Tuesday Short Story: “The Apprentice” by Sarah Newton

Today’s Tuesday Short Story is by RPG Fiction Blog editor Sarah Newton. Sarah is a writer of science-fiction and fantasy roleplaying games and fiction, and co-owner of Mindjammer Press. She’s the author of the far future transhuman science-fiction novel Mindjammer and award-winning roleplaying game of the same name, both of which have met with critical acclaim. Her other RPG works include: the ENnie Award-winning Achtung! Cthulhu: Zero Point campaign; the “old school fantasy, new school play” roleplaying game Monsters & Magic; the Legends of Anglerre fantasy RPG; the Burn Shift post-apocalyptic setting for the Fate Core RPG; and more. Her short fiction has appeared in anthologies such as Frostgrave (Osprey Books); The Book of the Dead (Jurassic London); The Lion and the Aardvark (Stone Skin Press); Have Blaster, Will Travel (Galileo Press); The Lost (Galileo Press); World War Cthulhu (Cubicle 7 Fiction); The British Fantasy Society Journal; and the World SF Blog. Her conceptualisation of the “Mindscape” was the subject of an article by neuroscientist and science writer Rita Carter in BBC Focus Magazine in April 2013.

Since 2005 Sarah has been living in rural France, writing, managing a rock band, and generally failing to practise self sufficiency. You can find her online at http://sarahnewtonwriter.com, on Facebook as ShairaSu, on Google+, and on Twitter as @SarahJNewton.


The Apprentice

by Sarah Newton

“What is great in man is that he is a bridge, and not a goal… I love him who lives for knowledge and wants knowledge that one day the Superman may live. And thus he wills his own downfall.”
– Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

PART ONE

The Mathematical Bridge at the Wightman Bequest on the outskirts of the town of Arkham is famed throughout New England. Scores of stories have collected about it, some true, others apocryphal and of doubtful provenance. Such as the one which says its single elegant arch holds together without nails, by the balance of natural forces alone. Everyone will tell you that one—but ask any engineer, any physicist worth his salt, and he will laugh, scoff at the very ludicrousness of the idea, and shake his head. No, he will tell you, fixing your eye with the iron stare of his erudition, nuts and bolts hold it together, my friend, mark my words. Nuts and bolts!

Then where were they? Jacob Edridge pushed back the mop of hair from his eyes and rubbed his fingers together, dampened by the cold sweat on his brow. The timbers from half of the Mathematical Bridge lay in neatly labelled rows on the floor of the ivy-covered bridge house before him.

“You should have stopped when I said, Edridge,” sighed Scroggins, shaking his head in badly counterfeited sympathy. “The Department’s going to take a very dim view if you can’t put the Bridge back together. It’ll be a disaster.” The slightest traces of a self-satisfied smile played around his lips.

“Don’t worry, Scroggins,” replied Edridge tersely. “This won’t reflect badly on you. It’s my reputation that’s at stake here.”

“I’m aware of that.”

“Stop fighting me, Scroggins, for Heaven’s sake! You know as well as I do none of this was supposed to happen. How in God’s name are these timbers holding together? It doesn’t make sense… Where are those drawings?”

“O-kay,” mouthed Scroggins with exaggerated slowness, raising his hands and stepping away from the worktable. Edridge pushed past and rifled through the stacked papers detailing their gradual disassembly of the Mathematical Bridge. “Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to,” he continued, flustered. “Toadying to Professor Harcross behind my back. It won’t work, Scroggins. No one likes a rat.”

Scroggins pursed his lips, but said nothing. Hands in pockets, he wandered with affected ease to the other end of the bridge house and sat on one of the mildewed and worm-eaten bridge timbers, gazing out over the river. He looked out of the corner of his eye at Edridge. “So how do you think Wightman did it, then? You don’t think the stories could be true, do you?”

“Of course not! We’re scientists, Scroggins, not magicians! Didn’t you read my dissertation? I’ve already proved that without some form of reinforcement to the arch, the Mathematical Bridge cannot stand—the whole thing would just come crashing down. And that means nuts and bolts. Professor Harcross and the entire board said my argumentation was flawless. Dismantling and reassembling the bridge should have been the icing on the cake, not…” Edridge turned away in frustration. He could feel it all slipping away from him, when it had been so close: his doctorate, the assistant professorship in Miskatonic’s engineering department, everything. However much he pored over the drawings, however much he stared at the beams, those vital nuts and bolts upon which his entire thesis depended simply were not there.

He turned, feeling very tired. “I’m sorry, Scroggins. I shouldn’t have—you’re just doing what everyone does. I’d do the same in your position. It’s me… I can’t fathom it—that damnable bridge has no right to be standing there, and yet it’s been doing just that for the past hundred-and-fifty years, and I can’t for the life of me work out how.”

The day was starting to draw in outside, a mist gently gliding over the still black water and twining round the stalks of blackened rushes lining the banks. Edridge knew that Scroggins had always found the Wightman Estate a lonely and eerie place to work, listening too much to the weird tales invariably associated with any old house, and would never agree to stay after dark. Suddenly feeling in need of a friendly glance, he walked up to Scroggins and patted him gently on the shoulder. “Let’s call it a day, eh, Scroggins? We’re both exhausted. No hard feelings?”

Scroggins, engrossed, looked up from the dismantled beams, an expression of surprise and curiosity on his face. Clearly, he had not heard a word Edridge had said. Frowning slightly, he held out his hand to show him.

“Edridge—look. There seems to be some kind of coating on the joints. I’ve only just noticed it. It… it looks like some kind of glue.” He laughed embarrassedly.

Edridge resisted the impulse to scoff, crouching down and unselfconsciously grasping Scroggins’s outstretched palm to examine it closely. “Curious,” he said. “That wasn’t there this morning…”

It did look like glue, the sort one might find in a school-room or carpenter’s workshop. Edridge looked at the ends of the beams, which oozed the same filmy white glaze.

“I know this sounds stupid, Edridge, but it seems to be coming out of the wood. Like sap.”

