Ian Charles Douglas’s “The Haunting of the Jabberwocky”
London-born Ian Charles Douglas graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction). While teaching English in East Asia, he got his first break writing travel articles for the press. He returned to the United Kingdom, where he became known as author of the Zeke Hailey sci-fi books for young adults. Other credits include short stories, apps, and a radio play. Today, Ian lives with his family in the heart of Robin Hood country and supports his local writing community. He is a founder of the Nottingham Writer’s Studio, mentors emerging writers, and runs storytelling workshops. Ian is regularly seen on school visits, book fairs, and Notts TV. For more details, please visit www.iandouglas-writer.com .
Without further ado, and with both great pleasure and honor, we present you his story:
The Haunting of the Jabberwocky
Ian Charles Douglas
February 15th 1855
Beamish’s first view of Borogrove Hall was from a horse and cart. The old house brooded over the moors, and put the doctor in mind of blackened teeth.
“What a miserable place,” he remarked to the driver, but got little more than a grunt.
Soon he was ringing the sanatorium’s bell and its weathered door was opening. A nurse took his case and ushered him to the head physician’s office.
Doctor Gyre shook his hand warmly and ordered tea.
“How is London these days?” Gyre asked.
Doctor Beamish rolled his eyes. “Still stinking from the horses. Thank the Lord for the invention of steam trains. The North Eastern Railway made mincemeat of the journey.”
“Quite so, quite so,” Gyre replied. He was younger than Beamish, indeed he looked too young to be qualified. Unruly red hair and a runaway beard suggested a single man. Or possibly a man of great intellect, too busy with ideas to pay attention to his appearance. But Beamish doubted this. He assessed the man as unremarkable.
“Let’s discuss the patient,” Beamish went on. “His parents paid me a most generous retainer. And the fee, should I find a cure, is outstanding. What’s so special about this young Charles Dodgson?”
Gyre fiddled with a paperweight on his desk, a miniature ship-in-a-bottle, waiting for the housemaid to serve the tea and leave.
“A sad case. Just out of Oxford, you know. A brilliant mind. His family were distraught to see him cut down so.”
Gyre hesitated. “The boy became alienated and suffered a massive fit of melancholia. Now he needs assistance simply to walk or dress. He’s lost the power of speech. Although his vocal cords are in good shape. We know that from the screams at night.”
“Evidently. He wakes raving hysterically, until he calms down and retreats into mutism.”
“What does he say upon waking? Some clue as to what ails him?”
Gyre shuffled uncomfortably on his seat. “No, no. The stuff of nightmares, nothing more.”
“He must give something away, surely. We all need to get our worries off our chests.” Beamish remarked.
“Well, nothing verbal. He has a compulsive behaviour with the pen. Incessantly devising riddles. Riddles without answers,” Gyre replied.
Gyre handed him a crumpled sheet of paper. Beamish examined the handwriting, which was rather neat and orderly for an alleged madman.
A Russian had three sons.
The first, named Rab, became a lawyer.
The second, named Ymra, became a soldier.
The third became a sailor: what was his name?
“Hopeless, is it not?” Gyre remarked.
“You didn’t figure it out?”
“Well, I did venture Peter, but the patient gave no reply.”
“Tzar Peter the Great, didn’t he build up the Russian navy?”
Beamish stroked his beard. “I believe so, but I think you’re missing the point. Each of these are professions that have to join something.”
Gyre regarded him absently, then said, “In any case, I stopped it. These delusions could only aggravate his neurasthenia.”
“Naturally, Doctor. His scribblings were unhealthy.”
“And he became agitated when you withdrew the ink and paper?”
Gyre nodded. “Extremely. How did you guess?” Beamish refrained from stating it was an obvious conclusion. Instead, he said, “then my first act will be to reinstate the writing supplies. It is a creative act and one the patient likely finds therapeutic.”
“Sir, I hardly advise—”
Beamish raised his hand. “Doctor, his family are paying me to attend to his health. We will do this my way. Either that or I take the first train back to London.”
Gyre was momentarily speechless. His ruddy complexion lost its colour. “I see. I see,” he replied. “Have it your own way. You may change your mind. There’s more to the tale.”
Gyre gazed out of the window and said nothing. Beamish gave a polite cough.
“It’s just,” Gyre began at last. “The patient’s delusions seem infectious.”
“He’s terrified by a monster from his own imagination. Only, the thing is, some of the other patients claim to have seen it.”
Beamish laughed. “This case is getting better by the minute. What did they see, pray? And when and where?”
Gyre looked sheepish. “They all say the same. A long, hideous creature, slithering up and down the corridors. A thing with many legs and armour-plating and subject to a fearsome clicking.”
“With its jaws, yes.”
Beamish shifted in his chair. “Hysteria is indeed infectious. Fear passes from man to man like the common cold. Perhaps I shall study your entire sanatorium. It may make a worthwhile case to bring before the Royal Society of Medicine.”
“Then you’ll need to examine my best nurses.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Several heard that intolerable clicking. And one, from a distance, saw a huge shadow scuttling on the ceiling. It vanished around a corner.”
Beamish opened his mouth, about to deliver a mocking riposte. But the expression on Gyre’s face took the words from him. A look of profound unease.
“Ah, I see,” Beamish remarked softly. “You’ve seen it too.”
Gyre’s eyes watered. “Not seen, but yes, I’ve heard. The clicking of jaws and the drum of
feet. Many feet.”
“I imagine this was late at night? With nothing but the oil lamp to show the way?”
Gyre wiped his brow. “You’re thinking I’m a weak and susceptible man. And yes, it was late at night when I patrolled the wards. The corridors here are long and labyrinthine. I still get lost in the dark. And on such a wander I encountered that unholy of noises. Coming closer!”
“And you turned and ran?”
