The Crime Readers' Association

Crimes at Midnight by Graham Brack

A classic ghost story for Hallowe'en and long winter nights

I, James Baxter Lorimer, physician, of Inverculter House in the City of Edinburgh, set forth by my own hand my history for fear that I will not survive this night, that an account of the events which have led to my passing may be made known.


As a young man, newly qualified in my profession, I held a succession of temporary posts. I developed an interest in diseases of the mind which were then managed in a most barbarous and un-Christian way; and, my desire in this field being known to my friends, one drew my attention to an advertisement for a post of assistant physician at a private asylum in a withdrawn part of this city. It was the property of a Dr Barraman, who had, at the time, some reputation and a lucrative, if small, practice serving the prosperous families of the New Town. I applied for the post and was successful.


The duties required me to live in, so I was given a room in one of the attics – large enough, in all honesty, though the slanting roof occasionally caused me some discomfort if I forgot to duck when going to bed – and dined with the Barraman family, which consisted of the doctor, his wife and two daughters, Mary and Sophia. Mary was about to be married to the son of a prominent mercantile family in the city, and plays little part in my tale. Sophia, on the other hand, was – and is – a beauty, small of frame, with lustrous black hair and sparkling blue-grey eyes. The intelligent reader will have grasped the nature of my feelings for her.


The house had been adapted to the nature of the work done there. We resided in the east wing, which was three storeys high, then there was a central hallway and staircase leading to the first floor. However, stout locked doors prevented entry there, and the staircase was therefore little used. Instead we used the stairs at the two ends of the building.


The west wing contained rooms which were separated from each other, any connecting doors having been removed and the entrances sealed. There were, in all, eight such rooms on the first floor along with a consulting room. Above these were, I understood, Dr Barraman’s laboratory and a storage room. Dr Barraman was a keen botanist and was engaged in a study of the constituent chemistry of the various families of plants with a view to distilling their efficacious principles for use in treatment.


The occasion for my employment was that Dr Barraman’s practice having become extensive, he was often required to leave the premises to attend to his highly strung patients, and was not always able to predict the hour of his return; for which reason he required a competent deputy. The pay was not great, but my board and lodging were provided and the cases of several of the inmates proved highly instructive to me.


There was one other person I might mention at this point. Walter, who was described as the porter, but whose function was largely to subdue such of the patients as required physical restraint, Dr Barraman being unsuited to such work. Walter lived out, but had a small room by the back door where he could make himself comfortable if required at night. There was no bed but he had a large chair and it benefited from the heat of the kitchen range.


One evening not long after my arrival the Barraman family were at the opera. I had been left in charge, with Walter to assist me if necessary. I inspected the eight rooms at about eight o’clock, then sat down to my supper while Walter kept watch.


I do not recall how long after it was that Walter appeared, showing every sign of acute agitation.


‘One of the patients is fearful sick, doctor,’ he told me. ‘I think he may be like to die.’


This surprised me considerably. All the patients had seemed physically well shortly before.


‘Which patient is that, Walter?’


‘The doctor’s special patient, sir.’


I knew nothing of a special patient. Presumably Walter had assumed that I knew more than I did.


‘Lead me to him, then, please,’ I said, grabbing my bag and my frock-coat.


Walter led me to the end of the upper floor and up the stairs to Dr Barraman’s laboratory. Producing another key, he unlocked a door at the rear of the laboratory that I had thought must be a storage room of some kind.


The sight within was appalling. A man was lying on the floor, his arms secured to his sides with broad leather straps. He appeared malnourished, for his shirt, while fitting well at the shoulders, was otherwise too large for his frame. It was clear that he was in a very poor state of health, fevered and gaunt, too feeble to move.


‘Walter, bring water!’ I commanded, and set about doing what little I could for the poor wretch. I carried him to his pallet bed, an easy task given his diminished state, and when Walter returned I held a cup to the man’s lips and bade him drink. I washed his face and asked Walter to bring a clean shirt and underclothes for him, and to search the kitchen for any broth that we might warm to give him sustenance.


To my surprise, as I was swabbing his brow the man spoke. His voice was feeble, but I could hear most of his words without difficulty.


‘You show me the first kindness I have had here,’ he whispered.


‘How long have you been here?’ I asked. ‘And what is your name?’


‘I am Thomas Murcher,’ he replied. ‘I do not know precisely how long. I fell ill, and when I came to myself I was in this awful place. My family has done this to me, sir. They covet my wealth.’


‘Such knavery!’ I exclaimed. ‘I am Dr James Lorimer, and I will do what I can for you.’


He seized my arm. ‘Will you truly, doctor?’ he asked.


‘Anything within my power,’ I replied.


