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The Lunatic's Curse, Page 2

F. E. Higgins

  Rex hung around anxiously waiting for Stradigund to emerge. ‘Any news of my father?’ he would ask.

  And Stradigund patted him on the shoulder and smiled in a distant way, his worn face creasing up like soft paper, and said, ‘He is doing well, Rex. Soon he will be home.’

  Rex still believed him; and as long as he did he could endure Acantha, for he was certain that when his father returned she would have to go. She treated him with open contempt now, as if he were a noisome irritant, a fly ripe for swatting. But the Madman’s Tide had come and gone three times since that bloody supper and a fourth was rising. Stradigund came less and less often and if Rex tried to talk to Mr Chapelizod he would not answer his questions. Rex’s hope was turning to suspicion and fear.

  Close to tears, Rex gazed out across the lake. The mist had lifted and he could see straight across to Droprock Island. Legend had it that it was just that: a large boulder carelessly dropped by a passing giant. The island was small and steep. It had no beaches and there was nowhere to land a boat except one small natural rocky pier on this side. The rest of the island was unassailable, being sheer cliff. On its highest point, exposed to the ravages of the weather, Rex could see Cadmus Chapelizod’s grim domain: the Opum Oppidulum Asylum for the Peculiar and Bizarre.

  The sombre grey edifice had been there for centuries, but recently for Rex it had taken on a whole new significance. Day and night it was a constant reminder to him of his father; for since his moment of madness at the supper table Ambrose Oswald Grammaticus had been confined within the cheerless walls of that very same asylum.

  So near and yet so far, thought Rex. He liked to think that the light he could see flickering high up in the asylum at night might be his father’s light. He put his hand up to shade his eyes from the low sun. Was there something in the water? Perhaps it was his imagination, but a huge dark shape seemed to be moving slowly across the lake, just under the surface. His heart jumped. There was something! He was sure of it now. A shadow, a giant shadow . . .

  ‘Good morning, Rex.’

  Rex started at the sound of his tutor’s voice and he turned to see the young man of no more than five and twenty years enter the room.

  ‘Good morning, Robert,’ he replied. Acantha had insisted that Rex call him ‘Sir’ and that in turn the tutor address Rex as ‘Master Rex’, but in the privacy of the schoolroom each dropped the formalities and used first names.

  Robert held a pile of books under one arm and paper and quills under the other. ‘How are you today?’ he asked and then shook his head slightly. ‘Still looking out of the window, I see.’ He came over to join him. ‘Droprock Asylum,’ he said, ‘built over three hundred years ago for the poor and confused of Opum Oppidulum. Did you know, because the island is so small and rocky there’s nowhere to bury the dead so they constructed a maze of tunnels beneath the asylum, the famous labyrinthine catacombs where all the bodies are laid? Apparently there’s an underground lake too.’

  Rex smiled wryly. The shadow was gone – if it had ever been there; perhaps it was just a cloud – and the asylum stared back at him, its dark windows like soulless eyes. His heart burned to think that his father was over there, unable to leave, but there was nothing he could do.

  ‘Any news?’

  ‘Mr Stradigund only says that Father is doing well, but he will not say when he is to return.’

  ‘Rex,’ said Robert, and there was hesitation in his voice. ‘You know that I have the greatest respect for your father . . .’


  ‘But I fear that he will not be back for some time yet.’

  Robert closed the window. The autumn air was chilling. He looked at Rex with worried eyes. ‘I know nothing for certain, but there is talk among the servants that your father is very ill, much worse than anyone thought, and that Mr Chapelizod has no plans to release him.’

  Rex turned sharply and went to sit down at his desk. He brought his fist down on the wooden surface. ‘It’s just not fair,’ he muttered. ‘It’s not right. You weren’t there, Robert. You didn’t see what happened. You didn’t see how Acantha did nothing! It’s all her fault, I know it. But with Father in the asylum how can I prove it?’

  Robert looked worried. ‘Rex,’ he cautioned, ‘I know you are not on the best terms with Acantha, but as long as your father is on Droprock Island you must play a careful game. Acantha holds all the cards. And, with Stradigund and Chapelizod working for her, she is very powerful.’

