The Darkest Hour of Laurence Smitheringale

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic

Chapter 2 (v.1) - Chapter 2- Evil awakens

Submitted: April 19, 2016

Reads: 205

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Submitted: April 19, 2016

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The room watched slack jawed in astonishment. At the same time the voices on the radio got louder and louder. Smitheringale shrieks got louder in return. It was if man and machine were determined to scream each other down. The radio was winning. The screeches from the speaker blasted into the room like a gale. The pitch of the screams was painful on the eardrum. Wadworth and several others cried out in pain. Smitheringale fearful rage collapsed into pure fear. He cringed and turned away. Whimpering he scurried from the room the folds of his black gown flapping.

The radio’s screams rose to an intolerable pitch and then went suddenly silent.

“Good god!” “What the hell- excuse my language but…Really!” “My glass broke. Right in my hand.”

“What on earth got into this radio.” Tim stroked the Zenith Tombstones wood.

“Forget the radio. What on earth got into the master,“ said Selby. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Wadworth was staring in bewilderment at the open door that Smitheringale had stormed out. “It…it was something in the woods.”

Tim asked. “Channon you speak German. What was that broadcast about?”
Channon stroked his moustache thoughtfully. “It was most peculiar. It wasn’t political. They were begging to be let out.”

“Out of where?”

“They didn’t say. They just kept shouting- Please let us out. We’re starving. We’re dying.” Channon was staring hard at the radio, stroking at his moustache anxiously. The usually unflappable gentleman’s face was pale with a sheen of sweat was visible on his brow. Wadworth didn’t think the man looked quite as disturbed at the radio voices as Smitheringale was but it was getting in the same direction.

“I think I’m getting something now.” said Tim but I had to change the bandwidth.

“I don’t think we want it on if it’s going to do that again.” Selby rubbed at his ears. “That noise was damnably painful.”

Mark Lawrence, the gamesmaster, held up the remains of his sherry glass. “It shattered from the sound. Right in my hand  - look.”

“Hold on chaps, I’ve got something.” Tim fiddling tamed the static and the whistling. The signal cleared to some music -  like a gentle breeze the unmistakable sweeping strings of a song they all knew well. When the singing started everyone’s throats bobbed as they fought down lumps. “There’ll be bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover, tomorrow just you wait and see, I’ll never forget the people I met braving those angry skies, I remember well as the shadows feel the light of hope in their eyes.”

One of the charladies began to quake with emotion. “Oh Flo,” she gasped to her friend and put her hand to her mouth. A ripple of gulps, sniffs and whimpers moved through the crowd. Even the eyes of the manly Mr Lawrence misted over. The whole room was lost in their memories of the last six years, of surviving that daily maelstrom of hope and fear.

The only two people not entranced by the voice of Vera Lynn were Wadworth and Channon. Wadworth was still distacted by the bizarre behaviour of the headmaster and he could see, from the anguished expression on Channon’s face that he was still vexed by the German voices on the radio. The teacher shook his head and muttered, “Things have turned out damned peculiar for what should be a great day, Wadworth. First the headmaster acting so awfully strange and then that awful radio broadcast.”

“I’m sure everything will turn out fine, sir.” Wadworth thought it best not to mention the strange figure skulking in the woods.

Channon shook his head as if trying to shake off oppressive thoughts. “I suppose all German words sound the same if you don’t speak it, Wadworth. But let me tell you, those voices were screaming that they were dying like they meant it. And didn’t it sound like they were so real and close too. I would have sworn there were two kruats trapped in the radio hammering to get out. They kept shouting something about rats too.”

“Rats?”

Channon shrugged. “Well I didn’t say it made any sense.”  

The music played on. “They’ll be love and laughter, and peace ever after, tomorrow when the world is free, the shepard will tend his sheep, the valley will bloom again, and Johnny will go to sleep in his own little bed again.”

The charlady was sobbing to her friend. “My two brave boys Flo. Sometimes I don’t think I can bear the pain. But I’m so proud of them and I knew this day would come.” She turned her face heavenward and declared adamantly. “You see boys. It wasn’t in vain. It wasn’t.”

“Of course it wasn’t, Deidre. And not for my brother either.” Flo took her friend into her arms and the two women hugged and cried.

The noise of two boys play fighting –scuffling, slapping and laughing- echoed along the corridor. Channon shouted out the door, “You out there. Take your nonsense out to the courtyard – right now.”  

