A Ghost Story for Samhainn
(Amended with new draft 12/11/21.)
Thomas Calder, a lieutenant in the 1st Surreys, was sent back to England in autumn 1917 after being injured during the Battle of the Somme. He spent a week or so in a conventional military hospital in France, but his wounds were primarily psychic rather than physical, so he was sent back to England, and to Sandilands.
Sandilands had by that time come under the directorship of Dr. K. J. Ravichandra. Ravichandra was marked out by his universally acknowledged skill, and by his advanced and humane ideas. Before his advent, Sandilands had effectively been a torture chamber for men who were considered weak and cowardly, in need of being shocked or bullied back to obedience. Whatever our modern opinion of Ravichandra’s approach, there can be little doubt that his informal and conversational style represented an improvement on treatment through freezing cold water, or electric shock, or cigarette burn. The men who came under Ravichandra’s care at Sandilands – an Elizabethan manor in East Anglia, bought by the government and converted for use as an Army psychiatric hospital – generally showed great improvement. Calder, it must be said, turned out to be something of an exception.
One of the things Ravichandra insisted upon was that all patients should have single rooms, or at least share with only one other person. Accordingly, the old system of shared bunks (officers excepted, naturally) was abolished, and the large rooms of the old house were converted into a great number of small but pleasant single and double cubicles. This not only increased the comfort of the patients but also expanded the hospital’s capacity, so the Army was inclined to be pleased despite the expense. Ravichandra had made a rod for his own back in that he immediately found that he was being sent a great many more patients.
Not only did Ravichandra find his staff and budget severely stretched, he soon found that space was running out. Calder was literally the last man to be sent to Sandilands before Ravichandra was forced to tell the Army that he could not possibly accept any more patients. Consequently, Calder was not put into a cubicle like the vast majority of the patients, but was billeted in a small attic room. It was the last remaining scrap of space usable for habitation.
By the account of Lumsden, the orderly who showed Calder up to his room via a narrow, cramped, and creaking old spiral staircase, the new arrival was pleased when he saw the room. He seemed to like its privacy and remoteness – though he certainly remarked upon its peculiarities, as nobody could help doing.
Its walls, floor, and angled ceiling were of dark, old wood. Even the loam between the tarred black beams was dark. At some point, probably during the early nineteenth century, the room had been refurbished with new panelling and floorboards. but even then the dark colour scheme had been retained. The wood of the panels and floorboards was stained so dark as to be almost black.
But the truly striking feature of the room was the painting in the corner. The mansion was replete with old pictures which had been left in place as much as possible. They were generally of an unexceptional kind, of interest only by virtue of their age, and for what they could tell about the characters and tastes of the house’s past occupants. Conventional, unskilled family portraits, local landscapes, and so on.
The picture in Calder’s attic room was quite different – and here I must present a synthesis of various accounts I have of the picture, since it no longer exists. The subject was a man of about fifty, dressed in the clothes of a clerical gentleman of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. This was quite evidently the era of the painting’s creation, which makes it seem likely that its placement was contemporaneous with the room’s renovation. It was a full length portrait, showing the entirety of its subject from head to toe. It was life size, and had been positioned so that the bottom of the thin frame was touching the floorboards, as if to attempt a trompe l’oeil effect of the subject actually standing in the corner. It did not quite function as an optical illusion when looked at closely or head on, but from any distance, and especially when seen in the corner of the eye, the realism was startling.
The subject was depicted in three-quarter view. This was conventional enough, but the legs and arms were curiously positioned so as to give the impression that the subject was in the process of walking sideways. One got the feeling of motion paused. The face was turned so that it alone, unlike the rest of the body, faced the viewer directly. It was not a handsome face and the painter had made no effort to flatter his sitter. Indeed, he seemed to have striven for brutal honesty. The mouth was wide and straight for most of its length until it curved sharply downwards at the edges, giving the face a frog-like appearance. The neck was long and thin but also pouchy and baggy. There was a suggestion of loose skin everywhere, as if the man had once been stout but had recently lost a great deal of weight. The suggestion of ill health was reinforced by a yellowish tint to the pale skin, and a haggardness about the eyes. The eyes were the truly exceptional feature. They had been painted so that they gave the impression that they followed the viewer around the room. That is not unusual in itself, of course, but the eyes were abnormally large and round, and seemed protuberant. The artist had skillfully suggested extreme wetness and glassiness. They gave the man the look of someone at the mercy of an overactive thyroid, except that this seemed too mild a diagnosis. He looked as if he were in the process of dying slowly and painfully, perhaps from tuberculosis or cancer. There was a quality of desperate avidity to his fixed stare. You felt you were being eyed in the same way a starving man might eye a side of mutton.
