At the Farmhouse
by E.F. Benson
The dusk of a November day was falling fast when John Aylsford came out of his lodging in the cobbled street and started to walk briskly along the road which led eastwards by the shore of the bay. He had been at work while the daylight served him, and now, when the gathering darkness weaned him from his easel, he was accustomed to go out for air and exercise and cover half a dozen miles before he returned to his solitary supper.
To-night there were but few folk abroad, and those scudded along before the strong south-westerly gale which had roared and raged all day, or, leaning forward, beat their way against it. No fishing-boats had put forth on that maddened sea, but had lain moored behind the quay-wall, tossing uneasily with the backwash of the great breakers that swept by the pier-head. The tide was low now, and they rested on the sandy beach, black blots against the smooth wet surface which sombrely reflected the last flames in the west. The sun had gone down in a wrack of broken and flying clouds, angry and menacing with promise of a wild night to come.
For many days past, at this hour John Aylsford had started eastwards for his tramp along the rough coast road by the bay. The last high tide had swept shingle and sand over sections of it, and fragments of seaweed, driven by the wind, bowled along the ruts. The heavy boom of the breakers sounded sullenly in the dusk, and white towers of foam appearing and disappearing showed how high they leaped over the reefs of rock beyond the headland. For half a mile or so, slanting himself against the gale he pursued this road, then turned up a narrow muddy lane sunk deep between the banks on either side of it. It ran steeply uphill, dipped down again, and joined the main road inland. Having arrived at the junction, John Aylsford went eastwards no more, but turned his steps to the west, arriving, half an hour after he had set out, on the top of the hill above the village he had quitted, though five minutes’ ascent would have taken him from his lodgings to the spot where he now stood looking down on the scattered lights below him. The wind had blown all wayfarers indoors, and now in front of him the road that crossed this high and desolate tableland, sprinkled here and there with lonely cottages and solitary farms, lay empty and greyly glimmering in the wind-swept darkness, not more than faintly visible.
Many times during this past month had John Aylsford made this long detour, starting eastwards from the village and coming back by a wide circuit, and now, as on these other occasions, he paused in the black shelter of the hedge through which the wind hissed and whistled, crouching there in the shadow as if to make sure that none had followed him, and that the road in front lay void of passengers, for he had no mind to be observed by any on these journeyings. And as he paused he let his hate blaze up, warming him for the work the accomplishment of which alone could enable him to recapture any peace or profit from life. To-night he was determined to release himself from the millstone which for so many years had hung round his neck, drowning him in bitter waters. From long brooding over the idea of the deed, he had quite ceased to feel any horror of it. The death of that drunken slut was not a matter for qualms or uneasiness; the world would be well rid of her, and he more than well.
No spark of tenderness for the handsome fisher-girl who once had been his model and for twenty years had been his wife pierced the blackness of his purpose. Just here it was that he had seen her first when on a summer holiday he had lodged with a couple of friends in the farmhouse towards which his way now lay. She was coming up the hill with the late sunset gilding her face, and, breathing quickly from the ascent, had leaned on the wall close by with a smile and a glance for the young man. She had sat to him, and the autumn brought the sequel to the summer in his marriage. He had bought from her uncle the little farmhouse where he had lodged, adding to its modest accommodation a studio and a bedroom above it, and there he had seen the flicker of what had never been love, die out, and over the cold ashes of its embers the poisonous lichen of hatred spread fast. Early in their married life she had taken to drink, and had sunk into a degradation of soul and body that seemed bottomless, dragging him with her, down and down, in the grip of a force that was hardly human in its malignity.
Often during the wretched years that followed he had tried to leave her; he had offered to settle the farm on her and make adequate provision for her, but she had clung to the possession of him, not, it would seem, from any affection for him, but for a reason exactly opposite, namely, that her hatred of him fed and glutted itself on the sight of his ruin. It was as if, in obedience to some hellish power, she set herself to spoil his life, his powers, his possibilities, by tying him to herself. And by the aid of that power, so sometimes he had thought, she enforced her will on him, for, plan as he might to cut the whole dreadful business and leave the wreck behind him, he had never been able to consolidate his resolve into action. There, but a few miles away, was the station from which ran the train that would bear him out of this ancient western kingdom, where the beliefs in spells and superstitions grew rank as the herbage in that soft enervating air, and set him in the dry hard light of cities. The way lay open, but he could not take it; something unseen and potent, of grim inflexibility, held him back….
