Category Archives: Hopeless Tales

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The Summoning

There are few people brave, or foolish, enough to wander abroad on the island of Hopeless, Maine, after darkness has fallen. Having said this, Philomena Bucket, who is neither particularly brave nor foolish, has done so with impunity, on several occasions. This probably has something to do with the fact that both Drury, the skeletal dog, and Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man, have taken it upon themselves to be her personal protectors. Of course, Philomena has no knowledge of Rhys’ presence, as he always makes a point of keeping out of sight and well upwind of the object of his affection. On the night of this tale, however, Philomena was tucked up in her bed, safe in The Squid and Teapot, while Rhys, accompanied by Drury, was busily servicing the earth-closets and outdoor privies of a grateful clientele.

A lone figure stood in the misty moonlight, looking out over the ocean. Had anyone on the island been watching, they would have instantly recognised the long flowing robe and equally long flowing beard of Doctor John Dee, the Elizabethan alchemist lately deposited upon Hopeless. Dee had become popular with many of the islanders, never slow raise a tankard or two, and relate a few treasonous, and decidedly racy, tales regarding the daily goings-on in the court of Good Queen Bess. The old alchemist judged that from this vantage point of being several hundred years in the future, his head was safe enough from the royal wrath.

Dee’s mind, that night, was dwelling on other things. Earlier in the evening Norbert Gannicox had been regaling him with an account of the time that St Anthony’s Fire, otherwise known as ergot poisoning, had caused mass-hallucinations on the island (as related in the tale ‘Baking Bad’). Norbert laughed heartily as he described one of his own hallucinations that day. It had been that of a strange beast with no body, just a lion’s head with five goat-like legs radiating from it. Strangest of all was that the creature moved by its legs rotating, resembling a large, hairy Catherine wheel.

“A creature like that would have been weird, even for Hopeless,” chuckled Norbert. “The strange thing was, though, later on I could have sworn that I saw Percy Painswick pulling its hair. Can you share an hallucination?  Funnily enough, that was the day old Perce disappeared. I never saw him again after that.”

Dee said nothing, a sudden chill running down his spine. He immediately recognised Norbert’s description, and was horribly certain that the distiller had not witnessed an hallucination at all. Even the most ergot-raddled brain could not have invented such a monster. What he had seen was the demon, Buer. A few months before, with the help of his friend and colleague, Edward Kelley, Dee had conducted an experiment intending to summon Buer, following a set of instructions in a book entitled ‘Pseudomonarchia Daemonum: The False Monarchy of Demons’. This had been written by a friend of Kelley’s, Johann Weyer, a Dutch physician and self-styled demonologist. The experiment had been a failure, but Weyer’s description of Buer had haunted John Dee. Until now he believed that the Dutchman was mistaken, and doubted that such an odd looking entity could exist. Norbert’s account proved, beyond all reasonable doubt, that others had seen Buer, and that he was at large on the island. Despite his fears, Dee felt compelled to try and summon the demon once more. Despite his advanced years, he still had a keen mind and an excellent memory; he could easily remember the ceremony.

Dee had scratched a Sigillum Dei on a flat rock. This was a replica of the magical diagram he had inscribed on the floor of his study, as described in the tale ‘The Obsidian Cliff’. Standing at its centre, this was his only sanctuary, should the demon be tempted to attack. With great solemnity, and a slightly nervous tone, John Dee incanted the arcane words necessary to summon Buer. During the silence that followed, a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. For what felt like an age, nothing happened, then the air grew still. Even the roar of the waves seemed to be muted.

“Why do you disturb my rest, John Dee?” The voice was silky smooth and charming… and speaking in Latin.

“Master Buer, is that you? I cannot see you,” said Dee, who fortunately, was fluent in the tongue.

“Then answer me, why do you disturb my rest?” as the words were forming, a great golden shape began to materialise in the mist, terrible to behold.

In truth, John Dee had no idea why he had summoned the demon. Edward Kelley was a magician, and yearned for power, but Dee had no such desires. His driving force, in all things, was curiosity. This, however, was not a sufficient reason to call forth one such as Buer. He had to think quickly.

“Oh mighty Buer,” stammered Dee. “I am lost in a distant time and an unfamiliar land, and have no idea how to return to my home. As one who effortlessly strides through time and space, I beseech you, instruct me in the manner of how this might be done.”

This was totally untrue, of course. Dee, almost uniquely, had enjoyed his stay on Hopeless, and had no real wish to return to sixteenth century England, with its many terrors. However, he had to say something, and hoped that Buer was not given to mind-reading.

“That is easy, John Dee, but there is a price for this information.”

“Of course there is,” said Dee resignedly. “Do you want my soul?”

“What ever would I do with your soul?” asked Buer, with some surprise in his voice. “Of course I don’t want your soul. What I need from you is more solid and far simpler; just a key.”  

“Just a key? Any old key, or one in particular?”

Dee could have sworn that Buer rolled his eyes I disbelief.

“One key in particular will do nicely,” said the demon, sarcastically. Then he added, “and by that I mean the key to the tunnel that brought you to this island. By the way, as far as I am concerned that will not only pay for the information you require, but will compensate me for being disturbed. You have three days. The clock is ticking, John Dee.”

With these words, Buer melted into the mist, and Doctor Dee realised that there was no going back. He had to get that key, wherever it had been hidden, or face the consequences, and he shuddered to think what Buer’s consequences might entail.

“Is it done?” asked Durosimi O’Stoat.

Baur regarded him for a second or two before replying.

“Do you doubt my ability to carry out such a simple task?” he asked, somewhat sardonically. “Why, the old fool actually came looking for me, chanting some mumbo-jumbo that was supposed summon me from the pit, I suppose. It was almost laughable, but worked in our favour. He will bring me the key, and I will bring it to you. Then he will be on his way and my part of our bargain is complete.”

“Good!” said O’Stoat, “Then you will have your reward, as I promised… The Bucket woman will be yours, body and soul.”

To be continued…

A Little Touch of Drury in the Night

Durosimi O’Stoat stared gloomily through his window; outside, Drury, the osseous hound, was rattling happily along, having spent a rewarding couple of hours chasing spoonwalkers.

“Blasted dog!” muttered Durosimi to himself. “He gets on my nerves. He’s always hanging around and causing trouble.”

While no one could reasonably argue with Durosimi’s assessment of Drury, on this occasion the dog could not be held totally responsible for the black mood currently spoiling his evening. For that he squarely – and quite unjustly – blamed the sixteenth-century visitor to Hopeless, Doctor John Dee.

You may remember that, in order to get Dee’s attention, Durosimi had attempted to abduct Philomena Bucket. This had failed dismally and, to make matters worse, he had no memory of exactly what had happened. One minute he was confronting Philomena, and the next thing he knew was that several hours had slipped by, and he was propped up against his own front door. It was obvious to Durosimi that some sort of sorcery had been employed and, as far as he knew, the only person capable of such a feat would be John Dee. Despite Dee having protested, on several earlier occasions, that he was not a magician, Durosimi chose to disbelieve him. What he did not know was that any magic being wielded in the Town Hall, on the night of the Beltane Extravaganza, was exclusively Philomena’s, and his threat had been the spur that had brought it to full and spectacular fruition. It was to Philomena’s great surprise when she successfully repelled his advances and sent him hurtling along the length of the Town Hall. The force stunned him so completely that he could not even remember struggling to his feet and staggering home afterwards.

