you what happened the last time Mary Watson – Mary Morstan as was – came to 221b Baker Street. I was in my pantry dealing with the items just delivered by the grocer’s boy, when I heard a ring at the doorbell. No doubt Dr. Watson, acting as Mr. Holmes’s amanuensis, would have called it an urgent ring. He has a way of transferring things, of personifying the thing acted upon as though it was the person acting upon it – you’ll have seen that, no doubt, in his published accounts of the menfolk’s adventures. It was a ring, I’ll say that much. I was, I admit, surprised to find Mary, Dr. Watson’s wife, standing there.

221b 1“Good morning, Mrs. Hudson,” she said, looking past me. “Is Mr. Holmes here? May I see him?”

“Good morning, Mrs. Watson,” I replied. “No, he’s not here just now.”

“Oh dear. Will he be back soon?”

“I’m afraid I’m not expecting him today. In fact I have no idea when he might return. He’s away on an investigation. You missed him by less than a day, by the way – he left last night. Did your husband not tell you?”

“No,” she said with a sigh, “John’s away too. He’s at a medical conference in Dublin. He never mentioned Mr. Holmes before he left.”

It is as I said. Both our menfolk, tenant and husband, have retained in their characters the best and the worst of bachelorhood, the worst being a slight disregard towards women. Well, I had Mrs. Watson into my own parlour – I did not presume to take her up to Mr. Holmes’s, and in any case mine is comfier, there are no hard angles, there is less clutter, there is no odour of stale tobacco, there is a gently-ticking clock that gives comfort with a soft chime at each hour, and my kettle and cups are nearby. It is an environment where it was easy for us, despite our twenty years’ difference in ages, to drop our titles and become Effie and Mary to each other. To each other, I stress, and not to you, however – for the remainder of this tale I shall write ‘Mrs. Watson’. There we sat over two cups of my strong tea and broached the Dundee cake I had baked the previous day, while she told me why she had come.

Please forgive me if I don’t dress it up in ribbons. Here it is in a nutshell:

She has a friend – no need to name her – who had recently lost her husband. Distraught by her bereavement, she had looked for solace in spiritualism, as so many people do. It was something for which Mrs. Watson herself had no time, and no more do I, and yet it was a trait, an interest, a belief that her good friend had always had, and which she therefore tolerated it out of affection. Mrs. Watson took some encouragement in the fact that her friend’s quest was leading nowhere, and that she might be able to find her own inward strength to come to terms with her bereavement, or at least to lean on a good friend rather than on mountebanks and strangers. However, just when her friend seemed to be on the point of giving up her visits to mediums and clairvoyants, she reported that she had found a new one.

221b 3“When I saw her,” said Mrs. Watson, “there was a gleam in her eye and a flush on her cheek. She was excited, overly so. There was something of the enthusiast in her manner. I became worried once more.”

“What can you tell me about this new medium?” I asked.

“Well, he goes by the name of Kuldip Singh Naga. Apart from his Indian name, bearing, and voice, there is nothing particularly strange about him. Nothing flamboyant, nothing melodramatic. He does not seem to be a showman of any kind.”

“You have met him?”

“Once. On the street. I was on my way round to see my friend, and I came across them. I gathered they had either met by chance, or he had been to her house and was now taking his leave. When I came up, she introduced him as ‘Swami Kuldip Singh’. I proffered my hand, and he seemed a little reluctant to take it at first. But when he did, he bowed slightly, and said he was delighted to make my acquaintance. He was dressed in a simple, dark grey suit that buttoned to his neck, and a turban. He had a servant with him who bowed too.”

“What else can you tell me about him?” I asked.

“Nothing much beyond what my friend told me. His consultations take place in a hired room near Sloane Square. The room is modestly furnished, there are no suggestive decorations or appurtenances, no crystal ball or other fetish. His method is simply to spend a few minutes talking to her – sometimes with his hand laid upon hers – relaying to her messages that he says are from her husband.”

“What is it that makes him convincing where the others are not?”

