AND YET, thought Carson Parret, there remained the question of the footprints in the snow.
Two sets now left Albert Rognell's house; Chilver's and his own. Where were Eggmont's?
He felt a sudden jarring shock. Parret caught his balance as his feet began to slide on the icy pavement. Limping slightly on his right leg, he reached the snow-bound yard at the front of the inn. The hands on the double-faced clock above the main entrance to the aptly named Time Waits For No Man formed a straight line across the right-hand dial. It was eleven minutes past eight on that February morning.
A battered two-wheeler, which had brought a pre-dawn passenger from the nearby town of Fellchester, was standing at the door of the inn. The driver, a heap of immobile old clothes perched at the rear of his cab, took no notice of a prospective passenger at first. He showed evidence of life only when Parret told him that he wished to be conveyed to Delf Hill, which lay on the fellow's route back to town. Only then did the driver prove that he was not asleep, or even frozen to death, by nodding minimally and inviting Parret to board.
Parret turned the brass handle, which glowed from the frequent application of hands rather than polish, and felt a nip of chilled metal through his leather glove. He was grateful that he had been spared a trudge of a mile and three-quarters across snow-covered fields. There was a silvery sheen on the iron stirrup. Parret stamped snow from his boots, then stepped up cautiously into the cab's dank interior.
The tiny trap in the roof opened. Realizing that the driver did not intend to speak, Parret gave his full address and tried to make himself comfortable on the hard seat. The driver commenced a long, liquid sniff; which was mercifully muffled by the closing of the trap. Parret's own nose began to moisten in sympathy.
He was still feeling slightly confused. The half-mile walk from Rognell's home to Cheyne Crossing village had been twenty minutes of short, careful steps along an icy track. Preoccupied with the prospect of a forceful contact with the ground at any moment, there had been no time for him to come to terms with the footprint mystery.
As the cab began its two and a half mile journey at little more than walking pace, Parret steered his thoughts back to the early hours of that morning. The affair had started pleasantly enough, he reflected, folding his arms across his narrow chest as if to crush his body heat deeper; to stop it escaping the confines of the tweed winter coat that the first deluges of snow had persuaded him to buy.
Aglow with the warmth and sense of good fellowship conferred by four pints of excellent ale, he and Chilver had leapt at the chance to continue the evening at Rognell's rambling house on the outskirts of Cheyne Crossing. Eggmont had been with them too. They had encountered him on the way, though, outside the Goat and Compasses. Parret could remember the four of them cramming into a passing cab, a four-wheeler fortunately, and making the reverse of his present journey.
The crackle of ice beneath the cab's wheels acquired a background of hollow drumming as the vehicle moved onto the wooden decking of the iron bridge. Parret glanced casually through the grimy, frosted window. Looking out into the sullen gloom of a winter morning, he could see a winding depression in the snow-covered countryside. The ice on the River Cheyne was a good five inches thick in most places.
Guy Chilver had staggered off into the night just after two o'clock, chasing a blob of yellow light from his pocket lantern. His tracks had been the ones that Parret had followed into Cheyne Crossing. Their leave-taking had been quite noisy, with Eggmont shouting a warning about wolves after their departing companion. Parret recalled that there had been some discussion of reports of the creatures moving closer than usual to towns and villages in this colder than normal winter. Towns in eastern Europe, that is to say. The last British wolf had died one hundred and seventy years earlier in the north of Scotland.
Rognell had dismissed as fairy tales Eggmont's stories of attacks on humans, maintaining that the wolf is a rather timid creature. Which meant that Eggmont had been with them still after Chilver had gone. But when he, Parret, had taken his leave, there had been just the two of them; himself and Rognell. It was odd that he had no recollection of Eggmont's departure.
Folklore had become the theme of the night. Sitting in Rognell's crowded library, basking in the red glow of a huge log fire, its light augmented by half a dozen candles rather than the gas lamps, the four of them had chased the topic for half of the night.
Before removing his top coat, Rognell had braved the chill of his wine cellar to fetch up a half-dozen of ten-year-old Estelle, setting the surplus bottles on the window ledge behind velvet curtains to preserve their chill. Chilver had worried about the bottles freezing solid and shattering. Eggmont had protested that their host was being too generous with his best vintage. Waving all objections aside, Rognell had damned them with the heartiness of long acquaintance, proclaiming that he had every intention of consuming his bottle and a half, frozen or not.
