The Devil’s Unborn, by Daniel O’Flaherty
Description: A Victorian experiment in abortion gives birth to voodoo horror
Using herbs sent to him by his missionary brother Wilkins, Victorian gynaecologist James Hartnell believes he has found a miraculous method of abortion. Unfortunately he does not realize these herbs are used in a Voodoo ritual for transferring the spirits of the dead into living foetuses.
Henry Field is a high ranking policeman and old friend to James Hartnell. Field’s indiscretion with a young actress proves an ideal opportunity to test the herbs. Her inconvenient child is seemingly destroyed without a trace. But when she is murdered, shortly after, in ritualistic fashion, the blame seems to fall on James and his brother, recently returned from Haiti and mentally unstable after witnessing the harrowing voodoo rites.
Then Field’s own wife, Elizabeth, after lifelong infertility, herself mysteriously conceives in her forties…
A tale of claustrophobic terror.
7th August 1893
St Michael’s Mission
The Arbonite Valley
It is with a cautious hand that I write to you of these terrible events for, as of yet, I know not how they may end. The island is demonic, of that I now have no doubt. The local savages have proven intractable to the word of God, being as they are under the influence of the witchdoctor, known as a Hougan, and his monstrous ju-ju. I have impressed upon the natives the wonders of the Gospel along with the superiority of modern science and medicine for such little effect that I now despair that many here will know Christ as their saviour.
I have finally bribed the hougan into allowing me to observe his heathenish ceremony so that I may see for myself what hold he has over them. A crate of finest Scots malt whisky, obtained by me from traders, proved his undoing, for he has developed a considerable taste for it. Alcohol is the one aspect of our life that has made an impression here. Such spirits now move where the spirit of the lord is absent.
On Wednesday last, I accompanied him to the village where he was to perform a blasphemous and obscene rite upon a young native girl whose husband has recently died. I sweat as I write of this foul thing since it is diabolical, but your scientific curiosity, James, would consider it remiss if I did not lay out in cold detail. The girl’s husband, a most brave warrior by all accounts, had been murdered by an unknown hand, and the rite, God forgive me in writing this, is to transfer his soul into her womb that he may live again to name his murderer. No doubt, scientist that you are, you will make rational explanations for this, that the rite began as a way of transferring the dead man’s bravery into his heir, or some such (Remember those debates we used to have?) but I consider it to be the work of the devil.
Although I lack your gynaecological skills, I did make a preliminary examination of the girl using my workable medical knowledge. She appeared to be in the earliest stages of pregnancy, not so much that it is visible to the naked eye. Whether or not this pregnancy was generally known, I was not informed. I made no comment about this since I thought it may be part of the hougan’s trickery to claim that the womb was empty and that the child, when it is born, was a wondrous manifestation of his magic.
In front of all the village, the girl was stripped naked, lain on an altar of some sort and, by means of those rare local herbs, samples of which I have sent to you for study, she was put into a trance. Most strange was the use of that plant which is commonly used by native women as an abortive; I noted this since this plant is of particular interest to you and your research. Had you witnessed this you would no doubt have commented how dangerous its use here would be to both mother and child. Alas, if this were all!
Next, in this obscene pageant, the hougan produced a chicken, which he beheaded and, offering it up to his black god, Mawu, smeared the blood over the belly and pudenda of the girl. He vilely penetrated her womanhood with his bloody fingers, causing me to feel bilious. The hougan noticed my distress and assured me that the blood was the blessing of Mawu to protect the girl from the evil spirits which the herbs brought forth.
Then the infernal chanting of the priestesses, the mambos, began-
The Journal of James Hartnell Nov. 11th 1893
BANG! BANG! BANG! BANG!
The sound of loud knocking caused me to put aside my reading matter. The knocking had continued for fully half a minute but had gone unregistered by my conscious brain, so absorbed had I been in the letter’s unusual contents. The hour was late but the knocking continued, hard and insistent, disturbing who knows how many in the neighbourhood. It was, therefore, with great reluctance that I felt I should stir myself. With a petulant cry of “Hold your horses. I’m coming!” I stood up, pressing my hands into my back to straighten my recalcitrant spine. Picking up an oil lamp, I travelled up the flight of stairs then along the dark passage the short distance to the front door.
