Easily distracted

Easily distracted
Marianne von Werefkin (Russian / Swiss, 1860-1938), Mondnacht [Moonlit Night], 1909-10. Tempera and mixed media on paper laid on board.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

"Podolo" by L.P. Hartley can be read here.

....Angela climbed back into the boat. ‘I nearly had it,’ she said, her voice still unsteady from the encounter. ‘I think I shall get it next time. I shall throw a coat over it.’ She ate her asparagus in silence, throwing the stalks over the side. I saw that she was preoccupied and couldn’t get the cat out of her mind. Any form of suffering in others affected her almost like an illness. I began to wish we hadn’t come to Podolo; it was not the first time a picnic there had gone badly.

‘I tell you what,’ Angela said suddenly, ‘if I can’t catch it I’ll kill it. It’s only a question of dropping one of these boulders on it. I could do it quite easily.’ She disclosed her plan to Mario, who was horror-struck. His code was different from hers. He did not mind the animal dying of slow starvation; that was in the course of nature. But deliberately to kill it! ‘Poveretto! It has done no one any harm,’ he exclaimed with indignation. But there was another reason, I suspected, for his attitude. Venice is overrun with cats, chiefly because it is considered unlucky to kill them. If they fall into the water and are drowned, so much the better, but woe betide whoever pushes them in....

The Devil's shelfie, probably: The Book by Margaret Irwin

Margaret Irwin's sublime 1930 short story "The Book" can be found here and here.

I first saw the story referenced in The Penguin encyclopedia of horror and the supernatural, edited by the masterful Jack Sullivan.

"The Book" begins as a tale about the perils of rereading favorite novels.

Mr. Corbett, hunting a book that will send him to sleep, raids his dining room's bookshelf:

....He hurriedly chose a Dickens from the second shelf as appropriate to a London fog, and had returned to the foot of the stairs when he decided that his reading tonight should by contrast be of blue Italian skies and white statues, in beautiful rhythmic sentences. He went back for a Walter Pater.

He found Marius the Epicurean tipped sideways across the gap left by his withdrawal of The Old Curiosity Shop . It was a very wide gap to have been left by a single volume, for the books on that shelf had been closely wedged together. He put the Dickens back into it and saw that there was still space for a large book. He said to himself in careful and precise words: “This is nonsense. No one can possibly have gone into the dining-room and removed a book while I was crossing the hall. There must have been a gap before in the second shelf.” But another part of his mind kept saying in a hurried, tumbled torrent: “There was no gap in the second shelf. There was no gap in the second shelf.”

He snatched at both the Marius and The Old Curiosity Shop , and went to his room in a haste that was unnecessary and absurd, since even if he believed in ghosts, which he did not, no one had the smallest reason for suspecting any in the modern Kensington house wherein he and his family had lived for the last fifteen years. Reading was the best thing to calm the nerves, and Dickens a pleasant, wholesome and robust author. 

Tonight, however, Dickens struck him in a different light. Beneath the author’s sentimental pity for the weak and helpless, he could discern a revolting pleasure in cruelty and suffering, while the grotesque figures of the people in Cruikshank’s illustrations revealed too clearly the hideous distortions of their souls. What had seemed humorous now appeared diabolic, and in disgust at these two favourites he turned to Walter Pater for the repose and dignity of a classic spirit. 

But presently he wondered if this spirit were not in itself of a marble quality, frigid and lifeless, contrary to the purpose of nature. “I have often thought,” he said to himself, “that there is something evil in the austere worship of beauty for its own sake.” He had never thought so before, but he liked to think that this impulse of fancy was the result of mature consideration, and with this satisfaction he composed himself for sleep.

Mr.Corbett's experience might be summed-up with the phrase We never read the same book twice. He thinks he has developed new intellectual acumen. He tells himself there is nothing odd about the dining room bookshelf, that "The things that disturb us at midnight are negligible at 9 a.m."

....Every new book seemed to him weak, tasteless and insipid; while his old and familiar books were depressing or even, in some obscure way, disgusting. Authors must all be filthy-minded; they probably wrote what they dared not express in their lives. Stevenson had said that literature was a morbid secretion; he read Stevenson again to discover his peculiar morbidity, and detected in his essays a self-pity masquerading as courage, and in Treasure Island an invalid’s sickly attraction to brutality.

This gave him a zest to find out what he disliked so much, and his taste for reading revived as he explored with relish the hidden infirmities of minds that had been valued by fools as great and noble. He saw Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë as two unpleasant examples of spinsterhood; the one as a prying, sub-acid busybody in everyone else’s flirtations, the other as a raving, craving maenad seeking self-immolation on the altar of her frustrated passions. He compared Wordsworth’s love of nature to the monstrous egoism of an ancient bell-wether, isolated from the flock.

Is it the books that have grown corrupted, or their reader?

Mr. Corbett realizes it is not just favorite old books that have become distasteful.

....He discovered also and with a slight shock that Mrs. Corbett had always bored him. Dicky he began actively to dislike as an impudent blockhead, and the two girls were as insipidly alike as white mice; it was a relief when he abolished their

tiresome habit of coming in to say good night.

Instead of lighting-out for Tahiti to paint colorful nudes, as any other dissatisfied underachieving family man might, Mr. Corbett picks another book. The Last book he will ever need.

His choice recalls the wrong turns of inquisitive scholars in M.R. James stories or the fates of Ramsey Campbell's hopelessly distracted and oblivious protagonists.

....In the now unbroken silence and seclusion of the dining-room he read with feverish haste as though he were seeking for some clue to knowledge, some secret key to existence which would quicken and inflame it, transform it from its present dull torpor to a life worthy of him and his powers.

He even explored the few decaying remains of his uncle’s theological library. Bored and baffled, he yet persisted, and had the occasional relief of an ugly woodcut of Adam and Eve with figures like bolsters and hair like dahlias, or a map of the Cosmos with Hell-mouth in the corner, belching forth demons. One of these books had diagrams and symbols in the margin which he took to be mathematical formulas of a kind he did not know. He presently discovered that they were drawn, not printed, and that the book was in manuscript, in a very neat, crabbed black writing that resembled black-letter printing. It was, moreover, in Latin, a fact that gave Mr. Corbett a shock of unreasoning disappointment. For while examining the signs in the margin he had been filled with an extraordinary exultation, as though he knew himself to be on the edge of a discovery that should alter his whole life. But he had forgotten his Latin.

With a secret and guilty air which would have looked absurd to anyone who knew his harmless purpose he stole to the schoolroom for Dicky’s Latin dictionary and grammar, and hurried back to the dining-room, where he tried to discover what the book was about with an anxious industry that surprised himself. There was no name to it, nor of the author. Several blank pages had been left at the end, and the writing ended at the bottom of a page, with no flourish or subscription, as though the book had been left unfinished. From what sentences he could translate, it seemed to be a work on theology rather than mathematics. There were constant references to the Master, to His wishes and injunctions, which appeared to be of a complicated kind. Mr. Corbett began by skipping these as mere accounts of ceremonial, but a word caught his eye as one unlikely to occur in such an account. He read this passage attentively, looking up each word in the dictionary, and could hardly believe the result of his translation. “Clearly,” he decided, “this book must be by some early missionary, and the passage I have just read the account of some horrible rite practised by a savage tribe of devil-worshippers.” Though he called it “horrible”, he reflected on it, committing each detail to memory. He then amused himself by copying the signs in the margin near it and trying to discover their significance. But a sensation of sickly cold came over him, his head swam, and he could hardly see the figures before his eyes. He suspected a sudden attack of influenza, and went to ask his wife for medicine....

When he reaches his family in the drawing room, they ask him why he has a red fingerprint on his forehead. And that is only the prelude.

*

I've been fortunate lately in picking some excellent stories to read, and I cannot recommend Margaret Irwin's "The Book" strongly enough.

Jay

25 June 2017


A note on Brenner's Boy by John Metcalfe (1931)

John Metcalfe's story "Brenner's Boy" (1931) is not be be missed. 

Like the best work of Ramsey Campbell, its narrative proceedures force the reader into approximate states of disorientation and uncanny anxiety, rather than just describing the protagonist's experience of them.

The story is available in an inexpensive Ash-Tree Press ebook.


Jay
25 June 2017

***


Brenner’s Boy by by John Metcalfe
1931





I

WARRANT OFFICER WINTER, in his middle sixties, remained a hard-headed man. Retired in 1904, he now, in 1912, was a member of the Royal Fleet Reserve and lived with his wife in a small whitewashed cottage on the Hampshire coast. ‘Pompey’ was not so far off—about seven miles—and over his nightly tot of lion’s blood in the Calcutta Tavern he would survey, with conscientious censoriousness, the callow antics of occasional too-exuberant ratings off the Excellent—liberty men whose cap ribbons proclaimed them as having come ‘ashore’ not from a ship at all but from the moaning, cordite-reeking Naval Gunnery School upon Whale Island.

Nowadays, it was his conviction, ratings were pampered. Owing, in part, to the ameliorated conditions achieved by Miss Agnes E. Weston, the bluejacket lived soft. The old spirit of natural enmity between the Wardroom and the lower deck was gone. He hummed, under his breath, a ditty, of which a line or two was missing in his memory:

Poll put her arms akimbo
At the Admiral’s house looked she.
To thoughts that were in limbo
She then to vent gave free.
‘Oh you’ve got a roaring fire I’ll bet
And in it your toes are jammed’
(tum tiddy um tiddy um tum tum)
‘Port Admiral, you be damned!’

Port Admirals for aught he knew might, as extreme cases, still be properly detested, especially by starving dollymops, so possibly the ballad, in the context of his scorn, was not entirely appropriate. But, in a rough way, it applied. He mused sourly, twirling the stem of his half-empty glass of rum. In his day almost any Admiral was hated ipso facto—Yes, old Brenner too.

II

Either he, Winter the hard-headed, had not proved quite insensible to flattery in that encounter, or else he must admit that Brenner wasn’t quite so bad. A dry old stick, however, at the best. His mufti hung awkwardly from clothes-horse shoulders; his voice, even in greeting, had an excoriating rasp. He seemed all knees and knuckles.

Winter, desperately reminiscent for the sake of sanity, strove to give the affair in retrospect a minute documentation. He could be sure of the date anyhow. The Navy had been out of white cap-covers for nearly three weeks. It was the twentieth of October, a snell and gloomy afternoon with a faint driving sting of rain. He was taking the 1.15 to Havant, where an uncle who had a little property to leave had just expired. The funeral was next day and Winter was stopping at Havant for the night.

On his way to Portsmouth he had looked in at the Calcutta. This had delayed him, and when at length he reached the station he had less than half a minute to find room in a crowded train. A football team, accompanied by supporters, was tumultuously en route for Brighton. Winter had finally flung himself into the first-class compartment which fatally happened to contain Rear Admiral Brenner, C.B., M.V.O.

Also there was the boy—stamping on Winter’s boots, squirming and doubling, grimacing with brown minnow-eyes and a mouth stuffed with toffee—which before long exploded stickily on his father’s waistcoat in a burst of raucous laughter. Old Brenner, that supposed martinette, could do nothing with the imp apparently.

‘Be quiet, Tinker . . . Do you hear? Sit still, Sir!’ Owing to these distractions the Admiral’s recognition of the W.O. was frosty. ‘Isn’t your name Winter? On Sutlej I think, in ’98.’

‘Yes, Sir.’ Winter’s gaze was respectfully wooden. That old swine Brenner! He felt, momentarily, a mean glow of cynical gratification at Brenner’s remembering him. Well, if—— Suddenly his mind grew blank in a kind of horror. ‘On Sutlej I think in ’98 . . .’ It was the boy, chanting, mimicking his father. A grey curtain of shame dropped between the two men. The Admiral’s face paled. Hell seemed to be let loose. Winter averted his eyes.

