Mr Denby looked on me with an air of displeasure.
‘I requested to see you, Mr Hunter,’ said he, ‘because I have heard something of your reputation. I am given to understand that you have some insight into matters of this kind. When I heard you were staying in the area it seemed fortuitous, and I am much obliged to you for coming so promptly.’ He paused here and drew himself upright with an appearance of inflated pomposity. ‘That being said I must confess I am rather surprised that you should bring your wife. It hardly seems to me to be a suitable discussion for a lady’ He turned a quizzical gaze upon that good lady. Louisa smiled serenely and said nothing. Though, knowing her as I do, I read a good deal in those blue eyes.
‘I assure you, sir, said I ‘That if I bring my wife in on your case it is not out of sentiment nor for the sake of companionship. My reasons are practical. Her knowledge is at least equal to my own and in certain matters of insight, I do not mind owning, she is my superior.’ Mr Denby looked unconvinced, and I fancied I saw the briefest flash of scorn play across his features.
‘Perhaps,’ said Louisa, ‘you can forget for the moment that I am a woman and treat me merely as an interested observer.’
‘Very well. I have no wish to be ungracious. It seems rather irregular but it is not for me to tell another man how to conduct his business.’
‘Excellent,’ said Louisa. ‘Then shall we begin?’ She took up her notebook and pencil and looked expectantly at Mr Denby.’
‘Firstly let me say that I do not hold with the supernatural myself but certain members of my household do. It is at their insistence that I have called you in.
‘We quite understand,’ said I. I smiled a little at this statement; for all his bluster, Mr Denby was clearly under the influence of a wife
‘Well then,’ said he. ‘The facts themselves are straightforward enough. There have been a series of unusual animal deaths on the estate over the past two weeks.’
‘Unusual in what way?’ I queried.
‘The carcasses had been burnt; almost completely destroyed.’
‘I see. Were there any indications that the animal had been killed prior to the burnings?’
‘It seems likely but it cannot be determined with any certainty.’
‘Oh? Were there no signs of injury upon the bones?’
‘There were no bones.’
‘Do you mean to say they were taken?’
‘No, I believe that the fires consumed them.’
‘That is very singular. Go on.’
‘On the first occasion, it was a sheep that was found, or rather the little that remained of it. The hooves and skull were intact and untouched by the fire. There was nothing left of the rest of the creature, save a pile of offensive smelling ashes.’
He touched his handkerchief to his nose in unconscious remembrance. ‘The smell of the thing was quite horrendous.’
‘I see,’ said I. Louisa’s pencil stopped moving and her hand hovered over the notebook. She was looking very earnestly at Mr Denby.
‘Tell me, were there any signs of burning or scorching anywhere else in the vicinity?’ she asked with evident interest.
‘None, save for for some charring of the ground immediately beneath the remains.’
‘Indicating that it did not move once the fire had started,’ said I.
‘Precisely; I suppose we must assume that it was either dead or incapacitated before the fire began.’
‘I wonder,’ said my wife musingly. Mr Denby looked at her with curiosity but said nothing.
‘But you say that this was only the first in a series of incidents?’ I asked.
‘That is so.’
‘And the other deaths?’
‘Precisely the same, excepting that the animals involved have varied.’
‘I assume that all the remains have already been removed? I asked.
‘Yes, the most recent incident was two days ago, before I knew you were staying in the area.’
‘I see. Would it be possible for us to look over the scene of the most recent incident, to examine the burn marks?’
By all means. Regrettably, I have another appointment shortly but I’ll have my man Ellis show you over it. It isn’t far, just in the woods behind the house. Not much to see I’m afraid; the last unfortunate creature was a rabbit.
‘Thank you, Mr Denby. We are much obliged to you.
Denby’s man directed us to a small patch of grass by the side of the path in the woods. He expressed reluctance, however, to venture too near to the spot and instead hung back a little way down the path, watching us narrowly. I cannot say I blamed him, for, though two days had passed since the poor creature’s remains had been found there, a powerful odour still clung to the area.
Mr Denby was not wrong in his assessment; there was little to see. A small blackened patch on the dry earth was the only visible sign of the fire.
I stooped down to take a closer look and the marks.
‘No signs of damage at all outside of this one scorched area,’ said I. In which case, I suppose that we can rule out accidental fire, caused by dry grass in the sun?’
