Friday, January 30, 2004

The Darkness in the Vault

Part V of Drunken Banker Week

During the panic of 1893, I was a Vice-President of the Miskatonic Provincial Bank. Beside the head office in Miskatonic, the bank had five branches. We had not been spared in the crisis; there had been runs on all of our branches save one. The future did not look good for our business; banks larger than ours had already failed and there were rumours that even some of the larger Wall Street institutions were on the verge of suspension. Our fortunes rested with our head office and our Dunmouth branch, the one branch that had been untouched by the crisis.

The Dunmouth branch was not only the one branch that had been untouched by the runs which had almost closed our other four branches; it was the only branch where deposits were rising. The rises were only small, but it was a curious thing that at a time when the first impulse of the average bank depositor was to withdraw his money for safer-keeping in the mattress, the people of Dunmouth were putting their money into the bank, not taking it out. It was made even more curious because no other bank had been able to operate a profitable branch in Dunmouth; every bank which had opened in Dunmouth in competition to our branch there had closed down after a few months of continual operating losses. It seemed that we were the only bank that could operate in Dunmouth and the bank's President was curious to know why. Finding the reason might save us from going under.

Accordingly, I was sent to Dunmouth with instructions to learn what I could of our operations there. Mr Ward, the branch manager, had been summoned to head office with a letter outlining something of the Bank's current situation and politely requesting that he meet with the Bank President to pass on the secret of his success at a time when so many were so spectacularly failing. He had, with equal politeness, declined the request saying that his success was entirely due to circumstances peculiar to Dunmouth and there was nothing he could tell the President that would be of the slightest use to the rest of the bank's branches. This was uncommonly modest for a man of finance and did not convince the President; something, he felt, was being hidden from him.

It was no easy matter to get to Dunmouth; the nearest railway station was at Gorchester which, according to the map, was connected to the coastal town of Dunmouth ten miles away by road. I soon discovered that to venture into this region of New England was considered a remarkable thing. Both the station master who sold me my ticket to Gorchester and the conductor on the train who checked my ticket thought it odd that I was getting off at Gorchester. I was the first traveller in several years who had wanted to get off at that stop. I was assured, however, that my return would present no difficulties as long as I was present at the Gorchester stop before the train arrived.

Travel from Gorchester to Dunmouth proved more difficult. I found a local inn and there asked the landlord where I coul hire a coach to take me to Dunmouth.

"Nowhere." he answered flatly.

Surely, I argued, there must be some hire carriers in town. he told me there were, but none who would take me to Dunmouth. Could I then hire a carriage and drive to Dunmouth myself? Not in Gorchester. Nor could a horse be had. Did anyone travel between Gorchester and Dunmouth? Only folks from Dunmouth.

I finally learnt that I would be able to travel to Dunmouth in two days time with one Mr Jermyn, the one Dunmouth resident it seemed, who ever had any dealings with the outside world. I had no recourse but to settle myself in the inn until Mr Jermyn arrived to do such business as he did in Gorchester. Whether Mr Jermyn would agree to carry me there was a question which could only be answered by Mr Jermyn. For the next two days I was the object of some curiosity and something of a local wonder as "the man who wants to go to Dunwich". I was under strict instructions to keep my business there confidential to prevent the spread of rumours which might undermine public confidence in the bank. It proved easier than I feared to keep this confidentiality; although I was much stared at and no one troubled himself to prevent me from hearing his speculations on my business in Dunsmouth, no one asked me what it was outright. If anything, I got the impression their fascination had a touch of horror in it, Dunmouth being a place of unsavoury repute.

Mr Jermyn was, initially, reluctant to take me to Dunmouth but relented after I had explained to him, privately, that my business there was with the Bank and that I should, of course, pay him for the trip. There was something in his appearance which set him apart from the people of Gorchester. His gangling arms looked misplaced on his otherwise squat frame. He had a somewhat stooped posture, his low-browed head carried slightly forward on a thick, almost bullish neck. His legs were bowed, suggesting the effects of rickets in childhood. He was altogether a most unpreposessing creature and, as it proved, a taciturn travelling companion; something for which I was grateful.