So it went on. There were only the three of them in the compartment, and at Cosham, where tickets were examined, Brenner insisted on paying Winter’s excess fare. Conversation was disjointed, thanks to Hell. Apart from the boy, Tinker, and with due regard to their differing ranks, retired Admiral and retired Warrant could doubtless have exchanged the remarks of two profound realists, neither one of them estimable or imagining himself to be so, yet each convinced that the remaining world was still less estimable. Each, had young Hell allowed him, might have felt for the other a grudging, semi-hostile admiration. . . .

But the boy confused and impaired all this. He swaggered and spat twice—three times, upon the floor, then, crouching, peered out from between his father’s legs like something in a den. His ears were patently unclean. Once, as they were nearing Fratton, Winter had to close his nostrils against an evil smell. Old Brenner sat rigid, raging. The exposé of his impotence turned Winter rather sick. Already he felt a potential blackmailer. At Havant he got out clumsily, half tripped by Tinker’s toes, uttered a sheepishly constrained ‘Good afternoon, Sir.’

What bothered him enormously afterwards was the difficulty he experi-enced in reconstructing the encounter. Had old Brenner really suggested anything about the boy—about his stopping with him, Winter, for a week or two? It seemed extravagantly unlikely. Yet it was true that they had swapped addresses, which was improbable enough. Brenner, however, had coldly promised to look into that entanglement about his Reserve grading and promotion. And possibly, in irony, he might have said something about a visit. ‘Winter’ll give you plenty of rope-pie when you’re with him!’ For an instant the imp had sobered, leaned against Winter’s knee. The minnow eyes grew soft and lush, repugnantly girlish. Winter, embarrassed, had shrunk away a little. From the coach behind them came a hoarse burst of singing. The footballers. ‘Bill Bailey’ and ‘Let’s all go down the Strand!’ And outside it was grey, rain driving on the windows. The whole thing didn’t seem real. . . .

‘Rope-pie, indeed! Yes, some o’ that’d do the little sod no harm!’ Winter had laughed to himself later in bitter awkwardness. He had no child of his own. He had married a woman who had proved barren. Winter would sit in the Calcutta Tavern thinking hard thoughts about her, twirling his rum. And now he could not remember properly what old Brenner had really said. But he must remember. It was terribly important. His brain was splitting. Oh, my head, my poor head, my head . . .

III

All that he had to go on for some time was a letter, which he had subsequently mislaid. He turned his cottage upside down in vain. The thing was lost.

The letter came at ten a.m. Winter’s dowdy, wistful wife, Chrissie, brought it out to him as he was digging in the back garden. He read it, frowning. ‘It’s from old Brenner. He’s looking into that Reserve business he says. . . .’ Winter had told Chrissie, curtly, about his meeting Brenner in the train a fortnight ago and had even mentioned Brenner’s odious child, but now he did not show her the letter. He had a disquieting notion that there was something very wrong with it. He continued his digging and Chrissie returned indoors.

It was a grey November day, cold but dampish, and very still. Whale island was booming away as usual, and Winter anticipated, with annoyance, that the heavy guns would presently bring the rain down. He felt surly, and that morning, aware of rheumatic twinges, had put on his red flannel body-belt. Even his cottage, frigidly spick and span, with its neatly furled ex-service look of something eternally standing at attention, got on his nerves. He was fed up with Chrissie. Not only had she given him no child but she was a liar as well. She had told him that her sister and brother-in-law, the Pinks, were definitely not coming again for another fortnight, and now it suddenly appeared that they were coming—tomorrow afternoon. His Sunday would be ruined.

Moreover, there was this letter.

Fishing it from his pocket as he strolled off after tea toward the Calcutta Tavern, he considered it uneasily. The body of the missive was satisfactory—a laconic intimation that affairs at the Reserve were being straightened out—and the address was the Cadogan Square address which the Admiral had already given him—but, underneath the crabbed signature, were written in an un-formed, scrawling hand the words ‘on suttledge I think in ninety ate’.

Whilst he was playing Crown and Anchor and other gambling games with a bunch of ex-Marines Winter became increasingly disturbed and out of sorts. The reek of smoke in the crowded room behind the saloon bar, the excited shouts of ‘House!’ or ‘Clickety-click!’, made his head ache. Evidently that little bastard had scribbled on the old fellow’s letter, and Brenner hadn’t spotted it. He must be amazingly careless. And the added words were actually a quotation. Brenner had used them himself and that damned kid had mimicked him. Extremely odd. . . .

The ex-W.O., in general a securely unimaginative individual, grew more and more perplexed. For some days after his meeting with Brenner he hadn’t thought much about the matter, beyond recalling it occasionally with faint ironical distaste. But latterly, instead of letting it lapse in a normal manner, he had fallen to wondering about it, examining it uneasily. Now, with the arrival of the letter, he was obsessed with the feeling that the whole episode had been, in some vague way he couldn’t put his finger on, ‘irregular’. He racked his brains.

‘On Sutlej I think, in ’98.’ What had happened on Sutlej in ’98? Brenner, certainly, was very much aboard, only he hadn’t been an Admiral then of course. He had been a mere Commander, a justly unpopular and peppery old devil, dishing out plenteous 10A. to defaulters, whilst Winter himself had been a C.P.O. On the whole they had rather disliked each other, but there had been no trouble. Winter had left with ‘Excellent’ on his flimsy. It seemed natural enough that the old sod should remember him, and even exert himself about the Reserve business in a friendly way if he felt like it, now that they were both more or less civilians. Unusual, possibly, but yet entirely in order. . . .

Winter set off on his tramp homewards, still morosely brooding. Despite himself, he had been flattered by the Admiral’s recognition, but, with a tight sneer, he had quashed the feeling. In any case, the spectacle of that old sea-dog’s disgraceful incapacity to deal with a ten year’s brat had quickly scandalised him. ‘Old sea-dog’ hell! Winter had been degraded by his involvement, even as a mere onlooker, in something pitiable and faintly ludicrous.

Gaining the foot of the acclivity at the top of which his cottage was situated, he continued to cogitate. He wished he could remember what he and old Faceache had said to each other in the train a bit more clearly. It struck him for a moment as curious that he had forgotten everything but the barest scraps of their conversation, and that even these recollected fragments appeared vague and somehow not quite ‘right’, improbable. For instance, he fancied now that the Admiral had made some remark about young Tinker’s boarding with him for a while—in joke of course. And when the boy had sidled up against his knee Brenner had said, in obvious sarcasm, seems to have taken quite a shine to you. . . .’

Winter, laboriously plodding up the cliff, gave a dry, mirthless chuckle. ‘Perhaps the old fool thought that I could manage him a trifle better than he could himself. Wouldn’t be difficult. If I had . . .’

Suddenly his meditations were interrupted. From behind him at this instant came a burst of laughter. Winter, with a startled oath, swung round. It was dark, of course, but he could make out a low, curvetting figure pursuing him up the path. Winter drew out an electric torch, flashed it upon the approaching form, and stared, incredulous. His heart dropped in a quick dismay. Could this be possible? He peered more closely.

Yes, he was not mistaken. It was him all right, that boy—just as if Winter’s thoughts had brought him here. It was Tinker, Tinker Brenner, carrying a small suit-case in one hand and waving to him with the other.

‘What the . . . what do . . . what do you want?’ Winter had halted, and Tinker was now beside him, laughing still, and—actually—circling round him, stabbing an extended thumb into his, Winter’s, buttocks. The ex-W.O. circled too, to avoid him. ‘Hi—stop it, you. . . . Hold off there. . . .!’ In an unreasoned access of alarm he noticed that the boy had no proper boots; he was wearing patent-leather slippers—dancing pumps or something. And again, despite his astonishment, there came popping up into his mind, like a phrase of complete nonsense which had yet gathered a peculiarly unpleasant flavour, the question—What had happened upon Sutlej—in ’98?

IV

Anyhow, it was exactly twenty two minutes past nine in the evening of the third of November. Winter was destined to cling obstinately to this solid fact, feeling that the possession of a precise date helped him a little in a position which, on the face of it, was fantastic. He and the prancing Tinker had entered the cottage and Tinker was now swilling tea and bolting cold boiled bacon. He had already smashed one cup and stained the tablecloth. In response to feverish enquiries he had merely said: ‘He told me. He said I was going to stay with you.’ Chrissie and Winter, having lost all appetite for supper, stood staring at him from just outside the door-frame. Tinker paid them no attention whatsoever. Presently they retired by mute agreement to the kitchen and discussed the situation in hushed tones.

Chrissie, after the first shock, seemed less put out than Winter. The woman was such a fool that his fierce whispers of bewilderment failed to disturb her mulishly complacent brain. ‘He can’t stay here. What are we to do with the little bastard? Just says “He” said he was to come. “He”--that means the old man, Brenner. But the kid hasn’t got a letter—nothing. I don’t believe it. Only saw him for a few minutes in the train. He’s run away . . . But why should he come here? Fancy his getting the address an’ coming here . . . Only saw him a few minutes, I tell you—in that train. . . .’

They crept back to the living-room to find it empty. ‘Where’s he gorn?’ said Winter. ‘You better go an’ look.’ He waited, whilst Chrissie reconnoitred. Presently she returned on tiptoe, her eyes round. ‘’E’s asleep! ’E’s gorn to sleep—on our bed. Shall I wake ’im?’

Winter nodded, still annoyed with Chrissie. Her face had a wondering, furtive expression he didn’t care about.

V

Brenner’s boy spent, as nearly as circumstances permitted Winter to calculate, between fifty and fifty-seven hours at the cottage. During this time he was observed at close range by at least three other individuals. These people—Chrissie and the two Pinks—could all, if necessary, have been called on to corroborate the fact of his presence there and to give some description of his clothing, manners and general personal appearance.

He wore a grey tweed knickerbocker suit and heather-mixture ‘golf’ stockings badly in need of darning. His face was usually dirty, and adorned with large ears, like Brenner’s own. Since his suit-case contained no night-apparel, Chrissie lent him for his slumbers an old flannel shirt of her husband’s, which in the morning was found to be seriously defiled. On the first evening he had, as stated, simply thrown himself down on the Winters’ bed and gone to sleep there, but, after some discussion, it was decided to make him undress like a Christian. Chrissie prepared him an impromptu bed in the parlour and Winter, finally losing his temper at the boy’s stubbornness,carried him out of their bedroom and dumped him, squirming, on the sofa.

What was to be done about it? Winter, after a disturbed Sunday breakfast, concoted and posted a letter to the Admiral. He had had half a mind to wire from Portsmouth, but, at the last moment, hesitated to appear too astonished and incredulous. There was, he kept strangely telling himself, just an off-chance that the child really might have come down with old Brenner’s sanction. Yet that seemed quite absurd. Tinker had arrived unannounced; he had come in dancing slippers and without a nightdress; there had been, of course, no previous talk about ‘terms’. And, in any case, Winter would rather have done without the boy and money both.

That was what he thought, savagely, on the first morning. Coming home from posting the letter, he found his News of the World turned into paper darts which littered the small living-room from end to end. The Pinks—Lydia and Harry—were on the scene, and Tinker had grabbed at Mrs Pink’s bead necklace and broken the thread. Chrissie was apologising and picking up the scattered beads. . . .

Without going into details it is enough to say that Tinker, as long as he stayed at the cottage, was a trial, a rare ‘handful’. This is putting it mildly. Even from the start he was, of course, and in a curious way, much worse than that. Winter, before the boy disappeared at last, had struck him twice. Once upon the seat of his knickerbockers with a slipper and once with the flat of the hand on his face. The second time seemed to Winter the more serious. Rather oddly, he could not remember afterwards what especial piece of mischief had made him so angry. Probably Master Brenner had been setting up his usual terrible row, singing (if one could call it singing) in a cracked, caterwauling drone. It must have been that. The ex-Warrant thought he could recall his own words anyhow: ‘Oh, put a sock in it! Oh, for Christ’s sake, pipe down. . . .!’ He had been very riled.

