Caning the Runes

Yes, this is a shameless (but affectionate) parody of a story by that master of the English ghost story, Montague Rhodes James. It was also Cobweb's Christmas present. Blame her, if you want to blame someone. M R Woodgnome.

April 15th, 19-

Dear Mr Thrashwell

I have been requested by the Council of the Antediluvian Society to inform you that your treatise ‘Bums, Bitches, and Birches: a History of Flagellation in Esoteric Lore’ cannot be included in the publishing programme of the Society.

Yours, etc.


April 20th

Dear Sir

I regret that Society engagements do not permit of me taking the time to see you on the matter of the publication of your treatise. Perhaps some less learned and more popular purveyor of such materials might be more to the case.

Yours, etc.


April 23rd


The Council of the Society beg me to inform you that no further correspondence can be undertaken on this matter.



“And it is the most curious thing,” said the Secretary’s wife. “Marion Sowerby is up in town, I was lunching with her today at the Savoy, and she tells me that she knows your Mr Thrashwell.”

“He’s not my Mr Thrashwell; indeed, I’m not sure he’s anybody’s. No one should care to have him, I dare say, for he seems a most disagreeable man. Why have Marion and Charles taken up with him?”

“They haven’t, and he is every bit as disagreeable as his letters to you suggested. He’s a neighbour of theirs down in Hampshire. They call him the Abbot of Fusting Gate in the village, apparently, after the big house he has taken there, and nobody cares for him at all. He invented his own religion, and practices evil rites there, not to mention iniquities upon his servants so they say; one or two of the local boys he caught on his land he sent off quite terrified, by all accounts.”

“I dare say, and with some marks to remember him by, I shouldn’t wonder. He seems a most unforgiving man, and I shouldn’t like him to find out that it was Edward Fitzsimmons who reviewed his treatise. Really the only man in England who knows enough on the subject to be able to judge, and he told us it was the most awful tripe and not to be touched except with fire-tongs. I trust you didn’t say anything to Marion about who had read it?”

“No, of course not. Poor Mr Fitzsimmons.”

“Poor? He has enough income to live comfortably and indulge his interests, and no wife to trouble him with luncheon gossip.”

“John! You know perfectly well what I meant. Such a nice young man; I shouldn’t care for him to be put to trouble by this Mr Thrashwell.”

“No indeed. I fancy it might well be poor Mr Fitzsimmons then. When we first heard from the man I knew that there was something about the name that rang a bell, and Delaney at the club reminded me of it the other day. Do you remember James Blessington?”

“Wasn’t he up at Magdalen with you?”

“Yes, that James Blessington. He reviewed Thrashwell’s first book, ‘The Use and Practice of Sinister Occult Revenge’. Quite a scorcher; I dare say that had I had such a review I might never have written anything ever again, though Thrashwell seems made of sterner stuff. Anyhow, it was after that review that James was – well, of course he was always rather sensitive, but still. Something most unpleasant happened to the poor fellow.”

“John! Don’t be mysterious; you know I can’t abide it. What happened to Mr Blessington?”

“He was found comatose in the road, having been most awfully beaten. The doctor who attended him was an old Eton man, who had suffered under one of the fiercest floggers in England, and he said he’d never seen marks like it. And poor Blessington was quite turned by the experience. Not a word out of him since, just hides in the corner and won’t allow anyone behind him.”

“And you think this Thrashwell man did it? Did the police not investigate?”

“Oh yes, but there was nothing to tie him to the matter, and he himself was a hundred miles away, attending a concert at the time of the attack. Still, it can’t be denied that it is odd. His brother certainly thinks there was malice in it, but it’s difficult to see how a connection might come in.”

The Secretary’s wife shuddered delicately.

“Oh, let us most definitely hope that Mr Thrashwell does not find out that Edward Fitzsimmons is responsible for his rejection.”

“Oh, I don’t see how he could, really. I shan’t tell him, and neither shall you. Only if he were to ask the staff at the British Museum who else looks at such manuscripts – but there, let us hope he doesn’t think of it.”

Mr Thrashwell, however, was an astute man.

It was perhaps a fortnight after the Secretary and his wife had had this conversation that the series of remarkable events that were to evince such a remarkable turnabout in the placid and scholarly existence of Edward Fitzsimmons began, with a chance encounter at the Reading Room of the British Museum.

