Aphelion Issue 239, Volume 23
May 2019
 
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The Doleful Tale of the Bucket of Blood

by Francis-Marie de Chatillon




Part 1



A.D. 1722 and a freezing winter’s night sometime in early January. Snow blankets the ground and hugs at the trees. A man sits writing nervously in his journal. His handwriting, usually so well crafted, is faltering now and betrays the porter and brandy he has been over-consuming in the last days; but not only this, for the weeks before Christmas and St. Stephen’s he had passed in a wakeful fear both for his life and his sanity. Even a casual observer can see that his eyes stare crazed-like from the library into the grounds of his capacious country house. Suddenly, a loud crack and spit from the fire sees him jump in alarm. He looks sharply around the room and its many beautiful volumes. A long woeful moan escapes him and he buries his face in his hands displacing backwards his fashionable wig. He takes up the quill again and continues writing…….


The True and Unvarnished Journal of: Sir Humphry Valentine Cuthbert Hynde, Bart. of Upper Threshing, Berkshire.



To those who come upon this poor journal I must ask both their forbearance in the reading of and, indeed, their forgiveness for its shameful content. Oh, for in truth this is a record of proceedings most contrary to God and man. I pray for mercy for my part in those events, yet I expect no clemency. That said read on, and of your charity offer the Most High petition for my miserable soul.

Our gracious king, George of Hanover, had been enthroned but seven years when my downfall started. It was the Christ’s mass period, and Epiphany was not yet come. The weather was bitterly cold with much wind, yet my heart was happy and lifted. The early season’s round of parties had been successful and many alliances romantiques had been formed. High in spirits and looking for more entertainment, I had written and sent post haste to my oldest friend Lord Willoughby in Kent. I suggested we should travel together down to the West Country, where my aunt, Lady Frances Somerville, was entertaining at her estate for the New Year period. Despite the inclemency of the weather I envisioned little problems with the journey as the turnpikes were usually negotiable, and we would take extra horses, and servants in a second coach, to assist us if we became stuck.

So it was that I waited that fateful Friday after Christmas for Jasper to arrive. We had planned to spend the Saturday here at Threshing Court near the Berkshire-Wiltshire border, and leave Sunday so as to have plenty of time for our arrival by New Year’s Day on the Thursday. Although but two, I had my cooks prepare a lavish table for the evening meal I was anticipating: winter soup, cod and oyster sauce, fowl la Montmorenci, glazed ham, lamb chops and various delights of goose, pies and tarts, bife-steak Chateaubriand, quails, and many buttered vegetables and jellies.

I waited quite impatiently actually, but only because I hadn’t seen Willoughby for many months now: he had been invited to the same social events, the same round of parties, but we had not always been mutually available to attend. So my impatience was born out of a quiet excitement. Willoughby, like me, was approaching 30. Like me he was extremely wealthy. Like me, a keen swordsman in and out of the bedchamber. He was taller than me, with a more aesthetic look to his cast.

I watched from the great dining room window up the long tree lined drive as the afternoon light began to fade and hoped there had been no issue to detain Willoughby. Then, standing by the fire, I poured myself a stiff brandy and downed it in a single draught, then poured another. I had just thrown myself onto a large chair pondering some nebulous problem when I thought I could hear the clatter of hooves approaching; going to the window I saw in the distance the labouring of horses and a coach approaching at a steady trot. “Hoskins!” I shouted loudly. Hoskins was my personal manservant and a trusted fellow. He entered quickly, for he was a fellow who could anticipate my needs in most circumstances, and in all probability had also been watching out. “Hoskins man, move the servants into action quickly! See that Lord Willoughby is well received from his coach!” With that Hoskins left me at a brisk march to attend my greeting, and organise the billeting and feeding of Willoughby’s servants and stowage of all the accompanying impedimenta.

It was not long before I greeted Willoughby in the library after he had divested of his travelling garments. “Hynde! My dear fellow! Give me a drink, I’m parched and cold!” he cried as he entered. Willoughby was known as a straight talking type and I admired him for it.