What he did remember, quite plainly, was that, after the blow, Tinker had made no fuss. He had only seemed sobered and a little startled. Winter himself had looked uneasily at the mark, first white then red, which his palm had left on Tinker’s cheek. Going into the hall, he met Chrissie, who had heard the slap. She was frightened again, and Winter felt a furious indignation with her, changing, to his surprise, into a kind of dull unhappiness. A lump even rose in his throat and his eyes grew moist. He and his wife just stared at each other without a word.

This was not everything. Besides the general anomaly of the situation were a good many things which struck the harrassed Warrant as peculiar. Most of all, the kid’s dislike of going out of doors and his determined unwillingness to speak, or explain anything, about himself. On that first evening of his arrival Winter had done nothing but ask him questions, but he could get no proper answers. The brat would sing and swagger, shout for food when he was hungry, and, sometimes, mimic Winter and poor Chrissie in the rudest way, but into ordinary conversation he stubbornly refused to be beguiled. Coaxing and threats had no effect. His behaviour was so remote and standoffish toward other people it was really something like a cat’s.

Harry Pink, whose new kodak had had to be snatched away from Tinker a little earlier in the afternoon and who was still very angry at the narrowness of its escape, whispered to Winter at the doorstep upon taking leave. He moved his head seriously up and down as he spoke, under his breath.

‘Some cough-drop, that, you’ve got! If I was you I’d pack ’im ’ome, George, right away, I would. . . .!’

Lydia nodded too. ‘So rude! And—and ’e’s queer. I wouldn’ keep ’im, George, I wouldn’ reelly. Must be some mistake. ’E’s—well, ’e’s funny, sort of, kind of funny. Sort of gives one the creeps. . . .!’








VI

Sunday had passed. Over the weekend, with its blank postal day, the Warrant had had to resign himself to marking time, but now that Monday morning, chill and overcast, was here and there was still no letter from the Admiral he found it difficult not to feel worried. Usually a phlegmatic and somewhat indurated individual, his mind sardonically schooled in the hard, ‘wangling’ guile of Gun-room politics, Winter was by no means the type to be easily fazed or rattled by any ordinary dilemma, yet, by degrees, the growing mystery of this affair began to tell on him. It certainly was very strange! he would repeat—not, after all, knowing quite what he really meant when he said that.

Whilst he remained anxious not to annoy old Brenner just as the promotion business was being settled, he nevertheless saw clearly that the present state of things could not continue. It was, of course, only the vague, intermittent haunting of his memory by the Admiral’s remarks in the train which had prevented him from wiring to Cadogan Square at once. As it was, he decided to wait one more day and then, if he got no answer to his Sunday’s letter, to send the Admiral a telegram. And, in regard to Tinker’s boarding with them, even for a single week, he would, if necessary, have to write as tactfully as he could, explaining that they hadn’t the accommodation.

In the first place, Winter doubted whether any compensation he was likely to receive would leave him a clear profit, and, in the second, the boy’s society affected him, in morbid and unpleasant ways. If it had simply been a question of Tinker’s unsavoury habits and the depredations he occasioned, Winter, for adequate remuneration, might have borne with him and tried, eventually, to lick him into shape, supposing that was what old Brenner really wanted him to do.

He had lost his temper with the brat and struck him twice yesterday, and, possibly as a result, the kid seemed quieter today, much less unruly. But, beyond this, was something rather more disturbing, something which left him gravelled for an explanation. The child, he put it to himself, was ‘queer’, unlike a normal boy. He had been here now, how long? Almost forty-one hours—and he had hung about indoors all day, still making himself an awful nuisance certainly, and yet hardly saying a word to a soul. Chrissie had even feared he might be sickening for something. It would be a nice picnic if he came down on them with ’flu, for instance! At dinner he had eaten less than usual and after the meal sat idly flicking over the leaves of a copy of Chips and of other ‘comics’ which he had brought with him in his suit-case. As the afternoon wore on, Winter, who had had to abandon a long-projected visit to an old shipmate in Southsea, found himself looking at the boy in growing dissatisfaction. He had a feeling—preposterous of course yet difficult to shake off—that Tinker was not—how to put it?—not quite, not entirely, ‘right’. He now remembered, too, though with contempt, a remark of Lydia’s which Chrissie had retailed to him. Mrs Pink, it seemed, when she had caught sight of Tinker through the doorway, had, in the first flush of amazement, made a curious mistake as to his sex. She had imagined, for a moment, that he was a girl! Winter had a low opinion of Lydia, but, all the same, her foolish error vaguely disconcerted him. Somehow, it tended to re-enforce his own conviction that the child was, in some peculiar way, abnormal, and unnatural, not quite really ‘there’. Yet by the number of cups and other articles of crockery that he had broken he must be reckoned very actual indeed!

After tea Winter followed Chrissie out into the kitchen. ‘That kid’s the bleeding limit! If he was mine I’d show him! If I had a kid . . .!’ He saw Chrissie’s moon face pucker. She was trying not to cry, regarding him covertly with that humble, apologetic glance which invariably exasperated him. He turned with an exclamation of disgust. No, he would never have a kid. It was her fault. He went back softly, his mind weighted with some suspicion that defied analysis, to peep in awkwardly on Brenner’s boy.

Slowly the hours passed. It was dark outside. Dusk had fallen early and a damp moon arisen with a weeping wind. Tinker, sitting in the firelight, was still engrossed with Chips. He made no reply when Winter addressed him gruffly. ‘If I was you I wouldn’t strain me eyes . . . d’yer hear me?’ Winter, after a pause, lit the gas, noisily pulled down the blinds. ‘You’re going home tomorrer anyway . . .’ Tinker stirred at last, looked up. ‘Yes ... all right.’ Merely that. Winter stared at him a few moments in perplexity, then averted his eyes. What the hell was wrong with every thing—wrong with himself? He came over’ all queer when he looked at that boy. Wretched, indeed. He was overcome by an intense gloom, a strange, indefinable depression which had no adequate reason. He, Warrant Officer Winter, had got the pip and no mistake. His insides, he imagined, felt like the insides of a dog baying the moon or howling at music—listening to whatever tune it was the old cow died of . . .


VII

That night, after lying awake for several hours, he had a dream. It was still the previous evening and he had stolen into the parlour to look at Tinker. The kid, in the firelight, fastened his brown eyes upon him in a smile. But the smile was unbearable. Winter couldn’t stand it. It made him remember a tune, the tune and presently some of the words of a song he hated. The tune the old cow died of. It was on Sutlej in ’98. That elderly, grizzled two-and-a-half-ringer, Merrow, was singing it, bawling it from the quarter-deck:

Oh the clang of the wooden shoon
Oh the dance and the merry tue-oon . . .


Winter, with the song in his brain, stood staring in jaw-dropped misery at Tinker. And now Chrissie was beside him, staring too. ‘Oh, George,’ he heard her say, in accents of intense, melancholy reproach, ‘Oh, George—’e’s fond of you, ’e is, fond of you. . . .’ All at once he felt her hand clutch his arm in horror. ‘Look! Look at ’is ’ead! ’E’s going bald!’ The hair thinned as he gazed. It was Brenner and yet not Brenner. A black object like a large cockade with a zig-zag edge came up slowly between the boy’s collar and his neck. Chrissie was screaming.

The Warrant awoke, bathed in sweat, his eyes streaming with tears, to find himself in bed, his wife beside him. Well, he would send a wire off at any rate, possibly take the boy up to old Brenner as he’d told him. After a while he dropped off to sleep again. His slumbers this time were so heavy that he did not wake till Chrissie roused him.

She was half dressed, shaking his shoulder, looking at him alarmedly. ‘Wake up, George! ’E’s gorn! ’E’s gorn, I say!’

It was true. There was no sign of Tinker. He must have left in the night, taking his suitcase with him.

Winter swore. He felt cold and cramped inside, and frightened. ‘If we can’t find him I’ll go up to London. Have to. It’s serious, this. I’ll have to see old Brenner.’


VIII

In the train to London Winter reproached himself many times for his gross stupidity. He could not now understand how he had failed to realise from the start that Tinker’s descent upon them was unauthorised, that the whole business was extremely ‘fishy’. He ought to have wired to the Admiral immediately, and he was at a loss to comprehend the way in which he had delayed to do so. But it seemed that, in this predicament, his usual commonsense had been conspicuously lacking. The entire episode was like a dream in which even his own actions had been vague and indistinct. He had to pinch himself to believe that any of it had really happened.

However, he was certainly here, in this train, and on his way to Brenner’s. There was no doubt about that. He had waited for the morning post before leaving his cottage, but there had still been no letter—only a small package, addressed to him in Harry Pink’s familiar hand-writing, which he had thrust into his jacket pocket unopened. None of the few neighbours whom he had thought it worth while to question had seen anything of the decamping Tinker. At Portsmouth he had sent off a telegram to Cadogan Square. It was now eleven thirty, and he would arrive at Victoria a little after one.

As the train rushed and roared through Havant Winter wondered what he was going to say to Brenner. Perhaps he ought to have notified the police. Supposing the kid had not turned up there yet, had not gone home at all. . . .! That would be a pretty state of things! Tinker’s pockets had been found to contain a purse with some money, nearly a pound, so he would have enough to get home on—but there was no telling. Yes, it might have been wiser to have informed the police and waited instead of dashing off precipitately to see Brenner. And the old man would undoubtedly hold him, Winter, responsible for everything. Possibly, if the boy had got home all right, he would have complained to his father about the way Winter had struck him—and Brenner might be furious.

Outside, the day was misty. Thick banks of vapour were forming, blotting out wide patches of the landscape. Winter’s head was throbbing. He hoped devoutly that there wouldn’t be a fog in London to delay him. He was on tenterhooks to get the matter settled, had a sick feeling of suspense and apprehension. Not only was he mortified by what he now regarded as his own unaccountable negligence and culpable lack of ‘savvy’, ordinary ‘nous’, in the affair, and anxious as to what might be its upshot in a practical and worldly sense, but he was still bewildered, haunted by a curious, nagging doubt. The whole business bristled with improbabilities and contradictions. More and more, also, as he pondered it, he found himself relapsing into that state of deep and unexplained despondency which had enfolded him throughout the previous day. What the devil was wrong with him? And why, in particular, hadn’t Brenner wired or written to him, answered that letter he had sent on Sunday?

Putting his hand into his pocket, he drew out Harry’s package, which, as he was setting off for Portsmouth, he had snatched in a hurry from the postman and not troubled to take in to Chrissie. It was a stout brown envelope containing photographic prints, enclosed in a letter. Winter did no more than glance at the letter, but, in a sudden interest, he began to look over the snapshots, one by one. Mr Pink, as he recalled, had been eager to try out his new camera, and had ‘taken’ the little party several times.

The Warrant, looking at the snapshots, knitted his brows together in a frown. He thumbed them over, at first in dim perplexity, and then, more rapidly, in something like dismay. One, two, three, four, five, six—yes, they were all there. . . . A nervous oath escaped him. ‘Well, I’ll be——!’ He was trembling, beset by an actual physical chill. A man, smoking Woodbines in the opposite comer, turned his head in surprise, and Winter met his gaze blankly. The fog was thicker, and inside the compartment the incandescent gas shed a sickly radiance. Winter, with an effort, collected himself and thrust the photos back into his pocket. But he was shaking still. He glanced at his watch. With a feeling of cold aghastness he realised that his suspense must continue for another hour at least.


IX

The house, when at length he did arrive there, cast a further chill upon his spirits. It was a large, severe residence, faced with stone, and ordinarily the Warrant would have felt scornful at the bare idea of his intruding into such a place. But his nervousness now was of a different kind. The fog had made it difficult to find his way. It was past two o’clock already. He rang the bell and waited, shifting impatiently from foot to foot.

