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Thursday, January 19, 2006

MY BONES AND MY FLUTE by Edgar Mittelholzer

Were I to attempt to give a detailed day-to-day account of everything that happened to us and of the sensations we experienced during those two weeks we spent at Goed de Vries this record would probably begin to assume the proportions of TheGolden Bough. I shall have to limit myself, therefore, to narrating only those incidents I consider to be of outstanding significance and interest. This does not mean, however, that I shall fail in my duty as a chronicler and omit mention of vital details.

For instance, I may say at once that after the discovery of that mark on Mrs. Nevinson's ankle nothing more of an unusual or alarming nature took place on the night described in the foregoing pages. We went to bed soon after, and slept as well as might have been expected under the circumstances, and it was not until the following morning that Mrs. Nevinson complained of having had a strange nightmare. A nightmare, she declared, that was 'different'.

`I was in a small corial, and I was paddling it either up- or down-river - but I think it was up-river. And then for some reason I decided to land, so I steered the boat towards the lefthand bank - I'm sure it was the lefthand bank - and I got out at a place where there was a kind of opening in the bush. When I went ashore I found myself on a narrow track - and then something told me I wasn't alone. Ugh! I got a most shivery feeling. I sort of knew for certain I'd been brought to this spot for a definite purpose. I began to look around - and then I saw some creature - a greyish, furry thing with claws. It scurried past me, and I felt terribly frightened. I wanted to scream out. I began to run along the track into the jungle, not knowing where I was going, and as I ran I heard a grunting. scratching sound behind me, and I was certain something horrible was following me. Then what do you think? I heard a flute playing ahead of me, and I had a terribly strong inclination to follow the music. I just felt I had to find out who was playing the flute. I ran on along the path. And then the most horrible thing of all happened. I felt a bony hand grip my arm from behind, and a voice whispered in my ear. I can remember the words distinctly "No farther today." I felt I was going to faint - and then I woke up.'

None of us attempted to interpret this dream, though it seemed to disturb Jessie a great deal. When I was alone with her for a moment on the northern veranda, during the morning, she asked me in her naive manner if I thought there might be any meaning in the dream, and, somehow on this occasion, I could not bring myself to play the pompous savant. The expression on her face fanned alive in me one of those strong impulses I had been having of late to hold her and pet her. It was so strong on this particular instance that I had to ask myself whether it could be that I was falling in love.

I squeezed her arm and told her that personally I thought the dream nothing to bother about. 'After her experiences in the dining-room last night, is it any surprise that she had a nightmare?'

The mark on her mother's ankle had faded considerably overnight. When we examined it at breakfast it was a mere bluish-pinkish smudge, and by noon it had vanished entirely.

Naturally, its disappearance caused us to wonder greatly, but we did not discuss the matter at length. We had already reached the stage where wonders had begun to be accepted as mere features of the day's routine.

Lunch passed without incident, and after we had risen from the table we went out on to the northern veranda to laze until tea-time. We were four very tense people who tried to cover up our tenseness in desultory bursts of carefree conversation.

Outside, the day seemed so peaceful and greenly ingenuous. The river, like a black magic-mirror, reflected the bush on the opposite bank with such a faithful clarity that it almost appeared to have a quiet, smiling intelligence of its own which induced it to reproduce objects in its vicinity on pain of suffering some secret punishment if it failed. The saw-mill chugged away in unvaried monotony. Now and then there would be a clatter of boards or the clank of chains as logs were hauled up from the bank to be cut. Now and then the strident cackle of human laughter or a shout of merriment exploded on the hot air.

It was shortly after three o'clock that the new manifestation occured. I had finished writing up my diary and was doing some work at my easel when Jessie sprang up from her deck-chair, and her father stiffened in the Morris chair in which he was sitting. The book he had been making a pretense of reading dropped to the floor with a fluttering clop.

I got up at once, putting down my brush and palette on the stool.

I heard it coming from the river.

Jessie was hugging herself. She stood with her back to the veranda rail - leaning hard against the rail and biting her lower lip, staring before her, her face very pale.

In the hammock, Mrs. Nevinson sat up and looked around. 'What's wrong? Is it happening again?'

I flashed her a glance. 'What do you mean? Can't you hear it?'

She cocked her head and wrinkled her brows. 'No, I can't. I really can't say I hear anything like a flute.'

'Distantly. Listen again! Listen!' She tilted her head again, but again she said: 'No. Not even distantly. The saw-mill is the only sound I can hear.'

I could give her no more attention, for I noticed that her husband was preparing to rise. His hands were gripped tightly over the arms of the chair, and there was perspiration on his forehead. He kept his gaze on the door that opened into the dining-room, that trance-like look about him.

