This is a fan fiction I wrote after reading Robert W. Chambers’s story “The Repairer of Reputations,” which is one of the stories in his book The King in Yellow.
The Deliverer of Delusions
The shop looked as I remembered it, with the same sign over the door. “Hawberk, Armourer.” A closer view revealed four more years of fade and peel. The same tinkling bell, though.
He looked up from his work with a blank-eyed stare. Then – “Ah, Miss Miranda. Miss Castaigne, I mean. My condolences. It’s a sad return home for you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hawberk. I left Paris as soon as I received Louis’s telegram, but it took me two weeks to get here.”
“Bienvenue à nouveau après toutes ces années, Mademoiselle.” Followed by a courtly bow and Gallic hand gesture that made a flash of reflected light from the ring on his right hand. It must have been the signet on which my brother Hildred had recognized the arms of some ancient English family – one of the reasons he found Hawberk and his shop so fascinating.
“Merci, Monsieur.” As always, suits of armour stood around the shop, in various stages of completeness, some shiny, some rusty. Customers who did not mind waiting. “I gather it happened here? That last incident, when Hildred was… taken into custody?”
“Not here in the shop, no, but in this building. In Mr. Wilde’s rooms, upstairs.”
“Mr. Wilde – he was the man who died? Whom Hildred was supposed to have murdered?”
“He lived upstairs, yes.”
“May I see…? I’m trying to put it all together, his last days. How it happened.”
“I understand.” He rummaged in a drawer and brought out a key.
The stairs were steep, brown and narrow. Hawberk struggled awhile with the key before the door opened with a screech. “Reminds me of Wilde’s cat,” Hawberk said. “Savage creature, but he liked her.”
Mr. Wilde’s rooms were empty of visible life – bare bookshelves, a curious high desk and matching tall chair with a set of ladder-like rungs. Dust and nameless scraps lay on the floor. A signboard leaned against the wall. I turned my head sideways to read it. “Repairer of Reputations. What’s that?”
“Mr. Wilde was eccentric.”
Watery sunlight from the small-paned window drew a scintillation from something on the floor. I bent and extracted it from a crack between two boards. A scrap of paper lying nearby caught my eye, my own surname unlikely in this dreary place. “…only son of Hildred Castaigne and Edythe…” and, on the line below that, “…in the succession.”
I slipped the scrap into my pocket and examined the shiny object. Intricately cut facets made a small brilliance on my palm. I held it out to Hawberk. “What do you suppose this is?”
“It looks like a diamond. Couldn’t be real, though.” He looked up at me. “It might have come from that diadem.”
“Diadem? Did Mr. Wilde collect such things, as well as repairing reputations?”
“No. Mr. Castaigne brought it with him, that night.”
“My brother had a diadem with him?”
“Yes. Made to look like gold and diamonds. Couldn’t have been real, though. With everything that happened, I didn’t get a good look at it, but I supposed it had something to do with his interest in heraldry, royal symbols, all that. You didn’t know about it?”
“No!” The succession, I remembered. I looked at the diamond again. Real or paste? “So what happened to this diadem?”
Hawberk creased his brow and looked toward the window, where a fly buzzed against the panes. “I really don’t know. Perhaps the police took it away, as evidence.”
There was nothing more to say. The musty smell of the place, and the buzzing fly, were oppressive. “I’ve taken up enough of your time, Mr. Hawberk.”
But at the door of the shop, I paused. “Do you think my brother was insane?”
He examined the key to Wilde’s door, rubbing it with his thumb. “I really can’t say, Miss Castaigne. He didn’t seem so, all those years, but something happened to him, at the end.”
“Goodbye, Mr. Hawberk. And thank you for being kind to Hildred. He loved your shop.”
* * *
Upon his removal from Dr. Archer’s care six months after his riding accident, Hildred had moved to the Benedick apartments on Washington Square. For an entire year, I had called on him every day, often tracking him down in Hawberk’s shop, where he went to listen to the music of metal on metal and lose himself in scintillations of light on the armour plates. Then the call of Paris and adventure had grown too strong for me to ignore. An opportunity presented itself, and I took it, telling myself that Hildred was well again, even if other interests had supplanted his former pastimes of fishing, yachting and riding. And our cousin Louis was near enough to keep an eye on him.
I was gone for more than three years – golden years! They fled by so quickly, until Louis’s telegram came. “Hildred dead in asylum for insane.” By the time I arrived in New York City, Louis too was far away. His regiment had been posted to San Francisco. He had married Constance Hawberk and departed. Was I unjust in suspecting him of undue haste? No matter – he was only a cousin. I was Hildred’s sister.
The concierge at the Benedick admitted me quite readily when I identified myself. I felt a moment of dread before unlocking the door to Hildred’s rooms, anticipating sorrow at the sight of his possessions bereft of his presence. But a surprise greeted me instead – the rooms were empty. Not only of Hildred, but of furniture, books, carpets and ornaments. Only the curtains remained, their velvet folds hanging mutely, as though in helpless apology.
No books on the shelves. No shelves! No papers on the desk. No desk! No clothes in the wardrobe. No wardrobe! Where was everything? The concierge hadn’t said anything about this removal. The rooms were still Hildred Castaigne’s. He was gone, but his possessions should have remained.
