A Box of Lucifers
1860: Andrew Syms craved freedom from caring for his invalid mother. He reveals to our narrator the supernaturally-inflicted events that led to her death. Some things in this world are beyond explanation…
All of my other guests have gone. Only Syms remain. He sits quietly, as he has for the whole evening, in the wicker chair that rests on the central rose motif in my large Kidderminster rug in the middle of the room.
The night’s conversation had been light-hearted yet strangely fervent: fantastical talk of the new Spiritualism and Satanism and Christ-encrusted turnips at Country Fairs. The sort of talk that grown men, tired of politics or machinery or pig-iron prices, fall so eagerly to.
Syms alone had demurred: squatting massively like a toad on a stone while rivers of discourse had flowed around him, only occasionally raising his eyebrows toward the fireplace, eyes sparkling in the flat sackcloth canvas of his face.
“Well, I thought that went off pretty well,” I remark as I return from the front doorstep. “Dear me, Carmichael and his ‘benevolent sprites’! That watch the milk on the stove, or black his boots, or recover his lost cuff links! I have such an imp in my life too – her name is Mrs Bradshaw and she’s just gone up to bed.”
My old friend says nothing, but the chair’s thousand fibres creak in symphony as Syms adjusts his bulk and leans forward to throw his last cigar butt into the smouldering fireplace. He shows no sign yet of wanting to return to his lonely home across the river. His mother passed away six months ago, and I understand his housekeeper left shortly after that. I had wondered if what small inheritance he received might improve his situation: clearly not. His income then still ran to a minor trade in antiquities and objets d’art.
The last candles are guttering, the fire is low and the gas lamp beyond the window is in the ascendency: its pallid green-white cast makes a waning crescent of one side of Syms’ pocked face. He refuses the offer of the comfier settee with a flinch of his head, and I wonder why he came.
“Did you find this evening’s discussion amusing?”
Syms grunts, neutrally. One set of thick fingers is distractedly patting his waistcoat for his box of ‘Lucifer’ matches, the other drumming on the chair arm.
“I see.” I pass over to the sideboard on the wall opposite. “Here, a whole case of them. Not kept in ideal conditions I’m afraid, but they smoke pretty well. My brother brings them when he remembers to visit me.”
He gently takes the cigar I toss him from his lap, a forefinger at each end, and slowly raises his forearms to bring it to his nose. “Pis-kies,” he rumbles softly, as if enunciating in a foreign tongue.
“Yes that’s what Carmichael called them,” I reply, smiling. “What can one say?”
I move to the padded footstool near the fender, and sit in his direct line of sight. Syms’ lugubriousness can sink into a kind of torpor without some encouragement. “Syms,” I say firmly, “is there something you want to say to me?”
His eyes dart momentarily from the smouldering embers to mine, and I read alarm there.
The metal grate cracks loudly once or twice, contracting in the cooling fireplace. I hear a thump from up in the flu, a bird perhaps on the roof, reclaiming its recently smouldering minaret.
He says, “When my mother died…”
Another of his associates would have leapt up at this, wringing poor Syms’ hand in an excess of sympathy. I did not move. It wasn’t now a matter of trying to coax speech out of him. Once in motion he powered through his business, implacable as a steamroller. But I knew irrelevant or irksome distractions could see him off into the night – and I none the wiser.
He resumes: “There were…features of her passing I did not at the time relate.”
“You certainly did not confide anything particular to me.”
“Not to you, or the coroner, or the constabulary.”
The police had been involved? Hadn’t she died harmlessly in her sleep?
It had been expected of course. Syms’ mother, Agnes, had been an invalid for a long time, increasingly bedridden and smitten with more than a fair share of chronic ailments. Dear Syms had spent a good portion of his waking (and sleeping) hours tending her. I remember sitting in his parlour once, hearing the industrial sounds of care from her bedroom above: the rhythmic squeak of bedsprings as linen is changed or patient frets, the thump-thump-thump of pillows being plumped and the labourer’s cursing of Syms as he directs the bulk of his mother in, or out of, bed.
She had died, mourned with a kind of exhausted relief by her son and a tiny contingent of family members, some six months ago.
Syms continues. “The doctor’s certificate of course stated she died, relatively peacefully in her sleep. Though I can tell you she was neither asleep, nor at peace.
“And,” he adds, tormenting the wicker fibres of his seat as he squirms, seemingly impatient with his own anxiety, “she certainly was not in her bed.”
“Then,” I put in softly, “dear fellow, she was in the armchair?”
“No.” He braces his arms against the rests. “She was standing.”