He had passed no one on his way here, and satisfied now that in the darkness he could proceed without fear of being recognised if a chance wayfarer came from the direction in which he was going, he left the shelter of the hedge, and struck out into the stormy sea of that stupendous gale. Even as a man in the grip of imminent death sees his past life spread itself out in front of him for his final survey before the book is closed, so now, on the brink of the new life from which the deed on which he was determined alone separated him, John Aylsford, as he battled his advance through this great tempest, turned over page after page of his own wretched chronicles, feeling already strangely detached from them; it was as if he read the sordid and enslaved annals of another, wondering at them, half-pitying, half-despising him who had allowed himself to be bound so long in this ruinous noose.
Yes; it had been just that, a noose drawn ever tighter round his neck, while he choked and struggled all unavailingly. But there was another noose which should very soon now be drawn rapidly and finally tight, and the drawing of that in his own strong hands would free him. As he dwelt on that for a moment, his fingers stroked and patted the hank of whipcord that lay white and tough in his pocket. A noose, a knot drawn quickly taut, and he would have paid her back with justice and swifter mercy for the long strangling which he had suffered.
Voluntarily and eagerly at the beginning had he allowed her to slip the noose about him, for Ellen Trenair’s beauty in those days, so long past and so everlastingly regretted, had been enough to ensnare a man. He had been warned at the time, by hint and half-spoken suggestion, that it was ill for a man to mate with a girl of that dark and ill-famed family, or for a woman to wed a boy in whose veins ran the blood of Jonas Trenair, once Methodist preacher, who learned on one All-Hallows’ Eve a darker gospel than he had ever preached before. What had happened to the girls who had married into that dwindling family, now all but extinct? One, before her marriage was a year old, had gone off her head, and now, a withered and ancient crone, mowed and gibbered about the streets of the village, picking garbage from the gutter and munching it in her toothless jaws. Another, Ellen’s own mother, had been found hanging from the banister of her stairs, stark and grim. Then there was young Frank Pencarris, who had wed Ellen’s sister. He had sunk into an awful melancholy, and sat tracing on sheets of paper the visions that beset his eyes, headless shapes, and foaming mouths, and the images of the spawn of hell…. John Aylsford, in those early days, had laughed to scorn these old-wife tales of spells and sorceries: they belonged to ages long past, whereas fair Ellen Trenair was of the lovely present, and had lit desire in his heart which she alone could assuage. He had no use, in the brightness of her eye, for such shadows and superstitions; her beams dispelled them.
Bitter and black as midnight had his enlightenment been, darkening through dubious dusks till the murk of the pit itself enveloped him. His laughter at the notion that in this twentieth century spells and sorceries could survive, grew silent on his lips. He had seen the cattle of a neighbour who had offended one whom it was wiser not to cross, dwindle and pine, though there were rich pastures for their grazing, till the rib-bones stuck out like the timbers of stranded wrecks. He had seen the spring on another farm run dry at lambing-time because the owner, sceptic like himself, had refused that bounty, which all prudent folk paid to the wizard of Mareuth, who, like Ellen, was of the blood of Jonas Trenair. From scorn and laughter he had wavered to an uneasy wonder, and from wonder his mind had passed to the conviction that there were powers occult and terrible which strove in darkness and prevailed, secrets and spells that could send disease on man and beast, dark incantations, known to few, which could maim and cripple, and of these few his wife was one. His reason revolted, but some conviction, deeper than reason, held its own. To such a view it seemed that the deed he contemplated was no crime, but rather an act of obedience to the ordinance “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” And the sense of detachment was over that, even as over the memories that oozed up in his mind. Somebody—not he—who had planned everything very carefully was in the next hour going to put an end to his bondage.
