The Masterful Timepiece
by Bryon L. Havranek
Table of Contents|
chapters 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Chapter III: A Spontaneous Consultation
The ride down to Covent Garden was made in absolute silence, Coswald unwilling to speak any further and my own mind struggling to put together the request for aid that we both sought. If Westcott found our cause worthy, he would surely not turn us away from his doorstep.
After what seemed an eternity of jostling and bumping within the cramped confines of the hansom, we finally came to an abrupt stop, our horse whickering a complaint at the sudden halt. I was the first to reach the handle and threw open the door, letting a blast of cool night air into the stuffy interior. Hopping out, I shook my stick up at the driver wrathfully. “You bounder, what is the meaning of such a sudden stop?! We might have been injured!”
“Sorry, guv’nuh,” slurred the voice of the cabbie from his perch at the rear of the vehicle. “The reigns slipped in me hand, is all.”
I could smell the cheap gin on his breath from where I stood, and I made a face.
Coswald hobbled out much more slowly than I had but, from the way he gripped his cane, I could tell that he was in a fit of rage. Before he could turn and accost the drunken driver with the business end of his walkingstick, I stepped in and pulled the old man away from the curb. “You had best have a care, my man,” I said to the coachman, hurriedly digging out the shilling fare from my waistcoat pocket. “Leave off the drink while you are on duty or you shall find yourself in deadly waters.”
I tossed the coin up and the driver snatched it out of the air. He mockingly saluted us with his whip and then cracked it, setting his carriage into motion off down the darkened road. We watched in silence until the lunatic had vanished, and then we turned to the door to which we had been delivered.
Facing us was a large, somber door made of some sort of dark hardwood, divided into rectangular sections and containing strange, exotic patterns and whimsical designs. A large knocker in the shape of a Coptic cross dominated the decorative appearance and, at an impatient nudge from the old man, I reached up and let it rap twice.
Not much time passed before we heard a bolt being drawn from within, and the door swung open a few inches so that whoever was inside could safely examine the would-be callers without fear of recognition. I moved forward a step and tilted my top hat back on my head. “I am Mr. Louis Browning, and with me is Mr. Josiah Coswald. We are here to call upon Dr. Westcott on a matter most urgent.”
The person on the other side of the door seemed to hesitate, probably considering whether to tell us to return at a later date or to admit us into the parlour to wait. But Coswald was in desperate earnest. Before I could restrain him, he barged up to the door and pushed it open with the tip of his cane.
A cry of outrage greeted the intrusion but, before the person could endeavour to shut us out, the old man arrogantly barged into the building. I had no choice but to follow, and found myself looking upon a mysterious figure dressed in a dark grey robe. The face was concealed in shadow by a large cowl, and upon the breast was embroidered some esoteric symbol that meant nothing to me.
“Now, see here,” growled the man in the robe, his voice rising in agitation, “we are holding a private function on these premises, and strangers are not permitted while we are holding our conclave. I shall have to ask you both to leave.”
Not bothering with a reply, Coswald took off his hat and handed both it and his walkingstick over to the fellow, his manner so imperious that the robed individual automatically accepted both without hesitation. “As my colleague has mentioned, I am Josiah Coswald, chairman banker to Her Majesty, among other notable personages. I also happen to be one of the richest men in London, and I am not used to be kept waiting on the doorstep like common rabble. Now, if you value whatever day job you hold more than you do your silly dress-up game, you shall notify Dr. Westcott immediately that he has important guests that have come to all upon him.”
The cowled man cast a speechless glance at me, and all I could do was offer up an embarrassed shrug of mute apology. He placed Coswald’s effects upon a side table and departed down the dimly-lit passage towards the heart of the house.
“You certainly do know how to make an entrance, Josiah,” I said, sarcasm dripping off my tongue.
The old man merely rolled his eyes. “Bah, force is the only thing semi-intelligent riffraff understand. He would have turned us away had I not been so insistent, and then were would we be?”
