Image Simon Howden, freedigitalphotos.net
When we arrived at the the hotel of course there was no one there.
My uncle was nowhere to be seen. The sign hung half-on, half-off the rail; swinging in the wind like a body on a gallows.
We checked the premises thoroughly. Honestly, there was no corner we did not excavate, no corridor not stalked down or bedroom not searched from top to bottom for clues as to the whereabouts of my uncle or his guests. The hotel had been in the family for centuries. Of course, it hadn’t always been open to the paying public. It had been a very grand residence that few saw the interior of when many longed to be admitted. No, it was only my uncle’s folly to try and renovate the place and make it turn a profit at last, when it had “eaten away at the family for years,” those were his words.
Now we stared at the place and wondered if we had ever really known it. Had we felt at home there? At Christmas visits there had been many roaring fires, many carols sung and wreaths hung everywhere so as we never noticed the decay, the maudlin. Now it was overwhelmingly apparent, that aching emptiness, and in the midst of that lay something else. I tried to put my finger on that sensation in particular, but always it eluded me, and slunk back out of sight. Now that I come to think about it, perhaps there had always been something about that house that wasn’t right. It was after our Grandfather died that I remembered feeling unease creep in about the place. “No more jolly winters” Julie had said at the time. I knew exactly what she meant, now.
I don’t know why Julie insisted on eating all our meals in the ballroom, it was dire. Surely we would have been just as happy in the kitchen. When I say ballroom, it wasn’t as grand as all that. It was a very spacious room to be sure, with chandeliers and several tables scattered about with table cloths and flowers, and cutlery gleaming. But it was dire to me, because of that. Because of the expectation of all the guests who would never eat there.
You know I never liked my uncle. Never liked him. I thought he was a empty man. He talked a lot about the great plans he had for this and that, and he was always running from place to place, to do great things, to see great people, but he would never sit down and have lunch with you. You simply could never get hold of him. The letters he sent on special occasions were always written by his secretary. I remember vividly, now, the last correspondence I had with him because it had been a present, and in his own hand writing. It was a diary. On the front was the head of a creature, like a dog, or a lion, I’m not sure which. My uncle explained in the letter attached to it, that this was to be the new hotel’s emblem. He had had the diaries commissioned and sent around as gifts to everyone of note. This one was slightly torn I noticed, one of the corners looked somewhat chewed. A reject I suspect.
Apparently the design had been taken from an etching my uncle had discovered in one of the rooms. He described how he had been “getting the place ready” which seemed to amount to him foraging in drawers more than doing actual renovations. The image had at once caught his eye. I thought it was more off-putting than anything. It was a beast, an amalgamation, not a proud lion or a faithful hound, but a hybrid, possessing neither the good qualities of either. I still have the diary but I try not to look at it. I too, keep it locked in a drawer.
Julie, of course, being possessed of a particularly morbid curiosity, insisted on staying at the hotel in the hope that Uncle would return and explain everything. Maybe, she supposed, this was all a game for him. Maybe he was planning on surprising us, maybe it was a publicity stunt, after all it was autumn, and isn’t that the perfect time for mysteries? I wondered that she didn’t know Uncle better. Why would he go to all that trouble and only invite a handful of relatives and old friends? I had assumed he had invited us so that he could, yet again, prove to us what a blazing success he was. After all, hadn’t we voiced our concern at his plans for the old place? Still, we held off phoning the police. Just in case. In a way I’m glad now.
So some of us stayed and waited. The longer we remained, the more it suggested to me that he was never coming back, and had never meant to leave.
Our rooms had been allocated to us before hand, we found the sheet with each of our names on and the room number written beside. It was left on the reception desk weighed down with a glass of white wine. We each retrieved our keys and had gone to inspect the rooms. Ours was beautifully furnished, but had no soap, no towels. There was no note, no fresh cut flowers. No outward signs of ostentation. The other rooms were the same. The first two nights we stayed I slept alright. Julie slept in the other bed and tossed and turned constantly. She had been having nightmares she said, about our uncle, and about some other people she had never met. I didn’t think twice about it until the third night when I was awoken out of a fitful dream by a strange sound. The dream had been so hazy that upon waking I only had vague suggestions of it. My uncle had been in it, a women, and several men. They were all walking away from the hotel and off into the grounds. But the whole image was obscured by a kind of fog. As I said, I woke up with a start anyway, and so most of the dream was lost to me, but that part I remember.
What I am not sure of, is what exactly caused me to wake. I know it was a sound, I had the sensation of it still ringing in my ears but it was nothing I could place. I had the idea that it might have been an fox, you know how unnatural their cries can sound, but it was lower than that. It was almost like a fog horn, a strange bellowing. But we were so far now from the sea.
That night I got up and I went to my grandfather’s old study. It was the oddest thing to do, I know. But I felt such a strong compulsion to go there again, to see it, when I had not been in that room in years. I knew that Uncle had left it mostly untouched, he had said so himself in his letter; that he couldn’t bear to disturb the sanctity of the place when his father had spent so many happy hours there. I found the door unlocked, moonlight came streaming in the windows illuminating the old desk, my grandfather’s chair, all the bursting bookcases. I went forward into the room in the half-darkness in my slippers and pyjamas. I crept forward even though I felt utterly foolish. It was as if I feared being discovered, or being observed by anyone, or anything, even though I knew that that was a ridiculous idea.
I sat down at the desk, and only then did I turn on the lamp. Someone had evidently searched the room earlier, I have a vague memory of Julie saying she would do it, certainly the drawers had been emptied and papers set here and there, neatly and methodically stacked. I sat there for a few moments not knowing what to look at, when a piece of paper caught my eye. It had been set apart, left on the ledge of one of the tall windows. I got up and fetched it. It was a letter from my grandfather to my uncle, which evidently had found its way back there. It was dated not long before my grandfather’s death. So much so that a chill tingled along my spine as I read it. It must have been one of the last things he’d ever written. Most of the letter contained a sad account of my grandfather’s ill health and arrangements to be made in the event of his death. Right at the end, he began to talk about the old house, and what should be done about it. My uncle would of course inherit, being the last surviving boy, but the next lines puzzled me. The hand was shaky but the words were still legible.
“I have, I know, told you often enough of my desire for you to keep this as your home. Your sister has informed me of your plans though, and if money is your concern then that is understandable. I only wish you would not alter the place too much, as it would pain me greatly (and your grandmother were she alive) to have the house gutted, or something awful like that, and made modern, as it were.
One thing I do wish to impress upon you, and this is vital – leave the copse as it is. You know the patch I mean. That little wood at the ground’s edge. You must promise me not to dig any of that up or disturb it in any way. Really it would be best if you had it partitioned off. Now you must agree with me on this, no matter what you think about it. I do not wish to have to repeat the story I told to you last Christmas. You can scoff at me all you want, but it may be my last request to you.”
That was the last line. The letter was signed affectionately enough, but that was it. I did not know what to make of it at all, and I tried to recall our visit to the house that last Christmas but if stories were told regarding the copse, then I knew nothing of it. My uncle and grandfather, as far as I could have told, had given no indication of any pact between them.
I took the letter with me and left the study, and as I was passing through the room I glanced out of the window and onto the long lawn I had seen in my dream. A mist was gathering somewhere at its edge, for an instance I thought I could make out a dark shape creeping through the trees, scattering the moonbeams, but I turned away. It was only the letter and the dream and my Uncle’s disappearance. I told myself that I was being fooled by it all, and went straight back to bed.
To be continued…