‘I would say so.’ If that were the case, it could hardly fail to spread beyond this small area. The weather has been so dry that the whole wood is like a tinderbox.’
‘It is singular is it not?’
Louisa cast a glance over her shoulder to where our guide was standing. The man looked distinctly uncomfortable and was pacing with the kind of restless energy that told of an eagerness to be gone from the place. She smiled reassuringly at him and then turning her back to him said in a low whisper:
‘Do the features of this case suggest the same thing to you as occurs to me?’ I nodded.
‘I suspect so. It has all the hallmarks of spontaneous combustion. Except that this isn’t human; it’s an animal. I’ve never heard of a case of spontaneous animal combustion!’
‘Well, I have, or at least I think I have. I’ll need to check my facts to be sure though. Let us return to the hotel. We can do nothing more here.’
It was with evident relief that Ellis escorted us back out of the woods. This series of bizarre fires was obviously beginning to stir fear in the staff. We bid him good day and embarked on the short walk back to our hotel. We walked in silence, both musing on what we had seen.
As soon as we regained our rooms, my wife went straight away to her trunk. She produced from it a large book which she placed on the table.
‘You brought your index on holiday?’ I asked with some amusement. She was in the habit of recording any occurrences of supernatural phenomena that came to her attention in this index, as we referred to it, creating a kind of reference book.
‘Algernon,’ said she ‘if there is one thing I have learnt from being married to you these past months, my darling, it is that this kind of case has a habit of finding you out. It is as well to be prepared.’
‘I bow to your superior wisdom, my lady.’
‘Quite right,’ said she smiling slyly at me. She sat at the table and began to leaf through the pages.
‘Yes, here it is,’ she cried. ‘I saw it in one of Uncle Henry’s newspapers, when we were staying in Yorkshire, and copied it down. It was in Yorkshire, five years ago. A series of animal deaths all bearing the same hallmarks as this case.’
I took the book from her and read the short paragraph with interest.
‘It certainly does seem to tally with our case. I wonder if there have been other incidents of the kind,’ said I.
‘I expect so. It would be harder to believe that that it should occur only twice.
‘If so, I wonder that no one has ever connected the cases before.’
‘Well, the death of a few farm animals every now and then in a rural community isn’t going to make it to the pages of the national newspapers, I dare say. They probably get reported in local papers, if at all, and then promptly forgotten once the deaths stop. Perhaps the opportunity to connect two cases has simply never come up.’
‘You may be right. So, if we are dealing with some form of spontaneous combustion, then how can we explain it? No definitive cause has ever been ascertained. For example is there some unknown physical cause, or are we dealing with a supernatural phenomenon? Did you sense anything?’
‘No, nothing supernatural at any rate. If anything there was an impression of something…intensely natural, primordial, elemental.’
‘Well, fire is elemental I suppose.’
‘Hmm.’ She leaned on the table with her chin in her hands and remained in that attitude for some time.
I looked on her with unconcealed admiration. My wife is what is sometimes referred to as a sensitive. When first I met her, she had been struggling to come to terms with her gifts, confused and overwhelmed by the instincts and impressions that forced themselves upon her.
Since then, she had learned to accept her abilities; through careful practice, she had mastered them to such a degree that she could now, to a great extent, control them rather than they controlling her. I flatter myself, perhaps, when I say I believe that having a husband from whom she knew she need not hide her power was beneficial in this flourishing.
Our reveries were interrupted by a knocking at our door. I called out for whoever it was to enter. As the door opened I was surprised to see Ellis standing in our doorway.
‘Mr Ellis,’ said I. ‘do come in. What can we do for you? Do you bring a message from Mr Denby?’ Ellis sidled over the threshold, almost reluctantly.
‘No, sir,’ said he ‘I’ve come on my own account.’
‘Yes, sir and I hope you will pardon my taking such a liberty, but I felt that I must speak to you. Though now I’m here I wonder if I would’ve done better to let things alone.’
‘You have me intrigued Mr Ellis.’
‘I don’t mean to be mysterious over the matter, sir, but the whole thing is mysterious. The fact is, sir, that I may know something about the matter of the fires.’
‘Is that so? Have you informed Mr Denby of what you know?’