It was almost dusk, and John Dee was sitting on a bench outside The Squid and Teapot, gazing up at the soft, pallid lights of the gnii, fluttering high above. Drury clattered up to him, his bony tail wagging furiously. How times change. Just a few weeks earlier, when they first met, Dee was convinced that he was looking at a Hell-Hound, come to drag him and his heresies into the fiery depths of the Underworld. Now he knew that Drury was no more than a regular, friendly dog, albeit one who refused to recognise that he had died many years earlier.

“God’s wounds, I’ll miss these evenings, when I go home again, Drury,” Dee said sadly. “Deep in my bones, I can feel that my own time is trying to drag me back.”

Drury cocked his head, apparently listening intently as the elderly Elizabethan poured out his woes.

“You have no idea of the pressure I’m under,” confided Dee. “Do you know, I had to make an astrological chart to forecast the most propitious time for the Queen’s coronation. Can you imagine what would have happened if I had got wrong? It would have been the Tower, for me, for sure. Oh… I could put up with the fog, the eyes in the sky and those things with tentacles, if I could only stay. But I suppose there is my wife and children; I should take them into account…”

Despite being in his sixties, Dee had married the much-younger Jane Fromond some ten years earlier, and now had eight children to support. They would certainly miss him if he remained on Hopeless.

Drury snuffled and leaned against Dee’s legs. Did he have any idea of what was being said? Your guess is as good as mine, but if nothing else, he was a good listener.

“But enough of my rambling,” said Dee, stoically. “Come on, old friend, let us go into the inn, where I might be persuaded to immerse my sorrows in some of Master Middlestreet’s finest ales.”

For the islanders of Hopeless, the novelty of having a sixteenth-century alchemist wandering around had worn off after the first couple of weeks. Much to his relief, these days Doctor Dee was greeted like any other regular patron of the inn. He settled himself in the snug, ordered a tankard of Old Colonel, and fell into conversation with Norbert Gannicox.

Drury ambled off to the kitchen, where Philomena had just taken a batch of Starry-Grabby pies out of the oven.

“I’m going to take one of these over to Rhys Cranham,” she said, putting a steaming pie into a basket, where it kept two bottles of ale company. “Coming?”

Drury did not need to be asked twice. Joining the Night-Soil man on his rounds was one of the dog’s favourite pastimes, second only to chasing spoonwalkers.

As they made their way to The House at Poo Corner (The official residence of every Night-Soil Man), Philomena allowed herself to voice her concerns to Drury, confident that her secrets would be safe with him.

“This magic business is a worry,” she said. “I have no idea what I’m doing. It seems that I’m last in a long line of witches. Me! Would you believe it, Drury?”

Drury would believe anything that Philomena told him. In his eyes she could say or do no wrong.

“It’s this ‘last-in-line’ bit that troubles me, really,” she said. “After all, if I’ve got a bit of magic floating about inside me, then it’s my choice what I do with it. But, whether I choose to use magic or not, it seems wrong that after a thousand years or more it should have to stop with me. That’s a terrible responsibility to burden a girl with.”

Philomena stopped and looked at her bony companion, who immediately sat obediently at her feet.

“I don’t know if I’d be happy to settle down and have a family,” she said to him. “What do you think, Drury?”

As if in reply, the dog stood up and shook himself.

They walked on in silence, Philomena lost in her own thoughts. Arriving at the Night-Soil Man’s cottage, she lay the basket carefully on the doorstep.

“Ah Rhys,” she said quietly to herself, “I wonder what our futures might have been, if you were anything other than a Night-Soil Man.”

The faithful hound, mindful of the dangers that may be lurking in the darkness, dutifully accompanied Philomena back to The Squid. No sooner had she crossed the threshold of the inn than Drury turned around and raced back to Poo Corner, eager to join Rhys before the Night-Soil Man left on his rounds.

Rhys was already at his door, loading the contents of the basket into his knapsack.

“Who could ask for more than a fresh-baked Starry-Grabby pie and a couple of bottles of Old Colonel?” he asked, with a smile.

“Drury,” Rhys added earnestly, “You and I both think that Philomena Bucket is nothing short of wonderful – agreed? Maybe it’s high time for me to look for another apprentice, seeing that my first one turned into a seal! Perhaps one day I could follow in the footsteps of Randall Middlestreet, the only Night-Soil Man to retire and raise a family. I wonder if Philomena would say ‘Yes’? What do you reckon, old fellow?”

Drury wagged his tail and barked enthusiastically. He knew the answer to that, for certain.

Old Magic

You will recall that a Beltane Extravaganza had been held in honour of Doctor John Dee, the sixteenth-century alchemist who had been plucked from his own time and deposited on to the island of Hopeless, Maine. When the final song was sung, and the event had drawn to its conclusion, Philomena Bucket was alone in the Town Hall, tidying away the venerable Edison-Bell phonograph, when suddenly she found herself confronted by Durosimi O’Stoat.

O’Stoat was convinced – quite incorrectly, as it happens – that John Dee was a mighty sorcerer. With this in mind, he had been pressurising the alchemist to find a way in which they could both be returned to Tudor England, where he could plunder Dee’s famously extensive library and learn more of his secrets. When Dee protested that such a feat would be beyond his abilities, Durosimi disbelieved him and decided to force his hand by kidnapping Philomena Bucket. Durosimi had jumped to the conclusion that Dee’s obvious fondness for the barmaid was based upon no more than old-fashioned lust. The truth was far different; from their very first meeting, John Dee was sure that Philomena possessed magical abilities, the like of which he had never before seen.

“A word, Miss Bucket, if I might,” said Durosimi, in a commanding voice.

Philomena felt a cold chill run down her back. The only member of the O’Stoat family that she had ever liked, or trusted, was Salamandra.

“I’m listening,” she replied, coldly, hoping that he could not hear the tremble in her voice.

“You must come with me… now, please.” Durosimi motioned towards the door.

“No thank you, Mr O’Stoat. I have other plans for tonight.”

“But I insist. You will come with me. One way, or another, Miss Bucket, I promise you will.”

Philomena stood her ground, wishing that Drury would burst through the door. She knew, however, that he would be on the far side of the island by now, accompanying the Night-Soil Man, as he did most nights.

Durosimi stepped menacingly towards Philomena, then made a sudden lurch, with the obvious intention of abducting her.

She extended a hand to defend herself, and to the surprise of both, Durosimi was hurled back, as if struck by lightning. From his position on the floor, he looked at her with amazement. He pulled himself up, and stood unsteadily for a few moments.

“I don’t know what you just did, or how you did it, but I’m damned if that is going to stop me…”

He made another lunge, thinking to take her by surprise, but again, Philomena raised her hands in defence, and once more he was thrown backwards, only this time more violently. Philomena stared in disbelief at the figure sprawled apparently unconscious on the floor, fully ten feet away from her; then she raised her eyes towards the shadows at the far end of the room. A grey mist had gathered, and within it there were figures; lots of figures, some more distinct than others. Those whom she could see clearly were definitely women. She could have sworn that one was Granny Bucket, but who were the others?

“This is your heritage, Philomena,” said a voice in her head. It unmistakably belonged to Granny.

The grey mass drifted slowly forward, a swirling mist that flowed over Durosimi’s supine form, as if he did not exist. As the mist drew closer, there appeared to be hundreds of wraiths moving within it, and steadily converging upon her. While some of the company appeared to be of flesh and blood, others were vague shadows, no more solid than the mist that shrouded them. Very much to her own surprise, Philomena was not afraid.

