The Golden Oracle

Lady Margaret sighed and leaned a little more on her husband’s arm.  “I shall be very pleased when this mania for chinoiserie finally expires,” she said at the end of her dispiriting examination of the hall.  Sir Nigel’s invitation had indicated a raout replete with gay amusements, which she had taken for something other than stuffing the hired waiters into figured silk jackets and relying for light entirely on suspended paper lanterns which promised conflagration on every hand.  “I take it we are committed?”

Her husband, Lord Francis, nodded, a look of resignation settling on his features.  “I must, alas, cultivate Farnborough ahead of the vote in the House if my enclosure is to pass, and Farnborough dotes upon his nephew.  I must ask you to exhibit all fortitude this evening, for we cannot slight Sir Nigel with an early departure.”

The raout was at least well attended.  Sir Nigel’s large country house was convenient to the city, his lavish entertainments never failed to attract a fashionable horde, and he never seemed to mind that the substantial part of that horde came simply to fuel their speculations as to when he would finally consume his capital.  The greater part of those appearing represented a constellation of connection, and thus a third minority was represented by those came to either gaze upon the fashionable or to pursue a political end.  Lady Margaret was about to excuse herself from her husband’s side, seeing in the lee of a vast vase a group of her own friends who appeared to be talking rather than posturing and shrieking delight at the absurd décor, when he said, “Ah, there is our host.  Let us pay our respects before he is so fogged he won’t recall us to Farnborough.”

Sir Nigel stood near the foot of the room, near the refreshment table arranged against a blind wall.  The space on the table between the two great punch bowls was occupied by foods which Lady Margaret did not recognize by sight nor smell.  She held her fan nearer her face, in hopes that the sandalwood might defeat the strange odours.

The host spoke to a small man whom she took to be a sailor from the long queue which hung down the back of his simple blue-grey jacket, but when Sir Nigel noticed their approach he said something conclusive to the man who turned to scuffle away through a nearby door.  Lady Margaret was stunned by her view of the departing man’s features, his skin almost buff, his nose small and flat yet rounded, his eyes supporting shapely arches of flesh.  She had, she realized as she spoke an automatic greeting to Sir Nigel, seen a living Chinese person for the first time.

Sir Nigel noticed her discomposure and his smile, always ready, grew to beaming.  “Dear Lord and Lady Hamilton,” he said, making a leg, “I am delighted to find you have come.  You will add perceptibly to the luster of the gathering, and I cannot hope to express my sense of your kind condescension.”

“Not at all,” replied Lord Francis, with a smile and nod.  “We are always repaid ten-fold in entertainment for any effort in attending one of your evenings.”

Lady Margaret nodded her acknowledgement as well, but in an abstraction.  “That person to whom you just spoke….”

“Oh, I do hope you won’t feel my surprise is spoiled,” Sir Nigel said, with a contortion of his face which suggested a wink had only narrowly been averted.  “Dear little Kong Hoo is helping to arrange the most original entertainment.  I found his troupe in Venice while visiting my cousin Bertram last month, and pressed them to come directly to England.  For once, we have put Paris on the back foot in novelty!”

Lord Francis developed a response which touched upon the French powers of novelty in the political realm, but it remained inward and aloud he said, “I’m sure we shall be astonished.  But we are keeping you from your arrangements and your other guests.  I believe I see our friend Wollich across the way, too, so we will go do our duty to him and let you do yours.”  The Hamiltons disengaged from Sir Nigel, who bowed them away before trotting off to embrace other guests.

As they circulated, it became clear that others were, if not as weary of chinoiserie as Lady Margaret, at least not enjoying this current expression of the fashion.  The light cast by the lanterns did not flatter complexions and made sport of the colours of dress.  Infantry uniforms did well enough, but there were few enough of them still being worn now that the coda on the career of France’s vile self-declared “Emperor” was concluded.  The black coats many men now affected were black still, but the gayer silks and satins worn by some men and all the ladies were made slightly gruesome by the ruddy pall.  Old Countess Mobray, while endeavouring to share some gossip, lost her thread over and again as her gaze was drawn to the bodice of Lady Margaret’s gown, its delicate champagne tone become what even a good friend would have to call pale ham, and in the end she simply excused herself as unwell.  There were smiles to be seen, those to whom the whole décor seemed a pleasing novelty, but the press at the punch bowls suggested they were a minority.