“That’s absurd…” muttered Edridge. “There’s no way you could use glue in a structure like this. Maybe it’s a kind of caulking, or weatherproofing, or something, but…” Scroggins met his eyes: the rest did not need saying. The first person to suggest that the Mathematical Bridge was held together not by nuts and bolts but by one-hundred-and-fifty-year old furniture glue would be laughed out of the University.

It even smelled like glue—although there was an unpleasant musk-like odor Edridge found difficult to place. He resisted the temptation to taste it. What was this stuff?

Blethyn from biochemistry frowned when he returned the sample after analysis. “I don’t know where you got that, Edridge, and I don’t know what sort of prank you think you’re playing, but I don’t like it. I thought better of you.”

“Why? What is it?”

“As if you didn’t know,” Blethyn exploded, waving his arms frantically. He turned, suddenly threatening, jabbing Edridge in the chest with his forefinger. “I’m assuming this is some kind of sick joke, Edridge,” he said, “but leave me out of it. You can risk your own career for your puerile antics if you want to, but not mine.”

He would say no more, stalking away in haughty disdain, leaving Edridge at a loss.

Scroggins saw little point in continuing. “Face it, Edridge, it’s a dead end. I thought we had something there, but it’s nothing. You’re going to have to throw in the towel. There’s nowhere else to go.” His former triumphalism seemed to have waned to a blank weariness. He rubbed his eyes.

Edridge was adamant. “I’m not giving up just like that. Not after everything I’ve done. We’ve done,” he corrected himself, nodding at Scroggins. “Let’s look at this head-on: none of our theories can explain how that bridge is holding together, right? Well, then—we need new theories. Wightman must have made a breakthrough.”

Scroggins’s voice rose an octave. “What? Oh, come on, Edridge! You’re proposing that a master carpenter in—when was it?—1759 came up with some revolutionary new engineering principle which allowed him to defy all accepted natural laws? That’s even more ludicrous than blaming it all on glue… Now where are you going?”

Edridge was hurriedly putting on his jacket. “The Orne library.”

“The library? That’s a little drastic, isn’t it? Are you sure you can find it on your own?”

“I’m not asking you to come.”

“Don’t worry, I’m not. I know a hopeless case when I see one. Anyway, I have an appointment with Professor Harcross,” Scroggins smiled thinly. “Ratting…”

Edridge left, scowling.

* * *

“We don’t often see you young gentlemen from the Science Annex in this neck of the woods, you know,” fussed the librarian, a stocky Englishwoman who looked like she kept a cap and riding crop behind the counter. “It is awfully nice of you to drop by.”

The Orne library of Miskatonic University contained a vast treasure of hoary and odorous books in vellum and calf, their gilt inlay worn by centuries of careful handling. As an engineer, it was as far from Edridge’s experience as the co-eds’ dormitory—and made him feel just as out of place.

“Ah—here it is,” the librarian gushed earnestly, heaving a large quarto volume from a shelf. “An Architectural History of Arkham. This should shed some light. Now,” she said, patting him firmly on the hand, “if there’s anything else you need, just shout.” She stopped for a moment, reflecting. “On second thoughts, perhaps a tap on the shoulder might be more appropriate…” She shuffled away.

Edridge stared after the librarian in bemusement, a smile playing on his lips. Then, thoughtfully, he turned, opening the comforting, leather-bound tome, breathing its thick air of antiquity. Suddenly he started, leaning intently over the page: there, eyes staring into his own, was the face of James Wightman. An obscure, black and white reproduction of an oil painting, he nevertheless caught the thin, faint scent of a fellow seeker in its features. Like looking into a smoky mirror, eyes filled with curiosity and the insatiable desire to know burned into his across a century and a half.

Something about the picture made him uneasy. There was something unwholesome about Wightman’s face, something in his gaze too stern for one so young. Nor was it merely the stiff formality of a portrait: Wightman paid little heed to that, sitting with shoulders hunched, leaning forwards into the frame, in a posture at once threatening and yet yearning to confide. He held a journal clutched in thickly-veined hands like those of an old man. The caption read: “James Wightman, 1761. Original in the Wightman Bequest Collection, Wightman House, Arkham.”

Edridge coughed out a laugh, soliciting murmurs of protest from around the library. The answer had been under his nose all along.

At the front desk he found the English librarian searching furiously for her spectacles. He quickly stepped in. “Ah! How gallant!” she beamed. “Find what you were after?”

“Partly. The book mentioned something called the ‘Wightman Collection,’ up at Wightman House…”

The librarian plunged into her catalogues. “Wightman Collection… ah, yes, here we are… Oh, my, that is quite a hoard, goodness… Well, you’ll have to go and look, of course.”

“Why is it all up there? Surely something like that would be better down here under lock and key…?”

“I’m sorry, my dear, I’m afraid I really have no idea. I expect it’s a condition of the original bequest—these things usually are. Let’s see, now… ah. Apparently there’s quite a collection up there—works of art, heirlooms, sounds positively delightful. Do you know the Estate?”

Edridge smiled.

* * *

Wightman’s family, the book in the library had said, had come from a line of Staffordshire farmers of great antiquity. Settling in Kingsport, they had remained there obscurely for several generations until James had begun to make a name for himself as a master carpenter. He had apparently studied in the institution which during his lifetime was to become the Miskatonic, transferring his loyalties and affections to the new university easily, and with a sense that his alma mater’s increasing success somehow paralleled his own. By that time he had become rich, and well-known for his engineering works, including the popular Bridge, buying the estate where it had been built from the aristocratic Marbury family who had returned to England before the Revolution.

The Wightman House was a magnificent example of the Federalist style, designed by Sam McIntire and built by Wightman himself on top of the previous wood-built Colonial edifice. Faded now, it had served as a hospital for returning servicemen after the Great War, since which time the University had seemed to not know what to do with it, and it had stood empty, its elegant Palladian windows masked by shutters in need of paint, its swags and garlands peeling gently from the alternate bleaching beat of summer sun and winter rain.