Such generosity is typical of Rognell, Parret reflected. A fine, outgoing fellow, but prone to folly. Especially after the third quart of ale. And last night! Rognell had excelled himself last night...
The cab stopped abruptly, lifting Parret then returning him with a bump to the hard, wooden seat. Loud cries claimed his attention as a carter encouraged his team to straighten their waggon. It had slewed across the narrow street that bisected Cheyne Crossing, blocking Cheyne Drive from pavement to pavement. Parret could see two green-shuttered shops, butcher and baker, then three small cottages in grey, local stone on the left side of the street. Four cottages, fronted with minute, stone-walled gardens, faced them on the right.
Then the street crossed the frozen river Cheyne by an icicle-hung iron bridge before marching out of sight into bleak, snow-blanketed countryside, which was divided into irregular shapes by black, skeletal hedges. After about a quarter of a mile, Cheyne Drive merged with the slightly wider Deacon Way. Delf Hill, where Parret lived, lay a mile and three-quarters east of south of Cheyne Crossing, but two and a half rutted, bumpy miles distant by road.
Parret's chain of thought continued with the cab. Rognell had produced a mountain of food sometime after Chilver's departure; at around three o'clock in the morning. Parret could remember pausing in the pursuit of a pickled onion with his fork to count the silvery chimes from an over-ornate carriage clock. Their leisurely meal had lasted for at least an hour, the consumption of food being interrupted frequently by an interminable but agreeable, mild argument.
The backbone of the disagreement had been an exchange of folklore between Rognell and Eggmont. Parret's contribution had been unwavering scepticism. He could remember few of the details, but Rognell had taken as a challenge to his powers of persuasion Parret's total lack of belief that folk tales contain any substance at their root.
Eggmont was a believer. He had been Rognell's faithful ally. His initial protestations of, "Well, it works!" or "There must be something in it or it would have been forgotten!" had soon become a triumphant, "There, you see!" tagged on every time Rognell had provided a scientific explanation for some improbably folk myth.
Collecting folk legends was Rognell's current diversion. There was no denying his energy in the pursuit of the unlikely. In a matter of months, he had filled two large notebooks with strange tales, official explanations by experts and his own ideas. His reference works filled three shelves of the glass-fronted bookcases that lined the walls of his library.
Parret could not help but wonder how long it would last. His friend seemed to have a voracious appetite for hobbies. At the ripe old age of four and twenty, he showed no signs of settling down. On the contrary, his investigative zeal increased with the passing years.
And yet, Parret realized, only the absent Chilver had settled down, married well and embarked on the task of raising children to further the glory of the Empire and comfort him in his declining years. Eggmont, who seemed to be slipping into the role of confirmed bachelor, had been quite scathing, in a good natured way, when Chilver had announced that it was high time that he returned to his wife and family.
Eggmont, his round face glowing, had contributed what he termed practical folklore to the discussion. Most of it had to do with the weather and other country concerns, which was not surprising since he had spent at least fifteen of his five and twenty summers on his uncle's farm in North Devonshire.
The focus of their exchanges had shifted gradually during the course of the mid-night meal. By the end of it, all three participants had reached the last drops of their second bottle of Rognell's white Estelle and life had become a pleasant fog. Perhaps that was why the volume of their statements had increased, and the mild and often meaningless insults had not led to blows. Violence had been restricted to a verbal plane. And then Rognell had begun to talk about magic and the supernatural.
The cab turned left onto Deacon Way, presenting its blunt flank to the chill east wind. Parret could feel the vehicle rock gently in response to each wintry gust. The morning's ration of snow was falling as small grains rather than the fluffy, flat flakes of the previous evening and night. A huge drift was forming against the beech hedge on the right-hand side as the wind scoured Deacon Way. In fact, it was difficult to tell whether the snow-mist drifting across the road was falling from the sky or had been picked up from the ground by the icy blasts.
The night had been windy, Parret recalled. Windows had boomed and rattled, and there had been the occasional surge of smoke forced back down the chimney.
Small wonder, therefore, that the talk had turned to the occult.
