From the author: Carnacki the Ghost-Finder investigates a peculiar haunting in Lewes...
Let us celebrate the hive of Venus, who rose from the sea; that hive of many names;
the mighty fountain from whence all kings are descended; from whence all the winged and immortal Loves were again produced.
It is most extraordinary and different from anything that I have had to do with; though that Buzzing Case was very queer, too.
--William Hope Hodgson,
"The Whistling Room"
The bees were loud, especially for this time of year. They swirled and spun in undulating clouds over the dome of bricks which occupied the centre of the garden. The clouds stretched and contracted, as if they were a single entity, rather than hundreds.
Thomas Carnacki watched the bees through the smudged glass of the conservatory window, and took a bite of his apple. He chewed and watched, tracking the movement of the bees with keen eyes. With his free hand, he traced their journey, from one side of the garden to the next, drawing lines through the grime built up on the glass.
Carnacki was a tall man, and built sturdy, with an athlete’s grace and a sailor’s steady precision. He had longish hair and a well-groomed moustache, and wore a well-tailored suit, such to put a certain class of client at ease. Three iron rings encircled the appropriate fingers on his left hand, and there were faint scars on his fingers and face, relics from previous cases. He took another bite of his apple, and turned away from the window. “And you say you’ve seen her, wandering about the garden, then?” he asked.
“I said I’ve seen something,” Southwark said. Oliver Southwark was a middling jelly of a man, squashed into a too-expensive suit, and constantly fiddling with his cuff-links. He sat hunched in one of a number of wicker chairs that stood sentinel in the conservatory. “It could be a stoat, for all I know.”
“Or a fellow like that chap last week, what?” Carnacki said. Southwark twitched in his chair. “Worked for your brother, didn’t he? Came back after the funeral, looking for a bit of dosh, some silver to sell, perhaps. What was his name?”
Carnacki looked back out the window as he spoke. Sunlight washed across the large and overgrown garden. Flowers ran rampant, untamed and unfettered by stones or wooden bracers, their expanse periodically interrupted by the shapes of bronze bowls, filled with water. Mulberry trees hunched warily against the ancient stone wall. The trees dated to at least the seventeenth century and the walls were even older, to judge by the Caen stone used in parts of its construction.
All in all, it gave one the impression of nature unbound. Save for the brick dome which crouched at its heart. Wooden boxes, spaced widely, jutted from the curve of the dome—the hives, Carnacki thought. That was where they’d found Whitley Southwark, the day he’d died. Heart failure was how the remaining Southwark had described it to Carnacki, and Carnacki saw no reason to dispute it.
“Nye,” Southwark said, grudgingly. “I recommended him to Whitley.”
“Bit of a bounder, what? You must have known, surely,” Carnacki said, more out of fascination for the way Southwark’s complexion changed than any real curiosity. Since meeting the man, Carnacki had come to the inescapable conclusion that Southwark was something of a cad. More, he was a cad with something to hide.
"I knew nothing of the sort," Southwark said. He sat back. "It's not surprising, mind you. Our father left us a rather substantial sum. There have always been stories about Whitley squirrelling much of his portion away.” He looked about the conservatory, his expression sour. “He didn’t spend any of it on the house, as you can plainly see.”
In truth, Carnacki found the house agreeable enough, if a tad bucolic for his tastes. It sat just outside of Lewes, in East Sussex, on the Lewes Downs. A Tudor hold-over, partially conquered by Victorian aesthetics at some point in the last two decades. But he didn’t disagree. Bad form, that. Instead, he took another bite of his apple. When he’d swallowed, he said, “In that case, what did he spend it on?”
Southwark didn’t look at him. Instead, he gestured listlessly towards the garden. “What do you think?” he replied. “Those blasted bees. And her, of course. Mustn’t bloody well forget her, must we?”
"By that you mean your late sister-in-law," Carnacki said. He glanced towards the garden, and the domed structure at its heart. A mausoleum, apparently. Built by Whitley Southwark for his wife, so that she might rest in peace in the garden he'd made for her. It had been a minor sensation in Lewes, Newhaven and Brighton, but hadn't stretched much past Sussex.