“Yes, and yet you may have just antagonized the very man who might offer you some help for your condition.” Before Coswald could respond, the hooded man had returned, his shoulders slumped in resignation. He beckoned to us and then turned, heading down the hallway.
Without a word, we followed, and as we passed the occasional door, I began to wonder about the coming interview with the good doctor. I hoped I was still on good terms with the man, knowing I would need to invoke whatever goodwill existed between us to counter any trouble that horrid old Coswald might land himself in with his insolent behaviour.
Momentarily, our guide stopped before another closed door and opened it without a sound. He gestured, and we entered, finding ourselves in a richly decorated study. A large ornate desk carved of walnut dominated the floor, a pair of high-backed chairs resting on the client’s side.
Coswald hesitated for a moment, as though he were considering crossing to the other side and taking his place at the head of the desk, but for once decided against such effrontery and instead settled his aged carcass on the upholstered seat meant for guests. I joined him presently and took off my own hat, though I kept it in hand rather than surrendering it.
“Dr. Westcott shall be in shortly,” stated the hooded man evenly. “In the meantime, you are welcome to help yourselves to the refreshments over on the sideboard.” With that he departed, shutting the door behind him.
I then saw Coswald pull out his new watch and consult it before snapping the cover shut with impatience. Deciding that I would remain silent until Westcott arrived, I looked around the room to see what it might say about our unwitting host.
The walls were panelled with some exotic wood, and the floor was covered from wall to wall by an enormous Turkish rug. All walls but the one behind the doctor’s chair were lined with bookshelves. I was about to rise and examine some of the texts when the door opened again.
The old man and I turned to see a man of middle years standing in the entryway, his dark eyes gleaming from beneath a pair of bushy eyebrows. He was wearing the same sort of dark gray robe that the doorman had worn though, in addition to the strange hieroglyphs on the breast, he sported a heavy-looking pectoral of Egyptian design. Pausing to pour himself a drink from one of the ornate decanters on the sideboard, Westcott then moved over and took his place behind his desk. He placed the drink before him on a coaster and then he looked up to regard us both.
“I must say, Browning, that this is a most unusual response to my offer,” the doctor said in a deep voice. “You could have sent me a message by courier or called on me at the Club.” Seeing Coswald’s mildly curious expression, Westcott decided to elaborate. “I have offered Mr. Browning a place in our private circle, but so far he has hesitated on accepting.”
“I am still considering the matter carefully, Westcott,” I said neutrally. “I’m not sure if all of this Rosicrucian pageantry suits me, and I do not wish to offend you by half-heartedly joining your lodge.”
The doctor took a drink from his glass. “Very well. I understand, and appreciate your respectful regard for my colleagues and me.” He lifted an eyebrow and looked over at Coswald. “Unlike some people. Now, sir, we have not been formally introduced, but I am aware of your reputation, both fiscally and socially. What is of such importance to bring you barging into my residence at this time of night and interrupting my private affairs?”
Coswald merely waved aside the thinly-veiled criticism. “Are you aware, Dr. Westcott, of what my age is?” He leaned forward so that the desk lamp shed more light upon his face. “Look closely, now.”
Westcott lifted his eyebrows. “You are obviously an elderly man, aged perhaps as old as 90 but at least as old as 70.” He paused for a moment, frowning. “But I was led to believe that you, sir, were in the prime of life, no older in fact than I.”
“You are correct, sir,” replied the old man. “By my birth documents I am aged 39, and shall turn 40 this fall.” He smiled, setting the seams of his face to wriggling like so many worms.
“Ye gods!” blurted Westcott, his eyes wide with shock. He drained his drink and began to tug fiercely at the salt-and-pepper beard that covered his lower face. “Why, this is most extraordinary! I have never heard of such a case of premature aging before.”
“And neither have any of the other medical men that I have chosen to consult,” said Coswald. He leaned back in his chair, suddenly weary. “We have ruled out natural causes for my condition, and so have come to you for insight into... other possibilities.”
