Author: Bevlington Lourdes
Illustration: Christopher Harrisson
“Do you have anything for a dead finger?”
“A dead… what?”
Silas held up his left hand.
“A dead finger, Gump. I went to sleep with a healthy hand but I’ve woken with three live fingers and this…dead one.”
Mr Gump explored an ear with one of his own long crooked fingers.
“Oh. I see. Is the new finger…er…yours?”
“It’s more of an old finger really and no, I don’t think so. Looks similar, but rather less… alive. And it’s on back to front.”
“Yes, I see. It is rather blue. Still, I’m not sure I have anything to help, although I can give you an ointment to soothe the stitches.”
Gump turned to consider the vast array of bottles displayed dustily behind him, rubbing some of their labels free of grime so their names shone out through years of disuse. The shelves were populated densely by unknown and untested medicinal treatments. Candles were mounted archaically on the walls, holders encased in years of drooping wax. It was always night in Gump’s shop; the whole place ignored the sun as if the weather and the seasons were none of its concern.
“Don’t trouble yourself Gump. I don’t plan on keeping the thing anyway.”
“What d’you propose doing with it?” Gump inquired, addressing the bottles not his customer.
“I’m not perfectly sure,” Silas replied cheerily. “Find out who it belongs to and then find my own, I suppose.”
Gump turned, nodding slowly, his eyes narrowed to slits and his brows caught together in a fight of disapproval above them.
“Quite so, Master Hardship.”
Outside, the sun was disarming and Silas turned his face towards it, attempting to banish the gloom of Gump’s shop. For a moment he forgot about the finger but it caught on his trousers as he made to put his hands in his pockets.
“Ah yes,” he murmured aloud before tipping his hat over his eyes to guard them from the glare and setting off for Harley Street.
Gump stood, bony hands on hips, watching Silas striding away down Churlish Street. His index finger once again found his ear – a nervous tic. He must have suspected something or he would not have come; Silas knew Gump would have nothing to cure such an ailment. Much of his stock was designed to hinder, not heal. His father would surely be the more natural port of call in such a storm. Something with a whiff of trouble about it was brewing.
So what did Silas know?
Whatever it was, it was too much.
Gump scurried in a whirl of dust to the back room where he kept the things the police felt a shop should not stock but that Gump felt no proper apothecary should be without. The bottles on these shelves did not shoulder mounds of dust like those in the shop proper. Gump was proud of these ones, and so they stood immaculate, throbbing with the glow of the candles, their labels proudly displaying the names of their morally questionable contents.
Gump looked at them as a man looks at a train he has just missed pulling away. How had he managed to take the wrong bottle to Silas’ house? The names were so clear, the bottles so different. Even the potions within were entirely separate, one viscous and dark with a mind of its own, like malevolent tar, the other light and clear, like liquid air.
He pressed his palms to his forehead, attempting to pressure the memory of the previous night to the forefront of his mind. But it rested, irritatingly, just on the edge of clarity. He raised his eyes and fixed them on the potions in question, ‘Amnesia’ and ‘Dismemberment.’
“Good God Gump,” he chastised himself, “has any fool ever made so dark and desperate a mistake?”
“Oh Master Silas, thank goodness you’re here.”
Martha was a fussy woman whose enormous girth seemed to contribute to the seriousness of her regular assertions that some terrible drama was unfolding. She shook and sweated with the excitement of any unfortunate event; Silas had long ago learnt never to take her at her word and to always see for himself when she claimed “something dreadful has happened.”
“Why is that?” he inquired with not a little frustration bordering his tone.
“It’s your father. He can’t remember anything.”
“I’ve told you to write his appointments down for him Martha, really, it isn’t such an emergency if he’s forgotten one, is it?”
Martha was head, indeed sole, secretary at his father’s surgery.
“It’s not that sir. He can’t remember anything at all. Not me, not his work, nothing.”
Silas’ eyebrows made a bid for his hairline. This was far-fetched, even for Martha. She levered herself out her seat with one trembling arm and began to puff down the hallway, beckoning Silas with a sausage-like finger.
His father was sat in the chair in his office usually reserved for nervous patients awaiting test results. He looked like he had just been told that time did not exist, his face the definition of puzzlement. He glanced up as Silas entered but no recognition registered on his face. He rose, offering his hand with an awkward jerk.
“Good morning sir. My name is… Well, anyway. Good morning.”
