A CHRISTMAS ENCHANTMENT

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CHAPTER I – The First Spell.

There was a Strange Old Man in a Strange Old House in the not-at-all-strange, in fact perfectly ordinary, Old Town wherein our tale unfolds, about whom the children whispered nervously, and their parents—some of whom had also once whispered nervously themselves—ominously hinted might be the Bogeyman himself. There is, I imagine, such an Old Man and Old House in every Old Town.

Understand: I say ‘I imagine’ since of course I have not personally been to every Old Town, and cannot say with absolute certainty that this is so, but if there is such an Old Town that actually lacks these things, I have yet to hear of it. So we shall proceed, I hope, willingly granting the point.

This particular Old Man in this particular time and place was called Caspar Featherstone. Or, more honestly, he was named Caspar Featherstone; he was called ‘The Old Man’ by very nearly everyone. The one exception was his niece and ward, Eugenia, who would have called him Uncle, had she owned the capacity for speech. For Poor Genie—everyone called her Genie, and almost everyone almost always prefaced it with ‘Poor’—was deaf and dumb.

By the time of our tale she was a woman grown, nearly four-and-twenty years of age, and she had long since given up her girlish dreams of a husband and home of her own. She had come to live with her rather peculiar (some would say barmy, while kinder souls said eccentric) uncle ten years earlier, when her own dear mother had succumbed to a pneumonia. Her father and her siblings had all perished many years before from the same terrible Fever that had left Eugenia so afflicted.

Indeed, she was as deaf as a post and dumb as an oyster, although why a post is any more hard of hearing than any other bit of carpentry, or how an oyster is any more mute than, say, a cuttlefish, I’m sure I don’t know. But it is a Fool’s Errand to gainsay well-worn similes, so we will let the matter stand. Mind! Poor Genie was not the least bit dumb in the sense of lack of wits—in fact she was as sharp as any tack, to borrow another tired old simile, and could read, write, and cipher quite as well as any gentleman lawyer, and better than many.

Which was well, because although she had ostensibly come to her uncle’s home that he might look after her, she was instead fully employed at just the opposite, and found it a constant wonder that he had ever got along without her. She was unaware, for who was there to tell her? that her soi-disant guardian had employed a seemingly endless chain of servants over the years, none of whom had remained in his house for more than a month, and one particularly superstitious charwoman less than a day when she broke out in carbuncular hives at the very notion of staying the night. By the time young Eugenia arrived at his door, there had been no help of any kind in the household for quite some time, the entire local population of the servant class either having already made the attempt, or been warned off by those same unfortunates.

And what was it about Uncle Caspar that unnerved everyone so? Why did the townsfolk whisper tales of the Bogeyman about this particular solitary old man? (For to be sure, he was not the only candidate for this honour—indeed, only a few streets away there lived another strange old man in another strange old house who might easily have played this rôle in the popular imagination, for was he not often seen late at night perambulating about the belvedere atop his dark old mansion, like Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost seeking his indecisive son? If Caspar Featherstone were not there to preempt the position, surely Sir Malcolm Marsh—for such was his name, though the legitimacy of the ‘Sir’ was open to question—would have filled the empty bill quite nicely.) True, our Old Man did have the more alarming mien, with his frizzled white hair and smoke-lensed spectacles, in his great ragged cloak, dark as a storm cloud, billowing around him as he paced. He was rarely seen in the full light of day, never more than a few paces from his own front door, and then looking like a fugitive from Bedlam. But, in truth, the reason for Uncle Caspar’s ascendancy in the Old Man sweepstakes was simple: he was a practising Wizard.

It would perhaps be more truthful to say the he was practising at being a Wizard, for certainly he had no licence from any Society of Wizards (should such an organisation exist); nor any training of any kind at wizardry, save what he could glean from obscure books on the subject; nor had he much success to show for his efforts. Nevertheless, those efforts were enough to thoroughly affright the household and often discomfit the neighbours as well. In truth, the aspiring necromancer was attempting to harness ethereal energies quite beyond his grasp, and the resulting after-effects of these attempts were indeed disturbing: thunder, in great, rolling peals; clouds of noxious vapors, sometimes gone in an instant, other times lingering as a foul miasma around the house; eerie phantasms and will-o-the-wisps, emerging in the darkest hours of the night from the upper storeys of the old house; and more dreadful than the rest, inhuman shrieks, groans and wails, with no tangible source, but leaving very real chills upon the nerves.

