THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM A STORY TO BE PUBLISHED THIS SUMMER IN “FEAR OF WORDS”, FROM EXCALIBUR BOOKS. FOR PART 1, SCROLL DOWN.
From Brookwood cemetery, a horse-pulled carriage with shuttered windows took Gregory out into the countryside, as he could tell from the freshening of the air, and the chirping of the birds. When they pulled to a stop, the door opened, and he stepped down into the chill of the winter dusk.
He stood at the end of a road that led to a canal lock. Before him, an old stone bridge led away to more fields and trees, and a narrowboat lay moored to a towpath a few yards away.
Someone waited for him. A barrel-shaped man almost as tall as Gregory, with a florid face adorned by a luxurious mustache and mutton chops, a brown bowler crammed tightly on his large head. An enormous great coat encompassed his bulk, but Gregory could tell that the weight on his frame was not obesity, but muscle.
“Perishing cold day, sir,” said the man. “This ain’t the time of year to be without a coat and hat! The name is Voss. Lady Padbury has asked me to take care of you for a while.”
“That’s very … considerate of her.”
“Allow me to escort you to the safe house, sir.”
“Where is it?”
“Why, it’s just over there.”
Gregory followed the man’s pointing finger and stared at the narrowboat.
“That’s not a house.”
“Well, the idea is, sir, to keep you moving around, so we’re going to be cruising the Oxford Canal for a while. It’ll make it harder to anyone to track you down.”
“Ridiculous! I tell you I’m not using that old, smelly, primitive –“
Voss moved in closer, his voice low and threatening. “Don’t be more of a donkey’s arse than you have to be, sir. Just get in the boat.”
Gregory got in the boat.
The drably colored narrowboat – called the Jolly Boatman, as Gregory could see from the peeling paint along the hull – was a long one, perhaps seventy feet from prow to stern. Gregory gingerly climbed on board and went down the steps into the main cabin – a long space dominated by a circular table and chairs, with more chairs along the sides of the hull. He could see down a corridor almost the length of the ship; his view was blocked on one side by a heavy velvet curtain but on the left, he saw through to a galley, past the cabin where the bunks obviously were. The floor hummed beneath his feet with the power of the steam turbine in the stern, ready to get the vessel on its way. The interior smelt strongly of leather and pipe tobacco; the ceiling sloped from door to window to match the roof above, meaning that he had to stoop while moving around. The floor was plain wooden boards covered with Persian rugs. The decoration was minimum, but it did have one feature that Gregory approved of; a reproduction of Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden hanging on the port side bulkhead.
As Gregory stood looking disparagingly around him, at the cabin and at the other members of the crew as they prepared to cast off, he became aware of Voss lingering at his side.
“Do you mind if I ask you, sir, why are the Turks trying so hard to tip you over?”
“What? Oh … I see. Last year I held a séance where I contacted one of their recently deceased military officers, General Omar Pasha. From him, I learned the plans for the Ottoman Empire’s Sevastapol campaign, and passed them to Lady Padbury. The Ottoman agents have orders to abduct me to Turkey, to force me to use my abilities for them – and if that’s impossible, then they’ll just kill me.”
“To stop you talking to any more big-wigs who’ve coiled up their ropes. By Jove, sir, that’s a rum do.”
Voss tapped out his pipe on the fire grate with a harsh clanging sound. “Well, rest easy, sir. The enemy won’t find you here.”
“But what if they do?” Gregory snapped. “What are you going to do, choke them with your pipe smoke? Or just bore them to death?”
Voss winked, and the gesture seemed to involve the entire left side of his face. “Keep your hair on, Mr. Gregory. We’ll make sure your peace is not disturbed.”
And so, they fell into an uneasy routine. As the Jolly Boatman took them chugging along past fields and hamlets on their way to Banbury, they went to bed early, rose early, and went for long, bracing walks along the countryside near the canal. They watched the goshawks wheeling overhead – real ones this time, not mechanical. They smelt the woodsmoke, the dry bracken and lavender, the smell of wet barley from the nearby breweries; they listened to the sound of chopping wood and chattering looms from the red brick and thatched reed houses in the nearby villages. Voss pointed out the flowers and berries that were safe to eat, told Gregory how to make a camouflaged shelter out of dead branches and moss, and other things necessary for survival in the wild, if the worst came to the worst. In the evening, Gregory dined on meat pies with thick pastry, hocks of lamb, fillets of freshly caught salmon, with vegetables and fruit to build up his strength.
At night, Gregory lay on his bunk inside a solitary cramped cubicle, staring at a Daguerrotype that he kept in his wallet during the day, and attached to the wall by his pillow at night. A faded picture of a young lady, smiling, holding a child, a girl, who could not have been more than two years old.
One day, he kept thinking. One day, I promise you.
And he lay awake, his eyes smarting with tears, the last of the opium sweats racking his body, listening to the hooting of the owls and the screaming of the foxes outside, until his exhausted brain claimed defeat.
On the fourth night, the Jolly Boatman took them through the winding series of locks and cuttings in the Cherwell valley. The cabin crew and their reluctant passenger sat in front of the wood-burning stove, smoking their pipes and drinking port wine after a meal of kidney pie and potatoes, when Mr. Voss announced that he had received a telegram earlier in the afternoon.
“Seems like Mr. Lentz is losing his patience,” he said. “He’s coming here for a seance tomorrow evening. Lady Padbury asks you to be ready, so for your sake, sir, I hope you will be.”
Gregory looked cooly back at his protector. “You don’t like me, do you, Mr. Voss?”
