It seems I am destined to sleep poorly and rise early in this narrow house. The apprehension that it was something other than I that had been summoned here filled me with dread, leaving me enervated but too anxious to sleep; and towards dawn that infernal scratching started in the walls again, and to my horror seemed now also rise from beneath the floorboards.
Making the best of a bad situation I elected to work on the translation while drinking honeyed tea. Outside the kitchen there was no sign of the squirrel, yet as I stared out into the orchard waiting for the kettle to boil I swear I saw something moving – a large black dog? – among the stunted trees. Although they are as evenly spaced as one would expect, their low twisted branches suggest a profound disorder, an impenetrable tangle. I was unsure if it was a barrier protecting us from that glimpsed dark shape, or an enclosure from which one day we might find ourselves in urgent need of escape.
I set such thoughts aside and forced myself to make steady progress with the codex, aided by a growing certainty that the original translation was a cunning sleight-of-hand. Why my predecessor felt the need to produce such an elaborate layering of misdirections – a series of Chinese boxes that neatly switched into a finger-trap for the mind – was beyond me. I would need to spend some time working through his cyphered journals in order to proffer a plausible explanation in the scholarly apparatus that would accompany my new translation. The prospect of this additional labour was frustrating, but the solid steady work it represented also appealed to my equable temperament and the tendency towards careful and deliberate effort that lingered on in me, one of the final vestiges of my Protestant upbringing, along with my thrift and general abstemiousness – values rarely valued any more.
I came to with a start to find Charteris gently shaking my shoulder. I must have nodded briefly over my papers, but for some reason Charteris took it as an opportunity to essay a quite feeble prank. Putting on a worried face, he implied that he had found me in a trance-like state, tracing a line of characters in the codex and pronouncing aloud those ancient, inhuman words from a language which has not been heard on this world in millennia. I scoffed at his lamentable joke and made clear that I found it to be in poor taste and that I considered such mockery to be unacceptable. He relented with an apology whose sincerity I could not judge.
MacReady and Dyson left soon after breakfast, and Charteris assured me that today he would finally begin to explain why he had invited me to join them in this awful place. First, however, he had to attend to Sprake, who was leaving us to lodge under the care of a physician who ran a kind of sanitorium some miles away. ‘A good chap, very well qualified to take on a case like this,’ Charteris explained. ‘In addition to his regular practice, he has devoted himself to transcendental medicine.’
Still annoyed with him, I was unwilling to reveal my ignorance as to what that curious phrase might mean.
I was completing my ablutions when Dr Raymond arrived, a middle-aged man, gaunt and thin, of a pale yellow complexion. I chose to wait until Sprake had been bundled into his car and whisked away before returning to the kitchen.
Charteris was all business. Since yesterday’s weather prevented me from visiting the site of Upper Wirklesworth, that is where we would begin. We walked briskly, skirting the lower village and climbing quickly to the older village overlooking the valley. It had once been the more prosperous of the two, with none of the meanness or inhibiting closeness of its younger sibling below, but now it was in ruins. There was not a roof or window or door to be found among the tumble-down walls, and what few traces of wood remained were blackened tokens of some forgotten conflagration. Apparently, the place had been requisitioned during the First World War by a secretive military unit involved in scientific work of some sort. Covert weapons development, I assumed, and wondered whether experimentation with chemical or biological weapons had contributed to the weird wrongness of the valley people, but Charteris was going on at some length about occultists, numeromancers and other such nonsense.
Breaking away from his absurdities, I took a look inside one of the ruins – a large house with thick walls – and reeled back nauseated by what lay within. The walls were covered with a pale squamous growth, fleshy, fungal and clogged with the corpses of mice and rats and birds which it seemed to be in the process of digesting. The floor was a carpeted with feathers and small, bleached bones. A cloying smell, sweet with corruption, choked the air. A thin bile rose and clogged my throat. Black flies rose up in clouds at my interruption. I spat repeatedly to rid my mouth of the taste.
Out of the corner of my eye, as I turned to face Charteris, who was making apologetic noises for not warning me, a long white furred creature darted through the grassy bank and into the nettles on the far side of the road. It moved so quickly I could not make out what it was.
Charteris rested a gentle hand on my shoulder and offered me his water bottle.
More than a little ashamed by my reaction, I forced my voice to adopt the measured tone of a professional academic. ‘What is that stuff?’ I asked. ‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’
‘Neither, if Dyson is to be trusted, has anyone else.’