Fitzsimmons had just found his habitual place and passed in a slip for two manuscripts from the locked collection that he thought to the point (incurring the habitual sniff from one of the attendants who thought the study of such material a disgrace, special permit or no), when the passage of another scholar on his way to the exit caused his papers to be knocked from the desk. As he was bending to retrieve them, the passer-by, a rather burly man of middle years, handed him a sheaf of paper, saying: “I think this is yours, sir. My apologies for my clumsiness.”

“Yes, thank you. No, not at all.” The other nodded politely and went on his way, and Fitzsimmons should have thought no more of it had not another of the attendants seized an opportunity to ask if the gentleman had spoken to him. “For he was asking only the other day, who was the greatest expert on these matters in England, and we of course mentioned your name, sir, as being always in among these manuscripts.”

“No, he said nothing. Who is he?”

“Why, that’s Mr Thrashwell, sir. I’m sure he would be pleased to know who you were – shall I run after him?”

“No, don’t do that,” said Fitzsimmons hastily. “I most particularly want to avoid the man.”

“Oh, I see. Well, not to worry, sir. He doesn’t come up to town that often.”

It may have been the concern caused by this encounter, or the unfortunate choice of bloater paste sandwiches for lunch that caused a certain disequilibrium in young Mr Fitzsimmons. He felt as if something impalpable had come between him and his fellow man, and he did not look forward with his usual insouciance to a solitary evening. He abandoned his studies early, and returned to his house by train. He felt the strangest and most abnormal urge to find a crowded carriage, and yet, unusually, the train was almost empty. As they rattled out into the suburbs, his eye was caught by an advertisement under the glass.

“In Memoriam James Blessington,” it read. “Twelve dozen have been allowed.” Fitzsimmons shook his head. It was dashed odd the things that commercial men got up to. No doubt it would prove in time to be only a campaign for some new liver pill, and yet in his sensitive state the words played oddly on his mind. He returned home only to find his medical man on the doorstep and discover that both his servants had been spirited away by that worthy, having purchased their luncheon from a street vendor and developed all the symptoms of ptomaine poisoning.

“And it is most odd,” said the doctor, “for I cannot find that he sold to anyone else hereabouts. So you will have to shift for yourself for a week or two, old man.”

This, you may imagine, did nothing to render Fitzsimmons any the more cheery. Still, he was an Oxford man, and therefore nothing if not resourceful, and he managed to make a tolerable supper on tinned ham in aspic and some port, leaving the remains, as was his custom, for the servants to clear whenever they should return. It was in a somewhat lighter mood, therefore, that he went to his bed.

He was uncertain what it was that woke him: a sensation, as it were, of presence. As he habitually kept a box of matches under his pillow for the candle, he fumbled there in the dark for them. You may imagine what passed through his mind when he felt instead, as he stoutly maintains, something bone cold, slender, and ridged: the unmistakable configuration of a rattan cane. Simultaneously, despite the fact that he lay beneath the bedclothes, a line of fire seemed to stripe itself across his rear, once, twice, three times! Starting up with a dreadful yell, he found himself, without the sensible passage of any time at all, behind the locked door of the spare bedroom down the corridor, buttocks a-tremble for the approach of he knew not what.

Nothing came, but of the miserable night that he passed you may draw your own conclusions. At dawn the mirror revealed, not only the haggard features of a man who has missed his sleep, but (as he discovered with some twisting of his neck) the unmistakable tramlines of cane strokes upon his person in the place where the marks of the cane are most habitually seen.

The venturing back to his own room was a nervous affair, and yet on making a hesitant entrance there was no sign of anything untoward. It was equally true of the rest of the house, yet to remain there seemed odious. On the other hand, he dared not return to the Museum for fear of encountering Thrashwell, and sitting for any prolonged period upon the hard chairs of the Reading Room seemed likely to prove impossible. In the end, he took luncheon at his club, and was pleased to encounter the Secretary of the Antediluvian Association.

His friend was shocked to see the state of Fitzsimmons, and did his best to bring him up to the mark. At first, Fitzsimmons was not disposed to talk, but after a while he related the more material of his woes, whilst still reserving his deeper concerns as unworthy of a gentleman and an Englishman. However, when they were smoking together afterwards Fitzsimmons grew dull again, and presently the Secretary broke the habit of a lifetime and brought himself to a scarcely forgivable breach of etiquette by enquiring directly what troubled the younger man.