My intention was good, but my powers inadequate. Before the Barraman family returned, the unfortunate Thomas Murcher was no more. In giving my account of the evening I taxed Dr Barraman with his seclusion of a patient who might have survived had I known of his needs sooner. Barraman appeared unconcerned.


‘The man suffered from delusions of the most florid nature,’ he said, ‘and had to be kept apart from others for their sake and his. It is a happy release. Now he is in a place where cares can no longer oppress him.’


Murcher was buried at a small private funeral two days later. I was not present, because Dr Barraman was invited. He returned in a very good humour. I kept to my room that evening and declined supper. I had no appetite.


My relationship with Dr Barraman, never intimate, became more strained. I suspect he retained me only because he had no alternative without great inconvenience; and I believe that he found no cause for complaint in my work. I had made some enquiries in my free time, and come to the awful suspicion that he had been bribed by the family to declare Thomas Murcher a lunatic and to arrange his confinement without hope of release. The neglect that Murcher had suffered ensured that he would soon die and forfeit his considerable fortune to his brother David, sister Grace and her husband Edmund Fairlawn. I wanted to take the matter to the authorities though it cost me my position, but I had no proof, nor any means of obtaining it; and, in time, I decided I must lay my suspicions aside.


One evening I was sitting at my desk reading a medical book. The last rays of the sun had died and I lit my lamp so I could continue reading, when I heard a sound behind me. I turned, and to my astonishment saw a man sitting in my armchair.


‘Who are you? And how the devil did you get here?’ I asked.


The figure smiled. ‘Don’t you recognise me, doctor? As for getting in, I never left.’


I goggled in incomprehension.


‘Thomas Murcher, at your service. I have come to thank you for your kindness to me, and to do one for you.’


‘For me? But how?’


‘I hear nothing but good of your work, Dr Lorimer. It is such a shame that your sphere of operation is so limited, being but an assistant, when your talents would enable you to help so many more in an enlarged role.’


‘It is true,’ I said cautiously, ‘that I hope one day to be able to set myself up independently, but that day is still far off, I’m afraid.’


‘Is it?’ Murcher smiled. ‘Let me be frank, Dr Lorimer. My time is limited. I am, as you are aware, a dead man. Well, not entirely dead, perhaps, but let us not quibble. And you know that I have some cause for complaint against my family. Do not trouble yourself to deny it; I know your innermost thoughts as if they were my own. Unfortunately it takes me a considerable time to accumulate the energy that permits a reunion such as this. I believe it will be a twelvemonth before I am able to repeat it. I should not wish my revenge to be thwarted by the illness of my victims. I desire, therefore, that you should use your undoubted skills to keep them healthy so that I may avenge myself upon them. Note that I ask you to do no more than you are already bound by your Hippocratic Oath to do. There is nothing here to tax your conscience, be it ever so tender.’


‘But what will you do to them?’


‘That is not your concern. If you help me, I will help you.’


I hope the reader will believe me when I say that I had no thought of personal advantage at this point. I acted out of my conviction that Murcher was entitled to his revenge and that I should assist him to the utmost of my powers, so long as I was not asked to do anything unethical; and so I assented.


‘Capital!’ He offered me his hand to shake, but mine passed straight through it. ‘Ah!’ he said, ‘I forgot we cannot do that!’


‘What do you wish me to do?’ I enquired.


‘Tonight? Keep to your room. Only that.’


He picked up his hat.


‘We’ll meet again.’


There was a sudden chill in the air, and he faded from sight. I rubbed my eyes to see if I had been dreaming. Though all science said I must have been, I felt most powerfully that I had not, and dutifully kept behind my door that night.


I was wakened in the morning by a succession of terrible screams. Grabbing my trousers I rushed to see what was afoot, and found Sophia sobbing at the door of her father’s bedroom. Unable to speak, she pointed to his bed.


Dr Barraman was dead; and he had not died peacefully in his sleep. While his body was unmarked, there was an expression of the greatest possible terror on his face. So far as I could tell, this horror had caused his heart to stop abruptly, and he had died some hours before, unable to summon help.


In the aftermath of this awful event his practice fell into my hands. I received a substantial increase in my salary, on the strength of which I proposed marriage to Sophia, which she accepted. Very properly, she refused to wed until the year’s mourning was completed, and therefore we were still unmarried when Murcher made his next appearance.


‘My felicitations, doctor,’ he said. ‘Sadly I cannot be at your wedding, but I can give you a gift. Your kindness two years since is not forgotten.’


‘Did you murder Dr Barraman?’ I asked.


‘Were there signs of violence upon him? No, I thought not. He died, certainly; he died when I was there; but how can one explain a great Mystery to one incapable of understanding it? I am grateful to you once again. My sister’s abscess might well have proved extremely dangerous to her without your skill in draining and cleaning it.’


How did he know of that, I wondered?


