It was with some trepidation that I approached the imposing grey stone building once more, its towering façade spiked here and there with turrets and towers. I gazed up at the engraved stone lintel above the carved double doors. Ex domo ad ubi? read the motto of the Deeves family, and indeed they had followed that motto for generations, producing adventurers and leaders who had shaped the Empire.
I had been at school with Gerard Deeves, the current incumbent, but had not seen him for several years. As I recalled, the last time had been in India, where he’d been lambasting a boy in the market who it appeared had tried to cheat him. His larger-than-life figure with its shock of fair hair and florid complexion made him hard, if not impossible, to ignore. I chuckled to myself at the memory, but then my thoughts became more sober. What had brought me here today was no laughing matter, and I was fearful for the condition of my erstwhile companion.
The letter had come a week ago. Not the kind of letter I would expect from Gerard Deeves. It was sorrowful and hesitant, with none of the careless bonhomie so characteristic of the man. Of course, I had read of the affair of his fiancée. I did not know her, but I had penned my sympathies. Perhaps it was this that had caused him to request my visit, or perhaps he might have done so anyway. Whatever the spur that had driven him, I was here at Deeves Hall.
When the manservant showed me into the drawing room, I must confess I was shocked. The man that greeted me was hunched, hesitant and nervous. His voice faltered and paused. After a while he regained a little of his old spirit, and waving his hand around the room, began describing some of his collection. He had always been a great collector – objets d’art, books, talismans and relics – anything out of the ordinary, with a story to it, a mystery. It did not surprise me that he did not mention the reason I had come, his invitation, or, more accurately, his plea. Deeves retained the manners of an earlier generation, and despite my shock and concern for his welfare, I recognised and appreciated his conversation and his attempts to put me at my ease as he treated me as a welcome guest.
While Deeves had been busy with his mysteries, perversely I had gained somewhat of a reputation for debunking such matters. I had always preferred the scientific method above all religions or spiritual beliefs. In my investigations, I had never seen evidence of truly supernatural events. All my cases were either uncovered as rumour, hoax or mistake by one person or another, or were simply so vague as to remain obscure. It was this facet of my talents that Deeves had called upon, though I could not guess for what reason.
I retired to prepare for dinner. Remembering my visits as a youth, on my way up to my room it came upon me to take the opportunity to gaze once more into the magnificent library on the first floor, one which stretched across the whole front of the house. Not only was it one of the most imposing rooms I had ever, or have ever, seen, but its collection of books was unparalleled and its sumptuous sofas were, in my youth, places to settle for hours, gratefully reading despite the entreaties of my friends to engage in more active pursuits. But to my surprise, the library door was firmly locked and it was with some little disappointment that I repaired to my room.
Dinner that evening was a gloomy affair. Although Deeves made an effort, it was clear that his earlier energies had drained him somewhat, and we suffered long pauses in conversation that were embarrassing. The food and the wine were excellent however, so it was with a comfortably replete feeling, as well as one of burning curiosity, that I settled in the study before a glowing, well-stoked fire.
Deeves sat back in the creaking leather armchair, brandy on one hand, cigar in the other, and began to speak. ‘You may have heard of the problems surrounding my fiancée, Louisa.’ His voice broke for a moment, then he resumed. ‘They occurred in very mysterious circumstances.’
‘But the newspapers said it was an illness.’ Immediately I cursed myself for a tactless fool, but in truth it was surprise that drove the words from my lips. Deeves raised a hand. ‘That’s what they said, it is true. But then …’ He paused to take a thoughtful puff at his cigar. ‘… they don’t know it all.’
You can imagine how intrigued I became. What were the circumstances of the affair that had not been disclosed? How did it concern me?
The book was ancient, Deeves said. Yet it was written in plain English and was understandable. That was why he had purchased it, in some exotic bazaar in a country he’d visited – he’d even forgotten when. Deeves had never been a great reader. After his first inspection, he’d never opened it again, admiring it for its ancient cover and imposing designs.
‘The damn johnny who sold it to me kept jabbering on about it, saying he was only selling it because he had to buy food for his family, that he should have burnt it. Can you imagine? Burning an ancient book, bound in gold? The man was crazy. Certainly crazy to tell me of his need, because I got it off him for a pretty good price, I’ll tell you.’ Some of my companion’s spirit was showing again now, his words coming to life as he relived a moment from his youth. But a moment later, he was sombre again, his face drawn and pale.
‘She started to read it. She always was a fanciful soul, imaginative, full of ideas and life – so full of life. A kinder, sweeter, person you could never have known.’ He excused himself as he dabbed his eye and I felt a rush of affection and grief for him. After a pause, he began to speak again, steadily and, it seemed, with concentration and purpose. ‘At first, she was full of excitement. She would recite to me some of the story. It was indeed a wonderful story as she told it. She would read for a short while after lunch, before our stroll through the park. Then things began to change.’