Rognell's ally had deserted him at this point. Eggmont had taken up a position somewhere between his host's belief and Parret's scepticism. Undaunted, their host had continued to put forward his views, advancing gradually from vague generalities to specific instances. Building on Eggmont's parting warning to Chilver, Rognell had argued that werewolf legends are based in fact, that it is possible to turn a human being into a wolf. Parret could still experience a stirring of annoyance when he thought about what had followed.
The whole thing had been a trick, he told himself; an illusion cooked up between Rognell and Eggmont to make a fool of him. The alternative was too horrible to consider. If Rognell had really...
A block of frozen mud, broken from the rim by a heavy farm cart, had formed a bridge across one of the petrified ruts in Deacon Way. The wheel of Parret's cab found it unerringly as the vehicle turned from Cheyne Drive into the wider, main highway. An abrupt climb became an equally precipitate fall.
Parret's hat met the roof of the two-wheeler with enough force to drive his head an inch further into his headgear. Easing himself free, he cursed both the driver and the weather in an undertone.
It was a miserable morning; perhaps atonement for the splendid night at Rognell's house. Tiredness was just starting to catch up with him. He found keeping his eyes open an increasingly difficult task.
Yet an entertaining night, Parret thought. Well worth the lost sleep. Especially after Eggmont had challenged Rognell to prove his claims, and Rognell...
He fell suddenly, jerking downwards. Parret's eyes flew open as he was precipitated from sleep, wondering what had happened. A steady carriage-creaking, the crunch of wheels on hard-packed snow and the tiresome jingle of harness told him that he was still in the cab. Looking beyond the straining horse, he could see a meeting of hedges less than fifty yards ahead.
How would the vehicle cope with the slight incline when it turned left onto rising Deacon Way? he wondered.
A vision of sliding backwards for three miles before fetching up in the river at Cheyne Bottom flashed through his mind. Perhaps it was just as well that the Cheyne was safely frozen.
I am a fanciful fool, Parret decided. And gullible, too.
But it was difficult to recall when Rognell and Eggmont had found the opportunity to hatch their scheme. Rognell, he decided with hindsight, had been almost transparently provocative when asserting that magic is science, which has not yet been explained, and that it is indeed possible to turn a man into a wolf.
And Eggmont's challenge, when Rognell had claimed to know that secret, had been very convincing. Parret was prepared to admit that he had been taken in well and truly.
Involving both himself and Eggmont in the preparations had been a master-stroke on Rognell's part. By the time the trio had cleared furniture and carpets from the upstairs room, measured and painted a white pentacle within a seven-foot circle, and then mixed the potions that Rognell had insisted were necessary, they had consumed a further bottle of excellent white Estelle between them. Parret could recall being persuaded that Rognell would not allow them to expend so much energy to no purpose, and that, if not a transformation, then something spectacular was planned.
And then had come the argument; which had been particularly well staged, Parret was forced to admit. It had seemed so logical that Eggmont remove his garments. Whoever heard of a wolf roaming the snows in a tweed suit and Gaines boots? And the fire that they had lit before beginning the preparations had developed into a roaring blaze, casting warmth to every corner of the large room.
It was cold in the bouncing cab; even colder now that it was heading down Parswood Lane and into the teeth of a biting east wind. Delf Hill merged with solid white clouds on Parret's right. The town of the same name lay round the next turning. He would be home in a few minutes.
Parret tried to recall the point in the proceedings at which he had taken his eyes from the circle and its enclosed pentangle. Certainly the rigmarole, delivered as a low, murmured chant, and the interminable gestures of Rognell's hands, arms, indeed his whole body at times, now seemed calculated to dull Parret's interest and his wits, to force his attention to wander.
Dressed in a tight dressing gown of black silk, his strong face a maze of shifting shadows as he turned and weaved in the fire and candle light, Rognell had given a performance, which would have been totally convincing and not a little frightening to a sober stranger. As a somewhat intoxicated friend, however, Parret had found the opus at first interesting and amusing, then a little tedious and finally boring.
