By Joan Aiken
Here is the whisper in the night, the creak upstairs, that half-remembered ghost story that won’t let you sleep, the sound that raises gooseflesh, the wish you’d checked the lock on the door before it got really, really dark. Here are tales of suspense and the supernatural that will chill, amuse, and exhilarate…
We’re pleased to reprint Joan Aiken’s short story, “The Cold Flame.” The People in the Castle—available April 12th from Small Beer Press—collects this and 19 other wildly inventive, darkly lyrical stories from Aiken’s impressive career.
“The Cold Flame”
I was asleep when Patrick rang up. The bell sliced through a dream about this extraordinary jampot factory, a kind of rose-red brick catacomb, much older than time, sunk deep on top of the Downs, and I was not pleased to be woken. I groped with a blind arm and worked the receiver in between my ear and the pillow.
“Ellis? Is that you?”
“Of course it is,” I snarled. “Who else do you expect in my bed at three a.m.? Why in heaven’s name ring up at this time?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, sounding muffled and distant and apologetic. “Where I am it’s only half-past something.” A sort of oceanic roar separated us for a moment, and then I heard him say, “. . . rang you as soon as I could.”
“Well, where are you?”
Then I woke up a bit more and interrupted as he began speaking again. “Hey, I thought you were supposed to be dead! There were headlines in the evening papers—a climbing accident. Was it a mistake then?”
“No, I’m dead right enough. I fell into the crater of a volcano.”
“What were you doing on a volcano, for goodness’ sake?”
“Lying on the lip writing a poem about what it looked like inside. The bit I was lying on broke off.” Patrick sounded regretful. “It would have been a good poem too.”
Patrick was a poet, perhaps I should explain. Had been a poet. Or said he was. No one had ever seen his poetry because he steadfastly refused to let anyone read his work, though he insisted, with a quiet self-confidence not otherwise habitual to him, that the poems were very good indeed. In no other respect was he remarkable, but most people quite liked Patrick; he was a lanky, amusing creature with guileless blue eyes and a passion for singing sad, randy songs when he had had a drink or two. For some time I had been a little in love with Patrick. I was sorry to hear he was dead.
“Look, Patrick,” I began again. “Are you sure you’re dead?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“Where are you then?”
“Lord knows. I’ve hardly had time to look round yet. There’s something on my mind; that’s why I contacted you.”
The word contacted seemed inappropriate. I said, “Why ring up?”
“I could appear if you prefer it.”
Remembering the cause of his death, I said hastily, “No, no, let’s go on as we are. What’s on your mind?”
“It’s my poems, Ellis. Could you get them published, do you think?”
My heart sank a bit, as anybody’s does at this sort of request from a friend, but I said, “Where are they?”
“At my flat. A big thick stack of quarto paper, all handwritten. In my desk.”
“Okay. I’ll see what I can do. But listen, love—I don’t want to sound a gloomy note, but suppose no publisher will touch them—what then? Promise you won’t hold me responsible? Keep hanging around, you know, haunting, that kind of thing?”
“No, of course not,” he said quickly. “But you needn’t worry. Those poems are good. There’s a picture at the flat as well, though, behind the wardrobe, with its face to the wall. As a matter of fact, it’s a portrait of my mother. It’s by Chapdelaine—done before he made his name. About seven years ago I got him to paint her for her birthday present (this was before I quarreled with Mother, of course). But she didn’t like it—said it was hideous—so I gave her a bottle of scent instead. Now, of course, it’s worth a packet. You can get Sowerby’s to auction it, and the proceeds would certainly pay for the publication of the poems, if necessary. But only in the last resort, mind you! I’m convinced those poems can stand on their own. I’m only sorry I didn’t finish the volcano one—maybe I could dictate it—”
“I really must get some sleep,” I broke in, thinking what a good thing it was they hadn’t got direct dialing yet between this world and the next. “I’ll go round to your flat first thing tomorrow. I’ve still got the key. Good-bye, Patrick.”
And I clonked back the receiver on its rest and tried to return to my lovely deep-hidden jampot factory among the brooding Downs. Gone beyond recall.
Next day at Patrick’s flat I found I had been forestalled. The caretaker told me that a lady, Mrs. O’Shea, had already called there and taken away all her son’s effects.