“With the greatest of pleasure, Jasper!” I cried out in delight, as we clasped hands firmly and embraced in the manly fashion of the English. I poured Willoughby a large cup, and we drank our mutual health in goodly measure. We warmed by the bright fire clutching our mulled wine and fortifying ourselves further with the small winter game-pies, which are traditional in this part of Berkshire. We talked: Willoughby was making damnation of the bitter journey and the many frustrations at his estate; I, the reluctant flogging I’d had administered to some recidivist in the village, along with more merry banter. Soon, however, Willoughby said,

“You know, the weather here is worse than in Kent, and I’ve heard tell that it may be worse in the West of the country. So we should leave Upper Threshing pretty early on the morrow, don’t you think Hynde?”

“To that Willoughby, I’ve already given instructions. We shall be ready to go immediately after our break-fast, which will be taken earlier than usual at 8am, if that suits.”

“It’s a capital plan Hynde.” Then sotto voce, “The turn-pikes are good Humphry my friend, but they may be unreliable.” He was looking a little pensive and I cocked an eye at Willoughby, as he was unknown to pessimism.

Oh! I wonder now, as I scratch on these pages, did he have any six-sense inkling of the mournful happenings that would soon overtake us? I remember casting my gaze to the darkening afternoon and the sudden snow-flurries that sped topsy-turvy past the windows, and I felt a pale hand of something unknown pass over our expected merriment.


Part 2



These uneasy feelings soon evaporated as dinner approached. Willoughby had always made a good plate; it amazed me how he could eat and drink so much without putting on even a grain of Avoirdupois: I, in contradistinction, went to fat. Our jolly dinner was made finer, as it happed, by the unexpected arrival of Sir Sidney Spencer, my nearest neighbour. He called to present me with the compliments of the season-which he had not been able to do due to circumstances-and with this a handsome gift of a rundlet of aged brandy. I invited him to stay and dine. Now, Sir Sidney was a game fellow in his early 60’s. He had that florid complexion of a true pleasure seeker and a girth to match. Being the King’s commissioner for wheat in the counties of Berkshire and Wiltshire, and making the most of the opportunities the position afforded, he had consequently become rich beyond his humble boyhood expectations.

Dinner was announced at 8pm. We set-to in fine form, relaxed and free from the strictures of protocol that attach themselves to dining when ladies are present. My dogs all lay about awaiting the predictable fun, which they knew from of old. There were the expected jokes, the inevitable innuendo concerning a certain elderly Lady M (at which Sir Sidney seemed to laugh too heartily, too hastily, not have seeded that particular furrow), and much more nonsense besides. The fire in the dining room burned briskly with only the occasional blow-back of smoke due to the strong winds that had developed over the afternoon and evening. Yet the sudden loud chattering of the windows as a blast hit them, and the ghostly scratch-scratching of the ivy and overhanging branches of a tree against them, gave me again disquiet.

“I say Sir Humphry, you always have a fine table. Fine table indeed, young man!” he remarked loudly, and with that (and it was one of the sports we gentlemen enjoy when dining) he put down 24 silver shillings. “I put it on that deer-hound of yours Hynde, at 3-1. There!” Willoughby slammed down hard his silver and picked my otter-hound and I, in turn mine, on a small ratting terrier I kept in the house. We each picked a couple handfuls of goose bones and fowl parts and flung them across the room. With whoops and tallies we excited the dogs to the game. The dogs, for their part, seeing the fun now afoot, shot forward and raced each other for the pieces. The winner was the dog that gained the bones first and devoured them the fastest. It was a mle of fun and barks and snaps and snarls! We banged on the table. We jumped up and down at the antics of the canines. Then again more flesh and bones flew around, for the first was only to prime the dog’s excitement and to spur them! I saw the otter-hound, keen as mustard, dive under a Doberman and snatch a duck’s leg away from a Flat Coated retriever. The retriever then chased elsewhere and jumped on a plover carcass that was overlooked somehow. Yes, a real mle! Who had the upper hand was still in the balance. I was still confident of my little ratter when the wine of our enjoyment turned as bitter as the bitterest gall.

