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Father to the Bride

Letter, from Major Charles Cadogan, late of Her Majesty's Army in India, to Father Philip Merrivel:

My dear Merrivel -

You will, I am sure, forgive my writing to you in this fashion. I should not normally venture so far on so brief an acquaintance, but I have to confess that I am desperate; and to whom should I make such a confession, if not to the parish priest?

You will forgive my saying that I regret your predecessor's departure; Father M'Turk was a difficult man, but he knew me and mine of old, and had at least some understanding of my troubles. You are so new in your living, you cannot yet have apprehended the more arcane realities of life in Massingham St Peter. Nor can I explain them comfortably in a letter: only to say that there are mysteries here beyond the ordinary, and that they are terrible.

In God's name, will you come to me? My house, at six this evening; I will be looking for you.

From the diary of Father Philip Merrivel, priest of the parish of Massingham St Peter:

Obedient to his strange and anxious summons, I attended on the local squire this evening, only to find myself as much deceived as he is; he has the big house but he is no more a squire than I am, and no more local. I could not swear to his provenance, but his accent is Black Country, his language is pure military and his manners are nothing to be written down, a bastard collation of India and ambition mixed with the oft-quoted wisdom of his father, who seems to have been a singularly stupid man.

But I am allowing my heat to scorch my tale. Let me begin with the walk, then, which will cool me. I am still not accustomed to the landscapes here, the wide wide fenland and how the sky overlaps and overreaches it, how the mills and the wind-pumps and of course the churches can seem from a distance to stitch the two together, being all that there is to rise up between the flat horizon and the arch of the sky. This is a land of light, bright or dull or often watery; which makes it all the stranger when the sun goes down and the dark reclaims possession. Stranger to me at least, who am a stranger here; but I think it must be strange to all, I think it speaks to the human soul of that time before the Fall, even before Adam, when darkness was on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God moved on the face of the waters. That may be blasphemy, there has been so much of the hand of man at work upon this land; but I think its true character strikes through, and makes us all alien and unwelcome.

The sun was sinking as I left the presbytery, losing itself in one of those banks of high cloud that so often slip over in the evening time, to blanket the last of the day. I walked in a darkling shadow, then, whistling as I went if only to confirm that there was nothing here to make me nervous: not the dykes of black water that run Roman-straight on either side the road; not the soft and crumbling banks between; not the occasional hooded horseman seeming to race the last light home. They are not a people to be late out, my new parishioners; but had I been afraid to walk in the dark, I should have taken a lantern. Had I been afraid of mis-stepping, I should have taken a walking-cane; had I been afraid of an assault, I should have taken a pistol. None of these concerned me, new though I am to the parish; and what else is there to fear, in God's own country under God's own law?

Even so, I did whistle. The wind has an edge, almost a voice to it here where there are few trees, few buildings, no crags or gullies to make it speak, only the endless patchwork of the fields and the farms between, an occasional run of houses along the road's side, no real village but always the fathomless, unfathomable water which seems most still when most it ripples under the wind's touch. Perhaps I only wanted to speak back to the wind, then, or to the cloud-shadow as it raced across the sky, swift as bird-flight, like a curtain sudden drawn. Perhaps I only wanted to speak to myself. It is a lonely life, I find, being young father to a hundred score of souls, and no hope ever of a wife. Hence perhaps this diary, and hence perhaps my whistling also. I whistle for company, or for conversation; certainly not for courage. That I will not allow. I am a rational man, I must be, that is required, or how could I ever be a priest?

I found this evening that one at least of my parishioners is less rational than I could wish. Half an hour's easy walking brought me to Harkeness, one of those abrupt square grey monumental houses that are scattered through the county like lead shot scattered on a tile floor. Built by the gentry for the gentry, but this one at least sold on to one who dreams of gentry but wakes to some other, lesser world, and knows himself a disappointment in it.

I knocked and it was my host himself who flung open the door, crying, "Come in, man, my God, come in, I have looked for you these twenty minutes..."

I checked my pocket-watch, and said, "You invited me for six o'clock, sir, and it still lacks a minute or two of the hour."

"Oh, hell, I never meant for you to understand it literally! Before sundown, I meant, that's how we live here, indoors before the sun is gone, it's folly else; and did you walk? Say not, say you had a ride that let you down at the lane's end..."

