Hartford house 2.jpg

The Prisoner of
Hartford House
by
Jack LaFountain

“Come get me,” he whispered. “I’m ready for you.”

Jonathan pulled back the heavy drapes of his bedchamber, blinking against the cold gray light that seeped into the room. Behind the leaden clouds, the sun was inching towards the western horizon. In an hour it would be dark. Wakefulness used the dark as cover to escape him, but he maintained a firm grip on it for the past three nights. He would not let go now.

He shivered despite the fire burning on the hearth. The cold was an ally, and he brushed away the thought of wrapping a cloak about his shoulders. Comfort and ease, he would have none of it, not now, not on the eve of his victory. Well had Solomon instructed him.

“I looked upon it, and received instruction,” he quoted. “Yet a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to sleep: so shall thy poverty come as one that travelleth…”

He would not give in to slumber. He turned his face and his thoughts from such worries to the gardens below.

 

How long had it been since he walked there?

 

The magnolias were white with blooms that day; the breeze scented by them blew soft against his face. Whether days, months, or years, he no longer remembered. Time was lost to him. He knew morning and evening, but had ceased to care which morning and evening it might be.

Yet, there had been mornings and evenings when he walked among those trees, breathed in the sweet fragrance of the blossoms. He remembered the soft earth beneath his feet and Kathryn on his arm. Dear, precious Kathryn, how he longed for the peace of her embrace. If he could hold her now, how his mind would be at ease. Beneath the blackened hollows of his eyes, the corners of his lips curled with this memory of her.

Kathryn loved the gardens surrounding Hartford House. They were her special handiwork. She would sometimes charge into his study in the early evening and drag him away from his papers and books, his feeble protests overcome by raven hair that floated on the breeze trailing out behind her as they walked arm in arm. Her hand was so soft on his arm. They would stand together in the shelter of the trees. There, she would look into his eyes and smile and her smile would lift him far above his workaday world into the heavens.

A scuff on the floor behind him snatched Jonathan away from his reverie. His smile flickered and died, replaced by a tight, thin line. He rolled the letter opener between his thumb and forefinger working his fingers down to grip the sharpened point.

“Rotten little bastard,” he screamed.

In a single, fluid motion he pivoted and threw the letter opener. The rat, taken behind the front legs, pinning squealing devil to the floor. Its feet flailed, clawing at the air, as its life pumped onto the polished wood in ebbing spurts. The cries faded as did the light from its beady black eyes. Jonathan’s smile returned. Yes, he was ready. Let them come.

There was a time when they could have taken him by surprise. He had been a scoffer, as any enlightened man must be. It was the nineteenth century, for God’s sake! Jonathan Hartford was a man for his times, one of the brightest, most enlightened men of the day. Everyone said so. A lawyer at nineteen; at twenty-two, he had grown rich as a land broker and betrothed to the daughter of a wealthy plantation owner. The Hartford’s were rising stars in Tennessee society. General Jackson had stopped to stay with them while campaigning for President.

A crudely worded note from a marginally literate tavern keeper brought it all to an end. Jonathan’s eyes were opened to the base cruelty of the world and the depths of his own depravity. He became a believer. The last utterance of a filthy blackmailer made him so.

The man’s confession of complicity could not be denied. Issued as it was while Jonathan strangled him. The proof surrounded him as the evidence of his folly grew within him.

A life for a life, Jonathan thought as the man died.

Later, Jonathan became physically ill. Nothing serious at first, but steadily growing. Sores bloomed on his offending member. Rashes blossomed on his hands and spread over his body. Twice fevers almost claimed him. Katheryn was his constant caregiver; mopping his brow and whispering sweet words of comfort while he thrashed and swore. The pain died away; the curse uttered by the dying innkeeper lived on.

When the fevers passed, Jonathan’s demeanor brightened. His life seemed to return to normal. His partner, Adam Grenville, eagerly welcomed him back to work at the law office they shared. However, Jonathan quickly noticed whispers followed him everywhere. His passing sparked covert conversations spoken behind the hands that once shook his. He told himself it was simply the idle chatter of those with nothing better to do than gossip about their betters. Adam assured him it would quickly die out.