The Mathematical Bridge was some way from the house, in what had originally been landscaped gardens in the Augustan style. Doubtless it had looked very fine amidst well-manicured lawns and stately avenues of trees, shady bowers and quaint statues and arbors, but now, however, the gardens were everywhere reverting to their original state, and only the occasional hand of the groundskeeper kept the wild from taking over completely. The Bridge looked incongruous, like a rose trellis in a cornfield, or a dried-up fountain on a blasted heath.

It was an ill-omened locale to build a house. Tales from years past spoke of strange noises in the hills thereabouts, and noxious fumes descending the vale of the slow-moving river. Eerie rumors persisted even today that the estate was haunted by Wightman’s ghost; that his ghostly shape had been seen both in the house and in the grounds; and that the invalids of the Great War had sworn hearing footsteps in the night, and strange scratchings behind the walls. One had even claimed to have seen the ghost itself: a great, hulking figure, hunched over and swathed in robes, with lambent red eyes and a terrible stench of death. Many had heard it cackle malevolently in the night.

Even in the bright spring sunshine Edridge thought there was something loathsome about the house, as though a shadow lay upon it, or some ancient and immemorial stain which no amount of covering could hide.

Wilcox, the caretaker, dwelt in an annex of the Wightman House, and could occasionally be seen about the estate engaged in his unfathomable chores of maintenance. Edridge had met him once, at the start of his project: a looming figure with pale complexion and tightly-clipped grey beard, and a bald head covered with—of all things—an English bowler hat, which irritated Edridge as a mark of inappropriate affectation. A heavy presence, which said both “butler” and “gravedigger” in the same breath. He had looked straight through Edridge with an uninterested and uncaring eye accustomed to seeing—and not seeing—students from the University, introduced himself briefly and with the customary platitudes, and their paths had not crossed since.

It was no surprise to Edridge that no flicker of recognition disturbed the caretaker’s chiseled countenance when he presented his authorization to examine the Wightman Collection. As the old man led him through the rambling, empty house, Edridge tried—somewhat forlornly—to engage him in conversation.

“I can’t believe this whole house is just lying empty like this, Wilcox… Can’t the University use it for something?”

“Indeed, sir,” the caretaker replied, without interest. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t know. It’s been empty ever since the last veterans left. A very difficult time for everyone, sir.”

“Of course. I’m afraid I’m not really old enough to remember the War.”

There was a brief silence as they ascended yet another richly carpeted staircase. “Yes, sir.”

Memories or no, traces of the recent, tragic past were everywhere. Wheelchairs, hospital beds, crutches; here and there disciplined stacks of washed and starched linen, rolls of bandages. Edridge could not escape the notion that these were not some leftovers of a finished war, but instead presentiments of some other bloody conflict yet to come, and shuddered as he passed.

At length the caretaker stepped aside and ushered Edridge into a shaded oval room, filled with shrouded furniture and redolent of books and beeswax. “Here you are, sir. Mr James Wightman’s study. You should find most of the Wightman Collection here.” He opened one window, folding back its shutters to let in a thin shaft of daylight. “Was there anything… particular… that you were looking for, sir? Sir?”

Edridge stood motionless. Just for an instant, as he entered, he had felt that there had been somebody in the room just before him. He waited, as the ghosts of memory seemed to cluster around, but there was nothing more. He recollected himself. “I’m sorry… I could have sworn someone was in this room when we came in. Is there anyone else in the house today?”

Wilcox paused, gazing around the study. “Not today, sir, no. Just you and I. It’s an old house, though, sir; it often feels like that. I shouldn’t worry.” Smiling coldly, he bowed and left for unfathomable recesses deeper within the house, closing the doors behind him.

Two oil paintings graced the paneled walls of the study. One was the same portrait he had glimpsed in black and white reproduction in the Orne library; the other, a double portrait of a stern-looking couple with an unmistakable family resemblance. Edridge stood before it, eyes searching beneath the time-darkened varnish: probably parents, there was the same inquisitive spark in the eyes, the same hunched posture, the same looming sensation of threat—or desire to confide. Too, there was the same, distinct feeling of something amiss, something unwholesome, sickly, about the pair. Perhaps a suggestion of consanguinity—hardly a rarity in these parts even now—marked by a definite ponderousness in the brow and a feeling of protrusion about the heavily-muscled jaw.

The portrait of Wightman himself struck Edridge by its pallor. Hardly noticeable in monochrome reproduction, here it was unmistakable; here was a painting of a sick man, haunted by some dreadful malady. Wightman had died in 1791, some thirty years after this portrait; it was difficult to believe the man in the painting could have lasted out the year.

Edridge’s eyes played for a while on the book in Wightman’s hand, then turned and began scanning the shelves lining the walls. Scientific treatises, romances, volumes of poetry, history, engraving, cartography, all manner of books filed past his gaze. To his surprise he noted a number of newer works, too: mostly technical pieces and works of gothic and pseudo-occult literature from the first half of the nineteenth century—but still long after Wightman’s death. In a similar way, here and there the paneled walls bore etchings or studies in oils of the many creations of Wightman’s genius—the bridge, the old Manley Theatre, the Wightman House itself—but also depictions of later works from the last century by quite other Miskatonic alumni—Johnson, Metcalfe, Macrae. A curious puzzle, leading Edridge to conclude that over time the library had become adulterated with some other collection, which was more than remiss.

The book in Wightman’s hand was nowhere to be found. Frustrated, Edridge gazed around the room, then slowly, methodically, began going through drawers, cabinets, cupboards.

Finally he stood before the splendid Goddard desk by the window. Feeling the prickle of shame—or was it the dread of discovery?—burning around his eyes, he grasped a paper knife and, after a few minutes’ fumbling, forced the lock. With a feeling of undeniable certainty he reached within, and in one moment withdrew the sought-after book.

For an instant a shiver ran up Edridge’s spine, and he felt a presence standing close behind him. He looked round, but there was nothing but the eyes from the portraits on the walls. He cleared his throat, looking around one more time, then opened the book.