“Who is it?” I said.
“It’s me, Hartnell. Field, Henry Field.”
I unbolted the heavy door to the cold autumnal night. On the threshold stood a familiar man in his late 40s, sporting an impressive set of handbar whiskers and an equally fine set of clothes. A strong whiff of alcohol greeted me.
“Ah Field, I should have known it would be you. But did you have to bang on the door so loudly at this time? It was enough to wake up the dead.”
“I never could take no for an answer, what. “
“And what if I was out?”
Field looked at me, puzzled. “You’re never out, Hartnell! I knew where you’d be, beavering away as usual. As a matter of fact I thought you would appreciate some company.”
I did not appreciate it but answered in a somewhat weary tone. “Well do come in old chum.”
“Forgive me for troubling you at so late an hour.”
“Oh, do not mind about that. You should know, I have no concern for time.”
“Yes indeed, I remember your aversion to clocks.”
“I have no need for clocks, the constant ticking and relentless chimes are like the nagging of a wife and the crying of an untended child.”
“Still it is gone twelve.”
“So late? Oh.”
Down the unlit and uninviting passage, was the staircase that led to the converted cellar which now constituted my study, my workshop, my laboratory, my whole world! The staircase, lit as it was, only by the light emanating from the open doorway at the bottom, was potentially hazardous; I was well used to travelling it in the dark, but I heard Field stumble on the stone steps (always a danger in his state) and retrospectively issued the caution “careful!”
My room had not substantially changed since Field was last here. It had once been a wine cellar and therefore was a considerable size. There were no windows although the traces of a hatch leading to the garden remained. This had been bricked up presumably in the Eighteenth century. Along one wall was the long mahogany table which Field had helped me to carry in was still there; upon this stood various equipment of a scientific nature, test tubes, vials and the like. My usual chair was nearby. Along the opposite wall was a single bed, which I had neatly made as ever. About four feet above this was an air vent, a sleek silver metal cylinder approximately two feet in diameter. This ascending upwards and bent at an angle of ninety degrees where it proceeded through the wall to the back garden. I had this fitted myself to provide a much needed source of fresh air to what was otherwise a suffocating atmosphere.
Along both sides of the room were two levels of shelves. On the lower level were cages containing rats and mice. This provided the low din to which I had become accustomed. Above them on the highest shelf were rows of jars containing foetuses.
The room was cool even in summer, but as winter approached, it would need to move my bed away from the draught of the air pipe. Already the early morning gusts were becoming intolerable. But this room so admirably suited my purposes that I was loath to leave it. I had originally lived and slept upstairs in the main house, coming here merely for my experiments, where the lack of windows provided ideal security, but more and more I found myself eating and sleeping here and finding the remainder of the house an unnecessary adjunct.
“Welcome to ‘my womb’!” I Said on half-jokingly.
“Good grief, Hartnell, I see your collection has grown!”
“Ah yes. Not all my own work. I have considerable help from various sources”
“I don’t know how you can stand it here alone all night. Living in the cellar all the time. Cellar’s are not for living in, they’re from drinking out of!”
“I haven’t forgone all of life’s little pleasures!” I said, lifting a bottle of gin out from under my table.
“But really Hartnell, this place is like a carnival sideshow with all your pickled punks.”
“Pickled punks? I try not to go in for the sensational. I am a scientist not a showman. These are foetuses, preserved newborns, human beings who deserve respect.”
“Where did you get the majority of them then, if not the circus? I remember you asked me to buy you one there myself one Christmas, do you remember? I washed my hands of it and bloody good job too.”
“Ha I knew it!” Field sat down in Hartnell’s chair.
“But it must be considered a scientific acquisition for serious research. Now, what are you drinking, Field?”
“You got any Talisker, old man?”
“I fear that your palate has been degraded this evening already. The good stuff would be quite a waste. However, since you are my guest, I am willing to open it if you wish.”
“No, no. You are quite correct and I have no wish to be greedy.”
“Some gin perhaps?”
“That’ll be splendid!”