So the years had passed, he floundering ever deeper in the slough into which he was plunged, out of which while she lived he could never emerge. For the last year, she, wearying of his perpetual presence at the farm, had allowed him to take a lodging in the village. She did not loose her hold over him, for the days were few on which she did not come with demands for a handful of shillings to procure her the raw spirits which alone could slake her thirst. Sometimes as he sat at work there in the north room looking on to the small garden-yard, she would come lurching up the path, with her bloated crimson face set on the withered neck, and tap at his window with fingers shrivelled like bird’s claws. Body and limbs were no more than bones over which the wrinkled skin was stretched, but her face bulged monstrously with layers of fat. He would give her whatever he had about him, and if it was not enough, she would plant herself there, grinning at him and wheedling him, or with screams and curses threatening him with such fate as he had known to overtake those who crossed her will. But usually he gave her enough to satisfy her for that day and perhaps the next, for thus she would the more quickly drink herself to death. Yet death seemed long in coming….
He remembered well how first the notion of killing her came into his head, just a little seed, small as that of mustard, which lay long in barrenness. Only the bare idea of it was there, like an abstract proposition. Then imperceptibly in the fruitful darkness of his mind, it must have begun to sprout, for presently a tendril, still soft and white, prodded out into the daylight. He almost pushed it back again, for fear that she, by some divining art, should probe his purpose. But when next she came for supplies, he saw no gleam of surmise in her red-rimmed eyes, and she took her money and went her way, and his purpose put forth another leaf, and the stem of it grew sappy. All autumn through it had nourished, and grown tree-like, and fresh ideas, fresh details, fresh precautions, flocked there like building birds and made it gay with singing. He sat under the shadow of it and listened with brightening hopes to their song; never had there been such peerless melody. They knew their tunes now, there was no need for any further rehearsal.
He began to wonder how soon he would be back on the road again, with face turned from this buffeting wind, and on his way home. His business would not take him long; the central deed of it would be over in a couple of minutes, and he did not anticipate delay about the setting to work on it, for by seven o’clock of the evening, as well he knew, she was usually snoring in the oblivion of complete drunkenness, and even if she was not as far gone as that, she would certainly be incapable of any serious resistance. After that, a quarter of an hour more would finish the job, and he would leave the house secure already from any chance of detection. Night after night during these last ten days he had been up here, peering from the darkness into the lighted room where she sat, then listening for her step on the stairs as she stumbled up to bed, or hearing her snorings as she slept in her chair below. The out-house, he knew, was well stocked with paraffin; he needed no further apparatus than the whipcord and the matches he carried with him. Then back he would go along the exact route by which he had come, re-entering the village again from the eastwards, in which direction he had set out.
This walk of his was now a known and established habit; half the village during the last week or two had seen him every evening set forth along the coast road, for a tramp in the dusk when the light failed for his painting, and had seen him come back again as they hung about and smoked in the warm dusk, a couple of hours later. None knew of his detour to the main road which took him westwards again above the village and so to the stretch of bleak upland along which now he fought his way against the gale. Always round about the hour of eight he had entered the village again from the other side, and had stopped and chatted with the loiterers. To-night, no later than was usual, he would come up the cobbled road again, and give “good night” to any who lingered there outside the public-house. In this wild wind it was not likely that there would be such, and if so, no matter; he had been seen already setting forth on his usual walk by the coast of the bay, and if none outside saw him return, none could see the true chart of his walk. By eight he should be back to his supper, there would be a soused herring for him, and a cut of cheese, and the kettle would be singing on the hob for his hot whisky-toddy. He would have a keen edge for the enjoyment of them to-night; he would drink long healths to the damned and the dead. Not till to-morrow, probably, would the news of what had happened reach him, for the farmhouse lay lonely and sheltered by the wood of firs. However high might mount the beacon of its blazing, it would scarcely, screened by the tall trees, light up the western sky, and be seen from the village nestling below the steep hill-crest.