Silas found himself shaking hands, keeping his left hand and its corpse appendage stowed away in his pocket.
“Father, it’s me, Silas, your son?”
“My… hmm? I don’t think I… I don’t remember a son. Today is turning out to be a bit of a confusion for me I’m afraid. What did you say your name was?”
“It’s… oh never mind. Listen, I’m going to get Martha to look after you whilst I find out what’s happened to make you so forgetful, if that’s agreeable to you?”
“The large lady? Yes, yes that’s fine. Could you ask her to bring me a little snack? It’s 11am already.”
Silas swept out and down the hallway, stopping at a nervous but gleeful looking Martha to give her the elevenses request and instruct her to see his father did not leave the surgery.
“Do come back soon Master Hardship!” she called happily as he hurried from the building, “you never know what may happen next!”
Gump’s finger was firmly buried in his ear. Everything about Lord Maugre made him nervous, including the ostentatious hallway he was currently fidgeting in, awaiting the return of the butler. Lord Maugre’s long-dead ancestors glared at Gump’s pacing with their cold marble eyes. He glanced at the busts, feeling the weight of their stony disapproval.
Gump had so distracted himself with his anxieties that the appearance of the butler made him start wildly, his finger flying out of his ear.
“Lord Maugre will see you now, sir.”
The butler balanced a great weight of sarcasm on the final word.
“Thank you Lepid.”
Thomas Lepid had been serving in the Maugre house since childhood but reserved his servile nature for his master alone. The rest of the world he treated with no more respect than he deigned they deserved. Gump wasn’t worth a deferential nod of the head, taking of the coat or offering of a drink. But he was just – barely, but just – worth calling ‘sir.’
Lepid strode from the hall with a curl of the finger as the only signal for Gump to follow. The Lord’s reception room hurled Gump’s tattered appearance into embarrassing relief. It was a glittering display of polished wood and stone, ancient tapestries and ornate but useless mantelpiece paraphernalia. Gump’s dingy establishment concealed the threads unfurling from his tailcoat, porridge stains clinging bravely to his lapel and the crevices that ran like tributaries over his face. He was battered and old, like a book left for too many years on a forgotten shelf.
The room was empty. Gump turned to ask Lepid where Maugre was but the butler had already abandoned him. He wondered how Maugre managed to keep his house in such condition with so little. It was common gossip that the Lord’s parents had died and left him nothing but this house and no money to run it. Lepid was the only servant left. He was obviously a talented cleaner.
The sun streamed through the room’s huge windows and he squinted against its glare, a restless worry slinking down to trouble his stomach. A grandfather clock marked the slow-passing seconds with trembling ticks.
Lord Maugre appeared in a sweep of silence at Gump’s side, startling the little man for a second time.
“What is it you mean by coming here like this, Elias?”
Maugre was one of only two people who called Gump by his given name. The other was his mother, an impossibly ancient woman holed up in a Devonshire mansion Gump would never see a penny from.
“Lord Maugre, please accept my apologies but I had to come. Silas Hardship came fossicking around this morning. I think he might know something.”
Maugre laughed; a deep joyless sound that bubbled up from his throat but never reached his eyes.
“How’s his finger?”
Gump displayed his discomfort with a shuffle.
Lord Maugre turned to stare out the window at the gardens he never visited. His alabaster skin was best suited to indoor living and night-time excursions. His appearance shamed Gump, exquisitely tailored and expertly quoiffed as he was.
“But no ring?”
“No sign of it your Lordship, and Silas didn’t ask after it either. Maybe he hasn’t noticed its absence?”
“I find that unlikely.” Maugre snapped, his calm veneer cracking.
“But,” he continued, settling down again, “we can hope. He has nothing to lead him here. Did he say what he planned to do?”
“He said he was going to find his finger. I suspect he’s gone to his father’s Harley Street practice.”
“Oh well Elias,” Maugre chuckled, “he won’t get much sense out of him.”
The church soared up above Silas’ head, its stone pillars and black wooden beams stretching up into a vaulted darkness. Candles burned in every corner, their feeble flickering light failing to illuminate anything but their iron holders. They threw constantly changing shadows into the recesses of the church. Silas could not shake off the impression that the walls were moving.
