by Marjorie Bowen
Two young esquires were riding from Canterbury, jolly and drunk, they shouted and trolled and rolled in their saddles as they followed the winding road across the downs.
A dim sky was overhead and shut in the wide expanse of open country that one side stretched to the sea and the other to the Kentish Weald.
The primroses grew in thick posies in the ditches, the hedges were full of fresh hawthorn green, and the new grey leaves of eglantine and honeysuckle, the long boughs of ash with the hard black buds, and the wand-like shoots of sallow willow hung with catkins and the smaller red tassels of the nut and birch; little the two young men heeded of any of these things, for they were in their own country that was thrice familiar; but Nick Bateup blinked across to the distant purple hills, and cursed the gathering rain. “Ten miles more of the open,” he muttered, “and a great storm blackening upon us.”
Young Crediton who was more full of wine, laughed drowsily. “We’ll lie at a cottage on the way, Nick—think you I’ve never a tenant who’ll let me share board and bed?”
He maundered into singing,
“There’s a light in the old mill, Where the witch weaves her charms; But dark is the chamber, Where you sleep in my arms. Now came you by magic, by trick or by spell, I have you and hold you, And love you right well!”
The clouds overtook them like an advancing army; the wayside green looked livid under the purplish threat of the heavens, and the birds were all still and silent.
“Split me if I’ll be soaked,” muttered young Bateup. “Knock up one of these boors of thine, Ned—but damn me if I see as much as hut or barn!”
“We come to Banells farm soon, or have we passed it?” answered the other confusedly. “What’s the pother? A bold bird as thou art, and scared of a drop of rain?”
“My lungs are not as lusty as thine,” replied Bateup, who was indeed of a delicate build and more carefully dressed in greatcoat and muffler.
“But thy throat is as wide!” laughed Crediton, “and God help you, you are muffled like an old woman—and as drunk as a shorn parrot.”
“Tra la la, my sweeting, Tra la la, my May, If now I miss the meeting I’ll come some other day.”
His companion took no notice of this nonsense, but with as much keenness as his muddled faculties would allow, was looking out for some shelter, for he retained sufficient perception to enable him to mark the violence of the approaching storm and the loneliness of the vast stretch of country where the only human habitations appeared to be some few poor cottages, far distant in the fields.
He lost his good-humor, and as the first drops of stinging cold rain began to fall, he cursed freely, using the terms common to the pot-houses where he had intoxicated himself on the way from Canterbury.
Urging their tired horses, they came on to the top of the little hill they ascended; immediately before them was the silver ashen skeleton of a blasted oak, polished like worn bone standing over a small pool of stagnant water (for there had been little rain and much east wind), where a few shivering ewes crouched together from the oncoming storm.
Just beyond this, rising out of the bare field, was a humble cottage of black timber and white plaster with a deep thatched roof. For the rest, the crest of the hill was covered by a hazel copse and then dipped lonely again to the clouded lower levels that now began to slope into the marsh.
“This will shelter us, Nick,” cried Crediton.
“‘Tis a foul place and the boors have a foul reputation,” objected the lord of the manor. “There are those who swear to seeing the Devil’s own phiz leer from Goody Boyle’s windows—but anything to please thee and thy weak chest.”
They staggered from their horses, knocked open the rotting gate and leading the beasts across the hard dry grazing field, knocked with their whips at the small door of the cottage.
The grey sheep under the grey tree looked at them and bleated faintly; the rain began to fall, like straight yet broken darts out of the sombre clouds.
The door was opened by a woman very neatly dressed, with large scrubbed hands, who looked at them with fear and displeasure; for if her reputation was bad, theirs was no better; the lord of the manor was a known roysterer and wild liver, and spent his idleness in rakish expeditions with Sir Nicholas Bateup from Bodiam, who was easily squandering a fine property.
Neither was believed to be free of bloodshed, and as for honor, they were as stripped of that as the blasted tree by the lonely pool was stripped of leaves.
Besides, they were both, now, as usual, drunk.
“We want shelter, Goody Boyle,” cried Crediton, pushing his way in as he threw her his reins. “Get the horses into the barn.”
