A Tale of Dark Shadows
Copyright © 2006
Quentin Collins stared into the fireplace. Its dry, smoky heat and dancing flames were all that kept the Great House at Collinwood from being any different from other ruined, deserted houses. Certainly, it looked like a deserted house, half destroyed by the zombie-like minions of Gerard Stiles. Fallen timbers lay in crazy patterns across the living room, and the once finely kept fixtures that Mrs. Johnson fussed over so much were now lying in broken heaps.
Quentin did not consider the wreckage about him. Instead, he contented himself with sitting in the library, his only companion a cut glass decanter that was slowly being drained. His hands were cupped about a matching cut glass goblet, and he stared listlessly into the fire, with all the demeanor of a man whose mind hovered on the brink of madness.
About him, glass lay scattered across the carpet like a sea of diamonds. Quentin drank, and stared, and turned over in his tortured mind the events of the past days. It had begun with the return of Barnabas and Julia from Parallel time. They had gone forward, and seen Collinwood in ruins, with he and Carolyn its only survivors, both driven mad by the experience. Then had come the infestation of ghosts, first the weeping and beautiful Daphne Harridge, then the diabolical Gerard Stiles.
They, in their turns, had destroyed Collinwood. Daphne had tried to protect the children, Hallie and David, while resisting Gerard's power. It had failed, and Gerard had raised his undead army of pirates to ransack the Great House. The children were dead, Elizabeth was dead, and Julia was missing. First Barnabas, and now, Professor Stokes, had vanished into time, bent on righting the tragedy by stopping Gerard Stiles from perpetrating his curse. They had gone back to 1840, a time before Quentin's birth. Stokes had tried to put him in Windcliffe Sanatarium, but when Stokes had gone back in time and couldn't be reached, Quentin signed himself out and had returned to his ancestral home.
Now, he was alone. Daphne was lost to him, and Carolyn had also mysteriously vanished, her mind shattered by seeing her mother killed so violently. The Great House was like a vast tomb, its only sound the crackle of the fire and the rustle of loose fabrics in the wind. Shadows leaped and danced about him, silent mockers of the destruction about Quentin, and of his inability to affect events.
Oh, that I could have changed things, he pondered, letting the amber liquid in his goblet burn its way down his throat. I am immortal, and yet powerless. All this can be changed, why not what happened to me? What if Edward had not married Laura? That was when the evil started for my generation. It was the first domino that started the process. Laura, the phoenix-witch, then Jenny's madness, Magda's curse, Barnabas' arrival, Angelique's entree, Trask's perfidy, and finally Count Petofi.
When did Laura and Edward meet? It was in Egypt, I think, and then they travelled to London. Yes, I recall it as if it were yesterday. A whirlwind romance back in 1884, Quentin recalled, the liquor blackening his mood. Her power was great amongst the pyramids of Egypt, and she dazzled my brother. He told me that he asked for her hand on the steamship from England to Maine. By the time they were back, they were married.
Yes, Quentin decided, that was the beginning of it all. Now, if only I could change that.
He poured another drink. Why not? Professor Stokes had ironically used one of Quentin's own devices — the I Ching wands — to send Barnabas back into the past twice. The wands were still around. Quentin felt that he was certainly as adept as Barnabas in casting the wands. Unsteadily, he finished his drink and rose from the comfortable easy chair.
I'll go back, he thought. I'll waylay that evil sorceress in some London back alley and keep Edward from starting the whole cycle of evil.
Quentin had no qualms about killing. He had done it before, voluntarily and otherwise. Putting on a heavy coat, Quentin trudged through the shattered foyer and down through the snow to the Old House. Barnabas would have left the wands there. He felt like a wolf leaving his lair. Yes, if he could change time, even that feeling of wolfishness would be gone. The alcohol in his system made Quentin oblivious to the cold that seeped into his half-boots, but he was sobered by the chill winds that chafed at his face.
