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Chapter 2 - The Ritual of the Dagger

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Author Topic: Chapter 2 - The Ritual of the Dagger  (Read 6 times)
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« on: December 19, 2022, 05:22:37 am »

After dinner, Abbershaw was one of the first to enter the great hall or drawing-room which, with the dining-room, took up the best part of the ground floor of the magnificent old mansion. It was an amazing room, vast as a barn and heavily panelled, with a magnificently carved fire-place at each end wherein two huge fires blazed. The floor was old oak and highly polished, and there was no covering save for two or three beautiful Shiraz rugs. The furniture here was the same as in the other parts of the house, heavy, unpolished oak, carved and very old; and here, too, the faint atmosphere of mystery and dankness, with which the whole house was redolent, was apparent also.

Abbershaw noticed it immediately, and put it down to the fact that the light of the place came from a huge iron candle-ring which held some twenty or thirty thick wax candles suspended by an iron chain from the centre beam of the ceiling, so that there were heavy shadows round the panelled walls and in the deep corners behind the great fire-places.

By far the most striking thing in the whole room was an enormous trophy which hung over the fire-place farthest from the door. It was a vast affair composed of some twenty or thirty lances arranged in a circle, heads to the centre, and surmounted by a feathered helm and a banner resplendent with the arms of the Petries. Yet it was the actual centre-piece which commanded immediate interest. Mounted on a crimson plaque, at the point where the lance-heads made a narrow circle, was a long, fifteenth-century Italian dagger. The hilt was an exquisite piece of workmanship, beautifully chased and encrusted at the upper end with uncut jewels, but it was not this that first struck the onlooker. The blade of the Black Dudley Dagger was its most remarkable feature. Under a foot long, it was very slender and exquisitely graceful, fashioned from the steel that had in it a curious greenish tinge which lent the whole weapon an unmistakably sinister appearance. It seemed to shine out of the dark background like a living and malignant thing.

No one entering the room for the first time could fail to remark upon it; in spite of its comparatively insignificant size it dominated the whole room like an idol in a temple. George Abbershaw was struck by it as soon as he came in, and instantly the feeling of apprehension which had annoyed his prosaic soul so much in the other room returned, and he glanced round him sharply, seeking either reassurance or confirmation, he hardly knew which.

The house-party which had seemed so large round the dinner-table now looked amazingly small in this cathedral of a room. Colonel Coombe had been wheeled into a corner just out of the firelight by a man-servant, and the old invalid now sat smiling benignly on the group of young people in the body of the room. Gideon and the man with the expressionless face sat one on either side of him, while a grey-haired, sallow-faced man whom Abbershaw understood was a Dr. White Whitby, the Colonel’s private attendant hovered about them in nervous solicitude for his patient. On closer inspection Gideon and the man who looked like Beethoven proved to be even more unattractive than Abbershaw had supposed from his first somewhat cursory glance.

The rest of the party was in high spirits. Anne Edgeware was illustrating the striking contrast between Victorian clothes and modern manners, and her vivacious air and somewhat outrageous conversation made her the centre of a laughing group. Wyatt Petrie stood amongst his guests, a graceful, lazy figure, and his well-modulated voice and slow laugh sounded pleasant and reassuring in the forbidding room.

It was Anne who first brought up the subject of the dagger, as someone was bound to do. ‘What a perfectly revolting thing, Wyatt,’ she said, pointing at it. ‘I’ve been trying not to mention it ever since I came in here. I should toast your muffins with something else, my dear.’

‘Ssh!’ Wyatt turned to her with mock solemnity. ‘You mustn’t speak disrespectfully of the Black Dudley Dagger. The ghosts of a hundred dead Petries will haunt you out of sheer outraged family pride if you do.’

The words were spoken lightly, and his voice had lost none of its quiet suavity, but whether it was the effect of the dagger itself or that of the ghostly old house upon the guests none could tell, but the girl’s flippancy died away and she laughed nervously.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I should just loathe to be haunted. But quite seriously, then, if we mustn’t laugh, what an incredible thing that dagger is.’

The others had gathered round her, and she and Wyatt now stood in the centre of a group looking up at the trophy. Wyatt turned round to Abbershaw. ‘What do you think of it, George?’ he said.

