“As mentioned I neither knew Nantes well, nor had I ever encountered a man so distraught. My house, as you may have noticed, is hidden by tall trees and dense bushes, thereby rendering it quite secluded. That evening neither the moon nor a single star lit up an Egyptian darkness. It may sound silly in retrospect, but scruples assailed me about my safety. The shimmering lights of Roseau in the distance never before glowed with such warmth and reassurance.”
When Rintoul cast expectant glances at him, Wirt felt obliged to respond:
“I have never seen a man in a fluster like Nantes that evening. My nerves became frayed, I had to get a grip on myself to keep them under control. Assuming a fatherly tone I tried to calm him with soothing words.
“ ‘Go home, take a good night’s rest, in the morning everything will look brighter,’ I consoled.”
“Where you successful?” Wirt inquired.
“Far from it. He bolted upright, sheer terror distorted his face as he groaned:
“ ‘I can’t go back to that house, not tonight, perhaps never again.’
“Seeing him ashen, and trembling like aspen leaves, I invited him to stay with me overnight.”
“Did he accept?”
“With an astounding alacrity. To tell the truth, I feared he would fall on my neck.”
Wirt chuckled under his breath, picturing the standoffish bank manager being ardently embraced. What a compromise that would have been to a staid man invested with an official position.
“How did the night go?” Wirt asked.
After taking two ample draughts from his glass, Rintoul shook his head in a manner that expressed utter dismay.
“I would not wish that experience onto my mortal enemy. Although the guest room is located at the opposite end from my bedroom, I was kept awake by rumblings of a frightening intensity. Sleep was out of the question; a presentiment befell me of impending evil. Nantes’ stomping and clattering I could have endured perhaps, but not the lamenting and moaning, interrupted by occasionally murderous shrieks.”
Looking straight at his guest, Rintoul inquired:
“Did you ever hear the weird cries of the kookaburra?”
“Not that I remember,” Wirt replied.
“How about the uncanny call of the loon?”
“I know it quite well.”
“Well, take those two, add a hyena’s maniacal laughter, and you get the idea of Nantes’ ravings. Screaming ‘no, no’ repeatedly, cackling hysterically in between, he pounded on the walls and belaboured the floor. I can say with justification that I’m not a craven, but his conduct made me shudder.”
“Did it last all night?” Wirt queried.
Pretty well, till I stopped it. After listening for hours to this unearthly wailing, I had enough. More infuriated than sympathetic or scared, I confronted Nantes. What happened defies description. When I knocked on the door, he raised a murderous hue and cry.
“ ‘Stay away, be gone,’ he screamed in a voice choked with terror.
“If you think that he just acted like a moon-struck, temporarily mindless fellow, think again. Finding the door unlocked, I entered the room. Nantes gazed at me with dilated eyes as if confronted by the basilisk with the fatal breath and look. I barely recognised him. He staggered backwards with bulging eyes, pointing in every direction while moaning piteously. He upset me so much that I would have dearly loved to box his ears; but taking pity on that heap of misery, I desisted.
“Finally he calmed down and laid himself fully clothed on the bed. Seeing him somewhat composed, I went back to my room. In the morning when the sun had climbed over the mountains, I awoke from a trance-like sleep. Nantes sat already on the veranda, looking sheepishly at me as I approached him. Visibly embarrassed, he wanted to know how he behaved during the night.
“ ‘ I had a terrible nightmare,’ he confessed.
“ ‘Nightmare? You behaved like a maniac,’ I almost burst out, but in view of his hangdog demeanour I consoled him with words like:
“ ‘Don’t worry about it, it wasn’t so bad.’
“Did I blush? Probably yes, I certainly am shamefaced in retrospect.”
“How did it end?”
“I urged him to visit Dr Brodeur, our able physician, whom Nantes knew. Given my uncompromising stance, he must have sensed that my cup was overflowing, dousing the remnants of a waning sympathy. No man in my opinion, no matter what ails him, should lose control of himself. Nantes’ sufferings, no doubt genuinely perceived, nevertheless deemed me a chimera of an overwrought mind. Such wild fancies, then as now, find scant resonance with me. Nantes had given rein to extravagant images, as subsequent events manifested.”
“What happened?” Wirt asked.
“He mumbled something about voodoo, obeah, missing shirts, and curses. This babbling infuriated me, for I utterly resent even a breath of superstition. I stormed and railed at him mercilessly. Was he devoid of common sense? I inveighed. Had he no pride in our European heritage whose reputation such twaddle sullied? How can a scientist pay credence to devil worship? I reprimanded.”
“What did he answer?”
“Ha, the man had gone beyond the pale. Though somewhat cowed, he droned on about stuffed dolls, spitting images of himself, placed on his bed, sneering maliciously. When he added that these images had a thorn piercing the heart’s region, I lost all patience. As I gave him a dressing-down, he nodded uneasily, while promising to visit Dr Brodeur without delay.”
Rintoul nodded assent. Then suddenly growing drowsy, he rested his head in both his hands. Heartfelt sighs escaped from his lips as he recalled the dreadful incident of that night.
“As I learned later he saw the doctor on his way home.”
Raising his head, expelling another sigh, a moan really, Rintoul remarked:
“When Nantes left, more sure-footed than at his arrival, he slowly turned at the bottom of he stairs. In a quavering voice and challenging mien, he said something that nearly made me run after him.”
“Oh, did he get abusive?’ Wirt inquired.
“Worse than that,” Rintoul chuckled, “he became delusional. Standing there, assuming a defiant posture, he exclaimed:
“ ‘Do you know what else is inscribed on my gravestone?’
“I shook my head indignantly, meaning to express my growing irritation; for I declare the fellow began to stick in my craw. Paying little heed to my fierce stare, Nantes groaned:
“ ‘The day of my death.’
“ ‘Nonsense, man,’ I barked.
“ ‘Do you want to know what it is, Mr Rintoul?’
“ ‘No,’ I burst out.
“ ‘It’s the day when I am supposed to take over the Gardens’ management,’ Nantes informed me, before he disappeared behind a row of hedges.”