Billy Bunter and the Midnight Feast of Blood!
(An awful yarn for sensible chaps)
‘Bunter! Desist in this unconscionable turpitude!’ rasped Mr Quelch. The Master’s gimlet eyes glinted with displeasure as they surveyed the corpulent figure labouring at the rear of the procession of Greyfriars’ pupils.
‘Yes, do get a move on, old man,’ called Bob Cherry, cheerily.
‘Shake a leg, you fat cormorant!’ jeered Johnny Bull, bullishly.
‘Shift your fat backside, lardy boy!’ said a person not in the story.
Bunter puffed and panted as he tried to keep up, but it was hard going. His short, fat legs were not made for rapid locomotion, especially when the gradient was so markedly against them. It really was beastly unfair, thought Bunter, too winded even to complain aloud. Why did they have to waste their time visiting putrid old castles when there was probably a perfectly decent cake shop in the village?
By the time Bunter had reached the flight of (beastly steep!) stairs that led to the main door, the rest of the party had already gone in. Well, they can jolly well go, though Bunter. I’ll sit here and have a rest. Get my second wind. And watch the sunset. He placed his rump on the cold stone of the bottom step and took off his glasses to wipe them with a handkerchief that appeared to be a hostel for vagrant gobstoppers.
Somewhere in the forest that surrounded the low eminence on which the castle stood, a wolf howled. Bunter made it up the steps and inside at a pace Jesse Owens would have been proud of. He entered just in time to hear the beginning of what seemed like a lot of beastly rot being spouted by a decrepit old buffer whom he assumed - rightly, as it happened - was their guide to the ancient fortress.
Between spasms of wheezing, coughing and drooling, old Teodor told them in broken-to-shattered English the long, involved and quite staggeringly tedious history of Castle Crasz. The mighty Croupathian fortress had, it seemed, once been the seat of the Arch-Dukes of Swarwega, then of the Terribly Arch-Dukes of Chintz, before being briefly occupied by the Outrageously Camp Duke of Borussia-Alten-Jokebuch. And after that -
The old man paused.
The visitors waited patiently.
The visitors waited impatiently.
Eventually, the pause became artistically unjustifiable, even within the comparatively roomy confines of the Spoof Gothic Boys’ Own Story sub-genre.
‘And then?’ rasped Mr Quelch, querulously.
‘Den zer come to zis land - ze Bad Times...’
‘Ah, the war,’ said Harry Wharton.
‘Dastardly Hun,’ agreed Frank Nugent.
‘Fearful Bosch,’ chimed in Lord Maulverer.
‘The most dastardly militarist-expansionist policy pursued by the post-Bismarckian Empire of the naughty and large-moustached Kaiser Bill,’ concurred Hurree Jamset Ram Singh.
‘I say, was it the Germans?’ piped Bunter.
But in response old Teodor shook his grizzled head, sending cascades of grizzled dandruff down his grizzled velvet coat (only thirty kopecs in the Gnarled Retainers ‘R’ Us end of year sale). Silently, he pointed to a painting that hung in a shadowed alcove.
‘Ze Countess Caramella Ersatz-Fangen!’ whispered Teodor, his voice hoarse with fear, his eyes rolling with horror, and his knees tremulous with loathing. He tottered a few paces, then raised his lantern (yes, he had a lantern, it just wasn’t thought necessary to mention it before this point) to illuminate the picture.
There was a collective gasp.
They all stared, open mouthed, and then to a chap the pride of the Remove lowered their eyes and began shuffling their feet. All except Bunter who, being a terrible advertisement for the ophthamological profession, peered at the portrait and squeaked hopefully:
‘I say you fellows, is it a lemon meringue?’
‘I am thinking that the most delightful young lady will almost certainly have been tragically dying of the pneumonia,’ mumbled Huree Jamset Ram Singh into his shirt-front.
It was a thought that had occurred to all the chums. The woman in the portrait was - she had - she looked - well, she made a chap wish he wasn’t quite so jolly decent and British. Which was a ghastly notion, of course. Fortunately, depraved thoughts worthy of the lowest Lascar stoker or other swarthy Levantine had little time to fester in the minds of the strangely-confused boys. Mr Quelch, his darkly saturnine features paling redly, stepped smartly in front of the canvas.
‘I think we have heard quite enough of the castle’s colourful history for now,’ he said.
‘You will show us to our quarters, if you please.’
‘Off course - but you must remember, I do not spend ze night here! I go home to my leetle garlic warehouse in ze village.’
Chuckling hoarsely, muttering darkly, and patting the top of his head while simultaneously rubbing his tummy, old Teodor duly led the Greyfriars’ party up the main staircase. For a moment, Bunter paused before the portrait, his nose barely an inch from the dead centre of the canvas:
‘Two lemon meringues?’ he wondered. Then, realising he was in danger of being left alone in the murk of the great hall, he began labouring up the staircase.
Bunter awoke in the small hours, or thereabouts, surfacing blearily from a dream of unprecedented jam sponge. What had disturbed his slumbers, which were usually so profound, not to say miasmic? For a moment he was nonplussed. Then, as if it possessed a tiny mind of its own, which it very probably did, Bunter’s nose twitched. Then it twitched again, more decisively.
Could it be? Yes, it could. Something coming, something good... The unmistakable smell of baking! A pastryish, treacly sort of smell it was, wafting from who knew where within the ancient fortress, through untold miles of corridors, under Bunter’s door, and up the most carbohydrate-sensitive nose in the Anglo-Saxon world. He climbed out of bed, put on his spectacles, wrapped himself in his dressing gown, and set off in quest of the source of the delicious odour.
