All On St Mark’s Eve
by Rick Kennett
A Victorian doctor conspires with an unhappy wife to poison her husband.
Rick Kennett has five books on Amazon – two novels: The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and Presumed Dead. A novella: In Quinn’s Paddock. And two collections: The Dark and What It Said and Thirty Minutes for New Hell.
In addition, he recently had his story ‘Presumed Dead’ serialized by the podcast ‘Cast of Wonders’
Contact info for Rick Kennett
More Stories by Rick on Tall Tale TV
Stories by Rick Narrated Elsewhere
In the middle of the 19th century divorce was a social stigma; messy, complicated and above all expensive. Murder was easier.
At least so it seemed to Mrs Katherine Baxter, the young and attractive wife of an elderly retired merchant. Lively and vivacious and with a love of dancing and the theatre, she felt eternally chained by her husband’s reclusive nature and recurring illnesses. Rumour about the village had it that she had only married him for his money. If that were so, Katherine had been terribly short-changed. That they did not seem to have much in common was plain enough, and their arguments were both numerous and raucous. Her few nights out, always taken alone and on nights her husband fell asleep early through exhaustion and illness, she thought of as escapes.
It was during one of these ‘escapes’ to a country ball that she met a good-looking doctor of her own age by the name of Henderson. Gossip soon whispered of clandestine meetings with this young doctor and how Mrs Baxter was longing, more than ever now, for her husband’s death.
The sight and sound and particularly the smell of old Baxter when sick nauseated and infuriated her: his pallor, his hacking cough, his constant bed-ridden condition and perpetually drinking of medicines and swallowing of pills. Whether the idea of murder first occurred to Katherine or to her paramour, later neither could remember. Putting the thought into action, she persuaded her ailing husband to give up his own doctor on the pretext that he was not doing him any good, and consult her medical lover. So Dr Henderson, smiling, kindly Dr Henderson, became Mr Baxter’s new physician, coming every day in his sulky with phials and seething mixtures so strangely different to the medicines administered by his predecessor.
Not long after this Mr Baxter grew steadily more ill, growing paler and weaker. Indeed, the servants in the house implored Mrs Baxter to reinstate the original doctor, but she would not hear of it. They also noticed that the worse the master became the more cheerful was Mrs Baxter’s demeanour.
By now the two lovers had grown less circumspect and were openly socializing with each other at dances, the theatre and glamorous parties. One evening while attending a soirée given by the fashionable and somewhat bizarre Mrs Salisbury, their hostess, dressed in silks of red and yellow, approached, and with a cryptic smile and a nod said, “The 24th of April is at hand, my dear, the Eve of St Mark’s.”
“Indeed?” said Katherine politely, but exchanged puzzled glances with her partner the doctor, for neither understood to what she referred.
“Ah! The younger generation’s neglect of tradition,” Mrs Salisbury sighed, realizing the problem “When I was a girl it was quite the thing on the Eve of St Mark’s for those with nerves strong enough to watch at the midnight hour on the porch of the church.”
“Watch for what?” asked Dr Henderson.
“For the phantasms of those of the parish destined to die over the following twelve months.”
“And does the village make an outing of it?”
“Oh no! No one from the village goes near the church on the Eve of St Mark’s. None but the old believe in the silly superstition, and the old won’t go for fear of what they might see.” She gave Katherine Baxter a wink. “But it would be a curious experience if a death were expected, would it not?”
And with that she was gone in a whirl of red and yellow to dispense pearls of unlooked-for wisdom among her other party guests, leaving Dr Henderson and his lady to once more exchange glances. But this time the glances were speculative for now their thoughts were filling with a wild surmise.
On St Mark’s Eve, Katherine Baxter and Dr Henderson arrived at the church in the doctor’s sulky just as the stroke of twelve sounded on the village hall clock. All was dark and quiet, as was the small churchyard, deserted and still, the headstones showing as dark, brooding shadows seeming to hump out of the ground.
The two crept to the church porch, there to wait and to watch for whatever may happen. The midnight wind blew cold from across the cemetery and swirled into the porch and about the lovers as if to warn them of what was to come, implore them to leave while they still could. Neither spoke but only huddled together for warmth and to ward off fear – especially the fear of what they expected, even hoped, to see.
They did not have long to wait.
The wind suddenly dropped. Somewhere out in the night in the direction of the churchyard came the long, loud squeak of the lichgate opening, and presently through the darkness a form, somewhat stooped, came silently and with slow, measured steps along the path to the main door of the church. Huddling there, Mrs Baxter and Dr Henderson shrank back as it approached, a bent, shrunken thing in a grey winding sheet gaining definition as it neared.
It was old Baxter. Even with the ravages of illness, death and the effects of the doctor’s potions upon his features, he was still recognizable as the aged and despised husband.
The door to the church swung back of its own accord, and the corpse, looking neither right nor left, stalked by the pair and entered, leaving behind the sickly scent of corruption. The door closed silently behind it, and for an instant every window of the church lit with a brilliant, unearthly light. Then all was still and dark again.
For a moment the two stood on the porch, too astonished to move or to speak. Then as their senses returned, an evil glee stirred within them, conquering their fear. They embraced, kissed and laughed together a wicked laugh, knowing their deed would be fulfilled. Sick old man Baxter would die and his un-grieving widow would be free to remarry, to live and be happy once more.
Taking her by the hand, Dr Henderson raced Katherine Baxter with flying steps back to the sulky, and galloped away, their hearts filled with joy and dark passions.
In later days as they sat in their separate places pondering their future they may have regretted so hasty a departure from the church porch. If they had stayed a while longer they might have seen two more phantasms, each in its grey winding sheet, slip through the squeaking lichgate, troop up to the church door and enter, smelling of death. They might have seen that it was themselves, their heads lolling lopsided as they stepped, the hangman’s rope still close about the neck.