The door to Mrs Bradshaw’s room closes, two floors up, and momentarily we experience a subtle, strange change in air pressure in the living room: door hinges click and wood pops around us as the room sits up to attention and we are born into an imperceptibly shifted new world.
“Standing?” I say. “You mean, she was walking around?”
How had she been found? Erect yet deceased; braced against the mantelpiece?
“I attended her every day in that room for five years. She could no more walk on those legs than I could thread a needle with these fat fingers.” With a swift motion he brings my brother’s cigar to his lips and bites off the end. He leans forward, and with a practised spit, launches the redundant black end into the whitening coals.
“The first incident occurred one morning perhaps three weeks before her death. She had passed a bad night. I was wringing a flannel into the blue basin that sits on a stand before the window. As I turned to her with the refreshed cloth, I was surprised to see a spark of life, if not liveliness, in those usually hooded eyes of hers. She was not staring up at the ceiling, in that fog those prescriptions kept her in, but looking straight at me, quite cannily.
“As I watched, I saw her mouth quiver, her dry lips peeling hesitantly away from her teeth. Her jaw dropped open a fraction, as if reluctantly, and her eyes betrayed now a certain bewilderment, as if the movements of her mouth were not of her own doing. I saw the wrinkled folds of skin around her larynx working agitatedly.
“’Andrew’, she said finally, ‘you’d do well to be rid of me, I think.’
“My hands shook, my eyes filled and I turned away from her, busying myself at the basin to hide my consternation. It wasn’t simply that she had spoken so lucidly, for once in a very long while, but just earlier I had been musing, looking out of the window, thinking about a world, a life, without her…her presence.
“You must understand me,” he suddenly cries, “I was burning to be free! To be released from this purgatory of anxiety and resentment. Night and day I would hear the call, awake or in my dreams, that tap tap tap of her wedding ring on the iron bedpost, summoning me to her care. No prisoner ever heard the clink of the approaching gaoler’s keys with a less heavy heart. She and that bed. Fused together in my imagination, a hybrid creature whose every creak and groan I knew, Robert. The iron frame, her ruined lungs, the rusted springs…”
A great sob wells up from the pit of his stomach and his body shakes with it.
“Natural thoughts, Andrew,” I say quietly. “As natural as that bird on the stack or the fire going out. As natural as your mother’s sad passing.”
“Nonsense, mother,’ I replied jovially, ‘you keep me on my toes and afford me much valuable exercise.’ I turned back to the bed, and she was asleep. Deeply asleep, as instantly as I flick this cigar ash from my trousers. I recognised that heavy, turgid breathing, with the rattle at the end of the exhale. But her eyes, Robert. Her hands….
“To explain: her arms were no longer by her side, tucked tightly under the sheet and bedspread. They were out from the covers, elbows spread unnaturally wide and flat against the pillow and fingers pressed hard against her eye sockets. Her lips were still peeled back into a horrible rictus, as though withered from decay. She looked like a heathen corpse, prepared for some ghastly crossing.”
“Curious. But she was alright afterwards?” I ask, quite aware how foolish this sounds, as if the patient in question were not already lying six feet deep in St Cuthbert’s Graveyard in Finchley.
“She complained of soreness in her arms and spoke very huskily for two or three days. But again she had retreated into the fog. Gone was that flash of lucidity.
“The next event occurred two weeks later. Directly after lunch Mrs Fox had gone down the road to the grocery store and to run one or two other errands.
“She’d been gone a little while when I remembered a largish parcel I was expecting from the library, a catalogue of Prussian ceramics. I feared it would be a weighty set of volumes and I could well imagine her tottering under the weight all the way home. My mother should not ideally have been left, but all was quiet upstairs. She had been lying quite comfortably atop the counterpane; it was such a warm afternoon. We would not properly make the bed until later on, when the chill would begin to affect her. I struggled into my coat to meet Mrs Fox.”
I smile to myself. I had often wondered at the precise nature of the relationship between Syms and the quiet-natured widow. Besides the one feature of her strikingly steel-coloured hair, secured in an irreproachably compact bun, she appeared insubstantial, almost one-dimensional beside the tuberous Syms; a man who looked often as if he had just been dug from the earth.
On my visits there, overhearing their amiable bickering, I thought of them less as a son and caregiver but a married couple. Snippets of their discussion could have convinced a passer-by that there was a child in their care, not an elderly invalid. ‘I’ve changed her, Mr Syms, and sat with her and it’s high time you left off those books because I want fresh air’; ‘you pander to her Madam, when she requires a stern approach.’
