Horror Historical

Stranger and Sojourner

By Alex Isle
7,066 words · 26-minute reading time

Photo by Kayla Gibson via Unsplash.

From the author: An 1880s doctor and his wife come into contact with Haitian voodoo and experience the up close and personal interest of the voodoo spirits, the loa.


 

My son died in his birthing in this year of grace 1889, barely given time to open his eyes upon the world before death closed them.  My beloved wife Constance was so grieved she almost followed him and I had to plead with her that I too needed her, before she would consent to live.  It seemed fortuitous that I soon received a request from my friend and colleague Peter Bennet, who was doctor at the great London Hospital, to visit there and teach some of the students that he had. 

I was glad to accept, for although the airs of London itself are often damp and foul, Peter Bennet had a house on the outskirts of the city where we were welcome to stay and there we travelled from our home in Edinburgh in the late spring of that year.

“There is a case I earnestly wish you to see, Jedidiah,”  my friend told me when we reached the London Hospital on the first day of my employment.  “This man is destined for Bedlam, I fear,”  he continued, giving the common name of Bethlehem Hospital, where the mad are consigned, “but he is a most unusual lunatic whose presentation may interest you.  Perhaps you have heard of the wanderers?  This is an affliction of the mind which has struck several young men in Europe over the last few years, causing them to wander great distances from their homes and then to wake, with no memory of their journeys.  No doctor has been able to discover any reason.  I believe this man to be one such but am not yet certain.”

“I have heard of this thing,”  I agreed, “but I have not seen any of the persons so afflicted.  Has this young man woken from his walking dream?”

“Not yet,”  Bennet said. 

I expressed sincere interest and Bennet duly guided me through a long ward full of suffering creatures to the single room where this man was being kept.  “He is a Frenchman,”  he said, “but beyond that fact we have been able to learn nothing of his origin and cannot advise any family or friends of his sad situation.”

“Tell me no more,”  I responded, “for I wish to see him with my mind free of any expectation.”

Bennet smiled and, opening the door, bowed and indicated that I should enter.  “He is not violent,”  he assured me, “but I will wait here for your knock.”

A young man, perhaps of twenty years, sat on the single bed in the dimly lit room, wearing poor-quality trousers and shirt no doubt provided by charity.  Shades were drawn and the place had a melancholy aspect, though without the usual odours which normally attend a hospital.  The man showed no interest in my appearance and continued staring at the opposite wall.

“Jean?”  I said with a note of inquiry.  “I am Professor Jedidiah Cross, visiting this hospital.  May I speak with you?”

I had but used the most common of French names in the hope that our young patient would respond, if but to tell me his name was not Jean but Pierre or Robert or whatever else.  He made no move, not even to blink.

“May I fetch someone for you?  Would you like to talk to a priest?”

Then the most amazing transformation occurred!  The young man started up and began to speak, but not in answer to my questions. 

“Brother Francois insisted that I not go,”  he said in French, still staring blankly at the wall.  “He believed that I would imperil my mortal soul if I ventured into the hounfort, for although the natives had adopted all the trappings of the Church, yet secretly continued in their evil practices of voodoo, which is the service of the Devil.  But if I did not go, there was no chance that the evil could be banished and these people brought back to God!”

His voice rose into a shriek and I hastily said soothingly, “Of course that is so.  Please, tell me your name.  Are you a priest?”

He went silent once more and then turned his head towards me, blinking several times in apparent confusion.  After studying me, he got slowly to his feet and turned about the small room, examining its few contents as though he had never seen them before.

“Have I been ill?  Where is this place?”

His tone had the ready tone of command that befits a gentleman, never mistaken.  He might be a younger son, destined for the Church as his elder brother was destined to take the family title and lands, but the presence of noble blood was unmistakable and persists in France despite the terrible efforts of that nation to exterminate it.

“This is the London Hospital in the English city of that name,”  I said.  “My name is Cross.  I am a medical man brought to see you by Dr Bennet, who is your doctor.  Can you remember your name?”

The arrogance faded into uncertainty as he heard and clearly understood me.  “London?  England?  But how did I reach England?”

