For Crying Out Shroud : Chapter XIV

by Oswell Blakeston. Hutchinson, 1969.

The telephone rings, and the doctor puts out a large hairy hand to stifle the patient’s screams. Two masked male nurses move forward to help the doctor with the man who writhes in agony; and a hydrocephalic female nurse answers the phone.

‘Oh yes,’ she says in a mellifluous voice, ‘the patient is . . . quite comfortable.’

Jim half wakes with the nightmare.

Then he turns on the other side and falls back into un-easy sleep.

In the second nightmare he is in a hot country, in some tourists’ shop where they sell, as souvenirs, the shrunken heads the Indians make; and Jim recognises, in one of the tiny grinning faces, his own features.

He yells.

Upstairs someone thumps on the ceiling.

No chance of going back to sleep again.

‘You’ve flipped.’

‘We’re off the rails.’

‘But we got ourselves back to London. I’d say that was bang on the track. We escaped from Dr. Chardin.’

‘And the mosquitoes.’

‘We have been through perils which would have overwhelmed lesser men with dark waters.’

‘But Maurice thought it was all worth while — as an exercise in elimination?’

‘Maurice uses us. Where’s the personal salvation?’

‘Have you flashed back to that insane moment at The Clinic when you thought you might solve the world-baffling mystery of the missing six on your own?’

‘Well, it would . . . build up morale.’

‘Your little head is swelling now.’

‘We didn’t like to see it shrunk.’

‘Maurice says he’ll give us a holiday to make up for the grimery.’

‘Maurice has his own ideas of holidays and happy days. A holiday with Maurice wouldn’t be any rest, chum. Maurice has reserve bullets for the same target.’

‘A thought which doesn’t make it any easier to bear this added invitation of getting no further forward with this damned mystery.’

‘Like that fight between Jem Mace and Joe Coburn.’

‘But you don’t want to be hit on the snozzle by the champ, do you?’

‘I’m one of the spectators, chump. I want to see something happening, so that . . .’

‘The curtains fall on this exhausting set-up and we don’t have to tell Bernard we’ve returned from the bedside of our dying aunt.’

‘Bernard? Dr. Jordaine?’

‘Well, if we haven’t got the right to call him Bernard, what else do we have to endure to earn it?’

‘Horror ricochets into every panic corner of my existence. Yet are we in any position to talk about rights?’

‘So we’ve just got to go on being a mere decoy all our life, have we? We must simply inhabit life, not live it?’

‘It’s hard enough work, isn’t it? Relax. Watch the newspaper headlines. Soon someone else may disappear and fill that blank at the waxworks. Then Maurice’s sleuths are certain to move in for a kill. Take it easy. And have you forgotten that today we’re supposed to be having lunch with Geoffrey Gaunt?’

‘I’ll flip again. At least I’m going to turn over on my flip side again. Now you know we got chivvied into that invitation when we were at low ebb. Going to lunch with Geoffrey is too damned like The Clinic. Last time . . .’

‘He cooked vegetables on six smoking oil stoves.’

‘Only for a few minutes. Micro minutes. They were suicidal at the edges where one had to pretend to nibble, and homicidal at the centre where one couldn’t.’

‘Full of vitamins, cooked like that.’

‘Dr. Pepel would approve.’

‘Then Geoffrey’s wife, with all that hair like a bunsen-burner, brought in their little daughter.’

‘She’s fourteen.’

‘But she can’t talk.’

‘Geoffrey says he doesn’t want her to be able to converse too soon with our corrupted world. She might learn the double-speak. You know he told us that sometimes he stands behind her and whispers a good word. Do you think our dad ought to have brought us up like that?’

‘He could never have stopped us talking to ourself. Our dialogue solves that old business about the relation of form and content. It proves that form is the projection of content, its objective correlative.’

‘What’s a nasty companion like you doing in a nice bed like this ?’

‘Hard to say, mate. I certainly can’t be here for the rest. But do you think Geoffrey’s daughter talks to herself ?’


‘But a guest can’t entertain himself by listening in.’

‘You’re unfair. The Gaunts do entertaining things. I mean after lunch Geoffrey’s wife takes her air bath, doesn’t she ?’