The Old House was dark. Willie had disappeared during the destruction as well. Perhaps he had renewed his pursuit of his fiancee, Roxanne. Quentin stumbled about inside the old mansion until he found a cupboard with candles and matches. He lit a candelabra and carried it about until he found the two things he craved — another decanter, and the wands of I Ching.
The decanter was full of sherry, which Quentin drained without the formality of a glass. Thus re-fortified, he picked up the wands. Even in his state, he could feel them tingle in his hands, as they became antennas into other dimensions, other times. They were the authors of his fate, and they could lead him to freedom, or destruction. Without hesitation, he cast them down, his mind filled with the face of Laura Collins.
The wands fell as if they had memory and the 49th hexagram formed before him on the table. Good, he considered, sitting down at the table and concentrating on the wands. His mind sharpened its image of Laura, and every detail came out in high relief. As he focused on her, a door appeared before him, marked with the 49th hexagram. Quentin rose, and opened the door. A blaze of light seemed to gyrate about him as the portal widened, and he stepped into it, feeling more giddy than any liquor could produce.
Before him stood another door, and upon it was painted the symbol of the Phoenix, a monstrous, flame-winged bird. Frosted against this was a ghostly image of Laura, her diaphanous form enchanting in its sensuousness. Quentin thought back to the nights when he had held that image in his arms, and then he had thrust it away, grasping the doorknob and wrenching it open. Blackness greeted him. Uncaring, Quentin launched himself forward.
Suddenly, he was stumbling and falling amidst an enveloping dark. Hard, wet stones met his outstretched hands, and a stench of horses mixed with the sulphurous odor of street lamps assailed his nostrils. The clatter of hooves and the creak of carriage springs filtered to his ears, and Quentin realized that he had gone backward, but when, and where. Finding a brick wall for support, Quentin managed to get to his feet, guided by a faint glow ahead of him.
Edging along the wall, Quentin found that he was in an alley. At its terminus was a broad street, lit by the sickly yellow radiance of gaslights. In their jaundiced glow, he read a street sign, proclaiming the Strand. He was in London! Hard by him approached a carriage, little more than a blur of glitters from its metal fixtures and flashing hooves. He stared up at it dumbly, ignored by both the horses and the gnome-like driver. He was not, however, ignored by one of the passengers.
Their eyes locked immediately. Laura! He started from his concealment, but the carriage had passed by. It was foolish of him to think that she recognized him. They would not meet for months, and then she would be Edward's wife, bearing Edward's child. Quentin began to follow the carriage, his head splitting from the passage through time and its accumulation of alcohol. The carriage was moving apace, and Quentin had little doubt as to where it was headed. Beyond, he could see the masts of ships. Against the deep blue of London's night sky, he saw a curl of smoke against a bloated moon. There was a ship gathering steam.
He had arrived at the time when they would depart for America. Quentin figured he had but minutes to act. Picking up his pace, his tormented mind gave birth to and discarded a dozen plans, the final one being the best. Quentin could not clearly recall the beginning of the Jack the Ripper killings, but no matter, he would emulate them. He would spring upon the carriage, remove Laura and drag her away. He would count on surprise to keep Edward from pursuing quickly.
By now, Quentin was running, and the swaying lights of the carriage were beginning to draw nearer. He gathered himself for the leap that would gain the running board of the carriage when pain drove into the back of his skull like a spike. He was dimly aware that he was falling, of pain in his shoulder, in his knee, and then hands were grasping him roughly and pulling him across the cobble stones.
Consciousness was an elusive wraith, giving Quentin strobe-like flashes. Groggily, like an exhausted swimmer, his awareness began to surface to the realization that he was being bundled along, supported by the strong arms of two men. Ahead of him walked a third. Pain blurred his vision, and the voices that came to his ears sounded like they came from a drain pipe.
"He's taking his time coming around," said the man in front of him in a voice that was tantalizingly familiar. "Are you certain you didn't kill him, Moran?"
"No, Mr. G., I did not," complained a second, to his left. "I am trained, as you well know, to disable with precision. Had I wished him dead, he would have died instantly."
