Text is from The Bishop of Hell and other stories, 1949.
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She who had been Florence Flannery noted with a careless eye the stains of wet on the dusty stairs, and with a glance ill used to observance of domesticities looked up for damp or dripping ceilings. The dim-walled staircase revealed nothing but more dust, yet this would serve as a peg for ill-humor to hang on, so Florence pouted. “An ill, muddy place,” said she, who loved gilding and gimcracks and mirrors reflecting velvet chairs, and flounced away to the upper chamber, lifting frilled skirts contemptuously high. Her husband followed; they had been married a week and there had never been any happiness in their wilful passion. Daniel Shute did not now look for any; in the disgust of this draggled homecoming he wondered what had induced him to marry the woman and how soon he would come to hate her.
As she stood in the big bedroom he watched her with dislike; her tawdry charms of vulgar prettiness had once been delightful to his dazed senses and muddled wits, but here, in his old home, washed by the fine Devon air, his sight was clearer and she appeared coarse as a poppy at the far end of August.
“Of course you hate it,” he said cynically, lounging with his big shoulders against one of the bedposts, his big hands in the pockets of his tight nankeen trousers, and his fair hair, tousled from the journey, hanging over his mottled face.
“It is not the place you boasted to have,” replied Florence, but idly, for she stood by the window and looked at the tiny leaded panes; the autumn sun gleaming sideways on this glass, picked out a name scratched there:
Florence Flannery. Borne 1500.
“Look here,” cried the woman, excited, “this should be my ancestress!”
She slipped off a huge diamond ring she wore and scratched underneath the writing the present year, “1800.” Daniel Shute came and looked over her shoulder.
“That reads strange —‘Born 1500’— as if you would say died 1800,” he remarked. “Well, I don’t suppose she had anything to do with you, my charmer, yet she brought you luck, for it was remembering this name here made me notice you when I heard what you were called.”
He spoke uncivilly, and she responded in the same tone. “Undervalue what is your own, Mr. Shute. There was enough for me to choose from, I can swear!”
“Enough likely gallants,” he grinned, “not so many likely husbands, eh?”
He slouched away, for, fallen as he was, it stung him that he had married a corybante of the opera, an unplaced, homeless, nameless creature for all he knew, for he could never quite believe that “Florence Flannery” was her real name.
Yet that name had always attracted; it was so queer that he should meet a real woman called Florence Flannery when one of the earliest of his recollections was tracing that name over with a curious finger in the old diamond pane.
“You have never told me who she was,” said Mrs. Shute.
“Who knows? Three hundred years ago, m’dear. There are some old wives’ tales, of course.”
He left the great bedroom and she followed him doggedly downstairs.
“Is this your fine manor, Mr. Shute? And these your noble grounds? And how am I to live here, Mr. Shute, who left the gaieties of London for you?”
Her voice, shrill and edged, followed him down the stairs and into the vast dismantled drawing-room where they paused, facing each other like things caught in a trap, which is what they were.
For he had married her because he was a ruined man, driven from London by duns, and a drunken man who dreaded lonely hours and needed a boon companion to pledge him glass for glass, and a man of coarse desires who had bought with marriage what he was not rich enough to buy with money, and she had married him because she was past her meridian and saw no more conquests ahead and also was in love with the idea of being a gentlewoman and ruling in the great grand house by the sea — which was how she had thought of Shute Manor.
And a great grand house it had been, but for twenty years it had been abandoned by Daniel Shute, and stripped and mortgaged to pay for his vices, so that now it stood barren and desolate, empty and tarnished, and only a woman with love in her heart could have made a home of it; never had there been love in Florence Flannery’s heart, only greed and meanness.
Thus these two faced each other in the gaunt room with the monstrous chandelier hanging above them wrapped in a dusty brown holland bag, the walls festooned with cobwebs, the pale wintry sunshine showing the thick dust on the unpolished boards.
“I can never live here!” cried Mrs. Shute. There was a touch of panic in her voice and she lifted her hands to her heart with a womanly gesture of grief.
