It was a grey January morning, and the light dawned grudgingly over the High Peak. Now I could see, as well as hear, the rain making swans in the puddles along the turnpike that led to the Snake Pass. There came a knock on my door and a commotion in the hall, my dogs barking, and a young lad’s voice shouting for the doctor. I had been at breakfast; with a sigh I set down my knife and fork, and opened the dining room door.
‘Who seeks him?’ I asked. It was Markham’s lad, wet-haired, muddy to the knees, and behind him, dark footprints across the black and white floor irritated my housemaid.
‘Dr Hougham! Sir!’ exclaimed young Markham, breathless. ‘Dr Hougham, you must go to the Red Rose Inn! Someone has died, sir…please…’
I gave orders for my horse to be saddled, and while I put on my hat and my coat, I discovered from the boy that the dead man was John Rudd, a low drunkard whom no-one would miss.
‘Are you certain he’s dead, and not merely drunk?’ I asked.
‘Oh sir, Bob Whitland said he was cold, that he was stiff and stark, sir! He came to our house for help, and so my father sent me to fetch you, and I ran all the way from Snake Bend, sir!’
I set the farmer’s son up before my saddle, and rode my horse at a gentle pace up the incline to Snake Bend. I had no mind to lame her on that treacherous road, and if Rudd was indeed dead, there seemed nought to be gained by so doing. There would be no question about the man’s death; the poor wretch had doubtless had some form of apoplexy brought on by drink. With our faces turned downwards in the wind and rain, I did not trouble the boy with further questions.
The road ran up through moorland, bleak and hostile at that time of year, and one was as like to meet a footpad or a cut-throat, as any honest traveller. A little further on from Markham’s farm, and beside Rudd’s cottage, the Red Rose Inn was a squalid place, and Bob Whitland, the solitary innkeeper, a half-mad creature who knew well enough how to spin a story, but was incapable of repairing his roof, sweeping a floor, or serving a decent ale. The little trade he did was on account of being so far from anywhere else that travellers coming from Sheffield had no alternative; John Rudd, a piece-work weaver, had been the only regular.
The smell of the inn nauseated me as I went in, Bob Whitland’s goatish muskiness heightened by fear, the grey fume of smoke from the fire, and the rotting straw on the floor combining with last week’s stale food and spilt ale. Between cracked and bent old beams, the ceiling was brown and cobwebbed. I followed Whitland reluctantly up the stairs, young Markham behind me. In a bedchamber, Farmer Markham stood leaning against the windowsill. He greeted me, and I saw he had opened a casement. On the bed was the body, entirely covered by a black pall. I looked at this curiously, for it was a magnificent silk damask with gold fringes, releasing a strong and feminine perfume, quite unlike anything else that had ever passed through the door of the Red Rose, unless it had been stolen.
‘How came you by that cloth?’ I asked Whitland, from sheer amazement, instead of asking him how he came by a dead body in his main guest room on a Wednesday morning in January.
‘It – it is the cloak of someone who was here – here last night,’ he stammered. His eyes were huge with shock under his wild, iron-grey brows. Poor, brain-sick Bob, I thought to myself, as he drew the silk damask back with a shaking hand, exposing the body.
‘This is not John Rudd!’ I exclaimed. I had expected to see the bloated, fifty-year-old features of a heavy drinker. But the man’s unseeing face was youthful and perfect, his hair thick and golden instead of lank and faded, his naked torso strongly made. I felt his pulse. The arm was rigid and cold, and there could be no doubt that life was extinct.
‘Look again,’ said Whitland. ‘Remember him as – as he once was?’
Indeed, in his youth, Rudd had been a good-looking, unruly man, given to flirting and brawling, and getting out of scrapes with an easy smile and a shrug of his broad shoulders. I travelled back in my memory as I looked at that handsome, dead face.
‘It can’t be,’ I said.
‘He was in here last night,’ said Whitland. ‘It – it can be no-one else. And look – his clothes.’
Rudd’s clothes were scattered upon the floor. They, at least, looked like his usual clothes; I recognised a blue military coat shiny with grease. Whitland showed me a pocketbook with some letters addressed to the dead man.
