INTERLUDE: THE PECULIAR SUPPER OF LORD RUTHVNEY
Lord Bartholomew Ruthvney helped himself to a cigar and topped up his glass of brandy. The fire cracked like a coachman’s whip in its grate and added wisps of dark smoke to the room. Ruthvney tutted – he would remonstrate with the housekeeper in the morning, a well-cleaned chimney should not smoke. He stood away, marching proudly across a bearskin rug towards the far wall where his display cases stood.
Ruthvney enjoyed many hobbies. He was a man of keen appetite (as any who had joined him at the dinner table could attest) but nothing gave him greater pleasure than hunting. The pursuit and capture of another living creature, to Ruthvney, was an act so powerful that it left him lightheaded. It was, he believed, as close as a man might come to God. He puffed mouthfuls of cigar smoke against the glass that encased his exhibits as he strolled amongst them, remembering each pull of the trigger. He looked into cold, glass eyes and imagined their last spark of life. If only it could be captured along with the animal’s pelts. How much more precious that would be, a cabinet of fragile, flickering light, each held frozen at the point of extinction.
There was a knock at the door. Stevens, Ruthvney’s butler, entered. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?” he asked.
“Not unless you have a sweep hidden away in the wine cellar,” Ruthvney replied. “That useless woman Pritchard has allowed the chimney to become congested, the damned thing is coughing smoke into the room.”
“My apologies, sir,” Stevens replied. “I will of course insist the situation is remedied.”
“See that you do,” replied Ruthvney. “I have no wish to choke to death in my own study.”
Stevens gave a small bow and retired. Ruthvney returned to admiring his collection.
As well as the usual mounted heads, Ruthvney had begun to collect other stuffed creatures. Coiled serpents, bears reeling, foxes with fangs bared. His collection was a perfect snapshot of death and he loved every bit of it.
Behind him the coals crumpled in the grate, sending out a plume of sparks. He watched the sparks fade as they cooled on the wooden floor, making no move to extinguish them and preserve his floorboards. Such mundane care taking was not for the likes of him, he would have considered it a breakdown in social protocol to even consider it. Let the wood be scorched – his eyes were raised to higher duties.
Which reminded him of that morning’s correspondence, as yet untouched. He sat at his desk, placing his cigar on the rim of a heavy, cut-glass ashtray that glinted on the green leather.
He kept his filing simple, placing everything worthy of his attention in the top, left -hand drawer until he had dealt with it, at which point he would move it to the right (or, more often still, into the fire grate – Ruthvney was not a sentimental man and saw no point in keeping his letters unless they contained information of importance).
He pulled out a small pile of letters and placed them on the desk in front of him, taking a moment to draw on his cigar as he reached for his brass letter opener.
The first was a request for money from a charitable organisation. It was discarded, barely read, for the fire.
The second was a request for further tunnelling work on the underground railway. Ruthvney was in the financially embarrassing position of being one of the Central London Railway’s major shareholders. In truth he rued the day he had ever become involved, at the way the business was currently running he may as well have ploughed his money directly into the dirt beneath the city. Certainly that is what he had done in spirit. They said it would open soon... after only ten years of planning and work! He tossed the letter to one side where it could stop vexing his digestion.
The third was yet another call on his bank account. He was on the Board of Governors for the Lidster School for Girls, a dowdy establishment languishing somewhere in the north. It would seem their gymnasium was in need of repair, for which he was expected to share the bill. The headmistress, a creature of lace and cobwebs known as Mrs Shuttle (if she had ever had a Christian name it was long lost through her years of dispensing education), said it was “important for the future health of our charges”. Ruthvney added it to charity letter.
Next came an invitation to attend the theatrical opening of a new play. Ruthvney did not like the theatre. The theatre was loud and full of expectation. One was expected to laugh in all the right places, cry in all the right places... Ruthvney did not enjoy labouring under such pressure. It joined the pile of kindling.
The fire cracked again, a loud rifle shot that momentarily put him in mind of the safari plains. He coughed, the smoke irritating his throat. He took a large mouthful of brandy, hoping it would help, and returned to his letters.
Next was a summons to a dinner party, an evening of old war stories and fatty pheasant with Major Thorkipps and his gluttonous wife. He’d probably go, the hosts were a terrible bore but for reasons he could never quite fathom they were well thought of in society and often attracted interesting additions to their dining table.
Finally, a small, black envelope that, once opened, revealed little more than a thick piece of vellum with a line of strange symbols upon it.
Ruthvney held it up to the light and examined the writing. What the devil was it?
There was a roar of wind from outside the French windows and Ruthvney dropped the piece of paper, startled, despite himself. Shaken from his confusion, he picked up the scrap of paper, placed it on the pile of letters for burning and got to his feet.
The wind roared again, the French windows swelling in their frame with a loud creak.
