From the editor:
In his role as royal occultist, it’s Charles St. Cyprian’s business to know the old ghost stories that most dismiss as superstition. When two different acquaintances invite him on the same evening train to the infamous Cragmoor Heath, he knows he’ll need to come prepared.
Josh Reynolds has published over twenty novels, as well as dozens of short stories, novellas and audio scripts. Follow him to read further adventures of Charles St. Cyprian on Curious Fictions.
From the author: The Royal Occultist matches wits - and fates - with a sinister fortune teller on the overnight to Penzance.
Rain pattered down on the train shed, and a chilly Devon fog obscured the tracks of the Plymouth station. It was dark, and the electric lights which illuminated the through platform flickered audibly. Clumps of passengers huddled beneath the shed, waiting for the arrival of the next train to Penzance.
Charles St. Cyprian removed a silver cigarette case from his coat and flipped it open. "Cigarette?" he asked, proffering the case to his companions. St. Cyprian was tall, with an olive cast to his features and hair just a touch too long to be properly fashionable. He wore a battered officer’s greatcoat over a well-tailored suit straight from Gieves and Hawkes, in Savile Row.
"Thank you Charles, don't mind if I do," Alaric Spalding said, as he plucked a cigarette loose with long fingers. Spalding was tall and scarecrow thin, with a handsome, long-jawed face and a pencil thin moustache. Like St. Cyprian, he wore a heavy coat, thought his was lined with fur, and had not been provided at the expense of His Majesty's government.
"Yes Chaz, dashed swell of you, dashed swell," Augustus Forbes said, snatching one. He was tubby, where Spalding was thin, with enormous side-whiskers and a checked waistcoat that had gone out of fashion with Brunel. He bobbed forward as St. Cyprian scraped a match to life with his thumbnail and lit their cigarettes.
The last of his companions took one as well. Ebe Gallowglass was dark and slightly feral looking, with black hair cut in a razor-edged bob and a battered flat cap resting high on her head. She wore a man’s clothes, hemmed for a woman of her small stature, beneath a heavy convoy coat. "Not often you share these," she said, as he struck a second match.
"It's a special occasion," St. Cyprian said, lighting her cigarette. "Not every day one treks into the far reaches of northwest Cornwall with not one, but two fellow clubmen, and one's ever-faithful apprentice." He lit one of his own and shook the match, extinguishing it.
Between puffs, Gallowglass said, “Assistant.”
“I’m your assistant,” Gallowglass said, in a plume of smoke.
“Of course, do forgive me,” St. Cyprian said. "The Royal Occultist and his assistant."
Formed during the reign of Elizabeth the First, the office of Royal Occultist was charged with the investigation, organisation and occasional suppression of That Which Man Was Not Meant to Know—including vampires, ghosts, werewolves, ogres, fairies, boggarts and the occasional worm of unusual size—by order of the King (or Queen), for the good of the British Empire.
St. Cyprian dropped the spent match and crushed it beneath his shoe. He fished his watch out of the pocket of his waistcoat and checked the time. "The Penzance train is late."
"I told you we shouldn't have gotten off for dinner, and in Devon of all places," Spalding said grumpily. "Now we won't get to Cragmoor Heath until well after eight."
"If we'd taken the overnight train from Paddington, as I suggested, we could have avoided this," St. Cyprian said, expelling a plume of smoke into the damp air.
"Well I'm sorry, but a man can't live on ABC teacakes alone," Forbes protested.
"You had six of them!" Spalding said, his thin face twisted in a sneer.
"They were only little," Forbes said defiantly.
A shrill whistle cut through the night, announcing the arrival of the train. "Finally," Gallowglass muttered. "I was going to go spare if I had to listen to these two argue anymore." She bent and hefted her baggage, as the others did the same. "Where are we going again?" she asked, extinguishing her cigarette with two fingers and sliding it behind her ear.
"Cragmoor Heath," St. Cyprian said. "A flyspeck little village east of Bodmin, prone to outbreaks of plague, at least twice in the last century, which is two too many, if you ask me. One, in 1860, was blamed on voodoo of all things."
"And the other one?" Gallowglass asked.