“As a foulness shall ye know them, saith the book,” he read, “and that, too, is how I began to suspect what I now know to be the truth. And not by the foulness alone, would I add, but by their deeds, also.” It was a tiny, crabbed hand, like a spider covered in ink had crawled across the page. Edridge sank into a chair, and began to read.

A frown spread slowly over his face. This was James Wightman’s journal, to be sure—but what a journal! These were not the thoughts of a disciplined man of science, but the confessions of a mind at the end of its tether, of a supremely morbid sensitivity.

“They can see through me, I am sure of it,” he read. “My guilt and my shame betray me. This day I assisted at the opening of the new theater on Gedney street, for which I was once again greatly lauded, to my unending and secret pain. He says naught, as is his wont, but I feel his eyes ever upon me from behind his cloths, and the injustice appalls me.”

Nor was the feeling of paranoia confined to this one example. “Jereboam was in my room again last night. I swore I was dreaming, but he was upon my bed, as silent as the grave. When I asked how he had come in without the servants crying out, he simply chuckled, in his evil, mad way. And when I asked why he had come at all, he grew grim, and asked me if a man was wrong to miss the things he had once loved. At that my cheeks reddened even in the dark, and answer him truly I could not, for the catch in my throat.”

The journal referred many times to the Mathematical Bridge, but none in any detail until Edridge reached the end of the journal. There, the tone changed darkly.

“I hope the good Lord will forgive me my sins. He and I know they are many. But one thing I cannot do is condemn Jereboam for what he has done, although I know I should. The Lord knows I have profited from his iniquity—and in doing so have wallowed in iniquity myself. For years my disdain—nay, my aversion—must have felt like the blackest betrayal, and I find now that when I am ailing and beginning to think of the immortal life ahead, I have been too harsh with him. Ever has he been a rebuke to me, and a reminder of my own devilish pride; yet it is mere chance that sees him cast out in the cold, dark night, warming himself on the fires of his obsession, while I sit here, in opulence, feeding off the fruits of his labor. The great bridge was his triumph, not mine, and for all he has done I feel he is a truer man and a more honest one than I, and wish that he forgive me my pretense, betrayal, and deceit. I have arranged for him to be well looked after once I am gone; the bridge—and his many other victories which I have sold as my own—have made us rich. There are strong people around me, who will understand and do what must be done, and I hope in some strange way my friend (how strange it is to call him that now, the monster, after all these years!) may be of some service to science and the glory of our name in years to come. He will see many strange days, if what he tells me in the dead of night is true.

“He will come to see me tonight. The moon is new, and the noises beneath the ground have been increasing all day. If I am gone in the morning, let all be done as I have ordered, and let none pursue the wretch. Tell them: I was weary, and glad of it.”

Edridge sat in the semi-darkness of the shuttered study for a long time, deep in thought. There were no sounds: no footsteps, no scratching behind the walls, no charnel-house smells. From time to time he raised his head, and looked at the figure in the portrait, as though meeting its eyes.

* * *

As Edridge was leaving, the caretaker came to close the gates behind him. Edridge paused, leaning out of the motor-car window as spots of evening rain started to fall.

“Wilcox? Does the name Jereboam mean anything to you?”

A strange look momentarily overcame the caretaker’s features. Then, just as quickly, it vanished, replaced by the implacable mask of granite blankness he usually wore.

“I believe there was a Mr Jereboam who was Mr Wightman’s assistant, sir. Did anything particular make you ask?”

Edridge hesitated for a moment, remembering the inexplicable feeling of presence he had felt in Wightman’s study, before explaining the repeated references he had found in the journal. For some reason—discretion about the great man’s reputation, perhaps—he held back from voicing his suspicion that this assistant had played a greater role in Wightman’s endeavors than was commonly supposed. But when he mentioned his frustration at finding almost nothing about Wightman’s assistant—not even a surname—the caretaker seemed strangely relieved, and replied with a barely detectable smile.

“Oh, I’m sure Mr Jereboam must have had a surname. Everyone has to have a surname, don’t they, sir?”

Edridge took his leave of the caretaker tersely, mildly irritated at finding such inappropriate condescension in a servant. He drove directly back to his rooms on campus, avoiding his customary visit to the Bridge workings by the river.

It was clear that Wilcox knew more—whatever it might be—but took a perverse pleasure in withholding that knowledge, and Edridge refused to let himself be dragged into a humiliating and undignified wrangle.

The Town Hall archives on Peabody Avenue held the original Will of James Wightman, far more complete—and far more interesting, for strange reasons—than the bastardized copy at the University. The Miskatonic copy, whilst certified, dealt primarily with the university bequest itself; little was said beyond reference back to the original of matters unrelated to Wightman’s generous gift.

The original was a different matter. In the reading room overlooking the Common, Edridge carefully traced the delicious eighteenth century cursive, jotting down compulsively one after another facts which seemed only to deepen the mystery of Wightman’s story, facts which had passed out of common knowledge a century or more ago. Uppermost was the discovery that Wightman had been buried on the estate itself, in the former Marbury crypt—a now-tumbledown Georgian folly on the far side of the small river crossed by the Mathematical Bridge. As a footnote to the above, Wightman had also made provision for the mysterious Jereboam—confirming what Edridge had already read in his journal—and, bafflingly, had even stipulated a place be provided for him in the family crypt, in a clause as eccentric as it was disturbing: “That the said Jereboam should be allowed free access to the crypt, and given a resting place there whenever he desireth.” Finally—and which caused Edridge to exclaim out loud—the bequest required the University to provide an annual stipend for maintenance of “the estate, its contents and dependants” to one Joshua Wilcox, and his descendants—in perpetuity!

PART TWO

The rain had stopped and the sky was growing dark when Edridge arrived back at the Wightman House. Armed with a sheaf of proofs and papers to confront the caretaker, he knew even as he climbed out of the motor-car that there was no one home. The shutters were closed on the annex where Wilcox lived, and the whole house had an abandoned air. Even the birds were quiet, and the breeze blew in tatters, barely disturbing the trees. Shivering at the chill and peering through the slats, Edridge could make out no signs of life inside; he tried the main and side doors, and even the front entrance to the house itself, but to no avail. Everywhere was locked. With windows shuttered it was as if the Wightman House had closed its eyes. He felt terribly alone.

