It was late when Thornton stormed in through the door, shaking his head as if to rid his hair of water. Without a word he shed his coat onto the floor next to the door and sat down in front of the fire, warming his shaking hands by holding them as close to it as he dared. From my corner it almost looked as if he was trying to tame the fire, yet it happily continued to blaze heat into the room. Thornton had always been one of William's quieter friends, yet this brusque and taciturn entrance was quite contrary to his constant insistence on politeness and etiquette during his other visits. He had said not one word to William and Henry who sat at the back of the room and he hadn't noticed me closer to him between the door and the bookcase, although he usually showed off his cultured and practiced kindness by paying attention to poor little me. William stood up and the shuffling of his chair seemed to give Thornton such a fright that he almost toppled head-first into the fire.
'Dear God, William, do you have to give a man such a scare?' he exclaimed after regaining his composure. His voice was rough and scratchy, as if he had not used it in a while and had quite forgotten how. As he turned around the fire drew shadows on his face until one half was lot up with bright light and the other half was plunged in darkness. His eyes were open wide as if he was surprised, but his mouth was drawn into a grimace which gave his whole face quite a scared expression. I didn't like this look on him because it was so in contrast with his usually perfect gentleman behaviour and yet there was something fascinating in seeing this otherwise so composed man in pieces. I decided to remain quiet in my corner, as I usually was, and observe everything that would come to pass. William had pulled up another chair to the fire and sat opposite Thornton, looking at him concernedly.
'You look like a man who has a tale to tell and yet doesn't know where to start.' said William after a while. Clearly he could read his friend better than I could because to me Thornton looked like one struck dumb, rocking back and forth on his chair like a scared child.
'Henry, bring the liquor. I think Thornton here needs some liquid courage before he begins.' William loved nothing more than a good tale. As children we used to listen to our governess read u stories from books and after she left I would make them up. William would spend hours lying on my bed, listening to my every word. But as he got older and was allowed into a world that seemed to belong exclusively to men, he moved away from me and my stories until I became a shadow that came with the house, something a little cumbersome whose care he had also inherited upon Father's death. But the prospect of an exciting tale still had him rubbing his hands in glee, his eyes twinkling with delight, or maybe that was just the reflection of the fire. Henry arrived with the bottle of port from the kitchen and another chair. The three men looked like a group of conspirators who huddled closer together so their secrets remained secret. But the walls of this house had sharp ears and over the years I had become part of those very walls. Thornton gulped down a glass of port, which was immediately generously refilled. Finally, he took a deep breath and began to speak.
'It all started with me making my way to your house, William, since we always gather here at nine for a drink and a game of cards. On walking out my door it felt like such a pleasant night that I felt like such a pleasant night that I felt quite recovered from an earlier headache and happily went on my way. The air was fresh but pleasant for a November evening and the moon was giving plenty of light, which was fortunate because I had neglected to bring a lantern with me. As you know I usually avoid the moors between our houses because I think it a morbid and wild sort of place. But something, I don't know what, came over me tonight and I found myself taking the shortcut through the moors. It was eerily quiet and I was beginning to be wary of the place but then I reached the lake. It's only small but it seemed to me perfectly round, much like a mirror and equally smooth. I found myself just standing there, right at the shore, and staring into the lake. Once again I worries because didn't seem in control of my body. I couldn't come a muscle and my heart was madly beating. But then I saw something moving at the opposite end of the lake. Remember, William, on our Tour to the Adriatic, when we saw a shark swimming, its fin the only thing visible above the water? It was like that. A large finned fish was slowly swimming towards me in a straight line and the strangest thing was that a feeling of absolute calm beset me, I fear I was even smiling like a fool. When the fish was only a few feet away from me, I was now kneeling at the water's edge, it raised its head above water and turned, may God be my witness, into a woman. Or at least half a woman.'
Here Thornton's tale was interrupted by Henry guffawing. I suspect he had been drinking more than his fair share of the port.