“Naturally, in fear for my life.”
“So, you never actually made sight of this apparition?”
Gyre shook his head.
“Had you been drinking?”
“Sir, I know how to hold my liquor,” Gyre replied stiffly.
Beamish thought for a moment. If nothing else, this case was well worth the journey from London. A man crippled by lunacy, and yet able to inspire others with his affliction. Not to mention the riddles. Capital. Most capital.
“I must meet him,” Beamish said, jumping to his feet. “But first, permit me to freshen up.”
Gyre rang a bell. “The maid will show you to your room. All ready for you. Laundered bedsheets and a full jug of washing water.”
“Quite so,” Beamish replied. “Let me wash off the dust from the train and then we meet the young Mister Dodgson.”
The room was adequate, apart from a north gale blasting between the loose window frames. The view stretched over hedgerows and onto moorland. Acre after acre of dreary terrain.
It must be lovely in the summertime, Beamish thought.
He opened his suitcase and placed a book on the bedside cabinet. Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language. A gift from his late father, he took it on every trip.
Next, he poured water from the jug into the basin and washed his face and beard. Drying himself with a towel, he gazed into the mirror.
And saw a quite different face. The dead face of Lawrence Hanson, in fact. His first patient. How he’d failed that poor wretch. Why did he allow the boy’s father, that overbearing bully, to dictate treatment? Beamish knew the boy required patience, understanding, and insight. But Hanson Senior overruled him. Ordered a strict regime, marching up and down for hours, restricted meals, beatings for bedwetting. And more. Is it any wonder the boy threw himself in the Thames?
The fault belonged to Beamish, not the idiot father. He should have asserted his authority. Insisted that his prognosis be observed. If only, and Lawrence might have lived. Even as he stood over the boy’s corpse, slimy with the river mud, Beamish vowed never to make that same mistake. And never to desert a patient.
The face in the mirror was his. But somewhere, in his head, he still heard the boy sobbing.
Dodgson was kept in a small bare room, with one solitary barred window. Beamish, who had visited various workhouses and the new Bethlem Royal Hospital, considered it quite commodious. Clearly, this was an asylum for the well-to-do. Not that he would stay there himself.
The young man sat on the floor, chewing his fingers. Not unlike the late Lawrence Hanson. His hair was dark with a tendency to curls. The face was intelligent and gentle, but the eyes. Oh, the eyes! They were wide and staring and shone with the light of madness. No, not madness. Fear.
Beamish crouched down. “My name is Doctor Beamish. Your parents commissioned me to cure you. Will you shake my hand?” He offered his palm. Dodgson made a guttural sound and shuffled back. Beamish tried again. “I come as your friend. Will you be mine?” Dodgson opened his mouth, as if to speak. Instead he pushed his fist in his mouth and began rocking.
“Sympathy, is that your prescription? A cold bath does more for the insane.” Gyre remarked from the doorway.
“And has that been Dodgson’s treatment so far?” Beamish asked.
“Indeed,” Gyre replied with a note of pride. “Communal buckets of freezing water, every morning in the courtyard. It does the world of good.”
“And yet this patient is not recovering.”
Gyre gave a sour look. “Well, that’s why we need a second opinion.”
Beamish put a hand on Dodgson’s shoulder.
“Yvan. The Russian sailor is named Yvan.”
Dodgson stopped rocking, and gave Beamish a fleeting smile.
“How so?” Gyre asked, visibly irked.
“Anagrams,” Beamish explained. “The idle games of the university common room. A lawyer needs to join the Bar. Bar backwards is Rab. Army backwards is Ymra.”
“Oh,” Gyre exclaimed. “Then Yvan spelt backwards is…”
“Navy,” Beamish said, a little smugly. “A sailor joins a navy. The riddle was an exercise in logic and wordplay.”
One of the male nurses was at the door with sheaves of paper.
“Yes!” Dodgson shrieked, but then stuffed his fist back into his mouth.
“Oh,” Gyre said. “That’s the first word he’s said in a fortnight.”
Dodgson jumped up and snatched the paper. He turned to Beamish and gestured frantically. “Of course,” Beamish said, handing him a fountain pen. Dodgson threw himself on the wooden planks of the floor and began scribbling furiously. Then he stood up, took a deep breath and handed a sheet to Beamish.
“How disappointing,” Gyre said. “Gibberish. For an instant, you seemed to be getting somewhere.”
Beamish studied the madman’s handwriting, smudged and with ink dripping down the page.
Vg urnef zr, rira zl gubhtugf
Beamish tried to pronounce the words, stumbling over each syllable. Dodgson shook his head in despair. He jabbed at the words with his finger.
“Yes, it’s a message,” Beamish said. “But I’m afraid, one I don’t comprehend. Please explain.”
Dodgson grimaced. Clearly, he wanted to answer, but was too scared to do so. He seemed about to explode with frustration. Instead, he dropped onto his bed and bawled into sheets already damp with tears.
After dinner, Gyre invited Beamish to his small study. Coals crackled happily in the fireplace, illuminating the bookshelves with an orange glow. Gyre proved a generous host when it came to pipe tobacco and sherry. For a while, they sat in huge leather chairs, mesmerized by the embers, each man lost in his thoughts.
Gyre tapped his pipe ashes into the hearth.
“A hopeless case, then?”
Beamish adjusted his spectacles. “Why would you say that?”
“I’ve tried my damnedest with him, Beamish—”
“Call me Samuel.”
Gyre smiled awkwardly. “Indeed, um, Samuel. And my mother christened me Ambrose. Lord knows why. Anyway, your impressions of the case?”
“I believe, Ambrose, that in the realm of lunacy, there is no such thing as a hopeless case. Whether it is alienation, neurasthenia, or even the most savage madness, no patient is beyond a cure. The trick is finding it.”
