The tale continues...
Charles, Vienna 1841
“Sit there, Bert. Put your feet on the grate... no wives to scold us here! That’s better...time for a small whiskey and a long talk. What a night!” I dragged another wing chair over for myself and settled into it. Good to take a load off these old legs.
My friend and colleague Albert has travelled with me to Vienna this week. There is a gathering here of scientific men...such interesting ideas. Young men; a lot of them... good to see. Handing over the baton, that’s what old Bertie and I are doing. It’s time for that young blood to take charge. Hmm...know what I’m saying? I’m still interested in my own research, mind you. The brain might move a bit slower these days; might be a bit less limber, but it still works, thank the lord. Be a terrible thing to lose that clear thought... can’t imagine. It is summer here – still crisp – these northern summers are never particularly hot. Pleasant enough though. Many of the gatherings are being held in an open plaza – nice place, good acoustics and good for me - I can hover a comfortable distance away and listen. Can’t abide a tight-packed crowd...never could.
Tonight, Bert and I sit in the cosy drawing room of our little pensionnat; our abode for the week. Hmm...simple little place; quite good enough for a pair of old fellows like us. After several days of mild weather, the clouds have closed in overhead and a nasty wind has sprung up. We sit with our drinks and a modest cigar each, and that wind shrieks in the crooked chimney. Like someone screaming. Unnerves me, I’ll just tell you quietly. Every so often, sparks explode upwards in the grate – whoosh!
Unsettling – what? Yes, all rather unsettling.
I don’t often travel to these assemblies and home is on my mind tonight.
“How is that little wife of yours?” enquires Bert, perhaps sensing my preoccupation. I smile into my moustaches. Lily is fifty-six, God keep her, a shrewd and sturdy matron, but to me she will ever suggest the winsome slip of a girl that I married... little wife indeed. A sip of whiskey warms me. “Bert,” I respond, still smiling, “she is...extraordinary.” Bert’s considerable jowls momentarily bunch upwards in an affectionate grin. He has always liked Lily. “You know,” I continue “I realised something while Caulfield was giving us his lecture today...”
“The botanist from South London? Those bright red whiskers?”
“That’s the one. He was taking that line about the narrow divide between the therapeutic and the poisonous – do you remember?” Bert switched his cigar to the other cheek. “Oh yes! He had quite the litany of deadly stems and blossoms, that one.” (Bert is a naturalist; his interests are piqued by the animal world. I fear he finds the world of plant life a trifle dull.) “Well,” I pressed on, as the fire made a particularly lively display, “it recalled to me those two unfortunates who were murdered, back home in Middlesborough – must be eight years ago now. Did you ever hear of the cases?”
“Oh yes - I did – Quite the scandal for such a quiet village. Did one of them not have all sorts of odd afflictions in the months before he was killed?”
“Yes! They both did. Rashes of boils, blood-filled eyes, odd episodes of behaviour... like flights of madness... a...a...blackening of the extremities... a kind of rotting - very nasty.” There is a brief pause while we both sip whiskey and imagine the unpleasant implications of rotting extremities. The screaming wind adds a visceral discomfort to my thoughts. “Yes...” I continue, gravely “They suffered all right. All manner of horrible afflictions. In the end, I think most of the locals – the peasants you understand; the working men - considered them to be possessed by demons! The poor wretches were at my house many times. They were old employees of Lily’s father... did you know that?”
“No! How extraordinary... I had assumed from accounts that they must have been doddering ancients.”
“Well, no – the elder – the first to be murdered, he was only fifty-three when it happened. His younger brother followed him a couple of years later – he must have been about the same age by then. So – not young, but until they were felled by persons unknown, they were hale. Oh yes, in animal good health. Owned a few paddocks at the back of the Redfern farm...quartered horses there, did a few odd jobs. Still quite upright and strong, you understand...Hmmm?” I took a meditative puff. Those old murders had never been solved. They were grisly and the strangeness that had attended them had left our quiet little ville with a real stain of tragedy.