“Merely the depth and breadth of his knowledge about her late husband,” said Mrs. Watson, and hesitated.

“What is it that you are not telling me?” I asked.

“Well, two things. Firstly that a few weeks before his death, there was a suspicion that their house was broken into… no, nothing was stolen, in fact everything about the house seemed to have been left neat and tidy, neater than usual, especially in her husband’s study. His books and private papers. I suspect that whoever broke in could well have been garnering information about him, the kind of detail that the Swami gave back to her in his consultations.”

“And the second thing?”

“The second thing is this. He is no Indian. He is no Sikh. Oh, you know my background – my father was Indian Army – so I ought to know. His disguise is good, but not good enough. I took a look at him when he shook my hand, and I am certain he is not genuine. His servant, on the other hand, is genuine – a Punjabi Musalman, I’d say.”

“And of course,” I said, “what is really the point here, is this. Let’s say he is a fraud, and let’s say also it was he or his servant who broke into the house and carefully perused all those papers and so on. The question remains as to how they knew that your friend’s husband was about to die? Unless…”

She nodded vigorously. “Unless it was they who killed him!”

“How did he die?”

“A heart attack. But as John tells me, indeed as he knows from his cases with Mr. Holmes, it is easier to fake a cause of death than is popularly supposed; and as regards heart attacks, the foxglove is a common weed… Oh Effie, since that thought occurred to be I have never seen an obituary in the paper without wondering if ‘died peacefully in his sleep’ hides something else.”

“I could go up to Mr. Holmes’s room,” I said, “and look though his clippings in the hope that there might be some relevant obituaries; but I doubt if that will be of any practical use. Look, it seems to me that we already have the facts of the case, and there is no mystery to solve. The man is a fake, a murderer, and a mountebank. He breaks into houses, finds out information about the occupant, murders him in some clandestine way that does not have any apparent connection to the breaking-in, and then extracts money from his widow – yes?”

Mrs. Watson nodded.

Well, the upshot was that with both Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson away, we decided to do some investigating of our own, and in fact to pay a visit on the Swami. Our premise was to be that, on her friend’s recommendation, Mary was to introduce me as a widowed acquaintance – which was true enough – wishing to hear from her departed husband. Our aim was simply to amass as much information as we could, maybe proof at the very least of his assumed identity. So the same afternoon saw us outside his hired room in Chelsea.

221b 4We knocked, the servant answered the door and stood there making no sign at all.

“We’re here to see Swami Kuldip Singh Naga,” said Mrs. Watson.

He did not let us in, but called over his shoulder, “Prabhu… loka ithe hana.”

“One moment,” came a soft voice from inside the room, and a few seconds later the Swami himself appeared, pulling his grey jacket on. “May I help you, ladies?”

Mrs. Watson reminded him that they had met briefly, once, and told him the story that we had agreed on, but still neither man stood aside to let us in. I had the impression that they were occupied and did not really wish to be disturbed.

“Could my friend Mrs. Hudson not consult you?” she asked.

“I regret not,” said the Swami, “I am not taking on any further clients. Please do excuse me.”

We turned to go, genuinely disappointed.

“Wait!” he said, and stepped outside, pulling the door to after him, looking hard into both our faces, and then suddenly seizing my hand.

“Forgive my presumption,” he said, looking directly at me. “There is nothing I can do for you. Your husband is at rest, and therefore beyond my reach. Only such souls who have not yet penetrated the final veil and have yet to rest are open to me. I’m truly sorry.”

We travelled back to Baker Street by cab. Once or twice I was convinced that we were being followed by another cab, and I wondered if the Swami or his servant was trailing us, but Baker Street itself was full of passing traffic, no cabs stopped nearby or even slowed down. In my parlour, Mrs. Watson and I held counsel. Although I’m no expert on the customs and costume of India, I agreed with her that the Swami must surely be a fake.

“Apart from anything else,” she said, “his servant was far too familiar with him, and spoke to him in rather simplistic Punjabi, as though to one who is not a native-speaker. I wonder who he is really?”

