THE NEMESIS OF FIRE

BY ALGERNON BLACKWOOD

CHAPTER 2 SCENE 1

Nothing happened to disturb me in the night—nothing, that is, except a nightmare in which Colonel Wragge chased me amid thin streaks of fire and his sister always prevented my escape by suddenly rising up out of the ground in her chair—dead. The deep baying of dogs woke me once, just before the dawn it must have been, for I saw the window frame against the sky; there was a flash of lightning, too, I thought, as I turned over in bed. And it was warm, for October oppressively warm.

It was after eleven o’clock when our host suggested going out with the guns, these being a somewhat thin disguise for our true purpose. Personally, I was glad to be in the open air for the atmosphere of the house was heavy with presentiment. The sense of impending disaster hung over all. Fear stalked the passages and lurked in the corners of every room. It was a house haunted, but really haunted; not by some vague shadow of the dead but by a definite though incalculable influence that was actively alive and dangerous. At the least smell of smoke the entire household quivered. An odour of burning, I was convinced, would paralyse all the inmates. For the servants, though professedly ignorant by the master’s unspoken orders, yet shared the common dread; and the hideous uncertainty, joined with this display of so spiteful and calculated a spirit of malignity, provided a kind of black doom that draped not only the walls but also the minds of the people living within them.

Only the bright and cheerful vision of old Miss Wragge being pushed about the house in her noiseless chair, chatting and nodding briskly to every one she met, prevented us from giving way entirely to the depression which governed the majority. The sight of her was like a gleam of sunshine through the depths of some ill-omened wood. Just as we went out I saw her being wheeled along by her attendant into the sunshine of the back lawn, and caught her cheery smile as she turned her head and wished us good sport.

The morning was October at its best. Sunshine glistened on the dew-drenched grass and on leaves turned golden-red. The dainty messengers of coming hoar-frost were already in the air asearch for permanent winter quarters. From the wide moors that everywhere swept up against the sky, like a purple sea splashed by the occasional grey of rocky clefts, there stole down the cool and perfumed wind of the west. And the keen taste of the sea ran through all like a master-flavour, borne over the spaces perhaps by the seagulls that cried and circled high in the air.

But our host took little interest in this sparkling beauty and had no thought of showing off the scenery of his property. His mind was otherwise intent and, for that matter, so were our own.

“Those bleak moors and hills stretch unbroken for hours,” he said with a sweep of the hand, “and over there, some four miles,” pointing in another direction, “lies S—— Bay, a long, swampy inlet of the sea, haunted by myriads of seabirds. On the other side of the house are the plantations and pine-woods. I thought we would get the dogs and go first to the Twelve Acre Wood I told you about last night. It’s quite near.”

We found the dogs in the stable, and I recalled the deep baying of the night when a fine bloodhound and two great Danes leaped out to greet us. Singular companions for guns, I thought to myself, as we struck out across the fields and the great creatures bounded and ran beside us, nose to ground.

The conversation was scanty. John Silence’s grave face did not encourage talk. He wore the expression I knew well—that look of earnest solicitude which meant that his whole being was deeply absorbed and preoccupied. Frightened I had never seen him but anxious often—it always moved me to witness it—and he was anxious now.

“On the way back you shall see the laundry building,” Colonel Wragge observed shortly, for he, too, found little to say. “We shall attract less attention then.”

Yet not all the crisp beauty of the morning seemed able to dispel the feelings of uneasy dread that gathered increasingly about our minds as we went.

In a very few minutes a clump of pine trees concealed the house from view, and we found ourselves on the outskirts of a densely-grown plantation of conifers. Colonel Wragge stopped abruptly and, producing a map from his pocket, explained once more very briefly its position with regard to the house. He showed how it ran up almost to the walls of the laundry building—though at the moment beyond our actual view—and pointed to the windows of his sister’s bedroom where the fires had been. The room, now empty of course, looked straight on to the wood. Then, glancing nervously about him and calling the dogs to heel, he proposed that we should enter the plantation and make as thorough examination of it as we thought worth while. The dogs, he added, might perhaps be persuaded to accompany us a little way—and he pointed to where they cowered at his feet—but he doubted it. “Neither voice nor whip will get them very far, I’m afraid,” he said. “I know by experience.”

“If you have no objection,” replied Dr. Silence with decision and speaking almost for the first time, “we will make our examination alone—Mr. Hubbard and myself. It will be best so.”

His tone was absolutely final, and the Colonel acquiesced so politely that even a less intuitive man than myself must have seen that he was genuinely relieved.

“You doubtless have good reasons,” he said.

“Merely that I wish to obtain my impressions uncoloured. This delicate clue I am working on might be so easily blurred by the thought-currents of another mind with strongly preconceived ideas.”

“Perfectly. I understand,” rejoined the soldier, though with an expression of countenance that plainly contradicted his words. “Then I will wait here with the dogs; and we’ll have a look at the laundry on our way home.”

I turned once to look back as we clambered over the low stone wall built by the late owner and saw his straight, soldierly figure standing in the sunlit field watching us with a curiously intent look on his face. There was something to me incongruous, yet distinctly pathetic, in the man’s efforts to meet all far-fetched explanations of the mystery with contempt, and at the same time in his stolid, unswerving investigation of it all. He nodded at me and made a gesture of farewell with his hand. That picture of him standing in the sunshine with his big dogs, steadily watching us, remains with me to this day.

 

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