The road to Dunmouth took us through some dreary countryside, and then along an equally dreary coast. We arrive there in the evening; an unseasonal mist hung over the small town, which I was was no more than a village. I wondered why we had troubled to open a branch here at all and considered it all the more remarkable that Mr Ward's deposits should be increasing while everywhere else in the country bank deposits were in decline. Even more remarkable was the branch here had three men on the payroll; the banking business of such a community should easily be managed by one.

Jermyn stopped his cart in front of one of the houses - a cottage really and said "Ward's house." These were the only words he had spoken to me for the entire trip. It was clear that this was where I was expected to get down. I took my bag from the back of Jermyn's cart and walked to the door. The evening had grown chill and damp; it had become unpleasant to be outside. I knocked on the door.

"What is it?" demanded the man who opened the door. I assumed that it was Ward. It was obvious that he had been drinking. Mr Jermyn too, had got down from the cart, I noticed and was lugging a crate to the side of Ward's house. "Who the hell are you?" asked Ward.

I introduced myself and told Ward the reason for my visit. His response astonished me. "Damn fools. I told them there was nothing here for them." he said seemingly to himself, then directly to me "There's nothing for you here man. Nothing! There's no chance now that Jermyn will take you back but if you have any sense you'll walk straight back up the road you came here on. Go, damn you, before it's too late!" By now, Jermyn had finished unloading Mr Ward's goods from his cart - I was starting to entertain certain suspicions as to their nature. I insisted that Mr Ward at least put me up for the night. I told him that I must at least inspect the bank, now that I was here, to confirm for myself that his own opinion of the situation was correct.

He gave in, grudgingly, and let me into the cottage. I saw that there was a half empty whisky bottle on a table, with an empty tumbler beside it. Ward's first action on closing the door was to pour a generous measure of whisky into the glass and drink it with violent haste. "Damn them!" he muttered "Damn them all! He mustn't be wakened again." His next action, curiously, was to take a set of keys hanging on a hook by the door.

"I'm going out," he told me, "As you value your soul and your sanity, don't follow me on any account. If you must insist on staying here, don't step out of this house tonight."

I began to form the opinion that Mr Ward was correct; whatever had preserved his branch of the bank, it was a circumstance entirely peculiar to Dunmouth. The man was clearly a drunkard and insane into the bargain. The two employees on his payroll I confidently expected to be absent from work on the morrow as they had been absent from work on every day for which they had been paid wages being no more than fictions invented by Mr Ward to pay for his drinking habit. In my whole life, I have never been more mistaken on any matter than I was on that night.

The next morning, I gave Ward no choice but to escort me to his branch where I would, I informed him, inspect his books with thorough attention. I made little effort to hide from him the fact that I thought him a fraud. Deranged by drink, he seemed beyond caring. "It's on your head, I suppose." he said, "I've done what I can but no doubt you'll turn out as big a fool as the others. As big a fool as I was."

The Dunmouth branch of the Miskatonic Provincial Bank was a building slightly larger than the rest in Dunmouth. To my surprise, there were two men waiting for us at its door, two men as wrecked and debilitated by drink as Mr Ward himself. Their names, I learnt were Akeley and Douglas. They looked at me with horror,as well they might. No doubt, unlike Ward, they realised what my visit meant. How Ward had found these accomplices I did not know, nor did I care. My sole concern was to rid the bank of these three drunken frauds who were draining its finances at a time when it could least afford to have them drained. My one concern now was that it should be done in such a way as to avoid a scandal which would ruin the bank.

Mr Ward unlocked the door and the four of us went inside. I asked to be shown the ledgers; they were placed on a desk before me and I began my inspection. Despite their personal vices, Ward and his confederates had been meticulous in keeping the ledgers, fictional as most of the transactions no doubt were. I have no admiration for criminals but I had to acknowledge that these men had shown a commendable attention to detail. If their moral character had not been ruined by their vices they might still be worthy employees of the bank, tenuous as its future was looking.

I expected a quiet day, filled with the abashed silence of three men who knew that they had finally been caught in their derelictions, but the bank was doing business and, to my great surprise, taking in deposits. Once or twice that morning, I saw one of the villagers of Dunmouth come in and present a bag of coins, never notes, to Mr Ward and his staff. The villagers all had the same look about them as Jermyn, the carter who had brought me to Dunmouth. I began to see why the people of Gorchester might consider Dunmouth an unsavoury place. It was obviously a close community with a few too many generations of inbreeding in its past. Mr Ward's crazed advice of the previous evening began to make a great deal more sense.