‘Very interesting—very interesting indeed. It is very old, of course? I don’t think I’ve ever seen one like it in my life.’ The little man spoke with genuine enthusiasm. ‘It’s a curio, some old family relic, I suppose?’

Wyatt nodded, and his lazy grey eyes flickered with faint amusement. ‘Well, yes, it is,’ he said. ‘My ancestors seem to have had high old times with it if family legends are true.’

‘Ah!’ said Meggie, coming forward. ‘A ghost story?’

Wyatt glanced at her. ‘Not a ghost,’ he said, ‘but a story.’

‘Let’s have it.’ It was Chris Kennedy who spoke; the young rugger blue had more resignation than enthusiasm in his tone. Old family stories were not in his line. The rest of the party was considerably more keen, however, and Wyatt was pestered for the story.

‘It’s only a yarn, of course,’ he began. ‘I don’t think I’ve ever told it to anyone else before. I don’t think even my uncle knows it.’ He turned questioningly as he spoke, and the old man shook his head.

‘I know nothing about it,’ he said. ‘My late wife brought me to this house,’ he explained. ‘It had been in the family for hundreds of years. She was a Petrie—Wyatt’s aunt. He naturally knows more about the history of the house than I. I should like to hear it, Wyatt.’

Wyatt smiled and shrugged his shoulders, then, moving forward, he climbed on to one of the high oak chairs by the fire-place, stepped up from one hidden foothold in the panelling to another, and stretching out his hand lifted the shimmering dagger off its plaque and carried it back to the group who pressed round to see it more closely.

The Black Dudley Dagger lost none of its sinister appearance by being removed from its setting. It lay there in Wyatt Petrie’s long, cultured hands, the green shade in the steel blade more apparent than ever, and a red jewel in the hilt glowing in the candle-light.

‘This,’ said Wyatt, displaying it to its full advantage, ‘is properly called the “Black Dudley Ritual Dagger”. In the time of Quentin Petrie, somewhere about 1500, a distinguished guest was found murdered with this dagger sticking in his heart.’ He paused, and glanced round the circle of faces. From the corner by the fire-place Gideon was listening intently, his grey face livid with interest, and his little black eyes wide and unblinking. The man who looked like Beethoven had turned towards the speaker also, but there was no expression on his heavy red face.

Wyatt continued in his quiet voice, choosing his words carefully and speaking with a certain scholastic precision. ‘I don’t know if you know it,’ he said, ‘but earlier than that date there had been a superstition which persisted in outlying places like this that a body touched by the hands of the murderer would bleed afresh from the mortal wound; or, failing that, if the weapon with which the murder was committed were placed into the hand which struck the blow, it would become covered with blood as it had been at the time of the crime. You’ve heard of that, haven’t you, Abbershaw?’ he said, turning towards the scientist, and George Abbershaw nodded.

‘Go on,’ he said briefly.

Wyatt returned to the dagger in his hand. ‘Quentin Petrie believed in this superstition, it appears,’ he said, ‘for anyway it is recorded that on this occasion he closed the gates and summoned the entire household, the family, servants, labourers, herdsmen, and hangers-on, and the dagger was solemnly passed around. That was the beginning of it all. The ritual sprang up later—in the next generation, I think.’

‘But did it happen? Did the dagger spout blood and all that?’ Anne Edgeware spoke eagerly, her round face alive with interest.

Wyatt smiled. ‘I’m afraid one of the family was beheaded for the murder,’ he said; ‘and the chronicles have it that the dagger betrayed him, but I fancy that there was a good deal of juggling in affairs of justice in those days.’

‘Yes, but where does the ritual come in?’ said Albert Campion, in his absurd falsetto drawl. ‘It sounds most intriguing. I knew a fellow once who, when he went to bed, made a point of taking off everything else first before he removed his topper. He called that a ritual.’

‘It sounds more like a conjuring trick,’ said Abbershaw.

‘It does, doesn’t it?’ agreed the irrepressible Albert. ‘But I don’t suppose your family ritual was anything like that, was it, Petrie? Something more lurid, I expect.’