‘I say you fellows!’ hissed Bob Cherry, shaking awake Harry Wharton, Frank Nugent, Johnny Bull, Lord Maulverer and Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, to save us all a bit of time.
‘Mmmph, gerroff, what is it?’ they all said.
‘I think our fat friend just left on a voyage of discovery.’ Bob Cherry pointed to a yawning chasm in the great four-poster that Bunter had commandeered in the vast bedroom. The rest of the Remove party rose from their less comfortable pallets on the floor and, swiftly lighting candles, flaming torches and a small Japanese lantern, set off in pursuit. It was easy enough to track Bunter, as they simply headed for the last crash of falling armour.
Despite his somewhat haphazard and noisy progress, thanks to his unerring nasal organ Bunter had soon reached the threshold of the great kitchen of Castle Crasz. Sure enough, the huge, stone-walled chamber was filled with the devilishly tempting aroma of food - sweet food, sticky food, fattening food, all the food a very greedy schoolboy indeed could hope to eat. It smelled like Tuck City, to coin a phrase.
But where were all the eatables? Bunter padded into the room, spectacles flashing in the lights of a dozen or more candles that burned fitfully in numerous sconces. (Not scones, sconces, he told his wayward subconscious.) But what cruel trick was this? Peer as he might, he could not descry a solitary doughnut!
Perhaps the feast was still in the baking? The happy thought sent him rolling towards the row of great ovens, each as tall as he. A pudgy hand grasped the nearest handle and pulled. With a remarkably loud creak, the great iron door swung open. For a moment Bunter closed his eyes - the wave of warm, sweet air made him shiver with anticipation. Then he leaned forward and stared myopically into the gloom, trying to make out what treat was lurking within.
‘Come to me my sweet, my dainty, my leetle fondant fancy.’
The voice was as rich and liquid as caramel sauce, and every bit as irresistible to Bunter. A slender, long-taloned hand languidly beckoned him forward. He began to clamber inside.
No! No! Some tiny fragment of intelligence, long neglected by its owner and thus somewhat rusty and hoarse of voice, told Bunter that, for the first and almost certainly the last time in his short, fat existence, he was about to have a meal’s-eye view of gluttony. He hesitated, knees a-wobble, as ancestral fears of sharp-clawed things that lurk in dark places vied for control of his being with mesmerically-induced gastric surgings. How to escape this treacly temptress? What stratagem could he draw upon from his deep reserves of cunning?
‘I’m expecting a postal order from my Aunt Judy!’ squeaked Bunter. With a single, lithe movement the sinuous creature that had lain in wait on the bottom shelf leapt onto the Fat Owl, wantonly knocking his spectacles askew. Feverishly warm fingers smeared something sticky over his face - a face now immersed in hot breath that was redolent of centuries-old Balkan preserves.
‘You beast!’ howled Bunter. He struggled vainly to prevent his assailant sinking improbably over-developed canines into the fold of flesh at his throat. He struggled for only a few moments, however, as an entirely characteristic feeling of witless apathy and sloth overcame his panic-terror. He slid into a deep stupor, a final despairing howl on his lips.
By the time the chums of the Lower Fourth arrived in some haste all was silent again, except for - what was it? As if at a silent command, the plucky fellows stood and listened.
‘Something dripping, slowly,’ said sharp-eared Bob Cherry.
‘And it’s in here!’ added Harry Wharton, striding without hesitation to an oven whose door he wrenched open with the sort of manly decisiveness only possible if all your forbears married cousins and you were introduced to the novels of Rider Haggard at an early age.
Sure enough, a crumpled form lay on the bottom shelf, whimpering faintly. A trickle of blood - or was it strawberry jam? - flowed thickly onto the stone flags of the kitchen.
‘By George!’ said Lord Maulverer, forgiveably lapsing into strong language in the heat of the moment. Meanwhile, Harry Wharton and Frank Nugent had hauled the semi-comatose form out into the light. Then the chums stepped back in horror, as well they might - for, while the immense checked trousers and voluminous blazer were indeed those of the William Bunter they knew, the body within those garments was another matter entirely.
‘Who is responsible for these unauthorised nocturnal perambulations?’
The voice of Mr Quelch recalled the pals to themselves.
‘It’s Bunter, sir,’ began Bob Cherry, ‘he’s been sleepwalking, you see, and now he’s -’
‘Thin!’ chorused the entire company, including Mr Quelch, who now stood over the recumbent form. It was indeed the case. It seemed that Bunter had been totally deprived of every trace of tubbiness, every peck of padding, every bit of bulk.
Now the Slim Owl stirred, and opened his eyes:
‘I say you fellows, I’ve just had the most beastly nightmare!’
The next evening the Greyfriars party left, having obtained lodgings in the nearby village of Zentral Kasting. It was a subdued group of chums indeed who boarded the charabanc at the castle gates, apart from the newly-reduced Bunter, who protested volubly at having to hold up his trousers with a large safety pin that recalled the flamboyant inefficiency of the Habsburgs. None of them dared to look back at Castle Crasz - none except Mr Quelch, who surely let nothing ruffle his grim composure?
Perhaps. But later, the chums would whisper of the way the master turned to look back at the castle, only to quickly revert to his original posture and stare fixedly at the roadside trees. Was his normally cadaverous face a little more deathly-pale than usual? Perhaps. But who could blame the best of men for blanching at such a sight? A corpulent, bat-winged figure, limned by the last vestiges of sunset, bounced and jounced wildly as it struggled to achieve air-speed velocity along the parapet of the time-haunted castle, while all around the deep wild woods echoed and re-echoed to the mournful cry: