Category Archives: Tales from the Squid and Teapot

Scilly Point

As has been mentioned previously in ‘The Vendetta’, towards the close of the nineteenth century, two Norwegian-born Americans, Frank Samuelsen and George Harbo, successfully rowed across the Atlantic. Setting off from New York they made landfall on The Isles of Scilly, just fifty five days later.

Although the achievement was not widely reported, the news eventually reached Hopeless, Maine some fifteen years after the event, via a large piece of flotsam. This was washed ashore in the shape of a tea chest, in which a few old newspapers had been unsuccessfully used to protect some rather expensive crockery.

 

There are several families living on Hopeless who are able to trace their ancestry back for more than nine centuries. These are the descendants of British slaves, transported here when Vikings settled on the island. At some point, in the last two hundred years, one such family, who had for generations been known as Mearthelinga, updated their name to Marling. While the name Marling is far easier to pronounce and spell than Mearthelinga, Mr. Cyril Marling always regretted his ancestors’ decision. Instead of some proud Anglo-Saxon moniker that might have shaped his destiny in a completely different way, he had been gifted, instead, with a name that reminded him of a fish. Admittedly, a marlin tends to be a large and somewhat formidable creature but when all is said and done, it is still a fish. Then there was the matter of his first name….

Throughout his life Mr. Marling had found that to be called ‘Cyril’ had always been something of a bully-magnet. It somehow indicated its bearer to be mild-mannered, studious and bespectacled, although Cyril Marling was none of these things. And so, when his sons were born, he turned a deaf ear to his wife’s protestations and decided that they would be given names to live up to. His boys would proudly bear the appellations of great explorers, then maybe they could make their mark upon the world.  Sadly, like so many others on Hopeless, Mr and Mrs Marling disappeared under mysterious circumstances before they had chance to see their boys grow up.

It was, therefore, the dismal fate of little Humboldt Marling and his younger brother, Magellan, to one day find their young selves languishing in the boys’ dormitory of the Pallid Rock Orphanage.

 

Unsurprisingly, the Marling boys fared no better with the bullies than had their father. What Cyril had failed to realise was that bullies the world over will latch on to whatever is available in order to bestow pain and derision upon their victims – and let’s face it, the names Humboldt and Magellan are quite substantial somethings upon which to latch. It is little wonder, therefore, that the boys looked only to each other for companionship, eventually becoming painfully and resolutely reclusive. As soon as they were old enough to take care of themselves they fled the orphanage and sought shelter as far away from its grim walls as was possible.

 

Due to the aforementioned phenomena of disappearing adults, Hopeless has many abandoned buildings littering its coastline, all in various states of disrepair. The Marling brothers’ chosen abode was an elderly, tumbledown, shack that squatted precariously on a headland, overlooking a sheltered cove. Although its best days were far behind it, the shack looked reasonably habitable if you held your head to one side and squinted. Once they had evicted the puddle rats that had taken up residence and boarded up the windows, the old place felt almost comfortable.

 

The boys were in their teens when the tea-chest arrived on their shore. With a great deal of excitement they prised open its top, only be disappointed with the contents. They had hoped for food, or at least something to barter at The Squid and Teapot. The landlord, Sebastian Lypiatt, could always be relied upon to give them a good deal but today not even Sebastian could have helped. The tea-chest contained nothing but old, crumpled-up newspapers and the ruined pieces of china that those inky pages were supposed to have saved from breaking. Despondent, the boys smashed up the chest for firewood and put aside the paper to help ignite it when the winter came.

 

Winter did come with a vengeance, at the close of 1911. The two were glad of the driftwood and kindling that they had gathered. It crackled and spat in their leaky little stove but served to keep them warm during that chilly December.

It was one morning, just after Christmas, that Humboldt was making firelighters from his supply of old newspapers, when he spotted the article concerning the Atlantic oarsmen, Samuelsen and Harbo. He read with wonder about the two intrepid adventurers who had taken a rowing boat from New York to somewhere called the Isles of Scilly, in England. Humboldt had no idea how far away England was, or how difficult such a venture might be but his imagination was immediately fired with an unquenchable enthusiasm. It took little effort to infect his brother with a similar passion and there and then the two resolved to emulate the feat of Samuelsen and Harbo and leave Hopeless forever, living up to the explorers’ names that their parents had bestowed upon them.

 

“Of course,” said Humboldt,  “we’ll have to wait until spring but that’s fine as there will be many preparations to be made. We will need provisions for the voyage. I guess at least one change of underwear each as well. The weather might get bad so probably some rudimentary shelter for us on the boat…”  His voice trailed off and his face fell. In his haste he had forgotten the, not inconsiderable, matter of not actually having a boat in which to make the trip. Then he brightened.

“April is four months away. That’ll be plenty if time for us to get hold of a boat.”

 

It seems to me, in unearthing these tales, that on Hopeless, Maine the old adage about being careful what you wish for is worryingly apt. I may be being fanciful here but I sometimes get the idea that the island – or something connected to it – is listening, making notes and taking a certain malevolent glee in granting wishes.

 

Humboldt and Magellan were thrilled but not particularly surprised, when, on one foggy morning in early April, an unmanned rowing boat appeared in their cove. There was a heavy yellow tarpaulin and a coil of rope neatly stowed under one of its seats and two pairs of oars lying along its length. Where it came from was a mystery that the boys had no wish to solve. Here was their passage to England, which lay somewhere to the east. By rowing in the direction of the rising sun they would be certain to reach their destination. What could possibly go wrong?

 

Before leaving, Humboldt fashioned a rough sign, which he hammered into the ground. Their cove, which had never been specifically named, had now become ‘Scilly Point’ in honour of their intended destination, and Scilly Point has been its name ever since.

 

Things did not go quite as planned for our brave explorers. The Atlantic ocean, which they had only ever glimpsed through a foggy haze, was far rougher and less predictable than either had expected. After only only a few days out they had become hopelessly lost, totally at the mercy of the wind and waves and surrounded by sea-ice. Had they known it, they were wildly off course and floundering about four hundred miles south of Newfoundland. Things were not looking good. The boys huddled together in the bottom of their little rowing boat, frightened and exhausted in the darkness,and fearing the worst.

 

At the orphanage, Reverend Crackstone had often told the children that righteous souls need not fear death, but when the time came, the Angel Gabriel himself would ferry them to heaven in a great chariot of fire. In view of this, Humboldt and Magellan felt no surprise when the stygian darkness that had surrounded them was banished by a great beam of light, brighter than either had ever seen. They felt a certain degree of apprehension, however, when Gabriel hailed them in a nasal, Liverpudlian accent,

“Ahoy there, you young buggers. Are you coming aboard or do you want to stay there all night?”

They peered out, only to be dazzled by the beam of a spotlight. A boat had pulled up close by – a tender from a cruise liner – and rough hands pulled the two to safety. Within half an hour they were huddled aboard the liner, wrapped in blankets and drinking hot cocoa, which neither had tasted before. It was then that an important-looking man in an impressive nautical uniform came up to them. To their relief he smiled.

“ It is not every day that one has the privilege of rescuing such brave young adventurers from death,” he said, kindly. The gilding on the peak of his cap glittered in the cheerful lights of the upper-deck where a small orchestra was playing popular tunes of the day.

“Don’t worry, chaps, we’ll have you safely back on American soil in a couple of days,” he said reassuringly. The sailor turned to leave, then checked himself, stopping abruptly.

“I do beg your pardon, you must think me very rude,” he said apologetically. “Please allow me to introduce myself. I am Captain Edward Smith of The White Star Line. It gives me great pleasure to officially welcome you aboard my ship, the R.M.S. Titanic.”

Art by Tom Brown

 

Advertisements

Counting Crows

For this tale we re-visit Hopeless as it was in the days when young Randall Middlestreet was the island’s Night-Soil Man…

It was almost midnight when Clarence Coaley and his younger brother, Cuthbert slipped out of the orphanage. Since Reverend Crackstone’s disappearance the place had become intolerable. Crackstone had been strict in the extreme – some would say even brutal – but with his going no one bothered preventing the bullies from having their own way any more. It had reached the point where the need to escape far outweighed the risks of wandering the island during the hours of darkness. Besides, Clarence knew of a secret cave; he was sure it would be the perfect place for them to hide.


Although Hopeless is not a particularly large island, there are plenty of places where anyone intent on staying hidden can do so with very little effort. What serves to concentrate the mind, however, is the need to avoid being eaten, maimed, driven mad or transformed into something rather disgusting. It is a safe bet that if you have found a dark and secluded place you are probably not alone. On this island, dark and secluded places are a favourite haunt of the sort of creatures someone might reasonably expect to encounter in their darkest nightmares.


A grey and sickly dawn was trying listlessly to illuminate the mouth of the cave, when Clarence heard, coming from somewhere outside, the ominous clanking of cutlery on the move. Alarm bells immediately rang in his head. Peering out, it did not overtax his powers of deduction when several pairs of ghastly green orbs appeared not more than a dozen yards away. This was a spoonwalker raiding party, returning home after a hard night of larceny.