Presently the door was opened by a man, a ‘flunkey’ Winter mechanically presumed. The fellow’s face stared out in a hostile manner as if he were shocked. Winter began at once: ‘Can I see Admiral Brenner? My name’s Winter. I’ve——’

He got no further for the man cut him short. ‘See Admiral Brenner? No, certainly you can’t. Certainly not!’ The low, prim voice had a tone of outraged rebuke. From behind the man, from the large, gloomy house, something passed out to Winter like a melancholy breath. The door was closing.

‘But I must see him. It’s important. If——’ Winter, quivering with a strange desperation, had put a foot inside the door. The man, mouthing a horrified exclamation, tried to push him back, unavailingly. Within the house a crowing, raucous voice arose: ‘What’s that? Who’s there? What’s happening?’

It was the Admiral. The lackey, extinguished by scandal, stood rigid. Brenner and Winter confronted each other.

‘You . . . You . . . What do . . .’ Some emotion, evidently painful, choked the old man’s words. His face was suffused. Winter, looking at him, had a dumb presentiment of horror. Yes, this was Brenner—knuckles, knees, and parchment mottled cheeks—He hadn’t been mistaken as to that at any rate. Yet he was afraid, wrapped still in an uncanny speculation. He was terribly afraid of he didn’t quite know what—not quite, but almost.

Admiral Brenner slowly gained control of himself. He motioned the footman to depart. ‘Come in here.’ He opened a door into a room on the left of the hall. Winter, entering after him, experienced an added chill, aware of something that he hadn’t noticed from the foggy road outside. The room, until the Admiral switched on the electric light, was dark. The blinds were drawn.

Winter, fumbling his hat, began hurriedly. ‘I wrote to you on Sunday, Sir, and I sent you a telegram this morning. I hope that, er, Master Brenner’s got back safe, and——’

‘You’re mad!’ The Admiral’s voice rang with suppressed fury. His face was working; his eyes held tears, of grief or rage or both. He looked almost as if he were going to have a stroke. ‘You’re crazy! Your letter—yes, I got your letter, and the wire. . . . How—how dare you. . . . How . . . but you must be mad!’

Ex-Warrant Officer Winter, that usually hard-headed man, felt his mind growing blank, his legs enfeebled. His wits, apparently, had deserted him. It was only his evil genius, a morbid desire to get things straightened out and regularised, which impelled him to go on. He spoke woodenly from a glum trance in a sort of confused remonstrance, as if out of a moody rumination.

‘But, Sir, I don’t quite understand. You see, I wired to you that—that the boy’d given us the slip, gone off, and——’

He stopped. Old Brenner was struggling hard to say something, couldn’t quite manage it. A white intermittent fleck which he rapidly and repeatedly licked away appeared at the comer of his mouth. Winter waited. At length the Admiral spoke.

‘Get out! Get out of here! I—I won’t have it! You’re—you’re mad I say . . . My—my little boy, he’s—He was here all the time. I don’t know what you mean. He’s never left this house. He was—very ill. You’re crazy . He—he died last night. . . .

Winter moved to the door. For a moment he retained a stubborn determination to hear more, but his courage failed him. There was nothing to be made of this—nothing at all. He went out into the hall, opened the front door and closed it softly after him. The fog seemed to have cleared just a little. He put on his hat and stumbled down the steps.

X

And now, seven hours later, he was back again at the Calcutta Tavern, sipping his rum, utterly giving things up, unable to make head or tail of things at all. The Admiral, he was momentarily inclined to think, was very mad indeed. Obviously that must be so, for didn’t Winter distinctly remember missing that kid only this very morning, setting off in such a God-damned twitter for London to get the matter straight? And it was only yesterday that he had seen the boy, with his own eyes. A man had to believe his own eyes or where the hell was he? Others had seen him too. The idea of a collective hallucination (though this phrase was not actually available to Winter) must be considered too absurd.

But at other moments his faith weakened. There were those snapshots of Harry Pink’s in which Tinker should have appeared but didn’t. It was perplexing. Perplexity and uncertainty were playing the very devil with him. Suddenly he put his hands up to his forehead. ‘Oh, my head, my poor head, my head. . . .!’

One or two fellows in the bar were looking at him curiously. Winter felt disconcerted. Had he let out anything about Chrissie yet? She was the one who had said, in his dream, that Tinker was fond of him. It was all her fault, when you really came down to brass tacks, because she hadn’t given him a kid.

He had been sitting in rather a collapsed posture, in a corner, but now he straightened himself and spoke gruffly to a man he recognised. ‘You know my wife, eh?—Chrissie? Well, I’ve—just done her in. Strangled her, see?—like that!’ He made a grotesque motion with thick fingers, sturdy thumbs.

The man looked at him oddly, laughed in an embarrassed way. Nobody else paid him any attention. The door opened, letting in a breath of colder air. Winter looked out through it vacantly. His eyes were hurting and he had a sharp pain in his temples. ‘Oh, my head, my poor head, my head. . . .!’ he moaned. Between his locked fingers, as long as the door remained open, he could catch a glimpse of misty moonlight. For a moment he could smell the foggy night.

Leave your dreams alone: Never Visit Venice by Robert Aikman

“Never Visit Venice” by Robert Aickman
(1968)

In the last hour of his life, lonely and alienated middle class Englishman Henry Fern finds himself speeding out to sea beyond the Lido in a black gondola, seated next to a human skeleton.  

Henry has measured out his life by the coffee spoon, and has waited years to fulfill a recurring dream (and daydream) of visiting Venice. Now,

At the very end of the leftward or San Erasmo breakwater, the shorter of the two, Fern could just make out a large inscription daubed by supporters of the previous Italian regime, and never obliterated owing to difficulty of access – and perhaps other things. It was to the effect that a simple hour as a lion is to be preferred to a lifetime as an ass.

Had he but known!

The night before, when the skeleton was still a beautifully costumed woman, and she and Henry were making love in the gondola, Henry said:

‘Make my dream come true. Love me.’

She still did not speak….

‘Make my life worth while. Redeem me.’

From the depths of her black cloak she looked into his eyes.

‘You said you dreamed no longer. Do you know why?’

‘I think I began to despair of the dream coming true.’

‘The dream stopped when you decided to visit Venice. Never visit Venice.’

Jay
25 June 2017

***

From

The Wine-Dark Sea by Robert Aickman
(1988)

*

Saturday, June 24, 2017

13 on Saturday: A roundup of stories read

Brief notes or underlinings from some short stories read today.

Something Had to be Done by David Drake 1975

A wonderfully telescoped vampire story of the Vietnam War era.

McGonagall In The Head by Ramsey Campbell 1992

A tyro reporter on a newspaper takes obituary dictation over the phone. Soon he can't forget the ryhmes callers use: a word virus infection sends him over the edge.

The First Sheaf by H.R. Wakefield 1946

A man remembers his childhood in an isolated Essex farming community, and relates the bloody folk rituals used to end a drought.

The Great Fog by H.F. Heard 1944

A slight change in climate ends modern civilization and sends humanity into a new dark age.

Brenner's Boy by John Metcalfe 1932

In the "strange story" tradition of Robert Aickman and Ramsey Campbell, Metcalfe gives us not a tale about a man descending into madness, but a story conveying to the reader what that descent feels like. Confusing, vertiginous, and shattering.

Widdershins: A Droll by Arthur Quiller-Couch 1895

A crazy mixed-up backward run ing nightmare removes the stye From a farmer's eye.

The Last Seance by Agatha Christie 1926

....One sits in the cabinet in the darkness, waiting, and the darkness is terrible, Raoul, for it is the darkness of emptiness, of nothingness. Deliberately one gives oneself up to be lost in it. After that one knows nothing, one feels nothing, but at last there comes the slow, painful return, the awakening out ofsleep, but so tired–so terribly tired.’

S.O.S. by Agatha Christie 1926

‘Not nervous are you, Mother?’ said Mr Dinsmead. ‘It’s a wild night, that’s all. Don’t you worry, we’re safe here by our fireside, and not a soul from outside likely to disturb us. Why, it would be a miracle if anyone did. And miracles don’t happen. No,’ he added as though to himself, with a kind of peculiar satisfaction. ‘Miracles don’t happen.’

As the words left his lips there came a sudden knocking at the door. Mr Dinsmead stayed as though petrified....

The Hound of Death by Agatha Christie 1933

‘M. le docteur, I do not understand. Why should I have these dreams–these fancies? I was only sixteen when I entered the religious life. I have never travelled. Yet I dream of cities, of strange people, of strange customs. Why?’ She pressed both hands to her head.

The Bad Lands by John Metcalfe 1920

He held forth with peculiar vehemence and with appropriate gestures. He spoke of a new kind of terre-mauvaise, of strange regions, connected, indeed, with definite geographical limits upon the earth, yet somehow apart them and beyond them. ‘The relation,’ he said, ‘is rather one of parallelism and correspondence than of actual connection. I honestly believe that these regions do exist, and are quite as “real” in their way as the ordinary world we know. We might say they consist in a special and separated set of stimuli to which only certain minds in certain conditions are able to respond. Such a district seems to be superimposed upon the country to the south-west of this place.’

Island of Fear by Wlliam Sambrot 1958

Kyle stood on the warm sand, with the gull cries, the restless Aegean sea sounds all about him, and he knew at last who the old ones were who'd built the wall; why they'd built it to lead into the living waters and whom— what —the walls were meant to contain.

Creature of the Snows by William Sambrot 1960

"You're asking me to climb Mount Everest," Ed said carefully, keeping the sarcasm out of his voice, "to search for this plateau here," he tapped the shoddy photograph, "and take pix of—what are they—biped, erect-walking creatures, you say?"

The Troll by T. H. White 1935

Just as my father applied his eye to the keyhole, the Troll opened its mouth and bit off her head. Then, holding the neck between the bright blue lips, he sucked the bare meat dry. She shriveled, like a squeezed orange, and her heels kicked. The creature had a look of thoughtful ecstasy. When the girl seemed to have lost succulence as an orange she was lifted into the air. She vanished in two bites. The Troll remained leaning against the wall, munching patiently and casting its eyes about it with a vague benevolence. Then it leaned forward from the low hips, like a jackknife folding in half, and opened its mouth to lick the blood up from the carpet. The mouth was incandescent inside, like a gas fire, and the

blood evaporated before its tongue, like dust before a vacuum cleaner. It straightened itself, the arms dangling before it in patient uselessness, and fixed its eyes upon the keyhole. "

My father crawled back to bed, like a hunted fox after fifteen miles....

***

Jay


24 June 2017








Art:


Charles Burchfield The Builders: Haunted House

Friday, June 23, 2017

A sublime sickness: Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven

Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven
1960: Anthony Blond Publishing



***

Doctors Wear Scarlet is the last horror novel I will need to read. The last novel of any kind I will need to read, if truth be told.

Of course, I will reread some old favorites. But as far as novel-length fiction goes, no new (to me) titles need apply. 

For a long time now I thought I missed a fine chance to quit in the summer of 2008, when I called off work for a week to consume The Count of Monte Cristo. But I kept telling myself there was another great novel-reading experience out there, and I just needed to keep going.

For the horror fiction reader, novels are mostly disappointments. The kind of characters and stories needed in order to find a publisher militate against the genre's strengths: the uncanny, the strange wrapped within the familiar, the sharp shock, and economies of means and ends.

Today many horror novels are of limited run from small houses. Horror speciality publishers seem to be in business to generate scarce collectors’ items that can be resold for a mint. Include me out on that, too.

Doctors Wear Scarlet is available inexpensively as an eBook, so it surprises me how little mention it gets among contemporary horror readers. The novel was originally published in 1960, well before the horror boom years, so I assume it was lost to notice under that avalanche. The only reason I ever heard of it was because I read Twilight Zone Magazine in the early 1980s. In one issue Karl Edward Wagner put it on a ten-best list.