Of course, young Genie was by her nature immune to most of these eerie phenomena; she could hear neither thunder nor eerie wails, and from her point-of-view within the house was unaware of any spectral emanations from her uncle’s upper storey laboratory. Perhaps she occasionally noticed an air of brimstone, but if so, she paid it little heed. Now, this should not be taken to mean that the girl was unaware of the old man’s occult avocation. Not at all: she was perhaps the only soul alive who understood what he was about. Her mother had told her the story in dribs and drabs her entire life; but we needn’t learn it piecemeal—happily, we shall consider it now, condensed into a single narrative:

THE STORY OF CASPAR FEATHERSTONE & HIS SON

Many years before, in fact more than thirty now, to be somewhat more precise, Caspar Featherstone had been a prosperous young gentleman about whom it was often said, ‘He leads a charmed life!’ Indeed, it must have seemed so even to himself. He had inherited a thriving estate from his father, Balthazar Featherstone, and had recently wed a lovely young lady, whose name was Eugenia Ionides (a Greek name of some renown, pronounced, if we are not mistaken, ‘ee-o-NEE-deez’—the surname, that is; Eugenia is of course pronounced the usual way—she was a cousin of the famous art patron, Alexander Ionides of Holland Park, and the beloved sister of Daphne, who would later name her infant daughter, our Eugenia, after her). Their prospects were the sunniest imaginable. Imagine, then, the profound shock and grief when Caspar’s beautiful bride died giving birth to their first and only child, a boy whom the bereaved young widower named Robin, inspired by the large red birthmark blazed across the tiny infant’s chest.

If Caspar’s spousal heart was broken—and it was, it was—his paternal heart swelled to compensate. He loved young Robin beyond mortal measure, and for ten years, lavished him with attention and affection. To a fault, in fact; the boy was terribly spoilt, for his father could not bring himself to deny the child anything. So when, sensing that the tenth anniversary of his birth (and of course, his poor mother’s demise) was a more conspicuous milestone than usual, young Robin requested a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe, and especially Greece, his sainted mother’s ancestral homeland, Caspar acquiesced almost immediately. (It was their standard pantomime that Robin would ask, Caspar would demur—or very occasionally, flatly refuse the lad’s petition—and after a round or two of pleas and rejections, the original request would be granted, sometimes with ruffles and flourishes to boot.) But Caspar leapt at the chance to visit fabled Hellas. His naturally curious mind had long been intrigued by the cultural heritage of his beloved bride’s people. His only reluctance stemmed from his own naïveté (having seldom travelled beyond his own county, and never beyond the shores of England) and his unfounded (but nevertheless profound) fear of open water; the very idea of traversing the English Channel, to say nothing of the Mediterranean Sea, set his heart verily racing.

But he could deny his son nothing; the boy had spent weeks creating an impressive if somewhat ingenuous itinerary, and Caspar intended that they should follow it to the letter. They were to take a packet bound for Porto, Portugal; thence on through the Strait of Gibraltar, up the Spanish coast to Valencia and Barcelona, one more crossing to Marseille, then overland to Lyon, down into Italy, etc., etc. They would arrive in Athens by the first of March, well in time for the boy to celebrate his birthday with his multitudes of Greek cousins. And so Caspar set aside any lingering qualms in favor of the enthusiasm both he and his son felt for the enterprise. The trip was arranged, the old house closed up, and the Featherstone Expedition—Father, Son, two manservants, and a wagonload of baggage and other impedimenta—set off from Plymouth with great expectations.

Just over two years later, Caspar returned to his home, alone. His old friends and extended family all came to him, begging his pardon but asking, ‘What has become of Robin?’ The only answer the Old Man—for Caspar Featherstone was now indeed an old man, though barely past two-score years in actual age, his hair was gone white, his eyes gone gaunt and his joie-de-vivre gone entirely—the only answer he ever gave was, ‘Lost.’

Everyone was left to assume ‘lost at sea’, for eventually it came to light that indeed the packet ship upon which their journey had barely begun had gone down in a fierce, unexpected storm, and although all reports had it that there were no survivors, obviously Caspar had somehow proved the exception. Of his whereabouts for the past two years or any of his subsequent adventures, nothing was ever known. But one thing became clear: Caspar Featherstone would never acknowledge that his son was dead. When his own in-laws, young Eugenia’s parents, suggested a belated funeral, the Old Man flew into a rage and threatened to deny any future intercourse with them. Robin was not dead, only lost, and no power on Earth, in Heaven, or indeed even Hell would ever sway his conviction.