Malmsey, one of my red-setters, as sweeter bitch as you could imagine and named after that famous sweet Mediterranean wine, was suddenly savagely set on by the otter-hound. The other dogs, hearing the attack, their blood up in competition and obeying their natures, turned their attention to her. It was fast and furious. She screamed in fear and pain as teeth tore into her. She tried to run headlong to me but was gripped by a hind leg. In complete submission she tried to roll and show her belly, as dogs and wolves do; but the others had, as I say, truly their blood up. The huge deer-hound ripped her open in one ghastly, grisly and sanguineous shake. We, horror stricken yet fearing intervention, had made only small ground towards the impending carnage that would be Malmsey. I saw the deer-hound eye us predatorily, head down and walking slowly towards us, preparing an imminent attack. The look made my blood run cold. Quickly, I pulled my pistol and shot it dead. It fell near to what was the husk of Malmsey. Servants were now banging hard on the door for entry, shouting in alarm because of the noise and the pistol-shot. Spenser flung the door open to them and to a man they stood agape at the scene.

Later, the dinner now cold in both our stomachs and in our spirits and the servants whipping the frenzied dogs out into the icy night, we sat at table again, all shocked to our own degree. Willoughby was the first to speak, “Damnable thing, Hynde. Damnable thing that!” He gripped my arm. We drank some more, and then more to assuage our unpleasant feeling. I brushed it all off as absolutely of no consequence. I lied. The silence was thick as Spencer pushed the 24 silver shillings to me. He muttered something inaudible and then called Hoskins for his cloak. He said nothing more to me before he left. Perhaps he felt some guilt, but I cannot say. As I write of this unhappy ending to a convivial evening, I ask you, could there have been any clearer auger of doom to come?


Part 3



The events of the previous evening now calmer in our minds and with the restorative of sleep, Willoughby and I left full-hampered for the West Country that Sunday morning. We decided not to break-fast but to get on. The weather was turning in on us and we had to make it to the inn of the ‘Traveller’s Respite’ at the end of the second turn-pike, which was just over the Wiltshire-Somerset boarder. This was a good distance. Hoskins was with us sitting on top with my coachman all wrapped against the biting cold and the increasing snowfall. The second coach, with burly servants (for protection and muscle if we got stuck) and four trailing horses followed close behind. We passed reasonably soon from the familiar parts of Berkshire with its mixture of pasture and woodland, which gave way to more thickly forested parts of Wiltshire. Willoughby and I passed the brandy flask to-and-fro for nips to ward off the cold: it seemed that even the inside of the coach had become an ice house. I looked from the coach windows at the steep, snow-covered hills dotted with ancient trees; odd stony outcrops of rock came into view that seemed to have been crafted by an unknown race. Trees, hung with increasing snow, became giant ghosts of childhood fears, and in the dimness of increasing twilight shadows played tricks and the imagination fed on them.

Coach journeys are long, bumpy and rough on one’s frame, and need considerable preparation. Signs are unreliable: they fall over or twist in the wind; milestones can be worn to illegibility; landmarks obscured in bad weather. Towards evening, some miles into Wiltshire and anticipating our inn late that night, a tremendous thud hit the top of the coach and both Willoughby and I jumped with fright. I thought a bough had come down on us and caused damage. I banged hard with my cane on the coach roof and shouted a halt.

“What the devil was that Hoskins? Are you alive? Dead?” “What?” I pulled the window down sharply and put my head out into the freezing night.

“All ‘twas but a block of ice Sir ‘umphrey. Fell off a tree. Though fair near did for the coachman sir!” He sniggered at the thought and it angered me. He could be a little immature.

