Wednesday, 29 October 2014
The Letter, A Story for Halloween
The following letter comes from the old British Museum Library collection in Bloomsbury where it was found folded tightly into the spine of an old book in amongst a collection gifted to the Museum during the First World War. The donor was long forgotten and the collection was a strange mixture of scientific treatises - mostly human anatomy - eastern mysticism and magic, of the black variety, dating back three hundred years. The collection had been unexamined until just a few years ago when the reading room was renovated and the contents of many such boxes were catalogued. The books and accompanying papers have now been digitised and may be read by anyone with access to the world wide web.
This particular letter is a puzzle. It is dated October 31st 1849 and is addressed to a Miss D. Hallsworthy in Lincolnshire and consists of two pieces of paper. Though clearly both written by the same person one sheet is large, closely written on both sides whilst the second is somewhat smaller and the writing more untidy, perhaps frantic. It is a mystery then that the first sheet is typical mid-nineteenth century cotton rag paper whilst the second is an example of paper from the Millington paper mill produced only from around 1912, leading some to believe that the whole is an extravagant hoax.
One final curiosity is a note fastened to the cover of the topmost book, in a bundle bound together with leather straps reading simply "Examine the contents of the box very carefully. Assure yourself there is nothing inside. Tell everyone."
This is the letter.
"My dearest, dearest Sister
What a wretch I am. And how wretched are you, though you do not know it; cursed beyond imagining.
I hardly dare describe what I am about to suffer nor the fiendish person that has brought me to this end.
Please, I beg you, do not tell Mother the contents of this letter. I am afraid that it would drive her to madness and I cannot bear to think on that. You, I know, are strong and have ever been my support. But even you I fear to be crushed under the weight of knowledge that I must share.
I have been given but one hour and barely the light of a single candle to write this. I am sick with fear and dizzy with disbelief that I should be in this predicament to which, through my words, I must bring you in mind and imagination, though thank God, not in your person. However, write I must, making my account as full as time permits.
Believe me when I say, were it not for the foulest threats ranged against you and Mother, I would have summoned up the courage to fight, even to the death. But then I fear you would have heard nothing from me, nor could I then have protected you from the vengeance that is now being wreaked on me. Hence, I have no choice at all. My fate is before me and is terrible.
I should explain how I came to this pass. As you know, I have been working in London these five years for Mr Eldridge, editor of the London Advertiser. My fond ambition to be a writer I thought that the position as junior clerk would afford me some opportunity and I was as industrious as any youth of seventeen years could be.
I believe that Mr Eldridge soon came to see in me some accomplishment and he sent me to attend Bow Street to report on the dramas that there daily played to a small crowd of reporters and the city's lowest creatures.
Having discharged my duties thus in short reports of crime and punishment, I occasionally added embroidery to what sometimes seemed dispiriting commonplace lives held up to the blind judgement of justice. Eldridge would grunt, strike out my most lurid prose and, gradually, direct me to work that afforded more licence for the artistry I thought I possessed.
Within two years I came to be Eldridge’s principal reporter of entertainments, offered at the many music halls of which I know Mother would not approve. I may say that both on the stage and off, I saw such things that completed my education as a man of the world, or at least that nether-world that exists, I suppose, in all great cities and away from the gaze of good Christians. And I wish to God I had stayed reporting honest thievery and murder.
But enough. It was, I think just a week ago that I was instructed to attend the performance of a Fakir or a magician who had excited some attention from an acquaintance of Mr Eldridge and I attended late that afternoon the second house at the Green Gate Tavern, opposite the much more salubrious Eagle, in the City Road.
It was a dark, wet and foggy evening and the roads were filthy with mud. A few miserable citizens ventured out and only hardened drinkers lingered in the Tavern. Yet, it was at the Green Gate that the magician was to be seen. Amongst the broken drunkards and incorrigible moll-hunters of the tavern was an imperious Chinaman with a painted face and dressed in a red silk gown. An easel on the stage declared him to be "Fu-Chow the one true magician of the East".
He was not commanding the attention of the crowd. He produced living lizards from a red flame and caused a bottle of water to boil over and turn to bubbling tar, yet the crowd jeered and continued with their drinking.
Finally, it seemed in a rage, the magician pulled at a damask cloth, uncovering a cabinet; a red painted box little taller nor wider than a coffin. He opened both the front and the back to show it empty and invited a volunteer to assist. The first drunken man to stagger forward proved too corpulent to fit within the cabinet and he gave way to another who was smaller but no less inebriated. The smaller man walked with a stoop and used a cheap bamboo walking stick in his left hand. After stepping into the cabinet, the doors front and back were closed.
After a moment and some incantations, almost inaudible over the din of the Green Gate customers, the Chinaman opened once more the cabinet to reveal not, as one would expect in this age of cheap trickery, an empty cabinet but instead a skeleton. I was intrigued, especially as the skeleton both stooped and held, wedged between its bony fingers the same bamboo cane which the cripple had taken onto the stage. The Chinaman, far from being triumphant cursed and kicked the cabinet violently. Even then, the audience bayed and catcalled, one shouting that they were well rid of the man. Then a bottle was thrown and, no doubt in fear, Fu-Chow called for the curtain to be rung down.
