It turns out that John’s brush with the supernatural in the shape of the Lighthazzles witch isn’t the end of the matter. On arriving home he stables his horse and goes upstairs to change, surprised to find in his washstand basin an uncommonly large spider with very hairy legs. Deciding to adopt the creature as a pet and keep it in a jar, he puts his strange decision down to loneliness and fatigue. Be that as it may, it’s a decision he will come to regret.
The spider quickly becomes a problem. Its legs thicken and its body grows the size of a pistol ball. More disturbingly, it lives on a slimy substance not unlike male sperm which has formed somehow in the jar. The creature grows ever more hideous, its body large as an oak apple and its legs thorny and long. By now the gluey deposit is half way up the glass and would be higher still if the spider didn’t feed upon it. John hopes to be rid of the thing by throwing it out of the window, but the spider won’t let him; it hisses and spits, buzzes like a giant wasp and kicks its barbed feet against the glass. In truth, he’s unable to dispose of it because the bond has grown too strong, like that between monster and creator. He feels that he has made it what it is, a grotesque extension of himself that feeds upon his soul day after day in a perverse sort of Eucharist.
To whom can he turn? – not only about the spider but a whole range of guilty sins? He tries his friend Dr Marshall Stables, who is alarmed by what he hears and says it’s a job for a clergyman, perhaps their new incumbent, the Reverend Grimdike. So off he goes:
The Reverend Grimdike was the oldest twenty-eight that ever lived, and had he not been a man of the cloth, who wasn’t supposed to lie, nobody would have believed he was a year under fifty. His beard was already grey and, though he wore his own hair, that was grey too and he’d little of it to wear. The key to his youth was his eyes, which were large and blue, sparkling with tenderness and abundant humour. They were the first thing I noticed about him, and they put me instantly at ease.
I had come upon his huge frame on the doorstep of his rectory, lantern-in-hand. He was locked out and knocking on the door for his housekeeper. Having introduced myself, I was asked if I’d care to join him in a glass of port wine. On my accepting, he insisted on sealing the agreement with a handshake, as though we had just struck a deal that would make us both rich. He showed me next, as he made to knock again, an early sign of his clumsiness. Stepping backwards he caught his heel on the shoe-scraper, tripped and fell heavily on his belly. ‘Confound that implement, I’ve tripped again!’ he railed, as he flapped upon the ground, flailing the night air with the lantern’s yellow light. ‘It’s God’s way of punishing me for my sins,’ he said in his flat Yorkshire tones when he’d made it to his feet again. ‘I just wish he’d vary the punishment a bit more. Why can’t he pelt me with something now and again, or make me slip on a dog’s turd? Variety is the spice of life,’ he said, as his housekeeper admitted us at last.
‘Perhaps the easiest thing would be to stop sinning,’ I said, apropos my visit. I had followed him to his study, a large untidy room ruled by a heavy oak desk.
‘Would you have me live like a monk?’ he asked. ‘Even if you did, my friend, I’d still get up to no good – aye, even in my cell! Doesn’t the Devil find mischief for idle hands to do?’ He rubbed the crotch of his baggy black breeches and tapped his nose with his finger. ‘At least I’m honest, not like that sanctimonious old hypocrite Wesley, who preached here one December. What do you think his idle hands got up to when he travelled the country on his horse with a bible balanced on its neck?’ In the bare-faced cheek of his humour alone, he was indeed a remarkable man. Though I’d known him but a few minutes, I could have followed this goliard to the ends of the earth – or from Leeds to Bradford at least.
‘Here,’ said the Reverend, handing me a small glass of port which he’d poured from a bottle on the table. ‘Not enough to slake your thirst on but enough to warm the cockles, wherever they are.’
We sat down in the armchairs either side of the fire, the Reverend throwing a leg over the chair arm and sipping his port with unabashed enjoyment. I watched his full lips shiny with its colour, saw a droplet glisten like a ruby in his stiff grey beard. His mind was elsewhere, and when an owl hooted in the rectory garden it summoned him back from his thoughts. ‘So, young man…’ – he had called me young, though I was only a few months his junior – ‘…what can do for you?’