As the ghostly tide engulfed her, some instinct told Philomena that these phantom women were her ancestors, and each one granted the gift, or maybe the curse, of magic. They swarmed around her and their voices echoed in her mind, relating their stories, and telling how the gift would sometimes desert the family for generations, before bursting through once more, when the greatest need arose, like poppy seeds that waited for the harrow in order to flourish. This is how things had been for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, and each wraith had been a wise-woman, a witch, a sorceress, or a seer.   

Granny Bucket shimmered before Philomena, and smiled.

“You, my girl, are the distillation of us all. You have great power… but be careful. ‘The Sight’ was no more than a plaything, the first stirrings of the true magic that is just awakening with you. You need to control it, or it will control you. And Philomena…”

“Yes Granny?” Philomena replied, although she was by no means sure if the words issued from her mouth or her mind.

“We are all Bucket Women, a chain of enchantment stretched for more years than you can comprehend. If you choose to remain childless, you are its last, and strongest, link. This is a decision that you alone can make. Think on it Philomena. Think on it.”

As she said these last words, the mist dispersed and Philomena found herself alone in the Town Hall. Durosimi was gone and the first rays of a pale, Hopeless dawn were struggling to make their presence known through the grimy window panes. She had been here for hours! Had she fallen asleep and it had all been a dream?

A familiar bark broke the silence of the morning and Drury came loping in, his bony tail wagging and obviously happy to see her. Rhys Cranham, the Night Soil Man had just finished his rounds, and was peering through the doorway. As always, Rhys was uncomfortably aware of the all-pervading stench which accompanied him, and was maintaining a respectful distance.

“What the devil are you doing here at this hour, Philomena?” he asked.

“I really have no idea,” she replied. “I think I must have dropped off to sleep after everyone left last night. It’s a pity you weren’t there. It was a grand night, so it was.”

“I wish I could have been,” Rhys replied sadly, “But… well, you know…”

Philomena did, indeed, know. Much as the Night-Soil Man was liked and respected all over the island, his calling made him something of a pariah, for no one could bear to be within yards of his stench. When she first arrived on Hopeless, Philomena had fallen in love with Rhys, after he had virtually saved her life. At the time she had lost all sense of smell, having been subject to an attack of anosmia, as Doc Willoughby had importantly informed her. It was only after she had almost drowned in sea-water, and her nasal-passages flushed clean, that she realised that their love could never be.

“Well, I’m to my bed,” said Rhys, keen to change the subject. “Will there be any left-over Starry-Grabby pie going spare later, by any chance?”

“I daresay there might be,” laughed Philomena, teasingly. “And, who knows, maybe even the odd bottle of Old Colonel. I’ll leave something by your door, don’t fret.”

Rhys grinned, and with a “Bye, then,” waved, and turned to leave. Philomena watched him through the open doorway, as he tramped down the cobbled street, with Drury scampering noisily at his heels.

“Goodbye, my lost love,” she thought to herself, sadly, with Granny’s final words echoing in her mind.

A Beltane Extravaganza

Readers of these tales, and indeed, any article found in ‘The Vendetta’, would quite rightly come to the conclusion that Hopeless is a somewhat dismal and deprived sort of place, subject to all manner of horrors and privations. Having said this, it ought not to be forgotten that when you or I make such judgements, we do so through the lens of our current era, with its relative comforts and sophistication. For Doctor John Dee, however, the sixteenth-century alchemist recently deposited on the island, Hopeless, Maine revealed itself to be a land of comparative freedom and great wonders.

Although having lived a life of privilege as the Court Astronomer to Queen Elizabeth, John Dee walked as much in terror of torture and an agonising death as anyone else in Tudor England; maybe more so, as his interest in the occult was well known. He had narrowly avoided the flames when accused of heresy in the reign of Queen Mary, Elizabeth’s predecessor. So, while Hopeless can be inhospitable, nightmarish and terribly dangerous, the chances of being persecuted by someone for entertaining beliefs contrary to their own, are extremely remote. Well… on reflection, a bit remote, at least.

It was generally agreed that Doctor Dee’s stay on the island was probably going to come to an abrupt end at any moment, for although it was likely that he would be returned to his own era within minutes of his having left, history was not going to sit around forever twiddling its thumbs while Dee took an extended vacation in the future. Perusal of some dusty encyclopaedias, found in one of the attics of The Squid and Teapot, had made it fairly clear that the old alchemist had a lot of things still to accomplish in his remaining years (not that anyone told him this. He would be far too interested in wanting to know what the future held, and not all of it was particularly pleasant).  It was decided, therefore, to organise a festival, of sorts, as a send-off; something special to for the doctor to remember after he had returned home.  Inevitably, the task of putting together such a programme of events fell upon Philomena Bucket, aided, abetted and generally hindered by her faithful friend Drury, the Osseous Hound.

While Hopeless is not rich in resources, the islanders take full advantage of any bounty that the ocean might provide. Nothing goes to waste, and whatever is not immediately required often ends up being stored in The Squid and Teapot. The most prized of these items, to be produced only on the most prestigious of occasions, is the much-cherished Edison-Bell phonograph, and its attendant collection of wax cylinders. This entertaining piece of technology was, Philomena decided, to be the centre-piece of the festival, bringing with it the possibility of dance, song and no small amount of debauchery, if past experience was anything to go by. As the abysmal Hopeless winter had already shuffled itself seamlessly into a similarly abysmal Hopeless spring, and the month of May was looming, she decided to call the event ‘The Beltane Extravaganza’, which, she hoped, would appeal to Doctor Dee’s heretical nature.

At last the great day arrived and, thanks to Philomena’s efforts, everything was ready. The Town Hall was decorated, every spare chair on the island was commandeered, barrels of ‘Old Colonel’ and ‘Gannicox Spirit’ had been rolled into place and a variety of tables, while not actually groaning, complained quietly beneath platters piled high with steaming slices of Starry-Grabby pie. On walls and in alcoves tallow candles and oil-lanterns twinkled; for a few hours, the island of Hopeless, Maine seemed to shrug off its aura of gloom.

Norbert Gannicox, as Master of Ceremonies, introduced the various performers, starting with the Pallid Orphanage choir, who sang an Elizabethan madrigal, especially learned for the occasion. This was sung under the direction of the usually unflappable wraith, Miss Calder, who almost ruined the evening before it began, by inadvertently allowing her face to lapse into its skull-like aspect every time one of the children hit a bum-note. Act after act followed, some using music provided by the phonograph to back their efforts at singing or dancing. People tended to do their party-pieces; Seth Washpool sang a medley of Hopeless sea-shanties, accompanying himself on the spoons and Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet sang ‘Barnacle Bill the Sailor.’

When ‘Les Demoiselles de Hopeless, Maine’ burst on to the stage Doctor Dee almost dropped his tankard of Old Colonel. The phonograph blasted out Offenbach’s ‘Infernal Gallop’ (more often known as ‘The Can-Can’ to most of us) and the five French girls, shipwrecked on the island just a few months earlier, went into their routine with unquenchable enthusiasm. Dee watched goggle-eyed and amazed as they high-kicked, whooped and wiggled their frilly-drawered derrieres in time to the music, much to the delight of the audience. The world that he knew had seen nothing like this, and would not for several hundred years to come. The room had grown suddenly warm and Dee flopped down in his chair, mopping his brow and fanning himself with his cap.

