this text was OCR scanned and I haven't made
any attempt to format it into paragraphs. It's included here
as a curiosity only.Thanks to Alan Mead for the scan.)
It was one of those perfect English summer days, born under the bluest of blue skies with the scent of honey-suckle and the buzz of bees. There were deckchairs and croquet on the lawns and strawberries for tea. The young village girls were wearing their lightest summer dresses. Old men with old memories sat and remembered. Even the sour-pusses walked around with a smile on their lips, and a song in their hearts. It was that kind of day.
Doctor Bruce Nelson would normally have given all this his warmest approval. But just this once, he hadn't even noticed for the good doctor was on his honeymoon and on such days, arctic blasts and heatwaves come in the same packages, gift-wrapped. He seemingly had eyes only for his bride, Tessa. And she was certainly worth looking at. She was a snow princess, dazzlingly pretty with pale blonde, gleaming hair, crisply immaculate in the American fashion. Her left foot was heavily bandaged and she had to twist and heave, with her husband's help, to get out of his low-slung E-type. He was ruggedly handsome, in his late twenties, dressed casually, but well, with style.
They had just arrived outside his new practice in the village of Woldfield, tourist's paradise with its timbered cottages and lattice windows and thatched roofs. The house awaiting them was Georgian and facing on to the village green and its pond, complete with ducking stool. Tessa limped up to the front door and was then swept up into his arms and carried over the threshold. He was a great stickler for convention. He carried her easily and kissed her with considerable enthusiasm before putting her down.
'Oh, Bruce, it's adorable,' said Tessa. 'Our first house! Your first practice! It says things to me, the house, the village, everything! I just know you'll be a success here. And I love you!' She slid her arms around his neck and after a good few moments Bruce pulled his head back and grinned down at her. 'Steady on. They won't even know I'm here until I get old Dr Sharp's shingle down and mine up.' 'Nonsense. If an English village is anything like an American small town, they already know your shoe size.' She pointed towards the surgery. 'I can't wait to see you sitting in there with your stethoscope round your neck. And just look at this sitting room. Isn't it perfect.' 'Bit tatty. There'll be a bigger one upstairs.' 'You're as excited as I am. I can tell by your mouth. Admit it.' He gave her a pleasantly battered grin. 'It's a good feeling, Tessa, yes. I'm a town boy who's always wanted to be a country doctor. This is about as far away from the rat race as you can get. To be on my own. Completely responsible at last, after all those hospitals.' 'I wish I'd known you then. I bet you looked sexy as a hollow-eyed, over-worked intern.' She sat down suddenly and held up her bandaged foot in mock coyness. 'Doctor, please look at my leg.' 'With pleasure,' he said and, kneeling, lifted her good leg and examined first the ankle, then the calf and then the knee and was about to advance upwards when she said, mock-serious: 'I really meant the other one, doctor.' 'Sorry, Mrs Nelson, not professional etiquette. Doctors are not allowed to treat their own families.' She leant forward, running her lingers through his hair and whispered 'You are happy, darling T He looked up at her, suddenly serious, and nodded. 'I wish it wasn't dead man's shoes and dead man's furniture but... yes, I'm happy. You?' 'Mmmm!...' 'No, but seriously. I mean ... a successful Connecticut fashion writer over here on a visit, minding her own business, and suddenly she's snatched away by a penniless doctor and buried in the heart of the English country-side ...' 'I love the English countryside. And don't worry, I've got plans for this house. Take this room, for instance. I see Adam green walls in watered silk ...' She was about to enlarge upon this when a plump, apple-cheeked matron burst into the room. She was of such sunny wholesomeness that she seemed to bring the smell of fresh bread in with her. 'My dears ... I'm so sorry,' she cried. 'Whatever must you think of me ? I don't know what to say ...' Bruce held out a hand. 'I'm Doctor Nelson. And this is my wife, Tessa.' 'I know that, love. Who else would you be ?' She addressed herself to Tessa as mistress of the house. 'I'm Bess Tarling, ma'am. I was old Dr Sharp's housekeeper. You don't have to keep me on, but your husband did say in his letter ...' Tessa gave her friendliest smile. 'We'd be very happy to keep you on, Bess. In fact, I don't know what we'd do without you.'
'Pleased to meet you, I'm sure. Only I wasn't expecting you till next week. The house is in such a state.' It was at this moment that she caught sight of Tessa's bandaged foot and the sight stopped her in mid-sentence. She raised her eyes from the foot and looked at Tessa in a new way, as if seeing her for the first time. There was something very close to worship in her eyes. Her gaze returned to that bandaged foot, drawn as if by a magnet, and it was Bruce who broke the spell. 'My wife broke a bone in her foot ski-ing,' he explained. 'On our honeymoon. That's why we're a week early. I'm sorry if I've inconvenienced you.* 'I'm the one who's shamed, my dears. That you should come and find us like this, you and your moon-pale, moon-gold lady .. .* She was just beginning to get fascinated by Tessa again when footsteps echoed across the hall and a girl called out, 'Aunt Bess! I'm just going to the store. Is there anything you want ?' Bess turned to Bruce and Tessa and smiled her rosy smile. 'There, you seel Caught me out again, you have. This is my niece, Jill, from London.' And as if on cue, Jill sauntered into the room. Bruce, who so far had been oblivious of his surround-ings, suddenly took very great notice of them indeed. He looked at the newcomer as though scarcely able to believe his eyes. But then he was in good company. Virtually every other male, catching sight of JiU for the first time, looked at her that way. Jill was every impossible dream come true. Just about every male from sixteen to sixty was apt to stagger at the sight other, and Bruce was clearly no exception. 'Hullo,' she said and even that was enough to send fingers up and down his spine.
