This story was originally written for a horror anthology. It didn’t make the cut so I’m popping it on the site. The publishers provided some useful feedback which was gratefully received and which I totally agreed with it.
Having read back through it, it was pretty bad. I’ve tweaked the worst of the unintentional horrors that were in the original submission and although far from perfect it’s at least readable now.
At the end of the day, each story teaches me something. The lesson this time – edit, edit and edit again. I spend hours editing some of my competition submissions, but for some reason, I didn’t seem to bother in this instance. Bit of a shame as I quite liked the concept, especially given the historical element. (~3800 words)
August 8th 1854 – Knightsbridge, London
She was late. Running through the dark cobbled streets, she was cursing her tardiness. She prided herself on her punctuality, demanded it from others. Turning the last corner, she could see the rendezvous point under the gaslight. She slowed to catch her breath and regain her composure. She had time, no one was waiting.
She was happy to be in the light, after the darkness of the streets. London at night was full of menace, especially for a well-to-do woman alone. Catching her breath, she started to fear she was too late. She felt conspicuous hanging around on a corner of the seemingly empty street. In the distance, she could hear the familiar dulled noises of London at night. Nervous, she began to hum some half-remembered melody, an unconscious effort to make her predicament a little less unsettling.
“You sing beautifully,” a voice suddenly said from the darkness.
It startled her, she hadn’t heard anyone approach. Peering into the shadows, she tried to make out its source. “Who’s there?”
“Sorry I didn’t mean to startle you,” the voice replied.
“How long have you been in the shadows?”
“Rather a long time,” he said, stepping into the light. The mysterious stranger was well dressed. He had the appearance of a gentleman who’d come from the opera, replete with top hat and glinting ornate silver cane. She could see his face now. Clean-shaven, he had just a hint of grey at the hairline. He was smiling, it was a warm smile, but for his eyes, they seemed to tell a different story. “Are you expecting someone?”
“I’m not sure,” she said. She was half tempted to turn and leave. Clearly, she’d been made the butt of some joke. “I’m not sure why I am here.”
“Come now, you don’t need to be coy with me.”
His bluntness, no arrogance, it caught her off guard. Before she could react he switched tack.
“Let me introduce myself, I am Dr Gray,” he said, bowing. “And you, my dear, are here because you seek the truth.”
She didn’t like being on the back foot, it wasn’t a position she was used to. “I am here at the behest of my good friend Mr. Herbert,” she said curtly, annoyed by his tone. She did not tolerate fools gladly and anyone who’d talk to her like that was clearly a fool.
“Ah our august Secretary at War, no less,” he mocked. He held his hand out to take hers, his voice softened. “How is Sidney?”
He was a friend of Sidney’s? She relaxed a little, maybe she wasn’t on a fool’s errand. “He’s fine Dr Gray. Please, can you get to the point of this little rendezvous.”
“Our mutual friend has requested that I help you with your, how shall we say, education,” he said, gesturing to the stairs of a large stone building. “That is if you’ll let me.” He guided her out of the light and they ascended the stairs.
“And exactly what truths do you teach?” she inquired.
He paused and turned to look back down the street. “Well, the most important truth I can teach you,” he said, pointing his cane towards the streetlight. “You’ll see far more standing in the darkness than you’ll ever see standing in the light.”
Scanning the street, she was amazed to see he was right. Outside of the bright cone of the streetlight, her eyes had adjusted to the darkness. She could now see that the seemingly empty street was bustling with shadowy people going about their nightly business.
August 9th 1854 – Knightsbridge, London
The doctor rapped his cane on the imposing door, it echoed loudly. A moment later she could hear a scurrying and the sound of a key turning in the lock. With a shuddering groan, the door slid ajar.
“Good evening, Jim,” said Dr Gray, tapping the tip of his cane to the rim of his top hat.
“Doctor, you’re late this evening,” Jim replied.
The doctor checked his pocket watch and noted it had gone midnight. “My apologies.”
“No worries, squire,” said Jim, opening the door wide. “You have a guest tonight?”
