PodCastle 617: The Dead-Wagon

Show Notes

Rated R.


The Dead-Wagon

Greye La Spina

I

“Someone’s been chalking up the front door.” The speaker stepped off the terrace into the library through the open French window.

From his padded armchair Lord Melverson rose with an involuntary exclamation of startled dismay.

“Chalking the great door?” he echoed, an unmistakable tremor in his restrained voice. His aristocratic, clean-shaven old face showed pallid in the soft light of the shaded candles.

“Oh, nothing that can do any harm to the carving. Perhaps I am mistaken — it’s coming on dusk — but it seemed to be a great cross in red, chalked high up on the top panel of the door. You know — the Great Plague panel.”

“Good God!” ejaculated the older man weakly.

Young Dinsmore met his prospective father-in-law’s anxious eyes with a face that betrayed his astonishment. He could not avoid marveling at the reception of what certainly seemed, on the surface, a trifling matter.

To be sure, the wonderfully carved door that, with reinforcement of hand-wrought iron, guarded the entrance to Melverson Abbey was well worth any amount of care. Lord Melverson’s ill-concealed agitation would have been excusable had a tourist cut vandal initials on that admirable example of early carving. But to make such a fuss over a bit of red chalk that a servant could wipe off in a moment without injury to the panel — Kenneth felt slightly superior to such anxiety on the part of Arline’s father.

Lord Melverson steadied himself with one hand against the library table.

“Was there — did you notice — anything else — besides the cross?”

“Why, I don’t think there was anything else. Of course, I didn’t look particularly. I had no idea you’d be so — interested,” returned the young American.

“I think I’ll go out and take a look at it myself. You may have imagined you saw some things, in the dusk,” murmured Lord Melverson, half to himself.

“May I come?” inquired Dinsmore, vaguely disturbed at the very apparent discomposure of his usually imperturbable host.

Lord Melverson nodded. “I suppose you’ll have to hear the whole story sooner or later, anyway,” he acquiesced as he led the way.

His words set Kenneth’s heart to beating madly. They meant but one thing: Arline’s father was not averse to his suit. As for Arline, no one could be sure of such a little coquette. And yet — the young American could have sworn there was more than ordinary kindness in her eyes the day she smiled a confirmation of her father’s invitation to Melverson Abbey. It was that vague promise that had brought Kenneth Dinsmore from New York to England.

A moment later, the American was staring, with straining eyes that registered utter astonishment, at the famous carved door that formed the principal entrance to the abbey. He would have been willing to swear that no one could have approached that door without having been seen from the library windows; yet in the few seconds of time that had elapsed between his first and second observation of the panel, an addition had been made to the chalk marks.

The Melverson panels are well known in the annals of historic carvings. There is a large lower panel showing the Great Fire of London. Above this are six half-panels portraying important scenes in London’s history. And running across the very top is a large panel which shows a London street during the Great Plague of 1664.

This panel shows houses on either side of a narrow street yawning vacantly, great crosses upon their doors. Before one in the foreground is a rude wooden cart drawn by a lean nag and driven by a saturnine individual with leering face. This cart carries a gruesome load; it is piled high with bodies. Accounts vary oddly as to the number of bodies in the cart; earlier descriptions of the panel give a smaller number than the later ones, an item much speculated upon by connoisseurs of old carvings. The tout ensemble of the bas-relief greatly resembles the famous Hogarth picture of a similar scene.

Before this great door Kenneth stood, staring at a red-chalked legend traced across the rough surface of the carved figures on the upper panel. “God have mercy upon us!” it read. What did it mean? Who had managed to trace, unseen, those words of despairing supplication upon the old door?

And suddenly the young man’s wonderment was rudely disturbed. Lord Melverson lurched away from the great door like a drunken man, a groan forcing its way from between his parched lips. The old man’s hands had flown to his face, covering his eyes as though to shut out some horrid and unwelcome sight.

“Kenneth, you have heard the story! This is some thoughtless jest of yours! Tell me it is, boy! Tell me that your hand traced these fatal words!”

Dinsmore’s sympathy was keenly aroused by the old nobleman’s intense gravity and anxiety, but he was forced to deny the pitifully pleading accusation.

“Sorry, sir, but I found the red cross just as I told you. As for the writing below, I must admit — ”

“Ah! Then you did put that there? It was you who did it, then? Thank God! Thank God!”

“No, no, I hadn’t finished. I was only wondering how anyone could have slipped past us and have written this, unseen. I’m sure,” puzzled, “there was nothing here but the red cross when I told you about it first, sir.”

“Then you haven’t heard — no one has told you that old legend? The story of the Melverson curse?”