By now both boys were wide awake and wasted no time in removing themselves out of the situation, leaving behind the few belongings they had brought from the orphanage. Unfortunately we will never know the spoonwalkers’ thoughts on discovering, on the floor of their lair, a bag containing a cold starry-grabby pie, two changes of underwear and a risque magazine.


Randall Middlestreet had almost completed his round. This was his favourite part of the day, with his work done and a chance to sit down and watch the sun, yet again, fail to fight its way through the fog. Suddenly, a movement, about a hundred yards or so to his left, grabbed the Night-Soil Man’s attention. Two figures – boys, by the look of them – emerged from a cleft in the rocks and appeared to be heading towards the Gydynaps. Randall guessed that they had run away from the orphanage. Why they would want to go clambering up the hills so early in the morning, however, was beyond him. He pondered whether or no to follow but thought better of it. At this hour the night-stalkers would be safely tucked up in their beds, so they would be no problem. The boys will be fine, Randall told himself. He yawned, hoisted up his bucket and struck out for home.


The Gydynap Hills had always been out-of-bounds for the children of the orphanage. It was not that they were any more dangerous than any other part of the island, or even forbidden because of their reputation for weirdness. If the truth is to be told, it would have been terribly inconvenient and too much trouble if the adults in charge of the orphanage had been required to traipse around the Gydynaps looking for stray orphans. This of course made the hills very attractive to absconders such as Clarence and Cuthbert.


Had it been visible, the sun would have been seen to be high in the sky when the boys spotted the cabin. The pair were tired, hungry and beginning to regret their decision to leave the relative security of the orphanage. They could hardly believe their luck; it would surely take an ice-cold heart to turn away two frightened little waifs. This is what they believed, at least but they were deluding themselves. They were, in fact, a pair of sweaty, sly-looking, lanky adolescents sprouting hair and acne who would probably have elicited about as much sympathy as a brace of diseased puddle rats.


Clarence knocked on the cabin door, timidly at first. When no response was forthcoming he banged harder. The door swung open invitingly, revealing a cosy-looking room inside.

The boys wandered in and immediately felt at home. There was a pot of coffee on the stove and a table laid for two. Despite this, no one appeared to be in.

It did not take long for the brothers to set about exploring, hoping to find something to eat.

It was with a gasp of delight that Clarence discovered small larder that contained a greater variety of food than he had ever seen. The provender supplied by the orphanage was bland and spare but here was stored all sorts of wonderful things. On a cold, stone shelf sat the most mouthwatering array of cheese, butter and cold meats. Yet another shelf held a ceramic crock filled with soft, white bread. Further investigation revealed biscuits, candy, a baking tray laden with fresh cakes and a big bottle of soda-pop. This was marvellous!

As has often been said, the island exists on that which the sea provides, by and large. These were the sort of delights that few on Hopeless would ever dream of tasting.

Meanwhile Cuthbert, who was slightly less worldly than his brother, had his interest whetted by a small desk near the window. It was strewn with paints, brushes, charcoal and various drawing implements, all tools of an artist’s trade.

‘So, this is who owns the cabin,’ said Cuthbert to himself.

On the desk was a watercolour sketchbook. Cuthbert opened it to the first page, which depicted a decrepit looking crow; it had ragged feathers and sad eyes. The caption above it said: ‘One for sorrow’.

On the following page the decrepit crow was joined by a younger, jauntier looking bird. This page was headed with the words ‘Two for joy’.

“Put that down and help me get some of this grub out,” yelled Clarence.

Cuthbert reluctantly left the book and joined his brother.

“This isn’t right,” he said.

Clarence snorted derisively.

“They’ve got plenty and we’re hungry.Seems fair to me.”

“I didn’t mean that,” said Cuthbert. “This is more than weird. People don’t eat as well as this on Hopeless. There’s something strange going on here.”

“Worry about it after we’ve eaten,” said Clarence, tucking into a large hunk of bread, thick with butter.

Cuthbert felt uneasy but told himself he was being a fool.

“Pass the butter…” he said.


Randall Middlestreet had not slept well; his conscience had been giving him a bad time. Despite reminding himself that the two boys were not his problem, a nagging voice in his head told him otherwise and gave him no rest.

“You should have stopped them – or at least followed,” it admonished.

In the end, Randall made a deal with his conscience. He would deviate from his planned route that evening and go to the Gydynaps to check on them, before he did anything else.


By the time Randall had reached the summit, the first shades of night were drawing in. He had searched every cave and hollow on the way up without success. The boys were nowhere to be found.

“Maybe they returned to the orphanage,” he thought but without much hope that this was, indeed, the case. Having once been an orphan himself, he knew that there was little incentive to return. He lit his lantern and turned to make his way back down the hill, when he noticed the cabin. It was almost hidden between the rocks, just a few yards from the track.

Randall wandered over, hoping the boys had sought shelter there. If they had it would have been cold comfort. The front door was hanging off its hinges and the windows were broken. Grass was growing through the floorboards.

Randall raised his lantern and cast his eyes around the tiny room. There was no sign of them here; only broken, rotting furniture, shattered crockery and puddle rat droppings. Then something caught his eye.  Lying on the ground, amid all of the filth and decay, was a book. It had no sign of mould or water damage and looked as though it had been placed there that very day. Randall leant down and examined a few of the pages, which seemed to be filled with paintings of crows. There was little in it to interest him. He flipped through to the last page. Seven crows stood in a line. The first was old and decrepit. Then his eye was drawn to the two birds on the far right of the page. They were smaller than the others, cowering, with their wings wrapping around each other as if in terror. There was a caption at the head of the page. Randall did not read much these days. He held up his lantern, struggling to make out the words.

‘Seven for a secret never to be told’

Art by Tom Brown

Bog-Oak and Brass

You will recall that the Necromancer, T’Abram Spitch, had conjured the ghost of Lars Pedersen, in the mistaken belief that, during his lifetime, The Woeful Dane had hidden a horde of silver somewhere upon the island. Although the wraith was helpless to resist T’Abram’s commands, the fact that no such treasure existed gave him the freedom to lead the necromancer to a place where something entirely different had been buried; something that had been there for many centuries and was never meant to be released again.


T’Abram Spitch was tired beyond belief. For more than a week he had toiled, moving rocks and boulders in an attempt to find the Viking treasure. The ground was hard and unforgiving, reluctant to yield to the simple tools that he had stolen from the people who lived in the shadow of the Gydynap Hills. At last, after much toil, many blisters and the occasional profanity, the necromancer had unearthed his prize. Standing in a crater of his own making, deeper than he was tall, T’Abram surveyed the fruit of his labour. It was a medium-sized chest of bog oak, bound with bands of brass.

If T’Abram had thought that his work was over, he was very much mistaken. The apparently easy task of cracking open the chest proved to be a greater problem than he had anticipated. Despite attacking the box with every pilfered tool at his disposal, it remained stubbornly sealed. A succession of blows with a hammer, a pick-axe and, in frustrated desperation, his boot, left no mark upon the wood or brass. Despondent at the end of a disappointing day, he covered the hole with foliage and returned to his lodgings, at the strangely named inn, ‘The Swætan Tæppere’ (‘The Sweaty Tapster’).

The necromancer lay in his bed, exhausted but unable to sleep, troubled by thoughts of failure. It must have been a very precious treasure indeed for the Viking to have gone to such lengths to secure it. He racked his brain to think of ways of opening the chest. Being a man who had studied widely, T’Abram was aware that gunpowder might do the trick. As a student he had been required to read Friar Roger Bacon’s ‘Opus Maius’ and although written some three centuries earlier, the book was precise in its instructions as to how the explosive might be made.

“What was it that Bacon had written about the composition of gunpowder?” T’Abram asked himself, out loud.

“Ah yes… I remember. Willow charcoal, sulphur and… something else… saltpeter! That was it. That is the answer.”

He sat up in bed, elated. Gunpowder will definitely blast the box open. Then his mood changed abruptly when the realisation dawned upon him that he had no means of procuring any of these ingredients. He flopped back down and buried his face in the hard pillow, totally defeated. At last, just before dawn, sleep overcame him and with sleep came clarity.


The answer had to be magic!

Only magic could have sealed the chest so securely and only magic could open it.

What a fool he had been.

Suddenly his eye was drawn to the staff, resting against the wall in the corner of the room. The sigils carved along its length had once more started to glow, as they did when he conjured the wraith of Lars Pedersen.

So, magic it was to be, then. It was time to finish the work that he had started.


The brass-bound chest lay where he had left it. It looked innocent enough but T’Abram knew that it must contain something more than mere silver: he dare not imagine the vast wealth that lay within those dark, wooden walls.