By now John Aylsford had come to the fir wood which bordered the road on the left, and, as he passed into its shelter, cut off from him the violence of the gale. All its branches were astir with the sound of some vexed, overhead sea, and the trunks that upheld them creaked and groaned in the fury of the tempest. Somewhere behind the thick scud of flying cloud the moon must have risen, for the road glimmered more visibly, and the tossing blackness of the branches was clear enough against the grey tumult overhead. Behind the tempest she rode in serene skies, and in the murderous clarity of his mind he likened himself to her. Just for half an hour more he would still grope and scheme and achieve in this hurly-burly, and then, like a balloon released, soar through the clouds and find serenity. A couple of hundred yards now would take him round the corner of the wood; from there the miry lane led from the high-road to the farm.
He hastened rather than retarded his going as he drew near, for the wood, though it roared with the gale, began to whisper to him of memories. Often in that summer before his marriage had he strayed out at dusk into it, certain that before he had gone many paces he would see a shadow flitting towards him through the firs, or hear the crack of dry twigs in the stillness. Here was their tryst; she would come up from the village with the excuse of bringing fish to the farmhouse, after the boats had come in, and deserting the high-road make a short cut through the wood. Like some distant blink of lightning the memory of those evenings quivered distantly on his mind, and he quickened his step. The years that followed had killed and buried those recollections, but who knew what stirring of corpses and dry bones might not yet come to them if he lingered there? He fingered the whipcord in his pocket, and launched out, beyond the trees, into the full fury of the gale.
The farmhouse was near now and in full view, a black blot against the clouds. A beam of light shone from an uncurtained window on the ground-floor, and the rest was dark. Even thus had he seen it for many nights past, and well knew what sight would greet him as he stole up nearer. And even so it was to-night, for there she sat in the studio he had built, betwixt table and fireplace with the bottle near her, and her withered hands stretched out to the blaze, and the huge bloated face swaying on her shoulders. Beside her to-night were the wrecked remains of a chair, and the first sight that he caught of her was to show her feeding the fire with the broken pieces of it. It had been too troublesome to bring fresh logs from the store of wood; to break up a chair was the easier task.
She stirred and sat more upright, then reached out for the bottle that stood beside her, and drank from the mouth of it. She drank and licked her lips and drank again, and staggered to her feet, tripping on the edge of the hearth-rug. For the moment that seemed to anger her, and with clenched teeth and pointing finger she mumbled at it; then once more she drank, and lurching forward, took the lamp from the table. With it in her hand she shuffled to the door, and the room was left to the flickering firelight. A moment afterwards, the bedroom window above sprang into light, an oblong of bright illumination.
As soon as that appeared he crept round the house to the door. He gently turned the handle of it, and found it unlocked. Inside was a small passage entrance, on the left of which ascended the stairs to the bedroom above the studio. All was silent there, but from where he stood he could see that the door into the bedroom was open, for a shaft of light from the lamp she had carried up with her was shed on to the landing there…. Everything was smoothing itself out to render his course most easy. Even the gale was his friend, for it would be bellows for the fire. He slipped off his shoes, leaving them on the mat, and drew the whipcord from his pocket. He made a noose in it, and began to ascend the stairs. They were well-built of seasoned oak, and no creak betrayed his advancing footfall.
At the top he paused, listening for any stir of movement within, but there was nothing to be heard but the sound of heavy breathing from the bed that lay to the left of the door and out of sight. She had thrown herself down there, he guessed, without undressing, leaving the lamp to burn itself out. He could see it through the open door already beginning to flicker; on the wall behind it were a couple of water-colours, pictures of his own, one of the little walled garden by the farm, the other of the pinewood of their tryst. Well he remembered painting them: she would sit by him as he worked with prattle and singing. He looked at them now quite detachedly; they seemed to him wonderfully good, and he envied the artist that fresh, clean skill. Perhaps he would take them down presently and carry them away with him.
Very softly now he advanced into the room, and looking round the corner of the door, he saw her, sprawling and fully dressed on the broad bed. She lay on her back, eyes closed and mouth open, her dull grey hair spread over the pillow. Evidently she had not made the bed that day, for she lay stretched on the crumpled back-turned blankets. A hair-brush was on the floor beside her; it seemed to have fallen from her hand. He moved quickly towards her.