How long, Parret wondered, had Eggmont taken, naked save for a woollen blanket, to make the door from the circle? A matter of seconds. But for Rognell to produce a wolf and lead it to the heart of the pentacle covered by an identical blanket? And why had he not heard the scamper of claws on the polished wooden floor? Parret asked himself. Surely it was unthinkable that Rognell had, in fact, turned their mutual friend Rupert Eggmont into a wolf? And yet the evidence seemed to point in that direction...
The cab skidded slightly as it negotiated the left turn into Parswood Lane, crushing Parret into a corner. Snow blew into his face. He raised his muffler and tilted his hat forward to protect his face from the direct blast of a numbing east wind. This was the last lap. The cab had perhaps a mile of frozen road to cover.
A shudder convulsed his body as Parret recalled the mild horror experienced when Rognell had led the surprisingly docile wolf to the front door and sent it on its way toward the dark angles of the wood to the north of his home. Then belated reason had accounted for the apparent irresponsibility.
Parret had lost sight of the animal almost as soon as it had moved out of the wedge of light cast by the gas lamp in the hall. Its silvery-grey coat was an excellent match to snow at night. Clearly, the beast had been trained to circle the house.
Eggmont, Rognell's co-conspirator, had been waiting at the rear to lure the ‘wolf' into the kitchen. No other explanation was possible.
Yet it was strange that Rognell had refused to admit the deception. And that Eggmont had not reappeared. But he had, most probably, dressed quietly and sneaked to his home behind Cheyne Crossing after securing the ‘wolf'.
Parret and Rognell had returned to the warmth of the ground floor library after closing the front door on the frozen night. Rognell had been jubilant at the success of his experiment; Parret, in merry good-humour, prepared to go some way with the pretence. Rognell had been vastly amused by his guest's transparent façade.
Self-deceiving unbelief, he had contended, provides the necromancer with a cloak of invisibility. Superstitious fools may burn or hang a harmless old woman for looking askant at one of their number, yet the true sorcerer could turn the parson into a goat while he delivered his sermon, and walk from the church unhindered because the congregation would be convinced that they had seen nothing more than a trick.
His scepticism rising through a wine-fog, Parret had raised an important objection. "What," he had asked with a penetrating smile, "would the congregation think if the sorcerer did not reverse the spell? Might not some of them start to believe that their eyes had shown them the exact truth?"
Rognell had laughed and poured wine generously, explaining that certain elements of self-protection for the sorcerer are always included in an enchantment. The parson could not be turned into a goat without the attendant shield of disbelief being forced upon the audience.
"And should they resist?" Parret had insisted.
"Then such resistance would be overcome," had been the dark reply. "The enchantment places the burden of finding a way to rationalize the incredible squarely upon the shoulders of each individual witness. Those who struggle against the spell soon discover that one's own spirit is an unconquerable foe. The enchantment eases the memories of such people away from dangerous channels until self-deception has dredged a safe passage through the shallows of past reality."
"Indeed," Rognell had added, puffing contentedly at his favourite pipe, "the same would apply to the victim when he recovered. The shock and confusion of finding himself in a wolf- or goat-body would be washed from the mind as snow melts from a roof."
"But the difference in mass, in body tissue...," Parret had insisted. The wolf had not equalled Eggmont's generous bulk.
Rognell had smiled wisely before producing a wooden cone from a cupboard. The cone was painted royal blue, and measured one foot tall with a base diameter of some six inches.
"Suppose a body possesses more dimensions than our senses can detect," Rognell had explained, removing the top part of the cone to display a red-painted circular face. "Suppose a race of three-dimensional beings perceived themselves in only two dimensions, and believed themselves to be no more than circles. Suppose a cone-thaumaturgist discovered a method of rotating himself with respect to his plane of existence."
Rognell had removed another part from the top of the cone and tilted it until the blood-red oval was horizontal.
"This is a model of the surfaces produced by taking sections of a cone," Rognell had explained in his best schoolmaster manner. "It shows that the circle-being would now appear as an ellipse to his fellows. Further rotated, such that the plane of existence intersects the base of the cone, the being becomes an hyperbola, and then a parabola."
Rognell had then replaced the missing parts to reconstruct the cone.
"The being remains unchanged," he had continued. "Only the angle at which he is viewed alters, and with it, his perceived mass. Size is no more than a matter of perspective. A two-dimensional section of a cone may be infinitely small, as at the tip, or as large as the base diameter.