The currents of conversation had separated the Hamiltons, and when Countess Mobray had left her, Lady Margaret glanced about, wondering if she might suggest a retreat to her husband now that they would not be the notable first to go.  She saw him leading two other men to the corner in which she stood, a look very like pleasure giving his face its own light.

“My dear, I am sorry to find you abandoned.  Here, take this glass, and then let me introduce you to Sir Alexander Boothroyd and his good friend.”   The men bowed, and Boothroyd explained in the pleasing burr of a well-bred Scot how he and Lord Francis had met as subalterns in the King’s service and got along as if brothers until the difference of station had directed their careers apart, Lord Francis rising to his estate and Boothroyd by less certain paths to become, as Lord Francis supplied, “something at Company House.”

“I was in India for a time lately,” Boothroyd said, “and I had the fortune to meet this fine young fellow while travelling back.  Pray allow me to introduce James Timkins, a scholar of the first water.”

Timkins, despite having already done so on first approaching, made a shuffling hesitant bow and, so far as a deep tan and the odd light could reveal, blushed as he said, “Sir Alexander is too kind entirely.  I have yet to make any real contribution to learning.”

“Very happy to meet you, Mr. Timkins, “ said Lady Margaret as kindly as she could.  “Are you one of our valuable natural philosophers?”

Timkins straightened, still blushing.  “Nothing so grand, I fear.”

“Nonsense,” Boothroyd said, clapping him on the shoulder.  “He is a sinologist, a branch of learning the Company should value if not the Royal Society, and has just come back to us from two unbroken years of study in the land itself.  I had little notion when I took him in tow this evening that I would be bringing him straight back!”

The four of them grinned together, and Lady Margaret began to feel her oppressed spirits lifting under the effect of the punch and Boothroyd’s buoyant example.  Lord Francis said, “A sinologist, indeed?  I hear that Greek is child’s play next to Chinese; you impress me greatly, Mr. Timkins, and I should like your opinion on Sir Nigel’s efforts.  Does this pass muster?”

Timkins took a deep breath, attempted a second which became a sort of suppressed gulp, looked around the room with sudden bird-like movements, and said, “Oh, yes!”  After a pause, he realized his auditors still attended, took yet another deep breath, and went on.  “In truth, I have not seen authenticity on such a scale before in Europe.  Except when an imported item, such as a vase, is considered one generally finds some jarring over-emphasis.  That is to say, a determined effort to seem foreign, in a general sense of the word, with no comprehension of the specific culture being emulated.  Here, however,”  and he raised a hesitant hand to indicate the nearest of the lanterns, “I am tempted to think every item which appears Chinese is genuine, being quietly but assertively foreign in a way specific to China.  The food, too….”

At this point, he found his flow suppressed by a feeling he was lecturing his betters, and he took a long draught of punch.  Boothroyd leapt in, and with his words instantly endeared himself to Lady Margaret.  “Aye, well.  It jars nonetheless, all this Chinese clobber in a hall in Kent.  It’s like a squadron of hussars mounted on Peruvian llamas, to my mind.  Amusing, perhaps, but ungainly and ultimately unsustainable.”

Lord Francis, a tear of mirth in the corner of his eye, leaned a little closer to his wife, saying quietly, “Sir Alexander has ever been a forthright fellow.”

The four passed some minutes in conversation together, working slowly toward the French doors which opened onto the garden where some hope of escape from the unnatural light had already drawn a number of the raout’s less devoted participants.  Before they could quite pass the threshold, there came the sound of a great gong from the foot of the hall.  All heads turned towards the noise, and one of the ridiculously costumed waiters slipped past Sir Francis to make some kind of announcement to those outside.

“I suppose we should see what Sir Nigel’s great treat is,” said Lord Francis with little evident enthusiasm.  He took his wife’s elbow and led her slowly down the hall, Boothroyd and Timkins remaining in close company.  The gong, still reverberant as they arrived, was on a small raised platform to one side of a pair of doors.  Before the instrument stood Sir Nigel, beaming as he so often did at his parties in a way which irresistibly brought to mind the more successful sort of fruit vendor.  The sober little figure of Kong Hoo was beside him, hands thrust into opposite sleeves and as calm as a waxwork.

“Dear friends,” Sir Nigel began in a tone which strengthened the impression of the marketplace, “I am so pleased to find so many of you here tonight.  I have an astonishing spectacle from the far east to share with you all.  It is a wonder which almost no Europeans have been privy to, and this is the first time it shall be practiced on English soil.”

