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The Strike of Eight

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I write this in the hope that the act of laying the words down on the page will somehow order my recollections and allow me some measure of comprehension. Perhaps in the cool light of dawn I shall be able to look back over these notes and see the trickery, or my old friend shall chap on the door to laugh at my expense for falling asleep in his smoking room and into a violent nightmare. I can only hope. I have always seen myself as a staunch cynic of the wave of superstition and spiritualism that has woven its way through my friends and peers of late, and yet I have seen such horror tonight that I find my faith shaken to the core. 

It had seemed a perfectly regular evening, having concluded my business in good time and proceeded to meet my old friend Marion Rutherford for a light, early supper in St James's. We endeavoured to do so monthly, although he had been increasingly difficult to lure out over the last few months, and I was in high spirits at my success in baiting him by covering the expense. The old trout was in his traditional sour mood as he scowled his way through the meal, an eternal affectation since the unfortunate confrontation he had prompted years ago which had led to his sudden fall from grace. Despite it all he had retained a dry humour and unique perspective that had made it no sacrifice to endure his temper, and I always looked forward to our meetings. 

Customarily we retired either to my club or to one of the dark and rowdy drinking dens that Rutherford frequented so that one of us was in a familiar habitat, although on this night he had invited me to his house to sample a rare vintage of single malt he had come into possession of.  I was surprised, as while we had been friends since adolescence I had never been there before, and he had become notorious within our circle for his territoriality. I was game, far more from drunken curiosity about his abode than the contents of his liquor collection, and he seemed somewhat relieved when I accepted and we began to take the winding route over. I had known his address for years, of course, but had never been tempted to understand where in the city it lay. With each junction he spoke less and worried his scarred hands more until we eventually arrived at a nondescript terrace house, crushed into a corner on the borders of Soho that would have been fashionable in recent history but now lay between a gin-shop and a bordello. It was expected that his fortunes had fallen since the days of bright concert halls and enthusiastic reviews in all the broadsheets, as well that his pride would have prevented him from asking for or receiving any charity, but even in private consideration I had never suspected this to be his state.

He opened the creaking door himself, with no indication of a housekeeper to call upon, and ushered me inside with a twist of his head as he set to the locks with his bent and twitching fingers. A chamberstick sat on a shelf by the door, candle burned nearly to the pewter, and I hurried to light it from the single low-burning lamp. I was in a once lushly decorated hall, the wallpaper now curling slightly away from the walls, which opened to a dust-coated staircase with a faded runner. It would have been fashionable at the same time as the street, and had seen as much renovation in the intervening years. The most striking aspect was the odour that finally prevailed over the street air that had come in with us. It no doubt emanated from the multitude of small metal containers dotted throughout the space; the place stank of potpourri, with a rank undercurrent that made me suspect the contents of at least one had become damp and started to rot. I struggled not to cough from the strength of it, uncertain how my friend could live so comfortably in such a thick floral fug, but he made no comment.

Instead, once he had finished his clattering he pushed past me and disappeared through a nondescript door. I followed, finding myself in a small smoking room that had, thankfully, traded the stench of potpourri to the more familiar and comfortable reek of tobacco. I settled myself in a patchy armchair as Rutherford hurried to pour himself a drink, taking it all in one large swig before reaching for a second glass. I had known him to compete with the worst drunks in London and stay steady on his feet, and yet he staggered as he gave me the dram. There was a good chance that I had not been his first drinking-buddy of the day.

"Is there something the matter?" I asked, out of both curiosity and concern.

He laughed, a bitter bark that hearkened more to his customary choleric attitude than the nervy behaviour of the last few minutes, but I failed to be relieved.

"There's been something the matter for a while now, Jack. Rather more than just 'something the matter', in fact.” He sighed resignedly. “Do you believe in ghosts?"

I did laugh then. It was ridiculous, especially coming from a man who had always viciously disavowed religion and anything that even mildly resembled it as a disease of the personal freedoms. 

"I've been to a séance or two, but I never found them particularly convincing. They do seem to help the believers in some fashion, but I don't think I'm going to be one of the converted any time soon. That can't be what's bothering you, surely? A crisis of faith?"

Instead of joining me in breaking the dour atmosphere he only poured himself another measure, then turned his back to me to stare into the empty fireplace. There was a long moment of silence before he spoke again.

"I've been living with one for several months now, every Tuesday night between the hours of eight and nine."

His voice was sober and sombre, and his attitude convincing enough that against my own better judgement I checked the clock on the mantel: quarter to eight.

"There's no special malt," he continued apologetically, and I had been so preoccupied with his lodgings and talk of ghosts I had forgotten the original goal of the visit. "I wasn't going to ask you to come here, but I needed a witness. I can't be alone with it again to doubt my own perception."