Then be careful man!” I cried back. “Lord Willoughby and I cannot be left here with a dead coachman. Understand?”

“Sir ‘umphrey”

Now fully apprehensive, the journey wore on and proper darkness engulfed us. Progress lessened considerably now as the snow had become a blizzard. The brandy flask passed between us again and again; hampered food also. How I wanted to cry out for hot bife-steak or a lamb hot pot! The road, already churned in previous weeks by rain, was now frozen and littered with ice. I began to regret the unwisdom of my plans to visit my aunt in such weather. It was a little later that Willoughby had an idea: one we should have seen well before. The following coach had four men inside and that coach was followed by four horses. Should we not use them as out-riders? They could carry torches and show the way! This sounded a capital idea and soon we were moving again, but still slower than earlier. After about half-an-hour we encountered a sign-post, which should have directed us to the route we needed to take; but to our dismay it stood at an angle with the directions pointing to the ground or to the sky or anywhere. This was not good and only enhanced my growing alarm. We took what seemed to be the broader road, reasoning it to be a ‘pike’ road and so lead us to our destination. Soon, we entered a thick piece of forest where the road just wound on, and disconcertingly the wood thickened still further. It seemed to envelop us as the branches reached ever lower and skitted over us. Worse, in the flicker of the torches I thought I saw some hideous creature, something demonic stalking us tree-to-tree, seemingly waiting with some gruesome design. I shuddered inside my travelling clothes and held my breath. Then, on a sudden, a loud cry was let out by one of the outriders, and to my further dismay we discovered the second coach had hit a particularly deep rut and thrown a wheel and, slithering sideways into a ditch, had then broken the back axel!

We were now in the worst of all possible pickles. The coach was stuck fast and in the tip had shed our baggage into the snow. Luckily, we freed the horses and tethered them to mine and Willoughby’s coach. After much debate Willoughby and I decided that we should go on with Hoskins as our out-rider, the others wait with the stranded transport until we could reach the inn and seek some assistance. Reluctantly, we moved on and I have to confess I feared for those left behind as my mind played over the ‘thing’ my fancy had seen.

Luck was not on our side. After some time and very late of clock Hoskins reported a tree down across our path. Coated with heavy ice and fresh snow it had succumbed to gravity and blocked our path. Willoughby and I stared at each other and drank deeply from the flask. Unable to turn around (for what purpose I know not, as the other coach blocked any way back) we could only go forward. Again, we released the two draw-horses and tethered them on long ropes. Hoskins was detailed to stay with the coach whilst Willoughby and I made forward on foot. Hoskins was to return to the other coach, and all were then to ride back and report events if he failed to receive help here by day-break.

Willoughby and I walked on for a seeming eternity when we perceived a dim light in the thickness of the woods. Our hearts leapt. We crashed through the undergrowth and low-hanging branches receiving small cuts and bruises and tears to our attire. Willoughby stumbled many times in the tanglements of brambles; I careered and fell over an unseen log. It was as if the forest was our bitter enemy. On gaining the light source we were staggered to see that it emitted from a window of a small inn well hidden among the trees. A fire flamed in what was the tap room for the common sort. No name hung to distinguish the inn--but we cared little for that--and finding the door knocked hard for entry.


Part 4



Our insistent demands with the knocker and hanging-bell were eventually answered in the form of a middle-aged, stout man whom one could reasonably surmise was the inn keeper. Through the door we could see that it presented as clean and well ordered, with a background smell of ale and food. We thanked God! The inn-keep spoke first,

“Good gentlemen, how may I help you this night if I can?” He eyed our dishevelled and muddy state with some interest.

“His Lordship and I are travelling down to Somerset. My aunt, Lady Somerville, is expecting us; shortly back on route our coaches came adrift. We will spend the night and pay.” I said, in the usual manner of these simple dealings. “Bring food and drink. You will also need to get assistance to our servants and horses stranded some way back.”