'Hullo,' he echoed, wishing he could think of some-thing bright to say. 'Hi!' said Tessa with an amused eye on Bruce. Bess was mildly embarrassed, a rare emotion for her. 'Seeing as you weren't expected, she's been sleeping in the spare room,' she explained. 'She was going tomor-row.' 'But I can leave right away if you like,' put in Jill. 'I've only got a suitcase.' Bruce's reply was a little too quick: 'No, we wouldn't dream of it, would we, darling?' And again Tessa flicked an amused glance at him, before saying, 'No, of course not. You stay as long as you want.' 'Well, it wouldn't be any longer than tomorrow,' said . Bess. 'Tomorrow being full moon and all. And the day after being Lady Day.' She looked meaningfully at Tessa as she said this, as though they were sharing some secret. Then nodded, suddenly energetic. 'Yes, well, we'll run along. You'll be wanting to look over the house. I'll get you a nice cup of tea. Come, Jill.' Jill followed her out. 'See you later,' she said, looking back over hear shoulder at Bruce. 'Not while I'm around, she won't,' muttered Tessa, watching her go. Bruce laughed and kissed her. 'Come on. Let's go and have a look at the bedrooms.' Tessa's reaction was mock shock. 'Doctor Nelson!' she cried. There are various theories about the best way to spend a honeymoon. Some favour a sun-washed villa on the shores of the Caribbean. Others prefer ocean-going yachts, a suite at the Waldorf-Astoria or a slow boat to China. And there is yet another school of thought that favours locking the bedroom door, throwing away the key and emerging seven days later . . . doubtless on hands and knees. Bruce Nelson had, if truth been known, been rather hoping for such a programme and Tessa, an obliging wench, would normally have co-operated to the full. Just this once, however, she seemed to have other matters in mind. As soon as they reached the bedroom, she enquired, 'Bruce, what's Lady Day?' 'It's a religious festival . . . very ancient. The Church took it over from the pagans, but it goes back thousands of years before that. Were you thinking of buxom Bess?' 'I'd never heard of it before.' 'Well, we're pretty remote here, you know,' he said, mock-seriously. 'They still celebrate all kinds of feasts New York has never even heard of... like Bringing In The Harvest Drunks and Pulling A Funny Face Day and ...'. 'All right, all right,' she cried, beginning to laugh. Mean-while she started to move around the room, inquisitive as a kitten in a new home, chattering away excitedly.
'We'll get a four-poster bed with brass rails and pretty curtains. Big cabbage roses on the wallpaper.' 'Big bills from the decorator!' 'Never! We New Englanders are thrifty.'
She reached into a drawer and stepped back with some-thing clutched in her hands. 'Hey, look at this,' she cried, as confetti poured on to the carpet, 'What do you suppose this is all about?' 'Maybe they were going to throw it at us but we took them by surprise.' But Tessa, having dismissed the puzzle instantly from her mind, had continued with her prowl. 'Of course, we need a dressing-table between the win-dows here.' 'There's one there already.' 'This may be what an old bachelor like Dr Sharp would regard as a dressing table. No girl in her right mind ...' said Tessa, then catching sight of herself in the mirror, she took out her lipstick and started to titivate. 'Bruce, I have the strangest feeling. I know Westport is thousands of miles away, but in a funny way ... I feel I've come home.' Bruce came up behind his bride and slid his aims around her, nuzzling her neck. 'Mmmm, that's nice,' she said, leaning back in instant surrender. But as she did so she spotted something at the back of an open drawer and, curious as ever, reached in. Her hand came out clasping a bundle of letters. 'That's odd,' she said. 'They were jammed at the back of the drawer. They could have stayed there for ever without anyone finding them.' Bruce stepped back and surveyed her with amusement. 'Aha! Love letters! Maybe Dr Sharp wasn't such a dry old bachelor as I've been told.' 'No, that's just it. Look at the address on the back. They're not to him. They're/row him.' Bruce took them from her and began to examine them. 'Stamped and sealed,' he said, 'but never mailed.'