Southwark made an ugly sound. He shoved himself to his feet and stomped towards the window. He jabbed the pane with a finger, indicating the brick dome. "Melissa," he said. "Foreign, donchaknow? Dago of some sort." He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "Beautiful, to be sure—Whitley always had an eye for that sort—but not a proper wife." He leaned towards Carnacki conspiratorially. “Not even Christian, way I hear it. Neither Papist nor Presbyterian be.”
Southwark smirked. “No. Neither Whitley or I were ones for religion, you understand. Not at first, at any rate. She got him hooked on it, somehow. All her wild-eyed talk. Utter twaddle, mind, but Whitley was in love. Ruddy good thing she passed on first. God knows what she would have done with all of this.”
Carnacki looked at him. “Indeed—why, you might have had to find some other way to pay off your quite impressive array of debts. As it stands, you can simply sell your brother’s house and his effects. Quite the stroke of luck, that.” He took another bite of apple.
Southwark’s smirk slumped into a stiff frown. “Listen, can you really do something about—about all of this?” he said. “I’ve read those stories in The Idler, you know. The ones by that Dodgson chap...that’s why I invited you up. Not to discuss my financial situation, dash it!” He gestured towards the garden. “There’s something queer creeping around out there.” He hesitated. “I can hear it, sometimes.”
“The stoat,” Carnacki said.
Southwark’s glare could have curdled milk. “You know what I mean.”
“Yes, I rather believe I do,” Carnacki said. “Care to give me the tour?”
Southwark paled. “You—you want me to go out there?”
“You are likely more attuned to whatever psychical vibrations are in evidence here,” Carnacki said, depositing his apple core on the window sill. “You may possess what I like to call an ‘attractive vibration’, leading to you having seen whatever it is more than once. Therefore, you will recognise it if you see it again.” He gestured to the door. “It is a working theory of mine that most hauntings are the result of this...a house or individual comes to resonate in peculiar fashion, thus attracting such phenomena.”
Southwark led him out into the garden. “But you can get rid of it?”
“Almost certainly, though it may take some time.”
Southwark turned on him. “Time,” he repeated.
“This is a scouting mission, if you will," Carnacki said. "We must determine the nature of the phenomena before we endeavour to modify it. I shall stay the night, of course. Then, once I have ascertained the lay of the land, I shall send for any equipment I might require. Shall we?"
Reluctantly, Southwark led Carnacki out into the garden. The air throbbed with the buzzing of bees, darting from blossom to blossom. Southwark shied away from the largest concentrations of the insects, and Carnacki followed his example.
If he wanted to examine the insects, well, there were plenty of dead bees littered the crushed swathe of grass where Nye’s body had been found. Southwark skirted the spot with almost comical nervousness. "They say the bees--he must have been allergic, must have," Southwark said. "No idea what caused them to swarm like that though, never seen the like."
"Perhaps he disturbed the queen," Carnacki said.
"Couldn't possibly, the hives are along the back of Melissa's tomb," Southwark said, gesturing limply towards the brick dome. He stopped and extricated a handkerchief from his pocket. He mopped at his face. "Whole blasted garden revolves around that dreadful thing. The more things change and all that tosh."
"You sound jealous, Southwark," Carnacki said.
"What are you insinuating?"
"Nothing at all. Where did you say you saw her?"
"I didn't say I saw her. I said I saw..." Southwark began.
"Something, yes. But the question was where?" Carnacki looked around. He had the vague sense that the garden had been laid in a sort of hexagonal fashion. Like the interior of a beehive, he thought. The hairs on his neck prickled, and he found his eyes drawn to the mulberry trees which hunched near the wall. For a moment, he thought he saw something move, a shape twist and dance slowly, entreatingly. But it was nothing more than a waving column of bees, spinning gently above a thick carpet of wild flowers.
He wondered if that were what Southwark had seen. The senses could play tricks on the mind, especially if there were some other factor at play...strong drink, a concussion. Guilt...He glanced at Southwark, considering. Then, he turned his attentions to the brick dome. "Curious looking mausoleum." He circled the dome, studying the carefully placed bricks, staying well away from the stacked box-hives which lined its rear curve.