Gyre looked irritated. “But those scribblings today, surely Dodgson’s mind is lost. Forever.”
“Ah, yes, the writing. And this a man of literary yearnings.”
“I don’t see the relevance. He is a pious man too, with ambitions for the cloth.”
“Yes, yes,” Beamish said, refilling his glass from the decanter. “I read your medical notes. And very good they were too.” In truth, Beamish thought the notes said more about the doctor than the patient, and that Gyre was of limited imagination. But he had no wish to upset his host. “My point is, this man loves words. So, his scribbles must have significance to him.”
Gyre shrugged. “But they’re meaningless.”
Beamish pulled the very page from his breast pocket. “In his case history, you mention Dodgson has a love of word games, sums, riddles.”
“We’ve already established he is an Oxford boy,” Gyre responded huffily.
“Ambrose, these letters are planned. They have the regularity of a language. It is my opinion, that they are a cipher.”
“I doubt that.”
“Have you a pen and some paper?” Beamish asked. Gyre reluctantly fetched some from his bureau. Beamish took a sheet and using his thigh for a writing desk, wrote the alphabet down the left margin. He did the same on the right margin of a second sheet. He held the two edges side-by-side and slid them up and down, staring intensely.
“Pure folly,” Gyre remarked. “One more, please,” Beamish requested. He kneeled down before the fire, placing the two alphabets side-by-side, and writing on the third sheet.
“There are many simple ciphers, Ambrose. In my Charterhouse days, the boys would exchange coded notes. Any message deemed too seditious for the prying eyes of our teachers.”
“What are you doing?” Gyre asked.
“You see, page one is the true alphabet. Watch as I slip the second page down its side. See, the A becomes a B, now a C, now a D, etcetera.”
“Oh, I see. And you’re comparing it to Dodgson’s sentence—”
“I’ve found it,” Beamish cried. “Look, the first word!”
Gyre crouched down on fours. “By heavens, yes! ‘Vg’ becomes ‘It’.”
Beamish chuckled, “The most obvious of cyphers. Rot Thirteen.”
“Because each letter is rotated onto its thirteenth neighbour?”
Beamish nodded, eagerly deciphering Dodgson’s message. He held up the finished work before the roaring flames. His smile died.
“It hears me, even my thoughts.”
A scream broke the night. One long crescendo of terror. And then the abrupt end, cut off before its peak.
Beamish ran through the warren of passageways, fastening the cord around his dressing gown. He found a crowd gathered near the steps to the nurses’ quarters.
“What in God’s name?” he asked an ashen Gyre. The nurses and porters parted to reveal a corpse on the floor. It was a girl of around twenty, one of the kitchen staff, her face mashed to a pulp. Blood trickled between the floorboards, following the slant of the building. The angle of the unfortunate girl’s head showed clearly a neck snapped in two. He knelt closer. There were so many lacerations to the upper body, as if attacked by a dozen scythes. Yet how could that be possible? It would require a gang of murderous thugs, but then, where were they? Did they vanish in a twinkling?
“I should perform a post-mortem,” Beamish began to say. Gyre raised his hand.
“I have despatched the head porter for the county police. They will arrange that. In any case, this is a sanatorium not a hospital. We have not the facilities.”
“I would know more. How could this poor girl sustain such injuries? And so rapidly?”
Gyre ran his hands through his hair, avoiding any answer.
“Which one was it?” Beamish went on.
Gyre regarded him blankly. “You think one of my inmates culpable for this outrage?”
Beamish nodded. “Most assuredly.”
“Doctor, they are locked into their rooms after dinner. Each and every one, for their own safety. Even Dodgson.”
“But one could force the lock. This has to be the work of a maniac.”
“We all know what done it, Doctor Sir,” came a voice. It was Sister Matilda, or Matty as she was more commonly known. She held Beamish’s gaze with a defiance that cared not for the difference in their status.
“Go on,” Beamish encouraged her. Best to get it out in the open, he thought.
“The monster, clearly. The one conjured up from that mad boy’s imagination.”
Beamish wanted to mock her for such superstitious claptrap. But with the mutilated corpse still bleeding, that seemed insensitive.
“Dodgson, you mean?”
Matty nodded. “The boy’s a demon. A demon among lunatics. There’s no telling—”
“Enough, Sister,” Gyre said.
“That’s just what we’re fearing,” Matty went on. “That it isn’t enough. The monster’s tasted our blood. It’ll call again and mark my words, none of us are safe.”
The county constable arrived in the early hours, squealed and hurried away, whiter than a snowdrop. He returned after breakfast with a second constable and the undertaker from Cragheaton, the nearby village.
Beamish joined Gyre in his office for strong tea. The kind fortified with a half-bottle of whisky.
Both men drank several cups before speaking.
“I want you to know, Samuel, that we checked again. Every patient was safe and sound, locked within their rooms. Some even slept through that heartrending scream.”
“Gibbering beneath his bed. Beside himself with fear. Sister Matty gave him a healthy dose of laudanum. He’s sleeping now.”
“And you really believe this tragic murder was the work of some monster, spawned by the boy’s fevered mind?”
Gyre looked down at his feet. “How else can you account for such savagery? And the way the culprit disappeared like moonshine?”
Beamish drained his cup. “Well, Ambrose, to be fair, I cannot. And the good book teaches us faith can move mountains. Perhaps fear can cause the odd landslide.”
“Do not vex me. It is a most trying day and not yet ten o’clock. Speak plainly, Sir.”
“The mind is a powerful thing. For example, there have been times when I’ve administered watered milk to an infected person, claiming it to be a most potent medicine.”
“Ah, and they got well, blessing that same milk-water. They recovered because you made them believe it. And I have seen healthy men sicken when mistakenly diagnosed with some ailment.”