And then there was the dog. So dark in colour that it would have blended with the dark background of the portrait but for the sheen of grease on its fur, it was very much not the sort of dog usually included in a portrait. No noble hunting hound this, but an ugly, desperate mongrel. It was moderately large, but scrawny and sickly-looking. It had something of the same bagginess of skin as its master. It sat on its haunches just behind the man, looking up at him, at his face. Both the animal’s eyes were visible. Every account stresses how disturbing the dog’s eyes were. They certainly were the eyes of a dog – there could be no doubt about that – but there was something so intensely human in their expression that it almost seemed as if human eyes had been transplanted into a dog’s head.
A further issue with the room was the smell. Very few people had spent much time in the room, but those who had all remarked on it. Lumsden recalls hearing complaints about the smell from the staff tasked with preparing the room for occupation. He himself recalls noticing it eventually. “You didn’t smell it all at once,” he says. “At first it just smelled like an old room. Musty, you know. But spend any time in there and it’d start creeping into your nostrils. A kind of rotten smell. But metallic. Tinny. And sickly without being sweet. It’s hard to describe. It sort of stung. Just a little. A bit like breathing in lime.” He recalls telling Calder he might notice it as he helped him move in. Calder was casual about the possibility.
“I’ve smelled worse,” he told Lumsden.
Calder’s first days at Sandilands were probably spent exploring the house. Unfortunately, we have no record of Calder’s own thoughts and experiences at Sandilands outside of what Ravichandra writes in his notes, and the reminiscences of a scattered few others like Lumsden. Calder kept no diary or journal. And he seems to have neglected to write to anyone, even his family. Certainly, the surviving relations claim to have no knowledge of any letters ever existing, and in the absence of evidence to contradict their claim we must accept it. We do, however, have accounts of arriving at Sandilands from various other inmates, the best known and most eloquent of whom was the waspish war poet Eoin Fewell. Fewell actually published his reminiscences of Sandilands in a now sadly neglected volume of memoirs.
Fewell made a beeline for the house’s library almost as soon as he arrived, and writes that he found it “oddly fascinating and fascinatingly odd”. Dr Buller – the former director – had ordered the room effectively sealed off, but Ravichandra had been willing to allow the room to be opened for the use of patients. He was, however, unable to devote any funds or staff time to the necessary job of cleaning and organising the books. Fewell volunteered his services. He says that he found the room in a sorry state, intolerably dusty and dirty, and many of the books in parlous condition. Everything had been left carelessly uncovered, clearly for a long time, possibly since the era from which the ‘modern’ library clearly dated: the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. This library was obviously built on the foundations of an older library, probably incepted contemporaneously with the building of the house in the Tudor period. Someone had collated a Tudor book collection, subsequently swelled by books from the Stewart period, with a collection spanning the 1700s and early 1800s. It was, of course, difficult to say which book dated from which version of the library, since many of the older works could have been acquired by the later collector. In any case, as Fewell notes with some amusement, the library was an eclectic “not to say madly incoherent” jumble of texts, not only spanning many periods but many different spheres of knowledge, “from the naively scientific to the obscurely theologic; from the distractedly philosophic to the brazenly occultic”. Fewell reports that over the course of his stay he became Sandilands’ de facto librarian. He spent most of his time in the library, restoring it to some semblance of order, trying to save as many of the damaged books as he could, cataloguing them, etc. It is a tragedy that all of Fewell’s work went for nothing when the entire collection was destroyed by the bomb which eventually all but obliterated Sandilands during the Second World War. Fewell, however, writing after this event, seems oddly untroubled by it, possibly because many of the books he found in the library ranged, in his wry words, “from the worthless to the sinister”.
During the course of his work in the library, Fewell encountered records of some of the house’s previous owners. He deduced that the renovation and collation of the library which took place in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was carried out by the then owner, “an unfrocked clergyman turned quester after knowledge” called Josiah Stroud.
