Once again we are beholden to the current executors of the Knolly estate for letting us publish this, the second package of the great man's journals and memoirs.
We don't belong to Glasgae
Chapter 10 Part 6
"Well?" whispered Bertie in my ear. "Are we going to stay looking in this shop window or move on?"
Bertie did have a point. There was a limit to the time that one could spend admiring what an undertaker's premises had to offer, and whilst I'll admit that there is always a choice of wood for the coffin, manifold types of handles, a diversity of casket linings, a plethora of materials for shrouds and all sorts of other whatnot, the window display was not really all that and so it seemed to me that – from the viewpoint of any persons that might be observing us – we were spending a suspiciously disproportionate length of time perusing what would normally be an unfashionable premises. In addition to this was a more practical worry. All the time that we were not moving, we presented ourselves as an easy target for whomsoever (or indeed "whatsoever") she (or indeed "it") was. We needed cover. Checking our reflection to see we were still under observation, I made a decision.
"Come on Bertie. Inside!"
"What? In here?"
"Don't dither, man! The shop's empty. Move."
To an extent, I agreed with Bertie's reluctance to enter a funereal emporium without the usual prerequisite of having a recently departed person to commit to the ground.
However, despite Bertie's barrage of "but-but-buts", I managed to bundle him in through the door of the shop. Above our heads, a little bell rang and I quickly reached to put it out of action. We shuffled round to take up positions on either side of the window; I peered from behind the coffin, and Bertie ensconced himself behind the plant-stand, both of which we had previously been admiring (if that was indeed the correct term) from outside.
I stared intently, taking in as much detail as I could. The woman garbed in black was still on the other side of the road, but had now been joined by another strange maiden, similarly hooded and robed; they seemed to be comparing notes. As before, passers-by gave them a wide berth or ignored the pair.
I glanced over at Bertie. It pleased me to see that his level of concentration matched mine. However, it displeased me somewhat to see that his focus was on the price tag that dangled from the commemorative jardinière that was hiding him. Bertie then looked up, suddenly aware that I was watching him. His awareness may have been some kind of psychic link between us, or else it might have been something to do with the fact that I growled "BERTIE!!"
With a jerk of my head and much eye-rolling, I suggested through gestures that he might want to look out of the window. Realisation dawned on him; he gave a thumbs-up and peered intently across the road.
"Do you think they are anything to do with the Exhibition?" asked Bertie, sotto-voice.
"Why are you whispering?" I asked in not-so-sotto.
"Well ... you know .... dead people, coffins and things…." he continued to whisper.
"Bertie, can you see any dead people here?" I asked, not whispering – and by "not whispering" I actually mean "rather loudly".
"Sir is quite right." Our strange conversation was interrupted by a voice that came from two places. It came from behind us and judging by the accent, it also came from Glasgow.
"Y'll find 'em in the back room."
"Find what?" I asked.
"Why, all the deed people, o' course."
Bertie physically jumped in alarm. I, too, may have done so, but I am not going to admit it. Neither of us had heard anybody enter the shop or even walk towards us. But here we were, and here he was.
The stealthy chap who had quietly crept up on us was not how one might imagine a purveyor of one's final journey to look. He was not dressed in dark clothes, and indeed there was not the remotest hint of a black garment on him anywhere. In a bizarre way, he seemed quite the dandy in his scarlet waistcoat and starched white shirt which looked as though it belonged to an earlier century, or perhaps part of dear Oscar's wardrobe. However, he did have the obvious pale complexion of one who stays indoors rather a lot which obviously helped when dealing with such a specific clientèle.
"Good morning to you," I said as nonchalantly as possible. "Er…are you perchance the owner of this establishment?"
"Crivens, no! This is ma Uncle's business. I'm jus' tending the place while he's ooot. "
"OOOT?" blinked Bertie
"HE MEANS 'OUT' *SIGH*" I blinked back.
"Are ye lookin' for somethin' special?" continued the nephew. "Anyone dear to ye hearts passed away recently?"
He gave a benevolent smile that revealed noticeably sparkling teeth.
"No ... sorry ... we um, that is to say, well…" I blustered.
Meantime, after his initial scare, Bertie had turned back to the window and then to me.
"They're still there, Knolly," said Bertie.
I rolled my eyes and blinked "OH, WELL DONE *SARCASTIC FACE* "
"You'll not be from around here are you, Mr ... ah .... Knolly, is it?" said the young man, peering over Bertie's shoulder to see what he was looking at.
"Oh! I see!" he tutted. "You two have managed to attract the attention of the Scottish Widows."
"You can see them?" I asked.
"O'course I can! They're no ghosts, ye ken?."
"Well, we knew that," said Bertie in a relieved tone. "But why then does everyone else seem to pretend they are not there?"
The young man leaned in close to both Bertie and myself. He made as if to say something and then he looked around the parlour in a manner most anxious. Becoming anxious ourselves, we also looked around in an anxious manner to determine the cause of the young man's anxiety. After a few anxious moments, we realised that he had ceased looking around anxiously (in fact, he had stopped looking around altogether, anxiously or otherwise), and was looking at us.
We waited for the young man to speak.
He said that word – "Fear" – in a most doom-laden manner.
"Fear?" Bertie and I said as one. "Fear of what?" we also said as one.
The young man took a peek through the window.