The man was touched by a throb of pity; he did not himself expect the place to be so dilapidated. Some kind of a rascally agent had been looking after it for him, and he supposed some effort would have been made for his reception.
Florence saw his look of half-sullen shame and urged her point.
“We can go back, cannot we?” she said, with the rich drop in her voice, so useful for coaxing; “back to London and the house in Baker Street? All the old friends and old pleasures, Mr. Shute, and a dashing little cabriolet to go round the park?”
“Curse it!” he answered, chagrined. “I haven’t the money, Flo; I haven’t the damned money!” She heard the ring of bitter truth in his voice and the atrocious nature of the deception he had practiced on her overwhelmed her shallow understanding.
“You mean you’ve got no money, Mr. Shute?” she screamed.
“Not enough for London, m’dear.”
“And I’ve to live in this filthy barn?”
“It has been good enough for my people, Mrs. Shute,” he answered grimly. “For all the women of my family, gentlewomen, all of ’em with quarterings, and it will be good enough for you, m’dear, so none of your Bartholomew Fair airs and graces.”
She was cornered, and a little afraid of him; he had been drinking at the last place where they stopped to water the horses and she knew how he could be when he was drunk; she remembered that she was alone with him and what a huge man he was.
So she crept away and went down into the vast kitchens where an old woman and a girl were preparing a meal.
The sight of this a little heartened Mrs. Shute; in her frilled taffetas and long ringlets she sat down by the great open hearth, moving her hands to show the firelight flashing in her rings and shifting her petticoats so that the girl might admire her kid shoes.
“I’ll take a cordial to stay my strength,” she said, “for I’ve come a long way and find a sour welcome at the end of it, and that’ll turn any woman’s blood.”
The old dame smiled, knowing her type well enough; for even in a village you may find women like this.
So she brought Mrs. Shute some damson wine and a plate of biscuits, and the two women became friendly enough and gossiped in the dim candle-lit kitchen while Daniel Shute wandered about his old home, even his corrupt heart feeling many a pang to see the places of his childhood desolate, the walks overgrown, the trees felled, the arbors closed, the fountains dried, and all the spreading fields about fenced by strangers.
The November moon was high in a misted space of open heaven by the time he reached the old carp pond.
Dead weeds tangled over the crumbling, moss-grown stone, trumpery and slime coated the dark waters.
“I suppose the carp are all dead?” said Mr. Shute.
He had not been aware that he spoke aloud, and was surprised to hear himself answered.
“I believe there are some left, esquire.”
Mr. Shute turned sharply and could faintly discern the figure of a man sitting on the edge of the pond so that it seemed as if his legs half dangled in the black water.
“Who are you?” asked Daniel Shute quickly.
“I’m Paley, sir, who looks after the grounds.”
“You do your work damned badly,” replied the other, irritated.
“It is a big place, esquire, for one man to work.”
He seemed to stoop lower and lower as if at any moment he would slip into the pond; indeed, in the half dark, it seemed to Mr. Shute as if he was already half in the water; yet, on this speech, he moved and showed that he was but bending over the sombre depths of the carp pond.
The moonlight displayed him as a drab man of middling proportions with slow movements and a large languid eye which glittered feebly in the pale light; Mr. Shute had an impression that this eye looked at him sideways as if it was set at the side of the man’s head, but soon saw that this was an illusion.
“Who engaged you?” he asked acidly, hating the creature.
“Mr. Tregaskis, the agent,” replied the man in what appeared to be a thick foreign accent or with some defect of speech, and walked away into the wintry undergrowth.
Mr. Shute returned home grumbling; in the grim parlor Mr. Tregaskis was waiting for him — a red Cornishman, who grinned at his employer’s railings. He knew the vices of Mr. Shute, and the difficulties of Mr. Shute, and he had seen Mrs. Shute in the kitchen deep in maudlin gossip with old Dame Chase and the idiot-faced girl, drinking the alcoholic country wine till it spilled from her shaking fingers on to her taffeta skirt.
So he assumed a tone of noisy familiarity that Mr. Shute was too sunken to resent; the last of the old squire’s Oporto was sent for and the men drank themselves on to terms of easy good-fellowship.
