Mr. Knock

Michael Panush

Minerva Underhill was governess to the American Runtle Family, and normally she found her two young charges to be well-behaved and studious, but today they both seemed extremely fatigued. She was going through their French lessons in the parlor of the Runtle Manor in upstate New York, and little Phillip's head bowed lower and lower over his book, like a pendulum that would soon come to rest. Phillip was seven years of age, and had the dark hair and pointed nose of his father, and the bright eyes of his mother. Minerva reached out and rested a slim hand on his shoulder.

"Phillip, dear?" she asked and he perked up instantly, like an electric volt had run through his body.

"Oh! Sorry, Miss Minnie. I'm sorry." He looked back at his book, tugging at the collar of his blue Norfolk suit and leaning back in his wicker chair. "I'm just a little tired."

Minerva pushed her spectacles up on her nose as she looked at the boy. "Oh?" she asked. She was British, hired by the Runtle Family for perhaps that reason, and her soft voice brought to mind the grandeur and nobility of her country. "Did you get enough sleep last night, Phillip?" She had noticed a tiredness in Phillip's older sister Penelope as well. The nine-year-old girl was now looking up from her book, her light brown hair catching the sun as she rested her head on an arm.

"Not that much, Miss Minnie. Mr. Knock was keeping me awake."

"Mr. Knock?" Minnie raised an eyebrow. "Now, who is that?"

"He's been in my room last night, and the night before. He knocks, knocks, knocks, on the door, and the walls and the floors. He's very noisy." Phillip spoke as matter-of-factly about Mr. Knock as he would about the weather. "He kept me awake and he wouldn't go away."

Penelope shook her head. "There's no such thing as Mr. Knock!" she proclaimed. "You must have, I don't know, made him up or something."

"But I did hear him!" Phillip cried, as if defending his honor. "I know I heard him."

Minerva stood up, ending their brief argument. "Now, Penelope, you mustn't be rude to your brother," she said. "And Phillip? The noise you heard could have been many things. It could have been the wind through the trees, or the house settling, or rats crawling about. I know it might be frightening, but it's really nothing and you should try and sleep through it. All right, dear?"

"All right," Phillip agreed. He and his sister liked Minerva Underhill, and their governess liked them. They did their best during the rest of their studies, and did not mention Mr. Knock again. Minerva Underhill led them through French, Latin, arithmetic and grammar, and then it was the late afternoon and their lessons were over.

Minnie left them in the charge of their nanny, who would prepare them for dinner. Sometimes Minerva would be invited to the Runtle's dinner and sometimes she would not and ate with the servants. She headed up to her room, when Penelope dashed after her and called her name.

"Miss Minnie?" she asked, her voice very low.

Minnie turned around. "What is it, dear?" she asked.

"It's Mr. Knock. I heard him too. The knocking, I mean." Her face was red and she smoothed her rumpled blue dress. "I don't know what caused it, but it was very loud and it kept me awake."

"It's nothing," Minnie said, patting Penelope's shoulder. "Now run along and join your brother. I'll see you tomorrow, and I'm sure we'll have lots of work to do."

"Goodbye, Miss Minnie," Penelope said, waving as she walked down the long dark hall.

Minerva waved back, and then went upstairs to her room. It was a cozy living place, with high bookshelves around a wide bed. Minerva's suitcases still lay on the floor, along with a violin case resting on the corner of the table. Minerva looked at herself in the mirror. She wore a white shirt and dress with a starched collar and woman's tie that fitted her station, and her hair was arranged artfully in a studious bun.

She sat on her bed and remembered her mother's words. "It's never the wind, little Minnie," Lydia Underhill was fond of saying. "It's some spirit, some long dead denizen of the earth trying to find a way back." Pale, petite Lydia Underhill was a medium, ghost-breaker and one of the greatest experts on the paranormal in all of England. She had taught her daughter everything she knew. Minerva had gone with her mother, both in black dresses and veils, to the sights of numerous haunting, and they had always succeeded in banishing the otherworldly, the macabre, and the damned away from the world of men.

