Hitting Below the Plimsoll Line – a merry Christmas tale…
Captain Georgianna Forsythe motored down from London along wet and dismal Sussex lanes musing on whether she should risk giving Granny a heart attack by wearing a tuxedo to dinner. She hoped to enjoy the next few days with her parents, so when Araminta Hartwood had asked Georgi to ‘pop by’ and help out with a little problem she trusted whatever her old chum had in store would not take up too much of her valuable Christmas leave.
Georgi had known Minty had been good friends at school, despite Minty being of the deportment and coming-out sorority and Georgi more Latin and lacrosse. They had seen little of each other since those halcyon days, however, so the summons was a complete surprise; and when her old pal had said she would be ready and waiting in the kitchen courtyard, Georgi had thought it odder still. As she swung her Crossley Coupe into the rear entrance of Hartwood House Georgi spotted Minty, true to her word, lurking in the boot room vestibule.
‘Georgi. At last.’ Minty bundled her into the scullery corridor whilst casting anxious glances at the upper windows. ‘This way.’
‘What’s the panic old thing? Why all the cloak and dagger?’ Georgi whisked off her cloche hat and ruffled her curls into order, all the while eying Minty speculatively. ‘Is this something the rest of your jolly old tribe don’t know about?’ She demanded; as she was chivvied through the kitchens and up the service stairs.
‘Oh they know. They know far too well, with bells on. It’s the rest of the household that don’t need to see,’ Minty replied. ‘Little sister motored up with her hubby and brats yesterday. Fortunately the rest of the house party won’t be piling in until tomorrow. I don’t want to panic them all so I called you.’
‘There’s a risk of panic? What over’ Georgi asked; as she was hurried up the service stairs. ‘You rather gave the impression it was just a private word of advice required.’
The young woman had the grace to look a little embarrassed, avoiding Georgi’s eye as she reached the baize-lined door at the top of the flight. ‘To be perfectly honest I wasn’t sure what to call this… whatever it is. Easiest to show you,’ Minty replied. She opened the door, and checking the coast was clear, ushered Captain Georgi across the hallway to the library. ‘This – is our problem. What do you make of it?’ Minty quietly closed the door and stood clutching her angora cardigan close around her with both arms.
The library was not remarkable in itself. Dark wood shelving covered eighty percent of the walls from polished maple floor to lofty ceiling. Books lined most of those shelves. Leather bound rubbing shoulders with cloth. Classics with the Romantic, novels with academic. The Turkish rugs and trophy animal hides were scattered under tables and reading chairs. A library like many others, but for the chaos that ruled. Books were jumbled on shelf and table; tattered remains of seasonal evergreen swags littered the fireplace and shelves and floor; a set of ornately carved library-steps, tall enough to reach the topmost books, stood away from the book-lined walls, a straggle of bloodstained ivy dripping from its polished handrail.
Georgi stepped slowly into the centre of the room and surveyed the scene with clinical detachment and a resigned sigh. It was not hard to see why the room had been placed off limits to outsiders and easy to see why Minty and her family wanted a rapid resolution. She had not come prepared for a ghost-hunting mission. Working on the premise that this was not the sort of establishment prone to tavern-styled brawls the scene before her had all the hallmarks of a major poltergeist possession.
‘Chaos is a good a word as any,’ Georgi murmured. She sniffed like a hound on point, picking up a tang of brackish mud along with a waft of the charnel and just a hint of the piscine. That combination did not fill her with confidence when they were thirty odd miles from the sea. She placed her booted foot on the edge of a rug and leaned forward, grunting at the squelch of dirty bubbles oozing out onto the parquet flooring. ‘You say the family are all aware of this phenomenon?’
‘Anyone that has lived here could hardly be unaware. It has gone on for years. We’ve even had staff walk out on us. Just run off without even waiting for references. To date we’ve always managed to buy their silence before they spread rumour too far. Not to put too fine a point on it our best kept local secret is that this house is cursed.’
‘Really.’ Georgi drawled. She had come to realise that people often took this kind of thing personally; blaming curses and retributions for past sins of some family black sheep when straightforward possession was more often the case. Her only surprise was that Minty had never mentioned any family curse in all the years they had been acquainted. ‘Cursed you say? Well that’s dashed awkward. Would that be a curse on the family? Or the house? Or is it a bit of both?’
‘Does that matter? A curse is a curse. And it’s serious, damn it.’
‘It matters a great deal if you want me to sort it out for you.’ Georgi tilted her head and met Minty’s angry stare with a toothy grin. ‘It matters a lot when you’re trying to lift a curse because in my experience they are quite rare. I take it you’ve tried the usual channels? Vicars and so forth?’
‘God, yes.’ Despite herself Minty smiled at the inadvertent pun. ‘We’ve had umpteen exorcisms and séances, and even a gypsy house cleansing. Mother’s had almost every kind freak and oddball you can think of traipsing though here over the past half a century. Not one of them has made the slightest bit of difference. To be fair we did think Uncle Claude had sorted it out this year. He is a Bishop after all, so if he can’t exorcise whatever it is who can?’