At the last, when the candles were guttering, the bottles empty, and the last log’s ashes on the hearth, Mr. Shute asked who was the creature Paley he had found hanging over the carp pond.
Mr. Tregaskis told him, but the next morning Mr. Shute could not recollect what he had said; the whole evening had, in his recollection, an atmosphere of phantasmagoria; but he thought that the agent had said that Paley was a deserted sailor who had wandered up from Plymouth and taken the work without pay, a peculiar individual who lived in a wattled hut that he had made himself, and on food he caught with his own hands.
His sole explanation of himself was that he had waited for something a long time and was still waiting for it; useful he was, Mr. Tregaskis had said, and it was better to leave him alone.
All this Mr. Shute remembered vaguely, lying in the great bed staring at the pale sun glittering on the name “Florence Flannery” scratched on the window with the two dates.
It was late in the autumnal morning, but his wife still lay beside him, heavily asleep, with her thick heavy chestnut hair tossed over the pillow and her full bosom panting, the carnation of her rounded face flushed and stained, the coarse diamonds glowing on her plump hands, the false pearls slipping round her curved throat.
Daniel Shute sat up in bed and looked down at her prone sleep. “Who is she? And where does she come from?” he wondered. He had never cared to find out, but now his ignorance of all appertaining to his wife annoyed him.
He shook her bare shoulder till she yawned out of her heavy sleep. “Who are you, Flo?” he asked. “You must know something about yourself.”
The woman blinked up at him, drawing her satin bedgown round her breast.
“I was in the opera, wasn’t I?” she answered lazily. “I never knew my people.”
“Came out of an orphanage or the gutter, I suppose?” he returned bitterly.
“But your name?” he insisted. “That is never your name, ‘Florence Flannery’?”
“I’ve never known another,” she responded indifferently.
“You’re not Irish.”
“I don’t know, Mr. Shute. I’ve been in many countries and seen many strange things.”
He laughed; he had heard some of her experiences.
“You’ve seen so much and been in so many places I don’t know how you’ve ever got it all into one life.”
“I don’t know myself. It’s all rather like a dream and the most dreamlike of all is to be lying here looking at my own name written three hundred years ago.”
She moved restlessly and slipped from the bed, a handsome woman with troubled eyes.
“’Tis the drink brings the dreams, m’dear,” said Mr. Shute. “I had some dreams last night of a fellow named Paley I met by the carp pond.”
“You were drinking in the parlor,” she retorted scornfully.
“And you in the kitchen, m’dear.”
Mrs. Shute flung a fringed silk shawl, the gift of an Indian nabob, round her warm body and dropped, shivering and yawning, into one of the warm tapestry chairs.
“Who was this Florence Flannery?” she asked idly.
“I told you no one knows. An Irish girl born in Florence, they said, when I was a child and listened to beldam’s gossip. Her mother a Medici, m’dear, and he a groom! And she carne here, the trollop, with some young Shute who had been travelling in Italy — picked her up and brought her home, like I’ve brought you!”
“He didn’t marry her?” asked Mrs. Shute indifferently.
“More sense,” said her husband coarsely. “I’m the first fool of me family. She was a proper vixen. John Shute took her on his voyages; he’d a ship and went discovering. They talk yet at Plymouth of how she would sit among the parrots and the spices and the silks when the ship came into Plymouth Hoe.”
“Ah, the good times!” sighed Mrs. Shute, “when men were men and paid a good price for their pleasures!”
“You’ve fetched your full market value, Mrs. Shute,” he answered, yawning in the big bed.
“I’d rather be John Shute’s woman than your wife,” she returned.
“What do you know of him?”
“I saw his portrait on the back stairs last night. Goody Chase showed me. A noble man with a clear eye and great arms to fight and love with.”
“He used ’em to push Florence Flannery out with,” grinned Mr. Shute, “if half the tales are true. On one of their voyages they picked up a young Portuguese who took the lady’s fancy and she brought him back to Shute Court.”
“And what was the end of it?”
