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Old 12-21-2020, 07:17 PM   #7 (permalink)
Trollheart
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Title: "Humbug"
Genre: Speculative Fiction
Written: November 11 2020
Word count: 3,596

Notes: I had always wanted to write a slant on A Christmas Carol, and I had various ideas but in the end this was what I went with.

HUMBUG

The thin, high-pitched scream was not at all out of place here; such sounds were heard regularly, and most times went completely unremarked and ignored. The difference with this scream was that it emanated not from inside, but outside, and it certainly was not ignored. The doctor reached out and placed a comforting hand on the woman's shoulder, who, unusually for her, given her status, did not shake it off or demand to know by what authority the man touched her person. Instead she shuddered, and, rather unbecoming of her, she later thought when she was safely away from the horrid place, shrunk against him as if seeking his protection. A little embarrassed at her outburst, he merely edged her gently towards her husband, who gave her an irritated look that said you've let the side down, old girl, and looked resolutely away, as if trying to pretend he did not know her.

“Easy, Your Ladyship.” The doctor held his brand up, the flickering flame casting dancing shadows on the bare grey stone walls as they descended the crumbling staircase, lighting their way. The click of his walking stick on the stone echoed in the still, stagnant air. “It's just a rat. Nothing to worry about.”

“Nothing?” If possible, Lady Fairfax's screech of dismay and disbelief was higher than the scream of panic she had just issued. “I'll have you know, Doctor, I have no desire to be associated with such horrible creatures, nor those who believe they are... nothing.” she shuddered again, this time more with indignation than fear.

“Good god, man!” snapped the man who had not managed to pretend not to be her husband, his bewhiskered face glowing redly in the torchlight. He had ineffectually kicked out at the rat and instead managed to almost knock the unfortunate doctor down the stairs, as his stick threatened to go from under him. He showed not the slightest remorse and offered no apology. People of his class did not apologise to anyone. What was the man doing leading them down a dark staircase when he couldn't even be relied upon to walk unaided himself? Damned cheek! ”What kind of place are you running here? I mean...” He made a distasteful sound that was not, to be fair, devoid of a feeling of unease and perhaps even fear, though he would never create such a fuss as Cora had, damn her. “Rats?”

Holding the torch higher, guiding them down the slippery steps, the doctor shrugged, though his gesture went mostly unseen in the semi-darkness. “Hard to keep the little fellows out, Your Lordship,” he replied. “This isn't,” he reminded them, “Harley Street after all.”

He tried an embarrassed laugh, something to break the icy air of disapproval the appearance of the rodent had engendered in the party. It seemingly fell on deaf ears. The man right at the rear, the portly chap with the bushy beard and sparkling eyes smiled, but there was stony silence from the others.

“No, it most certainly is not, sir!” This was a bent old withered wreck of a man with an abundance of white hair on either side of his head, and none at all in the middle. His hair glowed faintly in the darkness. His eyes were small but sharp, and pierced the gloom through a pair of pince-nez held in front of them, which he currently held while a young man carefully guided him along the steel rail that ran down the side of the staircase. “Dont'cha have traps here to take the little blighters out?”

The man at the back looked like he was about to answer the question, but held his peace. Even so, the man at the back was by far and away the doctor's favourite member of the party; he had walked with a light and sure step all the way down the stairs, had complained not once and had asked the most interesting and intelligent questions as they had proceeded. He had once looked as if he was going to go to the doctor's aid, then thought better of it, considering it might be taken as unwanted pity, or worse, unlooked-for charity, which had a bad habit of appearing to make the giver seem superior to the receiver. He seemed the only one who appreciated this tour, but then, that was no surprise, given who he was.

“I doubt there's enough traps in all of London, Sir Mark. Not to mention that we often have orderlies and, ah, other operatives walking down here.”

Sir Mark sniffed loudly. His companion (one would wonder what the elderly Sir Mark Haversham was doing with such a youth, but of course one would never voice such concerns – or suspicions – aloud) yawned, bored with the whole venture it seemed. He didn't speak though: perhaps he wasn't paid to, or indeed, was paid not to. Behind him was the schoolmaster, his tough and wiry body almost waving like a pipecleaner from left to right as he ducked fastidiously away from the thin cobwebs that hung down over the stairway, clinging to the moss-encrusted walls like cheap, frail curtains that vainly endeavoured to shut out the world above.

The first, and only, one to show any human interest in their guide, the bearded man asked “What happened to your leg, Doctor?”

Grateful to turn attention away from his perceived failings, the doctor grimaced.

“The polio, sir. I've had it since I was a child. I suppose it will kill me eventually.” He did not sound bitter, and his questioner nodded to himself.

“Is it much farther, man?” It was the schoolmaster, bringing their guide back to the real world, back to the world where he did not matter, where nobody cared about his leg, or about him. The doctor was sure the mere sound of the teacher struck terror into the boys at St. Agnes, but it had little to no effect on him. Gaynor Stillman might be on the board, and therefore the doctor had to suffer the supercilious tone the man used with him, but unlike the others he held no title, owned no lands and was heir to no fortune, so was essentially of the same class as he himself. The doctor therefore afforded him none of the fawning respect he was forced to show the toffs, even if Stillman somehow believed himself both their equal and his better.