“Well,” continues Syms, “I went over the street and intercepted Mrs Fox on her way home. She was struggling with her goods rather theatrically as I had predicted.
“We entered the house together and were just divulging ourselves of our things when we heard an almighty banging from upstairs, from her room. On it went, sounding like a gang of workmen rhythmically pounding metal posts. We heard it as much as felt it. ‘God in Heaven, what is that!’ cries Mrs Fox, as the light fixture in the hall ceiling sways and its glass parts clash together. Bang, bang, bang. I tell you it was as if that massive old cast iron bed frame was being lifted several feet of the floor and let drop, again and again. I rushed up the stairs – yes, Robert, I put on a turn of speed for the occasion, I see you smiling – and felt nearly finished at the top of the flight. My heart, this massy organ here in my breast was shuddering so hard against my ribs I could not differentiate between it and the overwhelming sounds from the bedroom. It was like being in the next room along from a rotary press.
“Gasping, I moved along the short corridor with Mrs Fox at my side. ‘Mother – Agnes,’ I call, ‘it’s alright, we are here,’ and I grasped the door handle.
“That very second, the banging ceased. The same instant I touched the door, I swear to you. I opened it and we stepped in, more fearful than concerned I’m ashamed to say. I recall first seeing the wash-basin on its stand, against the window, and a long shadow extending from it across the floor as the afternoon sun blazed in. Then, as we rounded the door we saw the bed in full – and the very last thing we would have expected to see.
“It was empty.”
“Empty, by Christ!” I exclaim.
“There it was, foursquare on its habitual mark, set in the depressions it had made in the carpet after so many years. The purple counterpane lay neatly over the freshly laundered top sheet, which was tucked firmly in at the sides and turned neatly down at the head, over the bedspread, below the plumped, clean pair of pillows.
“We looked in amazement around the room, calling for her, though it seemed foolish to do so: where could she be? I moved to the door, to look out on the landing when Mrs Fox touched my arm. ‘Sweet God,’ she murmurs, ‘look.’
“The bedspread is moving. Or rather, something is moving under it. Two small shapes, halfway along on opposing sides, rising and falling fitfully, churning the fabric. We watch, petrified – now I understand the word! – for a few moments. Then in the quiet of the room, we hear scratching. I instantly imagine a pair of rats, infesting the bedding, scrabbling for freedom, and I am sickened. ‘Cynthia,’ I whisper, ‘what are they?’”
Despite everything, I raise my eyebrows. “Propriety can go hang,” he mutters. I nod.
“As I spoke,” he resumes, “ we turned to each other and simultaneously came to the same understanding. ’Her hands,” cries Cynthia; ‘She is in there,’ say I.
“I lunged at the bed and tore back the counterpane.
“Now we could see her, pressed and stifled under the top sheet, so constricted and sunken into the mattress that her body looked the mere suggestion of a figure. Her only expression available was the fluttering panic of her hands.
“Shrouded she was, and I blenched as I saw her draw in a desperate breath which sucked the sheet tighter over her face: I saw the lines and hollows of her skull raise gently there on the white cotton.
“With Cynthia on one side and me on the other, we pulled the top sheet off her by small increments: victories won with much exertion, such was my mother’s dead weight. Her bulk was pinning the mattress down hard on the tucked-in portion of the fabric. I shall not forget her shuddering, racking breath as we unveiled her, or her wild, tear-strewn eyes.”
I take a deep breath as Syms pauses his tale. Whatever scuffling activity I’d heard dimly from the chimney has settled and a lull passes over the room. The fire and guard are cool now. It is late enough for sensible folk to be in bed but not so late that the night denizens of London have begun their peregrinations. My living room feels muffled, inert, as a garden room smothered in dust sheets for the winter.
“A horrible incident,” I say, with an effort beating back the tide of silence. “She must have, what, lost consciousness? And slipped under the sheets while you were out. Hardly your fault, you can’t be omniscient.”
“Did I not say,” cries Syms, “that the sheets were pulled so tight over her body I fancied I saw her living skeleton, so tight we had trouble freeing her? Robert, recall I had left her lying on the unmade bed.”
“Then perhaps she…” I trail off. The proposal that Agnes Syms had somehow, in her weak and crippled state, grappled with the bedding and then managed to encase herself so thoroughly was beyond belief. And reason. And yet: there had she been discovered by my old friend.
Syms rises as swiftly as his bulk and the strictures of the wicker chair will allow. Agitating his cigar is no longer enough. He makes for the window and from my viewpoint makes a new moon of his head against the lamplight in the street.