“Just so. And we know from his university letters, Dodgson is a genius, of sorts. I acknowledge the concept, the theory, that such a man’s imagination could make his fantasies appear real.”
“Then you do agree?” Gyre cried, with a look of relief.
“I said the concept. Not the fact. Not yet. I will need a lot more evidence to convince me.”
“I pray to the Lord, that no new evidence is forthcoming.”
“Whether it is Dodgson’s phantasm, or some more mundane evil, either way, it is now more imperative than ever that we affect a cure.”
“That is an impossibility.”
Beamish stroked his bearded chin.
“I beg to differ. But we need to enter his world on his terms. Convince him we too are believers. It is, after all, real to him.”
“You have a plan?”
Beamish chuckled softly and said, “I have a treatment.”
They found Dodgson calm, although his large, expressive eyes gleamed with disquiet. Sitting on the bed beside him, Beamish took the man’s hand and said, “Charles, I know you understand us perfectly. I also realise a dark shadow has fallen upon you. In addition, this phantasm hears your every word and thought. Hence the code, Rot Thirteen, to be precise.”
Dodgson’s face lit up at the mention of his cipher.
Beamish continued, “To help us help you, we will continue in this vein. Our messages, between you and I, shall be disguised. That way, we can stay one step ahead. And the monster will be caught off guard.”
Dodgson grasped Beamish’s hand and shook it vigorously.
“A-a-a-agreed,” he said, only to cover his mouth in horror.
Beamish handed him more paper and the pen. “So, tell me,” he said. “Where does it come from and where is it now? What does it want? And most importantly, how do we defeat it?”
Dodgson stroked his bottom lip with the pen, clearly lost in thought. Then, he slipped down upon on the bare floorboards and furiously scribbled away. Twice he crossed out his work, slapping his cheek and berating himself beneath his breath.
“Take care,” Gyre remarked. “I suspect you are driving him deeper into his fevered dreams.”
“Take a care, yourself, Ambrose. If you impede my therapy, I will be forced to convey a very damning report to his family.”
Gyre clucked like an angry hen, but kept his peace.
Dodgson lifted up his handiwork, inkblots splattered on his shirt. Beamish’s heart sank. Instead of Rot Thirteen, his patient had inscribed four strings of numbers. This was not going to be as easy as Beamish hoped. Here was an entirely new puzzle to crack.
Gyre shared another evening in his private study. And broke out a better tobacco and a decanter of fine brandy. Beamish relished the fiery aftertaste and casually observed the nearest bookcase.
“I see you enjoy the novels of Miss Radcliffe,” he remarked. “The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian, for example.”
Gyre gave an awkward grin. “A gripping and gruesome yarn does pass the long nights. But if you mean to suggest gothic literature has curdled my wits, making me gullible to every madman’s fancy, you are most wrong.”
“Not at all, young Sir. I lean more to the classics myself, anything in Latin. But I am no snob. As you say, the nights up here in the moors, and you the only sane and educated man, well, I don’t envy your position.”
“Quite so,” Gyre answered, and drained his brandy. “I’ve a copy of Frankenstein, Or a Modern Prometheus. Have you read that, Samuel?”
“Ah, that I have,” Beamish replied.
“A tome full of necromancy and murder?”
Beamish shrugged. “Perhaps, but I found it most philosophically stimulating. On one level, it is an essay on the conflict between intellect and passion. A struggle against our personal demons—”
“Now you surprise me. You agree there can be demons, locked up in our heads?” Gyre interrupted.
“I speak in metaphor, not folklore.”
Gyre gestured for him to continue.
“I see Frankenstein and his monster as two sides of the same coin. Frankenstein is a man of intelligence, rationality, education. The monster is raw emotion, needy, hungry, ignorant, unable to communicate, like a small child. It is my belief that we all have these contrasting natures within us.
Young Mrs Shelley gave us a parable for the human condition. Man’s cruelty unto man.”
Gyre puffed away on his pipe, mulling over the conversation.
“And you think this applies to Dodgson? That the monster he fears is the result of a battle between his higher self and his base desires?”
Gyre went on. “But his monster has escaped his mind. Can you still doubt it?”
“Until I see it with my own eyes, the answer, my dear Ambrose, is a hearty yes. Now tell me, what did the County Police conclude?”
“Nothing. Their parting words were to keep all doors locked and let them know if any further murders occur.”
Beamish grimaced. “London Peelers would not be so quick to run off. But we are in the provinces.” Both men rolled their eyes.
“And what of Dodgson’s latest masterpiece?” Gyre asked. “Any proof of the monster, one way or t’other?”
Beamish produced the sheet of paper and unfolded it, handing it to Gyre, who said, “More nonsense. He’s jotted down random numbers.”
“Not at all. Now I’ve had time to contemplate, it’s easy to crack.”
Gyre’s jaw dropped. “Truly? Some kind of numerology?” He held it aloft for both to see.
4, 18, 5, 1, 13, 19
13, 9, 18, 18, 15, 18, 19
2, 12, 15, 15, 4
19, 23, 15, 18, 4
“Each number stands for a letter of the alphabet,” Beamish explained, as though speaking to an imbecilic child.
Gyre scratched his mop of overgrown hair. “Oh, eureka! Number one is letter A and number two is letter B, etcetera.”
“So, in the first line of numbers, four is a letter d, eighteen is a letter r, and then, and then…. Wait, I need to write this down.”
Gyre took a pencil and began laboriously decoding the riddle. Beamish took the opportunity to refill his glass. Twice.
At length, Gyre put down his pencil. “Peculiar in the extreme. I have: dreams, mirrors, blood, and sword. Surely this is meaningless?”
“You forget my questions.”
“Please spell it out for me, old chap. It’s been another tiresome day and the brandy is numbing what wits I have left.”