“This is the first I’ve heard of it, I assure you.”

“And you positively deny writing that, as a bit of a joke?”

“Come, sir, it’s not like you to accuse me of such a silly piece of cheap trickery,” Kenneth retorted, somewhat indignantly.

“Forgive me, boy. I — I should not have said that but — I am agitated. Will you tell me” — his voice grew tenser — “look closely, for God’s sake, Kenneth! — how many bodies are there in the wagon?”

Dinsmore could not help throwing a keen glance at his future father-in-law, who now stood with averted face, one hand shielding his eyes as though he dared not ascertain for himself that which he asked another in a voice so full of shrinking dread. Then the American stepped closer to the door and examined the upper panel closely, while the soft dusk closed down upon it.

“There are eleven bodies,” he said finally.

“Kenneth! Look carefully! More depends upon your reply than you can be aware. Are you sure there are only eleven?”

“There are only eleven, sir. I’m positive of it.”

“Don’t make a mistake, for pity’s sake!”

“Surely my eyesight hasn’t been seriously impaired since this morning, when I bagged my share of birds,” laughed the young man, in a vain effort to throw off the gloomy depression that seemed to have settled down upon him from the mere propinquity of the other.

“Thank God! Then there is still time,” murmured the owner of the abbey brokenly, drawing a deep, shivering sigh of relief. “Let us return to the house, my boy.” His voice had lost its usually light ironical inflection and had acquired a heaviness foreign to it.

Kenneth contracted his brows at Lord Melverson’s dragging steps. One would almost have thought the old man physically affected by what appeared to be a powerful shock.

Once back in the library, Lord Melverson collapsed into the nearest chair, his breath coming in short, forced jerks. Wordlessly he indicated the bell-pull dangling against the wall out of his reach.

Kenneth jerked the cord. After a moment, during which the young man hastily poured a glassful of water and carried it to his host, the butler came into the room.

At sight of his beloved master in such a condition of pitiful collapse, the gray-haired old servitor was galvanized into action. He flew across the room to the desk, opened a drawer, picked up a bottle, shook a tablet out into his hand, flew back.

He administered the medicine to his master, who sipped the water brought by Kenneth with a grateful smile that included his guest and his servant.

Jenning shook his head sadly, compressing his lips, as Lord Melverson leaned back exhausted in his chair, face grayish, lids drooping over weary eyes.

Kenneth touched the old servant’s arm to attract his attention. Then he tapped his left breast and lifted his eyebrows questioningly. An affirmative nod was his reply. Heart trouble! Brought on by the old gentleman’s agitation over a chalk mark on his front door! There was a mystery somewhere, and the very idea stimulated curiosity. And had not Lord Melverson said, “You will have to know, sooner or later”? Know what? What strange thing lay back of a red cross and a prayer to heaven, chalked upon the great Melverson portal?


II

Lord Melverson stirred ever so little and spoke with effort. “Send one of the men out to clean the upper panel of the front door, Jenning,” he ordered tonelessly.

Jenning threw up one hand to cover his horrified mouth and stifle an exclamation. His faded blue eyes peered at his master from under pale eyebrows as he stared with dreadful incredulity.

“It isn’t the red cross, m’lord? Oh, no, it cannot be the red cross?” he stammered.

The thrill of affection in that cracked old voice told a little something of how much his master meant to the old family retainer.

“It seems to be a cross, chalked in red,” admitted Melverson with patent reluctance, raising dull eyes to the staring ones fixed upon him with consternation.

“Oh, m’lord, not the red cross! And — was the warning there? Yes? Did you count them? How many were there?”

Terrible foreboding, shrinking reluctance, rang in that inquiry, so utterly strange and incomprehensible. Kenneth felt his blood congeal in his veins with the horrid mystery of it.

Lord Melverson and his retainer exchanged a significant glance that did not escape the young American’s attention. The answer to Jenning’s question was cryptic but not more so than the inquiry.

“The same as before, Jenning. That is all — as yet.”

Kenneth’s curiosity flamed up anew. What could that mean? Could Jenning have been inquiring how many bodies were in the cart? There would be eleven, of course. How could there be more, or less, when the wood-carver had made them eleven, for all time?

The old servant retired from the room, dragging one slow foot after the other as though he had suddenly aged more than his fast-whitening hairs warranted.

In his capacious armchair, fingers opening and closing nervously upon the polished leather that upholstered it, Lord Melverson leaned back wearily, his eyes wide open but fixed unseeingly upon the library walls with their great paintings in oil of bygone Melversons.