“Again,” he whispers into the dark, “it was as if she were being made ready for the grave, by some hand, some agent expressing my own deepest wish…”
“No,” I reply, “I can’t believe it. I can believe it from Carmichael and the others, with their flippant superstitions. But you know better, Andrew. You talked earlier of her lucidity that one time, and the surprising contortions of her arms. Perhaps on this occasion she experienced a similar access of strength and determination to make good her surroundings, by herself for once. And then her accident, brought on by fatigue.”
Syms smiles. “Stoutly reasoned, my friend. Thank you! But I am to blame for not having furnished you with the complete picture.
“Those accursed friends of yours and their penny-a-dozen fantasies! They’re in my thoughts now, mixing with my memories, stirring my reason. Perhaps that is why I hesitated to mention this: when we stripped my mother of her clothes, to soothe her with a bath, we found marks on her body. Small crescent-like cuts, as if made by little fingernails. At the wrists and ankles mainly, but not confined there. Most were superficial, one or two required salving. She had no blood under her nails, to counter your next logical reply.”
“Did she remember what had happened?”
“She was delirious for some hours, then more docile. You recall her illness kept her for the most part as if she were behind a frosted glass; her mind a dark and obscure place, I’m sure. Whatever had happened to her, she would have only dimly conceived it except as an animal might struggle in confinement.”
It is disquieting to hear my friend discussing his mother in such bald terms, especially as I remember her from earlier, better times: my memories of her dainty step and hesitant, bashful chuckle bring a rueful smile to my lips.
Syms’ revelations seethe weightily in my mind, like sopping laundry churning in a wash tub. I desperately want to light a candle or rudely call Mrs Bradshaw for refreshment – and less morbid company. But I feel any such action would be to deny my friend, to refuse further testimony, to banish the darkness with a false light.
No. To the end of his tale then, at dumb midnight.
I do not dare ask him who he thinks is responsible for the violence against his mother. I feel my best role is to play the part of interlocutor and confine the conversation to the facts of the matter. “What did you do next?”
Syms makes for the chair again, and grinds himself against the tortured fibres. It sounds like the snapping of kindling in a pyre.
“We dressed her wounds and calmed her until she subsided in the early hours of the following morning. Cynthia and I sat, exhausted, in the dining room until dawn, discussing what was to be done. Neither of us could proffer a reasonable explanation of what had happened, but for myself the hideousness of it was tempered by the fact I had nursed this woman for five long years. I’d seen the ravages of illness slowly work their way through her mortal body, had known these flesh-devils intimately as they worked their lingering, dark seduction on her organs and her senses. Perhaps this was simply some sudden and unbidden acceleration of her decline by means I had no way at the time of fathoming?
“We agreed to keep vigil over her for the next days, weeks, however long it needed to resolve the matter, though heaven knows how we thought that could be achieved.
“Sitting in my father’s old armchair, Robert, in her room, in the early hours of a morning, what thoughts came. I was fatigued, anxious and above all monstrously ashamed that I not only gazed on my mother’s predicament with a kind of deadened equanimity but that partly I welcomed it.
“What images and fancies fed on my soul’s weakness in the small hours. Hearing her soughing, rattling breath issuing into the dark night and imagining it as whispered guttural chatter; clouds passing before the moon translating to small shadowy figures seeping into the room’s corners, sliding along the floor to congregate on her sleeping form. Fancying from the lamplighter’s procession outside that in brittle shards of light, reflected from the wall mirror onto the pillow I see the bone white flash of little claws.
“Though there were no further incidents – until her passing.”
Ignoring this provocative statement, I remark, “So, your mother was suitably quietened by your constant presence so as not to attempt any further harm upon herself.”
Syms gestures to me with his palm raised, acknowledging what he saw as a sop. “Her situation as regards her well-being did not change for the better or worse over the next few weeks. We tentatively agreed to cease our constant attendance. It was taking too great a toll on our physical and mental well being.
“On the day she died I had gone over the road to post one or two items and arrange an appointment for myself with Doctor Feather. My heart; I may as well make a clean breast of that too, so to speak. Though I’ve not much faith in the profession as a rule. The number of physicians we have called to the house, who’ve skipped up the stairs to see my mother, and then slowly trudged back down again, wagging solemn heads. It seems to me they are no more than professional witnesses to death and decay.
“However, my health was at the time not merely now a matter of my own concern but also for…”
“I completely understand.”
“I rounded the corner to our street and immediately saw Cynthia on the doorstep, talking urgently with a young policeman; a newsboy stood a little apart from them, obviously eavesdropping. I took it he must have summoned the constable on behalf of Mrs Fox.