I returned to the sitting-room and took the tour again. Study, bedroom, sitting-room. Back to the study, floors creaking, my steps echoing. He was gone. Gone completely. His mortal remains rested in our family’s cemetery plot. I had hoped to capture something of his spirit here, in the last place he had lived. But it was an empty shell.
The concierge was still in his office. “Can you tell me who removed Mr. Castaigne’s possessions? And when?”
“Not exactly, Miss. Some men came, a couple of weeks ago. Said they had the family’s permission.”
“I am his family. His sister. I gave no permission. And a couple of weeks ago I was still in Paris.”
He shrugged. “Well, that’s what they said. And where? I think I heard them say Madison Avenue.”
My heart sank. Madison Avenue was a long street. I pulled my wallet from my handbag and held out several dollars. “Please, can you remember anything else?”
The man took the currency and counted it. “Maybe,” he said, smirking. “Make it an even ten and we’ll see.”
I produced two more dollars.
“Dr. John Archer,” he said.
* * *
A muscular servant admitted me into Dr. Archer’s establishment. “One moment, Miss Castaigne.” He vanished down a plushly carpeted hallway, bearing my card.
I was studying some prints of the Hudson River Valley on the walls of the foyer when a small cough startled me. I had not heard the man’s return.
But it wasn’t the servant. Behind me stood a figure of grey and silver – silver hair, pale skin, grey eyes, grey suit. “Miss Castaigne,” he murmured, extending a hand. “I am John Archer. He clasped my hand in both of his. “I am happy to meet you at last, Miranda Castaigne, despite the sad reason for your presence.”
“Thank you, Dr. Archer.” I extracted my hand. The hall was dimly lit, but did that account for the squinting right eye, a darker colour than its mate? A substitute for the original, perhaps?
“Come into my office, Miss Castaigne.” He applied his hand to the back of my arm. “This way, please.”
Seated in a chair opposite Dr. Archer’s desk, I told him I was seeking a coherent account of Hildred’s last days. “The person at the Asylum said only that he threw himself down a flight of stairs. He had been brought there the previous night, after an incident where a man had been murdered. It was assumed Hildred had committed the crime. I find that hard to believe. My brother was never a violent person.”
The burly manservant entered, bearing a tray with teapot and cups. Dr. Archer poured out. “Some tea, Miss Castaigne?” With his back to the windows, the disturbing squint was no longer visible.
“Miss Castaigne,” Dr. Archer said, “an injury to the brain, such as your brother sustained in the fall from his horse, can cause unpredictable, and indeed violent behaviour.”
“But that fall was more than four years ago! And you declared him cured. He wrote to me months ago, saying he had, as he put it, ‘paid my tuition to Dr. Archer.’”
The doctor’s lips stretched and thinned into a smile. “Yes, I remember that. Indeed, for several years Mr. Castaigne was in most respects as sane as anyone, but such injuries have lasting effects. That is why I insisted he visit me regularly after he left my direct care; and in fact I hired one or two individuals to keep a watch over him, especially after you left the country.”
“You had him watched! So how do you explain these events? Hildred is dead! How could he go from ‘as sane as anyone’ to dead – and in such a terrible way?”
“Calm yourself, Miss Castaigne.” The smile had vanished. Archer’s lips now emitted portentous words. “Clearly, some external event triggered a swift return to an irrational state and set off the sequence of events leading to his death. Do you have any idea what that trigger may have been?”
I took a sip of tea. It was delicious, hot and fragrant. “I don’t know. I’ve been abroad for the past three years. Hildred and I corresponded, of course. He did mention, last spring, that our cousin Louis and Miss Hawberk were likely to marry, but – ”
“Indeed. That may have had a profound effect on young Mr. Castaigne. Perhaps he, too, entertained romantic feelings for this young woman? He did, after all, frequent her father’s shop.”
“No. He never so much as hinted at such a thing. Dr. Archer, my brother Hildred was a … dreamy young man. Impractical, even before his injury. After it, he developed interests in obscure topics. Heraldry, and Napoleon. He became something of a recluse, but a violent attack on another person – that was entirely unlike him!” I set down the now empty teacup, my hand shaking a little.
“You were not in personal contact with him at the time, though. Subtle changes are not conveyed in letters, I fear.”
From a lazy young man about town, I have become active, energetic, temperate, and, above all — oh, above all else — ambitious. I remembered this sentence from one of Hildred’s last letters to me. Hildred, ambitious? God help me, I had smiled. And I had dismissed as a harmless whim the fact that he had begun dating his letters as though they came from the future – 1920.
All this was becoming overwhelming. I felt a little dizzy and decided it was time to end this conversation with Dr. Archer.
“May I ask, Miss Castaigne – what was the reason for your extended absence?” Dr. Archer folded his hands together on the desk and leaned forward slightly. The squint I thought I had seen in his right eye was no longer evident; perhaps I had been mistaken. There was no sense of urgency about him. He was prepared to listen. And I – oh, there was so much I could say! About the death of my father, which launched my mother into rural seclusion. Then Hildred’s accident and transformation. My decision to run away to Paris, comforting myself with the hope that he would someday return to his former self.