 Selby approached wiping at his eyes. “Gosh, it really is all over. Part of me can’t quite believe it.”

Channon nodded, “Me neither. I think putting Europe back together could be just as hard as the fighting – You two outside I’m warning you. If you make me go out there you’ll regret it!” He shouted as the scuffling and laughing outside continued.

Suddenly, the playful scuffling noises were overwhelmed by that of a much more violent confrontation. The corridor echoed with screams of rage and of pain; the unmistakeable whistle then crack of a cane finding its victim. Wadworth and Channon rushed out of the staff room and found Smitheringale dementedly thrashing at a schoolboy. The child was curled on the floor in a ball while the headmaster whipped at him again and again. The other boy was pressed against the wall in terror. The victim was screaming but no louder than  Smitheringale. The Headmaster was wailing like a dervish. A lunatic expression contorted his face and tears of rage flowed down his cheeks.

“Headmaster stop. You mustn’t.” Wadworth grabbed his hand.

“What on earth is going on? What did the boy do Headmaster?” Channon asked.

Smitheringale screamed, “He was outside my window. They are trying to frighten me. But it won’t work, I tell you. I won’t stand for it.”

“Headmaster, the boy was in the corridor. He wasn’t outside your window.” Wadworth tried to prise Smitheringale hand from the cane but the fingers stayed fixed there, as if made of stone.

Some of the other teachers came out of the staff room. Fullman, the schoolboy, came out too and stared with fascination at the sight of the headmaster having to be restrained like a madman.

“I’ll go and look in his study,” Channon went off to the headmaster’s room and Fullman trailed curiously behind him.

Wadworth wouldn’t have thought it was possible but Smitheringale looked even worse than before. His pale face had gone beyond white and turned a corpse-like grey. His eyes bulged from his skull and Wadworth wouldn’t have sworn his hairline had receded in the past hour. The head burbled incoherently: “But I was sure..it was.. there ..but it can’t be.. oh, dear.”

Then, Laurence Augustus Smitheringale, Headmaster of Kennet Public School, a First Class honours Graduate from Christ Church Oxford, former Professor of Literae Humaniores at Cambridge and author of a hugely admired translation of  Agamemnon rested his head on Wadworth’s shoulder and bawled like a baby.

Channon came out of the study. “There’s nothing there.”

Fullman came out too and spoke up timidly. “Actually sir…”

Channon interrupted, “You shouldn’t be here boy. Go outside with the others.”

“But sir…”

“On your way boy.”

As Fullman did as he was told. Two teachers helped the injured schoolboy boy to his head. The child wailed. “Smither’s has gone loopy.”

“Don’t be impertinent, boy.” Channon lifted the child’s head and examined a deep gash across the side of his face that was coursing blood. “Go down to the infirmary and have nurse look at this little scratch.”

“Yes, sir.”

Baffled and embarrassed some of the teachers stood in the corridor watching the Smitheringale sob. Obviously unsure what to do, they did nothing at all. Most of them drifted back into the teacher’s room. Channon looked at the extraordinary scene and sighed. He patted the headmaster on the shoulder. “I think Mr Wadworth and I should help you back to your cottage, headmaster. You are obviously quite overcome by events.”

Smitheringale’s sobs subsided and but his body stayed limp and lifeless. He would have slumped to the floor if Wadworth wasn’t holding him up. In a daze, he muttered. “I just felt that I needed to protect what was important, what was eternal. Could that be so wrong?”

Wadworth could feel the older man’s body quake against his. “Of course not, sir.”

Channon put a broad hat on Smitheringale head to try and hide his face as much as possible from the boys and then he and Wadworth walked him down the stairs and out into the quadrangle. The ruckus in the quadrangle was as loud as ever and the scene was now strewn with the debris of the celebration. Wadworth feet kicked through discarded gas masks, thrown food and school caps, fluttering paper streamers.  

Periodically, Smitheringale  would jerk up from its daze and look over his shoulder in a panic, presumably to check for whatever was persecuting him. Occasionally he snivelled, “What?” or “Who’s that there?”

“We’ll have you home and resting soon, headmaster,” said Channon as soothingly as his bluff voice could manage. They walked Smitheringale through the quadrangle as discreetly as they could but Wadworth still noticed some of the boys stop their shenanigans to stop and point. They formed little knots and whispered to each other. Wadworth didn’t have to here to know what they would be saying – I heard he hit Buckly in the face with his cane. Not his backside or his hand  - his face! Martin saw him crying- can you believe it? Crying! He must have finally gone nuts!