“I think I can find out,” I said, and went upstairs to Mr. Holmes’s lair. I found a sheet of paper and fed it into his Remington, typing the following:

My dear Lestrade.
Could you, with some dispatch, find out the name and any other details of the lessee of rooms on the third floor at 34 ___ Street, SW. Please reply to Baker Street.
SH

Chuckling at my own effrontery and hoping that the inspector would not suspect anything, I put it in an envelope addressed to Scotland Yard, and committed it to the evening collection at the nearest pillar box. Having done so I made up a bed for Mrs. Watson in one of my spare rooms, and prepared us some supper. Inspector Lestrade’s reply came by second post the following day. The body of it ran thus:

The name on the rental agreement for the rooms in SW appeared to be Eduard Sinkiewicz. However, the landlord shows the rent as having been paid up to yesterday and the room now vacant. Forwarding address not known, but effects were removed to a private repository under railway arches in ___ Street, Whitechapel. Is there anything in this for us? Let me know.

The way that Dr. Watson represents the Inspector in his published accounts usually has him lagging several steps behind Mr. Holmes, or arresting the wrong man, or following the irrelevant or misinterpreted evidence. In fact I have always found him to be a very shrewd and intelligent man, and the newspapers regularly print summaries of his cases – ones with which Mr. Holmes has no connection – which show great efficiency. He does allow Mr. Holmes to rattle him sometimes, and has to endure my tenant’s condescension to someone not quite at his level – that lets him down a little. But I have a great deal of regard for him, and this note, I think, shows why!

Mrs. Watson and I held counsel again, as to whether simply to hand everything we knew over to the Inspector, or to keep on with our own investigation. Our conclusion was that we did not have sufficient evidence yet, our certainty about the murder and deception being the extent of what we had. However, Whitechapel had an unsavoury reputation and was not the sort of place two women like us could easily visit. We were at a loss for a while how to move things forward. Then I recalled that Mr. Holmes occasionally used disguises during his investigations…

Well – nutshell time again – as gloaming turned to murk, and evening to night, we found ourselves walking briskly through the neighbourhood in question, dressed in the uniform of the Salvation Army. I know, I know, but it was the best idea I could come up with. We maintained as much of an upright and confident air as we could, and moved about entirely without molestation. I silently congratulated Salvationism for having built up such trust, and hoped that our escapade would not mar things for them in any way.

Nevertheless, once again I had the feeling we were being followed. It was only a feeling, there was no evidence to suggest it was anything more than that, but it unsettled me a little. So by the time we arrived at the railway arches, I have to say I was a wee bit jittery. We identified the private repository by the serial number painted on the door, and in what little light there was saw that it stood unlocked and ajar.

“It may well be that we are too late,” said Mrs. Watson.

“It may well be,” I said, “but there is only one way to find out.”

My grandmother used to say that the only way to overcome the jitters is to square your shoulders, think of Scotland, and step forward. That was advice I tried very hard to follow as I slipped between door and jamb, and into the total darkness of the repository. I have no idea how Mrs. Watson steeled herself, but she was close behind me.

“Did you bring a candle? Some matches?” she asked.

“Not I,” I answered. “What was that noise?”

“I’m not sure, but it sounded like a door shutting and a bolt sliding to.”

“How right you are! The earth hath bubbles as the water has, and these are of them!” said a soft voice, and at that moment a lantern was uncovered, allowing a yellowish light to shine up into the bearded face of the Swami. I looked over my shoulder, past Mrs. Watson’s anxious face, and I could make out that the Swami’s servant stood between us and the door. I emulated my grandmother once again.

“Kuldip Singh Naga,” I said, as confidently as I could. “Or should I say Mr. Eduard Sinkiewicz?”

