Mr Benstoke’s Passion
The sunken locket.
Benjamin’s father owned a newsagent that was down the road from the big old Victorian museum. He would go every holiday but it was when he was old enough to go on his own that his relationship with the museum blossomed. Every Saturday morning he would help set up all of the newspapers for delivery and then be at the door to the museum from the minute it opened.
The museum was a magical place with no real theme. It had been the passion of a local coal magnate’s philanthropy in the mid-1800s and he had spent much of his fortune and spare time collecting oddities from around the world. Darwin Benstoke had also tried to celebrate Victorian Britain and nothing said this more than the two towering vases that stood straddling the entrance. They had been specially commissioned to recognise the great potteries of the midlands. They stood like sentries looking down on the visitors as they walked in.
The collection was scattered in an eclectic way around the four floors but in modern times these had been re-ordered for ease of visitors while still having the stamp of a man’s lifelong passion in each quirky item. On the first floor were items from antiquity they were mummies from Egypt, statues from Greece, prehistoric bowls and Romans coins. Benstoke’s items were unusual in some way, in the other museums Benjamin had visited there were beautiful sarcophagi, in this museum the sarcophagi had googly eyes, there was even a cat mummy which Benjamin absolutely adored and greeted every visit.
This was his favourite floor and he could spend hours here he knew all the history of every item where it was and could give you a very good reason why he liked it or disliked it. The second floor was an art gallery; had Benjamin‘s parents taken him to an art gallery he probably would have found it quite dull, however this particular gallery filled him with excitement every time he walked round it. Here, like with the antiquities you could see the sense of humour and sense of the strange and unusual that had been behind Mr Benstoke’s choices. Every painting had a quirk that offered the imagination a peculiar story.
Of all the paintings in this gallery and one that struck Benjamin every time what is the giant portrait of the museums benefactor Mr Benstoke which stood above the far wall of the gallery watching each and every visitor as they came in, it had that predictable austere look about it he stood there in his long grey jacket and top hat with his cane in one hand and gloves and another looking down at those looking up at it. However Benjamin always felt that there was a hint of a smirk dancing over his lips.
The third floor was the natural history form Benjamin wasn’t so keen on this floor he didn’t really like the rows and rows of stuffed animals. Although they were interesting and were animals he had never ever seen before including a dodo, he knew they were not alive and therefore it was very sad to him. But at the far end there was a door through the door he walked from a cemetery of dead animals into a world of living sea creatures. This part of the museum, while it had been renovated and turned into a very modern aquarium, it had been one of Benstoke’s great additions. He had travelled extensively in his later years and regularly returned with living examples of some of the creatures he had discovered.
Benjamin loved this part of the museum. It was bigger than it had been when it was first created and now had far more tanks and creatures. They had also put in some reptiles and insects and it contrasted incredibly with the still, dead creatures as it was a hub of activity and life.
In the five years he visited he had favourites the first was a very grumpy Moray Eel that always came to the front of the tank when he walked past. It didn’t have a name but he called it Mildred. Then there was the very shy octopus that they had for a small amount of time. She would only come out on rare occasions and as a result many people walked past thinking it was an empty tank. The staff had given this octopus a name and she was called Lulu. Benjamin really didn’t like the name and was firmly of the belief that she didn’t come out because she was embarrassed by it so he called her Penny.
On the top floor were the science exhibitions, these often changed with themes but there were things that were there all the time. Benstoke had been a passionate industrialist who had worked with Brunel and knew of Stephenson personally therefore he had collected small working models of many of the great industrial creations of the time. Benjamin enjoyed going to see the working steam engines that were set off twice a day, he made sure he was always there for those especially the small model of the rocket which was by far his favourite. There were collections of astrological measuring devices, telescopes, sextants, compasses and many more amazing Victorian science equipment along with new displays explaining things like an atoms and nuclear power and the Internet. Benjamin would spend the day in the museum with a small break for lunch with his dad in the newsagent where he shared the notes, stories and sketches he had drawn in his own little notebook.
