If you haven’t read the previous parts of the story, reading this one first will spoil the mystery!
I spent much of the day in bed. A heavy chill had come over me following my rash behaviour and Helen insisted that I return to the guest room with a new fire, staying warm lest pneumonia develop. I must admit, not only did I feel physically frail but my mind was cramped with strange half-whispered thoughts I strained to capture and command. The broken ring still lay in my closed hand when some time near mid-day I fell into a deep sleep.
I awoke hours later still shivering. The ring in my hand was too painful to hold, so I put it in the glasses case that now held my smashed spectacles lying on the table near my bed. Then I began to pummel my memory to see if there was anything I had ever heard of that resembled this strange haunting – for by then, loath as I had been to admit it, I was sure that that was what it was. I have seen many awful and some terrible things in my life and heard accounts from many concerning their oppressed or troubled lives subject to some supernatural influence, and while I could think of no matter in which treasured objects like these had been removed and bewitched, that in no way reduced my certainty that poor Michael and his wife were living in a house subject to just some such influence.
Lying there weakly, I went back over what had occurred since I had arrived at the house. The key to the other bedroom had been discovered missing in the morning, and subsequently I had discovered it in the grass before going to bed. It was that night that I missed my spectacles, which were then found the following evening once again in the garden, and then this morning I had missed Michael’s ring, as I was now sure he had. But had he missed it before then? When I came to think of this I realised what should have earlier been so obvious. If Michael also knew of the absence of his wedding band, as he surely must have, it missing from his very hand, why had he not been out to search for it as I had, or had he already? That broken branch of holly had held its still-green leaves, wet with the dew as I had raised it from the ground. But the other end had too still been green, and the ground dry beneath it: the branch had been freshly torn from the hedge and before the dew had fallen. Michael had missed his ring before he had gone to bed, but after I had seen the married pair retire. No wonder he had slept so badly.
But that also meant that Michael had not found his ring and that he was probably still subject to that uncertainty through which he had blamed himself when I had first arrived, attributing two missing objects to his own forgetfulness.
However much Michael feared, then, it was unlikely that he feared that the band had been taken from his own hand – no, much rather that he had, in his distressed state, mislaid it, much as the key and, somehow, my glasses had been mislaid.
Nonetheless, I knew that his ring had disappeared last night, and re-appeared this morning, mangled and drainingly horrible and it had re-appeared further from the house than either of the other two mislaid objects.
Should any object disappear that night, then, it would reappear the next morning further even than the ring, in the shadows beneath the pines. So I concluded. The shivers returned and I fell back into the drowsing state of half-sleep that so exhausted me. After about an hour of this, Helen appeared. She brought me soup and some comforting words and I realised how morbid and strange my fevered wonderings had been. She was not troubled by any presence or power. The missing objects were merely confusing and a little nuisance. Michael too appeared and said that he had telephoned for the doctor to come the following day, as it was now rather later than I had imagined. He too was in admirable – enviable, even – spirits. I banished my speculations at once from my head.
Of course it was the foolish assurances of security that were the products of my fever. If I had remembered the ring lying in the case by my bedside I would have realised so immediately, and perhaps had and taken that opportunity to avoid the terrible consequences that would so shortly befall.
I really was ill. My exhausted body struggled to engage the chill through the night, sending me hot and then cold and then hot again. I lay, semi-conscious and only partly in control of my raving mind or flailing limbs. There was no comfort in the narrow bed, none in my tormented mind. The fears returned to me but Michael and Helen did not. I know I would have shouted out warnings and despairing prophecies like a possessed man had they been there to even chance believing me, but my mind told me that I was alone. Eventually sleep – that balm of the tortured, that gift to the suffering – sleep quietened my limbs and my lids and lips. I ceased to think, ceased to fear, and lay in a deep slumber.
Waking life burst upon me with violent motions. I was being shaken, hard, by the shoulders and sitting up in bed. My mind, still dim, registered that the fever had passed, and my thought was only obscured by the lethargy of sleep still swimming through my head. I was being shaken. It was Michael.
‘Clement! Clement! For God’s sake, man, wake up!’ My tired eyes seemed to notice that he was wearing a burgundy-dressing gown. Was it morning? I shook off Michael’s hands and stretched my arms, trying to slough off the torpor and the ache of sleep. But poor Michael’s next words brought me abruptly into the cruel morning.
‘She’s gone, Clement. Helen has gone.’
I jumped up. Never for a moment had I considered that. I turned to Michael. His face was hollow, pale and empty. I prayed I was not awake.
‘Gone?’ I asked. ‘What do you mean? What has happened?’
