We brought many wonderful things back from the Sussex Steampunk Convivial, not least some marvellous memories. But perhaps nothing quite so sums up the weirdness and whimsy of it all, as this:
We brought many wonderful things back from the Sussex Steampunk Convivial, not least some marvellous memories. But perhaps nothing quite so sums up the weirdness and whimsy of it all, as this:
From the corridor with the boys’ portrait, Marie could hear the activity in the next room. Although she couldn’t make out exactly what her husband was saying, it sounded like he was explaining the Thanatograph in excited tones. This was punctuated by interruptions from an irritated sounding Lady Howarth and a nervous sounding priest.
Marie studied the portrait in front of her. She was sure there was more to it than she was seeing, but what it was, was beyond her. It was a painting in a rural setting of two boys on the cusp of manhood. And the boy on the left was the same one Marie had seen in the haunted room and the bedroom.
From next door came a creaking noise that Marie knew was the Thanatograph. She had seen it before; it was like a gramophone but with a blank record. The hiss and crackles were supposed to let the voice of spirits come through. It sounded like something was happening this time, as a gravely voice came through.
Marie could just make out her husband saying, “Remarkable, isn’t it?” Then Lady Howarth said loudly, “What’s it saying – sounds like – ‘you’ something – ‘you – serpent?’ ‘YOU SERPENT’! Well what an ungrateful wretch – Priest – start the exorcism.”
Marie could hear the priest starting, speaking loudly over the increasing din of the Thanatograph, although there was a waver to his voice. He reached a crescendo shouting “in the name of the father and, and” but was interrupted by a crash and what sounded like a table falling over. Then there came a shriek, from the priest, some shouting, from Lady Howarth, and finally the sound people of running and a door slamming.
Marie sighed and turned her attention back to the painting.
“They should listen to you,” she said. “Who are you? Why are you here?”
She looked closely at the picture of the ghost boy. To Marie’s eyes it seemed like he was moving a little. His right arm had been lying casually over a gate, but now it seemed to stiffen. The boy’s head seemed to tilt and his gaze was now following his arm, indicating something to the left.
“Aha,” said Marie, and followed the line. There was a door on the left not far from the painting. She went over to it, but it was locked. Marie looked back at the painting and the boy.
“I’m sorry, but please ‘elp… I ‘ave no time,” whispered Marie.
The figure of the boy seemed to frown and the arm seemed to stiffen some more, Marie followed the line again. It pointed past the edge of the painting to the door. There could be no mistake. She was looking back and forth from the boy to the door, to see if she had missed something when she finally understood. She pulled the painting away from the wall and there on the back was written “EH + AC” in a thin pencil line. She smiled and looked back at the painting. The boy had returned to his normal relaxed pose.
She quickly headed out of the corridor, turned a corner into the main part of the house and walked straight into the butler. Marie froze.
“Madam, you can’t be here, this is off limits,” said the butler, aghast.
“Oublier!” said Marie, waving two fingers in front of his face. His expression glazed over and he looked about himself, blinked, turned around and walked away. Marie sighed in relief and went to find her husband.
In a smaller dining room, Sir John and Marie dined together. Lady Howarth had started to explain why she wouldn’t join them, then when she couldn’t think of a reason, had just waved her hands dismissively. The table was covered with silverware and in the center was a large soup tureen that the maid had brought. The room was a pale green with more portraits of Howarths. It seemed there had been a lot of them painted over the ages.
“So tomorrow the priest will come again, now he has the real ghost in his sights,” said Sir John, eating a huge bowl of soup with rustic abandon. “It looks like we may have cracked our first case, Mrs Jennings!”
“I’m not so sure,” said Marie as she took a small spoonful of her soup. “Something is not right.”
“How do you mean?” he said. “It all seems cut and dried.” He spilled some soup on his cravat and started fussing with it.
“It makes no sense though for this ‘peasant boy’ to haunt the mansion for so long. He was treated well, and respected even. And…” Marie hesitated, “I just…”
“…Have a feeling?” said Sir John, smiling. “Well your feelings have proved useful so far. I’ll tell you what, tomorrow before the exorcism I’ll use the Thanatograph. That will allow ghost voices to be amplified so maybe we can hear the voice of the phantom and find out more.”
“And I’d like to see that painting again,” said Marie. Sir John spat soup across the table.
“You can’t do that!” he said. “Lady Howarth was quite forthright on that matter as I recall.”
“Then during the exorcism,” said Marie, “I can go and look.”
