A residue remained, to poison the dreams.
|My story begins some dozen years ago, when a house and park in Northamptonshire were left to me by a Mr. William Stedman. He was quite unconnected to my family, but I had obliged him once—in a way which has no bearing on this tale—and as he had no heirs himself, he bequeathed the property to me. But the place has remained unoccupied these last ten years, and unless matters are considerably altered, I foresee every likelihood of its remaining in that condition.
Stedman was a man of leisure, as they say, whose hobby was Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama. In this field he stood high, though he never produced anything, and his magnum opus, "Studies in English Drama," lies still in MS among his papers at Wiltsthorpe Hall. That a man of his reputation should have failed to publish may cause puzzlement. But those scholars who have read it one and all express a singular distaste for it.
For though his putative subject is Drama, the author uses this only as a lens through which to examine his real, apparent interest, which is the Witch. Such plays as The Tempest of course come in for the closest and most sustained study, but there are extraordinary and subtle arguments for the subject's relevance to other plays of the period. Most incredibly, the author throws serious weight behind the proposition that Macbeth contains clues to an authentic and reliable ceremony of conjuration, and even hints that he himself has performed it and gained profit by it.
I learned all this, however, only after taking possession of the house. This was a surprisingly arduous process, for although it came furnished, the entire staff had resigned at the end of Mr. Stedman's tenure, and I was obliged to search for new servants at no little inconvenience, for I was told (after many fruitless inquiries) that no one in the district was likely to accept a position at the Hall. The state of the property had deteriorated as well, so that I had to split my time between the estate and my own enterprises in the City in order to effect the repair of both. It was nearly nine months before I could take up residence at Wiltsthorpe with anything like a relaxed attitude.
That relaxation would prove elusive, I found on arriving for my first proper weekend, when I was met with the news that half the servants had resigned, and that new servants would have to be hired. When I asked the cause of such a large number of resignations, my housekeeper put it down to "nerves and gossip." Mrs. Samson was a stout and tough-minded old bird, and it wasn't until later that I decided that her occasional references to the "disagreeableness" of the house reflected her own opinion as well as that of weaker vessels.
There was no denying that there was something dislikable about Wiltsthorpe Hall. Though it is built of bright brick and white marble throughout, it is suffused by a drabness that subtly oppresses the spirits over time. There is something ill-conceived, too, about the angles of the windows, for the light casts shadows against the walls in ways that suggest the hovering presence of foreign bodies under the ceilings and in the corners. More than once, while reading, I had to change my seat to escape the impression, cast by a silhouette, of some winged thing perched upon a bookcase behind, looming over my shoulder. What interplay of light and surface gave that silhouette its shape I could never determine.
It was the dreams, however, that gave me the greatest anxiety. I rarely passed a restful night at Wiltsthorpe, but these had only been marked by a sense of exhaustion upon waking, as though I had been ridden during the night by vivid but unremembered dreams. These, however, intensified and remained with me after waking once I began perusing the late owner's magnum opus.
A reading of Mr. Stedman's "Studies" had not been high on my list of priorities, and the fact is that my sense of obligation to my late benefactor had been waning ever since I took up residence at the Hall, and I only picked up his "Studies" with the thought that through it I might reacquire some esteem for the man after his bequest had proved so irksome.
As I say, it is its author's fascination with witchcraft—not only the history but its theory and practice—that most impresses about his "Studies," and he wrote with a detail and a relish that I found distasteful. How deeply it affected me I did not realize until the dreams began.
There were three that recurred, and I passed by stages from experiencing the first to experiencing the second. Only some months later did I begin to suffer the third.
The first was always very dim, both in experience and recollection, and it was only after it had returned to me some half a dozen times that I began to make out the details. There was a black stove and a boiling pot in a room that was very hot and close. Into this pot, at first, I saw someone casting objects while muttering. Much later, after I had dreamed it some number of times, I realized it was I myself casting each item into a bubbling stew while murmuring to myself. I was aware of the qualities of some of these—something feathered, something scaled, something bony and sharp, like the tip of a knife blade—without ever recognizing them. But as I worked in the dream, I felt myself horribly excited, and borne up by almost insufferable pangs of anticipation.
Two details only leaped out at me, and then only at the end, when this first recurrent dream began to give way to a second. The first was when I finally recognized one of the items that I handled in it. It was a finger, very small, hardly larger than a grub. Far from horror, I felt a kind of ecstasy as I rolled it between my own fingertips before casting it into the pot. The second detail came when, one day in search of Mrs. Samson, I wandered for the first time into the kitchen and recognized, instantly, the room and the stove and the pot from that dream.
The second dream encroached upon and overlapped the first, until it finally replaced it in my sleep. In it, I stood over a sleeping form, speaking certain syllables in a low voice and making certain signs in the air. The form in the bed turned restlessly under the coverlets. But not until the climax of my performance, when I pointed a stiff and unrelenting finger at it, did it sit up. I never saw the face in my dream, but the person leaned over the edge of the bed and heaved most violently at the floor. Onto the boards fell bits of metal, which in my dream I knew to be bright, sharp needles and broken bits of razor blades.
I never woke from that dream without a sense of horror and anger at my own performance. Yet in the dream I was warmed by a gloating satisfaction, and an eagerness to repeat whatever foul deed by which I had encompassed it.
The third dream was the most vivid and the worst, even from its first occurrence, in which little enough happened: I found myself standing in my library, bathed in the glow of a setting moon. And yet I felt myself terrified beyond all reason. So too with the second occurrence, though I was able to make out the shadows of the room a little more clearly. On each occurrence, though, the dream advanced, as did the shadows that closed about me. They became clearer the nearer they got, revealing wings and curving horns. One figure bore a noose, and finally one night I dreamed that this he threw about my throat as I tried to scream a recantation.
That was the last time I had the dream. The next morning, I fled to London, and have not been back to Wiltsthorpe since.
I have held back two pertinent details from my story.
The first is that two weeks before I vacated the Hall, at about the time of the onset of my third set of dreams, my housekeeper became violently ill and had to be removed to the hospital, where she died. At the inquest, it was shown that she had, for reasons unknown, ingested the contests of what was taken to be a sewing kit, including a full set of needles and a small pair of scissors, with fatal results.
The second is an explanation of how the property came to me. It happened after its former owner was discovered dead in his library. He had apparently hanged himself, though the means by which he accomplished this feat baffled the coroner and all official opinion.