There was only one thing that could possibly follow Les Demoiselles and that was the song that had become Hopeless’ very own anthem. Philomena dutifully fixed the wax cylinder in place on the phonograph, and lowered the circular brass reproducer, with its sapphire needle, on to its surface.  There was an expectant hush, then the unmistakable nasal strains of a strangulated Irish tenor came through the speaker…

“In Dublin’s fair city, where the girls are so pretty…”

Drury’s tail began to wag and a collective smile spread over the faces of the audience. Doctor Dee had heard Philomena singing this, so was well prepared to lurch into the chorus with everyone else, and soon the strains of ‘Alive, alive-o’ were echoing around the room. Just one onlooker failed to join in, or even tap his foot. Durosimi O’Stoat regarded his fellow islanders with nothing short of contempt as they swayed and smiled as they sang.

“What small-minded fools,” he thought. “They have John Dee, one of the history’s greatest occultists, in their midst, and all they can do is try to entertain him with some idiot song about a fishmonger. The sooner I get him back to his own time, and I go with him, the better. All that I need to obtain his full attention is a little bit of leverage in the shape of that Bucket woman, who seems to have beguiled him, for some reason. Now where is she…?”

 The islanders filtered out of the building, many still singing and everyone happy. The evening had been a definite success. Philomena smiled to herself and reflected that, if Doctor Dee was to be suddenly whisked back to Tudor times, he would at least take with him a happy memory of the island. As she watched the last few stragglers leave she decided it would be a good idea to stay an extra half-hour and make sure that the precious phonograph and its cylinders were packed away properly. Ever economical, she doused most of the candles and worked quietly and methodically. Suddenly a movement in the shadows caught her eye.

“Who’s there?” she asked, wishing that Drury had still been with her. As soon as the concert was over he had clattered off to the House at Poo Corner, where Rhys Cranham, the Night-Soil Man would be preparing to start his round.

A lone figure stepped into the dim pool of light cast by a single candle. It was Durosimi O’Stoat.

“Miss Bucket… a word with you, if I might.”

There’s No Place Like Hopeless

Doctor John Dee sat in the bar of The Squid and Teapot, happily chatting to his friends, Norbert Gannicox, Seth Washwell and Bartholomew Middlestreet. Occasionally Philomena Bucket would bustle by with a tray loaded with foaming tankards of Old Colonel and platters of Starry-Grabby pie, while Drury, the osseous hound, lay in front of the fireplace, resembling nothing more than a pile of discarded bones. Over the previous few days Dee had enjoyed a stimulating conversation with the shade of Father Ignatius Stamage, the Jesuit priest who quietly haunted a corner of The Squid, and a surreal encounter with Lady Margaret D’Avening, the phantom Headless Lady who occasionally manifested in the inn’s flushing privy. This was, indeed, the strangest of places, but Dee had no great wish to hurry back to Tudor England, where a wrong word or spiteful allegation could bring imprisonment, torture or an agonising death. Good Queen Bess could be as unforgiving and ruthless as her father, the much-wed Henry, when the mood was upon her, and her spymaster, Francis Walsingham, had eyes and ears everywhere.  No, this island of Hopeless, for all of its attendant horrors and privations, could teach sixteenth century England a thing or two about the rights of man.

There was one fly the proverbial ointment, however; Durosimi O’Stoat. During his lifetime John Dee had come across a lot of men like Durosimi – in fact one or two of these had also been named O’Stoat – and each, without fail, had self-interest as their single driving force. His position as Court Astrologer and fame in the field of alchemy had drawn these people to him, and now, hundreds of years later, it was his reputation that had attracted Durosimi. Dee smiled to himself. While it was cheering to learn that his legacy would be remembered far into the future, it was baffling, as well. Durosimi, like many others, was under the impression that Dee was some great sorcerer with dark and mysterious magical powers. The truth was that, having tried a few unsuccessful experiments, he knew that he had no magic; undeterred, however, he continued to possess a keen, not to say dangerous, interest in all aspects of the natural, and supernatural, worlds. Other than studying the heavens, taking part in the occasional séance and having an aptitude for scrying, he was very much like any other man of rank of his time, except that he was much, much cleverer than most, and he knew it. That’s how he had stayed alive for over sixty years.  

 “Another drink, Doctor?” asked Bartholomew, raising a hand to catch Philomena’s attention. Before he could reply, a pitcher was placed on the table and his tankard refilled. This ale was considerably stronger than that which he was used to, and John Dee was beginning to feel somewhat inebriated.

“I do not like Durosimi O’Stoat,” he suddenly declared, his voice slightly slurred. “I believe him to be a rogue and a scoundrel.”

Seth, Norbert and Bartholomew looked uncomfortably at each other. None would have disagreed with this sentiment, but would never have dared put it into words, especially in so public a setting.

“You see,” continued Dee, “he wants me to go back… go back to Elizabeth’s reign and take him with me. Ha! The fool does not know that I cannot do that, even if I wanted to.”

Dee regarded his friends fondly with glazed, moist eyes and patted Norbert reassuringly on the shoulder.

“And believe me, my most faithful of comrades, I have no wish… no wish at all to leave this most magical of islands…”

With that he belched, smiled weakly, then slid gently off his chair and under the table.  

“Methinks the doctor has overindulged in Hopeless hospitality,” said Seth with a grin.

“Well… if living in Hopeless is a better deal than being in his own time, it must be pretty awful there,” observed Norbert.

“At least we don’t hang, draw and quarter people,” broke in Philomena, who had come to clear the table, then added, “so much for Merrie England!”

“It couldn’t have been all bad,” said Bartholomew, “but like it or not, at some point he’s going to have to return. I looked him up in one of the encyclopaedias up in the attic. By my reckoning he’s got a lot to do at home and another twenty years to do it in. Let’s give him as good a time as we can while he’s here, because, one way or another, he’ll be whisked back to his own time without so much as a by-your-leave.”

“Then maybe we should start by getting him off the floor and into his bed,” said Philomena.

Doctor Dee woke with a headache. He could only imagine that the fog outside had somehow seeped into his brain. Fortunately, a crate of coffee beans had washed up on the beach just a week previously, enabling Philomena to make the doctor the finest hangover cure that she knew. It was with no little trepidation that Dee sampled the dark brew over breakfast. At first he pulled a disgusted face, but as the invigorating effects of the caffeine coursed through his body, he brightened visibly. Doctor Dee decided, there and then, that he liked coffee and would make a point of obtaining more of it (sadly for him, however, he would be dead for forty years before the exotic brew would eventually be brought to Europe).

Meanwhile, on a part of the island far less welcoming than the well-lit warmth and hospitality of The Squid and Teapot, Durosimi O’Stoat sat in his austere study and contemplated the problem of how to wheedle knowledge from Doctor Dee. The man had obviously been lying when he said that he had no idea how he had arrived on the island, and that he had no magic to help him. It was well known that Dee was a powerful sorcerer.  Durosimi was also aware that magicians were renowned for being secretive; in fact, none more so than Durosimi himself.  One way or another he would extract Dee’s knowledge from him, even if it meant chaining him up indefinitely.

Durosimi smiled unpleasantly. A sudden thought had occurred to him. Dee had made no secret of the affection that he felt for the Bucket woman, the Irish barmaid who skivvied in The Squid and Teapot. Maybe she could be the tasty morsel of bait which would hook Doctor Dee in once and for all.

To be continued…

Granny Bucket

Philomena Bucket had not felt completely at ease, ever since her recent and unsettling conversation with Doctor John Dee. The alchemist, having been mysteriously transported to Hopeless from Elizabethan England, was convinced that Philomena was either descended from, or a reincarnation of, a certain Melusine O’Stoat, an erstwhile friend of his who had been burned for heresy.

