The Lunatic's CurseF. E. Higgins
TALES FROM THE SINISTER CITY
MACMILLAN CHILDREN’S BOOKS
A Note from F. E. Higgins
Prologue: An Eventful Supper
1 A Room with a View
3 A Meeting of Minds
4 A Disagreement
5 Article from the Opum Oppidulum Hebdomadal
6 The Great Escape Plan
7 A Not So Great Escape
8 A Delivery
9 A Nocturnal Adventure
10 The Painted Man
11 Out of the Frying Pan . . .
12 Article from the Opum Oppidulum Hebdomadal
13 An Invitation from the Mayor
14 The Merry Inmate
15 A Deadly Diagnosis
16 A Book and an Egg
18 A Letter to Dr Tibor Velhildegildus
19 Article from the Opum Oppidulum Hebdomadal
20 The Lodestone Procedure
21 A Boating Trip
22 Thoughts of the Monstrous Creature
23 The Third Party
24 The New Superintendent
25 Settling In
26 A Proposition
27 A Mystery
28 Tea Leaves and Secrets
30 Down to Work
31 All Part of the Job
32 An Unexpected Encounter
33 Article from the Opum Oppidulum Hebdomadal
35 Mox Nox in Rem
36 A Pipe and a Pest
37 Thoughts of the Monstrous Creature
38 On the Trail of the Elusive Mr Faye
40 The Perambulating Submersible
41 The Beginning of the End
42 Too Much Information . . .
43 Bad Timing
44 The Maiden Vogage of Indagator Gurgitis
45 Loose Ends
46 A Girl of Many Talents
47 Article from the Opum Oppidulum Hebdomadal
48 A Letter to Robert
49 The Confession of Rex Grammaticus
A Note from F. E. Higgins
A NOTE FROM F. E. HIGGINS
It is late evening and I have finally laid down my pen. The curtains are drawn and I sit now by the fire in my study. Outside the snow has spread a blanket of white across the fields. And still more falls.
As some of you know, I have in my possession many objects of mysterious origin – too many now to mention. So tonight from the mantel I pick only two: the first, a polished disc of dark magnetite on a silver chain; the second, what we shall call for now an egg.
These simple objects are at the very heart of a dark tale of treachery and tragedy, deception and wickedness. I have looked back through time and uncovered a story that will cause your heart to beat faster and your breath to catch in your throat. Steel yourself, dear Reader, for at times you will be mystified and, I warn you now, at times you will be repelled.
But at all times you will want to know what lies ahead . . .
F. E. Higgins
An Eventful Supper
In nightshirt and robe, slippers and nightcap, Rex Grammaticus quietly entered the large dark-panelled dining room. On the far side of the room, lit in candle glow, he could see his stepmother, Acantha, and his father, Ambrose, at the table eating their evening meal. Rex had eaten earlier, at his stepmother’s request, in the kitchen. One more change that she had made since marrying his father; one more way to push him out of the picture. It had only been eight weeks since the marriage but Acantha moved about the house as if she had lived there all her life. It was Rex who felt like the newcomer.
Silently Rex crossed the luxurious carpet towards the table. The two diners did not hear his soft-slippered approach. He stopped just beyond the reach of the candles’ light to stand motionless by a shining suit of armour positioned against the wall. He watched for a few seconds as Acantha daintily dissected her fish into flakes and pushed it about her plate. She held her knife like a pen and her right little finger stuck out at an angle. Ambrose, sitting opposite, was almost finished.
‘Eat it up, my love,’ said Acantha in that sickly sweet voice of hers that made Rex want to spit. ‘It’s bream, fresh today. I read recently in the Hebdomadal that fish is very good for the brain.’
‘Always concerned for my health,’ said Ambrose (and looked at her in that way of his that made Rex feel slightly nauseous), ‘but I see you haven’t finished your own,’ he chided.