There was one more ‘floor’ to the museum and though it was rarely visited it was open to the public. On this floor was the current manager’s office along with this was Benstoke’s own personal office which had been carefully and lovingly maintained and left open for the public to view. The guides would tell the heartbreaking story behind it. Benstoke had a large home in the countryside and lived there with his wife and son. When his son was no more than one year old his wife disappeared along with the child and it was believed she had eloped with her lover who many believed was the true father of the child. After this event Benstoke rarely visited his home and spent much of his time at the Museum working from his office. In the corner of the office there was a small bed and at the centre of the room was his large imposing desk. The desk itself was something of an oddity as there was one drawer that had never been opened. The story claimed the key was missing and it was believed that inside the drawer was the location of his final purchase which nobody knew where to find. This was dismissed by anyone who knew anything about the museum as just a fun myth Benjamin loved to imagine there was some great treasure hidden somewhere in the museum or in Benstoke’s home.
Saturdays between the age of 10 and 15 were by far his favourite days of childhood. As he got older he had become a well-known face in the museum and before his 16th birthday the museum manager call him aside for a chat. It was here that Benjamin was given the opportunity of a lifetime, the manager asked if Benjamin would like to spend his summer working as an assistant in the museum showing people around and explaining all the exhibits. He could not believe his good fortune not only would he be able to spend every day in the museum but they would pay him to do it. It was not long after accepting the job that he realised that he would be able to spend all his time in the museum but he would also be there before it opened after it closed which meant he would see the museum without any other visitors.
It was everything he had imagined the experience to be. It was a match made in heaven he was able to explain every single item in the museum to everybody who needed help, his enthusiasm made people’s visits more exciting than they had hoped and people turned up asking for a tour from ‘Benjamin the Curator’ which in itself was a title he adored. The manager was over the moon with the addition of Benjamin to his team and gave him increasing responsibility.
The Museum Aquarist knew how much Benjamin loved the aquarium section and how much he wanted to be able to feed the fish and so decided to invite him to help her feed in the morning. She either fed in the morning before the museum manager arrived or in the evening after the manager had left and so had to make special arrangements to give Benjamin permissions to stay.
After he had fed the fish in the morning he would go to the staff room and make himself and the Aquarist coffee where she would join him for a chat before the jobs of the day needed to be done. However when it was an evening feed The she would send Benjamin away after he had fed as she had to write up all of her notes and did not want to bore Benjamin by making him stay. However he could not leave the museum until she had finished as she needed to let them both out and look up.
This meant he had the museum all to himself. It was one of these evenings, as his wonderful summer was drawing to an end that Benjamin wandered casually around the darkened corridors. The age and slightly Gothic nature of the old Victorian building would have had many feeling uneasy at the dark shadows that created weird and unnatural shapes in the long empty passages between rooms but Benjamin had no such concerns. This was his place, he knew every inch every sound and nothing made him feel uncomfortable however today something did feel slightly different. He couldn’t hear anything odd or see anything out of place but just a sense.
He decided that today he would have a small trip around the antiquity section And he climbed the marble stairs that lead to the first floor. He greeted the mummies as old friends and purred at the mummified cat. He was wandering around past a selection of ancient Greek artefacts when an out of place, but not unusual sound startled him.
It came for further down the corridor he looked up expecting to see his colleague but no one was there.
After deciding that he must have misheard he continued his tour of the floor. He was about to return to the stairs to go back down to the staff room to put the kettle on when he heard movement from the fire door at the far end of the exhibition space. He moved over to the door and pushed it open, the lights automatically flashed on as he opened the door. He looked up and down to see if he could find the source of the noise. He couldn’t see anyone so shouted hello, without any response. As he went to shut the door to returned to the exhibition he heard movement again, this time from above.
He stepped into the stairway and tried to look up through the gap in the stairs to see if he could see who was above him.
He climbed up the stairs and shouted hello again again but there was still no response. But he was certain there was clearly somebody above him. When he got to the second floor he saw that the door was shut the exhibition space was dark and there was nobody to be seen, the noise continued to come from above so he headed to the third floor.
