This story is by Charles Cooper and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
When Jacob Cutler’s eyes opened, all he saw was thick, murky darkness. This wasn’t the darkness of night, nor even that of a cave, but a blackness infinitely more profound. He remained still, forcing his mind to calm the whirlwind of thoughts and images to which he had awakened until he could stop and finally consider his position. The barrister found himself laying at full length upon a cold wooden board, the soles of his feet against another, his arms at his sides. He slid them, palms down, out and away from his body, only to find them stopped at shoulder width by more unyielding wood. He pushed them upward and struck wood again, this time nearly ten inches above. Moving his hand past his face, he found about an inch of space between his scalp and the wood. Clearly, he was in some kind of a box, while everything seemed permeated by the overwhelming smell of old stone, mold, and dirt.
Pushing aside those first, horrifying thoughts that somehow he had been declared dead and buried alive, Cutler tried to take a breath. It was hard. He had to force his lungs to fill and then, by conscious effort, slowly empty. He repeated the exercise several times, trying to calm himself, to relax, to banish the idea of some quack with a black skullcap and a set of bleeding knives had declared him dead, and fix his mind to figure out how to escape. It did not help. Had he not personally handled the case of poor Madam Ashcroft, whose death due to consumption was declared by a so-called competent physician? She regained consciousness just as the first clods of earth fell on the lid of the coffin. What if I was not so lucky?
What little air remained was stale, stinking of dirt and dead flowers. Thoughts of the grave intruded again, and he doubted the air would last very long. Cutler moved his head. Waves of dizziness made his black world spin and he was certain that he’d been bled. Cutler twisted and straightened his head again, a little too quickly, and bit his lip. “Blast!” Blood ran down his chin. Instinctively, he licked at it; stale copper. He took another deep breath, and thought he might pass out again. Part of him hoped for it, but no luck. There was something else now from somewhere beyond the wood: a faint scratching or scurrying in the dark. “Good to know I’m not alone,” he muttered, then, speaking aloud now into the darkness, he added: “But the question, my scurrying friend, is how did we come to be here?”
The scurrying stopped and Cutler fancied that he could now hear fast and shallow breathing. It made him think of a rat, the sort he’d seen time and again along the streets and in the quays of the City as he made his way from his rooms to the law courts in the Old Bailey. Something in that last thought caught him. “The law courts of the Old Bailey.” The words seemed to hang in the darkness. Cutler could almost see them there, pregnant with a meaning just beyond his reach.
The scratching began again. Cutler turned his head in that direction. He could almost see the rat, a hazy figure behind the wood. He closed his eyes and sighed. “You are hallucinating, Jacob.” With a little effort, he turned his thoughts back to the law courts. “Tuesday last,” he murmured before going through the day’s cases: a petty theft, a dispute over goods, a minor assault. Justice Lord Halloran disposed of the cases quickly, dispensing justice upon the defendants as if he was throwing coins to beggars. Before he knew it, Court was adjourned and Cutler was working his way through the crowd when a hand gripped his arm like a vice.
“Sir, a word!” The hand, and the voice, belonged to a young woman. She was tall, her coal-black hair falling in loose curls around a pale, sharp-featured face with large blue eyes and full, crimson lips. From her dress and jewels, betrayed her as wealthy, possibly minor nobility. “Mister Cutler, may I speak with you?”
“I keep an office at the Inns,” he said. “I meet with clients there.” She smiled.
“Then let us go and I will tell you my story.” Cutler considered saying something about having too many appointments that afternoon, but something in her expression, or maybe her large, liquid eyes that demanded acquiescence. She was easy to talk to and about the time they reached the Inns, Cutler realized that other than her name, Lady Miriam Edwards, she knew far more about him than he did about her.
“Here we are.” Cutler ushered her through the crowd and into his cramped and cluttered office. “Please sit.”
“Now, Lady Miriam, how can I help you?”
“I am here on behalf of a gentleman in my employ, William Masterson. The poor young man was defending my honor against the slanders of a baronet called Sir James Darby.”
“How did he slander you?” Lady Miriam grimaced.
“We met at a party held by the Seymours,” she explained. “We danced, walked on the veranda, he was pleasant enough, but dull; blathering on about the people he knows, his family’s wealth, the estates he will inherit.” She paused and smiled. “I think he was trying to impress me.”
“Sounds like he failed. How did things progress from bragging to slander?”
“I’d had enough of his company, but he was ardent. I then made a terrible mistake, agreeing to see him that last time; but his notes and gifts and, well, I’m not made of stone.”
“Of course not,” said Cutler.