“I know no more, save that she was flung out, as I’d like to fling you out, my beauty!” foamed Mr. Shute with gusty violence. His wife laughed and got up discordantly.
“I’ll tell the rest of the tale. She got tired of her new love, and he wasn’t a Portuguese, but an Indian, or partly, and his name was D’Ailey, Daly the people called it here. On one voyage she told John Shute about him, and he was marooned on a lonely island in the South Seas — tied up to a great, great stone image of a god, burning hot in the tropic sun. He must have been a god of fishes for there was nothing else near that island but monstrous fish.”
“Who told you this?” demanded Mr. Shute. “Old Dame Chase, with her lies? I never heard of this before.”
“’Tis the story,” resumed his wife. “The last she saw of him was his bound figure tied tight, tight, to the gaping, grinning idol while she sat on the poop as the ship — the Phoenix— sailed away. He cursed her and called on the idol to let her live till he was avenged on her — he was of the breed, or partly of the breed, that these gods love, and Florence Flannery was afraid, afraid, as she sailed away —”
“Goody Chase in her cups!” sneered Mr. Shute. “And what’s the end of your story?”
“There’s no end,” said the woman sullenly. “John Shute cast her off, for the bad luck that dogged him, and what became of her I don’t know.”
“It’s an ugly tale and a stupid tale,” grumbled Daniel Shute with a groan as he surveyed the bleak chill weather beyond the lattice panes. “Get down and see what’s to eat in the house and what’s to drink in the cellar, and if that rogue Tregaskis is there send him up to me.”
Mrs. Shute rose and pulled fiercely at the long wool-embroidered bell-rope so that the rusty bell jangled violently.
“What’ll you do when the wine is all drunk and the boon companions have cleared out your pockets?” she asked wildly. “Do your own errands, Mr. Shute.”
He flung out of bed with a pretty London oath, and she remained huddled in the chair while he dressed and after he had left her, wringing her hands now and then and wailing under her breath, till Dame Chase came up with a posset and helped her to dress. The sight of her dishevelled trunks restored some of Mrs. Shute’s spirits; she pulled out with relish her furbelows and flounces, displaying to Goody Chase’s amazed admiration the last fashions of Paris and London, mingling her display with fond reminiscences of gilded triumphs.
“Maybe you’d be surprised to learn that Mr. Shute isn’t my first husband,” she said, tossing her head.
The fat old woman winked.
“I’d be more surprised, m’lady, to learn he was your last.”
Mrs. Shute laughed grossly, but her spirits soon fell; kneeling on the floor with her tumbled finery in her lap, she stared out through the window on which her name was written at the tossing bare boughs, the chill sky, the dry flutter of the last leaves.
“I’ll never get away,” she said mournfully, “the place bodes me no good. I’ve had the malaria in me time, Mrs. Chase, in one of those cursed Italian swamps and it affected me memory; there’s much I can’t place together and much I recall brokenly — dreams and fevers, Mrs. Chase.”
“The drink, m’lady.”
“No,” returned the kneeling woman fiercely. “Wasn’t the drink taken to drown those dreams and fevers? I wish I could tell you half I know — there’s many a fine tale in me head, but when I begin to speak it goes!”
She began to rock to and fro, lamenting.
“To think of the fine times I’ve had with likely young men drinking me health in me slipper and the little cabriolet in Paris and the walks in the Prater outside Vienna. So pleasant you would hardly believe!”
“You’ll settle down, m’lady, like women do.”
Indeed, Mrs. Shute seemed to make some attempt at “settling down”; there was something piteous in the despairing energy with which she set to work to make her life tolerable; there was a suite of rooms lined with faded watered green silk that she took for her own and had cleaned and furnished with what she could gather from the rest of the house — old gilt commodes and rococo chairs and threadbare panels of tapestries and chipped vases of Saxe or Lunéville, one or two pastel portraits that the damp had stained, together with some tawdry trifles she had brought in her own baggage.
She employed Mr. Tregaskis to sell her big diamond in Plymouth and bought pale blue satin hangings for her bedroom and spotted muslin for her bed, a carpet wreathed with roses, a gaudy dressing-table and phials of perfume, opopanax, frangipane, musk, potent, searing, to dissipate, she said, the odors of must and mildew.