‘Oh no, sir! I couldn’t do that. Mr Denby is a very practical man with no room for what he calls fancies. He won’t hear of anything that sounds…supernatural.’
‘You believe you have evidence which suggests supernatural agency?’
‘Yes, sir, and Mr Denby things anything of that kind is not rational.’
‘Who is to say that the realm of the supernatural is not as rational and sane as the region in which we dwell, if not more so?’ I mused. Ellis looked at me uncertainly.
‘Can we get you some refreshment, Mr Ellis? You look a little pale,’ enquired my wife gently.
‘No, I thank you, ma’am. I cannot stay long.’
‘Then do sit down,’ said I ‘and tell us what is troubling you.’
He took up a chair by the table and cleared his throat.
‘I was the one who found the last fire, where we were today,’ said he. ‘What I didn’t tell Mr Denby is that the fire was still burning when I arrived.’
‘You saw the fire?’
‘I did, sir. Only for a second or two but I caught a glimpse of blue flame. But it wasn’t the fire itself that troubled me so much, though that was a strange enough sight. There was smoke coming from the fire and I saw something moving in it.’
‘What was it?’ asked Louisa.
‘I don’t know what it was, some sort of creature.’
‘A creature? Like an animal?’
‘No, not like an animal. I’m not even sure you could say it had a body. It seemed to be fashioned out of the smoke. The smoke was alive!’
‘Is it possible that you were deceived, that by coincidence the smoke had drifted into this shape?’
‘No, no! Believe me, sir, I was not mistaken. You must believe that. It was alive I tell you. I saw it shift and writhe and move as a living creature. It was more solid than mere smoke but not solid like a mortal animal. Oh, say you believe me!’ Mr Ellis gasped out this statement in emphatic and desperate tones. He dabbed a handkerchief to his forehead with a shaking hand.
‘Calm yourself, Mr Ellis,’ soothed my wife. ‘Of course we believe you.’
‘I am sorry. I have told no one because I know that it would make me sound like a madman. But…’
‘I quite understand,’ said I. ‘Your story is remarkable. How close did you get to the fire?’
‘I was some feet back, maybe ten, but close enough to see the creature. I didn’t want to get too close because of the smell that comes with the fires and when I saw whatever was in the smoke I got as far away as possible.’ I nodded.
‘Thank you Mr Ellis. What you say is very interesting. I am grateful to you for taking the trouble to share it with us. We shall certainly think on it.’
‘Thank you, sir,’ said he rising from his chair. ‘Now I really must be going.’ I bid our flustered visitor good day and closed the door behind him.
‘Well,’ said I, ‘what do you make of that?’
‘I don’t know what to make of it. If he really did see what he believes he saw, it puts a very different complexion on things.’
‘Do you suppose this…creature…to be responsible for the fires?’
‘That would seem the most logical assumption in the circumstances.’
‘How then does it start the fires and to what end?’
I rubbed my brow in perplexity. The whole thing was utterly bizarre. Louisa placed a hand softly on my arm and smiled on me with that gentle air of reassurance which was her wont. Not for the first time, I realized what a lucky man I was.
‘We must think about this logically,’ said she. ‘I’ll ring for some tea and we shall sit down and go over the facts together.’
‘Thank you, my darling. I do not know what I would do without you.’ She gave a little sigh of mock- exasperation.
‘Nor do I,’ said she, smiling slyly at me.
The tea was duly delivered and we took up our places in opposite armchairs, ready to mull things over.
‘To begin with,’ said I, ‘what do we know about cases of spontaneous combustion?’
‘It is often claimed that there was no source of ignition nearby, no open fires or signs of tobacco consumption.’
‘How then is this creature coming into contact with people? We cannot assume that it arrives in its smoke-like form in the room before the fire; there have been occasional accounts of combustion occurring in front of witnesses and such a sight would surely have caused comment.’
‘Some sort of a delayed reaction then?’
‘Well, let us take that as a working hypothesis at any rate.’
‘Very well. Then what could cause the fires to start later? Could their clothing have smouldered, or fur etc. in the case of the animals?’
‘It seems improbable. In the witness accounts that I have seen they all suggest that the fires appeared to be emanating from within the victims.’