“That is for you to say.  Until now, Dr Bennet said they had been able to learn nothing of you, not even your name.”

“I am Brother Raoul of Ste Marie Monastery in Port au Prince,”  he said, stumbling over it.  “A novice, I should say, I have not taken full orders yet.  I remember nothing of any journey.  What was I saying to you?  I hardly had command of my wits, I believed I was speaking to my superior, Abbot Robert, but he is not here…”  His voice trailed off.  “Please, I cannot stay here.  I must send letters, I must tell them – I do not know what I must tell them but I cannot stay in this place.  It stinks of death.”

There was a discreet knock on the door and  Raoul jumped violently.  “That is Dr Bennet,”  I soothed him.  “He heard your voice and is anxious.  May I invite him in?”

Raoul nodded distractedly.  I went to the door and opened it, quickly explaining to my friend what had happened and what the young man had said.  “He seems to be an educated man and lucid,”  I added.  “Certainly he is no lunatic.”

Dr Bennet addressed a few questions to Raoul who, though he seemed distraught, answered them readily enough as to name, age, family – as I thought, a third son of a wealthy French family, though he insisted they had no noble title – and place of abode as being the island of Haiti, once under French rule.  Now only the Church remained of the whites, teaching their savage black children the way to God and civilization. 

When Raoul was done, Bennet politely excused both of us and once we were outside the room and beyond the patient’s possible earshot, turned to me.

“I cannot leave this young man here,”  he said definitely.  “Certainly he must not go to Bethlehem but it will be days before word can be got to his family in France, who will of course send money for his return.  Would it perturb you, Jedidiah, if I were to invite him to stay with me?  I fear it would distress your wife and should that be the case, I will make arrangements for Raoul to lodge here in London.”

“I think it important that he not be left alone,”  I answered, “and am sure that Constance can have no fear of such an educated and polite young man.  Perhaps a woman’s gentle society may soothe Raoul where ours cannot?”

“Indeed,”  Bennet said heartily, “and I thank you.  I will make the arrangements swiftly and then you shall meet my students.  Tonight we will take Raoul back with us; I will speak to him.”  He went back into the room and returned smiling, saying that the young novice was grateful and relieved at his offer and most glad to accept.  “Now, Jedidiah, come and meet my young doctors to be,”  he said to me.  “They are most foolish and earnest and may know a thing or two of medicine in perhaps five years.”

“Perhaps if they are as foolish and earnest as you and I were, my friend, then I will say they have some promise!”

As I had hoped, Constance showed no concern, only curiosity at the sight of the pale young man who alighted from her husband’s carriage behind Peter and myself.  Quickly I explained to her that the young man was a patient of Peter’s, somewhat distraught of mind but well-bred and also a religious novice at a Catholic monastery.  This naturally reassured her and she promised to help the young man as much as she might until his family either sent money or one of themselves to bring home this very lost sheep.

Raoul did stare at her, but I put this down to the fact that he could not have seen many, if any, attractive young women since his inclusion in the brotherhood of Ste Marie and that Constance, even in her present state of mourning and weakness, must draw any eye, though she is most modest in dress and behaviour.  When I introduced her as my wife, Raoul lowered his gaze and only murmured that he was pleased to meet Madame Cross.  Peter then urged him away and I accompanied Constance within.  I was very tired and gave no further thought to Peter’s guest, who did not join us at dinner.

That night Constance and I were not long abed when a scream rang out from the passage outside our room.  Telling Constance to remain, I quickly dressed in trousers and shirt, forgoing shoes in the cause of haste.  By the light of a single lamp, I beheld Dr Peter Bennet still in his robe.  He stood at the door of the guest-room where he had settled Raoul and was speaking soothingly to the unseen young man.  “Is all well?”  I called softly.  Curiosity caused me to advance a few paces as I spoke.  Peter looked over his shoulder at me, and then, “No, it is only Dr Cross,”  he said to Raoul.

I approached until I could see within the room.  There stood Raoul, our pale young guest, in the robe which Peter had lent him, for he had apparently been found with no possessions.  In his hands he held some kind of chiffon garment, evidently a woman’s unmentionables, and he was staring at it as though he had no idea where it had come from.

“Where did you get that, Raoul?”  Peter asked quietly.

“I – I do not remember,”  Raoul stammered.  “I was asleep and when I woke, here I was on my feet.  I was dreaming,”  he added, frowning.  “The lady commanded me to fetch her suitable clothing.”

Peter held out his hand and Raoul gave him the garment.  The doctor examined it and frowned.  “I believe this belongs to the housekeeper,”  he said, “it has come from the linen press at the end of the passage here.  Raoul, you must not wander when I am not with you, or open cupboards or any other thing, no matter what ladies enter your dreams.”  He smiled, attempting to cheer the young man a little, for Raoul was so clearly upset.

“I swear to you, doctor, I have no memory of doing such a thing,” the young man answered with believable fervour.

“Then if your memory is false to you, I must lock your door at night,”  Peter said with reluctance.  “I promise you, it is only for your own safety.”

“Then I consent,”  Raoul said at once and we were all much relieved.

I heard the sweet voice of Constance behind me.  “I am sorry to intrude,”  she said, “but I was worried about your young guest.  Perhaps I could fetch him a hot drink, since your housekeeper appears to be asleep still.”

“That is a good thought,”  Peter said kindly, “but I will rouse Janet and bid her provide it, there is no need for a lady to bestir herself.  Raoul, there is no shame in bad dreams, especially when a man has lived through such times as you have.  Go to bed then and Janet will bring you the tea.”

Constance was, when I turned to her, modestly clad in gown and wrap, but I was still not pleased that she should have disobeyed me.  Then I saw that she was staring at Raoul with a keen intensity, as though she was well acquainted with him.  She said something I at first took to be French, though I did not catch its meaning.  Raoul’s own eyes glazed over as though he was asleep on his feet, yet he took a step towards us. 

“Raoul,”  I began, but the young man did not hear me.  He toppled over silently to the wooden floor.  I whirled about to assist my wife and was barely in time to catch her form as she too fainted away.  “Dr Bennet!”  I called out and he quickly returned.  “I will see to my wife – she was frightened when Raoul collapsed,”  I said briefly and lifted Constance in my arms.  As both doctor and husband, it was my duty to take care of her in these moments of weakness to which women are prone.

Constance did not waken as I settled her but her pulse was strong and I felt certain she would wake on her own.

In the morning, Peter Bennet inquired after her at breakfast and I had to tell him she still slept.  He frowned then, but quickly added.  “It is a strange thing, Jedidiah.  I looked in on Raoul a few minutes ago.”

“He sleeps also?”

“No, he was awake but he has no memory of rousing last night at all.  Nothing.  He asked me what a mug of black tea was doing in his room as he had not asked for such.”  He hesitated a few moments and then said, “It is not good that he should remain, given this habit of wandering and perhaps pilfering that he has shown..”

“But you have curtailed such by the locking of his door?”  I asked.

“Which I had to explain again to him this morning, yes.  I am not comfortable that your lady remain under the same roof with him, even with the housekeeper and the groundsman about.  I tell you what I will do, Jedidiah.  If your lady will consent to Raoul’s presence for a few more hours, I will arrange that he return to our hospital until his family arrive.  He can occupy that same room which is little enough for a gentleman but preferable to the chaos of Bedlam.  I must speak to them first and then will send my carriage back for him.”

To this plan I agreed.  After breakfast I went to wake Constance and explain these things to her.  At first she did not wake but then I shook her once more and called her name and she opened her eyes.  At first glance, I would swear to God she, my own wife of two years, did not know me.  Her eyes are blue and very clear and direct and now they seemed as cold as the sea.  Then she said, “Of course, Jedidiah, thank you,” and appeared to return to sleep.  I went out and asked Janet to look in on the lady and see to her needs, before Peter and I set off for the hospital.

Within two hours, Peter had made the arrangements for Raoul and sent his carriage back to collect him.  In due course, it made the journey once more to the city, bringing Raoul, still confused but calm and apologetic that he had upset the lady.  It seemed that the groundsman had said something of the sort to him.  Raoul was settled in the small room and all seemed well. 

That evening Peter and I returned.  He went to see his groundsman about some matter and I went on into the house.  Upon knocking, I heard Constance’s voice and immediately assumed she must be better.  When I opened the door, I beheld her seated at the dresser, but not in her gown or wrap as I had expected.  Instead she wore her best clothing, which she had brought should Peter invite us to the theatre.  She had cut the gown in the front so that the dark green satin barely concealed her breasts.  As Constance showed me this shocking and uncharacteristic immodesty, she smiled in welcoming fashion, such as a low woman of the streets might smile at her customers!  I saw then that her face was painted as such a woman’s might be, accenting lips and eyes and cheeks.

“My beloved husband, Jedidiah,”  she murmured.  “I have sorely missed you these hours.”

The voice was not Constance’s!  It emanated from her lips but it was nothing like her high, sweet, rather girlish tones.  This voice was husky and sure of itself, a woman who knew nothing of modesty or correct female behaviour.  The eyes studied me in detail, the body rose and moved towards me.  Arms extended to reach about my neck and draw me close with voluptuous assurance.

“Constance,”  I said sharply, hoping to shock her back to awareness.  “You forget yourself.”

The woman in my wife’s body only laughed.  “I forget nothing, little cock.”  There was an insinuating mockery in her voice now, a particular lilt which reminded me somehow of the West Indies and the bold women there, particularly the young women who are not yet promised to any man and who display themselves heedlessly.  “I know what is due me and my brother will make sure that it is granted me.  To begin with, this room.”  She gestured without looking.  “It does not suit, there is nothing here to please any woman, let alone a queen.  You will have it prepared in the correct style before you come to me tonight.  I know that we are far from my people and that you are ignorant, so I am patient but do not expect this to continue.”

She removed her other arm from about my neck and returned to the dressing-table where she continued her toilette, now combing her hair out to lie loose about her shoulders.  “Send the woman to me to assist,”  she said, not looking at me, as though I were the merest servant.  “She must bring fragrant soap and perfumes.”

I backed out of the room and nearly knocked Peter over.  He looked anxious and as though he did not quite know what to say.  “Your wife,”  he said, “is she well?”

“She cannot see anyone,”  I said, more curtly than I had intended.  “I must speak with your housekeeper, is she about?”

“Jedidiah, wait,”  Peter said, holding out his hand.  “Janet has already come to me.  She – she told me that if she had not already served me these ten years, she should be giving her notice this night.  I know how incredible this sounds, having seen how sweet and modest is your lady, but Janet told me when she attended upon her, Constance was both brusque and arrogant, demanding all manner of things for her toilette which Janet could not supply.  She obtained face-powder and paints from the young girl in service next door and the lady called them paltry and ordered that Janet do better.  Then in the afternoon, she rang the bell for Janet again and bade her fetch – fetch . . .”  Peter was actually red in the face and could not look at me.

“Please tell me,” I said quietly.  “I have seen in these few minutes that my wife is disturbed in her mind.  I must know all.”

“She bade Janet fetch a man, for her pleasure,”  Peter blurted, staring at his shoes.  “Janet said she could not speak at all for a time and then she thought to tell the lady that you would be home soon and there was no need for – for another to be sought.  With this she said Madam Cross appeared to be satisfied.”

Neither of us could look at the other after this.  After several moments, Peter said quietly, “There is something else.  Though neither you nor your wife are Scots born, your years there have given you both a little of that sound in your voices, would you agree?”

“Of course,”  I answered.  “Why do you ask?”

“Only that Janet says the lady spoke English to her but strangely accented – and not the accent of the Scots, which you will agree Janet would well  recognise.  She spoke also French, in the same tones.”

I stared at him in sudden shock.  I had not thought of it while I faced Constance, so disturbed and startled was I, but now I realised.  Her accent had indeed altered and the French she had spoken was not the Paris French she had learned as a girl but a strange mismatch of a tongue I could not readily place, though I fancy myself a student of languages.

“Come with me to the library,”  Peter said, seeing my dismay.  “We will have a glass of port wine and see if we can understand what has happened.  Is it possible that your wife merely entertains a fancy, that she is playing a game as might a young girl?”