The talk did not die… It grew. It wrapped around him, invaded his mind, forever leering at him, accusing and dragging him down. Unseen hellish eyes followed him everywhere. Malicious murmurs ate at his reputation gnawed into his soul. 

A nervous melancholy settled over his waking hours and his sleep grew fitful. Whiskey dulled the headaches, but it could not hide the voices that haunted him or blind the eyes that watched him. The cursed disease gripped him with iron hands.A change slowly stole over even his dearest friends. Adam would steal sidelong glances when he thought Jonathan was unaware. He avoided looking into Jonathan’s eyes at all or found excuses to be away when Jonathan was in the office.

The reason for Adam’s behavior finally became clear to Jonathan. Adam, his dear friend, was behind the evil that befell him. Was it not Adam who proposed the trip to Natchez? Had not his dear friend been the one to recommend the inn? Yes, Jonathan became a believer.

Jonathan did nothing to give his knowledge of the Judas away. He was shrewder than that. He waited for the black-hearted traitor to tip his hand. It did not take long.

“Jon,” Adam said, taking a chair in Jonathan’s office. 

Did not wait for me to offer it, he thought.

“We’ve always been honest with one another, Adam began. “We have been partners for ten years and friends even longer. You’re more a brother than a friend. It is as your friend, as your brother, that I beg you now to see a doctor. You are not well.”

“You’re wrong, Adam,” Jonathan replied. “I have never been better. Yes, I was sick, but it has fallen to my good. Never have I seen things more clearly than today.”

“That is the whole of the trouble, my friend,” Adam leaned closer. “You cannot see how truly ill you are. Have you looked in the mirror lately—really looked?”

“Yes, I look quite regularly, my friend.” Jonathan, his elbows on the desk, folded his hand a rested his chin on the tips of templed index fingers. “I think I hear a proposed cure hidden in your words.”

“Very well.” Jonathan sighed. “Sell me your half of the firm. Take your ease and get well. I promise you and Katheryn will lack for nothing.”

“And so, you have proven my case,” Jonathan said falling back in his chair. “Do I not see the subtle serpent at work? Sell me the business you say. Anything to rid you of Jonathan Hartford, is that not the truth of it?”

“Jon, no,” Adam pleaded. “You have it wrong. If you do not believe me, speak to Katheryn about this. You will see it is for the best.”

“So you would steal my wife too? Jonathan shot from his seat, turning it over. Kicking the chair from his way, he stomped through the door, slamming it behind him as he stormed from the office.

He didn’t go home. What was the point? Even his wife conspired against him. He crossed the street to Drury’s Tavern, shouted for an ale, and tucked himself into a corner. Black clouds gathered across his brow, lightning danced in his eyes, thoughts like thunder rolled through his racing mind. The pounding of his heart reverberated in his head. He let the rage run free through his mind.

It was the sound of horses that finally drew him back from the brink of madness. Adam’s coach drew up in the street outside. Somehow the day had slipped away. Adam was closing up the business for the day.

“Pretentious bastard,” Jonathan grumbled. “We’ll just see about this.”

Jonathan flipped a coin onto the bar in his rush to confront his partner. He reached the street a moment too late. Adam was inside the coach that pulled away down the street. He saw Adam’s driver chance to look back at him. 

In that instant, Jonathan saw the driver for what he really was. Not a white-haired Negro, but a dark reptilian thing with rows of sharp teeth that gave him a wide, toothy grin, and continued to drive away.

We’ve got you now, Jon, that smile spoke inside his head.

The loathsome thing actually dared wink at him as it drove away. Jonathan’s strength drained from him. Waves of nausea washed over him dropping him to his knees to vomit sour ale upon the cobblestones.

 Jonathan Hartford was a believer. Witches, curses, demons, they were all real. It opened his eyes. He saw clearly…he could see them all at last. 

He stumbled back into Hartford House minutes before dark settled in for the night, climbed the stairs to his chambers, and locked the door behind him. 