He walked down the centre aisle, listening to the sound of his footsteps losing itself in the depths of the church. He began to call out his priest’s name but shied away from the noise as the first clanging echo came back to his ears. Ahead, slumped in the foremost pew, he could just make out a human shape in the gloom. It was wreathed in an orb of light, cast half-heartedly from a spluttering candle. Silas advanced towards it.
The figure, a man in the robes of the Catholic priesthood, did not move, his head hung over his chest.
“Father?” Silas tried again, reaching out a hand with a tremor in the fingers to shake the priest’s shoulder.
“MARY, Jesus and Holy Saint Joseph!” cried the priest, yanked from his slumber, “what in God’s name do you mean by sneaking up on me so, boy?”
“For a man of the Church, Father, you blaspheme a lot,” Silas said, a smile pulling at the edges of his mouth.
“It lets the Lord know I’m still here, gets me a bit of celestial attention,” Father Ensky replied, balling his free hand into a fist and burrowing it into screwed shut eyes in an attempt to wake himself further.
“You really ought not to sleep holding a candle either, Father.”
Ensky looked in surprise at his right hand, as though he had forgotten he was holding anything. The pair sat in silence for a moment, the priest considering his candle and Silas considering how to begin.
“I saw Elias Gump today,” Father Ensky offered before Silas had a chance to open his mouth.
“Oh? For confession?”
The priest shifted his considerable girth and chewed at his lower lip.
“I couldn’t say, of course.”
“No. Of course.”
Silence reasserted itself between them with a waft of awkwardness about it, and both men fidgeted uncomfortably.
“I went to see him today myself. I have a little problem I was hoping he could help with.”
Silas held up his hand, complete with deceased finger. The priest’s face creased up in disgust, his nose drawing up his face towards a heavily wrinkled brow. The expression, however, did not translate any surprise.
“Gump had nothing to solve this trouble but I think he may have a solution to the riddle behind it,” Silas said, registering the efforts of the priest to look surprised.
“Why do you suppose someone would want to take my finger? Were they perhaps after the ring on it?”
Silas verbally prodded the priest for answers. Father Ensky squirmed, the rolls of fat at the back of his head sprouting beads of sweat despite the arctic temperature of the church.
“Well, that would seem a reasonable conclusion,” he muttered to the flagstones.
“I went to Father to ask him for help, but he seems to be having some troubling remembering anything. I thought the next step might be the police; see if they’ve apprehended anyone with stolen goods, what do you think, Father?”
The priest cast his eyes to the blackness above for inspiration and guidance, wringing his pudgy hands together.
“I think, lad, that you might be heading for… uh… a dead end there. As the case may be. I think Gump… well, he’s a man of great knowledge and greater foolishness. Easily coerced, as it were. If he knew something about where your ring was, I’m sure he could be convinced that it would be a grave error not to inform you of it.”
Silas nodded slowly, digesting the priest’s speech, careful not to miss a single syllable of its meaning.
“Thank you, Father,” he said, rising from the pew and drawing outside the circle of candlelight. “Please return to your… prayer.”
Father Ensky nodded and let his chin fall back to his chest as Silas disappeared away into the darkness.
Gump’s head was filled with Lord Maugre’s words and a slide-show of images from the night, as he walked back through the grand hallway. The poisoning of Dr Hardship had gone so well; the butler left the door unlocked just as his bribe had convinced him to do. Hardship had been fast asleep, just as they had needed him to be. And, according to Silas’s own testimony, the man was having severe memory troubles. It had been perfect.
So how had everything gone so wrong? Age had squirreled away many of Gump’s memories, leaving him with grey patches whose images were always just a fraction too blurry to make out. He shuffled away from the Maugre mansion, flecks of rain soaking into his whiskers as the early evening clouds began spitting at him.
The only thought that brought him comfort was that he had administered just a single drop of the wrong potion. ‘Dismemberment’ was extremely powerful; a tea spoon would have had Silas’ limbs drop off in seconds. A finger was not so disastrous. If only it had not been the one with the ring on it.
Gump swung round a corner at the end of an alley, his tails flicking out behind him, setting an unusual pace for a man who normally creaked with age. The city was darkening fast, lights beginning to burn in the windows of passing homes, illuminating the cobbles beneath his feet with umber. He felt the humiliation of being past his best, of making mistakes he would never have made in his potion-brewing prime. Attempting to retrieve the finger with a reversal potion had been a fool’s errand. He should have known better.