Although a chilly, freshening wind blew from the sea, T’Abram was sweating profusely. It had been no easy task to drag the chest out of the crater; the effort of will and concentration needed to precisely incant the spells required to open it left him weak.

An audible groan emanated from the box as each uttered cantrip gradually loosened the tightly bound bonds that had served to constrict it for countless centuries. The sigils on his staff burned now with a new intensity.

He hoped it was his tired eyes playing tricks but T’Abram was convinced that the rock-hard bog-oak heaved and shifted like mere cloth as the spells gradually took effect. Suddenly, with a great sigh, the chest gave a final shudder and the bands of brass burst with a huge bang. They spun off in all directions, one narrowly missing the necromancer’s head and burying itself in a nearby tree. Filled now with a mixture of excitement and apprehension, T’Abram peered into the depths of the newly-opened chest to see what manner of treasure – if treasure it was – he had unlocked.


There appeared to be something wrapped in a fleece of some description. Or maybe the fleece was the treasure? From the dimmest recesses of his mind T’Abram dredged up the memory of an ancient tale that he had heard as a child. It told of a hero who set out to find a fleece made of pure gold. Could this be it? Had he discovered the legendary Golden Fleece? His heart raced. Gingerly he reached into the chest.

Having spent much of his adult life consorting with the spirits of the dead, T’Abram Spitch was confident that there was nothing left in the world that could surprise him. It just shows how wrong you can be. Life is nothing, if not full of surprises, even for a magician.

The moment his fingers brushed, what he fondly imagined to be, the fleece, it suddenly acquired a pair of lurid, glowing eyes that glared at T’Abram with something that fell far short of affection. He recoiled with horror and with a whimper jumped back a full and athletic six feet.

With a series of guttral groans the ‘fleece’ began to move, to expand and blink in the daylight. Through a tangle of hair a face appeared, not quite human but not quite bestial either. It looked somewhat bemused. The glowing orbs of eyes regarded the necromancer fiercely. To T’Abram’s horror a pair of hairy legs appeared over the side of the chest and gaining leverage, eased the creature out to freedom. T’Abram remembered his own legs and retreated to what he hoped was a place of safety.


Discovering that his treasure was an, apparently, living creature of some description had come as a shock. This, however, was as nothing compared to the revelation that followed. The beast that stood before the startled necromancer was terrifying… and weird, to say the very least.


Imagine, if you will, a lion. That was easy, wasn’t it? It gets a bit trickier now, though. Imagine that the lion has some almost human characteristics to its face. And that it has five – yes FIVE – totally leonine legs, except that these legs did not end in paws but in hooves. Cloven hooves. Oh, and there was one other thing… this lion-like creature – which for ease of description I will call a demon – has no body, just a head from which its five legs radiate like the spokes of a wheel. You can surely see why T’Abram was feeling somewhat unsettled by all of this. Things are to get even stranger, however. The demon was at least a dozen feet tall, dwarfing both the necromancer and the bog-oak chest in which it had been impossibly imprisoned. T’Abram stood stock still, processing the details of the figure that stood before him, by now on the opposite side of the crater. The necromancer was forcing his brain to accept its strangeness as something perfectly normal. Then the demon moved and T’Abram Spitch screamed.

It advanced towards him, propelling itself like a wheel but as its legs went round the head was a hub that stayed perfectly still, never taking its eyes off the hapless magician.

With less than a second to spare before the demon was upon him, T’Abram had the presence of mind to raise his staff. It crackled and hissed as a bolt of magical energy pulsed through it and caught the demon full in the face. The force of the bolt not only stopped the creature in its tracks but also sent T’Abram sprawling back into the crater. It took but seconds for the demon to recover and before the necromancer could do anything, he found himself caught beneath a single cloven-hoof that threatened to crush his ribcage. The demon glared down at him, a cold fire in its eyes. T’Abram felt his mind becoming blurred and his body numb. Feebly he reached for his staff and aimed it once more at his attacker. It spat no fire this time but just emitted a lacklustre glow. The demon smiled at him. This was not a pleasant smile but a horrible, drooling, leer that wordlessly indicated that the game was up and all resistance would be futile. The demon reached down and caught the staff in its grinning maw and effortlessly chewed it up completely. The  necromancer could only watch, aghast, as it raised a hoof, ready to deliver the death blow. Then something strange happened. The whole of its grotesque body began to glow. The five legs began to spin, slowly at first, then speeding to a fiery blur like a Catherine Wheel, spitting sparks of every colour. Meanwhile the ghastly head in their centre had become an incandescent core and no longer recognisable as a face.


The landlord of The Swætan Tæppere was standing at his back door when the explosion struck. Although it came from the far west of the island the reverberations shook the inn to its foundations, rattling the windows and sending tiles skidding from the roof. A plume of brightly coloured flame could be seen, bursting a hundred feet or more into the air.

“Magicians!” he exclaimed in disgust.

“I knew he’d be trouble.”


The explosion had shaken the whole of the island. Unsurprisingly, as soon as the initial panic was over, people started to drift towards the area. They were surprised to find that, while the flames had been worryingly high, the hole that was left behind was more than impressive. Bottomless would be an understatement, for one could reasonably expect a bottomless hole on an island to have water where the absent bottom should be; this one did not. It was an abyss, dark and uninviting. There was, in its unfathomable depths, a suggestion of something of an iridescent nature, a mere pinpoint that swirled and churned; something more to be experienced via the hairs on the back of the neck rather than being seen. No one spoke a word or made a sound but as one, retreated back to their homes. Frightened parents told their children that child-eating monsters lurked by that hole. These were stories designed to keep them away; to keep them safe. It is ironic that the truth was far scarier than any nursery tale.


It was a full two hundred and fifty years, following the demise of T’Abram Spitch, that the founding families arrived. By then The Swætan Tæppere had become The Squid and Teapot and within a generation the island’s first Night-Soil Man, Killigrew O’Stoat, had set up in business. The job suited a young man who was as painfully introverted as Killigrew. When he discovered the abyss, which he assumed was a sinkhole, he was delighted. Here was somewhere to safely dispose of the night-soil.With the addition of a simple cottage this would be the perfect base for his trade. And so, that is how Killigrew and the generations of Night-Soil Men who followed after, became custodians of the mysterious and unfathomable abyss, the grave of T’Abram Spitch.

Art by Tom Brown

The Necromancer

There are some who maintain that Hopeless, Maine, has not always been as fog-bound as it is today. It is thought that there have been odd, brief periods in its history, when the island has enjoyed a reasonable climate and played host to all manner of flora and fauna. It was, presumably, in one of those gentler times that the Vikings settled here.
Many of these early settlers became adept at gathering the eggs of the gulls that lived and bred, in their thousands, in colonies on the cliffs. In the tale ‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’, it was revealed how one settler, a spoon-whittler named Lars Pedersen, was driven to madness and death by the spoonwalkers who stole, not only his spoons but also his precious horde of eggs. As a result his wraith, locally referred to as The Woeful Dane, was frequently seen roaming the area searching for the pilfered eggs.
All that we know of Lars’ demise and subsequent haunting is thanks to young Ophelia Chevin, a child of one of the founding families, who had been blessed with the dubious gift of ‘The Sight.’ Ophelia faithfully recorded the information in her journal, having had several amiable conversations with the ghost.
Prior to these revelations, those who witnessed this apparition roaming the island had no idea that he was merely looking for eggs. Over the years various theories evolved regarding the reason for The Woeful Dane’s ceaseless quest and unsurprisingly, favourite among these theories was that he was looking for a lost horde of Viking silver that he had buried somewhere, carelessly omitting to mark the spot.
Four long centuries had passed since Lars had died and the legend of lost Viking silver was firmly established as fact. Many a brave – and some would say foolhardy – adventurer perished looking for it. Life on this island is hazardous enough without wandering around at all hours, digging in vain for something which has never existed. Despite the high casualty rate, people continued to risk life and limb, seduced by the promise of untold riches. T’Abram Spitch was one such person.

T’Abram  found himself on the shores of Hopeless following a shipwreck. Anyone who knows anything about the island will recognise that this is by no means unusual. The ever-present fog that clings to Hopeless like a cold, damp mantle has claimed, over the years, many a good ship and an untold number of lives. On the plus side it has served to bestow a reasonable supply of salvageable goods and some occasionally interesting castaways. T’Abram Spitch was nothing, if not interesting. I have no idea where, exactly, in the world he came from but what I do know is that he claimed to be a magician. I am not talking about someone pulling a spoonwalker out of a hat or inviting you to pick a card. T’Abram Spitch was a fully-paid up, practising necromancer who had fled his native shores to avoid persecution and a toe-curlingly unpleasant death.
It must be remembered that even those with saintly ambitions, lofty aspersions, devilish plans for world domination or the power to invoke the spirits of the dead are all subject to human failings; strange, unbidden thoughts; annoying tunes popping into the head and the occasional urge to speak in silly voices. It is what makes us who we are. And T’Abram Spitch, despite his billowing robes, flowing beard and sigil-carved staff was no different from the rest of us. T’Abram had, besides an ample supply of annoying tunes and silly voices at his disposal, a host of secret desires. Chief among these was a lust for great riches.