‘I am not so hungry tonight,’ said Acantha, and she smiled, showing her little pointy teeth. Rex shuddered. Acantha was just so . . . false. How could his father not see through her? He opened his mouth to announce his presence but hesitated to speak. Was it his imagination or was his father beginning to look a little odd? He was shifting around restlessly in his chair, twitching and jerking, and he was squinting as if the light hurt his eyes. Rex moved slightly and Acantha saw his reflection in the armour. Rex thought he caught a glimmer of something deadly in her eye. ‘Come to say goodnight?’ she asked sweetly.
Ambrose looked up from his plate. ‘Ah, Rex, my boy,’ he said, beckoning him over. ‘Your tutor tells me you worked well today. Even on your Latin!’
Rex smiled and came forward. Acantha stiffened.
‘I am not so sure about that tutor,’ she said. ‘I still think a good boarding school would suit Rex so much better. He spends too much time in the house. A boy of twelve needs to be out with others of his own age.’
Rex looked immediately to his father, who shook his head. ‘No,’ he said firmly. ‘Much as I hate to disagree with you, I think Rex should remain at home for the time being. Rex is a talented boy and he wants to follow me in my profession. I am happy to teach him all I know and for that I need him with me. The tutor can provide the rest.’
Acantha changed the subject. ‘Did I tell you, dearest, that I am having dinner with Mr Chapelizod tomorrow night? It’s about the beggars again. I’ve been asked to join the committee. There are just so many now, on every step and corner; people find them offensive. Mr Chapelizod thinks—’
‘Now, now, my dear,’ said Ambrose, a note of gravity entering his voice. ‘I hope you haven’t forgotten what I said about your friend Mr Chapelizod today.’
‘You mean that rumour?’ said Acantha coolly. ‘The one you won’t tell me.’
Ambrose inhaled deeply and drummed his fingers on the table.
‘Acantha, please do not think that I am questioning your judgement, but I have recently heard some very strange things about that man. Until I can verify whether or not they are true I must be cautious. So, for all of our sakes, Cadmus Chapelizod is not welcome in this house.’
‘I did not think you were the sort of man to listen to rumours,’ said Acantha evenly. ‘You have enjoyed his company over dinner many times, just as I have. Besides, you shall not tell me what to do. If I wish to see Mr Chapelizod I will. You cannot stop me.’
Rex’s jaw dropped at Acantha’s cool defiance and Ambrose looked quite distressed. After all, in this day and age a wife was still thought of as a husband’s property. A husband’s word was law. Rex shrank back behind his father’s chair, sensing an acute change in the atmosphere.
Ambrose whitened further. Now his right eye was twitching furiously. ‘Wife,’ he said between gritted teeth, ‘it has been suggested to me that Mr Chapelizod has undesirable habits. I cannot stress enough just how undesirable. Matters too delicate for a lady. But, believe me, they are very offensive; practices that are quite against nature. You must cease your alliance with him immediately.’
Rex tried to imagine what habits the superintendent of the loca
l lunatic asylum could have that would make him unacceptable in polite society. He resolved to ask his father in the morning.
‘You have taken against him because of his position,’ said Acantha. ‘You think because Cadmus works with lunatics that he has no place in your sophisticated circles. But I enjoy his company. Besides, we have the same . . . how shall I put it . . . tastes.’
Ambrose stared at Acantha with a puzzled look. ‘Tastes?’ he repeated. Then his brow became smooth and his eyes widened as if he had just resolved something that had been troubling him. His face blanched completely and sweat poured down his forehead. Without warning, he leaped up, knocking his chair over in the process, thumped his fists on the table and shouted, ‘No! No!’
Rex let out a little cry of alarm. What was happening to his father? His broad shoulders were heaving, his face was contorted into a nightmarish mask. Then a terrible wailing sound, at first low but rising rapidly in pitch, came from somewhere and Rex realized that it was Ambrose. He watched in horror as his father put up his arms and started to wrestle with the air as if in combat with an invisible enemy.
‘Oh Lord,’ he cried, and his voice sounded strangled. ‘What have you done to me? It’s coming for me!’
‘Father!’ cried Rex. ‘What’s wrong?’