"Yes, it's Greek. Or so Whitley claimed. Began with a 'th'," Southwark said, as Carnacki made to pull the door open. It was already ajar, as if the last visitor hadn't shut it properly. "Here now, you can't just open that up!" Southwark protested.
"Why ever not? That's why it has a door, after all." Carnacki paused. “My word--a tholos,” he murmured, as he studied the beehive-like interior of Melissa Southwark’s final resting place.
“A what?” Southwark said.
“A domed tomb. A beehive tomb, in the colloquial.” Carnacki scratched his chin and looked around. “The Minoans and the Mycenaeans used them quite frequently, as I recall. The bee often appears in grave-decorations in Crete, and around Delphi.” He traced the curve of the wall. “Indeed, the bee has long been a symbol of immortality and rebirth, for the Merovingians all the way down to Napoleon.”
“Fascinating,” Southwark said.
Carnacki looked around. “Yes, it rather is,” he said. “When you showed me the library earlier, I noticed quite a few volumes on folklore, and the like. Mostly relating to agriculture.” He ducked his head and stepped inside the tomb.
The air inside smelled dry and sweet. There was a smaller set of double doors, roughly the size of a closet, set at the rear of the tomb, with a large, square plaque set into one. He examined the plaque. It appeared to be made of clay, with a winged woman whose lower half resembled that of a bee, embossed on it, surrounded by stylised flowers. There was space for a similar plaque on the second door, but it was missing. He traced the spot where it would have rested, noting the chisel-marks. Someone had prised it loose and taken it. The question was—why?
“She’s in here, then?” he asked, knocking on the door. Given the size of the tholos, he wondered if Melissa Southwark had been entombed sitting up. Popular belief had it that famed Liverpudlian William McKenzie had been buried in a similar manner, as well as a certain clergyman by the name of Rant, in Burnstow-on-Sea.
“Yes, safe in her bloody hive,” Southwark said, from outside. “I intend to have her transferred elsewhere, as soon as possible—with all due respect, mind. The Southwarks have a family plot at St. Anne’s; she can join Whitley there. I’m sure he’d want that.”
“Would he now?” Carnacki murmured.
"What were his wishes, in regard to this place?" Carnacki asked.
Southwark was silent. Then, he cleared his throat and said, "Wanted it turned over to the community. Wanted it to become a public space, for the punters to come and stroll, arm in arm." He laughed. "Dashed waste, that."
“Yes. There’s a plaque missing from this door,” Carnacki said. “I don’t recall anything being found on the unfortunate Mr. Nye’s body.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Southwark said. Carnacki glanced over his shoulder, studying the other man, where he lurked in the doorway. Southwark was sweating profusely, and his handkerchief was sodden. Bees crawled across the lintel of the tholos, humming softly. Carnacki joined Southwark outside. Swarms of insects congregated close by, undulating in curious fashion above the flowers Whitley Southwark had so lovingly tended in life.
And perhaps in death, as well, Carnacki thought. "I'll need a spare beekeeping suit, if there's one laying about," he said. Southwark nodded jerkily. He looked up at the sky.
"It'll be dark soon. If you don't require anything else...?"
"Some books from your brother's library. Perhaps a pot of tea, or some coffee, to hold Morpheus at bay," Carnacki said, looking about the garden. "I'll wait in the tholos, I think."
"The...?" Southwark hesitated. "Are you--are you sure?"
"Centre of the garden, you said. Best vantage point, I think." Carnacki smiled. "Now, about that tea?" He extended his hand towards the conservatory, and Southwark led the way, mopping at his face with his by-now grimy handkerchief.
There was no tea to be had, unfortunately. But he was able to scrounge a thermos of strong black coffee, and thus fortified, girded himself in one of Whitley Southwark's beekeeping suits and went back out into the garden. He carried an armload of books and the battered Gladstone bag he'd brought with him from London. Oliver Southwark bid him a curt farewell from the other side of the garden wall, before departing for his residence in Lewes.
