The incunabulum

This short Lovecraftian tale was published in an Australian horror fanzine in the early 90s. I’ve left most of the original text intact, except to fix some glaring typos or grammar.

The murder of Lady Renfrew was described by Seddy as “hideous”, I assumed the doer of the deed to be the typical sadist, the type us Yardboys dealt with on a near friendly manner. Seddy, my captain, had assigned me to the case. It should be routine; a question here, a handcuff there, and Seddy, overcautious as usual, had made me take two young uniforms with me, in the improbable event of trouble.

Trouble? At the house of one of the peerage? Yes, I thought, the foxhounds would bite our shins, or one of the uniforms would trip into the pond.

Renfrew Manor stood on the outskirts of Maundrell Holme, a village about 30 miles out of my station; a short drive through the orchards. Neither of the coppers given to me were talkative. I suspected they didn’t like calling me “sir” or “lieutenant”. I didn’t mind so much; the air was crisp, the sky clear, too good a day to be nosing around some mouldy old castle. Still, a detective was a detective, and nature was not about to grant me a day off.

Renfrew Manor came into sight about an hour later. It was out of some Hammer movie set, I was sure. A castle in every regard, barbicans right down to a silly moat. Where were the bold knights on destriers? Or the pallor of gloom? I must say, however, that this old joint had the latter. You could almost see the feyness hanging over it, covering its dank walls, the clumps of shrubbery, the greenish moat.

The road up to its decrepit drawbridge was lined up with serried gallant men in various heroic poses, all weather-worn and forgotten. The road then circled a stone pavilion and ran back out on itself. I parked the car beneath a porte-cochere and alighted with my two subordinates, to be met by a liveried footman. ‘You sir, would be of Scotland Yard?’

‘Very same. Is his Nibs in?’

The footman raised an eyebrow. ‘Lord Renfrew is within. I’ve been instructed to inform you that the policemen here have decamped.’

Had what? ‘What do you mean? Gone out?’

The footman shrugged. ‘They have left for Maundrell Holme. Yesterday, they went. I assume they will return hence.’

‘They’d want to! Nobody gave them the right to go any place until one of us from the Yard got here. That fellow is myself. Can we go in? I’ve got questions to ask.’

The footman led us to the front door. ‘I must ask sir, that your colleagues remain outside. Lord Refrew is disturbed by this, and he wants few callers, if you understand?’

Oh, heck! Poor fish! ‘Tell the lord that these men must accompany me. I take it the murderer is secured? I hope so. Is he?’

The footman gave an annoyed glance at the two uniforms. ‘The murderer is a she, sir, and yes, your men have her in irons.’

‘Yes, unattended, stuff procedure. These clowns will be on report for this.’

I sent one of the coppers to reconnoitre about the grounds, the other walked behind me, as we followed this typically pompous footman inside this dreary old relic of a castle. The vestibule was nice enough, arrayed in grey and green, with various trophies and bibelots in cabinets about the room. Of course, suits of armour had to be about the place as well.

We were conducted into an adjoining room fashioned in the style of a mariner’s chart room. A man sitting in a large red chair engaged my attention. He would have been fifty, and of the bookworm persuasion from the intensity of his stare, and he did stare. Both myself and my junior were appraised in a manner that would have made Seddy proud.

‘You would be Lieutenant Davis of the Yard?’

‘Yes sir. I understand there is a prisoner here. May I be allowed to see her?’

‘Needless to say. You are the authority in crime, not I, why would I interfere? She is in the cellars, where one of your men have brusquely deposited her in fetters. Such an ignoble way for a lady to be presented.

His problem how she looked. I suppose I should ask him where his wife was, as this old sod could only be Renfrew. ‘And the deceased is where, sir?’ A terrible way to ask, but this fellow did not seem too bothered by it all.

‘Your men have taken her into the village. Poor wife, in the midst of it all.’

I didn’t let that one pass. ‘In the middle of what, sir? It may be callous of me to say, but you are not too bereaved. Since no police are here to tell me, I guess you will have to relate the incident once more, for my sake, as I think something is morally askew here.’

‘Well, Lt. Davis, my wife and I are – were not of the common bosom. Meaning to say, we were not in love. My love is for my wife’s slayer, Ailsa. I am enamoured of her.’ He looked at the copper with me. ‘Is his presence warranted, Lt. Davis? What I must tell you is most confidential.’

‘Sorry sir, he is needed. Go on, about Ailsa.’

Renfrew gave my companion a contemptuous smirk and sullenly continued. ‘Ailsa demanded I have her love alone, and seek a divorce from Bettina, my wife. As such things are made to be public scandal, I declined. You will keep this matter within the police? The press must remain ignorant of the background details. All they know is Bettina was killed by a handmaiden.’