The necromancer had been on Hopeless for just a few weeks when the rumour of a long-lost Viking horde came to his notice. Since his being shipwrecked he had looked bedraggled and despondent, a shadow of his former self. It was as though the words ‘Treasure’ and ‘Silver’ immediately cast a glamour over him and the veil of despair slipped away at their mere mention. His eyes glittered like stars as he visualized himself unearthing such wealth. Though many had searched for centuries to no avail, T’Abram was certain that he, above all others, was destined to find the Viking silver. His ability to conjure and command the spirits of the dead would surely be the key to his success.

In those days it was even rarer for people to wander abroad during the hours of darkness than it is now. There was no Night Soil Man patrolling the headland, standing downwind and keeping a benevolent eye on the unwary traveller. The only inn on the island, The Sweaty Tapster, would bar its doors and pull down the shutters to keep out unwelcome night-walkers. This is why no one was there on that moonless night to see T’Abram Spitch on the bleak headland, robes wildly flapping in the wind, as he prepared to conjure the spirit of Lars Pedersen, the legendary Woeful Dane.

Those who have read the tale ‘Ghosts’ will be aware that Lars Pedersen, the ghost and Lars Pedersen, the tenant of his own private Valhalla, were two very different entities. When he stepped into our dimension Lars was the gaunt, mad-eyed wraith who had struck fear into the hearts of so many. Lars, at home, as it were, was far removed from that. He was enjoying an eternity of wine, women, song and sunshine. This version of Lars was young, strong, handsome and as full of life as someone who has been dead for centuries can be. He would pick his hours of haunting with care, especially avoiding Valpurgis (May-eve) and Midsumarblot (the 21st of June). These were especially popular events in the spirit calendar and tended to attract more ghosts than Lars wanted to associate with. There were also other occasions that The Woeful Dane made a point of staying in his feasting-hall; these were the nights of the dark of the moon, when the waning moon has vanished and the new moon is yet to appear. These two or three days in the lunar calendar always attracts the worst kind of wraith. These are the ones who tear through the night, screaming and wailing. They frighten children, tear at the flesh and make fun of other spirits who, for example, might be going about their legitimate business searching for lost eggs. These were certainly not the type that a gentle ghost, such as Lars, would wish to encounter. No, Lars Pedersen stayed at home during the dark of the moon. Or, at least, that was his intention.
There can be few things more annoying than being pulled by some unseen force from one’s feasting-hall just as the party is getting started. This is exactly what happened to Lars. One minute he was happily swilling back mead, with a wench on either arm and a roasted boar on the table. The next, he was whisked away to some dark, chilly rock and suddenly transformed into the gaunt madman of legend, The Woeful Dane. To say that he was miffed would be an understatement.

Although he had called up a score of spirits during his career, T’Abram had never encountered one like Lars before. The Viking’s madness had struck after being caught in the malevolent gaze of a spoonwalker raiding party. As a result his dead eyes now bulged horribly and shone with a ghastly green light.
From Lars’ point of view, the necromancer cut an equally unsettling figure. If was plain to see that T’Abram had adopted the deranged wizard look with some enthusiasm. The pointed hat, star-spangled robe and long, bristling beard was almost comical in appearance. What was deadly serious, however, was the staff that he wielded. It was the source of all of his power. Everything else about him was pure theatre. It was this staff, carved with powerful sigils and now glowing with an unearthly light, that had drawn Lars from his feasting-hall and held him powerless before the necromancer.
In the tale ‘The Eggless Norseman of Creepy Hollow’ I mentioned that, for ghosts, there exists no language barrier. They converse with each other and understand all human – and probably animal – speech. So when T’Abram commanded Lars to find and reveal his long-lost treasure the old Viking understood every word. Unfortunately, as the long-lost treasure did not actually exist, he had absolutely no idea what the necromancer wanted. This served to weaken the hold that the glowing staff held over him, allowing Lars to use a little bit of artistic licence in leading T’Abram to his heart’s desire. It also gave him the chance to get his own back for being rudely removed from, what had promised to be, an agreeably pleasant evening of Valhallic debauchery. Lars knew where something was buried. It was not treasure but it would do nicely.

This world of ours is old beyond our imagining; a thousand or more cultures may have risen and fell long before we began recording history. It would be arrogant in the extreme to believe that only within the sphere of our knowledge did anyone set foot on Hopeless. The Vikings were certainly not the first settlers on the island. Lars knew this; he knew that buried deep beneath the rocks was something that so offended some of the island’s very earliest inhabitants that they bound it with spells and cast it deep into the earth. It was something that really ought to stay buried.
T’Abram followed the wraith with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. They wound through the scrubby trees and rocks until, in a clearing, Lars stopped, and pointed to the ground. The necromancer immediately set to and started removing the stones and earth. Lars’ work, it seems, was done; he was dismissed. The ghost was relieved. He really did not want to be around when this particular ‘Treasure’ was finally unearthed.
The work was long and hard, even with the tools that T’Abram had slyly taken from the people who dwelt in the shadow of the Gydynap Hills. At last, after many days, his shovel hit something that was not made of rock. His heart missed a beat. Could this be it at last – the long-lost Viking horde?

To be continued…

Art by Tom Brown

Spoonraker

I don’t  think that I have ever told you the tale of how my late friend, the celebrated actor-manager, Sir Fromebridge Whitminster, first came to Hopeless, Maine.

Regular readers will recall that, before he arrived on the island, he was – at least, according to his own account – the toast of the London stage.

Being a born raconteur, Sir Fromebridge would never let the truth interfere with a good story, especially when it concerned himself. In the light of this, I give fair warning that some of the details given in following tale may be less than accurate. Only one person was on hand to witness the great man’s appearance on these shores and that was Jarvis Woodchester, the Night Soil Man at the time. He is in no position to contradict Sir Fromebridge’s version of events, as Jarvis shuffled off his mortal coil at a relatively early age, presumably having been celestially promoted to emptying the great cesspit in the sky.  Luckily, Jarvis’s successor, Shenandoah Nailsworthy, has been able to fill in a few missing pieces, based upon what his late master told him. It is from these accounts I have cobbled together the following tale.

 

Jarvis Woodchester, the Night Soil Man, was taking a well deserved rest.  Although generally known as being a somewhat surly man, tonight Jarvis was unusually happy. He had recently taken on an apprentice, young Shenandoah Nailsworthy, who, at that moment, was on the far side of the island, emptying the bountiful privy that catered for the needs of the patrons of “The Crow”. The other inn on Hopeless, “The Squid and Teapot”, was on Jarvis’s round. Thanks to one of the previous landlords, Sebastian Lypiatt, the hostelry enjoyed the modern luxury of a flushing privy that deposited its effluent far out into the ocean, therefore needing no attention from the collectors of the euphemistically named night-soil.

At this hour most of the drinkers had gone home to their beds and only a few lights still lit the building. Jarvis settled himself down on the rocks overlooking the inn; this was always a good place to stop, mid-round, for a bite to eat.

It was an unusually clear night, the moon was full and riding high in the sky and the sea was fairly calm. Jarvis, who was usually fazed by very little, was suddenly taken aback to see a figure emerge from the dark water. It looked faintly human in shape but was, as far as the Night Soil Man could ascertain in the moonlight, covered in some kind of black shiny skin. Sticking vertically out of its head was a short pipe-like appendage and instead of feet, it sported a pair of large, ungainly flippers. Jarvis wondered what manner of beast he was looking at. He gripped the edges of his bucket, ready to run if needs be, as the creature began to change before his very eyes.

“A shape-shifter,” Jarvis muttered to himself, uneasily.

The creature puffed and grunted as it sloughed off the skin and flippers. The process of metamorphosis seemed to be a long and painful affair, the outer layer being peeled away to a series of ejaculations which sounded uncannily like “Damn!”, “Blast!” and occasionally, “Bugger!”

Finally, after much effort and profanity, standing on the beach – or what passes for a beach on Hopeless – seemed to be a man in late middle-age, incongruously dressed in a white dinner-jacket, dark trousers and a bow-tie. He sneezed violently several times as he made his way inland. Then he spotted Jarvis.

“What-ho,” he cried, with a wave of his hand.

Jarvis had never read anything by P.G. Wodehouse and therefore had no idea that this was a common salutation employed by some of the stranger sections of British society.

The newcomer walked up to Jarvis and introduced himself. This was a new experience for the Night Soil Man. Obviously the combination of a heavy cold and the wind blowing from the sea rendered the stranger impervious to the ever-present effluvia that surrounded his new companion.

“The name is Whitminster.

Fromebridge Whitminster,” he said, dramatically,  then sneezed again.

“Sir Fromebridge, in actual fact.”

