I really did want to get home to see if anything had come through the wire regarding the war in the Transvaal, where my brother had been stationed, but just as I was about to leave the Musaeus Club by the front entrance someone cried out, “Sergeant George Henry Cutter as I live and breathe!”
I turned to look and saw it was Colonel Edward Harbinge, sat in a dark corner at a small round table. I had served with the colonel briefly in East Africa five years earlier in my previous career as a soldier for the Empire. Since then I had become a servant of trade.
Walking over to the colonel, I stopped before him and nearly saluted, but instead I was sure to shake his hand.
“Good to see you, Colonel Harbinge,” I said.
“Please, George,” he exclaimed in his jovial way. “Call me Ted.”
I assented, and he offered me a drink, which I decided to accept. After I had joined him, he explained that he was the guest of a member and that he might join the Club in the future, if they would have him.
After three single brandies apiece—each one meant to be the last and final –we had discussed numerous subjects, including the situation in the Cape, the new Ashanti Expedition, the poor position of the Turks, and the ever-increasing price of soft paraffin, until we eventually moved, as any conversation undertaken in the Musaeus Club must, into the realm of the strange and the eerie.
“My maid is convinced our smallest bedroom is haunted,” I told the colonel. “She refuses to go in…it’s getting quite tiresome.”
“What does she think is in there?” he asked, sipping his fourth brandy.
“I’m not sure…she said there’s the feeling of a cold wind or something, which she’s supposedly not felt there before.”
“Bunkum!” he bellowed. “Let me tell you a real story of phantasmic apparitions.”
“Go on then,” I said, nursing my own drink. “I could do with a laugh.”
The colonel suddenly became very solemn. “‘Tis no laughing matter, my boy. It was a deadly serious affair.”
I apologized sincerely, and he began, “Up North, around one of the big towns in Derbyshire, I was told of two brothers, both wealthy. This is well back, just after we helped the Turks take Sebastopol. You see, they had a considerable inheritance through their father’s good luck in the textile trade, and by this time he was long dead and they were in their early sixties. They were misers but had never known a day’s real work in their lives. Neither was married, and they lived together in a state of mistrust, in separate ends of the house, with separate cooks and maidservants.”
“I see,” said I. “True villains out of Dickens.”
“Pretty much,” said the colonel. “However, one day, the younger one, he met this girl on one of his strolls, and he fell madly in love with her. She was allegedly very beautiful, but she was one of those pietist evangelical sorts who abhorred wealth and property and so on, and she thought she could change him. He was of course love-struck with such a comely young thing. He endeavoured to make a colossal change, and he embraced the concept of charity…”
“And I bet the older brother didn’t like that one bit?”
The colonel tapped his nose and continued, “For damn sure, George, damn sure. He was bloody livid! He resented the idea that his father’s money would be spent on those he considered his lessers—the poor, the weak, the undeserving—and told his brother so. It led to awful rows that lasted through the night. The older brother soon came to think that their father’s money must’ve singly belonged to him and him alone, and he began to plot…”
“What did he do?”
“One evening the younger brother leaned against the banister railing, just before going out to meet his lady love. It broke apart, and he fell to the stone floor below. A doctor was called, but it was hopeless.”
“And it was the older brother who had arranged it?”
“The old fool admitted it in his journal, but that wasn’t found until years later.”
“What happened then?”
“Well, the older brother got full control of the estate, as he was now his father’s only living heir. He was greedy, but he had enough sense to try to offer some money to the young woman to calm her down—not that she’d take any of it. He expanded his presence throughout the house and gave the sack to his brother’s cook and maid. Some time passed, and the house began to fall into disrepair, but he had grown even tighter in fiduciary matters and refused to fix it. He wouldn’t even buy oil for the lamps in the autumn, so one day his maidservant brought a large candle on a stand to light the hallway where the stairs were, not too far from where the younger brother had fallen. The candle burned down slowly, and a pile of wax began to form at its base. After a few days, the remaining brother noticed something peculiar in the wax pile, something uncanny…”
“What?” I asked. “A message?”
“Of sorts,” replied the colonel. “It was a mouth-like formation, open, and, he believed, screaming.”
“A bit silly methinks,” I said, considering yet another brandy.
The colonel ignored my take and carried on. “As more days passed, the mouth grew in size and wail, and a nose and pair of eyes materialized. The old man was certain it was the face of his brother, come back to haunt him. He even asked his maid and cook to come and look, but they swore they could not see it. He was so disturbed that he ordered the candle be taken to the attic, and gave the maid money to buy oil for the lamps.”
“Is that all?”
“Oh no, George. When the lamps were refilled, the older brother called on his few remaining acquaintances to join him for a party, which was quickly organized for Friday next. Festivities took place in the grand dining room. There were two geese and a ham, a fruitcake, German wine and liquor, all good fill. After they had finished their meals, the table was cleared and a big game of cards commenced, which went on for hours. The guests tired, but the brother wanted to carry on and ordered the maid to bring in more light. He did well in the game, but after a bad hand he looked up in frustration and saw something in the room that terrified him.”
“Had his brother come back from the dead?”
“Almost. It was the tall candle with the wax pile, its screaming maw more apparent than ever, with two dark eyes, his younger brother’s effigy. The older brother became enraged. He rose from his seat, knocking it over, and went to the maid to slap her. When his friends tried to quieten him down he picked up a poker from the fireplace and threatened them, and they retreated to a corner of the room. The old man then threw the poker at the candle and missed, before racing over to crush the face with his hand…”
“Did that solve his problem?”
“In a sense. The likeness was destroyed, but he burned his hand on the hot wax so badly that it became septic and turned his blood bad…he died a month later from a foul fever.”
The colonel finished his brandy and signalled the barman for another. He asked if I would yet like another myself, but I declined, reiterating my commitment to getting home.
As I arose, I said, “A good story, Ted, I’ll be sure to remember it. But do you really think he saw his brother’s face in the candle?”
Colonel Harbinge considered this for a moment and then cocked his head, neither nodding nor shaking it. “I don’t know, George,” he admitted as his new drink arrived and shillings were exchanged. “Guilt can be a terrible thing to have on one’s back. Grief, too, even for such a damnable cur.”
We shook hands and I bid him goodnight, with the promise that we would talk again soon. I then walked out through the Club entrance and onto the rainy streets of Camden to look for a hackney.
Harris Coverley has had short fiction most recently accepted for Curiosities, Hypnos, and Horla, amongst many others. He is also a Rhysling-nominated poet, with verse in Star*Line, Spectral Realms, The Oddville Press, Ariel Chart, and elsewhere. He lives in Manchester, England.