“But that would be…” started Sir John.
“Maid,” whispered Marie as the maid came for the tureen. The Jenningses smiled at the maid as she took the soup away.
“I trust all was pleasant?” she said.
“Very much so,” said Sir John. “Thank you Miss, er, Copsey.”
When the maid had left, Sir John turned back to his wife.
“…Breaking and entering!” he exclaimed. The maid was just going through the door and jumped a little.
“It’s not,” said Marie. “We are entered already and I will break nothing.”
“I don’t like it,” said Sir John, his voice rising. “There could be trouble. You could get caught. Lady Howarth would be furious. She might call…”
“Maid!” whispered Marie as Miss Copsey brought the main course.
“Here’s your fish, sir… madam,” said the maid.
“Thank you, very much obliged,” said Sir John, a little irritably.
“Is everything well?” said the maid, looking concerned.
“It’s fine, thank you,” said Marie, softly and Miss Copsey left.
“…The constabulary!” blurted Sir John loudly, and the retreating maid jumped and looked back quickly. Marie smiled at her and she scuttled out.
“It will be fine, mon cher,” said Marie. “You help the priest and I will see what I can find. Nothing untoward will happen; I am sure of it.”
Sir John started to gingerly eat the fine trout on his plate, his appetite vanishing.
Lady Howarth and the Jennings stood in the corridor to the west of the empty room. The wood paneling they had seen in the foyer extended along its length along with the theme of artworks. The corridor looked like a gallery or a museum, and one for very fine objects.
“Now let me make this very clear,” said Lady Howarth. “There will be no going in rooms. There will be no touching of objects or any movement of anything. This is the most private part of the mansion and we are not sight seeing. You may make use of your… devices… to identify the source of that strange sound, and that is all.”
Sir John swallowed hard. “Thank you Lady Howarth,” he said. We shall begin by using the Ectoscopic Glasses again. If you could be so good as to stand behind me a little way to avoid interference.”
Sir John donned the heavy brass goggles again which spared him from seeing the glare that Lady Howarth shot at him. He started to wander down the corridor looking around.
“Nothing so far, nothing here,” he muttered as he went. Suddenly, he turned to look at a painting and his head shot backwards, banging into the opposite wall. Marie winced at the crashing sound.
“Careful man,” shouted Lady Howarth.
“Good God it’s lit up like Crystal Palace,” said Sir John. He took the goggles off and looked at the painting, as Marie and Lady Howarth came to join him. “What is this, what is its significance?”
Lady Howarth stopped in front of the painting.
“Oh this,” she said. “Hmmm…”
Marie caught up with them both and looked at the painting, her face fell.
“Two young men?” said Sir John. “Who are they Lady Howarth?”
“Well this is the first thing you’ve found that makes any sense,” she said. “This is my father Edward and his companion Robert as young men before they left for the navy. The companion was the son of a servant who died, leaving him an orphan. My grandfather, gentleman that he was, decided to treat the boy as his own. When they achieved majority, they were shipped off to the navy. It was my grandfather’s belief that a spell in the navy would straighten out any defects in a boy’s character. My father entered as an officer of course, and the companion at the lower ranks. They were at sea for a number of years and returned when my grandfather died. They returned together, my father inheriting the house. They had left as boys but returned as men. Naturally the servant boy had gained men’s habits too, and had taken to drinking and gambling. He showed no respect for my dead grandfather: went to the local tavern by all accounts. In a week he was dead. Buried locally I believe. Presumably, his is the apparition causing problems. Typical, needy and greedy to the end.”
“Fascinating,” said Sir John.
“And the boy who died,” said Marie, recognising the face she had seen twice as a phantasm, “ee is the one on the left?”
“Heavens, no,” said Lady Howarth. “That’s Lord Edward Howarth. That’s my father.”
As we are getting better acquainted, I feel I must tell you about my dear, tragic brother Saul. Like myself, he was fascinated by the more esoteric aspects of science. Unlike myself though, he became obsessed by some balderdash he called Quantum Physick. He believed, bizarrely, that there were a multitude of parallel worlds, each subtly different from our own. Disastrously, he build a sort of cabinet to allow him to visit these worlds. He hoped to travel the highways and byways of the universe. One terrible day he walked into the contraption and vanished, never to be seen again.