“Kenneth!” Lord Melverson sought his guest’s eyes with an expression of apology on his face that was painfully forced to the surface of the clouded atmosphere of dread and heaviness in which the old nobleman seemed steeped. “I presume you are wondering over the to-do about a chalk mark on my door? It — it made me think — of an old family tradition — and disturbed me a little.

“There’s just one thing I want to ask you, my boy. Arline must not know that I had this little attack of heart-failure. I’ve kept it from her for years and I don’t want her disturbed about me. And Kenneth, Arline has never been told the family legend. Don’t tell her about the cross — the chalk marks on my door.” His voice was intensely grave. “I have your word, my boy? Thank you. Some day I’ll tell you the whole story.”

“Has it anything to do with the quaint verse in raised gilded letters over the fireplace in the dining-hall?” questioned Kenneth.

He quoted it:

“Melverson’s first-born will die early away;

Melverson’s daughters will wed in gray;

Melverson’s curse must Melverson pay,

Or Melverson Abbey will ownerless stay.”

“Sounds like doggerel, doesn’t it, lad? Well, that’s the ancient curse. Foolish? Perhaps it is — perhaps it is. Yet — I am a second son myself; my brother Guy died before his majority.”

“Coincidence, don’t you think, sir?”

Lord Melverson smiled wryly, unutterable weariness in his old eyes. “Possibly — but a chain of coincidences, then. You — you don’t believe there could be anything in it, do you, Kenneth? Would you marry the daughter of a house with such a curse on it, knowing that it was part of your wife’s dowry? Knowing that your first-born son must die before his majority?”

The American laughed light-heartedly.

“I don’t think I’d care to answer such a suppositious question, sir. I can’t admit such a possibility. I’m far too matter-of-fact, you see.”

“But would you?” persistently, doggedly.

“I don’t believe a word of it,” sturdily. “It’s just one of those foolish superstitions that people have permitted to influence them from time immemorial. I refuse to credit it.”

Did Kenneth imagine it, or did Lord Melverson heave a deep, carefully repressed sigh of relief?

“Hardly worth while to go over the old tradition, is it?” he asked eagerly. “You wouldn’t believe it, anyway. And probably it is just superstition, as you say. Ring for Jenning again, will you? Or — do you want to lend me your arm, my boy? I — I feel a bit shaky yet. I rather think bed will be the best place for me.”


III

After Kenneth had bidden Lord Melverson goodnight, he got out his pipe and sat by his window smoking. Tomorrow, he decided, he would try his fate; if he could only get Arline away where they could be alone. Little witch, how she managed always to have someone else around! Tomorrow he would know from her own lips whether or not he must return to America alone.

The clock struck midnight. Following close upon its cadences, a voice sounded on the still night, a voice raucous, grating, disagreeable. The words were indistinguishable and followed by a hard chuckle that was distinctly not expressive of mirth; far from it, the sound made Kenneth shake back his shoulders quickly in an instinctive effort to throw off the dismal effect of that laugh.

“Charming music!” observed he to himself, as he leaned from his window.

Wheels began to grate and crunch through the graveled road that led around the abbey. The full moon threw her clear light upon the space directly under Kenneth’s window. He could distinguish every object as distinctly, it seemed to him, as in broad daylight. He listened and watched, a strange tenseness upon him. It was as though he waited for something terrible which yet must be; some unknown peril that threatened vaguely but none the less dreadfully.

The noise of the wheels grew louder. Then came a cautious, scraping sound from the window of a room close at hand. Kenneth decided that it was Lord Melverson’s room. His host, hearing the horrid laughter that had been flung dismally upon the soft night air, had removed the screen from his window, the better to view the night visitor with the ugly chuckle.

The grinding of wheels grew louder. And then there slid into the full length of the moon a rude cart drawn by a lean, dappled nag and driven by a hunched-up individual who drew rein as the wagon came directly under Lord Melverson’s window.

From the shadow of his room, Kenneth stared, open-eyed. There was something intolerably appalling about that strange equipage and its hunched-up driver, something that set his teeth sharply on edge and lifted his hair stiffly on his head. He did not want to look, but something pushed him forward and he was obliged to.

With a quick motion of his head, the driver turned a saturnine face to the moon’s rays, revealing glittering eyes that shone with terrible, concentrated malignancy. The thinly curling lips parted. The cry Kenneth had heard a few minutes earlier rang — or rather, grated — on the American’s ear. This time the words were plainer; plainer to the ear, although not to the sense — for what sense could they have? he reasoned as he heard them.

“Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead!”

A stifled groan. That was Lord Melverson, thought Kenneth, straining his eyes to watch the strange scene below.