Beamish looked at his colleague for a second, then said, ““Where does it come from?”
“Dreams?” Gyre answered.
“And where is it now?”
“What does it want?”
“Dear God, that’s blood.”
“And lastly, how do we defeat it?”
“Sword? With a sword?”
Beamish wriggled to the edge of his chair. “Dodgson believes his apparition comes from his dreams. From his imagination. Not so far removed from the Frankenstein metaphor. I’m less certain about mirrors. However, perhaps he thinks it travels between the realm of imagination and this mortal coil by means of a mirror.”
“Oh!” Gyre said softly, putting his hand to his mouth. “There’s an old looking glass at the top of the backstairs. The staff use it to check their apparel.”
Beamish exhaled a great cloud of tobacco smoke. “Perhaps. Blood, sadly is obvious.”
“How Dodgson will kill his demon and recover.”
“Oh, I don’t allow the patients to carry sharp objects,” Gyre protested.
“A sword of the imagination,” Beamish replied sharply.
“That we will work out later. It may take a symbolic form. First, we need to inspire Dodgson with confidence.”
“Ah, an imaginary sword for an imaginary monster.”
“Hear that?” Gyre cried. Beamish looked at him vacantly. “Listen, man!” But Beamish could only hear the crackle of flames. Wait, there was a noise! A soft drumming, carried in the timber from some distant nook.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Beamish remarked.
“What do we do?” Gyre asked, white-faced and wide-eyed.
Beamish seized the poker. “We investigate, what else?”
The rear of the house was a veritable maze of stairwells and passages. With every step, a floorboard or a bannister creaked. The entire house groaned like a clipper on the swell. It was also uncomfortably dark. Gyre held the oil lamp aloft, and shadows danced before them. The two men paused.
“It’s coming from the scullery,” Gyre ventured. “I think.”
“No, the next floor. Where do these stairs lead?”
“Back to the patients’ wing.”
Beamish put his forefinger to his lips, and clutched the poker all the tighter. A sudden longing for London and his club overwhelmed him. An image of the late Lawrence Hanson flitted into his mind and he inhaled a deep breath. They crept upstairs, Gyre clutching Beamish by the arm. At the top, they turned a corner and the lamp threw its paltry glow down a corridor. Something was moving. A rug was being pulled along the corridor and through a dark window at the far end.
“Samuel!” Gyre whispered, hoarse with fear.
Beamish gasped. A chill pierced his chest. Ice water flooded his veins.
It wasn’t a rug!
A long, segmented creature was scuttling away from them. The drumming was the patter of its bony feet. Within a few seconds, it vanished into the window.
A light flashed. This was the reflection of their lamp. And the two terrified faces gazing back at them were they themselves. Their reflections! The monster was real and it had escaped into a mirror.
Gyre thrust the lamp into Beamish’s hands, before collapsing in a dead faint.
The harsh light of dawn found them in Gyre’s study. Neither could face solid food. They breakfasted instead on whisky; this time unpolluted by tea. And Javanese cigarettes. Beamish found the cloves of the cigarettes dulled the squirming fear inside his ribcage.
“You believe now?” Gyre asked, blowing out a puff of scented smoke.
Beamish nodded. “Poor Dodgson, living with such terror.”
“That mirror should be smashed.”
Beamish shook his head. “Not at all, Ambrose. If it can enter and exit through one mirror, I’ll warrant it can use any.”
Gyre ran his fingers through his red curls. “I don’t follow.”
“I don’t pretend to follow myself. Maybe there’s no rhyme or reason to this affair. It’s all down to imagination. To faith.”
“Dodgson believes he has created a monster, one that lives on the other side of the mirror. Not just that mirror but any.”
“He did say mirrors, plural,” Gyre said, pouring himself another whiskey. Beamish had lost count of how many glasses they’d consumed and yet he felt stone-cold sober. Gyre downed his drink in one. “So, you think this monster, I thought it resembled a centipede, exists in a looking-glass world?”
“Indeed, my friend.” Beamish replied. “If we break this one, as you suggest, the creature will find another. Maybe far away where it can wreak havoc unimpeded. At least this way, we know where it will be.”
“But how do we kill the brute?”
“We can’t. Only Dodgson can.”
“For the love of God, how?” Gyre pleaded
“That, my dear Ambrose, is the biggest conundrum.”
Gyre scratched his cheek, itchy with the rust of his beard. “Samuel, I am glad you’re here.”
Beamish lit another cigarette. “I wish I could say the same.”
The door flew open and Sister Matty fell into the room.
“It’s Dodgson, Sirs. Plum vanished. Right through his locked door.”
Beamish left them to it. The nurses were combing Borogrove Hall, the groundsmen the estate. All crying out Dodgson’s name. But Beamish was exhausted and ready for some merciful sleep. Merciful, in that it would provide a respite from the horrors of the night. And who knows, after some invigorating shut-eye, maybe a packed suitcase and the first train back to London?
He turned the key. At least his room was safe, now that he’d had the mirror removed. He crossed to the hearth to stoke the fire. And jumped with shock.
It was Dodgson, in the armchair, bedraggled and dirty. And stinking of sweat.
“How—how did you get in?” Beamish cried.
Dodgson pointed to the door. “It was locked,” Beamish said. Dodgson shook his head and pointed again, stabbing the air with his forefinger.
“The bottom of the door? Oh, the crack underneath?”
Dodgson nodded emphatically.
Beamish stroked his beard. True, there was a gap under the door, wide enough to let in a chilly draught from the landing. An inch at best.
“Dodgson, Charles if I may, even a baby could not crawl through that space. The idea is absurd.”
His patient shrugged and looked at Beamish with expectation in his eyes. Beamish returned the stare. Dodgson was so young, not yet coarsened by the pitfalls of life. Yet impaled on this mystery of the mind. Beamish pitied him.