I was hesitant, embarrassed. ‘Now that I’m here, I’m not sure – I’m not sure that I was ever sure.’
The Reverend sniffed loudly and averted his face; he appeared to be listening for the owl again. ‘Something tells me we’re in for a long night,’ he said, turning his bright eyes upon me and smiling. ‘No matter. I have a funeral sermon to write but it can wait till the morrow.’
I thanked him for his kindness, adding pensively, ‘I don’t know where to begin.’
‘It cannot be easy when you’re not sure why you are here,’ he said, reaching his pipe from the mantel. Taking tobacco from a pouch in his coat pocket, he lit his pipe with a taper at the fire and was soon puffing contentedly. There was silence for over a minute; no sound at all save the crimping of the coals in the grate. At length he said, ‘Why not start by asking me if I believe in God? That always upsets the apple-cart.’
‘I took your belief for granted,’ I said, disquieted by his remark.
He gestured with his pipe. ‘Never take anything for granted. Things are rarely as they seem, nor are they usually simple – least not in my book.’
‘But you must believe in Him – you’re a clergyman. Why else would you have taken Holy vows?’
‘Why else indeed,’ he replied ambivalently, and puffed a while. ‘But don’t think I haven’t denied Him, because I have,’ he added suddenly, with eyes flashing. ‘Aye, enough times to damn me forever if He were wrathfully inclined, and we have one book out of two to suggest He’s precisely that.’ He smiled wryly. ‘But who in his right mind would accept the word of a gaggle of old Jews?’
When I asked him why, if such a sceptic, he persisted in his role, he answered assuredly, ‘Because I always come round to trusting again. There is always something to make me believe. I’m not talking about miracles – folk rising from the dead, blood changing to wine and so on – not miracles at all in the usual sense, but miracles of a sort nonetheless. I’m talking about the everyday miracles that we take for granted – the shape of a tree, the song of a bird, the flow of a brook through a meadow awash with flowers. They are just as profound in their way. And there is such a duality in things, an opposite for whatever we care to consider, tangible or otherwise. Most of all, my friend, there is evil to match good ounce for ounce – enough to change the balance frighteningly in its favour.’ He’d seen me nod at the talk of duality. ‘But it is you, not me, we are here to speak about – so speak on, the night, like me, is young.’
‘I can’t tell you everything,’ I began cautiously. ‘You’re a stranger to me.’
‘And you to me,’ he retorted swiftly, ‘but there’s nothing about myself I wouldn’t share with you this instant with a good heart. I am what I was, and I am what I am, take it or leave it.’
‘Maybe you’ve nothing to hide,’ I said.
The Reverend laughed, and blew out a cloud of smoke. ‘You think I have no vices? You think I’ve never done wrong? Let me tell you, my friend, I’ve had all the vices under the sun at one time or other, and I’ve done enough wrong to curl your hair. People can change, even wicked, troublesome men. I’m living proof of that phenomenon.’ He leaned forward in his chair. ‘You can tell me all, and I mean all. I promise you I’ll not be shocked.’
Telling him was easier than I’d thought, easier than it had been with Marshall. I told it all this time, right down to the last sordid detail. Out it all poured for half an hour or more, a long stream of poison that I almost saw before me on the patterned carpet, a pool of putrefaction between the Reverend’s feet and mine. Try as he would to disguise it, I could see he was affected by what he’d heard, some of which caused him to fidget and scratch his beard. And when he rose to weigh the magnitude of what I’d said he dropped his pipe unheeded on the hearth, smashing it in a dozen pieces. I saw him struggling to collect himself, give me the reassurance that I craved. Sweat shone on his neck and forehead, which he dabbed with his white pocket-handkerchief. ‘Yes,’ he said, breathing as though the room had grown suddenly hot, ‘there were one or two bits in there that got under the collar. I’m all right now,’ and he retook his seat by the fire, glanced briefly at his shattered pipe and forced a smile. ‘Out of all you’ve told me,’ he said, breathing hard, ’tis the spider that’s affected me the most. The thought of that creature feeding on your soul all these months, getting fatter and fatter, is just too foul to contemplate. What possessed you to…’ – he wiped his brow again – ‘…well yes, I know only too well what possessed you.’