'I'm sorry, old fellow, but are you really claiming you saw a mermaid in our own damnable marshes?'
He laughed again and refilled his glass, confirming my suspicions. Thornton wasn't laughing and neither was William, who was anxiously looking back and forth between his friends. On the one hand he looked like he wanted to laugh, but on the other hand he probably wanted to hear the rest of the story. I myself desperately wanted, no, needed Thornton to continue because I hadn't been this interested in something since William had brought home his books from university. Hardly anything ever happened in this house which only held me, a cook and Jane, the maid. From the top-window I could look into the village on a bright day, but it suffered from the same curse as the house. The moors were this place's and my salvation. To indifferent visitors they always looked the same, but I, who watched the moors every day, noticed the smallest changed. I could smell it when the wind changed, feel it when the sun shone strongest and knew which way the birds would fly. Whenever I could, I would walk into the moors.Once their stern honesty and raw beauty hid me from curious eyes I would run, jump and scream my lungs out. I knew the safe paths and those that looked safe and could have distinguished them blind-folded. But I had never seen a mermaid in the lake. Thornton continued after William urged him on and Henry grumbled an apology.
'You know me to be a reasonable man so take my word for it when I tell you that this fish half-changed into a woman. Her body was a pale and greenish tint that shimmered in the moonlight. Her hair was dark and quite short, not even reaching her shoulders. She had small breasts and very long fingers. As she came even closer I could see her long tail swishing in the water. It reminded me of a snake coiling up before it attacks. But then she was face to face with me and all thoughts about her tail faded.'
In the background Henry sniggered and I had to try my hardest not to shush him. Thankfully William sent him a glare. But Thornton hadn't noticed, he was staring at the fire.
'Her face was round, almost too round, and she didn't smile. Her mouth was very pale, almost like a dead person's, but her eyes, of those eyes. They were so large they almost seemed to take up half her face and they were deep, deeper thank the lake she emerged from. They were a mix between green and blue and the more I looked the more I became convinced that they swirled. And then, somehow, I saw myself. I don't know whether I saw the following in her large eyes or whether she showed me in my mind's eye but I am sure these visions came from her. I saw an older me, about ten years or so, and I was walking down Grosvenor Square with a beautiful young girl on my arm. I thought to myself, 'Not bad, old chap.' when suddenly the image changed. We were in a ballroom, the girl and I, dancing and she was wearing a wedding dress. God she looked beautiful. But then I saw the other people in the room and they were laughing and talking behind upheld hands. They said she'd married me for my money an through I was a pompous fool, but that I was too blinded by my own consideration of my virtues that I had no idea. When I looked up it was you, William, who was dancing with a bride of your own and I saw myself standing n the crowd, saying cruel things and smiling fake smiles. And then the colour seemed to bleed out of the room like too wet paint and I was at a too empty graveyard looking at my own coffin waiting to be buried. I was shocked to tears when I felt long, wet and cold hands close around my neck. It felt like Death had gripped me. Those hands pulled me head-first into the cold water where I thankfully gained my senses and realized the woman had gripped me. Before horror could overtake me I bit into one of her arms and tasted rotten fish on my tongue. She let me go with a wail and I climbed back onto the shore and a good few paces away form the shore. With visions of her dragging her half-human body out of the water to hunt me down. I passed out. When I awoke, which can't have been more than half an hour later, I was completely dry and found myself back on the road here. I hurried here in the hope that your warm fire would reveal it all to be nothing but a dream. But I can't forget what I saw in her eyes, those big, round eyes. Am I to become a ridiculed and abandoned man when I have been nothing but kind?'
Here Thornton ended his strange tale and burst into tears. He pitied himself very much. The two men next to him sat back in their chairs and silence reigned in the room apart from Thornton's sobs. Biting my bottom lip harshly was all I could do to not jump up from my chair and demand more. Surely there was more, there had to be more. But Thornton remained a wreck, while William and Henry ineffectually stared into the fire and brooded. How none of the seemed inclined to do anything, I don't know, but finally they looked at each other and this time there was definitely a twinkling in William's eyes.