For suddenly there rose from out of the shadow of the abbey’s great gray walls two figures bearing between them a burden. They carried it to the cart and with an effort lifted it, to toss it carelessly upon the grisly contents of that horrid wagon — contents that Kenneth now noted for the first time with starting eyes and prickling skin. And as the white face of the body lay upturned to the moon, a terrible cry wailed out from Lord Melverson’s apartment, a cry of anguish and despair. For the moon’s light picked out the features of that dead so callously tossed upon the gruesome pile.

“Oh, Albert, Albert, my son, my son!”

Kenneth leaned from his window and peered toward that of his host. From above the sill protruded two clasped hands; between them lay the white head of the old man. Had he fainted? Or had he had another attack of heart-failure?

The driver in the roadway below chuckled malignantly, and pulled at his horse’s reins. The lean, dappled nag started up patiently in answer, and the cart passed slowly out of sight, wheels biting deep into the road-bed. And as it went out of sight among the deep shadows cast by the thickly wooded park, that harsh chuckle floated back again to the American’s ears, thrilling him with horror of that detestable individual.

The hypnotic influence of that malignant glance had so chained Kenneth to the spot that for the moment he could not go to the assistance of Lord Melverson. But he found that he had been anticipated; as he reached his door, Jenning was already disappearing into his host’s room. Kenneth retreated, unseen; perhaps he would do better to wait until he was called. It might well be that the drama he had seen enacted was not meant for his eyes and ears.

After all, had he seen or heard anything? Or was he the victim of a nightmare that had awakened him at its end? Kenneth shrugged his shoulders. He would know in the morning. Unless it rained hard in the meantime, the wheels of the cart would have left their mark on the gravel. If he had not dreamed, he would find the ruts made by those broad, ancient-looking wheels.

He could not sleep, however, until he heard Jenning leave his master’s room. Opening the door softly, he inquired how Lord Melverson was. The old servitor flung a suspicious glance at him.

“I heard him cry out,” explained Kenneth, seeing that the old man was averse to any explanation on his own side. “I hope it is nothing serious?”

“Nothing,” replied Jenning restrainedly. But Dinsmore could have sworn that bright tears glittered in the old retainer’s faded blue eyes and that the old mouth was compressed as though to hold back an outburst of powerful emotion.

Arline Melverson, her face slightly clouded, reported that her father had slept poorly the night before and would breakfast in his own room. She herself came down in riding-habit and vouchsafed the welcome information that she had ordered a horse saddled for Kenneth, if he cared to ride with her. Despite his desire to be alone with her, the American felt that he ought to remain at the abbey, where he might be of service to Lord Melverson. But inclination overpowered intuition, and after breakfast he got into riding-togs.

“I believe I’m still dreaming,” he thought to himself as he rode back to the abbey at lunchtime, his horse crowding against Arline’s as he reached happily over to touch her hand every little while. “Only this dream isn’t a nightmare.”

Instinctively his glance sought the graveled road where the dead-cart of the night before had, under his very eyes, ground its heavy wheels into the ground. The road was smooth and rutless. After all, then, he had dreamed and had undoubtedly been awakened by Lord Melverson’s cry as the old man fainted. The dream had been so vivid that Kenneth could hardly believe his eyes when he looked at the smooth roadway, but his new happiness soon chased his bewilderment away.

As the young people dismounted before the door, Jenning appeared upon the threshold. The old man’s lined face was turned almost with terror upon his young mistress. His lips worked as though he would speak but could not. His eyes sought the other man’s as if in supplication. “What’s the matter, Jenning?”

“Master Albert, Mr. Dinsmore! M’lord’s first-born son!”

“What is it?” Arline echoed. “Is my brother here?”

“I can’t tell her, sir,” the major-domo implored of Kenneth. “Take her to Lord Melverson, sir, I beg of you. He can tell her better than I.”

Kenneth did not take Arline to her father. The girl fled across the great hall as if whipped by a thousand fears. Kenneth turned to Jenning with a question in his eyes.

Down the old man’s face tears ran freely. His wrinkled hands worked nervously together. “He fell, sir. Something broke on his plane. He died last night, sir, a bit after midnight. The telegram came this morning, just after you and Miss Arline went.”

Kenneth, one hand pressed bewildered to his forehead, walked aimlessly through that house of sorrow. Albert Melverson had fallen from his plane and died, the previous night. Had that dream, that nightmare, been a warning? Had it perhaps been so vivid in Lord Melverson’s imagination that the scene had been telepathically reproduced before the American’s own eyes?

Although puzzled and disturbed beyond words, Kenneth realized that the matter must rest in abeyance until Lord Melverson should of his own free will explain it.