Fitzsimmons coloured a little, then said meekly:

“I think that Thrashwell man may know that it was I who rejected his treatise.”

“What makes you think that?”

Fitzsimmons related the events at the museum, and then with a sudden access of confidence, the whole bizarre train of events of his return and the subsequent night. The Secretary could not conceal his start at the mention of James Blessington.

“Have you ever heard of a James Blessington?”

The Secretary cautiously acknowledged that he had known such a man, and gave a few details of his published work, but thought it wise not to mention what had become of him, given Fitzsimmons’ excitable state. However, on discussing it with his wife he could not help but draw the parallel between the two cases, distasteful as such a thing was to a scientific man. It was his wife who reminded him of Blessington’s brother, and decided that the two men should be brought together, though we need not concern ourselves with the detail of how this was effected.

Fitzsimmons took to Henry Blessington at once: they were much of an age, and the other was well set up (one might even say handsome), and vigorous, with the active mien of the rowing blue he had once been.

Fitzsimmons told Blessington something of the way in which his brother’s name had been brought before him, and something beside of his own odd experiences. Then he asked if Blessington was disposed to return anything of his brother’s history.

The other responded readily enough. “Certainly what you tell me reminds me very much of the business with James. He was in a very odd state up to the catastrophe. The principal matter was a great reluctance to sit down – not constantly, but at regular intervals, as if it had become painful to him. I cannot get it out of my mind that there was ill will involved. What you tell me reminds me very much of the affair – but is there any link that you can think of?”

“Well, one in particular. I understand that your brother had reviewed a book quite savagely before he was set upon, and I have recently crossed the path of the man who wrote that book, a fellow named Thrashwell, in a manner likely to incur his wrath.”

“Then that settles it, to my mind. I must tell you of a curious event that took place a little before – well, what happened. James was very musical, and took every opportunity to go up to town for concerts. Shortly after he had reviewed that man’s book, he was at a concert and he dropped his programme. It was retrieved and handed back to him by his neighbour, a largish man with a florid complexion, and he thought no more of it at the time, save that the neighbour did not return for the second half. Yet, when he came home we noticed a slip of paper inside the program, written in a curious script, in red and black characters, most carefully done.

“‘Hullo,’ he said. ‘This must belong to the stout fellow alongside me at the concert. Perhaps I should place an advertisement or something, in case he should care to have it back, for it seems that he has taken some trouble over it.’

“As he spoke, though, a gust of warm air snatched the paper from his hand and into the fire, and the paper instantly burned to ash.

“I upbraided him for carelessness, which he did not take in good part, so I was obliged to spa- to remonstrate with him. But the paper, and whatever message it bore, was gone.”

“My goodness,” exclaimed Fitzsimmons, “I had forgotten, but something almost identical occurred to me.” And he related how the man he believed to be Thrashwell had passed him back his quire of papers in the museum.

“Then if you will, we must examine those papers carefully to see if you too have been passed something,” said Blessington, his face grim. “I don’t know if you looked at that other book of Thrashwell’s – certainly there is no reason why you should, for it was quite abominable. Not only in point of style and form and punctuation, but also of content. It was the most frightful mishmash of stuff, thrown together with no discernment, and some of it quite unsuitable for even the worldliest of intellects – entries that made Catullus and de Sade look like your maiden aunt’s diary. But the thing is, there was a chapter there entitled ‘Caning the Runes’, which described the use of rituals to bring physical revenge on those who have wronged you, and although I may be putting too much weight on it after the fact, it seemed to me that it was written in the light of experience, as if its author had practised such a thing.”

They went at once to where Fitzsimmons' papers were gathering dust in the disorder of his study, and on examination they found, slipped between two sheets of his writing paper, a thin, light strip of paper that fluttered upwards with unnatural quickness. The window was open, but Blessington slammed it shut in time to retrieve the object. It was closely covered with fine strange characters – some spiky and whiplike, others with a curiously organic roundness, like the curves of the body. A most curious sensation passed through both men on looking at them, though neither could make anything of them, and Blessington turned away to adjust his attire before saying:

“I thought so. This might be the identical thing that was passed to my brother. You had better look sharp, Fitzsimmons. This might mean something serious for you.”