The woman could not deny the man who could make her homeless in a second; she shouted hoarsely an inarticulate name, and a loutish boy came and took the horses, while the two young men stumbled into the cottage which they filled and dwarfed with their splendor.
Edward Crediton had been a fine young man, and though he was marred with insolence and excess, he still made a magnificent appearance, with his full blunt features, his warm coloring, the fair hair rolled and curled and all his bravery of blue broadcloth, buckskin breeches, foreign lace, top boots, French sword and gold rings and watch chains.
Sir Nicholas Bateup was darker and more effeminate, having a cast of weakness in his constitution that betrayed itself in his face; but his dress was splendid to the point of foppishness and his manners even more arrogant and imposing.
Of the two he had the more evil repute; he was unwed and therefore there was no check upon his mischief, whereas Crediton had a young wife whom he loved after his fashion, who checked some of his doings, softened others, and stayed very faithful to him and adored him still, after five years of a wretched marriage, as is the manner of some women.
The rain came down with slashing severity; the little cottage panes were blotted with water.
Goody Boyle put logs on the fire and urged them with the bellows. It was a gaunt white room with nothing in it but a few wooden stools, a table and an eel-catcher’s prong.
On the table were two large fair wax candles.
“What are these for, Goody?” asked Crediton.
“For the dead, sir.”
“You’ve dead in the house?” cried Sir Nicholas, who was leaning by the fireplace and warming his hands. “What do you want with dead men in the house, you trollop?”
“It is no dead of mine, my lord,” answered the woman with evil civility, “but one who took shelter here and died.”
“A curst witch!” roared Crediton. “You hear that, Nick! Came here—died—and now you’ll put spells on us, you ugly slut—”
“No spells of mine,” answered the woman quietly, rubbing her large clean hands together. “He had been long ailing and died here of an ague.”
“And who sent the ague?” asked Crediton with drunken gravity. “And who sent him here?”
“Perhaps the same hand that sent us,” laughed Sir Nicholas. “Where is your corpse, Goody?”
“In the next room—I have but two.”
“And two too many—you need but a bundle of faggots and a tuft of tow to light it—an arrant witch, a contest witch,” muttered Crediton; he staggered up from the stool. “Where is your corpse? I’ve a mind to see if he looks as if he died a natural death.”
“Will you not ask first who it is?” asked the woman, unlatching the inner door.
“Why should I care?”
“Who is it?” asked Sir Nicholas, who had the clearer wits, drunk or sober.
“Richard Horne,” said Goody Boyle.
Ned Crediton looked at her with the eyes of a sober man.
“Richard Horne,” said Sir Nicholas. “So he is dead at last—your wife will be glad of that, Ned.”
Crediton gave a sullen laugh.
“I’d broken him—she wasn’t afraid any longer of a lost wretch, cast out to die of ague on the marsh.”
But Sir Nicholas had heard differently; he had been told, even by Ned himself, how Anne Crediton shivered before the terror of Richard Horne’s pursuit, and would wake up in the dark crying out for fear of him, like a lost child; for he had wooed her before her marriage, and persisted in loving her afterwards with mad boldness and insolent confidence, so that justice had been set on him and he had been banished to the marsh, a ruined man.
“Well, sirs,” said Goody Boyle, in her thin voice that had the pinched accent of other parts, “my lady can sleep o’ nights now—for Robert Horne will never disturb her again.”
“Do you think he ever troubled us?” asked Crediton with a coarse oath. “I flung him out like an adder that had writhed across the threshold—”
“A wonder he did not put a murrain on thee, Ned. He had fearful ways and a deep knowledge of unholy things.”
“A warlock. God help us,” added the woman.
“The Devil’s proved an ill master then,” laughed Crediton. “He could not help Richard Horne into Anne’s favor—nor prevent him lying in a cold bed in the flower of his age.”
“The Devil,” smiled Sir Nicholas, “was over busy, Ned, helping you to the lady’s favor and a warm bed. You were the dearer disciple.”
“Oh, good lords, will you talk less wildly with a lost man’s corpse in the house, and his soul riding the storm without?” begged Goody Boyle; and she latched again the inner door.
