I awoke late in the morning, with a terrible headache. Holding my head against the pain that the sharp light of day brought, streaming in through tiny leaded windows set in walls two feet deep, I rose and began to dress. At first I took the curious images which were beginning to return to my mind as no more than a nightmare. How likely was it that no one else would respond to the piercing howls of the dogs? Perhaps, I mused, I had suffered a bout of somnambulism, brought on by the unusually fine whiskey.
As I stooped to comb my hair in the mirror, Mrs. MacGregor knocked upon the bedroom door. At my beck she entered, bearing a tray of porridge, crumpets, marmalade and rich-smelling coffee. Her decrepit terrier Willie trotted in behind, and began to snuffle blindly around. I bid her good morning, and thanked her profusely, not having noticed until that moment the cramps of hunger that gripped my stomach.
“Oh, shoosht,” she said, as she shuffled through the room. “It’s just nice to have you back after so long, son.” Eileen MacGregor was almost the diametric opposite of her droll and stony-faced husband. She was stocky and rotund, and her ruddy face bore a perpetual smile, the warmth of which even her tight, grey bun could not quell. I had grown particularly fond of them over the years, but I could not for the life of me fathom their motivations in giving up their whole lives in service to the hereditary heirs of Blackford, for they had not even one child of their own to provide for. Yet they seemed content, and they were undoubtedly appreciated, prized, even loved by the Lindsays. I felt sure that the Laird would have ensured that they were handsomely rewarded financially.
“The young Master’s no’ been himsel’ since… you know.” She shook her head pensively. “It’ll be good for him to have you around. That reminds me – he said to tell you that he’s had to go into Edinburgh to make some kind of statement or other. He’ll be home by this evening.”
Willie, his thin, snow-white hair stained yellow where it dragged on the floor, tilted his head quizzically at my overnight case.
“The dogs were howling again last night,” I noted, feigning disinterest. The old woman uttered an exaggerated tut. “I hardly got a wink of sleep. Did you not hear anything, Eileen?”
She laughed, tilting her head to the side and folding her arms below her bosom. “Och, we’re both as good as deaf these days, son, not that you’d know from what himsel’ would let on.” I smiled knowingly.
“I’ll wager that you still hear what goes on in the town, though,” I joked. She smiled, and cast me a look that simulated innocence.
“Well. You know Tommy Johnson, the gardener?” I nodded; Tommy was a squat old man with a missing finger and half a head of teeth who divided his time equally between playing dominoes and tending the gardens of several of the locals, including the Lindsays. “Did you know he’s a terrible poacher? Takes a few rabbits and pheasants from the Laird’s land every week.”
“I can’t believe it!” I lied. “Tommy?”
“It’s true. Anyway, he says he’s seen someone in the woods. Twice in the last week before sunrise. He won’t say anything because he should’ne have been there in the first place. But it’s fair got him rattled, like.”
“A tramp?” She shook her head.
“No. Crawford reckons it moved too quickly. Like a deer or something. It was too strong, like… And there’s something else. Crawford McPherson up at the Inn reckons he saw it too. Sunday night, something scraping at the door of the pub. He shouted from the window and it ran off, straight up the high street. It was no tramp, way he tells it. He’d never seen anything like it afore,” she concluded.
I knew, too, that it had been no tramp, for a memory had suddenly resurfaced with terrifying clarity. She was undoubtedly describing the creature I had chased to the Folly in the night. It had not been a nightmare, then. The horror was real.
Something was roaming the forests of Blackford, something ungodly. And that such a circumstance should be unconnected to the Laird’s disappearance was scarcely conscionable. My mind reeled.
“C’mon, Willie,” Mrs. MacGregor commanded, and the confused beast literally jerked with fright. It dragged itself around and launched itself out of the room with a Guy Fawkes’ Night clatter of overgrown claws, and she trotted out behind it.
After breakfast, I left the House, thinking that a constitutional walk might help to set my confused mind straight. It was another bright day, and the first bumblebee of the year hovered drunkenly past. Finches chirruped in the trees, and swaggering daffodils were slowly usurping the drifts of virginal snowdrops. My nose was filled with the verdant acridity of nettle and the sweet pungency of wild garlic.
As I crossed the bridge, the terrain changed to archaic feral woodland. I caught sight of the Folly, obscured by the trees, and an icy shiver ran up my spine as I recalled the night before. It was set in a low circular wall, which was entered through a gate supported by pillars topped with statues. The Folly’s roof rose gracefully between them as I approached. Entering the circle, I noticed that mighty, black, wrought-iron gate which usually hung there had gone.
The Folly had a pyramidal roof atop a granite cube the height of three men, adorned on all sides with Romanesque columns now veiled with creepers, and boasting a single, wooden door on the south side which was always locked. No-one knew what it was for, or what it symbolised, or why the Laird had built it. It was a riddle in stone that seemed to sum up everything that was mysterious about the area.
I had long cherished the theory it was some kind of accumulator for the so-called Earth Energies which mavericks like the American Tesla still defended. This morning, noticing for the first time the striking symmetry of the building, I decided that it was something far more sinister. It would forever be a memorial to the disappearing Laird. Feeling a chill, I drew my coat closed and turned back towards the House. The questions were multiplying fast, but I hoped to have some answers for Elias that evening.
The sun had set by the time he returned, and he found me pacing the drawing-room floor, working myself into a panic. He went straight to the fire, which had not yet fully taken, vigorously rubbing his hands together.
“Dinner’s on the way, old boy. How are you? You know, I feel a whole lot better today. Will you take an apéritif?” He moved to the sideboard and poured a whiskey. “Henry?”
I shook my head, and he shrugged, taking a big swig.
“Didn’t you hear the dogs last night, Elias?”
“They were at it again? No, I was out like a light, Henry. God, you look awful… What’s happened?”
I told him what had happened during the night. He kept an air of cynical amusement toward my tale, sitting in his bow-legged chair making a show of paying rapt-attention. But when I began to relate what Eileen MacGregor had told me, his aspect began to shift towards genuine horror. Just as I had, he discovered that the supposed dream could not be so easily dismissed.
“Dear God!” he cried, leaping from his chair. He grabbed my shoulders, glanced around the room and added more quietly; “Is something… profane prowling the streets of Blackford?”
I nodded solemnly. “This creature is the key to your Father’s disappearance, Elias.”
He shivered, and drained his tumbler. “Maybe we can still find him, Henry! Remember – ‘Wine is strong, the King is stronger, women are stronger still…’ Henry? Come on, man!”
“Truth, Elias. Truth conquers all. There are some things you need to see. I’ve been examining your Father’s papers.”
“What do you mean? You think he knew about the creature?”
“No, Elias – I’m speaking about his life’s work.”
“The Treasure?” he said, incredulous.
“Indeed. I believe he may actually have found the lost Treasure of Blackford.”