  Rex clenched and unclenched his jaw. Rex and Robert spoke freely. There was a friendship between them that went deeper than teacher and pupil, and in these uncertain times Rex considered him the only person in the house he could talk to frankly. Rex suspected now that Robert shared his concerns about Acantha. ‘What do you mean, working for her?’

  Robert lowered his voice. ‘I only know what I hear, both in the house and beyond its confines. Recently I have heard talk of an old law, Lex Dierum Centarum—’

  ‘Huh,’ snorted Rex, ‘more Latin!’

  Robert laughed softly. ‘It means “the Law of a Hundred Days” and, although I am not familiar with it, it seems that it might have some bearing on your father’s illness. If you like, I can find out more about it.’

  Rex grabbed Robert by the sleeve and for a moment he looked almost as mad as his father had on that fateful night. ‘Oh, please do,’ he urged. ‘I am becoming desperate. Acantha hates me and wants to get rid of me. As for Stradigund . . . I thought he was a loyal friend to us all . . . but I am no longer sure of him either.’

  ‘Rex, you must be very careful in whom you place your trust,’ said Robert, and then his face froze and he stood up quickly. ‘Now,’ he said with authority, ‘tell me the meaning of the term boustrophedon.’

  ‘What?’ Rex was confused at the rapid change of subject.

  ‘Now,’ said Robert meaningfully. ‘Right now!’

  Rex stood and began. ‘Er, well, it’s something to do with ploughing. The word bous in Greek means cow and . . .’

  A sound behind him caused Rex to stop and look over his shoulder. Acantha was standing at the door. Rex looked at her solid figure and red face. She rarely came up here; the stairs were becoming too much for her.

  ‘Robert,’ she snapped. ‘I wish to see you after.’

  Robert smiled obsequiously. ‘Of course,’ he said.

  With a contemptuous snort Acantha turned on her flattened heel and left.



  Rex stood glumly behind his father’s desk in his study. He liked to come here when he was feeling down. The blotter was cleared – Acantha used it now – but pushed to one side, surrounded by rolled-up sketches and diagrams, stood a precise model in miniature of the bridge for the city of Urbs Umida: Ambrose’s last project, the one he had been working on before . . . well, just before. Rex had helped to construct it. He took a moment to fix a piece that had broken off and his finger came away covered in dust.

  Gloomily Rex crossed the room to a large table whereupon lay a jumble of metal pieces: cogs and wheels, nuts and bolts and springs and fine wires. This was where he and his father had worked together, not on buildings, but on the smaller moving models they both delighted in: clockwork vehicles on wheels; delicate metal creatures that could walk stiffly on four or six or more legs; upright marching figures only a few inches high. ‘Toys,’ Acantha called them with a dismissive wave of her hand. She had not dared to call them that when Ambrose was in the house. Rex sighed heavily. He realized now that if he wanted things to change he was going to have to do something himself. But what?

  The study door opened and Acantha entered the room, visibly grinding her jaw with irritation. Rex’s face instantly became a blank slate. He had quickly learned not to show any emotion in front of his stepmother.

  ‘Did you not hear me calling?’

  ‘No,’ said Rex in the neutral tone he had taken to using when he had occasion to speak to her.

  Acantha narrowed her green eyes. She
was undoubtedly pretty, with clear skin and a small nose, but Rex suspected she was older than she said and there was certainly more flesh on her since Ambrose had been taken away. She was living well in his father’s absence. But her lips were thin and mean, and always would be, even though she painted them to fill them out. It was all part of the deception.

  Was it really only last year that Ambrose had first brought Acantha home? It seemed like an age now since he had been happy. He recalled how she had entered the house, even then with an air of entitlement, and had stood at his father’s side. Her face smiled all the time, and she complimented Ambrose on his taste and talent and his son, but from the sidelines Rex saw what his infatuated father hadn’t. Acantha was wearing a mask beneath which she was false and insincere, and aroused in him only suspicion. She even smelt odd. But in his father’s eyes Acantha could do no wrong. Rex sorely resented the time Ambrose spent with her, time he used to spend with him.