‘This is pleasant,’ he continued, ‘but my time is short. You will oblige me by keeping to your room once more. And so, farewell.’


I sat stupefied. I doubt I slept a wink all night, hard though I tried. And, as I feared, I was once more woken by Sophia’s scream.


Her mother lay dead on the bedroom floor. In her hand was the instrument of her destruction, a shard of glass from a broken mirror, with which a savage wound to her throat had been inflicted; but it was hard to prise it from her grip, and Sophia, who occupied the adjoining room, had heard nothing.


Our marriage had to be postponed in the circumstances; and, for the sake of propriety, Sophia went to live with her sister until that happy day. The general view was that it was not coincidental that Mrs Barraman had taken her own life exactly one year to the day after the death of her husband, the recollection of which, in the opinion of the Procurator Fiscal, had disordered her mind so as to cause her to encompass her own destruction.


Time passed. My practice grew, and I prospered. Called to take care of Edmund Fairlawn, I felt a pang of conscience at the thought of what lay in store for him, but as Murcher said, what had I to do except my bounden duty? I treated his gallstones with my skills, received my fee, and put it out of my mind.


It was not out of Murcher’s.


‘My brother-in-law is recovering well, considering how sick he was,’ he began our next conversation.


‘You will know I cannot discuss my patients,’ I stammered.


‘No, no, of course not; very proper of you.’


‘Am I to keep my room again tonight?’


‘Not at all. In fact, it would be a good thing if you were seen by many people in some public place. For your good, you understand, not mine! You might take your fiancée to dine. I apologise, by the way, for delaying your wedding last year; but if you were to receive the entire fortune upon marriage it was necessary to remove the poor widow’s interest in the matter.’


He smiled once more.


‘I think our bargain, Dr Lorimer, has worked to the great advantage of us both, has it not?’


So saying, he left me.


The evening newspaper the next day told of the sad passing of Mr Edmund Fairlawn. The circumstances of his death were most striking, I read. Mr Fairlawn was found in the morning having apparently choked on his own vomit, a consequence, it was supposed, of a bilious attack consequent upon the gallstones he had suffered from for some time. So sudden was this spasm that he had attempted to clear his throat by stuffing his handkerchief into his mouth, surely evidence of the severity of the attack, the writer opined. Mr Fairlawn left a fine house and a fortune of above fifty thousand pounds to his dear wife Grace, we learned.


We celebrated our marriage two months later, and Sophia returned to her family home, now our joint abode, where she has been a dutiful and attentive wife to me. We had been living in perfect happiness for ten months, when Murcher reappeared. My wife was reading in the parlour while I attended to some papers in my study.


‘Well, well! This is much better than your old room!’ came a cheery voice.


‘Surely by now your revenge is sated?’ I sighed.


‘Not quite. I hope that Grace has been less tardy in paying your fees since she has had Edmund’s extensive fortune?’


‘I cannot complain,’ I answered.


‘Excellent! Well, is it to be brother or sister tonight? My brother may be the bigger villain, but even the most skilled doctor may not be able to preserve Grace forever. It puzzles me that she has not died of poison, since she is so full of the stuff.’


Mrs Grace Fairlawn, the celebrated hostess and benefactor of several local charities, was found dead at home the next day. It was believed that she may have swooned at the top of a flight of stairs and broke her neck in the fall. One odd feature of the calamity was that she was found holding a walking stick that once belonged to her late brother Thomas, although there was no obvious reason for her to do so. Perhaps, opined her obituary writer, she was meditating upon his sad fate and, lost in reflection, missed her footing?


When Murcher next appeared I noticed that he was less distinct than he had been.


‘It is only to be expected,’ he explained. ‘As time passes and my anger abates it becomes harder to generate the energy needed for these appearances. But I shall complete my task.’


‘Surely tonight will see your last visit?’ I exclaimed. ‘Everyone who did you ill has met their fate.’


‘Not quite,’ mused Murcher, smiling slightly. ‘But you have nothing to fear. Your kindness has not been forgotten. I must congratulate you, by the way, on the birth of your son. Family can be such a blessing … sometimes.’


My wife was reading the evening newspaper the next day when she drew my attention to a report of the death of Mr David Murcher, who had died in a terrible house fire.


‘Such an unlucky family!’ she remarked. ‘His brother was a patient here, you know.’


‘So I understand,’ I said guardedly.


‘Unfortunately the man suffered from delusions that his family meant him harm. Father had to restrain him for his own safety. In the end he refused all food and drink. Father and I were compelled to feed him broth via a funnel and tube. It was most unpleasant. He used the foulest language and swore revenge upon us both.’


He is due again tonight. I will defend Sophia with my life if need be, but who is to know what powers such a one may have? I have my revolver and I will not leave her side at midnight – what was that scream?


Read more about author Graham Brack here


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