When he reached the third floor he noticed that the door was slightly ajar and decided that he could see into the back of the aquarium. It was clear to Benjamin that the person who had been in the fire escape must have been the Aquarist and therefore they were probably looking for him. He closed the aquarium fire door behind him and began to make his way through darkened aquarium towards the Aquarist’s room where he knew she would be. When he arrived one look at the door and he could tell that the lights were off and it was empty, she had clearly finished her notes for the evening and moved on to meet him in the staff room. Benjamin shut the door and turned into the dark tank filled room. In the low glow of the tank lighting Benjamin could definitely make out the shape of a person at the end of the room he shouted out to get her attention.
There was no reply.
He began to make his way over to her and again she didn’t react. As he got closer he realised that she seemed to be wearing a long grey coat and as he squinted in the dim light he could swear she was wearing top hat. Benjamin slowed, something was off, he felt slightly uneasy for the first time and shouted again but this time with a slight tremor in his voice. He blinked and to his amazement the figure was gone.
He turned to look back towards the fire door, as he did a flickering caught the corner of his eye he saw it was coming from one of the tanks. He walked towards it and found himself in front of the crab tank, as he looked in he could see what looked like a gold locket lying at the bottom, half submerged in the gravel. He rolled up his sleeve and grabbed it out. He sprinted through the taxidermies and down the stairs to the staff room. There, sat at the table was the aquarist with two cups of tea in front of her. Benjamin took no time to describe what happened and dropped the locket into her hand
She held the small golden locket on the palm of her hand in front of herself so that she could see it more clearly. Curiosity got the better of her and with a click she flicked the latch and opened it. Inside was a small key, she looked, eyes widening and then turned towards Benjamin.
“It can’t be?”
Benjamin did not know how to respond but somehow he knew he was thinking exactly the same thing.
“Come on, let’s check it, what have we got to lose?” Taking the small metal key in between her fingers before ushering Benjamin out of the room and towards the stairs. They walked up to the top floor quietly. Neither really knowing what to say. Both hoping it was the key for the locked drawer but neither saying it so as not to jinx it.
The top floor it was in complete darkness. Benjamin turned the lights on and they walked over to the open door to Mr Benstoke’s office. They both carefully stepped over the rope and walked around the desk to the infamous drawer. She looked at the lock and with the precision of a surgeon pushed the key in and turned it. There was a clunk and with a swift tug the drawer opened. Both witnesses gasped and looked down at the long hidden contents.
Sat in the drawer was a small leather bound notebook tied with a black ribbon. The Aquarist lifted it out cradling it with great care and reverence. She slowly untied the ribbon and opened the cover. There on the first page in perfect handwriting were the words. ‘The Last Statement of Darwin Benstoke’. Benjamin looked over her arm as she slowly turned the page, written in perfect handwriting was Benstoke’s own words.
“I have written this on February 19th 1863. I am 67 years old and dying. My will is secure and held by my agents Mr’s Peters and they will ensure the ongoing availability of my museum. I have lived a varied life, one I have mostly enjoyed. However there is one chapter that is untold and when I have passed I feel it should be known.
My wife Annabelle was, to me a perfect angel, she supported my working and social endeavours then she bore me a son, George. Our lives were perfect, but a dark cloud arrived. I found she was the victim of a blackmailer trying to defame her by calling bigamy. This suggestion of impropriety was unthinkable as our banns had been read. I employed agents to deal with the blackmailer, however they returned to me having uncovered something. My wife was indeed still married and remained in regular contact with her husband who was also the true father of George.
To resolve this problem I procured two large vases and a great deal of rope. I invited my wife’s husband to the hall for supper and using a special compound ensured that both of these rogues were rendered unconscious. From there it was reasonably easy to bind then in the ropes and place them in the vases. There they remain to today. As for George, it was not his fault but he was not my boy so he was left as a foundling. I have no regrets about this though my hope is that it will never jeopardise my true legacy.”
The Aquarist gulped and looked at Benjamin.
“We never saw this, let’s put it back and hand the locket to the manager in the morning.”
Benjamin nodded and waited as she put everything back before quickly heading back out of the office. As he walked through the door and towards the stairs he hesitated for a moment as he turned off the light.
“It was time,” came the deep whisper in his ear through the dark.
There are no comments for this story
Be the first to respond and start the conversation.