"Something to do with a Malay snake cult, or so Carnacki's case-files had it," St. Cyprian said, referring to his predecessor in the office of Royal Occultist. He shook his head. "Not an auspicious sort of place." He looked at Forbes and Spalding. "Which is why I agreed to accompany you two, especially given the circumstances..."
"I say, do we need to talk about it?" Forbes said, mopping his face with a handkerchief. "I haven't slept a wink in days, since I got that blasted telegram about grandfather's tin mine. Every night, the same bloody dream...all those faces, and hands, reaching out of the dark..." He shuddered. "I don't know why I'm even going!"
"At least you aren't being stalked by a ruddy shadow," Spalding said, pulling up the collar of his coat. "Everywhere I go, every time I turn around, there it is, growling at me." He made a face as the train pulled into the station, steam billowing from its boiler. "The moment I heard about the estate, there it was...Charles, do you really think you can help us?"
"It is rather my line, old thing," St. Cyprian said, finishing his cigarette and dropping it to the platform. "And I'm not a believer in coincidences...both of you, showing up at No. 472 Cheyne Walk the same day, wanting me to accompany you to the same Cornish village? Especially one with so...storied a history? That's not something I'm prepared to ignore. Who knows what shenanigans the spirits are getting up to, what? Haunted tin mines, ghostly growlers, ancestral curses." He laughed. "We'll have some dashed fun finding out though."
They boarded the train with the rest of the passengers. The train wasn’t crowded, and it only took them a few minutes to find their compartment, and stow their luggage on the overhead racks. The compartment was large but cramped, with benches for sitting and fold-down cots for sleeping. It was split down the centre by a rail, on which a privacy curtain could be hung. It was empty of any other passengers, save for a lone figure, huddled in the farthest corner from the corridor, next to the door which opened onto the platform.
The man in the corner was asleep. Tall, taller even than Spalding, and thin, he had his coat up over his face and his longs legs crossed casually. Something about him set St. Cyprian's psychic hackles a-flutter, and he had just resolved to keep one eye on him for the duration of the journey when a sixth person entered the compartment, carrying a heavy case.
He was of middling height, with the face of an emperor gone to seed, hollow-cheeked and Roman nosed. He wore a faded mackintosh and a shapeless, wide-brimmed hat. He stopped in the doorway and stared at them. "It seems I am to share your compartment, gentlemen and..." he trailed off, peering at Gallowglass. "And lady," he said, finally, as the train lurched into motion with a shrill whistle.
"More the merrier, what?" Forbes said, waving a hand. As the newcomer sat down, he added, "Augustus Forbes, at your service."
"Fell," the man said, setting his case on his lap.
"Who did? Should we alert the porter?" Forbes said, making to stand up. St. Cyprian caught his arm and pulled him back down.
"That's his name, I believe. Isn't that so, Mr. Fell?"
"Doctor, actually," Fell said, smiling thinly.
"A doctor?" Spalding said. "I knew a doctor, once. Knew everything about theology and music, not a blessed thing about medicine - Phipps - no, Phibes, that was it!" He snapped his fingers and peered at Fell. "Which are you, then? Hymns or concertos?"
"Neither," Fell said. "I am a doctor of...fate, you might say." He opened his case and pulled out a brightly coloured rag. He pulled a deck of cards out of the rag and set it down on top of his case. "Many fates, in point of fact."
"Tarot cards," St. Cyprian said. Fell nodded.
"A very old deck, passed down from one bearer to the next.” Dr. Fell held the deck up. “I often like to play a game, to pass the time. Anyone for cards?”
“I say, not whist, is it? Can’t stand whist,” Forbes said, shooting a glare at St. Cyprian. St. Cyprian smiled. Forbes had lost the remainder of his snack-money in Devon, when they’d played a quick hand. Spalding had done better, but then, whist wasn’t Gallowglass’ game.
“As I said at the time, Gussie, you shouldn’t bet more than you can stand to lose,” St. Cyprian said. He pulled a deck of cards out of his coat and weighed it in his hand, as he looked around. “Five of us, which is one too many, unless we can wake up our friend in the corner.”