There were two things about this revelation that particularly disturbed Philomena, the first being that she might be related to the infamous O’Stoat family. More worrying than that, however, was Dee’s insistence that he saw within her powerful magical abilities. Abilities, he promised, that would resist staying hidden for much longer. The truth of the matter was that, while Philomena had no wish to be remotely magical, she was well aware that she was able to see and sense things which were concealed from others. It was what Granny Bucket, back in the Old Country, had referred to as ‘The Sight’. Granny had also alluded to a lot more, but Philomena, having been the girl that she was, decided not to listen to things she had no wish to hear. How she wished that Granny was here now, to help her understand all this, but it was too late; Ireland was three thousand miles away, and Granny was long dead.

The flock of gnii, quietly flapping through the foggy night, cast a pale light through the small window of Philomena’s bedroom in The Squid and Teapot. She had not slept well and had just heard the stately Grandfather clock, sitting proudly in the corner of the bar, strike three. This, in all honesty, means very little, as the clock insists on striking three at various random moments throughout the day and night (one can only assume that it has a particular fondness for the sorts of things that might happen at three o’clock). On this occasion, however, the sepulchral chimes seemed to act as a clarion call, summoning an unseen presence to Philomena’s room.

The first indication for the barmaid that she was not completely alone was the sensation that someone was sitting on the corner of her bed. Although the light afforded by the migrating gnii was poor, it was enough to establish that the mattress was slightly depressed, with a faint, vaguely person-shaped apparition shimmering above it.  Philomena was not unduly concerned; she had encountered enough ghosts on the island to know that most were harmless, but this was the first time that one had ventured into her bedroom.

“Who’s there?” she asked, not really expecting an answer.

“Jaisus, Mary and Joseph, Philomena, do you not recognise your old granny anymore?” said the shimmer, with annoyance.

“Granny? Is that really you?” asked Philomena, incredulous.

“Of course it is, you great geebag! Has death changed me that much?”

“Granny,” said Philomena patiently, “I can’t see you at all. You’re just a bit of flickering moonlight to me.”

“Blast!” exclaimed Granny, “I’m always forgetting to adjust to the non-astral. Hold on a second.”

Philomena watched in wonder as the indistinct shape before her was transformed into Granny Bucket.

“Granny!” cried Philomena with delight, throwing herself forward to hug her much-missed ancestor. Granny remained much-missed, however, as Philomena’s arms closed around nothing.

“Oh, you’re not really here, then?” she said, sadly.

“I’m as much here as you are, girl,” said Granny crossly, “except that my ‘here’ and your ‘here’ aren’t in quite the same dimension.”

Philomena nodded. She had come across a similar obstacle with Margery Toadsmoor, Miss Calder and other ghostly friends. She had vainly hoped that Granny might be a little bit more corporeal.

“Anyway,” said Granny in her no-nonsense way, “why did you call me?”

“I haven’t called you,” said Philomena. “Although, you’ve been on my mind a lot lately.”

“I know, and that was enough to drag me back to you. It’s that Doctor Dee, isn’t it? He’s been telling you stuff – stuff that you ought to have known if you had listened to me in the first place.”

Philomena looked at her old ancestor with some surprise.

“He is right, then? I’m an O’Stoat? Not a Bucket?” she asked.

“Of course you’re a Bucket,” snapped Granny. “Melusine O’Stoat was a Bucket too, originally, but she defied family tradition and took her husband’s surname – and all for the sake of vanity, if you ask me! O’Stoat was a powerful wizard, right enough, but the cowardly dog dashed back to Ireland after the English burned his wife, leaving his children – his own flesh and blood – behind, in the care of his in-laws, the Buckets.”

“And I am descended from them…” said Philomena, blankly. “So all that Doctor Dee said is true. I am a witch.”

“So now the penny drops!” said Granny, exasperated. “All of the Bucket women have been witches, for more than a thousand years, but it’s not a thing we talk about. Too dangerous by far, even in these relatively enlightened times.”

“Doctor Dee said I have great abilities… “ began Philomena.

“Doctor Dee says! Doctor Dee says!” ranted Granny. “Who cares what Doctor Dee says? Know yourself, girl. Yes, for some reason you have more magic in you that any of your ancestors, including Melusine, or me. I don’t know why. Maybe coming to this god-forsaken island has something to do with it.  It’s something you’ll have to learn to live with.”

“Doctor… ” began Philomena, then hurriedly corrected herself, “I was told that this power is like a wild horse straining to be free.”

“And so it is,” said Granny. “So you better learn to ride, and pretty damn’ quick. Be careful, my girl, it won’t be easy.”

With that warning Granny’s shade began to fade, until it was no more than a brief evanescence.

Philomena peered helplessly into the darkness. Sobs shook her body and tears streamed down her pale face.

There was a distant noise in her head, a noise that she had not heard for some years, not since she had left the Coal Quay of Cork, as a stowaway on the merchant ship ‘Hetty Pegler’. It was the unmistakable sound of galloping hooves, and they were getting nearer.

The Cursed Letter Opener of Otley Chevin

Otley Chevin inherited the letter opener on the day when he found it inside his great aunt. Given the state of her remains, it was hard to tell whether some person unknown had stabbed her with it, or whether she had simply had a funny turn while holding it and had fallen onto it. That is was between her shoulderblades would have encouraged some people to infer murder. However, Otley knew his Aunt Maud well enough not to jump to that conclusion. 

The winter before, there had been an accident where Maud had been found, pinned to the inside of her front door, by the very same letter opener. At the time she had explained to Otley that she’d been trying to deal with a massive spider on the ceiling and had fallen from the chair that had been serving as a ladder, and that the letter opener had slipped somehow, going right through the skin on her shoulder and trapping her against the door.

It was the letter opener with which Maud’s father, Asparagus Chevin, had cut his own throat. Which given that the letter opener was barely equal to cutting paper, must have been a long and rather unpleasant sort of process.

If there was a story about where the letter opener had come from, Otley had never heard it. He supposed it had to be from the family’s pre-island days, when they lived somewhere that people sent letters to each other rather than just going round and yelling outside each other’s houses like normal people. Great Aunt Maud certainly couldn’t read, and didn’t think her father could read either. Now Otley, equally unskilled in letters in every sense of that term, was the possessor of a letter opener that he had no obvious use for. A letter opener that, at this point had been involved in two hideous deaths. 

Three if you counted that time Herb Chevin used it to kill Heebie Chevin after he died and was buried and then came back again. That one was contentious. Does it really count as killing someone if they’d definitely already been dead once?

Otley buried his aunt in her back garden. Partly because it was what she would have wanted, partly because moving her sticky remains round in pieces on a shovel was pretty undignified and putting in her in a wheelbarrow to get her to church didn’t seem like the right thing either.

He took the letter opener home, and gave it pride of place on the mantelpiece, having moved half a skull and a couple of odd looking stones out of the way. He liked the way the pretty handle caught the light. He was so busy admiring it that he nearly tripped over the hearth rug and barely saved himself from falling face first into the fire. 

(With thanks to Andy Arbon for the prompt and the letter opener.)

A Remarkable Resemblance

Nothing stays secret on Hopeless, Maine, for very long. News that a visitor from the sixteenth century was staying in The Squid and Teapot had caused ripples of surprise all over the island, almost before he had been offered a room at the inn. While others only marvelled that their little island home should be graced by a traveller of such antiquity, Durosimi O’Stoat was excited beyond words, although, of course, he would never admit to entertaining such a vulgar emotion. What had captured Durosimi’s undivided attention was the fact that he had heard the name ‘John Dee’ being bandied around. While no one else on Hopeless had any idea who John Dee was, or had been, Durosimi knew him to be the Astrologer Royal to Queen Elizabeth of England, an alchemist and scholar, respectable occupations for a man of his era. Durosimi, however, was also aware of Dee’s reputation as a necromancer and a magician. Here was a man after his own heart, someone unafraid to open forbidden doors to dangerous secrets. And John Dee was now residing in The Squid and Teapot!