'Say, Thornton,' he began. 'Do you think you could walk us to this lake and show us your mermaid?'
Thornton, this otherwise so respectable specimen of a man, lifted his tear and snot streaked face and shook it violently. Now Henry entered the conversation.
'Come on, old chap, show us this mermaid so we can avenge our current deplorable state on her!'
Proud of his own loquacity. Henry sat back and reached for the port bottle which, to his disappointment, he found to be empty.
'Thornton, my man, how do they say? When you fall off a horse you get straight back on it. So let's get you back on that proverbial horse.'
With more force than power of argument they got Thornton onto his feet and back into his coat. They lit two lanters and noisily left the house. When they had gone I savored the silence for a few seconds and then quickly stood up and put on my own coat, neglecting to take my hat with me. I didn't take a lantern, both to avoid detection and because I didn't need one. The three men ahead were making enough noise to lead the blind. The moon still shone brightly and Thornton had been right about the mildness of the night's air. As William and the others veered off the road and towards the lake I made sure to stay a safe distance behind them. William wouldn't like his friends seeing his little sister sneaking through the moors at midnight. It, I, would be an embarrassment. They had reached the lake and fallen silent, apart from Thornton who had started up his weeping again. William and Henry left him where he had dropped to his knees and stumbled closer to the shore. Although Henry had drank most of the port, William surely had had his fill and didn't hold his liqour half as well as he thought he did. Henry took what he thought was a manly stance and started bellowing across the water.
William and Henry fell into a fit of very manly giggles while Thornton started a soft wail. They made for a very strange tableau from behind the bush of ferns that I used as cover.
'Mermaid,' Henry continued. 'You have grievously upset out friend here and we would very much like his wits back please. He is no fun this way.'
There was a short silence in which everyone, even Thornton, held his breath waiting for a reply. Then Henry fell into the lake. Everyone gasped, except me since I was muffling laughter, until Henry resurfaced, wet and decisively not ensnared by a mermaid. The shock of the cold water seemed to have sobered him up, which made him angry.
'Thornton must have been drinking before he came. There's nothing in this lake except freezing cold water and dirt. Let's go back.'
William tried not to laugh but failed miserably. Still he helped the soaking Henry to lift a silenced Thornton to his feet and they stumbled straight past my hiding spot back to the road. I thought about following them, but the lake's surface was beautifully smooth again and I couldn't help but get closer. I knelt at the shore, not minding the sand on my dress, and let my hands fall into the water. Nothing happened. The men were too far away to be heard now and finally silence returned to the moors. Then waves started lapping at my knees and something moved towards me from the far end of the lake. When a large fish appeared in front of me and turned into half a woman I wasn't surprised or scared. I looked into her eyes which were indeed very big but saw nothing. I felt hot tears come to my eyes. Why wasn't she showing me anything? Was my future not important enough? My chin dropped to my chest and silent tears slid over my cheeks. But then I felt soft hands on my face. She had lifted both her arms and enveloped my face in her cold fingers. She wiped my tears away with her thumbs before she looked straight at me.
'We only show those who still have a chance to change.' said a voice in my head. I nodded and the mermaid smiled. She drew me close and softly kissed me on the lips. I stood up and, as I shed my clothes, I could faintly hear mt brother call my name. Maybe he had notice my absence or needed something. I didn't turn or replied but slid into the water which felt pleasantly warm against my skin. The mermaid held out a pale hand to me and I took it. Together we swam to the deep bottom of the lake and waited.'
So, that is one of my attempts at short story writing. I was going for a Victorian-esque style here, but I'm not quite sure it worked. What do you guys think? I appreciate every piece of constructive criticism I can get :)