Night music, p.17
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       Night Music, p.17

           John Connolly
 

  “That’s right,” said Maggs. “Just an old rag. Clean, though. And old.”

  “I think you’ll find that it was more than a rag, Maggs. Did you notice any patterns on it, any writing or symbols?”

  “To be honest, I didn’t examine it that closely, but it seemed plain to me.”

  “Look harder. You must find that cloth. You say that the notebook was in the same box as the Sandton collection, but those volumes were undamaged when you first examined them, and it was only when you removed the notebook from its wrapping that the trouble started? You’re a careless man, Maggs. You’d better hope that you haven’t lost that cloth.”

  “Why? Tell me!”

  “I’d say it’s a shield of some sort, maybe a spell or a hex. Call it what you want, but it restrained whatever lived in the pages of that book, and now it’s free.”

  “What is? What’s free?”

  Eliza laughed, and the sound of it made Maggs tremble. It was the laugh of someone who found the suffering of others infinitely amusing.

  “I think you’ve gone and found yourself a djinn, Maggs,” said Eliza, “and a nasty one, too. The djinn is the book, and the book is the djinn. The problem for you is that all djinns have a purpose, and you’ll have to let this one run its course. You’ll know when it’s done with you. Then you find that cloth, you wrap up the book, and you bring it to me. And no games, Maggs: you make sure that it’s the same cloth. You try any trickery, and I’ll see you burn. Now get away from here. You’re a plague rat.”

  Maggs did as he was told. He wasn’t about to argue with Eliza Dunwidge, and he wanted to find that cloth. He wanted to find it more than anything else, maybe even more than Eliza wanted to find her precious atlas. He was so anxious to return home as quickly as possible that he hailed a cab, an extraordinary extravagance for one as parsimonious as he. On the way he considered what he’d been told. A djinn: could it be true? He knew nothing of such things beyond stories of lamps and wishes in the Thousand and One Nights. And what did Eliza mean by a “purpose”? As far as Maggs could tell, if this thing did have an aim, it was simply the defacing of books, and there were no books of his left to ruin. Surely, if Eliza was right, then it had done its worst already?

  Once back in his rooms, Maggs began throwing volumes aside, trying to recall where he’d put the cloth. He was sure that he’d left it on the table, but there was no sign of it now. Where was it? Where was the blasted thing?

  A movement caught his eye, and he saw the cloth moving toward the still warm ashes of the fire, as though propelled there by a breeze. He made a leap for it and caught it in the air. It seemed almost to wriggle in his fingers, but he clenched his fist and held it tight. He went to his bedroom and closed the door, fearful of the consequences if the cloth slipped from his grasp and ended up in the fireplace. His bedroom window was shut, because he wasn’t so much of a fool as to leave it open while he was out. He laid the cloth on the bed, placed the notebook on it, and folded the material around it. Now he needed some string to seal it, but there was none to hand. He knew that he had a ball of twine in the kitchen drawer, and—

  A sudden lassitude overcame him. He felt weary and nauseated. The bedroom swam before him. And the heat! God, he couldn’t remember ever being so warm. He looked at the notebook. The cloth covered it entirely. And he was tired, so very tired. . . .

  He stripped down to his sleeveless union suit, unbuttoning the top down to his waist to cool his back and chest, and lay on the bed. He reached for the window in order to open it and air the room, but his strength failed him at the last. He closed his eyes and was instantly asleep.

  Maggs dreamed that fleas were biting him. The little beggars were hopping all over him, nipping at his arms and his chest. He tried to brush them off, but his hands would not move. The pain grew deeper, and he felt like fangs were being driven deep into his flesh. No fleas inflicted bites like these.

  Maggs opened his eyes.