Willoughby made to enter yet the keeper seemed hesitant, as he made no customary welcome nor acknowledgement of our rank, and did not remove himself from the door frame. Then:

“Good sirs all, it would be impossible to help you now as all the inn is asleep and closed tight for the night. Is there no other...” His voice trailed off questioningly.

“Absurd man, I am Lord Willoughby of Lamberhurst, cousin to the Marquis of Maidstone. Here before you also is Sir Humphry Hynde of Upper Threshing, Berkshire. A magistrate. Now move aside and victual us. And clean beds mark you!”

At this the man’s demeanour changed suddenly to one of the most obsequious and helpful, and he moved aside with the speed of a prize-fighter. We entered into a warm, tolerably furnished room, threw off our travelling cloaks, and sat near the fire warming ourselves. The inn-keep speedily brought ale, wine, and brandy and then started to roll out all manner of hot food: a large piece of roast-bife appeared, a crown roast of mutton, roasted potatoes and turnips, and butter and bread. We fell on it like famished winter wolves.

“I’ll make the arrangements for your retinue good sirs. Will they require rooms here? In the loft?”

“They will. See the horses are stabled and foddered also.” I answered. He bowed low and scuttled off about his duties leaving Willoughby and I to eat and drink like men just saved from a circle of Hell.

It was some time later, after we had devoured the food and were calling for more brandy, that a young buxom girl came to clear the table. She was pretty, with tousled blond hair and a fine smile. I could see that she had caught Willoughby’s eye in a moment, as he was watching her every move. A few minutes later, after more observation, he beckoned her.

“Young girl, forgive me but I forgot to ask the keep here the name of this happy inn, prey tell it me.” His voice was soft yet commanding and I hazard I knew his intentions.

“Why sirs, this is The Lamb and finer name for a house that has saved many a soul there isn’t.” Her voice was enticing. She smiled at us and I could see Willoughby fair warming, and not from the fire.

She brought more brandy, and some while later the inn-keep arrived bringing us news that our servants and horses were safe and our baggage recovered. Capital news! The inn-keep stood waiting for further instructions I imagine, for he made no bow or move to retire from us. I was watching Willoughby closely in a side-ways fashion, for a change had fallen over him: he seemed to have the cast of a driven man; an intensity in his eyes that was strange and unexpected.

“Good inn-keep, the girl that latterly served us, I desire a warm bed this night so have her sent to me soon on I retire. Make sure she’s clean and presented well. She will be treated kindly and I will pay.”

To this the inn keeper stared back, at first blankly, and then with a sort of pleading dismay and alarm. He became animated to the highest degree. “Oh, my Lord, my Lord, so great a man as yourself sir, would be but poor served by such a one! She’s young—just turned twenty, look you—and not yet versed in the ways of the bedchamber and the pleasing in thereof!” He was truly perturbed, yet I could not hazard why. I was curious.

Willoughby cried, “What is it to you? I said I would pay and that should be your only concern! Absurd man, you will do as I tell you.” Then, in a low voice that had every menace, “I will take no refusal in this matter!”

Now, the keep threw himself to his knees before us, his hands high as in Christian supplication before the Cross, and with tearful eyes pleaded. “Good Lordship, she is my daughter, my only daughter! Have compassion. I beg you take another—I have… I have a girl in the kitchen that will be biddable to be put to it. Or, my Lord, even my wife! Good sir, take her for your enjoyment; she be eleven years younger than me, my Lord, and she has life in the bedchamber!”

“Curse you man. The French pox on your wife. I don’t want your wife! What ails your thinking? I want that girl and have her I will. Mark it!” I took Willoughby gently by the arm at this to steady him in his outburst.

“My lord, I will not do it. I can’t.” He said this flatly with his tears falling to the wooden floor. I felt a little sorry for him.