‘It should be remembered, Lord Renfrew, that what the press don’t know they invent. In fact, the case file I received from my superior made mention of the widespread talk this crime would generate. Did the coppers leave any dossiers or charge sheets?’

Renfrew smiled thinly. ‘It was silly of those men to leave. It makes this affair more difficult for you, doesn’t it?’

I nodded. Yes, you codger, it does. Heaven help those dolts when they get back from wherever.

I got the footman to call the other copper inside. When he was in, I instructed him to attend the lovelorn gentry, while myself and the other uniform went down into the cellar. Renfrew made no protest at this arrangement, keeping his eyes on the floor as if he could see through it.

We went down the cellar stairs, aware of an odd odour in the air, like that of old perfume or potpourri left to decay. At the foot of the stairs, the smell was nearly sickening.

An electric light lit the cellars. Instead of being a repository for wine, there were cases and cases of books; mouldy old volumes on diverse subjects, everything from Abraham to Zachary, astrology to zymurgy. Not being a bookish fellow, I them scant notice and regarded a pretty young woman crouching in one corner, watching us dispassionately.

She was a lot prettier on closer inspection, my aide even vented a whistle. She looked up at me blankly.

I asked of her, ‘So you are Ailsa, our little murderess?’

No answer was the solemn reply. I tried again. ‘You tell me, girl. Your daffy lord upstairs says it was you. My men have you cuffed, and it will help your cause if you say something.’

She opened her mouth slowly, as if speech was unknown to her. But she did speak. ‘I am not a killer!’

Damn those fool uniforms! If only I had a charge sheet, and something to go by, instead of a vague case report from Seddy. Why did they take Bettina’s body away? Who gave them authority to do that?

‘So who did kill Bettina Renfrew?’

Ailsa cringed in the corner, her mouth making small tremors of fright.

I knelt next to her. ‘Come on, girl. You tell us.’

‘The incunabulum.’

‘The what?’

‘A grimoire of evil, I will say,’ Ailsa declared, more animated now. Was she a nutcase?

‘Have the other policemen hurt you? Did something frighten you? Come now, no piffle about grimoires and evil. Who is the killer?’

Ailsa gestured with her head at he profusion of books around us. ‘The incunabulum has evoked the infernal Tophet! And Abaddon! They come to bind us, and cause us to revile all that is holy or sacred. Our Master is a fine High Priest. He fills us with guidance and purpose. Now she that would betray us is gone, and those who would meddle are dead.’

It dawned on me she was talking about devil-worshipping. I laughed. No room for mysticism when one has a trusty sidearm handy. But her nonsense intrigued me. ‘Who are these people who have meddled?’

Ailsa grinned at me. ‘Those who are a law unto themselves.’

‘Others have been killed? By you?’

She was elated as she spoke. The diablerie she implied seemed to excite her. ‘Yes, many have perished, and many more will. The incunabulum has revealed a new world, and I am my master’s handmaiden, to do as he commands, and to destroy those who come between us, you see?’

There was a voice behind us. ‘She tells the truth.’ It was Renfrew. He pointed a police revolver at us with one hand, and held the bleeding, severed head of the second uniform in the other. I made an involuntary motion toward my own gun. Renfrew fired, killing my companion. ‘Before I’m obliged to entomb you, Lt. Davis, I will finish the tale. Yes, Bettina’s death was reported, an unfortunate incident, but gratefully it was reported to a confederate of mine, your redoubtable superior Seddy. Why did Bettina die? Simple. She believed in the wrong god, Davis, and I and those whom I serve cannot tolerate such heresy. So, my minion here saw to her end. My lovely handmaiden Ailsa. Meddlers? Although it should be obvious, they saw fit to dictate to me in my own demesne. Such an arrogation is a vile act, and therefore they met an inevitable fate. Observe.’ He cast the head aside, and displayed a book. It was ancient, the pages yellow and all bound by copper strips. Ailsa murmured from behind me. ‘The incunabulum!’

‘Yes, an incunabulum,’ Renfrew agreed. ‘One of many. An ancestor of mine was a most ardent bibliophile. He collected many such old tomes.’ He smiled. ‘This one here was written by Roger Bacon. It is a warlock’s grimoire, Davis, and with it I can conjure the power of the underworld. Behold, fool!’

I stood paralysed, all feeling and emotion drained from me. I did not care as Ailsa led me into a dim sepulchre, and I likewise did not care as I was placed into a stone coffin, nor did it concern me as I slowly asphyxiated in the dark.

(An incunabulum is any book written or printed before 1501 CE, though in this case, this information did not help Lieutenant Davis of Scotland Yard.)

©1996-present Peter Greenwell Text and images Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.