Durosimi was not known for being attracted to such common places, but for the chance of meeting John Dee, he would have happily taken tea in the Night-Soil Man’s front parlour.

“Might I be of some assistance?” he had asked innocently, from his seat in the corner of the snug. Bartholomew and Ariadne Middlestreet, Philomena Bucket and Norbert Gannicox turned their heads as one at the sound of his voice. They had no idea that anyone else was in the room while they were discussing the strange events that had brought Dee to the island.

“John Dee. I understand that he is a guest here. I may be able to help in returning him to…” Durosimi paused, searching for the right words. Finding nothing appropriate he added “… returning him to his loved ones.”

Philomena shuddered involuntarily. Although the voice was full of charm, she imagined it was how a particularly well-mannered spider might sound as it invited you into its web.

“That would be up to Doctor Dee,” said Bartholomew, coldly. He had never liked, or trusted Durosimi.

“Indeed,” replied Durosimi. “But I am keen to speak to the good doctor. I have always been a great admirer of his work. Please be good enough to give him an invitation to my home, at his convenience, of course.”

With that he stood up, gave them a stiff nod of his head, and stalked out. There was, for a few seconds, a stunned silence.

“Always been an admirer of his work?” said Ariadne scornfully. “What a load of rubbish. Why, the doctor hasn’t been on the island for five minutes.”

“I’m not so sure it’s rubbish,” said Norbert. “Dee’s a rum character, and no mistake. You should have seen the room we first met him in. O’Stoat would have given an eye to have some of the playthings we saw there. I reckon our Doctor Dee is more famous than any of us know.”  

“That’s as maybe,” said Philomena, “but an invitation is an invitation. We’ll have to tell him.”

It was over a pint of Old Colonel and a hefty slice of Starry-Grabby pie that Doctor Dee learned of Durosimi’s invitation.

“O’Stoat,” he said, ruminatively chewing a particularly tough bit of tentacle. “Yes… O’Stoat. Of course… Melusine O’Stoat! That’s who she reminds me of.”

“Sorry… who reminds you of Mellers.. Melons… whatever her name was?” asked Bartholomew, pouring him another drink.

“Melusine? Oh, Mistress Bucket looks very much like her. In fact, the resemblance is remarkable.”

“I don’t think that Philomena is related to the O’Stoats,” said Bartholomew. “This Melus… woman, is she a friend of yours?”

“She was, many years ago, yes,” said Dee, sadly. “Burned for heresy, I regret to say, during Mary’s reign, as I almost was myself. But I am positive that Mistress Bucket must be her descendant.”

Bartholomew said nothing. He was by no means sure how pleased – or otherwise – Philomena might be to hear that she was possibly related to the O’Stoats.

John Dee downed his second pint of Old Colonel, smacked his lips and said,

“But yes, I’ll meet with this O’Stoat fellow. They were a family famous for their dabbling in all sorts of magical arts, not all of them safe, in my day. It will be interesting to see how their line has progressed.”

“Or not,” thought Bartholomew, but was wise enough to keep his own counsel.

“I’ll ask Philomena to take you along to Durosimi’s home tomorrow,” he said, instead. “It will be a chance for you to see some of the island… and maybe you can tell her about Melons.”

“Melusine,” corrected Dee.

It had taken Doctor Dee half of the following morning to be convinced that Drury was not a Hell-Hound. Having been confronted by an irate spoonwalker, felt the gaze of the eyes in the sky, and then embarrassingly surprised by Lady Margaret D’Avening, the Headless Lady who haunted the privy of The Squid and Teapot, he decided that a skeletal dog was not that unusual after all, and the pair became quite friendly. This was just as well, for whenever Philomena went for a walk, Drury insisted on tagging along.

Philomena found the doctor to be both attentive and interesting company, and easy to talk to. She found herself telling him about her childhood in Ireland and her voyage, stowing-away on the ship that brought her to Hopeless. She even burst into a few verses of ‘Molly Malone.’ Like Drury, Dee was particularly taken with the chorus of ‘Alive, alive-oh’, joining in enthusiastically.

“That’s a good song,” he said. “I must tell young Will Kempe. He’s one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Master Shakespeare’s company of actors. You’ve heard of Master Shakespeare?”

“Oh yes,” said Philomena, “but not Will Kempe.”

“That surprises me,” said Dee. “He is as famous as Will Shakespeare in my time. Do you know, he danced all the way from London to Norwich. One hundred and twenty-five difficult miles. It took him nine days. The Nine Days’ Wonder, they called it… and you, dear Mistress Bucket, you too are a wonder, do you not know?”

Philomena’s pale face reddened slightly,

“Doctor Dee, I believe that you are a married man… “ she began nervously, but before she could say any more,  Dee interrupted.

“My dear young lady, please do not misunderstand me. All I meant was that you are someone who possesses great power, though you may not know it. I recognised you as being a descendant of Mistress Melusine O’Stoat, a wise woman and seer, and I see in you even greater abilities than were hers.”

Philomena’s face reddened even deeper.

“I’m nothing to do with the O’Stoats,” she said, defensively. “Surely you must be mistaking me with someone else.”

John Dee took Philomena by the shoulders and allowed his fierce blue eyes to bore into hers.

“No. Believe me, Mistress Bucket, I know power when I see it, and yours is greater than mine will ever be. It is like a wild horse, just waiting to be set free. If you are not her descendant, then I honestly believe you to be Melusine O’Stoat reborn.”

Philomena gulped.

“I can’t believe that. I don’t feel very powerful” she said. “Please, Doctor Dee, don’t tell this to anyone else… especially Durosimi O’Stoat.”

Dee smiled. “If that is your wish,” he said. “Why, I believe that is Master O’Stoats abode ahead. I will leave you now, Mistress Bucket. Do not ignore what I have told you. Magical power such as yours will find its way out eventually.”

Just then Durosimi appeared at his door and strode down the pathway, greeting John Dee and totally ignoring Philomena.

“There is no way on this earth that I am an O’Stoat,” she thought to herself grimly.

Somewhere, in the far recesses of her mind, she could hear Granny Bucket chuckling.

Just One Thing After Another…

Doctor John Dee, Astrologer Royal, alchemist and occasional necromancer, still cut a handsome figure, despite his years.

This was not the first thought that entered Philomena Bucket’s head as she looked about her. When she had embarked upon a stroll through the tunnels, deep beneath The Squid and Teapot, with Norbert Gannicox, Bartholomew Middlestreet and the now-absent Drury, the osseous hound, she little thought that she would find herself in Tudor England before the day was out. But here they were, and standing before them was the man who had introduced himself as Doctor John Dee. Famous as Dee had become, however, none of the tunnel-explorers had heard his name before, but the décor of the room in which they stood gave every clue as to his many interests.  His shelves were filled with a variety of impressive-looking instruments, which had they known it, could have been identified as astrolabes, armillary spheres, quadrants and sextants, to name but a few. Skeletons of various birds and animals hung from the rafters (Philomena half-expected to see Drury amongst them) while malformed foetuses, preserved reptiles and human brains lurked worryingly in heavy glass jars. Every wall was festooned with a series of anatomical, astrological, alchemical and nautical charts, whilst books from his large library were piled on every available surface. Here was clutter indeed, but clutter of an infinitely superior nature to any found on the island of Hopeless, Maine.

