As he turned off Portobello Road and drove north up the Ol' Spithead peninsula towards Harvest Mills, Atlantic storm clouds, like dark and shaggy dogs, began to rise from the northeast horizon. By the time Harold reached the cottage, they were nearly overhead, and the first drops of rain were starting to splatter the hood of the car, and pock-mark the garden path.388Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡXCvk4wW3HA
He hurried up the path with his coat-collar tugged up on one side, and fumbled for his keys. The rain pattered and whispered through the winter-dried creeper beside the porch, and behind him there was the soft applause of the laurel bushes, as the wind rose.
As he slid his key into the front-door lock, he heard a woman's voice whisper, "Harold?" and he froze all over, and turned around, although he was almost too scared to move. The front garden was deserted. There was only the bushes, the overgrown lawn, and the rain-disturbed pond.
"Nancy?" he said, clearly.
But there was nothing, and nobody, and plain sanity told him that it couldn't be Nancy.
Nevertheless, there was something strange about the house. But was it just a feeling or had someone actually been there? Harold stepped back into the garden, eyes wincing against the falling rain, trying to see what it could possibly be.
He had loved Harvest Mills Cottage from the first day he'd seen it. He adored its slightly shabby 1860s Gothic appearance, its diamond-leaded windows, its dressed stone parapets, its creepers. It'd been built on the site of a much earlier cottage, and the old stone hearth in what was now the library was engraved with the numerals 1666. Tonight, however, as the rain dripped from the carved green gables, and one of the upstairs shutters creaked backwards in the unsettling wind, Harold began to wish that he'd chosen to live somewhere more cozy, without this dark sense of disturbed spirits and restless memories.
"Harold?" somebody whispered; or maybe it was nothing but the wind. The black shaggy beasts of the clouds were right overhead now, and the rain grew heavier, and the drainpipes and gutters started to chuckle. He began to feel a sense of deep foreboding; a feeling that chilled the bones in his legs. A feeling that Harvest Mills Cottage was possessed by some spirit that had no earthly right to be there.
He walked back down the garden path, and then around to the rear of the house. The rain plastered down his hair and stung his face, but before he went inside, he wanted to make sure that the house was empty; there were no vandals or housebreakers inside. Well, that's what he told himself. He walked through the weedy garden to the leaded living-room window, and peered inside, shading his eyes with his hand so that he could see better.
The room looked empty. The grate was still heaped with cold and gray ash. His teacup stood on the floor where he'd left it this morning. Harold walked back around to the front of the cottage again, and listened, while the rain ran straight down the back of his neck. A glimmer of light showed through the clouds, and for a moment the surface of the ornamental pond looked as if it were sprinkled with nickels and dimes.
Harold was still standing out in the rain when one of their neighbors came churning up the lane in his Chevrolet flatbed. It was Tracker Miller who lived at No. 7 Harvest Mills with his invalid wife Beryl and more yipping and yapping Dalmatians than you could count. He wound down his window and peered out at Harold. He wore a plastic rain-cover over his hat, and his glasses were flecked with droplets.
"Got a problem, friend?" he called. "You look like you're taking a shower out there."
"No problem," Harold told him. "I thought I could hear one of the gutters leaking."
"Don't catch cold."
He was just about to wind up his window again when Harold stepped across the puddly lane towards him, and said, "Tracker, did you hear anybody walking up the lane last night? Round about two or three o'clock in the morning?"
Tracker pouted thoughtfully, and then shook his head. "I heard the wind last night, for sure. But nothing else. Nobody walking up the lane. Why?"
"I---I don't know."
Tracker looked at Harold for a moment or two, and then said, "Best get your ass inside, get dry. You can't go neglecting yourself, just 'cause Nancy's not here anymore. Hey, you want to come down later, play some cards? Old Pete Lanza might be coming over, if he can get that truck of his started."
"I might do that. Thanks, Tracker."
Tracker drove away, and Harold was left alone in the rain again. He walked back across the lane, and up the garden path. Well, he thought, I can't stand out here all night. He opened the door, gave it a push, and then swung it back with its usual sour groan. He was greeted by shadows, and the familiar smell of old timber and woodsmoke.
"Anybody here?" he asked. The stupidest question of all time. The only person in the cottage was him. Nancy was a month dead and he just wished he could stop imagining her accident over and over again, wished he could stop replaying the final blurry seconds of her life like one of those auto crashes they show on TV, with helpless dummies being flung through windshields. Except that Nancy hadn't been a dummy; and neither had their unborn child.
He stepped inside the house. There was no doubt about it: something was different in the air, as if things had been moved around while he'd been out. At first he thought: dammit, I was right, I've been burgled. But the long-case clock was still ticking away with weary sedateness in the hallway, the 18th-century painting of foxhounds still hung over the old oak linen-chest. Nancy had given him that painting for Christmas, as a kind of affectionate joke about the day they first met. He had tried to blow the hunting horn that day, to impress her, and produced nothing more than a loud ripping noise, like a hippopotamus with gas. He could still hear her laughing now.
He closed the door and went upstairs to the bedroom to change out of his wet clothes. He still had this disturbing sensation that someone had been here apart form him; that things had been touched, picked up and put down again. He was sure that he'd left his comb on the bureau, instead of the beside table. And his bedside clock had stopped.