‘I’m off nudists forever.’

‘Oh come, you know, au fond, you’re really very fond of the Gaunts. They’re such good people.’

‘It’s easier to relax with the non-goodies, the nicely depraved who won’t ask you what you mean when you say that your friend the Spanish plumber is like a Grecian bullfighter.’

‘We could call on Nick.’

‘Old Nick.’

‘We can say anything to him.’

‘And. . .’

‘And he might have an angle.’

‘You’ve got a notion there, if this day really has no destiny at all.’

‘Well, the white-magic boys, Ananda and Chardin, have let us down, so we might try the black.’

‘Old Nick peddles pornography.’

‘The Way Through Sex.’

‘He’s sharp. It’d be worth mulling our lame brain with him. Besides, he may have heard something in his underworld fringe.’

‘The real “in” boys of the lower depths wouldn’t pass anything on, but Old Nick might?’


‘The black-magic stuff is pretty off, though, isn’t it?’

‘It’s patter to help him unload his dirty pictures. And anything can maggot in it.’

‘You laughed at that sigil he had on his mantelpiece.’

‘He said it was something to make it rain the next day.’ ‘You said : “Will it?”’

‘That was rude.’

‘He said it depended on what the other black magicians were doing, and that he might have to put out more power to counteract their influence. But he promised us that the last time he’d tried it on, his power had been so strong he’d not been able to stop the rain once it had started. Think of that.’

‘Ya. You’re getting a subliminal stranglehold on poor little me.’

‘So we’ll send a telegram to Geoffrey telling him we can’t make it?’

‘Poor Geoffrey.’

‘Poor us if we have to eat any more undercooked vitamins.’

‘Yes, of course, we come first.’

‘Moments should flit around us like tame linnets.’

‘Leaving that aside, we could do with some bacon.’

‘Few people merit bacon, or a grand piano in marble.’

‘As a tombstone?’

‘Such things catch the eye.’

‘Your obscurity attracts its energy.’

‘The energy to play it through once more?’


‘O.K. . .. We are rather wonderful.’

‘Even if at times we have allowed a black magician to sell us some pornography.’

‘We were sorry for him when we first saw him standing around in Soho like a lost soul.’

‘He says he is a lost soul.’

‘But we . . .’

‘We have the strength to say that we don’t have to put sugar lead in our socks to stop our feet smelling.’

‘What is sugar lead?’

‘I wonder. But we read about people using it.’

‘Oh people . . . ordinary people. . .’


‘Not spy men.’

‘And so while you’re cooking the bacon, you can think of something nice to say to Geoffrey. The telegram can go on Maurice’s account, with lots of flowery phrases. The richest of excuses, even if it’s only a poor comfort. And Maurice can pick up the check, for by going to see Old Nick we’re working for Maurice.’

‘Yes, indeed. But I’m not so sure about all this bacon lark. We’ve got grapes by the bed. We could breakfast on grapes. Try a grape.’

‘It’s corked:’

‘Then there’s no excuse for saying more than we mean and doing less than we should.’

‘Oouch, it hurts! Why should getting out of bed make a nice man feel that he had been overtaken by history? We ought to go to a spa.’

‘They used to fish corpses out of the aromatic baths at some of those luxury spas. That’s all the good it did them.’


‘Artists without definition.’

Jim can’t see that there’s much improvement in Old Nick’s neighbourhood, although Old Nick says that it’s on the up and up. He says that a woman will look round now if she’s looking out of a window and someone takes advantage. In the old days, she wouldn’t.

At least the tenement is the right place for a black magician who one day may write in his will: Being of sound mind, I have nothing to bequeath.

And . . . at least there’s no scent factory in the purlieu.

Old Nick looks rather like one of those dogs who went potty when they couldn’t get at the milk bottles.

A mad old dog.

He says, ‘It is later than he thinks.’

Jim says, ‘I don’t suppose he’s equipped for thinking.’

Nick snarls, ‘That’s no way to speak of Death Posture.’

Jim says, ‘Now you’re making it complicated. Look, Nick, I’ve come to ask you a question.’