“I told him that we could only be friends, and when he left I thought the matter was done. It wasn’t. He was slandering me to anyone who would listen, accusing me of using him, feeding upon him, tearing away his honor, torturing him. It didn’t take long before my friends told me about it. He soon became a social outcast, which I think drove him mad. Then, a week ago, poor William was running an errand for me when he found Sir James ranting to none other than Sir Richard Rich. I don’t know what was said that spurred William to action, but in front Sir Richard and two officers of the Royal Guard he drew his dagger and drove it into Sir James’ chest. He was subdued and arrested, and now sits in the tower awaiting whatever sham trial the crown wishes to hold before they hang him at Tyburn. You know how they treat the commons.” He did, so Cutler took the case. She paid his retainer and he promised to see Masterson at once. “Come to me tonight,” she said standing. “We’ll dine together and discuss the case.”
* * *
“He’s a madman.” Cutler’s face was set, and grim as he made his report to Lady Miriam. They were seated comfortably, enjoying a meal of rare roast beef, potatoes, and greens. More than the food, Cutler was enjoying the deep red wine Lady Miriam’s stealthy valet poured. Her glass remained untouched.
“Surely not!” Cutler emptied his glass and nodded.
“He bit me.” Cutler showed her the bloodstained bandage on his arm. The lady’s eyes widened, there was something anxious in her expression. “Drew blood, kept chewing, like an animal.”
“I’m so sorry, Jacob. Is it painful?” He pulled his sleeve down again and smiled.
“I’ll be alright,” he told her, ignoring the dull, throbbing ache. His glass was full again. “One good thing, he’ll not be hanged. It’s illegal to execute an insane person, and Masterson is quite mad. I hope the doctors at Bedlam will be able to treat the poor fellow.”
“As do I,” said Lady Miriam. “I’ll write to his family, let them know. I believe he was sending them some money, to help support them. I’ll continue that as well. It will be a small price to pay for my conscience.”
“Very generous, my lady. Why should your conscience trouble you?”
“If I had not agreed to that last meeting with Sir James, then he would be alive and poor William would be here, and not Bedlam. Jacob, I would rather be a hero in the story of the world, than the villain or worse, the forgotten.”
Laying there in the darkness, with only the scurrying rat for company, Cutler sighed. It was coming back to him now in flashes, and for the first time he realized that the pain in his arm was gone. After dinner, he and Lady Miriam walked out into the garden, a lush green space with a winding cobblestone path, a small fountain pool and several stone benches, all surrounded by a high brick wall. She kissed him there, his mouth, his throat; he did the same. Their clothes seemed to fall from their bodies and soon they were filled with a pure, sublime pleasure that left their bodies slick and hot and sticky and cold all in the same moment. She lapped and sucked at his flesh, and he at hers, tasting flesh and sweat, something sweet, something coppery while images of manner homes, the banners of the White Rose, and blood filled his head.
“No!” The one syllable hung in the darkness. “No, I had a stroke and they thought me dead.” The rat scratched at the wood as if in reply. He was fully awake, and now an icy dread filled him. Suddenly, he realized that he was hungry. “Now, what do I do?”
“What do you want to do?” It was Lady Miriam’s voice, and it rang through his mind like a bell.
“Eat.” The answer surprised him, but the food he wanted, the thing he craved now, almost made him scream. “Maybe I should be in Bedlam.”
“You need to break out.” It was the voice again. Cutler shook his head.
“I’m trapped,” he cried, “buried, left for dead!” With the words spoken, the nightmare quality of his situation was replaced by a reality as cold and hard as his prison.
“But you’re not dead,” Lady Miriam’s voice insisted. Cutler pushed against the top of the box. The hunger was intense now, adding strength and desperation to his efforts. Then, sooner than he thought possible, Cutler felt the wood begin to crack and tear and his hands were pushing through cold packed earth. He was frantic now, tearing away at the coffin lid, letting the grave earth fall in and cover him. It was invigorating and he doubled his efforts. Air began to seep through the dirt and Cutler pushed harder still until his hand broke into open air. He kicked and scrambled and crawled out of the earth, taking deep lung fulls of air. Trembling with the effort, Cutler stood and looked around. He was in the garden.
“Happy birthday, Jacob.” Lady Miriam was seated on a stone bench, her eyes glittering like obsidian in the moonlight, her canines sharp. A girl lay at her feet. Lady Miriam jerked the girl’s head up by her hair. Her eyes opened. She moaned softly. “I imagine you’re quite hungry.” Cutler’s humanity was fighting hard, but the the girl’s flesh, her blood, made the hunger intolerable. “William’s bite would’ve killed you.”
“What have you done?” he growled, horrified at the choice before him.
“Saved you,” she said. “In time you’ll understand. You must feed, the hunger will only grow.”
Cutler knew she was right. It was already unbearable. The girl, she was his salvation. His humanity, at that thought, began to fall away, his terror, disgust, confusion, and anger melting into seething desire. He looked at Lady Miriam. “I hate you.” She smiled.