‘It was, a little, but nearly as absurd,’ said Wyatt, laughing. ‘Apparently it became a custom after that for the whole ceremony of the dagger to be repeated once a year—a sort of family rite as far as I can ascertain. That was only in the beginning, of course. In later years it degenerated into a sort of mixed hide-and-seek and relay race, played all over the house. I believe it was done at Christmas as late as my grandfather’s time. The procedure was very simple. All the lights in the house were put out, and the head of the family, a Petrie by name and blood, handed the dagger to the first person he met in the darkness. Acceptance was of course compulsory, and that person had to hunt out someone else to pass the dagger on to, and the game continued in that fashion—each person striving to get rid of the dagger as soon as it was handed to him—for twenty minutes. Then the head of the house rang the dinner gong in the hall, the servants relit the lights, and the person discovered with the dagger lost the game and paid a forfeit which varied, I believe, from kisses to silver coins all round.’

He stopped abruptly.

‘That’s all there is,’ he said, swinging the dagger in his fingers.

‘What a perfectly wonderful story!’ Anne Edgeware turned to the others as she spoke. ‘Isn’t it?’ she continued. ‘It just sort of fits in with this house!’

‘Let’s play it.’ It was the bright young man with the teeth again, and he beamed round fatuously at the company as he spoke. ‘For sixpences if you like,’ he ventured as an added inducement, as no one enthused immediately.

Anne looked at Wyatt. ‘Could we?’ she said.

‘It wouldn’t be a bad idea,’ remarked Chris Kennedy, who was willing to back up Anne in anything she chose to suggest. The rest of the party had also taken kindly to the idea, and Wyatt hesitated.

‘There’s no reason why we shouldn’t,’ he said, and paused. Abbershaw was suddenly seized with a violent objection to the whole scheme. The story of the dagger ritual had impressed him strangely. He had seen the eyes of Gideon fixed upon the speaker with curious intensity, and had noticed the little huddled old man with the plate over his face harking to the barbarous story with avid enjoyment. Whether it was the great dank gloomy house or the disturbing effects of love upon his nervous system he did not know, but the idea of groping round in the dark with the malignant-looking dagger filled him with a distaste more vigorous than anything he had ever felt before. He had an impression, also, that Wyatt was not too attracted by the idea, but in the face of the unanimous enthusiasm of the rest of the party he could do nothing but fall in with the scheme.

Wyatt looked at his uncle.

‘But certainly, my dear boy, why should I?’ The old man seemed to be replying to an unspoken question. ‘Let us consider it a blessing that so innocent and pleasing an entertainment can arise from something that must at one time have been very terrible.’

Abbershaw glanced at him sharply. There had been a touch of something in the voice that did not ring quite true, something hypocritical—insincere. Colonel Coombe glanced at the men on either side of him.

‘I don’t know . . .’ he began dubiously.

Gideon spoke at once: it was the first time Abbershaw had heard his voice, and it struck him unpleasantly. It was deep, liquid, and curiously caressing, like the purring of a cat.

‘To take part in such an ancient ceremony would be a privilege,’ he said.

The man who had no expression bowed his head. ‘I too,’ he said, a trace of foreign accent in his voice, ‘would be delighted.’

Once the ritual had been decided upon, preparations went forward with all ceremony and youthful enthusiasm. The man-servant was called in, and his part in the proceedings explained carefully. He was to let down the great iron candle-ring, extinguish the lights, and haul it up to the ceiling again. The lights in the hall were to be put out also, and he was then to retire to the servants’ quarters and wait there until the dinner-gong sounded, at which time he was to return with some of the other servants and relight the candles with all speed.

He was a big man with a chest like a prize-fighter and a heavy florid face with enormous pale-blue eyes which had in them an innately sullen expression. A man who could become very unpleasant if the occasion arose, Abbershaw reflected inconsequentially.

As head of the family, Wyatt the last of the Petries took command of the proceedings. He had the manner, Abbershaw considered, of one who did not altogether relish his position. There was a faintly unwilling air about everything he did, a certain over-deliberation in all his instructions which betrayed, the other thought, a distaste for his task.

At length the signal was given. With a melodramatic rattle of chains the great iron candle-ring was let down and the lights put out, so that the vast hall was in darkness save for the glowing fires at each end of the room. Gideon and the man with the face like Beethoven had joined the circle round the doorway to the corridors, and the last thing George Abbershaw saw before the candles were extinguished was the little wizened figure of Colonel Coombe sitting in his chair in the shadow of the fire-place and smiling out upon the scene from behind the hideous flesh-coloured plate. Then he followed the others into the dim halls and corridors of the great eerie house, and the Black Dudley Ritual began.

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