I leaned forward, heedless of my empty glass.
‘She started to come here not see me but to read the book – I swear it,’ he added, noticing my expression. ‘She would come in, greet me with the barest of niceties, then beg my leave to venture upstairs to the library. I could refuse her nothing, but as the days went by, she changed. I noticed her face was drawn and there were dark circles under her eyes. She asked to borrow the book to take away and I made some excuse – I said it was because of the insurance. But in truth, I was gravely concerned – so concerned that I went behind her back and spoke to her father, asking his opinion of her condition and venturing my concerns. He admitted she had been ‘a little quiet’ and had spent much time closeted in her room. This he ascribed to her anticipation of our forthcoming nuptials, which were just a few months away. Privately, I felt no such motive could be valid as Louisa had hardly mentioned our wedding in the previous weeks. But I kept my own counsel.
She no longer spoke about the book. When I asked her about it, her face became troubled and she would avoid my gaze, passing her interest off as a need to see how the story ended, nothing more, and making light of the subject.
But the book was the cause of our first row. I had to go up to town for a few weeks to settle some business, and decided to let the staff have some time away, closing up the house in their absence. Louisa was furious when I told her and demanded possession of the book. It made me all the more steadfast in my refusal, and eventually she stormed out. How I rue that day! I was terribly upset, but I’d resolved that we could never start our life together if I were to give in to tantrums. However, at the same time I was deeply shocked, so before I left I asked our doctor to visit her on a pretext of a regular check and make sure she was all right – and …’ Here he made a long pause, and began again with almost a whisper. ‘… God forgive me, not just physically.’
Realising what this implied, I felt sympathy for my friend. What would I do if ever I found myself in such a position: the one I loved behaving erratically, her family seemingly unnoticing? I tried to reassure myself that I should approach it with clear logic, but admitted all might be different in reality.
‘I considered destroying the book, or at least removing it. Instead, I decided to see what the few weeks break might bring, to see it out despite the doubts and concerns that filled my head and tormented me while I tried to carry out my business in London.
‘On my return, I was greeted by the worried face of Louisa’s father at my carriage door. “Please, Gerard, come at once. We tried to contact you, but we did not know where you were staying and there was nobody here at the house to ask.” It was true that in the dramatic moments prior to my leaving, in my concern and, I am ashamed to admit, in my anger, I had not given Louisa the information I had intended. I cursed myself as we sped to her side, whip cracking and the carriage rocking dangerously.
‘She looked terribly ill, as if in some kind of fever. Her lips were moving, mouthing strange names, making incoherent pleas to unknown strangers, her eyeballs rolling behind the closed lids as if in a waking dream. The doctor motioned me outside.
‘“She is talking about a book,” he told me. My heart sank. “That damned book! I’ll burn it now. Now, I tell you,” I shouted at him. He looked me in the eyes and calmly told me that it might be the worst thing possible. The doctor explained that in his opinion – and he had had some training in the aspects of the behaviour of the human mind – Louisa had an obsession. For whatever reason, she had a driving urge to finish reading the book. Nothing else mattered. How she had got into this state he could not comprehend, but he assured me that destroying the book would abandon her to the condition which now controlled her, perhaps permanently. Better, he reasoned, to allow her to complete her obsessive task, then get her well and guard against it happening again. “There is no doubt her health is suffering. It is as if the life is being drawn out of her,” he told me solemnly, his face dolorous.
‘You can understand I was beside myself, torn. Should I allow this book, apparently the cause of my dear Louisa’s despair and illness, back into her hands?’
I murmured my sympathies as best I could. I could not imagine the pain and suffering involved, the horror of such a situation. My God, what my friend had faced!
‘And you did? Bring her the book?’
His head lowered. ‘Yes. May God forgive me.’
‘I was not present when she received the book. I brought it from the library and placed it in the hands of the doctor, who bore it immediately to Louisa’s bedside. According to his account, she seized it immediately, showing every sign of animation, sitting up, eyes open, with all sign of illness fled.’
‘The doctor said she was pale, drawn, emaciated, but activated by some intense energy which filled her. He declared he had never seen anything like it.’
Deeves’s eyes were slits, his face unreadable. His brandy and cigar lay forgotten. His hands had formed fists, clenched and white. Slowly, his eyes opened wider and focussed on me, his mouth opened and he spoke.
‘By all accounts she was as normal, sitting up in bed, reading the book, calling for a glass of lemon tea and some toast.’
‘That was a good sign.’
‘Indeed. So I thought at first.’
