Token Of A Better Age

Token of A Better Age is a gothic/mystery novella set in the 1st person. In it, a young Victorian man journeys to Italy for the first time at the invitation of his uncle whom he has never met before. On arrival at his uncle's large country estate, Fort Wilson, the young man quickly discovers that 'all is not as it seems'. As time progresses however, factors come into play that suggest the real mystery of the story is not the illusive and wildly intimidating uncle, nor the spooky house, nor indeed the silent and suspiciously foreign looking manservant, but actually the young man himself.

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“Well Hello Barty!” a loud voice shouted as my carriage pulled into the outer quadrangle at just after ten o' clock in the evening. The Italian air brushed warmly across my cheeks as I stepped gingerly down from the carriage perch to take my uncle’s outstretched hand. He was waiting alone in the courtyard. Professor Charles Hokin was of average height with a broad, ruddy face and small, sunken eyes. He wore a bulky, knee length overcoat with what appeared to be a sizable mass of animal hair pluming out around his shoulders - quite at odds I should remark - with the mild spring temperature that evening. He presented himself, in the unconventional nature of the occasion (for unbelievably, we had never before met), with the wild unkemptness of an African cat.

“My God boy,” Hokin said, grasping my shoulder, “How are we?” Much like his physique, I noticed the full and powerful manner each word punched its way into the air around me.

“Uncle,” I replied, shaking his hand with equal vigour, “It is really good to see you.” This was perfectly true; I had decided to afford my uncle a kind of simple and decent humility as I took the time to gauge the manner of my new surroundings.

“Indeed, indeed,” Hokin said, his yellow eyes never leaving mine, “well… dust yourself down boy, and follow me inside.” Shuddering against the chilling night air I assisted the horseman in unloading my two modest trunks and saw the carriage chattering off into the darkness before turning resolvedly and following Hokin inside.

My first impression of Fort Wilson was that it was an ominous place, badly light and drafty. Closing the door behind me I set my truck and dispatch case down on the stone floor and looked about. The hallway was completely deserted.

 “Uncle?” I spoke into the darkness, “Professor Hokin?” Faint candlelight flickered gently through an open door ahead of me. I walked toward it and heard movement. The silhouette of a man appeared in the doorway. 

“Come,” the man spoke in the dark.

It may have been the bad light but the man could have been disfigured, at least his back might be slightly hunched. “Come” the man said in harsh broken English again, gesturing inside the candlelight room. I followed him inside. The man lit another candle and placed it on a large wooden table that sat in the centre of the room.  On the far wall, the embers of a low fire were just burning out. It was cold and my breath rose up in silvery clouds before me. The man pulled a chair from under the table and indicated I took a seat before disappearing into an adjacent room. I sat. It was clear that I was in the servant’s quarters, and this would appear to be the parlour or kitchen area for the employees of the house. I fancied the man I just met to be one of my uncle’s servants, and he was showing me the decency of such hospitality common in their country. I wrung my hands and flexed my neck, it had been a long journey and I was eager for some refreshment and to begin conversation with my uncle at once. The servant rummaged loudly in the next room and was about to call out to express my desires when he returned, clutching a wooden board and on it, a small cheese and a crusty loaf. The man had the strangest habit of not letting his face linger in the candlelight too long, and being polite enough not to stare unblinkingly at my new host, I only caught glimpses of his facial outline, which was chiseled, darkly tanned and clearly foreign. He placed the board on the table and indicated I should eat.

‘Where is my Uncle?’ I asked, ‘I should like to see him, he received me only a few minutes ago’.

The tall man surveyed me for a moment and then turned and strode from the room once more. Such behaviour was certainly odd, wouldn’t you say? I was half way out of my chair with a mind to follow the man and make my intentions clearer when he returned, framed in the doorway, holding my trunk and dispatch case. The candlelight from behind me reflected more kindly on his features now. I was wrong to think he was disfigured, rather he was uncommonly tall and barrel chested. He was not a bad looking fellow, not in the traditional sense mind, but almost quite the opposite of what I had imagined. If the bowels of St Bart’s had taught me anything, it was that studying the skin condition of a man was one of the latest fashions in the London consultancy room. My medical associates and I would often attend long afternoon lectures on this very subject, where emaciated bodies, often poor creatures of the lower serving classes, where carted in before us, chopped up, and then examined through a looking glass. Especially in instances of osteoporosis or some other severe bone complaint, it is considered possible that the preliminary stages of these diseases may be associated with an extended lack of natural light, together with mal-nutrition.