“’What is it,’ I remember moaning as I approached, as much to myself as to the congregation. Cynthia seized my hands. ‘Andrew, she won’t let me in. I mean, she has somehow barricaded the door to her room.’
“It’s not possible,’ I replied brusquely and put her to one side as I entered the hall. The police officer entered with us; the disappointed newsboy severed from the proceedings by the front door, shut firmly in his face.
The constable says ‘Your housekeeper here reports she hears unusual sounds from the room – this way is it?’ And up he goes.
“‘What did you hear?’ I ask as we follow. ‘A droning, buzzing sound,’ she replies. Meanwhile, the young officer has grasped the handle to mother’s room but the door will not yield. ‘It is locked sir,’ he says. ‘The door has no lock,’ I reply. We hear a jagged, tearing sort of noise coming from within, as of a swarm of bees, followed by a pause. Then it starts up again, a low droning, slowly creeping up the register before terminating suddenly. ‘I went up before’, whispers Cynthia, ‘ and she was out of bed, Andrew, looking at me from over by the window, swaying a little, smiling at me – but a panicked kind of smiling. Then she moved toward me, almost jerked along by her legs and the door suddenly slammed shut in my face. I did not think she was so close to it to be able to shut it – but she must have been.’ Meanwhile, the officer has been knocking and calling. He looks to me: I nod and he puts his shoulder to the door and shoves, once, twice. I must say I was glad he was there, I don’t think I would have had the strength in my limbs, fear had so robbed me of impetus. He makes one more supreme effort: the door opens a crack but slams shut again, sending him tumbling back to the head of the stairway. The door, however is not caught on the latch and swings gently open again, and it is through this aperture I swiftly gain entrance to mother’s room.
“The buzzing sound resolves into the sound of tearing fabric and I round the door to see a figure standing before the bottom bedpost nearest the wall. At that moment I would not have sworn it was she. Around her, on the carpet, a ruined litter of bedlinen as well as her nightgown, bonnet, undergarments. All ripped to shreds or rather strips, many of which ascended her, wrapped irregularly and incompletely around her legs, trunk and head like a poison creeper on an oak. Patches of her grey flesh showed between the snow white fabric. She was unsteady on her feet, but seemingly held vertical by the supporting embrace of this creeping weed. One of her arms was bound to her side, the other clawing at her face, which turned to me as I shouted ‘Mother, for God’s sake!’ Her head was riddled and welted with strips of cloth – I saw only one eye, liquid and gleaming with panic and a small part of her mouth through which she was frantically pushing her tongue to release her binding there.
“Before I could make any move towards her, her body was turned back to face the bed (I cannot say she willed it) and down she went, her head striking the iron bedpost.”
“Christ, Syms.” I swallow and am aware of how parched my throat is. “And that is how she died? When she struck her head as she fell?”
“Yes,” says Syms. “Though I would demur at ‘fell’. I am not sure the others would corroborate me, as they were not yet in the room when it happened. It is natural to assume she lost balance, swaddled as she was. But the violence of it, the speed. Robert, it was as if I were to take the back of your head in my hand this instant and dash it against the fireguard.”
We are quiet for a little time after this. Outside I hear morning traders creeping to their posts and the diffuse pale glow of dawn renders the room almost but not quite tangible. We are silent together in a room of soft edges, grey shadows and fogged familiarity.
Whatever was perched on the chimney stack rustles into life and knocks to us down the flu. Syms stirs.
“I must have a light.” He finally puts the tormented cigar in his mouth and pats his pockets. “Little more to tell you. Cynthia left a week or so later. She couldn’t stop thinking it was somehow her fault. The coroner ruled it an accidental death.”
“Naturally,” I reply.
“Delirium. A mad vitality at the last.” He is still searching for his matchbox. There is quite a stir of knocking and scratching now from the grate.
“I see. There must be a precedent for these things.”
“Naturally. Where on earth are my Lucifers?”
He leaves off his waistcoat and suddenly peers forward, craning his neck. I follow his gaze and see a faint, the faintest, wisp of smoke beginning to rise from the centre of the mass of whitened coals.
As I watch, a small flame begins to flicker among the clinker. No doubt a back draft stirring some small life in hidden embers. Syms leans forward out of his chair and comes to the fireplace. He descends laboriously onto all fours and with the cigar between his lips, places his head among the cinders and takes his light.
His features are indistinct in the twilight. As he turns to me, I see only twin flames reflected in his pupils and as he pulls on the cigar a spasming fiery ‘O’ for a mouth.