‘It’ll have to wait till I’ve fed him. He ought to have come out and asked for it five minutes ago.’

Old Nick is struggling with a battered tin box.

He says, ‘Cheese.’

He gets the box open, and takes out a stale hunk of cheddar; and then, with a broken penknife, the old man removes some parings from the hunk.

He goes to a corner of the dirty room, where the few sticks of furniture seem to sag like things seen in a distorting mirror, and drops the cheddar shavings outside a mouse hole.

‘For D.P.’s lunch,’ he says.

Will the secretary of The Clinic come out of the hole?

Jim asks, ‘This D.P.’s your . . . familiar?’

Old Nick slavers with petulance like an incubated germ.

‘He’s the most amazing mouse in London, man. Quiet, please. Fill your mind with thoughts of cheese.’

Jim mumbles something about his mind being full of the question he wants to ask.

Then he thinks of flying saucers.

Mice . . . cats. .. saucers.

And the six brain-drain boys in a flying saucer.

The sanest of solutions.

Then a mouse appears from the hole, sniffs, darts forward, nibbles the cheese, retreats.

‘That,’ says Old Nick, ‘was Death Posture.’

Oh well, mice were turning up all over the place. The man who opened the door of The Clinic and looked like a mouse, and the mouse the dowager wanted to dip into honey and eat.

‘You don’t understand, do you?’ Old Nick insists, belligerently. ‘I am the only man in London, boy, who keeps a tame mouse instead of a tame cat. D.P. relies on the food I give him; and he’s so jealous of his grub, he won’t allow another mouse near the place.’

Jim is silent, for he is musing about mice and molehills. Did a mouse come out of a molehill in that fable? And what was it doing in a molehill? Were moles partial to mice, kinky-like?

‘Oh well,’ Nick says with the petulance of a man who wishes that he had a gangster as an elder brother so that he could have someone to look up to, ‘I will grant you that D.P. isn’t as impressive as a real familiar. It’s bloody awkward, boy, but my familiar has left me to go and work for that fake who hypnotises people to make them look beautiful. He’s raking in the schekels and can give my poor old girl a better time than I can. You might say that good and evil are just two aspects of a single fascination, but I tell you it’s downright disgusting. I want all the protection I can get tonight, and Fanny might have helped me. She was a real powerful familiar. You only had to take one look at her face, boy, to feel you were closing your grasp on a circular saw. Hell, I wish I could have materialised her for you, son. She would have bloody well impressed a little faggot like you.’

‘Nick . . .’

‘What’s all this Nick stuff? Am I a friend of yours if you call me a crook?’

‘But Nick, I was impressed by D.P.’

‘You were, eh?’

‘Oh, rather.’

‘You’ve led a sheltered life, boy. You’re too bloody cynical. And you know what they say? Cynicism sleeps alone.’

‘Did you . . . did you make it with Fanny?’

‘It’s none of your bloody business. But she taught me a number of things, Mr. Nancy, which you’ll never learn till your dying day. Yes, she told me to keep my teeth in a box so that they can be buried with me. I’d advise you to do the same.’

Jim sulks.

‘I haven’t lost my teeth yet,’ he retorts.

‘Your hair is going, man.’


And, Jim thinks, if you could keep your own teeth and your own hair, old dad, I might believe more in your magic.

If Old Nick is going to persist in cutting it up, it would have been better to stay in bed eating grapes.

But one can’t really deal with Old Nick, one simply has to react to him and wait till he is ready.

Jim says, ‘I’m doing things about my hair.’

Nick looks at Jim with gape-jaw loathing.

‘Don’t tell me to shut up, man. Have a care. I don’t want to have to turn you into a camel.’

‘Oh . . . Crowley did that to Neuburg, didn’t he?’

‘And led him around on a golden chain.’

‘You see, Nick, you’d never be able to do it. Where would you find a golden chain?’

‘That’s because I miss the fogs. There’s nothing like walking in a fog to encourage unconscious guidance.’

‘You never got lost?’


‘Oh . . . I see . . . I mean I’m sorry you’re in for a bad night. Are the fuzz after you?’