"The house settling," Minerva repeated her own words, and they sounded hollow and ridiculous. "What rot."

She thought back to her father, Sir Francis Underhill, who had expended most of the Underhill fortune mounting expeditions to the far corners of the world. Visiting exotic lands where no white man had ever seen had cost much, and Sir Francis's expeditions were the reason why Minerva was a governess, the only job open to a woman of good breeding and learning, but low reserves of wealth. Still, she did not hate her father.

He had trained her in the arts of combat and strategy from around the world, learned on his numerous travels. She remembered his mustachioed face, smiling under his customary pith helmet, and his frequent admonitions of seizing the initiative in battle.

"Take the offensive, Minnie, my jewel," he would say. "Why, when I was pitted in combat with that sultan's trained rhino in the Zanzibar swamps, I held my bayonet between my teeth and leapt for the beast's throat, rather than wait for inevitable impalement." Fine advice for the jungles of Africa, but in the intricate workings of American society? Caution would prove much more rewarding.

Minnie pushed the thoughts of Mr. Knock out of her mind, selected a book for the evening, and waited for dinner.

The following late afternoon, Cornelius and Edith Runtle visited their children after the day's lesson. Cornelius was in his evening coat and top hat, his moustache freshly waxed. Edith wore a white gown, and pearls were thick around her neck. Minerva knew that they would be going out that evening, another high society party in an endless series of formal affairs.

Cornelius smiled under his bushy moustache as he patted Phillip's head. "Being a good student, Phillip?" he asked. "Doing your father proud, I hope?"

"I think so, father," Phillip said, nodding vigorously.

Minerva smiled at her employers. "Both children are doing wonderfully, Mr. Runtle. Are you and Mrs. Runtle going out for the evening?"

"Yes, yes," Cornelius agreed, resting his hands over his protruding gut. "A little get-together for everybody in my steel trust. I'm only on the board of the company, so they won't be looking to me for any speeches, but I still must attend."

"It will be quite a to-do, Minnie!" Edith cooed. "I dare say they'll be some of New York's most eligible young men there. Shall we send them your card?"

"I hope you enjoy your evening," Minerva replied, still smiling. The Runtles hugged their children once more, and proceeded to the foyer for the carriage, the open road and the bright city beyond. Minerva walked the children back to their room, where their nanny was waiting to tuck them into bed.

They walked along the darkened hallway, the shadows from the gas lamps dancing like capering demons in the house's corners. Phillip looked up at her, his small face pale. "Miss Minnie?" he asked. "I heard him again last night."

"Who did you hear, dear?" Minnie asked.

"Mr. Knock. He was really very loud, and I didn't get any sleep."

"I-I heard him too," Penelope admitted, without shame this time.

"Oh," Minerva said, as they reached the door to the nursery. "Well, try and sleep, and I'll see what I can do."

Phillip smiled up at her. "Thank you," he said.

"Sleep well, darling," Minnie told him, and showed them inside. She hoisted up her skirt, and nearly dashed up the stairs and to her room. There, she grabbed her violin case, rested it on her lap, and waited with the paper until darkness filled the mansion. She did not bother to light her oil lamp, preferring instead to let her eyes adjust to the growing dark.

The sounds of the manor grew fewer as the servants finished the day's chores and went off to their own beds. Minerva Underhill remained awake, both of her slim hands resting on the lid of her rosewood violin case. Time passed slowly for Minerva Underhill, and then she heard it. It was a low, muffled rapping, like a metronome swathed in cotton, echoing around the house without rhythm or source.

The knocking seemed to come from all around the house, echoing about the austere furniture, the gilded clocks and wide halls of the manor. But Minerva knew what was causing the sound. She stood up and opened her violin case. Inside, resting on red velvet lining, were weapons. Minerva withdrew a leather belt and wrapped it around her waist, resting her hands on the hilts of twin Wakizashi daggers. Her father had stolen them from a Japanese Daimyo in Yokohama, barely escaping the curved swords of a vengufl Ninja Clan as he fled the city.