Fewell describes Stroud as “yet another archetype of a species which the Enlightenment produced in wretched abundance: the gentleman diletante of poor talent and even poorer reputation… [who], fancying himself the next great discoverer of new insights or old wisdom (or both), devoted himself, Casaubon-like, as unappreciated by everyone as he was unbidden by anyone, to years of procrastinatory fidgeting masquerading as study and experimentation, in comfortable idleness masquerading as ascetic self-denial, ending with nothing to show for it but copious notes which are all-but incomprehensible to anyone not trapped within the same hermetic delusions as the man whose only real labour in life had consisted of scribbling them down.” Fewell is remembered for noting more concisely elsewhere that the eighteenth century produced “orders of magnitude more alchemical Newtons than mathematical Newtons”. It is all but certain that Stroud must have been lurking somewhere in his mind when he wrote that line.
Fewell, who became so grudgingly interested in Stroud that he even spent some of his convalescent time digging around in parish records and talking to local people in an effort to find out about him, relates that the gentleman was notoriously unpopular in the area – much like the considerably more talented Joseph Priestly was with his neighbours – and that few were inclined to mourn when it was observed that he was becoming grievously ill. When he subsequently disappeared a few months later, it was taken for granted by many that he had been carried away by the devil, “though what interest such an accomplished, successful, and gregarious gentleman as the Prince of Darkness can have found in him,” says Fewell, “can only be conjectured”. It was hardly the first disappearance in the area, Fewell relates, but the locals made a distinction, not least because Stroud himself was widely considered the likely author of the others. They were inclined to especially connect Stroud’s occupation of Sandilands with several disappearances of young people and children from the surrounding villages. There are even accounts of out-of-town guests arriving in the village nearest to the house, apparently on Stroud’s invitation, “only to never be seen departing by foot, coach, dog-cart, or any other means”. Significantly as far as this narrative is concerned, one of the disappeared was a young man who arrived from London carrying easel, canvas, paints and brushes. He made his way to Sandilands and was never known to depart. Fewell is scornful of local suspicions in some parts of his narrative, and yet seems willing to believe them in others. He hints again at the sinister nature of some of the books in Stroud’s library, though his tone here once again assumes the pose of amused contempt.
Fewell gives us a passing description of some of the items he discovered in a small storage room adjoining the library. He speculates that they are relics of the benighted ex-Reverend Stroud’s attempts at scientific investigation, shoved none-too-carefully out of sight and out of mind by those who took over stewardship of Sandilands after his disappearance. For our purposes it is relevant to note that Fewell lists among his discoveries extensive articles of crude surgical equipment, and several decayed organic specimens which had clearly once been preserved in jars of fluid. Fewell makes a joke of not speculating about the provenance of some of the specimens. He finds the jars – many of them shattered – to be of an unusual and distinctive type. They came in a range of irregular shapes, as if privately and individually created with some obscure method in mind. Confirming his hypothesis, Fewell finds extensive evidence of home manufacture of glass work amidst the dirty wreckage of the dead man’s paraphernalia.
It will never be known if Calder saw, or even heard of, any of this. His stay at Sandilands did not overlap with Fewell’s. Fewell apparently made no secret of his potterings amid old Stroud’s peculiar effects, and his discoveries would have been known to other inmates, who may have told Caldwell, or even showed him. What we do know is that Calder’s first few nights in the house were uneventful.
It so happens that Calder was treated personally by Dr Ravichandra, who insisted upon taking a share of the actual patient consultations in addition to all his other responsibilities. Ravichandra’s notes initially tell a conventional enough tale. He writes that Calder is traumatised not only by a close brush with death of his own but also by witnessing the deaths and maimings of many of his comrades. The incident which saw Calder removed from active duty not only injured him but involved him witnessing the atrocious death of his best friend in his unit. This, in addition to the cumulative effect of several years of witnessing such incidents, had caused him to finally reach breaking point. Though he had overcome his initial catatonia, and was capable of seeming normal for stretches, he was still suffering from an extreme case of nerves, manifested in periodic mental confusion, bouts of paranoia, inability to concentrate, anxiety attacks, and insomnia giving way to exhausted sleep plagued by nightmares.
Given these symptoms it is clear why Ravichandra failed to take seriously Calder’s reports – which began on his sixth day at Sandilands – of peculiar happenings in his room at night. And then there is the fact that Calder’s initial complaints could be plausibly explained as the results of a very material and soluble problem.
