I can recall the detailed history of great Hendricksburg with an uncanny degree of accuracy; the long and proud history of, inarguably, the greatest of all civilizations in the modern world. Founded by many great and historic houses, most of which survive to this day, the esteemed name of Woolney is of particular fascination.
While the city of Hendricksburg, initially an ancient military city on the border of the Wibliss Sea to the east as well as the Albiore Ocean to the west and south-west, was steadily growing a modest community about it, it wouldn’t be until the name Woolney came about to set up their familial trade within the decrepit walls of the civilian district that the city would properly flourish. As with most cases, a peoples need many things in which to survive and thrive: food, water, shelter and medicine. That final quandary being the most difficult and dire during times of duress and plague, and it was the year of 1689 that one such plague was sweeping the settlement. The population has been positively decimated (as an aside, I use the traditional sense of the phrase, as the population had been effectively reduced by one tenth of its initial value).
Under ordinary circumstances, this would be cause of concern, not necessarily alarm; were it not for the approximate age of those affected. The youth of Hendricksburg seemed to be directly targeted by this disease: according to old records, first they would contract something of an irritatable rash about their underarms and groins, which would then fester and break into boils all about their bodies. Then came the high fever, the shortness of breath and the upset stomachs: many physicians at the time had noted that anything remotely resembling solid foodstuffs would almost immediately evacuate their emaciated bodies. Duration of disease could last anywhere from a week to two full months, the outcome always fatal, the victim positively withering away to a husk.
It was about this time that the Woolney family set up trade within the settlement: a family of apothecaries and traders who had connections that stretched to the exotic corners of the far east. From those connections, they had in their possession a concoction of herbs and poultices that not only lessened the effects in the contracted, but was better able to inoculate those who were just coming of age of the dreaded disease. Of course, this was not without cost; but even in those barbaric times few administrators are unable to scrounge up the coin necessary to pay for such services.
A knighthood was granted to the patriarch of the family, who also received land grants and honours in thanks for the services his family performed for a dying city. Of course, I will gloss over many other accomplishments that the man, Bertrard Woolney, performed to secure his elite stature within the small, but rapidly growing nation. Titles were passed down over the generations, financial opportunities were consolidated and fractured to best serve the needs of the estate, and to this day the Woolney name survives within the annals of modern notoriety.
For myself, the name Woolney indicates a family name that is closely associated with the University of Hendricksburg: the university receives great bursaries and donations from the family, which based on some several conversations I’d overheard oft late, have only been notably increasing. It’d been the cause for some speculation and gossip-mongering amongst the sycophants who call themselves professors, but are more the equivalent of mindless drones slobbering upon the dean’s loafers whenever he wanders their way.
For Gertrude, otherwise, the name Woolney meant so little it had launched me into the recital of this historical oratory that I had penned thus far. Even as we were let free of the cab that had delivered us to the front doors of the Bridewater Estate, she gawked with absent awe at the size and grandeur of the manor. I recoginized motifs taken from a classical era distilled in the pagan practices of idol worship and marble craftsmanship, but handled in a delicate and thoughtful manner. The bevelled coloumns that beckoned the pair of us to the elaborate wooden doors, opened in a familial way, seemed to dwarf the two men who stood at the entrance awaiting us.
The one man I took recognition of almost immediately: Lord Charles Birmingham Woolney the second, patriarch and benefactor. His face seemed somewhat sullen and almost full of dismay, an odd contrast to the powerful face that had oft peered over my stacks of manuscripts and boxes congesting my study. His steely moustache, what was once a proud and erect specimen of pristine manhood, seemed to hang like a pair of dampened whiskers to his jowls. His apparel, however, was carefully dressed and worn: an elegant blackened affair that wrapped him with a much-needed air of dignity and influence. To his left was a man by name of James Simon, the head of staff at the Bridewater Estate and a curmudgeon of a goblin. He was a sinewy creature with pinched features, his wispy blonde hair very nearly balded to above his peculiar and pink ears. His face was respectable, but only in semblance of wear as opposed to feature: I’m sure on the scant few hours he had to himself his face would rest in a miserable way that nary a mother could find affection for.
We were greeted with great hospitality, and I bowed in reverence to the great man before me. As I introduced my companion, she bowed with all the grace of a drunken cripple, her best attempt bringing a cringe to nearly every eye that lay upon her. Doing my best to make up for her, in a polite phrase: display, I thanked Lord Woolney for letting us into his abode. And let in we were: walking with a ponderous gait into Lord Woolney’s study, Mister Simon brought myself and Gertrude a crystal glass of a whiskey vintage I’d never dreamed to tasting to satiate ourselves with.
I enjoyed with decorum, Gertrude very nearly inhaled her glass.
There was, otherwise, not much need to stand on ceremony: Lord Woolney knew of the reason for our calling, and he inquired what we might need to know or access to aid our investigation. There was a peculiar gravity to his words that stuck me as odd at the time, but in the days that followed would come to make more sense. I began inquiring about the specifics of the household staff, whether or not Lord Woolney had noticed anything amiss about their routines or mannerisisms, outside of the obvious display from Miss Sawyer some three nights past. He said he had not noticed much of anything himself, but the butler made mention of the fact that Miss Sawyer had been acting a little queer upon her return from a sojourn she and Sir Woolney had attended to just over three months past.