  A figure was squatting by his bed. It wore a dark, wet cloak of purple that flowed down from its head and over its body, congealing in damp waves upon the floor. But as Maggs’s vision cleared, he realized that he was looking not at a cloak but at folds of skinless flesh, like the offal dumped in a corner of a slaughterhouse after an animal has been butchered for its meat. On the front of its head, where its features should have been, were only two dark, lidless eyes, and below them the hint of a circular mouth, like a wound gouged with a blunt blade. A pair of thin arms, the exposed flesh hanging from the bones with a kind of solid viscosity, protruded not from its shoulders but from the front of its chest. One ended in a splayed claw that now lay upon Maggs’s naked torso, while the other tapered to form a single bony member, more like the leg of an insect than a digit. It terminated in a sharp nib, and it was this nib that was now cutting at Maggs’s belly, scratching at his skin, forming patterns that he could not see for blood but which he knew must surely resemble the writing in the notebook.

  The creature’s movements briefly ceased. It removed its nib from Maggs’s skin, and then, like a scribe dipping a nib in an inkwell, it dug at a pustule in its own flesh, and the wound streamed reddish-purple fluid. Once its member was dripping with the liquid, it returned to its work: writing, always writing.

  Only then did Maggs find the strength to scream.

  •  •  •

  He woke to darkness, lying on bloodstained sheets. He staggered from his bed, searching the shadows for any sign of his tormentor, but there was none. He stood before the mirror on his dresser. The creature might have been gone, but the evidence of its presence remained on Maggs’s torso. His face had been spared. That, at least, was something. His own calmness surprised him, but in recognizing it he realized it was all that stood between himself and insanity.

  He walked to the kitchen and found the twine. The notebook lay on the bedroom floor, its cover visible where a corner of the cloth had come away. He must have knocked it over during the night. As he reached for it, he felt that tiredness again, but this time he fought it. He took up the notebook, forced its twin silver locks back into place, and turned the dials. He had forgotten to do so earlier, for he had thought the lock less important than the hex. Perhaps that had been his mistake. He wrapped the book in the cloth and tied it so securely with string that a blade would have been needed to reveal its contents.

  When all was complete, he filled a bowl with water and washed the dried blood from his body. The lettering remained, though, tattooed on him by the entity at his bedside: the djinn, if that was what it truly was. He wondered if he would ever learn the meaning of the words on his body. He suspected not, and thought that might be for the best.

  Finally, he took the Underground back to Walham Greeen. This time, Eliza Dunwidge opened the door to him before he even managed to ring the bell. She was wearing a red robe, and her feet were concealed by yellow slippers.

  “So you found the cloth, then?” she said.

  “Yes, I found it.”

  He extended the notebook to her, and for a moment she appeared to doubt the wisdom of taking it. Then her hand closed upon it, and the volume vanished into the folds of her robe.

  “I don’t hear it no more. That’s good.”

  “What did you hear?” asked Maggs. “Tell me.”

  “I heard it calling your name, Maggsy. It wanted you. What did it do to you, in the end?”

  “It doesn’t matter,” said Maggs.

  “No,” said Eliza, “I expect it doesn’t.”

  “Will it come back?”

  “Not as long as it remains sealed in here, and I’m not likely to be letting it out.”

  “What will you do with it?”

  “Put it in the collection. Keep it safe, and far from careless hands.”

  “You’re sure it won’t return?”

  “Why should it?” She smiled. “I don’t believe that you’ll forget it, will you?”

  She extended a hand and touched the front of his shirt. Maggs looked down. H
e had sweated through the material, and beneath it could be glimpsed the letters of an unknown alphabet.

  “It’s left its mark on you, Maggsy,” she said. “Might even be that it’s done you a favor, because you believe now, don’t you? You understand that there’s books and more-than-books.”

  She leaned forward and whispered in Maggs’s ear.

  “So find me my book, Maggs. Find me the Atlas. . . .”

  III. MUD

  You get all kinds of mud, you know. People—city folk, mostly—dismiss it as one and the same. To them it’s just wet dirt, something that stains their shoes and their clothes. But to a farmer, or a gardener, it’s soil, not dirt, and things grow in soil. Flowers. Shrubs. Weeds.

  Beautiful things.

  Frightening things.

