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Excerpt from Dr Blessing’s Curse, Or, The Baby In The Bell-Jar
by Jack Rollins
Margaret and I were entertaining a group of friends one evening in July 1859, these being the accountant Francis Flanders and his wife Annie, the catholic priest Father Haddon, (a recent acquaintance who was blissfully unaware that I was completely aware of his hopeless addiction to card games in various nefarious dens in our grey city) and finally the art dealer Edward Summerscale who was joined by the latest muse of his latest victim (that is to say, client), a French girl by the name of Dominique.
The dinner itself was given for no particular reason, the guests largely unremarkable in that they had become our regular company. Francis had tended to my finances for six years. Edward was always hoping to shift paintings and prints at the various dinners he attended but relaxed the selling at dinner in this particular company and with good reason. This reason being, chiefly that myself and Francis were only too aware of the “brand new works by the fine artist Alexander Pond, fresh from Paris” that Edward had been shovelling onto collectors in London, Manchester and Newcastle a year after Pond was stabbed to death in a robbery on the street in Paris.
It seems wise to point out at this stage that, at the time of this dinner, Margaret and I had been married for a little under five years and remained childless, and of equal note is that in all of those five years, and all of the gatherings, dinners and parties we have held, not once have I invited another doctor. That is to say that by day, I, Doctor George Blessing, am a general practitioner, but in my leisure time I do not care to consort with others of my kind nor discuss in any great detail the activities engaged in, while ministering to my duties.
As the maid of all work cleared away downstairs, we retired to the drawing room. After half an hour, Edward and Dominique, Francis and Annie took their leave. I had noticed that Father Haddon had been particularly struck by Dominique. I suppose some would consider her beautiful, some as ravishing, but I have long since had my desire for the pleasure of a woman’s thighs dampened. At my age of thirty-one this might seem out of the ordinary, especially given the lack of children and at the risk of sounding self-satisfied, Margaret’s considerable beauty.
Margaret dismissed Lily, the maid, for the night. Lily stayed down the hall from Margaret and I, in the room that would, in any other home, perhaps be a nursery. Then Margaret took herself off to bed. Her hand had lingered at the doorframe; her eyes had taken on a longing, a deep sadness, and I knew that she would slip into a laudanum-induced sleep before long at all. Her health had held during the dinner, but the truth of the matter was that she had become a deeply troubled, melancholy woman.
This left Father Haddon and I alone in the drawing room. I poured us each a heavy measure of brandy and took to my chair. Father Haddon considered the drink. He seemed phased, almost a little frightened by it as though afraid that upon drinking it, he might be reduced to some base, drunken monster to be cast out on the street. It occurred to me that perhaps he hovered about us so in the hope that should Margaret and I bring a child into the world, the family might be a further addition to his parish. Then again, I thought, Father Haddon had never seen me so much as set foot in a church, so would he expect me to raise a child with such ties?
I took a deep, burning swallow of brandy. I wondered if upstairs, Margaret would be making ready another attempt at seduction, trying to lure me from the fascinations of my study. Poor Margaret, if only she had seen the things that I have seen, then she might understand. It is not the lice and the discharges, not the pustulous dribbling sores, the slobbering madness of diseased whores, nor the liquefying, tumour-knotted breasts that have made a monk out of me. I have seen horror such as would make a surgeon, battle-hardened in the Crimea, turn out his guts.
I got to thinking of that night, and it seemed appropriate to talk about it, looking over at that hypocrite with his white collar and crucifix. Perhaps he might like my story. I drained my glass.
“Quite a drinker, eh?” Haddon muttered.
“What’s that?” I asked him, snapping out of my reverie.
“I say, you must have been thirsty.”
I nodded. Yes. Yes, Father Haddon would like to hear the story. Yes, he would like it. He might even have some theological insight, some angle or notion that my science can not detect. Perhaps my pragmatism is insufficient to free me from the slavery and wonderment of the gruesome marvel that has burned all desire and lust from me. “Drink,” I told him. “Drink, Father. We shall have another, but in my study.”
“Pardon me, George, but I don’t usually drink brandy. I’m not accustomed to drinking it quickly,” Haddon protested.
No, I thought, cheap gin in the slums is your tipple. “I have no communion wine, Father. I recommend you drink that brandy, however, to steady your stomach. I’ll find an alternative for you in my study for the next charge.”