In the meantime there would be Arline to comfort, his sweetheart, who had just lost her dearly beloved and only brother.


IV

Two months had hardly passed after Albert’s death before Lord Melverson broached the subject of his daughter’s marriage.

“It’s this way, my boy. I’m an old man and far from well of late. I’d like to know that Arline was in safe keeping, Kenneth,” and he laid an affectionate hand on the young man’s shoulder.

Kenneth was deeply affected. “Thank you, sir. I promise you I shall do my utmost to make her happy.”

“I know you will. I want you to speak to Arline about an early wedding. Tell her I want to see her married before — before I have to leave. I have a very powerful reason that I cannot tell you, my boy, for Arline to marry soon. I want to live to see my grandson at her knee, lad. And unless you two marry soon, I shall be powerless to prevent — that is, I shall be unable to do something for you both that has been much in my mind of late. It is vital that you marry soon, Kenneth. More I cannot say.”

“You don’t need to say more. I’ll speak to Arline today. You understand, sir, that my only motive in not urging marriage upon her now has been your recent bereavement?”

“Of course. But Arline is too young, too volatile, to allow even such a loss to weigh permanently upon her spirits. I think she will yield to you, especially if you make it plain that I want it to be so.”

Kenneth sought Arline thoughtfully. Lord Melverson’s words impressed him almost painfully. There was much behind them, much that he realized he could not yet demand an explanation of. But the strength of Lord Melverson’s request made him surer when he asked Arline to set an early date for their marriage.

“I am ready if Father does not consider it disrespectful to Albert’s memory, Kenneth. You know, dear, we intended to marry soon, anyway. And I think Albert will be happier to know that I did not let his going matter. You understand, don’t you? Besides, I feel that he is here with us in the abbey, with Father and me.

“But there is one thing, dear, that I shall insist upon. I think too much of my brother to lay aside the light mourning that Father permitted me to wear instead of heavy black. So if you want me to marry you soon, dear, you must wed a bride in gray.”

Into Kenneth’s mind flashed one line of the Melverson curse:

“Melverson’s daughters will wed in gray.”

Could there be something in it, after all? Common sense answered scornfully: No!

Four months after Albert Melverson had fallen to his death, his sister Arline — gray-clad like a gentle dove — put her hand into that of Kenneth Dinsmore, while Lord Melverson, his lips twitching as he strove to maintain his composure, gave the bride away.

A honeymoon trip that consumed many months took the young people to America as well as to the Continent, as the groom could hardly wait to present his lovely young wife to his family. Then, pursuant to Lord Melverson’s wishes, the bridal pair returned to Melverson Abbey, that the future heir might be born under the ancestral roof.


V

Little Albert became the apple of his grandfather’s eye. The old gentleman spent hours watching the cradle the first few months of his grandson’s life, and then again other hours in fondly guiding the little fellow’s first steps.

But always in the background of this apparently ideally happy family lurked a black shadow. Jenning, his pale eyes full of foreboding, was always stealing terrified looks in secret at the panel of the great door. Kenneth grew almost to hate the poor old man, merely because he knew that Jenning believed implicitly in the family curse.

“Confound the man! He’ll bring it upon us by thinking about it,” growled the young father one morning as he looked out of the window of the breakfast room, where he had been eating a belated meal.

Little Albert, toddling with exaggerated precaution from his mother’s outstretched hands to those of his grandfather, happened to look up. He saw his father; laughed and crowed lustily. Dinsmore waved his hand.

“Go to it, young chap. You’ll be a great walker some day,” he called facetiously.

Lord Melverson looked around, a pleased smile on his face. Plainly, he agreed to the full with his son-in-law’s sentiments.

As usual, entered that black-garbed figure, the presentment of woe: Jenning. Into the center of the happy little circle he came, his eyes seeking the old nobleman’s.

“M’lord! Would your lordship please take a look?” stammered Jenning, his roving eyes going from the young father to the young mother, then back to the grandfather again, as if in an agony of uncertainty.

Lord Melverson straightened up slowly and carefully from his bent position over the side of a great wicker chair. He motioned Jenning silently ahead of him. The old butler retraced his footsteps, his master following close upon his heels. They disappeared around the corner of the building.

“Now, what on earth are they up to?” wondered Kenneth. His brow contracted. There had been something vaguely suspicious about Lord Melverson’s air. “I’ve half a mind to follow them.”

“Kenneth!” Arline’s cry was wrung agonizingly from her.

Kenneth whirled about quickly, but too late to do anything. The baby, toddling to his mother’s arms, missed a step, slipped, fell. The tender little head crashed against the granite coping at the edge of the terrace.