It was a repetition of the evening before. He tried to get out of the house, but I succeeded in stopping him. Both he and Jessie seemed exhausted after the ordeal. They sank down into chairs, breathing hard and with strained expressions.

Contrary to what her father had expected, Jessie did not see the apparition, but Mr. Nevinson told us: 'It's clear now. It's shifted from the corner of my eye and has come almost directly into my line of vision.'

After a silence Mrs. Nevinson asked: 'What is it like? Can't you describe it?'

He seemed reluctant to say anything, then, after a moment, shook his head and murmured: 'There's nothing human in this, Nell. The figure I saw was misshapen - more beast than man. It was upright and bore a slight resemblance to a human - but it had no features I could make out. It seemed to keep its head - if it can be called a head - slightly averted.' He shuddered and added: 'And its limbs were cloaked in a strange grey fur - though at one instant I was inclined to think it might have been soiled rags instead of fur. It was definitely nothing of this earth. Of that I haven't the faintest doubt.'

Listening to him, I could not help reflecting how utterly absurd his words would have sounded under different circumstances - what pitying scepticism would have stirred in me. Had I not had the events of the past few days as evidence that we were actually participants in a series of uncanny happenings, I should have wanted to laugh at him outright and tell him he had been reading too many of the ghost stories of M. R. James. The apparition he described could so easily have been one of the demon creatures of the late Professor James. . . `Misshapen - more beast than man. . . cloaked in a strange grey fur. . . ' Even his way of describing it had a touch of James about it. Why 'cloaked'? Why not 'covered with'? (It was not until later that afternoon, when having a quiet chat with him, that I discovered that his mode of expression himself had, indeed, been subconsciously influenced by M. R. James. The book he had been reading at the moment when the manifestation occurred was Ghost Stories of an Antiquary! He had brought up with him, he admitted, several volumes, fictional and otherwise, that treated of supernatural matters. 'In view of what had been happening before I got aboard the steamer, don't you think it's natural I should be intensely interested in every phase of the subject?' He smiled at me, though not without some discomfiture.

Jessie said that the flute had sounded this time right beside her - almost at her shoulder.

'The next time we hear it I'm sure I'm going to see this demon-thing Daddy is seeing. Heavens! But can't we do something to stop it!'

'Something like what?' her father asked her.

'Burn the manuscript - or, at least, try to burn it. It might drive away this old Dutchman and stop him from bothering us. I can't stand this much longer. I feel as if I'm going off my head. Something terrible will happen to me if I see that thing you say you've seen. I don't want to see it!' She began to sob, and her mother and I had to do what we could to calm her. She was trembling uncontrollably

Despite our excitement over Mr. Nevinson's description of the apparition and this outburst of Jessie's, I had by no means forgotten the new development which had attracted my notice when the manifestation began. As soon as Jessie had been calmed I tackled Mrs. Nevinson, doing my best not to sound like a police inspector, though I fear that this is exactly what I must have sounded like.

'Look here, Mrs. Nevvy,' I said, `there's a little point we've got to get straightened out. It's about this flute-playing. Are you sure you didn't hear the flute when we were hearing it a little while ago?'

She shook her head with emphasis. 'I never heard a single note. I purposely listened, but there was nothing at all. The only sounds I heard were the voices of the men over at the saw-mill and the engines of the saw-mill itself.'

Her husband leant forward in his chair and gave her a perplexed look. 'You didn't hear it, you say, Nell? But how can that be? You handled the manuscript last night, didn't you?'

'Of course I did. Don't ask me to explain it. I'm simply telling you I heard no flute-playing today. Since that awful shrieking business in my ear last night 1've heard nothing. In the dream I've told you about I did hear a flute - but certainly haven't heard anything remotely like a flute during my waking hours today.'

'It's most puzzling,' said Mr. Nevinson, though I could detect some relief in his manner. 'At least, I had assumed there would be some consistency in the trend of events.' He added this with such naive dismay that I had to smile. Mrs. Nevinson gave a cackle o£ laughter and said: 'You sound as though you want to scold Mynheer Vonrman, Ralph.'

Jessie, however, could see no humour in any of this. She said: 'I know what it is. It's because Mother tried to burn the manuscript. She's hit on the right thing, and she's driven off this demon or whatever it is that's plaguing us. And yet you won't try it, Daddy! I can't understand why you should be so stubborn. Where's the harm in trying?'

Her father fidgeted uncomfortably and told her: 'You appear to forget the unpleasant experience your mother underwent for attempting what she did. Would you care to chance the same thing?'

'And why not? It would be one nasty horror - and the whole thing would be over.'

Mrs. Nevinson shuddered and said: 'Well, to be honest, Jessie, I don't think you'd like it - even that once. Ugh! That awful furry-looking hand!'

