What horror stalks the garden at night?
|My dear Robert,
You know I am not in the habit of apologizing to servants or retainers. Nevertheless, when you are next at the Hall, you may expect from me some gruff words that resemble such. I am writing now that I may explain.
When you were here last it was to go over the terms of certain bequests I was making. One such term, attached to the Hall, was an absolute prohibition on the presence of any child under the age of majority inside the park. You queried this. In reply I believe I uttered an oath to the effect that you should leave my business to me.
It is the garden, in particular a certain triangle of it, that explains this prohibition. You know the place. In the crook between the north and east wings of the Hall stands the shabby remnant of a small hedge maze, itself walled off from the garden by a rampant wall of blackthorn and broom. You once asked why I allowed such a wild growth to fester. Then too I had for you words for which I must apologize.
I will begin to explain by recalling to you a tradition that Mary Allingham, the "witch of Grimpen," was extinguished at Kilgetty, though the historical fact is only that the sixth duke presided at her trial. I will also remind you that it was the disappearance of the seventh duke's young heir that caused the title and Hall to pass to my branch of the family.
My own father and grandfather made it a great point to keep the maze locked, and forbade me from approaching it. I remember once being caught too near it by my nurse, who shook me most violently and said if ever I wandered into its depths I would be absolutely lost and never heard from again—"no matter how loud ye cry," she said, words which made a lasting impression on me.
Only once, and at great provocation, did I ever penetrate the maze. First, however, I must describe what I had learned about it by then.
Among my great-grandfather's papers are extracts from a diary kept by his uncle, the seventh duke. I set out here my own fair copy of those passages that seem to me most pertinent.
July 27 Mary Allingham, reputed wise woman is to be ["examined" possibly; the seventh duke was only nine here when he wrote] tried in the morning. Father sits as one of the judges.
July 29 The witch hath somehow fled. Georges says he saw her cat darting into our park at dawn. Father threatened to whip him if he does not hold his tongue.
August 5 Much tumult in maze last night, and uprore [sic] indoors.
August 8 Three nights of great tumult within maze, as though a bear has got trapped inside. Georges confirr'd [sic] long with Father.
August 18 Father [remonstrated?] Georges at length—maze gate found swinging open. I overheard [Margery?] telling Mrs. Jenkins of a shadow slipping in and out of the maze, but she was [stifled?] when I was glimpsed.
August 22 A babe dead in the village, which we learned when a [deputation?] visited Father. All looked [frightened?] afterward. Father has quite forbidden me to stray from the house.
September 2 Another babe is dead. Father has ordered me to pack for London. I leave tomorrow.
I quote one passage from a single page, date much later:
May 6 I see that the blackthorns my late father caused to be planted across the face of the maze have come in magnificently. Old Georges takes great pride in them, but became quite stiff when I asked if it would be practicable to open the maze. He made much of the fact that my father had ordered the pathways within be planted with asafoetida as an influence against evil.
I will not quote the entries concerning the disappearance of the duke's young son, but only note that his grief and horror, which undoubtedly contributed to his early demise, are quite plain to read. Though at first it was presumed the child drowned in a recently dug well, the duke becomes morbidly concentrated on the fact that the gate to the maze had been found "swinging wide" the day the child vanished. He complains too of hallucinations—or so he takes them at first; his doubts on that score grow—of the voice of a child crying from out the maze in the nights that follow his son's disappearance.
I come now to my own experience with that part of the garden.
We had had a garden party there only a week before—a charming time until it became an occasion for distress and, finally, bereavement. I have never told anyone the sequel, and I charge you now to keep it to yourself as well.
My own bedroom overlooks the maze, and in fifteen years occupancy I had never once been disturbed by any commotion from it. But I was awakened one night shortly afterward by what I took to be the voice of a child crying out wordlessly. I tried shutting it out—there are many night creatures whose voices can uncannily mimic that of man—but was finally driven to open a window and look out.
There ought to have been little to see in the maze below, for the privets have completely closed in over the pathways. On this night, however, there was great agitation to be seen in the shrubbery, as of some heavy beast attempting to shove its way through, and again I heard a child calling in great terror. I immediately took to my heels outside.
The gate was as ever locked, but by the light of my lantern I saw fresh dirt beneath one of the blackthorns, as though a burrowing animal had tunneled its way in. I was both fearful and hopeful at this, for it would explain how the child I heard could have entered the maze. I instantly roused the gardener, and we got the key to the gate.
There seemed little prospect of becoming lost within. The maze is quite small, and we would be breaking branches as he pushed through. And yet almost immediately on glancing behind I found that I had lost Edwards. Worse, the flame in my lantern began to fail intermittently. The walls too had grown so close together that I found it impossible to tell if I were pushing along a pathway or through one of the hedges.
After a moment of panic, I endeavored to push in a straight line, thereby to break out or run into the brick wall of the Hall itself. This hope proved delusive—either I was walking in circles or some enchantment had bewildered my sense of direction, for I only ever pushed aside more branches. In my struggles I was further unnerved by the sobs of that terrified child, and still more by the rattle of something immense rending its way through the hedges. I was quite certain before long that some thing was actively on the hunt inside the maze with me, and more than once I cowered in place as I felt it push past.
I was nearly at my wits' end when I tripped onto my face. This was fortuitous, for between the roots of a hedge I saw the glimmer of the open gate.
But before I could attain it, something stepped between me and it. I beg you to believe me when I say that it was the leg and paw of an immense cat. You will insist I was baffled by the darkness, but I will maintain it had the girth and stamp of an elephant's foot. Certainly the hedge between us shivered and shook as though it would be uprooted.
I covered my head with my hands. When I looked up again—I know not how many minutes later—the way was clear, and on my stomach I bellied out. Though it had been blackness itself within the maze, and barely midnight when I entered, it was a bright and cloudless morning that I emerged into.
Edwards I found in his cottage, drunk, and I discharged him on the spot, for which he gave me copious thanks when next we met in the village.
The maze I shut again, though for the next week I continued to endure to the wails of some bereft infant echoing from within. Then silence closed over it.
Whatever dwells within that maze I believe had not the power to trap me there, as it may be trapped, only to confuse me as it is confused. But I am less sanguine about those that it preyed upon in the days of the sixth duke. For that reason, I will not suffer any child to approach nearer the maze than the foot of my own carriage drive.
You may remember the garden party in question. It was the day that the Haydon child went missing.
Co-winner of "SCREAMS!!!" for 3-20-21
Prompt: You can't find your way out.