This meant nothing to the Night Soil Man.

Rummaging in the inside-pocket of his jacket Sir Fromebridge retrieved a cigarette case. Flicking a black-oxidised and somewhat battered Ronson lighter, he lit a cigarette that was, I have been reliably informed, of Balkan-Turkish make. He inhaled deeply, tried to look suave, then totally ruined the effect by being gripped by a sudden, violent and uncontrollable paroxysm of coughing.

“Damned things,” he complained, as soon as he was able to speak again.

“Still, must persevere, if the part calls for it.”

“What were you doing out there?” asked Jarvis, incredulous that anyone could be so foolish as to be floundering around in the sea around Hopeless, especially at night.

“Well… It’s all very exciting. The whole thing is being kept very hush-hush, for some reason, though. The fact is, I’ve never been in a film before. It’s called Spoonraker, or some such.” said Sir Fromebridge.

To Jarvis much of this was little more than gibberish, although he recalled, from some dim recess of his mind, that the word ‘film’ referred to a thin covering of some description. Sir Fromebridge was obviously talking about the shiny black skin that he had been wearing.

 

“I was dropped into the sea, oh, ages ago now and told to swim to the island where some fairly important film people would be waiting. If this obviously fake Rolex that I was given actually worked it would tell me that I’ve been stuck for about four hours in freezing water. No wonder I’ve got this dratted cold.”

The actor paused, blew his nose, then added,

“You’re not tied-up with the film, I take it?”

Randall shook head emphatically, confident in the knowledge that he had never been wrapped in black, shiny material at any point in his life.

Just then the actor’s attention was drawn to a large, box-like contraption that had just been washed in on the tide.

“I do believe that’s my sea-trunk,” he exclaimed.

“How odd. That was safely stored in my cabin on the ship. One could almost believe they weren’t expecting me to return…”

Sir Fromebridge laughed to himself nervously.

“Ah well, maybe the film unit will arrive tomorrow.”

“In my experience, tomorrow never comes,” observed the Night Soil Man dryly, then, being uncharacteristically helpful, added

“How about I take you down to the Squid before Isaac locks up for the night? I’ll help you take your luggage with you.”

 

The two men made their way to the inn, dragging the large sea-trunk behind them.

For much of his life Jarvis had been deprived of the pleasures of conversation and was finding that he quite enjoyed it.

“So… what was that thing you were in called again?”

“Thing…? Oh, you mean Spoonraker.”

The Night Soil Man pondered the word a while before he spoke again. It was a strange name to give a second skin but, as Sir Fromebridge was the most amiable shape-shifter that he had ever encountered, he decided to let it go.

“And you’re definitely one of the good guys?”

“Oh, assuredly,” replied the actor. “In fact, I’m more than good. I’ve been led to believe that nobody does it better.”

The peace of the evening was suddenly interrupted by a series of metallic scraping noises as a troop of small, odd-looking thieves artfully lowered a cache of stolen cutlery from an open window of The Squid and Teapot.

“So you’re a Spoonraker, eh?” said Jarvis. “I’ve no idea what that means but something tells me that you’ll fit in well on Hopeless.”

Art by Tom Brown

The Queen of Flames

Randall Middlestreet was unique among Night Soil Men, inasmuch as none before him had retired. As has been mentioned previously in ‘The Vendetta’, Randall voluntarily hung up his bucket at the age of fifty-five, giving up both his job and the cottage at Poo Corner to his young apprentice, Jarvis Woodchester.
While the role of Night Soil Man is very far from being glamorous, it has its fair share of danger and excitement. Few can wander over the island at night as safely as he does, protected as he is from predators by the malodorous atmosphere which surrounds him at all times. It is this nocturnal freedom which allows him to see sights and wonders that others are denied.

Randall was well into his second pint of ‘Old Colonel’ and holding court in the snug of The Squid and Teapot. The small band of regulars were always happy to listen to his yarns. This is not to say that they necessarily gave these stories any credence. His accounts of encountering ghosts, demons and various fantastical figures would sometimes stretch their credulity but Randall always insisted that every word was true. Nobody really cared, for what could be better than sitting before a roaring fire, in the company of friends and listening to a good tale told well.

“It was May-eve when it happened, years ago now. I was up by Chapel Rock when I first heard the music,” began Randall, taking a sip of beer. “Faint, to begin with; no more than a whisper on the breeze. I thought that old Iron Mills had started his fun fair up in the middle of the night. Then I saw the lights. They were winding down the path from the Gydynaps. From where I was standing – and I was a good distance away – it looked like a procession of people, all carrying flaming torches. Not ordinary torches either; the flames were all colours. And they weren’t constant. It was as if, one by one, they were flickering out, only to reappear a few seconds later. Either that, or they were Will O’the Wisps; that’s what they looked like to me, but I knew they weren’t. You all know what I’m like; if there’s a mystery to be solved, I’m there. I just couldn’t help myself, I had to get closer to see what was going on. The torchlight procession seemed to be heading towards the town, so that is where I
went.”
Randall took another generous swig of beer then sat in silence, staring into some hidden space that only he could see. His audience became restless.
“Go on… what happened next?”
It was Ebeneezer Gannicox, the distiller, who broke the silence.
“What did you see Randall?”
“Well, as the procession got closer, I could see exactly who – or what – they were. What they weren’t were people carrying torches. They were flames. Living flames of all colours. Flames that flickered and danced, flames that died and then burst back into life. And all the while they followed… well, you should have seen her.”
Randall emptied his glass, laid it on the table and watched happily as it was immediately replaced with another foaming pint.
“She didn’t walk, she danced… danced through the empty streets of the town to the music of the hurdy-gurdy that she carried. Of course, I had no idea then what the instrument was called. I’d never seen anything like it, or her, before or since. She was a vision! Her hair was as red as fire itself and what I thought were feathers in her hat – well, they weren’t feathers, they were flames.”
Randall paused for a moment to allow his listeners to digest the scene.
“Suddenly,” he said, “the music changed. It became quite unearthly. I couldn’t help but notice that, as she turned the handle, the instrument lit up. Coloured sparks flew from every bit of it. I was totally in thrall of this lady. I could not move. Then she did the most wondrous thing. She somehow attached her hurdy-gurdy to a street-light and as she played, as she wound the handle, every light in the town burst into life. They glowed brighter, far brighter, than they ever had before. And the music… oh, what wonderful music. I don’t know how long I sat there but it must have been hours, for the skies had started to pale. It almost felt as if she was summoning the sun to rise. We don’t often see a good sunrise on Hopeless but this one…” Randall left his sentence hanging in the air.
“It was so bright I was dazzled. I had to squint to see the lady as she turned towards the east. With the dancing flames following her, the strange cavalcade seemed to disappear into the glowing ball of the sun as it rose from the sea. I just sat there, sat for ages, totally mesmerized by what I had witnessed.”
Randall took another draught of ‘Old Colonel’ and fell silent, once more staring into that distant place that only he could see. The company knew that they would get no more out of him that evening.

It was late. Almost everyone had gone home and Betty Butterow was shooing out the last stragglers. She had floors to mop and tables to clear before she could leave. Only Bill Ebley remained. At eighty years of age he was one of Hopeless’ oldest residents. This gave him a dispensation to stay late, as Betty always insisted on walking him home.
“What did you make of Randall’s story?” she asked him as she mopped the floor around his feet.
Bill thought for a moment before replying.
“In 1915 I was in the trenches in France,” he said, adding, “we were in Mons.”
“There were a lot of stories flying around at the time, stories about apparitions, phantom armies and whatnot. Some even thought that there was an angel fighting on our side but I didn’t give any of it much credence. Still don’t. I did see something – someone – once, though and she sounds very much like Randall’s lady. I’ve never told anyone else this, not even the colonel, in case I’m thought to be mad. Maybe I witnessed what some of the others did, the ones who talked about the Angel of Mons. But the woman that I saw was no angel – I’m sure of that. She suddenly appeared, dancing through the mud and corpses on the battlefield as though it was a village green at Whitsun. There were shells and bullets screaming all around, yet she was totally unharmed and as far as I could tell, unnoticed by most. There was something deep and powerful, something elemental, about her; I thought that I was hallucinating. You hear about men going mad in the trenches. I was certain it was happening to me. Then one day, a year or so later, when I was on leave, a French gypsy offered to read my fortune. I was sceptical but when you never know if you’ll be alive from one day to another, where’s the harm? So this gypsy pulls out her tarot cards – the rummest pack I’ve ever seen – and swipe me, she drew a card and there, plain as day, is the Lady’s picture, just as I had seen her and exactly how Randall has described, to the tee.”
Bill got to his feet and pulled on his overcoat. He looked at Betty and added, almost as an afterthought,
“Apparently she’s known in the tarot as The Queen of Flames.”

 

Art by Tom Brown- Permission to use the likeness of Genevive Tudor graciously granted by herself.