To start with, Calder complains about the smell in his room. It didn’t bother him at first he says, but he is convinced it is getting worse. He also complains about strange noises as night. He tells Ravichandra that he hears scratching sounds, and creakings. Ravichandra – clearly, by the tone he takes in his notes. treating these complaints as symptoms of paranoia – asks if the sounds resemble footfalls. Does Calder believe someone is coming into his room and causing the floorboards to creak? To Ravichandra’s evident surprise, Calder rejects this hypothesis. They are not, he says, the sounds of feet. They are more like the sounds of something being carefully opened, or prised apart, and then dragged across the floorboards. He reports the disturbing impression of conscious care being taken about some covert operation, as if someone is making an effort to go about their obscure business as quietly as possible.
“When I get up and turn on the light,” Ravichandra reports Calder saying, “there is nothing there. The first time it happened, I expected to find the door open. I thought maybe I’d forgotten to close it properly and a breeze, or a cat, had pushed it open or something.”
He does, he says, find evidence of activity. He finds detritus on the floor. He finds scuff marks all around the room. He finds sprinklings of what looks like fibre, and maybe crumbled wood. He finds scratches and splinters – albeit only small and slight ones – in the floorboards, which he is prepared to swear were not there before.
The problem seems to escalate. By the ninth day, Calder is telling Ravichandra that he is finding new and unaccountable wounds on his body when he wakes up. Ravichandra asks to see them. He notes scratches, long and sometimes deep enough to be called cuts, on Calder’s shoulders, around his neck, and on his chest and belly. There are corresponding holes cut into his pyjamas. The wounds are clearly quite fresh; the worse ones are fresher than the others. Ravichandra admits (to himself anyway) to being puzzled. He had assumed that Calder was extrapolating sinister suspicions from the normal sorts of tiny injuries that one acquires unknowingly all the time. They almost look thin enough to be papercuts. They also seem dirty, as if they were made with a soiled blade. Ravichandra orders them cleaned by a nurse. He muses privately that Calder may be causing the wounds himself, knowingly or otherwise.
Ravichandra writes that the smell, the sounds, and the physical traces on the floor are all aspects of Calder’s dreams, bleeding into reality as he hovers in a half-wakeful state. He theorises that the smell represents the traumatising smells Calder was exposed to in the trenches; that the sounds are symbolic representations of the dreadful sounds he has heard; that the damage Calder perceives in the room is an encoded reiteration of his memory of the wreckage and injury he has witnessed. The memories are intolerable and so cannot be faced, but they remain present, and so they are ‘encrypted’ in an altered form in the dream, and in the alterations he thinks he finds in the state of the floor.
Later, however, Ravichandra reports – with some amusement at his own expense – that, having looked into the matter and spoken to Lumsden, the smell at least is real enough. And some of the cleaning staff back up Calder’s assertion of damage and debris on the floorboards. Ravichandra suggests to Calder that the smell and the noises and the damage are probably all related to the presence of mice, or rats. Ravichandra is far from sanguine about the possible presence of such beasts, but seems pleased with the relief evinced by Calder upon hearing of the idea. “I never thought I’d be relieved by the idea of sharing quarters with a rat again,” he records Calder as saying.
Some days later, however, Ravichandra’s puzzlement returns. It seems that Calder’s room has by then been searched thoroughly for the bodies – living or dead – of vermin, and found to be clean. Moreover, the room lacks any evidence of such animals. No droppings. No holes in the wainscotting. Traps have been laid and left unsprung. The room has also been thoroughly cleaned – again – and the one small window has been left open for hours. Neither measure had had any effect on the lingering, insidious odour. The room’s occupant is disconcerted by the failure of his doctor’s comforting hypothesis, which he had clearly pounced upon with some relief.
Even so, at this point Calder’s troubles with his accommodation appear as only a minor issue in Ravichandra’s characteristically copious notes on their sessions. Calder seems to have avoided his room as much as possible, despite his desire for solitude. He took to spending much of his time in the gardens, or the common room. He left his window open when he was not in the room. He also asked for dried flowers to be placed next to his bed, and the request was granted.
In Ravichandra’s notes, Calder and Ravichandra spend far more time discussing Calder’s experiences in the war, his family life (which topic we shall avoid out of consideration for Calder’s surviving family), and so on, than they do his problems with his room. They only come back to the subject when Ravichandra tries to discuss Calder’s dreams. The rodent theory having proven inaccurate, Ravichandra and Calder clash lightly over the issue of whether Calder’s experiences in the room qualify as part of this discussion.
