Read The Lunatic's Curse Online

Authors: F. E. Higgins

The Lunatic's Curse (22 page)

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Cecil Notwithstanding

How pleasing it is to see a man keeping his word. I write of course of Dr Tibor Velhildegildus, the new superintendent of Droprock Asylum. It has been duly noted that he has
already begun the renovations that he promised when last I spoke to him. Certainly judging by the amount of equipment he has been taking over to the island this week, he has some innovative

With the impending full moon, conditions on the lake are not as conducive as usual to all the toing and froing. The water seems quite disturbed these days and it looks as if the tide this month
is going to be unusually high. The last record-breaking Madman's Tide was over fifty years ago – the high-water marks are still on the rock.

As the solution to one problem is found, however, another proves rather more elusive: that of the beggars.

It could not be denied that once Dr Tibor Velhildegildus made up his mind to do something he threw himself into it with unbridled energy and enthusiasm. Almost as soon as Rex
delivered the list, equipment began arriving, generally transported across the lake by Walter Freakley, who grumbled constantly about the weight, and his boat, and how they were mismatched. Indeed
there were a few near misses when he overestimated the capacity of his craft. Eventually it was arranged for the larger parts to be put on a separate boat and pulled behind. The spectacle was
watched with great enthusiasm by well-wishers on the jetty, all of whom were looking forward to the grand reopening of the asylum. And if the jetty could hardly take the strain, one suspected that
the well-wishers too were under a lot of pressure, namely from mad relatives in their houses.

Gerulphus did his fair share of laconic grumbling, as with each new delivery he was commandeered into lugging whatever it was, big or small, up the steep steps to the asylum. For his part Dr
Velhildegildus watched from the rocks, shouting instructions and telling them to take care. ‘It’s for the patients,’ he kept saying, ‘treat it with respect.’

Everything, regardless of size, was taken to his study and Rex’s time was spent hauling the goods along the east wing corridors. Hildred appeared intermittently on the first day but he
hardly saw her after that. He did knock on her door at night but she didn’t answer. He looked in once but could see that she was curled up under the blankets so he went to bed without
disturbing her.

By the end of the third day everything was in. Tibor sent Rex off for supper and he went gladly, ravenous after all the hard work. On his way back to the study he spotted Hildred tripping
sinuously down the main staircase. ‘What are you doing up there?’ he called out but as was often her habit she declined to answer. He waited at the bottom for her. ‘You
needn’t worry,’ he joked, ‘it’s all done now.’

Hildred didn’t look as if she got the joke. ‘I’ve been busy too,’ she said defensively. She certainly looked as if she had been busy. In fact she was rather dirty, and
Rex was certain he could smell ash again. There was a smudge on her forehead where she had wiped her hand across her brow.

‘You have your hands full,’ she remarked as Freakley dragged one last crate across the floor. ‘But I can’t see how any of this is suited to an asylum. Where are the beds
and the mattresses? The medicines? And –’ she lowered her voice – ‘if you are engaged in this . . . project, how will you possibly have time to find what you are looking

Rex shrugged. ‘Maybe it will all have to wait,’ he said carelessly.

‘Have you forgotten your father might have suffered torture here?’

‘Rex!’ called Tibor from somewhere down the passage.

‘I have to go,’ said Rex. Hildred raised an eyebrow and walked away.

Rex instantly felt ashamed of his offhand behaviour. He knew that he had upset her. He almost went after her but something held him back. In truth the torture chamber had disturbed him much more
than he let on. He had been glad of the distraction of all the arrivals, and he looked forward to building the Perambulating Submersible. Seeing all the boxes and crates had made it very real. And
for all that he didn’t quite trust Dr Velhildegildus it was obvious that he too had a passion for the machine. And there was always the feeling that his father was watching over him, a
feeling made all the more intense because he was to build the submersible in the place where his father had suffered so badly.

Apart from all that, Rex was especially keen to work on the Re-breather, something that was of particular interest to him. He resolved to talk to Hildred tonight. Perhaps he might even tell her
exactly what was going on. He felt he owed her that much. Could it really do any harm to be honest?

Standing in Tibor’s study, Rex looked at the boxes and crates, the piles of metal, the containers of nuts and bolts, the tools, the panels and one hundred and one other
things that were stacked in front of him. He shook his head in disbelief. There was hardly room to move.

‘What on earth are we to do with all of this?’ asked Rex. ‘We cannot make the vessel here.’

Tibor, standing between two barrels of whale oil lubricant, looked very pleased with himself. ‘Never fear, my dear boy,’ he said. ‘It’s all in hand.’ Unable as he
was to actually go to the window, he pointed instead to the waxing moon in the night sky.

‘I wish the vessel to be completed by the next full moon. The water will be at its highest level, making it most propitious for a launch. They are saying it will be an exceptionally high
Madman’s Tide.’

‘That’s only a matter of days,’ said Rex incredulously. ‘Dr Velhildegildus, if we really are to finish this in such a short time, I wonder if we should allow Hildred to
work on it too. She is very clever, and her fingers are nimble. I know you wish it to be a secret, but she has no one to tell. Her mother is dead; her father hasn’t been seen for years.
Besides, she is already suspicious. Anyone can tell this equipment is not necessary for an asylum. And the quicker we finish, the less likely it is that people from Opum Oppidulum will start to
poke their noses in.’