"By a bullet from an air-gun, no doubt, Colonel," observed the last, to his right. Quentin was sure he had heard that voice before.
"Quick and quiet, that's the way I deal 'em," stated the identified Colonel Moran. "Where we taking him, Mr. G.?"
"Our young friend here is the protege of a rather affluent artist, a Mr. Basil Ward" replied Mr. G. "The studio is just around the corner. The man caters to these puerile Aesthetics that have sprung up of late. Have they managed to limpen your wrist, Charles?"
"No," clipped Charles. "Why do you want this man, Mr. Fenn Gibbons?"
Damn it! thought Quentin. What worse fate than to fall into the hands of Victor Fenn Gibbons? And worse still, his partner in crime was Charles Delaware Tate, who would paint Quentin's immortalizing portrait some thirteen years into the future. The boy must barely be out of school. Had Gibbons, or more precisely, Count Andre Petofi, cultivated the artist this early? This would explain Tate's knowledge of the occult and his ability to do uncanny things with paint and canvas.
How could they have been at the exact spot to intercept him? There was something supernatural at work, and Quentin felt himself inadequate to combat it. They turned a corner, and Quentin was released by Tate, who went forward and unlocked a door. Quentin was pulled through it and dumped rather unceremoniously into a chair. Before he could react, somebody, no doubt Moran, had expertly trussed him up.
"You have him secured?" Petofi asked.
"Listen," Moran snapped between knot-tying, "I dealt with Afghans and Boers. This drunken loon is child's play, and make no mistake. You paid for good work, and you're getting it. However, in case the Yank is clever —"
Moran produced a huge Webley revolver and ostentatiously examined it before returning it to his pocket.
"I would have expected you to have a Beeman," Petofi chortled, eyes cold behind his thick glasses.
"Air guns for quiet work. Webleys make an impression on a host—er, guest."
Quentin's vision began to clear. Moran was a large man, with thick, dark features. Obviously, the Colonel was adept at brutality. No doubt it had cost him his career.
The hemp rope burned at Quentin's wrist, and he could tell that it would take some time to work free, and time did not appear to be on his side. Tate had moved over to a work bench in the darkened studio, and was lighting an oil lamp. There was a brief yellow flair, then the young artist turned down the wick until only a bleached glow illuminated the room. Petofi sat on a wide bench, regarding Quentin with the expression of a Moray eel before it devours its unwitting prey.
Sobriety was fast intruding upon Quentin, augmented by a splitting headache. It hurt for him to move his eyes too fast, but he could not resist looking about the room for any sign of something that would help him. Artist's materials were everywhere: pallets, easels, canvases in various stages of work, and framing equipment. He was trapped, and alone.
"Why, Petofi?" he gritted against the pain.
"So, you know me," muttered the Count, raising an inquiring eyebrow. "That means that at least part of my information is correct."
"What information? How did you obtain it?"
"Oh, magically, of course. I am like an octopus, Mr. Collins. I sit as the brain and devouring beak while my many agents, like tentacles, wind their coils this way and that in search of things that will further my ends. I employ artists, like Tate, here, because they can make beauty permanent. I employ men like Colonel Moran, because I need certain other tasks performed. Through Moran, I have made another acquaintance who will fill my pockets. Yes, Mr. Moran's friend is a genius, a veritable Napoleon of crime. Well, I digress. I used divination, Mr. Collins, good old Witch of Endor divination."
"You looked into a crystal ball?" Quentin was only too aware of all forms of magic, but at the moment he wished for a rather more prosaic miracle of modern science, the aspirin.
"Not, quite. I called up a spirit, the spirit of an old friend of mine. He and I were once brothers in sorcery, equal in status to Cagliostro and the Count St. Germain. He was destroyed almost two hundred years ago, and for a time, I thought he had made a comeback, but your ancestors dealt him another blow."
"They did?" Quentin found the conversation difficult to follow. Petofi seemed to be on a roll, however.
