John in this fragment is going bad, tempted by the lawyer’s faithful agent, the Devil. He has a brush with the supernatural, to which his rationality has no answers, only that it’s one more shade of grey to add to that collection the law knows only too well. Again I’ve used the first person voice:
It soon became clear that Sir Walter’s ruthlessness arose from his misguided belief that his tenants were not sufficiently afraid of him. Occasional lapses on rent days stemmed, he believed, along with other misdemeanours, not from hardship but wilful disobedience. That the hurt done was invariably petty did not matter to the Baronet; it was the principle that counted, and any act of firmness on my part was generously rewarded over and above my ample salary. A stiff letter might earn me an extra five shillings, an oral warning the same, while an action for trespass or poaching prosecuted with vigour might bring as much as a guinea.
It was tempting to work solely for Sir Walter and neglect my other work, which as yet paid little. This I refused to do, and for my sake as much as my clients I accepted the lot of a country practitioner. I had much to learn and variety of business served me best. By careful planning all types were accommodated. For a while too (or so I believed) I managed another incongruity in my work: the juxtaposition of morality and greed. I continued to handle gratis the occasional pauper case that came my way. Risking my patron’s displeasure I went further at times, speaking out against injustice on my own doorstep – the cruel treatment of bastard children at the workhouse; the miserable plight of child sweeps; the iniquities of slavery – always aware, as I did so, of the hypocrite within me: that he who denounced others had sold his soul to Sir Walter for so many pieces of silver; a man who, if it came to it, would defend his patron’s right to do what he liked with bastards, sweeps and ominously-coloured Negroes. I was tangled in a knot of my own making but it couldn’t last. Something had to give, and it did.
That my battle raged on a wider front became clear two weeks later when I rode out on law business to the hamlet of Lighthazzles. The moors were heavily misted, causing me to stray from the beaten track. Hopelessly lost, I dismounted at the door of a small cottage hoping to ask the way. The battered door, loose on its fish-strap hinges, was answered by a woman of middle years with long black hair and small blue eyes, whose pupils narrowed to a pin-prick. Her skin was deeply-wrinkled, like cracks in hardened clay. She appeared to know me and beckoned me in. I stood awhile, I don’t know how long, rooted in the present but recalling the past. I was remembering the moors again, just as they’d been that first time when I’d crossed them in the coach. Then the force had been invisible – more breath of wind than tangible flesh and blood. Here the power had a visible source, and in daylight not dark.
I was inside before I’d realised, standing on the cold earth floor hardened with bull’s blood. The cottage comprised a single room with a ladder to the loft. Furniture was rude and common – two rush-bottomed chairs, a deal table with some dishes and cups, a three-legged stool low upon the floor. In the far corner was an old bedstead, where sacking and straw served for bedding. The only inviting feature was the fire glowing brightly in its brazier. But as I watched the twinkling of the coals, smarting red-raw, I was put in mind of torture, of flesh torn asunder with scorching tongs. My host had read my mind: ‘The brazier reminds you of cruelty,’ she said, watching me with eyes grown dark and heavy, all pupil now, two black beads oily as a crow’s. She drew near so that we stood just inches apart. ‘Robert Damiens – oh, how he suffered! They took hours to kill him, forty years ago in the heart of Paris. The pain, the terror, the burning glow of coals – crowd cheering as the blood spurted, and where is the sufferer now? – in heaven or in hell?’ She was speaking my thoughts as they came, her voice mimicking my own. ‘Cruelty interests you,’ she said. ‘It repels but it also attracts. Deep down you have a taste for it like the Romans of old.’
‘Who are you?’ I felt drained of all strength, rather as a fly must feel when paralysed by a spider’s venom.
‘Appearances, as you know, can be deceiving.’ She squared up to me, and placed her hands on my shoulders. ‘How easily you have succumbed,’ she said, with something of a smile. It was only now that I realised her face had changed, the switch occurring with the hazy swiftness of a dream. Her lips were purple, marked with the rippled texture of freshly-dug worms. Beyond was her mouth, replete with the blackness of a coal pit. So much for normality, the tedious reality of my work for Sir Walter! It was forgotten now; in its place, as if forever, a stark and vengeful other. ‘Please,’ I said, ‘you must let me go.’
She stroked my cheek. ‘Why go, John Eagle, when your prayer has been answered?’
‘What prayer?’ I said, feigning to scoff.
Word for word she quoted my plea in the graveyard that night: Enter my heart, blacken my soul as much as you like so long as I reap the reward, so long as I rise in the world fast and sure. ‘You thought nobody had heard,’ she said, her lips parted round that dark chasm. ‘But they did hear, and the pact was made the moment you spoke. He has never refused a plea that came from the heart.’
I slapped my hands to my face, ran the fingers high up my forehead and dislodged my hat. ‘But I never meant …’
‘Shush, my dear,’ she said, drawing me to her breast which was hard as flint. ‘Enjoy the fruits I bring.’ She sealed the deal with a kiss, withdrawing her wormy lips to ask, ‘Have you not felt them already?’ I knew in an instant what she meant: my lucrative appointment as Sir Walter’s steward had been no chance windfall.
‘Unfortunately, you are not yet complete,’ she said, drawing away in faint pique and bending to poke the fire. Her ragged grey dress, bunched in a dovetail at the back, fluttered as she worked. ‘The scales have tipped but not wholly. And not fast enough for He that’s sent me hither.’
‘He being?’ but she didn’t answer straight.
‘There are ounces of goodness left that are stubborn,’ she said, as she straightened up, poker-in-hand. ‘To blacken you through and through will require more work, some further sweating till you’re fully debased. Only then will He be satisfied.’
‘Will you not speak His name?’
‘There is no need,’ she said. ‘You have heard it often enough. A man should never question the evil he does, though you are different and must soldier on out there.’ She opened the door, which groaned on its hinges. A dozen yards from the house the mist had gathered in one great billowing cloud. ‘You are crossing over from the other side. There will be great rejoicing for such as you. Would that we had found you earlier, before the lines were tangled. I see a great conflict ahead, whose outcome is uncertain.’
I read in her eyes the instruction to leave. Relieved as I was to be free to go, I was to carry away an indescribable burden, a hundred questions none of them voiced. I mounted my mare in confusion, my head swirling like the mist. There was no need to pinch myself; reality was as real as the soil beneath my horse’s hooves. The creature whinnied fretfully, and I leaned over to stroke her neck; familiar sound and familiar action were mixed with the oddness of the previous minutes. I looked down from the saddle. The woman from her doorway nodded, less a parting gesture than an aide memoir to all that she’d said. ‘Follow their sound,’ she said, as a pair of magpies sounded through the mist. ‘They will guide you where you wish to go.’
I could scarce remember where I did want to go, and as I headed away towards the magpies’ chatter my memory continued to fail. But the mist was thinning fast, and as it did so the sound of the birds faded. I rode at a canter and then a gallop as the mist disappeared. I saw hills of gorse and heather, above them a sky that was clear except for cloud – good old cloud, up there on high where it belonged. Nestled in the valley below was a dark-stoned settlement of a dozen houses. Chimneys smoked, and the noise of a workshop reached me on the breeze. Ten o’clock in the forenoon, my pocket-watch said, the very hour I was due at the house of Mr Hepplethwaite, worsted manufacturer of that place; the very hour I had called at the cottage of ‘the Lighthazzles witch.’