“Very true, how clever of you,” said the now-exposed Swami. “I must say your having tracked us here so quickly, before we could make our way to the Cuxhaven steamer, fills me with admiration. As does your penetration of my disguise. I have carried this ad hoc identity through India, you realise, once as an agent of the Tsar of Russia, then as a freelance; from there I made my way across the near-East, and Europe, living by my wits. Now, thanks to your meddling, I am obliged to make my way back again…”

“Wits?” cried Mrs. Watson, stepping forward. “You’re a mountebank, a murderer, and a thief!”

“And you are Mrs. Mary Watson, wife of Dr. John Watson, partner in the investigations of Mr. Sherlock Holmes, to whom you…” he turned to me, “are housekeeper, Mrs. Elspeth Hudson. What! – you think I didn’t know who you were? Finding that out was easy. Finding things out is all part of my enterprise, as you well know.”

“How would it be if we allowed you to leave for the steamer?” I asked. I could feel Mrs. Watson begin to object, but she stifled her objection in response to an urgent touch from my hand.”

Allowed me. Hmm…” Sinkiewicz seemed to consider that.

“You could, as a gesture, let us have the sum you took from Mrs. Watson’s friend,” I ventured. He shook his head.

“On balance, I think it would be unwise to leave any loose threads here. I’m sorry,” he said. Then he turned towards his servant and barked an order. “Nasir – jaladi, mara!

The servant pulled a dirk from his belt, but before he could move towards us the repository door gave way with a loud crash, swinging inward and knocking the him off his feet. A figure, coated and muffled burst in. Finding his feet again, the Punjabi made to throw his dirk, but the newcomer was faster, pulling something from a coat pocket – a revolver! – and there was a simultaneous flash and bang. The lantern was covered again, and I felt someone push past me and rush into the night. By the time the lantern was found and uncovered, Sinkiewicz was gone. But the Punjabi servant lay dead on the ground.

Mrs. Watson and I looked at the newcomer, now unwinding a muffler, to reveal a smiling face that was familiar to me.

“Good grief!” I exclaimed, “Mrs. Norton!”

“Good evening Mrs. Hudson,” said our dea ex machina, throwing her revolver down next to the dead Punjabi. “It’s good to see you again. Your companion and I have never met, but I know her to be the wife of Dr. Watson.”

“It seems my night to be recognised,” said Mrs. Watson.

I apologised to her, and introduced the newcomer. “This is Mrs. Irene Norton, better known to the world as Irene Adler, the famous contralto. Mr. Holmes has crossed swords with her in the past, when her career was intriguer, thief, and blackmailer, but he has some grudging admiration for her, regarding her as more sinned against than sinning. I have to say I never shared that view. Nonetheless I can’t remember ever being so glad to see one of Mr. Holmes’s adversaries. How on earth do you come to be here?”

“Oh, I… um… happened to be in the area of Baker Street, having just arrived in town from Cambridge, where I had been visiting some old friends. I happened to see you two in animated mode, and was instantly fascinated. I wanted to find out what had captured your attention – I sensed a possible adventure! – so I followed you. You’re lucky, though, because I was about to give up, but then I saw you two respectable ladies break into a Salvation Army Citadel. That kept me after you.”

“I knew it! I have had the distinct feeling we were being followed since out visit to Chelsea.”

“Now we should leave,” said the adventuress. “I sent an urchin for the police, and they should be on their way.”

“What about your gun?”

“Believe me, it will do more good lying there than not,” she said.

The police were indeed on their way, but they paid no attention to two Salvationists in the street, supporting an apparently drunken woman between them, while she sang about her “werry pretty garding”.

It was back at Baker Street, next morning, where she said “We could, I suppose, form a detective agency of our own. It really is not half as difficult as Dr. Watson’s published accounts – which I read avidly – make out. Far from creating mysteries, most criminals leave tracks that would disgrace an elephant.”

“What would Mr. Norton have to say about this?” I asked, but she ignored that question.

“We could call ourselves Watson, Hudson, and Norton,” said Mrs. Watson. I felt that was a little prosaic.

“That sounds like a firm of Writers-to-the-Signet,” I said.

“The Weird Sisters, then,” said my friend, laughing, reprising the fake Swami’s Shakespearean reference.