Michael answered quickly. ‘She has gone. She came to bed with me last night and was there when I fell to sleep. I have just woken up and she is gone. She is not in the house.’
I threw on my clothes where they lay by the bed and dashed to the open door of the master. The bed was open on one side where Michael had plainly been sleeping and the other was unmarked. No-one had slept there. I went up to the bed and, fearing the worst, reached out a hand to feel the eiderdown where Helen should have lain. I shrank away from the cold before I could touch the bed. Michael came over;
‘It has grown colder,’ he said, calmly.
‘Michael,’ I said. ‘Forgive me. I should have told you immediately. I have your ring.’
‘You took it?’ He looked astounded.
‘No. I found it in the garden. It is in my room.’
We quickly returned and I showed him the twisted band.
‘Ugh! That was mine? It disgusts me! It…’ He took it from me. ‘What does this mean.
‘Michael,’ I said. ‘I found it beyond the lawn, in the trees. If whatever has taken these has also taken Helen, she must be there.’ Michael did not move. He held the ruined ring in his open hand and shivered visibly. His eyes were fixed on it lying there like a scar or an insult.
‘Your glasses,’ he said. ‘Smashed. The spoons, ruined, the locket destroyed… Our ring…’ To hear him say ‘Our ring…’ I felt the cold despair return to my bones. I could not move, although I knew we must. The fear of what might be was too great. ‘Our ring… ruined.’ He looked up. ‘And what of her?’
‘We must go,’ I said. ‘We may be wrong – there may be a chance – we must hurry.’ I took him by the elbow. ‘Come on, Michael.’
We went downstairs as we were, slippered and uncomfortable. The back door which Michael had opened before waking me stood ajar, and in poured a thick reeking cold driving mist. By the time we reached the door it had filled the room and swollen in a cloud to the stairs. Unearthly and dark, it distorted all the shapes around us and swallowed the noise of our feet as we ran across the frozen lawn. Michael tripped and slid and we found ourselves at the first of the terraces. As I took his arms to help him up I felt great violent shivers – of fear or cold I knew not. We blundered our way hopelessly between the hedges. We fought aside the scratching holly and trod into the deep shadow of the copse.
The mist was thicker – too thick to reveal the bole of the tree a foot before. We held hands like terrified children and plunged through the briars and the nettles and the ferns, regarding nothing. And suddenly the mist parted. We stood at the base of a low mound. On all sides the mist wreathed and tore and roiled madly. Overhead the mist glowed dully with the few weak rays of the sun and the ground was stony, rough, and an inch deep in rime. The rank grass and stones rose sharply. On top of the barrow – I realised that it was a barrow – lay Helen.
The ice was even thicker about her, but then I saw that she lay encased in white beneath even that. She lay in her wedding dress like a doll, motionless, colourless, colourless, lifeless. All around her, pendant and precious earrings dripped from low fingers, the pine branches bare and skeletal and possessing. There was something lively, crystalline, distant, ghostly – there was something that I immediately associated with the malevolent power of possessive spirits – simply about the arrangement of the best gems of a young wife on the black and broken splayed talons of the trees.
We did not dare breathe. How could our eyes belong to us – our breaths belong to us? Helen lay there, her self desecrated and broken like the dearest possession.
Michael stumbled forwards up the mound and fell to his knees in the ice beside his wife. He reached out to her face and touched it. Nothing moved.
For a moment I thought that he had frozen too. His outstretched fingers lay on her frail forehead. But his lips began to part.
‘She is dead.’
Any shred of hope was tangibly raked from the last crevices inside our frozen bodies. I know he too felt dragged inside out. He had lost the very power to own – to possess – anything.
With a shrieking crash, ice fell from the trees. The beaded pendants were caught and smothered. A shudder passed through the ground under our feet. Helen’s eyes opened.
What had happened in that place that the most precious things risked such evil destruction? We left the house with all our questions unanswered. Michael carried his wife away from the barrow barely breathing. He had no desire to discover why. We left immediately with the doctor, taking nothing but our loves. All through our desperate journey I wondered, as I still wonder, had Helen herself been no more to some awful unknown monster than the trifles and petty possessions taken piecemeal over decades, or longer, from those that lived in that house? A clock, a bent flute, a torn bag of coins, an old book. All found lying in the ice around her on the barrow. Was she just such a possession owned and envied, snatched away? And had she been snatched back again, or had some deeper change taken place? I left without anything I had brought. And in some deep hidden part of my soul I knew there was a seed of fear. Never had I so keenly felt and feared all the risk of keeping something close.