It was agreed that Blessington should stay for a while with Fitzsimmons, so that he should not be left alone in the house. A bed was made up for Blessington in Fitzsimmons’ own room, at his insistence, in order that he might be immediately at hand should assistance be needed, a necessity with which Fitzsimmons did not demur in the slightest. Neither man slept well that night, and their concern was all the greater when Fitzsimmons received a missive in the first post the following morning.

It contained no note, only an engraving torn from a book of the kind occasionally available by private sale in the more specialised auction rooms. It depicted a man hurrying along a lonely road by moonlight, pursued by some ghastly hirsute creature of the Pit. Its hands were ridged and tendoned, betokening more than human strength, and it bore instruments of chastisement – a birch and a whip. The expression of fear on the man’s face, and the supernatural malevolence and subhuman cunning on the fiend’s, were rendered as if from the life. At the bottom had been scribbled in a crude commercial hand: Fitzsimmons – twelve dozen have been allowed.

Fitzsimmons let the horrid thing fall to the floor with a kind of sob.

“Twelve dozen,” he said. “Like your poor brother.”

“Bear up, old chap. It needn’t come to that. I couldn’t protect James, but I shall do my utmost to look after you.”

Fitzsimmons found himself oddly heartened by this declaration of friendship. They discussed possible plans of action late into the morning, and at length it was agreed that a watch should be kept on Thrashwell, until some suitable opportunity presented itself. This necessitated that they should spend some time apart, a necessity which Fitzsimmons was inclined to resent, until Blessington was unexpectedly forced to heated – debate – and a flushed and repentant Fitzsimmons, much surprised by the warmth and firmness with which his new friend applied his – logic – perforce agreed.

However, for the next fortnight Thrashwell remained firmly ensconced at Fusting Gate, and Fitzsimmons began to fear that his fate would come upon him before any action could be taken. One lunar month had passed between James Blessington’s receipt of the evil runes and his dire fate. If a similar timing applied in this case, as there seemed reason to fear, then only a few days remained until Fitzsimmons should feel the force of Thrashwell’s revenge.

It was on the antepenultimate day of that period, tormented by what fears and uncertainties we may well suppose, that Fitzsimmons received a telegram. ‘Leaves Victoria by boat train Thursday night. Do not miss. I come to you tonight. Blessington.’

He duly came, and they concocted plans. Blessington, who was unknown to Thrashwell, should follow him from Victoria. Fitzsimmons would join the train at Croydon, disguised as far as was practical, and would have with him the paper.

The twenty or so minutes that Fitzsimmons spent upon the platform at Croydon the following evening were among the longest of his life. For all the relief that action afforded, finally, he knew that were he to miss this chance the direst consequences might follow for him. He drove the station staff almost to the point of accurately answering an enquiry, with his constant fretting as to when, and on which platform, the boat train might be expected.

And then the train came, and he saw Blessington leaning from a window. The two men exchanged no signs of recognition, lest Thrashwell should be watching, and Fitzsimmons entered the carriage at the other end, and only gradually made his way to the compartment in which Thrashwell and Blessington were sitting. His heart was pounding, but Thrashwell, beyond a brief glance from the evening newspaper, evinced no sign of recognition, fooled by Fitzsimmons’ wig, false nose, buck teeth, and heavy spectacles, as well as by the dog collar and cape he had affected.

He had pondered long on the safest way in which to pass the paper to Thrashwell. There was a bag by Thrashwell’s seat, with some papers in it, which his eyes lit upon – that would do very well, could he but gain access to it. However, he knew that he would not feel truly safe unless the vile thing could be proffered to the other man, and accepted by him. If only he could have counselled with Blessington – but it could not be. The minutes passed, and their destination drew ever closer. Fitzsimmons was in a desperate way.

More than once Thrashwell rose, and went into the corridor. The second or third time, Fitzsimmons was about to rise and attempt the transfer but he caught Blessington’s eye and read in it a warning – Thrashwell could see the carriage from his place in the corridor, and would be alerted to any attempt on his possessions. He returned, but was evidently restless, for with a glance at his pocket watch (which was large and vulgar) he rose again and went out.

Luck was with Fitzsimmons that night, surely, for as his enemy did so something was dislodged from a coat on the seat and fell to the floor. Fitzsimmons retrieved it and saw that the key was in his hands. It was a folder of travel documents from Cook’s, and in one side of it was a pocket into which Fitzsimmons hastily slipped the paper before closing the folder. As Thrashwell returned he held it out to him.