I keep the cabinet in my study as a reminder of the folly of man and the dangers of science unchecked. But a curious thing happens: From time to time, I find letters or papers in the cabinet. The tone and language is strange to me, and I can barely make sense of them. I wonder if they are some coded message from my long lost brother. I present a recent example here, as mysterious as the others.
Sir John Jennings
Monsieur Head first discovered his unfortunate situation at breakfast one Tuesday. Early in the previous week he had, to his astonishment, been a victim of crime. As a good citizen he had reported to the local constabulary the crime: namely, the theft of his bicycle. On that fateful Tuesday he received a letter from the police station which informed him that he, M. Bicycle, had reported to them that his head had recently been stolen. This caused him some amusement. He chuckled to himself at the comical mix up, although he was almost as surprised to see an erroneous official letter as he had been to have his bicycle stolen. Clearly standards were deteriorating.
On his morning train, as punctual as ever, he showed the letter to the gentlemen opposite, with whom he travelled every day and with whom he chatted from time to time. The man opposite appeared curious at first, then shocked, and then looked rather suspiciously at M Head.
“My dear Monsieur Bicycle,” he exclaimed, “what a terrible set of circumstances to find yourself in.”
“My good friend,” replied M Head, “you know full well my name is Head not Bicycle. Furthermore the letter is in error, can you not see. It’s rather amusing, you see it was my bicycle which was stolen.”
“I’m not sure I see anything terribly amusing in that,” replied the commuter, “but that aside, this is an official letter. I cannot believe they are in error. Perhaps your, er, new head has yet to settle to its home and it is you that is confused.”
With this he handed back the letter and looked solidly and fixedly out of the window for the remainder of the journey.
At M Head’s work he took the opportunity afforded by an official break to show the letter to his co-workers. To his amazement, they reacted as his commuter friend had, with a mixture of sympathy, confusion and suspicion. M Head decided that he would use his lunch break at noon to travel to the police station and have the letter rectified. But just before his lunch, his manager summoned him to a meeting room. When he arrived, he found that a woman from the Personnel department was also there.
“Monsieur,” said the manager “I believe you have in your possession a letter from the local police. Would you be kind enough to share it with me.”
“Of course,” replied M Head. “It is really rather amusing as there is a humorous error in it.”
At this the lady from Personnel and the manager exchanged a glance, which M Head missed as he extracted the letter from his leather briefcase. The manager retrieved a pair of glasses from his top pocket and read the letter slowly. Then he turned to the lady from Personnel and said,
“It is as we thought.”
At this the woman nodded once briskly and left the room.
“M Bicycle,” continued the manager, “I’m afraid this puts us in a difficult position. For a start we clearly have our personnel records wrong and we must correct this. And in this there is an implication of, shall we say, misdirection on your part. But further, there is the issue of how you came about your current head as the letter clearly indicates yours was stolen.”
“Sir, surely you can see there has been an administrative error at the police station. It is clearly absurd that my head could have been stolen. It was my bicycle that was stolen and my head is the same head I have always had.”
“I would have said so too, but there it is in black and white. I might add that you have failed to provide the explanation I asked for. You see, I am in a difficult position, with two possible explanations. Either it is as you say and there is an error in the letter. Alternately, the letter is in fact correct and you have obtained an alternate head. Since the latter is equally likely and the head you now possess is either malfunctioning or potentially even stolen itself, a black market head, I am in a very difficult position indeed.”
“My good sir,” said M Head, “you have seen me every day for the last ten years. Have I ever seemed the type to procure, as you put it, an illicit head?”
“Indeed not, but then that was before I saw this letter. No, I am sorry M Bicycle, I cannot be sure, and it is better safe than sorry. I simply cannot have the suspicion of illicit head purchase on our firm. Our very reputation depends on it. I’m afraid I must let you go.”
The manager then escorted M Head out of the office and out the front door. M Head tried several times to explain the situation but the manager was adamant. Confused and now concerned for his very well being, M Head made straight to the police station to clear up the problem. He presented himself at the desk and produced the letter, asking the constable to read it.
“I see,” said the constable at the desk. “And what do you wish me to do, M Bicycle.”
“Head!” exclaimed M Head, who was quite exasperated by now. “My name is Head! The letter is a mistake and it is causing me all sorts of problems. I’m here so that you may correct it and my life may return to normal.”
“Are you saying that your head has not been stolen M Bicycle.” said the policeman.
“Yes, exactly that. My head is still very much here.”
“So you have been wasting police time with a false report?”
“No, no, no,” said M Head. “My bicycle was stolen, not my head. It is a mix up.”