“Indeed,” the doctor said, ushering his guest into the large lobby. He palmed a couple of coins into Jim’s hand. “How are you keeping?”
“Mustn’t grumble,” said Jim, winking at the doctor. “Mum’s the word.”
The doctor guided her through the lobby, picking up a lamp from the reception desk. “Thank you, Jim. I know the way.”
Jim closed the heavy door behind them, with a reverberating slam.
Lamp held high, Dr Gray led her through a labyrinth of winding corridors, down well-worn stairs into the chilly basement. “Here we are,” he said, pushing open a creaking door.
Inside, she could make out several tables, most with cadavers laying on them. Some lay under linen sheets others appeared almost abandoned. She wasn’t the kind to shock easily. “Why are we in a morgue, Doctor?”
“To begin your education,” he said, directing her attention towards one of the corpses.
“What am I to learn from a corpse?”
“Maybe everything,” he said, pulling back a sheet. “Let’s start by you telling me how he died.”
She looked at the Doctor quizzically, did he expect her to be shocked? She turned her attention to the cadaver. The Doctor held the lamp higher to give her a clearer view. For a moment she surveyed the gory scene. “Well, he has a large laceration across his chest. His rib cage has been crushed.”
“Good,” the Doctor said.
She ran her finger across the chest wound. “By the looks of it, I’d say it was a heavy weight, maybe a carriage wheel?”
“Is that all?”
She examined the cadaver looking for further clues. “His hands are calloused, maybe he was a labourer?” Lifting his arm, she smiled at the anchor tattoo. “No! A sailor.” She was quite proud of herself.
The Doctor was not impressed. “Is there nothing more?”
She struggled to understand what he was driving at, what had she overlooked?
“Maybe you’re looking in the wrong place?” he offered.
Looking around the table she could see no belongings, no notes or other clues. She looked at him perplexed. “I don’t understand.”
The Doctor moved around the table. His lamp cast long flittering shadows across the floor. “Not everything we seek is in the light.” She followed his gaze. He wasn’t looking at the corpse, rather he appeared to be staring at something on the floor, something in the shadows. She stared into the darkness, desperate to make out the detail she’d missed.
“What do you see?” he said.
The longer she stared, the more it seemed as if the flickering shadows were moving by themselves. The light was playing tricks on her. “I-” She hesitated, something definitely moved. “There’s …” She couldn’t make it out. She moved in a little closer, kneeling down to get a better view. “There’s a …” The shadows danced and swirled and slowly they coalesced. It took her too long. too long to see the ghoulish spectral face staring back at her. She gasped in horror as the ghastly phantom twisted and uncoiled, pulling itself from the shadows. Slowly, it slid towards her, sending her sprawling, clambering along the cold floor. Her heels squeaked, hands scrabbled on the tiled floor, but she couldn’t escape. The deathly cold apparition clambered its way up her struggling body consuming her. She let out a muted gurgling scream.
In the midst of her terror in her mind’s eye, she was somewhere else. She saw a boat, a dock, a death, all so vivid. An unwilling witness, she watched the gruesome last moments of the poor soul on the table, saw it and felt it as if his death was her own. The terrible vision faded slowly, leaving her panting, shaking with the shock. The doctor reached down and took her trembling hand. “Now do you see?”
Back in the lobby, Jim shook his head at the commotion. “Bloody Doctors.”
August 15th 1854 – Marylebone, London
A week passed before she saw Dr Gray again. It had been another hot August day and she’d been working tirelessly, late into the evening. Exhausted, hot and bothered, she had avoided thinking about the morgue by throwing herself into her work. It was always her refuge.
“Good evening,” said Dr Gray.
She hadn’t noticed him sitting quietly on a bench in the corridor. “Dr Gray!” She’d hoped, prayed, that she might never see him again. Even if deep down she knew it was unlikely.
“Are you ready to continue?” he said.
“What was that in the morgue?” she asked.
“What do you think?” he said, throwing the question back at her.
“I don’t know. A trick of the light, a hallucination brought on by embalming fluids,” she offered. She wasn’t even convincing herself.