“Never,”  I said, following him down the passage and into the comfortable chamber lined with leather volumes.  There were two chairs set with a view of the garden through a large window and here we set ourselves after Peter had poured the wine.  “Constance would never practise such a cruel jest on her husband and her host.”

“Then you must face the truth,” answered my friend gently but firmly, “which is that she is injured in her mind.  Forgive me for mentioning this, but it is not long since she lost the child, is it not?”

“No,”  I admitted.  “I have not wanted to note any damage in her and truly, while we were at home, she seemed grieved but not otherwise altered.”

“Then this journey may have put too great a strain on her,”  Peter concluded.  “As a man, you were able to muster the necessary strength to do your work but for a woman, it was too much to ask.”

“I cannot send her to Bedlam!” 

Peter hesitated again.  “Then you must take her home, my friend, and perhaps she will be well again.  If not, then it will be for you to make whatever decision needs be made.  When I go to the city tomorrow, I will arrange first class tickets for you aboard the next train for Edinburgh the day after tomorrow.  Then my carriage will take you thence tomorrow or as soon after that as may be.”

I thanked Peter and withdrew – not to the chamber I had shared with Constance but to another room beside it, that my presence not further disturb her.  I heard her voice calling out in that strange tongue, as though summoning someone, but managed eventually to fall into exhausted sleep.  As I did so, one last thought came to me concerning one of the inexplicable statements my wife had made:  Constance did not have a brother.

I was not to rest.

In sleep, the spirit may wander far from the resting body, though it must take care not to drift too far lest it never find its way back and perish.  I had heard and read of the practice of spiritualism, whereby those gifted with the ability to speak with the spirits of the dead call upon them for guidance.  All too often, this is done purely for entertainment and can be hazardous to the weak-minded, but I have seen too much in my experience as a medical man that cannot be dismissed purely as fancies of the sick or fevered.  Death is not so absolute or so clearly defined as some limited folk would have us believe.  It may be that there exists more than one realm of existence, which some spirits may pass at will or when summoned, and that we may enter these other realms in sleep.  Sleep is called, after all, the little death.

So I slept and found myself in a dark, hot realm, among a group of people who were dancing and chanting in a small space, some native hut.  The air was thick with smoke and incense and the smell of something roasting.  Most of the folk were dark, some mulattos and they seemed to accept me as one of them and not to pay me any particular heed.  I looked about for one I could question as to where I was and what was going on and found one man staring directly at me, frowning and intent.  He was wearing a dirty robe of some kind, a contrast to his folk who were scantily clad, and had the unmistakable air of authority despite this poor appearance.

In the way of dream, I opened my mouth and found myself speaking words I had no plan to say.  “Is that roasted pig I smell?  I have a great hunger.”

The man’s suspicious look faded into a broad, if stained smile and the people around him clapped and laughed.  “Papa, you are welcome, please eat!”  One of the women brought me a roasted haunch, which I took and began to eat, squatting down as easily as though I had always done it.  As though this was the signal, the people also began to eat, passing around baskets of hot roasted vegetables as well as meat.  There was strong drink as well, rum, of which I drank deeply, though in normal life I would never have done such a thing.  The people seemed to be delighted by my appetite and continued to offer me more things to eat and drink. 

They also began to talk to me, to plead that I do this or that for them, mentioning a sick child who needed healing or a trouble one had with a neighbour who had done such and such.  A fisherman wanted a blessing upon his boat before he set out on a long sea journey.  This man passed me a lit pipe and I smoked, nodding in appreciation, for the tobacco was truly delicious.  He had clearly given me his best, which was only fitting.

Somehow my real self, the Jedidiah Cross deeply worried for his wife, was still present behind this being which the dark folk saw.

“Papa” continued to smoke and laugh with the people, yet even as he did so, I felt his attention upon me.  “Be calm, donkey,”  he said aloud, inhaling the tobacco before passing the pipe to a woman to hold while he took a roasted potato from a dish offered him.  “My sister rides your woman, that is all.  She sought to punish the young one who meant to do us harm.”

