Damp and pestilent is the ever-present mist which encircles the brooding, monolithic bulk of that most feared of fashionable country retreats, Mudshark Towers. Foul, mouldering, dripping, oozing, suppurating fog creeps into every sinister nook and cranny, and infects every corner with its clammy fingers.
Usually. Today was quite nice, for a change. An impudent nor' easter had seen fit to blow away the ill-humours and the sun shone unexpectedly on the glistening turrets and crumbling crenellations, causing steam to rise sullenly from the ancient stone, and frightening the life out of Florentina's pet vampire bats, returning tardily from a night on the bevvy. In the early morning sunshine, flags fluttered and pennants danced all along the walls of the steaming pile, lending an air of unexpected gaiety to the erstwhile sombre castle.
Or so it seemed. Closer inspection would have revealed that these decorations were no celebration of the Family's Heraldry, nor even Montague's left over bunting. Closer inspection of these unexpected blooms which fluttered triumphantly in the freshening gale could lead to only one, inescapable conclusion. Dudley was doing his washing.
In his crumbling, and, due to the prevailing weather conditions, now exceedingly draughty tower, Dudley stirred the great boiling cauldron containing his weekly wash and grumbled. Dudley was renowned within the Family for his fastidiousness when it came to his personal apparel. Not for him the rough, homespun look affected by other relatives, and generally achieved without too much difficulty after a night in The Fin. Dudley was a perfectionist in all things, not least in matters sartorial, and to this end, his shirts were woven from finest, organically grown Siberian cotton, hand stitched by a reclusive order of blind nuns, and transported to Mudshark Towers packed within layers of rose petals and ostrich-down. In keeping with such fastidiousness, he insisted on donning a fresh garment every hour (on the hour), so, as even the most mathematically challenged reader will discern, the weekly total of these luxury garments requiring the twin-tub treatment was, well.... considerable.
I won't even begin to tell you about the handkerchiefs.
Nevertheless, Dudley was not a man to shirk his duties, and every Monday, the huge copper cauldron was filled to the brim with a mixture of caustic soda, bleach and granite chippings, then the fire was lit beneath the great vessel, and the shirts boiled for a scant three hours while grateful peasants took it in turn to tread the seething maelstrom. Onerous though the task was, Dudley shouldered the responsibility with true Mudshark heroism, changing peasants regularly, making sure the legs were worn down no further than knee-level (a humanitarian, to boot!), and dreamt of the day when the Family might invest in a fully automatic cauldron.
However, his satisfaction at seeing the gleaming garments dance on the ramparts was tempered with a dread which lay heavy on his heart at the thought of the torment to come. The ironing.
Down in the courtyard underneath Dudley's steaming tower, Montague was in a similar frame of mind. Frowning, he blinked suspiciously behind the enormous magnifying glass with which he was examining, in minute detail, every inch of his beloved yak cart. Florentina had assured him the damage was 'only cosmetic', and Monty knew of old the futility of casting aspersions on Florentina's cart-handling capabilities.
"...or it'll be turnip-sushi for a month," he grumbled, gingerly picking the last remnants of the previous evening's chilli pudding from between his teeth. Intent as he was on examining the micro-details, for a moment, Montague almost missed the cosmetically missing wheel, but as the full horror of the situation dawned on him, his jaw dropped and he emitted a scream to chill the blood and strike fear into the stoutest heart.
Fortunately, such noises were commonplace around Mudshark Towers, so no relative was unduly disturbed, and Montague was saved from further vocally challenging expressions of anguish by the arrival of the postman on his monthly trip to the Family Seat. Quivering, the postman dropped several stained parchment envelopes at Monty's yak- guano encrusted feet, and beat a hasty and heart- felt retreat, obviously much relieved that his monthly trial had passed without incident. Monty smiled to himself, for he knew what the postman did not, that even now, Peep lay in wait at the gates of the estate, and the luckless pleb's chances of returning home that evening in possession of all the bodily parts with which he had departed that morning were remote in the extreme.
Monty picked up the delivered epistles, and examined the contents; The first one to hand read as follows "Dearest Montague, Family, Friends and Peep, I regret, with infinite sadness and the shedding of many a melancholy tear, that I shall not be able to attend the forthcoming Family outing re eating, pillaging, barfing etc, as I am required to remain within my humble abode and thin my cabbages. Yours despondently Le (oh, bugger) Cholmondoley"
Montague nodded sagely. As predicted, "The Dinsdale Mudshark Book of Plausible Excuses" was proving a best seller. Cholmondoley's missive fluttered to the ground to become one with the ecosystem as Monty surveyed the second letter. A small oil painting was included, and the byline indicated that this was a communication from Sebastian and Christabel, two far- flung members of The Family, who had recently taken it upon themselves to increase the Family, by not one new arrival, but two. This struck Monty as exceedingly odd, for his own experiences of paternity were exclusively in the singular, but not, apparently, as odd as the situation had struck Sebastian, who had written for advice concerning this unusual occurrence, and had taken to giving Christabel some exceedingly strange looks!
Now Monty surveyed the likeness of the two, cherubic infants, and much was his surprise when he deciphered the enscribed names; "Clotilda and Dudley" "Dudley?" thought Montague. "Dudley??"
