Yes, what fun it was. We each wrote a chapter, including me. I got the last one, so you'll have to guess what went before. The boys' contributions were great.
Jakob looked to left and right as he emerged from his cottage. He pulled his greatcoat around him, noticing the biting cold and a strange stillness that seemed to pervade not just the house and the garden, but even the birds, that at this time of the evening were usually making their evening calls to each other among the fruit trees. Not just from the fruit trees that Jakob tended, but also from the tall firs beyond the wall. On any other evening, these firs formed not only a wall that mysteriously sheltered the house from the world without, but also a wall of sound, of all kinds of different whistles and warbles. As a young man, Jakob had spent many an evening listening to them, at the end of a day’s work, drinking in all the weight of communication between these hundreds of small creatures, hidden in the branches of this little wood.
Now there was nothing. Not a sound. If communication there was, it was of a different kind. Between this world and another world, Jakob reckoned, as a sudden shiver traveled down his neck. He fastened up the last buttons of his overcoat and began to make his way down to the potting shed at the far end of the long garden, behind fruit trees, against the high stone wall. As he moved closer to the potting shed he noticed that although no noise came from the firs, they seemed to be moving, swaying as if in a breeze. And yet the air was still. Cold, and very, very still.
He wrenched opened the door of the shed easily, despite the padlock. He was an old man, but had lost none of his strength. There was a keyhole in the old door, but the key had been lost, long ago. Inside the shed there were old woolen blankets on the floor in a heap. Jakob kicked the blankets, attempting to clear his way, and his boot made a dull thud. There was, he deduced, something hidden under them.
His heart began to race. After the tragedy of Gregor, only the other day, when the police had come screeching in with all their distressing sound and fury and taken Andre away in a grim police van, he was already fearing the worst. He had always known that there was something amiss with Andre and he had had his suspicions about the maid who left the Cragthorpe’s employment at the time of the boy's birth. She had been a beautiful young girl – long, red hair and eyes of the deepest, purest blue; slim and energetic, so full of life. Just looking at her gave one joy. He used to like seeing her about her work; there was a lightness and freshness about her. Jakob half imagined that Wanda was a little resentful about her; that she even reproached him for liking the girl. But they had never spoken of it. And then when the young maid left so suddenly, they never spoke of her again. Jakob had noticed he was not the only one to admire the poor girl. Lord Cragthorpe himself seemed to ring for her a little too often.
All these thoughts from the past flitted through his imagination as he stood frozen before the pile of old woollen blankets. For some reason, the grey embers of memories of that pretty redhead, vanished sixteen years before, glowed red-hot again within him, as if someone blew upon them. He felt her presence very strongly. It frightened him so that his wizened old hands began to shake as he stooped to pull back the old cloth to see what lay beneath it.
And then came the moment of horror. And as the reality of what his hands were uncovering began to penetrate his terrified mind, his whole body began to heave with uncontrollable lurches of grief. He cried out in a loud voice : “Why? How can this be?”
For what the old man saw, kneeling on the damp, mud floor of that forgotten potting shed was more than any human soul could bear without falling into the black relief of insanity. As Jakob pulled back the brown, stained coverlets, he discovered the body of his master, covered with the man's own blood. And beside him, with arms entwined around in each other in a macabre embrace, their starched white frocks shot through with streaks of awful crimson, lay Lord Cragthorpe’s two devoted daughters.
As he wept aloud, Jakob spoke many words, uncontrollably, madly calling out for help, for explanation, for – in truth – he knew not what.
And then, suddenly, came the smell. It was a sweet smell, and it seemed to come from the old stained blankets that acted as a shroud for these three poor souls. He bent his head towards the cloth and held it to his nose. It was a sickly smell: sweet and oily. It made him feel nauseous. But it also brought to him to his senses.
At that precise moment, Jakob became aware of a figure behind him, at the door of the she. The figure cast something into the shed and, before he could turn properly and see who it was, the door slammed shut with a thud. Then he heard the key turn, and in a flash he knew that what had been thrown in had been a match. It only took a few seconds for the flames to engulf the blankets. Jakob leant against the wall of the shed. Clear from the flames, for the moment, but coughing in the smoke. Pressed against the wall of the shed, and with his mind beginning to slip into unconsciousness, he turned his head and saw something move on the other side of the small glass window. It was the stooped figure of his wife, Wanda, retreating towards the house. He was almost now at the end of all. He coughed and spluttered loudly, gripping the ledge, pressing against the wall, realizing that the flames were now about to engulf him too. And then a thought came to him from childhood: a thought, and a word. He could not say why or how; but perhaps just to fight off the awful despair towards which the sight of his wife was now pushing him, he rasped two words: “Jesus … mercy.”
From the top window of the tower of the Cragthorpe’s ancient house came a loud shriek from a woman looking down at her garden, and at the inferno that raged beyond the fruit trees. The woman was Lady Cragthorpe but her face was almost unrecognizable, so twisted was it with rage and fear and madness.
Jakob was by now already dead. Wanda, his wife, threw another lighted match through the letter box of the big house, locked the door with the mortice lock, and mounted her rickety old bicycle with a basket on the front. As she pedaled, she felt nothing, except the surge of heat from behind her that for a few hours yet would give a little heat to the cold of that very black night.
Ferdi McDermott, 29th Feb, 2007.