Set in 1957, the novel takes place soon after UK imperialism suffered an international defeat in the Suez war. This event, and the historic decline of the old British Empire that it codified, goes unmentioned by author Simon Raven. But within the novel's sun-bleached uncanny atmosphere, there is a marked air of defeat, missed chances, thwarted ambitions, and stunted hopes among all the characters.

The tension of these contradictions is played-out in novel's plot. Richard Fountain, an able and studious student at public school and Cambridge, refers to himself as an impotent virgin. He is at the start of a career in classical archaeology. But Fountain is also passively waiting, looking for a power that will break down his cell of thwarted urges. He resents both the academic career and mate his elders are planning for him, and is ready for another source of authority to impose control.

He finds this other authority while on a year-long expedition to Greece. It will not spoil the novel's plot if I reveal that this authority is the ancient taint of vampirism. At first Fountain loves and abets the vampire. Later, when the two are on the run from police through the Greek islands, Fountain will become its only source of sustenance.

The forgoing has already taken place when the novel begins. In Part One of the novel, Fountain's friend Anthony Seymour pieces this story together. A Metropolitan Police detective and several university acquaintances flesh it out for him. In Part Two, Seymour and two mutual friends travel to Greece. Their plan is to find Richard Fountain and bring him home. Part Three reveals what happens when they succeed.

The brilliance of Raven's novel is not the story per se. The brilliance lies in the telling. A few excerpts below will show the reader much more effectively than any more statements from me.

Jay
23 June 2017





Excerpts from Doctor Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven.

___


....“I’m sorry, Mr Seymour,” he said. Then he produced an identity card which said he was Inspector John Tyrrel of the Metropolitan Police.

“How did you get in?”

“I’m sorry, sir,” he said again. “The caretaker… I showed him my card.”

“My telephone number’s in the book,” I said. “As far as I’m concerned the police can ring up for appointments just like anybody else.”

“I’m sorry,” he said; “but you see this isn’t really an official visit. I’ve just come–”

“If this isn’t an official visit,” I said, “then so much the more could it have waited until some reasonable and pre-arranged hour of the day.”


***


....there was in our House at this time a loutish and pustular boy called Westerby. Opinionated but near-cretinous, loud-mouthed and pea-brained, overgrown, over-bearing and over-sexed, Westerby was now starting his fourth year at the school. Still in some remote and unbelievably inferior form, he was the soundest candidate for superannuation that ever I heard of. But this, you must remember, was during the war; and the war-time policy, discreetly urged on Head Masters by the Heads of Services, was that boys, however stupid, who were “potential officer material” should by hook or by crook be kept at school till the age of seventeen and a half, in the hope that they might learn something and because, if they were superannuated at an earlier stage, there were technical difficulties in getting them commissioned with all the speed thought necessary.


***

....“So of course you know Dickie Fountain,” he said. “Now that one, my dear, has really caught our Walter’s eye. You should have heard Walter when Dickie came up to take his scholarship exam. ‘A real winner,’ Walter said, as though poor Dickie were in for the Stewards’ Cup. ‘Will go a long way,’ Walter boomed. But of course we should have elected him anyway, if only because he wrote such a charming essay. Do you know what he wrote about?”

“No.”

“‘The Dying Gods’, my dear. Not original, you think? Ah. But you see, it wasn’t one of those dreamy, melancholy little pieces, pretending to think Pan is still alive but only just, you know the kind of thing, and sometimes to be seen crying in the woods if you look very carefully. It was a great big angry essay, saying that the Gods were dying indeed but not fast enough, that they were still a menace and ought to have been done with long since. He got very cross about it and seemed really to believe what he was saying.”


***


....struck by a sudden idea, I said aloud, “How does this wish of yours to express pagan wildness square with that essay you wrote in your scholarship exam?”

“Essay?”

“‘The Dying Gods.’ I’m told you condemned pagan survivals.”

“In a way I do. We’ve all got lives to live and careers to make. We’ve all got to marry sometime, settle down. And this seemed to me a point of view which might do one good in an exam of this kind.”

“Really, Richard. You calculating–”

“Please, Anthony. I wanted that scholarship: I needed it. I’m not rich, you know. And in any case, I believed what I wrote about pagan survivals…being in some way a threat. But then again, sometimes I think that the very things which are most threatening about them are the most deserving of…of respect. The idea of wine or sex being in some way divine, because they lead beyond mere pleasure to ecstasy and so to release. So that revels or routs are not just obscene – they represent the desire to escape oneself and – become part of…the god. This was the kind of thing I was trying to express in some of my poems and what I thought would make Walter angry… But somehow it didn’t.”


***

....“I can tell you one thing,” Tyrrel said grimly. “Mr Fountain will be back this September and even a good while sooner.”

“Ah,” I said, “I hoped you’d volunteer something sooner or later. It’s very much your turn. How do you come to be so certain, Inspector Tyrrel? Expand.”

“Because the Greek authorities, sir, will not allow him to stay.”

Not for the first time that evening, he wandered over to my bookcase and looked carefully along the shelves.

“Go on, man.”

“One of the pleasing things about this case,” mused Tyrrel, disregarding my remark, “is that it has so many…intellectual implications.”

He took from the shelves a book by Carl Kerényi called The Gods of the Greeks.

“When did you last read this, sir?”

“As an undergraduate. Before one of my exams.”

“Read it again, Mr Seymour. Particularly the early chapters. Or perhaps you remember them?”

“Not in any detail,” I said.

“Very well… Now, let me remind you of one or two things that have emerged very clearly from our discussion. One: Mr Fountain wrote an essay as a boy of eighteen – an essay which created some impression – called ‘The Dying Gods’; and in it he complained that the old gods were not dying fast enough and constituted a menace to society. Correct?”

“Yes,” I said, “but–”

“–Two,” said Tyrrel firmly: “his fellowship thesis was concerned with the survival of Minoan rites into classical times.”

“Granted.”

“And three: after he came back from the Army Dr Goodrich put him on to another line of research; but before leaving for Greece, Mr Fountain insisted on changing back to his Minoan interests. And what do you conclude from all this, Mr Seymour?”

“That he is interested in ancient religions, particularly the earlier varieties.”

“Good enough. And necessarily of course he would have to know, not only about Minoan or Cretan carryings-on, but also about the early imported Northern practices, which were brought down into Greece from Central Europe or Asia or wherever?”

“Presumably.”

“So. Now, Mr Seymour,” said Tyrrel, as if he had occupied a lecturer’s dais all his life, “if you will be so good as to reread Mr Kerényi – or any other of the great number of books on this subject – you will not be slow to recollect that the ideas and rituals associated with Minoan religion were a trifle unsavoury. Mind you, the Cretans were an attractive people, and there is no doubt that their whole conception was being gradually softened, that a strongly pleasurable element was creeping into their observances. Still, even the Cretans are not exactly a model guide for contemporary procedure. Agreed?”

“Most heartily.”

“And if this can be said of the Cretans, what are we to think of the primitive Northern and Asiatic deities, who also occupied an important place in the original Greek theogony? They were not at all pleasant, Mr Seymour. There are little tales of rapes, castrations, wholesale devourings of offspring: their qualities, as befitted the harsh and uncharitable regions whence they came, were in every way destructive, vengeance primed and lustful. There is no need to go into detail. You take my point?”

“Very clearly,” I said with some admiration.

“Well, sir. Some say that the Female Principle – Mother Earth or the Mother Goddess – is on the whole a Cretan or Southern speciality; and that the Male Principle – Uranus the fertilising sky-god, perhaps – came from the North. What concerns us here is that both principles were celebrated, in early times, with sacrifice, violence and assorted indelicacy. And that is all I am going to say about that.”

He tossed Kerényi on to the table in front of me.

“Well?” I said.

“I do not permit myself, sir, to make connections without strong factual evidence. But you may care to bear in mind what I have just been saying; and then to hear, in return for the facts you have told me, the very limited set of facts which I can tell you.

“My facts are just these. Firstly, the Greek authorities are concerned because there have lately been two or three very nasty discoveries – discoveries associated with the unexpected disappearance of certain people and which suggest peculiar, not to say abnormal, conduct on the part of some other – unknown – people. Secondly, the Greek authorities have made it plain that Mr Fountain must be out of the country at the end of one year’s residence – which is to say by this September. Thirdly, they have given him no reason for this. Fourthly, they have informed Scotland Yard both that they are requiring Mr Fountain to leave, and also of their concern about…the incidents I have just mentioned. And those are all my facts.”

“I can see no connection anywhere,” I said petulantly.

“Of course,” said Tyrrel, “the Greeks know nothing of what you have been telling me. But with regard to what they do know, they did just hint that considerations of time and place were…indicative. There is a link or two, though admittedly no chain.”

“For Christ’s sake be more precise.”

“And the Greeks did observe that some of Mr Fountain’s scholarly investigations, on sites and in libraries, had been of a curious nature.”

“Of course they had,” I nearly shouted at him: “his subject is of a curious nature. Tell me what you mean, man. What anybody means.”

“I’m afraid we must leave it at that,” said Tyrrel abruptly. “You’ve been most helpful, sir. And believe me, I’ve told you all I can.”

He walked smartly towards my bookcase, carrying the Cavafis he had been reading when I first found him. Then he hesitated and turned round.

“Might I borrow this?” he said.

“If you wish,” I said, with as much annoyance as I could get into my voice. “Only remember to send it back – at some reasonable hour of the day. It is a rare book.”

“That,” said Tyrrel, “is why I asked to borrow it. And don’t worry about its being returned. You will be seeing something of me.”

***

....“There is…something,” Milton said. “It’s an odd story and worth hearing in any case. It may fit in with what you’re after.” His can was restored to him by the enchanting Ganymede, who tickled his neck before leaving the table. “Insolent brat,” said Milton in a friendly parody of English tones: “he’ll charge a drachma extra on the can for that.” Then he settled himself forward on his elbows.

“It’s a little tricky this,” he began, “especially as it may concern a friend of yours. Still, you asked for it. The first thing to know is that some three miles up the coast to the North there’s a fine natural harbour, ’most as good as the one here, which the natives use as a kind of crude ship-building yard. There’s boat houses and a row of stone buildings, but mostly no one sleeps there. They just work there by day, tearing up the old craft that are sent to be junked there and using the sound timbers to patch the newer boats. Then in the evening they row back here. But sometimes, in the springtime, in the summer, some of the boys take food and stay up there the night as a kind of adventure, I reckon, or to get quit of their scolding old mothers for a while. So one day this June young Michaeli, who’s the son of the shipwright Thalassides, took his friend Nico and three bottles of wine and two lobsters, and off they went telling everyone they were going to camp out the night at Thyrias – which is what they call this shipyard.”

He took a long draught of wine.

“So no one thought anything of this – until the boys got back the next day and told everyone what they thought they saw. And it was a night, I may tell you gentlemen, with a beautiful round moon, so there’s reason enough to suppose they saw it. And what they told everyone was this. They were sitting drinking outside a hut up on the far end of the quay they have there, and because of the moon being so bright they weren’t bothered with a lamp, so probably no one would have noticed them. And as they sat there a small sailing boat came round the Northern point of the harbour. Well, at first they thought nothing of this, because it might have been some fisherman who had gone out for a night’s fishing, or it might have been some tourist who’d taken a fancy to the moonlight and hired the boat to take him around in it. Anyway, they just watched it without bothering much – until they saw it was putting in towards the quay. So then they got all anxious to see who might be coming to spoil their privacy, and they walked along a strip of beach which lies under the quay for a way; but they kept themselves hidden behind the hulks and all that were lying about, because whoever was coming they weren’t keen to be involved with them.