 The man that stood in the doorway now however, displayed none of these signs. Much like Hokin, he had a rich tan and was powerfully built. His deep dark eyes were accentuated by a colossal frown that cast a large shadow over his whole face and long smooth nose. Complimenting the horizontal prominence of his brow was a long chiseled jaw that was dead straight all the way from his chin and then swooped up smoothly behind his ears. If the features of his face were to be frozen and then stuck on some immovable pedestal, I might have sworn the whole thing be carved out of marble, rendering him almost Grecian in appearance. During my long journey south, I had noticed the smooth lines of the Italian features and had started to become slightly envious of the ease of their complexion. But there was something oddly different about this one, and I would not be surprised if he was not Italian at all, or perhaps from the very south of the country. My cabman who had transferred me from Genoa, leering at me through those awful, blackened teeth, had told me stories of folk as far south as Lucca where it was not uncommon for feet to spawn six toes on one foot and seven on another!

The Grecian man made a low, grunting sound and gestured that I should follow him out of the room. Again I attempted to console him.

‘My man, my name is Barthonemew Harding, I have come all the way from London to see the professor, we are relatives, may you show me to your employer?’ He remained silent.

‘Do you speak English? I asked.

‘A little,’ the Grecian man replied, ‘Signore Hokin is tired. I take you to room’.

‘The professor is tired?’ I said, hardly attempting to hide the accusation in my voice. ‘Signore, I just saw him, he certainly didn’t appear to be unable to receive me when we greeted, it was but ten minutes ago, surely you can?’ But the hunched man had already started off down the corridor, leaving me no choice but to snatch the candlestick from the table and follow him into the darkness, leaving the cheese and bread untouched.

Trying my best to stay calm, for the oddity of the situation was unsettling, I followed the Grecian man to the end of the corridor and then up a flight of wide stairs that became narrower as we ascended. Attempting to glimpse further images of the house was impossible as the servant was moving at quite a pace and my concentration was entirely with my feet, which were struggling over the interior terrain of the place. Rising up several floors, two steps up there, four steps down here, along a thin portrait framed corridor until at last we reached a spiraling staircase. Ascending the steps clumsily we appeared onto a tiny landing with single wooden door at its end. Light trickled gently from the crack between the door and floorboards.

The Grecian man groped in his pockets, drew out a tiny, singular key and grappled with the lock. Upon opening the door he set my cases down inside but seemed unwilling to enter the room fully and due to the fact that his upper body and torso were twice the size of any normal man, we brushed awkwardly in the doorway. A shiver ran down my back as we passed. Once inside, the servant handed me a box of matches, grunted, and swept quite instantly from the room, closing the door with a snap, leaving it unlocked and I noticed, taking the key with him. Again, I had half a mind to pursue the man, either to protest further or to set off into the unknown corners of the house in search of Charles Hokin myself.

However it must be confessed that my first steps through the increasingly peculiar bounds of Fort Wilson had inflicted upon me a certain frailty of character that was now doing its best to discourage any form of adventure or boldness. I do not think my contemporaries would call me a shy man, in fact most days in the city demanded an iron will to navigate oneself past all manner of urban dilemmas! In these situations I would consider myself an accomplished enough individual to combat such problems, such as men with outwardly intimidating dispositions, or women who enjoy a forceful hand. All of this would be done with a mature, self-assured dignity.

Now however, as I stood within the darkened walls of my dreary chamber, with thoughts of an un-hosted arrival on my mind, I felt an unfamiliar quiver of insecurity rise up inside me. I had seen it before in others; it is the kind of insecurity that so often blossoms in circumstances of extreme social demands, or in this case, from a decision that one makes in acceptance of a friendly invitation which is then so suddenly and cruelly called to interrogation by the summons of ones own inner executioner.

So, feeling quite empty, save the soft nagging wrench of anxiety in my gut, I retrieved a match from the box, struck it, and watched the spattering flame gradually illuminate the four walls around me. On the back wall sat a large four-poster that had been poorly made up, its thick wooden construction and deeply struck carvings suggesting an exotic linage and I was again reminded of Charles Hokin’s foreign dress. As far as I could make out, the four-poster was without doubt the most impressive feature of the room, as surrounding it was a collection of furniture of the most stringent manner imaginable. A distraught armchair; a small bookshelf; and a low worm eaten chest were all that accompanied me in those first few moments.

It seemed (at least if you considered the lateness of the hour and the wayward condition of my arrival) that the room held no real desire for my occupancy. It would, I imagined, remain untouched and undisturbed, as if trapped in an eternal stretch of silent mourning, preferring the quiet simplicity of dereliction to the bustle and exhaustion of occupation. Such melodramatic thoughts, I knew, were provoked by the tiresomeness of the hour, and of by the current, anxious tenor of my thoughts, so I assented sooner rather than later to turn to my case, unpack a modest selection of objects I would need for the night and insert myself gingerly between the sheets of my outlandish four-poster. 

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