  ‘I hardly see you any more,’ Rex had complained rather sulkily one day.

  ‘I’ll admit that I am working long hours at the moment,’ said his father. ‘You know I have an important project that I must finish, the bridge in Urbs Umida. And, of course, I must spend time with dear Acantha.’ At the mention of her name his eyes sparkled. ‘Please try to understand, Rex, Acantha has brought me great happiness after years of being alone. Do not spoil it for me.’

  Rex was silenced, realizing that he was being selfish. But he was not ready for what his father said next.

  ‘Soon enough we will all have more time together, for Acantha has accepted my proposal of marriage.’

  And so Acantha took her place in the house that Rex and his father had shared for twelve years. One evening, shortly after the marriage, she had come up to Rex’s room. She stood in the doorway with her chamber candle.

  ‘I do hope we can be friends, Rex,’ she said. ‘I realize that this is a great change for you. But be reassured – I will never try to take the place of your mother.’

  And, true to her word, she made no effort to be a mother to him. In fact, when Ambrose was out of the house, she made no effort with him at all. She was not openly hostile but it was clear to Rex that he was of no interest to her. And then she had suggested boarding school. Ambrose had resisted but now that he was gone Rex feared for his future.

  Rex had not known his own mother; she had died when he was only a few weeks old. Ambrose always said that he looked like her, with his narrow eyes and his thick wavy hair, and Rex could certainly see the resemblance when he looked at the portrait over the fire in the dining room. But in her heartfelt absence he had been brought up by his father. When Rex showed his talent for design Ambrose did not hesitate to encourage him. He was proud to say his son had inherited his gift from him. He looked forward to the day when Rex could take over the business, AmGram Design, Engineering and Construction. He showed Rex how to measure carefully, to draw with accuracy, to scale up and scale down, and finally how to bring to life in wood and metal the complex sketches on the paper.

  But none of this was of any interest to Acantha. She looked pointedly at the model on the desk and laughed spitefully. ‘He’s not coming back, you know. He’s a lunatic, completely mad. Droprock Island is far and away the best place for him.’

  ‘But why can’t I go to see him?’

  ‘You know Mr Chapelizod’s rules. No visitors are allowed for at least a year after an incarceration, especially in a case as bad as your father’s. Anyway, you might want to be careful, boy. If you ever set foot on the island they’ll take you in too!’

  ‘My father is not mad,’ stated Rex firmly, and held her gaze with his unblinking hazel eyes. ‘And he won’t be there for a year.’

  Acantha snorted. ‘Have you forgotten? He attacked you; he is a dangerous maniac. He could have killed you.’

  Rex shook his head. ‘He was delirious – he didn’t know what he was saying or what he was doing. He must have been ill,’ he protested vainly. ‘A proper doctor would have seen that.’

  Acantha dismissed his objections with a quick nod of the head. She spoke sharply. ‘I have no time for this. I’m expecting visitors shortly. I want you to keep out of the way. Stay in your room until you hear otherwise.’

  Rex suppressed the urge to snarl at her. She looked over at the table and its jumble of pieces, and tutted. ‘It’s time this was all tidied away,’ she said. ‘I will tell the maid. It won’t be for much longer anyhow.’ Then both heard the jangling doorbell and Acantha’s face brightened. ‘They are here,’ she said. ‘Remember, do not disturb me.’

  Rex stood motionless, staring at the back of the door for some moments after she had gone, the knot in his stomach slowly unwinding. He returned to the table and gathered up some of the pieces. ‘It won’t be for much longer,’ she had said. It could only mean one thing – school.

  Rex didn’t trust Acantha any further than he could spit. And who exactly were these visitors she was expecting? Suddenly he was gripped by a strong feeling of unease. He knew where she would meet them: in the library. Quickly he left the study. He could hear voices in the parlour and he took the opportunity to slip into the library and hide between the shelves.