'Why should anyone write letters and then not send them?' 'Perhaps the old boy wrote them that last day, the day he fell downstairs and killed himself. Then they got mis-laid in the confusion.' Tessa took the letters back and studied them, oddly pre-occupied. 'Could be, I suppose. It just seems so odd.* 'Better keep them safe and we'll send them on to his executors.' Bruce looked across at her thoughtfully. Clearly this wasn't the right time for what he'd had in mind. He smiled ruefully and said: 'I'd better go down and have a look at the factory. After all we open for business next week. Can't have patients coming into a dirty surgery... if they come at all, that is.' With that he left the room. For some time after he had gone, Tessa remained motionless, still holding the bundle of letters and feeling strangely disturbed. The village store at Woldfield was a place where a few goods were sold and a lot of gossip exchanged. People would wander in just to pass the time of day with no intention whatsoever of actually buying anything. And Bart the store-keeper, a big, burly, cheerfully ruddy-faced man didn't seem to mind. He was surrounded by friends and happy to be so. Take today for instance: there was Dan the builder. Job the blacksmith, Seth the gardener. Lob the gamekeeper and Belle the seamstress. Then there was Bart's wife, Jane, a thin, pale nervous woman, the odd one out in
this community of apple-cheeked, plump and friendly extroverts. The conversation, as always, was full of friendly ban-ter. 'Dan, I've never known a builder break hammers as fast as you do,' Bart was saying. 'It's not me as breaks them. It's you as sells me rotten ones.' 'Hey, Lob, d'you hear that bit of slander ?' Seth joined in with twinkling eyes: 'You'll get nothing out of him. He's still dreaming of that poacher that got away.' I Lob looked up with a slow smile and everyone began to chuckle, everyone except Jane. 'You shouldn't go after poachers with a gun. Lob,' she told him earnestly. 'It's not right.' Lob responded with his slow, friendly grin. 'Charge of birdshot in the rump works wonders. Be-sides ... we want no wanderers in the woods on Lady Day.' Jane's anxiety grew until she could contain herself no longer; she was about to speak when the door opened with a clang of the bell and Bess came bustling in to the store, pregnant with news. She advanced right to the centre of the store, quivering with importance, con-sciously letting the anticipation build up. 'She's come amongst us,' she cried. 'I've seen her!' The effect was electric. Belle was the first to speak. 'At last!'she sighed, press-ing her palms together in ecstasy. 'Are you quite sure, Bess?' Bess nodded. 'I tell you. Moon-pale and moon-gold she is, with the left foot limping.' Before she could say more, the door opened once more and a remarkable figure appeared, more like a large lep- rechaun than a human. He moved with a limp, but it was a quick, skipping limp, strangely athletic. He was known as 'Mad Nick.' He was a mute and clearly considered of some importance in this commun-ity. 'You've heard, haven't you. Mad Nick?' shouted Bart. And Nick smiled and nodded, skipped across to Bess and stood stock-still before her, his bright eyes steady and expectant on her face. Bess spoke quietly and with great import: 'Moon-pale. Moon-gold. And the left foot limps. As it was promised, so it has come to pass.' Satisfied, Nick kept his eyes on her face and then stepped back a pace and looked around at the others, his eyes twinkling and excited. It was the signal for them all to start talking at once. At the height of the hubbub, the doorbell clanged once more and Tessa limped in. The talk died instantly and they all turned to stare, drinking her in. The silence was broken by Bess. 'Mrs Nelson, my dear! You shouldn't have bothered. I'd have been happy to fetch you anything you wanted.' Tessa smiled. 'Oh, it's no bother, Mrs Tarling. The walk will have done me good.' Bess proceeded to introduce her to everyone in turn, ending up by saying, 'And this is Nick.' There was a perceptible increase of tension as Nick skipped forward and bowed, endearingly, from the waist. 'Hello, Nick,' Tessa said, smiling and inclining her head. He bowed again and skipped back, and the tension eased as Bess began to chatter again. But after Tessa had collected her groceries. Nick skipped forward and, picking up the bags, nodded towards
the door, indicating that she should precede him from the store. 'Why, thank you,' cried Tessa, clearly charmed/You're very kind.' And together, they departed. As the door closed be-hind them, Bart turned to Nan, the schoolmistress. 'Well, Nan?' They all looked at her, each one holding his breath, waiting for her answer. Nan nodded slowly. 'She is the expected one,' she said.
First days are never much fun. There is that uneasy feel ing of being judged by one's fellow humans. Doctors are in no way immune to this and, even for the most experienced, first days in a new practice can be a bit of an ordeal. Bruce Nelson, who was very new at the game, was finding his sheer hell. He had walked into the waiting room to find six patients seated in a row, four men and two women. They all had two things in common. They carried a stick and they all limped with the left foot. It was also clear that they had come to inspect the new doctor, rather than the other way around. They seemed to bloom with rude, good health. They greeted him with a ragged chorus of 'Good day, doctor,' and one by one, came forward to shake his hand. He was still being greeted when Tessa came strolling into the room. 'Bruce, darling...' she cried and then stopped in mid-sentence, realising that he wasn't alone.
The patients looked her up and down greedily and Bruce smiled at her obvious confusion. 'It seems I have my first patients,' he said. 'This is my wife, Tessa.' An old woman limped forward and took Tessa's hand between her own. 'We were just telling your husband, my dear, how nice it is to have a doctor again. And especially one with a wife like you.' She raised Tessa's hand to her lips, then backed away as if she was royalty. 'That's very sweet of you,' said Tessa, touched and a little puzzled. 'I know we're going to be very happy here.' The caressing smiles of the patients lingered upon her as she turned to Bruce almost as an escape. 'Bruce, I'm going to clear out the summer-house.' 'Are you sure you'll be all right with that foot?' Tessa lifted her injured foot with a smile. 'Perfectly. I'm sure with anyone else you'd prescribe the exercise.' She looked up to find six pairs of searching eyes riveted on her foot. The eyes followed her as she moved towards the door, the villagers turning as one man. After she had gone, Bruce ushered the first patient, an old man with a throat complaint, into his surgery. He pressed down the old man's tongue with a spatula and peered in. 'How about the foot?' he asked casually. 'Would you like me to have a look at it while you're here?' 'No, thank you, doctor. I'm used to it. There's nothing wrong with it really.' Bruce glanced across at him, an accusing half-smile on his face. 'There's nothing wrong with your throat either, is there?'
