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The Poison Tree

Chapter Text

The letter, when it arrived at the property agents’ office in London, was passed in a circuitous route from desk to desk before reaching its destination. No one wanted to be the man to pass it along to Mr Allworthy, knowing how little it would do to improve his permanent bad temper. Honestly, wondered the last of the clerks, as he steeled himself to deliver the message, how difficult was it to sell a house? What the devil was going on up there in the north?

 

23rd March 1911

Mr Allworthy,

With regards to your telegram of this morning, allow me to yet again assure you that I am doing everything within my power to overcome the difficulties concerning this particular property. I fear that I cannot in my previous communications have adequately outlined them to you. They are as follows:

The previous tenant had been a recluse for over ten years prior to his decease and little work had been done on the building during that time, especially in the last few years. Not an uncommon issue and you may be certain that I took all the usual measures to clean and renovate the house and grounds.

However, my efforts to engage the appropriate workmen has been at every turn frustrated by the evil reputation the building has acquired since the proprietor’s last visit – in particular in the months before and after the most recent occupant’s death of November last. It is all pure nonsense, but talk of curses and haunting prevailed to drive away prospective builders, carpenters, decorators, tilers, gardeners &c. &c. Naturally, I took the common sense angle and was firm with all, promising not only good wages, but a bonus for work well and speedily done.

This did not suffice to solve the problem. Retaining the workmen proved extremely difficult, several of them leaving without any explanation, others stopping to regale me with yet more tales of ghosts, the Un-Dead, and other such lurid imaginings accompanied by an insistence that they would not remain in the house a moment longer, not for all the money in the kingdom.

I have to confess that while I give no credence to such fanciful talk, nevertheless I suspect there must be some real cause at the root of it, although I have as yet failed to establish what that could be. I have spoken to the constable about the possibility of a tramp occupying the rooms at night, had the place gone over for pests (rats, mice, nesting birds) that might be the source of the strange sounds and unexplained movement, drops in temperature, pools of blood and other such instances that have so unfortunately interrupted showings whenever I have managed to attract a client’s interest. (Few locals are willing to view it, so I must continually advertise further afield!)

If this continues any longer, I shall be at such a loss that I shall myself be forced to believe in creatures of the night.

May I suggest that we enquire as to whether the client might consider selling as land for development? Once razed to the ground and salted over, the house itself might finally be seen once more as the attractive property it ought to be given its size, design and desirable location.

Please advise.

Yours faithfully,

G. Simmons

 

+CEASE BLITHERING SIMMONS STOP NO MORE EXCUSES STOP LET DAMNED PLACE OR BE SENT TO NEAREST ASYLUM STOP ALLWORTHY+

 

Mr Allworthy’s blistering telegram was hardly unexpected – his efforts in that direction were legendary within the firm – but it helped nothing. Gabriel Simmons tucked the latest into his jacket pocket with a sigh and refrained from sending a reply to note that the nearest asylum was, indeed, much too near for comfort.

He headed back to the property, hoping, despite the odds, that this time he would find at least one workman still present and about their business. He must remain grateful that the most recently employed painter and decorator had at least finished the room he’d started before declaring that he could not be persuaded to tackle any of the other rooms, not for love nor money, a refrain that was becoming tiresomely familiar. Gabriel wanted in particular to have a word with the man he’d brought in to see about mending the east wall of the garden, although he’d last seen him yesterday evening hurrying off to the nearest public house, muttering wildly about the former tenant wandering about the place at dusk, so it was sadly unlikely.

It was nearly dusk now, Gabriel thought with amusement. He might see the ghost for himself if that was so – maybe have a stiff word with him over the state in which he had left the house.

The house was predictably empty of labourers, but Gabriel found one of the gardeners still working in the grounds, standing there, closely examining an oddly stunted, black, and leafless tree Gabriel had noted before. He was tall, white-haired, and a little shabby-looking with hollowed cheeks, but it was a relief to at last see someone who had not run away in terror from the place. Gabriel didn’t remember seeing him before, but he was losing count of how many of the local men he had hired over these past two weeks.