I was wondering how to inform Patrick of this development—he hadn’t left a number—when he got through to me again on his own phone. At the news I had to relate he let out a cry of anguish.
“Not Mother!” God, what’ll we do now? Ellis, that woman’s a vulture. You’ll have the devil’s own job prising the poems out of her.”
“Why not just get in touch with her direct—the way you did with me—and tell her to send the poems to a publisher” I said.”Suggest trying Chatto first.”
“You don’t understand! For one thing, I couldn’t get near her. For another, she has this grudge against me; when I gave up going home it really dealt her a mortal blow. It’d give her the most exquisite pleasure to thwart me. No, I’m afraid you’ll have to use all your tact and diplomacy, Ellis; you’d better drive down to Clayhole tomorrow—”
“But look here! Suppose she won’t—”
No answer Patrick had disconnected.
So next afternoon found me driving down to Clayhole. I had never been to Patrick’s home—nor had Patrick since the quarrel with his mother. I was quite curious to see her, as a matter of fact; Patrick’s descriptions of her had been so conflicting. Before the breach she was the most wonderful mother in the world, fun, pretty, sympathetic, witty—while after it, no language had been too virulent to describe her, a sort of female Dracula, tyrannical, humourless, blood-sucking.
One thing I did notice as I approached the house—up a steep, stony, unmetalled lane—the weather had turned a bit colder. The leaves hung on the trees like torn rags, the ground was hard as iron, the sky leaden.
Mrs. O’Shea received me with the utmost graciousness. But in spite of this I retained a powerful impression that I had arrived at an awkward moment; perhaps she had been about to bathe the dog, or watch a favorite programme, or start preparing a meal. She was a small, pretty Irishwoman, her curling hair a beautiful white, her skin a lovely tea-rose pink, her eyes the curious opaque blue that goes with a real granite obstinacy. One odd feature of her face was that she appeared to have no lips; they were so pale they disappeared into her powdered cheeks. I could see why Patrick had never mentioned his father. Major O’Shea stood beside his wife, but he was a nonentity: a stooped, watery-eyed, dangling fellow, whose only function was to echo his wife’s opinions.
The house was a pleasant Queen Anne manor, furnished in excellent taste with chintz and Chippendale, and achingly, freezingly cold. I had to clench my teeth to stop them chattering. Mrs. O’Shea, in her cashmere twinset and pearls, seemed impervious to the glacial temperature, but the Major’s cheeks were blue; every now and then a drop formed at the tip of his nose which he carefully wiped away with a spotless silk handkerchief. I began to understand why Patrick had been keen on volcanoes.
They stood facing me like an interview board while I explained my errand. I began by saying how grieved I had been to hear of Patrick’s death, and spoke of his lovable nature and unusual promise. The Major did look genuinely grieved, but Mrs. O’Shea was smiling, and there was something about her smile that irritated me profoundly.
I then went on to say that I had received a communication from Patrick since his death, and waited for reactions. They were sparse. Mrs. O’Shea’s lips tightened fractionally, the Major’s lids dropped over his lugubrious milky tea-coloured eyes; that was all.
“You don’t seem surprised,” I said cautiously. “You were expecting something of the kind perhaps?”
“No, not particularly,” Mrs. O’Shea said. She sat down, placed her feet on a footstool, and picked up a circular embroidery frame. “My family is psychic, however; this kind of thing is not unusual. What did Patrick want to say?”
“It was about his poems.”
“Oh, yes?” Her tone was as colourless as surgical spirit. She carefully chose a length of silk. Her glance flickered once to the object she was using as a footstoll: a solid pile of papers about a foot thick, wrapped up clumsily in an old grey cardigan which looked as if it had once lined a dog basket; it was matted with white terrier hairs.
My heart sank.
“I believe you have his poems now? Patrick is most anxious that they should be published.”
“And I’m not at all anxious they should be published,” Mrs. O’Shea said with her most irritating smile.
“Quite, quite,” the Major assented.
