The Romance of the Gothic
A full moon, shining bright and white through the half formed clouds that floated across it, illuminated the moor almost as clearly as daylight would have done, albeit in shades of black and white rather than full colour.
The intense white light illuminated the varying faces of the moor; the vast rolling acres of scrub, the verdant grass, the occasional outcrops of trees as thick and plentiful as any forest, and finally the great mire, placid looking in the moonlight but ready to drag down anyone foolish enough to try and find a path through the swampy ground. The moon also shone on the faces of the four men standing on a small hillock, overlooking the vast panorama around them.
They belonged to the class known as ’gentlemen’ in that they were rich or titled, though only one of them, Lord Burt, was the sort of ’gentleman’ to be mindful of this. The group was clustered on the hillock to peer at a distant building through a brass telescope that one of the men had provided. Although there was no leader as such, it was this man who was in charge.
’Gothcreek Manor,’ said Lord Burt, flatly, his tone of voice insinuating that he disliked being peremptorily summoned and dragged from the comforts of town into the muddy cold of the wild countryside.
’Family home to the perfidious Baron Johann Fosco Sauran Kienhirsch, and his many diabolical ancestors before him,’ added the youngest member of the group, the Honourable John Ferrago, but with interest rather than disdain. ’Why, Count, are we here?’
The Count Gilber’ Xavier de Fourtrue retrieved his telescope, collapsed it, and placed it in one of the special pockets of his custom-made country coat before giving the end of his large moustache a little twist. ’We are here, gentlemen,’ he replied, ’because it is here that the trail of the kidnapped Lady Burford ends.’
’What?’ gasped Ferrago. ’You’ve traced her?’
’Indeed,’ replied the count. ’From her disappearance from the Hotel Blanc when detoured away by a false note, apparently from her dying father, to the Chateau Grimm and the relics of the disbanded and shameful Inquisitional Order of St Crasterick, to the homestead of the Baron Johann Kienhirsch, I have traced the line of her captors, analysed their actions, and have deduced that here is where the baron will bring his prey.’
’But good God, man, whatever for?’ demanded Lord Burt, who was afflicted with a total lack of imagination. ’Why ever would someone behave in such a manner?’
’In this case for Lady Burford’s considerable inheritance, which I am sure even now the baron is trying to induce her to sign over to him in her will, after which her life will be worth nothing to so desperate a man.’
’Then what are we waiting for?’ demanded Ferrago. ’We must save her!’
’I presume that is why you asked us to meet here,’ said Doctor George Wilson, nodding understandingly at the count. They had worked together before on numerous occasions.
’It is,’ replied de Fourtrue. ’You, Wilson, for your support and splendid nerves, Lord Burt in his capacity of a magistrate to witness what I say is true, and of course young John who yearns to be reunited with his love, and who will be needed to soothe and care for Sarah once we have her safe. But it is not that simple.’
’Why not?’ asked Ferrago. ’We can see the manor; it can only be a mile away, or two at the most.’
’There may be a problem in getting to the manor,’ said the count.
’The spectral beast that is said to roam the moor.’
’Spectral beast?’ exclaimed Lord Burt in disdain. ’Poppycock!’
’A silly superstition,’ said Ferrago.
’You don’t seriously believe in a spectral beast, do you?’ asked Wilson suspiciously. He guessed that the count was about to reveal something, recognising as he did de Fourtrue’s small cynical smile.
’No, I do not believe in a spectral beast at all,’ said the count.
’I should bally well hope not,’ said Ferrago in relief.
’It is in fact a flesh and blood beast kept by the baron to preserve his privacy, act as a bodyguard, and to scare his victims into insensibility. Odds are that tonight he has released the beast onto the moor, knowing as he does that I am close to ensnaring him in my net.’
’What sort of beast?’ asked Wilson. If the count said it was so, it was probably so; Wilson had seldom known de Fourtrue be wrong in his investigations.
’That I do not know,’ replied de Fourtrue. ’I have examined its paw prints and the mutilated remains of cattle that have fallen prey to the creature, and I can only tell you that the beast is gigantic, with a huge bite, fangs, and claws.’
’Oh, well, that’s all right then,’ said Ferrago faintly.
’I’m sure that’s an offence,’ spluttered Burt in magisterial wrath. ’If there is no law against the release of wild and savage animals into the open, we can certainly charge the baron with causing a public nuisance.’
’And possibly the beast can also be regarded as an offensive weapon,’ said the count gravely. Only his close friend Wilson saw the glint of dark humour in de Fourtrue’s eyes as he spoke. Burt nodded in righteous agreement.