Well . . . Old Nick had made the first concession by admitting that the fogs had wrapped it round him.

The Peace Conference overtures can begin.

Nick lights a cigarette and holds it under his nose, and sniffs the smoke.

It is one of his more sinister habits.

‘I’ll tell you about tonight,’ he says.

He gives a graveyard wheeze with the smoke.

Jim prepares to listen. There’s no getting out of it. The old man has to establish his ascendancy before he can revert to friendly relations. Without even glancing into a well-used crystal ball, Jim is prepared to act impressed by whatever Nick cooks up in his world of Havisham twilight.

‘A pupil of mine,’ Old Nick begins, ‘had an accident in India. I taught him how to be buried alive. You block the nose and ears with wax. Then you press on the arteries which take the blood to the head. You roll back your tongue in your mouth to block it; and then you pass into a trance. You can’t come out of a trance like that unless you’re lifted up by assistants and your tongue rolls out of your throat again and all the old metabolism starts up once more. Breath coming into the body again, and all that.’

Jim says dutifully, ‘Weird, man, weird.’

Old Nick brightens.

The clouds of his displeasure are no longer like a sky which had dropped into a tarpaulin heavy with its own damp.

‘Yes,’ he says, ‘isn’t it? It always makes a good story for the Press when a magician lets himself be buried alive. But what could be simpler? If you cut the muscles holding the tongue, so that it really blocks the throat, it’s all plain sailing, for what with the wax in your nose and ears oxygen can’t enter the body while you’re in a state of suspended animation. You can be buried for days.’

Do the necrophilists know about this? Jim wonders.

What would Zeta say to him if he cut the muscles of his tongue?

And ears, nose and throat.

A good story for the good doctor?

If . . . if Jim ever sees him again.

On friendly terms.

And not behind bars.

Oh yes, Old Nick certainly has his own sources of information . . . or imagination.

Jim begins now to feel that he has been right to seek out the old acid in the spider’s lounge which he calls his temple.

‘But,’ says Old Nick, ‘there was a worm. . .’

‘A worm not in the magical script?’

Nick gives it the saw-edge.

‘A small worm,’ he says, ‘in the coffin no one had noticed that penetrated the wax in the nostrils. Oxygen got into the body. So when they came to dig him up they found that he had begun to putrefy. They had to decide whether to bring him out of his trance in the rotten state he was in, or nail down the lid of the coffin.’

Jim doesn’t have to act.

His face naturally shows his saturation.

He hopes Nick will be satisfied, and feel no more need for spine-chillers.

As Hamlet said : ‘Silence sits drooping.’

And Nick takes Jim’s silence as a compliment.

‘I expect you wish a thing like that could happen to quite a lot of people you know,’ he suggests in his best Frankenstein manner. ‘But I was this man’s guru. So his spirit has commissioned an elemental to haunt me tonight.’

Jim manages to say, ‘You’re taking precautions?’

Nick says, ‘I’m taking precautions.’

Like . . . like the conjuror who shot a cannon ball across the stage so that it smashed through a sheet of plate glass and a woman’s stomach and was then caught in a net, but who said that it wasn’t much of a trick really because it was only a croquet ball?

Precautions . . . full of piss.

Jim says, ‘You ought to write your memoirs one day, Nick man.’

Nick says, ‘I will. But it wouldn’t be in your time, young feller, it won’t be in your time. Now you came to ask me a question, and I’m sorry to say that the answer is no. I haven’t got anything new in your line. Not one pretty piece of your sort of spittle. The fuzz seized a lot of stuff the other day, and there might have been something there; but I couldn’t get my hands on it before Charlie was copped. I’ll let you know when I get something that’ll make your tits stand up.’

Nick’s cigarette has gone out, and he stops wheezing.

Jim offers another coffin nail.

Nick says, ‘I used to light cigarettes without matches, but it’s an awful waste of the power.’

Jim flips a match.

‘Nick,’ he says, ‘I didn’t come to see you about pictures. I know you can talk yourself out of anything; but don’t talk yourself out of giving me some assistance. I want your angle . . . a fresh angle . . . on a problem. Your angle as an adept.’

That goes down.