He turned and nodded to Kong Hoo, who drew his hands from his sleeves.  He bowed deeply from the waist, turning slightly to right and left to make a triple obeisance, holding his hands before him the whole time, left palm atop right fist.  The party-goers became hushed, so when he spoke he hardly needed to raise his voice to reach every ear present with his curiously accented but polished English.

“Honoured nobles,” he said, “how long we have travelled to be here!  My far-distant country is very old, older than Rome, yet unlike Rome we have not suffered a fall.”  A murmur began, some of the audience not best pleased for any aspect of Europe to come off second best in a comparison, and Kong Hoo’s gentle but penetrating voice now rose to overcome it.  “I claim no virtue for my nation.  We have avoided the perils of history through a single turn of luck, for we have at hand the power of… the oracle Li Kun.”

He stepped to the gong and struck it carefully, so that it raised a low but wonderfully prolonged hum.  The pair of doors nearby were opened by costumed servants, and through them came a team of Chinese in their less gaudy dress.  These men were as short as Kong Hoo, but unlike him were brawny.  Eight entered, four before and four behind a palanquin whose bars they supported.  It was lacquered black, polished to the point of giving back an oily glow with, at the corners of its roof and depending from screens covering all four sides, festive red tassels which joggled merrily until the porters deposited their burden on the platform before the gong.  Disengaging themselves from the bars, they bowed in unison to Kong Hoo, making the same clasped-hand gesture he had used, and then most filed back the way they had come.  Two remained by the palanquin, dropping to one knee and gazing at the floor.

The murmuring of the guests had grown during this performance, and as each whispered conversation sought to make itself heard above its neighbours the buzz threatened to escalate out of hand.  Kong Hoo stood before the platform, hands back in sleeves and the smile of a plaster saint on his lips.  He looked for a few moments to the far end of the room, then slowly lowered his gaze to his feet.  As he did, the talk in the hall likewise fell through some unknown sympathy until all were still once more.  Kong Hoo, still smiling, looked up.

“The majestic oracle Li Kun sees all truth, knows all things.  Long ages has Li Kun advised the imperial throne of the Middle Kingdom, and he is now pleased to travel and share his gifts abroad.”  As he spoke, the two porters moved to the task of unfastening and running up the slats of the screen on the near side of the palanquin.  Behind it was a mustard-coloured muslin drape which concealed whoever might be inside; it was possible to make out a vague shape, but no details could be seen.

“Any who wish the advice of great Li Kun may approach and ask his wisdom.  I shall translate as required.”  Kong Hoo made his triple bow once more, then took two smart steps to centre himself in the hall’s width.  He then stood, looking at the far wall once more, seemingly willing to remain there amused and unmoving until dawn if none troubled him.

“There you go, Mr. Timkins,” Boothroyd whispered.  “Right down your street.  Ask yon chappie when you may have publication and fame.”  Timkins smiled, shook his head, and then in apparent self-contradiction took a step forward.  As he did, Sir Nigel returned to Kong Hoo’s side.

“As host, perhaps I may offer myself as the first subject of the oracle; I have seen his work before, and know there is nothing to fear.  Kong Hoo, please ask your master if I ought invest in coal or canals in the next quarter.”

Some laughter went about, and there were several ill-suppressed scornful looks at the open avarice of the matter.  Kong Hoo bowed to Sir Nigel, turned, bowed more deeply to the palanquin, and without raising his head spoke in his own language.

Nearby, Timkins nodded, in an abstraction.  Then he grimaced, his reaction but a variation of the universal response of the guests to the sound of the reply.  It was prefaced by a long wheezing intake of breath and a rattling exhalation; however deep Li Kun’s pool of wisdom may have been, it was clear to all that his pool of health was shallow indeed.  Where Kong Hoo’s question had been animated, carefully enunciated and somewhat musical, the response was nearly monotone, slurring and sibilant.  As if joining in Kong Hoo’s obeisance, most of the watchers leaned forward in trying to hear better what they could not understand.

Kong Hoo turned to Sir Nigel again, and with straight back and confident voice, said, “Great Li Kun says: the creeping snake has had its day, and that the wise should seek to bask in the breath of the dragon.”

“Well, one could not wish for clearer direction than that,” Sir Nigel declared, clapping in an effort to lead a general polite applause.  “Coal it is, then!  Who shall be next?  Pray, Lady Agatha, surely you should like to uncover some hidden matter!”

As Lady Wilmarth came forward, fanning herself and crying out that she could not possibly, Lady Margaret noted a quizzical frown on Timkins.