The old man chuckled. 'Love you, I know that! There's nothing wrong with any of us. We just came to see the new doctor.' Bruce shrugged and smiled but the old man had not finished. 'And his wife ...' he added. Half an hour later, Bruce headed for the summer-house and Tessa, pondering deeply. Tunny how they all limped,' he said. 'But none of them would let me look at their foot.' Tessa nodded thoughtfully. "The one they call Mad Nick limps too.' 'I suppose it's in-breeding. It happens in enclosed com-munities like this. They all inherit the same deficiency and it becomes a mark of shame.' .|i 'But they're such beautiful people!' ^ 'Of course they are. That's why they're sensitive about 1 it.' He paused, slipped an arm around her and a glint came into his eye. 'Come on, Tessa,' he said. 'You've done enough for one morning. As your doctor, I prescribe a lay-down. I'm going to take you upstairs and examine a leg or two.' 'Doctor, I thought you'd forgotten all about those legs,' replied Tessa, beginning to laugh. They moved towards the house, their heads very close together. The honeymoon was clearly far from over. Tessa was a stranger in a strange land. Despite the advent of the jumbo jet, America seemed a million miles away. And even with Bruce at her side, she still sometimes felt lost and lonely, and always very far from her homeland.
This was why Woldfield seemed like the answer to a prayer. From the very beginning she had been greeted like a long-lost friend, and an honoured one at that. Early morning sunlight poured into the kitchen as Tessa, in a housecoat, limped happily around, singing quietly to herself. The world suddenly seemed a good place in which to be. She opened the back door and there upon the step beside the milk were a bunch of herbs and a bunch of crocuses, both tied with a curious twist of straw. Intrigued, she carried them in and almost collided with the bustling Bess. 'Love you, my dear, you shouldn't be doing this. Pro-per early-bird you are and no mistake. Now you just go and sit down and I'll get breakfast.' Tessa held up her discoveries. 'Look what I found on the doorstep. Crocuses. And fennel, witch's foot, rosemary and rue.' Bess carried on with her work, taking pains to appear very casual. 'Left for you by the Little People, I've no doubt.' Tessa smiled. 'Oh, Mrs Tariing!' And Bess smiled too, then sobered instantly. 'You're a special personage in this village, as well you must know. I can't tell you what it means to us. We're that grateful. . . ' Her manner changed instantly as Jill arrived, closely followed by Bruce. 'Breakfast won't be five minutes,' she called, heading for the pantry. Jill, looking glamorous as ever in a housecoat care-lessly tied, yawned delicately. 'I'll be glad to get back to town tomorrow for a good sleep. That singing kept me awake.' 'Singing!' echoed Bruce. 'Didn't you hear it? Sounds as if it's miles off in the woods. Like hymns, only not really, if you see what I mean.' 'Singing in the woods? Oh, no, don't tell me we've got a midnight glee club ...' But at that moment, Bess came bustling in with the breakfast and the singing was quite forgotten as the smell of bacon and eggs filled the room. After the plates had been cleared away, Tessa began '. to tidy up the surgery and discovered a battered old instruments case. Bruce opened it with some difficulty only to find a crucifix inside. 'Don't say I'm expected to double as the vicar as well!' i Tessa regarded it thoughtfully. 'He seems to have been an odd sort of man.' Bruce closed the case briskly and pushed it under the couch. 'My patients will be thinking I'm an odd sort of man too, if I don't get the surgery open. They've arrived.' And with that he shooed Tessa out. Back in the kitchen, she found Nick helping Bess to put the groceries away. He gave her that impish grin and, strangely touched once more, she began to question him. 'Have you never been able to talk. Nick?' He mimed, 'No!' with deliberate comic pathos. 'But you do understand?' He mimed, 'Yes!' with comic enthusiasm. 'Why is everyone so nice to me ?' He went down on his knees in an Al Jolson posture, arms spread wide, meaning 'You're the greatest,' until Tessa had to laugh. But she persisted with her question-ing. 'What sort of man was Doctor Sharp and why did he keep a crucifix in his case?' Suddenly, Nick froze, immobile, as if in a trance. Then he shrugged, and approaching Tessa, bowed and kissed her hand, before departing abruptly with his antic limp. She looked after him, puzzled for a second, and then, still on her voyage of discovery, opened the top of the Aga boiler. Inside, she saw a weird doll with many-ringed round eyes and grey hair. She lifted it out and, as she did so, the head fell gro-tesquely sideways and hung, lolling. There was sheer horror in Tessa's eyes. Unbidden, the thought of Doctor Sharp's broken neck came flooding back. Later that evening, looking at the bundle of letters lying still unopened on the bedside table, Tessa wondered once again what thoughts had filled Dr Sharp's mind during his last day on earth. And wondering, she said out loud, 'Bruce, what did old Sharp die of?' Beside her, Bruce opened his eyes reluctantly. 'Well, when he fell downstairs he broke his neck.' He turned his head to take a closer look at her. 