Nick says, ‘Did I ever tell you that my master was an adept who could have destroyed the whole world with a snap of his fingers. It would have been no harder for him than your lighting that match. Isn’t it . . . wonderful to think of some people’s patience? Now is this problem connected with your work as a spy?’

‘What . . . did Beelzebub tell you . . . I’m a spy?’

‘You did yourself, my lad, many times.’

‘And you believed me? I always thought people wouldn’t, if I said I was.’

‘I’ve no objection. Spies and black magicians have many things in common. Or do you feel yourself to be superior?’

‘When I get used to the idea . . . an impartiality.’

‘An impartiality which is plain ignorance. I could easily become annoyed with you, toffee-nose.’

‘Nick, you decided not to turn me into a camel. Remember? So stuff it. Will you, please? I want to ask you about those six missing scientists.’

‘The police . . . the newspapers . . . members of Parliament . . . they all want to ask me about those buggers.’


‘Yes, they think I might call up a demon for them who would answer the question.’

‘You mean they’ve actually approached you . . . members of Parliament?’

‘I can read their minds, Jim. I know they would like to come to me.’

And now Old Nick is calling him Jim again.


Nick says, ‘I don’t mind telling you I’ve thought about those bleary six on my own account. It did occur to me that black magic might have been used. I made enquiries in the magic world, and found out that it hadn’t. Obviously, I can’t reveal to you the full content of those enquiries; but they convinced me that it would be quite useless to draw a pentagram and call up a demon. As black magic has nothing to do with it, my fallen angels would be no better informed than a nit like yourself. But while I was on this rather tiresome job — I mean D.P. is not in the least bit interested in the bloody brain drain — I did give some thought to the matter.’

‘And . . . you got it back ?’



Something is coming up.

Yes : the pensive stars will go astray, and plunge into the ocean.

Jim looks pensive.

Nick says, ‘Of course I got it back. There’s a link, Jim, between those six.’

Was that the mouse from the labouring molehill?




Browning : ‘He’s perished out.’

Jim says wearily, ‘You mean that they are all top chaps?’

Nick looks as if he were continually available to fury.

‘Don’t be so bloody impertinent. That’s bleeding obvious. What I saw was that all of those six were sold on publicity. Now . . . don’t say anything till you’ve thought about it. I don’t want your jeers. Just use your loaf and remember that those gents were always keyed-up to speak on TV or lecture platforms or contribute to bull-shit anthologies. I mean not only on their own subjects. They exploited their flaming eminence to talk on anything.’

Jim wants to laugh hysterically.

He says, ‘I’m counting up to ten.’

But.. . Nick is right.

It is a link.

Any link . . . might have . . . relevance . . . of some indirect kind?

And then it comes to Jim that this was just the thought that had been at the back of his mind when he’d looked at the waxworks.

But it couldn’t lead anywhere?

Certainly the six, or the five if one left out Fraser, hadn’t done a vanishing act to get their names in the headlines.

That was daft.

But there might be something . . . somewhere . . . somehow. . .

Clearly it was not the solution . . . but it might be an overtone in some hypothesis.

Perhaps Jim could get some marks for putting the thought to Maurice?

He did, then, owe Old Nick something?

But it wouldn’t hurt to go on pumping.

‘You’re a cunning bastard, Nick,’ he says, with as much admiration as he can decently muster, ‘but isn’t there any-thing else you could split with an old pal, something you’ve heard whispered by . . . your shadier colleagues?’

Oddly enough, Nick does not seem offended by this reference to the pornographic mafia.

‘I hear astral voices, Jim,’ he says, as if conversation were an affair of honour rather than of reason.

Jim risks saying, ‘When you’re not manicuring the talons of demons.’

Nick absorbs it mildly.

‘You’re not grateful, man?’ he counters, with mild reproach. ‘I’ve given you something to think about, haven’t I ? But if I told you the greatest secret of them all, you wouldn’t recognise it.’


Nick lowers his voice so that it is no longer like a pack of hounds pursuing a mouse.

‘Why, man, that . . . the higher truths transcend the lower.’



The door almost splinters apart.

Good God, it can’t be! . . . Fanny come home?