As Gump neared the unlit entrance to his shop, the apothecary sign creaking on its hinges in the wind, Lord Maugre’s parting words drifted once more through his mind,
“Find the finger and you find the ring Elias. If you wanted to find something dead, where would be your first stop?”
Lord Maugre struck three times against the Hardship family’s door with his cane. He listened to the sound bouncing down the empty corridor on the other side. No lights shone from the windows. Neither Silas nor his father were at home. It was a beautiful building, grand pillars supporting a stone porch, climbing plants creeping up the Edwardian facade. It quietly spoke of great wealth without arrogance.
Maugre turned, irritated, to leave and found himself face to face with Silas whose expression was washed with suspicion. Night had fallen heavy on the city and the young man, dressed head to toe in black, eyes shaded by a top hat, looked intimidating even to Maugre.
“Your Lordship,” Silas said slowly with a slight bow of the head.
“Master Hardship. I was calling with the hope of speaking to you. How fortuitous that you should arrive home just now.”
“Fortuitous indeed, but perhaps not fortunate,” Silas replied.
Lord Maugre ignored this slight and gestured towards the front door.
“Shall we go inside, talk over a drink perhaps?”
“I think not,” said Silas. “You are not welcome in my home, Maugre. Surely you did not come here with idea of a warm reception?”
Silas’ refusal to observe civility in his tone was making Lord Maugre uncomfortable. His eyes darted around the street, resting anywhere but on the man before him.
“Surely you’re not still sore over our little disagreement, Silas?”
“My sister loved you, sir. Do you have any idea what that means? She loved you, and she would still be here if you had honoured that love and your promises. You as good as killed her.”
A shard of light sliced through the dark from a nearby window and reflected in Silas’ eyes. They shone with a fierce anger.
“I meant to marry her, dear boy. It was that blasted pre-nuptial agreement your father wanted signed, it took all the romance out of the situation you see and…”
He broke off at the look on Silas’ face which was twitching with a barely controlled hatred.
“What have you really come for?”
“I heard you had injured yourself; wanted to call and offer my services, check on you. We were almost family once.”
Maugre added this last observation tentatively, unsure how far he could lie without sounding absurd. Silas held out his hand with its dangling dead addition.
“Is this what you came to see?” Silas barked.
Lord Maugre recoiled.
“Goodness man, that looks hideous. Get to a doctor immediately.”
He turned and began to stride away.
“I would, but my doctor seems to have a touch of amnesia!” Silas called after the fast retreating figure.
His Lordship had not come to check up on him, Silas knew that in his bones. He was here trying to find something out.
In a sudden strike of clarity, there in the murky black of the city night, it dawned on Silas. The ring. It was a key. One of two needed to open their family vault. The key to their hard earned fortune. His father wore the other. Had he been wearing it when Silas had visited that morning? Panic squirming in his stomach, he realised he couldn’t remember.
Turning his back on his home and keeping to the deeper shadows cast by the looming buildings, he began hurrying on light feet after Lord Maugre.
Gump stole down the side of the church. He did not want to risk alerting Father Enksy to his presence as he passed the open oak doors. The fat old priest would only want to know what he was up to and Gump did not feel able to muster up another confession so soon after his last, rather desperate, admission of religious guilt. The man he sought would be amongst the graves somewhere. The church of Saint Rita was the nearest to the Hardship household and so his first port of call.
Fankle was indeed amongst the tombstones and effigies that were scattered with abandon around the graveyard. A large angel was towering over him, her expression lost to years of erosion. He weeded around her feet, apparently unaware of the strangeness of night time gardening. The moon cast a bold reflection on his considerable bald patch.
“Fankle,” Gump hissed at him from his position behind a nearby headstone.
Fankle fell back and lay flailing for a second like an upended beetle.
“Ooh, sir,” he moaned, spotting Gump, “you didn’t half make me jump, sir. What are you doing sneaky sneaking about in the dark like some lovely little midnight creature sir? Like some thief non-gooder? Not meaning to say you are up to no good sir, but you are certainly sneaking like you are.”
“Keep your voice down you simpleton!” Gump cursed back at the ragged graveyard attendant. “I just wanted to know if you’ve spotted anything unusual around here this last day and night?”
Fankle, appearing to consider the question with his limited brain power, put his hand to his chin and made to lean on the nearest headstone. He missed by some distance and landed once more on his back with a thump.
“Good God! Keep quiet!”