'Oh no, Tessa, you're not still worrying about that doll. I've told you - it's commonsense! It was probably left lying around by some village child. Sharp got irritated and threw it in the stove. Now come on, settle down. We've another busy day tomorrow.' He closed his eyes again and almost instantly the tempo of his breathing slowed and he was asleep. Tessa's eyes remained open. Then after a lot of thought, she swung her long legs over the side of the bed, and sitting up, switched on her bedside lamp carefully, shield-ing the glow from Bruce with her body. As she opened one of the letters and began to read, her face gradually registered her bewilderment. The letter said simply: 'John, for God's sake send help soon. Yours, Oliver.' i She opened another to read: 'Dear John, I can't understand why you don't answer. My position is desperate. I can't talk over the telephone. Please write or come soon. Yours, Oliver.' Tessa looked at the sleeping Bruce and, making her mind up quickly, shook him awake, He sat bolt upright, annoyed and a little alarmed. ' 'Tessa . . . What's the matter?' For answer, she thrust the letter at him without cornment. He read it and looked up at her, still angry. 'These are Dr Sharp's letters. What are you doing . with them? Tessa, you had no right to open them.' 'Bruce, he was in trouble. Look at them. He was wor-ried out of his mind.' 'It's no business of yours. The man's dead.' 'Yes, but what was he worried about?' 'His health, his investments, some imaginary disaster, how would I know? It's morbid to read a dead man's letters. It's also illegal.' He climbed out of bed, snatched the letters from Tessa's hand and put them back in the drawer. Then, suddenly softening, he kissed her. 'Now please, Tessa, go to sleep. Remember I've got to be up early tomorrow.' She lay back slowly, rather forlorn, but sleep came quickly to calm her restlessness. Midnight chimed on the church clock and moonlight flooded the room. Suddenly the face of Mad Nick appeared at the win-
dow. He studied the sleeping Tessa slowly and with obvious relish, then disappeared as suddenly as he had come. Bess Tarling didn't look like a Judas Goat. She was far too buxom, too round of face and figure for that. And whoever heard of a Judas Goat twinkling with good humour. And yet no goat ever led his flock to the slaughter with more dark treachery in his heart than Bess had in her's tonight. 'What sort of party is it?' whispered Jill from the hall-way. 'It's in honour of Lady Day tomorrow,' whispered back the Judas Goat. 'It's a great compliment that you've been asked.' She started to open the front door. 'Aren't the doctor and his wife invited?' asked Jill. 'He's worn out, poor dear. He needs his rest.' Whereupon she put her finger to her lips and out they went, closing the door gently behind them. The blinds were down in the village store, but light filtered through and as she was ushered in, Jill saw that it had been decorated with ears of dried wheat, branches of hawthorn and hornbeam and holly. The regulars were all there, the men dressed in their Sunday-best suits, the women in pretty, pastel-coloured frocks with flowered hats. A black curtain had been drawn across the front of the shop counter and at the sight of Jill, a great cheer went up. She stood there blinking, smiling uncertainly in the light. Belle the seamstress swiftly stripped tissue paper from a parcel to reveal a dress. 'Here you are, my dear,' she cried. 'Here's your pretty frock.' 'Frock . . . ?' 'Well, my dear, you didn't think we'd let you be un-suitably dressed. Not as a bridesmaid. Not on the eve of Lady Day.' Belle held up a lacy head-dress. 'This is for your pretty hair, my dear.' Dan moved forward and preferred a blue garter. 'And this for your pretty knee.' Nan picked up a nosegay of dried orange blossom. 'And orange blossom, since you come before the bride.' Jill, more and more bewildered, felt them begin to close in on her from all sides. Job poured a handful of confetti into her hand and Belle began unfastening the back of her dress. 'I'm ... I'm sorry. You'll have to explain.* 'He'll explain, my dear,' said the gentle Nan, turning towards the counter. At that precise moment, the curtain was torn aside to reveal Nick, standing on the counter, legs apart, arms wide in a gesture of welcome. ( He was dressed like some sort of macabre bridegroom, the kind one might see in a dream just as it was turning into a nightmare. He was wearing a too-tall top hat with the crown top-pling slightly. In one hand, there was a crusted silver chalice and in the other, a black candle in an ornate candlestick. His mouth was open in a wide, fixed smile, the eyes fixed and glittering. Jill took one look at him, screamed in mortal terror and made a run for the door. But countless, nameless