“I had another game in mind,” Fell said quickly. He tapped the tarot deck. “I will read your fortunes, if you wish.” He held up a finger. “But—you must agree to abide by my terms.”
“Terms?” St. Cyprian asked. He glanced at Gallowglass, who frowned. She was wary, as he hoped she would be. It could be nothing more than an attempt to cage a tab, but his instincts were screaming to beat the band.
“Nothing too obstreperous,” Fell said. “Simply that, once all are agreed, all cards must be dealt. No backing out. Once shuffled, these cards must be dealt to all intended parties. Else they may lose their edge.”
“Like a sword, innit?” Gallowglass said. Fell glanced at her and she shrugged. “Draw a sword, it’s got to taste blood or somesuch.”
Fell laughed. “Yes! Exactly.” He tapped the cards with a long finger. “So, who is daring enough to peek behind the curtain of fate, eh?”
Spalding leaned forward. “I’ll give it a bash. We’ve nothing but time, after all. How does it work, exactly?”
“One card, one fortune, one future path revealed,” Fell said, as he began to shuffle the cards. He made a face, that was more grimace than smile. “Such is my gift.”
“And how will we know if it’s the right one?” Spalding said.
“Oh the cards will know,” Fell said. “They have never yet failed me.”
“Always a first time, what?” St. Cyprian said. Fell frowned, but continued to shuffle the deck. He set the deck down on his case and spread his hands.
“Pick your card, sir,” Dr. Fell said. “No trickery here, as you can see.”
“I say, I’ll give it a badger as well,” Forbes said, with a chuckle. He reached for a card, but St. Cyprian caught his wrist.
“I wouldn’t,” he said.
“The cards have been shuffled, they must be dealt,” Fell said. “It is only a bit of mummery, to enliven our trip. Your companions have agreed. Besides, fate cannot be avoided, sir. Ignorance is no excuse.”
“Too true, Doctor,” St. Cyprian said. “But it can be denied, postponed or thwarted.”
“Oh dash it Charles, where’s the harm?” Forbes said, pulling his wrist free of St. Cyprian’s grip. “Me first, then you Spalding.” He drew the top card and peered at it. "I say--Justice! That's me all over, what?"
"Oh dear, one of the Major Arcana, I believe," Fell said. "The fairest and cruellest of the lot, for justice is the straight line between wrong-doing and retribution. As you--or yours--have sown, so shall you reap. The deeds of the past form the foundation for the events of the future, and in some cases, herald the pain to come..."
"Pain?" Forbes said, his face growing pale.
Something thumped against the glass. Forbes looked at the window and screamed.
Silently moaning faces were pressed to the glass, and dusty bandage-wrapped fingers clawed at the frames of the windows and doors of the compartment. They were indistinct, but the sound of hobnailed boots thudding on stone, and miners’ tools digging at rocks echoed dully over the clatter of the train. Forbes looked around fearfully. “What—what—what?” he babbled, eyes wide. Fell plucked the card from his hand.
“What indeed?” he murmured. “I see nothing.”
“I bloody do,” Gallowglass snarled, looking around. “What are they?”
"My dreams..." Forbes whimpered.
“The Clagmoor Twenty,” St. Cyprian said. “I did some reading, before we left London. Twenty one men went down into your grandfather’s mine, Gussie, and only one came up. An accident, maybe, but ghosts rarely notice such distinctions. Justice, as they say, is blind.” He looked at Forbes. “Twenty hungry ghosts, stewing down in the dark, trapped and waiting for a Forbes to come along and open the mine. To disturb their rest and free them to...” he trailed off.
“To what?” Forbes yelped. “To what?”
“Best we don’t find out, I’d say, eh?” St. Cyprian said. “No need to reopen that mine, after all. You’re well in the dosh, through no fault of your own, and Cornwall, well, that’s awful far from the bar at the Drones, old man.”
As he spoke, the hammering faded, becoming fainter and fainter, until it was indistinguishable from the rattle of the train car. The faces and fingers too receded and the lights in the corridor returned to their previous lustre. Forbes mopped at his face with a handkerchief. “I say, maybe you’re right, Charles.” He glared at Fell. “That was a dashed dirty trick, chum. I ought to pop you one...”