The doctor rubbed at his eyes. “I... see. So you think, then, that there is some sort of esoteric or supernatural cause for your aging?”
“Don’t be daft, Westcott,” Coswald snarled, slamming a fist down on the edge of the desk. “Do you think that any other agency could be involved? You already said, yourself, that you were unaware of any such case as mine. Now I would appreciate it if you delved into your reputed mystical expertise and found something that could be causing me to age a decade or more every few days.” He pulled out his watch and consulted it for a moment. “After all, I am in a bit of a rush. At the rate that I am going, I won’t live to see the end of the week.”
But Westcott didn’t seem to be paying much attention to what Coswald was saying. Instead, his gaze was captured by the gorgeous timepiece that the old man clutched in his withered hands. The doctor paled visibly and leaned back in his chair as though he were trying to place as much distance between himself and the object as he could.
My eyebrows shot up in surprise at such behaviour, and I was opening my mouth to question the cause when the man spoke. “Are you aware that the watch you are holding is absolutely saturated with dark energy?”
Coswald’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. “What mean you, Westcott? What sort of ‘dark energy’?”
The magician shuddered and wiped away a streamer of sweat that ran down his cheek. “Dark energy, evil magick, corrupted mana. In a nutshell, my good sir, that watch is cursed, and in spades at that.” He rose from his chair and walked around the desk to take up position by his study door. “If I were you, I would get rid of it at once, for that artifact is no doubt at the heart of your troubles. Now I must ask you gentlemen to leave, for I cannot have such an abomination anywhere near my temple precincts.”
“What a bunch of stuff,” snarled Coswald, snapping shut the watch cover and placing it in his coat pocket. “This is just some elaborate scheme to acquire my timepiece for yourself, isn’t it?! Well, you cannot have it, you hear? It’s mine!” The old man’s voice rose until he was almost shouting, and he began to gasp for breath as his fit of rage threatened to overwhelm him.
I took hold of his arm and all but lifted him from his seat, determined to remove him from the house of the good doctor before Coswald hurt himself. At my touch, he seemed to calm somewhat and allowed me to lead him gently out the door and down the hall towards the front parlour. Westcott followed, his flunky close on his heels.
As we were let out onto the stoop, I turned to regard the magician. “So that is it, then?” I asked, somewhat upset, myself, at such a blunt dismissal of an obviously deadly case. “We are to merely get rid of this watch and all shall return to normal? Somehow I find it hard to believe that it will be as simple as all that.”
Westcott looked at me with compassion. “Look, Browning. I have made a study of the esoteric for many years now, and have acquired quite a bit of knowledge and ability. But I can tell you that whoever enchanted that man’s watch is a far greater player than I. If I were to try to negate its effects, I would only cause a catastrophe. If you cannot get rid of the blasted thing, the next best thing is to find out who created it and confront them. Perhaps you can persuade them to undo the curse before it runs its course.”
“Very well,” I sighed, not relishing the attempt to find the culprit. “Thank you for your assistance.”
As Westcott began to close the door, he paused for a moment as something came to him. “It might not be much, but I have heard of such a curse before. The Sefer Yetzirah mentions a dreadful curse called the Entropic Extinguishment, but the actual working and any counter for it must be found in some other work. Alas, I have not the faintest idea which one it could be.”
“What are you going on about?” Coswald said waspishly. “The sapphire what?”
“The Sefer Yetzirah, the Book of Creation. It is a powerful book of Jewish mysticism and magickal lore. If I didn’t know better, I would say that your secret enemy is a baal-shem, a Jewish mage of great skill. Ask yourselves this: Have you any enemies in the Jewish community?”
With that, Westcott shut the door and bolted it from the inside. We stood there, on the lowest step, realization making our hearts beat fast. As one we turned to look at each other, knowing now who was responsible for the entire episode.
“Rosenberg, that vindictive bastard...” rasped Coswald as he shivered in the night air, though whether from rage or from fear I could not tell.
Copyright © 2017 by Bryon L. Havranek