‘I know what you think, that the Devil Himself has been at work.’
‘Yes I do,’ he said bluntly. ‘Not when you were young – childhood pranks are commonplace, and I’ve come across far worse examples that the ones you’ve just described. Most of us are cruel till we learn to be otherwise. Until recent months – until, as you rightly say, you arrived in this village – you had turned out decent enough. What has happened to you of late is something far more sinister. There’s no question about it, absolutely none – Old Nick is behind it all. First the vision of the witch and now this hideous spider – they are part of the plan to ensnare you, to make you one of His. Mark my words your enemy is still at hand. You must kill the creature, it’s the only way.’
‘Killing it won’t be easy,’ I said. ‘You know it’s strange when I think of it, but I’ve grown rather attached to it over the months. It’s been my friend up there in my lonely room.’
‘Yes, you will have grown attached,’ said the Reverend with a stern look. ‘The Devil has seen to that. But you must harden your heart against the creature, and squash it with your shoe. And it would be wise, when you’ve done that, to throw it, and all the contents of the jar on to the fire and let the flames do their cleansing. Pray to the Lord while you do it, ask Him to come into your heart and seek His forgiveness. Believe me, my friend, it’s the only way. I shall pray for you too. Between us, we ought to set things right again.’
‘And you really think, when the job is done, that I’ll be free?’
‘I’m certain. In fact, I’m so certain that I’d wager ten guineas on it. If I had ten guineas, that is,’ he added with a wink. ‘You must understand that I’m only a poor Christian priest.’
I didn’t have his certainty, and I’m not sure deep down he had it himself. I had one more question to ask: ‘Why me?’
‘That I cannot answer,’ said the rector frowning. ‘You were in a new part of the country, vulnerable perhaps. Something may have blown down your throat as you sat atop the coach that night as you travelled here for the first time. But alas, we cannot be certain. I ask only that you do as I say. Will you do what I’ve suggested? – will you kill the beast?’
I sighed and gave him my word. ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’
‘Do it tonight,’ he urged. ‘Tomorrow may be too late. Go home now and tread on it hard.’ And as the owl hooted twice more in quick succession I pledged my word a second time: the creature would be dead within the hour. ‘Listen for the clock striking ten,’ I told him as I rose, ‘and know by then it will be done.’
‘Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven,’ mumbled the Reverend, as I walked out the door.
So it was, that later that night in the quiet of my chamber I tipped the spider from its jar and killed it. Killing it was easier than I’d thought and I didn’t hesitate. I saw it there on the floor, waiting, and I tried not to catch its eye – it had one, I was sure. I used my foot to block the view, and then I used it to kill. Its bloated body burst like an over-ripe plum, squirting forth a profusion of dark malodorous blood, threaded with mustard-yellow. Scooping what was left on to a small shovel, and pouring on top the murky contents of the jar, I carried the burden downstairs and threw it on the parlour fire, reciting, as I did so, what I could remember of the twenty-third psalm. The spider’s remains, which had landed on the coals, crackled and spat then burst into flame. The frogspawn mass that had fed it lasted a while longer, bubbling and sizzling on the fire-back. Soon it was just the smell that remained, a smell of singed hair and sulphur that thickened the atmosphere and made it hard to breathe.
I backed away with my hand to my mouth, hearing as I did so the resonant sounding of the chimes. First the mantelpiece clock in its faded gilt, then the church clock tolling in the distance adding its confirmation: it was ten o’clock, and I knew the Reverend would be listening hard. I’d killed the beast as instructed, but had no change to report. Not yet, though change extraordinary was coming.
Miles Craven’s latest historical crime thriller, An Uncommon Attorney, is available from our Book Store in all eBook formats. To purchase a copy, click here:tinyurl.com/qylwxnq