We argued about it. Mrs. O’Shea had three lines of argument: first, that no one in her family had ever written poetry, therefore Patrick’s poems were sure to be hopeless; second, that no one in her family had ever written poetry and, even in the totally unlikely event of the poems being any good, it was a most disreputable thing to do; third, that Patrick was conceited, ungrateful, and self-centered, and it would do him nothing but harm to see his poems in print. She spoke as if he were still alive.
“Besides,” she added, “I’m sure no publisher would look at them.”
“You have read them?”
“Heavens, no!” She laughed. “I’ve no time for such rubbish.”
“But if a publisher did take them?”
“You’d never get one to risk his money on such a venture.”
I explained Patrick’s plans regarding the Chapdelaine portrait. The O’Sheas looked skeptical. “You perhaps have it here?” I asked.
“A hideous thing. Nobody in their senses would give enough money for that to get a book published.”
“I’d very much like to see it, all the same.”
“Roderick, take Miss Bell to look at the picture,” Mrs. O’Shea said, withdrawing another strand of silk.
The picture was in the attic, face down. I saw at once why Mrs. O’Shea had not liked it. Chapdelaine had done a merciless job of work. It was brilliant—one of the best examples of his early Gold Period. I imagined it would fetch even more than Patrick hoped. When I explained this to the Major, an acquisitive gleam came into his eye.
“Surely that would more than pay for the publication of the poems.”
“Oh, certainly,” I assured him.
“I’ll see what my wife has to say.”
“Mrs. O’Shea was not interested in cash. She had a new line of defence. Of course you’ve no actual proof that you come from Patrick, have you? I don’t really see why we should take your word in the matter.”
Suddenly I was furious. My rage and the deadly cold were simultaneously too much for me. I said, as politely as I could, “Since I can see you are completely opposed to my performing this small service for your son, I won’t waste any more of our time,” and left them abruptly. The Major looked a little taken aback, but his wife calmly pursued her stitchery.
It was good to get out of that icy, lavender-scented morgue into the fresh, windy night.
My car limped down the lane pulling to the left, but I was so angry that I had reached the village before I realized I had a flat tyre. I got out and surveyed it. The car was slumped down on one haunch as if Mrs. O’Shea had put a curse on it.
I went into the pub for a hot toddy before changing the wheel, and while I was in there the landlord said, “Would you be Miss Bell? There’s a phone call for you.”
It was Patrick. I told him about my failure and he cursed, but he did not seem surprised.
“Why does your mother hate you so, Patrick?”
“Because I got away from her. That’s why she can’t stand my poetry—because it’s nothing to do with her. Anyway she can hardly read. If my father so much as picks up a book, she gets it away from him as soon as she can and hides it. Well, you can see what he’s like. Sucked dry. She likes to feel she knows the whole contents of a person’s mind, and that it’s entirely focused on her. She’s afraid of being left alone; she’s never slept by herself in a room in her life. If ever he had to go away, she’d have my bed put in her room.
I thought about that.
“But as for your authority to act for me,” Patrick went on, “we can easily fix that. Have a double whisky and get a pen and paper. Shut your eyes.”
Reluctantly I complied. It was an odd sensation. I felt Patrick’s light, chill clutch on my wrist moving my hand. For a moment, the contrast with the last time I had held his hand made a strangling weight of tears rise in my throat; then I remembered Mrs. O’Shea’s icy determination and realized that Patrick resembled her in this; suddenly I felt free of him, free of sorrow.
When I opened my eyes again, there was a message in Patrick’s odd, angular script, to the effect that he authorized me to sell his Chapdelaine picture and use the proceeds to pay for the publication of his poems, if necessary.
The drinks had fortified me, so I got a garage to change my wheel and walked back up the lane to Clayhole. The O’Sheas had just finished their supper. They invited me civilly, but without enthusiasm, to drink coffee with them. The coffee was surprisingly good, but stone cold, served in little gold-rimmed cups the size of walnut shells. Over it Mrs. O’Shea scanned Patrick’s message. I glanced round—we were in the arctic dining room—and noticed that Chapdelaine’s picture now hung on the wall. It smiled at me with Mrs. O’Shea’s own bland hostility.
“I see; very well,” she said at last. “I suppose you must take the picture then.”
“And the poems too, I hope.”
