An Intolerable Mess

I was brought to the master of the house, who was in his study, to explain to him what I had seen. He did not look at me while I spoke, preferring instead to watch an old horse through the window, which stood trembling and incontinent in the yard.

“I have been informed that it was you who witnessed the… occurrence with your own eyes,” he said.

“I did, m’Lord,” I replied.

“And?” he said pointedly. “I would very much like to hear an explanation of what you saw, rather than simply a curt confirmation of my inquiry. Please, leave nothing out.”

He did not turn when he spoke, and for this I was glad, though it was obviously intended as some sort of rebuke. But in his refusal to even acknowledge my presence with the merest politeness, it meant, at least, that he could not see me as I stood there, sweating profusely, wringing my hands together nervously as I tried to overcome my anxieties, and somehow summon up the words from inside me to describe what it was I saw the evening before.

“Of course, m’Lord” I said. “It was late last night, though I don’t know how late, for there’s no clock in my chamber, sir, and I never thought to look, though Miss Grace tells me today it was just past two when I woke her with my cries.”

“It was forty three minutes past two,” the master of the house said, without turning round. “When you woke me with your screams.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry m’Lord. But it really was quite a fright I had,” I said. “Quite a fright indeed. So, it was about half past two in the morning, I suppose, then, sir, when I first heard the noise, and I hadn’t got any sleep, for the sound of the rain outside was incredible, and the wind kept rattling the panes of my window, and I kept waiting, and waiting, and waiting, for the sound of thunder, that I was sure would come, and which frightens me so terribly, so much so that even the anticipation of it is enough to keep me awake, all trembling in my nightgown, like I’m some tiny little dog quivering beneath the sheets.

“And though that thunder eventually came, m’Lord, it wasn’t the thing that frightened me last night. Not at all. Not at all.

“But, sorry, sir, you don’t need to hear me rambling on like that, now, do you? You just want me to tell my story. And I will, m’Lord, I will. It’s just when I get nervous I can’t stop speaking, sir, and I’m nervous, sir, in your presence, though I know you don’t mean to scare me. But, well, it’s not usual for me to be in here sir, not when you’re in here, anyway.”

I paused then, hoping for some kindly reassurance, or some stern rebuke, but instead he offered neither, and the ominous silence felt so oppressive I found myself babbling out the rest of my tale in one long breath, or near enough, at least.

“So, I was lying there in my bed, sir, all restless and anxious and awake, when I realised I could hear a sound, a sort of dull thud, that recurred, rhythmically, every twenty seconds or so. And once I was aware of it I couldn’t stop hearing it, like how the ticking of the clock in the hallway seems to get louder and louder some days, once you’ve remembered it’s there, especially when you’re waiting, sir, and on your own, with nothing to do, yet, well, on most days, you don’t hear it at all, do you, sir? But it’s always ticking just the same.

“So I thought maybe this was just some obscure noise of the house, sir, like the way the pipes rattle when the water gets all cold, or all hot, or whatever it is that causes the pipes to rattle sometimes, in the night. But I couldn’t think what it could be, cause I’d never heard these sounds before, and well, I’ve heard all the sounds of the house before, sir. I’ve got nothing else to listen to most evenings, you know, and no one to talk to, not since Alice, well, since Alice left us sir, so now I’ve got that room all to myself at night and it’s awfully quiet in there and awfully lonely.

“But, I don’t want to sound ungrateful, sir, because I like it here, I do, sir.

“Now what these noises sounded most like to me was the plums falling from the tree, at the end of summer, unpicked, and overripe, and nearly rotting, as they dropped from the tree outside my window, or, at least, how they used to sound when they fell, until you had the tree chopped down, last summer, sir.”

“The mess they made was intolerable.”

“It was, m’Lord,” I agreed, though it had never been the master who had to pick them out from the gravel of the path. “But the weird thing was, I could tell the noise wasn’t coming from outside the house, but inside. And these dull thuds seemed so loud I was sure they must have woken everyone in the house, not just me, so at first I stayed there, because it wasn’t my duty to investigate them, which makes me sound wicked, and lazy, but it’s true.

“Now soon it became apparent that no one else in the house stirred, because you couldn’t hear the creaks of the floorboards, or the squeak of the hinges on the doors, or footsteps on the stairs, or nothing else, neither.

“So these noises kept getting louder and louder, and there was the rain outside, and my fear of thunder, and I was so tired I thought maybe I was asleep, and it was like a dream, sir, especially as I rose, and lit a candle, cause when I caught a glimpse of myself on the mirror I have set up on my nightstand, I looked like an apparition, in my white gown, my hair ablaze – in the light, I mean, I hadn’t actually set it on fire – and my face as pale as the moon. It gave me quite a fright, seeing myself like that, which sounds so silly, saying it out loud, but it did, sir. It did.

“After that shock, though, I thought, oh stop being silly, Lizzie, there’s no need to frighten yourself like that. If you can’t even look at yourself in the mirror you should just get back into bed and hide under the sheets like a big baby.