“I went to Paris to study art,” I replied, thinking how frivolous that sounded. “There are many Americans there. I became part of that group. It was a very … productive environment.” I felt myself blushing, as though Dr. Archer could see the memories behind my words – days of work and nights of debate and merriment, ramblings beneath the sun, in bird-haunted meadows, on crystalline lakes. The meshing of personalities and aspirations. And Jack Scott.
“Art,” said Dr. Archer, tilting his head and smiling. “Painting, sketching, charcoal, pastels, oils?”
“Printmaking,” I replied. “Lithography.”
“Ah.” He smiled again, without blinking. “And what led you to that medium?”
“Being around others who worked in it, I suppose.” My ears buzzed and my head felt as though it wanted to float away from my body. I hoped I wasn’t becoming ill.
“You were influenced.” He removed his hands from the desk and turned his chair slightly.
“I suppose so. Dr. Archer, I think I have taken up enough of your time – ”
“But you want to know what happened to Hildred, do you not? Well, I can show you.” He stood up. “Come with me.”
I stood up, and almost sat back down. My legs felt like wet ribbons. Dr. Archer grasped my arm firmly and conducted me farther down the hallway to a small elevator. The same muscular servant – or was he an orderly? – opened the sliding gate and heavy door. The conveyance carried us some unknown distance upward, or perhaps downward? I was unfamiliar with these machines. Once the sensation of motion ceased, the man opened the door and gate to another narrow hallway. The carpet here was thinner, and worn.
Without a word, Dr. Archer led me to an open door. Entering the room beyond, I looked around me, astonished.
I found myself in Hildred’s rooms, as I remembered them. There stood the furniture, there hung the familiar pictures. Not at the Benedick, of course, but here, in Dr. Archer’s house on Madison Avenue. If I looked out the window, I would not see the fountain playing or nursemaids wheeling infants along the paved walks. What would I see? Unsteadily, I moved forward, intending to part the nearest set of garnet-coloured curtains, but a large metal box caught my eye. About the size of a biscuit-tin, it had been fitted with metal knobs of some sort.
“What’s that?” I asked. My lips felt slightly numb. “And why did you bring Hildred’s things here?”
“I hoped to resume treating him, when I heard of his arrest and confinement. Unfortunately, his … accident prevented that.”
“It wasn’t an accident,” I muttered. “But his belongings… Why?”
“I wished to create a congenial, welcoming atmosphere, but he never arrived.”
“So he was to be brought here from the Asylum?”
“Yes. I saw Hildred at the Asylum, soon after his arrest and confinement, and offered to take charge of his case. They know me, at the Asylum.” He smiled again, like one who holds all the cards, squinting both his eyes. “I immediately arranged for his possessions to be moved here and placed as you see them before he arrived.”
“Except he killed himself first.” My head was full of fog and I found it hard to think.
“Miss Castaigne, you are quite pale.” He indicated an armchair. “Have a seat here. Pretend you are visiting Hildred. Miss Castaigne, are you familiar with crypto-mesmerism?”
“What?” Still thinking about what he had just told me, I sank onto the chair. “Crypto- I’ve never heard of it.”
“As I thought. Crypto-mesmerism is the effect of art upon susceptible minds. Certain pictures or writings may have a profound influence upon those who view or read them.”
“I suppose, but what – ?”
“Artistic temperaments especially lend themselves to the study of this effect. Your brother Hildred had such a temperament, unrealized though it was. He proved exquisitely susceptible, at least to one particular book.”
He went to a bookcase filled with what I had already recognized as Hildred’s collection of Napoleon books. Ignoring these, he drew out from among them a slender volume, which he handed to me. Swirls of yellow outlined in black adorned the cover. Among them was the title – The King in Yellow.
“I’ve heard of … this book,” I said, my tongue slow and awkward in my mouth. “What sort of influence did it have … on Hildred?”
Dr. Archer went to Hildred’s desk and removed a paper from its surface. He handed it to me. “This was one effect.”
On the paper were two words in my brother’s handwriting, repeated many times. Dozens of times. Hildred Rex. “What does this mean?”
“He thought he would be King. The lost King of America. Mr. Wilde, who was once a patient of mine, aided in my diagnosis and treatment.”
“And that’s why … Hildred murdered him?”
A nod. “ And now, Miss Castaigne, we have much to do. I’ve sent my man to your hotel for your baggage, as I’m sure you would not want to wear your brother’s clothes. Please make yourself comfortable.” He gestured toward the bed, whose plump pillows looked most inviting.
“But why – ?”
“You will be my guest for a while, Miranda Castaigne.” Dr. Archer smiled broadly now, showing large yellow teeth. “Your brother is dead, and your cousin Louis is temperamentally impossible. But you – you definitely have potential.” He grasped my arm yet again and led me toward the bed.
“Potential for what? What will I do here?”
“You will sleep. And when you wake, you will read The King in Yellow. Then we shall see.”
I fell onto the bed and black wings enfolded me. Far away, a voice intoned: …a Consort of the true Blood to serve Him…