He put on his shoes again when he came to the foot of the stairs, carrying the lamp with him and the two pictures which he had taken down from the wall, and went into the studio. He set the lamp on the table and drew down the blinds, and his eye fell on the half-empty whisky bottle from which he had seen her drinking. Though his hand was quite steady and his mind composed and tranquil, there was yet at the back of it some impression that was slowly developing, and a good dose of spirits would no doubt expunge that. He drank half a tumbler of it raw and undiluted, and though it seemed no more than water in his mouth, he soon felt that it was doing its work and sponging away from his mind the picture that had been outlining itself there. In a couple of minutes he was quite himself again, and could afford to wonder and laugh at the illusion, for it was no less than that, which had been gaining on him. For though he could distinctly remember drawing the noose tight, and seeing the face grow black, and struggling with the convulsive movements of those withered limbs that soon lay quiet again, there had sprung up in his mind some unaccountable impression that what he had left there huddled on the bed was not just the bundle of withered limbs and strangled neck, but the body of a young girl, smooth of skin and golden of hair, with mouth that smiled drowsily. She had been asleep when he came in, and now was half-awake, and was stirring and stretching herself. In what dim region of his mind that image had formed itself, he had no idea; all he cared about now was that his drink had shattered it again, and he could proceed with order and method to make all secure. Just one drop more first: how lucky it was that this morning he had been liberal with his money when she came to the village, for he would have been sorry to have gone without that fillip to his nerves.
He looked at his watch, and saw to his satisfaction that it was still only a little after seven o’clock. Half an hour’s walking, with this gale to speed his steps, would easily carry him from door to door, round the detour which approached the village from the east, and a quarter of an hour, so he reckoned, would be sufficient to accomplish thoroughly what remained to be done here. He must not hurry and thus overlook some precaution needful for his safety, though, on the other hand, he would be glad to be gone from the house as soon as might be, and he proceeded to set about his work without delay. There was brushwood and fire-kindling to be brought in from the wood-shed in the yard, and he made three journeys, returning each time with his arms full, before he had brought in what he judged to be sufficient. Most of this he piled in a loose heap in the studio; with the rest he ascended once more to the bedroom above and made a heap of it there in the middle of the floor. He took the curtains down from the windows, for they would make a fine wick for the paraffin, and stuffed them into the pile. Before he left, he looked once more at what lay on the bed, and marvelled at the illusion which the whisky had dispelled, and as he looked, the sense that he was free mounted and bubbled in his head. The thing seemed scarcely human at all; it was a monster from which he had delivered himself, and now, with the thought of that to warm him, he was no longer eager to get through with his work and be gone, for it was all part of that act of riddance which he had accomplished, and he gloried in it. Soon, when all was ready, he would come back once more and soak the fuel and set light to it, and purge with fire the corruption that lay humped on the bed.
The fury of the gale had increased with nightfall, and as he went downstairs again he heard the rattle of loosened tiles on the roof, and the crash as they shattered themselves on the cobbles of the yard. At that a sudden misgiving made his breath to catch in his throat, as he pictured to himself some maniac blast falling on the house and crashing in the walls that now trembled and shuddered. Supposing the whole house fell, even if he escaped with his life from the toppling ruin, what would his life be worth? There would be search made in the fallen débris to find the body of her who lay strangled with the whipcord round her neck, and he pictured to himself the slow, relentless march of justice. He had bought whipcord only yesterday at a shop in the village, insisting on its strength and toughness … would it be wiser now, this moment, to untie the noose and take it back with him or add it to his brushwood?… He paused on the staircase, pondering that; but his flesh quaked at the thought, and master of himself though he had been during those few struggling minutes, he distrusted his power of making himself handle once more that which could struggle no longer. But even as he tried to screw his courage to the point, the violence of the squall passed, and the shuddering house braced itself again. He need not fear that; the gale was his friend that would blow on the flames, not his enemy. The blasts that trumpeted overhead were the voices of the allies who had come to aid him.