The eyes burned brightly. Beacons of intellect. Beamish had no doubt of his patient’s talent. One day, Dodgson would do something special, some act that would touch millions. If he survived. And Beamish already knew, deep down, that he alone had the foresight to save the young man.
Beamish sighed. He would not be catching the London express. Not this day. Did he not take an oath over the drowned corpse of Lawrence Hanson?
“You said a sword. Any in particular, where do we find it?”
Dodgson grinned, and mimed the act of writing. “Naturally,” Beamish mumbled and fetched paper and pen from the writing desk. The clock on the mantelpiece counted long minutes, as Dodgson scrawled away. At length, beaming like a child before a doting parent, he handed over his smudged work. Beamish held it up to the window.
Wednesday is a nasty fellow
Or so old Thursday tells
Rhyming riddles for midweek
Dreaming up odd spells
Like a game of words and fun
Amen, omen, oven, even
Doublets played and then he’s done
Do or die, climb, believe in
Exchange a vowel, take out a Zed
Return my sword, we pray it’s dead.
A wave of dismay swept over Beamish. This time, it truly was nonsense.
Gyre was a wreck. Unshaven, uncombed, unwashed. He sat at his desk, topping up the teapot with brandy.
“Dinnertime is brought forward an hour. To allow time for the patients to be herded back to their rooms and locked in. The staff will do the same to themselves.”
He offered Beamish a cup of his brew. After a moment’s consideration, Beamish accepted. The taste burned the back of his throat and he was not disappointed.
“And the groundsmen? They’re armed?”
“Exactly so. Jack Carpenter and his son, Wallace. They’ve brought their shotguns. They will hunt the corridors tonight, and if that accursed fiend shows up—boom!”
“Not certain buckshot can harm a figment of the imagination, but worth a try.”
Gyre downed his cup and wiped his lips. The colour flowed back to his cheeks. “I’m grateful they took on the job. For a handsome dividend, naturally.”
Beamish wondered if they would live to enjoy their pay, but kept quiet.
“Dodgson?” Gyre asked.
“Safely back in his room,” Beamish replied.
“But how did he escape? His room was locked.”
“As was mine. He kept indicating the gap beneath the door. Not even a fairy could crawl through that gap.”
“Aha!” Gyre cried, flicking through Dodgson’s file. “Macropsia. Another of his symptoms.”
“The condition wherein the sufferer sees objects to be larger than normal, or he to be smaller?”
“Quite so. His family told me he complained of this frequently.”
Beamish laughed. “Yes, Ambrose, but it’s all in the patient’s head. Delusions.”
“And is not his imagined phantom made real by the power of these delusions?”
“This is madness. That he could actually shrink to the size of a—well, a dormouse. And scurry under his door, along corridors and into….” Beamish’s voice trailed off. He poured himself another cup.
“He came in search of you, Samuel. He trusts you. Did he give you another clue?”
Beamish nodded and pulled the poem from his breast pocket. Gyre scanned it several times.
“How peculiar. Have you cracked this puzzle yet?”
“No,” Beamish said and sipped more from his cup. “Can you shed any light on it?” He added. Gyre rubbed his nose. “Wednesday’s child is merry and gay. Thursday’s child is sour and sad. So says the old nursery rhyme. I know nothing of this poem, though.”
Beamish shrugged. “What about the line ‘Amen, omen, oven, even’?”
“Yes, each word is one letter different,” Gyre explained.
“That’s as clear as mud.”
Gyre waved the paper in Beamish’s face. “Start off with ‘amen’ and change the a to an o. Now we have omen. Change the m to a v and now we have oven. Change the o to an e. We end up with even.”
“Ah, just the sort of game that would appeal to his bookish mind.”
Gyre clapped his hands. “Samuel, for once I’m ahead of you. I know he amuses himself with these word games. Indeed, he invented this little game. He named it doublets or word ladders.”
Beamish sat bolt upright. “Word ladders?”
“Yes, that’s it. Somewhat childish, if you ask me.”
Beamish snatched the page back. “The poem! It’s an acrostic!”
“And what, pray, is one of those?”
“Add the first letter of every line together to make words. You read from top to bottom. In this case w, o, r, d, l, a, double d, e, r. Word ladder.”
“Show me,” Gyre said, taking the page back and reading aloud. “Wednesday, or, rhyming, dreaming—”
“Like, amen, doublets, do, exchange, return. Put their first letters together and it spells word ladder.”
Gyre ran his hand threw his hair, thick with Macassar Oil. “And of what significance is this?” he asked.
“A word ladder is where we find the sword.”
“Which is where?”
Beamish shrugged and looked away. Gyre laughed. A long, hysterical laugh.
“Thank the Lord for the Carpenters,” he said.
Beamish woke in a cold sweat. The darkness disorientated him. Then, he remembered he was on his bed, on the inside of a locked door, in this godforsaken bedlam. Clearly, exhaustion had got the better of him. The fire was smouldering. He lit the candle with a lucifer and lay back, staring aimlessly at its smoky flame. Out here in the country, the night was deathly quiet. True, London settled down after midnight, but in its sleep it muttered. There was always the clack of a late carriage, the cry of a drunkard, or some other welcome sound to cheer the soul. To convince the wakeful that they were not alone. That three million other souls were asleep nearby. Safety in numbers.
The countryside, in comparison, was as lively as a tomb.
The thundercrack of a shotgun shattered the silence. And another and then a third. Next came a long scream. The scream of a man in the jaws of agony.
Beamish wanted to hide under his bed. To tie bedsheets together and scramble down the wall and escape. But a good doctor never deserted his patients. The memory of Lawrence Hanson’s pallid face reminded him of that. He unlocked his door, and armed with a poker and the candle, ventured out.