"No, sir, I did walk. It's a short step by the standards of the hills I grew up with, and level all the way. A pleasant stroll, of a pleasant evening."

He shuddered, in a sickened, scared way that sickened me; a man should have more self-control before his guest, or before his priest. I showed him nothing of what I was feeling, of course; only followed him through the hall and into what I took to be his drawing-room. The tiger-skin rug was the least of its affectations; all the decor was Oriental, expensive, out of its proper place. How he came by his money I cannot imagine, as he has neither the breeding of a gentleman nor the air of a man competent in business, but where he came by it cannot be in question.

Perhaps he came by his superstitions there also. It was a confused tale he told me, and one that in large I do not care to record, save to say that he is a widower and possessed of a daughter of marriageable age. I understand this to be a common cause of anxiety in men, but in him it expresses itself in bizarre accusations against his neighbours. She is enamoured, it seems, of a young man who lives at a few miles' distance. This is a young man with a title and expectations, and on this short acquaintance I would have expected my host to have promoted the alliance, for the promotions that it would bring both to his daughter and to himself. I can only assume some obscure jealousy has turned the father against the suitor, for turned he is, and strangely so. He would say nothing directly, but only hint at evil in the family, misdeeds that date back generations, sins of the body and worse, far worse. Sins of the soul, he said, and never said what he meant by it.

At all events, he is obsessively determined that Melissa shall not marry the Hon Clive de Montfort; and she of course is equally determined that she shall. I had the pleasure of meeting the young lady tonight, as he insisted that I should stay for supper. I told him that I had bread and cheese and pickled walnuts waiting, all that a man of my temper could need or want; I don't think it was the spirit of hospitality that drove him to forbid my leaving, so much as a simple fear of the dark beyond his house. Like any unimaginative man, he couldn't understand that I was not frightened by what frightened him. And so I must stay, and share his meat with him, and in great quantities too. My compensation was to meet Melissa across the dining-table. She is a taking little thing, and it is not hard to see the local lordling being taken with her. Nor was her stubborn streak far to seek, as her father of course drew it out. That will be a battle, I deem, but it is not for me to arbitrate. I fear I gave him little comfort.

At length, after dinner and port and brandy and cigars, he let me go; but he would not let me go alone. He was reluctant to let me walk, wanted to order up his carriage, but that he is too much of a horseman to disturb his cattle so late for so short a drive; I was pleased to see that there is that much good in him. What was less good to see was how white he stood, how shaken with fear for me, and could not be reassured. Almost he had me stay the night, but that would have been ridiculous. At last I agreed to accept his stable-lad's escort, with a lantern and a hawthorn stave to guard me. I almost asked from what I needed such protection, but that I knew that he would answer with some nonsense that I yearned not to hear. Already he was fussing at my dress, "Here, let me help you with your cape, Father, so; but your pectoral cross there, wear it outside, so, where all can see..."

I need hardly say that the walk home was accomplished without incident. The boy was quiet and respectful, no bad company if company I must have, though he did smell a little oddly. I thought perhaps he had been eating ramsons, except that this is not their season and they must in any case be hard to find in this unwooded country. I had him wait at my door while I fetched him a bottle of beer and a slice of cheese from the larder, which he seemed glad enough to take. A lad that age is always hungry; I am not so far removed from it myself, to have forgotten that. No need for him to stave it off by chewing herbs, when I have food to spare.

Letter from Miss Melissa Cadogan to the Hon Clive de Montfort, carried by Ned the stable-boy:

...My father forbids this, but I must write; he forbids any contact, any mention of your name, but I must see you. O my sweet, my lord, will you not meet me? I may not leave the house, the servants risk their place here if they let me; but come the night I can slip my unwilling watchers, and I have a key to the back door and another to the summer-house below the pool. Oh, ride over (but not on the grey! He is lovely, but too easy seen by moonlight!) and meet me there. At midnight, midnight is a fine romantic time to meet. Oh, do! Send word back that you will. Ned you can trust with a word for my ear and any sign you care to send besides, if it be that my father cannot read it. Send no notes, for he may intercept the boy. Oh, how I hate this subterfuge!

A token, from the Hon Clive de Montfort to Miss Cadogan, conveyed on Ned the stable-boy's finger:

His own signet-ring, graven with the family crest and its motto, Sans Dieu et Sans Seigneur.