Arranging these crude splendors was her sole occupation. There were no neighbors in the lonely valley and Mr. Shute fell into melancholy and solitary drinking; he hung on to his existence as just more tolerable than a debtor’s prison, but the fury with which he met his fate expressed itself in curses awful to hear. Such part of the estate as still belonged to him he treated with complex contempt; Mr. Tregaskis continued to supervise some rough farming and the man Paley worked in the garden; taciturn, solitary and sullen, he made an ill impression on Mr. Shute, yet he cost nothing and did some labor, as carrying up the firewood to the house and clearing away some of the thickets and dying weeds and vast clumps of nettles and docks.
Mrs. Shute met him for the first time by the carp pond; she was tricked out in a white satin pelisse edged with fur and a big bonnet, and wandered forlornly in the neglected paths. Paley was sitting on the edge of the carp pond, looking intently into the murky depths.
“I’m the new mistress,” said Mrs. Shute, “and I’ll thank you to keep better order in the place.”
Paley looked up at her with his pale eyes.
“Shute Court isn’t what it was,” he said, “there is a lot of work to do.”
“You seem to spend a power of time by the pond,” she replied. “What are you here for?”
“I’m waiting for something,” he said. “I’m putting in time, Mrs. Shute.”
“A sailor, I hear?” she said curiously, for the draggled nondescript man in his greenish-black clothes was difficult to place; he had a peculiar look of being boneless, without shoulders or hips, one slope slipping into another as if there was no framework under his flabby flesh.
“I’ve been at sea,” he answered, “like yourself, Mrs. Shute.” She laughed coarsely.
“I would I were at sea again,” she replied; “this is horror to me.”
“Why do you stay?”
“I’m wondering. It seems that I can’t get away, the same as I couldn’t help coming,” a wail came into her voice. “Must I wait till Mr. Shute has drunk himself to death?”
The wind blew sharp across the pond, cutting little waves in the placid surface, and she who had been Florence Flannery shuddered in the bite of it and turned away and went muttering up the path to the desolate house.
Her husband was in the dirty parlor playing at bezique with Mr. Tregaskis and she flared in upon them.
“Why don’t you get rid of that man Paley? I hate him. He does no work — Mrs. Chase told me that he always sits by the carp pond and today I saw him — ugh!”
“Paley’s all right, Mrs. Shute,” replied Tregaskis, “he does more work than you think.”
“Why does he stay?”
“He’s waiting for a ship that’s soon due in Plymouth.”
“Send him off,” insisted Mrs. Shute. “Isn’t the place melancholic enough without you having that sitting about?”
Her distaste and disgust of the man seemed to amount to a panic, and her husband, whose courage was snapped by the drink, was infected by her fear.
“When did this fellow come?” he demanded.
“About a week before you did. He’d tramped up from Plymouth.”
“We’ve only his word for that,” replied Mr. Shute with drunken cunning; “maybe he’s a Bow Street runner sent by one of those damned creditors! You’re right, Flo, I don’t like the wretch — he’s watching me, split him! I’ll send him off.”
Mr. Tregaskis shrugged as Daniel Shute staggered from his chair.
“The man’s harmless, sir; half-witted if you like, but useful.”
Still Mr. Shute dragged on his greatcoat with the capes and followed his wife out into the grey garden.
The carp pond was not near the house, and by the time that they had reached it a dull twilight had fallen in the cold and heavy air.
The great trees were quite bare now and flung a black tracing of forlorn branches against the bleak evening sky; patches and clumps of dead weeds obstructed every path and alley; by the carp pond showed the faint outline of a blind statue crumbling beneath the weight of dead mosses.
Paley was not there.
“He’ll be in his hut,” said Mr. Shute, “sleeping or spying — the ugly old devil. I’ll send him off.”
The dead oyster white of Mrs. Shute’s pelisse gleamed oddly as she followed her husband through the crackling undergrowth.
