A Mother’s Gift
A long dagger of lightning split the sky somewhere beyond the forest.
Christopher cringed and stopped; with eyes squeezed shut and tight fists, he counted aloud. … 15 …16 …17 … Then the thunder broke – a rolling sound of anger cast upon Earth from the unforgiving heavens. Still at a safe distance, he thought. Not for long.
He hurried along the road, laboriously, clutching the leather briefcase to his chest, cursing the weather and his own weakness. Again, he hasn’t had the courage to stand his ground in front of Mr. Heath, the notary, his employer. What document could have been so important for its dispatch to suffer no delay on a night as wretched as this one?
Old Lord Harrington, gouty and frail, with one foot in the grave, had visited Mr. Heath two days before. The rumour was he’d changed his last will and testament again, this time in favour of his nephew, the young Viscount, who was leading a life of debauchery in London. Christopher didn’t care. He’d been told to reach Lord Harrington’s castle that very night and he was doing it.
Another spear of lightning made him stop and count. The thunder roared, with painful intensity, as if up there God was rolling some monstrous barrels.
When the rumble subsided, from the darkness behind him, Christopher heard the tinkling of a bell and a muffled clacking of hooves. He threw a scared glance over his shoulder, was met only by the darkness, and walked faster, ready to dive for a useless shelter among the low bushes that lined the road. A coach, it sounded like a coach.
All the old superstitions about the phantom coaches, all the stories he’d listened by the fire and secretly dreaded in the long dreary nights of winter, surged to his mind like unleashed demons. Death-coaches, his grandmother was calling them, the black wagons pulled by six headless horses and driven by a headless coachman, whose purpose was to gather the souls of the dead. Has this one come for him?
The first drops of rain splattered against his face.
Behind him, in the thick moving shadows, Christopher glimpsed a light’s dance. The next lightning revealed a huge carriage, moving swiftly. He began running.
The coach passed him in a moment then halted. Was it waiting for him? Its door opened slowly.
At least the coachman had a head. He did not speak, did not stir, but his head was there on his shoulders – a poorly reassuring find for Christopher.
Despite his terror, Christopher peered inside. In the farthest corner, he thought he could distinguish a shape, darker than the night.
“Who are you?” Christopher said, his voice faltering miserably.
The shape lifted an arm and beckoned to him, as if inviting him to get in.
“Are you going to Harrington Manor?”
His voice’s strange echo inside the carriage was his only answer. Yet, he was already holding the handle, he already had a foot on the first step.
He felt he should protest, but could not disobey. He knew he had to run away, but his legs were leaden. If only he had some gold on him – he remembered his grandmother had told him that gold could repel the dullahans, though little good did the gold crucifix do to her when her time came.
Shaking, he climbed inside, let himself fall clumsily on the seat; the coach set going immediately.
He dared not speak another word, he barely dared to breathe. The interior of the coach was giving out a smell of dust and earth. He squeezed himself in a corner and waited.
Where was he taken? The coach outstripped the wind and Christopher wondered if they were still on Earth, for the ride was smooth as if on air and he could not feel the road in his bones anymore.
Before he knew it, the coach had stopped again. Was it collecting another soul? Were they in Hell already? He peered outside through the velvet curtains and saw lights of windows, many lovely lighted windows. An inn. Thank God, he had reached civilisation again, he was back among humans.
He descended on wobbling legs, incapable of running as he thought he should. The storm was still gathering strength, with lighting bolts dancing their cruel criss-cross above the forest, but the clouds had poor tears.
A man with a friendly figure, pot-bellied, carrying a lantern, came out to greet him with open arms.
“Hunter’s Inn” was the place’s name and its appearance was warmly inviting.
“I cannot stay,” Christopher said quickly, thinking of his empty pockets and of his urgent errand. “Pray you, is this the road to Harrington Manor?”
“Just come and rest for a while, my young sir,” the innkeeper said with a gentle smile, “and wait the storm away. It should be gone in an hour or two. You’re not far from the castle. You’ll be there in no time…”
“I have to get there tonight,” Christopher protested, but weaklier now, peeking at the enticing lights in the windows.
“And so you shall, my young sir, and so you shall…”
Against his resolve, his heart was lulled into acceptance by a strange torpor. Yes, he thought, just for a little while. Anything was better than the black coach and the storm.
Another lightning lighted the forest and the sky’s fury rumbled in thunder. As if at a signal, the deluge started.
“Just for a little while,” he mumbled. He turned to the coach – maybe to offer thanks – but it was gone and behind him stood only the forest with its dark shadows.
He ran inside, following the innkeeper.
The room was large but almost empty, and lighted only by a lively fire.
A lady was seated at a table next to the hearth and beyond her there was a woman, holding a baby on her lap. The baby was playing and cooing in the content carefree way that childhood only still retains.
The lady was young, yet her eyes had an air of melancholy and her gestures a mellowness that added much age to her fresh features. She smiled to Christopher as he came in, watching him with great benevolence. Her smile soothed and reassured him, like only his grandmother’s did when she was still alive.
“How you resemble my long lost son,” she said, the gentleness in her voice tinged with an overwhelming sadness. “Come, sit with me.”
He obeyed willingly, laying his briefcase on the table in between them.
“Where are you travelling on such a pitiless night?” the woman asked.
Christopher told her eagerly about his errand.
She went on questioning him about his early life, and Christopher obliged her gladly, feeling as if he’d known her for a long time. And every time he mentioned his grandmother, the lady’s eyes glistened with tears, and for every hardship he recalled for her, her face shadowed with a deep compassion.