This piqued my interest, and I did my best to show a restrained curiosity whilst Gertrude began rummaging through her rucksack of baubles and pulling forth a quizzical charm, dangling it from her hand and mummering to herself. It seemed that Sir Woolney had attended some form of science and engineering faire some months past, and he had brought Miss Sawyer along with him to attend to his personal affairs whilst he toured. Upon later investigation, I found a pamphlet squirreled away in her bedside desk, two words jotted in one of the margins: “Brown Gears”. Gears undoubtly referring to the missing Doctor Gears, who had yet to come forward following the murder of Mister McGuffin, though Brown had me at a loss. Presumably another name? I digress.
Miss Sawyer had returned from the faire quite herself, but in the days following she seemed to come down with a dreadful headcold that lasted some week and a half before she sought treatment for it. A local physician had given her some mercury tablets to alleviate her ails; she seemed to recover soon enough. Then, perhaps a week and some back, she started expressing similar symptoms, which came with the terrible climax of her raving flight through the estate in the dead of the night.
The nights following was marred by a general unease amongst the staff, I am to understand. The cook, Clare, is a superstitious fellow and prone to God-fearing acts, he had taken to wearing a clove of garlic about his mantle all hours of every day now. He also claimed there was a particular miasma about the servant’s quarters, a sentiment that Gertrude acknowledged and agreed with. While I admit that I experienced some general unease about the servants quarters, I am uncertain as to what this alleged miasma could have been. I sensed nothing in the air, and a barometer I had brought along with me indicated nothing out of the ordinary.
While Gertrude busied herself with her arcane mutterings and rituals, I interviewed the remainder of the staff. Miss Sawyer was closest with Arter Mills, the groundskeep of the Bridewater Estate. He seemed surprised to hear that she had gone to the university for aide as opposed to going to the constabulary. I inquired for further explaination.
Arter was unhelpful in that regard, however. I can almost understand his simple-minded suspicions of a stranger coming to the estate asking about someone he knew of well; though I kept my chiding of his boorish reservations to myself. However, what few details I was able to squeeze from his tight lips were somewhat helpful. Miss Sawyer had, indeed, seemed to take to perpetual malady recently, but he claims it was the very air in the quarters that seemed to affect everyone. Everyone had been more tense in those weeks leading up to her madness, and one more than one occasion he could have sworn that he saw glints of movement from the corner of his eyes during the scant minutes he spent in the building.
Berenice and Flossie, two of the other maids, confirmed these allegations. Everyone had been at ill ease that week, all save Sir Woolney and Hugh Gillis, the chauffer and manservant in the family’s employ. Hugh Gillis didn’t live in the servant’s quarters much like the remainder of the staff, but lived in a small apartment above the shed where both horse and motor car slept. Sir Woolney, however, I could not question that day: he was away and overseeing the acquisition of a trading firm that he had purchased in his father’s name. I would have my chance to meet with him on another occasion, I asked that Mister Simon relay an invitation to my study at his earliest convenience, otherwise to send for me if it would be more to his preference.
It wasn’t until I had wandered my way into the cellar beneath the manor that Gertrude started to become truly riled up. He mummerings became somewhat more frenzied, and the alien charm swung vigorously from her extended, scabbed forefinger. I would be lying were I to say that I was antagonized by this display, and she explained that there was a particular malevolence in these stones, as if that was to quell my thoughts. Of course there was malevolence in these stones: the pure rationality of scientific reason was being shadowed by groundless religious fanaticism! The only reason I had brought her with me was a slip on my part and the revealing of my intentions to explore this manor myself.
It wasn’t until she stopped at a particular place before a large cask that she seemed to still, without cause, and look about her. The cask of wine itself was uninteresting, but Gertrude stooped low and fingered at something wedged between barrel and tamped stone. I looked myself: a large stain of some variety had covered all the exposed rock here, and shards of glass were quite visible. I picked up one of three little discs I saw and tipped it against my tongue: it tasted of mercury.
Above our heads was a thin creak in the wood, a dim light peered at us from above: it was Miss Sawyer’s room, I reckoned. And, indeed, Gertrude finally freed the object of her present obsession: a piece of what looked to be a label. It was hastily hand-written, a sloppy display, but I recognized the quality of the parchment it was made from. That same quality of parchment that I had discovered so frequently in the late Mister McGuffin’s office. And scrawled upon it was a name: Anita Brown.
The next step was sure: to seek out this Anita Brown and see what it was she could tell us of Miss Sawyer’s humours. I pulled myself to my feet with half a dozen grumbles, holding onto a copper pipe nearby for extra levy, and looked to Gertrude. She seemed to have come to the same conclusion as well, and the name Anita Brown evidentially meant something to her. We would be off, once again, to the Midnight District.
As we mounted the cab to depart, Gertrude mentioned off-hand a strange sensation she had felt while wandering the manor on her own. There seemed to be a malevolence within not only the stones, but the very walls themselves, and they all seemed directed at one man in particular. It was at that moment she waved a blasé farewell to Lord Woolney and sat down, pulling out the same pendent she had gripped when I had found her in the closet those weeks past. What foolishness.