“Can’t? Can’t? Or is it won’t? You dog!” Before I could hold Willoughby further, he was up from his chair and had hard cuffed the inn-keep across the face. The poor man fell sideways from his knees, crashed into a drinking stool and rolled prostrate. Willoughby then drew his sword, moved forward, and was about to make light work of him when I, now also on my feet, grabbed Willoughby’s arm firmly.

“Hold up! Hold up! Willoughby this is madness. Madness! For a wench? Forcing a girl is one thing for us of rank, but murder? Murder will surely follow us like a dog smelling a bitch on heat! Think man!” I pleaded hard with him and after a moment or two I saw the anger drain from his eyes and Willoughby, thankfully for us, put up his sword. He sank back into his chair and took a large swallow from the brandy bottle. I asked the inn keeper if our rooms were ready and he nodded slowly. A large grazed cheek presented itself and a fast-forming bruise.

I helped Willoughby up the two flights of stairs to the ‘gentle rooms’. I was accommodated at the far end of the hallway and Willoughby, strangely I thought, at the end nearest the stairs, there being four rooms between us. Fires burned in each room. The beds looked clean and well aired. Blankets were well provided and all had the feeling of giving a comfortable night, despite the sparsity of carpet. As we knew not about our baggage or servants, apart from being recovered, I helped Willoughby lay in his clothes on the bed and then covered my poor friend with a blanket or two. Satisfied that he was comfortable and hearing the first breaths that denote the onset of slumber, I was content to leave him for the night and retire to my own room, and there, hopefully, sleep. Once there I threw another log on my fire, and likewise, fully clothed, lay upon my bed. The inn was very quiet—too quiet I fancied, for I heard no moaning or snoring from any of the rooms. Sleep came quite soon. As I write this, you, poor reader, will realise that I omitted my prayers for the night, and this unhappy omission was a mistake concerning the events that I now relate.


Part 5



How long I slept I do not know. My pocket watch, always a reliable timepiece, had oddly stopped at midnight; it must have been the fall in the forest just before we gained the inn that had caused it so. I lay in the flickering light of the fire thinking how close we had come to disaster on the journey. It wasn’t much after these thoughts had passed, and as I again drifted off into soft-slumber, that I thought I heard footsteps on our landing. They were light in touch but none-the-less clearly discernible for that. They were approaching my door but then stopped, turned, and padded back stopping further down. I wondered if another guest had left their bed, but I was sure we were the only occupiers on this landing. I harkened harder, and heard the turn of a knob then the slow creak of a door. Swiftly, I left my bed and put my ear to the door. The sounds were coming from near the stairs, and so to be at Willoughby’s room or thereabouts. I gently opened my door a crack to better hear what followed, if anything. For a few moments there was no sound at all, but then I heard, “Ahhh. You’ve come.” It was Willoughby’s voice without doubt: aristocratic and crisp even in sleepiness. I laughed under my breath. The dog had got his bone after all, and I marvelled at whether the inn-keep, so guarded of his daughter’s virtue, knew she had tip-toed up to give the honey from her hive. Ha! Such a jape indeed. I closed the door again and then lay back on the bed.

I was drifting nicely back into restfulness when the most appalling shrieks and screams occurred. I heard things crashing to the floor. The sound of smashing mirrors. The door seeming to bang back and forth with shocking force. Incoherent cries for help rang through the air, and God knows what else. My blood ran ice-cold as I knew the voice seeking help to be not that of a girl--but of Willoughby’s! Jumping up I ran, bootless, to where the chaos emitted, which was as I thought my friend’s room.

The door was shut and upon trying the knob found it fast locked against me. “Willoughby! Willoughby man! Open the door! What’s happening?” I cried aloud for help but nothing stirred in the inn. The noise form within Willoughby’s room was almost deafening. I charged the door with my shoulder, but despite its seeming ordinariness as doors go, it was as solid as a tree! “Willoughby!” I screamed again. The door thumped at me and seemed to bow in and out. “Ye Gods, what’s going on?” I screamed. Running back to my room I took my flint-lock and sword and ran back to Willoughby’s accommodation. As I gained the door, to my astonishment I saw the figure of the blond serving wench from earlier just disappearing down the stairs. I was transfixed. She was wearing a white night-shift and carrying a well-bucket from which hung, limp-like, something over the side. I thought to fire on her, but was more concerned for my friend. Finding the door now admitted me with ease, I entered the room.