He tugged on a navy-blue rollneck sweater and a pair of jeans. Then he went downstairs and poured himself his final half-mouthful of Chivas Regal. He had meant to buy more liquor while he was in Salem, but what with all that business with Michael Trotter over that damn painting, he had completely forgotten to drop in at the local Spec's. He swallowed the whiskey straight down, and wished he had another. Maybe when the rain eased off he would walk down to the Ol' Spithead Market, and pick up a couple of bottles of wine, and a Gourmet TV dinner, lasagna maybe. He couldn't possibly look another Salisbury steak in the face. Salisbury steak must be the loneliest food in the USA.
Holy Mother of God! There was that whispering again, as if there were two other people in the house who were discussing Harold under their breaths. He stayed where he was for a little while, listening; but every time he listened too hard the whispering seemed to turn into the wind, gusting under the door, or the gurgle of rain down the waterpipes. He stood up, and walked out into the hallway, with his empty glass in his hand, and said, "Hello?"
No answer. Just the steady shudder of loose window-casements. Just the sighing of the wind, and the distant thundering of the sea. "It keeps eternal whispering around desolate shores." Keats again. Harold almost cursed Nancy for her omnipresent Keats.
He went into the cold, damp library. The desk was strewn with letters and bills and last months auction catalogs, under a huge suspended brass lamp that had once hung in the cabin of Captain Nathan Tracy, in the Foal Eagle II. On the windowsill three were five or six framed photos: Nancy when she was graduating from Henry Jones College; Nancy and Harold standing outside a roadside diner in New Hampshire; Nancy in the front garden of Harvest Mills Cottage; Nancy with her mother and father, eyes squinting against the winter sunshine. He picked them up, one by one, and looked at them sadly.
Yet, there was something odd about them. None of them seemed to be quite the same as he remembered them. That day he had photographed Nancy standing outside the cottage, he was sure that he'd been standing on the path, not in the front garden itself---especially since she had only just bought herself a new pair of mulberry-colored suede boots, which she wouldn't have wanted to get muddy. There was something else, too. In the dark glass of the crisscross leaded window only four or five feet behind her, Harold could make out an odd pale blur. Was a lamp? A passing reflection? It looked disturbingly like a woman's face, hollow-eyed and distressed, but moving too fast to have been sharply caught by the camera.
He knew that, apart from Nancy and himself, the cottage had been empty that day. He examined the picture as closely as he could, but it was impossible to tell just what that pale blur might have been.
He looked through all the photographs again. In all of them, though it was impossible to be sure, he had the extraordinary feeling that people and things had been moved. Subtly, not noticeably. For example, there was a picture of Nancy beside the statue of AvramFolger, the founder of Ol' Spithead harbor, and the "father of the tea-trade." He was sure that when he had last looked at the photograph, Nancy had been standing on the right side of the statue; and yet here she was on the left! The picture hadn't been reprinted in reverse, either, because the inscription on the statue clearly read, "Avram Folger" the right way around. He held the photograph close, and then far away, but there was nothing to suggest that anyone had tampered with it. All the scared him, apart from Nancy's altered position, was a fast, unfocused shape in the background, as if someone had been running past when the photograph was taken, and had suddenly turned around. It looked like a woman in a long brown dress, or a long brown coat. Her face was vague, but he could make out the dark sockets of her eyes, and the vague smudge of her mouth.
Now he began to feel very chilled, very frightened. Either he was reacting to the stress of Nancy's death by hallucinating, by going more than silently mad; or else something unnatural was happening in Harvest Mills Cottage, something powerful, cold and strange.
A door closed quietly somewhere in the house. Harold thought for a terrible moment that he could hear footsteps coming down the stairs, and he barged his way clumsily into the hall. But there was no one there. No one but him, and his haunted memories.388Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡhndwL9Fisa
He looked back into the library. On the desk, where he'd left it, lay the picture of Nancy in the front garden. He walked into the room and picked it up again, frowning at it. There was something grotesquely alien about it. Nancy was smiling at him quite normally; and apart from the pale reflection in the window behind her, the house seemed unchanged. But the photograph was different, wrong. It looked as if Nancy were propped-up, rather than standing alone; like one of those terrifying police pictures of murder victims. Holding the photograph in his hand, he went to the library window and looked out into the front garden.388Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡXS7Jg9MEt2
The photograph must have been taken about mid-afternoon, because the sun was low to the west, and all the shadows in it lay precisely horizontal, from one side of the picture to the other. Nancy's shadow lay halfway along the path, so that even though she was nine or ten feet off to the left of it, and her legs were concealed by the low hedge of laurel bushes between them, he could work out just where in the garden she was standing.388Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡM5ehdwXZQZ
Harold lifted the photograph again and again, comparing it with the front garden. He felt a desperation rise up inside him that almost made him bang his head against the window. This was impossible! And yet the indisputable evidence was here; in this blandly-smiling photograph.388Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡcrwWdgKTMY
Nancy, in this photograph, was standing in the one place in the garden where it was humanly out of the question for anybody to stand, on the surface of the ornamental pond!388Please respect copyright.ＰＥＮＡＮＡmQPtq5hT7pns 126.96.36.199da2