“The stars, that nature hung in heaven, and filled their lamps with everlasting oil, give due light to the misled and lonely traveller.”
House of Dark Lanterns, part one.Written and illustrated by Andy Paciorek
The hammer fell on the last sale of the day at the Kendal & District Auction House and as proceedings drew to close and unsuccessful bidders and onlookers filed for the doors, those who’d secured their bids remained to finalise the details of their purchases. Carl Fieldman remained behind, though he was of the former rather than latter group, having been outbid on his efforts to buy a Regency bronze table lamp.
He was friends with the auctioneer and had decided to wander over for a quick chat before heading home. Seeing him, Dewson, the auctioneer, gave a smile.
Carl replied with no petulance, “Not for you, I bid more for that lamp than it was worth and I was still outbid.”
“Oh, Carl, you know as well as I that an object is worth whatever two or more people bid for it, and if it’s any consolation that solid oak Victorian writing table we had in today and would’ve expected to fly barely crawled to its bottom estimate!”
He continued, “Actually, you could have done us a favour and bid a bit more. Money is of no consequence to your rival bidder and once he sets his mind on something he’ll obtain it, no matter the cost. Anyway, shh, speak of the devil, here he is.”
Carl looked up to see a tall well-groomed man approaching. In his hand he carried a knobbly blackthorn cane of the type sometimes referred to as a shillelagh, but what perhaps would be more correctly termed a bata. Several steps behind him was a rough-looking man with thick side-burns and eyebrows and who was almost as wide as he was tall, solidly built not fat.
“Ah, Mister Dewson and now to business” he said with a smile and extending his hand to shake that of the auctioneer, “Cash, fine I trust?”
“As always, Mr Mordrake,” replied Dewson politely.
The man Mordrake gestured to the squat man behind him, “Mr Soulby, if you will,” and with a plump envelope, containing more than the four thousand, three hundred pounds the item settled on, Misters Soulby and Dewson moved away to conclude the exchange.
Standing alone together, Mordrake nodded in polite greeting to Carl. Carl spoke, “Congratulations, it’s a nice piece. You got a bargain.”
Mordrake looked at Carl curiously, then an expression of recognition passed his face as he realised Carl was his opponent bidder.
“I did think I’d pick it up nearer the three and a half mark, but it is a nice piece, the curious embellishment of the figures of a satyr and a nymph on the base may not be to everyone’s taste but it sets it apart as an interesting object. Together with the other of its pair, which I do happen to already own, I’d estimate the collective value of the pair at perhaps more than ten or even eleven thousand pounds on a good day. Not that I’d resell.”
With that comment, Carl was assured that despite money being no object, Mr Mordrake was indeed cannily aware of his purchasing.
Mordrake thrust out his hand in greeting, a firm dry shake.
“Lucien Mordrake at your service and I take it sir, that you are a fellow Luciferian?”
Carl returned his name but was uncertain on the latter remark. Sensing this, Mordrake continued with a jovial smile.
“It’s my little joke, it’s how I refer to fellow collectors of lamps and lanterns, as Luciferians, that is worshippers of the light. Please excuse my wit, my wife constantly reminds me that it has a select audience of one fan and that isn’t her! So tell me, Mr Fieldman have you collected long?”
Carl had warmed quite quickly to this man, though they were at different spectrums of social class and it would be assumed on first impressions that they had nothing in common except a fondness for old lamps. Stood in his jeans and scruffy navy blue woollen jumper, others of Mordrake’s ilk would not have given Carl the time of day, but Mordrake seemed intent on striking up conversation and that gratified Carl.
“I do have a few personal pieces, but my interest is more professional. I buy and sell.” He took out his wallet and passed Mordrake a business card.
Mordrake read aloud.
“Prometheus Ltd. Modern and Collectible Lighting. A fitting moniker, Prometheus was indeed a great keeper of the light, I hope though that you do not befall the same fate as he for your efforts,” he joked.
Picking up on the theme, Carl jested back, much to Lucien Mordrake’s pleasure, “Well, my liver seems just about intact so far, but I must admit to encountering a few vultures in the antiques trade!”
Mordrake examined the card again, “Actually I believe I’m familiar with your company, in fact I think I’ve bought items from you before. From the internet I believe, I’m not computer literate myself, cannot teach an old dog new tricks, but I do have my secretary keep an eye on that market place. I hadn’t realised you were based in the northwest, do you have a shop locally?”
“No, I just run the business online, it keeps overheads right down. Though there is the tourist trade in Cumbria, it doesn’t cater necessarily to the specialist market. Also that’s why I sell modern lighting also, cannot depend solely on ‘Luciferians’.”
“Ah, wise,” said Mordrake, “But you do live locally? You have a regional accent.”
“Yes, in Kendal actually. How about you?”
‘Posh’ accents in Carl’s experience revealed no facts about geography.
Mordrake verified the matter.