She next selected an assegai, a short Zulu spear used for the hunting of lions and Englishmen in the wilds of Rhodesia. This model was collapsible, the handle of made of hollowed steel, and Minerva carefully screwed in the broad blade before slinging the weapon over her shoulders. Finally, she produced a crossbow. This weapon had been purchased by her father in the Black Forest of Germany. It was carved from the wood of a tree that had hung the greatest Raubers of that notorious wood, and Sir Francis was keen to tell his daughter that the bowstring was made from the taut guts of a dragon. She wasn't sure she believed him. A quarrel of barbed bolts, each of Ash and tipped with silver arrows, rested on Minerva's belt.

She opened the door and stepped out slowly into the hall. Each of her footsteps seemed to echo like thunder as she walked down the stairs and headed for the nursery. She felt her heart beating a little faster, and thought back to her mother's lessons of meditation, of breaking free of wild panic before encountering the supernatural. All around her, the knocking grew louder.

Minerva reached the door of the nursery and gently pushed it open. The children slept in different ends of the wide, pastel-colored room, and she could see both Penelope and Phillip were turning in their beds, their pajamas rumpled and their hair ruffled. A single lamp blazed in the corner, casting fantastic shadows of the blocks, toy shoulders, and stuffed animals onto the far wall.

The knocking continued and Minerva moved towards the corner, near Phillip's bed. She looked into the darkness that was gathered there like a pool of liquid and readied her crossbow. She saw something stir in the darkness, and then heard Phillip stirring behind her.

"Miss Minnie?" he asked. "What's going on?"

"Just a bad dream, dear," Minnie said. "Go back to sleep and don't think about it." She pulled back the string of her crossbow and reached for a bolt.

In the corner, the darkness shifted and something crawled forward. It moved forward like a caterpillar, crawling with a dozen strange, misshapen limbs on either side of its elongated body. Mr. Knock reared up and Minerva saw rough, charcoal black skin with patches of raw redness. The creature moved forward on a dozen arms, and Minerva saw with horror that they were children's arms, twisted, blackened and pathetically small. Mr. Knock's head was a muddled conglomeration of features, with numerous noses, mouths, eyes and ears set seemingly randomly in black, rough skin.

Mr. Knock slid downwards, slamming its mutilated fists into the floor, and again making a long, terrible knocking. Minerva brought up her crossbow. "You've no place here," she told Mr. Knock, remembering the direct way her mother addressed malevolent apparitions. "Perhaps there is a place for you in Heaven, or perhaps in Hell, but you do not belong here."

The only answer Mr. Knock made was another rumbling rapping that resounded through the mansion.

"You must leave!" Minerva said, feeling anger rising inside of her. "You are scaring the children and making a dreadful nuisance of yourself! Leave immediately!" She reached for the trigger of the crossbow, and fired a shaft into the middle of Mr. Knock.

The creature instantly recoiled, curling backwards and wiggling its blackened hands. Then Mr. Knock pounced, crashing headfirst into Minnie and hurling her back. She fell past Phillip's bed, landing hard on the floor. Behind her, she could hear Mr. Knock scuttling forward.

"Miss Minnie?" Phillip asked, now very scared. "What are you doing? What's making that noise?"

Minerva reached for another arrow and loaded it into her bow. Still lying on the ground, she aimed at Mr. Knock. "It's Mr. Knock, dear," Minerva said. "I'm destroying it." She fired again, sending her shaft directly into Mr. Knock's lumpy, distorted head. The arrow pierced one of the many eyes, sinking deeply into the black skin.

All of the mouths of Mr. Knock opened to scream, and it was no shrieking wail of a hell-spawned fiend, no throaty yelp of a graveyard ghoul or mocking hiss of a mischievous phantom. This was the scream of children, of terrified, injured children no older than Phillip and Penelope. Minerva froze when she heard the cry, nearly dropping her crossbow.