‘This,’ she waved a hand at the mess, ‘all of this, happened two days after he toddled about the place with his bells and salts and those kinds of gee-gaws. First night silent as the grave and then… We’ve been rapidly running out of options.’
‘And you’ve finally whittled it down to me.’
‘I didn’t want to involve people I knew,’ she snapped. ‘But Alex – you remember my brother Alexander? Well he said he glimpsed you from a distance at that awful incident in the docks. He works for the Home Office you see. He said you were there in some advisory capacity, so we rather added two and two.’
‘Making how many exactly?’
‘Oh please, Georgi. Don’t take me for a fool. I mean you weren’t exactly unknown for ghost hunting at school and we know what you do now.’ Minty looked down at the rug for a moment, massaging her forehead with steepled fingers and thumb. ‘Sorry. My nerves are a bit shot. Had a bad night what with all this.’ Her hand stretched out to indicate the bedlam. ‘Uncle Claude said, in a piece of quite staggeringly obvious logic, that it was— now let me get this right— Not of this earth, but of the deep. Well we didn’t need telling it wasn’t human, at least not any more, and its public knowledge our family made its fortune in shipping so that little gem did not require towering shards of intellect. We know who and why. We just want it gone. I am asking you, no, I am begging you to help us.’
‘I will do what I can.’ She patted Minty on the arm reassuringly and took another long look around the space. ‘The sea thing certainly explains the pong.’
Georgi’s attention homed in on the solitary reading table untouched by the carnage. It displayed a model merchant ship laid up in a polished oak dry dock along side a Naval sword lounging in a matching stand, and thence to the portrait of a sea captain glowering from above the mantle. It was a portrait without canvas, having been daubed directly onto oak panels. She jutted her chin and thrust her hands deep into the pockets of her flying jacket and stared at it for a long moment. ‘Who’s that?’ she asked finally.
‘That – is Captain Aubrey Hartwood.’
‘A venerable ancestor I take it?’
Minty nodded, pulling her pink angora even closer and shivering despite its warmth. ‘He gives me the heebies.’
‘I take it he’s the probable cause of all this?’
‘What makes you say that?’ It was a last ditch defiance and an annoyance.
‘Because he looks like an absolute toad,’ she replied. ‘A malignant old cove in fact. So is he the catalyst?’
‘Yes. Do you think you can deal with him?’
‘Perhaps. What did he do precisely?’
‘He tore down the Christmas decorations.’
Georgi eyed her old school chum and snorted. ‘Decorations ruined,’ she said. ‘Gosh. How terrible for you all. Really Minty, stiff-upper lip is one thing but I was rather hoping to get a little more by way of the potted history. I meant what did he do to be such a pill? I am assuming this isn’t our ghostly pal’s first caper?’
‘Strange things have been happening here at Christmas time for as long as anyone can remember. But this year is very different. People have never been hurt before. At least not seriously. Mummy is beside herself. Going on about how it could have been one of the grandchildren.’
Georgi stalked the room examining the carnage as Minty rambled on a while longer. The damage was superficial and quite random so far as she could see. The only strangeness in supernatural terms lay in the affected portions – and only those – being wet and stinking. She tweaked a sodden chunk of paper chain and dropped it, wincing, as a fleeting sensation of engulfing water coursed through her senses; telling her, as she had already suspected, that the liquid was not genuine. Or at least its source was not of this world. ‘How is it different precisely?’ she asked.
‘Well… The tree in here has been wrecked twice in the last week. We’ve had books hurled around. Chairs broken. Pictures leaping off the walls. And then yesterday one of our maids came in to light the fire and she was mown down by that.’ Minty pointed at the wheeled-steps. ‘Cut her head terribly and broke her arm. Mother is beside herself. We’ve hordes of house guests about to descend for the festivities and now this. That’s why Uncle Claude tried an exorcism. Which failed.’ She gazed at Georgi miserably. ‘Then I remembered you had some dealings with this woo-woo stuff. You’re our only hope.’
Georgi suppressed a growl. ‘Woo-woo?’ she snarled.
Minty pulled her shrug a little tighter and offered a wan smile. ‘Please?’ she added.
‘I need details. Start with yon chappie there. Why was he painted onto the panels?’ Georgi demanded.
‘He wasn’t painted. He just… appeared. There was a portrait of him, right in that spot. But when Alex came into his inheritance…’ Minty glanced away. ‘Taxes. Daddy didn’t leave us as much of the old moolah as we’d hoped so he’s been selling off a few bits and pieces to keep the bloody Treasury at bay. As one does.’
‘And that’s when stuff got snooky?’
Georgi jerked a thumb toward the Captain. ‘Tell me his story.’