Down the hill from the house Edridge could make out the sinuous blur of the small river, where a thin mist was rising in the deepening dusk, and the vague piles of the Mathematical Bridge and bridge house, softened into smooth and indistinct mounds by the half-light. Squinting, his eyes followed the old path from the other side of the Bridge to the blurry mass which he knew to be the old crypt—and stopped at the sudden sight of movement there. So that was where Wilcox was—and at this hour!

Jogging back to the motor-car for the flashlight, Edridge headed down the hill to the crypt, still armed with his sheaf of papers and with a thousand questions in his mind.

The ornate Georgian crypt was built partly from the nearby pile of grass-grown brick and stone which people said was the remains of the first Marbury House from the 1600s, but which with its rough-hewn blocks, in places carved with barely distinguishable but nevertheless unfamiliar and unsettling signs, likely dated from some ancient Indian presence in the valley centuries before. Edridge had given it a cursory inspection on his first arrival at the estate half a semester earlier, finding it an architectural and antiquarian curiosity, but little more.

There was no sign of Wilcox at the entrance to the crypt. The verdigrised door was ajar, and creaked alarmingly as Edridge pushed it open and shone his flashlight within. “Hallo?” he called into the muffling darkness, “Wilcox? It’s Edridge, from the University… Hallo?” His voice echoed mockingly, making him suddenly aware of the darkness all around. The crypt seemed deserted—and yet he had seen movement here not a few moments ago!

A sudden gust of wind blew strongly from behind, and with it a frisson of primal, childish fear. His thoughts flew back to the study, but he dismissed it, shining his way carefully with the flashlight and, pushing the great metal door open, stepped within.

* * *

A well is a terrifying thing in the darkness, and more so a well in a crypt in the dead of night. It lay at the bottom of a claustrophobic, entombing stair, and in Edridge’s flashlight cast low, uncanny shadows, flickering madly as it gaped forth an icy, loathsome breath into the stale, charnel-house air.

The well was surrounded by a low wall, barely a foot-and-a-half in height, so low that even from this distance it filled Edridge with a dizzying vertigo, lest he somehow pitch headlong into its all-swallowing blackness.

Fear of the unknown beat against his ears. The stories of Wightman’s ghost came back to him, the fear of the veterans of the Great War, the strange feeling of presence, of being watched, in the study. Despite his efforts, the edges of his vision trembled, as though his mind readied itself for blessed oblivion should anything strain it further. He had known he would find something here—but the accumulation of events had set him as taut as a wire, his nerves like a razor blade, and his breath forced its way clouding through his clenched teeth in shuddering, staccato blasts. In the icy darkness, his instincts hissed to him to keep his back to the wall, to flee this place, and he tried to dismiss it as childish nonsense, and to force himself, one terrible step at a time, towards that gaping, forbidding well.

Instinct is a powerful thing, and every shadow loomed monstrous in his imagination. He knew he had to force the rising panic in his throat down quickly, or he would be lost. “It’s just a well,” he breathed, and then again, louder, and for an instant the normality of his voice heartened him. He took four or five steps forward and knelt down at the well’s edge, shining the flashlight boldly into the abysmal, fearsome depths.

What he saw made him cry out. He sprang backwards, scrabbling on the floor with his hands and heels for purchase, his flashlight falling and casting wild shadows dancing about the crypt.

A huge shadow rose from the well, climbing monstrously over its low lip and advancing towards him. Edridge let out another cry, shorter this time, strangled with helpless, instinctive fear.

It loomed over him, bathing him in icy childhood terror. It was huge, bigger than a man, like some cadaverous bear or hulking ape, and Edridge gagged as a nauseating fetor swept over him. His eyes stared wildly at the claws which hung from its distended arms, at the massively thewed legs like those of a goat or horse. He raised his hand before its bestial, dog-like muzzle lined with great, tearing fangs, silhouetted against the dancing flashlight. There was a low, susurrating growl, the fetor swept over him again, and he almost swooned.

Suddenly, the growl resolved itself, and Edridge heard words gargling and choking in that basso profundo snarl.

“I was wondering when you were going to arrive.”

Dumb with terror, Edridge stared as the creature turned, stalking heavily towards the now motionless flashlight. A great clawed hand reached down and picked it up, then, to Edridge’s astonishment, turned once more and handed it back to him. Speechless, he reached out with shaking hands and took it.

“Don’t be afraid, boy,” the grotesque figure lisped in a croaking, snarling voice. “I’m not going to eat you.”

It seemed to find something humorous in its own words, and its hideous distended dog-like snout gaped in a rictus-like grin. “You did not expect to find me still… alive, no?”

Edridge groped blindly for support—the wall, a ledge, anything. His legs felt numb, like dead weights, and a deafening ringing sang in his ears. There are moments in life when the stark reality of horror simply blasts the doubting mind into quiescence, and it reacts directly, unfiltered through any second-hand prism of what is “permitted” or “possible.” Edridge’s fingers touched the cold crypt wall behind him, grasped at it for its merciful solidity; his mind leaped from thought to thought, hysterically seeking anything to explain what he saw. Blind white terror crouched at the corners of his vision, ready to pounce at any moment and send him screaming into oblivion.

An insane conviction took hold of him. “Are you… Jereboam?” His voice shook, his face felt cold; but his eyes—his eyes could not break away.

The thing bared its fangs again. “Smart”, it said, picking its huge teeth with a long, horribly sharp claw. “Jereboam is my…”—it thought for a second, one claw poised in the air, eyes searching for an answer—“my Christian name,” it said, with evident satisfaction.

Edridge struggled to think. “What are you?” he breathed at last, his voice barely a whisper.

“A man,” said the thing. “Or, I was a man,” it added ruefully, grimacing. “Many years ago.”

“You… you were James Wightman’s assistant?”