Out in the street I pondered a little on the trick I had seen, for a trick it surely was. No rational mind would spend more than a moment on it. I decided that the stooping man was a confederate of the Chinaman and that there was no more to the illusion. Would that I had thought longer and even ventured backstage to enquire of the man. I did not. And instead I wrote a mocking account of the ‘One True Magician of the Green Gate Tavern’ which was published in the following evening edition. I was, I must admit, too proud even to admit to myself that I was troubled by the skills of the magician I had seen, and instead I sought to belittle him and his conjuring in the eyes of our readers.
It was the day after publication that a message reached me at the Fleet Street office of the Advertiser to request urgently, but politely, that I attend a house in Clerkenwell that afternoon where Fu-Chow himself would be glad to show me some of the secrets of his trade. Perhaps you have already guessed that the magician was seeking some recompense for my dismissing his performance and I am afraid you are correct. To my lasting regret I did not think on this until it was too late.
The magician Fu-Chow himself answered the door at my first knock and smiled at me broadly. He was indeed from the east, his tanned, yellowish skin was taut, over a round, clean-shaven face. I estimated him to be perhaps forty-five or a little older.
Immediately he began gabbling at me in a mixture of broken English and what I supposed was his own tongue. No sooner had I entered the house than I was led down to a cellar lit only by candles in which stood the same red painted cabinet I had seen on stage. Fu-Chow explained to me that I should examine the cabinet very carefully. He urged me to assure myself that it was empty. These were undoubtedly words of English that he had practiced for his performance, for they were pronounced clearly and carefully unlike his earlier gibberish. Finally, and comically I thought at the time, he prompted me to "tell everyone", although there were only the two of us in the cellar room.
He gestured into the box and I innocently stepped inside as he closed first one door and then another. A small chink of candlelight illuminated the inside which appeared plain and smooth. I tried to make a joke of the unsettling situation by asking him questions. Whom did he suppose I should tell about this cabinet? Was I too to be transformed into a collection of bones?
My dear sister, he laughed. It was a laugh so high in pitch that it seemed to pierce my heart and it spoke only of his demented triumph at my imprisonment. It was then that he slipped this paper and a small pencil through the crack in the cabinet and told me to write an account of what I had seen. Though he assured me that I would not be transformed as the stooped man had been at the Green Gate, I was - I am - fearful that he was hiding his true object from me so that I should write this account to you. Further he swore that, should I not co-operate, he would seek out all my family and cause them to enter this self-same cabinet to face who knows what end?
I have but a slender hope that you will receive this before I die.
Though I can hardly place my faith in this loathsome beast. He has promised that he will deliver this letter. My entreaties to bring this letter direct to your hand have been met with silence. On one occasion only has he uttered anything about his intent. Through the merest gap in the cabinet - through which the faint light of the candle seeps - I heard his fearsome voice tell that my letter would be 'found'.
I cannot but suppose he means that it will be after my death. Or that he is completely without his wits for, in his ranting, he says there will be a time when my letter will fly through the air like a vapour to materialize before the eyes of hundreds, if not thousands of people. Quite insane. He wants me to tell you that one day his magic will be understood and welcomed by all peoples, by emperors and paupers and on that day will my letter be seen.
I have no more paper and so must close with only love for you and Mother. Your fond brother, John.
The second, smaller sheet is undated...
My dear sister, on this second page I have to continue but I hardly know how to explain what has happened. In the blink of an eye my fear has increased tenfold.
No sooner had I slipped my letter to you through the narrow gap than the room in which this cabinet sits was bathed in light. It was a harsh, sickly light so unlike the candle it replaced. I cannot say that I had slept for it was but a moment. I had sighed, closed my eyes momentarily and opened them again as I heard a hissing and the now familiar crackling laugh of my tormentor. Still held in my hand was the pencil I had used, but the room, such as I could discern seemed, indeed smelled, changed.
I called out, asking the Chinaman what had happened and he answered with a laugh.
"It has worked" he called triumphantly. Yet his voice sounded changed, his command of English more accomplished. I asked him what time it was, fearing that I had been drugged. Again he laughed and slipped me this second sheet of writing paper with which to continue my letter and then he urged me to record this, the most insane story of all.
He claimed to me that it was now the year 1914 and that he had caused me to die, to waste away in this box, and then to come alive again at his bidding. As he spoke I peeped out into the now brighter room in which I had been ensnared and I saw not the flushed face of the man I had met just moments before but the grizzled face of an ancient, bearded man. The voice was recognizable; the same strange accent but now undoubtedly far older and creaking as if he had but few breaths left in his body.
Oh sister, should you be delivered of this letter read it only once and then destroy it. Do not seek help, do not cause any other living creature to read its content. The fiend has explained, and I cannot but believe he has the power, that he has placed some kind of hex, a spell over the very paper and the words that I am writing. He has told me, with a cold voice that commands my absolute and terrible faith, that it is so arranged that the cabinet, with my living body within, will be buried here under the floor of this cellar and that I shall die as I feared I would, trapped and without hope.
But he has a yet greater torture prepared for me. He tells me that I was revived after sixty years by his reading the first page of my letter and thus, should these pages be read in their entirety, then no matter how long I have been beneath the earth and no matter how corrupt my body I should be revived...I should become alive again, though trapped, in order to die once again within this cursed cabinet.
Mark my words, sister, should by some miracle, you receive this do not I pray, cause it to be read again. Destroy it. Allow me to rest in peace.
Eternally your brother, John
© 2014 Philip R Holden