From the diary of Father Philip Merrivel:

I find that Major Cadogan is not the only man to hold his sinister superstitions in this parish, though I still believe that he may have been their progenitor. All my flock is widely scattered, there is no village worthy of the title, and today I have ridden the bounds from ocean's shore to unpassable marsh to what passes here for high ground, and I have heard the same ungodly calumnies in every quarter. What is worst about the tales is that they have one uniform and horrid factor all alike, that there are missing children at their heart. In vain did I suggest all the true causes there are for children to stray into trouble and doom, in such a country; their poor families will insist that they have been taken. And indeed it is hard to contradict them, such a rash there has been of vanishments in recent years. They say it is not natural, and I fear they are right.

Even so, I will not countenance their accusations, which lie somewhere between the hobgoblin and the cannibal, and are aimed at a family of the highest breeding, if not the finest reputation. There is no doubt that the de Montfort clan has shown a predilection through the centuries for vice unparallel'd, but it is for God and not for us to judge what guilt these generations must bear for their fathers' sins. I will not hear them vilified, and certainly not with such nonsense as the peasant mind is able to produce, though I say again I think they have had some help in their imaginings.

I believe I must call upon Baron de Montfort. There is no need for him to deny these accusations, they are the most patent nonsense; but there may be some gesture he can make to quiet them, if not to discover the truth of what is happening to his tenants' children.

A jewel, of uncertain provenance or destiny:

Diamonds, to speak of eternity; rubies, eloquent of the heart's blood; a brooch-pin of gold, wickedly sharp and long. A gift, surely, from one young hot-head to another - but who gave it, and to whom? And who let it fall in the stable-yard all unregarded, for the horse-boy to find and keep? Or was it a token left there deliberately, and deliberately for him? Too grand a gift if so, but someone perhaps thinks him a grand lad and worthy of it. Someone perhaps is brewing trouble, on a grand scale. As if we had not trouble enough already.

From the diary of Father Philip Merrivel:

Well, I have been to the de Montfort house, and I fear I have profited little by my effort. Shade's End the place is called; they say this is an ancient corruption of a Saxon original, some play around the meaning of pity, but I must confess that I find the literal intention apt to its object. The ultimate end of shadow should be in light, but of course it is not. Out of the dark we come and to the dark we must return, and half our lives are lived in night to remind us of that constant. Light is only an absence of the dark, and that temporary. All the shadows of the world will weave themselves into a single overcast of black at the last, and the final stars will vanish and we will be left naked and solitary before God without a spark to guide or to encourage. Does that sound grim or depressing, in a priest? I was made so, even before I came to this darkling parish. There is no easy path to Paradise, God will put us through the mill. In the darkness we must stand up to be tested.

Not my virtue, but my patience and my pride have been tested this day, and not by God. I would sooner say by the Devil, but that would be presumptuous. Even so, I now understand something of the wickedness the people speak of in this family. Perhaps I even understand Major Cadogan, though I still think the man a fool.

I went, I say, to Shade's End. I rode my mare, to give proper respect to the house and the right impression to its people. I found the gates closed across the drive, and would have been forced to dismount had the wall to one side not been broken down by frost and neglect, to the point where my Bessie regarded it with an untroubled eye as I put her to it, and cleared the rubble with an easy foot to spare. It seemed doubly curious to me, that the gates should be closed and the wall halfway to collapse. The one was an announcement, perhaps, to the stranger, that none were welcome here; the other perhaps a nod to the reputation of the house, that it needed no stronger walls than that. I ignored both, and rode the drive's mile along grass verges to spare Bessie the crunch of gravel which she particularly dislikes beneath her hooves.

I thought it might be because I was so quiet in my coming, that I found such a cold welcome at the grey granite face of the house: no boy running to my horse's head nor to my stirrup, the door closed against me and no greeting on the step, neither man nor maid. I could have shouted; I could have dismounted and held Bessie's reins myself while I tugged at the great bell-pull by the door. I did neither. I leant from the saddle and used my whip's head against its black old timbers, raising a sharp and peremptory thunder.

That fetched me an answer, though none that I expected. An elderly man came to the door, and I took him to be a rather shabby butler, on a par with the general condition of the property. When he enquired, politely enough, about my business, I said that I was priest to this parish and had called to see the baron on a matter of grave importance. He replied that the baron was not receiving visitors today; and was halfway to closing the door in my face, damn his impudence, before I said that the matter concerned the baron's son, Clive de Montfort. That held him, but only briefly; he said that there was little now that concerned the baron's son.