“The next thing that happened was that this sailing boat nosed up on to the strip of beach about twenty yards from where they were hiding behind a rowing boat. Out gets some ragged character whom they don’t recognize and ties up the boat to one of the old cannons, which are stuck muzzle down into the sand to act as bollards. Then he looks around him and apparently finds everything in order, so he calls back to the boat. And then… Well, I reckon this is the difficult bit, so I’ll try and get it right and you gentlemen must hear me out in peace, so’s I don’t lose it.”

He drank again, a magnificent swig straight from the can that would not have disgraced Jack Falstaff.

“What happened, so Michaeli and Nico said, was this. A tall young woman stepped off the boat, dressed in a sweater and pants, and with a kind of cloak hanging from her shoulders. She too looked around, and apparently she was happy about the beach and all, because she then spoke, very tight and cold, only they couldn’t hear the words, back in the direction of the boat. Then there was a deal of fumbling about in the bottom of the boat, and after a bit three other men come up with a kind of stretcher, which they ease forward over the bow, till the tall woman and the man who got out first are able to help them, and they get this stretcher thing lying on the beach. Then the woman kneels down by the stretcher and starts making soft sort of crooning noises, and the boys get to busting themselves to see what’s on it, and what they think they see is this.

“They reckon it’s a man on the stretcher, wrapped in blankets right up to his chin, and with a face which is bold and proud but…but sort of dead-looking. That is, it’s so white, in the moonlight, that it looks like the face of a figure on a tomb – you know the sort of thing, alabaster face looking straight up at the sky, eyes closed, immobile… And they reckon the hair is dark, but it’s not a Greek face; while Nico, who’s been to Athens once or twice, said it was rather like a picture he saw there of your Lord Byron. Handsome, and proud like I said. But all the time looking so dead. White, they said, with the hair falling over the forehead, and these blankets, held by straps, wrapped tight and coming right up to the chin, so that the body – the man – is rather like some kind of mummy.

“Well, they don’t find this any too nice to look at, but they can’t move, what with this woman and four men and all, so they just sit tight. Meantime the woman goes on crooning and sort of caresses this figure on the stretcher, strokes him all over, only of course she’s only stroking the blankets. She starts at the feet and works up along the body. When she comes to the face, she touches it with the ends of her fingers and tidies the hair back from the forehead for a bit; till suddenly she bends over to kiss the face – or it looks as if she’s going to kiss the face, but just as her lips get down there her whole head sort of slips aside and her mouth seems to nuzzle in under the ear, as though she’s got some secret to whisper first… But just then one of the men comes up and tugs her to her feet, and starts talking, fiercely but very low, so that once again the boys don’t get what’s being said.

“Then all the other men come and join in, and they still talk very low, but they seem to be angry over something; until after a time the woman makes a wave of her hand and then seems to be giving them money, and whatever it is it shuts them up for sure. Last of all, two of the men get back into the boat, while the other two pick up the stretcher and start away from the harbour towards the track that leads up into the hills. The woman follows them, with a good strong step and her cloak swinging as she goes, and the whole party vanishes round the shoulder of a hill. Meantime, the two men in the sailing boat untie her and take off out of the harbour, turning back up North when they get to the harbour mouth. As for the boys, they’re only a couple of kids, and they just go back to their hut, take a big swig of wine each, and pull their blankets up over their heads. And that’s it, gentlemen. That’s the story that Michaeli and Nico had to tell when they got back from their all night picnic the next morning.”

“They never thought of following…the stretcher?” I asked.

“They thought of it all right. But neither of them would have done it for ten thousand drachmas. They didn’t like the woman, see, and they didn’t like what they saw on the stretcher.”


***


....“There is…something,” Milton said. “It’s an odd story and worth hearing in any case. It may fit in with what you’re after.” His can was restored to him by the enchanting Ganymede, who tickled his neck before leaving the table. “Insolent brat,” said Milton in a friendly parody of English tones: “he’ll charge a drachma extra on the can for that.” Then he settled himself forward on his elbows.

“It’s a little tricky this,” he began, “especially as it may concern a friend of yours. Still, you asked for it. The first thing to know is that some three miles up the coast to the North there’s a fine natural harbour, ’most as good as the one here, which the natives use as a kind of crude ship-building yard. There’s boat houses and a row of stone buildings, but mostly no one sleeps there. They just work there by day, tearing up the old craft that are sent to be junked there and using the sound timbers to patch the newer boats. Then in the evening they row back here. But sometimes, in the springtime, in the summer, some of the boys take food and stay up there the night as a kind of adventure, I reckon, or to get quit of their scolding old mothers for a while. So one day this June young Michaeli, who’s the son of the shipwright Thalassides, took his friend Nico and three bottles of wine and two lobsters, and off they went telling everyone they were going to camp out the night at Thyrias – which is what they call this shipyard.”

He took a long draught of wine.

“So no one thought anything of this – until the boys got back the next day and told everyone what they thought they saw. And it was a night, I may tell you gentlemen, with a beautiful round moon, so there’s reason enough to suppose they saw it. And what they told everyone was this. They were sitting drinking outside a hut up on the far end of the quay they have there, and because of the moon being so bright they weren’t bothered with a lamp, so probably no one would have noticed them. And as they sat there a small sailing boat came round the Northern point of the harbour. Well, at first they thought nothing of this, because it might have been some fisherman who had gone out for a night’s fishing, or it might have been some tourist who’d taken a fancy to the moonlight and hired the boat to take him around in it. Anyway, they just watched it without bothering much – until they saw it was putting in towards the quay. So then they got all anxious to see who might be coming to spoil their privacy, and they walked along a strip of beach which lies under the quay for a way; but they kept themselves hidden behind the hulks and all that were lying about, because whoever was coming they weren’t keen to be involved with them.

“The next thing that happened was that this sailing boat nosed up on to the strip of beach about twenty yards from where they were hiding behind a rowing boat. Out gets some ragged character whom they don’t recognize and ties up the boat to one of the old cannons, which are stuck muzzle down into the sand to act as bollards. Then he looks around him and apparently finds everything in order, so he calls back to the boat. And then… Well, I reckon this is the difficult bit, so I’ll try and get it right and you gentlemen must hear me out in peace, so’s I don’t lose it.”

He drank again, a magnificent swig straight from the can that would not have disgraced Jack Falstaff.

“What happened, so Michaeli and Nico said, was this. A tall young woman stepped off the boat, dressed in a sweater and pants, and with a kind of cloak hanging from her shoulders. She too looked around, and apparently she was happy about the beach and all, because she then spoke, very tight and cold, only they couldn’t hear the words, back in the direction of the boat. Then there was a deal of fumbling about in the bottom of the boat, and after a bit three other men come up with a kind of stretcher, which they ease forward over the bow, till the tall woman and the man who got out first are able to help them, and they get this stretcher thing lying on the beach. Then the woman kneels down by the stretcher and starts making soft sort of crooning noises, and the boys get to busting themselves to see what’s on it, and what they think they see is this.

“They reckon it’s a man on the stretcher, wrapped in blankets right up to his chin, and with a face which is bold and proud but…but sort of dead-looking. That is, it’s so white, in the moonlight, that it looks like the face of a figure on a tomb – you know the sort of thing, alabaster face looking straight up at the sky, eyes closed, immobile… And they reckon the hair is dark, but it’s not a Greek face; while Nico, who’s been to Athens once or twice, said it was rather like a picture he saw there of your Lord Byron. Handsome, and proud like I said. But all the time looking so dead. White, they said, with the hair falling over the forehead, and these blankets, held by straps, wrapped tight and coming right up to the chin, so that the body – the man – is rather like some kind of mummy.

“Well, they don’t find this any too nice to look at, but they can’t move, what with this woman and four men and all, so they just sit tight. Meantime the woman goes on crooning and sort of caresses this figure on the stretcher, strokes him all over, only of course she’s only stroking the blankets. She starts at the feet and works up along the body. When she comes to the face, she touches it with the ends of her fingers and tidies the hair back from the forehead for a bit; till suddenly she bends over to kiss the face – or it looks as if she’s going to kiss the face, but just as her lips get down there her whole head sort of slips aside and her mouth seems to nuzzle in under the ear, as though she’s got some secret to whisper first… But just then one of the men comes up and tugs her to her feet, and starts talking, fiercely but very low, so that once again the boys don’t get what’s being said.

“Then all the other men come and join in, and they still talk very low, but they seem to be angry over something; until after a time the woman makes a wave of her hand and then seems to be giving them money, and whatever it is it shuts them up for sure. Last of all, two of the men get back into the boat, while the other two pick up the stretcher and start away from the harbour towards the track that leads up into the hills. The woman follows them, with a good strong step and her cloak swinging as she goes, and the whole party vanishes round the shoulder of a hill. Meantime, the two men in the sailing boat untie her and take off out of the harbour, turning back up North when they get to the harbour mouth. As for the boys, they’re only a couple of kids, and they just go back to their hut, take a big swig of wine each, and pull their blankets up over their heads. And that’s it, gentlemen. That’s the story that Michaeli and Nico had to tell when they got back from their all night picnic the next morning.”

“They never thought of following…the stretcher?” I asked.

“They thought of it all right. But neither of them would have done it for ten thousand drachmas. They didn’t like the woman, see, and they didn’t like what they saw on the stretcher.”

***

"....Once there probably was a time when Richard himself was the danger. You remember what I told you in Cambridge, Anthony? About Richard looking for release, and how this search could quite as easily be for something to hate as for something to love? Well, I stick by that even now. But at some stage the situation has been twisted round. It’s Richard that’s being hunted now, Richard who’s in danger…

“Richard being hunted. Not only by the police, but by the very powers he went out to discover. He thought that Greece would give him freedom and manhood – release from Walter and all the things that had been stifling him for so long. All this might have been achieved through love or through hate, but the important thing is he expected to find certain…certain forces…which would propel him onward to release. I don’t suppose he knew whether these would operate through love or through hate. Perhaps he didn’t care. Perhaps he assumed that they must be benevolent – or deceived himself into assuming that. In any case he came here and he found the power he was looking for, and in some way it was working through this woman. He thought he could harness it – harness it to draw his chariot to freedom. But he’d forgotten something very important about himself.”

Some stars showed through a gap in the cloud that was drifting across the sky, but the road seemed darker than ever. There was a wind rising and the sea stirred uneasily in its wary rest.

“He’d forgotten something that was embedded in his nature. It is Richard’s nature to command but it is also Richard’s nature to obey. For years he’s been obeying – obeying the school rules, obeying Roddy, obeying Walter. He has commanded, yes – but always under higher authority. Sometimes he has seemed temporarily independent of that authority; sometimes he has rebelled against it – snubbed Walter, insulted Penelope: but he’s always come back before long. Always knuckled under. So that in the end, when he found the power that was to release him from obedience, he also found that he must still have something to obey. Walter was too far away – the book of rules was back in England, back in the housemaster’s study, and there was no help from any of these. Deprived of the familiar, he turned for help wherever he might find it; and so, instead of controlling the power that was going to release him, he has begged for it to control him, he has chosen, not to use it, but to grovel under it. And since this power has come in the form of a woman…

“What form did he think it would come in? Did he think strength would flow up through his feet out of the soil of Greece? Or that the old gods, the gods of warriors and lovers, of drinkers and travellers, would come down from Olympus to his aid? Or perhaps he longed for even older gods, the gods of Crete, or those that were here before Olympus ever rose from Earth the Mother – herself the most ancient of them all, except the Void. But wherever he thought this power would come from, from Aphrodite or the Earth or the Sky, from the holy soil of Hellas or from the winds of freedom which fly singing off its mountains, he thought it would come in a known guise – known, at any rate, to him, because he knew about the gods, and about Greece which is the giver of life.