When he turned, he gave Gabriel a small smile that was nevertheless the friendliest he had been granted these last ten days. He was not perhaps as old as Gabriel had first assumed, but it was hard to be certain. He turned with the slowness of age, but his face was little-lined.

Gabriel felt encouraged enough to ask him if he knew of the progress of the work on the east wall, or if he might be willing to take on the matter himself.

The man nodded, promising to do so on the morrow. “You’re the agent, aren’t you?” he added. “Then don’t worry. This house will soon be rid of all its current irregularities – you may trust me on that.”

It was an odd thing for a gardener to promise and Gabriel felt the first stirrings of unease about the stranger. Gabriel’s gaze was drawn again to the tree; it was the oddest thing in the garden – in the house, even. Why was the man standing there, touching its revolting, dead-looking branches? One of the other gardeners who’d tried to cut it back had gone so far as to claim it had bled at the result of his handiwork. Looking at it now, Gabriel could almost believe it. He must have it pulled up and burnt, he decided.

“I’ve no wish to cause your client any difficulties,” the man continued, still sounding perfectly casual and polite. “I suppose it’s fair to say that he’s been kind to me over the years, and I repay my debts.”

Gabriel was hard pressed not to take a step back. One of the workmen who’d claimed to have seen the deceased tenant had described the spectre – and his description fitted every particular of the man now in front him, calmly smiling at him. It was a suddenly uncomfortable realisation to make. Gabriel felt he ought to say something, but his mind was whirling with impossible notions he could not dismiss as easily as he should.

“Do you have a name?” asked the gardener (or possibly the resident ghost).

Gabriel felt his mouth go dry, but he forced himself not to show his alarm – after all, the man was no doubt only some well-known local character and Gabriel would be laughed at by everyone for subscribing to the very tales he’d been scoffing at for the last two weeks. “My name is Gabriel Simmons,” he said, and then somehow felt compelled to add: “Sir.”

The apparition or gardener, whatever he might be, seemed to find that amusing. He leant back against the awful tree and gave a laugh. “How very strange,” he said. “After all these years, has Seward sent me an angel? Once, you know, they would not even let me have a puppy!”

 

Gabriel hardly knew what he did after. The only two things he could be certain of were that first he had run for the boarding house and locked himself in, for that was where he found himself in the morning, and second, that he had at some point before that stopped to telephone head office. Unfortunately for both of them, Mr Allworthy had a bad habit of working late. Gabriel knew the latter, because he had another angry telegram to prove it:

+AM SENDING COLLINS AS REPLACEMENT STOP TAKE HOLIDAY SEE DOCTOR AT ONCE STOP THIS IS AN ORDER STOP ALLWORTHY STOP+

Oh, dear, thought Gabriel, feeling sick. Whatever had he said? And why had he leapt to such wild conclusions about the man in the garden? It was everybody else’s lurid imaginings, that was what it was; they were infectious. And yet, even as he told himself that, he had nevertheless locked himself in his room in a seaside boarding house over two hundred miles from home, and he had not yet ceased shivering.

Meanwhile, in his dreams at night, over and over, he returned to the house.

 

It made quite the minor sensation back at Head Office when Simmons vanished. It was a mystery that persisted in the firm for a good few years afterwards: whatever had happened to Simmons, they wondered? He had always seemed like a reasonable sort of fellow, not one to suddenly break down and run away from the task in hand. Collins, after he had arrived in Whitby to take over the business, had never been able to shed any light on the subject. He’d had no such problem with the damned house, he said. That was all he knew. He sold it in less than two weeks, despite a few squeamish locals.

Some things, the eldest of the clerks always maintained when the topic resurfaced, were just not meant to be known; that was all there was to it. And when he said it, he’d cross himself and shiver.