"Yes, certainly you know about that," Petofi grunted, his side-burned cheeks puffing with annoyance. "I'm talking about Judah Zachary. He was destroyed by your namesake and his clan, aided by his own protege, Miranda duVal, or Angelique, as you probably know her. At any rate, I called him up from the pit and asked him to jump forward and see if he could find my missing hand." Here, Petofi held up his black-gloved artificial hand for emphasis. "Judah was accommodating as always, and soon found the hand at Collinwood. He told me all the events that led up to its arrival, but was mysteriously blocked from seeing any further. He attributes this blockage to more meddling by Angelique."
Bless that witch, thought Quentin. With all that went on in 1897, she still found time to outmaneuver a time-travelling spirit.
"This still doesn't tell me how you knew that I would try to stop Laura," Quentin reminded the bloated mage. As he talked, he tried to loosen his bonds, hoping to play for as much time as possible.
"Child's play," Petofi chuckled, and wiped his thick glasses with a silk handkerchief. "Judah paid attention to all the players in your little drama of 1897 and followed each of them back through time to now. He felt that Laura's presence, and your subsequent affair with her aided the atmosphere of chaos necessary for my getting reacquainted with my hand. I felt I could count on her support. Perhaps my analogy of an octopus was inaccurate. You see, I am also much like a spider, full of a spider's patience. I sit at the center of my web, awaiting that tell-tale vibration which heralds the advent of my prey. Thirteen years from now, both I and the hand will be in the same place at the same time. I could not let you or anyone else interfere with those plans."
"Then what are you going to do with me?"
"A quick reading of your aura says that you are here astrally, so I assume you used the I-Ching or some other device to send you back in time with a specific mission in mind. As soon as the window of opportunity for that mission passes, I am confident you will be drawn back to wherever it is you came from. I suppose I could kill you, but I might be upsetting some chain of events that would be unfavorable to me. So, you shall live."
"Getting light soon," Moran observed, from beside on the wide studio windows. "We'd better take our leave."
Petofi heaved himself upward. "Very well."
"I have a prediction, Count," Quentin offered. "You will fail, and fail utterly. The only thing that awaits you in 1897 is your destruction."
"A prophet is never appreciated in his own home, Mr. Collins, and your revelations are similarly disdained by me. I wish you a very good morning, and a good future. Farewell."
"What about Tate?" Moran demanded.
"He's coming with us. His employer, Mr. Ward, has taught him everything he knows, anyway. It is time that I gave him special instruction. Come along, Charles."
"A pity, Mr. Collins." Tate breathed a sigh of disappointment, and his handsome features were drawn in sadness. "You would have made an excellent study."
"I fear you will have your chance again," Quentin promised.
The door closed, and Quentin began to struggle fervently against his bonds. Moran was good, but Quentin was enraged. If he could only free himself, perhaps he could still catch the steamer and throw Laura overboard. He strained until he thought his head would burst, and just when he felt the bonds loosen, another key turned in the lock. Framed in the gray light of morning was a thin, intelligent-looking fellow in dull tweeds. The expression of surprise on the man's face was almost ludicrous.
"What the devil do we have here?" the man exclaimed.
"I've been held here against my will," Quentin offered. "I must be released immediately."
The man eyed him dubiously. "I believe I'll let the constable decide that." He turned to look back into the street and almost collided with another gentlemen. This man looked vaguely familiar to Quentin. He was tall, yet very slender, and his full, aristocratic face was framed by long chestnut locks that flowed from beneath his silk hat.
"Hello, Basil," the newcomer said by way of greeting. "I couldn't sleep and thought I would see what you were up to. Haven't been up this early in years."
"We have a damned mystery, Oscar," explained Basil, evidently the Basil Ward who owned the studio. "There's a man inside who is tied hand and foot and claims to have been held against his will, in my studio of all places. Could you watch him while I get the constable."
"My pleasure," the newcomer, Oscar, agreed. While Basil departed, Oscar deftly flipped his hat onto a battered hat rack by the door and sat down with a flourish on the same bench recently occupied by Petofi. He studied Quentin pensively, and his full-lipped mouth became a flat line as he thought.