For a year or so, Caspar spent little time at his home. He was no sooner there than departed again, always, it was understood, searching for his missing son. He searched, sometimes spurred by vague constabulary reports, in every port on the west coast of England, all across the ports of Brittany and the Bay of Biscay, and down the Iberian Peninsula’s western shores; and he hired emissaries to explore where he could not. Soon, both his health and his wealth were nearly exhausted. Then, after one last desperate journey, Caspar Featherstone began his sojourn into what must surely have been his very last resort: Magic.

Mind you, not the music hall, trompe l’oeil, legerdemain variety of magic practised by mesmerists today, but the sort that has all but passed from the modern world, sometimes called the Mystic Arts. Ah, but I hear you saying, ‘I don’t believe in Magic, under any agnomen—clairvoyance, mysticism, necromancy, sorcery, thaumaturgy—all a humbug!’ And perhaps you are right. Perhaps there is no room for Magic in your philosophy, stalwart skeptic that you are, child of the Modern Age, secure in the pragmatic lap of Science, certain that the veil has been lifted from the occult Universe by Newton and Watt and Faraday. If so, then hail and farewell—you’ll not wish to read further. For in these pages, Magic is real! As real as Hope and Wonder, and certainly as real as Science!

Still, it is undeniable that Magic is by its very nature ephemeral and mysterious, and the roll call of those who have truly mastered any aspect of it is short indeed. Merlin. Simon Magus. Paracelsus, perhaps. A few others of lesser renown. So, what had led Caspar Featherstone to attempt to follow the dark, all-but invisible paths these legendary figures left behind? Why this extremity?

Let us take a closer look at that last expedition: Caspar had travelled to Morocco, the port at Tangier, for no better reason than that he had heard it called ‘The Crossroads of the Lost.’ He was that desperate, that such a meaningless sobriquet had enticed him to this unlikely destination. Yet is not ‘destination’ but a prosaic form of ‘destiny’? (On such flimsy filaments were the threads of his hope woven!)

He was exhausted, and aimlessly walking through a dusty bazaar when he espied a lone gipsy wagon, its once-garish paint faded from countless years under this African sun. Perched on an ornamental rail atop it was a large piebald bird, which Caspar almost mistook as an ornament itself, until the creature’s feathers ruffled in the warm breeze, and it turned its head to look directly at him. Caspar turned away from its somewhat dolesome gaze, and was about to move on when he saw, sitting in a tattered wicker chair, with an ash-grey stump of a tree for a table, a wizened old man. Now, Caspar had encountered gipsy fortune-tellers before, and knew them all to be obvious charlatans, and often thieves as well. Even now, heartsick and bone-weary, he had not reached the extremity of consulting shamans.

Yet for some reason, he found himself approaching this one. There was neither lamp nor crystal, nor any familiar object on the simple stump-table; only a tattered deck of cards. The old Egyptian looked up as Caspar approached. His hooded eyes were deep and dark. The ragged cloth wrapped ’round his head was too haphazard to be called a turban, and the jewellery dangling from his ears and neck too tarnished to distinguish between pewter and brass, for surely none was silver or gold. His skin was the colour of ancient leather, and much the same texture. He began shaking his head before Caspar even sat upon the flat rock opposite him. ‘I cannot help you,’ he said, his voice as dark as his visage.

Caspar sat regardless. ‘I have not asked for your help,’ he replied.

The ancient vagabond smiled, or at least the corners of his mouth disappeared briefly under his ponderous mustache. ‘Fairly spoken,’ quoth he. ‘I am often guilty of anticipation.’ A long-stemmed pipe materialised from somewhere in his capacious faded robes, and he touched the brown mouthpiece to his brown lower lip. Presently a brown smoke emerged from his nostrils. But he spoke not.

Caspar studied him over the rims of his dark spectacles (Caspar’s that is; the old Arab’s black eyes seemed as sharp as any owl’s—but Caspar had ruined his eyesight, never very acute to begin with, with his constant gazing over ships’ rails and across every manner of severe landscape in search of his son). Still the old soothsayer remained silent. He was not being coy, Caspar decided, merely stoic. They could sit there for an hour, a day, perhaps for ever, and the gipsy would not speak again until Caspar posed his question. Which made him suddenly apprehend that he indeed had a question to pose. ‘Can you help me find my son?’ he asked, entirely forgetting for the moment the other’s first words to him, whereupon the fortune-teller raised his massive eyebrows ever so slightly by way of reminding him. ‘Ah. Of course,’ said Caspar, and he began to rise.