Ambrose turned and stared down at his son. To Rex he suddenly seemed ten feet tall. His eyes were bloodshot, veins pulsated in his temple, perspiration poured down his face. His skin was blotchy and, as Rex watched, great red pustules formed on his face and throat: huge lumps swelling up and distorting his features beyond recognition. Now Ambrose looked like nothing that existed on earth. He looked like a creature from hell.
In a panic Rex looked over at Acantha. ‘What’s happening? Can’t you help him?’
But Acantha remained at the table stony-faced and cold-eyed. Waiting. Without warning Ambrose grabbed Rex by the arms, lifted him and threw him on to the table. Plates smashed and cutlery scattered. Ambrose held him down with a knee across his chest.
‘Help,’ yelled Rex. His father’s face was within an inch of his own. Saliva spilt over his lip and ran down his chin to drip on to Rex’s cheeks. And for years afterwards Rex would always recall vividly the overwhelming smell of his fishy breath. Now the pressure on his chest was so great he felt as if his eyes were about to burst. Ambrose pulled Rex’s arm up to his frothing mouth, clamped his jaw around his wrist and bit down so hard he actually reached the bone. Rex screamed in agony and Ambrose seemed to hear the scream and looked down at his son. For a split second there was a glimmer of recognition in his eyes. But as quickly as it appeared it was gone. Then the door was flung open and the housekeeper, the butler and the bootboy came running in. Acantha simultaneously leaped from her seat and put her hands to her face in horror.
‘He has gone mad! Mr Grammaticus has gone completely mad! Call for the constable! For Mr Stradigund! For Mr Chapelizod!’
Upon hearing Chapelizod’s name Ambrose arched his back and howled like a wolf to the full moon. He dropped Rex’s arm, ran to the suit of armour and pulled the sword from the hollow knight’s hand. He raised the weapon above his head and sliced through the air to bring the glittering blade down on the table, severing his own hand. There was the most dreadful sound, a sound that Rex would never forget, and blood spurted everywhere. Ambrose turned around and his eyes were on fire.
‘Is this what you want, Acantha, is it?’
Rex couldn’t bear to look any longer.
Fearlessly the butler and the bootboy wrestled Ambrose to the ground. He lay there clutching his maimed arm, panting heavily, his dark red blood spreading across the rug. Acantha took hold of the water jug, stood over her husband of fifty-six days and smashed it over his head.
Ambrose lay motionless, for all appearances dead, his dented skull framed by the jagged pieces of the shattered jug. Rex, holding his own bloodied wrist, looked at Acantha in shock, incapable of speech. And he thought that she smiled.
A Room with a View
With a heavy heart Rex made his way up to the schoolroom at the top of the house. As he passed along the narrow corridors and climbed the stairs, his steps falling in time with the ten chimes of the clock, he paused on the half-landings of the maze-like house. He was reminded at every turn of his absent father. Ambrose had built the house from the ground up and his character and talent were to be found in every nook and cranny and arch and window. Framed scrolls and certificates on the walls testified to the genius of Ambrose Grammaticus, to his imagination, his skills and his creativity. Rex’s father had won almost every prize in the field of engineering. He was hailed as a hero here in Opum Oppidulum, his home town, and far beyond. And beside the scrolls were sketches and paintings and ink drawings of the buildings he had designed, and articles from the Hebdomadal celebrating years of his success.
Rex entered the schoolroom deep in thought. Much as he loved this house this was his least favourite room. He was good with numbers but he was not a natural language scholar. His father insisted that to be truly creative he needed a rounded education, not just technical skills, so he had engaged the tutor. But Rex struggled with the Classics; it had taken him a whole week to translate a simple story of a slave into Latin.
To make the schoolroom more palatable Rex had filled it with his own creations; delicate models of every shape and size and manifestation. Birds and creatures and vehicles. Many of them only existed within these walls; it would be decades, centuries even, before they would be seen on city streets. They hung on thin threads from the ceiling and rested on the mantel over the fireplace and balanced precariously on the edges of the bookshelves, taking up every available surface. Rex had designed and built them all, with his father’s guidance, and they reminded him that there had once been better times.