Barnabas the Bearded was trundling, in his usual unconcerned way, along the dim and be-cobwebbed corridors of Mudshark Towers. At least, one could reasonably assume that the apparition was B the B, however, the eponymous face-furniture rendered truly positive identification impossible, but considering how few other creatures there were in the known universe bearing such a striking resemblance to an ambulatory haystack, most relatives treated any sighting of such mobile shag pile as the person in question, and were rarely disappointed with its response.
Today, as Barnabas traversed the endless passages with a jaunty step, whistling a cheery dirge, his legendary hirsuteness was so rampantly bountiful that he failed to notice a small but pungent puddle on the worn cerise flag-stones, a legacy of Peep's overexcitement concerning the postman incident earlier. Engrossed as he was in his musical crescendo, he strode unawares into the slimy liquid, and without warning, the ceiling and floor rapidly exchanged positions, and Barnabas found himself sitting wetly amidst his prodigious whiskers, clutching his ankle and vigorously employing his reserve category epithets and blasphemies.
At this moment, Sylvia Mudshark came striding down the corridor with her customary aplomb. She spied the unfortunate Barnabas in his upended position, and noticing his injury, extended a sympathetic hand to assist. "I did that," she said, conspiratorially. So he hit her.* (* copyright 1979 Eureka)
Deep within his smoking lair, the Wizard muttered and grumbled to himself. Ever since the previous summer's unfortunate incident with the second hand lightning generator, he had had to endure the taunts and witticisms of his fellow Family members concerning the spectacular non-appearance of the promised fireworks extravaganza. But since those heady days, the Wizard had not been idle, and now, cackling gleefully to himself, (as specified in the Wizard's Handbook), he threw the great switch closed, and slowly, with much crackling and hissing, the arcane machine began to build up its tremendous energies.
The Wizard's hair stood on end, and his beard began to emit sparks, but wild-eyed and heedless he continued to crank up the power. Suddenly, a flash brighter than the sun shot from the smoking nozzle, arcing into the sky with a sound which seemed to tear the very heart from the ancient building. The Wizard threw back his head and shouted his triumph as the letters burned across the heavens, searing themselves deep into the retinas of those foolish enough to observe the phenomenon. Limned with fire the Wizard stood, shaking his fist at the blazing firmament and laughing wildly and maniacally (pages 11076-11079 Wizard's Handbook, 4th edn.) "Dipsticks!" he crowed, "Read now your Destiny, O Unbelievers!" Writ large across the arch of the heavens, in letters of molten gold; C O M E T
Meanwhile, back at the Tower, Dudley's annoyance at the scorch marks inflicted on his smalls by these unexpected pyrotechnics vanished instantly as the Idea struck him. With trembling hands, he plucked the crumbling piece of parchment from the hidden compartment of his ancient, carved oak cocktail unit. On it was one solitary letter. The Wizard's rune:
"Of course!" he chuckled, "It's basic demonology! Once I control the Wizard, all his necromantic powers will be mine! I can command him to do anything! Unlimited Wealth... World Domination..." An unholy glow came to Dudley's eyes, and his voice took on a hushed and reverent tone. "...Ironing..."
"In any event," he breathed, "it's got to be a better bet than than trying to persuade Sylvia!" Slowly, he started his incantation; "Aardinaath... Abrahim... Acaranastrian... Adrogaster..." It looked like being a long afternoon.
Down in the Cavernous Kitchen, Harriet and Cousin April were sharing a cozy cup of Turnip-root coffee amidst the cheerful shadows, and mulling over the latest communications from Sebastian and Christabel. Harriet held the tiny painting in her hand, turning it this way and that to catch the last rays of light squeezing feebly through the bars of the tiny window set high in the dripping stone wall opposite. "What a lovely little girl, " she opined to April, "and what a lovely name." They both studied the painting. Their eyes met. "Dudley?" they whispered. "Dudley??"
Just then, Barnabas the Bearded limped through the iron-studded door, his left foot splinted and bandaged. April rose, pot in hand, to offer the new arrival a brew, but as Barnabas approached the gnarled and be-deathwatchbeetled table at which the ladies sat, in the dim light he failed to notice a small patch of algae happily growing in one of the many puddles of water dripping from the ceiling. The inevitable happened. As he lay prostrate for the second time that day, cursing and clutching his right ankle, April stood above him, dripping coffee and solicitousness. "I did that," she sympathised. Harriet was very surprised at his response.
Montague was putting the finishing touches to his yak-cart. Every scratch had been polished, every woodworm banished, and the missing wheel returned to its rightful position. He stood back to admire his work, but as he did so, it seemed to him that a slight trace of soiling remained on the gleaming surface. He stepped forward and breathed with infinite gentleness on the almost non-existent dust particle. The other three wheels dropped off. Monty struck his forehead with clenched fist and raised his eyes heavenward, but instead of cursing this calamity, he was surprised to see before him the answer to all his troubles. The writing was not so much on the wall as on a handy low cloud;
C O M E T O H O N E S T A L ' S U S E D C A R T L O T
Monty grinned. This could be the start of something big!
"...Axminster...Ayayayayay...Azimovssciencefictionmagazine..." Dudley sighed deeply and sank into despairing silence. Hour after hour had he chanted, to no avail. Now the sun had set, the Fin was beckoning, and still the shirts were unironed. "No doubt it will turn out to be something weird and outlandish," he croaked, "something arcane and unguessable, fey and exotic," He laughed bitterly at his misfortune. "...like.... Alison."
Slowly, the door of the tower creaked open, and a bearded face peered round.
"Fancy a pint?" quoth the Wizard.
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