All was arranged then upstairs for the pouring of the paraffin and the lighting of the pyre; it remained but to make similar dispositions in the studio. He would stay to feed the flames till they raged beyond all power of extinction; and now he began to plan the line of his retreat. There were two doors in the studio: one by the fireplace which opened on to the little garden; the other gave into the passage entrance from which mounted the stairs and so to the door through which he had come into the house. He decided to use the garden-door for his exit; but when he came to open it, he found that the key was stiff in the rusty lock, and did not yield to his efforts. There was no use in wasting time over that; it made no difference through which door he finally emerged, and he began piling up his heap of wood at that end of the room. The lamp was burning low; but the fire, which only so few minutes ago she had fed with a broken chair, shone brightly, and a flaming ember from it would serve to set light to his conflagration. There was a straw mat in front of it, which would make fine kindling, and with these two fires, one in the bedroom upstairs and the other here, there would be no mistake about the incineration of the house and all that it contained. His own crime, if crime it was, would perish, too, and all evidence thereof, victim and whipcord, and the very walls of the house of sin and hate. It was a great deed and a fine adventure, and as the liquor he had drunk began to circulate more buoyantly through his veins, he gloried at the thought of the approaching consummation. He would slip out of the sordid tragedy of his past life, as from a discarded garment that he threw into the bonfire he would soon kindle.
All was ready now for the soaking of the fuel he had piled with the paraffin, and he went out to the shed in the yard where the barrel stood. A big tin ewer stood beside it, which he filled and carried indoors. That would be sufficient for the soaking of the pile upstairs, and fetching the smoky and flickering lamp from the studio, he went up again, and like a careful gardener watering some bed of choice blossoms, he sprinkled and poured till his ewer was empty. He gave but one glance to the bed behind him, where the huddled thing lay so quietly, and as he turned, lamp in hand, to go down again, the draught that came in through the window against which the gale blew, extinguished it. A little blue flame of burning vapour rose in the chimney and went out; so, having no further use for it, he pitched it on to the pile of soaked material. As he left the room he thought he heard some small stir of movement behind him, but he told himself that it was but something slipping in the heap he had built there.
Again he went out into the storm. The clouds that scudded overhead were thinner now, though the gale blew not less fiercely, and the blurred, watery moonlight was brighter. Once for a moment, as he approached the shed, he caught sight of the full orb plunging madly among the streaming vapours; then she was hidden again behind the wrack. Close in front of him were the fir trees of the wood where those sweet trysts had been held, and once again the vision of her as she had been broke into his mind and the queer conviction that it was no withered and bloated hag, who lay on the bed upstairs but the fair, comely limbs and the golden head. It was even more vivid now, and he made haste to get back to the studio, where he would find the trusty medicine that had dispelled that vision before. He would have to make two journeys at least with his tin ewer before he transported enough oil to feed the larger pyre below, and so, to save time, he took the barrel off its stand, and rolled it along the path and into the house. He paused at the foot of the stairs, listening to hear if anything stirred, but all was silent. Whatever had slipped up there was steady again; from outside only came the squeal and bellow of the wind.
The studio was brightly but fitfully lit by the flames on the hearth; at one moment a noonday blazed there, the next but the last smoulder of some red sunset. It was easier to decant from the barrel into his ewer than carry the heavy keg and sprinkle from it, and once and once again he filled and emptied it. One more application would be sufficient, and after that he could let what remained trickle out on to the floor. But by some awkward movement he managed to spill a splash of it down the front of his trousers: he must be sure, therefore (how quickly his brain responded with counsels of precautions), to have some accident with his lamp when he came in to his supper, which should account for this little misadventure. Or, probably, the wind through which he would presently be walking would dry it before he reached the village.
So, for the last time with matches ready in his hand, he mounted the stairs to set light to the fuel piled in the room above. His second dose of whisky sang in his head, and he said to himself, smiling at the humour of the notion, “She always liked a fire in her bedroom; she shall have it now.” That seemed a very comical idea, and it dwelt in his head as he struck the match which should light it for her. Then, still grinning, he gave one glance to the bed, and the smile died on his face, and the wild cymbals of panic crashed in his brain. The bed was empty; no huddled shape lay there.