The tutor had not yet arrived and, from habit, Rex went to the window and looked out. From up here, the fourth floor, he could see the snow on the mountain peaks that surrounded the Devil’s Porridge Bowl, a huge natural dip in the Moiraean Mountains, the centre of which was filled by the dark waters of Lake Beluarum. Rex liked to say its name, to roll it around his tongue: ‘Bel-warr-oom.’ It was Latin in origin; he thought it meant ‘the lake of beastly creatures’ but he could not be certain.
The town of Opum Oppidulum, where Rex had lived his whole life, sat tightly packed on the upper edge of the steep pebbled shore of Lake Beluarum. No one knew for certain how deep the lake was, but around the time of the full moon there was a noticeable rise in the water level – Madman’s Tide they called it – and in winter it could be quite stormy, almost like a sea. None swam in its waters either; they were too cold and, of course, every local child was warned of the monster that lurked beneath the glassy surface, just waiting to swallow up anyone who might be fool enough to enter the lake.
Rex reached up to open the window and his cuff slipped down to reveal the crescent-shaped scar on his wrist. It was fading but he could feel it. In the cold it would tighten and ache and remind him again of that dreadful night . . .
Things seemed to happen very quickly after Acantha struck his father with the water jug. Mr Cadmus Chapelizod turned up as if from nowhere, with two red-badged grey-uniformed men. Only moments behind him was Mr Alvar Stradigund, the family solicitor. Chapelizod immediately took control of the situation. With the help of his assistants he quickly and expertly strapped Ambrose into some sort of medical shirt which prevented his using his arms. Then the burly helpers lifted him on to a stretcher and secured him with more straps.
Mr Stradigund led Rex from the room and they sat in the hall. ‘Let’s have a look at that wrist,’ he said gently, and took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and began to wrap it around the wound. ‘Don’t worry, Rex,’ he said as he tied the corners. ‘Chapelizod will take care of your father. He’s an expert in these matters.’
‘What matters?’ asked Rex. He knew Mr Stradigund well; the old man was often at the house, even more so since the marriage.
Stradigund looked at him with sad, knowing eyes. ‘Madness,’ he said. Before Rex could reply the door opened and Chapelizod and his men marched past with Ambrose, still unconscious, out to the waiting carriage on the street. Rex tried to stand but he felt odd; his heart was racing and his head was spinning. Mr Stradigund supported him by his good hand.
‘You know what to do, men,’ called Mr Chapelizod from the top of the steps and seconds later the carriage took off. The sound of galloping hoofs faded quickly in the night. Chapelizod shut the door and nodded to Stradigund who stood up.
‘Where are they taking him?’ asked Rex in a panic.
‘Somewhere he’ll be safe,’ said Mr Stradigund. ‘I’ll let you know as soon as I find anything out, I promise.’ Then he left Rex with Acantha and he and Chapelizod went off to Ambrose’s study.
Acantha looked at Rex. ‘You should be in bed,’ was all she said, and followed the men. In a daze, too confused to argue, Rex turned towards the stairs. As he passed the study he glanced in to see Mr Stradigund seated behind his father’s desk with a quill in hand. Mr Chapelizod handed him a document of some sort. Stradigund looked up and saw Rex and smiled, oddly, but then Acantha, with a face like stone, closed the door and he heard the key in the lock.
As if in a dream Rex went up to his room. He lay on the bed but he didn’t sleep until the early hours. He couldn’t understand what had happened but he was certain Mr Stradigund would sort it out. He had promised, hadn’t he? A solicitor didn’t break promises. Eventually weariness got the better of him and his heavy lids closed. But the face that haunted him that night wasn’t that of his tortured father; it was Acantha’s. He had seen the look on her face as Ambrose lost his mind, a look that he was never able to put into words. But he knew.
She had wanted this to happen.
Alvar Stradigund had come to the house almost every day at first. He and Mr Chapelizod and Acantha met in Ambrose’s study and spoke in low voices.