In this resumed post, Eagle’s torment continues; he’s plagued by his demons and his appetites, and Marshall’s pet lunatic seems to know it.
Two days passed quietly. I spent them at my desk working, choosing cases that were easy, devoid of blight or contention. Lady Calvert’s for example – my pocket-book stayed in my coat, vexing me much at the thought of its latest close-written page. The nights were better –just. I spent them with Marshall at the Bull, talking common issues and persiflage that brought me little joy. Life was uncomfortable, very nearly untenable. Something, perhaps everything, had to change. That changes were coming became evident one night as I walked home. From the churchyard there came towards me a strange white light. I saw it very plain and continued to do so as it danced at my feet, tricking out the cobbles in a jagged line two chains long. It was nothing of real import, just a length of shimmering moonshine, but I took it as an omen nonetheless.
And next day it happened, a worsening storm of accumulated incident. The weather had a gloomy tone, a raw dampness in the air, clouds heavy with shifting grey. It was another Sunday, his invite to ‘break the fast of the night with him’ bringing me to Marshall’s house at the appointed hour. I was on my guard, and needed to be, the moment I sat down to the plain fare of odds and ends. No sooner had I put the bread to my mouth than Phil assaulted me with a toasting fork. That I’d managed to duck meant nothing when he fell upon me armed with a plate of cold mutton. This he screwed to my face, plastering my features with Jack Sprat’s fat and lean before knocking me to the floor. I endured near a minute of his pummelling till Marshall rendered him senseless with a pan-lid.
‘That ought to hold him for a while,’ said the doctor breathlessly. ‘I’ll take him upstairs shortly and lock the door.’
‘You’ll have to get that pumpernickel caged!’ I said, as Marshall steered me to a chair. ‘Why do you let him roam free?’
‘For the same reason as I mentioned before – you are the only person that triggers this behaviour,’ replied Marshall, wiping the blood and grease from my face. ‘In fact, I’d come close to recommending his release.’
‘Promise me you won’t do that,’ I beseeched him. ‘I have enough reasons for not sleeping at night.’
‘My dear fellow, you have my word,’ he said, laughing.
I knew his word was good, and aside from Tom he was my one true friend in these parts. Why, then, did I not confide in him to the hilt? Wouldn’t the warmth of friendship soothe my pains? Truly it would, if my pains were made of ordinary stuff. Pains like mine were not easily explained, not even to the closest, most learned of friends. Besides, there was the nagging notion that they were not true pains at all, merely figments of an increasingly disordered mind. Perhaps I was mad – who but a madman would keep a spider in a jar? – a spider so fat, so odious, that I dared not look any more.
Clearly Phil read my torment; it jarred against his own search for sanity beneath his master’s roof. A kindly master, a kindly doctor – I reminded myself of Marshall’s vocation, the peculiar interest that had brought Phil into his home. He, more than anybody, would know about madness and its early signs. He was also a man of science, a virtuoso thinker who would have no truck with irrational thought. Those numerous shelves, heavy with volumes in every colour of binding, were proof alone of serious enquiry. But Marshall too was a spiritual man; his attendance at Church sign that he took his devotions seriously. If he believed in the love of God, he must, by the same token, believe in the evil of the Devil – evil with a capital D. I ventured to try him.
‘Pray tell me what you think of the power of evil,’ I said, as he poured me some hot gin and water and mixed in the sugar.
Placing the glass on the table, he stood considering a while. ‘If, by that,’ he said at last, ‘you mean do I think that evil exists in the world, and is able to get a hold on many men, I would have to say, yes: I think it exists, and I think it very powerful.’
‘And do you also believe,’ I said, taking heart from his answer, ‘that the Devil is the source of such evil, that he’s able to reach us through his agents?’
‘To be sure, these are weighty questions for a sober Sunday morning,’ said Marshall sitting down. ‘Would that you had raised them last evening when we found ourselves in our cups. They would have added spice to our rather dull chatter.’
‘Vex me not,’ I said, with an injured edge. ‘I’ve had much on my mind of late. But we stray from the issue – pray answer the point because, weighty or not, I am sorely in need of your opinion.’
‘My dear fellow, you are out of sorts,’ said Marshall, leaning forward earnestly. ‘As for your face, you really must let me bathe it. Phil’s had quite a meal out of you again.’
‘Forget my face,’ I said testily.