I understood him well enough, or thought I did. What, I cried, was the boy unwell? Then most certainly I should be admitted, indeed I demanded it, as the man who was his godly father and should be his confessor too. Even so, it was denied me. That man said that young Clive had fathers enough already, and would be making no confessions today. There was nothing a priest could offer, he said, that would do the boy a service now; and he seemed to shudder, as though his own words touched him coldly. Then he thanked me for my call, and patted his pockets as though he searched for tuppence for a tip. I could not have brooked such impudence, of course, so I made as though I had not seen it; I simply turned Bessie and cantered away, full across the lawns this time, though they were as unkempt as the gravel and the servants and the manners of the house, so I doubt that my uncare of them struck home.

I was angry, but the brisk ride cooled me. It would be folly to blame a family for the ill conduct of its servant; it would be dereliction of my duty before God, to abandon a sick youth in the face of a shabby welcome. I returned to the presbytery, but only to collect the sacrament, my little pot of chrism, all that might be needed if the boy were sick unto death; then I rode out again.

I was disinclined to try the front door again, to test my patience against the butler's insolence. At the same time, I was determined not to come like a thief in the night; our Lord may take that upon himself, but I will not.

Of course I believe in the world of faith, our Creator and His ghostly ministers; my profession requires me to assert as much at every mass. But I am a rational man, and I do believe also in the world of matter and its necessary order. I see a logic in the natural world, and another in the society of men. When a child is sick, however he has come to be so and however debauched his line may have become, that child's father may not send for his priest, but he will most certainly send for his doctor.

There is but the one medical man at practice within my parish. I am acquainted with him, and also with his interests and habits. I have had occasion before this to debate with him, whether the number and scope of his patients' needs should not oblige him to travel to London and elsewhere rather less often than in fact he does. He is a man of science, which I respect; he seems sometimes to allow his natural curiosity to override his duty to my parishioners, which I deplore.

Today, I knew, he had travelled to town to visit the great Royal Gardens at Kew, in company with some Fellows of the Royal Society. He could not have returned before sunset; even so I called at his house to ask after him, and was told - inter alia: his housekeeper is a garrulous woman, which fact I had known before - that the baron at the big house had indeed sent for him this morning, and would send again after dinner, by which time she was confident that her master would be home to meet the summons.

So: not like a thief, then, but something like a highwayman I lurked on my horse in the shadow of a tumbledown barn, some little distance from the locked gates of the house. There was moon enough to cast that shadow, but even so I felt the quality of the night as something darker than I had known it in any other county of the realm. I thought it laid itself down beneath the stars as something tangible, not sinful in itself but inherently unblessed, untouched by God. Which is again a blasphemy, and a physical impossibility; but all my learning and all my determined realism cannot always overcome a sensory impression. Bessie too was uncomfortable, but I could contrive to put that down to the unusual situation: mounted and yet held to a stand, after dark and in the cold far from her hay-net and the warmth and straw of her box, the constant comforts of her stable-companions. No blame to her if she stamped and fretted, if her eyes were wild in the gusting wind, if she was anxious only to go home.

I hushed her, lulled her as best I could, watched the road and the gate, and waited.

It was full dark, and had been for a while: too much dark for me to read my pocket-watch, to know the time of night. At last, though, there was a light that moved on the drive from the house, a carriage-lamp swaying in time to the paces of a reluctant horse. The driver must halt his gig necessarily, to open the gates; as he did so, I saw his face in the lamp-light, and it was the man who had so peremptorily denied me access this afternoon. I had been sure that it would be so; what man else would his master send, to fetch the doctor to an ailing son?

Nor did he pause to lock the gates again at his back, and that too I had predicted. As soon as his light was lost in the gloom - in any other country there would have been a bend to the road, or woodland, or a rise in the ground to hide it: here there is only the darkness, but that is thick enough for the task, it swallows light as evil swallows virtue - I urged Bessie forward to the road.

And so up the drive to the house, to the high door again; and this time I did dismount, and hitched Bessie to a baluster on the terrace wall, and heaved at the bell-pull with a will. The butler might have denied me entrance, but no lesser servant would do so, no, nor even the master of the house if he should answer his own front door. That seemed unlikely, but the habits and manners of the country are still strange to me.