There, in the thickening twilight, they found the hut, a queer arrangement of wattles cunningly interwoven in which there was no furniture whatever, nothing but a bare protection from the wind and weather.
Paley was not there.
“I’ll find him,” muttered Mr. Shute, “if I have to stay out all night.”
For his half-intoxicated mind had fixed on this stranger as the symbol of all his misfortunes and perhaps the avenger of all his vices.
His wife turned back, for her pelisse was being caught on the undergrowth; she went moodily towards the carp pond.
A moment later a sharp shriek from her brought Mr. Shute plunging back to her side. She was standing in a queer bent attitude, pointing with a shaking plump hand to the murky depths of the pond.
“The wretch! He’s drowned himself!” she screamed.
Mr. Shute’s worn-out nerves reacted to her ignoble panic; he clutched her arm as he gazed in the direction of her finger; there was something dark in the shallower side of the pond, something large and dark, with pale flat eyes that glittered malevolently.
“Paley!” gasped Mr. Shute.
He bent closer in amazed horror, then broke into tremulous laughter.
“’Tis a fish,” he declared; “one of the old carp.”
Mrs. Shute indeed now perceived that the monstrous creature in the water was a fish; she could make out the wide gaping jaw, tall spines shadowing in the murk, and a mottled skin of deadly yellow and dingy white.
“It’s looking at me,” she gasped. “Kill it, kill it, the loathsome wretch!”
“It’s — it’s — too big,” stammered Mr. Shute, but he picked up a stone to hurl; the huge fish, as if aware of his intentions, slipped away into the murky depths of the pond, leaving a sluggish ripple on the surface.
Daniel Shute now found his courage.
“Nothing but an old carp,” he repeated. “I’ll have the thing caught.”
Mrs. Shute began to weep and wring her hands. Her husband dragged her roughly towards the house, left her there, took a lantern, and accompanied now by Mr. Tregaskis returned in search of Paley.
This time they found him sitting in his usual place by the side of the pond. Mr. Shute had now changed his mind about sending him away; he had a muddled idea that he would like the pond watched, and who was to do this if not Paley?
“Look here, my man,” he said, “there’s a great carp in this pond — a very big, black old carp.”
“They live for hundreds of years,” said Paley. “But this isn’t a carp.”
“You know about it, then?” demanded Mr. Shute.
“I know about it.”
“Well, I want you to catch it — kill it. Watch till you do. I loathe it — ugh!”
“Watch the pond?” protested Mr. Tregaskis, who held the lantern and was chilled and irritable. “Damme, esquire, what can the thing do? It can’t leave the water.”
“I wouldn’t,” muttered Mr. Shute, “promise you that.”
“You’re drunk,” said the other coarsely.
But Mr. Shute insisted on his point.
“Watch the pond, Paley, watch it day and night till you get that fish.”
“I’ll watch,” answered Paley, never moving from his huddled position.
The two men went back to the desolate house. When Mr. Shute at last staggered upstairs he found his wife with half a dozen candles lit, crouching under the tawdry muslin curtains with which she had disfigured the big bed.
She clutched a rosary that she was constantly raising to her lips as she muttered ejaculations.
Mr. Shute lurched to the bedside.
“I didn’t know that you were a Papist, Flo,” he sneered. She looked up at him.
“That story’s got me,” she whispered, “the man tied up to the fish god — the curse — and he following her — tracking her down for three hundred years, till she was hounded back to the old place where they’d loved.”
Daniel Shute perceived that she had been drinking, and sank into a chair.
“Goody Chase’s gossip,” he answered, yawning, “and that damned ugly fish. I’ve set Paley to catch him — to watch the pond till he does.”
She looked at him sharply, and appeared relieved.
“Anyhow, what’s it to do with you?” he continued. “You ain’t the jade who left the man on the island!” He laughed crudely. Mrs. Shute sank down on her pillows.
“As long as the pond is watched,” she murmured, “I don’t mind.”
But during the night she tossed and panted in a delirium, talking of great ships with strange merchandise, of lonely islands amid blazing seas, of mighty stone gods rearing up to the heavens, of a man in torture and a curse following a woman who sailed away, till her husband shook her and left her alone, sleeping on a couch in the dreary parlor.