I opened the gin bottle and produced a tumbler from a box under my bed then poured it out. This I handed it to Field. “Now, Field, what can I do for you?”
“It is a touch of a delicate wicket, old man.”
“Nothing about your promotion?” I sat down on my bed.
“No, no, that should go through next month, no problem. Well, I say no but in a way yes. I mean, it could affect my promotion to Superintendent.”
“And? You know I’m not a mind reader. Field. That is one area of scientific enquiry I am yet to discover. I guess it is about you wife?”
“Elizabeth? No, no. But again, yes in a way. I’m sorry Hartnell, I really don’t know where to start with this one. I am in as much of a pickle as one of your punks, old man.” Field took a deep gulp of gin and began again. “As you know I am a great frequenter of the music hall.”
I sighed. “I’ve never seen your attraction to there. Dreadful boorish places.”
“That’s as maybe but then they’re can’t be too many people who choose to spend their evenings among live rats and dead babies!”
“What I do is my concern. Continue.”
“This place is so morbid.”
“Morbid is not the word I would use. Morbid is of decay and death. My collection is about preserving the threshold of life, immaculate in formaldehyde, forever. “
“Life’s not about pickling infants, Hartnell! It’s about music, comedy, variety-“
“And drinking! Of course, you know I love a tipple. To cut a long story short there’s this fine dancer there named Fanny.”
“Ah, I see now where this is going.”
“Well, need I continue? One thing led to another and what do you know, she’s pregnant! Damned inconsiderate if you ask me.”
“Yes it would be terrible for you if this got out. A scandal of course, and no promotion, possibly even dismissal, or are they not so strict about such things in the Police force these days?”
“What with Elizabeth’s family being so well connected, I fear the worse.”
“Surely divorce would be unthinkable? From what I know of Elizabeth she would stand by you through thick and thin.”
“Still it would break the poor darling’s heart. More so, I think, since she is infertile herself.”
“Are you sure this is for real? Is this dancer not trying a fast one.”
“I’m afraid she is starting to bulge. She’s just lost her job at the music hall for this reason as a matter of fact. Someone has put a bun in there, whether it is me or not, I cannot say, although she swears I’m the only one, I’m not convinced. Still I can’t really take the risk in my position.”
“So what’s the remedy? You want me to perform an abortion? Obviously you know the law on that better than myself.”
“Indeed I do, Hartnell. Although I wonder if the law in this instance is too severe.”
I moved close to Field, rested my hand on his shoulder, and looking him squarely in his eyes, said, “Just between friends, that would be of no problem to me, if you desire it, so rest assured it can be done discretely.”
“Alas, if it was only down to me, that would be ideal. And I thank you, Hartnell, that for friendship’s sake you make so generous an offer. But I have just come from the music hall this evening and spoken at length to Fanny. I’m afraid blackmail is her game.”
“The little minx!”
“Yes indeed. She is resolved to have the child and wishes it to be well looked after.”
“Perhaps this is not so bad, Field. If she can be persuaded to give birth in secret and give up the child. Your wife might be enticed to adopt the child, surely you can persuade her? That would solve all your problems at once.”
Field refreshed his tumbler with a large amount of gin and glugged it back sharply.
“Fanny is not amenable. I did try, all this evening, I did try. I had the same thought. An easy out for all concerned. Why are women so unreasonable? A generous payment for Fanny, a baby for the wife to dote over, all very easy. But Fanny is adamant. She wants to keep the child herself and have an assured income from me.”
“No other deals?”
“Excepting that I can find her a rich husband. But who would wish to marry a pregnant slapper?”
“Well, maybe I would.” I brought my index finger in front of my mouth in my thinking pose.
“Surely you don’t mean!” Said a startled Field, “I can’t believe it! You a confirmed bachelor and all. I say, Hartnell, this is above and beyond the call of friendship! I raise my glass to you, sir! I never expected anything like this from you! Hartnell going up the aisle for me!”
My hand was rubbing my chin feverishly, as I paced about my familiar study, distracted and oblivious to my friend.
“Hmm? Me? Get married? Never!”
“But I thought-“
“Nevertheless I would like to meet this girl. If you could introduce me as a prospective husband, perhaps on the subterfuge that I am a man in need of a lavender marriage. You know the sort of thing, there must be a great deal of that in your profession.”