If the three had found the contents of Dee’s study to be strange, they found his accent stranger, though perfectly intelligible. After all, he was a highly educated man who spoke the English of Shakespeare (although, I suspect he never knowingly conversed in iambic pentameters). Above all, John Dee was courteous to his unexpected visitors.

“Welcome to my humble home,” he said, spreading his arms expansively. No sooner were the words out of his mouth, however, than the fabric of the room seemed to dissolve around them, with Dee looking even more surprised than the others. They were falling, falling through a kaleidoscope of people and places, light and darkness, until things began to slow and gloom gave way to brilliant sunshine…

“Stowaways in the jolly boat” cried a harsh voice, and Philomena found herself being dragged by the arms on to the deck of a large sailing ship. A throng of rough and unkempt men had gathered about them.  

“What have we here then? Who’s the geezer in the frock?”  

Philomena thought the speaker was referring to her, but realised that everyone’s attention was focussed on John Dee, tall, bearded and stately in his long velvet robe. Despite his discomfort at being addressed so, the alchemist managed to remain dignified.

“Never mind him,” said another voice, “look what I’ve found!”

Now it was Philomena’s turn to be the centre of attention. She spun around and, with her free hand, hit her captor hard in the face. The experiences of the day so far had given her a sense of unreality, and so she was surprised when he hit her back, and it hurt.

“Tricky little vixen,” said a cultured British voice. “I think I had best take charge now, don’t you bosun?”

The newcomer, obviously the captain, took hold of Philomena, securing both of her arms in his firm hands.

“What about the others, Cap’n Vane,” asked the bosun, still hoping that the woman might be passed around after the captain had finished with her.

“Fish food. That’s all they’re good for,” Charles Vane replied, with a dismissive gesture

A cheer went up, and Bartholomew, Norbert and Doctor Dee found themselves being pushed towards the side of the ship.

“This can’t be happening,” thought Philomena, somewhat prophetically, for it suddenly was not happening. The astonished captives saw the ship and its crew disappear before their very eyes, and once more they were falling through time and space into a field of smoke and noise…

Captain Louis Nolan could not believe his eyes.  He was leading a hare-brained cavalry dash into the jaws of death, and four civilians had suddenly appeared in their way, as if from nowhere. It would take the horsemen very little time to cover the mile-and-a-half to reach their objective, and these four, if they didn’t get blown to bits by cannon-fire, would be trampled underfoot in less than a minute.

John Dee could only think that he had died and gone to Hell. The previous episode had been bad enough, but now he appeared to be witnessing warfare between two sets of demons. The ones on horseback would soon be upon them, with their brazen hooves and flashing swords and spears. He closed his eyes and wished that he had spent his life dabbling in less heretical pursuits.

Was there a man dismayed? I’ll say there was. And a woman. Philomena, Norbert and Bartholomew stood huddled and totally bewildered by their predicament. There were cannon to the right of them, cannon to the left of them, and hundreds of stampeding horses with armed soldiers on their backs bearing down at great speed. Taking Dee’s lead, they closed their eyes and prayed to who – or whatever might be listening.

Captain Nolan, still leading the charge, veered his horse to the left in a noble attempt to avoid careering into the four. He paid for this manoeuvre by catching a Russian bullet in the neck. As he fell, dying, from his steed it crossed his mind that he had been mistaken. The way ahead was clear. The four had disappeared. No one had been impeding charge of the Light Brigade.

This time the travellers knew what to expect, and gave in with grace to the sensation of falling. Whatever was causing these things seemed to be kind enough to remove them, in the nick of time, from the scrape they found themselves in, but the trepidation of not knowing what horrors awaited was still unnerving.

The auditorium of Ford’s Theatre, in Washington was hushed, the lights dimmed and the orchestra struck up ‘Hail to the Chief’, a tune unfamiliar to the party of four who found themselves in very plush and comfortable surroundings for once.

“There must be someone important watching this play tonight,” said Norbert, as the audience burst into cheers and applause as the final strains died away. They craned their heads to see who the ovation might be for, when the spotlight fell upon a box at the side of the auditorium, where a tall, spare-framed man had got to his feet, his hand raised in acknowledgement. Philomena thought dimly that she recognised the lean, bearded face.

The play was fairly tedious, but when the heroine of the piece asked for a seat, away from the draught, and the hero responded, to a certain amount of polite laughter,

“The draft has already been stopped, by orders of the president.”

The President! Philomena sat up straight, and realised, with a sinking feeling in her stomach, exactly where they were.

“We need to be out of here,” she said to the others, urgently. “There will be trouble before long, and with the way things have been going, we’ll be drawn into it.”

“That will make a change,” said Norbert drily. “Where’s the exit?”

Just then they heard a bark.

“Since when do they allow dogs in theatres?” asked Bartholomew, then turned to see a familiar bony figure standing in the corner.

“Drury!” exclaimed Philomena.

“It’s the Hell-Hound,” wailed Dee, shrinking back into his seat and receiving some irate ‘shushes’ for his trouble.

“Grab him and let’s go” said Philomena.

Norbert and Bartholomew took the reluctant alchemist by the armpits and manhandled him to the back of the theatre, where Drury was waiting.

“Quick,” hissed Philomena, and they fled through a curtained opening, Dee still complaining about Hell-Hounds, just as a shot was fired.

The air behind the curtain was cold but welcoming.

“We’re back in the tunnels,” said Norbert, relief in his voice.

“Come on, our lanterns are still over there and they’re alight. It’s as though we have not been away for more than a minute or two,” said Bartholomew.

The journey back seemed to pass surprisingly quickly. They walked again through the great chamber, where the sconces on the walls still flared brightly. Then they came to the staircase, long and steep, which led to the cellar of The Squid and Teapot.

“So this is the enchanted isle of which Saint Brendan wrote,” said Dee, looking about him. “Might I find lodgings here, Master Middlestreet?”

Bartholomew liked the sound of ‘Master Middlestreet’.

“By all means Doctor Dee. Stay as long as you will.”

“Welcome to Hopeless, Maine” said Philomena. “And you may call me Mistress Bucket!”

An hour or so later, after a somewhat bewildered, but unaccountably happy, Doctor Dee had retired to one of the guest-rooms of inn, Bartholomew, Norbert and Philomena sat, with Bartholomew’s wife, Ariadne, in the snug of The Squid and Teapot, trying to make sense of all that had happened.

“It was as though we were being dropped through history,” said Bartholomew, thoughtfully.

“Or maybe it was all no more than an illusion,” offered Ariadne.

“None of that felt like an illusion,” said Philomena, recalling the blow that the pirate had dealt her. “And Doctor Dee is real enough. Maybe he might have some idea what happened to us.”

“Don’t bank on it,” laughed Ariadne. “He looked more confused than the rest of you put together.”

“I can see why Sebastian Lypiatt wanted to get rid of the key to the tunnels,” said Norbert, sipping his sarsaparilla, referring to the old key that had been sent to his grandfather, a century before.

“Yes,” said Bartholomew, “That passage should be locked forever, and the key put where no one will ever find it. Maybe Doctor Dee can take it back to his own time – if he can ever get there, that is.”

So intent had the four been on their conversation that they had not noticed the lone figure who had wandered in, and settled himself quietly in the corner.

“Might I be of some assistance?” he asked.