“My main residence is in Cheshire, but I have Cumbrian ties and am currently stopping at a dwelling I own here, a retreat of sorts if you will. Actually it is the stronghold of my lamp and lantern collection. My wife will allow some of the more decorative lamps into the home but she is less tolerant of battered old Humphrey Davy Lamps and other such items.”
“Do you have a large collection then?” asked Carl.
“Reasonably so, but rather diverse. I am no more discerning of Tilley Guardsman lamps than I am of Art Nouveau or Arabesque glass lighting. Phantasmagoria, Magic Lanterns, Chromatopes, Luminaires, works lanterns of all eras, decorative lamping of all periods up to and including Art Deco. All of these and more stir a passion in me. Perhaps I’m scared of the dark, do you think?” Carl smiled.
Soulby returned having paid for the well packaged lamp he carried in his formidable arms, Mordrake took from him the receipt and the still rather plump envelope and placed them in his inner jacket pocket.
Turning back to Carl, he said “Actually, if you don’t have prior commitments, you are very welcome to come back now to see the collection for yourself and perhaps partake of a little supper. Mrs Soulby is the most splendid cook.”
Carl considered this, he was not used to dinner invitations from anyone, never mind the ‘gentry’ and what were his other options – single and living alone, not even a pet –it would be another night of a ready meal for one and mind numbing reality television and soap operas or the same ready meal and equally enthralling though more important book-keeping. And he was very intrigued to see Mordrake’s lamp collection, so deciding the accounts could wait, he decided.
“Why not?” “Yes, Thank you, I’d be honoured … If you’re sure it’s no trouble?”
“If it were, I wouldn’t have asked” stated Mordrake, “Mr Soulby will drive you home later or back here if your car is parked outside?”
“No, I came on foot, I live literally just around the corner.” “Splendid,” remarked Mordrake and gesturing towards the door with his robust wooden cane, the three men headed outside.
Mordrake and Fieldman stood outside the auction house whilst Mr Soulby went to retrieve the car. Taking a cigarette case from his inner pocket, Mordrake offered a smoke to Carl whom declined, but noted mentally that the case and the matching lighter with which Mordrake lit his own cigarette, were engine turned silver, impressive and not inexpensive pieces.
“Very wise,” commented Mordrake, “an bad habit, yet a pleasure I will not relinquish. I’ve trod this earth many a long year, and despite the mutterings of physicians and the nagging of Mrs Mordrake, I reserve at my age the right to a vice or two.”
Carl wondered silently at the age of Mordrake, it was difficult to discern; his face carried lines but not deeply set and his hair had the hue of steel. Mordrake was thin but solid, his cheekbones angular and his nose aquiline, but he had a strong and straight posture and did not appear at all gaunt. At a first glance he’d guess the man was in his sixties, yet there was something about him, something Carl couldn’t quite put his finger on, that suggested that the man beside him carried a considerably greater age.
“Ah, here’s Mr Soulby now,” Mordrake gestured to a pearl grey car, that Carl recognised as a mint condition Jaguar mark II, that purred up beside them. Mr Soulby clambered out of the car, looking not the most debonair of chauffeurs admittedly, but dutifully opened the rear doors for them. Within minutes they were well on their way to Mordrake’s country dwelling.
They initially took the road north west as if heading towards Windemere, but turned onto country roads and tracks just past Ings. Looking out of the window, Mordrake commented on the scenery.
“I love this time of the year, it is most splendid,”
He pointed to a copse of birch, rowan and field maple, already resplendent in their shimmering hues of vermilion and gold, tantalised by the onset of dusk.
“To analogise with our mutual obsession, I doubt whether even Tiffany could master these shades in glass. It’s a truly wondrous time of year, but nature takes care not to spoil us as the nights are already setting in quick”
Carl concurred sincerely with the appreciation of this simple but true beauty, but mundanely his mind was distracted by the questionable wisdom of taking the veteran car down what was not the smoothest of tracks. He subtly questioned Mordrake on the vehicle’s performance.
“Ah, but she’s a reliable old girl,” said Mordrake, “and tougher than she looks. Yet this will be one of her last runs of the year. Necessity has it that soon she will be put into hibernation, until late spring and I shall travel by the less sophisticated but far more practical means of a four-wheel drive.”
He continued with a wry smile, “Failing that, Soulby has a couple of sound tractors.”
Within too long, but already under the indigo veil of evening, they turned again and up the long driveway of Providence Farm. In the dim light, Carl could discern a number of buildings, some discreetly modernised into alternative use and some still retained for the practical purposes of a working farm. The farmhouse, occasional abode of the visiting Lucien Mordrake and the permanent abode of the Soulby family, stood prominent and set apart by the cosy light emitting from some of its windows.
They pulled up beside one of the barns.
“I’ll show you my lantern collection now, whilst Mr Soulby puts the car away and informs his good wife to set another place for supper,” informed Mordrake as Soulby opened the rear doors for him and Carl to disembark. “Please if you don’t mind,” Mordrake said as he passed Carl the box containing the lamp he’d recently outbid him for.