The issue appears to be settled in Ravichandra’s favour when Calder’s experiences become more strange and unbelievable. On his eleventh day, Calder was found in his night clothes, passed out, sprawled on the floor in the tiny hallway outside his room, his head hanging down onto the top step of the spiral staircase. When checked, his bed was found to have been hurriedly deserted after its occupant had lost control of his bladder. The tactful way Ravichandra refers to this in his notes, and the measures he reports having taken to ensure it is kept as secret as possible, would be almost comical when read now, were the evident concern for Calder’s dignity not so moving.
Ravichandra asks Calder to tell him what happened and Calder – reluctantly, and after a great deal of coaching – recounts his story of the previous night. What follows is based closely on Calder’s account, as transcribed by Dr Ravichandra.
It is night and Calder is retiring. He locks his room door – a privilege Dr Ravichandra has permitted him. He hangs his robe on the hook on the back of the door. He shuts off the electric light, walks carefully across the dark room in only the light of the candle by his bedside cabinet. He gets into bed. He wraps some muslin over the lower part of his face to guard against the smell in the room, which seems to have rallied to fight the aroma of the flowers. He extinguishes the candle. He turns over. His insomnia is not too bad at the moment, partly thanks to the sedatives Dr Ravichandra has prescribed for him. He drifts away to sleep fairly quickly.
Time passes. Calder begins to surface from his slumber. In a state of half-wakefulness, he is aware, once again, of activity somewhere in the room. He hears the sounds that he has by now come to dread. The soft creaks. The papery scrapings and scratchings. The long, slow, shuffling of something heavy and hard being dragged or pushed across the floor. Again, the impression of care being taken, of an effort at silence. Again, the thudding knowledge that there is not only activity but intelligence somewhere nearby in the darkness. And he dimly realises something else, a connection he has not consciously made before: when he hears the sounds, the smell in the room gets worse. It is that way now. It fills his nose, even through the muslin.
He is lying on his side, facing the window. Soft moonlight leaks through the thin gaps between and around the curtains, but it is not enough to alleviate the near total darkness in the room. The sounds are behind him, happening in the area of the room between his bed and the wall with the portrait. And, incrementally but undeniably, they are getting closer.
He turns over, forcing himself. He makes a conscious effort to wake himself fully but his brain is sluggish. The darkness fizzes around him. His eyes conjure shifting blotches of black-blue and black-red and black-purple as the blood flows into them, dilating his pupils, searching for any scrap of light, for any distinct edge or outline. He reaches towards his bedside cabinet, not sure if he is reaching for his watch or his matches. His hand bumps into something. It is not his bedside table. Whatever it is, it should not be there. Exquisite terror makes his scalp crawl and his cheeks flush and his back muscles freeze as he realises that he has missed his aim, missed the cabinet, reached out into a part of the space around his bed where there should not be any obstruction – and yet his fingertips have found something. He wants to pull his hand away, as if from a burning stove. But he doesn’t. He is too fascinated by the unidentified texture he feels. It is dry, hard, yet oddly springy. It has a brittleness but also a flexibility. It is made of ridges and swirls. It is almost like elongated brail.
“Dried oil paint,” he will later tell Ravichandra. “Dried oil paint on canvas. I know that feeling. My father is a painter.”
At that moment, Calder feels his bladder give way, feels hot liquid rush over his lap and between his thighs as he realises what he is touching. He looks up and his eyes, now adapting themselves to the darkness, find another pair of eyes. They are far too close, as if their owner is leaning over him. They are the avid, protruding, hungry eyes of the man in the portrait.
In Ravichandra’s notes, Calder describes throwing himself across the bed in the opposite direction, landing on the floor in the small space between the bed and the window. He waits there for long seconds, listening. He hears nothing. Eventually he makes himself creep, with agonising slowness, across the room on all fours until he reaches the door. He is aware that he is himself now doing the very thing he sensed someone else doing in this room: trying to move as silently as possible in the darkness so as not to give himself away. He slides himself up the wall, groping above himself for the key. In a forced spasm of panic he turns the key, jumps up, pulls the door open, wrenches himself around it and into the doorway. There he pauses, again listening. After hearing nothing, and seeing nothing in the small amount of light that creeps into the room from the lighted hallway, he reaches in and flicks on the electric light. The room is empty and still. Just a disarranged and soaked bed, and floorboards scattered with a little of the same debris as on previous nights. Calder forces himself to look over at the portrait. It is in place, and still. The eyes of the man are watching him.