The next day he spoke to Mrs. Chase.
“Between your news and your lies you’ve turned your mistress’s head. Good God! she is like a maniac with your parcel of follies!”
But Goody Chase protested that she had told her nothing.
“She told me that story, esquire, and said she had found it in an old book. What did I know of Florence Flannery? Many a time you’ve asked me about her when you were a child and I’ve had no answer to give you — what did I know save she was a hussy who disgraced Shute Court?”
At this Daniel Shute vehemently demanded of his wife where she had got the tales which she babbled about, but the woman was sullen and heavy and would tell him nothing; all the day she remained thus, but when the few hours of wintry light were over she fell again into unbridled terror, gibbering like a creature deprived of reason, beating her breast, kissing the rosary, and muttering, “Mea culpâ, mea culpâ, mea maximâ culpâ!”
Mr. Shute was not himself in any state to endure this; he left his wife to herself and made Tregaskis sleep with him for company in another room.
Winter froze the bleak countryside; Paley kept guard by the pond and the Shutes somehow dragged on an intolerable existence in the deserted house.
In the daytime Mrs. Shute revived a little and would even prink herself out in her finery and gossip with Mrs. Chase over the vast log fire, but the nights always found her smitten with terror, shivering with cowardly apprehension; and the object of all her nightmare dread was the fish she had seen in the pond.
“It can’t leave the water,” they told her, and she always answered: “The first night I was here I saw wet on the stairs.”
“My God, my God!” Daniel Shute would say, “this is like living with someone sentenced to death.”
“Get a doctor over from Plymouth,” suggested Mr. Tregaskis.
But Mr. Shute would not, for fear of being betrayed to his creditors.
“Better rot here than in the Fleet,” he swore.
“Then take her away — and keep her from the bottle.”
The wretched husband could do neither of these things; he had no money and no influence over Mrs. Shute. He was indeed indifferent to her sufferings save in so far as they reacted on him and ever accustomed him to the spectacle of her breakdown; he knew it was not really strange that a woman such as she was should collapse under conditions such as these, and his life was already so wretched that he cared little for added horrors.
He began to find a strange comfort in the man Paley, who, taciturn, slow and queer, yet did his work and watched the pond with an admirable diligence.
One night in the blackest time of the year, the bitter dark nights before Christmas, the shrieks of Mrs. Shute brought her husband cursing up the stairs.
Her door was unbolted and she sat up in bed, displaying, in the light of his snatched-up taper, some red marks on her arm. “Let him kill me and done with it,” she jabbered.
Mr. Tregaskis came pushing in and caught rudely hold of her arm. “She’s done it herself,” he cried; “those are the marks of her own teeth.”
But Mrs. Shute cried piteously:
“He came flopping up the stairs, he broke the bolts; he jumped on the bed! Oh! oh! oh! Isn’t this the bed, the very bed I slept in then — and didn’t he used to creep into this room when John Shute was away?”
“Still thinking of that damned fish,” said Mr. Tregaskis, “and it’s my belief you neither of you saw it at all, esquire — that man Paley has been watching, and he’s seen nothing.”
Mr. Shute bit his fingernails, looking down on the writhing figure of his wife.
“Light all the candles, can’t you?” he said. “I’ll stay with the poor fool tonight.”
While Mr. Tregaskis obeyed he went to the door and looked out, holding his taper high.
There were pools of wet and a long trail of slime down the dusty, neglected stairs.
He called Mr. Tregaskis.
“Ugh!” cried the Cornishman, then, “It’s from Goody Chase’s water crock.”
On the following windy morning Mr. Shute went out, shivering in the nipping air, to the carp pond.
“I don’t want another night like last,” he said.
“You’ll sleep across my wife’s door — she thinks that cursed carp is after her —”
Then, at the gross absurdity of what he said, he laughed miserably. “This is a pretty pantomime I’m playing,” he muttered. A horrid curiosity drove him up to look at his wife.