Murk filled the cottage now; waves of shadow flowed over the landscape without the rain-blotted window, and drowned the valley. In the bitter field, the melancholy ewes huddled beneath the blasted oak beside the bare pool, the stagnant surface of which was now broken by the quick raindrops; a low thunder grumbled from the horizon and all the young greenery looked livid in the ghastly light of heaven.
“I’ll see him,” said Ned Crediton, swaggering. “I’ll look at this gay gallant in his last smock!—so that I can swear to Anne he has taken his amorous smile to the earthworms—surely.”
“Look as you like,” answered Sir Nicholas, “glut your eyes with looking—”
“But you’ll remember, sirs, that he was a queer man and died queerly, and there was no parson or priest to take the edge off his going, or challenge the fiends who stood at his head and feet.”
“Saw you the fiends?” asked Ned curiously.
“Question not what I saw,” muttered the woman. “You’ll have your own familiars, Esquire Crediton.”
She unlatched the inner door again and Ned passed in, bowing low on the threshold.
“Good day, Robert Horne,” he jeered. “We parted in anger, but my debts are paid now and I greet you well.”
The dead man lay on a pallet bed with a coarse white sheet over him that showed his shape but roughly; the window was by his head and looked blankly on to the rain-bitten fields and dismal sky; the light was cold and colorless on the white sheet and the miserable room.
Sir Nicholas lounged in the doorway; he feared no death but his own, and that he set so far away it was but a dim dread.
“Look and see if it is Robert Horne,” he urged, “or if the beldam lies.”
And Crediton turned down the sheet.
“‘Tis Robert Horne,” he said.
The dead man had his chin uptilted, his features sharp and horrible in the setting of the spilled fair hair, on the coarse pillow. Ned Crediton triumphed over him, making lewd jests of love and death, and sneering at this great gallant, who had been crazed for love and driven by desire, and who now lay impotent.
And Sir Nicholas in the doorway listened and laughed and had his own wicked jeers to add; for both of them had hated Robert Horne as a man who had defied them.
But Goody Boyle stole away with her fingers in her ears.
When these two were weary of their insults they returned the flap of the sheet over the dead face and returned to the outer room. And Ned asked for drink, declaring that Goody Boyle was a known smuggler and had cellars of rare stuff.
So the lout brought up glasses of cognac and a bottle of French wine, and these two drank grossly, sitting over the fire; and Goody Boyle made excuse for the drink, by saying that Robert Horne had given her two gold pieces before he died (not thin pared coins but thick and heavy) for his funeral, and the entertainment of those who should come to his burying.
“What mourners could he hope for?” laughed Ned Crediton. “The crow and the beetle and the death-watch spider!”
But Goody Boyle told him that Robert Horne had made friends while he had lived an outcast on the marshes; they were, no doubt, queer and even monstrous people, but they were coming tonight to sit with Robert Horne before he was put in the ground.
“And who, Goody, have warned this Devil’s congregation of the death of Robert Horne?” asked Sir Nicholas.
She answered him—that Robert Horne was not ill an hour or a day but for a long space struggled with fits of the marsh fever, and in between these bouts of the ague, he went abroad like a well man, and his friends would come up and see him and the messenger who came up to enquire after him was Tora, the Egyptian girl who walked with her bosom full of violets.
The storm was in full fury now, muttering low and sullen round the cottage with great power of beating rain.
“Robert Horne was slow in dying,” said Sir Nicholas. “Of what did he speak in those days?”
“Of a woman, good sir.”
“Of my wife!” cried Ned.
Goody Boyle shook her head with a look of stupidity.
“I know nothing of that. Though for certain he called her Anne, sweet Anne, and swore he would possess her yet—in so many words and very roundly.”
“But he died balked,” said Ned, swaying on his stool, “and he’ll rot outside holy ground.”
“They’ll lay him in Deadman’s Field, which is full of old bones none can plough and no sheep will graze,” answered the woman, “and I must set out to see lame Jonas who promised to have the grave ready—but maybe the rain has hindered him.”
She looked at them shrewdly as she added,
“That is, gentles, if you care to remain alone with the body of Robert Horne.”
“I think of him as a dead dog,” replied Ned Crediton.
