Magnolia Villa, Crowstones,
24th October 1895
I have placed this in the hands of Jonathan Cowper- a low, rough man, but trustworthy enough when paid. This way I am sure the letter will reach you unopened.
Please save your anger. Yes, we agreed not to correspond for some weeks after what has passed, but you will hear bad news of me soon and I wished to explain in my own words.
As you know from my last letter, the funeral was arranged for the 21st and I rose early, dressed in the black suit, the black armband, the top hat- the image of a grief-stricken husband. The service was at eleven, so I wandered in the garden for an hour. Have you noticed how suddenly the garden becomes moorland here? The vivid green of the lawn swallowed by scrub and cottongrass- civilisation devoured by wilderness.
That was the path we had to take, you see- across the moor, along the Corpse Road. At least Mrs Connors calls it such. The Corpse Road. Perhaps if there had been a different route to the church, not across that dreadful moor…
The walk seemed longer than it should. I walked behind the bier, listening to the wheels rattle, thinking how small her coffin was. But then, Constance was a slight woman, slim wrists, slim waist- bones as brittle as those of a roasted bird.
We stopped at the coffin stone, by the old cross. I wished the day over, wished to urge the men onward, so the whole, dreadful business was behind us. But the villagers like the tradition of it, and you and I had agreed- I must do what is expected of me.
The pallbearers muttered among themselves, shared bottles of beer and cakes. I smoked one of the cigarettes you gave me- the Turkish- and looked out over the moor. The sun came and went behind dashing black cloud, one moment bright and chill, the next dark, as if a storm threatened. I turned my collar up against the wind, but still the warmth was tugged from me.
Then I saw it. Flitting over the torn grass. A flame, tall as a person, white and dazzling blue at its heart. I saw it- I swear- but then it was gone and I wondered if the pressure of the day…
Mrs Connors touched my arm, told me we were moving on. I was so befuddled I almost mentioned that white fire. But telling another would have made it more real and it wanted it to remain my mind’s phantom.
The rest of the walk passed in a blur, except for one moment when a man lost his footing. He grabbed the rail on the bier to stop himself from falling, the whole thing pitched sideways, the coffin sliding.
I thought it would fall, Robert. I thought it would smash to the ground. I saw the lid broken into matchwood and Constance dropping into the heather. I saw her face, that same look of terror, those reproachful eyes.
It never happened. They righted the bier and the coffin was saved. But the thought left me shaken.
Perhaps that is why the service passed so quickly. I hardly remember the eulogy, the hymns. I only remember removing my glove, the feeling of earth as it slipped from my fingers into the grave.
The weather had changed by the time we left the church. The massed clouds began to drop fat, grey drops of rain and the villagers dashed away to their firesides. I stood in the lych-gate, where the coffin had passed through, where Constance and I had walked on our wedding day- do you remember? I was pulling on my gloves, hiding from the rain, when I realised Mrs Connors was standing at my elbow.
‘Corpse gate,’ she said.
I asked her what she meant.
‘Tis what lych-gate means. Corpse gate.’ And then she looked up at me with her cold, steady eye, ‘I saw a flame dancing on the moor. Slim and slight, like a lady.’
My mouth was jammed, no words would come.
She leaned in close to me and said, ‘It means another body will pass through the gate soon.’ She said nothing more, but strode from the churchyard and back towards the Corpse Road.
I almost called for her to stay, almost shouted for her to explain herself. I saw her accusing stare- that flash of anger. She knew me for the man I was….
I have watched the moor every hour since returning to the house. And as the night falls and the chill rolls in, I see it- the ghost candle, white and blue and flickering. It is Constance come to punish me. Tonight I shall go and meet her out there, among the heather and the nodding cottongrass and it will end.
Do not come. You will be too late. Wait to hear the news of me and know that our last journey together will be through the lych-gate, with you walking behind my bier.
Today’s Prompt: Pick up the nearest book and flip to page 29. What’s the first word that jumps off the page? Use this word as your springboard for inspiration.
The book I picked up was Precious Bane by Mary Webb– the word lych-gate. The book probably influenced me, as it’s set in a rural area in 19th century Shropshire, with lots of talk of curses and Sin eaters and funeral cakes. A great book (4 plus stars on Amazon and Goodreads) that I highly recommend.