She sat between the draggled muslin curtains hugging her knees in the tumbled bed; a wretched fire flickered wanly in the chill depths of the vast room; a wind blew swift and remote round the window on which was scratched the name of Florence Flannery. Mr. Shute shivered.
“I must get you away,” he said, stirred above his fears for himself; “this is a damned place — the Fleet would be better, after all.” She turned lustreless eyes on him.
“I can’t get away,” she said dully. “I’ve come here to die — don’t you see it on that window —‘Died 1800’?”
He crossed the floor and peered at the scratching on the glass. Someone had indeed added the word “died” before the last date.
“These are the tricks of a Bedlamite,” he said nervously. “Do you think there was only one Florence Flannery?”
“And do you think,” she returned harshly, “that there were two?”
She looked so awful crouched up in bed with her hanging hair, her once plump face fallen in the cheeks, her soiled satin gown open over her laboring breast, her whole air and expression so agonized, so malevolent, so dreadful, that Daniel Shute passed his hand over his eyes as if to brush away a vision of unsubstantial horror.
He was shaken by an hallucination of light-headedness; he appeared to enter another world, in which many queer things were possible.
“What are you?” he asked uneasily. “He’s been after you for nearly three hundred years? Aren’t you punished enough?”
“Oh, oh!” moaned the woman. “Keep him out! Keep him out!”
“I’ll put Paley at the door tonight,” muttered Mr. Shute.
He crept out of the horrible chamber; he now detested his wife beyond all reason, yet somehow he felt impelled to save her from the invincible furies who were pursuing her in so gruesome a fashion.
“She’s a lunatic,” said Mr. Tregaskis brusquely. “You’ll have to keep her shut in that room — it’s not difficult to account for — with the life she’s led and this place and the coincidence of the names.” The first snow of the year began to fall that night, sullen flakes struggling in the coils of the leaping wind that circled round Shute Court.
In the last glimmer of daylight Paley came to take up his post. Drab, silent, with his sloping shoulders and nondescript clothes, he went slowly upstairs and sat down outside Mrs. Shute’s door. “He seems to know the way,” remarked Daniel Shute.
“Don’t you know he works in the house?” retorted Mr. Tregaskis.
The two men slept, as usual, in the parlor, on stiff horsehair couches bundled up with pillows and blankets; the litter of their supper was left on the table and they piled the fire up with logs before going to sleep. Mr. Shute’s nerves were in no state to permit him to risk waking up in the dark.
The wind dropped and the steady downdrift of the soft snow filled the blackness of the bitter night.
As the grandfather clock struck three Daniel Shute sat up and called to his companion.
“I’ve been thinking in my dreams,” he said, with chattering teeth. “Is it Paley, or Daley? You know the name was D’Ailey.”
“Shut up, you fool,” returned the agent fiercely; but he then raised himself on his elbow, for a hoarse, bitter scream, followed by some yelled words in a foreign language tore through the stillness.
“The mad woman,” said Mr. Tregaskis; but Daniel Shute dragged the clothes up to his chattering teeth.
“I’m not going up,” he muttered. “I’m not going up!”
Mr. Tregaskis dragged on his trousers and flung a blanket over his shoulders and so, lighting a taper at the big fire, went up the gaunt stairs to Mrs. Shute’s room. The glimmering beams of the rushlight showed him tracks of wet again on the dirty boards.
“Goody Chase with her crocks and possets,” he murmured; then louder, “Paley! Paley!”
There was no one outside Mrs. Shute’s door, which hung open. Mr. Tregaskis entered.
She who had been Florence Flannery lay prone on her tawdry couch; the deep wounds that had slain her appeared to have been torn by savage teeth; she looked infinitely old, shrivelled and detestable.
Mr. Tregaskis backed on to the stairs, the light lurching round him from the shaking of his taper, when Mr. Shute came bustling up out of the darkness.
“Paley’s gone,” whispered Mr. Tregaskis dully.
“I saw him go,” gibbered Mr. Shute, “as I ventured to the door — by the firelight; a great fish slithering away with blood on his jaws.”
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University of Adelaide
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