And when the woman had gone, he, being loosened with the French brandy, suggested a gross jest.
“Why should Robert Horne have all this honor, even from rogues and Egyptians? Let us fool them—throwing his corpse out into the byre, and I will lie under the sheet and presently sit up and fright them all, with the thought it is the Devil!”
Sir Nicholas warmly cheered this proposal and they lurched into the inner chamber which was dark enough now by reason of a great northern cloud that blocked the light from the window.
They pulled the sheet off Robert Horne and found him wrapped in another that was furled up under his chin, and so they carried him to the back door and peered through the storm for some secret place where they might throw him.
And Ned Crediton saw a dark bed of rank hemlock and cried, “Cast him into the kecksies,” that being the rustic name for the weed.
So they flung the dead man into the hemlocks which were scarce high enough to cover him, and to hide the whiteness of the sheet, broke off boughs from the hazel copse and put over him, and went back laughing to the cottage, and there kept a watch out from the front window and when they saw Goody Boyle toiling along through the rain, Ned took off his hat and coat and sword and folded them away under the bed, then Sir Nicholas wrapped him in the under sheet, so that he was shrouded to the chin, and he lay on the pillow, and drew the other sheet over him.
“If thou sleepst do not snore,” said Sir Nicholas, and went back to the fire and lit his long clay full of Virginian tobacco.
When Goody Boyle entered with her wet shawl over her head, she had two ragged creatures behind her who stared malevolently at the fine gentleman with his bright clothes and dark curls, lolling by the fire and watching the smoke rings rise from his pipe.
“Esquire Crediton has ridden for home,” he said, “but I am not minded to risk the ague.”
And he sipped more brandy and laughed at them, and they muttering, for they knew his fame, went into the death-chamber and crouched round the couch where Sir Nicholas had just laid Ned Crediton under the sheet.
And presently others came up, Egyptians, eel-catchers and the like, outcasts and vagrants who crept in to watch by the corpse. Sir Nicholas presently rolled after them to see the horror and shriekings for grace there would be, when the dead man threw aside his shroud and sat up.
But the vigil went on till the night closed in and the two wax candles were lit, and still Ned Crediton gave no sign, nor did he snore or heave beneath the sheet, and Sir Nicholas became impatient, for the rain was over and he was weary of the foul air and the grotesque company.
“The fool,” he thought (for he kept his wits well even in his cups), “has gone into a drunken sleep and forgot the joke.”
So he pushed his way to the bed and turned down the sheet, whispering,
“This jest will grow stale with keeping.”
But the words withered on his lips, for he looked into the face of a dead man. At the cry he gave they all came babbling about him and he told them of the trick that had been put upon them.
“But there’s Devil’s work here,” he added. “For here is the body back again—or Ned Crediton dead and frozen into a likeness of the other”—and he flung the sheet end quickly over the pinched face and fair hair.
“And what did ye do with Robert Horne, outrageous dare fiend that ye be?” demanded an old vagrant; and the young lord passed the ill words and answered with whitened lips.
“We cast him into yon bed of kecksies.”
And they all beat out into the night, the lout with a lantern. And there was nothing at all in the bed of kecksies…and Ned Crediton’s horse was gone from the stable.
“He was drunk,” said Sir Nicholas, “and forgot his part—and fled that moment I was in the outer room.”
“And in that minute did he carry Robert Horne in alone and wrap him up so neatly?” queried Goody Boyle.
“Well go in,” said another hag, “and strip the body and see which man it be—”
But Sir Nicholas was in the saddle.
“Let be,” he cried wildly, “there’s been gruesome work enough for tonight—it’s Robert Horne you have there—let be—Ill back to Crediton Manor—”
And he rode his horse out of the field, then more quickly down the darkling road, for the fumes of the brandy were out of his brain and he saw clearly and dreaded many things.
At the cross-roads when the ghastly moon had suddenly struck free of the retreating clouds he saw Ned Crediton ahead of him riding sharply, and he called out:
“Eh, Ned, what have you made of this jest? This way it is but a mangled folly.”
“What matter now for jest or earnest?” answered the other. “I ride home at last.”
Sir Nicholas kept pace with him; he was hatless and wore a shabby cloak that was twisted about him with the wind of his riding.