‘So, the creature somehow burned them from within. Oh! How horrid. Then it rises from the ashes like a phoenix?’ I stared at her, a thought beginning to form, gradually taking shape in my mind.
‘A phoenix.’ I mused.
‘Well, I did not mean literally, of course. The phoenix rises from its own ashes.’
‘Yes, but supposing what we have here is a creature that is literally born out of the ashes of its victims.’
‘Well, supposing this creature grows within the victim and then when the time comes it burns its way out consuming its victim in the process.’
‘What a ghastly thought. But how then did it come to be inside their bodies in the first place?’ We both looked up at each other and our eyes met. In the same instant we both cried:
‘My word,’ said I. ‘Can it really be that these poor unfortunate souls have inhaled this smoke and somehow it has caused them to smoulder from within?’
‘It is like pollen in the wind, spreading out. I suppose in this case though a seed or spore would be a more accurate description.’
‘But wait a moment. We are missing something. We cannot suppose that every victim of combustion has been in close proximity to another victim, otherwise, a connection would have been made before now.’
Louisa rose and crossed the room, returning a moment later with her index. Once again she searched its strange contents. After a short perusal, she gave a sigh of vexation.
‘I have very few accounts of combustion. But wait… yes, here is something.’
I rose and came to stand at her elbow, so as to better see the book. She gestured to a column of text, an excerpt of which read as follows:
“The bizarre circumstances of Mr Duncan’s death must be the more painful to his family coming as they do so soon after the blaze at his family seat a week ago. The fire, which began when a lamp was broken, caused a good deal of damage to the west wing of Duncan Place.”
‘Do you think the fire and this man Duncan’s death are connected?’ I asked.
‘Perhaps. If so it would seem our hypothetical creature was not to blame in the first instance.’
‘True. Perhaps then it merely makes use of the fire, as a flower does a bee.’
‘Meaning it spreads by means of the fire.’
‘Exactly. I have heard of plants in some parts of the world which require fire in order to spread their seeds; perhaps there exists a creature which uses the same method.’
‘So, you are thinking that Mr Duncan and the animals, in this case, were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time?’
‘That is how it appears to me.’
‘I am not clear on one point.’
‘What is that?’
‘Is the use of a host necessary for the creature’s spread, or is it that the offspring finding themselves trapped are burning their way out as a means of escape?’
‘That I cannot answer, not without further research. At this stage, all we have is a vague hypothesis based entirely on what Ellis has told us and on what may be no more than a mere coincidence.’
‘I suppose our next step then must be to ascertain if there have been any other fires on the estate recently.’
When I returned to the house the following day to make inquiries I was informed that Mr Denby had been unexpectedly called away on a matter of business and would be absent in town for a day or two. I was told, however, that Mr Ellis was at my disposal should I require any further information or assistance.
When I put my question to Ellis he seemed surprised but answered yes; there had been a small fire shortly before the animal burnings had begun. During an electrical storm, a bolt of lightning had hit an old tree and it had caught fire. But he did not see the connection. I thanked him and reassured him as best I could that I merely wanted to cover all possibilities.
I confess I was at a loss how to proceed. This information certainly supported our theory but it seemed too remarkable to be true. The next day, after talking the matter over with my wife, I determined to journey back to town in order to collect some of my books which I hoped might aid me in my researches.
I was not to make that journey, however, for events overtook us. Even as I prepared to leave for the station a telegram arrived from Mr Denby’s secretary informing us of his master’s death. This was a blow which we had not foreseen.
It seemed that Mr Denby had spent the evening at his club. He had played cards and chatted amiably and seemed in excellent spirits. Towards the end of the evening, however, he had begun to complain of a slight discomfort in his chest and his friends remarked that he had a somewhat feverish appearance.
That is when, to the amazement and horror of all present, a jet of brilliant blue flame burst forth from Mr Denby’s chest! Try as they might the flame would not be doused. It burned on until at last the man’s entire body was consumed by the fire, all except his feet.
The most extraordinary thing in all of this was the fact that, throughout, the unfortunate man never showed any signs of distress but rather sat calmly and motionless as though stupefied. If he did indeed experience no pain then it must be considered a mercy, for it was a ghastly death.
I have laid before the reader our theory on this strange phenomena, but I do not insist upon it. Perhaps others may be able to furnish a better explanation of the facts; if so I should be glad to hear them.