Raoul is well punished, I thought, his family takes him home like a scolded child and he has lost his independence and his vocation.  But my wife did nothing to offend your sister . . .

“My sister does her no harm.  She gives her freedom.  Your woman is not weak, though you make her think so.  She is stronger than the death of the little one.  My sister gives her a gift and she will be well soon.  Do all as my sister commands and there will be no harm done, no harm at all!  Now, there are too many here, so go.”  Then I felt myself pushed, though I could not tell from what direction.  I was simply pushed out of the body, out of the crowded hut with its smoke and heat and smell of human sweat, and in another moment found myself awake, in my narrow bed at Peter Bennet’s English house.

“Voodoo,” I said aloud, pacing the carpet of Peter’s library while he sat before me, his expression deeply concerned.  “That is the barbarous religion of the West Indies, notably that island of Haiti where Raoul’s monastery is situated.  He attempted to drive devils out of their temple, by his own account, and last night I went in dream to such a temple, what they term a hounfort.”

 “But Jedidiah,”  Peter protested, “do you claim that there is actually any truth in these heathen practices?  What are you implying?  That these – these devils were too strong for Raoul and actually invaded his mind?”

 “Just so,”  I answered solemnly, “and I do not believe they are devils.  For the black savages they perform the same role as do our saints of the Christian faith.  I was given to understand that they were angry at Raoul and wished to punish him.”

 “And they – they moved from Raoul to your wife, why?”

 I spread my hands to indicate helplessness for at this point I did not know and I had wanted Peter to share my knowledge before I went into the presence of the being who shared the body and mind of my wife Constance.  “That I mean to ask, but I need your help.”

Peter looked extremely uncertain at this point.  “Perhaps I should fetch the local priest,”  he suggested.  “He is Anglican, of course, not Catholic such as yourself, but surely this is not a task for the layman.  I know that your knowledge of spiritual matters extends far beyond the norm, Jedidiah, but still you are not an ordained minister . . .”

“I believe we would only make the priest uncomfortable, that he would simply believe her insane,”  I said.  “The help I require is only that you wait beyond the door while I speak to her.”

To this Peter reluctantly agreed and the attempt was decided upon for that evening.  During the day, Constance was locked in her room and the housekeeper given strict orders not to release her no matter what she said.  Upon our return that evening, I went to her.

The room smelled of perfumes and flowers, though none had been brought.  Its darkness held something of the tropical warmth of the West Indies rather than the chilled, fireless interior of an English dwelling.  Yet there was no sound.  No confident advance, no queenly demands.  Constance stood against the far wall, as far from me as she could stand.  She had washed off the face-paints, though her dark hair still cascaded free about her shoulders.  Nor was she wearing her corset, only her simple white dress. 

Against it her face was nearly as pale and expressionless.  At first I did not know how to proceed, for she gave me no indication of how she felt or whether the spirit, the loa, was simply biding its time until I should be off my guard.  Janet had told us, rather unsettled, that she had heard voices within the room; one clearly Constance’s and the other the husky, amused female voice which I had heard emanate from her lips.  “They” had talked for hours, Janet said nervously, and then fallen silent not long before Peter and I returned.

“Why am I a prisoner?  What have I done to you, Jedidiah?”

Her voice was small, very much Constance’s usual voice but there was yet a difference in her tone, as though she spoke to me as an equal and without the respect due a husband whom she was by her marriage vows bound to obey.  I glanced at the tray of food which had been brought her that morning and noted that she had eaten none.

“My sweet wife, you have done nothing wrong,”  I said carefully.  “But your behaviour has been uncharacteristic of you, you have been disturbed in your manner and your speech.  We wished to keep you from embarrassment until you were well again.”  I thought it best to say nothing of possession or spirits; if Constance were unaware, then surely it would be best to keep her so.  “Peter Bennet agrees with me that you may have suffered a brief brain fever and must rest.  I will bring you some laudanum to calm you; he will have some here.”

She listened to me quietly and then shook her head.  “No.  I am quite calm, as you see.”

“Constance, my love, this very intractable behaviour is but a sign of the fever.  Once you have taken the medicine, you will have some soup and go to bed.”

