[A seasonal gift for you. I remembered about this story I published in Dark Tales, back in 2006. But it’s kind of long, so I thought I could break it up, as a serial. But it’s also a little… old-fashioned – it’s kind of my version of Lovecraft crossed with Walter Scott. Perfect for the holidays! One part every day until the 30th. Enjoy.]
I write this account because I know that soon, when the police knock on my door, with pale faces and many questions, I will not be able to explain clearly what happened. They will have put all the facts together, but will refuse to believe what is laid bare before them, as at first I did. Sooner or later, the terrifying elegance of the truth will be clear and they will call on me to explain it away, that they might return home to their wives and children without that blackness that by then lies so heavily upon their hearts. I won’t be able to, but perhaps by setting down this account while the events are clear in my mind I may be able to clarify a few of the finer details of the case.
But I will not be able to locate George or Elias Lindsay.
It began a little over a week ago. George Lindsay, Laird of Blackford, had disappeared: he retired late after a nightcap of whiskey, as was his custom, and had not been seen since. Nothing apparently was amiss in his chambers; his clothes, excepting those he had been wearing and an Inverness cape, were all hung in his wardrobes as normal, and his papers lay spread out on his desk as though he had been interrupted at his work. There was no sign of a break-in, nor did the staff hear anything curious during the night. Constables from the local constabulary had made as thorough a search as the frequently inaccessible environs would permit, but no body, footprints, nor any other clues were turned up. It seemed as though the Laird had simply melted into the ether.
George Lindsay had been a towering figure to me all of my life. He was my Mother’s Uncle, though due to some odd gaps between generations they were roughly the same age. He was a charming and engaging man, most popular amongst the villagers of Blackford. Furthermore, he was the father of my best friend through all my childhood, Elias Lindsay.
Four days ago, a telegram from Elias arrived. It was rambling and vague, and I became concerned for his well-being. But one thing that was manifest was that he needed me in Blackford. The telegram was a summons. If my friend needed me, I would go.
Listen well as I tell you now – if I had got the merest inkling from my friend’s missive of what I was shortly to be drawn into I should have never left the comfort of my home. Instead I should have urged Elias to board up the House for good and never return. Instead, in my innocence, I sent a telegram to the University, informing them of my absence, and booked a cab for the morning.
From my carriage I watched lambs gambolling in the springtime sun. The pink cherry blossoms and cloudless sky brought to mind the paintings of Constable, and I began to forget the distressing reason for my journey. This pleasant sensation evaporated as we entered Blackford itself. It is said that it was built where two lay-lines cross, and that this is the reason for the distinctive physical and emotional sensations one experiences. The chest becomes tight and the breathing shallow, and it is closely allied with the panic that has been observed to settle over men and beasts alike in the darkest depths of woodland. The carriage slowed as we passed over the crossroads and headed down the hill towards Blackford House.
Presently, we crossed the bridge and drew to a crunching halt in the courtyard. The House loomed, wings enclosing us like arms, and its left side recklessly close to the edge of a sheer cliff which dropped to the river far below. The shifty, wiry cab driver took my bags down and placed them on the gravel. I paid him with a handsome tip, and he thanked me in a thick, unrefined accent. There are many among my University colleagues who would insist that the native stock were an unthinking and unfeeling rabble, but I dissent from this view. Simple folk are often, in their undeveloped and intuitive way, far more in tune with the subtle sensations of their surroundings. He departed with as much haste as etiquette would allow, and a shiver ran up my spine.
I tugged the bell-pull and a sonorous chime sounded within. A minute later, the door opened. The long, wizened face which peered out gave nothing of our long acquaintance away.
“Ah, it’s yoursel’,” it said.
“Good day to you, MacGregor,” I said, with feigned ebullience, and stepped into the coolness of the House. The dour Highlander took my coat from my shoulders, and I noted the familiar smell that hung around him, like grain whiskey and mothballs.
“You’re to go on up to his room,” MacGregor sniffed. “I’m sure you remember where it is.” He shuffled off, disappearing through a doorway, and I began to ascend the stair.
“Henry! Come in here, man!” He took me by the shoulders, looked into my eyes with relief clear on his cherubic face, and embraced me with all his strength. “Thank God you’re here at last, Henry. You’ll take a wee dram?”