“Are you entirely well, Mr. Timkins?”

“Oh.  Ah.  I’m sorry, my lady.  I was rather puzzled… but I must have mis-heard.”

Lady Wilmarth’s question concerned an entail which had been troubling her.  The same performance by Kong Hoo brought the same alarming croaks from the palanquin and the same shining, almost gleeful face accompanied the rendering into English.  “The vision of Li Kun reveals all wealth will fall upon a young maid, soon so fortunate in marriage.”

Lady Wilmarth thanked Sir Nigel and Kong Hoo, called out a blessing to the unseen Li Kun, then withdrew into the bosom of her friends in the room, her fan almost invisible in its work.  A line of tears was visible on her cheek.

Timkins stumbled against Lord Francis, pale as a cheese.  Boothroyd took his arm to steady him, muttering, “Steady on, lad.  If you’re feeling the punch, make for the garden.”  Timkins shook his head, murmured an apology to Lord Francis, then began to insinuate himself through those standing closer to the spectacle.

A florid man in the uniform of an artillery colonel stepped into the clear space around the platform.  “This is a very nice trickery, but to my mind it signifies little to say something that cannot be proved for months.”  He held up his left hand, closed into a fist.  “What, oh oracle, am I holding?”

Two currents went through the spectators.  Some leaned closer, avid for the result whether it confirmed or dispelled the powers of the seer.  Others, a surprising number indeed, looked odium at the colonel, unhappy with the questioning of a wonder.

At the end of the ritual, Kong Hoo said with just as much confidence as before, “Wise Li Kun knows you to carry a golden likeness of a most despised foe.”

A silence, as all eyes turned to the colonel.  His colour fell, and from his fist he drew out a twenty franc coin of the 1806 striking, pierced and mounted as a fob.  His mouth worked, as if he found himself chewing a piece of gristle, and without another word he withdrew.

Rapturous if brief applause, the sound attendant on all but a few devoted doubters being brought within the fold, which was followed by an unseemly jostling near the platform as some of Sir Nigel’s guests allowed enthusiasm to run away with propriety.  In short order, though, precedence was re-established and a queue of sorts developed, supplied with refreshments by the waiters.  With each relayed pronouncement came fresh applause, even when a Viscount’s hopes of finding his son, lost at sea some years since, were dashed, or when an elderly and childless Earl was told his line would not extend.

Not all present sought the oracle’s advice.  Some far preferred to watch the secret desires of others laid out for all to see rather than offer themselves as part of the display.  Some were so far gone in idleness that moving to join the orderly procession to hear what Kong Hoo would make of the creaks and chirps of the palanquin’s occupant seemed too much effort.  Lady Margaret felt great relief at hearing her husband respond to Boothroyd’s vague gesture at the nebulous line with, “Oh, no.  I can’t think of anything I need to know so desperately that I would look to something that sounds like that for the news.”

Timkins had by now worked his way very near the palanquin, slipping close to the wall and passing through spaces the hired waiters forced in their ill-bred way.  He alone of all those present seemed unamused or uninspired by Sir Nigel’s entertainment.  Had anyone noticed him in the gloom where now stood, they would have thought that he had ill-tidings to deliver but knew not where to hand them.

The greater names had all taken their turn with Kong Hoo and his shadowy master, and the precedence was now down to greater force of personality than true desserts.  Admiral Fanshaw stepped away from his wife’s side and thus into the clear space, failed to notice the hurt look of a minor baronet who had been lifting his foot at the same moment, and asked in a voice well trained by years of directing sailors in a gale, “Will you tell me who in all the world thinks most fondly of me?”

Translation and response followed in their usual way.  While Fanshaw looked back at his wife with what may have been a simper on a less rugged countenance, and the attention of most others was taken up with Kong Hoo, Timkins clapped a hand over his mouth and all but staggered away from that end of the hall.  Boothroyd, who had just missed him, caught him by the elbow and led him back to the Hamiltons as Kong Hoo recited, “Across the sea, the doted-on daughter thinks the kindest thoughts of her supportive father.”

Admiral Fanshaw looked from his wife to the little man, his face caught in a strange limbo between placatory smile and wrathful grimace.  Fans snapped open all about the watching crowd to conceal smirks, the first belonging to those who knew that Mrs. Fanshaw had borne her husband but two fine sons, and becoming more general as the lady stamped from the room, shouting something of which only “remittances” could be understood as she passed out of the doors at the far end.