‘Forget your face?’ said Marshall, with wounded tenderness. ‘I shall never forget it, so long as I live. It’s the most beautiful face I have ever set eyes on.’ He stayed the air with his hand, adding with a clap, ‘There! ‘Tis said, once and no more, you have my word.’
I sighed with frustration. So the man loved as well as lusted after me. What new force was this conspiring against our friendship, stifling its growth with the sordid shadow of his longing? One last time I charged him to answer my question.
His reply was that of the cold rationalist, so common these days among his class of men. ‘Beware the evil of blind superstition,’ he began vehemently. ‘There’s no case yet of communing with the Devil that can’t be laid at its door. Nor am I dependent on mere books for my opinions.’ He gestured proudly to his many tomes, perhaps a thousand in all. ‘Mark it well, for there was an incident in this very village when I was a boy that ought to put pay to talk like that for good.’
With dramatic conviction he told me the story of Mary and Joe Parkin, an elderly couple whom a local butcher had accused of bewitching him. He and the mob he had mustered stripped them naked and dragged them to the beck where, with toes and thumbs bound together, they were repeatedly ducked. Though the couple were half drowned, the mob beat them with sticks until they were dead, completing their sport by putting them to bed together in the hovel they had shared. Marshall, who had gone with his surgeon father to view the poor wretches, had been haunted by their faces ever since. ‘I still see them in my dreams,’ he said, staring regretfully into space. ‘The look of pure terror that even death couldn’t wipe away…’ – he glanced at me sharply – ‘…it was mob justice, John, of the worst sort, the same that would surely turn on me should news of my preferences leak out. They are simple people that we live among, people fired by hysteria, by blind hatred of they know not what. Agents of the Devil indeed! – that old couple were as much in Lucifer’s pay as that sausage on your plate or that duck egg on mine!’
I nodded acknowledgment, keeping the reverent silence his story deserved. And to myself was kept the home truth Sir Walter had spun about the mob needing to be checked. But Marshall had said nothing of his view of religion, revealed or otherwise, or his motives for attending Church. What about true goodness via Jehovah? – what about true evil via Satan? Up to a point his theory was sound – the blind ignorance of the feax populi had much to answer for. And yet there were things that couldn’t be explained by the clever simplicity of science, by what a doubting Thomas of the new age might call the blindness of rationalism. Science, for example, could not explain my spider. Nor, among other things, could it solve the mystery of the Lighthazzles witch. I had seen her, I had felt her powers. Or had I? Perhaps it was all work and worry; perhaps I was over-wrought and the first signs had come that fateful night in the graveyard. What a night it had been, and ought not to have been; sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. I had gone too far in my perverse defiance, gone too far in provoking what I shouldn’t. I alone was to blame, and I didn’t like it. Seeking distraction, I gulped my gin to the bottom of the glass. When Marshall replenished it, I half hoped his grip would linger. He saw the glint in my eye and read its cause. ‘You’ll regret it I fear,’ he said swiftly.
‘We are coming to know each other very well,’ I said, glad he had broken the spell.
‘Is this a time for confidences?’ he asked jovially. ‘You forget what I know already of that streak within you. I accept that it’s only a streak and that your main taste lies elsewhere. For my sake it is a pity, but I know that’s the way of it. Agreed?’
‘Agreed,’ I said as we shook on it, ‘but that wasn’t the confidence I had in mind. As you rightly say, we have had that one out already. No, I speak of another matter I keep close to my breast. Marshall, I shall ask you plainly – do you think that I am mad? Is there anything in my outward behaviour that has led you to consider me so? For if that be the case, I implore you to tell me.’
‘My dear John!’ exclaimed the doctor, ‘whatever put that notion into your head? A man as worldly as you, who questions life at every turn, must be sane.’
‘Must he?’ I was near to telling him the whole sorry tale, unloosening all the skeletons I had stowed in my cupboard. In the end I told him nothing new; I made do with his belief in my sanity, based though it was on outward appearances only.
Later, when I took my leave, I feigned the cheeriness I knew he preferred. ‘Adieu Marshall,’ I said, ‘it’s been another interesting morning.’ I cast a glance at the figure still lying on the rug. ‘I think you should work on him when he awakes,’ I said, giving Phil a gentle poke. ‘Try to convince him, in that bewitching …’ – I chose the word deliberately to irritate him – ‘…bedside manner of yours, that John Eagle is the sanest man alive, merely the sort who confines his eccentricity to coupling with married women old enough to be his mother.’
Marshall had laughed as a matter of course, but wasn’t sure if he should: he had sensed a joke that he hadn’t understood.
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