“You can try,” Fell said, and in that moment, his voice was as deep and as dark as the grave. His thin, aristocratic face seemed to be fleshless and as unyielding as a skull. Forbes clutched his chest and fell back into his seat.
“I knew a fellow by the name of Fell," St. Cyprian said, puncturing the sudden tension. "Well, not knew, rather knew of. A gambler, this Dr. Fell, who made his ill-living riding the rails between Penzance and Paddington, bilking the unwary who had the misfortune to share his compartment,” he continued. “A born cheater, and the cards always went his way.”
“Some might say cheating is merely part of the game,” Fell said, without looking at him.
“Others might say that it’s cheating,” St. Cyprian said blandly. “But, one day, the cards turned on him. He’d picked the wrong mark to cock a snook at.”
“Did the fellow thump him?” Forbes said.
“Worse,” St. Cyprian said. “You see, Dr. Fell—well, the other Dr. Fell—discovered that he’d been trying to cheat the Devil himself, and was cursed for his troubles.” He glanced towards the man in the corner. His eyes were still closed, but even so, St. Cyprian thought he might be listening. He looked back at Fell.
“Was he now?” Fell said, shuffling his cards.
“Quite. Cursed to wander the Cornish Main Line, dealing out death with his cards. One death, for every card drawn. And if there ever came a night when he failed to deliver such a doom upon some poor unlucky bugger, well...then the Devil would come for him. So he stalks the line, offering to cast the runes, so to speak, for whosoever he sets his sights on, and then ushers them off to a grisly fate in order to stave off his own, well-deserved end.”
“Hardly well-deserved,” Fell said, stiffly. “Unfair, more like.”
“Said the cheater,” St. Cyprian said.
Fell looked at him without speaking, his eyes burning with an eerie light. Then, that terrible gaze slid towards Spalding. “Your turn at the wheel of Fate, Mr. Spalding. Draw your card, sir, and let us see what awaits you.”
“I—I’d really rather not, if it’s all the same to you,” Spalding said.
“Oh but you must. A card must be drawn once the terms are agreed.” Fell looked steadily at him, his eyes shining with an unholy radiance. “Unless you wish to forfeit?” He smiled, showing yellow teeth in a too-even grin, and a shadow grew on the wall behind him, hooded and impossibly large. St. Cyprian repressed a shiver. He didn’t like to think about what might happen to Spalding, if he forfeited.
“Draw a card, Spalding,” he said, softly. “I warned you both, but now, you must play the hand you’re dealt.” He caught Gallowglass’ eye as he spoke, and she nodded tersely. Whatever happened next, she was ready for it.
“But you—you just said...”
“Your card, sir,” Fell said, smiling widely. Spalding swallowed and drew.
“It’s a moon,” he said.
Fell nodded. “Ah, the Moon. Yes, such an innocuous card, at first glance, but things are not always as they seem. In the moonlight, benevolent men turn mad, and become as beasts. There is yours,” he said, tapping the image of the wolf which crouched beneath the face of the moon, muzzle thrown back in a howl.
“A...a wolf?” Spalding asked.
As he spoke, a snarl ripped through the compartment. It was not quite the voice of an animal, nor that of a man, but something hideously of both. Spalding flinched, sweat pouring down his thin face. “No, it’s here,” he hissed and looked around, his eyes seeking the corners. “The shadow! Where is it? Charles, where is it?”
“Where is what?” Fell said, as he snatched the card from Spalding’s grip and carefully shuffled it back into the deck.
The snarl grew in volume and ferocity, and a harsh panting, like that of an eager hound, filled the compartment. Spalding thrashed in his seat, like a deer caught in brambles, his eyes wide with fear. “Where--?” he began.
Two hairy hands, the fingers tipped with black claws, emerged from the compartment wall, and extended to either side of Spalding’s head. Gallowglass cursed and caught his necktie, yanking him forward. She fell back into the seat opposite and Spalding went headfirst into her lap as a hideous face emerged above the hands. Long teeth snapped together in silence as red eyes blazed with an inhuman hunger.