The creature snarled, viciously. “Assistant?! I was his partner! Damn the history books…” It reached out a bony, clawed hand, jabbing and pointing in the darkness. “I built that house, up there, on the hill!” it exclaimed. “After the old one burned down. I built it myself. It was a triumph!”

“I thought James Wightman built the house…” Edridge protested, haltingly. “The great—”

“The great engineer? James?” sneered the monstrous creature. “Hah! No, James had been long dead by then. My brother had always been… fragile.”

Edridge could hear his heart pounding in his chest.

“Your… brother?” he said, weakly.

Again the hideous cracked maw, the dreadful chuckling. “We began our studies together. We worked brilliantly—like perfectly-meshed gears. He was better than me—to start with,” it emphasized terribly. “But he was never as passionate. The Mathematical Bridge was our first great achievement. My achievement.” The creature looked around at the bleak, cavernous chamber, the strange well in the center. “Once I had stumbled upon… the secret… of how to build the bridge, how to bind its great beams together, he grew afraid. He wanted nothing to do with it. He said it was not science we were doing, that we were risking our eternal souls, that we were on the verge of perdition for our crimes. The fool!

“I still remember the triumphal opening of the bridge,” it continued, bitterly. “It was already too late for me to be seen in public.” It passed its… hand… briefly over its features, as if in explanation. “My researches had already cost me too much. I stood in the background, swaddled in bandages, as my brother’s deformed assistant. His assistant! Pah! When it was I, I who had taken the risks, I who had paid the price for our discoveries! Can you imagine how it galled me? How it stuck in my craw?”

It grew calmer. “He died some years after. The knowledge of what we—of what I—had done became too much for him. The knowledge I had gained brought us riches, reputation, and yet, in spite of all the accolades, all the public glory showered on him alone, whilst I waited in the wings, I watched my brother waste away before my eyes.”

“But you carried on?”

“I? I, who was on the verge of greater and greater discoveries? Who had already paid the price for them in advance? Yes, I carried on! Why should I not?!”

Edridge’s mind reeled. He leaned heavily against the wall. How had it… this creature… he could not bring himself to say “he”… How…?

There was a brief silence. The creature’s—Jereboam’s—eyes bored into his. It chewed idly on something in its mouth.

“I see you’ve destroyed my bridge.”

Later, it would seem bizarre to Edridge that there, in that miasmic subterranean hole, before that hideous monstrosity formed fresh from the stuff of nightmares, his cheeks had reddened with shame. That he had actually blushed!

The creature called Jereboam cackled obscenely. “And now you want my help to put it back together…”

Edridge’s eyes widened. A bizarre indignation rose within his breast. “I was looking for… the secret… of how the bridge had been put together. I did not—”

The creature cackled again. “The secret? Do you think you are ready for the secret?” it mocked. “Even though such knowledge would burn you, would twist your flesh and make you one such as I?” It leered towards him, washing him again in its unspeakable fetor.

It must have seen the look of horror on Edridge’s face, even in the dark. “No, you are not ready,” it spat, bitterly. “You still cling to dreams of glory and reputation, not the pure light of knowledge and discovery. No matter; I will help you. We will rebuild the bridge, together. But you must do something for me, first…” In the dark, its eyes glistened, evilly.

Edridge grew cold. “What do you want me to do?” he asked, slowly.

“I crave flesh,” it said, dreamily, its massive jaws drooling. “It is what sustains me. Something sweet… fresh. Not some dried up carcass or some pustulous gobbet filched from a worm-eaten grave. I want something… red. For myself and for… other purposes, which I will not tell you yet…” Its eyes refocused on Edridge. “You are with the University, yes? Good… then you have access to the morgues your physicians employ. Bring me something from there, and I will help you!”

The bile rose swiftly to Edridge’s throat, and he retched. Trembling, wiping his mouth, he turned to the monster. “I will not.”

“It is your decision, of course. I had to make a similar decision, once, as did my brother. The question you have to ask yourself is a simple one: how much do you want to succeed?”

The monster’s face cracked in an obscene grin.

* * *

All Arkham knows of the smugglers’ tunnels beneath the town. Used for moving weapons and worse during the Revolutionary War, they are said to stretch as far as the jetties and wharves along the Miskatonic River, and even honeycomb the grounds of the University itself. What few people realize is that there are tunnels far older than the smugglers’ scratchings, and which run far deeper and far further than anyone can imagine. Who dug these tunnels, and when, and for what purpose, is unknown, but their extent means they must predate even the earliest colonies, and those who stray within them do not always return.

Edridge groped and stumbled through the darkness, almost mindless with terror, following the evil genius who hopped and capered ahead, constantly urging him on. To preserve his batteries he used the flashlight sparingly, and even then the sudden snapshots filled him with a miasmal fear. He had been in the tunnels beneath the University, and those manmade constructions, reminiscent of mine-workings, had nothing to do with these twisting, snaking burrows. No human hand had dug these tunnels, but something else, and the thought paralyzed him with fear.

The abysmal darkness was so absolute that lights and visions of his own devising flashed and flickered before his eyes. He felt terrible presences crowding invisibly around him; monstrous, alien creatures which shared nothing with the daylight world of mortal men, and which regarded him with loathsome hunger.

He would go mad. Even now, perhaps his mind was crumbling. He conversed in darkness with a charnel-house monster which fed on human flesh, and they discoursed upon—engineering! The tunnel filled with insane laughter, but he no longer knew if it came from himself or another. Perhaps his mind had snapped, and even now he sat alone somewhere, blabbering insanely in the dark. “Hsst!” a voice suddenly leered at his side. “Hurry up!” And Edridge wailed aloud.

Nothing made sense. Why did Jereboam need him, Edridge, for this act of horrific, cannibal, desecration? And yet he dragged him on and on, until time itself was lost and the world of light and color a half-forgotten fancy.

At a crossroads of newer tunnels they stopped. “There!” hissed the monster. “The flashlight—see! Now go! I will wait here. Remember—something fresh!”

Edridge quailed, the devil behind him. Could it really be that he was going to do that? He held the flashlight gingerly, as though it were a live thing that might turn and bite him, and shone it trembling through the door which swung aside to the clean, sterile, silent corridors of the hospital basement. An ever-present odor of disinfectant masked another, sickly-sweet smell. He swallowed, thickly.