“So when he found this woman, he must have thought that here, in human form, was Aphrodite or Demeter, or some power of which he knew and which would bring him where he wished to be – forever out of Walter’s clutches. God knows what happened for a time. Those hints of Tyrrel’s… But then he started wanting to obey once more, and here was the twist, because having no Walter to obey he now obeyed the woman. Tired of revolt, he turned in obedience to the power through which he had revolted – but thinking all the time that it was a power benevolent towards him, or at least one which he knew of or had read of, a goddess or a guardian or a nymph.

“But it wasn’t any of these. This woman was quite different. She wasn’t a goddess or a nymph. She wasn’t love and she wasn’t hate. She was from the ancient world all right, but she was from a part of it he didn’t know about. Something he had overlooked in his investigations. Something which has persisted through the ages, firstly in Greece, where it had its birth and where it is still strongest, but later in all of Europe. She was the votary of a cult very different from those, whether good or evil, with which Richard Fountain had concerned himself. She was… She was…”

“Are you trying to say,” said Roddy gently, “that she is in some way supernatural?”

“No,” said Piers, and now his tone lost its slightly unreal quality and became crisp and sharp again. “No,” he said; “she’s a woman all right, and she’s a mortal woman. But she is the inheritress, if I am not mistaken, of an old and particularly obscene tradition. I’ve spoken of this before. Do you still not know what I mean?”

“No,” said Roddy firmly.


***

....He turned and spoke to the Superior.

“‘Your friend,’” translated Piers, who had evidently established Richard’s identity beyond doubt, “‘your friend was suffering from…’” – here Piers paused and glanced almost furtively at us – “‘…from an ancient sickness. The woman brought him to be cured. Not because she loves us, but because she knew that we could cure him better and more swiftly than anyone else. Nor does she desire that he should be…properly …finally cured’ – cured in the spirit, he seems to mean – ‘but she wishes, because after her own way she loves him, that for the time being he should remain alive. When he came here he was sick nearly to death; and we cured him, because we, in the Monastery of the Blood of Christ, have this secret, and because it was our duty, in all charity, to do so. But the cure will not be for long: with the woman he will become sick once more, and sooner or later her love will tire, and when that happens she will not bring him back to us for healing, but will cast him off and let him die. The woman is accursed…’”

The Superior talked gravely on, but Piers, whose expression had slowly become more drawn and despairing, ceased to translate. For two or three minutes we listened to the meaningless voice, then Roddy spoke up sharply – “What does he say, boy? For God’s sake tell us.”

Piers looked at us, again rather furtively.

“It’s all much the same,” he said. “The woman is evil, she brought Richard here to be cured, but as long as he is with her he cannot really be well. She only wished him cured so that she might begin to make him sick again. The only real cure is to take him from this woman, and even then…”

The Superior touched Piers’ arm and pointed at Roddy and myself with a look of interrogation. Piers seemed to brush off the old man’s questions, but he persisted, until Piers shrugged and spoke a few rather halting words.

“What does he want to know?” asked Roddy.

“Whether you have understood what has been said.”

“Well I don’t,” said Roddy flatly. “There are a lot of things I don’t understand, and among them what this ‘ancient’ disease is, which the monks in this monastery can cure but which will apparently recur. I should be obliged, for a start, if you would enlighten me as to that.”

“I tried to tell you. The other day and on the road,” said Piers, almost in tears. “I tried very hard. Do you remember what I said? That Richard’s…trouble…might be connected with the practices of the ancient city of Hydra. That King Heracles destroyed the city, but meanwhile the practices might have come over with colonists to this island.”

***

....“Tell us what you know,” said Tyrrel abruptly. “Tell us what the superstitious say, and then what the instructed say. We must have something to go on, Erik. Do your best – and then leave the responsibility squarely with us.”

“I had no intention of leaving it anywhere else,” said Doctor Holmstrom. He tilted his chair back and sent a stream of smoke towards the ceiling. Then he sat forward again, put his chin in his left hand, and began, slowly and with great care, to tell us what he knew.

“Vampirism,” he said, “is a phenomenon popularly associated with Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, of course, it is universal – and extremely rare. The reason why we connect it so readily with the Balkan states is that it was in this part of the world that the most substantial and entertaining corpus of legend was first established. Most simple people are good at producing grim superstitions; but the Slav and Magyar inhabitants of Eastern Europe share with certain Scandinavians a genius for spicing their tales with a kind of succinct and plausible nastiness that one seldom finds elsewhere. The vampire myth was just the sort of material they needed. Hence their particular insistence on it, and hence the popular idea that vampires exist only between the Carpathian mountains and the Northern shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact you will find as many, or as few, in Boston as in Budapest. But because of their skilful use of the legend, the East Europeans have a corner in vampirism; and this, roughly, is what their superstition maintains.

“It postulates a taste in a living human being for sucking the blood of other human beings. How, in the first instance such a taste should arise is uncertain; but clearly, from a purely superstitious point of view, there is a connection with the magical notion that by possessing yourself of any living part of another person or animal you increase your own power both over the creature concerned and in nature generally. Nail-parings, hair, testicles…but what could be more significant, what could possibly increase your power so much, as actually drinking human blood? In any case, there it is: a living person has this taste, and he indulges it at the expense of his fellow men. But now we come to one of the most terrifying and also most misleading aspects of the whole affair: for according to the superstition, anybody who is used by a vampire becomes infected with the taste himself. And even worse. He may die from loss of blood, he may, for whatever reason, survive; but in either case he himself has now become a vampire and as such will continue to roam the earth in search of human prey even after he has died his human death and regardless of how soon or late this may occur.

“Now, as to the exact powers enjoyed by a vampire after death, opinion differs a good deal from region to region. At one end of the scale, the vampire is credited only with the freedom to wander from his grave between sunset and sunrise. At the other extreme, he is supposed to be able to survive in all respects as a normal human being, save that he will always avoid the light of the sun as far as possible and will tend to be languid during the day time. Then there are several ancillary powers, variously affirmed and denied. Most forms of the legend maintain that vampires can induce hypnosis in their intended victims. Some versions say that after dark – whether or not he must spend the day in the tomb – the vampire can transform himself into a bat or a wolf at will – or can even change himself into a kind of thin mist, thus facilitating entrance into places where he is, for excellent reasons, unwelcome. One may remark, incidentally, that some talent of this nature is presupposed by the very condition of his existence, or how would a vampire escape from his tomb in the first place? But it is idle to insist on logic when dealing with matters of this kind. What it boils down to is that any man who has given blood to a vampire, whether to a living vampire or a ‘dead’ one, becomes a vampire in his turn and is endowed, when he dies, with some form of bodily immortality. Such a creature is nourished by human blood – though he continues to exist when deprived of it–: he dislikes sunlight, garlic, onions, salt water, and the form of the so called holy cross: he may or may not have supernatural powers other than that of surviving death: and he may or may not be able to exist unsuspected with and among other men.

“Finally, the matter of destroying such creatures. There is only one way of doing this. You must discover the vampire when he is inert and powerless, which, according to some, would be between sunrise and sunset, or according to others only when a crucifix is held straight in front of his eyes. You must then take a sharpened stake and drive it through his heart. Once this is done, the creature is finally and properly dead; and all his victims, whether ‘dead’ or still living, are now released from the spell.

“So much for the superstition. Have you any questions you would like to ask?”

“Yes,” said Tyrrel: “I once heard that vampires are able to inspire affection and even sexual passion in their victims. What would you say to this?”

“That it is true,” said Holmstrom: “literally and scientifically true. I shall come on to that in a moment.”

There was sun outside, the kind sun of mid-September; but no sun came into Holmstrom’s basement office, which might almost have been a tomb itself, so damp it was and dreary. Listening to Holmstrom’s smooth, deep voice, I had almost begun to wonder if he were not himself akin to the vampires he described so carefully – lurking down in the dark by day, emerging at night, with his bright eyes and soothing voice, to seek his victims along the dull streets of Bloomsbury. But now he rose from his chair and waddled to the door; opening it slightly, he peered out and boomed down the corridor – “Coffee for three, girl” – an earthy statement which I found somewhat reassuring.

He returned to his chair and lit a fresh cheroot.

“So much,” he said, “for the superstition. Now for what we may euphemistically call the truth.”

He chuckled obscenely – a high-pitched chuckle, in odd contrast to his mellow voice – and spat with care and accuracy into the waste-paper basket at his side.

“Yes,” he said, his face twitching with amusement, “the truth… As we understand the matter – and you must realise that only very occasional examples come to our notice – the vampire is in fact a living human being with a peculiar type of sado-sexual perversion. The sexual element is quite obvious; you might consider, in this context, such relatively normal practices as fellatio or cunnilinctus. Nor is it difficult to see that vampiric intercourse, in a quiet way, has a deeply sadistic tinge to it. It follows, of course, that the victims of vampires tend to be of a masochistic type – and like most masochists, capable of assuming a sadistic role in their turn. You should also be reminded that sadistic practices – and among them this one – are liable to have a strong appeal for impotent males or frigid females.

“But if these are the bare psychological bones, so to say, it still does not do to dismiss out of hand the corpus of superstition. Legends cast in superstitious terms have a way of reflecting scientific reality, and so it is here. Allegations of immortality can be dismissed outright: they are merely the product of the Slav imagination which, confronted with something beastly, delights to make it positively fiendish. Again, tales of transformation into, say, the shape of a bat, clearly originate from the fact that creatures called vampire bats – who amply earn their title – are well known to exist in several parts of the world. But in other ways the superstition is nearer the mark. Take this business of hypnotic powers: it is not true that an initiation into vampiric practices confers these powers; but it is true that someone who wants to indulge such abnormal and dangerous tastes must possess a very strong and alluring personality to win over his victim in the first place. Thus it is clear that something at any rate comparable to an hypnotic talent is a precondition of ever becoming a vampire. This connects very closely with what John was asking about just now – the rumoured skill of the vampire in inducing strong affections and sexual passions. Vampires as such are not endowed with this ability; but plainly it may be necessary to inspire very considerable emotions of an amorous or sexual kind before a victim can be brought to assent to the vampire’s proposition. One sums up the matter by saying that sexual magnetism, being one element in the so called hypnotic personality, is a pre-requisite of vampiric practice.

“And then we come to this business of ‘infection’ or the transmission of taste. Now, quite plainly this taint cannot be passed on in some unspecified magical fashion; and equally plainly it cannot be physically transmitted, like influenza or syphilis, by means of a germ or virus. What there can be, however, is a form of contagion which is partly moral and partly psychological. Look at it this way. We have seen that a victim is likely to have the masochistic tendencies which his passive role requires of him; and we have remarked, as a matter of medical commonplace, that masochists are often apt to reverse the coin, as it were, and wield the whip themselves. Now, suppose you had someone who had been used by a vampire and subsequently felt the need to express himself sadistically. The chances that his sadism will take a vampiric form are clearly increased a thousandfold by the mere fact that he now knows about vampiric methods. This is a very simple proposition, and applies, mutatis mutandis, to the most elementary forms of sexual behaviour. A small boy at school, for example, feeling without real comprehension the need for sexual relief, will at first resort to some form of masturbation which he has discovered for himself. But once let him be initiated, by a school friend or a girl cousin, into some more elaborate amusement, and henceforth he will scorn self-abuse and seek for a partner with whom to play the new games he has learnt. At first it is a matter of novelty; later it is one of habitual preference and even imperious necessity. It is not so much that a taste has been transmitted as that a technique has been taught ....

***

....“Tell us what you know,” said Tyrrel abruptly. “Tell us what the superstitious say, and then what the instructed say. We must have something to go on, Erik. Do your best – and then leave the responsibility squarely with us.”

“I had no intention of leaving it anywhere else,” said Doctor Holmstrom. He tilted his chair back and sent a stream of smoke towards the ceiling. Then he sat forward again, put his chin in his left hand, and began, slowly and with great care, to tell us what he knew.

