The Were-Leopard of Whemmeling Fell
The beast stalked the moors. It was a vile night. Rain lashed at the granite scarps that slashed the steep hillsides, and rendered even the friendly heather treacherous. If the wind left no home for the notorious fog that haunted Whemmeling Fell, the thick cloud and storm lent the sky a hardly less treacherous aspect. In such a night as this, the Duke of Denver roamed across the moor. In such a night as this, Lady Mary packed her bag to run away to London. In such a night as this, Denis Cathcart wrote a last letter to his love and took the revolver from the Duke’s study, and Mr Pettigrew-Robinson grunted at his haemorrhoids.
Outside, the beast stalked the moors. The slick grass did not trouble her. She picked her way delicately along her road, placing each paw precisely. Her shoulders rose and fell with a lithe grace, the glossy fur smooth and fine, wrapping her warm against the weather. No lady ever wore her coat with such distinction. No small aristocratic head was ever held so perfectly on such a long neck, such a sleek spine. No duchess ever knew her diamonds gleam against blue-blooded skin as the collar of diamonds gleamed in the rain over the muscular neck and slim breast of the were-leopard. No other duchess.
She had not intended to spy on her husband. If the unkind suggested to themselves that she had chosen to visit friends whilst her husband shot grouse in Riddlesdale because she would not share his bed, they did not know her. Nor did they know the friends she had visited, the train to Wiltshire, the yew hedges and the wrought-iron gates that parted like smoke, her silent satisfaction in the smallness of the manor house before her.
‘My son,’ said her host, indicating the boy in serge robes, ‘Abraxas.’ She nodded at the child. ‘And your own son, madam. He is not with you?’
‘He takes after his father. Though I think in a few years my daughter shall join us.’
‘I am delighted to hear it.’
Then the flying carpet, that still astonished her. The casual chatter of her companions speaking of friends old and new, old McGonagall, sworn to come this last time, the promise of a new girl, frightened but determined. She remembered her own first visit the house on the moor on All Hallows’ Eve, the bite on her shoulder barely healed. She had been fifteen years old.
The house was as it ever was, the old witch welcoming them, the fierce wine (one must say for both Gerald and Peter that their father had taught them about wine), the thick red carpets into which her claws sank so delightfully, the high curtained beds, the smoke and mirrors. A magical place. And yet tonight it was not enough. Her husband was barely ten miles away, the distance and weather were nothing to the leopard. So her long tail flicked out of the door and she turned her way towards the Lodge.
His scent was almost washed away by the rain, yet it was there. She licked the rock where his foot had trod, but there was nothing else. He was out in the moor in the darkness, and even she could not track him, but she knew his purpose. She turned towards the distant house; she would meet him there.
Denis Cathcart, sitting at the Duke’s desk, drunk, but not so drunk that he could not write nor load the pistol taken from the drawer, took the little charm out of his pocket. He did not know why Simone, the minx, had given it to him, with her jest about needing it to ward off bad luck and his sister-in-law. It had brought him no luck at cards, had brought him less than no luck. Still, he would take it with him. He climbed out through the window and forced down the sash. The rain soaked him, but he did not care. A vague thought of not in front of the servants led him into the shelter of the shrubbery. He stood for some time, turning the gun in his hands, so that even the rain died and the moon peeped from behind a cloud and shone on the barrel and on the cat in his hand, and he wondered whether perhaps though all was up, it might still be worth something. He could go to Kenya, buy a farm. There would be no Simone, and no society, but there would be cards, and drink and men and a hot sun, and it would be one in the eye for his sister. Yes, perhaps after all he would not -
Her steps were noiseless, but she could not stop the water that rolled from her back and crackled onto the dry leaves. Cathcart started,
She stepped forward onto the path, and the moon shone on her eyes, emerald-green and glowing. He froze and she advanced upon him, step by slow step, her paws making no sound upon the gravel. His hands clutched at his chest, and the diamond cat fell, but he remembered the gun. He levelled it at her, but she did not flinch and he remembered that they said that only silver was any use. She was twenty yards away, less. Soon she would be close enough to spring. It seemed he would get some use out of the gun after all. He could not save his life, but he could save his soul. He fired.