“Three Bubbles of Earth,” said Mrs. Norton merrily.

At that moment my doorbell rang, and I went to see who might be calling. It was a boy with a telegram. It was from my tenant.

ARRIVING NOON. COFFEE ESSENTIAL.

Oh these bachelors! I read it aloud to my guests. Mrs. Norton looked at my parlour clock.

“I should be going,” she said. “This idea of investigating things as a trio is an attractive one. Should you ever need me for such an adventure, put an advertisement in the personal column of the times. To ‘I.N.’ – some reference to Macbeth – and I’ll contact you.”

With that, she was muffled and gone. Mrs. Watson departed not long after her, and I was left on my own to prepare for Mr. Holmes’s return.

A day later everything was back to normal. Mr. Holmes was in his armchair reading his paper. Dr. Watson, returned from Dublin, had called to see him (before going home to his wife!). I was clearing away the breakfast dishes, when my famous tenant spoke.

221b 6“Watson, I see that Lestrade has been busy,” he said. It appears that two nights ago an alarm was raised in Whitechapel, and a dead Hindoo… hmm… from his description in the paper I would say rather a Punjabi Musalman… was found shot dead under some railway arches in Whitechapel, the murder weapon lying beside him. The murderer had made his escape. Later what appeared to be another Hindoo… there they go again… was apprehended about to board the steamer for Cuxhaven. He was first arrested on suspicion of having murdered the other fellow, but Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard was able to establish that he was none other than Eduard Sinkiewicz, a Pole, a former Russian spy, and a suspect in the murder of six gentlemen and the swindling of their widows, in the guise of a spiritual medium. Most of the ill-arrived gains were recovered from Whitechapel. Hmm… no residue of that case for us. But ah! What’s this?”

He sprang to his feet.

“The theft has been reported of an original manuscript of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, from Pembroke College, Cambridge. Police in that University city fear that a ransom will be demanded for this national treasure. Watson! There is no time to lose. When is the next train to Cambridge?”

“But… but…” said Dr. Watson, no doubt wondering how to explain his absence to his wife.

“Cambridge,” I said to myself as I went down the stair. “Cambridge. Oh dear.”

I thought perhaps I had better put an advertisement in the Times without delay. One of the three bubbles had some explaining to do…

__________
This might not be the last you hear of the three lady detectives.

M.

Claire Pellucida – a Fable

castleOnce there was a town. In the middle of the town stood a castle, and in the middle of the castle stood a high tower, and at the highest point of the tower was the chamber of a princess. Her name was Claire Pellucida, and the people of the town loved her, because she was pretty, and her eyes shone. They found her wise, because they would come to her and ask her what she could see from the window of her chamber, and she would tell them the most wonderful things. And the town itself was called Pellucida, in honour of its wise and pretty princess.

One day the people of the town assembled in the courtyard of the castle, and called up to the princess. “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the north.”

The princess looked to the north, and said, “Far away I see mountains, with summits and pinnacles as sharp as needles. There are trees growing there, that are of solid silver, and on them hang fruits and berries that are pearls and hard diamonds. There is a river of clear crystal, like ice, that flows with such slowness. And in amongst the silver trees I see the glint of the eyes of ermines and foxes; and above the trees, on snowy wings, fly white birds like eagles, with silver beaks.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the north laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There are no such mountains to the north of here, no such trees, nor birds, nor animals, nor a crystal river!”

But the people of the town believed their princess, and one day, when Claire Pellucida had grown into a beautiful young woman, they assembled in the courtyard of the castle and called up to the princess. “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the east.”

The princess looked to the east, and said, “Far away I see a forest, standing stark against the rising sun. The trees are an army of gigantic soldiers in a livery of black and dark green, and they roar in the wind, brandishing their long spears angrily, because they cannot march upon us.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the east laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There is no such forest of roaring giants to the east of here.”

But the people of the town believed their princess, and one day, when Claire Pellucida had grown into a handsome matron, they assembled in the courtyard of the castle and called up to the princess, “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the south.