“You can do better than that,” he snapped, shaking his head. He sounded annoyed, fixed her with a stare. “What did you see?”
“I saw … ,“ she croaked. She didn’t want to remember; it made her sick to her stomach. She tried again. “I saw him die; he was crushed.”
“On the docks, there was an accident,” he prompted. Trying to coax the words from her.
The horrific memory flooded back. “Yes, they were loading a heavy crate; there was a frayed rope.” She could see it all as clear as day. “The rope snapped, the winch hit him, knocking him off the dock. He was in the water when the ship …” She couldn’t say it.
“Go on,” he prompted.
The feeling of nausea was overwhelming. “The falling crate … the ship, it lurched. It pinned and crushed him against the dock.” She couldn’t go on, the mental image of the struggling man, the life squeezed out of him was too much.
“That’s right,” he said.
“You already knew?” she asked.
“You were there?”
“No!” He said, shaking his head. “I saw only what you saw.”
It took her a moment to realise what he’d said. “The vision, it was real?”
“Oh yes, it was very real. It’s called Sciomancy, it’s an ancient form of divination that uses the shadows, shades of the dead. It’s a gift.”
She looked at him incredulously. “A gift? What nonsense!”
He was taken aback. “What I’ve revealed to you is only known-”
“Is this a joke?” she shrieked, angrily cutting him off.
“A joke?” he scoffed. “Our mutual friend doesn’t think so.”
She’d had enough, it was madness. “Dr Gray, I have a keen interest in all the arts and sciences as well you know, but I draw the line at … at, what, witchcraft?”
Dr Gray stood up. He shook his head, turned on his heels and headed off down the corridor. Outraged, she set off after him. How dare he walk away. He burst through the double doors at the end of the hall. “You can’t be in there,” she shouted after him, still in pursuit.
“Take a look around you. What do you see?” he said, striding down the dimly lit ward.
“My patience is running thin, Doctor,” she spat, breathless with anger.
“Who will live and who will die?” he said, ignoring her. Abruptly he stopped at the foot of one of the beds.
“What kind of Doctor are you?” she hissed, catching up to him.
“For a seeker of truth, my dear you are forever asking the wrong questions,” he said, condescendingly. He pointed at the patient in the bed. “What’s up with this poor soul?”
She’d had enough, what did this obnoxious so-called Doctor know. “She had appendicitis, she’s making a speedy recovery and will be discharged tomorrow. Now if you’ll-”
“If you say so,” he said, walking around the side of the bed. He picked up a candle from the bedside table and held it up so that its dim light shone across the sleeping woman.
“Doctor!” she pleaded.
“Look!” he growled, pointing at the wall. “Do you see?” The candle flickered, the shadows performed their dreadful dance and in her mind’s eye she saw the poor woman; her eyes wide, brow slick, twisting and turning, screaming in agony. The horrible vision faded. She ran the back of her hand against the woman’s forehead, it was warm. Placing a finger on her jugular she could feel her pulse racing. Gently, she pulled back the bedsheet and moved aside her nightgown. The woman moaned but did not stir. In the dim light of the candle, she could just make out the first telltale signs of infection. She stared at Dr Gray; her mouth dry. “I missed it, she could have died.”
“You missed what?” Dr Gray said.
“Her symptoms, the fever,” she said, desperately.
“You are missing far more than that.”
“You’re a doctor, won’t you help her?!” she pleaded.
He shook his head. “I can’t.”
What arrogance, she thought; how could he call himself a doctor? “If you won’t help her, then I will!”
“You must try,” he said, with a sympathetic smile. He was retreating into the darkness of the ward. She didn’t even see him go, she was already fussing around the sickly woman. “You must try,” he repeated under his breath, as the doors closed behind him.
August 23rd 1854 – Regent’s Park, London
She walked through the glorious sunny park in a daze. She’d taken a much-needed break after the nightmare of the morning. It had been days since she’d seen Dr Gray. She hadn’t slept at all well since that night on the ward and her work, usually her refuge, had only bought her more pain.