The surviving Southwark brother had seemed eager to get away from the garden and its buzzing inhabitants. The reason was obvious. As night came on, the buzzing grew louder and the bees grew agitated, rather than somnolent. Dressed as he was, Carnacki had little fear of bees. And whatever else came, he was confident that he was prepared.
He hadn’t bothered to bring any of his heavier equipment. The electric pentacle was still on the fritz after that affair at Hooton Hall, and he didn’t foresee a need for the rest, not until he knew what he was dealing with. Nevertheless, he’d brought the basics.
As he entered the tholos, he set the books, the thermos and the Gladstone down on the floor. He opened the bag, and removed a length of chalk, a thin whisk, a small electric lantern, and several glass bottles of water. The thin whisk was crafted from braided hyssop, and the water was from a blessed spring in County Cork. The chalk was special, despite mostly being composed of the normal stuff, and expensive.
Real blessings weren’t ten a penny whatever the Church claimed, and the powdered bones of martyrs were costly things in their own right. The lantern was of his own design, with a collection of coloured plates set into its eye. Besides giving light, it was also a form of protection. Various ab-human manifestations reacted strongly to certain hues.
Carefully, he used the hyssop whisk to sweep the floor. Then he marked the first and eighth signs of the Saaamaaa Ritual opposite the outer doors and the inner as well. These he connected with triple lines crossed at every seventh inch. Next, he sprinkled the contents of one of the glass vials on the step outside the tholos, anointing the ground and the air. Finally, he pulled the outer door of the tholos half shut, so that the fading sunlight could still seep in. Then, preparations complete, he settled back to wait, his stack of books and his coffee to keep him company.
The books were to be sold at auction, of course, along with everything else in the house. The remaining Southwark had even had the gall to offer him first refusal. Despite his annoyance at Southwark’s behaviour, Carnacki was forced to admit that there were several volumes which interested him. The recently departed had certainly had his obsessions, but they ran deeper than mere apiculture.
Carnacki chose a book, Cottonwood's The Oldest Rite, at random, and began to flip through the pages. Whitley Southwark had dog-eared several pages, and marked a number of passages on each of these. Carnacki read one of the marked passages, which held forth that the Mycenaean Potnia, known as the Pure Mother Bee, was served by priestesses who gave over their old names to take on the sobriquet of Melissa, or 'bee'. He glanced at the inner doors of the tholos, and his eyes were drawn again to the missing plaque.
"Bad form, that," he said, out loud. Outside, the omnipresent hum of the bees seemed to dim for a bit, before rising again to full volume. He looked around, thinking of what Southwark had said. Whitley Southwark had wanted the garden to become a park, a place for people to come and worship nature. And perhaps not just nature.
Bemused, he flipped through the book for a few more minutes before putting it aside and selecting a selection of verse by Pindar. More marked passages greeted his idle investigation, these mostly concerned with the oracle at Delphi, sometimes called the Delphic Bee, who sought her inspiration in the honeycomb, rather than the laurel leaf.
The remaining books were more of the same. Bees and honey and goddesses born from honeycombs. There was a treatise on the strange similarities between Colel-Cab, the Mayan queen of bees, and a Hindu goddess, Bhramari, as well as a book on the Roman indigitamenta, including Mellona, who ensured the sweetness of honey.
When he looked up from the last book, he realised that there was no longer any sunlight creeping in through the half-open door. Night had fallen. A moment later, a high-pitched piping sound filled the tomb, and he knew his vigil was at an end. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end, and he instinctively reached for his cigarette case, only to recall that there was no way to smoke, dressed as he was. The piping sound grew louder, and his nerves jangled along with it. It was different from the buzzing he'd heard all afternoon. There was an air of purpose to it, which had earlier been lacking. Purpose, and menace.
It only took a little nudge, with the right kind of brain. Certain men resonated with the spirit world like a tuning fork, their blood and thought acting as meat and drink to forces from Outside. Aster had been that way and the American, Wilcox. Carnacki himself had something of that sensitivity, as well, though thankfully not as much as some. Still, it was just enough to allow him to feel...something. There was something abroad in the garden.
He turned slowly, listening. But for what, he couldn’t say. The hum of the bees rose and fell like a song heard from a distance. A song of mourning, Carnacki thought, as the sensation he'd come to term 'the creep' came on him.