What could the man mean? What had befallen Louisa? I had read of an illness, but little else, and knew not the outcome.
‘The upshot of it was, she did little else but read the book, occasionally falling asleep for a period of rest. She was able to leave her bed, strong enough with the light food she was now accepting readily. She was still painfully thin and pale, but she sat in their drawing room and now and again made polite conversation when I visited. The doctor said she was regaining strength, and her wits also apparently, so my hope was that it would be as he predicted – that she would finish the book and forget the obsession that had gripped her. That damned book!’ Deeves broke off and slumped back in his chair.
His face wore a pained expression. He took a gulp of brandy before continuing. ‘It was the doctor who found her.’
‘Dead?’ I know not what made me blurt out this most unmannerly question, but Deeves seemed to take no offence.
‘What is worse than death?’
‘A living nightmare, man!’ He threw the brandy glass into the hearth, where it shattered in a thousand pieces.
It took me some time to coax an account from him. It seemed the doctor had found Louisa sitting staring straight ahead, with the book closed on her lap. It was lying face down, so he concluded she had finally reached the end. For a while, he believed she would come to her senses as he’d predicted, but he could not have been more wrong. After some time it became apparent that the poor girl had lost her wits completely. When she did utter sounds they were strange. Deeves said they sounded like names, people and places, and there was great fear and wonder in her voice. The rest of the time she was a drooling wreck, unable to communicate or do anything for herself. Only the brief periods of dream-like trance restored her to some form of normality. But it was an illusion.
Now I knew the whole story. It was indeed tragic, and my heart went out to my old friend. But I wondered why, apart from sharing his grief with me, he had called me to his side. The reason soon became clear.
‘I want you to read the book,’ he croaked.
‘You are a man of logic and reason.’ I nodded. ‘You will not be carried away by flights of fancy as an imaginative girl would, or even as I myself might, with my sincere belief in the occult.’
I had to admit his reason.
‘I need to know,’ Deeves went on, ‘if it was the book. If the book was the cause, or whether my poor Louisa was simply a victim of her own imagination.’
‘How will I know?’
‘You are probably the one person who is proof against the wiles of the book, as I understand it. If indeed it is as powerful as I suspect, you will detect its power long before it gains any control over you. Your disbelief of things magical protects you.’ He gave a wry grin and dropped his gaze. ‘I have no such protection.’
All of a sudden, he jerked his head up and fixed me with a burning stare. ‘There is danger here. I’m asking you to take a risk, endanger your very soul, and all for …’
His gaze was steady, his voice soft now. ‘All for the chance of bringing my beloved Louisa back.’ The words came hurriedly. ‘If I can find out the nature of the mischief that caused her condition I have ways of reversing the damage, I have resources.’ The man looked desperate.
I felt no hope for him. But for his sake, I had to try. I had no fear of a book, despite the mysterious story Deeves had woven around it. In all my investigations, I had never found proof of the occult, of evil or magic, and did not think I was ever likely to.
Deeves had arranged for me to read the book for a certain time each day. The manservant would let me into the library and return when the specified time was up. He would accept no excuses, locking the library door behind us. In this way it was supposed I would be protected. From what, I did not know. Deeves himself would not enter the library, he said, for fear of being drawn in.
I had little respect for his precautions. In my own mind, I was in little danger.
Certainly the first few sessions with the book seemed uneventful, and I may say, unexciting to the extreme. On first opening the book, I found the usual title page and flyleaf. Strangely, there was no author’s name, acknowledgements or references. The story simply started: an innocuous tale of a young girl and a young man, a wicked uncle, and a quest.
It seemed at first a plain and unremarkable story, but as the days went by, I found myself looking forward to my readings, merely because it was a good story I told myself. I began to identify with the young man, the hero, as he won through many trials by his honesty and strength of will. I did have a nagging memory of Deeves telling me that Louisa had described a young woman as being the central character in the story. As this was clearly not the case, I put it down to her fevered imagination.
Each day, Deeves interviewed me about my reading. I recounted each episode to him after I left the library and he would make some remark or other. He homed in on the fact that I was becoming interested in the outcome.
‘Perfectly normal for a reader,’ I told him. ‘It’s an exciting book. Good plot, well written. It’s a wonder it’s not better known.’
Deeves shook his head.
Apart from our afternoon meetings, I saw Deeves only at dinner, and not always then. He spent much time at Louisa’s house. One night he came home in a highly emotional state, bursting into the drawing room and pouring himself a brandy.
‘What is the matter, Gerard? What has disturbed you so?
He paused a moment, then blurted out, ‘They want to put her in an institution! A mental institution!’
He was distraught. I tried to calm him without success and he retired to bed shortly after, taking the brandy decanter with him.