Mr. Knock leapt forward, reaching out with a dozen of its hands. They grabbed Minerva's arms and legs and carried her away from the nursery, through the door, across the hall, and into the parlor of the Runtle's mansion. Minerva gritted her teeth when she felt the grip of Mr. Knock's hands. They were rough, ashen, flaky and worst of all, red and soft beneath their charred surface. She reached down to her belt, madly grabbing the handle of one of her daggers.

"Unhand me!" she managed to cry as she drew her blade and slashed Mr. Knock's side. The phantasmal horror let her fall to the carpeted ground, where she managed to come to her feet. She drew out her second Wakizashi and plunged both daggers into the black middle of Mr. Knock. Again, the spirit let out one of its terrible screams that could only come from the mouths of children.

Mr. Knock bunched up and lashed out, ramming its head into Minerva Underhill's gut. The force of the impact knocked her backwards, sending her crashing into a heavy door at the end of the parlor. The door bent backwards, and Minnie fell heavily onto the ground.

She was bruised and battered, and struggled to stand. Minerva managed to look up, just in time to see Mr. Knock crawling away, dragging its hideous black length across the carpeted floor as it returned to the nursery. Minerva thought of poor Phillip and Penelope, awake now and able to see Mr. Knock in the low light of their room.

"No, damn it all," Minerva hissed, coming to her feet. "I won't let that happen." She looked up and paused. She had fallen in Cornelius Runtle's hunting room, where he kept the occasional trophy from his hunting trips, as well as his weaponry. Minerva walked to one of the high cabinets and opened it. She withdrew an elephant gun, and carefully loaded a single round into the massive rifle, remembering the way her father had taught her to load the weapon. Elephant guns always were a favorite of the old explorer.

She cocked the elephant gun, and walked back into the parlor, just in time to see Mr. Knock slither out the door. Then she heard screams from the nursery, and broke into a run.

She dashed through the parlor, her dress fluttering around her, and then past the hall and into the nursery. Minerva brought the elephant gun to her shoulder as she stepped through the door. Mr. Knock was there and it had the children in its grasp.

Both Phillip and Penelope had been lifted above the ground by the black hands of Mr. Knock. Penelope was shivering in her nightgown and Phillip had his eyes closed and was shaking his head, both of them too frightened to even scream. Mr. Knock let out another childlike yelp of pain and terror.

"Let them go, you devil!" Minnie shouted, firing the elephant gun. The heavy bullet tore into the chest of Mr. Knock, sending the creature and the two children to the nursery floor. After firing, she let the rifle fall to the ground. Minerva grabbed her assegai and leapt forward, driving the broad point of the spear straight into Mr. Knock's distorted face.

"Minnie! Minnie!" Penelope cried. "What is it? What is that? It had me and its hands were all rough and crinkly!"

"It's Mr. Knock!" Phillip told his sister. "And Miss Minnie is fighting him!"

"Stand back, darlings," Minerva said, spinning her assegai about and tossing Mr. Knock through the nursery door. The apparition attempted to slither away, but Minerva dashed after it and stabbed it once more. Hesitantly, Phillip and Penelope followed her through the hall and into the parlor. They watched as their governess thrashed Mr. Knock, slashing its dark skin again and again and leaving red and black flakes of flesh on the carpet.

"What is it, Miss Minnie?" Phillip asked. "And, um, what's he doing here?"

"He's a spirit," Minerva said, pushing Mr. Knock along. Its keening, childlike cries continued, but Minerva steeled her ears. "And I don't know why it's here. I rather think it would like to leave. That's what all the knocking and rattling about is for, just sending a message that it wants to get out, and I'll be happy to oblige it."

"But the front door's the other way," Penelope pointed out. "Shouldn't you be sending Mr. Knock that way?"

"Mr. Knock won't be leaving through the door." Minerva pushed Mr. Knock into the yawning fireplace at the far end of the parlor. She pulled out the assegai, letting Mr. Knock lie in the fireplace like a bundle of fleshly logs. "You see, the spirit isn't trapped in our house, but in its own skin. My mother told me about a case like this -- the famous Burned Baron of the Black Swan Inn. Strangely, the creature came from fire, and fire was needed to send it on its way."