The grass outside rustled, and the branches of the trees creaked, though he felt no breeze through the half-open door. Possessed of a sudden desire to see whatever it was, he took an step towards the door, but stopped himself just before he broke the line of the Saaamaaa signs. He felt a curious sensation, as of some anticipation denied, and then the sound of insects swelled to wash over him with almost physical force.
“Should have brought the trembler-box,” he said, out loud. His voice sounded fainter than he liked, and the buzzing grew louder, until it seemed as if the very bricks of the tholos were trembling in sympathy with the din. Quickly, he reached across and snatched up the lantern, hoping to see whatever it was that was approaching.
“An aeiirii manifestation, perhaps,” he continued, talking to himself, as, in the light of his lantern, bees humped and swarmed, filling the crack of the doorway. They buzzed angrily, and he knew that without the protection of the Saaamaaa Ritual, and the suit he wore, he might have been served as badly as the unfortunate Nye. Even so, the vibrations of their buzzing reverberated through him, as loudly as a cloister bell.
A passage from the Sigsand MS. ran through his head--'thyr be noe sayfetie to be gained bye gayrds of holieness when the monyster hath pow'r to speak throe woode and stoene.' So it had been during the 'Nodding Door' business and the 'Laughing Ape' case, and so it seemed to be now.
He adjusted the plates, setting the first of them--a green one--in place. Emerald light washed across the interior of the tholos, and for a moment, he allowed himself to believe it had worked. The repellent buzzing faded. Then, a single sharp note thrummed through the tholos, and the plate cracked. Desperately he stripped it out and slid a blue one into the slot. An azure glow replaced the emerald, and again, the noise faded.
Carnacki extended the lantern, hoping to drive whatever force was controlling the swarm back. Strange shapes moved within the mass of fluttering insects, rising briefly before vanishing back into the whole. It was as if something sought to make itself known, but lacked the ability to do so. The buzzing grew in volume, and he stumbled back, feeling as if he'd been punched. The lantern slipped from his hand and crashed to the floor. The blue plate shattered as the lantern rolled across the ground.
He pressed his hands to his ears and sank down to one knee, trying to recall something—some phrase or snippet of lore—which might be of use. But the sound hammered at him with brutal malignancy, pummelling his mind and soul. It rose and fell like the roar of some vast, dark ocean, crashing over him and bowling him under. Was this what Nye had felt, as he tried to escape the garden that night?
As Carnacki crouched, head aching, he saw a glint of something on the inner door of the tholos. The remaining plaque--something about it drew his eye. He reached out, and his fingers came away covered in flecks of dried clay. Gold shimmered. Suddenly, Carnacki thought he knew where all of Whitley Southwark's money had gone.
The buzzing grew louder and louder, as bees pressed against the tomb of Melissa Southwark in their thousands. They crawled and drew close, bunching together and all at once, Carnacki saw it. A face; whether that of a man or a woman, he couldn’t say, but it was a face all the same. A face was peering in at him through the crack of the doorway. It leaned around the edge of the door, like the face of an urchin pressed against a shop window, just outside of the barrier of the Saaamaaa signs.
Eyes made from the vibrating wings of honey bees examined him with slow regard and something that might have been a mouth opened. The buzzing changed in pitch, and he felt a chill course through him as what might have been a voice pulsed on the trembling air. Words rose and fell, shaped in some alien fashion by the wings of the bees.
Then, if the vibrations of a man’s larynx produced words, why not the wing-membranes of a bee, he thought. The air in the tholos grew warm, and it smelled of honey and something else, something which he could not name. He wondered why it had chosen to talk, rather than attack...perhaps it sensed that he meant it no particular harm. Or perhaps he'd given it no reason to do otherwise.
Carnacki could not say how long it murmured to him, or even what it had said. But when it finally fell silent, and the bees began to disperse, he felt compelled to speak up, to show it that, despite everything, he had understood.
Limbs trembling, heart thumping, he reached out and placed his hand in the gap where the missing plaque would have rested. The buzzing faded as he did so, as if the speaker had taken a sudden breath. He looked at the thinning swarm, and the echoes of the face he had glimpsed within it, and said, "I will."