As it happened, no one answered, though I rang a second time and a third, great peals that must have been heard throughout the house. I felt justified, then, in trying the door, finding it unlocked and thrusting it wide open.

Not pausing to close it behind me - I came as a priest, not a thief - I walked slowly into the hall, and into the scent of hothouse lilies; a fresh wreath stood on a table there, as though it were the focal point of the whole house. I must needs step around it, as must any visitor. A candle burned before it, the only light on this floor. It seemed like an offering, an altar unto death; I shuddered, and wanted to extinguish that flame.

And did not, but only passed it hurriedly by on my way up the divided staircase. Left or right at the landing: it might have been a difficulty, but was not. I followed the lights, and they led me like a true path along the corridor to a suite of rooms. Which door to take? The scent of lilies was my guide, wafting from the one which stood ajar. I pushed it further open, and stepped within.

I had stood in similar rooms many and many a time, always to the same purpose. There were the lilies, in bunches and wreaths; there were the candles, guttering wildly in the draft that came through the billowing curtains where they were drawn across an open window; there was the bed, made up in white, with the shroud and the petals of roses...

But the petals here were scattered on the carpet at my feet, and the shroud was thrown back. This should have been a mourning-room, with the dear dead boy laid out for his grieving family to see; it lacked only a body in the bed.

Dear God, did I write so, that it lacked only a body? It seems I cannot keep a morbid wit from rising, to mind and pen together, even under the most abominable circumstances. Let me tell it more straightly.

I cannot say how long I stood aghast. I could not, I could not misread the meaning of that room and its accoutrements. It was meant for a corpse, and that could be none other than the son of the house. And yet, he was not there. Could it be that an anxious father and hysterical servants had misunderstood, mistaken a faint or a deeper coma for their brother more deep yet, immortal sleep? Surely not - and yet there had been cases reported, the thing was known. People had even been buried and woken after, in their coffins, even in their graves. And the doctor had been sent for, where they would not have a priest. Perhaps there had been some doubt, after the body was laid out; perhaps some colour, some warmth in what should have been cold and pale. And so the gig had gone, and in his abandonment the young man had woken truly, and stirred abroad bewildered; or no, not abandoned, he had opened his eyes to find his father here, and so the two of them had left this dreadful chamber and gone elsewhere in the house, and sure it was my duty now to seek them out in their joy...

And so I did, or tried to. I searched that house from attic to cellar, at first calling and then hurrying, then running and making all the noise I could, and not a soul was there to seek, neither man nor master, not the baron nor the boot-boy, not a one. I was alone, with not even a corpse for company.

I am a rational man, and not easily frightened. More angry than afraid, I went back to the death-chamber, to try to understand it further; and was there yet when I heard footsteps and soft voices in the passage without. Here would be an answer; I waited by the softly-stirring curtains for it to come to me.

When it did, it came as two men: one the elderly man with whom I had already had dealings, the other my acquaintance the doctor. Both were legitimately startled to see me; it was the butler, as I had taken him to be, who spoke.

"Good God, sir! Did I not make it perfectly clear on the steps this afternoon that you were not to be welcomed here, that you come sneaking back in my absence to invade my house?"

"Your house? I beg your pardon, but Baron de Montfort..."

"Is myself, sir. And yes, this is my house; and your presence in it is an affront to manners, to hospitality and to me."

"I beg your pardon," I said again, "but I have my own duties before God, and must execute them as I see fit. Having no answer to my knock, I came in to seek your son, to see if his case was as desperate as you had told me; but I cannot find him here."

By now they were recovered from the shock of a stranger in the mourning-room, at least enough recovered to register the empty bed.

"You haven't...?"

"No, sir. This is as I found it."

The baron subsided, with an odd little groan. The doctor frowned and set his bag down on a sideboard, where it settled with a heavy clatter.

"I had hoped to take heart from this," I said tentatively. "Might it not be that you thought him dead who is not dead, but may yet be restored to you?"

"No, oh no. My son is dead indeed..."

"And yet you fetched the doctor, not the priest?"

"Yes, I did. For this work - well, I suppose either one of you would have done, but my own preference is for the man of science, not of superstition."

