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The Shadow Over Brunswych
5 March 2001
The New England flora was beginning to turn golden by the time that, delayed by sundry complicated matters of probate, I left Boston for the countryside manor which had acted as the residence for my late uncle, Mr. Roger Trevelyan, a man who, given that the tragic death of both my parents at an early age had left him my closest surviving relative and that he was so much the younger sibling to be closer to my own age than my mother's, although we had never co-habited, I had viewed as closer to an older brother than any kind of authoritarian avuncular figure. It was this very youth which had made his sudden death from a heart-attack an event by which I was so much taken by surprise.
Just as I had hastily put to one side the memories of sun-kissed childhood holidays which had surged up as my driver, Bentley, rounded the corner that brought the familiar first-sight of the house into view, I rapped on the heavy oaken front-door determined that the emotion which inevitably accompanied such an occasion would not be allowed to interfere with an efficient sorting and disposal of my uncle's possessions and yet unaware of the trail of horror upon which I had already embarked.
The door was opened by my uncle's housekeeper, a stooped and sour old lady by the name of Mrs. Crumb whose lack of geniality had caused us to imbue her with whole sagas of sinister mythology as children and sped me to my task now.
It was late on the second day, with the sun long since having abandoned its post and the wood-panelled dinginess of my uncle's study lit only by an electric lamp, when I stumbled upon the box of letters he had kept in a cupboard obscured from view by a mahogany grandfather clock that I had been perusing with my own hallway in mind. Much of it turned out to be personal correspondence of the most trivial kind but one letter sparked an instant curiosity in me that I could by no means shake off.
My dearest Roger, (it began) Although I understand entirely your unwillingness to administer the substance to the boy without his consent, surely you must agree that it is only fear and suspicion holding him back from tasting the freedom inherent in the transformation it offers? Come up to Brunswych and let us discuss the matter further! Your devoted conspirator, Casper Harding.
My mind raced. Brunswych! Had I not heard that name before? Indeed, it had been mentioned to me as the scene of my uncle's collapse and this letter was dated barely a fortnight before that fateful day. Who was this Harding character? What conspiracy had my uncle mixed himself up in? And could it be . . . could it be that it had been his scruples which had somehow cost him his life?
I looked up and was startled to find Mrs. Crumb standing in the doorway watching me, in her hands she held a tray upon which was balanced an exquisitely decorated china pot filled with tea. "What do you know of a Casper Harding?" I asked the wizened servant but she made no reply, merely advancing into the room whilst she fixed my face with her dark, inexpressive eyes. She stopped in front of the desk and continued to hold me with her gaze before eventually muttering: "You have their look. Perhaps it is not just Mr. Trevelyan who suffered the curse." And with that she set down the tray and walked out of the room.
The clouds which had been lowering pendulously all week finally shed their aqueous burden the forbidding Saturday evening on which I had secured an invitation to weekend at Brunswych and my clothes became drenched even in the space of the short dash from my car to the iron-bound doors on which I knocked, primed to play the detective. Mrs. Crumb had proved no more forthcoming about the dark, hill-top house that loomed over the village but I had experienced the good fortune of striking up a casual conversation with her grandson, a pocked, pallid youth who had on occasion run errands for my uncle and told wide-eyed stories of the young men who had gone up to work at Brunswych only to return much altered: insolent, negligent of their work and unwilling to talk about their experiences in its shuttered confines.
"You're wet," Mr. Harding noted as he welcomed me to his home but, explaining that the rain had been very heavy, I attempted to maintain a convincing naivety as I took in the man and his surroundings. "I really must offer my most heart-felt condolences about your dear uncle," he said with a sincerity I would have thought genuine had I not been on my guard; "We are still in mourning for him."
There were other guests and, unknown by them, I was able to slip out unobserved before dinner was served and find my way to Mr. Harding's personal chambers. I scanned around carefully for any clue that might help to explain what bestial experiments had been performed within these walls. My eyes lighting on a glistening from the man's bedside table I went over and discovered there to be a small patch of some kind of opaque substance, the type of which I had never encountered, smeared on the table-top. Tentatively I dipped in my fingers then, testing the alien material's consistency, I found them slippery to the touch. I was unable to suppress a shudder. What foul ooze was this? What ghastly apparition could have produced this viscous excretion? My speculation was cut short, however, by the sound of the dinner gong and I hastened down, anxious not to be missed.
One thing I could not fault Mr. Harding on was his taste, from the guinea fowl on our plates to the Bouchier that hung above his head (painted, he told us with the playful twinkle that he always seemed to employ, for Mme. de Pompadour and saved from reveloutionary bonfires by an English aristocrat) the dinner and its surroundings were exquisite, even the conversation was on a level elevated from the usual twitterings of bourgeois self-obsession one is accustomed to expect from such gatherings. "Freedom is our country's corner-stone," Mr. Harding was telling the elegantly-coiffured lady sat to his left. "But surely freedom is limited by the natural order," I interjected, remembering the ectoplasm I had stumbled upon earlier, "Total liberty can lead only to anarchy." Harding's smile did not falter but from the concerned glance his companion shot him I could tell that my remarks had hit home.
It had not escaped my attention that the room I had been allocated, although delightful, was in the farthest reaches of the expansive structure and as soon as the shufflings of the servants had fallen silent I slipped from the chamber, clad only in a white cotton night-shirt. I padded down the stairs, trembling lest the slightest creak alert the denizens of Brunswych to my subterfuge, and found myself back in that magnificent dining room. It was deserted but in the half-light I could just make out an object on the grand pinewood table and, moving closer, discerned it to be a small wooden chest with the lid flung open. Peering inside I found the chest almost empty but for a small pile of white powder remaining in one corner, the same white powder that I now noticed as here and there dusting the surface of the polished table.
So this was the substance! This was what the devious Mr. Harding had been feeding to his servants and guests to trigger their transformations! But was I too late? Could I do anything to prevent tonight's victims from assuming their new forms? Just at that moment I heard a tortured moan from somewhere above me and, without a thought for my safety, I rushed up the stairs. It did not take long to discover that the growing cacophany of groans were emanating from Harding's personal quarters. Standing before the gilded portal I closed my eyes and, breathing deeply, I steeled myself to face whatever it might be for which my uncle had died.
The horror I beheld I cannot describe with ease, I am left with more blurred impressions, human flesh contorted into every kind of unnatural perversion conceivable, than precise images and for that I am grateful. One thing I do remember clearly, however: that man at the centre of it all, Casper Harding, but not as I had seen him before, who looked at me and smiled, a playful twinkle in his eye. "We were hoping you would join us," he said as he advanced across the room. I stood rooted to the spot, powerless to resist, as that inhuman monster opened its maw and closed its lips around my nipple.