Distraught with terror, he thrust the match into the soaked pile and the flame flared up. Perhaps the body had rolled off the bed. It must, in any case, be here somewhere, and when once the room was alight there would be nothing more to fear. High rose the smoky flame, and banging the door, he leaped down the stairs to set light to the pile below and be gone from the house. Yet, whatever monstrous miracle his eye had assured him of, it could not be that she still lived and had left the place where she lay, for she had ceased to breathe when the noose was tight round her neck, and her fight for life and air had long been stilled. But, if by some hideous witchcraft, she was not dead, it would soon be over now with her in the stupefaction of the smoke and the scorching flames. Let be; the door was shut and she within, for him it remained to be finished with the business, and flee from the house of terror, lest he leave the sanity of his soul behind him.
The red glare from the hearth in the studio lit his steps down the passage from the stairway, and already he could hear from above the dry crack and snap from the fire that prospered there. As he shuffled in, he held his hands to his head, as if pressing the brain back into its cool case, from which it seemed eager to fly out into the welter of storm and fire and hideous imagination. If he could only control himself for a few moments more, all would be done and he would escape from this disordered haunted place into the night and the gale, leaving behind him the blaze that would burn away all perilous stuff. Again the flames broke out in the embers on the hearth, bravely burning, and he took from the heart of the glare a fragment on which the fire was bursting into yellow flowers. He heeded not the scorching of his hand, for it was but for a moment that he held it, and then plunged it into the pile that dripped with the oil he had poured on it. A tower of flame mounted, licking the rafters of the low ceiling, then died away as if suffocated by its own smoke, but crept onwards, nosing its way along till it reached the straw mat, which blazed fiercely. That blaze kindled the courage in him; whatever trick his imagination had played on him just now, he had nothing to fear except his own terror, which now he mastered again, for nothing real could ever escape from the conflagration, and it was only the real that he feared. Spells and witchcrafts and superstitions, such as for the last twenty years had battened on him, were all enclosed in that tight-drawn noose.
It was time to be gone, for all was safe now, and the room was growing to oven-heat. But as he picked his way across the floor over which runnels of flames from the split barrel were beginning to spread this way and that, he heard from above the sound of a door unlatched, and footsteps light and firm tapped on the stairs. For one second the sheer catalepsy of panic seized him, but he recovered his control, and with hands that groped through the thick smoke he found the door. At that moment the fire shot up in a blaze of blinding flame, and there in the doorway stood Ellen. It was no withered body and bloated face that confronted him, but she with whom he had trysted in the wood, with the bloom of eternal youth upon her, and the smooth soft hand, on which was her wedding-ring, pointed at him.
It was in vain that he called on himself to rush forward out of that torrid and suffocating air. The front door was open, he had but to pass her and speed forth safe into the night. But no power from his will reached his limbs; his will screamed to him, “Go, go! Push by her: it is but a phantom which you fear!” but muscle and sinew were in mutiny, and step by step he retreated before that pointing finger and the radiant shape that advanced on him. The flames that flickered over the floor had discovered the paraffin he had spilt, and leaped up his leg.
Just one spot in his brain retained lucidity from the encompassing terror. Somewhere behind that barrier of fire there was the second door into the garden. He had but cursorily attempted to unlock its rusty wards; now, surely, the knowledge that there alone was escape would give strength to his hand. He leaped backwards through the flames, still with eyes fixed on her who ever advanced in time with his retreat, and turning, wrestled and strove with the key. Something snapped in his hand, and there still in the keyhole was the bare shaft.
Holding his breath, for the heat scorched his throat, he groped towards where he knew was the window through which he had first seen her that night. The flames licked fiercely round it, but there, beneath his hand, was the hasp, and he threw it open. At that the wind poured in as through the nozzle of a plied bellows, and Death rose high and bright around him. Through the flames, as he sank to the floor, a face radiant with revenge smiled on him.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm from a cruel childhood lesson, though to be fair to his parents that lesson was self-taught and best summarised as “don’t be an idiot”. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement.
His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental. He’s an associate editor (slush monkey) over at PodCastle, the best fantasy sibling a horror podcast could have, and he has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including–with this episode completing the set–all four Escape Artists podcasts.
You can keep up with everything else at mattdovey.com, or follow along on Twitter and Facebook both as @mattdoveywriter.