The three of them went out the north gate that lead to a meandering gravel path. There, hiding as far away from the main road and any stray sounds from the village, was the headmasters cottage.  It was a lovely pathway, lined with beech trees. The crocuses and daffodils Wadworth had planted were coming through; delicate frills of gold and turqiouse were escaping their buds. A bullfinch fluttered along the top of the ivy covered wall that edged the cottage garden. The noise from inside the school building begun to fade. Channon said, “Nice and peaceful for you here headmaster.”

“Uh,” the Headmaster looked up as they took him through his cottage door. The inside was cool and smelt of old paper. The hallway was, like every other room, lined with bookcases.

“We’ll leave you in peace here, sir,” said Wadworth.

Urgently, Smitheringale dug his nails into Wadworth’s arm. “No, don’t leave me, Wadworth. They’re coming to get me.”

“Ow – you need to rest headmaster. Here now – here’s your bedroom.”

Smitheringale was an exhausted wreck, terror had wrung him out like a wet rag. But even though he could barely lift his eyelids and his voices weakest he used the last of his energy to protest: “I don’t want to be alone, Wadworth . I’m so scared… and they’re so angry. Don’t let them get me, Wadworth. Promise you won’t leave me…”

“I promise, Headmaster ,” said Wadworth firmly as Smitheringale’s voice trailed off and he drifted into unconsciousness.

They didn’t undress him. They just lay him on his bed, took off his shoes and wrapped him up in his black academic gown as if it was a swaddling blanket.

“That’ll do I think,” Channon put his hands on his hips and regarded the sleeping headmaster. “The most peculiar thing isn’t it? Do you think he might have had stroke?”

“My mother had a stroke, sir.” Wadworth put a blanket over the sleeping figure. “But you could see it in her face. It went all lopsided.”

“Did he get bad news today about a relative at the front, maybe?”

“It’s possible, sir. But he never mentioned it.” Wadworth remembered reffering vaguely to the headmaster’s family once and Smitheringale had immediately corrected him: These books are my family, Wadworth

“Hhmm anyway. If he’s not himself in the morning we’ll get the doctor to look at him.” Channon clapped his hands together. “As for us, it’s back to the celebrations. The mess has been saving more than one bottle of brandy for today, Wadworth. What do you say?”

“Um.. I think I’ll stay here sir.”

“Really? But he’s fine now,”

“I promised him, sir.”

Channon raised a perplexed eyebrow. “You’re an obedient cove aren’t you Wadworth.”

“Yes, sir,” said Wadworth proudly.

“And you are really going to miss out on the celebrations for the most wonderful day in history to sit and watch Smitheringale sleep?”
Wadworth had only instinctively obeyed the headmaster’s command. Obedience was the only possibility. He hadn’t even thought of any of the surrounding options. Hearing Channon lay it out like that gave him a miserable feeling in his stomach. But still he answered: “Yes, sir. I’m going to stay.”

Channon shrugged. “All right Wadworth. It’s up to you.” He glanced down at the headmaster’s grey, sleeping face. “I would like to say that old Smither’s will be suitably grateful for your loyalty. But I doubt it.”

Channon made his way out. Just as he opened the cottage door and was stepping out into the sunshine. Wadworth came after him and called out: “There’s just one thing, sir.”

“Yes, Wadworth.”

“After the headmaster saw something in the woods, whatever it was that upset him…there was someone there. I saw them later on, sir. Watching from behind the trees.”

Channon face twitched just a little. “Did you see who it was?”

“No, sir. But they were behaving strangely.”

Channon pondered for a few moments. “A bit strange but probably nothing.”  He rubbed at his moustache thoughtfully. “Still those voices over the radio. Those were strange too. Damnably strange.” He closed the door behind him.

Wadworth was left alone in the cottage with the headmaster. He was there because he had made a promise. The headmaster was frightened that ‘they’ would come and get him. Wadworth had seen ‘them’ himself, couching sinisterly in the woods. He pulled up a chair close to the Smitheringale’s bedside and kept pensive guard.