Unfortunately, he reflected, class and status counted little when you were trying to squeeze money – or rather, more money – out of people, and they knew it.

“Just down here, ladies and gents,” he promised, deliberately not replying directly to the teacher, the slight not going unnoticed by Stillman. The other lady – if she could be described as such – gave a groan of impatience and barely restrained annoyance.

“This had better be worth it, Doctor,” she warned him, and though he had in his time dealt with thieves and murderers and rapists and bank robbers, and had faced them without fear, even with contempt, the doctor felt intimidated by the formidable Elizabeth Price. Daughter of Lord Chief Justice Sir Horace Price, she was the least ladylike lady he had ever dealt with.

Nobody would call her pretty; homely was even a word too generous to use to describe her, and she looked to weigh perhaps twice as much as any of the men here, and some of them were certainly not missing any meals. Her unlovely face was permanently set in a scowl, her small eyes set close together, giving anyone she looked at the (usually accurate) impression she highly disapproved of them, and her voice was like sandpaper.

The doctor turned towards her, leaning heavily on his cane, his voice mild but with a tone of reproach he hoped she would not recognise. “Down here, Miss Price, ladies and gentlemen, is the one case which we hope will demonstrate to you why we need your help,” he assured them. “If the plight of this unfortunate cannot convince you good folk to continue funding our operation, then I am afraid nothing will.”

Miss Elizabeth Price's voice was colder even than the flagstones they walked on, colder than the icy lichen dripping down the stark walls of the staircase. She directed it, however, at Lord Fairfax's wife.

“I do so wish daddy hadn't made me sit on the board of this dreadful charity,” she whined, looking for sympathy in the eyes of Lady Fairfax, and finding none. “It's all so terribly boring and miserable. I mean,” she spread her hands, as if it the point she was making was something nobody could disagree with, “does anybody really care about the poor?”

Unheard by anyone the man at the back muttered something about decreasing the excess population, a sentiment Miss Price would surely have agreed heartily with – had she understood its meaning – and in so doing would have missed entirely his point. A sigh escaped the bearded man, and his eyes looked troubled.

“Why did Sir Horace obtain you a seat on the board, Miss Price?” Her Ladyship's tone was carefully neutral. Elizabeth Price was so wrapped up in herself that she couldn't see how despised she was, even by the other board members. She shrugged.

“Oh, some nonsense about giving back to the community,” she moaned, rolling her eyes. “And to stop me travelling to Paris on shopping trips so often, I expect.” She winked. Lady Fairfax did not wink back. She had a great respect for Justice Price, and wondered what he had done to deserve such a selfish and useless daughter?

Elizabeth Price now addressed her remarks to the doctor, some way in front of her.

“Oh do get on with it, you grotty little man! My feet are killing me, and I have a flower show to judge this afternoon!”

Some dead flowers then, thought the doctor acidly, noting the rolling eyes of the man at the back again at Miss Price's churlish treatment of her guide. He appreciated that. It made dealing with these pompous fools a little easier. “Just at the end of these stairs and down this corridor, Miss. Almost there now. Watch your step, everyone.”

A few more minutes and they had reached their destination. As they crowded outside the cell, the doctor's face took on a serious look. At that moment he had transformed himself from servile guide to authoritative curator. With no small amount of pleasure, he watched the uncertainty and disquiet flicker across their faces.

“As I already said, Lords, Ladies and gentlemen, this is where we house one of our most interesting inmates. We have made some considerable progress with him since he was brought here as a raving lunatic – if you'll pardon the expression, ladies, though in truth there was no other way to describe him at the time of his admission.” From inside the cell the sound of clanking chains, scraping along the ground.

Lady Fairfax drew closer to her husband, who, acknowledging for the first time his responsibility to her, and his relationship to her, squared his shoulders and put a strong arm around her slim shoulders. Miss Price stood on tiptoe, trying to see in through the small barred window. Her companions discreetly moved away from her, lest she overbalance and fall on them. Nobody wished to be the one to have to break that so-called woman's fall! Sir Mark muttered something unintelligible while his young companion brushed dust off the shoulders of his jacket, and Stillman stood stiff as a poker saying nothing.

“A word of warning, Ladies and gents,” went on the doctor, like a showman waiting to conduct the marks into the tent where they would see all sorts of marvels. “The prisoner is quite harmless, and will appear friendly and even socially aware to some degree, but you must remember he is here because he has lost his mind, and do not allow him to try to draw you into his unstable world of fantasy. We will not be able to stay long, but he can be very persuasive, so if you feel yourself wavering, if his tale seems to suddenly make sense to you, if you feel it could be real – which I assure you, it is not – take a proper look at him, and ask yourself: would we keep a man down here in the dark if he were sane?”
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