‘What’s written up there?’ she demanded, wheeling round on Crefton.

‘Vote for Soarker,’ he responded, with the craven boldness of the practised peacemaker.

The old woman grunted, and her mutterings and her faded red shawl lost themselves gradually among the tree-trunks. Crefton rose presently and made his way towards the farmhouse. Somehow a good deal of the peace seemed to have slipped out of the atmosphere.

The cheery bustle of tea-time in the old farm kitchen, which Crefton had found so agreeable on previous afternoons, seemed to have soured today into a certain uneasy melancholy. There was a dull, dragging silence around the board, and the tea itself, when Crefton came to taste it, was a flat, lukewarm concoction that would have driven the spirit of revelry out of a carnival.

‘It’s no use complaining of the tea,’ said Mrs Spurfield hastily, as her guest stared with an air of polite inquiry at his cup. ‘The kettle won’t boil, that’s the truth of it.’

Crefton turned to the hearth, where an unusually fierce fire was banked up under a big black kettle, which sent a thin wreath of steam from its spout, but seemed otherwise to ignore the action of the roaring blaze beneath it.

‘It’s been there more than an hour, and boil it won’t,’ said Mrs Spurfield, adding, by way of complete explanation, ‘we’re bewitched.’

‘It’s Martha Pillamon as has done it,’ chimed in the old mother; ‘I’ll be even with the old toad. I’ll put a spell on her.’

‘It must boil in time,’ protested Crefton, ignoring the suggestions of foul influences. ‘Perhaps the coal is damp.’

‘It won’t boil in time for supper, nor for breakfast tomorrow morning, not if you was to keep the fire a- going all night for it,’ said Mrs Spurfield. And it didn’t. The household subsisted on fried and baked dishes, and a neighbour obligingly brewed tea and sent it across in a moderately warm condition.

‘I suppose you’ll be leaving us now that things has turned up uncomfortable,’ Mrs Spurfield observed at breakfast; ‘there are folks as deserts one as soon as trouble comes.’

Crefton hurriedly disclaimed any immediate change of plans; he observed, however, to himself that the earlier heartiness of manner had in a large measure deserted the household. Suspicious looks, sulky silences, or sharp speeches had become the order of the day. As for the old mother, she sat about the kitchen or the garden all day, murmuring threats and spells against Martha Pillamon. There was something alike terrifying and piteous in the spectacle of these frail old morsels of humanity consecrating their last flickering energies to the task of making each other wretched. Hatred seemed to be the one faculty which had survived in undiminished vigour and intensity where all else was dropping into ordered and symmetrical decay. And the uncanny part of it was that some horrid unwholesome power seemed to be distilled from their spite and their cursings. No amount of sceptical explanation could remove the undoubted fact that neither kettle nor saucepan would come to boiling-point over the hottest fire. Crefton clung as long as possible to the theory of some defect in the coals, but a wood fire gave the same result, and when a small spirit-lamp kettle, which he ordered out by carrier, showed the same obstinate refusal to allow its contents to boil he felt that he had come suddenly into contact with some unguessed-at and very evil aspect of hidden forces. Miles away, down through an opening in the hills, he could catch glimpses of a road where motor-cars sometimes passed and yet here, so little removed from the arteries of the latest civilization, was a bat-haunted old homestead, where something unmistakably like witchcraft seemed to hold a very practical sway.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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