I decided to go along with him and see where it led. If he was leading me into some elaborate, mean-spirited joke at my expense it would lead to a better payoff, and if he was serious I would be in a better position to understand the current state of my friend's psyche, and how much I need be concerned.

"Do you know the subject of this apparition? Or victim, would it be?"

Rutherford scoffed, refusing to sit in the armchair across from my own and instead prowling in front of the fireplace to poke the fading embers into life, so I could only read his anxious humour in the slouch of his shoulders and twitching of his boot.

"I do, or rather, I did know her. She was a young woman I taught here. Talented, but lacking any of the drive to make something of it. A waste."

"Her lessons were in your house?" I asked, surprised. "You didn't go to her?"

"The family were rather rowdy, a large litter with too little oversight. The first lessons were at her address, but they proved impossible to keep out of the music room long enough to actually teach her anything, so we moved."

The hand not clutching his glass tightened into a misaligned fist as he continued, his tone sharp and tight. I had known he considered being a mere piano tutor an ignominious turn for one who had been such a prodigy, and that he discharged his role with a certain level of severity and precision, but it was still a shock to hear the haughtiness with which he addressed a prior, and apparently deceased, student. He had changed more since our youth than I had been able to gather through  drunken evenings of gossip and flair. 

"She missed our scheduled lesson and I had assumed that she had simply given up, until her father called the next morning saying she didn't come home. I told them I hadn't seen her. There was a buzz for a short while about the young socialite running off with an unknown lover, and from then on I heard nothing."

Rutherford stopped his pacing to face the fire, and despite myself I leaned forward to hang on his words.

"The next week, right as our lesson should have begun she appeared, playing the piece she had been learning when I saw her last. I thought I might be tired, or stressed, but it has recurred every week for six months."

Six months ago was when he had become a recluse, more so even than after his fingers had been broken. As far as the rest of us in his limited social circle could tell he had broken off all his engagements to tutor the young, pretty women that he made his living off of, and had instead begun scraping funds together by what few compositions he could sell. He still wouldn't face me - and I had the distinct feeling that he was still keeping something from me - but his story made sense, given what I knew of him.

The grandmother clock in the corner of the room struck a loud note, and Rutherford's tumbler clinked against his signet as he jolted. The two of us waited out the chimes with the breath locked in our chests until the muted but unmistakable notes of a pianoforte began to reach us through the wall nearest my chair. 

Rutherford slammed his glass to the mantel and bolted out of the room, my own dram forgotten on the side table as I followed him into the sweet stench of the hall and then through into a small and musty room.

At first I thought that there was a fire burning from the stark shadows that my friend cast against the wallpaper, but when I turned to the source I saw instead a woman, or at least the shape of one, cast in some diaphanous substance that glowed like the moon, enough that she appeared to light up the space around her and I had to take a moment to adjust my eyes from the shadows of the smoking room and the hall. With her face to the parlor grand I could see she was possessed of a fine-featured beauty, and a sharp smile as she swept through the notes that spoke of a cunning but light-hearted mind. I was aware of Rutherford crossing behind me to get to the desk, but I was too mesmerised by the display in front of me to pay him much mind. 

I was unfamiliar with the melody she was playing but she was deft on the keys, and the sweet sound saturated my senses as I took in how the very tips of her fingers seemed to fade into nothing, or how the pale blonde strands of her hair appeared to float in the air. She could not be real, and yet I saw her clearly, and felt every inch awake. Glancing at my friend I could be certain that he was aware of her as well, his face holding the same mixture of awe, derision and fear that had possessed him throughout the telling of his tale. He looked to me, and recognised a camaraderie that made triumph flare across his face; he was not alone in experiencing his spectre.

A sour note rang out in the middle of a delicate string, but the vision never paused in her playing, only shrugged slightly. Her lips moved to speak, but it was Rutherford who gave her voice.

"I'll get it next time," he spat, and in the sharp light of her the tension in his face was clear. I could hardly stop the noise of confusion that left me in response.

"She made a mistake at the same phrase every lesson, and with every repetition said the same thing."

The playing was interrupted again, this time by a sudden silence as she tilted backwards at the waist before plunging forward with a crash of the keys, her head bouncing soundlessly off the dark veneer of the piano as her hands pushed out along the octaves. Her hair rippled momentarily before her head was pulled back up by some unseen hand, and for one brief second I forgot the nature of the woman before me, and believed that she would be saved. I rallied as though to go to her aid, but before I could take a second step she was pushed forward once more and vanished.

The room went dark in an instant, and I was left to try and calm the hammering of my heart. I understood that she had been snuffed out, that I had witnessed the recreation of a death in the truest of fashions, and in that truth there was only one person in this world who could have been her murderer.