He spoke with an ease of which he wouldn’t have imagined himself capable, after all these years when – except for his poor grandmother – he’d only encountered mean and petty people.
She ordered food for him and wine, and when they arrived and Christopher started eating without hiding his hunger, she said,
“This Lord Harrington – have you met him?”
She seemed to be immensely relieved.
“My darling boy,” she said. “Lord Harrington used to be an old friend of mine. Oh, don’t be surprised. Indeed, we have been lovers when I was very young. From this unlucky union two children were born, two twin boys. He wanted to know nothing of us and later he thought of us as a danger to his good name and fortune. Twenty-three years ago, when you were only eight month old…
Christopher’s eyes widened in disbelief. How could she know his age?
“No, my child,” the lady said, as if to soothe his unease, then smiled. Over the table she reached and took his hand (how cold her small hand was despite the fire) and said, “Do you have a ring, Christopher? A ring with a blue lapis lazuli stone, cut at an odd angle, as if something was missing from it?”
He gasped in surprise. Indeed, he had it – it was hanging on a tiny string at his neck – his dearest and most mysterious possession. How could this woman know about it? Without a word, he took it out of his shirt.
The lady nodded and showed him her hand. On the ring finger she wore the stone cut to match the one Christopher had, to form a perfect circle if brought together.
“Twenty-three years ago,” she continued, her voice so low that Christopher had to strain his hearing to distinguish her words, “Lord Harrington called upon us to join him at his manor, pretending his intentions were to repair his mistake and make me his wife. We were commanded to stop at this inn and wait for his instructions. Twenty-three years ago, on this very night, he came here in bad faith and with the worst of intentions.”
She paused, as if to draw her breath and strengthen herself for what was to follow.
“His behaviour was of an indescribable violence. He came alone, and he, alone, with his bare hands, murdered your brother.”
Christopher winced. He looked at the nurse and the happily cooing baby, wondering why he had assumed that it was the lady’s child.
“I could not do anything,” she continued, a deep sadness hardening her features. “Your grandmother escaped with you, and hid you from the guilty fear with which he must’ve looked for you for years to come.”
Her voice faded and for a long while she sat in a strange reverie. Christopher respected her silence despite the tumult his mind struggling to escape in innumerable questions.
“You must have this ring, my son,” she said finally. “It is yours now. Guard it well. You’ll have a use for it very soon. Now rest, my child, you can accomplish your errand tomorrow…”
His heart fluttered, almost painfully. What was he to understand of this? This young heartbroken woman, how could she be the mother he’d never known? His mind was spinning, he could hardly concentrate. He’d have to speak more to her. In the morning, yes. He took another sip of the strong wine. Yes, she was right, he didn’t have to get there that night; he could do it the next day. No one could blame him for a little delay on a night like that. How well he was there, how warm, his stomach quieted for once. He rested his head on the table, in the cradle of his forearms, and closed his eyes. A small hand came to stroke his hair, the fire crackled, the baby cooed. He abandoned himself to sleep.
A bird, cooing its morning song, awoke Christopher. He opened his eyes and looked around, his mind struggling to understand the discrepancy between what he remembered and what he saw. He was in an odd clearing, all darkened, and had slept on a tree trunk. No wonder he was so stiff. He rubbed his eyes. Where was the welcoming inn where he had spent the evening with the kind lady? He stood up, walked a few steps, went to touch with a shaking hand a darkened wall – a few charred beams were all that remained from the building that had stood there the night before. Dazed, he turned, his eyes wandering aimlessly. Had it all burned down in a night? Hit by the lightning, maybe? Could he have dreamt everything? He saw the hearth then, by which they had talked, its shell of soot covered stones still standing whole. Inside it, the remnants of the fire still flickered, and on the incandescent coals he noticed his burnt briefcase. With a cry, he jumped to its rescue but it was too late; little remained of it and nothing of Lord Harrington’s new will, only a charred paper that crumbled under his fingers. Surrendering to despair, he dropped to his knees in front of the hearth. What was he to do now?
After a moment’s hesitation, he started looking around him, searching for the littlest of signs to show him that he hadn’t gone completely mad. What was there to find among those desolate ruins? Yet, something caught his attention, a whiter shade amidst the soot. With blood pounding deafeningly in his ears, he started rummaging through fallen leaves, digging the soil with his nails. When he removed enough earth, he stopped and fell back, dazed. The criminal had left them there to burn. No fear came to grip his heart, only a devastating outrage and, when its waves died, an overwhelming peace.
Three skeletons lay there, one of which was a child’s. He reached out with a trembling hand and gently stroked their dried bones. One hand was coming out of the earth and on it, there was ring with a blue stone strikingly similar to the one hanging around his neck. He took the skeletal hand in his, very lightly, as to not shatter it to pieces, and waited, longing to feel it caressing his head one more time. Then he took the ring from his mother’s finger and put it on the string next to the other half.
Old “Hunter’s Inn” in the Norwood forest had burned down twenty-three years before the very night Christopher spent there as a guest. From it, only a few ruins remained, which nobody dared to touch, nor even come close, especially at night. Voices were heard from there and, sometimes, lights were seen, dancing in ghostly windows, but no peasants approached the place for fear of its ethereal inhabitants.
Lord Harrington died the same morning. For him, the hell wain has come after all. In his will – the one he had meant to destroy – tormented by guilt, he was admitting to his triple crime; he was recognising Christopher as his son and sole heir and was leaving to him – if he were still alive - all his fortune, but only under the condition that Christopher would produce his mother’s ring as a proof of his identity.
Copyright © Vesper L. All rights reserved.