“Sir, I believe this is yours.” He held his breath, fearing even now that his imposture might be detected by the foe.

Thrashwell took the folder, opened it briefly and examined the tickets within, and nodded. “It is sir. I am obliged to you.” He placed the tickets in his breast pocket. Even in the few minutes that remained – minutes of tense anxiety, for all might still fail – both men noticed that the carriage seemed to darken and become more oppressive. Thrashwell seemed uneasy, as if sitting had become uncomfortable, nay abhorrent to him. He began to gather up his belongings, for the train was even now slowing on its approach to Dover. As the train drew to a halt at the platform amid much squealing of brakes and clouds of sulphurous steam, he left the carriage without a backwards glance.

The effect on Fitzsimmons was to make him almost faint with relief, and Blessington was obliged to press him up against the carriage wall, place his strong arms around him, and perform some form of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in order to prevent him from collapsing.

“Henry. . .”

“Hush, we will speak of all that later. Rest here a moment while I check that that brute is safely away.”

The agile Blessington strode down to a vantage point at which he could observe the gangway to the boat, at which Thrashwell had now arrived. He showed his ticket to the purser, and laden with coats he passed into the boat. Suddenly the official called after him:

“I beg pardon sir, did the other gentleman show his ticket?”

“What other gentleman?” snarled Thrashwell. “I am travelling alone.”

“Begging your pardon sir, a trick of the light,” returned the bemused purser. And then, to a subordinate next him: “’Ad ‘e got a monkey wiv ‘im or summink? Could’ve swore there was some hairy sort of cove along of ‘im. Anyway, they’ll ‘ave to sort it out over the other side now, for she’s off any minute.”

In five minutes more there was nothing but the lessening lights of the boat, and the sound of the waves against the quayside, and the moon.

Blessington returned to Fitzsimmons, and evidently thought him still faint, for he repeated his earlier ministrations until the latter showed signs of a quite risen spirit.

“And now you are safe, and I mean to make it my business to ensure that you remain so, Edward,” he said. “That is, if you’ll allow me.”

“I could wish for nothing more than such friendship as you have shown me,” returned Fitzsimmons. “But still, Henry, I do not care to think of Thrashwell going into the dark unwarned. Should we not telegraph?”

“We do not know where he is staying,” replied the other reasonably enough. “And besides, he will receive no more than his just deserts.” But at Fitzsimmons’ expression, he conceded:

“Well, if it will please you we might send some telegrams to the better sort of hotel in Calais and Deauville.”

“I should be happier. It may be hopeless, but I should not like to think that we were quite of the same stripe as Thrashwell. Not to give a warning is hardly sporting.”

The telegrams were duly sent, but whether they were received, or if received, understood, is unclear. Doubtless the two men had overestimated the class of lodgings to which a man such as Thrashwell would resort. At any rate, it was some days later that Blessington passed Fitzsimmons the Times over their breakfast, indicating a small piece therein. An English traveller had come to grief in Solesmes, whilst inspecting the abbey there. Set upon in the dark, and most sadistically and intensively beaten, he had fled into the sanctuary of that sacred place, and refusing all entreaties to leave, had, once healed by the patient ministrations of the monks, taken up Holy Orders.

Blessington continues to lodge with Fitzsimmons, who has given up his researches, although he maintains that he has merely exchanged the theoretical for the practical, a remark one supposes must relate to his experiences with Thrashwell, for it surely cannot be riddled otherwise. Also he has become much more regular in his habits and tidy in his person, a change he freely attributes to his friend’s good influence. The Secretary remarked favourably on Blessington’s self-discipline, at which Fitzsimmons smiled slightly and said ‘Not quite’.

That the affair has left some sort of scar upon his soul, however, cannot be doubted. From time to time he still seems restless and disinclined to repose upon a chair, although a stern glance from his friend will call him to his manners. Also, he cannot be sleeping well, for he has exchanged his old bed for a newer and much larger one, and the occasional guest has heard moans and gasps. One such visitor thought, passing the open door one morning, that he saw a rattan lying upon the bed, although it had gone when he returned five minutes later; it must surely have been a psychic emanation of some sort from the whole sorry business.

But it is only to be expected that such things will leave marks.


Idris the Dragon

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