Harrington's Folly (A Jessica Norton Story)

My name is Jessica Norton. I collect stories. I'm not a journalist. I collect them for my own purposes, and sometimes I share them. The stories I hunt for are those about things that ought not be. I collect stories about the fissures in the world.

This is the story of Harrington's Folly.

*

I saw Harrington’s Folly in the distance. I’d left Newdean more than two hours ago, and had been walking north. The Folly wasn’t marked on any maps, so I’d had to rely on directions I’d gleaned from people in the town. It had taken me longer than I’d hoped to get here, but I was in sight of my target now, and that revivified me. It took me a further half an hour to navigate my way there, as the environment around the tower was wild and unmaintained. The brambles were thick, and more than once I caught myself on thorns.

The Folly was a squat, round thing, about twenty feet high, made of red bricks. It was severely weathered, with nothing to indicate that anyone had been here in a very long time. Still, it was recognisably the same building I’d seen in the photographs I’d bought. I was standing outside the first ever radio telescope. Or, rather, outside the building that had contained it. The telescope had been mounted on top of the Folly, machinery inside providing it with motion. It was the brainchild of two eccentrics – Joseph Harrington, the Folly’s designer and the visionary behind the whole project, and Lady Elizabeth Hewford-Bough, his patron.

It’s curious how certain important devices have been simultaneously, or nearly simultaneously, invented separately by different people. Some consider this evidence of an ‘outside influence’, perhaps showering our collective psyche with certain ideas and images, and thus guiding us along particular paths of development. One can easily imagine more sensitive souls being receptive to such transmissions. Those who are fortunate manage to turn the contents of their minds into physical reality, while others never get further than unfinished designs. It is also, of course, perfectly possible that the total accumulation of knowledge in the world can reach a point where certain discoveries become not only inevitable, but highly likely; as such, it is of little surprise that different people could have the same idea at roughly the same time.

Harrington built his radio telescope in 1907, decades before the ‘official’ first telescope. Hewford-Bough was an aristocratic spinster obsessed with psychic phenomena, frequenting mediums, many of poor repute. It’s been said that she remained unmarried as she loved someone who had died long ago, and desperately sought communion with them, whoever they may have been. Others have put a strange twist on this, and insist it was not a dead person she loved – it was simply the dead in general.

Harrington was more scientifically minded. A proud autodidact from a humble background, only child of a shoe maker. His father always wanted better for him than he’d had, and encouraged his interest in science and engineering. He showed great promise, and with the premature death of his parents to illness, he inherited a modest estate; this he largely invested, and did so wisely. He was able to fund not only his own education, but also his experiments in 'aetheric magnetism'. This drew the attention of Lady Hewford-Bough.

But I digress. I was telling you about the Folly.

I felt a powerful chill as I stood before the decaying tower. This was one of the rare places in the world where the song of the stars had been heard. The heavens and the earth became connected here, reaching out to each other. Harrington, and Hewford-Bough, had heard things here. The communications they received were bizarre, impossible, frightening, enlightening, exhilarating, haunting. These are all words they themselves used to describe them, but they kept the actual content of the messages hidden, insisting that they'd only publish them 'when granted permission'.

There had once been a door, but this was now only an empty frame. I entered the Folly. A cloud passed over the sun as I did so, and all around me fell into shadow. I stood in a round, empty room. It was too dark to see, so I took out my torch. A spiral staircase opposite me led to the floor above, which had housed the machinery. This room had been reserved for interpretation of the messages they received. They had permitted the room, and themselves, to be photographed, but jealously controlled access to the messages themselves. No details about the actual process of communication was ever shared, although it seemed that a condition was that both of them be present.

This was also the room where Harrington had killed himself.

I went over to the spiral staircase. It was severely rusted. Experimentally, I put a foot on the lowest step, and the metal sagged under me. The whole staircase creaked. Carefully, I climbed up it.  The upper room was littered with ruined, rusting machinery. There was nothing salvageable, or even recognisable. Harrington had smashed it all to pieces in 1912, immediately before his suicide downstairs. Although Hewford-Bough never explained in detail what had happened, it appears that the two had a falling out, disagreeing over the correct interpretation of the communications from elsewhere. She had insisted that the entities they had been communicating with were not only benign, but parental. Harrington, it must be assumed, thought otherwise.

There was something deeply sad about the sight of the destroyed machinery. The strange dreams of two people had been made manifest here. Through her money and charisma, this shared passion had gone from mere fancy into material reality. The shattered metal spoke of their hope and desire for contact with something supremely other; a hope they thought had been rewarded, a desire they claimed to have been fulfilled. I picked up a fragment, ran my hands over it carefully, watching for sharp edges and corners. I half-expected to feel a jolt of energy from it, but no such thing happened. I put it in my bag, a keepsake.

After Harrington's suicide, Hewford-Bough had destroyed the transcripts they'd received. No copies have ever emerged, and sadly it seems that the messages they received have been lost to history. Hewford-Bough lived for another fifteen years, rattling around a house that was ever-more falling into dilapidation. She took to painting, though she never sold or displayed them. Only one of these paintings is known to still exist, in the hands of a reclusive collector who refused to show me it, or send me photographs of it, or even describe it.

Curiously, Hewford-Bough ceased courting mediums after Harrington's death. According to an account offered by one of her few friends at the time – 'She had drunk her fill of the other side.'

I descended the stairs with greater caution than I'd climbed them. A wind was starting to whistle around the Folly, growing sharper and sharper by the minute. I sat to one side of the door frame, waiting for it to calm. I closed my eyes, and must have fallen into a very light sleep as I was jolted awake by a crash – the spiral staircase had collapsed. The upper room was now entirely cut off. I had no way of reaching it now, and silently cursed myself for not exploring it more thoroughly.

Another time, perhaps.

The wind showed no signs of abating. I pulled my cut close to me, and set off. The sky had become overcast, and I suspected rain was inbound. I fought my way through the brambles, back towards the path, and that lonely town nearby.

As I walked, I couldn't help but think of Harrington, extinguishing his life in that remote tower. What could have driven him to that? For years, they had carefully documented these messages from a place outside of human knowledge, messages they considered too important to share. What could have changed? What detail did he notice that altered the spirit of these communications so radically that he took his own life?

What terrible truth did he realise about the stars?

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