  •  •  •

  The criticism had begun to get to the General. One could see it on his face and in his bearing. It wore him down. There was a name, he told me, for what they were doing to him. “Revisionism,” they called it: changing history to suit themselves, damaging a man’s legacy for their own ends, shredding a reputation with a thousand cruel cuts. That was why he had decided to write down what really happened, he said, his shadow falling over me as I pruned the wisteria. It’s worth pruning wisteria in summer. I know there are those who don’t hold with summer pruning at all, but wisteria is a great plant to prune in July or early August. You train in your horizontals, shorten back the side shoots—although not as far as in winter, when you don’t want more than four buds from the main frame. Same with espalier apples, to form fruit buds. And you ought to prune walnuts and vines in late summer, too, because they’re bleeders, and I don’t like seeing sap leaking from cuts in February.

  So I listened to the General while I worked. His wife was up in London and didn’t show any sign of returning before the autumn. He probably shouldn’t have married her. It’s not for me to say, but I always thought that they were ill suited from the start. The General, if I’m being honest, wasn’t the wisest of men. He had a knighthood, but that doesn’t mean anything. Most folk called him Sir William, but to me he had always been the General, and I think that, in his heart, he preferred to be acknowledged by his rank. That was probably why the revisionism business hurt him so. He’d entered the army through the Oxford militia, commissioned as a second lieutenant. He didn’t train at Sandhurst or the Staff College, and he always felt that his peers looked down on him because of it. He was knighted in 1915, the same year he received his promotion to lieutenant general. They say that was as good as his war ever got, because after 1915 he had blood on his hands, but I’m no soldier or military historian. The official inquiry into Cambrai exonerated all of the formation commanders, and found fault with the subordinate officers and lower ranks. The General told me so, just like he told me that Barter was responsible for what happened at High Wood.

  But now “meddlers” and “German sympathizers” were trying to undermine England’s already fragile postwar morale by raising questions about the competence of the senior staff in the last conflict. The General wasn’t having any of it. He’d commenced writing a memoir, an attempt to set the record straight. It even had a title. It was to be called The Devils in the Woods. It was a play on words, said the General, a reference to the Battle of Delville Wood, which preceded that business with the tanks at High Wood. But the devils in the woods were also the Germans, the Huns. They were the real devils, according to the General, and it was only the South Africans who kept them at bay in Delville, losing four out of every five while doing it. They started out with more than 3,000 officers and men on July 14, 1916, and finished up four days later with just over 600 still standing. Then came High Wood, and another 4,500 men dead or wounded, and they blamed the General for that, or tried to.

  The General convinced Haig to dismiss Barter in the aftermath, but the whispers never really went away. They even found physical form in a man named Soter, a former soldier who had been at High Wood. Soter had come to the house, demanding to speak with the General. Thankfully the General wasn’t at home when he arrived, and Soter didn’t get farther than the gate. I made sure of that myself. Soter didn’t get rough or kick up, but he made it clear that he was unhappy with what he was hearing about the General’s proposed memoir. He told me that he’d lost friends at High Wood, good men who might still be alive if the General had done his job right. I informed him that I didn’t want to hear it, and sent him on his way, but I have to admit to feeling pity for the man. It was hard to see how anyone could have returned from that slaughter without being damaged in some way. Even the General was not unharmed by it, as I would come to learn.

  If anything, the story of Soter’s visit simply confirmed the General in his aim of writing his story of the war in order to silence the naysayers. He was doing it for England, he said, not for himself. Doubt was the enemy; doubt, and men like Soter.

  That was when the mud began to appear.

  •  •  •

  The first I knew of it was when the General called me to the house. I was up a ladder, pruning those espalier apples I mentioned earlier, when I heard him calling my name. I got there as fast as I could, and smelled it almost before I saw it. It had a nasty odor; most particular. As I said before, there’s all kinds of mud, some cleaner than others. This stank like animals had lived and died in it, bleeding and excreting at the last. It smelled like an abattoir yard. The mud itself was gray, and great wet clumps of it had been traipsed across the floorboards and up the stairs to the bedrooms, the imprints of a boot clear upon it. The General was red in the face, and howling blue murder about how Lady Jessie would have someone’s guts for it. He turned on me as soon as I appeared, accusing me of coming into the main house without permission, of failing to remove my footwear and destroying his home. He told me I’d be jailed for it, and I’d never work again, or some such nonsense. It took the housekeeper to calm him down and point out that I’d been over in the orchard, and she’d been watching me herself, and I’d never come near the house. I showed him my boots, which had barely a trace of soil upon them. We’d been having a dry summer, and the ground was hard. I was wishing for rain, but none had come.