‘Were he dead,’ said the gipsy quietly, ‘I could perhaps raise his shade, possibly even perceive a message.’ Caspar sat back down. ‘But he is not dead,’ the soothsayer continued. ‘The living link between you and your son is as clear as a nightingale’s song. But this you already know.’

A lump rose in Caspar’s throat. ‘This I verily believe, with all my heart.’

‘Then I was correct—I cannot help you. You don’t need my assurances that your child still breathes, and I have no skill to find him among the living.’

Caspar absent-mindedly touched the cards that lay between them. The pattern on the back was very like a Persian rug. ‘Does such a skill exist?’ he asked.

‘Turn the card,’ the gipsy said instead of answering.

Caspar flipped the cryptic paperboard plate over. A colourful image of a wheel was on the other side. Alien glyphs in graceful calligraphy spelled something beneath the image. ‘What is it?’ Caspar asked. ‘What does it mean?’

’It is al-ajalat jad,’ said the seer. “The Wheel of Fortune.” It means... many things.’

Suddenly there rang out a loud, jarring ‘CAW!’—the piebald bird atop the wagon had spoken. As Caspar looked up, the strange fowl spread its black and white wings and departed its perch. With a great flamboyant flapping, it landed between the two old men. It looked from one to the other, tilting its head in that markedly avian way, then, fixing its eyes on the gipsy, let out another brazenly shrill ‘CAW!’

Caspar had nearly fallen from his stone bench. As he struggled to regain his composure, the soothsayer said, ‘A thousand pardons.’ Caspar was unsure whether the seer was addressing him or the bird. He went on: ’Let me speak as plainly as possible, given the inscrutable nature of the Tarot: this card seems to say to us—to you, my friend, especially, as regards your query as to the skills required to seek and, of course, find your son—that Fortune favors the bold, even more the audacious. But betimes the Wheel must be set spinning again and again.’ The confusion on Caspar’s beleaguered face must have been obvious. ‘I wish I could be of more aid.’

‘CAW!!’

Caspar rose and backed a step or two away. The old gipsy resumed smoking his pipe. Caspar felt as if he should say something, but nothing came to mind. He gave the fortune-teller an awkward sort of farewell salute and turned to be on his way. Then he heard an abrupt flutter of wings, and was startled as the bird alighted on his left shoulder! He turned back to the seer. ‘Sir,’ said he, ‘Please summon back your bird!’

‘But he is not my bird.’

‘Do not sport with me over connotations! Call the bird away!’

‘You misunderstand me, sir,’ spoke the Arabian mystic. ’I have no more power over this bird than do you. In fact, apparently less. I perceive that the ungrateful creature intends to go with you, whether you or I will it or no. Insha’Allah.’

Caspar thought of the mysterious card and the spinning Wheel of Fortune it represented. Perhaps the strange bird was in some wise a part of the audaciousness the old shaman had mentioned. ‘Very well,’ he said. ‘At least tell me its name.’

‘I do not know his name.’ This seemed to Caspar an odd reply; but the gipsy plainly had no intention of elaborating. He was pulling the occult cards together before him, and seemed to have abandoned all interest in both Caspar and the bird. Caspar at length walked away, the bird remaining perched upon his shoulder as if it had every right to be there. Caspar intuited that if he shook the creature off, it would only follow at a distance, and so resigned himself to its company. Although he was baffled to imagine how, perhaps this strange piebald bird would somehow help in his quest for his son.

‘Very well, Bird,’ Caspar said, sotto voce, reckoning that he was speaking rhetorically, even (as was his long-established habit) thinking aloud: ‘How do we proceed? Are you here as some sort of “familiar”? Whither now?’

As if in response, the bird lifted off from Caspar’s shoulder and flew a few paces ahead along the marketplace road, alighting on an awning post there. In this way, in steps of brief sorties, it led Caspar through divers paths, alleyways, and dark passages to a shadowy storefront; the bird then flew to the ground and walked inside.