What scene lay before me I find hard to relate to you in this journal. Words, which usually do not run from me, seem far on the horizon of my speech. Willoughby lay prone on his bead his clothes ripped to tatters, as if attacked by a wolf, yet he bore no sign of injury. His breathing was stertorous. His face was deathly white and his wide eyes stared horrified as if having encountered the very Devil himself. Yet he lived! The room was in total disarray, but this is a mean word to describe the pandemonium I encountered. Things were smashed everywhere. A candlestick of brass was even driven into the very stone of the wall. The fire itself was cold and lay upended around the room, its soot and debris all over. Blankets were ripped and strewn all around; pillow feathers also. My God what a sight!

After seeing to Willoughby the best I could I went for help. I ran from the room to the stairs where the girl had descended earlier. Apart from help I also determined on her capture and interrogation. What was her part in this monstrous business? What was in that infernal bucket? Although without a candle, I took the first two stairs at once and to my alarm slipped to my back and clattered down the first flight. The stairs were both slippery and sticky. “What the deuce?” I thought, as I tried to rise. I had this horrid liquid all over my clothes. Then I knew: it was blood! The characteristic iron smell I recognised was all over me. I ventured down the lower stairs gingerly as I had hurt my back in the fall above and wanted no further injury. Where was everyone? Why could no one hear the commotion? I gained the ground and looked around the inn, and then again from top to bottom calling out all the time. There was nobody, not a sign of life could I find. Even the stables were empty and showed little sign of recent occupancy. There were no servants housed above in the attic. No inn-keep. No daughter. It was just as if abandoned. Whatever, Willoughby and I were alive. However, this journal does not end yet. There is more poor reader, and again I ask your forbearance in the telling and your prayers. How we made it back to civilization is of no concern. Just thank God that due to luck (finally) and the good offices of a local gentleman we both made it to my aunt’s house in Somerset, which as it happens was not far from that cursed inn.

Willoughby’s mind had left him, and he was unable to relate the events that befell him that night. At Lady Somerville’s, my aunt’s house, my friend was put to recover, if he ever could, from his stupor. His family was informed and doctors attended him from London for regular bleeding: but nothing medical availed. It was decided by all that Willoughby should recover a little with us all here in Shropshire, and then stay with his cousin the Marquis of Maidstone in Kent. I, in shock, recuperated over some weeks, but was never fully right. Now the uncanny part of my journal begins.

I could talk but little of the events at that inn from Hell, but some weeks on and recovering somewhat, mention was made at a small dinner one evening by a certain Lady J of the district, who was dining with us, along with her husband. The dinner was cordial, considering the strangeness of the situation regarding my aunt’s young relation and his friend, which had necessitated the cancelling of all the normal season’s social intercourse at the house.

“So, young Sir Humphrey, what perchance happened to you both? We’re all agog to know.” My aunt sighed slightly and looked down meditatively into her fish, but she said nothing of the directness of this question and its inappropriateness at this time. I decided to finally relate events as I felt better, fortified by a little wine and broth—for I could hold nothing more. I started my story: the arrangements for New Year; the journey; the weather; the inn of the Traveller’s Respite and all else besides up to our arrival. As you can well imagine there was silence, but silence of an unexpected sort--and more than just a little scepticism. The silence was broken by Lady J:

“That’s a most marvellous story sir, indeed. But I’m afraid quite wrong in fact. The Traveller’s Respite is far from where you were found, if Lady Somerville’s account of your finding is correct. You must have made a mistake.” She said this bluntly, but not unkindly.