“I’ve seen the painting in your room,” Ravichandra records himself saying to Calder, “and the eyes follow everyone. It’s how the portrait is painted.”
“I know that,” says Calder. “I know how it’s done. My father is a painter.”
“But you claim…”
“I don’t claim anything.”
“But you say it wasn’t a dream?”
Calder retreats into sullen monosyllables until Ravichandra talks him around. To read the notes is to be impressed by Ravichandra’s cool logic, mixed with sympathy and a refusal to condescend. One senses Calder being persuaded and reassured by what his doctor says. And then Calder suddenly strikes an equivocal note.
“I’ve never had a dream where I felt something. Physically, I mean. With my fingers. That’s never happened to me before.”
Ravichandra inexorably explains even this. Calder, he says, moved himself in his sleep. He feels that he saw and felt the portrait close-up for a simple reason: he did. Unaware of doing so, he moved himself across the room.
“But I was lying in bed when it happened.”
“You were lying in bed just before it happened. You were half asleep. Your mind telescoped time. You stuck two moments together. It happens. Time is not an absolute, as we now know. It is especially not an absolute when it is experienced by frail human brains. And when frail human brains are only half awake? Haven’t you ever woken up and felt sure that you’ve only been asleep for minutes, and yet a whole night has passed? Haven’t you ever experienced déjà vu? The brain is a wonderful machine, Tom, but a very erratic one. And, Tom,” Ravichandra continues delicately, “your father is a painter…”
Calder returned to his room that night; perhaps not certain that he had imagined the whole thing, but certainly encouraged and willing to hope so.
But it was not long before Calder’s troubles escalated again. Ravichandra’s notes document a sequence of events which Calder related to him during a session on Calder’s thirteenth day. It is, perhaps, a little hackneyed that it was the thirteenth day, but – as Eoin Fewell might have said – the fact remains that it was the thirteenth day and we shall simply have to find a way to live with it.
Calder was in his room, reading by candlelight. He had his window curtains open to let in what light the winter afternoon had left to give. He suddenly heard a commotion downstairs, echoing up the spiral staircase. He made out the voice of a man he had become friendly with among the shouts. He dropped his book and ran out of his room, and downstairs. In his haste he left the curtains drawn and the candle burning.
Willborougham, Calder’s friend, was a damaged young man. On the night in question he had suffered a violent mood swing into terror and rage as a result of a chance innocent remark made by another man over a game of dominoes in the common room. He began shouting, and started breaking furniture and ornaments.
Calder was downstairs for about forty minutes, helping to calm Willborougham. Ravichandra was summoned. Ravichandra, with Calder’s help, eventually persuaded Willborougham to allow himself to be led to the house’s small infirmary, where his self-caused wounds could be treated. From there, he would go for a private session with Ravichandra. Calder, reassured by Ravichandra’s personal attention to the matter, allowed Willborougham to be taken away, and lingered in the common room, helping to tidy up.
By that time, the afternoon had slid into the dark of a winter evening. Calder was standing by a pair of french doors which opened out onto a small patio, looking out across the grounds. It was then that, in the distance, barely visible in the gloom, he saw something standing in the spinney around the edge of the grounds. A small, hunched, black shape – almost a moving patch of darkness – shifting and tottering on frail-looking legs, yet somehow visibly pointed at the house, poised in concentration. The tiniest pinpricks of glassy light reflected in what must have been its face.
“It was a dog,” he said later, to Ravichandra. “It was looking right at me.”
In his notes, Ravichandra notes what Calder is not quite saying.
Calder opened the doors and walked out into the darkness. He began striding towards the creature in the murk of the trees. The closer he got to it, the faster he walked, as if increasing proximity created an increasing desire to get the horrible task over with. He almost imagined shells and bodies falling around him. As much as he wanted to catch his quarry, he found himself wishing just as strongly that it would bolt. The idea of actually coming upon the thing made him sick with fear. But it stayed where it was, watching his approach. His legs pumped away almost of their own accord, as they had many times in combat. He broke into a run, and began to shout. At almost the last moment, the creature turned tail – he swears he saw its meagre, wire-like tail whipping the air as it span around – and disappeared into the spinney. By the time he got there, it was gone.