hands reached out and she was swept, struggling, into the air. They held her horizontally two feet above the floor and in that position, they stripped her. They undressed her the way indulgent parents undress wayward children at bed-time, clucking good-naturedly, ignoring her struggles and behaving as though they had all the time in the world. Jill had imagined that they simply wished to remove her dress. But as soon as this had gone, her slip was whisked away too. It was then that she began to remem-ber something she had once read about black magic ceremonies. 'Before such ceremonies can begin, the victim must first be stripped of all earthly clothing and this includes bangles and beads, which can oppose the will of Satan.' Almost in answer to her thoughts, her wrist-watch and necklace were unclasped and placed alongside her other clothing in a tin chest on the store counter. Meanwhile, Nick was capering around the fringe of the central group. But at a signal from him, the buxom, rosy-cheeked, good-natured Bess unclasped her niece's bra and whipped it dramatically away. Another nod and she was sliding nylon panties over rounded hips and down the impossibly long legs, until they too joined the rest in the tin chest. Then and only then did any rustic charm that there was in the gathering completely disappear. Jill looked up into eyes full of cruelty, lust and a kind of madness. The sight of her naked body had washed away the last sem-blance of sanity. They dressed her in a thin, almost transparent wedding gown which moulded itself to her generous curves with loving care. Then they lifted her shoulder high and began to carry her through the village. And as they did so, the other residents came tumbling excitedly out of their houses to join the procession. As they reached the woods, the chanting began. It sounded like an ancient hymn, but there were no dis-tinguishable words and little melody. A short service followed and at its close, Jill suddenly turned and fled into the woods in blind panic, her hair loose, her dress torn, her eyes wild and staring. The mob pursued her silently. Nick bobbing forward in the lead. They were gaining with every stride. Tessa was dreaming of hooded monks and dark satanic woods and awoke to find that she had scarcely been dreaming at all. Borne on the wind, there came the distant sound of chanting. She was still in the hinterland of sleep when the 'phone on the bedside table rang startlingly beside her. The local police wanted to talk to Brace. She shook him gently awake and watched as he fought his way out of sleep. 'Yes, all right,' he said finally. 'Pick me up in five minutes.' Then for Tessa's benefit: 'Apparently, by tradition, I'm the local police surgeon too. Something about a poacher finding a body in the woods. Probably an old vagrant who died of exposure. God knows why they couldn't wait until the morning.' He dressed quickly and kissed Tessa a brief goodbye. 'Don't be long, darling, will you?' she said. He looked at her closely. 'You're not bothered about being left on your own are you?' 'No, of course not! What can happen in a sleepy old English village ? Besides, I'm not on my own. Jill is up-stairs.' Despite herself, she shivered, although the room was warm. Her husband nodded, failing to notice the shiver. 'That's my girl. Now you go back to bed. I'll try not to wake you when I come in.' After he'd gone, she stood there for a moment, inde-cisive, then headed for the kitchen. As she was waiting for the kettle to boil, she heard again a faint snatch of the chant borne on the wind. But this time it was followed by a faint scratching at the door. Tessa opened it cautiously to find upon the step a bunch of snowdrops and crocuses, some tattered stalks of wolf's bane, a stoppered stone jar and an ancient-looking, dark green bottle with a heavy and complicated iron clamp top. The chanting could be heard quite clearly now. It seemed to be coming closer. Touched by fear, Tessa smashed the green bottle against the sink. Shorn blonde hair fell at her feet. Then, suddenly desperate, she grabbed the stone jar and-smashed that too. Blood poured out and she shrank back, terrified. The chanting had become very much louder and there could be no mistaking its direction. It was approaching the house. She stumbled from the kitchen, hampered by her in-jured foot, and lifted the 'phone. It was dead. Her breathing loud, she flung open the front door and outside, the chanting rose to a crescendo. Nick stood there, framed in a patch of moonlight, his arms spread wide and high. He was still wearing his bridegroom's outfit, his too-tall hat tipped at a rakish angle. The chanting had stopped. At the sight of him a brief scream forced its way through Tessa's lips until, reassured by her familiarity with Nick, she tried to compose herself. 'Nick, what's going on? What are you doing here? Why are you dressed like that? And why won't the 'phone work?' She stood back as he capered in, trying to mime, 'Calm down.' But this was quite clearly beyond her. Wrenching open the drugs cabinet, she took out the crucifix and thrust it towards Nick. 'And why did Dr Sharp keep this in here?' she asked, an edge of hysteria in her voice. Nick shrank back in terror, 'What is it. Nick? What on earth's the matter?' She advanced towards him and he shrank back still further into a comer like a trapped animal. And at that moment, they heard the front door open and footsteps in the hall. 'Oh, Bruce . . . Brace'.' Tessa called thankfully, limp-ing rapidly towards the hall. But it wasn't Bruce who entered. It was Bess. 'Love you, my dear, whatever are you doing with that?' So saying, Bess took the crucifix from Tessa's nerve-less hand, adding, 'You are a strange one and no mis-take.' 'I'm a strange one!' cried Tessa desperately. 'Will you please tell me what's going on?.' Bess put her arm around Tessa soothingly. 'There, there, my dear. Don't take on so. It's time, that's all.' 'Time?' 'It's long past midnight. That means it's Lady Day, Nick's come to bring you to the ceremony. That's what he was trying to tell you.' 'What ceremony ? I don't want to go to any ceremony.'