’Yes, if this is true the baron is certainly wracking up the offences,’ he intoned, aware that he alone represented the law of the land. ’Kidnapping, attempt to influence someone against their will, only a lady, I know, but I’m sure it’s still illegal, keeping a dangerous pet without adequate supervision... ’
’Never mind the pet,’ said Ferrago impatiently. ’It’s Lady Sarah I’m concerned for!’
’Indeed,’ said the count. ’We must move. While the moon is bright it will give us a good view of our surroundings and it is therefore unlikely that the beast, or anyone else, will be able to mount a surprise attack. You have your revolvers? All cocked? Excellent; then off we go.’
Unfortunately for de Fourtrue’s plan, a heavy mist began to fall as the men walked towards Gothcreek Manor until they could barely see more than a few feet in any direction. Then a sound was heard that caused a freezing chill to wash over them - the low howl of an immense creature.
’The beast!’ gasped Ferrago.
’But where is it?’ demanded Burt, spinning around anxiously. In the thick fog, sound as well as sight was deadened.
’It has already passed this way,’ said the count. ’See here.’ He lowered his lantern to the muddy ground and Wilson thrilled in fear as he saw the enormous set of paw prints that crossed the path they were now walking along, the outline still fresh and showing clearly the long wicked claws of the beast.
’The tracks lead in that direction,’ observed Burt, pointing to the right. ’Perhaps it smells something to eat over there?’
’Yes,’ agreed the count. ’Us. The track has meandered in from that direction. Probably the beast is even now circling around, following our scent.’
’You’re damnably cool about it,’ observed Burt. The count shrugged.
’I tend not to worry about things I can’t control or affect. At the moment I can do nothing about an enormous creature that may or may not be tracking me, so until the situation changes why waste nervous energy worrying about it?’ Wilson had seen these powers of detachment before in his friend and he wished he could share in them.
’Perhaps we should pick up our pace,’ he observed. ’We can’t be far from the hall now and if we get there before the beast we’ll have some cover.’
’Practical as ever, Wilson,’ smiled de Fourtrue at his friend. ’I quite agree. Let’s go.’
The four men hurried on, covering the ground well but before they reached the hall another blood-curdling howl was heard, this one much closer to them.
’The damn thing is tracking us!’ gasped Burt.
’And circling us,’ observed Wilson. ’I’m sure that sound came from up ahead.’
’But as that is the way we have to go,’ said de Fourtrue, ’we have no choice but to continue.’
’Agreed,’ said Wilson and Ferrago, while Burt, looking rather green in the light of his lantern, mumbled something unintelligible. The men hurried on.
As they walked the fog seemed to bulge strangely in front of them, lights shone dimly through it, and within a few strides they realised that the mist was thinning and that the lights came from Gothcreek Manor. A few more steps took them unexpectedly out of the fog as though they had stepped out from behind a curtain and the manor reared up ahead of them, the vast granite construction dwarfing the landscape with its turrets, oriels, and high arched roofs.
Directly in front of them was the famous tower of Gothcreek Manor, the main entrance into the building. The door was a huge slab of blackened wood, inches thick, studded with nails and protective steel, while the surrounding arch-way was adorned with leering gargoyles. The men stopped short, craning up to look at the seemingly-impossible architecture in front of them before cautiously moving forward again until de Fourtrue made a sudden gesture for them to stop.
’What’s the matter?’ asked Wilson.
’I thought I saw something in the doorway,’ replied the count. The four men peered into the deep, dark recess, until Burt exclaimed:
’Yes, there is something there, I can see it!’ With a howl, a moving patch of shadow took on the form of the beast as it sprang from the doorway and landed halfway down the wide stone steps that led up to the doors. Burt shrieked and flung himself onto the ground as the beast leapt forward again in enormous muscular bounds, a ghastly blue aura flickering around its body as it pounded towards the intruders.
’Weapons,’ ordered de Fourtrue curtly. Wilson and Ferrago pulled out their revolvers and all three aimed at the beast.
’Steady, steady,’ cautioned the count. ’Wait for a clear target... Fire!’
The three guns blazed out and the beast howled in pain and fury, but the bullets barely impeded its progress as it sprang on Ferrago. The count spun on his heel and emptied his revolver into the beast’s head as it savaged the shrieking man. With a howl the creature fell to the floor. Wilson clapped his own gun to the animal’s head but after a last convulsive twist it moved no more. The beast of the moor was dead.