“Oh no. Not yet,” she said. “When you’ve sold the picture, for this large sum you say it will fetch, then I’ll see about letting you have the poems.”
“But that’s not—” I began, and then stopped. What was the use? She was not a logical woman, no good reasoning with her. One step at a time was fast as one could go.
* * *
The sale of an early Chapdelaine portrait made quite a stir, and the bidding at Sowerby’s began briskly. The picture was exhibited on an easel on the auctioneer’s dais. From my seat in the front row I was dismayed to notice, as the bids rose past the four-figure mark, that the portrait was beginning to fade. The background remained, but by the time twenty-five hundred had been reached, Mrs. O’Shea had vanished completely. The bidding faltered and came to a stop; there were complaints. The auctioneer inspected the portrait, directed an accusing stare at me, and declared the sale null. I had to take the canvas ignominiously back to my flat, and the evening papers had humorous headlines: WHERE DID THE COLOURS RUN TO? NO BID FOR CHAPDELAINE’S WHITE PERIOD.
When the telephone rang, I expected that it would be Patrick and picked up the receiver gloomily, but it was a French voice.
“Armand Chapdelaine here. Miss Bell?”
“We met, I think, once, a few years ago, in the company of young Patrick O’Shea. I am ringing from Paris about this odd incident of his mother’s portrait.”
“May I come and inspect the canvas, Miss Bell?”
“Of course,” I said, slightly startled. “Not that there’s anything to see.”
“That is so kind of you. Till tomorrow, then.”
Chapedelaine was a French Canadian: stocky, dark, and full of loup-garou charm.
After carefully scrutinising the canvas, he listened with intense interest to the tale about Patrick and his mother.
“Aha! This is a genuine piece of necromancy,” he said, rubbing his hands. “I always knew there was something unusually powerful about that woman’s character. She had a most profound dislike for me; I recall it well.”
“Because you were her son’s friend.”
“Of course.” He inspected the canvas again and said,” I shall be delighted to buy this from you for two thousand five hundred pounds, Miss Bell. It is the only one of my pictures that has been subjected to black magic, up to now.”
“Are you quite sure?”
“Entirely sure.” He gave me his engagingly wolfish smile. “Then we will see what shot Madame Mére fetches out of her locker.”
Mrs. O’Shea was plainly enjoying the combat over Patrick’s poems. It had given her a new interest. When she heard the news that two thousand five hundred pounds were lodged in a trust account, ready to pay for the publication of the poems, if necessary, her reaction was almost predictable.
“But that wouldn’t be honest!” she said. “I suppose Mr. Chapdelaine bought the canvas out of kindness, but it can’t be counted as a proper sale. The money must be returned to him.” Her face set like epoxy, and she rearranged her feet more firmly on the footstool.
“On no account will I have it back, madame,” Chapdelaine riposted. He had come down with me to help persuade her; he said he was dying to see her again.
“If you won’t, then it must be given to charity. I’m afraid it’s out of the question that I should allow money which was obtained by what amounts to false pretences to be used to promote that poor silly boy’s scribblings.”
“Quite, quite,” said the Major.
“But it may not be necessary—” I began in exasperation. An opaque blue gleam showed for an instant in Mrs. O’Shea’s eye. Chapdelaine raised a hand soothingly and I subsided. I’d known, of course, that I too was an object of her dislike, but I had not realised how very deep it went; the absolute hatred in her glance was a slight shock. It struck me that, unreasonably enough, this hate had been augmented by the fact that Chapdelaine and I were getting on rather well together.
“Since madame does not approve of our plan, I have another proposition,” said Chapdelaine, who seemed to be taking a pleasure in the duel almost equal to that of Mrs. O’Shea. I felt slightly excluded. “May I be allowed to do a second portrait, and two thousand five hundred shall be the sitter’s fee?”
“Humph,” said Mrs. O’Shea. “I’d no great opinion of the last one ye did.”
“Hideous thing. Hideous,” said the Major.
“Oh, but this one, madame, will be quite different!” Chapdelaine smiled, at his most persuasive. “In the course of seven years, after all, one’s technique alters entirely.”
She demurred for a long time, but in the end, I suppose, she could not resist this chance of further entertainment. Besides, he was extremely well known now.