  Well, as soon as the General recovered himself, and accepted that I hadn’t caused the damage, the question was raised as to who might be responsible and, more to the point, whether the individual in question might still be around. The General was a hunter, and had served in the Uganda protectorate against the Banyoro and the Nandi. He took his old Africa shotgun from the cabinet, and I picked up a stout walking stick. Together we searched every room in the house, but we found no trace of an intruder, and the mud petered out somewhere near the General’s bedroom, halfway along the upstairs hallway. As far as the General could tell, nothing had been touched and nothing taken, but it was a queer business. The footprints only went up, not down. I mean, I suppose that by the time whoever it was arrived upstairs, most of the mud had probably dropped off his boots, but I would have expected some traces of it to appear on the way down, too, certainly if they’d been that muddy to begin with.

  The General called the police, and a constable came along to take a statement. There wasn’t much that he could do except promise to keep an eye out for suspicious characters and advise the General to ensure that his doors and windows remained locked for the time being. I helped the housekeeper to clean up the mud, and filthy stuff it was. I wouldn’t have eaten anything that grew out of it, not even if it had been boiled to within an inch of disintegration.

  I offered to sleep in a chair outside that night, just in case our visitor tried to come back, but the General told me not to be silly. He liked his own company, the General. I think he was secretly glad that Lady Jessie had chosen to stay in London. I kept working in the garden until darkness fell, though, and I walked the housekeeper to her home, just in case.

  •  •  •

  That night, the General was woken by a frantic scratching at his bedroom door. He was still ha
lf-asleep when he opened it, and a white-and-brown form shot by his feet. It was the cat, Tiger, a big, lazy old beast that had once been the terror of every bird and small mammal within a square mile of the house, but now spent most of his time napping and swatting at flies. The General hadn’t seen him move so fast in years, but something had clearly frightened Tiger enough to cause him to relinquish his place in a basket at the foot of the stairs and make his way up to the General’s bedroom. Tiger climbed onto the headboard of the bed and stood against one of the posts, hissing at the open door, every hair on his body raised in fright.

  The General had brought his shotgun to bed with him, something Lady Jessie would never have permitted had she been present, not even if the whole German army had been threatening to invade through the rose garden and annex the vegetable patch. Now he grabbed the shotgun and called out a warning, but received no reply. That smell was back, though the stench of filthy, polluted mud, and he could hear movement in the darkness of the hallway, low against the wall. Even at the risk of exposing himself further, he turned on the lights.

  A rat was running along the carpet by the sideboard, but it was no ordinary rodent. This creature was bigger than the cat, its pelt caked with mud, its belly swollen with carrion. As it sensed the General’s approach, it raised itself on its hind legs and sniffed at the air. It had no fear of him, not even as he leveled the shotgun at it. In fact, just before he pulled the trigger, the General felt certain that the thing was about to launch itself at him. Then he fired, and the rat was no more. But even when I saw it the next day in its ruined state (for the General had let it have both barrels, leaving little of it but fur and regrets) I could tell what a monster it had been. The tail was enough of a gauge. It was as long as my forearm.

  But what I remember most about that day is the stink of mud. It had permeated the entire house. You couldn’t take a breath but that you smelled it, and you couldn’t put a bite in your mouth but that you tasted it. The carpet and floorboards kept their own memory of it, too, for even after all our efforts they retained the marks of footprints upon them. I feared that even a professional would be hard-pressed to do much about the damage. The carpets would, in all likelihood, have to be replaced, and the boards sanded down and varnished again. That might get rid of the smell, too, although it wasn’t any worse if you got down low and sniffed at the marks. It was just there, in the air, and every door and window left wide open failed to rid the house of it.

 

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