Caspar followed. The tiny shop was little more than a crevice between larger establishments. It seemed quite possible that this quaint little emporium had been here for centuries. It presented a profusion of smells—scents, aromas, odors, and the occasional faint stench—redolent of incenses, spices, dried herbs, rotting wood, and other sources impossible, or at any rate unwise, to imagine. Shelves evidently assembled by blind lunatics (or possibly inspired artistes) stretched from the hard-packed sand which served as floor, up beyond Caspar’s myopic vision’s reach, receding into smoke and dust and darkness, loaded with baskets, bottles, jars, casks, cases, boxes, and countless et ceteras. Here and there an animal skull, or other strange specimen of the taxidermists’ art, peeked from between arcane carvings in wood or jade or ivory. Everything in the curious place seemed to have come from all the darkest corners of the world, from times long past, all the way back into eras now forgotten. Caspar thought of names like Babylon and Ur and Sumer, and reckoned he was not far wrong.

There was no proprietor evident; on the shop’s lone narrow counter was an unsettlingly realistic sculpture of an ebon hand (certainly, Caspar hoped it was a sculpture!), holding a stiff parchment sign that read:

TAKE WHAT YOU NEED

LEAVE WHAT YOU WILL

Caspar had just begun to ponder it odd that a sign in this obscure corner of the Maghreb should be writ in English, when the bird hopped up onto the counter, and thence over to a shelf crammed with ancient leather-bound books. It tugged at one slim, unprepossessing volume with its beak, and then turned to look at Caspar, as if to say, ‘Well?’

Caspar took the book down. Faintly stamped on its cover was the legend ‘Magicae.’ Nothing else. The old man opened the little book. The brittle pages were covered in hand-rendered Latin script. Caspar could decipher a word or two, but any real conning would demand lengthy study. He looked at the bird. Somewhat predictably, the bird said, ‘Caw!’

‘Very well, then. I shall take it; it seems I need it. But what shall I leave?’ He removed his purse from his belt and set it on the counter. He had a few coins inside of various origins, and few enough of those. He sighed and removed his hand, prepared to leave the entire purse. But the bird hopped forward, thrust its head inside the pouch, and rustled amongst its contents. Presently, it withdrew, holding in its beak a polished, flat stone. The bird set this onto the counter, then leaned down and pushed the purse back toward Caspar.

‘But how—? Where did this come from?’ Caspar looked more closely at the stone; etched into it was an arcane rune:

It meant nothing to him. But he lost no thought on the meaning of the glyph—where had the stone itself come from? He knew it had not heretofore been in his purse. He looked at the black and white rook or raven or whatever obscure breed of fowl stood before him. Had this queer bird performed some sleight-of-beak, as it were, making the stone seem to have been in the purse? Or was there genuine magic afoot?

Regardless, the transaction seemed complete. Caspar looked back to the spot where he had seen the black hand holding the enigmatic token—it was gone; the counter was empty. ‘Caw!’ quoth the bird matter-of-factly. It fluttered to the floor and hopped out the doorway. As if in a fugue, the old man followed. Shaking off this sudden stupor, he turned back to see the shop he had just quitted. He could see no sign of it. No door, no passageway—there was no indication whatsoever that the place even existed.

But still he held in his hand a small book called Magicae.

And so it was that an aspiring wizard came home to England, along with an accompanying familiar, who was known to its master—if ‘master’ he was—only as ‘Bird.’ His terrestrial search having yielded no results, he was now attempting to locate his son by means supernatural. And the whispers about the ‘Strange Old Man in a Strange Old House’ began. This was the home that ‘Poor’ Genie now invested with her benignant attention.

Unbeknownst to Genie, it was also the home that her Uncle Caspar had long mortgaged with the financial institution owned by the lord of the local shire, and as our tale proper begins, said mortgage is many months in arrears. Genie is not ignorant of the household’s dire economic straits; she has indeed been financing their meager table for years by taking in sewing and stitchery piecework. She knows that many of the little town’s merchants have extended her uncle credit beyond all reasonable practice, and understands without dwelling on the inherent humiliation that this credit could easily be considered Charity, if she was inclined to give it the necessary consideration. (But it was certainly better for her unflagging affection for Uncle Caspar that she was not.) However, she still believes, perhaps naïvely, that there remains some remnant of the Featherstone estate left, even if it is only the ramshackle manse that she and her uncle and the bird now inhabit. Mortgage their home, their last sanctuary? The thought has never crossed her mind.

Just now, there is no other thought in her pretty head than simple curiosity; it is mid-afternoon of a mild day in early December; she cannot hear the landlord’s horses approaching, but once they are just outside the door, she can feel the thunder of those heavy hooves come to a stop. Visitors are rare; she runs to the front door and flings it open just as the lord’s hulking manservant is about to give it a heavy rap.

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