“Why did not you take your own garments?” asked Sir Nicholas. “Belike that rag you’ve snatched up belonged to Robert Horne—”
“If Crediton could steal his shroud he can steal his cloak,” replied Ned, and his companion said no more, thinking him wrought into a frenzy with the brandy and the evil nature of the joke.
The moon shone clear and cold with a faint stain like old blood in the halo, and the trees, bending in a seaward wind, cast the recent rain that loaded them heavily to the ground, as the two rode into the gates of Crediton Manor.
The hour was later than even Sir Nicholas knew (time had been blurred for him since the coming of the storm) and there was no light save a dim lamp in an upper window.
Ned Crediton dropped out of the saddle, not waiting for the mounting block, and rang the iron bell till it clattered through the house like a madman’s fury.
“Why, Ned, why this panic homecoming?” asked Sir Nicholas; but the other answered him not, but rang again.
There were footsteps within and the rattle of chains, and a voice asked from the side window:
“Who goes there?”
And Crediton dragged at the bell and screamed:
“I! The Master!”
The door was opened and an old servant stood there, pale in his bedgown.
Ned Crediton passed him and stood by the newel post, like a man spent, yet alert.
“Send some one for the horses,” said Nick Bateup, “for your master is crazy drunk—I tell you, Mathews, he has seen Robert Horne dead tonight—”
Crediton laughed; the long rays of the lamp light showed him pale, haggard, distorted with tumbled fair hair and a torn shirt under the mantle, and at his waist a ragged bunch of hemlock thrust into his sash.
“A posy of kecksies for Anne,” he said; and the sleepy servants now up, began to come into the hall, looked at him with dismay. “I’ll lie here tonight,” said Sir Nicholas; “bring me lights into the parlor. I’ve no mind to sleep.”
He took off his hat and fingered his sword and glanced uneasily at the figure by the newel post with the posy of kecksies.
Another figure appeared at the head of the stairs, Anne Crediton holding her candle, wearing a grey lutestring robe and a lace cap with long ribbons that hung on to her bosom; she peered over the baluster and some of the hot wax from her taper fell on to the oak treads.
“I’ve a beau pot for you, Anne,” said Crediton, looking up and holding out the hemlocks. “I’ve long been dispossessed, Anne, but I’ve come home at last.”
She drew back without a word and her light flickered away across the landing; Crediton went up after her and they heard a door shut.
In the parlor the embers had been blown to flames and fresh logs put on and Sir Nicholas warmed his cold hands and told old Mathews (in a sober manner for him) the story of the jest they had striven to put on Goody Boyle and the queer, monstrous people from the marsh, and the monstrous ending of it, and the strangeness of Ned Crediton; it was not his usual humor to discourse with servants or to discuss his vagrant debaucheries with any, but tonight he seemed to need company and endeavored to retain the old man, who was not reluctant to stay though usually he hated to see the dark face and bright clothes of Nick Bateup before the hearth of Crediton Manor.
And as these two talked, disconnectedly, as if they would fill the gap of any silence that might fall in the quiet house, there came the wail of a woman, desperate yet sunken.
“It is Mistress Crediton,” said Mathews with a downcast look. “He ill-uses her?”
“God help us, he will use buckles and straps to her, Sir Nicholas.” A quivering shriek came brokenly down the stairs and seemed to form the word “mercy.”
Sir Nicholas was an evil man who died unrepentant; but he was not of a temper to relish raw cruelty or crude brutalities to women; he would break their souls but never their bodies.
So he went to the door and listened, and old Mathews had never liked him so well as now when he saw the look on the thin dark face. For the third time she shrieked and they marvelled that any human being could hold her breath so long; yet it was muffled as if some one held a hand over her mouth.
The sweat stood out on the old man’s forehead.
“I’ve never before known her complain sir,” he whispered. “She is a very dog to her lord and takes her whip mutely—”
“I know, I know—she adores his hand when it caresses or when it strikes—but tonight—if I know anything of a woman’s accents, that is a note of abhorrence—”
He ran up the stairs, the old man panting after him with the snatched-up lantern.
“Where is her chamber?”