"In ancient Egypt, the followers of Bast were reputed to be able to transform themselves into cats. In Transylvania, men have become bats. There is a tradition of werewolves in Germany. And the Esquimaux of the Arctic regions speak of transformations to snowy bears. Could not these travellers' tales be evidence that Man is a multi-dimensional being?
"If a cone can become radically different creatures in the eyes of a two-dimensional being, may not Man in his various aspects, seen from different viewpoints, be a mouse, a wolf, a whale; or even the incarnation of the Evil One with horns and a forked tail?"
There had been an element of mockery in Rognell's smile, hinting to Parret that his new hobby had given him access to dark secrets. Contenting himself with accepting the charade in order not to offend his host, Parret had asked, mildly, how Rognell proposed to reverse the transformation if he had released the ‘wolf' into the woods.
"The man-shape is the most stable for a human being," Rognell had explained. "When the force of the spell wears off, the werewolf will snap back to his original form as a ball raised up a slope rolls back to the lowest point when released. But it would be as well to keep out of Eggmont's way until it happens; in a matter of a few hours.
"The true wolf, despite lurid tales to the contrary, seldom if ever attacks Man except as a last resort; but an ignorant werewolf might. The psychic explosion of another person's violent death at the werewolf's hands would release all magical bonds prematurely and leave the newly transformed man naked and bloody, unable to leave the scene of his ghastly crime without leaving damning tracks. From such catastrophes comes further reinforcement of werewolf legends, and a powerful impetus towards erasure of his experience from the former werewolf's mind."
"But would not the werewolf avenge himself on his tormentor rather than attacking an innocent?" Parret had protested.
"Your innocent is the more likely aggressor," Rognell had chuckled. "For attacks by Man on wolf are infinitely more frequent than vice versa. And an attack on the werewolf's tormentor would be a result of an accident or extreme carelessness on the part of the sorcerer.
"For the werewolf would be under the same constraints of disbelief as any witness to his transformation. He would not be able to admit to himself that anything unusual had happened; still less that his tormentor had been the engineer of his predicament. And no prudent sorcerer would venture forth from his home until the dawn of a new day had caused to expire the enchantments of the night."
Rognell could always be relied upon to make fascinating and often bizarre conversation, Parret reflected. The guest had done little more than act the part of audience from that point onward. His host had rambled on into an account of a recent holiday in eastern Europe and his fascinating discoveries in neglected archives.
Then came an abrupt change in external sounds.
Parret realized that the cab had halted outside his home. Dismounting cautiously, he reflected that eastern Europe offered an over-rich diet of folklore to the traveller. Rognell must have picked up his werebat tales there. And his magical knowledge...
The world seemed to lurch, but it was only the left-hand wheel of the cab surmounting an irregularity in the ice-bound road. Parret became aware of his surroundings again. He could hear iron-shod wheels grinding on frozen snow, the squeak of a drying axle, and a ripe smell of horse carried to him by a frigid east wind.
He could see the familiar buildings of Delf Hill around him. A continuous overcast of clouds heavy with snow was keeping the impotent winter sun at bay, reducing the pre-dawn brightening to a gloomy half hour. It was a raw, grey day; one to hold at arm's length and forget as soon as possible.
Turning right at the ironmonger, the cab clattered on for twenty yards, then stopped. Parret climbed down stiffly, numbed by both the cold and lack of movement. Lost in thought, he had been rather careless about his posture during the journey. A troublesome ache in his left shoulder lingered as a reminder.
The rather sullen cab driver, entombed in bulky layers of dark woollens against the biting cold, accepted coins with an offensive lack of grace, conveying his absolute disinclination to remove his gloves to search for change. Parret turned his narrow back on the bulbous red nose and the rat-like, glittering eyes, which were all that could be seen between a dark green muffler and a black knitted cap.
On the area in front of the house, where the previous night's snow had been cleared and the morning's hard powder had been scoured away by the wind, white frost slicked the pavement, bringing a treacherous gloss; yet there was a liquid drop at the end of each of the icicles hanging from the porch eaves.
Three cautious steps brought Parret to a varnished wooden gate set in a black, iron fence. To his left were stone flags, in which was set the cast iron cover of the coal hole. Against the fence that marked the boundary with the next property stood two iron-hooped tubs, made from a discarded beer barrel and painted peeling white. Skeletons of twiggy bushes sprouted through a blanket of icy snow.