"They're still comparing notes, so they won't move for some time .... "
"Yes? And ... ?" asked Bertie.
"So let us make the most of it. Would ye both like a nice cup o' tea and I'll tell you a tale?"
"Tea?" I asked.
"Tale?" Bertie asked.
"Aye!" said our strange host. "But first I think I should lock the front door."
The fellow pushed the top and bottom bolts across and hung a little closed sign in the window.
"That should gi' us some privacy. Now ... follow me, gents."
We made our way through the back of the premises, following the young man past neatly stacked coffins, none of which seemed to be occupied. I noticed that with every footstep that Bertie and I made, the floor creaked. The young man suddenly stopped and turned to face us. He stared at us for some seconds.
"You look like ..... " he started, and then paused again.
We waited, somewhat nervously. This was all a little strange to say the least. I started to consider plotting an assault and an escape.
"You look like .... Assam drinkers. Correct?" he asked.
We both nodded and sighed with relief.
"How do you take your tea?" asked the young man.
"Dash of milk for me and some sugar," replied Bertie.
"I'll take it as it comes, thank you," I replied.
"Excellent!" he said, and moved effortlessly into a small kitchen area.
As he turned to the kettle, the kerosene stove and the tea-making I blinked to Bertie. "DID YOU NOTICE?"
"THE WAY HE WALKS. NO NOISE. THE OLD CLOTHES"
As he struggled to get the stove to light, the young man called in from the little kitchen.
"My, my! You two are very quiet back there. Still, the Widows do tend to have that effect on the majority of folk."
"JUST LIGHT ON HIS FEET?"
I shook my head angrily. "JUST BE READY!"
Our host emerged from the kitchen, his silent approach marred only by the clinking of cups and saucers.
"Ah! Tea ... excellent! " I said. "Now, young sir ..... what of your tale, about these Dark Women?"
The young man placed a neat tray down on the table in front of us and then he sat down in a most careful and most composed manner, as though any sudden movements would snap the chair.
He proceeded to pour the tea and he offered us each a cup and saucer. He leaned forward and pointed at his own face.
"You see these eyes?" he said quietly. "These, my friends, are ancient eyes. Seen many things."
Bertie and I looked at each other. I was not at all certain whether the young man was threatening us or warning us.
"And let me tell you two this. Monsters are abroad."
Bertie and I could not dispute this fact. I thought that this sounded like a threat, but then Bertie blinked.
"TRUE. COUNTESS CAN BE A BIT OF A BEAST."
I quickly picked up two teaspoons and casually fashioned them into a cross. With one deft move, I thrust it into the face of our host and yelled:
"I name you Vampyre!"
Bertie was astounded at this sudden onslaught, but our host just sat back in his chair.
"Am I that obvious?" he sighed. "I've been trying to hide it, but obviously I'm getting out of practice."
He flashed a lopsided toothy grin.
"What gave me away? Oh .... and do put the cross away. I fear you've been reading too much of Stoker."
Bertie chuckled at this and was about to launch into conversation when I rapped his left-hand knuckles with the spoon that had previously but briefly formed the upright of the crucifix, followed by a rap on the right-hand knuckles with the spoon that had previously but briefly been the crosspiece of the crucifix.
"Stoker's tale does have inaccuracies I grant you," I said, "but much of it is very, very accurate and as you have already pointed out, monsters are indeed real. But rather oddly, unlike others of your ilk, you do not seem to pose a threat. As for what gave you away ..... "
Like an over-keen schoolchild, Bertie put up his hand in an excited way. "Oh ! I know, I know!"
"….and my colleague will now elucidate," I said.
"Well it's obvious isn't it?" said Bertie. "How many young fellows work in the undertaking trade these days?"
I looked from our grinning host to Bertie. I waited for Bertie to build a compelling case, to construct a robust argument based upon his opening gambit. Alas, the wait was fruitless.
"That's it, is it?" I asked. "You have carefully observed our friend here and have deduced that he is a Vampyre because he works in a undertaker's establishment?"
Bertie grinned. And he shrugged. And he looked a little sheepish.
"Sometimes I wonder if Doyle based Watson on you or whether it was contrary-wise ...." I sighed.
I turned to our host.
"Young sir. The fact that you are employed by Uncle Undertaker is not what gave you away. Firstly, you make no sound when you walk. It is as though you are defying the very force of gravity. Secondly, there is the matter of your fashion sense. Yes, I am aware that we are in Glasgow and that the fair is in town, but your look is a very authentic mid-19th Century. Thirdly, you are too fastidious. Look at this tea service, for instance, and the coffins stacked so tidily, with not a speck of dust to be found."
Bertie was ticking off each of these points on his fingers as I went through them, and was mouthing "Oh, yes," to each as he went.
"Ah …ah…and that accent is so false too."
"Well, Mr Knolly. You have me there – bang to rights. And I can see that in future I'll have to bring myself a bit more into this century." He turned to Bertie. "As for ma accent, a laddie cannae help where he was brought, up can he now?"
Indeed not. I pride myself on never having judged a book by the cover, excepting those occasions when a cover of the book was very nice indeed and I had judged the book to be also very nice.
"You think you have a future still?" asked Bertie, covering the left side of his neck with his right hand and vice-versa.
"I do hope so," said the young man. "After all, who else is gonna regale the secrets of yon Black Widows?"