The blackness was almost tangible. The corridors deserted. All the patients were locked up and the nurses locked in. Yet there was a sound. A distant patter of feet. Many feet. Nausea simmered in his guts.
This abomination must be confronted, Beamish told himself.
Down stairs, across landings, then up more stairs, candlelight flickering ahead of him. It caught a crumpled heap of clothing on the floor. It was the older groundsman, Jack, bloody and dead. Eyes frozen in a death stare. The son was nearby, in a comparable state of butchery. Again, the wide-eyed look of terror. A face once flesh, now cast in stone.
Beamish took deep breaths. This must end tonight.
Floorboards moaned. A will o’ the wisp glided towards him. His muscles tensed, then relaxed as Gyre appeared with a lamp. The young doctor was as pale as the dead men, but for the dark circles around his eyes. A stink of whisky laced the air.
“What do we do, Samuel?” he asked, almost begged.
“We get Dodgson,” Beamish replied.
On reaching Dodgson’s room, Gyre unlocked the door with his master key. They stepped inside.
The room was huge. Cavernous. They were mere mice, dwarfed under a doorway the height of a cathedral. The bed loomed above them like an alpine plateau. A gale roared in their faces and blew out the candle.
“Beamish!” Gyre cried, grabbing his colleague’s arm. “How can this be?”
Dodgson’s face, as bloated as a full moon, gazed down at them. The lips spoke slowly and his voice carried above the din.
“My life can be measured in hours. I serve by being devoured. Thin, I am quick. Fat, I am slow. Wind is my foe. What am I?
“We’re trying to save your bloody life,” Gyre shouted at his patient. “Cease and desist.”
“It’s another riddle,” Beamish cried in Gyre’s ear. “He’s testing we’re up to the challenge.” Beamish racked his brains. ‘Hours’ suggested some method of timekeeping. A sundial? But how would wind effect stone and metal? A glimmer of hope kindled. Wind might blow in clouds and obscure the sun. The hope ebbed away. Clearly, weight influenced how long it lasted, hence the thin and fat line. Ergo, Sundial was wrong.
Beamish glanced at Gyre’s face, as white as the wax of the candle in his hand.
“Yes!” he cried.
Struggling to speak over the wind, Beamish shouted at Dodgson, “You’re a candle.”
The gale faded. The room was exactly the size it should be. Dodgson sat before them.
Beamish nudged Gyre. “Candle clocks! Before the invention of pendulums and pocket watches. They can be thin or fat and wind blows them out.”
“My mind cannot take any more of this madness,” Gyre said, almost sobbing. “I’m going.” But before he could flee, Beamish interlocked arms and yanked him back.
“Ambrose, I can’t do it without you. And we are, first and foremost, doctors.”
Gyre glanced away and a long sigh escaped him. He turned back and drew up his shoulders. “As you say, Samuel, as you say.”
Beamish went on, addressing their patient, “Finally, you speak. My treatment must be enjoying some success.”
Dodgson paused for a moment. “I cannot hide here all my life. I need to face it, with your help. If you believe.”
Beamish nodded. “In the powers of your mind? There is no doubt. Your imagination created the monster. Your imagination is the only way to destroy it.”
“It still hears me,” Dodgson said, placing a finger against his lips. Then, he whispered, “No shotgun or club can kill the beast. Only the vorpal sword.”
“We haven’t got a sword,” Gyre whispered back, a picture of despair.
“But Dodgson will find it, when the time comes,” Beamish said.
“I will try. I have no wish to expire,” Dodgson agreed.
“Are you ready?” Beamish asked him.
Dodgson nodded. Beamish tossed the useless candle aside, and took the lamp.
“This way, then.”
They crept through a creaking underworld. The lamp offered sole respite, a guiding star in an empty universe. Doors emerged into its yellow light, and vanished behind them. Beamish considered the lonely occupants behind those doors. Not a single snore, nor a cry, nor a rusty bedspring. Inmate and staff alike were under their sheets trembling, too terrified to sleep.
“Hush,” he said. All three men listened. There was the scurrying. The percussive tap of a hundred armoured feet.
“Where is it?” Gyre cried; his voice wavering.
It was impossible to say. The drumming seemed to come from all directions. It echoed down the long passageways, pounding inside their heads.
“Do you notice that odd smell?” Gyre went on. “Reminds me of an apothecary.”
Without warning, a hellish face erupted from the night. A flattened brown skull, small black discs for eyes, and trailing antenna. Two razor-sharp mandibles guarded a drooling slash of a mouth.
They screamed. Gyre fainted. Dodgson fled back the way they came. Beamish dropped the lamp, smashing the glass and extinguishing the flame. Feeble moonbeams penetrated the barred windows, weaker than even the lamplight.
Beamish felt the trunk snaking past him. The long, segmented body of a centipede. A succession of carapaces, like shields, interlinked and invulnerable.
Again, and again, he attacked the creature’s exoskeleton with the poker. He screeched obscenities as he pummelled the passing segments with all his strength. But the poker bounced off harmlessly. The creature did not flinch.
It’s after Dodgson! Beamish thought. Of course! Destroy its creator and never die. And he had delivered Dodgson straight to its fetid jaws.
“Help me, help me!” Dodgson screamed in the dark. “A sword, I need the sword.”
“I haven’t got one,” Beamish shouted back.
“Give me words!”
Beamish’s mind raced. Dodgson could do the impossible with his imagination. The creature was proof of that. But he needed raw material. Words. But what words and where? Beamish remembered Dodgson’s poem. A word ladder would find the sword. Or maybe find the words? It struck him that sword was an anagram of words. But a word ladder? How?
Gyre stumbled to his feet, groaning.
Words live in books, Beamish thought. He needed a book.