His wife departed and his face now able to settle upon anger, Admiral Fanshaw turned to Kong Hoo.  At his first step, the two assistants who had remained kneeling beside the platform were suddenly flanking Kong Hoo; their hands were by their sides and yet they radiated positive menace.  Fanshaw, a head taller than the foreigners and an active fighter when afloat, took one more step before Sir Nigel appeared by his elbow, whispering soothing words.

For nearly a half-minute, there was a tableau promising a satisfying climax to the evening’s diversion.  Then the admiral visibly deflated and leaning upon Sir Nigel allowed himself to be led toward the punch table.

The Hamiltons were aware of this drama only peripherally, as through it they had been attending to Boothroyd and Timkins.  When he had brought his young friend over, the Scot had said, “What is the matter, man?  Are you ill?”

Timkins waved the thought away with one hand, even as the other remained over his mouth.  If he had been pale previously, he was positively milky now.  “No,” he said through the muffling hand.  “What he said….  Such cruelty!”

“What do you mean,” asked Lord Francis, at the very moment Kong Hoo had finished delivering the upsetting message to Admiral Fanshaw.

“Li Kun… he speaks a different dialect than Kong Hoo… no, that doesn’t signify.  But the words he uses… none of it is as we are being told!  He as much as called that man a whore-monger to his face!”

The momentary stillness that had gripped the room on Mrs. Fanshaw’s exit was mirrored in a chill which dropped upon this smaller gathering.  Timkins, some colour coming back into his cheeks, looked at Lady Margaret for a moment, then at the other two men.  “Oh.  Oh!  I beg your pardon!”

Lady Margaret affected to be untroubled.  Boothroyd said, more to Sir Francis than the others, “Come, should we not tell Sir Nigel that his guests are being abused?”  Sir Francis nodded, and after a moment of searching spotted the retreating backs of the admiral and their host.  He fell in on the side of Timkins opposite Boothroyd, and in unconscious emulation of a corporal’s guard began to escort the young man across the room.

“A moment, please.”

It was the voice of Kong Hoo.  He was looking directly at Timkins, and behind him, jutting through the palanquin’s drapes was cloth-of-gold sleeve, brocaded with exotic designs, from which emerged a pointing hand.  The finger which indicated the scholar was long, knobbed with arthritis, and bore a silver ring on its middle joint.  The nail, fully half as long as the finger, was lacquered a colour which in the uncertain light of the lanterns gleamed black.

“Gracious Li Kun believes the young man who so recently enhanced our homeland with his presence needs ask a question before he departs.”  As the servant spoke, the master’s finger made a slow gesture of beckoning, as if gently scratching the top of an unseen table.  There was a murmur, and a way was made.  Timkins faltered back for a second, then mastered himself, stepping toward the platform as one who takes the ground in a duel, resignation and resolution alloyed.

“Very well.”  His inward state was betrayed by the tremor in his voice as he addressed Kong Hoo.  “Let the oracle tell us whence and by what means he receives his intelligence.”

Kong Hoo bowed low.  As he repeated the question in his own language, the amusement on his face was unmistakable.

There was a hush throughout the hall now.  Even the most cynical present were arrested by the drama.  The silence was ended by a rhythmical hissing sound from the palanquin, which some of the watchers failed to recognize as laughter.  Then, in the same unwholesome rasp, came the lengthy answer.  Kong Hoo stood, head bowed, immobile but for the slow development of his smile which left mere amusement behind to pass through a sardonic leer on the way to vulpine satisfaction.

The last harsh syllable dropped out of the air.  Timkin’s eyes had begun to bulge, and now his mouth dropped open.  He became a living mask of tragedy, giving out a moan.  He whirled, flinging Boothroyd into Lord Francis with such force that both went down, and ran up the length of the room, striking at any who offered to hold him or even stood near his path.  As his final victim, a dowager greatly esteemed by all London society, fell to the floor, Timkins’s moan became a howl which diminished with his flight.  The assembly became a chaos, with those intent on pursuit and those intent on rendering aid entangling each other.  Ladies well off Timkins’s line of retreat fell in swoons, adding new avengers and assistants to the fracas.

Lady Margaret, unbruised by the uproar, was shocked deeply by the language of one of the hired waiters when she commanded him to assist her husband.  The man was busily tearing away at the Chinese costume he was got up in, had no object in mind other than instant departure, and would heed no impediment.  Thus, Lady Margaret alone and unaided could only stand by as Boothroyd, with a torrent of apologies, disentangled himself from Lord Francis and set that gentleman back upon his feet.

