SOUL OF THE BEAST The First Chapter
Derby, Australia 1886.
As soon as the ship docked, David and I carried our bags down the gangway and across the wharf to a wagon we saw from the ship.
“We would like to hire you,” I said. “I assume four shillings should cover it.”
“Should do,” the driver said and snatched the coins from my hand. He reached down for a bag. “So, where’re you heading?”
“The Sexton house,” I said.
The driver pulled his hand back. “What do you want there?”
“That is my business,” I said.
The driver took the coins from his pocket and dropped them into my hand. “I don’t go there.”
“What’s this?” David asked. “You just said you would.”
“Now I won’t.”
“Why the change?” David asked.
“Maybe that’s my business,” the driver said.
“Very well,” I said. “We’ll simply find someone else.”
“You can try,” the driver said. “But no one goes there, ever.”
I had come too far to stop now. I haggled with the driver, and he eventually agreed to take us, but at three times the rate, up front, and only if he left us beyond view of the house.
The driver turned the wagon around to face toward town and pulled the reins to stop. “This is as far as I go,” he said. “The house is straight up the road.”
David and I jumped down from the wagon and grabbed our bags.
“I still want to know…” I said.
The driver whipped the horse, and the wagon shot forward with rattles and a cloud of dust. We watched until the wagon disappeared over a hill.
We picked up our bags and hiked up the road.
We dropped the bags in front of an abandoned stone mansion overlooking the Indian Ocean. The left wing of the house was a collapsed shell of blackened walls without a roof. The grounds were a low jungle of weeds and brown plants. The only sounds were the low wails of a bone-chilling wind and the surf below.
“I do not understand,” I said, wrapping my coat tighter to block the wind. “There is nobody here.”
“And a bleeding long time from the looks of it,” David said.
David and I made an odd pair. I was short and wiry with brown hair, and David was a red-headed Scotsman, six feet tall and built like an ox. I was the son of an English gentleman, and David came from dirt farmers in South Africa. In England, the social differences would have made our friendship impossible. But after David had saved my life, we became mates.
“We’ve come this far, John,” David said. “Might as well give it a knock.”
We picked up our bags and walked up the towering entrance doors. I took hold of the large lion-head knocker and banged the metal ring three times. We waited several minutes, and nothing happened. I knocked again, harder this time, and still no response.
“We shall try the back,” I said.
We were reaching for our bags when we heard scraping from the lock sliding open inside.
“Well, what do you know,” David said. “Somebody’s home.”
The door screeched inwards to a small gap, and a brown, rat-like face with rotting teeth pushed through. The man looked both of us up and down .
“Go away,” he hissed.
“I am John Sexton,” I said. “This is David Boyd. We are here to see my grandfather, General Sexton.”
The man pulled back into the house and closed the door. We heard the lock slide back into place.
“Don’t be closing the door on us!” David shouted and slammed the knocker with a boom. “Open up or I’m breaking it down!”
This time the door opened wider and a tall, powerful Indian man with an angry brown face stepped out. He had black eyes, a short black beard and wore a purple turban with a plain white shirt and pants.
“You will stop that noise and leave immediately,” the Beard said in a deep voice thick with an Indian accent.
“I do not take orders from servants,” I said. “I am John Sexton. General Sexton is my grandfather, and I am going to see him. Now step aside.”
“John Sexton,” The Beard said, studying my face. “The General does not see anyone. You will leave now and never come back.”
“How dare you,” I said and tried to push past the man, but it was like pushing a brick wall.
The Beard rammed a hand into my chest and knocked me back. “No one touches me, Englishman. No one.”
“Keep your hands off him!” David shouted. He grabbed the Beard by his shirt and threw him to the ground.
“John’s going to see his grandfather,” David said. “And no servant’s gonna stop him. Pull any more stunts, and you’ll eat that dirt. Savvy?”
Brushing off his clothes, the Beard stood up and scowled.
“You will regret this.”
“Not bleeding likely,” David said. He rammed the door with his two large hands, and it smashed against the inside wall.
We picked up our bags and carried them inside where we dropped them with a loud thud. The only light came from the open door. The remainder of the house was totally dark with drapes covering every window. A cold breeze blew down from somewhere above us, and the air was thick with the smell of dust, decay, and wetness.
When my eyes adjusted, I saw the dark wood-paneled walls of the large entry hall. Several servants, including the rat-faced man, stood motionless around us. All of the servants had dark skin and plain white clothes, but none of them had a turban or a beard. A wide, curving stairway led up to the second floor, which was faintly lit lat the top.
The Beard slammed the door shut behind us. He stood with his arms across his chest and silently watched us.
“You shall announce us to my grandfather,” I said. “Tell him his grandson, Mr. John Sexton, is here, accompanied by Mr. David Boyd.”
No one moved or responded. I had never seen servants act like this. Something was terribly wrong.
“This is insolence,” I said. “I shall have your hides for this.”
“English are so annoying,” the Beard said. “You assault me and break into this house, and now you wish for me to help you?”
“I shall find Grandfather myself,” I said “If you have harmed him in anyway, you’ll pay for it. I promise you.”
“David, we will start with the second floor,” I said, and we walked up the stairs.
On the top landing, the breeze was stronger, and the smells of decay and wetness more intense. The hall to the left led into the ruined wing of the house and a gaping space lined by blackened walls and open to the gray sky above. To the right, closed doors lined both sides of a long, dark hall.