He had to harness Dodgson’s powerful ability to believe. Otherwise they would all die. And perhaps the presence of imminent death fired Beamish’s own imagination. He had to suspend science and believe himself. The word ‘book’ was four letters. So, begin with a four-letter word.
“Give me your coat,” he shouted at Gyre, who stared at him, mouth gaping, wits scrambled. Beamish grabbed him, pulling his frock coat over the shoulders and off the arms.
“I’ve got a coat,” Beamish hollered. “A coat!”
“Not a coat, a boat,” came Dodgson’s voice.
Beamish gazed at his hands. There was no coat. He was holding the ship-in-a-bottle from Gyre’s desk. He doubled back, down the stairs to the landing. “Yes, a boat, what comes next?”
Silence. Beamish peered into the unfathomable gloom below. Somewhere the centipede-thing was stalking Dodgson. If it killed him, there’d be no stopping it. Dodgson needed his help. He had to figure out the word ladder. Hadn’t he figured out all the preceding riddles?
“What about a boot?” he cried. Sure enough, a solitary riding boot was in his hands.
Something writhed in the void. His eyes accustomed. Carapaces formed out of shadow.
“And a boot gives me book,” he added. “A dictionary, to be precise.”
Now he was gripping his beloved and tattered copy of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language.
“Yes, words, give me those words!” It was Dodgson. The moonlight caught his desperate face. His hands seized the creature’s mandibles as they wrestled. The creature was trying to sink those abominable fangs into Dodgson’s chest. He was pushing back, in a fight for his life. Yet what man could persevere against the gigantic centipede’s strength? Dodgson was moments away from bloody death.
And then he ducked and twisted. He broke free.
“Here, here, here!” he screamed.
Beamish flung the dictionary into the gloom. It arced across the hallway, spinning, pages flapping. He blinked. Were those words spilling from its dog-eared pages? Surely, he was seeing things?
Thanks to Beamish’s steady aim, Dodgson caught the book in one raised hand.
“And words make sword,” he said.
Dodgson held a sword aloft. The kind of medieval weapon Beamish associated with the stories of Sir Walter Scott. Steel flashed and Dodgson brought the blade down hard against the monster.
It squealed. A high-pitched whine that resonated throughout the deserted corridors. A howl that everyone heard and no one would ever forget. Its indestructible armour was ruptured. Blue blood spurted.
Crack! Dodgson brought the sword down again. The head was severed. Crack! A third time, slicing the head clear off the body.
“Begone,” Dodgson shouted.
A flame lit above them. It was Gyre with another lamp, illuminating the scene. A long body coiled on the floor, a hundred pairs of legs twitching. The head was separated, mandibles and mouth still quivering in their death throes. Dodgson stood in the centre of the dark spiral, chest heaving, soaked in blood, sword held high in victory.
Beamish looked again.
There was no centipede. Dodgson was saturated with sweat, but the blood and sword had vanished. Gyre’s coat lay on the floor.
Gyre spoke from the upper landing, his countenance a decade older.
“What was it?
Dodgson drew himself to his full height. “That was the Jabberwocky. And we have seen the last of it.”
The air was crisp, but a little less chilly than before. Purple crocuses poked their heads from the turf. Beamish stood outside Borogrove Hall, watching the cart approach. The driver pulled back on the reins, bringing his horse to a standstill. Beamish loaded his suitcase onto the back.
“Wait,” Doctor Gyre exclaimed, hurrying out. “You’re going?”
“Most assuredly. Why, has the patient suffered a relapse?”
Gyre gave a nervous smile and shook his head. “Charles Dodgson is cured. Indeed, we cannot stop him chattering now. Such stories he tells the nurses! Do you know, he says he’s going to become a novelist? He’s even come up with a pen name. One Lewis Carroll.”
“Capital, capital,” Beamish replied.
“And, for this miracle we must thank you. His family are coming to fetch him in few days.”
“Excellent, I have mailed them my invoice.”
“You’re returning to London?”
“Where else?” Beamish asked, mildly bewildered.
Gyre stepped nearer, and placed his hand on Beamish’s arm.
“I thought you might stay. Think of what we could achieve together.”
Beamish looked into the younger man’s face. Soft, intelligent within limits. Beamish pitied him. A life at Borogrove Hall, out here in the wild moors, must be a lonely one.
“My practice is in London,” Beamish said.
“Let me offer you a partnership here at my sanatorium. Our sanatorium.”
Beamish laughed softly. “It’s not a tempting offer.”
Gyre’s grip intensified. “Fair enough. I promote you to head physician. I’ll assist. It will be your sanatorium.”
Beamish removed Gyre’s hand. He patted the younger man on the back. “I owe you a debt, Ambrose.”
Gyre stared at him blankly. He went on, “Dodgson is not the only one cured. I am too. You might say I proved myself that night.”
“Why to myself, naturally. I compensated for a youthful sin.”
“I don’t follow you, Samuel.”
“Fifteen years ago, a patient died. Lawrence Hanson. Through cowardice on my part. Now, here with you, I faced the Jabberwocky. Stood up to certain death for the sake of a patient. The challenge turned out to be healing.”
“Precisely. My heart is freed from guilt. I leave you a better man than I arrived. I am restored.”
Another burst of eagerness seized Gyre. “Then stay, my friend. What wonders we could work at our sanatorium!”
Beamish shrugged and climbed up next to the driver.
“The city of London is my sanatorium. Look here, Ambrose. We did great work together. You and I. And that work is done. Be a good fellow and permit me to leave.”
Gyre stood back, unable to speak, with watery eyes. He attempted a smile and gestured to the driver to go. With that, he turned back to the building.
The driver cracked his whip and the horse broke into a trot. Before this day was done, Beamish would be home. The warmth and smoke of London beckoned him. And perhaps a tot of brandy.