The policeman’s eyes narrowed. “Are you saying we made a mistake?”
“Yes, yes you did!”
“This all seems very unusual, very unlikely. What if we didn’t make a mistake. What if you are the thief who took M Bicycle’s head and are even now trying to get your crime removed. Do you have any identification M Bicycle.”
“Yes, no, yes I do, but not as M Bicycle.”
“So you are not the victim of this crime? I see. Then I’m afraid I have no choice. I am arresting you on suspicion of possession of a stolen head, wasting police time, and defaming an employee of the state.”
And M Head was taken to the cells.
Hours passed and no food or drink was brought. When M Head asked for both, the staff seemed surprised and explained that, as a headless man, he should not need either. Eventually the door unlocked and a smartly dressed man walked in.
“Good evening M Head, I am Detective Schwarz. I believe we owe you an apology”
“I should… what did you call me? At last! You have realised the truth”
“Indeed,” said the man, “the letter is plainly in error.”
“Then I am free to go?” asked M Head plaintively. “You will correct the letter.”
“No,” said the detective, “I cannot do that. You see M Head, this is a letter from the State. To correct it would imply a failure on the part of the State. That would create uncertainty for the people. They would lose the trust they have in the State, in society itself. It could, no, would, be a doorway to anarchy. I cannot do that.”
“But it is a simple thing,” whined M Head. “My life is in tatters, a small error, no one would mind.”
“I don’t doubt this has affected you badly, but the needs of the many must outweigh those of the few. That is the cornerstone of good governance. It is a sad fact for you, but there you are. But I wanted you to have some peace, even so, which is why I am explaining this to you.”
“What,” whimpered M Head, “what will happen to me?”
“Prison is too complicated as you have committed no crime that we could convict you for. So I am afraid you are to be committed to a lunatic asylum. Some men will come shortly and take you away. They have been told that you are a dangerous lunatic who believes he is called M Head. Believe me it is better for a man like you.”
With that the detective left the cell and M Head was left to sit and ponder his most unfortunate situation.
Inside the empty room all was quiet. From outside was a sound of a key in the lock and the voice of Sir John speaking.
“Yes, Lady Howarth, we slept very well. Well, Mrs Jennings did at least. I spent most of the night awake to er, ensure we were unmolested. In the end it was not necessary, but I prefer to take precautions in these situations.”
There was a rattle in the lock again.
“Seems a little stiff. I must warn you Lady Howarth, before we go in, that the Thaumograph is a sensitive yet subtle device. It’s like a seismograph except the pendulum is disturbed only by supernatural activity, not geological. When we review the marks the needles make we don’t expect to see anything too dramatic. If we are lucky we may see some vague indication of activity: a slight deviation from a straight line for example.”
The door swung open and Sir John, Marie, and Lady Howarth walked in. The Thaumograph was lying on its side in the centre of the room. The black canvas that made up its body was in disarray and the mechanical body had been disassembled and laid on the floor.
“How unusual!” said Sir John. “This room was locked all night?”
“Indeed it would have been,” said Lady Howarth. “And I dislike your inference. My staff are beyond reproach. They have been in the family for decades.”
“Well on a positive note we have evidence of some supernatural activity,” said Sir John.
“I knew that already,” bellowed Lady Howarth. “I brought you here to rid me of it, not to tell me about it.”
“What is over there?” said Marie pointing west, in the direction that the apparition had indicated last night.
“That,” said Lady Howarth, “is the private family area. That area is not a cause of concern, and is consequently off limits.”
“I think maybe we should have a look in there,” said Marie.
“Are you deaf as well as French? That wing was built to be the family sanctuary from…” said Lady Howarth, waving her hand to indicate the world at large. “It will not be violated.”
“I think maybe we’d better leave it,” said Sir John, who was hearing Marie quietly count to ten in French. “We have no evidence…”
“I just ‘ave a feeling mon cher. Call it woman’s intuition,” said Marie.
Sir John turned to look at Lady Howarth and was about to speak as Marie looked down and whispered under her breath, “Parle à moi, mon petit.” There were 3 loud knocks from the western wall.
“What the devil is that?” said Lady Howarth. “What did you do?”
“I did nothing,” said Marie. There were 3 more knocks.
“What is that noise?” said Lady Howarth and left the room, calling out, “What’s going on there?”
“Now we ‘ave evidence?” said Marie.
“Indeed,” said Sir John, looking a little perturbed. “Indeed we do.”