The lock on the front door turned reluctantly when he inserted his pocket-warm key with fingers chilled to the bone despite his thick gloves. Something snagged the dark green door as he pushed it open, making the brass knocker clank in surprise.
Parret retrieved a damp envelope from the floor and dropped it on the hall table. The interior of the house seemed even colder than the frozen outdoors. He paused to wipe a dripping nose, then looked at the name on the envelope. The letter was not for him.
His rooms on the first floor were pervaded by a deep, winter chill, which set his nose running again the instant he crossed the threshold. Frost on the windows of his sitting room beckoned the white vapour plumes that billowed past his chapped lips. A heap of cold ashes mocked him from the overflowing grate; white from wood, pale grey mixed with black cinders from coal.
Parret's bedroom seemed even colder than the frigid sitting room. His bed was a wreck, unmade for several days, the sheets and blankets awry. He dragged the bed away from the wall, scraping wooden legs across cracked linoleum, giving an extra tug at the precise moment required to overcome the added resistance of an upturning split. He wrestled sheets and blankets into rough orientation, then tucked them beneath the mattress at the sides and foot of the bed to form a cozy pocket.
Only then did he shed his topcoat and long muffler, his fingers in their slick, leather cocoons coping clumsily with horn buttons and stiff, new material. His suit was a crumpled mess, in urgent need of the services of an iron. Yet he hung it tidily beside his overcoat, wincing when the bitter air closed about his leg to make each sandy hair stand erect.
Retaining underwear, socks, and gloves, he slid gingerly into a pair of thick flannel pyjamas. He was shaking violently with cold as he edged between icy sheets. And his nose had started to run again. Dabbing at it with a handkerchief, he wriggled deeper into the chilly wasteland of his bed. Rubbing his legs against the sheets in a violent scissor movement generated some warmth but his feet remained blocks of ice.
He was tired, yet far from sleep. The movement required to take him from tired immobility in the cab to his bed had woken him somewhat. His eyes felt raw and full of grit. His head ached slightly at the temples.
If only it were warmer, he decided, there might be a chance of his sinking into sleep.
If only he could resolve the nagging mystery. He tried to push it from his thoughts but the puzzle continued to tug annoyingly. It was a question of footprints in the snow. Two sets now left Albert Rognell's imposing home; Chilver's and his own. Where were Eggmont's?
He fell suddenly and heavily. Cursing the ice, Carson Parret brushed loose snow from his overcoat and looked toward the village guiltily. Fortunately, his tumble had not been noticed by the visible inhabitants of Cheyne Crossing.
How strange it is, he reflected, that something entirely beyond one's control should create such complete embarrassment.
The distinctive pattern of Chilver's overshoes ran on ahead of him, none of the footprints obscured by Eggmont's broader and heavier tread. Parret concluded that the second deserter from Rognell's impromptu party had taken the longer route along the road instead of trusting the less certain footing of the short cut. He began to wish that he had followed Eggmont's example, picturing his friend warm and asleep in his bed, perhaps with a residual smile of contentment at the success of the trick which he and Rognell had sprung on poor old Carson Parret.
Looking ahead to gauge the remaining distance, Parret spotted a cab in the yard of the inn. Perhaps he would be spared a two-mile struggle through snow-covered fields. Abandoning caution, he quickened his pace, praying that the cab would not leave before he reached the aptly named Time Waits For No Man. The time, by the right-hand dial of the double-faced clock over the inn's front door, was eleven minutes past eight on that February morning.
Three and twenty minutes after boarding the cab, the sound of the driver beating the stock of his whip on the roof wakened Parret. He surrendered a coin and turned his back on the forlorn hope of change. Ten minutes later, he was shivering in his cold bed in an icy bedroom, yet skinking again into sleep. Although frozen to the marrow, he felt an odd sense of contentment, as if everything was right with the world despite the appalling weather. But Albert Rognell's hospitality was guaranteed to cheer even the most misterable of his friends.
Carson Parret's last thought, before passing into refreshing sleep, was that the world would be a happier place if it contained more of Albert Rognell's breed. ■