‘What has happened here?’ I asked Whitland. ‘Whose is that cloak?’
‘It was a strange lady,’ he replied. ‘A lady in that black cloak was here last night.’
At this point Markham steered his lad out of the room, saying he’d be in his back barn, if needed for anything else. I covered Rudd’s face again, and prepared to hear what else Bob might say.
There was an armchair by the window, its horsehair showing through worn green velvet. I sat down heavily, and questioned Whitland further.
‘Tell me, then, what happened?’ I asked him. Whitland was still trembling, and I gestured to him to sit at the foot of the bed, where he perched, shrinking away from the cloak’s gold fringes.
‘It was bitter cold last night, stormy, the rain falling heavy, wind howling outside. Only Mr Rudd was here – he never missed a night. It was late, and I told him to go home, but he lingered, saying he would drink up first. I was closing the shutters, when I saw a light, up on the road, coming down from the pass.’
Bob Whitland nodded at the window, and I glanced out at the road, which was partly a rocky stream, flowing down the steep slope.
‘It came down as fast as a bird,’ said Whitland. ‘How could someone be travelling on such a night, on such a wild road, and at such a breakneck pace? Then I saw that the light blazed from the lanterns of a carriage, drawn by four black horses. It stopped, out there, in the yard. The coachman jumped down and hammered on my door. When I opened it, there were two females, a lady and her serving woman, and a quantity of luggage.’
‘It was a cruel night, and I made haste to bring them in. But they were strange folk, of a kind I had never seen. The coachman was a Moor, stern faced, and as black as my oak beams, though under his hat, his hair was as white as lambswool. He spoke not to me, neither did the waiting woman, who was an ancient Oriental, stooped with age, and with a face as brown and wrinkled as a withered apple. I knew not if they could understand me. And the lady was muffled up in a long cloak. This cloak.’
Whitland looked down at the cloak, as though it were the assassin. Glistening in the grey light from the casement, the damask made swirling patterns where it pooled like black liquid in the hollows of the corpse. Whitland looked up again, into my eyes, and through them, and then from one side to another, seeing shades that had already flown into the past.
‘The rainwater streamed down the cloak, and dripped upon my floor as she came in and commanded rooms for the three of them. Outlandish folk though they were, I could not have denied them shelter on such a night, and sent them into the storm and darkness, and the cold moors. I busied myself with their arrangements, and showed the man where to stable his horses. The old woman ignored my help, and carried boxes and valises up the stairs, without drawing a breath. I offered them victuals, but they took nothing, and the two old ones retired to their quarters. The lady sat downstairs beside the fire, facing Rudd, and I waited by my barrels, in case they should ask for drink. But they did not notice me.
‘John Rudd,’ she said, ‘do you not know me, then?’ She put back the hood of her cloak, in the firelight.
Rudd was staring at her, and I wondered if I had seen her once, many years ago, for she reminded me of someone, whose name eluded me. She had a lovely face, and her voice was as soft as a wood pigeon.
‘You never called me by my name,’ she said to him. ‘It was always ‘you’, was it not? ‘I love you’, was what you always said, ‘I love you,’ do you remember?’
As he gazed at her, his eyes, that had been dull with drink, became sharp and clear. ‘You,’ he said. ‘Mrs Ashwyn.’’
I interrupted Whitland. ‘That’s nonsense! Mrs Ashwyn? The minister’s wife? She’d never drive about at dead of night, alone with strange servants, cloak or no cloak.’
‘Rudd meant the first Mrs Ashwyn,’ replied Whitland. ‘For his face turned to fear, and horror, and he said, ‘You were dead. They said you died in London. Twenty years ago, and more. You died in London.’
She laughed and replied, that was what Mr Ashwyn had wanted the village to believe. She said, yes, she had been dead to him, and to her children, these twenty years and more. And yet her hair was so dark and glossy, her cheeks plump and pink, her eyes bright, that she could not have been more than five and twenty years of age.
Then she said to him, ‘You were cruel to me, once you had me in your power. The love you swore to me when I was married, deserted you when I was yours.’
