Every year, my wife asks me to write her a short ghost story for Christmas, and this is this year's. I may have gone ... slightly outside my remit.
When I received the telegram from Sir Walter Hawthorne, I must confess I was surprised. We had had some short acquaintance in during the Great War, both serving on the staff of General, now Viscount, Byng, and as far as I had remembered we had shared little in common, despite our roles as medical professionals in a war that made a mockery of such.
There was one thing, however. Both of us had expressed an interest in so-called spiritualism - although as I recalled, his studies had taken a far more occult bent than my own more casual dabbling. It was to this his telegram alluded.
My dear Julian (our acquaintance had obviously meant more to him!)
I have reached a critical point in my studies and require some help to make the next stage a success. Please attend as soon as able.
I considered his request carefully, but having no patients in the immediate future, at least none that could not be put off. I packed my suitcases, left instructions for the housekeeper, and headed up into the wilder reaches of the Annapolis Valley.
As the motor car rattled northwards, I tried to remember what little I knew of Sir Walter. He was married, certainly, and I remember distinctly the impression that she was a foreigner of some kind, due to vague references he had made. More definite was his daughter - his face had lit up when he talked about her and he had even had shown me a wrinkled browning photograph of a stern looking girl in a floral dress.
The girl stuck in my memory because of a peculiarity of her features. She was not an ugly child, but a certain elongation of her face leant her eyes a strange look. I would have put it down to her foreign parentage if I had not seen mixed race children on my travels. If her mother was some form of foreigner, I had no idea from where she came.
The other oddity was the picture itself. It was the fashion in those days for the picture of a child to be fully in the picture, or else a close-up of the face. This was neither, and instead there was the upper half of the child in the lower half of the picture and an eternity of brown space above her head. This was more easily explained, however. Sir Walter had clearly taken the picture himself, and as an inexperienced amateur, had not framed her in it correctly.
Eventually the road gave way to a rutted track, and then a sharp right turn up a steep driveway brought me to Sir Walter’s abode. It was a handsome house of Georgian vintage, with high windows and a certain solidity of structure houses of that era possess. After passing dozens of farmsteads that could be described as little more than shacks, the house was a reassuring sight, and I at once pictured a roaring fireplace and a hearty meal.
When Sir Walter answered the door himself, something felt amiss. He was a man of considerable means, and therefore answering his own door must have been an eccentricity rather than a necessity. There didn’t appear to be any other staff around either.
As I stepped over the threshold, I was immediately hit by a wave of heat. Instead of the relief I expected, I almost staggered and gagged. This was not the heat of a fire - it was a wet, almost tangible thing, that stifled the air and filled it with a smell not unlike rotting fruit. As I stepped into the kitchen there seemed to be no source for this miasma. It was foul.
It even seemed to bother Sir Walter a little, and he mopped his brow as he led me towards an armchair. When we sat, I properly examined my old wartime companion for the first time.
He was a stooped, quiet man, who owed his title more to ancestral fortune than to any merit on his part. A shock of grey hair shot out from each temple, and to my astonishment I noticed he was wearing rubber boots. He was nervous, and avoided eye contact with me. Instead he removed his spectacles, repeatedly rubbing at them and putting them back. After a few minutes of this - he standing, I sitting, to add to the awkward atmosphere - he seemed to focus on me properly for the first time.
“Well, Julian, shall we begin?”
At this a certain degree of anger hit me. He had dragged me up to his house with little to no explanation, and now was expecting me to proceed in a matter I knew nothing about!
“Look, Sir Walter (he waved his hand at this as if the title meant little), I have driven a long way with little to no rest, and I believe the very least I am owed is an explanation for why I am here.”
He crumpled at that. He suddenly looked very old, and very tired. He indicated towards the mantle.
“I…” He stopped and composed himself. “I wish to see Cynthie again.”
On the mantle was a copy of the same photograph I had seen years before, beautifully framed and lined with black velvet.
I regretted my anger immediately. My own spiritualism had withered in the face of too many frauds, but obviously his had not, He had contacted me in the hopes of conversing with the dead.
“I’m terribly sorry, Walter. I had no idea.”
“She’s with her mother now.” he said, and there was a strange hint of malice in his voice as well as grief. “But with your help, I hope that tonight I will see her again.”
He had become distant again, so I stood and indicated that he should lead on.
He led me down into a cavernous basement. It was from here that I realised the smell was coming from, as some glutinous mixture of enzymes covered the entire floor. He indicated that I should put on another pair of rubber boots he had at the top of the stairs.
Down at the bottom the smell was almost intolerable. I had spoken to a handful of people who had the misfortune to inhale mustard gas and this was similar to how they described the sensation. It seemed to cling to my very clothes, and penetrated into the furthest reaches of my sinuses. There was something else to it now, something worse than rotting fruit. Something … burnt.
In the centre of the room a small platform was raised, and on it, arcane symbols had been carefully drawn out in chalk. I had seen some of them before, in books I dare not mention, but others were unfamiliar to me. I examined them for a few minutes, before Sir Walter busied me away from it.
“Nonono. You stand here.”
He indicated a spot on the far side of the cellar. Here I was far from both the platform and the curious array of equipment that Sir Walter went back to adjusting. He switched on an electric spotlight above the platform, and plunged the rest of the basement into pitch black.
“In a moment,” he cried out, “I will run a current through the substrate on the floor. Whatever you do, don’t touch it.”
I affirmed that I understood, and he flipped the switch. There was a buzzing of an enormously powerful generator, and around the platform a sickly glow, lit by flashes and sparks, spread from the liquid. It glowed, to the extent that I could see Sir Walter’s grim face by his machinery, concentrating intently on the centre of the room. This went on for what seemed like several minutes, and I was just about to yell that Sir Walter had better power down or risk burning out his equipment, movement caught my eye at the edge of the illumination.
Into the spotlight stepped Sir Walter’s daughter. Cynthie had grown into a young woman, with thick black hair cascading down her front. Her eyes were closed, and I thanked god in that moment that they were, for as she stepped forward again, the rest of her body came into view.
From the waist up she was normal, or at the very least, human. She was naked, and her long hair preserved her modesty. Her hands were clasped in front of her in a mockery of prayer. From the waist down, there was something … else. She had not come fully onto the platform yet, and I could only see a hint of a scaly blackness below her waist.
Two giant arachnid forelegs came out in front of her, and pulled her snake-like rear fully onto the platform. I shrieked in that moment, and she opened her eyes and stared at me curiously with fully human eyes. Below her waist her limbs moved again, and four insectile legs clasped the edges of the platform, supporting the bulk of what was behind. Dear God! No wonder he had taken the photograph in such a way!
She turned from me and looked at Sir Walter.
“Father.” she said, silky smooth and without a hint of affection.
“Cynthie!” he said, stepping forward.
The final horror came as a shadow detached itself from the wall behind me, and moved around the edge of the room with inhuman speed. I never saw it clearly, but as Sir Walter reached towards his daughter, something foul and insectile reached around and lifted him clear off the floor and spun him around.
A dozen eyes glittered in the darkness. Thus far I was rooted to the spot, but the final thing that sent me careening from that house of horrors was when the second creature spoke. It was a raspy, cooing noise, and infinitely horrible and alien, yet also undeniably female. Sir Walter screamed at what she said, and as I ran up the stairs there was a ragged, tearing noise and the screams died.
However, it was the words themselves that would keep me from sleep for countless nights to come. I would play them over and over again, and marvel at the nightmare I had narrowly escaped:
“Foolish Lover. Did you really think that someone else could pay the price for you?”