As if that had been the signal they were waiting for, the face broke apart as the remaining bees departed, leaving him in blessed silence. Carnacki sat for a time, to compose himself. Then, he removed the netted mask and breathed deeply. The air no longer smelled of honey; at least no more so than usual. Nonetheless, the garden would likely not be safe until daylight. Just because it had spared him once, did not mean that it would do so again. He picked up his lantern and settled back to wait for dawn.
When Southwark arrived, Carnacki was outside the conservatory, sitting on the windowsill. He'd stripped off the beekeeping suit, and was enjoying the dregs of his coffee as the other man stepped warily out into the garden. "You made it safely through, then?"
"Quite," Carnacki said. He pulled out his cigarette case and proffered it to Southwark. The man waved it aside.
“You...you’ve seen her then?”
“I’ve seen something,” Carnacki said, selecting a cigarette from his case. “Your brother was a sight more spiritual than you made out, wasn’t he?”
Southwark frowned. “I don’t see what that has to do with anything.”
“No, I daresay you dashed well don’t,” Carnacki said. “This garden, that tomb, it’s all of a piece, you see. Part of a grand whole, invisible to those who cannot see.”
“What are you blathering about?”
“Nothing of interest to you, I'm sure. You're more a materialist. You recommended Nye to your brother. But Nye wasn’t any sort of gentleman’s gentleman, was he? He’s not likely to be listed on the membership rolls of the Junior Ganymede Club, one might say.” Carnacki lit his cigarette and puffed contentedly for a moment. He plucked the cigarette from between his lips and pointed the glowing tip at Southwark. “No, I’ll wager he was your spy in your brother’s household, what?”
Southwark sputtered. It had been a guess, and from the looks of it, a good one. Before Southwark could respond, Carnacki bulled on. “He was looking for the money of course. You wanted to know how much of his inheritance your brother had left. What you intended, should it prove to be substantial, I can’t say and I won’t insult you by guessing. Your brother keeled over not long after, though. And Nye, clever Nye, brought you the plaque—the one that’s missing from the door of the your sister-in-law’s tomb.” Carnacki blew a plume of smoke into the air.
“It was gold,” Southwark said, dully. “Under the clay, it was gold.”
“Yes. He must have learned of it while in your brother's employ. And in the dark of night, while the bees were sleeping, Nye came back, possibly at your behest. Again, I won't insult you by making an accusation. He wasn’t so lucky that time, of course.” Carnacki smiled thinly. “He woke her up, you see. And when he came back...she was waiting.”
Southwark’s expression reminded Carnacki of a rabbit in a snare. He licked his lips. “You—I—he was stung. Allergic, they said,” he muttered. Bees buzzed nearby.
“I daresay anyone would be, after that many stings,” Carnacki said.
“You—but you can do something, then?” Southwark said. “You can...put her back where she belongs?” The buzzing was growing louder, as he spoke.
Southwark twitched and flailed, as a bee buzzed about his head lazily. “No?” he squeaked. He batted nervously at the air. More bees joined the first, circling him. The garden was alive with their strange, sad song.
“No.” Carnacki stubbed out his cigarette on the sill of the window. “I should do as your brother wished, Southwark. And I should return that plaque your man stole. Some forces are beyond the remit of honourable men.” Southwark opened his mouth, to protest perhaps or to curse, but his words were drowned out by the rising hum of the bees.
Southwark went pale. His eyes widened as he stared at something just past Carnacki’s shoulder. Then, without a word, he turned and fled back into the house. Carnacki watched him go. Something touched his knuckles.“Off you go,” he said, softly. He raised his hand, and the bee hummed away, as the buzzing behind him faded.
If there were any words there, he did not hear them.
~ For Sam Gafford ~
This story originally appeared in Carnacki: The Lost Cases (2017).
Jazz Age Britain is rife with the impossible. Fashionable unwrapping parties awaken the dead. Ghouls stalk the Underground. Krampus steals the sinful. Famous magicians are kidnapped by shadows. Only the Royal Occultist can set these right.
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