“If you will search that side,” I said. “I shall take this one.”
“You got it, John” David said.
Every door I opened revealed a room that was either empty or filled with old furniture and boxes. Thick dust covered everything.
“Did you find anything?” I yelled.
“Nothing!” David shouted back.” Just a bunch of old junk and cobwebs. The place is a bleeding tomb.”
David had put words to my feelings. This house was exactly like a tomb.
We reached the end of the hall with one last door to open.
“This had better be it,” I said.
“Only one way to find out,” David said.
I grabbed the doorknob, and it turned more easily than the others. I pushed the door open and we fell back from a nauseating stench of rot and human waste. Like the rest of the house, thick drapes covered the windows, and the room was dark. I could barely make out a gigantic four-poster bed in the large and otherwise empty room. A rhythmic rasping sound came from the bed.
“Grandfather?” I said.
There was no answer or movement.
I ran to the bed. “David, open the drapes.”
David yanked a curtain and ripped the rotten fabric into a shower of pieces. The room was suddenly flooded with light. A small man in the bed moaned and slowly his moved arms over his face.
The man was emaciated with wrinkled, pale skin and a skull-like face. The eyes were shrunken with a strange yellow-orange color, and the breathing was labored and noisy. It was my grandfather, but he had changed so drastically I barely recognized him.
“Grandfather?” I said.
“Good lord!” David said. “They’re starving the man!”
“You shall never get them,” Grandfather whispered hoarsely. “They are mine.”
“Grandfather. It’s John. I am here.”
“Eh? John?” Grandfather’s head turned slowly toward my voice. “Get out of the light so I can see you.”
I moved to the side, and Grandfather stared at my face. “You look the same as me at your age.”
“I am nothing like you,” I spat. “Your letter said you had something that would stop the Curse.”
Grandfather coughed. “You were supposed to be here weeks ago.”
“I was in South Africa, and Mother had to forward your letter. You’re lucky I came at all after your treatment of Grandmother.”
“Shut your mouth. You know nothing about it.”
Grandfather was right. I had grown up with my grandmother telling me how horrible my grandfather was, but she would never say what he had done or why she had left him.
Grandfather looked at David. “You, lock the bleeding door.”
David looked at me, and I nodded. He shut and locked the door and stood in front of it.
“So tell me,” I said. “How do I stop the Curse?”
There was a long silence before Grandfather said, “Find the Soul of the Beast.”
“You ask a question and then do not listen. I said find the Soul of the Beast.”
“I have never heard of it.”
Grandfather stared past me. “Whoever possesses the Soul has immortality and invisibility.” He had a fit of coughing that shook his body.
“Watch your mouth, boy,” Grandfather said. “I found the key. That’s more than anyone else has done. I just need more time.”
“It’s what I intended to give you.”
“So give it to me,” I said.
Grandfather closed his eyes. “You are too late.”
There was a rattling as someone turned the doorknob, followed by pounding.
“Open up in there!” someone yelled through the door. “Police!”
“Do not open that door,” Grandfather said.
“Open up, or we’re breaking it down!”
“What should I do?” David asked me.
“I was about to call the police anyway,” I said. “Open it.”
“Are you mad?” Grandfather rasped. “Do not allow them in.”
There was another loud thud.
“Back off!” David yelled. “I’m coming.”
As soon as David turned the key, the door burst open and three policemen ran into the room. The men wore thick black coats and round black hats with straight bills on the front. Each man held a long black club ready for use.
“I’m glad you’re here, officers,” I said. “I am John Sexton, and General Sexton is my grandfather. These servants here are holding him prisoner, and they are obviously starving him. I want you to arrest them.”
The policemen looked around the room and then rushed David and me, pushing us away from the bed with their clubs.
“What’re you doing?” David said.
The policemen didn’t answer and kept their clubs pressed hard against our chests.
The Beard strode into the room and, after looking at us briefly, walked up to my grandfather’s bed.
“At last, General,” the Beard said. “You are ready to give them up. You can give them to me.”
“You’ll never get them,” Grandfather said.
“Then no one will have them,” the Beard said. He looked at the policemen. “Arrest those two for assault, breaking and entering, and the murder of General Sexton.”
“You are crazy,” I said. “He is not dead.”
“Oh, yes, he is,” the Beard said. “Just like you.”
The Beard grabbed Grandfather’s neck with one hand and, squeezing hard, lifted him out of the bed. Grandfather struggled weakly and hit against the Beard’s chest with his hands. His eyes bulged, and his face turned dark.
“Stop him!” I shouted.
I lunged forward, but a policeman shoved me back with his club and pinned me to the wall.
David yelled as one policeman struggled to hold him against the wall, and another pounded him with a club.
The Beard released his grip, and Grandfather fell lifelessly onto the bed. “Stupid Englishman,” he said.
I stopped struggling. David stood quietly, wobbling and stunned from the blows. The policemen released us and pulled back, their clubs ready to strike.
One policeman shook his head. “Assault, breaking and entering, and now murder. You boys have been busy. They’ll need the cuffs.”
“You’re not putting those on me,” David said.
“Resisting arrest now are you?” a policeman said.
“You cannot do this,” I said. “You are officers of the law.”
The policemen stepped toward David and me and swung their clubs down on our heads. I covered my face with my arms but could not stop the blows. I heard someone laugh and looked between my arms. The Beard was watching and smiling.