I thought hard. Then I remembered the inn was not the Traveller’s Respite! How stupid could I be? In my shock I had confused one with the other. It was called The Lamb! Yes. The Lamb! I remembered the serving girl, the in-keep’s daughter, telling us. I explained the confusion, but this then only fed more confusion. Faces stared at me; my fellow diners said nothing.

“Oh yes, it was The Lamb!” I insisted. “I remember the inn keeper’s daughter saying it was a fine name for an inn that had saved so many souls. Or something the like.” For a moment only I felt I was getting better, but then not so.

“My dear boy, my dear boy, what know you of The Lamb?” questioned old Lord J. “For the inn of that name burned to the ground some years before our good King George took to the throne. For if The Lamb it is, a fateful and devilish tale is attached.” I stared at him wide-eyed. The rest of the table stared wide-eyed at me.

Lord J spoke: “The Lamb was a good inn and its reputation for hospitality second to none about these parts. But there came one cold, stormy night a young Lord D and his knightly companion. They were given welcome of the warmest kind. But, as legend has it, the young Lord decided to sport with the inn keeper’s daughter and did seed her with child that very night.

“The in-keep, when discovering this deed, became angry, but was prepared to forgive this carnal act and the betrayal concomitant, if the young Lord married his daughter and recognised the child, which was a foolish notion.

“The Grim Lord D--for that is what we call him about parts here--refused. The in-keep then cursed to the Devil the Lord and all aristocracy that would seek shelter and hospice from him.

“In time, the daughter bore child. Now the Lord, enraged by the slight of the curse, rode with men to the inn one night and there did slaughter all and raze the inn to the ground. But first, he took the young baby and breaking its bones threw it down the well.

“The devilish Lord and his men did not live out the year. The curse upon them, in a twelve-month all were dead by some means or another. The Lord was thrown from his horse and snapped his neck before the feast of Christ’s Baptism had come; his companion a year later, in mysterious circumstances, his body found frozen to a solid in the winter snow. The others I can’t recall how they met their end.”

When he had finished we all sat in silence at this ghostly tale, I, finding my breathing difficult in my fear. Then a shrill cry was heard from above and a tremendous crash emanated from Willoughby’s convalescent room. As if as one, we all jumped up from the table, a couple of wine glasses toppling and a piece of cutlery clattering to the floor. We rushed up the long staircase--even old Lord J trying to climb it at a lick--to find Willoughby; and there we did, but on all fours near the window. The curtains wide and blowing madly in the winter wind. He had clearly left his bed in some fever or whatever, and was evidently alarmed beyond measure. He turned an ashen face to us and pointed out into the black night struggling to speak. “Willoughby!” I cried. “What ails you, man?” To my horror, my friend from youth then suddenly produced what appeared to be a piece of a broken water-glass and plunged it deep into his neck. He fell forward on the floor, a jet of bright arterial blood shooting to the wall. He babbled something quite unintelligible, shuddered suddenly in his last throws, still pointing, and was dead in moments.

Dear reader this journal is about to end. It is now a year on from those doleful events just described. I sit here after writing and look out from my library window into the cold crisp snow, which again has fallen hard this year. What supernatural events overtook us on the fateful journey? What conjunction of stars and planets changed our lives forever that night? For what greater cosmic purpose, if any? These are questions I have asked myself almost hourly over the past year as I await the inevitable call. I look from my window and... Ah! Yes, finally it has come. There she is, waiting in the snow for me to join her. She’s waiting for me, the fine buxom wench in the white night-shift. I see carries her well-bucket and in it her small broken baby, hanging loosely and dripping blood into the snow. I must go to her. I have no choice. She is here. I close my journal now, for my end has come--and may God have mercy on my soul.

Here Ends The Journal of Sir Humphry Valentine Cuthbert Hynde, Bart.




THE END


2019 Francis-Marie de Chatillon

Bio: Art historian and lecturer. In a long-term domestic partnership with a midwife. Lived in Brazil, Spain, Italy. New to fiction writing.

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