It was a Friday night in the hottest July in London I could remember, and Carnacki had the windows open to let a breath of air in, although what breeze we got proved to be hot and dry, and tasted of an overly heated city. The heat had drained our appetite, and we had partaken of only a light meal of trout and green vegetables. As a result we were earlier than usual in retiring to the parlor, and had taken our normal seats, with our drinks charged and fresh smokes lit well before eight.
Carnacki wasted no time in getting to his tale.
“It is as well that we have some warmth, old friends, despite the slight discomfort it might bring,” he began. “For my tale tonight is a chilling one indeed, and I fear you will be glad of the heat by the end of it.”
“It started last Monday, with a telegram requesting my attendance at Bethlem Asylum in Southwark. The note intimated that it was a matter of some delicacy that required my particular skills, and that I would, of course, be suitably remunerated for my time. I was intrigued enough by the request to make my way by carriage to a meeting with a Doctor Donaldson, the chief medical officer of the facility.
“We are all aware of the moniker given to the Asylum by the general public—a reminder of its earlier days when the treatment of the mentally ill was not as enlightened as it is today. And like you, I have heard all the tales of mistreatment and torture, chaos and confusion. But despite any qualms I might have had about visiting the place, I was met with a calm, almost serene establishment of quiet, whitewashed corridors and nurses in clean, starched uniforms efficiently going about their business. It is a fine, well-appointed building, and Doctor Donaldson’s oak-lined library and office would not have seemed out of place in any of your town clubs.
“The doctor himself, however, was clearly in some distress, and his reason for contacting me all came out of him in a rush.
“‘It is the top floor, Mr. Carnacki,’ he said. ‘I cannot get the staff to go upstairs, especially after dark, and any patients we leave there for more than a day come away with their mental state even worse than anything they might previously have been suffering. Something strange moves through the corridors up there of an evening. There is talk of it being a haunt—and I can’t say as I disagree with them, for I have even seen something myself, although as a man of science I am loath to give voice to it being anything of a supernatural nature. I have heard that you have experience in such matters, and that you are most discreet—can you help us?’
“You chaps all know that I cannot turn down a genuine request for help—or the chance to pit my wits against a denizen of the Outer Darkness, so I gave the man my word that I would look into the matter. We shook hands on it and that same afternoon I began my investigation.”
“The top floor of Bethlem is a light and airy place by day, with high ceilings and sunlight streaming through skylights that run the whole length of the building. The walls are white and clean—almost sparklingly so, and my footsteps echoed on a polished hardwood floor as I topped the stairs and entered the main corridor. Doctor Donaldson had come up with me, but he stayed at the top of the stairs, not venturing into the hallway.
“‘I can leave you to it then?’ he asked and it was plain that the man was bally terrified, so I took pity on him.
“‘I will call into your office before I leave,’ I replied, and he was off and away down the stairs almost before I had finished speaking.
“I was left alone in the corridor, and as the sound of Donaldson’s footsteps descended away from me leaving silence behind, I became aware that there was definitely something strange in the air. I have developed a sense for these things, as you know, and I felt it straight away—a thick cloying miasma despite the sunlight, a tingling at the nape of my neck and a throbbing in my guts that all told me there was a presence here.
“I walked along the corridor, slowly, trying to intuit what it was that was affecting me so. As I reached the farthest room from the stairwell, I heard a soft voice, little more than a whisper, reciting a passage I did not recognize but which chilled my blood.
“‘Strange is the night where black stars rise,’
“‘And strange moons circle through the skies.’