She reached to her belt, where a number of glass vials rested next to the Wakizashi daggers. These vials were full of Greek Fire, taken from the vaults of ancient Constantinople by her father, stolen away from the Turks across the wide Persian deserts. Minerva uncorked the vial and tossed it into the fireplace.

"And so, I'll free it from its own skin," she explained, as cleansing flames filled the fireplace. Mr. Knock burned instantly, its roasted skin falling away like chunks of dry wood and revealing something bright and gleaming within. Minerva looked away as light spilled out from the fireplace, shooting up the chimney like a gleaming rocket to the night sky.

Slowly, the light faded and there was nothing left of Mr. Knock. Not a trace that it had ever slithered and crawled on the floor of the Runtle mansion remained. Minerva nodded and slowly exhaled. She looked down at her two young charges, who seemed more surprised than scared.

"Let's get you to bed," she said, resting a hand on each of their shoulders. She steered Phillip and Penelope back to the nursery and carefully tucked them into bed. They stared up at her in amazement that their kindly governess could fight with such ferocity and admiration that she had chosen to defend them.

"Will Mr. Knock ever come back?" Phillip asked, after Minnie had pulled the covers about his pale face and fluffed his pillow.

"He won't," Minnie said. "And if anything else gives you trouble, you let me know, and I'll take care of it."

Phillip smiled. "Thank you, Miss Minnie," he said, his voice dropping to a whisper.

"You're very welcome, darling. Sleep well now. I'll need you fully rested for your lessons tomorrow." Minerva patted his head, and then left the nursery. She waited in the hallway until she was certain both children were fast asleep, and then eased the door shut and walked upstairs.

After quickly telling the servants a hastily concocted tale of frightening off a suspected burglar, Minerva returned to her room and set down her weapons, back in their rosewood violin case. She saw the newspapers of the week, resting in the wastebasket, and grabbed one from two days ago. She thought of Mr. Knock as she turned through the pages of the newspaper, wondering why the burned body, childish voice and wish for escape seemed so unnervingly familiar.

Then she found it. It was a small article, little more than a paragraph secreted away in a corner of the local section, but it told Minerva Underhill all she needed to know. She tucked the paper under her arm, and went downstairs to wait for Mr. and Mrs. Runtle to return. After about an hour of waiting in the parlor, she heard their carriage approaching.

She met them in the doorway. Cornelius and Edith ended their conversation as soon as they saw the severe glare on the governess's face. Cornelius held his top hat in his hand. "Miss Underhill?" he asked. "Is there a problem?"

"There is, sir," Minerva said. She held up the newspaper. "One of your factories burned down two days ago, Mr. Runtle. The workers were trapped inside, and they burned to death."

Cornelius's face lost its color. He tugged at the edges of his jacket and looked at the floor. "N-now, see here, Miss Underhill," he said, trying to be commanding and failing. "It's r-really not your place to—"

"They were children, Mr. Runtle. Scarcely older than your own! And they burned to death because they had been locked inside!" Minerva's voice rose to a hoarse shout. "Can you imagine what it must have been like? They were all packed against the locked door, knocking and pounding and screaming as the flames drew closer?"

Cornelius Runtle shook his head. "I'm just on the board of directors. I don't make decisions that deal with our worker policy and—and those children would be on the streets if we didn't…" He sank down to his knees, his voice sinking away to nothingness under Minerva's withering gaze. "Oh, god," he whispered.

Edith put her hand on her husband's shoulder. "You can work against this kind of thing happening in the future, can't you, Cornelius?" she asked. "You can do some good. I'm certain you can." She looked up at Minerva. "Will you…will you be leaving us?"

"If not for Phillip and Penelope," Minerva said. "I would leave. But for their sake, I'll stay on, and I won't tell them of this until they're older. I don't want them to be ashamed of their father just yet." She handed Cornelius the newspaper and turned away. "Good night, sir," she said.

She left them in the parlor and returned to her room. She needed her rest, just as Phillip and Penelope did.

-The End-