“No,”  she repeated.

I left the room, backing out, and reported the conversation to Peter, who nodded.  “I think some laudanum will settle her nerves well.”  He went to fetch the drug and returned with a glass of wine, which he indicated to me now contained the laudanum.  We then entered Constance’s room once more.  I approached her with the glass and asked her to drink its contents.

“No,”  Constance said again, more loudly.  “I do not wish to drink any medicine.”

“It is only laudanum,”  Peter said kindly, “it will soothe you.  Do not fight your husband, lady, he acts only for your own good, as do I.”

Constance flung her head back and screamed, very suddenly, and at the same time knocked the glass from my hand.  It fell to the ground and smashed upon the wooden floor.  Before I could think to restrain her, Constance stooped and grabbed up the largest piece of glass, slashing not at me but at Peter, who stood further back from her and was clearly not expecting the movement.  She drew the glass down his arm, cutting it open.  He cried out and grabbed for a bandage to stem the red flood. 

“It is paid, it is paid!”  Constance shrieked, dodging my attempt to seize her with remarkable agility. Around me I seemed to hear drums, which at first I took to be the noise of my own alarmed heartbeat, and to smell fire and smoke.  “Papa Legba, brother and master of the crossroads and the journey, aid me as you have promised!”

“I am all right,”  Peter called out, “see to her.”  He was clutching a handkerchief against his arm and the blood had ceased to flow.  A smoky haze had entered the room and I looked in panic for the knocked-over candle or lantern which must be the cause.  Seeing none, I turned again to Constance, who was on her feet, hair dishevelled. 

“Please, Constance, be calm.  You shall not take any laudanum if you are so set against it but you must be calm.”

“I will not be your prisoner, Jedidiah,”  she said.

“What do you mean?”  I asked, struggling to understand her.  “Yes, today we have locked the door but I have explained, it is because your behaviour was so strange.  You are not a prisoner.  Very soon we can go home and you will be among your friends again.”

She shook her head slightly.  Again in her eyes was that strange indifference to custom.  “You do not understand.  It is not your fault, Jedidiah, but I have always been a prisoner, commanded first by father and then by husband, never permitted my own will, never accepted as an adult being.  I was happy because I never knew anything different.  Then I was to have a child, given me by you, and that made me happy also.  When he died three months ago, you soothed me by telling me it was God’s will and that you would replace that child.  I carried a monster for nine months, Jedidiah, its slave in every sense, and then it mocked me by dying as soon as it slid free of me.  Your only comfort was to tell me it was to happen again!” 

Her voice rose slightly, then settled back.  The drums beat again around us, louder this time.  I smelled the smoke and for the first time, voices chanting the Creole, the bastard French of those islands, the language which summons the loa, the spirits which rule the black humanity.  The air in the room was smoky, my vision indistinct.  I could make out Peter, sitting on the bed still clutching his arm.  Constance, though she was closer to me than he was, seemed a spirit of smoke, her eyes bright as coals.

“They have promised me my freedom,”  she said, “if I was to give blood and I have done so.  Erzulie does not care so much for the horse she rides but her brother Legba has ordered it, because I was not the one who offended them and I was not of their people, who accept the loa among them and welcome their coming.  He asked me what dream I wished to become truth and I begged to go among them, to be child of the fire and the snake.”

“But I love you,”  I said, sensing that only honesty would be of any help now.  “I wanted only to help you.  If I did not know what to say when our son died, that is because I am human!”

“It is because you are ignorant,”  Constance said and now her eyes gleamed cold blue for a moment in the smoky air.  “You love what cannot defy you and what you control.”

“I love my wife,”  I shouted back, knowing now that I no longer spoke to her.  What lived behind those eyes now was not my sweet Constance.  “I loved our child and I still love, though he is gone beyond my help.  I love those whom I try to help as a doctor, even though they die because I do not know enough.  I can never know enough.”