The next day, he was not present at our afternoon interview. It was a pity, because the plot of the story had become startlingly interesting. I had asked Coombes, the manservant, to leave me a little longer in the library, but he had been adamant. The cheek of the man! But he was immovable.
I was still angry when I sat for dinner, and my tone was rather abrupt as I addressed him. ‘Where is your master, Coombes?’
Coombes lowered his head, as if confiding in me. ‘I am not sure, sir, but I know that he is spending much time and effort to protect his fiancée from, er…’
‘Being placed in an institution?’
‘Precisely, sir.’ Coombes did not even blink, and continued to serve the meal.
Over the next days, Deeves remained absent. Coombes did nothing other than open the library, turf me out at the appropriate time, resist my pleas and entreaties, serve dinner and refill the brandy and port decanters.
The story was now so exciting I was burning to know the outcome. I was that hero! I was doing the daring deeds that saved the maiden, beat the evil forces. It was a sublime and perfect story. How could the world not know of it?
Reading over the next few days, I suddenly became aware of a shadowy presence in the plot. My mind, afire and working at a supernormal pace, spotted him everywhere. No matter how many demons I slew, maidens I rescued, evil I conquered, he was there!
I dreamed of him. In my dreams he mocked me. I could not see his face, but I could feel his presence.
I checked myself. Was there any evil force at work here? Hardly. Yes, I was uncharacteristically drawn into the reading of a book. But what a book! I formed a resolution: this book would not be destroyed, the world must see it, as many people as possible must see it.
Deeves was still absent. Each day, I devoured the book voraciously, cramming as many of the words as possible into my hungry consciousness. Each night I would dream of it. I no longer asked Coombes for extra time, to be able to finish a chapter. No. That was too obvious, and he might inform his master, who would draw the wrong conclusion. I was not in the grip of any evil, I knew that. I had investigated such matters and the evidence was nil, zero. Instead, each day I kept an eye on my pocket watch and, before Coombes entered, would lay the book down with a considerable effort of self-will and compose myself. When he arrived, I was calm, composed, and unexcited, ready to leave and unruffled.
The dreams continued, now every night from the minute I fell asleep to the morning when I woke up. The shadowy presence was near, behind everything. I dreamed of striding to a corner, peering round it and getting a glimpse of him. But I always failed to do so. In my dreams.
Deeves returned. He told me he had finally conceded that Louisa should be moved to an institution. But to a private one of his choosing, where she would get the finest care and encouragement to recovery. He was still upset, but told me at length of his hopes for her and her recovery.
Everything was fine. I set to the task of presenting an amiable and stable appearance, calmly discussing his worries. No hint of my burning need to know the outcome of the story was apparent to my host.
Feeling secure and relaxed, and given Deeves’ preoccupation with his fiancée, I foolishly ventured a question.
‘Gerard,’ I have now read most of your book. It is an exciting and involving plot, I concede, but evil? I do not think so.’
He looked up at me with attention.
‘I have been here for several weeks. What I now suggest is you allow me to finish reading the whole book in one sitting and leave. I am absolutely positive there is nothing occult or untoward about it.’
For a moment, I saw acquiescence in his eyes, and rejoiced. Then, I saw him glance up, above my head, and I became aware that someone, presumably Coombes, was behind me.
‘No!’ and more vociferously: ‘No! That is what she wanted, that is what destroyed her!’
There was no reasoning with him. He would not let me do what I wanted. He vowed to destroy the book the next day and ordered Coombes to make sure the library was locked.
I could not allow it. That night, I crept up to the first floor landing with the key I had purloined from the kitchen. Absurd! It was hung with all the others. I laughed at the foolishness.
I unlocked the door, entered and locked it again behind me. By the light of the moon, I found a candle and lit it. The book was there, in its place.
I hurried to the chair and settled to read.
In the story, His presence was stronger, I almost had Him. If I could find Him, I would win. I would triumph.
Deeves had, from the start, made me promise I would never read to the end without strict supervision. I was in turmoil. As I approached the last page, there was an overwhelming need, a burning urge to know! In my mind, I knew it would be foolish. I had set out with a plan. I was a man who followed plans. That was my strength, my protection. But surely …
I can hear the battering on the door, the shouts. Deeves is pleading with me. But I am so near! I can nearly see Him! He is revealed. With the last words of the book, He steps out of the shadows. Around him crowd a myriad of people, speaking in many tongues, begging and calling to me. I am overwhelmed. I hear above the clamour a woman’s voice crying 'Gerard, Gerard, where are you?' Then I feel myself gripped, paralysed as He steps forward, filling my mind and my whole consciousness, and nothing else matters, nothing else is real.