The basement of St. Mary’s Teaching Hospital in Arkham houses a small morgue. Tales cluster around it like flies, not the least because Arkham’s police leave the corpses of murder victims and suicides there until their cases are closed. The predilection of Miskatonic students for pranks and dares has lead to a night watchman’s post being placed by the elevator and stairway on the floor above, and these days, for the most part, the unburied dead are assured of a quiet and untroubled stay.

Edridge poured with cold sweat. Sick to his stomach, he gazed over the mortuary slabs, shuddering at the drapery which covered one, its mounds and peaks a horribly familiar silhouette. His breath seemed deafening, his feet hardly at his own command as he shuffled numbly forwards into the icy, motionless morgue.

Twice he turned to flee; twice, he checked himself, swallowed the bile which rose in his throat, and forced himself onwards with his loathsome task. A strange stubbornness began to set his jaw and make him grit his teeth. Ignominy and failure were all that awaited him if he turned and fled now; had he really come all this way for that? No! He had come too far, sacrificed too much, too many years, to throw everything away. Others had borne great horror and survived to achieve their sacred goals—the Great War had been ample testament to that—and so would he. He would persevere!

He pushed all thoughts from his mind, and stumbled to the mortuary drawers, scanning them for names and dates. Finding one occupied recently, he wrenched it open, his breath clouding in the icy air.

It was a young man. A suicide, by the marks on his neck. Edridge dimly recalled something from the newspapers—was it only a week ago?

Its icy touch appalled him. He froze, his heart pounding, hot tears squeezing through his tightly shut eyes. A groan of horror and desperation escaped from his throat, and he leaned forwards and heaved the cadaver like a block of butcher’s meat onto his shoulder.

Edridge would later recall little of the minutes which followed. Some things the mind mercifully blocks out. He staggered, fighting with doors, the huge, ponderous burden of ice-cold flesh pressing against his neck, his cheek, his shoulder, stiff limbs unbalancing him this way and that. His breath escaped in bestial susurration, sweat poured into his eyes, and a strength from somewhere deep inside would not let him fail. He stumbled on.

Later, as he walked across the lawns of the main campus beneath the soft globe of moonlight, he felt great blocks of his psyche shifting seismically, filling him with a great sense of peace. He had emerged into the tunnels from the morgue of St. Mary’s struggling with his burden and sobbing with horror, and Jereboam had smiled his rictus grin and lifted the cadaver from him as if it weighed nothing at all. Clucking and chuckling monstrously, swatches of drool stretching pendulously from his snaggle-toothed maw, the monster had turned and loped off with obscene glee to vanish in the obliterating darkness, leaving Edridge alone.

In the moonlight, Edridge wept with relief. A threshold had been crossed, a great task achieved; nothing would ever be the same again. Now all that remained was to finish it, and reap the rewards of his labors.

PART THREE

The next evening, as the sun sank towards the horizon, Edridge found himself filled with a strange sense of exhilaration. He had slept most of the day, and after a hearty breakfast headed off in the darkening gloom to the Mathematical Bridge.

The gardens of the Wightman House looked uncannily beautiful by moonlight. A soft mist had gathered above the river, and haggard silhouettes of trees rose like spectral watercolors above the black, glassy water. Overhead, the soft-creamed blur of the horizon rose to a crystal clear infinity high above, echoing with the ringing song of countless stars.

Jereboam waited on the bridge, a midnight gargoyle, grinning evilly.

“Are you ready? We’ll finish the Bridge? You promised…” Edridge was breathless.

The ghoul looked over Edridge from top to bottom, its expression thoughtful, its eyes burning. “Now I am nimble, now I fly, now I see myself under myself, now a god dances within me,” it quoted. “You seem… well…?”

“I’m ready,” Edridge hurried. “I did what you asked. Now will you help me? Jereboam—you promised. Help me build the Bridge.”

Folding and unfolding its powerful limbs, the ghoul crawled down from the bridge like some enormous, languorous insect. Moving forwards, it leered into Edridge’s face, bathing him in hot, breathy fetor. “Ready? To laugh and be exalted?” it grinned. “Then come with me…!”

* * *

The days—or, rather, nights—which followed were strange beyond reckoning. In the dead of night, the two of them, alone under the stars, worked on the ancient bridge, united by a shared dream two centuries old. The master, teaching his student, on the precipice of the insane.

Edridge learned quickly, avidly, and Jereboam unfolded before him the secrets of his science, and also of another, more worrisome art. Together, they disassembled the ancient bridge, to the constant, chuckling commentary of the one, and the incessant questioning of the other, and, slowly, the old timbers were cleaned, and new ones prepared, and a strange bond began to form between the two companions.

Even a pedestrian mind which devotes itself for fifty years to study of a subject can learn many things, and a great mind can learn much more. A unique mind, a mind of genius such as a Newton or an Einstein, can discover so much in a lifetime of learning that the frontiers of human understanding themselves are pushed back.

How much more, then, could a mind of genius accomplish in almost two centuries of life? As Edridge crouched and listened, rapt, he realized he was in the presence of one of the great minds of his age, unfettered by such petty injustices as human mortality. The mind before him blazed with a flame hotter and brighter than any he had ever thought possible, and Edridge bathed in its glow and gazed into its lambent depths greedily, heedless of how much it burned.

Sometimes, Jereboam would unveil vistas of knowledge so vast that Edridge would gasp with awe. One night, as Edridge waited, Jereboam emerged from the well bearing a ceramic container filled with a white liquid of weird, viscous properties, handing it over to Edridge with a strange gleam in his eyes. “Be careful,” he growled.
Edridge took it from him with reverence, wide-eyed. “This is the glue?” he asked, breathless. “It is a glue, isn’t it?”

Jereboam eyed him levelly. “It is a kind of glue… yes. Beware of it touching your hands—it is also a living thing, and will seep deeply into whatever it touches and transform it into itself. If you place it between two objects, it will bind them together with an almost miraculous strength.”