“In her majesty’s constabulary? Good heavens Hartnell, The Queen would have a fit of vapours if she thought such a thing were even possible, let alone true!”
“I do not impugn the reputation of the boys in blue, Field, merely say that you must encounter men of unusual natures, blackmail cases and the like.”
“Oh I see what you mean, old man.”
I continued my obstinate walking then turned to my friend, “Do not worry, Field, I am wedded to my work and find it more seductive than the caresses of a wife. When you first knocked I was engrossed in a letter from my brother Wilkins, which is why I neglected to answer swiftly.”
“Ah yes Wilkins the missionary.”
“Indeed he. I have had this letter for over a week but had no interest in opening it. His usual correspondence from Haiti is dry and pedantic, local gossip, requests for financial assistance church matters and such like. Basically tittle tattle. It is of no interest to me except for the seeds, cuttings and dried herbs which he has sent over the past months. One in particular I have cultivated due to its use as an abortive by the Haitian natives. I have named it Arbonium after the place of its discovery. Wilkins has written to me of this effect, noted in Haitian women and I myself have replicated the effect in various rodents.”
“What effect?” said Field, sitting up attentively.
“To the native women it is a cure-all as far as I can tell. The infertile ones drink it to conceive and the- shall we say- unfortunately pregnant drink it to rid themselves of their burden.”
“By George, that is a remarkable substance!”
“Yes, indeed. My research has focused naturally on the abortive effects. A tincture is made from the herb which is clear and tasteless. It can be swallowed easily. This I know since I have drunk it myself but observed no ill effects. In pregnant mice, I have observed the foetus absorbed overnight back into the womb, leaving not a trace. I have, of yet, no scientific explanation for this especially with the uncommon rapidity of its effect.”
“Well I doubt whether Fanny will be persuaded to partake of it.”
“Perhaps not consciously. I am eager to test this on a suitable subject and observe its effect at close quarters. All I have at present are the anecdotes of natives and a few animal experiments. Obviously medical ethics would require me to test this on myself as I have done but alas, I am not a pregnant woman. “
“Still it would be a rum do to give it to a filly without her consent.”
“Would it? As I say, I have tried it myself and generations of Haitian women have used it without bad effect. Surely they cannot be so genetically different to Western women? I bet you have imagined her falling down or some such that would cause her to miscarry?”
“Steady on, old chap, you go beyond the realms of gallantry when you imply such things.”
“Such things as what?”
“Such as myself pushing a pregnant woman over. I would never do such a dastardly thing!”
“I implied no such thing but that you have taken it such means you have thought about it.”
“Never! Retract that, Hartnell, you bounder!”
“Forgive me! I do not mean to offend, old chum, but merely to express that were an accident to befall Fanny such as would leave her unharmed but the baby dead, you would not shed a tear.”
“You’re right there.”
“So, I have a method of –as far as I know- painless abortion. What could be better?”
“Still would such a thing be ethical? It could be considered by some to be infanticide.” Filed lingered on the last word, looking up at my to gauge my reaction.
“Why, no more or less so than what nature herself daily performs. Nature, the great infanticide! She snuffs out more lives in the blinking of an eye than all the murderers in England’s history. And unlike us, she is often most cruel in her whims. We act to spare suffering. Look at those poor unfortunates brined in jars on my shelves. Those rude lumps, creations of a capricious mistress, were formed –or unformed- in the world’s first laboratory, the womb. The womb, nature’s own uncaring smithy, where we are fashioned on the Darwinian forge. These are the children of trial and error. Had things been different for these tiny wretches they could have been spared their monstrous births or perhaps even born to greatness. By such freakish trials do we evolve a Shakespeare, a Da Vinci, a Bach. These are the ones that fall by the wayside. These and yes, many more die stillborn or miscarried. It is the way of things. Nature has few scruples, and I’m afraid, dear fellow, that we scientists must adopt the same approach if the world is to advance.”
Field gulped down the last of his gin. “Very well. What needs to be done?”
The Devil’s Unborn, by Daniel O’Flaherty