‘Not much to tell,’ Minty said. ‘West Indies. Smuggling … Sugar. Rum, that sort of stuff. Rumour had it he also dabbled in… shall we say dubious artefacts.’ She spread her hands and shrugged ruefully. ‘He had left for England with a full cargo and was lost at sea. Christmas eve 1833.’
‘Doubtless something in that cargo was linked to all of his ‘woo-woo’, as you so elegantly put it?’
‘That’s the legend.’
Georgi nodded abruptly, and rubbed at the iridescent skin circling her ring finger that was tingling in response to some latent power within the room. She pointed at the table. ‘I take it the boat and sword were both his?’
She stared at the picture and frowned. Her scaly ring finger was itching a vague warning. Nothing she could evaluate but enough to tell her direct action was her safest course. From past experience this kind of entity gave no warning and brooked no arguments. Her left hand was throbbing now, itching and stinging in a way that she knew preceded a supernatural event. Attack was inevitable and better pre-empted.
‘Well all right then. Let’s deal with this here and now.’ Georgi snatched up the dress-sword and brought it around to slice the model ship just below the plimsoll line. Stinking water cascaded from the fracture, spilling over the blade and soaking her hands and arms and chest, raging across the rugs; flooding ankle deep in seconds. ‘Help needed! Bring those library-steps across to the hearth!’ Georgi plunged through deepening tide of fetid liquid, grasping the edge of the steps and hauling them toward the mantle, struggling against the water flow.
‘Hold on,’ she said, wrapping Minty’s hands around the hand rail. ‘Just hold on like a mad thing. And if anything happens to me run like hell.’
Whatever reply Minty intended as she opened her mouth was lost as the freshly drawn indoor lake erupted in a wall of sound and stench. Vast green-brown tentacles appeared from the deep and thrashed the surface into a maelstrom, pushing the agent aside, plunging her into the water and snaking around the waist of the terrified Araminta.
Minty shrieked, her hands grasping at the air as if she were clawing her way toward Georgi. Futile gestures as she was dragged inexorably toward the far corner of the room from whence the terror of the deep had emerged.
Georgi stumbled forward through waist deep brine, and began hacking at rubbery appendages with all her strength. Ichor spurted into the air, covering both women and colouring the water in an oily grey-green film. She had severed three of the flailing limbs before the creature began to give ground. Georgi took advantage of the retreat and drew her pistol, taking aim and emptying three chambers into the beast. It roared its agony, creasing waves into the water by sound alone. She fired a fourth time, and a fifth. The monster released Minty and gave a final ghastly howl as it retreated beneath the surface.
Georgi grabbed Minty’s hands and floundered back to the library-steps. ‘All right?’ she demanded. ‘Are you hurt?
‘No, not harmed,’ Minty managed to reply. ‘Dear Lord in heaven, Georgi… what in all creation was it?’
‘Something called into being a long time ago,’ Georgi replied. ‘I would imagine by your good Captain Aubrey up there.’
As if summoned by the mere mention of his name there was a creaking of wood above their heads and the face of the Captain began to form in a third dimension, his skull tilted eerily toward them, protruding from oaken panel like a living trophy. His eyes glittered red and black and malevolent and his lips moved in silent mutterings. More juddering groans, like a ship’s tortured timbers under ferocious storms. Minty screamed, and her ancestor screamed in reply, or was it defiance? Georgi could not tell, and didn’t much care. It had to be stopped.
‘No more shenanigans from you, me old hearty,’ she snarled, hauling herself up the steps she braced herself against the rail on the topmost rise and raised the sword with both hands. Her left hand buzzed with energy and cold blue fire radiated along the steel.
She struck at the leering, devilish skull, allowing the weight of the sword and her own power free reign. Shock waves reverberated back through her body. She tugged the blade free and swung it around to deliver another blow, and kept on slicing, excising chunks of board with each impact. Dark fluid gushed over Georgi’s hands and splashing into her face. Each strike against the grim visage radiated the colours of sky and sea – until the whole of the portrait and Georgi herself were encompassed in a ball of marine blue, like a flaming plum pudding, lighting up the decorated plaster ceiling and reflecting off the water as though an electrical storm raged around the microcosm of the library room. Excruciated howls rose over the crash of the waves, echoing the roar of the vanquished sea monster.
And then … silence.
Georgi made a long slow sweep of the room, reaching out with arcane senses for any echo of the enemy and found none. She looked up at the long gouges running through the oak sections, ragged splinters hung pale against near-black varnish. Of the portrait there was not a single trace. Neither was there evidence of water damage, nor of the tentacled beast that she had driven back into the temporary deeps.
The only thing to make any motion at all was a drooping yule garlands swinging from the mantle like the swishing tail of some angry green feline.
Minty stepped back from the ladder and was frowning up at the panelling. ‘Is he gone?’ she demanded. ‘Is that it?’
Georgi wiped ichor from her face and eased her aching arms – and sighed. ‘Yes, Minty, old thing. It’s all over. And a Merry Christmas to you too.’
(c) Jan Edwards 2017