“A molecular glue…” Edridge whispered. “With this, I could…” His eyes flicked to Jereboam. “But I touched this already. When I dismantled the Bridge.”

“Once this… substance… is exposed to sunlight, it becomes inert. It dies, if you like. What it has already transformed and bound together stays so joined—but it will have no further effect.”

“And this is the breakthrough you sold your soul for?”

“This?” exclaimed Jereboam. “No! This is just the first of many things they taught—” he corrected himself with the same monstrous smile—“which I have learned.” His eyes shone. “There are many secrets, Edridge. Amazing things. With secrets such as these you could change the world. You would not believe…”

Edridge threw himself into his work with ever greater passion, devouring hungrily all he learned. Night after night they worked, fixing the beams and radials into tangents to span the river in a graceful, elegant arch. Edridge’s movements followed Jereboam’s smoothly, like finely-meshed gears, and slowly, the Mathematical Bridge began once more to rise.

Suddenly at midnight on the fifth day Jereboam called a halt to operations. The rebuilding of the Mathematical Bridge was almost complete. Load-bearing joists hung over the water, held together by bonds stronger than any nail, bolt, or screw; decking, cunningly overlapped, echoed hollowly underfoot. The balustrades were all that remained. Edridge squatted down on the edge of the bridge next to Jereboam, curious to why they had stopped. Below, the still black water cast back the arch of the bridge in reflection, and Edridge could make out their two looming shapes in the center, dark against the reflected sky. From here it was difficult to see which was ghoul and which human.

“Edridge, there is one important task left to finish the Bridge. And for it, you must bring me another body.”

Edridge looked away. He felt light-headed, vertiginous, as though he might suddenly topple into the bottomless black water. He leaned back heavily from the edge, biting his lip. His mouth felt cold.

“Jereboam… I thought we had finished with all that. The bridge is almost done. What more can you need? Surely there are only the final touches left?”

Jereboam stared at him solidly. “Nevertheless, you must bring me another body. I do not think you will balk at that now.”

Edridge covered his face with his hands.

* * *

That night as Edridge drove in along the Aylesbury Pike his mind raced. To be so close, and yet…! He could not go back to the morgue, that was certain. He did not know whether his first “theft” had been discovered, but a second would be the purest folly.

He hardly noticed, as he turned the final corner on the outskirts of Arkham, a slight figure stumbling into the road ahead of him. There was the momentary snapshot of a face—terrified—caught in the headlights, then a jarring impact, and the steering wheel jumped and bucked in his hands. The motor-car passed over something large, and heavy. It was all over in a couple of seconds; there had been no sound, no shout or scream; Edridge even wondered if anything had happened at all. Slowly, he brought the motor-car to a halt.

There was a body in the road behind him. He leapt out of the motor-car and ran towards it. A young woman—a co-ed from Miskatonic, judging by her clothes. What had she been doing out here, stumbling around in the woods in the dead of night?!

She moaned, softly. In the light of the waning moon, Edridge could see one of her legs, bent at a crazy angle; and something terribly, terribly wrong with her collarbone. Her lips were flecked with frothy blood, black in the moonlight. He turned to run back to the car; the first houses of Arkham were less than a mile distant, and doubtless a telephone. He needed to get help, immediately!

Halfway to the car he stopped. Slowly, and with a look of dawning realization on his face, he turned back towards the supine, dying woman. Even with an ambulance, a hospital, with the horrific extent of her injuries it was hardly possible she would survive. And even if she did—she would be maimed for life. But she would not survive. She was dying already, before his very eyes.

Slowly, numbly, Edridge sat down in the road not ten feet from the dying girl. His breath shook. His hands fumbled in his pockets, and with some difficulty he drew out and lit a cigarette. Clouds of smoke mingled with the shallow breaths gasping their last into the cold night air.

Within half an hour it was all over.

* * *

For the first time, Edridge drove the motor-car across the lawns and right up to the bridge house, but Jereboam was not there. He ran to and fro, across the bridge and back, unseeing and uncaring of the now-completed balustrades, calling Jereboam’s name again and again, as loudly as he dared. There was no reply.

Nor was there any time to lose. Running back to the motor-car, he flung open the trunk and dragged out the still-warm body of the girl. With a strength born of desperation he staggered swiftly across the bridge and to the crypt, kicking the verdigrised door open and plunging without a moment’s hesitation into the charnel-house darkness.

“Jereboam! Jereboam! I’m back! I… I had an accident—you wouldn’t believe… Jereboam!”

His voice echoed back mockingly from the damp dark walls, to be swallowed by the gaping maw of the well in its center.

Jereboam was gone. Atop the wall around the well, weighed down by a heavy, chiseled stone, there was a note, badly scrawled on an old parchment in an almost illegible hand. “It was a pleasure working with you. If you ever wish to do so again, you know where to find me. We could accomplish great things, you and I. The rest is up to you.”

Edridge sat down heavily on the wall. His hand caressed the damp stone, and for long minutes he was lost in thought. The Bridge was finished, his academic credentials secured; and yet, he felt strangely bereft. It was as though a door on unimaginable vistas had suddenly been closed on him, and the world—and his future—looked flat, and stale.

He found himself looking at the body on the floor by the well. Illuminated by the flashlight, its skin was kindled to an almost golden glow. Thoughtfully, his eyes played over its smooth limbs, and he imagined its slight, sweet smell of decay. Inadvertently, he licked his lips. Perhaps…

The door behind him opened.

Edridge started. It was the caretaker. Funereal in greatcoat and bowler, Wilcox leaned into the crypt, shining his flashlight on the macabre scene. A slight smile played upon his lips.

“Ah… it is you. I’m terribly sorry for my rudeness the last time we met, sir. I had no idea you were one of Mr Jereboam’s young men from the university. Don’t worry, sir, we’re all very… discreet… around here. I’m sure you’ll go on to great things. They all do. Great things…”

Then the door closed, leaving Edridge alone with his thoughts, and the corpse, and his future, in the night.

THE END

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