She wasn’t surprised to see Dr Gray, sitting on a bench, apparently feeding the ducks. Nothing about the man surprised her anymore. Walking over, she sat down beside him. For the longest time, she stared out at the boating lake without saying a word. Eventually, she broke the silence. “I tried,” she said, her voice heavy. “All day, I tried. But her final moments were as I’d foreseen.”
“I’m truly sorry. Really I am, but you had to try. I’m afraid this knowledge comes with a price.”
“I … I don’t understand,” she said, her voice breaking.
He threw a handful of breadcrumbs at the ducks. “You have a rare tal-”
“No, you misunderstand,” she interrupted. “I don’t understand what the purpose of such a curse could be.” Tears were streaming down her face. “I couldn’t save any of them.”
All week she had tried to put into practice what Dr Gray had shown her. Every day she’d tried to save those unfortunate marked souls within her care and every day she’d failed. She couldn’t save even one; they all exited this world just as she’d known they would.
“I know, it’s difficult,” he sympathised. “But none of us get to play God.”
They sat in silence, for another long moment. The hungry ducks pecked at the ground.
“I see them all now,” she said, staring across the park. Each shadow now told its own story, some short, some long. She saw them all, countless dark threads that wove the tapestry of life and death, light and shadow. “Their shadows … they won’t stop dancing!”
He placed his hand on top of hers and squeezed gently, reassuringly. “They’ll never stop.”
She sobbed uncontrollably. He held her, tried to comfort her.
September 7th 1854 – Soho, London
It was a few weeks later when she’d received a note to meet Dr Gray at the corner of Cambridge Street and Broad Street at 3pm. She’d been tempted not to go, she did not like being summoned. The weeks had taken their toll and she couldn’t stop the dark visions. Each shadow whispered to her. Worse, she still could not change a single souls fate. She’d found some relief in her blacked-out bedroom. In its darkness, she no longer had to see the shadows, to see anything. She was convinced she’d be in Bedlam before the year was out.
It was another blisteringly hot day as she reached the Soho street. Dr Gray was buying flowers from a street urchin. The poor girl wouldn’t survive the coming winter. She walked up to them. “Dr Gray.”
He handed her a flower. “How are you holding up?”
“Can you not see?” she spat. Dark circles under her eyes were a testimony to her decline. “If we can skip the pleasantries. Why have you summoned me here?”
It was so hot, she wished she could loosen her stiff collar. Dr Gray nodded across the cobblestone road towards a busy thoroughfare. A queue of people lined up at a water pump, eager to cool off in the refreshing cold water. She licked her parched lips at the thought. Children were laughing and playing, splashing jugs of water over passersby, no one cared.
In this idyllic summer scene, she could already sense something was wrong. A subtle intangible darkness seemed to emanate from the pump. She watched as one after another the shadows of the thirsty crowd stretched and unfolded, each one screamed at her. A wave of darkness bloomed from the pump, the fate of many already sealed. She looked on in horror, her mouth agape, as a dark wave washed over her. She saw and felt each victim’s last torturous moments in the grip of cholera. A terrible death, each writhed in their own filth and vomit. When she saw the children’s shadows start to dance, she could take no more, her knees buckled and she fell to the ground. “Why?”, she sobbed, “Why are you showing me this? Haven’t I seen enough?”
Looking to the heavens, hot tears blurred her vision. “You are the devil himself! I cannot help them,” she screamed. Everyone stopped and looked at her; a legion of shadowy souls mocked her. Her anguish plain for everyone to see, it was too much, she closed her eyes.
“Watch!” said the Doctor.
She didn’t want to see anymore, she’d had her fill. She closed her eyes tighter. A moment later across the street, there was a commotion. The crowd turned as one as the sound of a police whistle rang out. Two stocky men stormed up to the pump, three policemen in tow. She couldn’t resist. She opened her eyes and watched as the officers pushed the crowd back from the pump, one kicking over the jugs of water. With a mighty tug, they removed the handle and nailed a large notice to the pump. “Ladies and gentlemen,” one of the officers shouted, “Until further notice the council has deemed that the pump remains out of commission. The water is unfit for human consumption. Spread the word.”