'Oh now, don't be silly, my dear. You know you must. It's just down at the store.' 'I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying here until my husband gets back.' Bess and Nick exchanged a cosy chuckle. 'Your husband, my dear?' echoed Bess. 'Which one?' But Tessa could only stare wide-eyed at them, as for the first time she began to sense the truth. In mounting panic, she turned towards the hall but Nick was smilingly blocking her way. She spun round and wrenched open the doors to the waiting-room only to find the room full of villagers, beaming benignly at her. They advanced upon her affectionately. 'What are you doing here?' cried Tessa. 'Go away! I don't want you in my house.' It was as though she hadn't spoken. They still smiled sweetly and still continued to close in on her. Bess and Nick had moved to stand close behind her. Nan was the first to speak and there was something close to compassion in her eyes. 'She's nervous, poor lamb,' she said. 'It's only to be expected. She's a woman, like the rest of us, even though she is the Lady.' She snapped her fingers. 'Lob . . . the cordial.' Lob came forward with a beautiful flask of blue glass held in a filigree of silver; he offered it to Tessa's lips. She half-screamed and tried to push it away, but Bess and Nick seized her arms, while Lob gently tilted her head back and poured the cordial down her throat.
The moon was busy painting a silver world. Silver clouds ; floated by. The leaves, so green by day, were a darker shade of silver and even the branches waved their silver , arms towards the sky. It was a night made for love. But on the ground at Bruce's feet, there was only death. Jill was lying on her back spread-eagled, terror and supplication in her eyes. Her hair had been shorn from her head. Bruce looked down at her soft body outlined so clearly ] by the transparent bridal gown, and pity rose in his eyes. I He noticed her right hand still clenched tight and very gently, as though she could still feel pain, he unclasped the fingers. Confetti cascaded on to the grass. The local police inspector. Tony James, gave Bruce a lift home and they drove in total silence for several min-utes. Neither were strangers to death. It was an essential facet of their professions. And yet the sight of Jill had chilled them both. When Bruce had seen her just a few hours earlier, she had seemed so full of life, so vital, so undeserving of such a terror-filled death. He shrugged in disgust. 'The thing's insane,' he said. 'It makes no sense.' 'She was well hidden,' replied the Inspector. 'If it hadn't been for the poacher she might never have been found at all.' 'To kill a girl and cut her hair off! And I thought we'd come to an outpost of sanity. I've never seen anything like it.' 'I have' said the Inspector. A year ago. Funny ... she was blonde too. We never found anyone.' 'The same thing?' 'Exactly the same. Old Dr Sharp rang me, said he wanted to talk about it. He sounded very agitated. I came over just after he'd phoned. Found he'd fallen down-stairs and broken his neck.'
Bruce was about to say something but they had pulled up beside his garden gate. Changing his mind, he thanked the Inspector for the lift, adding, 'Well, good luck. I hope you catch them. I just can't imagine what sort of fiends would do some-thing like this.' The Inspector nodded morosely. 'Well we'll try, I can promise you that. Not that I've any hope of doing much good. In a place like this they just close ranks.' He drove off and Bruce watched until the tail lights had disappeared into the night. Then he walked slowly up the garden path, deep in thought. The store had been transformed into a hideous cari-cature of a chapel with the counter taking the place of an alter, Upon this makeshift alter, black candles burnt in golden candlesticks while between them was a huge painting of a goat's head with enormous curving horns and eyes which were two pools of yellow fire. In the centre of the altar, sat a large crystal bowl filled with blood; a long, jewelled knife lay across the top of it. Bart was laying out vestments covered in cabalistic markings. His wife Jane, close to breaking point, watched him with mounting horror and then suddenly snatched the vestments away. 'No, Bart, no! I won't let you do it,' she shouted. 'I should have stopped you years ago.' 'Leave them alone! It's not your place to lay hands on them,' replied Bart, wrenching them from her with such force that she fell sprawling to the floor. ' You should have stopped me ? It's only because you're my wife that you're still here at all.' Jane began to cry but her tears were interrupted by the sound of approaching feet. 'Get up! Get up, woman!' commanded Bart. 'She's coming. I've no wish for her to see you grovelling on the floor.' Jane scrambled to her feet and in that very second the door opened and Tessa was brought in. She was walking, supported by Seth and Lob, and outwardly she seemed quite composed. The cordial had acted like a drug. Her eyes were glazed, her features marble. But under her unnatural calm, she was vividly alive, fighting desperately to break through to reality. Belle approached her, bearing a bridal dress. 'Here you are, my Lady.' I've been working on it longer than I can remember, and my mother before me. This is the proudest day of my life.' Strong hands lifted Tessa into the air, until she was held just as Jill had been only a few brief hours earlier. They stripped her with gentle eagerness, and a sort of reverent lust, slowly and completely. And when their task was completed, they gazed at her in adoring wonder. She did not have the spectacular appeal of Jill and yet in her own way was strangely attractive: a sun-tanned goddess who despite her American accent had gleaming pale blonde, Nordic hair. The villagers gazed so intently that they failed to see Jane slip away into the shadows at the back of the store. Next, they dressed Tessa in the transparent bridal gown and stood her next to Nick whose glittering eyes flicked over her in gleeful anticipation. It was only when Bart stooped to pick up a robe that he paused 'Wait a minute,' he said urgently. 'Where's Jane? Has anyone seen my wife?' The others stared around in sudden alarm and Bart began to move towards the door, shouting 'Lob, you'll have to take over. You're as high in the Mystery as I am. Carry it through. We've got to carry it through now or great danger will come to us.' He paused at the door to pick up a shotgun. 'I'll be back as soon as I can, but don't wait. It must be achieved tonight!' As he moved away with hurried steps, behind him the chanting had already begun.