He searched half-heartedly for a few minutes before turning back to look at the house. People were standing in the light spilling from the windows, staring across at him, calling to him. That was when he looked up and, without ever consciously meaning to, found the window to his own room, jutting out of the sloping roof. The night being dark, the curtains being open, and the candle still burning, he could see right into the room. He could see the head and shoulders of the man in the portrait, in that unmistakable sideways walking pose, illuminated dimly in the candlelight. But it wasn’t possible. Not from this angle. He was looking up, and in from the right. He should only have been able to see the top half of the left side of the far wall. And even if he could have seen the portrait from this position, it would’ve been small, and barely visible, it being so far away from the window and the candle. What he saw was the man’s head and shoulders, framed, bathed in the light of the little candle flame.
“He was standing by the window,” Calder told Ravichandra. “He was watching me.”
Why, the reader will doubtless be wondering, was Calder not simply moved to a different room? Even assuming every cubicle in the house to be constantly occupied, couldn’t Calder have been temporarily billeted somewhere else? Wouldn’t anything be preferable to his predicament in the attic room? The answer, I’m afraid, lies in Dr Ravichandra, who absolutely refused to allow Calder to change rooms.
“I am convinced that Lt. Calder must make his peace with his situation through our work together,” Ravichandra wrote in his notes, “rather than through flight.” Here, ironically, Ravichandra inadvertently echoes those he viewed with some annoyance and dislike, those who maintained that the best way to deal with shell shocked men was to hurl them back into the fray. It is, perhaps, Ravichandra’s one serious failure in this entire matter – though his decision is perfectly reasonable on its own terms. Even so, Ravichandra’s personal journal makes it clear that he was deeply affected with guilt and remorse when Calder was discovered on the morning of his seventeenth day at Sandilands, unconscious on the floor of his room, severely sliced across the chest and belly by some unknown weapon, his sheets and the floor soaked with blood.
Calder was not dead. But he was close to it for a few days – at least as close as he had ever been in the field. He was rushed to the nearest proper medical hospital. The initial suspicion was that he had attempted suicide, but it was soon determined that he had actually survived some kind of violent attack. The weapon used to inflict his wounds was never discovered or identified. The wounds themselves – long, deep, fine, dirty – were unlike anything any of the doctors had ever seen.
The room also showed signs of some kind of struggle. More of the debris that had long troubled Calder was found strewn across the floor. The scuffs and scratches on the floorboards were worse than they had ever been before. They now seemed to travel in a more or less direct straight line between Calder’s bed and the portrait.
The frame was duly prized off the wall, which instantly caused the smell in the room to rally forces and attack amain. The searchers did not find the entrance to the secret passage they had rather shamefacedly imagined. Instead they found only that the painting was mounted on the front of a roughly-made wooden box, which sat behind the frame without actually being fixed to it, and which was fitted into a recess in the wall that had evidently been constructed especially to contain it. The edges of the canvas flapped over the sides of the box. They were ragged and fibrous, and were found to be caked in several places with a flakey brownish residue.
When the back of the box was prised off in its turn, the smell in the room worsened still more. Fixed by rusted iron loops to the wood which backed the painting were several glass jars of various shapes and sizes, connected by glass pipes. The network of glass was rough, homespun work; evidently the product of the old equipment found elsewhere in the house. It formed the rough shape of a human figure, like a child’s ‘stick man’, mirroring the figure in the painting on the other side. There was, for example, a large jar fixed to the board in the place behind the head. When it was opened – by shattering, for like all the jars it was sealed with a corroded but intact circle of welded metal – it was found to contain a shrunken human brain, along with a shrivelled pair of eyes still attached by fibrous strings, protruding from a puddle of near-solidified jelly that seemed to be a mixture of dried preserving fluid and deliquesced flesh. Inside the other jars were found, in the appropriate places, withered human hands, a human heart, lungs, spleen, liver, stomach, intestines, male genitals, and feet. The material found in the pipes which linked the jars was harder to identify. It seemed like rubbery rope, dotted with slightly raised circles. It was some time before it was realised that the material was stretched octopus tentacle.
There was a similar arrangement behind the figure of the dog. The jars contained the paws, feet, heart, etc, of a dog. The only dissonant sample was in the jar behind the dog’s head. The brain found within was, after examination, discovered to be not the brain of a dog. Small though it was, it was a human brain. It was the brain of a child of perhaps eight or nine years old.