To be continued…

The Obsidian Cliff

Doctor John Dee, alchemist and Court Astrologer to Good Queen Bess, was seeking, through the medium of his scrying-bowl, visions of lands and events far away in time and space. When the clouds had cleared from the dark waters of the bowl, several things had been revealed to the doctor, a few of which he actually understood. Most exciting, however, was the glimpse of three figures exploring the tunnels that wound beneath a mysterious island. This particular vision was especially enthralling, as Dee was convinced that here was the island mentioned by the legendary navigator, Saint Brendan, as being a portal to other worlds. Unfortunately for Doctor Dee his viewing was ruined when the antics of a skeletal dog, or ‘Hell Hound’ as he described it, upset him to such a degree that he had to stop watching.

You will have gathered, by now of course, that the island in question was Hopeless Maine, and the old Elizabethan’s Hell Hound was none other than dear old Drury, the dog who refused to acknowledge that he had died. It took the good doctor some hours to recover, but eventually he boldly decided to light a candle and fill the bowl once more, in the hope that he could find once again this strange land that he one day planned to visit.

Norbert Gannicox, Bartholomew Middlestreet and Philomena Bucket had been concerned that their candle-lanterns would expire before they could get out of the tunnels. It was with some relief, therefore, when they spotted daylight ahead. Upon closer inspection Philomena declared that she could see fog swirling some yards away at the tunnel’s mouth.

“Good old Hopeless Fog,” she had said and, after hours of darkness, it filled their hearts with cheer. Then Norbert had a thought.

“Be careful, Philomena,” he cautioned, “don’t go dashing outside. We must have descended a good two hundred feet or more before getting into the main cavern, and I can’t say we’ve climbed a lot since then. If we’re that far down, this must be an entrance from the cliff-face. All you’ll find on the other side of that hole is fresh air and the Atlantic Ocean.”

The faces of the other two fell, and they regarded the spluttering and stunted candles in their lanterns with some consternation.

“We’d best turn around now, and hope for the best,” said Bartholomew.

They turned to leave, when out of the darkness bounded Drury. He was about to throw his bony frame on to Philomena, as was his wont, when he spotted the foggy tunnel mouth ahead. With a cheerful bark he galloped through the gap before anyone could stop him.

“Drury…” yelled Philomena, her voice filled with panic. Even if Drury was seemingly immortal, a long drop into a raging ocean would carry him far from Hopeless, where his undead status might have little meaning.

After a second or two the dog’s inquisitive skull poked through the mist at the tunnel’s mouth, as if to say, “You called?”

Philomena regarded her friend with some surprise, and then it occurred to her that if Drury could go through with no mishap, then so could she. Without a word to the others she purposefully strode into the fog.

Bartholomew looked at Norbert with a mixture of dismay and resignation.

“Here we go again,” he said, and, as one, they followed in the barmaid’s footsteps.

It had been Philomena’s resolve to pursue Drury that had drawn the three into the labyrinth, far beneath The Squid and Teapot, in the first place. While, at that point, it would have been easy to have turned back, this latest venture was a definite leap of faith. After all, they were on the island of Hopeless, Maine, and anything was possible.

They appeared to have wandered into a sheltered valley, of sorts. The mist swirled about them, but seemed to be gradually thinning. The ground beneath their feet was smooth and hard, not at all like the usual rocky terrain of the island.

“Look at these cliffs,” said Philomena. “They’re like none that I’ve seen before… almost artificial.”

The others had to agree. For as far as the eye could see, the unbroken line of the cliff face rose smooth and black and totally unclimbable. For a while they followed its curve, but found no way out, and the foggy entrance through which they had entered was nowhere to be found.  A soft yellow light suffused the sky above them, giving a clear view of the featureless and unremitting landscape in which they stood. Then Philomena happened to glance up through the thinning mist, and let out a completely uncharacteristic scream.

John Dee watched the mists clear from his simple, obsidian scrying-bowl. His mind was quiet as he waited for the visions to materialise, and his heart leapt to see, once more, the three explorers on the mysterious island. The Hell-Hound was nowhere about, thankfully. Maybe it had returned to the infernal pit, where it belonged.

The woman and her male companions seemed to be wandering through some sort of cavern. They looked confused and frightened, running their hands along the dark walls, obviously searching for some point of egress. Something stirred in Dee’s mind, and he allowed himself to look closer at the scene beneath him, being careful not to touch the water. A second later he almost fell off his seat in surprise as the woman peered up from the depths of the bowl, looked him squarely in the eye and, with terror written all over her face, opened her mouth in a silent scream.

“She can see me!” he said aloud to himself.

“Did you see that face?” asked Philomena Bucket, as she sank to the floor, her voice trembling,

The others shook their heads; they had genuinely seen nothing unusual.

“It was awful,” said Philomena, composing herself. “Not an awful face, I don’t mean that. It was just so… so huge. It filled up all of the sky. I can’t believe you didn’t see it.”

The others shook their heads again. They did not disbelieve Philomena. It was well known on the island that she was in receipt of that dubious gift known as ‘The Sight’. If Philomena claimed to have seen something weird, then no one disputed it. 

“Do you think it was God?” she asked nervously, and slightly concerned, as they had not been on speaking terms for some years.

“I wouldn’t have thought so,” said Bartholomew. “More like the other fellow. Don’t forget, this is Hopeless.”

“He didn’t look particularly good or evil,” reflected Philomena. “Just a bit old, beardy and bewildered.”

“Well, I guess it’s gone now, who or whatever it was,” said Norbert. “Let’s get out of here before it comes back and brings some friends. I don’t like this place. Give me the tunnels any day.”

Doctor Dee pulled off his cap and scratched his head. In all of his years of scrying, he had never been seen by the object of his attentions; it was unheard of. Impossible even. And those people… they appeared to be actually walking in his scrying bowl. He could see its obsidian sides towering above them. That was impossible too. However, impossible or not, if any tiny people were in the bowl they would be placed in a gilded cage and presented as a gift to Her Majesty.

Dee beamed quietly to himself, thinking of the honours and riches such a novelty would reap.

He carried the bowl into a small chamber, annexed to his study. On the floor of the chamber was inscribed a magical diagram, composed of two circles, in which was drawn a pentagram, two heptagons and a heptagram. All around the edges of these symbols could be seen a collection of letters, both Greek and Latin, along with arcane words, said to be the secret name of the God of the Old Testament, and all of his angels. The whole made up the Sigillum Dei, an amulet said to give an initiated magician power over all living things. With care and reverence Dee laid the bowl in its centre and began to chant.

The room grew darker, until all light, except a pale glow emanating from the surface of the scrying-bowl, was extinguished. Then there was a small explosion, and Doctor Dee passed out.

“I have no idea how we get out of here,” said Norbert despairingly. “It was Drury who got us in, he should get us out.”

“There’s no sign of him anywhere,” said Philomena, sadly.

Just then the gentle yellow light that had lit their time beneath the obsidian walls was dimmed, and it was as if the whole world was being turned upside-down. The three of them were thrown roughly off their feet, tumbling over and over through a starless sky.

“Oh, what now?” thought Philomena, testily, just before she drifted into unconsciousness.

Doctor Dee awoke to find the room in chaos. There were scorch marks on the walls, the Sigillum Dei had been wiped clean from the floor and the obsidian bowl upturned. Stranger still, the three explorers were sprawled inelegantly across the floor. They were full-sized, barely conscious and looking not a little bemused. Dee peered across at them and cleared his throat.

“Good morrow,” he said politely, as though all that had occurred was the most natural thing in the world. “Allow me to introduce myself…”

To be continued…