And even then Kenneth did not realize what it all meant. It was not until late that night that he suddenly understood that the Melverson curse was not silly tradition, but a terrible blight upon the happiness of the Melverson family, root and branch.

He had left Arline under the influence of a sleeping-potion. Her nerves had gone back on her after the day’s strain and the knowledge that her baby might not live out the night. A competent nurse and a skilled physician had taken over the case. Specialists were coming down from London as fast as a special train would bring them. Kenneth felt that his presence in the sick-room would be more hindrance than help.

He went down to the library where his father-in-law sat grimly, silently, expectantly, a strangely fixed expression of determination on his fine old face. Lord Melverson had drawn a handkerchief from his pocket. And then Kenneth suddenly knew, where before he had only imagined. For the old man’s fine cambric kerchief was streaked with red, red that the unhappy young father knew must have been wiped from the upper panel of the great door that very morning. The baby, Kenneth’s first-born son, was doomed.

“Why didn’t you tell me? You hid it from me,” he accused his wife’s father, bitterly.

“I thought I was doing it for the best, Kenneth,” the older man defended himself sadly.

“But if you had told me, I would never have left him alone for a single moment. I would have been beside him to have saved him when he fell.”

“You know that if he had not fallen, something else would have happened to him, something unforeseen.”

“Oh yes, I know, now, when it is too late. My little boy! My Arline’s first-born! The first-born of Melverson!” fiercely. “Why didn’t you tell me that the Melverson curse would follow my wife? That it would strike down her first-born boy?”

“And would that have deterred you from marrying Arline?” inquired Arline’s father, very gently. “You know it wouldn’t, Kenneth. I tried to put a hypothetical case to you once, but you replied that you refused to consider the mere possibility. What was I to do? I will confess that I have suffered, thinking that I should have insisted upon your reading the family records before you married Arline — then you could have decided for yourself.”

“Does Arline know?”

“No. I’ve shielded her from the knowledge, Kenneth.”

“I can’t forgive you for not letting me know. It might have saved Albert’s life. If Arline, too, had known — ”

“Why should I have told her something that would have cast a shadow over her young life, Kenneth? Are you reproaching me because I have tried to keep her happy?”

“Oh, Father, I didn’t mean to reproach you. I’m sorry. You must understand that I’m half mad with the pain of what’s happened, not only on account of the little fellow, but for Arline. Oh, if there were only some way of saving him! How I would bless the being who would tell me how to save him!”

Lord Melverson, still with that strange glow in his eyes, rose slowly to his feet.

“There is a way, I believe,” said he. “But don’t put too much stress on what may be but a groundless hope on my part. I have had an idea for some time that I shall put into expression tonight, Kenneth. I’ve been thinking it over since I felt that I had wronged you in not pressing home the reality of the Melverson curse. If my idea is a good one, our little Albert is saved. And not only he, but I too shall have broken the curse, rendered it impotent for ever.” His eyes shone with fervor.

“Is it anything I can do?” the young father begged.

“Nothing. Unless, perhaps, you want to read the old manuscript in my desk drawer. It tells why we Melversons have been cursed since the days of the Great Plague of 1664.

“Just before midnight, be in little Albert’s room. If he is no better when the clock strikes twelve, Kenneth — why, then, my plan will have been a poor one. But I shall have done all I can do; have given all that lies in my power to give, in my attempt to wipe out the wrong I have inadvertently done you.”

Kenneth pressed the hand outstretched to him.

“You’ve been a good husband to my girl, Kenneth, lad. You’ve made her happy. And, in case anything were to happen to me, will you tell Arline that I am perfectly contented if only our little one recovers? I want no vain regrets,” stressed Lord Melverson emphatically, as he released Kenneth’s hand and turned to leave the room.

“What could happen?”

“Oh, nothing. That is — you know I’ve had several severe heart attacks of late,” returned Arline’s father vaguely.


VI

Kenneth, alone, went to his father-in-law’s desk and drew out the stained and yellow manuscript. Sitting in a chair before the desk, he laid the ancient sheets before him and pored over the story of the Melverson curse. He thought it might take his mind off the tragedy slowly playing to a close in the hushed room upstairs.

Back in 1664, the then Lord Melverson fell madly in love with the charming daughter of a goldsmith. She was an only child, very lovely to look upon and as good as she was fair, and she dearly loved the rollicking young nobleman. But a Melverson of Melverson Abbey, though he could love, could not wed a child of the people. Charles Melverson pleaded with the lovely girl to elope with him, without the sanction of her church.