The Sister of Mercy

One grey afternoon, in the closing months of 1842, Sister Evangeline, late of the Religious Order of the Sisters of Mercy, settled herself unsteadily into a small, birch-bark canoe. She was all too well aware of the amount of trust that she was placing in her God and the wiry Passamaquoddy Indian who had reluctantly agreed to transport her to a mysterious fog-bound island that lay just off the coast.

Her decision to leave Dublin, in order to join the Catholic community on the Passamaquoddy reservation in Maine, had not been an easy one. The death of her mentor and founder of the order, The Venerable Mother Catherine McAuley, had left her bereft. For ten years the two had laboured, shoulder to shoulder, providing food and shelter for the homeless women and children of the city. When Mother Catherine died Evangeline knew in her bones that it was time to move on to somewhere far away.


After being only a few weeks on the reservation she began to hear rumours of a small band of ‘fallen’ women on a nearby island. It seemed to Sister Evangeline that it was her Christian duty – and indeed her destiny – to seek out and help these poor souls who had been forced into such dissolute ways. The apparent name of the island – Hopeless – conjured, in itself, visions of purgatory.  The very fact that few seemed to be aware of its existence and even fewer entertained any desire to visit, did not deter her in the least. With a subtle mixture of bribes, cajoling and hints of eternal salvation, she managed to persuade an Indian, who confessed to having traded with the islanders on occasion, into providing the necessary transport to get her there.


If Sister Evangeline ever had any remotely positive preconceptions of what Hopeless may have looked like, these were quickly dashed within moments of setting foot ashore. The cloying blanket of fog that seemed in no hurry to disperse, successfully muffled any sound that might have tried to sneak across the narrow but treacherous channel that separated it from the mainland. Dark shapes that may have been buildings, or possibly strange rock formations, loomed ominously before her. Occasionally some of these would seem to move but the nun attributed this to a trick of the light, which was so sparse that one could comfortably (or more correctly, uncomfortably) call it funereal. This is not to say that the place was without light – it was just that the it was muted and not always found in the places one might reasonably expect. There was, for instance, an eerie glow emanating from a series of sickly-green orbs that seemed to be following her progress along the rough-hewn pathway. They peered from the rocks and skeletal bushes that marked its margins. Every now and then  these would shift position, often to the accompaniment of an ominous metallic scraping sound. Sister Evangeline clung steadfastly to the handle of her suitcase and cast her eyes heavenwards. Inexplicably, there seemed to be glowing eyes in the sky, as well. They appeared to be following her progress, bobbing along like small balloons in a breeze, except that there was no breeze. Something told Sister Evangeline that these strange lights represented no heavenly intervention. She shuddered. She had a distinct feeling that to wander from the path could lead to all sorts of unpleasantness and so, with faith in her heart, a hymn on her lips and mud on her habit, she made her way steadfastly inland.

If the island had first appeared to be grim, then some of its inhabitants were surely even grimmer. So pinched, lean and unkempt did they appear, the paupers who haunted the streets of Dublin looked positively decadent by comparison. It felt as if a mad look lingered in almost every eye that turned in her direction. There were some eyes that turned in opposite directions at the same time, which was somewhat disconcerting. The place and all who dwelt there gave, in her considered opinion, a vision of what Hell might be like (but without the warmth, of course).

The gloom around her deepened and Sister Evangeline surmised that the shadowy drapes of evening were drawing in. It occurred to her that, whatever unease she had felt earlier, this would be multiplied several times over with the advent of night. She needed to find shelter and find it quickly. No sooner had the thought entered her head than the unexpectedly warm and welcoming lights of an inn appeared, as if from nowhere. Thoroughly untrusting of this island by now, she cautiously wandered up to its walls and studied the sign swinging over the door. Painted upon it she could just make out the figure of a cephalopod that regarded her with a baleful eye. It was wrapping itself sinuously around a teapot, for some obscure reason known only to itself and the obviously talented but decidedly eccentric artist who had been responsible for the depiction. The nun shrugged, crossed herself and boldly ventured into the building.


Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, had catered for a variety of castaways, fugitives and accidental tourists over the years, as had his father before him. Never before, however, could he recall having a nun cross its threshold. To say that he was surprised would be an understatement.

The truth was that Bartholomew had never actually met a nun before. He had seen pictures and heard tales – not all of them complimentary – but to encounter one in the flesh, as it were, was a new experience – and by no means an egregious one. The slightly bedraggled woman who stood before him was infinitely less terrifying that he had expected. She was petite, probably in her early thirties – his own age – with a pleasingly gentle lilt to her voice and a more than pretty face. When she enquired if there might be a modest room in which she could stay for a few days, she gave Bartholomew a smile which sent his pulse racing, rendering him more than a little tongue-tied and unusually awkward.


Sister Evangeline was nothing, if not discreet. Over the next week or so she was content to settle into her new surroundings and meet some of the islanders who frequented the inn. To begin with there had been a certain amount of distrust on their part; they expected to be lectured on temperance and godliness. They were pleasantly surprised, however. Despite her calling, Sister Evangeline had no intention of using her religion to browbeat people. She had long ago learned, on the streets of Dublin, that she could achieve far more with love and compassion than with cold, judgemental words. For her own part, Sister Evangeline began to see the inhabitants of Hopeless in a different light. They were not the deranged creatures she had at first imagined – well, not all of them. They certainly had little in the way of luxuries but on the whole they were simply ordinary people struggling to survive as best they could in a harsh environment. It was this thought that she carried with her when she made her way to the bordello, where the reasons for her mission to the island – the fallen women – were to be found.


As related in the tale ‘The Sweaty Tapster’, the bordello had been established more a century earlier by the female survivors of a convict ship that had been originally bound for Virginia. Over the years many women had found their way to its doors. While some had happily engaged in the business of the oldest profession, others had come there purely for companionship and protection. In a very short period they became .a tight-knit community that looked after itself as best it could. There had been odd occasions, in the past, where certain gentlemen had thought that they might take control and line their own pockets. Without exception, all such gentlemen had quietly disappeared without a trace.

It was unsurprising, therefore, that the arrival of Sister Evangeline was greeted with little enthusiasm. She had come looking for a pitiful rag-tag band of frail and abused womanhood; what she had found was a veritable bastion of female strength.

It took weeks for the nun to be regarded with anything but suspicion by the women. They expected her to have come with an agenda, intent on trying to lead each and every one of them back on to some narrow path of guilt-ridden righteousness. Nothing could have been further from the truth. While she disapproved, at first, of some of the more louche activities, her only concern was for their welfare. Sister Evangeline soon learned that to achieve anything at all she would need to lose her title, discard her wimple and habit and grow her hair.

And so it came to pass that  Evangeline moved into the bordello and little by little, became an essential part of the community. It took little more than a year for the others to ask her to take charge.

“Like a Mother Superior?” she asked, with a mischievous look in her eye.


The name Evangeline means ‘The Bringer of Good News’, which was certainly apt. The bordello and the general populace certainly benefited from her continued presence on the island. Evangeline herself, however, thought her name was a somewhat incongruous, given her new position. It was too pious, by half. Regular readers will have guessed by now that she became Evadne and for the clients who came to the establishment, that she euphemistically called a lodging house, she was Madame Evadne. To make her transformation complete she tried to affect a French accent when dealing with clients. Unfortunately, the result was a strange Gaelic/Gallic hybrid which was not unpleasant to the ear but, more often than not, slightly unintelligible, which added to her air of mystery to later generations.

For the next fifty years Madame Evadne oversaw the running of her Lodging House for Discerning Gentlemen with a firm but benevolent gaze. Over that time she became one of the island’s greatest benefactors. After her death a statue was erected in her honour in the lodging house courtyard. As you may recall from the tale ‘The Supper Guest’ the statue came to life on one memorable occasion, and protected her girls from a particularly evil man. She was a Sister of Mercy even in death –  you could say that she never really lost the habit.


This tale is dedicated to the memory of

Sister Evangeline/ Madame Evadne 1808 -1891

Art by Tom Brown

The end of an era

Joseph was tired. For the last twelve months he had been to-ing and fro-ing to the Passamaquoddy reservation, bringing in supplies purchased by the ex- Night Soil Man, Randall Middlestreet. These trips had taken their toll on him.

“You’re not a youngster any more,” Betty had scolded.

“It’s high time you moored that old canoe for good.”

It was true. Joseph was over seventy and had paddled across the treacherous channel more times than he cared to remember.

“You’re right,” he conceded, wearily.

“One more trip to say goodbye to everyone and then I’ll retire. It’s sad, though. My family has been alone in regularly trading with this island for generations – even before the founding families reached here. It will be the end of an era.”

Betty knew that Joseph wished he had a son to carry on the tradition. They had not been blessed with children. She smiled to herself ruefully and reflected that this was not for the want of trying.

“Okay. Just one more trip and then you finish,” she said, in a voice that would brook no opposition.