Mr. Nevinson smiled. Much of his former composure had returned, and though there were still several harrowed lines on his face, I thought I could observe the setting in of a tolerance (to employ a medical term) to the present situation. It was as though the shock of this last manifestation had produced a reaction more favourable than unfavourable and his nervous system was attempting to adapt itself to the general strain of events.

'Are you so sure,' he said to Jessie, 'that if you tried this experiment it would result in bringing the whole thing to an end?'

'But nothing has happened to Mother today, has it?' she parried. `She says she couldn't hear the flute. Doesn't that prove that she must have succeeded in frightening off whatever it is that's troubling us - or at any rate creating some kind of protection of immunity against it!'

'It proves nothing, my dear girl. We can't go jumping to conclusions in such a reckless fashion. We must wait and see. FoR all we know, your mother may be in as great danger as we are, due to her rash act - even greater.'

Mrs. Nevinson paled a trifle. 'What do you mean by that, Ralph?'

'According to what you've told us, that dream of yours last night was pretty vivid, wasn't it? And it wasn't a very pleasant thing that happened to you.'

'But it was only a nightmare.'

'I know it was only a nightmare, Nell - but you yourself had to admit that it was "different". You said you could have sworn that the events in your dream had actually happened to you. How do we know that what you dreamt may not carry some sinister significance?'

This, of course, started us off on a new phase of speculation. For my part, I was inclined to treat it lightly. Dreams, I argued were just dreams. It was true that Freud attached a great deal of importance to them - but Freud only explained them as being symbolic of the functionings of the subconscious mind; he never tried to suggest that a dream might be connected with a supernatural event.

Mr. Nevinson, however, pointed out that what was happening to us could not be explained scientifically, hence why should we not be justified in entertaining the belief that this dream of his wife's might be connected in some way with the events of actuality? Especially, too, he went on, as the dream in question seemed to resemble so closely, in general characteristics, the incidents with which we were so familiar. She had heard a flute in her dream, and it had seemed to compel her to follow it. And there was this glimpse of something greyish and furry scurrying past her. It all seemed to fit together perfectly, didn't it?'

But, as might have been expected, this discussion soon fizzled out and left us where we were at the beginning. It was futile continuing it, we all agreed, for we could prove nothing; we could state nothing with certainty. There was no precedent that we could use as a basis for our deductions.

That very night, though, an incident occurred that made us wonder. At about half-past eleven Mrs. Nevinson awoke with a scream, and when her husband and I rushed in to see what was the matter she told us that the identical dream of the night before had recurred.

The room was in darkness when Mr. Nevinson and I went in, and it was I who switched on the light, using the electric torch I had brought to find the switch which was near the dressing-table.

As the sixty-watt bulb flared alive I assured myself that it must have been my imagination - but I could have sworn that just at the instant the light flooded the room I had a glimpse of some shapeless mass vanishing over the window-sill. Automatically I ran to the window and flashed the beam of the torch on the veranda - but there was nothing to be seen, so I had to conclude that it must have been some optical illusion induced by the abrupt change from darkness to brilliant light.

In the meantime, Jessie was sitting up in bed blinking around with alarmed sleepy eyes and asking what was wrong while her mother, on the other bed close alongside of hers, lay flat on her stomach, her face buried in her pillow, like a frightened child. Neither of them used mosquito nets, spiders holding no dread for them - and there are no mosquitoes at this season.

When, eventually, we succeeded in making Mrs. Nevinson realise that there was nothing to fear, she sat up and told us about the dream. She was perspiring, and her face looked pale. She breathed in a slightly laboured manner, as though from recent exertions, and her hair had a straggly, untidy appearance.

'It was exactly like last night,' she said, 'except that I seemed to advance a little farther along that jungle track. It was really peculiar. I felt far more frightened than last night. I felt as if I'd got nearer to some horrible place. And then just suddenly that bony hand clutched my arm and something whispered in my ear. It said: "No farther today." And then I woke up.'

Her husband listened with a grave face - so grave a face that Jessie, who was very sensitive to his moods, kept watching him with anxiety as though impatient to hear what his verdict would be.

After a silence, Mr. Nevinson said: 'There was one new feature in tonight's dream, it would appear. The fact that you progressed farther along the track.' He glanced at me. 'Milton, what do you think?'

I shook my head.

Jessie exclaimed: 'I believe it's a kind of warning.'

'A warning?' Her father gave her a frown.

'That's what I think it is,' Jessie nodded. 'Mother is going to be led to some horrible place, and then - and then anything might happen.'

'Anything like what?' I asked.

'She might be killed.'

'Killed in her dream?'

'How can we be sure she can't be killed in a dream? Perhaps she might just not wake up, or something like that. I think it's that manuscript - it's because she tried to burn it. She's roused up some terrible evil against her.'

Posted by jebratt :: Thursday, January 19, 2006 :: 0 comments

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