The rats were the first to find him. Little pawns of the devil, scampered in the walls and gnawed holes from which to spy on him. He could hear their voices late at night. They spoke with the voice of the barmaid, her tempting coos promising pleasure and delivering a lingering death. The voice of her master the innkeeper threatening to publish the secret.

Jonathan’s head snapped up. Sleep had almost pulled him down with memories. It was a sure sign the time was near. He retrieved the letter opener, wiped the rat’s blood on his trousers, and lumbered across the room to sit behind his desk. 

He didn’t need to look outside to know darkness surrounded him. The restless spirit of the night filled the air with a presence he could feel. They were awakening now. He had killed their spy, but there were more and worse crawling from their holes to claim him. They were moving just beyond his door. That was no tiptoe going past his door, no hushed whisper in the hall. 

Tonight they would not flee at his shouts or the sound of his door opening. Tonight, they wanted him to leave his sanctuary that they might take him. He would oblige them, but not as they imagined. A gentle rap sounded on his door. It was time. Jonathan reached into the top drawer of his desk for the pistol secreted inside.

“Jon dear,” a voice called to him.

The voice was soothing to his ear, so like Kathryn’s. He wasn’t fooled. It was the witch speaking with the devil’s voice. He knew it well. He had heard her cautioning the rats; warning them to be quiet and not wake him. There was no caution in her now. Tonight, she came knocking. 

Clutching the pistol, he waited for her. Slowly the knob turned. He watched the door swing open. Warmth spread across his thighs turning chill as it ran down his legs. His knuckles gripping the pistol blanched.

His imagination was keen, but it had not prepared him for what he saw. The hideous hunched-back crone was ancient beyond his comprehension. Deep furrows plowed by a mad farmer cut the worn leather skin stretched over old bones. Moist gobs of green oozed from the corners of her eyes and dribbled down her cheeks. The thing raised a gnarled finger and hooked the yellow nail in his direction.

“You’ve wet yourself again,” she croaked.

Jonathan refused to look down and add satisfaction to his humiliation. It was not the warm wetness on his legs that answered her. It was the cold steel in his hand and the ice in his heart. The pistol materialized from behind his back. Powder flashed, the pistol bucked and acrid, blue smoke stung Jonathan’s eyes. The roar inside the room was deafening.

“What say you now, witch?” Jonathan screamed.

The witch was speechless. The shot carried away her taunting tongue along with her lower jaw and her bloody body crumpled to the floor.

“How’s that for conjuring up some magic?” he asked the lifeless body. “Now, for your filthy familiars.”

As he turned back into his room, a rat darted from under the bed. Jonathan planted a fierce kick on the rat’s body sending it skyward. It bounced off the top of his dresser and onto the floor. Dazed, the rat hesitated, and that moment’s delay spelled its doom. Jonathan brought his heel down on the creature’s skull with a satisfying crunch and roared with laughter as it twitched beneath his foot.

Jonathan stopped at his desk to reload the pistol. He tucked the weapon into his belt opposite its twin and retrieved a third object from atop his wardrobe. He stepped over the rotting pile of flesh in the doorway and started down the hall.

“Here I am, ye damnable brood,” he shouted. “Come get me.”

 A tall, pallid figure dressed in black met him at the top of the stairs. Its bald head swiveled back and forth searching the empty rooms until it settled on Jonathan.

“Here, devil,” Jonathan waved it closer.

The lanky form turned toward him red eyes blazing from dark hollow sockets. It charged at him heedless of the pistol in his hand right. Jonathan’s left hand flew from his side. He held the object gathered from atop the wardrobe before his face as he advanced. The creature faltered at the sight of the large jeweled crucifix. Surprise flashed in its eyes.

“Too late,” Jonathan said and hurled the crucifix.

The tip of the cross Jonathan spent months sharpening buried itself in the creature’s chest. The thing whirled clawing itself like an animal desperately trying to pull the crucifix from its chest. Blood sprayed from the impaled heart covering the walls and floor where the monster collapsed.

“Who shall be next?” Jonathan shouted. “Come witch, come demon, Jonathan Hartford summons you.”

Tracking the sound of slamming doors and shrill, banshee wails Jonathan tracked his tormentors and one by one laid them low until he stood in the great hall covered in blood. Sweat beaded on his brow as he stood panting from his labors. 