"You're quite a person!" he suddenly burst out. "Tell me your story."
"Get me some headache powders and I'll tell you anything," Quentin snarled. "Better yet, untie me."
"No, I can't betray a friend like that, but there's no point in being uncivil. Let me see what Basil has in his apothecary." Oscar rummaged around in a side room, coming out with a glass and an envelope of powders. He poured in some water, then added the powders, mixing them with the handle of a brush.
"I could drink that better if you untied me," Quentin offered, trying to appear rational.
"So you could, but I'm not so dull witted as to allow it. Open wide." Quentin reluctantly obeyed, and Oscar poured the mixture down his throat. "Now, about your story."
"To save me from having to repeat it, I'll wait for the policeman."
"You're an American!" Oscar decided. "Typical American bluster and bad tempers. Very well, we'll wait. By the way, I am Oscar Wilde."
"The very same. Basil is a good friend of mine, and his work inspires me on occasion."
"Too bad it doesn't inspire you to release me."
The arrival of the constable precluded any further repartee on Wilde's part.
"Cor!" Gasped the constable. "If this ain't a sight. Look here, Mr. Ward, I didn't know you had Mr. Wilde in here. If this is another of your Ass-thete's limp-wristed games, well —"
"The man says he was held here against his will," Wilde cut in, annoyed by the policeman's insinuations.
"Let's hear your story," the constable snapped, undeterred.
Quentin shrugged as best he could in his bonds. "Fine, but you won't believe it."
Quentin detailed the entire matter in as few sentences as possible. The policeman took notes but shook his helmeted head through most of it.
"And how do you know this Charles Tate?" the constable demanded.
"He painted a special picture of me."
"What d'yer mean, special?"
"Oh, it ages, but I don't."
The constable snapped shut his notebook with an audible crack. "Stone the bleedin' crows! I've had enough of this. Do you wish to press charges, Mr. Collins?"
"Wouldn't do any good. Could I please be untied."
"Right." The constable produced a clasp knife and severed Quentin's bonds. Standing unsteadily, Quentin chafed his wrists to bring back circulation.
"At least my headache has disappeared," Quentin admitted. "Now, gentlemen, I must bid you farewell. I have a ship to catch."
He rushed from the studio and stopped in his tracks. Through a gap in the buildings, he saw a steamer plying the Thames, smoke surging from its stacks as it made way. As he watched it, a certain giddiness overcame him. His strength fled, and his surroundings began to grow transparent. It was too late, he realized. Petofi had won, and Quentin's torment would continue. He wondered, as reality fragmented about him, what sort of future he would return to. The last he heard was Wilde's voice, apparently in conversation with Basil Ward.
"This would make a damn good story, Basil."
The last person Quentin expected to see as he returned to the Great House was Elizabeth. She was purposefully striding toward him.
"I thought I'd find you over here," she stated as they came within speaking distance. "Roger's giving a speech at the Historical center, and we're going to be late. Why don't you get Barnabas?"
"He's out," Quentin gulped, surprised not only at seeing her alive and animated, but, looking behind her, seeing Collinwood restored to its former state of preservation. Evidently, Barnabas, Julia, and Stokes had succeeded in the past. Perhaps it had something to do with what Petofi had said back in 1884. He hastily recovered himself. Putting his arm about Elizabeth, he led her back toward the great house, where their Towne Car was waiting with lights blazing.
"Tell me something, Cousin Elizabeth," he said as they walked through the snow, "what do you think Oscar Wilde was most famous for?"
"Either `The Importance of Being Earnest' or `The Picture of Dorian Gray,'" she said after a moment's thought. He held open the door of the large car and saw David and Hallie snuggled in beside Carolyn.
"What was the last about?" he inquired, sliding in beside Roger.
"A man whose picture aged, but he stayed forever young."
Roger put the car in gear and they headed off into the curtain of snowflakes.