But the damsel, being of lofty soul, called her father and related all to him. Then she turned her fair shoulder indifferently upon her astonished and chagrined suitor and left him, while the goldsmith laughed saturninely in the would-be seducer’s face.

A Melverson was not one to let such a matter rest quietly, however, especially as he was deeply enamored of the lady. He sent pleading letters, threatening to take his own life. He attempted to force himself into the lady’s presence. At last, he met her one day as she returned from church, caught her up, and fled with her on his swift charger.

Still she remained obdurate, although love for him was eating her wounded heart. Receive him she must, but she continued to refuse him so little a favor as a single word.

Despairing of winning her by gentle means, Charles Melverson determined upon foul.

It was the terrible winter of 1664–5. The Black Death, sweeping through London and out into the countryside, was taking dreadful toll of lives. Hundreds of bodies were daily tumbled carelessly into the common trenches by hardened men who dared the horrors of the plague for the big pay offered those who played the part of grave-digger. And at the very moment when Melverson had arrived at his evil decision, the goldsmith staggered into the abbey grounds after a long search for his ravished daughter, to fall under the very window where she had retreated in the last stand for her maiden virtue.

Retainers without shouted at one another to beware the plague-stricken man. Their shouts distracted the maiden. She looked down and beheld her father dying, suffering the last throes of the dreaded pestilence.

Coldly and proudly she demanded freedom to go down to her dying parent. Melverson refused the request; in a flash of insight he knew what she would do with her liberty. She would fling herself desperately beside the dying man; she would hold his blackening body against her own warm young breast; she would deliberately drink in his plague-laden breath with her sweet, fresh lips.

Lifting fast-glazing eyes, the goldsmith saw his daughter, apparently clasped fast in her lover’s arms. How was he to have known that her frantic struggles had been in vain? With his last breath he cursed the Melversons, root and branch, lifting discolored hands to the brazen, glowing sky lowering upon him. Then, “And may the demon of the plague grant that I may come back as long as a Melverson draws breath, to steal away his first-born son!” he cried. With a groan, he died.

And then, thanks to the strange heart of woman, Charles Melverson unexpectedly won what he had believed lost to him for ever, for he could not have forced his will upon that orphaned and sorrowful maiden. The goldsmith’s daughter turned upon him limpid eyes that wept for him and for her father, too.

“It is too much to ask that you should suffer alone what my poor father has called down upon your house,” she said to him, with unexpected gentleness. “He would forgive you, could he know that I have been safe in your keeping. I must ask you, then, to take all I have to give, if by so doing you believe the shadow of the curse will be lightened — for you, at least.”

Touched to his very heart by her magnanimity, Charles Melverson released her from his arms, knelt at her feet, kissed her hand, and swore that until he could fetch her from the church, his lawful wedded wife, he would neither eat nor sleep.

But — the curse remained. Down through the centuries it had worked its evil way, and no one seemed to have found a way of eluding it. Upon the last pages of the old manuscript were noted, in differing chirography, the death dates of one Melverson after another, after each the terribly illuminating note: “First-born son. Died before his majority.”

And last of all, in the handwriting of Lord Melverson, was written the name of that Albert for whom Kenneth Dinsmore’s son had been named. Must another Albert follow that other so soon?


VII

Kenneth tossed the stained papers back into the drawer and shut them from sight. There was something sinister about them. He felt as if his very hands had been polluted by their touch. Then he glanced at the clock. It was on the point of striking midnight. He remembered Lord Melverson’s request, and ran quickly upstairs to his little dying son’s room.

Arline was already at the child’s side; she had wakened and would not be denied. Nurse and physician stood in the background, their faces showing plainly the hopelessness of the case.

On his little pillow, the poor baby drew short, painful gasps, little fists clenched against his breast. A few short moments, thought Kenneth, would determine his first-born’s life or death. And it would be death, unless Lord Melverson had discovered how to break the potency of the Melverson curse.

Torn between wife and child, the young father dared not hope, for fear his hope might be shattered. As for Arline, he saw that her eyes already registered despair; already she had, in anticipation, given up her child, her baby, her first-born.

What was that? The sound of heavy, broad-rimmed wheels crunching through the gravel of the roadway; the call of a mocking voice that set Kenneth’s teeth on edge with impotent fury.

He went unobtrusively to the window and looked out. After all, he could not be expected to stand by the bed, watching his little son die. And he had to see, at all costs, that nightmare dead-cart with its ghastly freight; he had to know whether or not he had dreamed it, or had seen it truly, on the night before Albert Melverson’s death.