A sudden tilt of his head brought a sound telling him the battle was not yet over. There remained one more terror, but this one was not stalking him...it was cowering in fear.

The sound of terrified whimpers lead Jonathan to a compact room just under the stairs. He threw open the door. A small imp huddled in the far corner. Snot and drool ran from its face and covered its claws. It looked up at Jonathan and loosed a high-pitched wail. Jonathan drove the rat-killing letter opener into its milky eye. The imp twitched for several moments, blood and gore pouring from its face. Then, it was still.

Hartford House lay still. Victorious, its master climbed the stairs. He had won at last. He was free. He could reclaim his family, his health, and his business. First, he must rest. He was so tired. He staggered back to his room and dropped on the bed.

When he awoke, bright sunlight was streaming in through the open window. The breeze carried a hint of magnolia. Jonathan took in deep breath and sat up. The sky outside was a pale cloudless blue. The perfect picture from which to draw a fresh day. Something remained off, however. The tatters of his mental fog seemed to pull themselves together.

Far below, he heard the front door open. Footsteps echoed on the hardwood of the floor. He listened for a moment without moving. There were two of them. He followed the sound as they walked across entryway to the parlor. One must be very ill. He heard running followed by violent retching.

“Jonathan,” Adam’s voice called out. “Jonathan where are you?”

Jonathan still wearing his blood-stained clothes walked to the top of the stairs and looked down on his former friend.

“My God, Jonathan,” Adam said. “What have you done?”

The mock horror in the voice was no better disguised than the creature itself. It looked like Adam Grenville, but Jonathan knew better. 

The Adam thing started up the stairs to meet him, its eyes darting nervously around the house. Jonathan launched himself at the foul creature and they tumbled down in a tangle of flailing limbs. Jonathan recovered first and pinned the creature to the floor. His hands closed on its throat. 

The creature was powerless against him. A shrill wheeze escaped its throat as its visage swam in and out of focus. First Adam, then a demon, Adam, demon. Whatever spawn of hell it might be, Jonathan could feel its life draining through his fingers.

A distinctive click sounded in Jonathan’s ear. He had forgotten the second creature. His head jerked toward the sound, but he kept his hold on the Adam thing. A single, black eye stared back at him. A flash of fire filled Jonathan’s vision, thunder roared and darkness followed.

Jonathan Harford fell dead a smoking crater in his right temple.

The Natchez Picayune carried the headline:

Prominent Attorney Slays Entire Family.

Adam Grenville dropped the paper on his desk with a sigh.

“It’s a damn shame. A damn shame I tell you.” Grenville said. “Jonathan Hartford was an honorable man.

“He that soweth to the flesh, shall of the flesh reap corruption,” his companion quoted.

“A moment's indiscretion years ago,” Adam said with a wave of dismissal. “It should never have come to this.”

“A moment, a day, or a thousand years, what is that to He that is beyond time? Besides you did everything you could.”

“Did I? I watched the disease eat away the man’s sanity,” Adam brushed a tear from his cheek. “I did nothing, and he killed his entire family and staff. Where is God’s mercy?”

“The man, of his own accord, stepped into that place knowing full well the sort it was. He had all his faculties when he played the fool with that girl. Seems to me he sold his soul years ago.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Adam said. “In such a case, God help us all.”


 

 

Tonight; it would be tonight. They were inside the house now, gnawing at its bones. The scurrying of their tiny feet gave them away. They thought he could not hear, but he had not sat idle these many days. Oh no, he used the solitude to refine his senses. He could hear them, feel their eyes on him, watching, waiting for him to sleep.

He would not give in to their plan. Vigilance, that was his weapon, and Jonathan honed it to a deadly edge. Let them come, he was not afraid. Jonathan Hartford did not fear the face of death. 

Death had long stalked him through these halls. Long enough for him to grow contemptuous of the gaunt-faced horror that stalked his waking hours. No, it was the lurking, slinking evil that devoured those who slept that he dreaded. That cowardly, insidious, shadow that feared to meet a man's face.