The barn that they stood to enter, had been thoroughly adapted and secured, all windows were bricked up and a burglar alarm hung on the stonework above the heavy metal door. As he sought the correct key, unlocked and then pinned in a numerical code to gain entry, Lucien Mordrake casually pointed out other features of the farm; the cow sheds, hay lofts, horse stables, pig sheds, chicken sheds, sheep sheds, the abattoir.
“Abattoir?” Carl questioned.
“Indeed, it’s a full and working farm. We aren’t licensed to commercially sell meat slaughtered on site, so animals now intended for trade have to be transported live to a large slaughterhouse several miles away. For personal consumption though, we can and do still butcher livestock on site, and I’ll tell you this, the conditions for doing so are as clean and as professional here as they are at the commercial abattoir, if not more so and I believe it to be so, that the meat tastes better when the beasts don’t have the stress of travel. You may judge so for yourself later, when you taste Mrs Soulby’s cooking!”
Carl was of the cultural mindset where sausages appeared as if by magic, already wrapped, on the shop shelf and devoid of faces and history as living beasts, but as he was already hungry, he was quite certain such notions of his dinner’s life story and demise would slip his mind when he smelt and tasted Mrs Soulby’s culinary cuisine.
The heavy metal door creaked open. It was dark inside. Mordrake clicked a switch and a line of low wattage bulbs flickered on down the centre of the long single room that had once housed cattle numerous years before. Mordrake closed the door behind him and bid welcome to his Aladdin’s cave.
“Plenty of lamps,” he quipped, “but no guarantee of any Genies upon rubbing!”
He instructed Carl to put the box he was holding down anywhere that he could find room.
Carl placed the box in a space on the nearest table and as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, he could discern rows and rows of lamps and lanterns, some sitting on formidable wooden tables and chests, others in glass-fronted cabinets and many fixed to the stone walls or hanging from beams on the ceiling. Like a greedy child suddenly finding himself locked in a sweet-shop, Carl Fieldman stood there, mouth agape and goggle-eyed.
“This is incredible, just incredible,” he exclaimed.
“Not a bad little collection, is it?” said Mordrake with a pride devoid of smugness. “Please, take a closer look at the pieces and let me know what you think.”
Carl didn’t know where to look first, as soon as he focussed on a rare or interesting object, he caught sight of another just as intriguing. Mordrake lit a humble paraffin lamp which he would hold up at times to better illuminate details on the treasures held within the gloomy cow shed. As they leisurely paced the items, discussing ones of particular interest, Mordrake revealed,
“I must confess on rare occasions, when the whim takes me, I will have Soulby and his sons, when not too busy with their other duties, have all the lamps here that are still in working order (which is the majority of them, the others are waiting for parts to be fixed) all fired up at once and I will come in here and sit awhile. It truly transforms this lowly old barn into something wondrous. A Temple of Light! However I must take such delight in measured doses however, for not only is the awe great to bear so are the fumes.”
For some time further, they wandered the room perusing the lamps until finally they reached the end wall of the former barn. The bricks were whitewashed clean and to the left was a large walnut dresser. The lower half of this hefty item of furniture was compartmentalised into drawers, whilst a display cabinet fronted with thick, heavy glass dominated the upper portion. Alone on the interior shelf was an initially unremarkable lantern.
“And what treasure do you hold in there?” enquired Fieldman.
Lucien Mordrake could not conceal a note of concern from his features, and momentarily considered some excuse, some distraction to deter attention from the object inside, but then resignedly as is beyond his own decision, he took the old lantern from the head of his cane and placed it on the table and in turn rested the shillelagh leaning against it. He took his bunch of keys and taking a small, rather ornate brass key, he opened the display cabinet and carefully retrieved the lamp from inside.
Fieldman could see from the basic design of the object, having a sliding metal casing around the glass housing the flame, that it was a Dark Lantern. It was of a specific design unfamiliar to him, cut into the metal shutter were small apertures, but they seemed too haphazard and irregular to provide neat decoration and if for function only, their purpose was not immediately apparent. The casing of the lamp was copper-like in tone and had some evidence of a verdigris patina but seemed thicker and more sturdy; perhaps another alloy coated in copper he guessed. The glass had a smoky rose – amber tone, and both it and the metal shielding prohibited a better view of the inner working.
“Naval dark lantern, pre-World War I ?” he questioned Mordrake.
The older man confirmed, “A dark lantern of sorts, indeed maritime or at least once utilised at sea, but much older than WWI, much older indeed. It has been in the possession of my family since the mid 18th Century and I believe it be much older still.”
“Really? That is quite exceptional, are you certain?”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to doubt your word, but I was not aware that lanterns of this form were crafted so early. I took it to be a Dietz prototype or something of the sort. Presumably it’s too early for paraffin usage, so what was the fuel utilised? Ambergris?”
“It does require a special fuel,” Mordrake answered without much clarification.