 

Although, in the past year, Hopeless had acquired enough Indian-made goods to last an eternity, Randall had asked that Joseph bring more over. It was his altruistic way of transferring his new-found and unexpected wealth, inherited from his mother, into the economy of the impoverished reservation.

Jingling with the money Randall had given him, Joseph kissed his wife goodbye and set off on his farewell trip with mixed feelings. It would be hard to say goodbye to his old friends on the mainland and give up his lifelong trade. On the other hand, the prospect of never again having to negotiate the hazards and eternal fog that beset the treacherous channel was appealing.

 

His days on the reservation went very much as expected. There were hand-shakes, back-slaps and manly hugs a-plenty, shared between Joseph and his friends and relations. At last the appointed day arrived for him to leave the mainland for the very last time and return to the cabin that he and Betty shared on Hopeless.

 

The morning was grey and dismal and a harsh north-east wind was freshening by the hour. These were not ideal conditions to cross the channel but there was every indication that this weather was hunkering down for the duration.  If he left his departure any later Joseph feared that he could be stuck here for another week and Betty would be frantic with worry. Throwing caution to the wind – quite literally on this occasion – and, with his last ever cargo lashed securely down, Joseph paddled into the foggy channel.

 

Betty Butterow looked at the worsening weather with a troubled eye. While she had every faith in Joseph’s abilities, it would need more than his considerable skills to ensure his safe arrival home. Maybe she could help. She made her way to the rocky shore where, years before, she had first learned of her true identity, that she was a seal-woman, one of the legendary selkie people.

Hidden in a cleft in the rocks was her seal-pelt. Betty could not remember the last time she had donned it. She had heard tales of seal-women who had gradually become less human with every transformation. That is why she was loathe to shape-shift too often. It always worried her that one day she would be unable to change back.

Stripping off her clothing, Betty resolved there and then to go as a seal and look for Joseph, to bring him home safely, whatever the consequences. If, as she feared, Joseph was dead, then there would be nothing to return to. No reason to be Betty Butterow any longer. She would become a seal forever and little by little, all recollections of her human life would be no more than a distant dream.

 

The selkie scoured the treacherous channel for hours. There was no sign of Joseph. She had twice circled the island, desperately hoping that he had moored somewhere other than his usual spot but to no avail. Then she spotted something floating close to the shore. It looked like a canoe. Full of hope, she raced towards it.  “Please, let him be alive… please, please…” she prayed; prayed to who or whatever might be there to listen. Then an icy hand gripped her heart; it was indeed Joseph’s canoe, but smashed and ruined. There was no sign of Joseph.

 

The island echoed with the mournful wail of the seal-woman. She raised her dark head above the churning waves and threw her anguished soul upon the wind.

Then, her heart breaking, she flipped over, dived through the icy water and turned her back upon the foggy shores of Hopeless, Maine.

 

In her haste to leave she had not seen the figure of a man on the shore. Dazed and confused, he rose groggily to his feet, her bellow of grief having dragged him from the murky shadowlands of unconsciousness. Joseph looked helplessly across the foggy channel, somehow knowing that the unearthly cry that had woken him and shattered the peace of the day had been that of his beloved Betty. Tears rolled down his cheeks as he watched the dark, sinuous shape of a harbor seal disappear into the foggy distance.

 

The ocean boiled and churned. Startled, the selkie came to a halt as the huge bulk of the Kraken erupted through the water and caught her in its deep and unswerving gaze.

It spoke, not in words but in thoughts that echoed in her head with a voice as deep and sonorous as the ocean itself. It was a voice that she had heard before, many years ago.

“Go back, selkie. It is not quite time yet. Not yours, nor his. Go back. He is safe. As I have said, Betty Butterow, the sea looks after her own.”

With that she felt a suckered arm entwined around her sleek body. The kraken gently hoisted her high into the misty air, above the angry waves and jagged stone teeth that have brought many a ship to its doom around the coast of Hopeless. The creature lifted her trembling body to the rocks where Joseph stood weeping.

With her heart-beating fit to burst, Betty sloughed off the seal-skin, her body shaking with a mixture of cold and emotion. With an effort she rose to her feet and stood, shivering and naked in Joseph’s embrace. Every minute of every day would now would be precious. Betty could feel the tears running down her husband’s face as he laid a soft kiss upon her lips.

“Let’s go home,” she whispered.

Art by Tom Brown

The Lady From Baltimore

The Passamaquoddy trader, Samuel, looked pensively over the bay and wondered to himself if any other rich and elderly widow had ever taken the trouble to leave the security her well-appointed home to visit his less than salubrious reservation.

He rubbed his chin quizzically, pondering why the woman who called herself Mrs Spillman had chosen to do just this. She must be at least eighty years old, he reasoned. What had inspired her to leave an affluent area of Baltimore and travel the five hundred or more miles to this particular part of Maine?

What Samuel was to learn, a day so later, was that this recent visitor had journeyed with a purpose; a purpose that would have sounded very much like a wild goose chase to most people.

Mrs Lilac Spillman, although of very mature years, was an exceedingly determined woman who knew her own mind. There had been another trader here, many years ago, who, along with his little family, had welcomed her and her friend, Amelia, into their home. Lilac had been no more than a girl then and to her eternal shame, had walked out on them without a word of thanks. She  disappeared without even saying goodbye, slipping away like a thief in the night on the arm of a gambling man named Abner Badbrook. Badbrook eventually abandoned her in New York, leaving the hapless girl alone in a strange city, friendless, penniless and pregnant.

Lilac shuddered to think how she had betrayed the Indian family’s hospitality. She remembered that the trader had biblical name – Abraham – and that he had rescued Amelia and herself from a grim fate on the island of her birth; a place that she once vowed never to visit again. Abraham must be long dead, she thought, but maybe – just maybe – someone living on the reservation might still be visiting the island occasionally. One trip was all she wanted; just the one. She knew that her remaining months, possibly weeks, were few and despite her earlier disdain, Hopeless, Maine was calling to her.

 

When she heard that there was, indeed, a trader, Joseph, now living on Hopeless and due to arrive any day, her heart leapt. Could this be the Joseph that she remembered? Abraham’s son? He had been a boy of eight or ten at the time. That would make him seventy, at least. She thought it unlikely that it was the same person. However, when she saw Joseph standing outside the governor’s house she recognised him immediately. He was the image of his father. Although hazy about many things, Mrs Spillman’s long-term memory was as sharp as an eagle’s eye.

It took a moment or two for her to notice the burly man who was standing quietly, almost shyly, behind Joseph. Despite his very pale skin and tendency to walk with a stoop, as though he was accustomed to carrying a heavy burden upon his back, there was something about him that reminded her of someone she knew long ago. Then, when she was introduced to him, she thought her heart would break.

 

After forty years as Hopeless, Maine’s Night Soil Man, Randall Middlestreet had taken the unusual step of giving up his post to his apprentice. The new-found freedom of being able to associate with his fellow islanders had not lost its novelty value, even after some weeks following his abdication. Therefore, when Joseph invited Randall to join him on a trip across to the mainland, the former Night Soil Man was as apprehensive as he was excited. His life had changed greatly recently; he little suspected the new direction it was about to take.

 

You will recall that the first part of this tale concluded with Mrs Spillman sobbing into Randall’s neck and calling him her son. To say he was taken aback is an understatement. Randall had always understood that his mother had died in childbirth. To find, after fifty-five years, that she had been alive and well and living in somewhere called Baltimore was a surprise, to say the very least. The torrent of emotions that stormed through him at that moment was overwhelming. Feelings of joy and anger, love and betrayal, all mixed up with a generous helping of confusion, almost bowled him over; that, and the not insubstantial weight of the elderly lady clinging to his neck.

The elected governor of the tribe – or the  sakom, as he is known – had been entertaining Mrs Spillman in his family home for a few days prior to Joseph’s  arrival. After the necessary introductions had been made the sakom made it his business to linger and eavesdrop on their conversation. Upon seeing Mrs Spillman’s reaction to meeting Randall the sakom diplomatically ushered the three of them back into the privacy of his home, where, over coffee and biscuits, Mrs Spillman apprised her son of the details of her history and the reason why she had left him on the steps of a convent. How he had arrived on the island of Hopeless, though, was a total mystery to all. Randall had never been told the story of his rescue by Sebastian Lypiatt and the nun, Sister Mary Selsley.

 

A lifetime of being the Night Soil Man on Hopeless had made Randall something of a stoic, although this was not a word he would ever have used or even recognised. To adopt an attitude of accepting, without complaint, the ups and downs of daily existence is a necessary way of thinking on an island where unpredictability is the only predictable thing that the future holds. There was no point in regretting the lost years or blaming his mother for abandoning him. It would achieve nothing. Besides, she had had her reasons.

 

There was one other thing. Mrs Spillman had sold almost everything she possessed when she left Baltimore. Her worldly goods, including a large town house, had been converted into cash and lodged in a bank account.