I nodded, and he quickly filled two glasses from the decanter and added a splash of water. I took a sip of the exquisite, peaty whiskey – the missing Laird was something of an expert on single malts, amongst other subjects, and his cellar was renowned among the villagers. But as Elias joined me by the fire, his aspect became grave.
“How are you,” I asked him, “Truly?”
“Not good. I miss him terribly. He was my role-model as well as my father. But until he is found, I cannot grieve, because at night I am haunted by the hopeless possibility that he is still alive. And I hate myself for my foolishness.”
He shrugged, and gave his familiar, dismissive chuckle. “To be honest, I’m exhausted, Henry. I’ve not had a decent night’s sleep since this stramach began… First the police, then the dogs braying all night long, and even if I manage to avoid both of those, I still can’t sleep for worry…”
“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” I told him. I could see, for the first time, the depth of sorrow in his green eyes.
“Finish your drink, and I’ll pour you another. Detective work can wait until the morning – tonight is for us to catch up, to drink and laugh again. With luck, I shall get a decent night’s sleep – God knows I need it.”
Alas, it was not to be the restful night that we both hoped for. After retiring late, having consumed too many whiskeys, I was woken by piercing, pitiful wails, which I took to have come from the dogs out in the stables. My pocket watch informed me that the hour was close to three. I buried my head in the fat, feather pillows, but the sound was tenacious and pervasive, and I soon realised that I could not sleep through it. No one else in the house was stirring – perhaps they had grown used to keening nocturnal howling – but I realised that if I did not deal with it myself, I should not sleep a wink. So I re-fired the lamp, put my coat on over my pyjamas, and began the long journey to the stables.
The plaintive cries leapt several decibels as I opened the heavy front door and slipped out into the brisk night air. They seemed to pierce my very soul as I shuffled, slipper-shod, across the grass and around the House. I swung the rickety gate open, and cast my lamp around the outhouse. The three terrified pointers immediately ceased their wailing, but were obviously in a state of acute terror, circling in confusion, scraping at the straw-covered floor and whimpering pathetically. I knelt down and slowly extended my hand; they were jumpy, but eventually they allowed me to clap their backs and ruffle their ears. These few minutes of physical affection seemed to reassure the hounds enormously, and they curled up in the straw and closed their eyes. I rose to my feet, raising the lamp before me, and left the stable.
It would not have been so had I been in the city, but in the dead of country night, the low rustle from the rhododendron bushes was enough to grab my attention. I swung around reflexively, casting sallow light upon the imposing plants, and my heart quickened in my ribcage.
“MacGregor?” I said into the night. The words were immediately swallowed up. I stood waiting for some reply for three impossibly long seconds, before something darted from the hedge and across the lawn.
That ephemeral glimpse is burned vividly onto my mind. I cannot say that what I saw was not a man; it was taller than me, though that is not unheard of, and it had arms, legs, and head, though they were oddly proportioned. Yet it moved with a speed and agility that was almost unsettling, flowing in long arcs and then suddenly changing tack, barely seeming to ever touch the ground. The sight brought visions of chthonic sea-creatures up from some unconscious depth of the mind. This disturbing comparison was reinforced when it glanced back over a dark shoulder at its pursuer; the round, unblinking eye seemed to phosphoresce faintly in the gloom like a squid gazing through its own ink-cloud. If this was indeed a son of Adam, then it was from a tribe other than those of Israel.
I dropped the lamp onto the dewy grass, and gave immediate chase. It bounded across the sandstone bridge on powerful shanks, through the gate and off towards the north. I stumbled after, tripping in my slippers, staggering with sleepiness and drink. My eyes had not yet become accustomed to the darkness, but I knew the path well enough, and where it led. The geometric silhouette of the Blackford Folly soon became distinct against the sky. As I drew close, I heard the unmistakable sound of a door slamming, followed by distended reverb. The Folly was still reverberating when I slammed against the door seconds later, panting with exertion. I began to claw frantically for purchase at its edges, but the portal was sealed tight once more. I had no option but to return to the House, secure the doors and windows, and attempt sleep once more.