“No fear, Sir Alexander, I am no more than bruised, I’m certain,” he said when he had regained his wind and could interrupt the other’s flow.  “I should certainly like to know what that creature said to undo poor Mr. Timkins so.”

“Aye,” Boothroyd replied.  “Well, we can find that our readily enough.  Where’s yon coolie that speaks like a Christian?”

The Hamiltons and Boothroyd all looked to where Kong Hoo had stood.  The foreigner was not to be seen, nor were his two attendants, although they had not departed without lowering the palanquin’s outer screen.  The box stood on its platform, its dark finished wood gleaming under the red lanterns.  Boothroyd led the other two toward the punch bowls on the far side, still solicitous of Sir Francis and the ribs he felt must have cracked under his weight, but he kept his eyes on the palanquin against its crew reappearing.

Although half an hour later Sir Nigel could be said to have restored order to his house, it was the order of a battle-field once the armies depart, as the party could not be recovered.  The pursuit of Timkins had developed into a general exodus, and even before all those laid out on the hall floor were entirely recovered in their wits two-thirds of the guests were gone, many having simply carried on to their carriages without concern for the travelling garments left in various apartments in the house.  Of those who had not left so precipitously, many tarried primarily to abuse Sir Nigel while their things were bundled into conveyances.  This left but a sparse group in the hall wondering if it were more appropriate to depart without comment or to give their shame-faced host a chance to see them off.  The exceptions in this last group were the upended dowager who had declared her intention to take restitution in the shape of punch and whatever petit fours might be left, Boothroyd who felt he must not go until certain of what had become of Timkins, and the Hamiltons who would have left without a word but for a sense that Boothroyd should have supporters.

Sir Nigel re-entered the hall at last, bringing in with him a train of servants bearing candlesticks to banish the gloom from the place if not the people, and he began at once to give his apologies, starting with those nearest the door.  Boothroyd, who simmered with impatience but recognized the precedence of those between him and Sir Nigel, waved away whatever the host began to say when they were finally face to face and asked for news of Timkins, emphasizing his bond of friendship with a face like a thunderhead at sunset.  Sir Nigel cried, “Oh, the poor young man!  He plunged in among the horses in his mad flight, surprising them and making them rear.  The grooms and coachmen brought him to safety on the lawn, but a hoof had struck his temple.  Dr. Mackay has been sent for, but I fear he comes only to confirm the death.”

If Boothroyd was thunderous before, he was now a contained catastrophe.  His eyes became mere chips of sapphire in his suffused face.  “Where have the Chinamen gone?  They must answer for this!”

Sir Nigel, now fearful of a fresh outburst in his house, used all his skill in speech to placate the Scot.  Kong Hoo and his entire troupe were, he had been told, clean gone, vanished from the house and so far as the staff could discover from the grounds as well.  None could say how, for their carts and cattle were still in the mews; this mystery would, as days and weeks followed, never be resolved.

“Fine.”  Boothroyd was quivering with emotion.  “Let us see if they’ve abandoned their stupor mundi.”  He strode toward the palanquin, shouting at a servant to leave off lighting candles and to bear a hand.  In a moment, the wooden screen was undone and swung out of the way, and Boothroyd had torn aside the inner curtain.  He let out a terrible cry of triumph, and in such a passion that he quite forgot where he was, shouted, “Out you come, ye thrawn ill-feckit bastard!  Come and answer for the destruction of poor Jimmy!”

When the figure in the box did not instantly move, Boothroyd reached in and seized the gold silk robes to haul it out.  Growling with the effort, he heaved a human figure from the palanquin, off the platform and onto the parquet where it landed with a damp thud.  Another cry escaped him, triumph replaced by revulsion.  On the floor sprawled a bloated corpse, some of whose liquescent flesh had clung to Boothroyd’s fingers during the rough handling.  From under the disordered oriental robes peeped the rat-gnawed small clothes of an English gentleman of the last age.  One of the mottled hands stretched out, the index finger knobbed with arthritis and clad with a silver ring of curious design which was even then going black.  The fingernail, not polished but dully black with grave-mold, was fully half the length of the finger and pointed up the hall.

It seemed to Lady Margaret, as her sight grew dark and ruddy despite the new-come candles and as her legs gave way to the faint she hoped might come, that it was making an accusation, but against whom she could not tell.

“The Golden Oracle” © 2016 Dirck de Lint