“Here, Sir Nicholas.”
The young man struck on the heavy oak panels with the hilt of his sword.
“Madam, Madam Crediton, why are you so ill at ease?” She moaned from within.
“Open to me, Ill call some of your women—come out—” Their blood curdled to hear her wails.
“Damn you to Hell,” cried Sir Nicholas in a fury. “Come out, Ned Crediton, or I’ll have the door down and run you through.” The answer was a little break of maniac laughter.
“She has run mad or he,” cried Mathews, backing from the room. “And surely there is another clamor at the door—”
Again the bell clanged and there were voices and tumult at the door; Mathews went and opened, and Sir Nicholas looking down the stairs saw in the moonlight a dirty farm cart, a sweating horse and some of the patched and rusty crew who had been keeping vigil in Goody Boyle’s cottage.
“We’ve brought Esquire Crediton home,” said one; and the others lifted a body from the cart and carried it through the murky moonlight.
Sir Nicholas came downstairs, for old Mathews could do nothing but cry for mercy.
“It was Edward Crediton,” repeated the eel-catcher, shuffling into the hall, “clothed all but his coat and hat and that was under the bed—there be his watches and chains, his seals and the papers in his pockets—and for his visage now there is no mistakening it.”
They had laid the body on the table where it had so often sat and larked and ate and drunk and cursed; Sir Nicholas gazed, holding up the lantern.
Edward Crediton—never any doubt of that now, though his face was distorted as by the anguish of a sudden and ugly death. “We never found Robert Horne,” muttered one of the mourners, trailing his foul muddy rags nearer the fire, and thrusting his crooked hands to the blaze.
And Mathews fell on his knees and tried to pray, but could think of no words.
“Who is upstairs?” demanded Sir Nicholas in a terrible voice. “Who is with that wretched woman?”
And he stared at the body of her husband.
Mathews, who had loved her as a little child, began gibbering and moaning.
“Did he not say he’d have her? And did not yon fool change places with him? Oh God, oh God, and has he not come to take his place—”
“But Robert Horne was dead. I saw him dead,” stammered Sir Nicholas, and set the lantern down, for his hand shook so the flame waved in the gusts.
“Eh,” shrieked old Mathews, grovelling on his hands and knees in his bedgown. “Might not the Devil have lent him his body back for his own pitchy purposes?”
They looked at him a little, seeing he was suddenly crazed; then Sir Nicholas ran up the stairs with the others at his heels and thundered with his sword, and kicked and shouted outside Anne Crediton’s chamber door.
All the foul, muddy, earthy crew cowered on the stairs and chittered together, and in the parlor before the embers old Mathews crouched huddled, and whimpered.
The bedroom door opened and Robert Horne came out and stood and smiled at them, and the young man in his fury fell back and his sword rattled from his hand to the floor.
Robert Horne was a white death, nude to the waist and from there swathed in grave clothes; under the tattered dark cloak he had ridden in, was his shroud knotted round his neck; his naked chest gleamed with ghastly dews and under the waxen polish of his sunken face the decayed blood showed in discolored patches; he went down the stairs and they hid their faces while his foul whiteness passed.
Sir Nicholas stumbled into the bedchamber. The moonlight showed Anne Crediton tumbled on the bed, dead, and staring with the posy of kecksies on her bare breast, and her mouth hung open and her hands clutching at the curtains.
The mourners rode back and picked up Robert Horne’s body whence it had returned from the kecksie patch and buried it in unholy ground with great respect, as one to whom the Devil had given his great desire.
About the Author
Margaret Gabrielle Vere Long was born in the hour between All Saints Day and All Souls Day and grew up in a haunted house. Using the pseudonym Marjorie Bowen, she became one of the most prolific gothic authors of her time and whose influence is still felt. Find out more about her (and the other two ladies featured earlier this month) by picking up Monster She Wrote written by our friends Lisa Kroger and Melanie R. Anderson.
About the Narrator
Paul S. Jenkins recently retired from architectural practice, and in theory should now have plenty of time to write the sequel to The Plitone Revisionist (audio available for free at Scribl). Currently, however, he’s concentrating on photography with his new YouTube channel Coarse Camerawork.