I detected then a nervousness in Father Haddon. At first I had mistaken it for wounded religious sensibilities at my communion wine comment. Was he afraid of what I might tell him? Had my tone changed? Had I flushed? Was I becoming overly-belligerent? Was I bordering on the aggressive? I made for the door, empty glass in hand, and looked back over my shoulder. Haddon took two big gulps of the brandy and contorted as though struck in the abdomen.
“It’s good drink, eh Father?”
“I-I can appreciate the quality of the liquor, George. But as I say… it’s not really my tipple.”
I led the priest to my study, which was locked, the lock to which I alone held the key. We entered the room in darkness, the gaslight from the drawing room enough for me to find the safety matches on the side table with which to ignite the gas jets to either side of the mirror behind my desk. The bulk of my study now suitable illuminated, I motioned for Haddon to take a seat while I closed the door.
“Does whisky take your fancy, Father?”
Haddon’s smile was sudden and broad, his eyes glistened in the gaslight. “Now that I can drink.”
“I have no water in here, Father.”
“No, to water it down’s a sin,” he replied. Did I detect a hint of a Scottish accent? I wondered if this particular notion of a sin had been handed down to him by a father or grandfather.
Haddon cast glances around the study, the walls mainly hidden behind bookshelves, the corners and wall behind him still dark where the active gas jets could not throw their light. The bookshelves he could see closest to him were stacked with medical texts, old copies of the Lancet and such. Those shelves closest to me, to my left, contained far less conventional literature. One book from that collection sat open on my desk, but Father Haddon did not appear to observe it for more than a moment. I wondered then if he wondered at my interest in “The Anatomy of the Blood-Fiend”, by Dr Samuel Brown, III. Then I wondered at his lack of wonder, given the nature of the diagram that would have greeted his eyes.
Haddon’s attention then shifted to the various bell-jars he could make out on top of the bookshelves. I could see that the contents caused him no little discomfort. His jaw firmed, his eyes moving from one jar to the next, I then had the notion that he might have been looking for something rather than being interested in the collection in general. Perhaps he had heard tell of the shrunken head sent to me from Peru, or the lamb, born inside-out, perhaps the iguana, possibly the monkey foetus. I considered telling Haddon of the inverted lamb, which was still considered living when the veterinarian plunged it into the brine.
I resisted that urge, but was forced to assess my loose-mindedness. Why did I want to horrify Haddon? Had I the urge to tell because of the drink, or had I drunk so much to drum up the courage? How to frame the tale – ask for help or wait for help to be offered? Could the priest offer help and advice on such matters, or would I be causing him needless discomfort? And could he keep a secret? And what if he couldn’t?
Haddon seemed trustworthy, seemed nice. Well, as agreeable as any other fellow.
Then again, I thought, he is a priest.
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About the Author
The one thing Jack Rollins doesn’t have is time to write.
Jack has lots of other things, though. He has a job with unpredictable hours. He has a toddler son who needs a bottle, a bath, a nappy change, a bedtime story. He has a teenage daughter who is slowly but surely becoming his arch enemy. He has a partner who wants him to clean the kitchen now the baby is in bed.
Somehow, Jack manages to make it to the computer. It might only be for a couple of hours in a week. It might be for the whole of a weekend. When he gets that time, he goes for it and is in the process of reviving a long-ago-abandoned contemporary horror/dark urban fantasy series as well as working on several Victorian horror tales.
Dr Blessing’s Curse, Or, The Baby In The Bell-Jar is the first instalment in the Dr Blessing series. The story follows a doctor in Victorian London who, haunted by a birth that went wrong, feels compelled to tell his tale to a friend. However, all is not as it seems with the good doctor; the case has left an indelible mark on his soul and a bloody legacy he may never escape.
The series continues in: Dr Blessing’s Rapture, Or, The Beast And The Bell-Jar; and A Christmas Blessing. All three episodes are compiled in The Cabinet of Dr Blessing, which is available as an e-book and as a paperback.
Jack lives in North East England where he occasionally manages to squeeze in some body-boarding, in the positively tropical waters of the North Sea.
Tweet Jack at @JackRollins9280
Facebook Page: www.facebook.com/doctorblessing