“Good, donkey, that is good,” said the rasping male voice of my dream.  I whirled about, half expecting to see that filthy robed priest with his tobacco grin, but instead it was only Peter, his slashed arm forgotten.  He stood with the blood flowing from the ignored gash, smiling broadly at me as he picked something from between his front teeth.  He stood strangely, as though his limbs were now twisted from some old injury, yet there was undeniable strength in him.  He nodded amiably at me. 

“You will never know enough, that is right, but you will know more than others, when you face again the dark.  Though you are a fool and ignorant and helpless against the ancient powers which will rise against you, still there will be no other who can do better.  Do you understand me, donkey?  When they are in despair, they will call you, and you will rise from your own darkness to aid them and to drive back what oppresses those you love.”

“No,”  I began to say, “I don’t understand.  What have you done to my wife?”

Then Peter’s gaze flickered and he was himself once more, clutching his arm.  “Gently now, Madam Cross,”  he said, “Would you like some more wine?  I promise, it shall contain nothing else.”

I stared about in disbelief.  The smoke and smells of fire and heat were gone and the room was ordered and cool once more.  Only a lamp gave light, revealing Constance sitting once more on the bed.  She was crying quietly and when I put my arms about her to hold her, made no protest.  When I studied her face, I saw that her eyes were empty.  “Constance?”  I asked.  “Answer me.”

She made no sign to indicate that she had heard and I anxiously called to Peter to examine her, fearing that as her husband I was too biased to see what was there.  He did so and after several minutes drew me aside to speak to me.  “I can do no more,”  he said.  “She must rest and sleep and perhaps she will return to herself in time.  The journey home will do her no harm, but after that you must keep her very quiet.”

He bustled about, clearing up the room and calling Janet to clean the floor.  I put Constance to bed and she let me do all, neither speaking nor resisting.  I heard all Peter said about brain fever and damage without answering or challenging him.  He remembered nothing of what had happened and I began to realise he had forgotten all that had befallen Raoul, believing only that the young man had stayed for a day until his family came for him.  Janet also had forgotten all the strangeness of Constance’s behaviour and the two voices she had heard.  No, she told me when I asked, the lady had been quiet all day and she had been concerned for her.

We took the train for Edinburgh as soon as might be and when we returned home, summoned another medical man to look at Constance and give me his judgment.  He told me sorrowfully that the grief at her baby’s death had evidently been too much for Constance’s fragile sensibilities and had brought on a brain fever which had now damaged her mind beyond repair.  I should not blame myself, he assured me, the lady had tried to conceal from me how she felt, not wishing to add to my own grief.  She should now remove to an asylum and be under the care of doctors, from which she might well emerge in time as well as she had been before.

I agreed to this and so it was done.  I agreed in all things with what the doctors of the asylum said and spoke nothing of any dreams or strange voices or sounds of drums.  I did not tell them that my wife was no longer my wife, that it was as though she had died.  I would be faithful always to what remained of my wife and I would study all I could of the realms which lay beyond normal human awareness and vision.  When the time came, when my friends called upon me, I intended to be ready, however poor and inadequate I might prove as a knight against the ancient darkness.

  

                              *        *        *

 

I am a stranger and a sojourner with you; give me a possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead out of my sight.”

Jedidiah, GENESIS 23.4

 

This story originally appeared in Orb Speculative Fiction.


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  • 4 Comments
  • leece
    March 7, 2:20pm

    I really liked how the language was evocative of the times - I could well believe this was written by a diarist over a 100 years ago. I thought the story was very compelling - and I would like to read more in this world.

  • Alex Isle
    March 10, 8:38am

    Thanks, Leece. I've learned mostly through reading books that actually were written around then, like Bram Stoker's Dracula. I think the phenomenon of the wanderers was what set me to write the story; it was never explained afaik and just went away after some years. I also read a lot of Dennis Wheatley at one stage!

  • Alex Isle
    March 10, 10:41am

    Ok, this is my second try doing this! Thanks very much for the kind comments. I've learned the style from reading stories actually written around the time, like Bram Stoker's Dracula. From memory, it was the phenomenon of the wanderers that prompted me to write the story. It was never explained and seemed to just disappear after a few years.

  • leece
    March 11, 7:31am

    It was really interesting about the wanderers! I've read many books of the era too - you've got it down pat!