She couldn’t believe her eyes.
“How?” she asked, looking up at the Doctor.
He bent down and picked up the flower she’d dropped, before helping her to her feet. “You can’t save a single person Florence. Just as you can’t control a single drop of water in a river.” He handed her a handkerchief. “But it is possible to change the course of a river.” He raised his hand to her face, hesitated. “May I?”
She nodded. He brushed aside a lock of her wavy hair that had fallen across her red face. “This is the truth you seek. This is the rare talent we all see in you.”
“But how do I move a river?” she pleaded.
“By lighting a path through the darkness,” he said, placing the flower back in her palm. “Through the advancement of science, we bring enlightenment and through the arts, we inspire.”
September 12th 1854 – Pall Mall, London
“Ah! Gray take a seat,” Sidney said, pointing to the thick leather chair next to his. “Your usual?”
Gray nodded. “Yes, thank you.”
Putting down his paper Sidney waved a hand at an attentive waiter. “Firstly, congratulations on Dr Snow. I’m pleased to see your efforts coming to fruition. Your instincts as always were right.”
The waiter returned with two whiskeys.
“Cheers,” Gray said taking the heavy glass. “It didn’t take much, he’d already plotted the locations of the outbreaks. He’d pretty much put the jigsaw together himself,.”
“You’re too modest as always,“ said Sidney, raising his glass. “And what of my songbird, is she ready?”
“She is, but It’s not been easy for her,” said Gray, taking a sip of the smooth caramel whiskey. “As you know she has a difficult path ahead of her.”
Sidney nodded. “I know. If there was any other way … ,” his voice trailed off. Lost in thought, he swirled his drink.
“She will make a difference Sidney,” Gray assured him. “She will be the guiding light we need in the coming darkness.”
Sydney nodded solemnly, taking a big swig.
Gray could see it was little comfort. “Come the dawn, she will sing so beautifully they will have no choice but to listen.”
Sydney smiled at the thought. Florence was difficult to ignore at the best of times. If it was something she was passionate about, well, he pitied any that were foolish enough to get in her way. “I hope so,” said Sidney. Thankful for his friend’s efforts. “She will be needed sooner than expected.”
“I’ll let her know,” said Gray.
Sidney nodded. “And of the others, where are we?”
November 8th 1854 – Scutari, Crimea
She arrived at Selimiye Barracks in the midst of bloody chaos. The wounded had been arriving for weeks, broken, dying men, having given their all, flowed endlessly into the makeshift hospital. The tide of horror had pushed the medical staff beyond their limits. At times it was difficult in the packed wards to distinguish the living from the dead.
Within this horrific bedlam, Florence thrived. Her dark talent, now the promised gift. She would tirelessly direct the exhausted nurses to those that could be saved, a ghastly but necessary triage. Her gift demanded ever greater sacrifice as she bore witness to each and every death. In this frozen hell, she’d experience every conceivable horror that mankind could inflict upon itself before she’d be done.
In the terrible first few days, she’d almost lost herself, countless times. If it hadn’t been for Dr Gray’s final lesson, she’d have drowned in the never-ending shadows. That one vision though, that had kept her going. She would bring enlightenment to this dark corner. She’d inspire and ultimately, she would stem this sickening river of tortured souls. She could not stand by whilst the terrible conditions in the hospital contributed to the death toll. The generals didn’t have a care for the dead and dying, they only cared for their bloody war. She would open their eyes and make the fools understand the true price of their folly.
At night she’d walk the corridors, her lamp held high, the shadows of the dead and dying flickering all around her. She would save those she could, and comfort those whose fate she already understood. In the weeks and months that followed she’d become known to all. The lady with the lamp, the tortured dark Angel of the Crimea.
Rather, ten times, die in the surf, heralding the way to a new world, than stand idly on the shore.
Cover image courtesy of: Joshua Bartell