‘Why, what should I have done?’ Rudd demanded. ‘I lost my position after the scandal.’ He spoke boldly, but his face was pale.
‘Your love ran away in the dregs of your ale, and in making eyes at other women, and in your cruel inquisitions of me. You feared I would deceive you as I had deceived my husband, and you made my life a prison. And so I left you.’
‘I never knew where you went,’ he said. ‘And Ashwyn gave out that you were dead.’
‘Mrs Ashwyn died, certainly,’ she said. ‘But I found an underworld for women such as I. A twilight existence of opium eaters and prison hulks, of back slums, of half built houses made into rookeries and thieves kitchens, an underworld whose monsters devoured the helpless. I passed into that world. I learned the art of cruelty. I forgot how to weep. But other things, I remembered.’
She stood up, very tall, towering over him, the black cloak rippling behind her.
‘I never forgot you, John,’ she said. I could not tell whether she spoke with bitterness or with love. ‘I never forgot you.’ She lifted her hands towards him and pulled him to his feet and towards her, as though she had the greater strength. And she kissed him. I don’t know how she could have borne to kiss that old drunkard, but she did.
It was late at night, and I no longer knew if I woke or dreamed, but he seemed to become younger as she touched him. His paunch gut shrank away, his bulbous nose grew straight, and his complexion, red and coarse from drink, grew pale and fine. And when he pulled away from her and spoke, it was not with the gruff tones of an old drunkard, but with the tender voice of a young man.
‘I loved you,’ he said. ‘I could not help what I did, my jealousy…’
‘And your violence?’ she asked. ‘Your violence, and the baby I lost, through your beatings?’
‘I loved you – there was no help for it,’ he said again. He had become young and handsome again, and he gazed at her, with a lively gleam in his eye. She had taken twenty years from him in a single kiss.
She led him towards the stairs to her chamber, and I shrank behind the beer barrels lest they should see me, but they passed on, unheeding, hand in hand like newly-weds.
So I closed up the inn, and took myself to my bed. But, though I was weary, I slept poorly, and often startled awake. The rain beat down, and the wind rose, keening and moaning around the eaves.
At dawn, I rose as usual. But I was alone. The inn was silent. Downstairs was dark and deserted, as it had been the night before. The door was still locked. I looked out into the yard, and the carriage was gone. I found that the horses had vanished from the stable, leaving no trace of their presence. I peeped into the coachman’s chamber – empty. Then the Chinawoman – gone. And then I looked into this room. All was silent. The boxes and valises were gone. I could not see how they could all have left without waking me.
But a dark thing lay on the bed. I opened the shutter and saw it was the lady’s cloak. And under it – well I saw what you saw, sir – Mr Rudd. Cold and dead sir, cold and dead. But with the face of a young man.’
Surely Whitland was mistaken, I thought. Perhaps, in the dim light of the chamber, our eyes had deceived us.
‘Let me look at him again,’ I said. Whitland stood up, and drew back the black silk. But now, the face that stared up at us was the dead face of an ancient, as John Rudd might have become, had he survived another twenty or thirty years. In the time it had taken for Whitland to tell the tale, the corpse had become desiccated and withered, its hair grey and lank, and decaying lips half open over a toothless jaw. Even as we stared aghast, Rudd seemed to age under our eyes, the wrinkles deepening in his shrivelled skin.
Bob Whitland screamed out, and I staggered back in shock, unable to believe what I had seen. We sent for the coroner, and the magistrate, and the priest. But it was to no avail. No trace was ever found of the dark lady, of the coach and four, or the serving-woman, or the coachman. The surgeon opened Rudd’s withered body two days later, and said he had died of alcoholic intoxication. Poor Bob was soon after committed to the lunatic asylum, where he died not long after. And the Red Rose stood derelict for many years. People passed by it as fast as they could.
But, one stormy night, a commercial traveller from Sheffield rode into the White Hart in Glossop, and said he had seen a carriage and four black horses standing outside the Red Rose. A young man with fair hair looked out of its windows, and the coachman was as black as coal. The keeper of the White Hart immediately barred and bolted his doors, and would let no-one enter or leave until the morning.
© M Wallis 2020