Every inch of the board behind the painting was covered in script, written in chalk, and in the hand of an educated man of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries. Some of the script was Latin, some Greek, some ancient Hebrew, etc. Apart from some scattered phrases which were identified as having been taken from texts as diverse as the Pentateuch and Paracelsus, most of this script seemed original, some of it verging on gibberish. Similarly, the Egyptian hieroglyphs, when examined in copy form by an expert, were found to only make occasional sense, and to largely be strung together in what seemed like random strings, with characters of often wildly anachronistic provenance jammed together. Most mysterious, perhaps, were the lines of what seemed like symbolic logic or mathematics. Various experts were consulted; they unanimously declared the symbols meaningless, though they seemed more like the improvisations of a knowledgeable man than the inventions of an ignoramus.
For a long time, the aftermath was bathetic. The whole affair was so puzzling and grotesque, so replete with implications that nobody had any ability or desire to explore, that it was simply buried. It was often the way back then. Potentially problematic events were widely felt to be best ‘brushed under the carpet’ in a way that today’s automatic systems don’t allow. Dr Ravichandra’s personal assurance that none of the men at Sandilands could possibly have attempted to murder Calder was simply accepted by a grateful Army. With the exception of a few forensic investigators who decided to interest themselves in the case – the most notable being the famous Home Office pathologist Sir Thornley Hart, who determined the human origin of the brain found in the jar corresponding to the dog’s head – most people forgot about it, seemingly with some determination. And even Hart chose to omit his investigations from his famous memoirs.
Ravichandra saw out the rest of the war, and a considerable period after it, tending to the psychically wounded casualties of the trenches, before returning to his native India and throwing himself into the agitation for independence. He advocated that Indians should support neither side in the Second World War. He and his entire family tragically disappeared during Partition. While he lived, he never spoke of Calder again.
After all willingness to examine them had petered out, the specimens recovered from behind the portrait were disposed of as medical waste. The portrait itself – for want of anything else to do with it – was donated to a local museum. I was told by the daughter of the curator that he took one look at it and ordered it burnt. As for Calder, he made a good physical recovery but was permanently traumatised and changed. When healthy enough, he was moved to another psychiatric hospital. The irony was that Sandilands was at once the place best equipped to deal with a man in such extremes of mental distress and the last place Calder could ever be expected to abide. He was never deemed fit to return to the war. It ended with him still in care, still refusing to sleep with the lights out, still unable to stand to be near any non-photographic representation of the human image, still stuffing his nostrils with cotton wool because, as he constantly said, “I can still smell it… I can still smell it…” Despite being repeatedly asked, he never spoke about what happened on the night he almost died in his room. He was transferred from institution to institution. His symptoms never abated – until, that is, somewhere around the early 1950s, which is the time of our unavoidable epilogue.
Calder, by now approaching 60, seemed to make a sudden and drastic recovery of his equilibrium. He stopped his incessant complaints about “the smell”. He showed himself able to tolerate the presence of paintings. He began sleeping in the dark without complaint. The doctors charged with his care judged him to have made a miraculous recovery, with the exception of one – a Dr MacMorris – who insisted that the patient was shamming, making a cunning show of rationality. MacMorris was proved right when, not long after his release to a half-way house, Calder absconded. His escape from the regimen of supervision at the half-way house – which went unnoticed for several hours – had clearly been carefully planned.
He was found a few weeks later by a pair of small boys who had crept into the shattered wreck of Sandilands, awaiting demolition. They followed a rank smell upstairs. The body – later determined to be that of Calder – was found, decomposing, in his old room. He was lying on the floor in front of the recess in the wall where the painting had once resided. His legs were bent underneath him, as if he had been kneeling in supplication and had collapsed backwards after performing the act of self-disembowelment that had finally ended his bedevilled life. His intestines were found spilled partially out of his body and tangled up in his hands, as if he had been pulling them out and holding them up as an offering. The knife he had used was found next to him, lying in a pool of congealed blood. A piece of chalk was also found on the floor, and chalk was found on the thumb and index finger of Calder’s right hand. On the wall where the painting had once been, in the area before which Calder had been kneeling, was the crude outline, in chalk, of a man. Around Calder’s body, the bloody paw prints of a dog circled and circled, and then seemed to simply stop, as if the animal had been picked up and carried away.
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