I might have bridled at that, I might have bridled twice, for I consider myself as much a man of science as of religion, but that we were interrupted. Indeed, I feel now as though my life was entirely interrupted at that point, as though a razor's edge had separated everything I knew to be true then from everything I fear to be true now.

The curtains moved, more strongly than the wind could move them. There was no sound of voice or grunt of breath, but a hand came in between them, long pale fingers to draw them back as a young man climbed lithely in across the sill.

A young man in a night-shift, dark and handsome, fit to catch the eye of any squire's daughter, but that his white skin was marked and smeared with red around his mouth, his shift stained more deeply, clinging wetly to his chest.

His father groaned again. Then the boy saw us, not till then, and his whole demeanour changed. He crouched back and hissed like an animal, showing his teeth, preternaturally long and sharp they seemed in the candlelight; then he turned and was gone in a moment, phenomenally swift, out through the window again. I ran to the casement and stared down, but could see no trace of him. It did not seem possible that he could have climbed to ground in the time, let alone run out of sight across the terrace; indeed, he had rather flung himself out through the casement, more suicide than climber. There was no body in the gravel, though, any more than there was boy fleetly afoot. I was bewildered, more than bewildered; as I turned back to my companions, my hand found my pectoral cross all unwitting, and I felt my lips shape a blessing.

The doctor was still mute; it was the baron who said, "Aye, father, you may well turn to your prayers. And may yet find yourself better defended than the rest of us. Come, we'll go downstairs and take a glass of wine, and we will talk to you."

And so they took me down, and talked to me of superstitions, of creatures of the night; and when I protested they raised my own practice, and asked if I did not believe in the powers of exorcism. I affirmed it, and they showed me what the doctor carried in his bag: a wooden spike and mallet, scalpels and a bone-saw, garlic and a flask of holy water.

"It's just another kind of exorcism, father."

"But, but this is the very monstrosity that the people of the parish accuse you of, Can it be true, then, are you telling me that it is true?"

"You have seen him, father. Do you tell me. He is my son; the more people assert it, the more ready I am to believe."

"No, you don't need my assurance. You believe. And yet, you have waited this long to act - why so? How could you delay, while your people here lived in terror, while their children were taken...?"

"Not by my son. Don't you understand, even yet?"

Here the doctor interrupted us. "I have been treating Clive for the last month, for a strange wasting, a weakening disease. It is only today that we have lost that battle, and only today that the baron has finally convinced me of his true malady. My word on it, Merrivel: Clive is a victim here, as much as any of the local children. I saw him last night, and he was weakly but still living. I came tonight in hopes of preventing - well, what you have seen. His final corruption. Now, I fear that we have another task; but that must wait till morning."

"And another task yet," the baron added grimly. "We have to track this scourge to its source, find the creature that has drained my son of his blood and strength and now at last his soul."

A paper crackled in my pocket, but now was not the time to disclose it. Rage and grief are sufficiently ugly individually; they make for cruel bedfellows. Let the baron face the one thing first, the dawn and what that must imply.

We sat up, then, all night, and talked of many things, spiritual and earthly. As the sun rose, so did we; and walked upstairs like an army, a small army marching to a small and bitter war.

Into the death-chamber we went, and found it not at all as we had left it. All was straight and ordered; the shroud was pulled neatly over the bed's incumbent, as though it had never been otherwise.

The baron drew back the sheet to expose his son's face, quiet in repose. It was the same young man who had come in through the curtains, no question of that, but he was all boy now, all sweetness and all loss.

"You see him? Come, feel, touch..."

I did so; and, challenged, I said, "I should have thought that he was a full day dead, but just a day. His flesh is cold but not stiff, there is no rigor and yet no lividity, no sign of mortal corruption..."

"Nor will there be, unless we bring it to him." And the doctor stepped between us, taking charge. "Let me see to his body, baron, while the holy father here ministers to his soul. Do you stand witness, nothing more. Are we ready, all?"

We were; and so he took the stake and mallet and wreaked a terrible destruction to the purity of that lost body, and yet it was not half so terrible, not a moiety as terrible as its sequel.

The stake struck home; the dead boy's eyes flung open, and his mouth shrieked a shrill and wordless curse at us and at his father even while I prayed, while I seized his hair to hold him as he bucked, while I pressed my crucifix to his brow and smelled its burning.