The princess looked to the south, and said, “Far away I see a land where the sands ripple as the sea does, and the mountains are like children’s bricks, stacked chequered – white limestone, red sandstone, pink granite. And the trees wave in the breeze, like many-fingered hands, and amongst them step lithe girls and boys in linen robes, gathering the amber fruits that hang on them.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the south laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There are no such mountains like children’s bricks to the south of here. Nor are there such waving trees with amber fruit.”

But the people of the town believed their princess, and one day, when Claire Pellucida had grown into a stately old woman, they assembled in the courtyard of the castle and called up to the princess. “Princess Claire Pellucida, tell us what you can see to the west.”

The princess looked to the west, and said, “Far away I see a peaceful sea of liquid silver, where the sun shines like copper. There is an island on that silver sea, and a great city on that island, with tall towers of yellow-veined marble, on which the copper sunlight glints, and shines, and dances. And upon that silver sea sail great golden dhows.”

The townspeople were amazed, and very happy that they had such a wise princess, who could see so far and tell them such wonderful things. But visitors from the west laughed at them.

“You Pellucidians are fools,” they said. “There is no such silver sea to the west of here. Nor is there such and island city, nor golden dhows.”

But the people of the town still believed their princess, as they had always done.

The night after she had looked to the west, and told the people of the town what she had seen there, Princess Claire Pellucida was wakened by a great glow outside the window of her chamber. She rose from her bed, and looked out of her window, to the west. There was the silver sea, the copper sunset, the island with its city of yellow-veined marble; and more marvellously, a silver river was running from the silver sea right to her castle. And on that silver river was a great, golden dhow. And on that great, golden dhow stood tall mariners and fine ladies, all dressed in saffron cloaks sewn with golden-thread. There were circlets on their heads of interwoven white gold and yellow gold, and torques of copper round their necks and wrists, and rings of gold upon their fingers. And they saluted and bowed, and called out to the princess.

“Princess Claire Pellucida, come down and sail with us to the island in the silver sea; for the island city with its towers of yellow-veined marble, has need of a queen to rule it.”

So Princess Claire Pellucida came down from her chamber in the highest point of the tower, in the centre of the castle; and she sailed away with the tall mariners and fine ladies, to the sunset, to the silver sea, to the island city with its towers of yellow-veined marble. And there she ruled as their Queen for ever.

But that is not the end of things.

The next morning, the people of the town of Pellucida gathered in the courtyard of the castle, and called up to their princess. But she did not answer. One brave townsman entered the castle, and climbed the tower, and from the window of the chamber at its highest point, he called sadly for five of his friends to join him.

In the chamber, the six men stood, and looked down at the bed, on which lay Princess Claire Pellucida. She lay smiling and peaceful, as though she slept, and in her face the six men could see the fleeting prettiness that had been there when she was a girl, the beauty that had been there when she was a grown woman, the loving gentleness that had been there when she was a matron, and still, still the stately splendour of their dear princess in old age lingered also. But they knew that she was not sleeping. She had left them, and was dead.

But even that is not the end of things.

The six men carried her, with great sadness and reverence, down to the townspeople, and they all processed solemnly out of the town, and laid the body of the princess – as was their custom – a mile away, in the great, open wilderness that surrounded the town for mile upon mile, for the wild beasts and the birds to devour.

But even that is not the end of things.

The townspeople continued to tell stories to their children, of all the wonderful things that the princess had seen from her chamber in the castle tower, and of all the things she had told them. The children believe the stories, and worshipped the tower where the princess had lived. They told the same stories to their own children. These children did not believe them, but still they told the same stories to the next generation. The children of that next generation believed nothing at all, except what travellers from the north, from the east, from the south, and from the west told them.

And who knows if that is the end of things!

golden 2

__________

I’m thinking of putting together a collection of my short stories – most of which you have not seen here on the web site, and presenting them for publication. What do you think? If you would like to read through the short stories that I have published so far on this web site, please click here.

M