[When the Fiction-Writing Directorate stepped out from years of shadowy silence to embrace the brave new world of the internet and its values of authenticity and transparency, I set myself the task of telling the tragic and illuminating tale of Miss Callista Cornelius. Before I told much of the tale, however, I was viciously attacked by an unknown assailant. To my shame, I let my cowardice get the better of me, and fell silent.
Miss Cornelius, however, deserves better; and thus I shall resume her tale.
You may wish to re-read the first installment of this series. The investigations of Miss Cornelius, a persistent and inquisitive reportress, brought her too close to the truth of the Directorate (at that time, still shrouded in mystery). The Director sought to avert her attention by hiring her to write a terribly dull public relations piece: if he convinced her we were boring enough, surely she would turn her attentions away from our hallowed halls.
I proudly present Miss Cornelius’s notes. – G.T.]
This dismal fortress looks no less dreary in the dawn light. If anything, the stone walls look even bleaker without the flickering candle-light to soften them. The air is cold and damp and smells faintly of old bacon. I do not know how I will be able to present this dismal pit in a positive light to complete my commission!! But I reminded myself of the critical investigations this work would fund: the sordid relationship between the insane asylum and the adjacent meat-packing plant, for example. I know what’s going on there; I just need to support myself while I find the truth!
I figured a brisk walk around the grounds before breakfast would remove the gloomy cobwebs from my mind, so I pulled on my jacket and headed down the stairs. But I was intercepted by Ethel Lee, who was just as stern and humorless in the dawn light as she had been last night. She shepherded me into the dining room for a grim breakfast (soggy waffle, cold tea, sullen companions!) and then directly to the Library for my interview with the Director.
I Meet the Director
Ethel Lee positively simpered at the Director when she introduced me. I have never seen such an extraordinary transformation in my life! Who would have thought that such a stern woman would giggle and blush like a schoolgirl when he thanked her for her services?
He is a striking man, to be sure, and has an undeniable presence. He has the most astonishing beard – I would not be surprised to find a whole nest of mice living in it! – and piercing eyes that miss nothing. The library itself was a dim and oppressive room, with shelf upon shelf of daughty and impenetrable tomes. An ugly portrait of an elderly gentleman hung on the wall; it was of the unsettling sort whose eyes seemed to follow one about the room. I shuddered and strove to ignore it.
He welcomed me warmly and thanked me for taking his commission. “Why,” he said, “the Directorate has labored for many years in the service of little-known authors. We yearn to bring their work to broader acclaim – and your pamphlet can only help us with our great work. Would you like me to read to you from one of our most beloved poets?”
I had no choice but to say yes. The Director opened the enormous book that lay before him on the great table, and began to read.
“This is called ‘The All Night Sea Fight,’ and was penned by the great McGonegal.” He cleared his throat.
Ye sons of Mars, come list to me,
And I will relate to ye
A great and heroic naval fight,
Which will fill your hearts with delight.
The fight was between the French Frigate “Pique” and the British Frigate “Blanche,”
But the British crew were bold and staunch;
And the battle was fought in West Indian waters in the year of 1795,
And for to gain the victory the French did nobly strive.
Oh, God! I thought back to the shrieks I thought I heard echoing through the night; perhaps some poor wretch had been forced to listen to more of this verse.
Surely this was a joke. I peered at the Director’s face, eager for any sign of levity or humor, but saw only an unholy enthusiasm.
It was about midnight when the Frenchman hove in sight,
And could be seen distinctly in the starlight;
And for an hour and a half they fired away
Broadsides into each other without dismay.
And with the rapid flashes the Heavens were aflame,
As each volley from the roaring cannons came;
And the incessant roll of musketry was awful to hear,
As it broke over the silent sea and smote upon the ear.
Oh, God. It continued, unceasingly, the Director’s voice rolling on like a flood, unstoppable and horrid. Think of the asylum, I reminded myself, but feared that if I listened to much more of this, I would be joining the ranks of the mad in their grisly and gristly end.
Then “Brave, my lads!” Captain Faulkner loudly cries,
“Lash her bowsprit to our capstan, she’s our prize”;
And he seized some ropes to lash round his foe,
But a musket ball pierced his heart and laid him low.
My Torment Continues Unabated
In desperation I cast my glance about the room, seeking any sort of solace or refuge; but there was no escape. Even the windows were shrouded with heavy drapes, through which no trace of light intruded. Just the bleakness of shelf after shelf of books, no doubt full of tedious horrors like the one being inflicted on me by the Director.
Then a yell of rage burst from the noble crew,
And near to his fallen body they drew;
And tears for his loss fell fast on the deck,
Their grief was so great their tears they couldn’t check.
I looked again at creepy portrait with the wandering eye; it alone broke up the nightmarish room.
To my disbelieving horror, it winked at me.
TO BE CONTINUED.