He watched the headmaster’s face and kept his ears pricked for the approach of whatever had terrified him. No sinister footsteps approached. He looked at the scene out the window. The sun was setting.  The cottage’s back garden was edged by barbed wire. The army had requisitioned some of the schools western land and a couple of outlying buildings for its training camp. As a result, the headmaster, who had declined to have even a ticking clock in his cottage lest it disturbed study had been regularly woken by the sound of Howitzers. Wadworth stared out at the gorgeous orange glow that signalled the end of this historic day.  It was as unfrightening, unthreatening a picture imaginable. Even the barbed wire and the barrels of the field guns, framed against the sunset, didn’t ugly the picture but were a sweet melancholic reminder that peace was here at last.

And you are really going to miss out on the celebrations for the most wonderful day in history to sit and watch Smitheringale sleep?

Channon question intruded into Wadworth’s thoughts. From the distance there was another intrusion too; the sound of the celebrations at the school were very faint. He had to listen carefully but he could just hear them. Once he had heard them he couldn’t un-hear them.

He looked at the peacefully sleeping headmaster with a certain resentfulness now. He had resented Smitheringale on occasion before. Even someone as expert at repressing feeling for duty as Wadworth couldn’t completely repress resentment at a man so cold, so given to petty obstinacy and so indifferent to humanity beyond the pages of antique folios. But now a thought came that had never crossed his mind even fleetingly in ten years: Did he actually even like this man?

Some popping noises outside made Wadworth jump. He rushed to the window but it was no approach of a sinister figure, the pops weren’t the guns of the war restarting. Thatcham wasn’t much of a village but they were excited enough to put on some celebration fireworks. Above the silent guns of the base, delicate little explosions of purple, emerald and indigo fizzed and crackled. Wadworth watched a plume of bright pink burst over the trees near where the road meets the canal. He touched the side of his face where the landgirl’s kiss should have landed.

And you are really going to miss out on the celebrations for the most wonderful day in history to sit and watch Smitheringale sleep?

Wadworth tucked the blanket in around Smitheringale neck and shoulders.  He took one last look at the slumbering face and walked out of the cottage.

He walked up the pathway with a light step, guided only by moonlight and the golden smell of the daffodils. As he got closer to the glow of lights around the school steeples, it was clear from the noise that the boys celebrations were going on as lustily as before. A smile spread across Wadworth’s  face as he listened to their joyous shouts and laughter. A glow of freedom and liberation flowed through him. He very rarely drank but his mouth now thirsted for brandy.

From where the footpath met the north gate he could see boys had conquered the highest towers and slung flags. Wadworth wanted to cheer for them.

“Please, sir.” A close-by voice. A timid squeck contrasting with the uninhibited shouts from the school. Wadworth turned and saw little Fullman peep his curly head from one of the Grecian pillars just inside the gate.

“Fullman, what are you creeping there for?” Wadworth laughed, the ecstacy of his emotional liberation still coursing through him. “You should be having fun with the other lads. I’m off to have a few drinks with the other staff myself.”

“Please, sir. I’m frightened.” The boy’s lip quivered.

Wadworth laughed again. “Frightened – Today! What on earth of.”

“Something’s terribly wrong, sir,” Fullman whimpered. There was something in the simple sincerity with which he said it, that way of children to strike at the bare truth with one phrase. Wadworth felt his liberation joy drain away. A cold dread crept through him.

“What are you talking about, Fullman?”

“Please, sir. The Headmaster was telling the truth. Something was at the window of his study. I went in there with Mr Channon, sir. He didn’t see it but I did. There was something climbing the tree outside his study window.”

Wadworth’s throat felt dry. He gulped. “One of the boys ragging the headmaster I expect.”

“Oh no, sir.” As he shook his head a burst of fireworks illuminated his features. “This wasn’t a boy. It was a big man. He was wearing a brown leather coat and a cap, like flyers uniform, sir.”

A shiver ran through Wadworth as he remembered the brown coated figure crouching at the  edge of the woodland path, crouching, watching.

“I couldn’t see it face at first because of the branches but then he moved and looked up. I saw his face but…but it was really a face. It wasn’t a man’s features, sir. It was…it was…” the little boy moved his hand in front of his own frightened little face, as if trying to mime want he couldn’t describe. “It was horrible, sir.”

Wadworth stood rooted to the spot. The sounds of celebration from the school and the glow of the fireworks that had all been so vivid just moments ago now seemed distant and garbled. The only sensations with clarity were the fear on this little boy’s face, the tears sparkling on his cheeks and his terrified words.