“It’s all yours,” she told Randall. “I had no idea what would happen to my estate when I die. Now I know.” With that she reached into her travel-chest and retrieved a canvas bag. It was full of silver dollars.

“This will tide you over until suitable arrangements have been made,” she said.

Randall was aghast. He had little use for a lot of money. Hopeless was not the type of place where you could spend very much. He looked at Joseph for help.

“Take it and make her happy,” Joseph advised.

Randall looked about him at the spectre of poverty that stalked the reservation. Even Hopeless looked comfortable, compared with the poor living conditions many endured there. This place needed a helping hand. He knew what to do with at least some of his new-found wealth.

 

A few days passed and Joseph enlisted the help of his cousin, Samuel. Although refusing to set foot on Hopeless himself, Samuel reluctantly agreed to ferry Randall and Mrs Spillman across the treacherous channel to that strangest of islands. Joseph’s own canoe was full to bursting with furs, textiles and beaver pelts, purchased at a vastly inflated price by the suddenly wealthy Randall Middlestreet.

 

Although Randall was willing to pay Isaac Lypiatt, the landlord of The Squid and Teapot, to give his mother comfortable lodgings, Isaac refused, having inherited his parents’ generosity. He happily gave Mrs Spillman a room in which she could live out her remaining days in comfort. The Squid had been her home once and it was only fitting that it should be so again. It was the very least he could do.The Lady from Baltimore had come home to die.

The artist (Tom Brown, in this case) apologizes that there is not a new drawing this week. He is very much engaged with the final bits which will ensure that the next volume of the graphic novel series (Sinners) comes out on time and is as wonderful as we can manage.

Thirty years on …

Thirty years on …

Thirty years had passed since the Reverend Crackstone’s disappearance. The only person who knew the exact circumstances of his demise was Betty Butterow. Her dark hair by now was shot with silver but she was as beautiful as ever and still working as a barmaid at The Squid and Teapot. Although the fog-bound landscape had changed little, much had happened on Hopeless in those intervening years, as you will see.

 

Soon after Crackstone’s disappearance Betty and Joseph, the Passamaquoddy trader, set up home together in a small cabin in Creepy Hollow. At the time of this tale Joseph would be seventy years old, or more but still sprightly and continuing to ply his trade between Hopeless and the mainland.

 

Isaac Lypiatt had taken over the role as landlord of the inn following the death of his parents, Sebastian and Madrigal. Sebastian’s last couple of years had been spent in retirement, reminiscing in the snug of the Squid with his friend Bill Ebley, who was also Isaac’s father-in-law. It had come as something of a surprise to both families when Isaac proposed marriage to Mildred, a girl twenty years his junior. With their marriage, however, a valuable link was forged between the inn, the Ebley Brewery and the distillery (you may recall that Mildred’s mother was Costanza Gannicox).

 

You may remember, in the tale of ‘The Wendigo’, Randall Middlestreet had been thrust into the role of a full-time Night Soil Man within weeks of his leaving the orphanage. For all of his adult life this job was all he had known and it was beginning to take its toll. When, at the age of fifty, he had asked at the orphanage if there were any likely candidates to be his apprentice he was sent a a surly young man with a decidedly selfish streak. His name was Jarvis Woodchester. Randall was not confident that he would get on particularly well with his new assistant but hoped for the best; he was glad of all the help he could get.

Five years slipped by and to everyone’s surprise Jarvis became as competent a Night Soil Man as any who had gone before him, lithely scrambling over the rocky headland with his bucket on his back. It was with some relief that Randall relinquished many of his duties to his young protege, whom he trusted implicitly. He had spent over forty years of his life surrounded by stench and darkness, forced into celibacy and, save for necessarily distant communication with Joseph and Betty, virtually friendless. The role of Night Soil Man was considered to be a job for life but Randall Middlestreet was contemplating the unthinkable –  abdication.

 

Few people had seen Randall in daylight but news of his abandoning the position as Night Soil Man had spread like wildfire. This behaviour was unheard of and one or two of the more conservative islanders disapproved of such a flagrant break with tradition; Randall’s mind, however, was made up. It took several days of diligent scrubbing to remove the trademark smell of his calling completely, but with the aid of Joseph and Betty – who were thrilled at his decision – Randall was completely deodorised, dressed in some of Joseph’s old but scrupulously clean clothes and ready to be integrated fully into Hopeless society for the first time in his adult life. The house at Poo Corner and all that it contained was now the exclusive property of the new, young Night Soil Man, Jarvis Woodchester.

 

When Randall walked into the bar of The Squid and Teapot the place fell silent. Randall paled, convinced that he was being ostracized for his decision. Then someone started clapping. The applause became contagious. Even Lady Margaret D’Avening, the ghost who haunts the privy of the inn, popped her head out to see what the fuss was about. Regular readers will recall that Lady Margaret’s head was detached from the rest of her, so when I say she popped her head out, I am speaking literally. As it was not a full moon and being something of a stickler for tradition, she was loathe to manifest totally. Isaac Lypiatt handed the newly liberated Randall a foaming pint of ‘Old Colonel’ and the keys to the old attic room, which long ago was occupied by the young Betty Butterow. It was now his for life, if he so wished. Randall was overcome with emotion. He had no idea that anyone would do such a thing for him.

 

This new way of life required quite a bit of adjustment. To be able to walk and talk with others, to share meals and enjoy  convivial evenings in the Squid were pleasures most took for granted. For Randall each one of these things was a novelty. The only downside was his vulnerability. In his role as Night Soil Man the less friendly denizens of the island had given him a wide berth. It was the one advantage of the stench that had perpetually surrounded him. These days, however, he had no such protection and had to remember to exercise caution when out and about.

 

When, a few weeks later, Joseph asked Randall if he would like to join him on a trip to the mainland, the ex-Night Soil Man had no idea how to respond. The chance of a glimpse of the wider world was as terrifying as it was tempting. He agonised over making a decision for days on end. Eventually curiosity overcame fear and, with no small amount of trepidation, Randall found himself gingerly scrambling into Joseph’s canoe.

With a mixture of excitement and anxiety churning within him he wondered what adventures might be waiting on the other side of the treacherous channel that would take them to the coast of Maine.

 

Once on dry land Joseph’s first point of call was the home of his cousin, Samuel. Joseph’s heart always dropped when he re-visited the reservation. The poorly built wooden shacks, often with earth floors and no sanitation, were far inferior to the simple but comfortable conical birch-bark wetus, or wigwams, his people lived in when he was a boy. Unemployment was high and living standards low. Samuel was one of the more fortunate ones, though. For years he had made a precarious living as a trader to providie for his large family. Today Joseph was interested in a supply of beaver pelts that Samuel had obtained. He knew that his cousin would drive a hard bargain, even for family, but he was happily prepared to haggle. What he was not prepared for was the news that Samuel could not wait to impart.

“There’s been a woman here asking after you.”

Joseph raised his eyebrows quizzically.

“She was old,” said Samuel. “I mean, really old. Older than you, even.”

Samuel was Joseph’s junior by only ten years but he never missed an opportunity to tease his cousin about his age.

“Who is this woman?” asked Joseph, faintly irritated.

“A Mrs. Spillman. From Baltimore, I think. Said she knew your parents, years ago.”

Joseph shrugged.

“And where is she now?”

“ We knew you were due to show up sometime soon, so the Sakom said his family could put her up for a night or two, seeing she’s old, and that. They’ve got the best place on the reservation but it ain’t up to Baltimore standards, that’s for sure.”

The Sakom is the elected governor, or chief of the tribe. This was a generous thing for him to do. Joseph decided to waste no time and see what the woman wanted. Having nothing better to do, Randall tagged along. To Joseph the reservation was downtrodden and commonplace. Randall thought it was the most exotic place that he had seen and was keen to look around.

 

The Sakom, holding Mrs Spillman’s arm, led her gently out of his home and introduced her to Joseph. The old lady was small and her back bent but her eyes flickered with a mischievous fire that belied her age. She reached up and stroked Joseph’s face.

“Joseph. Dear Joseph,” she smiled. “Is it really you?”

The Indian drew back a little. He had no idea who she was, or how she knew him.

“ Mrs Spillman, ma’am, forgive me but I don’t know who you are.”

“No. I guess you don’t remember. It was a long time ago and you were a child. But hey, where’s your manners?” she laughed brightly. “Who’s your friend, there?”

Joseph blushed faintly.

“Sorry, ma’am. This is my good pal Randall Middlestreet.”

The colour drained visibly from Mrs Spillman’s face, as though she had seen a ghost. Her bottom lip began to tremble.

“R… R… Randall Middlestreet?” she stammered.

Suddenly, with surprising vigour, she fell forward and threw her arms around a very surprised Randall, hugging him tightly.

He could feel her frail body racked with sobs as she clung to him.

“My son. My son,” she cried. “My beautiful boy…”

 

To be continued…

Art by Tom Brown