‘I suppose it might not be such a bad idea,’ said Dr Velhildegildus slowly. ‘Time
of the essence. I can see that you and the girl, Hildred, have become friends. But
still we must be cautious. Believe me, I know just how charming young ladies can be! Are you certain you have given nothing away?’

‘I haven’t said a word,’ said Rex solemnly, crossing his heart.

‘Then let me think on it.’ Once again Tibor’s voice had taken on that sinister quality that reminded Rex he was dealing with a character who was not necessarily as
straightforward as he might appear.

‘And you remember your side of the deal too?’ Rex prompted.

‘But of course,’ replied Tibor, almost offended, and once again his words flowed like satin over polished wood. ‘But now I have something very important to show you.’ He
went to the bookshelf behind his desk, hooked his finger over the top of Gibbon’s
Decline and Fall
and pulled the book forward. The bookcase moved slowly to one side to reveal once
more the opening in the wall.

‘Oh my,’ exclaimed Rex, most impressed with this clever engineering. He had not been expecting this!

‘Take a lantern,’ said Tibor, ‘and follow me.’

Rex unhooked a lantern from the wall and stepped into the tunnel where Tibor was waiting.

‘Welcome to the catacombs of Droprock Island’ said his enigmatic guide. ‘This way.’

Tibor kept up a running commentary as they descended the steep tunnel. ‘The catacombs have been here since the asylum was built. There is nowhere else to bury the dead on the island, and
generally their relatives want little to do with them. Which is why they’re here in the first place, I suppose.’

At least Father had a proper burial, thought Rex. Acantha had to do that much for him. Apparently Cecil Notwithstanding had insisted.

Tibor was moving at a fast pace. ‘Keep up, Rex,’ he warned. ‘And don’t stray from this tunnel. It’s a veritable maze down here. If we get separated you might never
find your way out.’ Rex had no intention of getting lost and he kept as close to Tibor as he could in the narrow passageway.

They passed other tunnels on the left and right but Tibor continued down the central aisle. And all the time Rex was acutely aware of the dehydrated, ragged-clothed bones of lunatics in the wall

Well, at least there’s no smell, he thought. And why would there be? All of these skeletons looked as if they had been there for years. Had no one died recently? Up ahead Tibor took a
blind bend and disappeared from sight. In a moment of panic Rex broke into a run and rounded the corner to emerge unexpectedly into a large rocky chamber with a high ceiling. The whole place was
bathed in an odd blue light. And right in the middle of the chamber, Rex could see – though at first he didn’t quite believe it – an expanse of dark water. The ground beneath his
feet was a mixture of pebbles and small rocks and sand.

‘It’s Lake Beluarum,’ said Tibor. ‘It comes in under the asylum.’

Rex stood on the spot, taking it all in. The water was as flat as a mill pond and blue-black, giving no hint of its depth. He saw how it went right up to the walls on the left and right. He saw
the narrow ledge that ran around the water and the rocky promontory. He saw too on the opposite side of the water a number of roughly hewn tunnel entrances.

‘More catacombs,’ said Tibor with a nod towards them. ‘And just as labyrinthine, if not worse, than the ones behind us.’

Rex calculated quickly. Obviously they had descended to the level of the lake outside. He and Tibor had approached from the east wing, so the catacombs on the other side of the water must be
under the west wing, possibly right under the tunnel of cells. If he was right, then it would make sense to have an entrance on that side too, for when the prisoners died. But where? He and Hildred
had met only with a dead end.

Tibor’s excited voice cut into his thoughts. ‘I plan to make my vessel here,’ he said, gesturing enthusiastically around the space.

Listen to how he says ‘
’, thought Rex, and it galled him to hear it. How proud he is of
design. Maybe this wasn’t going to be as easy as he had first

‘It’s a good spot,’ he observed neutrally. ‘And when it is finished the water is only a matter of feet away.’

‘And soon it will be even closer,’ said Tibor.

‘But won’t we have to bring all the equipment down first?’

‘That is our next task.’

Rex tried a second time. ‘Dr Velhildegildus, if you really want to launch the vessel on the night of the full moon, we must have more help. Gerulphus is unwilling—’

‘I wouldn’t ask him anyway,’ said Dr Velhildegildus sniffily.

‘Mrs Runcible, well . . . and Walter is just too old. It only leaves Hildred . . .’

Tibor seemed to be weighing it up. ‘Yes, I’ve certainly noticed how flexible she is. Another pair of hands could be useful. But can she be trusted, Rex, to keep it secret?’

Tibor didn’t wait for an answer but returned to the tunnel from which they had emerged, and Rex noted for the future that its entrance was the largest of them all.

Stepping back into Tibor’s study, Rex was glad to be in the fresher atmosphere. He watched the bookcase slide back noiselessly and wondered briefly how Tibor knew about it, before pondering
its mechanical workings.

‘We’ll start tomorrow morning,’ said Tibor. ‘Be here at seven.’

Rex tried again. ‘And Hildred?’

Tibor seemed distracted, muttering to himself and touching all the boxes and crates within his reach. ‘What? Oh, very well,’ he said. ‘Bring the girl too.’ He rubbed his
hands together with pleasure and there was look of wild excitement in his eye that Rex had not seen before.

It was the look of a man possessed.


Hildred sat on the edge of her bed. It was nearly midnight and she hadn’t seen hide nor hair of Rex for hours. She was still stinging from her earlier dismissal and was
more than a little disappointed that her only ally on the island had found it so easy to shut her out – and just when they had discovered the torture chamber, a possible breakthrough in his
quest for answers.

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