I had not heard him move, but that did nothing to quell the sudden, sickening fear that I am loathe to say wormed its way into my person as I found myself alone in the dark with someone who I had for so long misjudged, and who had made me witness the lengths he could be driven to. My first thought was escape, so while I coiled myself for a fight I began a slow retreat back towards the door. My one-time friend laughed from somewhere at the room, perhaps predicting my movements, and as I strained to locate the sound I was blinded once again by a flash of light as the ghost appeared back in her place. She immediately started her playing again as though nothing had happened.

"It does this for the full hour of the lesson, you know," Rutherford said, every ounce of frustration and weariness that must have built up through the months of it seeping into his words, although I could not bring myself to look at him as he spoke. "Over and over, the same missed notes, the same break and repeat, even after I cut every wire a fortnight in."

I baulked at the cavalier resumption of his story, and his complete avoidance of the obvious subject of the manner of her demise. Perhaps, after living with it for so long, it had become a normal part of his day to see her attacked. My skin seemed to shrink against my muscle as I looked to the loud and melodious instrument and imagined the ghostly innards, and in my scrutiny I caught how the light from her bounced off what looked to be number of small indentations in the lustrous polish of the wood.

"After a month I moved the piano," he continued, "but it sat on nothing and still made sound, except it never stopped at nine and I was forced to move it back into position. If I taught at a pupil's house I would only hear them play this piece with the same notes, no matter what they assured me they had been attempting. If I spend the evening in a public house or hotel the sound follows me until I return here. It comes up through the cobbles or the floorboards, never-ending. I can't think of what to do. I needed someone to see it, that's all. It doesn't matter at this point if you tell anyone; they'll think you as distracted as I believed myself, and if they take me in the prison will have a floor as well." 

His voice finally cracked under the weight of his situation, and I finally met the full force of his beleaguered gaze. Despite the horror which had obviously occurred here the information as presented rankled. The reason she kept her association with Rutherford and music was self-evident, but the ground? I looked to my feet and the realisation crawled over me. Since I had walked in through the front door I had been surprised by the volume of pot pourri he had set out across the house, and the rank smell that undercut it. 

"Is she still down there?" I said. Rutherford's attention on me sharpened in an instant. I understood that I had betrayed the depth of my disgust, and again I had dropped myself into danger.

"You can't judge me for this," he snapped. "You have no idea the hell I was living in for years, watching you all leave me behind, trapped with these spoiled brats who only want to learn enough for their reputation than commit - and she was the greatest disappointment!"

His words were almost drowned out as the music grew louder along with him, and he turned on his heel to face her.

"Could you be quiet for just one moment? It isn't bad enough that you haunt me, but you vandalise the best piece I ever wrote! Here!"

He stepped over the stool to sit and line up with her, his own gnarled fingers overlapping and passing through her slender and gleaming ones as he glid over the keys. I stood still, the expectancy rooting me as they together approached the section where she had slipped but even without the wires the sound came out clear and perfect as they careened flawlessly through the frenzy of notes. Rutherford crowed in victory and I let myself imagine that what was needed to satiate her was finally making it through without a mistake. 

Rutherford turned to me as the spirit’s shoulders moved out of his back in that same slight shrug as before, but before any words could leave him they reached the fatal phrase. He bucked forward, his head and chest locked into hers, and made no sound before his head hit the piano with a dull thud. I rushed forward, a wild thought in my head to pull him free of his supernatural hold, but too quickly he pulled back and was slammed into the wood again, this time with a slick crack as the room was plunged into darkness as she vanished. My momentum pulled me forward into the space where he had been, and in the silent pitch black I found the back of his suit jacket. It was completely still as my hands slid up towards his neck but before I could find his pulse the light came again and she reappeared. 

I watched as the husk of my old friend was pulled into a sitting position, body strapped into hers, dead eyes staring and the porridge of his brain slithering into his collar; my own blood stopped in response before I bolted for the door.

For a terrible moment the locks threatened to keep me in Rutherford’s hell until they finally gave and I ran, as fast as I could and without a direction, heedless of the cloud in my mind or the pain in my chest, not thinking if anyone would see me leave or how he would be found. I know I am now witness to two murders, despite only being present for one, and nobody will believe a word of it. Justice had meted itself out, despite the laws of God and Nature, but even with this knowledge a lurking fear has followed me all the way back here.

That young woman had left an imprint on the life of Rutherford, whether for his presence at her death or his part of it. I had been only a small part of his death in turn, but my presence had caused the ripples that led to him interacting with the apparition as he never had before. I had been there for it, and with his infamously cantankerous humour he might well have considered me deserving of blame in his fate. I can only hope that he will not fix his afterlife on my existence, and I can only wait to find out.