Pray God Fanny hasn’t left her hypnotist.

The door opens.

Not a mouse . . . but a boy with lots of hair and a face full of negative decisions.

Jim thinks . . . rather nice.

The boy is struggling with an old-fashioned box camera straight from the rag-and-bone man.

It was this massive instrument which had punished the door.

The boy says to Nick, ‘Here you are, matey. Five bob and it’s yours.’

Jim says, ‘For Christ’s sake, Nick, you’re being taken for a ride. Unless you want a nesting box for D.P., that old soap box will never work.’

Nick says, with great dignity, ‘It doesn’t have to work.’

“Cor,’ says the boy, ‘Dad just wants it as an excuse to get his birds to strip. Gets his crumpet into this pad, and then tells them he’ll take a classy picture. That’s it, matey, isn’t it ?’

Nick plays it cool.

But he says to, the boy, ‘Not too much of your lip, young nipper. You don’t believe a man like me can get himself a decent bird, do you? You’re a crude bastard. I don’t see whatever anyone ever sees in you.’

The kid flushes.

‘Shall I show you, mister?’

Jim swallows.

Nick shrugs.

‘Put it away,’ he says carelessly.

Jim rallies to the boy’s defence.

‘Do you know,’ he says, somewhat wildly, ‘that when Géricault was painting those dying men on a raft, he looked everywhere for the colour of approaching death. When he saw in the street a man recovering from jaundice, he cried out : “Ah, mon ami, que vows êtes beau!” You might have said as much, Nick.’

Nick says, ‘It didn’t seem yellow enough.’

‘Cor,’ says the boy, ‘that’s a relief. But I want to get out of this crumby joint quick, mister. Give me the five bob, and . . . beware of the girl friend.’

Jim says, ‘That’s right. I’ve been seeing some pretty fierce women lately.’



It is coming up.

‘Behold, I know a Maiden fair to see. Take care. Longfellow.

Nick had finished counting out pennies and sixpences.

The boy blows a raspberry.

He almost finishes off the door as he slams it behind him.

Nick says, ‘I’ll put a spell on him. He won’t find his night so pleasant.’

Jim says, ‘Oh don’t . . . Night, the enormous mouth down which we pour . . .’

Nick says, ‘I see what you’re after . . . matey. But now we’re alone I can tell you that this camera is . . . my precautions.’

‘I don’t get it,’ Jim protests. ‘I’m suffering from the laws of usage.’

‘You get what you deserve, my boy,’ Nick retorts. ‘The Doctrine of Like Signatures, you know.’

Jim smirks.

‘Oh, but I do know. I’ve heard that one before.’

Nick looks at Jim the varlet with new interest.

‘Do you, now? Then you may understand why I say the camera doesn’t have to work. It’s because elementals walk in straight lines. The Chinese knew that thousands of years ago, and that’s why they built all those zig-zag bridges. An elemental couldn’t cross them. And then no elemental can bear to have his photograph taken. Have you ever seen a photo of an elemental? It proves the point, doesn’t it? So when my haunt sees the camera, he’ll automatically turn his back. Then he’ll have to walk in a straight line all round the earth again before he can get back to my room. That ought to keep him quiet for another four years.’


Was Old Nick really going to try to produce his own postcards ?

If so, he was a damned fool not to have kept the delivery boy as a model.

But to play the game up to the hilt, Jim says, ‘What will happen if your camera trick doesn’t work, Nick?’

Nick scowls.

‘It doesn’t bear thinking of, man. I’ll become a pariah — bald and impotent.’



Something is coming up.

Yes, Schopenhauer said that the chief sign that a man has any nobility in his character is the little pleasure he takes in other people’s company.

Noble Jim . . . is growing tired of Old Nick.

Nick is now conciliatory, feeling, perhaps, that he has hit too hard.

‘Oh,’ he says, ‘if I do hear anything more on the grapevine about your . . . problem, Jim, I’ll let you know.’

‘By telepathy?’

‘I’ll write.’

‘Thank you, Nick. A letter might be . . . more scientific in a case about scientists. Now who called science the numinous repository of inherited error?’

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