There are times when silence can be the most terrifying sound of all. And for Bruce, standing beside the empty bed, this was just such a moment. Panic-stricken, he called Tessa's name but only the echo mocked him. It was then, when he ran down the stairs to the kitchen, that he spotted the broken bottles in the sink, along with the blood and the locks of shorn, fine-spun fair hair. For a moment he stood frozen in horror and then rushed back to the bedroom and began tearing open Dr Sharp's letters. As he began to read, sweat beaded his brow; it was almost as though the voice of the dead doctor was coming back to him. 'I now have clear evidence of a tradition of devil-worship in the village' Sharp had written, 'going back centuries. I have been aware each year of a growing excitement in the village leading up to Lady Day. T uow know the reason-please don't think I am mad.
An ancient prophecy has foretold that one day, in a year when Lady Day coincides with the full moon, a Bride of Satan will arrive in the village. She will be the final mark of approval from the powers of darkness. They will know her by her appearance. 'She will be moon-pale, moon-gold and will limp with her left foot, as so many of my patients do though I can never discover why. 'She will marry and mate with Satan on Lady Day - how this would be achieved I cannot imagine - and will then accept death at his hands in return for eternal Satanic power for the village. All this is arrant nonsense, I agree. This Bride of Satan will simply never arrive. 'But what worries me more is a requirement of the prophecy that in those years when Lady Day coincides with the full moon, a young, fair girl must be sacrificed whether the Bride of Satan arrives or not. 'If their Lady of Satan has arrived, the girl will be regarded as a bridesmaid going before her. Her blood is used to revitalise the village, 'Lady Day coincides with the full moon this year. I fear the villagers have somehow guessed my knowledge. I found a doll with a broken neck on the back doorstep today. I have tried to destroy it, but it will not burn...' Before Bruce could read further, there was a frantic hammering on the front door. He wrenched it open and as he did so, Jane fell into his arms, panting, hardly able to breath. 'Doctor . . . your wife,' she gasped and fainted before she could say another word. Bruce scooped her up, carried her through to the sitting-room and forced a sip of brandy between her pallid lips. She revived almost immediately. 'You must hurry,' she cried. 'They've got her down at the store. They're going to ... to sacrifice her.'
Bruce straightened up and leapt for the door but Bart was standing there, shotgun levelled at him. All his familiar charm had disappeared. In the darkness his eyes had a murderous gleam in them. 'It's too late,' he stated flatly. 'The word must be fulfilled.' He flipped the safety catch with his thumb but, sensing his intention, Jane flung herself forward, clawing at him. Then, while he was still off-balance, Bruce lunged and grabbed the gun. Bart retained his grip and the two men battled toe-to-toe in a furious test of strength with life or death as the prize.
At the store, meanwhile, the ceremony was moving towards its climax. Tessa the bride, still dazed and passive, was seated on what looked like a small, carved throne, her left foot resting on an ornate stool. Nick knelt before her, reverently unwinding the band-age from Tessa's foot. As the last fold fell away, revealing the perfectly normal bare foot, he leapt back horrified. The shocked villagers gave a strangled moan until the gentle Nan passed sentence, announcing firmly: 'She knows our mystery. She can't be allowed to live. She must die in the old way.' The effect of the cordial wore off as suddenly as it had come. As they closed in on her, Tessa rose screaming. 'Spreadeagle her on the altar,' commanded Bess. 'Fetch some rope,' commanded Nan. Struggling with the strength of mortal terror, Tessa was overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers, She was still struggling wildly as they carried her across to the altar. Bess's voice now dominated the rest. 'Spreadeagle her,' she cried. 'Come on Seth and Dan, tie those ropes around her ankles. And you. Lob and Nick hold her arms. That's right, now stretch her out tight...' And so it went on, until finally Tessa was stretched out in the position of the satanic victim, her ankles and wrists secured to the four corners of the altar, totally at the mercy of her tormentors. The villagers stood around her in a semi-circle and the chanting began again, growing louder with each passing second. As it moved towards its crescendo. Nick bounded on to the altar to kneel astride the struggling Tessa. Lob handed him the dagger and the chanting stopped. Nick placed both hands on the dagger and held it poised over Tessa's breast. 'Nowl' cried Lob, Nick raised it to strike but suddenly behind him a shotgun boomed. His body catapulted straight off the altar and in mid-air, he screamed. It was the first and the last sound he would ever make on earth. The villagers turned as one to find Bruce leaning shakily against the doorway, the shotgun still smoking in his hands. Far off, in the sudden silence, the wail of police sirens could be heard. Five minutes later, when Tessa had been untied and the villagers loaded into a police van, Bruce stood talk-ing to Inspector James with one arm around Tessa's waist. Only when two stretcher-bearers began to carry Nick away, did he gently disengage himself from his bride. 'Just a minute,' he said, 'I have to know.' He bent down and deftly stripped off Nick's left boot and sock. There were no toes. The foot was smooth and clubbed and round, with a cleft like a hoof in what would normally have been the sole. 'A hereditary ailment,' said Bruce, 'and a surpris-ingly common one.' 'Not the cloven hoof?' asked the Inspector. Bruce sighed. 'No,' he said, 'but that's what Nick and the others believed.'