“It’s not my place to like or dislike, sir. You’re a job. A piece of work. Sometimes I’m paid to keep people from harm, and sometimes I’m paid to put them … in harm’s way, if you catch my drift. You, Mr. Gregory, I’m supposed to nanny you. And what for, I might ask?”
Gregory’s eyebrows went up. “Queen and country?”
Voss snorted. “Lady Padbury says you’re a talented man. She also says that sometimes, you’re an impossible man.”
“You can tell Lady Padbury, when you send your little men to the telegraphist, that I shall indeed be ready for tomorrow evening.”
Voss nodded. “Can I ask you a question?”
“I don’t see how I can stop you.”
Voss leant back in his seat, peering closely at the other man. “Well, it’s just I never really went for all this Spiritualist lark, you know. All this table-tapping and chair-thumping malarkey. I’m a practical man, sir, I’m concerned with what I can see and touch, and to me, I think of mediums a bit like drawing-room entertainers. When the nobs want a a thrill, they hire a tenor, a fiddler, or a medium.”
He leant forward again. “So what’s it like, sir? The spirit voices? The visions?”
Gregory stared at him for a long time. “It is a gift from the Almighty,” he said eventually, “and also a curse. It is my mission in life to see, and to communicate with, the souls who have gone before us on the Great Journey; and I bring back messages of hope and comfort to those of us who one day will follow.”
“At ten guineas a pop,” came a sour voice from the galley.
“Get on with your work, Kilby, there’s a good chap!” yelled Voss. Resuming his expansive mood, Voss gestured with his pipe. “I would like to know, sir, how exactly you are going to pull this off. I mean, if you’re on the level, and you can actually parley with … the deceased … then how are you going to reach this Murray Spear cove? Where in Heaven or Hell are you going to look for him?”
“Not in Heaven, Mr. Voss, and not in Hell.” Gregory stood, and collected some chart paper, ink and quills from the sideboard. “Let me explain.”
He seated himself and drew a circle on the paper with a wide sweep of the quill. Within that circle, he carefully drew a number of smaller ones.
“Try to think of Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and Limbo as a number of geometric spheres,” he said, “spheres that are orbiting around God in the Empyrean, but at the same time all existing in the same space. To enter the spheres, or to cross between the spheres, there is no physical traveling; it is a matter of ascending or descending to a different level of existence. The most difficult to navigate is Hell, but the hardest to contemplate – for a human intelligence – is the realm of heaven. It is ‘a hyperspace that exists in four dimensions’, as my spirit guide once described it to me.”
Voss breathed in deeply. “I didn’t understand a word of that, sir, but I’ll let it pass. In which part of this four-dimensional thingummibob do you intend to find old Spear, then?”
Gregory drained his brandy glass, and waited while Voss refilled it.
“Lentz admitted that Spear was a nonconformist, which means, I presume, he is in Limbo. It is the first and outermost circle of Hell, known in the Spiritualist world as the Gardens of Melancholy; reserved for heretics, virtuous heathens, and unbaptized children who died without the knowledge of Jesus Christ. They do not suffer torments but live forever without hope, or the possibility of salvation, which some say is the worst torment of all. They essentially do what they did when they were alive, without the distractions of sleep or eating.”
Voss shrugged. “Doesn’t sound such a bad place.”
“It depends on your level of faith.” He took a sip of brandy. “When I … travel … in my state of trance, I work with a guide. A personage who once lived on this earth, but has moved on to a spiritual plane higher than ours. This guide, I trust, will take me to where Spear is in the Gardens of Melancholy.”
“Amazing,” said Voss with a loud guffaw. “I can see now why Lady Padbury wanted you back. I don’t know why you ever left.”
Gregory leaned across the table, the brandy flaring up inside him. “Would you like me to tell you, Mr. Voss?”
He pushed the chart paper towards the other man. “I resigned because to Lady Padbury and her ilk, life and death are simply matters of geography. Heaven and Hell are locations in space, which the British Empire intends to explore, map, colonize, and eventually – conquer. Just as it’s done with the Far East and darkest Africa. Their ultimate aim is the construction of a craft that can carry living souls into the world beyond the veil. And do you believe they will not be carrying weapons? Guns? Rifles? Explosive charges?”
His force spent, Gregory slumped back in his chair. Voss was silent for along time, his gregarious mood suddenly vanished.
“In that case there’s something I should tell you, sir,” he said at length. “I’ve been on to my contacts at the Mundaneum. They informed me that old Father Spear and his flock were getting up to some … queer business.”
“What do you mean?”
Voss shook his head, the mutton chops turning his head leonine in the gaslight. “I don’t rightly know, but apparently Spear and his little group renamed themselves the Company of Electricizers when they left the Universalist Church, and they were working on … well, something not very Christian, sir. Rumor has it they were worshipping something they called the ‘Living Motor’, and their messiah was just about to materialize here on Earth.”
Gregory swirled the brandy in his glass, staring into its depths.
“I think I should go and prepare myself for tomorrow night,” he said quietly. “But before I do, could I ask you a question in return?”
“Ask away, sir.”
“What is behind the curtain?”
Voss drew his eyebrows together. “Why, you’ve just told me, sir. The mysteries of Heaven and Hell and the four-dimensional wotsisname.”
“No.” Gregory pointed to the velvet cloth hung at the far end of the cabin. “I mean, what is behind that curtain?”
“Oh.” Voss turned to look, and then threw back his head and laughed, his jowls shaking with perplexed mirth. “Oh, that curtain? Never you mind, sir. Nothing you need concern yourself with. That curtain, you mean. Oh, my stars and garters!”
TO BE CONTINUED …