“Sorry, sir,” Fankle replied with a strained voice from his horizontal position.
“There’s been nothing of note to report, sir,” he said, making a move to right himself but getting tangled up by some florists twine from the nearest gravestone’s flowers in the process.
Gump appeared to deflate a little, letting out his disappointment in an elongated sigh. Fankle, covered in soil and grass, looked no more strange than usual.
“Seems a funny thing, sir, to ask what might go on in a graveyard. Nothing much here, sir, but the dead and the buried and mostly the one is the other, sir. No one to talk to, nothing to see. No need to be squirming and poking around, sir.”
Gump opened his mouth to berate the peasant but before he could do so a shadow arrived at his side.
“That’ll be all, Fankle,” Lord Maugre said.
Fankle did not need to be told twice and quickly lost himself once more amongst the graves and tombs.
“What is the meaning of this Elias? Did I not warn you to be discreet?”
“I was being, your Lordship! I…”
A sound cut through the night, halting the conversation. It was a frail ringing, a soft tinkling coming from somewhere in the graveyard’s darkness. A bell.
Fankle appeared once more, sniffing the air as though he might smell the sound’s origin. The three men stood for a moment listening, then set off without a word in the same direction. In the darkest corner of the graveyard a lone bell, affixed to the edge of an ancient crumbling headstone, was ringing.
They stopped in front of the nameless stone and a wild beast of fear woke in all their stomachs. Gump trembled like a bowl of jelly riding a horse and trap, sticking his finger into his ear. Lord Maugre stood stock still, staring at the bell whilst Fankle scratched his head.
“Not supposed to happen, that,” observed Fankle. “This grave ain’t even that old. Bell’s a leftover from the plague. Dodgy docs diagnosed some folks as dead when they weren’t, so they buried ‘em with bells to ring if they woke up six feet under. Curious thing to hear one ringing don’tcha think?”
Lord Maugre responded with a single word.
Silas had watched the men from behind a stone cross. Though he could not hear what they had said, he heard the haunting peal, cutting straight to his heart. He had stayed hidden, watching the graveyard worker digging under the ringing bell. It wasn’t until Lord Maugre stumbled back, hand over his mouth, that Silas rushed forward.
The men did nothing to acknowledge Silas’ arrival. They were all staring into the open coffin. Silas made to speak but his eyes caught movement from the deep hole and he looked down.
Inside was a corpse, blue and green with decomposition, its features melted into one another, worms and maggots rooting into the eye sockets and mouth. The body looked soft and gooey except for the index finger of the left hand which glowed pink and healthy, a wire tied round its tip. It was tugging at the wire, ringing the bell.
Round its base was Silas’ ring.
The next few moments passed with alarming speed. Gump fell over backwards, unconscious. Fankle ran to the church, crying out for Father Ensky, and Lord Maugre sprinted for the street. Silas tore after him, the cold air harsh in his throat, but at the gates Maugre threw down a bottle that exploded in a puff of noxious purple smoke. Silas stopped, coughing his guts up onto the pavement.
When the sickness had passed, Lord Maugre had disappeared. Father Ensky and Fankle appeared, the latter clutching Silas’ finger and its precious cargo.
“Yours, I believe, sir,” he said, passing over the appendage.
Father Ensky put his arm around Silas’ shoulder.
“Let’s get you home, child,” he muttered, leading Silas out to the street.
“And how are we today, young Master Hardship?”
“Better thank you Father. My finger is healing well.”
Silas held up his hand, complete with neatly sewn stump, to show Father Enksy. The priest nodded his approval.
“No sign of his Lordship?”
“None, I’m afraid,” the priest sighed, “disappeared along with his butler.”
“And what of Gump?”
“He has shut the shop. Taken nothing with him from the stock but a few bottles he kept out the back, according to the police.”
Silas sat back in his chair, his brow wrinkling in thought.
“How is your father doing?” the priest enquired.
“Rather better thank you, he remembers me now but not Martha, despite her memorable appearance. The antidote seems to be working.”
The priest nodded again and gazed out the window of Silas’ reception room. The sun was just breaking through a bank of gunmetal clouds.
“And what of your father’s ring?”
“No sign. But I rather think I might begin looking for it, now I’m healed. No doubt the secret lies with Gump.”
“It always does,” replied Father Enksy, and the two men smiled at each other in the strengthening sunlight.