“Vampirism,” he said, “is a phenomenon popularly associated with Central and Eastern Europe. In fact, of course, it is universal – and extremely rare. The reason why we connect it so readily with the Balkan states is that it was in this part of the world that the most substantial and entertaining corpus of legend was first established. Most simple people are good at producing grim superstitions; but the Slav and Magyar inhabitants of Eastern Europe share with certain Scandinavians a genius for spicing their tales with a kind of succinct and plausible nastiness that one seldom finds elsewhere. The vampire myth was just the sort of material they needed. Hence their particular insistence on it, and hence the popular idea that vampires exist only between the Carpathian mountains and the Northern shores of the Eastern Mediterranean. In fact you will find as many, or as few, in Boston as in Budapest. But because of their skilful use of the legend, the East Europeans have a corner in vampirism; and this, roughly, is what their superstition maintains.

“It postulates a taste in a living human being for sucking the blood of other human beings. How, in the first instance such a taste should arise is uncertain; but clearly, from a purely superstitious point of view, there is a connection with the magical notion that by possessing yourself of any living part of another person or animal you increase your own power both over the creature concerned and in nature generally. Nail-parings, hair, testicles…but what could be more significant, what could possibly increase your power so much, as actually drinking human blood? In any case, there it is: a living person has this taste, and he indulges it at the expense of his fellow men. But now we come to one of the most terrifying and also most misleading aspects of the whole affair: for according to the superstition, anybody who is used by a vampire becomes infected with the taste himself. And even worse. He may die from loss of blood, he may, for whatever reason, survive; but in either case he himself has now become a vampire and as such will continue to roam the earth in search of human prey even after he has died his human death and regardless of how soon or late this may occur.

“Now, as to the exact powers enjoyed by a vampire after death, opinion differs a good deal from region to region. At one end of the scale, the vampire is credited only with the freedom to wander from his grave between sunset and sunrise. At the other extreme, he is supposed to be able to survive in all respects as a normal human being, save that he will always avoid the light of the sun as far as possible and will tend to be languid during the day time. Then there are several ancillary powers, variously affirmed and denied. Most forms of the legend maintain that vampires can induce hypnosis in their intended victims. Some versions say that after dark – whether or not he must spend the day in the tomb – the vampire can transform himself into a bat or a wolf at will – or can even change himself into a kind of thin mist, thus facilitating entrance into places where he is, for excellent reasons, unwelcome. One may remark, incidentally, that some talent of this nature is presupposed by the very condition of his existence, or how would a vampire escape from his tomb in the first place? But it is idle to insist on logic when dealing with matters of this kind. What it boils down to is that any man who has given blood to a vampire, whether to a living vampire or a ‘dead’ one, becomes a vampire in his turn and is endowed, when he dies, with some form of bodily immortality. Such a creature is nourished by human blood – though he continues to exist when deprived of it–: he dislikes sunlight, garlic, onions, salt water, and the form of the so called holy cross: he may or may not have supernatural powers other than that of surviving death: and he may or may not be able to exist unsuspected with and among other men.

“Finally, the matter of destroying such creatures. There is only one way of doing this. You must discover the vampire when he is inert and powerless, which, according to some, would be between sunrise and sunset, or according to others only when a crucifix is held straight in front of his eyes. You must then take a sharpened stake and drive it through his heart. Once this is done, the creature is finally and properly dead; and all his victims, whether ‘dead’ or still living, are now released from the spell.

“So much for the superstition. Have you any questions you would like to ask?”

“Yes,” said Tyrrel: “I once heard that vampires are able to inspire affection and even sexual passion in their victims. What would you say to this?”

“That it is true,” said Holmstrom: “literally and scientifically true. I shall come on to that in a moment.”

There was sun outside, the kind sun of mid-September; but no sun came into Holmstrom’s basement office, which might almost have been a tomb itself, so damp it was and dreary. Listening to Holmstrom’s smooth, deep voice, I had almost begun to wonder if he were not himself akin to the vampires he described so carefully – lurking down in the dark by day, emerging at night, with his bright eyes and soothing voice, to seek his victims along the dull streets of Bloomsbury. But now he rose from his chair and waddled to the door; opening it slightly, he peered out and boomed down the corridor – “Coffee for three, girl” – an earthy statement which I found somewhat reassuring.

He returned to his chair and lit a fresh cheroot.

“So much,” he said, “for the superstition. Now for what we may euphemistically call the truth.”

He chuckled obscenely – a high-pitched chuckle, in odd contrast to his mellow voice – and spat with care and accuracy into the waste-paper basket at his side.

“Yes,” he said, his face twitching with amusement, “the truth… As we understand the matter – and you must realise that only very occasional examples come to our notice – the vampire is in fact a living human being with a peculiar type of sado-sexual perversion. The sexual element is quite obvious; you might consider, in this context, such relatively normal practices as fellatio or cunnilinctus. Nor is it difficult to see that vampiric intercourse, in a quiet way, has a deeply sadistic tinge to it. It follows, of course, that the victims of vampires tend to be of a masochistic type – and like most masochists, capable of assuming a sadistic role in their turn. You should also be reminded that sadistic practices – and among them this one – are liable to have a strong appeal for impotent males or frigid females.

“But if these are the bare psychological bones, so to say, it still does not do to dismiss out of hand the corpus of superstition. Legends cast in superstitious terms have a way of reflecting scientific reality, and so it is here. Allegations of immortality can be dismissed outright: they are merely the product of the Slav imagination which, confronted with something beastly, delights to make it positively fiendish. Again, tales of transformation into, say, the shape of a bat, clearly originate from the fact that creatures called vampire bats – who amply earn their title – are well known to exist in several parts of the world. But in other ways the superstition is nearer the mark. Take this business of hypnotic powers: it is not true that an initiation into vampiric practices confers these powers; but it is true that someone who wants to indulge such abnormal and dangerous tastes must possess a very strong and alluring personality to win over his victim in the first place. Thus it is clear that something at any rate comparable to an hypnotic talent is a precondition of ever becoming a vampire. This connects very closely with what John was asking about just now – the rumoured skill of the vampire in inducing strong affections and sexual passions. Vampires as such are not endowed with this ability; but plainly it may be necessary to inspire very considerable emotions of an amorous or sexual kind before a victim can be brought to assent to the vampire’s proposition. One sums up the matter by saying that sexual magnetism, being one element in the so called hypnotic personality, is a pre-requisite of vampiric practice.

“And then we come to this business of ‘infection’ or the transmission of taste. Now, quite plainly this taint cannot be passed on in some unspecified magical fashion; and equally plainly it cannot be physically transmitted, like influenza or syphilis, by means of a germ or virus. What there can be, however, is a form of contagion which is partly moral and partly psychological. Look at it this way. We have seen that a victim is likely to have the masochistic tendencies which his passive role requires of him; and we have remarked, as a matter of medical commonplace, that masochists are often apt to reverse the coin, as it were, and wield the whip themselves. Now, suppose you had someone who had been used by a vampire and subsequently felt the need to express himself sadistically. The chances that his sadism will take a vampiric form are clearly increased a thousandfold by the mere fact that he now knows about vampiric methods. This is a very simple proposition, and applies, mutatis mutandis, to the most elementary forms of sexual behaviour. A small boy at school, for example, feeling without real comprehension the need for sexual relief, will at first resort to some form of masturbation which he has discovered for himself. But once let him be initiated, by a school friend or a girl cousin, into some more elaborate amusement, and henceforth he will scorn self-abuse and seek for a partner with whom to play the new games he has learnt. At first it is a matter of novelty; later it is one of habitual preference and even imperious necessity. It is not so much that a taste has been transmitted as that a technique has been taught ....

***


....John Tyrrel and I, equipped with tails and miniature decorations, would leave next morning to attend the Michaelmas Feast – and were bound, if we could, to keep Richard Fountain away from it. That evening I gave John his invitation, which had reached my flat by special delivery. He looked at it with interest and a kind of rueful pride.

“What is this expression?” he asked at length. “Down at the bottom…‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’?…”

“It means that all those with Doctors’ degrees will attend in their scarlet gowns.”

“A command or a generalisation?”

“A command, I suppose…”

“And Walter Goodrich will wear scarlet?”

“Most certainly. With dignity and enjoyment.”

“I see,” said Tyrrel. “‘Doctors Wear Scarlet’… What a very appropriate phrase.”


***

"....Do you see the enormous man with the totally bald head? The one with the rather pretty Order round his neck?”

“Yes,” said John Tyrrel, looking at Marc as a child might look at an adult who was taking him to the pantomime, “yes, I see him. What about him?”

“Well he, my dear, is a sociologist. That Order was given him by the King of Denmark for conducting an enquiry into the drinking habits of the lower class in Copenhagen. Now why do you think he went bald?”

“I’ve no idea.”

“Because one morning, after a night of enquiring into Copenhagen’s drinking habits, he woke up in a lavatory of his hotel with the attendant standing over him and asking what he’d like for his breakfast. He was so shaken by the man’s sang froid that all his hair fell out there and then on to the floor and they had to spend the best part of the morning clearing it up….."


***

....“And what is all this?” said a bewildered but still fruity voice.

Walter loomed in the doorway behind us.

“This is your son,” said Richard, “who has been embracing your daughter Chriseis… Your daughter Penelope… It is all one. Ravishing her, you might say, before she could ravish him.”

Walter made a loose and hopeless gesture.

“I don’t understand you,” he said.

“It’s very simple. You want to steal my life, and you will use your daughter to help you. But I have moved first. By…embracing Penelope, I have established my power over her. I tried to tell you all tonight, but I couldn’t finish. The free man, Walter, must take the souls of his enemies.”

“What can you mean? Penelope loves you. She will give you her life, her soul. There is no need to take.”

“He has already done so,” said Piers standing upright. “Penelope is dead.”

“Dead?” whispered Richard fiercely. “How could she be? This is the first–”

“–She’s dead, Richard. You had best come to your daughter, Doctor Goodrich.”

“Chriseis…dead…” Richard mumbled to himself…“ Penelope… Chriseis…dead.”

Walter lurched forward and bent down over Penelope. He ripped away her dress and felt for her heart. He seized her wrist and sought for a pulse. He gave a great moan of despair and swung round on Richard.

“For the love of God,” he cried, “what have you done? Raped her? Beaten her? Speak up, boy. What have you done to my Penelope?”

“He has drunk her blood,” said Piers, and went into the outer room.

For the first time Walter seemed to begin to understand. He looked at Richard’s blood-smeared mouth and he looked back at the ugly gash on Penelope’s throat. Then understanding gave place to renewed bewilderment. Walter’s eyes stared away into space and his voice became a croak.

“You… My Richard.… You did that?”

“Chriseis,” muttered Richard, “Chriseis.”

Walter seemed to sink towards the floor. Tyrrel caught hold of him and sat him in a chair. Then his head lolled forward, and huge, glistening tears poured over his cheeks and dripped on to his knees.

“Richard… Penelope… My children.”

Richard was standing, silent and sullen, in a corner of the room. Piers, returning from the outer room, went up to him with a full tumbler.

“Drink this, Richard,” he said; “whatever is to happen, you must sleep now.”

Richard seemed not to hear him, but he took the glass and put it to his lips.

“Drink it all, Richard,” said Piers softly.

“What–?” I began.

Tyrrel seized my arm and shook his head.

“All of it, Richard,” said Piers: “then you will sleep.” Once again Tyrrel took hold of my arm, indicating, with a jerk of his head, that I should go into the other room. As I went Marc followed me; a few moments later Tyrrel also came, supporting Walter, and helped the old man on to the sofa. Then he went back, closed the bedroom door, and sat down next to Walter on the sofa.

For ten minutes we waited, hearing nothing and saying nothing. Then Piers came slowly out of the bedroom and halted in front of Tyrrel.

“He is asleep now,” Piers said, “and the taint sleeps with him.”