From the Sussex County Magazine 1934
When the Devil Drives
By W Page Messum
Many years ago, not far from the ancient town of Rye, in a small cottage almost hidden by trees, off the main road, lived a poor widow and her son – her only child – and he was the apple of her eye, her soul’s one atmosphere wherein alone she lived, and moved, and breathed.
The lad grew, and in course of time was apprenticed to a miller who would have minded to take him into a partnership if a cruel fate had not overtaken him, and brought disaster in its train.
One morning the unexpected happened that set the countryside ablaze. The miller was found dead on the floor of his office, stabbed from behind.
Suspicion fell on his apprentice who, on being searched, was found to have his master’s gold watch in his possession. The boy tried to explain that the miller had handed him the watch the night before, to take to the town for repairs, as the mainspring had gone. This was not good enough for the authorities and the boy was arrested, tried, and sentenced to death – yet, mind you, the evidence was purely circumstantial, but twelve men had sat together and decided that he must die – there was no Court of Appeal in those days.
On hearing the verdict, the mother remained silent and passive, and the neighbours took it to mean belief in her son’s guilt, but the old woman just moved her head from side to side when they came to gloat over her misery.
As the day drew near on which her boy was to suffer the extreme penalty, she would stand in front of the grandfather clock and watch the hands moving towards the appointed time. When there remained only twelve hours between his life and eternity, the village priest came to comfort her – but she turned him away with a snarl. Strangely enough, she made her grief no excuse for idleness, but continued to cook and eat as before – so peculiar is the mentality of our human nature.
After banging the door in the priest’s face, she prepared the evening meal – a fine rich curry, in which she knew her son delighted.
Sane one moment and insane the next, each hour went by as in a dream. Afraid to look at the clock, she clawed the air every now and then, and cried out like an animal in pain. All she was conscious of now was the tick-tock, tick-tock of that dreadful clock.
A loud rap at the door startled her. On opening it a man wearing a hard felt hat, and a long dark overcoat stood before her. He carried a large kit bag which bulged on either side.
He raised his hat and asked the woman if she could put him up, explaining that he had got out at the wrong station and there was no other train until the early morning.
"It can’t be done," said the woman in a low voice, "there is great trouble overhanging this house."
The man was determined not to be put off; an ugly-tempered east wind which seemed to come off the dull and melancholy sea cut him like a knife, and the smell of the curry made him yearn to get inside the humble dwelling.
"Madam," he said, "I am indeed grieved, but perhaps I can comfort you. In the morning, I shall be gone, as I must be on duty just before 8 o’clock."
A horrible suspicion crept into the woman’s heart, and stung the very core of it, as with the fangs of an adder.
As Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, welcomed Sisera, so the wretched creature invited the traveller to come in and enjoy what she could offer him.
He followed her into the snug kitchen and dropped his bag with a sigh of relief in a corner of the room. He took a flask of whisky from his pocket, poured some out and handed it to the woman. She drank it in one gulp – and a little colour came into her ashen face.
"Where can I buy stamps?" he asked.
The woman eyed the bag. "At the chemist’s," she replied eagerly; "if you hurry, you’ll catch him before he shuts up." She almost pushed him towards the door, and watched him pass out of sight.
A fierce sense of exultation filled her breast. Closing the door hurriedly she hastened back into the room and reached for the bag, which was locked. a Bunch of keys enabled her to find one that fitted and in a trice the bag was opened. On the top was a soft shirt, a sleeping suit, two collars and a toothbrush. Underneath these articles was a large piece of dark green cloth which was acting as a cover to something else. She flung the whole lot out on to the floor, and lo, before her eyes there lay a great coil of rope.
Her brain worked like a machine and she laughed as only the demented laugh.
Carefully repacking the bag, she locked it, and put it back in the corner. Taking a basket off the table she made her way into the garden and stopped beside a large bush, gathering as many of the violet-black shining berries on it as the basket would hold. Breathing heavily, she hurried indoors and crushed the berries into a pulp, which she emptied into the pot containing the curry, stirring the whole lot up and adding more stock and seasoning to hide the taste of the deadly fruit.
A knock at the door reminded her that her guest had returned. "Now I’m ready for my supper," he said with a laugh, as he followed her in, "and I hope you will share it with me."
The woman smiled, and shook her head, but she brought him some strong ale and told him to drink as much as he could carry.
"By jove," he cried, rubbing his hands. "You just wait and see me tackle that curry."
He got through two large helpings and thanked her for the best meal he had ever tasted. He settled himself down in the old armchair and she brought a cane chair to put his feet on. Lighting his pipe, he puffed away until the room was full of the fragrant weed.
Presently, his pipe dropped with a clatter on the floor and the man’s head fell back. He slept, and from sleep his soul passed into the unknown.
Dragging the body on to the rug in front of the fire, the woman pulled it into the garden until she reached a disused well hidden in the shrubbery. Removing the cover, she pushed the body forward and tipped it head foremost into the well.
A dull splash – the silence.
She was back in the house within a few minutes, removing all traces of her visitor – except the bag, which she seemed afraid to touch.
A knock at the door sent the blood to her head. She half-opened it and a note was thrust into her hand.
"Can’t wait," said the voice, and she heard someone scamper away.
She tore the envelope open and read:
"Reprieved – murderer has confessed. See you soon. Jim."
The note was from her son. Every vestige of sanity had now left her. Yet at the back of this poor demented creature’s brain, some intelligence was still working, which drove her to do what she did, for she must have gone straight into the shed where they kept the garden tools, and there fastened a stout piece of cord to one of the beams, and hanged herself.
The next day her son came swaggering down the road, having shaken off the garrulous villagers. He entered his home whistling, as he was wont to do, and shouting, "Mother of mine, where are you?"
Thinking perhaps she had gone out to buy the "fatted calf," he made up the fire and, finding what remained of the curry in the pot, warmed it up – and, alas, ate it.
He evidently felt the effects of the drug, for he went to his room, threw himself on to his bed – and – well, of course, it is to be hoped he saw his mother after all – somewhere else, at any rate.