Storm coming, Ruthvney thought, probably keep him awake for most of the night.
The wind blew once more and this time it was so strong he thought it would push the doors wide open.
He got to his feet, holding onto the edge of the desk as his head fizzed with dizziness. Probably the smoke, he thought, taking another mouthful of brandy, draining the glass. Like a badger in its set, I’m being smoked out.
He moved over to the French windows, wanting to ensure they were locked tight and draw the curtains to keep as much of the foul night at bay as he could.
The doors were, indeed, locked. He looked out on the moonlit grounds, the hems of the curtains in his hands. The moon was bright, he noticed, so maybe there wouldn’t be a storm after all. The trees were lashing back and forth almost fit to uproot themselves though, so who could tell what clouds would be blown over later?
He yanked the curtains closed. Then immediately drew them back again, sure he had glimpsed something just before the heavy fabric had obscured his view. Yes! Out there on the far edge of the lawn, three figures, walking slowly towards the house. What the deuce time was this for callers? Too late for legitimate business, he thought, watching as they pushed their way against the wind, forcing themselves step by slow step closer to the building. Too late by half. He’d give them a welcome!
He moved back into his study aiming for where his rifle was kept in the case beyond his desk. Suddenly his head grew dizzy again, a moment of terrible nausea as his entire body swayed. It was as if he were on the deck of a ship, nothing steady, nothing still. He put a hand out against the wall, trying to recover himself. Was it the smoke? he wondered. Could it disorientate a man so much? There was a low growl from behind him and he turned to see the stuffed bear straining its dust-filled limbs. Then a rattle as the dead snake twitched the dry bones in its tail. What was this?
Ruthvney staggered across the room, his hands flailing ahead of him as they reached for the gun cabinet. The fire roared. The smoke continued to trickle past the mantel and creep up the wall, leaving thin, sooty trails in its wake.
Ruthvney tugged the keys to the cabinet from his waistcoat ticket pocket where they hung from his watch chain. He unlocked the cabinet, removed the rifle and turned to face the far end of the room where his taxidermy was now quite still. What on earth was he thinking? Of course it was still, there was no life left in that menagerie.
But there was still the matter of the strangers outside, the three men making their way towards the house. Unless they too had been a delusion?
No! Ruthvney wouldn’t have it... He was not a man who imagined things, he was a man of facts, of solid truths. He walked back towards the French windows, rifle in hand, but made it only halfway across the room before a pain in his stomach doubled him over.
What was happening to him? First he began seeing things then this... this... what? The pain was not like the indigestion that frequently troubled him, nor was it the equally familiar stab of trapped wind. No, this was something that he had experienced often enough but so powerful, so savagely heightened, that it took him a moment to recognise it. The pain was hunger. An aching, desperate need to fill his stomach.
This was not the time! He forced his way on, determined to see off the strangers he had seen. He managed a few more feet before the pain struck him again, savage, undeniable...
He stepped back a few paces, resting against his desk as his stomach churned and begged for food. He turned, barking short yaps of pain as he grabbed at anything that might quell this aching pain in his guts. He tore at the desk blotter, the rifle falling from his hands as he shoved chunks of thick paper into his mouth. For a brief moment the pain seemed to dip, softening as he felt the lumps of paper pass along his throat. Then it returned, just as pronounced as before, perhaps more so. He needed more, something of more substance...
He looked around the room, tugging his cravat from his throat as he searched for something to satisfy him. He wedged the thin silk into a solid ball, popped it into his mouth and swallowed it. Again, that momentary relief only for the need to return even more pronounced.
His eyes passed over the French windows, all thought of the strangers outside gone. All he felt was hunger.
He ran to the far end of the room, moving among his display cases. These creatures would sustain him, he realised. They may no longer have the meat they once did, but there was still skin to be had, thick leather and cured pelt. He reached for the head of a young elk but the hooks held it fast and he was forced to stretch up on tiptoe, chewing at its dry snout, pulling off short strips of skin with his teeth, chewing and tearing more, his wet lips coated in dust.
He turned to the display cabinets, smashing the glass with his fists and grabbing the heartiest specimens he could. He held the fox in his arms, chewing on its ear, raking its flanks with his nails desperate to pull some the skin loose.
His teeth chipped and dislodged in his gums, not built for such sturdy work.
Finally, he got the meat he craved, though the relief was short-lived as he choked violently on his own tongue.
Breathless and delirious he fell to the floor, gazing purple-faced at the ceiling, his tongue lodging firmly at the back of his throat, wedged there alongside a dusty chunk of sawdust and bone.
At the periphery of his vision he was just aware of the wind crashing into his study, the French windows forced open.
The three figures stepped in, one moved towards his desk, another towards the fire.
Ruthvney died and they went about their business.