The coins the villagers handed over were counted, weighed and entered in the ledger. The procedure was a little unusual; either counting or weighing alone will usually do. After the ledger entry was made one of the branch's three regular staff took the money through a dark wooden door at the back of the building. I asked Mr Ward where it led.

"To the vault," he answered. "As you're here to check the accounts you should have no need to concern yourself with that."

"How can I be sure that the accounts are correct, without a count of the holdings in the vault?" I asked.

"Damn it, you fool!" hissed Ward, "You have seen now that this is a working branch of the bank. You have seen us take in their deposits and record them! You have no need to see the vault."

"I think I must." I insisted. One of the other men, Akeley, broke their sullen silence for the first time.

"He mustn't know!" he quavered, "God help us, he mustn't know!"

"Quiet, Akeley!" snapped Ward but, I noticed, very softly. It showed a self-control I would not have expected of him "He must not be wakened."

Akeley opened a cabinet and took from it a bottle, which I quickly recognised. he was trembling all over as he took the cork from the bottle and put it to his lips. To my disgust, Ward said nothing to stop him.

"This is outrageous ..." I began; Ward interrupted me. He hissed "Outside, now!" and began to pull me from my chair. I resisted, but the three of them together began to pull and shove at me until they had me outside in the street. The mist, so at odds with the season and the time of day, still hung in the air. A few villagers passed by in the street on inscrutable business of their own. They gave us incurious glances and passed on as we stood there bickering. Before I could speak, Ward began, in a low venomous hiss I had quickly come to detest:

"If you have any sense - any sense at all - you will go now. Stop at my house and take your things if you insist on being burdened with them, but go. Tell the Miskatonic Provincial that we are drunks and frauds, if you will, but go. Nothing you can do can close this bank. It is the Miskatonic Provincial's in name only; in truth it belongs to others. Go now and save yourself before he wakes."

The others merely nodded; whatever insane delusion had been spawned in Ward's drink addled brain had obviously communicated itself to them.

"This is intolerable!" I fumed. "This branch is a disgrace to the good name of the Miskatonic Provincial Bank. There is no question of simply leaving you to run one of our offices in such an unprofessional way." I went on in this vein but Ward was unimpressed. The three of them went back into the bank; I tried to follow but they combined to shut the door in my face and locked it against me. I hammered on it with all my strength but it was useless; Ward opened a window a little and said "Damn it, if you insist on staying, at least go to my house and stay there quietly." It seemed again that he wanted to shout, but was holding his voice in check. Through the window behind him I could see Akeley and Douglas. Both men were sitting at their desks with tumblers of whiskey in fron of them. they were shaking visibly.

I had no choice but to return to Ward's house, where I nursed my anger through the rest of the day, making shif to feed myself out of Ward's larder. For a drunkard he kept it remarkably well stocked although the food was rather plain. I was able to watch the bank through Ward's window and throughout the day I saw villagers come to its door, which was always opened to them before they arrived. One of the three men was no doubt keeping watch on the approaches to the bank door. I was the only person in Dunmouth to whom it was closed.

At the end of the day, Ward came home, fed himself and immediately began to drink. He glared at me over the bottle as he did. The keys which had been hanging by the door when I arrived, I noted, were not returned to their hook and I inferred that these must be the keys to the bank which Ward was now keeping on his person. He drank prodigiously; more I thought than I had seen him drink the night before.

"I've spoken to Jermyn," he said, at length, "He has agreed to take you back to Gorchester on his next visit there if circumstances permit."

"Don't be ridiculous." I answered, "I fully expected to return to Gorchester with Jermyn once I had completed my business here."

"You fully expected that did you?" he asked. "Tell me, did you arrange this with Jermyn before you came here?"

"Why should I? He was willing enough to bring me here, why should he not take me back?"

"Why not indeed? Think man! Who do you think it was that brought Akeley into this place and Douglas before him and me first of all? You know very little of this place. If you are fortunate you will leave - yes leave, knowing no more. With luck, he had as little idea that you were coming as Jermyn. Your whole future hangs on that one slender hope."