  A Meeting of Minds

  Rex eased a slim volume from the shelf – a manual on gases and their nature – and peered through the narrow gap. He now had a clear view of his father’s reading desk. There was no natural light in the library – the heavy curtains were kept closely drawn – and it was always cool. His father had a fine collection of books and protected them from sunlight. Acantha, if nothing else, seemed to appreciate this fact and generally left the room undisturbed. Rex suspected she sold the odd volume or two when she fancied. She might not care for him or his father but she knew enough to look after something that might make her money.

  The door opened and Rex watched three people enter; Acantha came first, her wide skirts brushing the parquet floor, then Cadmus Chapelizod (easily recognizable by his rotund silhouette) and Alvar Stradigund, taller than the other two though slightly stooped. All three sat at the reading table and in the shadows cast by the orange light of the gas lamps Rex thought they resembled a trio of conspiring devils. Acantha looked oddly excited. It was not an expression Rex saw too often on her face. She was tapping her fingers impatiently on the table. Rex wasn’t sure whom he detested more, Acantha or Chapelizod. As for Stradigund, he was almost surprised to find that faint hope still flickered in his heart.

  ‘Well,’ said Chapelizod, ‘shall we begin?’

  ‘Where’s the boy?’ asked Stradigund.

  ‘Don’t worry about him,’ said Acantha dismissively. ‘I have a plan for him. Have you the information?’

  ‘I have indeed,’ replied Chapelizod and he slid a sheet of paper across the table to her. Acantha snatched it up and read it aloud.


  This document is the sworn testimony of

  Mr Cadmus Chapelizod.

  I, Mr Cadmus Chapelizod, as Superintendent of the Opum Oppidulum Asylum for the Peculiar and Bizarre on Droprock Island, do testify on my life in this Official Declaration of Incurable Insanity, that Ambrose Oswald Grammaticus, once resident of the town of Opum Oppidulum, has on this date the fifteenth day of October been pronounced Insane and Wholly beyond recovery. It is my professional assessment that he has been in this way for One Hundred Days thus bringing into force the Lex Dierum Centarum otherwise known as the ‘Law of a Hundred Days’

  Rex frowned. The Law of a Hundred Days? So Robert was right.

  ‘As you are aware, Acantha,’ explained Stradigund, ‘this law states that where a person is in an asylum for that duration with no improvement then it is fully within the rights of the immediate family, in this case the wife, to take control of all that person’s wealth and worldly goods.’

  Chapelizod then handed Acantha another document. ‘This is the official medical report from the asylum.’

  ‘Excellent, ex
cellent,’ murmured Acantha. She read it to herself, with a little laugh here and a ‘very true’ there, running her outstretched little finger rapidly back and forth under each line. Then she put the two documents to one side and turned to Stradigund.

  ‘And what about the will?’

  Stradigund handed over a wad of twice-folded yellow paper, secured with the bright blue seal of Grammaticus. ‘With the invocation of the Lex Dierum Centarum neither this will, nor any other that might be in existence, is enforceable. Now that your husband has been officially classified as an incurable lunatic, in the eyes of the law of this land, everything that he owns, the house, his money, the horses and carriages, and of course his company, AmGram Design, Engineering and Construction, is now yours to do with as you please.’

  Acantha stood up and went to the fire. ‘I have waited a long time . . .’

  ‘One hundred days to be exact,’ sniggered Chapelizod.

  ‘ . . . to do this,’ she said, and she tossed the will on to the flames. The three of them watched it burn with undisguised glee.

  Rex was also watching but hardly with glee. You grinning demons, he thought bitterly. He fought the urge to leap out at the conniving threesome before him and . . . and what?

  I have no power here, he thought. He could have kicked himself. He should have done something sooner. But he just thought – no, wanted to think – that his father would come home. His mistake had been to trust Stradigund. All those times he had patted him on the shoulder and told him not to worry, that he was doing his best, when in fact the duplicitous snake was in on it too! Acantha’s plan was obvious now – to have Ambrose declared insane and then to take control of all of his wealth. But you could not leave insanity to chance, so she must have driven him to madness.

  But how? And what vile secret bound these three so that Chapelizod and Stradigund would betray their professions and their oldest friends? So many unanswered questions! With an effort of some magnitude Rex calmed himself and listened again to the continuing conversation.