“And this seemed to do the trick, and my courage came back, sir, it really did, and I crept out of my room, and down the corridor, being as quiet as I could be, which is very quiet indeed, because the first thing we learn to do here, as girls, sir, is creep silently, so as not to wake you, m’Lord, in the night, nor anyone else, and so like this I slowly made my way around the house, big slow steps, making sure to keep my feet on the rugs, and to not stand on those places I know creak the most, and not to touch the walls, or the ornaments on the sideboards, or the chandeliers, where they hang down in places, by the stairs, mainly, low enough you can hit your head on them if you’re not careful, sir.

“And sometimes the noises faded a little, and other times they grew louder, and like this, like it was some childhood game, I slowly found my way to the, well, the source, sir, because it was clear by now that it came from one place, rather than all over, or from something moving around, and when I found out where that was, I’d made my way down all the way to the kitchen, and I stood there for a second, by the door, listening to those repeated thuds, which were accompanied now by some whispering hiss, in the aftermath, that sounded almost then like words, but not words that I could understand.

“But I couldn’t bear the thought of not knowing what it was now, and I knew I couldn’t just stand there all night, though I dearly wished, such was my terror by then, to turn and creep back to my bed, and hide again beneath the covers, and pretend I had been asleep all night, and heard nothing at all that was strange, nothing at all that was unsettling, nothing at all that was odd. Which was the second time I thought that, or the third, maybe, I’ve lost count. And the last, as it turned out.

“Anyway maybe I should have listened to myself. But I didn’t listen. I never listen to anyone, that’s my problem, that’s what Miss Grace always says, when I’ve done something wrong again, that I think too much for myself, and listen too little to others, although I notice she never says that when I do something right, which I do more often than I do anything wrong, I can tell you, sir, because if I didn’t, I’d have been sent packing long before now, cause not just Miss Grace but your Ladyship, too, she wouldn’t let no one stay here if they couldn’t do anything right.

“But I bet you know that better than me, m’Lord, seeing as how you’re married to her and all that.

“So I pushed the door open, slowly, like I said, so as not to make a sound, but as I did, the draught from the kitchen caused a gale to blow out into the hall, or so it seemed, and my hair all blew around, sir, and my nightgown fluttered like a sheet on the line, and my candle fluttered and blew out, and I couldn’t see anything suddenly, and all I could smell was the smoke from the wick.

“And it was so hot in the kitchen, sir, like someone had left the ovens on, and with the smell of smoke from my candle, and the smell, too, sir, which stunk like, well, it stunk, sir, and it was like I’d opened the doors to hell, m’Lord, it really was.

“Now I could hear the thudding even louder, like the noise of skulls cracking against the floor, and all the rotten meat inside splashing out. And then in the silence that followed there was like this whistling sort of whispering speech, that sounded like someone saying “twenty one”, in a way that made me shiver, all over, so unnatural it was, sir.

“And then there was a pause, and then it all repeated, sir, over and over again, thud, splat, silence, “twenty two”; thud, splat, silence, “twenty three”; and so on, until it got to like twenty nine. And all I could think was the devil was there, counting out our souls, sir, so as he knew which ones to take, when the time came.

“Now I think maybe the voice would have kept on counting, sir, but all of a sudden there was a flash of lightning from outside, and the whole room was illuminated, and there on the table I saw it sir, I saw this creature, this devil. It was squatting on the kitchen table, all bony spider-like limbs, bending backwards instead of forwards, and covered in white flesh, like some sort of dead fish, and these red eyes blazing out of some hollow skull, and hair like old gorse all round its head. And in its hand it had our basket of eggs, sir, and it was picking them up one by one, and hurling them down onto the floor, so that now the whole floor was dripping with slime, and so was the table top, and the hands of the hellish creature itself.

“And I must have seen all this in an instant sir, because lightning don’t even last a second, now, does it, sir, yet I saw it all as clear as day, sir, as clear as if it was an illustration in one of your books, one of those ones about the horrors from beyond the grave, or from down below, or from out of the night itself.

“But then it was all dark again, and now in the silence there was no sound at all, not from anywhere, except from the clock in the hall, sir, which i could hear ticking behind me, and I counted the ticks, m’Lord, like you told us to, once, so as to tell how far away the lightning was, and it was almost six miles, sir, being as it was twenty nine ticks till the thunder came.

“Which was just the same as how many souls that devil had counted out, sir, right there in front of me.

“And then I kept on counting and counting in the silence, and I got up to seventy one sir, before the next flash of lightning came. But by then the kitchen table was empty sir, and the basket of eggs was lying on the floor, and of the devil there was no sign. Then I counted, and counted, and counted, till the thunder came again, sir.

“And only then did I scream.”

As I finished this sentence, there was a sharp retort of gunfire from the yard, as if to punctuate the climax of my tale, and a strangled cry, followed inevitably by an unnerving thud.

“My mother is not well,” he said blandly. “I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive her. She knows not how she behaves.”

Only now did the master turn to look at me, and there were, I believe, tears welling in the corners of his eyes.

“I will personally see to it that she gets the help she so desperately needs.”

Behind him, through the window, I could see someone tying a noose around the dead beast’s neck, as they prepared to haul away the old nag’s remains to god knows where.



1. Written in June 2020


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