I was growing tired of this rigmarole and told him flatly that it was obvious to me that he had drunk his wits away and was well on the way to drinking himself into his grave.

"You pompous fool." he said scornfully.

"How dare you!"

"How dare I? I know this place sir, as you do not. A wise man would not want to know this place. A wise man would leave it to its secrets."

"Such as the secret fraud at your bank?"

"There is no fraud at the Dunmouth branch of the Miskatonic Provincial sir. It's master and proprietor; it's real master and proprietor would never tolerate such a thing. And he cares little about the danger of scandal."

This infuriating conversation ended there. I passed another uncomfortable night on Ward's couch and woke to find the cottage empty. I went to the bank but once more the door was closed to me.

I thought on what I had observed through Ward's window the day before and planted myself squarely in front of the door. I waited for the first of the day's customers to arrive; when he did, Ward would have no choice but to let me into the building. Once inside, I would find some way to get into the vault. I was determined that my inspection of Ward's branch would be complete in every particular.

A villager approached up the street, walking with the ungainly stooped gait of all of Dunmouth's residents save Ward, Akeley and Douglas. A window opened:

"Damn it, get away from the door!" Ward hissed at me. Behind him a fretfule voice muttered "He will wake, I know it. he will wake."

I held my position. The villager stopped in front of me, looking at me with that flat, incurious Dunmouth gaze. The door didn't open. Ward made frantic demands for me to leave but I stood my ground. The villager's expression started to change; a hint of hostility was starting to show. From inside the bank, Akeley wailed "No!"

I heard the lock turn behind me; the door swung open. I stepped inside, followed by the customer, who now seemed to be in some haste. Akeley and Douglas worked together, frantically, to count and weigh the coins and enter the figures in the ledger. That done Akely dashed through the vault door. When he returned he was quaking more than I have ever seen a man tremble ever before. Again I was disgusted to see him go straight to his liquor cabinet, to see him drinking openly on bank premises with no reprimand, this time in full sight of a customer. Ward, Akeley and Douglas looked at each other.

"He won't rest now until he has what he wants." said Douglas. I realised this was the first time I had heard him speak.

"No, he won't." agreed Ward. To me he said: "You wanted to inspect the vault. No one here will stop you now. All that is over. If you have any sense, you'll go back to Miskatonic and give your report without going down there, but the choice is yours."

I hesitated a moment, then walked to the vault door. The eyes of all three were on me. There was fear and despair in them. As I touched the door handle, Akeley cried: "No! Stop now, while you can still leave." I ignored him and pushed the door open.

Beyond was a short stone landing and a flight of stairs leading downwards; another surprise, that such a minor branch of the bank should have an underground vault where a safe or a strongroom ought to suffice. There was a lantern hanging on the wall at the top of the stairs. I lit it and carried on down them.

I stepped off the last stair into a vast darkness and deep cold. Around me I saw no stone basement filled with cases and strongboxes of coin; nothing but that vast unnatural dark. The lantern flickered weakly in my hand as if the dark were pushing its light back, straining to extinguish it. I felt the cold sink into me, chilling me to the bone and somewhere in that dark that my vision could not penetrate something stirred. Something ancient and indifferent and hungry with inhuman desires.

I do not know how I returned to the top of the stairs. I hung the lantern on its hook and left the vault closing the door behind me. Akeley had put the liquor bottle on a desk, with a clean tumbler beside it. He poured a generous measure of whisky into the glass. I sat down, trembling. A maddening darkness roiled at the back of my brain; I felt that the chill of the vault would never leave me. the horror was in me to stay.

"What is it?" I croaked. "What is that thing in the vault? What hides in that terrible darkness and cold?"

"Something ancient, I think." said Ward. "More ancient even than this earth. Something with its own purposes and desires, a thing too dark for humans to understand or bear. But it can use us, as it uses the villagers, and now that it has touched you and knows you, you are its creature and servant. This," he pointed to the tumbler of whiskey, "is all that makes it bearable. You are one of us now."

I reached for the tumbler of whiskey with trembling hands and gulped it down.

"Yes, one of us now." Ward repeated with bitter pity.

Part IV: The Marquis and the Mortgagee

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