St. Cyprian half-rose to his feet and drew a silver cigarette case from his coat. He traced it along the wall in a curious pattern, ignoring the grasping fingers and grimacing face. The apparition came apart like smoke on the wind, and the snarl faded with it. “What the bloody hell was that?” Gallowglass said, as she shoved Spalding to the floor.
“That, I believe, was Sir James Clagmoor, who was cursed by a gypsy woman whom he forced himself upon, and then rendered unto his just reward by a mob,” St. Cyprian said, as he extracted a cigarette from the silver case he’d drawn along the wall.
“More reading?” Gallowglass asked.
“Quite. It’s an old story, but a charming one.” He tapped the cigarette on his case and set it between his lips. “Clagmoor Heath has quite the surplus of folklore, even for Cornwall.”
As he lit his cigarette, Spalding, white-faced, said, “She cursed him? How?”
“Oh the usual...werewolfery. Dashed uncreative, your average gypsy.” St. Cyprian puffed on his cigarette. “Of course, there’s a stinger in that particular tale. It’s said that if a chap of Clagmoor’s line shows up, looking to claim the ancestral whatsits, he’ll come over fur and fangs as well, and suffer the same fate as his infamous ancestor.”
Spalding swallowed thickly and his eyes darted around.
“A mere superstition,” Fell said.
“Even so, I wouldn’t risk it, old thing,” St. Cyprian said. “You can stay with us. We’ll play a few hands of whist, take some more of Gussie’s money, and have a laugh. You’ll be on the first train for London come the morning. Besides, drafty old pile like that, why, it’d cost you more to fix up than it’s worth.” He grinned. “Let sleeping dogs lie, what?”
Spalding nodded jerkily. “Dashed kind of you, Charles.”
“Think nothing of it, chum. Happy to be of service.”
“You seem to have an answer for everything, sirrah,” Fell growled, shuffling his cards. As he spoke, the hooded shadow seemed to swell and fill the compartment. Spalding whimpered, and Forbes grew pale. Gallowglass ducked her hand into her coat, as if to draw the revolver she habitually carried, but a look from St. Cyprian stopped her.
“Lord no,” St. Cyprian said, looking at Fell. “But I know a bit about dooms and such. Certain chaps just go about afflicted with ‘em. Old Spalding and his wolfish ancestor, Forbes and his grisly dreams of dead miners...well, knowing them as I do, I suspected I knew what cards they’d draw. Man’s life is a track, as you said, Dr. Fell...inevitable.”
“I did say that, didn’t I?” Fell sat back, glaring at St. Cyprian from beneath the brim of his hat. “And you think you can prevent their fates?”
“Quite,” St. Cyprian said. “Why, Ms. Gallowglass and I brought an array of tools, just for that purpose. Why d’you think we’re all travelling together?” He gestured to their bags in the overhead racks. “When two such cases fall in the lap of the Royal Occultist, well, it pays to do due diligence, eh?” He smiled and puffed on his cigarette. “We’ll dynamite the mine, of course. No need to reopen it. Seal it off for good. And the Clagmoor estate, well, the sooner it comes down, the sooner the village can put that land to better use, what?”
Fell grinned mirthlessly. In the flickering light of the compartment, his face looked like a skull. “You are so certain, then?”
“Fate is what happens when you don’t plan ahead, Doctor,” St. Cyprian said.
“And will you draw a card then, sir? Will you dare to pluck the strands of Fate?” Fell hissed. He held up the deck, his hands trembling. “Are you as prepared as you think you are?”
St. Cyprian hesitated. Fell’s eyes glittered darkly. “I thought not,” he said. His eyes slid towards Gallowglass. “Perhaps your assistant is made of sterner stuff...”
“Oh indubitably. But, I cannot in good conscience allow that. So...I will,” St. Cyprian said, before Gallowglass could reply. “But only if you do so as well...Dr. Fell.”
It was Fell’s turn to hesitate. “I’ve bested you twice now, Doctor,” St. Cyprian said. “Perhaps you’re losing your touch. Or perhaps the cards have turned against you.”
Fell twitched as if he’d been slapped. “Fine. I shall draw, but you first—now!”