Fullman broke down in sobs. “I’m scared, sir. I think something terrible is going to happen.” And then he ran, disappearing into the nest of black shadows that flowed from the columns, urns and statues of the quadrangle.

Wadworth stared at the darkness where Fullman had run for shelter. He listen to the close but distant songs and cheers while dread crept through his body. Those little images and sounds from today the figure in the woods, the screeches on the radio, so inconsequential if described to anyone were building up a flow of cold fear. He stood, doing nothing, until from behind him, from the direction of the headmaster’s cottage, he heard a terrified scream.

Wadworth turned and ran towards back down the path. The clubbed foot that had kept him from war service and from celebration kisses made running difficult; it was more of a speeded up hop; it hurt from his toes to his hip but he pressed on. He had broken his promise. But he would make amends. He must not fail now. He panted, “I’m coming Headmaster.”

Another scream rent the air, tearing through the soft spring night like a jagged lightning bolt. Wadworth whimpered and tried to go faster, increasing his pain but not his speed. Guided only by the screams and the thinnest sliver of crescent- moonlight, he lumbered through the fug of sweet petal smells until the silhouette of the cottage was in front of him. The details cottage were just visible. Two pairs of heavy boots had tramped through the bed of crocuses in front. The door was flung open. The screams from inside were more discernible as Smitheringale now. Amongst the screams Wadworth could make out whimpered begging, pleas for mercy.

“I’m here headmaster. I’ll save you.” His heart was hammering in his chest. He picked a pitchfork that lay propped against a wheelbarrow. His sweat had almost sliding from his grip. He didn’t feel brave but duty was overpowering his terror. This was John Wadworth’s moment.

“Leave him alone you bastards.” Wadworth charged into the cottage fork-first. The hallway bore the signs of a rampage: muddy boot-prints on the carpet. Folios thrown from the shelves. He stormed into the bedroom- empty. The blanket he had tucked in around Smitheringale was cast on the floor, torn from struggles.. The screaming was coming from the rear of the cottage now: “Please – I didn’t want to do it. I’m sorry.”

He chased after the boot-prints and shrieks to the back-door which was already flung open. He could hear the sounds of the struggle: bodies thumping and grinding against each other. His own fear which he had thought was already at its limit found a new peak; his body began to shiver like he had been dropped into an ice bath. It struck him that he had never in his life before inflicted physical violence. How was it even done?

As he stepped into the pale moonlight of the back garden, the fork felt the weight of lead. With an agony of exertion, he kept the point up but it still quaked like a coward. “Headmaster – I’m here its, Wadworth.”

The Headmaster and his two persecuters were, dimly visible, at the end of the garden. They were at the barbed wire that separated it from the army base. As he edged closer Wadworth could see that they were partly through the fence. Smitheringale in his struggles was thoroughly entangled in it: the barbs were wrapped around a wrist and were digging into his chalk white face. When he saw Wadworth, a flicker of hope lit in his eyes. “Wadworth – John - I knew you would come. Please help me.”

“I will, Headmaster. I won’t let them take you.”

The two figures who had hold of Smitheringale stopped still at Wadworth words. They had their backs to Wadworth; he couldn’t see their faces. They wore brown leather air-men’s coats and leather caps.  They looked tall and strong.

“You ch..chaps should kn..know..” Wadworth was horrified by the tremor in his voice. It only increased as the two airmen slowly began to turn around. “..that the po..police are on the..their way.”

Slowly, slowly they turned until they were almost facing him. Wadworth found one last spark of courage to snarl and thrust his fork forward threateningly. “Away with you or I’ll run you through with this thing.”

A blaze of celebration fireworks lit up the sky and illuminated the garden just as the airmen turned their faces towards him.

The airmen had no faces.

“Oh my God,” Wadworth screamed. Beneath the airmen’s caps were skulls. Some bare scraps of rotted flesh clung to the bone. Their fleshless jaw-bones opened and from somewhere deep inside - more from their souls than their tattered physicality – emitted hateful, mocking laughter.

Wadworth dropped his pitchfork. His inextinguishable sense of duty withered to nothing in an instant. Fear for himself overtook all else. His Headmaster vanished from his thoughts. Wailing in terror, John Wadworth turned and ran as fast as his clubbed foot would carry him..

 


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