Coming out of the shadows of the enveloping trees, rumbled the dead-wagon with its hunched-up driver. Kenneth’s hair rose with a prickling sensation on his scalp. He turned to glance back into the room. No, he was not dreaming; he had not dreamed before; it was real — as real as such a ghastly thing could well be.

On, on it came. And then the hateful driver lifted his malignant face to the full light of the moon. His challenging glance met the young father’s intent gaze with a scoffing, triumphant smile, a smile of satisfied hatred. The thin lips parted, and their grating cry fell another time upon the heavy silence of the night.

“Bring out your dead!”

As that ominous cry pounded against his ears, Kenneth Dinsmore heard yet another sound: it was the sharp explosion of a revolver.

He stared from the window with straining eyes. Useless to return to the baby’s bedside; would not those ghostly pall-bearers emerge from the shadows now, bearing with them the tiny body of his first-born?

They came. But they were carrying what seemed to be a heavy burden. That was no child’s tiny form they tossed with hideous upward grins upon the dead-cart.

“Kenneth! Come here!”

It was Arline’s voice, with a thrilling undertone of thankfulness in it that whirled Kenneth from the window to her side, all else forgotten.

“Look! He is breathing easier. Doctor, look! Tell me, doesn’t he seem better?”

Doctor and nurse exchanged mystified, incredulous glances. It was plain that neither had heard or seen anything out of the ordinary that night, but that the baby’s sudden turn for the better had astonished them both.

“I consider it little short of a miracle,” pronounced the medical man, after a short examination of the sleeping child. “Madam, your child will live. I congratulate you both.”

“Oh, I must tell Father, Kenneth. He will be so happy. Dear Father!”

The cold hand of certain knowledge squeezed Kenneth’s heart. “If anything should happen to me,” Lord Melverson had said. What did that revolver shot mean? What had meant that body the ghostly pall-bearers had carried to the dead-wagon?

A light tap came at the door. The nurse opened it, then turned and beckoned to Kenneth.

“He’s gone, Mr. Dinsmore. Break it to her easy, sir — but it’s proud of him she ought to be.” His voice trembled, broke. “Twas not the little master they carried away in the accursed dead-cart, thanks to him. I tried to stop him, sir; forgive me, I loved him! But he would make the sacrifice; he said it was worth trying. And so — he — did — it. But — he’s broken the curse, sir, he’s broken the curse!”

About the Author

Greye La Spina

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Greye La Spina (1880–1969), née Bragg, was one of the most popular writers in the 1920s and early 1930s for Weird Tales, for which she wrote very creepy short stories and serialized four novels: Invaders from the Dark (1925), The Gargoyle (1925), Fettered (1926), and The Portal to Power (1930–1931).

Born to a Methodist minister in Wakefield, Massachusetts, she married in 1898 and had a daughter two years later; her husband died the following year. She remarried in 1910 to Robert La Spina, Barone di Savuto, who was descended from Russian aristocracy. She became a news photographer (one of the first women in the profession), was a typist for other writers, and became a master weaver, winning prizes for her tapestries and rugs.

Her writing career began early when she produced her own newspaper at the age of ten, publishing her poems and local gossip and selling copies to her neighbors. While still a teenager, she won a literary contest and saw her story published in Connecticut Magazine. Her first story in the supernatural area was a werewolf tale, “Wolf of the Steppes,” which she sent to Popular Magazine, a general interest pulp. When Street & Smith started a new pulp devoted to weird and supernatural fiction, her story was selected as the lead story of the first issue of Thrill Book (March 1, 1919). She wrote several more stories for the short-lived magazine, both under her own name and a pseudonym; her work appeared in the last issue as well. She wrote for many other magazines after that, both as Greye La Spina and Isra Putnam, including the prestigious Black Mask, All-Story, Action Stories, Ten-Story Book, and Weird Tales, where her career flourished. Her only book did not appear until 1960, when Arkham House published a hardcover edition of her werewolf novel, Invaders from the Dark.

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About the Narrator

Wilson Fowlie

Wilson Fowlie has been reading stories out loud since the age of four, and credits any talent he has in this area to his parents, who are both excellent at reading aloud.

He started narrating stories for more than just his own family in late 2008, when he answered a call for readers on the PodCastle forum. Since then, he has gone on to become PodCastle’s most prolific narrator, reading or appearing in over 30 episodes.

He’s also narrated for many other podcasts, including all of the other Escape Artists ’casts, StarShipSofa and other District of Wonder podcasts, Beam Me UpCast MacabreDunesteef Audio Fiction magazine and the Journey Into… podcast. He fits in all this narrating between his day job as a web developer in Vancouver, Canada, acting in local theatre productions and looking for voice acting jobs.

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