St. Cyprian smiled and tapped the deck with a finger. Then he slipped the top card free, and said, “Oh dear.”
“What? What is it?” Fell demanded eagerly.
“Someone’s left the instructions in the deck. Ah well, your turn,” St. Cyprian said, whipping the card into Fell’s lap. Fell looked down at the card in disbelief.
“That’s not possible,” he said, his voice hoarse.
“No? Well, improbable at the least, I agree. At any rate, your turn.”
“These are instructions for whist,” Fell snarled, snatching up the card. “You cheated!”
“You saw me draw the card, old man.” St. Cyprian sat back. “It’s your turn, Dr. Fell.”
Fell glared at him, the muscles in his neck and jaw trembling. Then, with shaking fingers, he slid the top card off and laid it on his case. He didn’t look at it. “It’s not fair,” he said, softly. Then, more loudly, “It’s not fair!”
“Dr. Fell, Dr. Fell,” St. Cyprian said. “I do not like thee, Dr. Fell.” He turned over the card and laid it face up, where everyone could see. “The Devil, I believe.” Fell stared at him, as if hypnotised. “Bad luck, that.” St. Cyprian slid the card towards him, and Fell took it after a moment’s hesitation.
“Indeed,” the long man in the corner said, in a voice as deep as the pit. He straightened up in his seat. His face was saturnine, beneath a high widow’s peak of black hair, and his eyes were like twin dollops of melted brass. “I was wondering when that one would come up.” He clucked his tongue. “A shame, in its way. Don’t you agree, Doctor?”
Fell’s eyes darted about, and his mouth opened, but no words came out. The rest of the cards fell from his hand and scattered across the floor of the compartment. He stooped to pick them up, but the man in the corner caught his wrist. “Leave them,” the latter said, almost gently. “They’re someone else’s problem now.” The man in the corner smiled genially. “What a wonderful game, eh Doctor?” he said, patting Fell’s shoulder. “And think of how many more we shall play, in the days to come.”
Fell slumped in his seat, eyes bulging, mouth open. He still held the Devil card. It looked as if he wanted to scream but couldn’t. The air in the compartment had suddenly become very close and very warm, despite the season, and the open window. “I say, does anyone else hear...flies?” Forbes squeaked, hesitantly.
“No, but I do smell smoke,” Spalding said, mopping at his face with his handkerchief.
“Gentlemen, Clagmoor Heath is coming up soon I believe,” St. Cyprian said, as he stood and reached for the door. “Who’s for the dining car and a tipple before we disembark? My pull.”
Spalding and Forbes squeezed out of the compartment, nearly tripping over one another in their haste. Gallowglass was last, her eyes never leaving Fell and the man in the corner.“What about those two?” she murmured as St. Cyprian closed the compartment door behind them.
St. Cyprian smiled thinly. “They’re getting off at another stop, I fear.”
“So, how did you manage to slip that whist card into his deck?” Gallowglass asked, as they moved down the corridor after Spalding and Forbes.
“Are you implying that I cheated?”
“Outright bloody stating it, more like,” Gallowglass said.
“How rude. I would never cheat, no matter the game.” St. Cyprian extended a hand and tugged on the cuff of his sleeve. “Look, nothing up my sleeve.” Cards slid out, to patter across the floor. “Oh bother, look at that. I wondered where those went.” He shrugged. “Still, I never said I’d draw from his deck, did I?”
Gallowglass snorted and St. Cyprian shook his head. “Dr. Fell, Dr. Fell, I do not like thee Dr. Fell, the reason why--I cannot tell; but this I know, and know full well, I do not like thee, Dr. Fell,” he recited as he stooped to retrieve the cards.
In the compartment they had just left, something laughed.
“On second thought, let the cards fall where they may, eh?” St. Cyprian said, standing abruptly. They hurried down the corridor.
The laughter dogged their steps all the way.
This story originally appeared in Spawn of the Ripper (April-Moon Books).
Jazz Age Britain is rife with the impossible. Fashionable unwrapping parties awaken the dead. Ghouls stalk the Underground. Krampus steals the sinful. Famous magicians are kidnapped by shadows. Only the Royal Occultist can set these right.
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