And then at last he was silent, he was still; and so he went to his eternal rest branded between the eyes with the image of the body of his Lord in His disgrace, and so was not demeaned by his own release.

I said that, to his father; and had small thanks for it through the old man's tears, but thanks enough. And then I said, as I had to do, "I found this, in Clive's room. While I waited for you."

It was a note from the young lady in the case, Miss Melissa Cadogan, and proposed an assignation. The note was undated, but its stained and crumpled state was swift to suggest that the assignation had taken place, and not too long ago; the blood that stained it was dry but not yet gone to dust, quite thickly scabbed in its creases.

We gazed at each other, we three, and said no word between us; but turned with common intent towards the door.

When we rode into Major Cadogan's yard this morning, myself on Bessie and the other two in the baron's gig, no lad came running to our horses' heads. I led Bessie into the stable myself, and found it quite abandoned and the horses driven quite frantic by an abiding smell, which I traced to a heap of wet straw in one corner. It was dark and sticky, and I was in no doubt that it was blood that we were smelling, the cattle and I.

I took Bessie out into the air again and tethered her to the gig, reporting what I had found to my companions. We marshalled some thin determination between us, enough to see us through this thing, if only not to let the other two see us fail in nerve or application; and then we marched together to the door of studded oak, and hammered upon it.

It was the major himself who opened to us, fraught and distraught; he was worse when he recognised the baron, skittering back across his own hallway as though one of us had thrust a crucifix and a curse in his face.

"What - what do you do here? What do you want of me? This is a bad time, the servants have all run off; something wicked has been happening here in my house, I caught the stable-boy myself, he was drinking, drinking at the throat of one of my mares..."

"No, Major," I said, speaking for us all. "Not the stable-boy. You have blamed your neighbours long enough; you shall not blame your servants now. Where is your daughter, please?"

"My daughter? Melissa? She is, she is still abed, she never rises early..."

"Nevertheless, we must see her. Which is her room?"

And he led us to it, though he blustered all the way and only fell silent when the baron fixed him with a steely glare and hissed "You knew. Didn't you? All this time, you brought her here - from India, was it? Was it there? - and all the time you knew..."

We came to her door and thrust it open, and there she was, not seeming dead as Clive had been, but lively and alert, playing jewels like rays of fire between her fingers in the candlelight, for she kept her curtains full drawn against the sun.

She gazed at us in astonishment and wonder, for a moment longer playing the innocent as though for the pleasure of the game, though she must already have known that the game was up. Then she smiled, and it was a smile of pure evil, wanton and greedy and acid-bright; and she said, "Why, Father Merrivel, do not wring your hands that way, there is no cause for sorrow. I rejoice at what I am."

And then she sprang at me, seeing me perhaps as the weakest of the three of us; and she might have been right, for there was a terrible strength in her. But I had not been wringing my hands for sorrow, I had been oiling them with the chrism, the holy grease we use to bless a dying soul; and my fingers closed around her wrists even as she clutched at my throat, and she screamed. It was a dreadful, dreadful sound, and I could feel her skin bubble and burn beneath my touch, I thought I could feel her very bones charring within her, but still I did not let go until the baron stepped smartly forward and smote her head from her body with a single blow of his old cavalry sabre.

Even then, the doctor insisted on his grisly work with stake and mallet and garlic too, while Major Cadogan sobbed and wrung his hands indeed at the sight of what we had done to his precious daughter.

That was our night's work and this morning's, all of that. And now it is dark again, and I have neglected my parish for the sake of this record, I have been writing all day and only broken off to lock and bolt the door and see all the shutters fast.

But now the darkness has gathered about the house like a living thing, I can feel it, and someone is pounding their fists bloody on the door downstairs; and it might be a God-fearing parishioner on a true errand, but if it is then they must go home unanswered. I have never been a fearful man, but I am learning to be so; and I am mightily afraid that it may be Ned the stable-boy who knocks, and that he may have carried more than messages for his mistress. Major Cadogan is a fool and a liar, but I remember the blood in the stable straw, and I wonder if perhaps he told the truth in this one matter at least. I cannot somehow rid my mind's eye of the image of a horse stood with her head down, with the veins of her neck cut open, and a boy dressed in blood as he stands there, lapping, lapping...

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© Chaz Brenchley, 2004.
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.