#33 Now That They Are Gone

Image by Witthaya Phonsawat, courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net

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What happens to the house now they are gone?

Hands gather on the iron gate. Fingers that cannot hold are slipping through the bars to grasp the air, left burning even by the faintest touch. A line of desire stretching as far as the onset of night on the plantation fields is visible. Somewhere beyond, daylight has just left, and is streaking away.

What happens now the rooms are all shut up? Locks turned in every key hole, windows barred with thick blocks of iron. Rust is gathering on the panes, on the old door handles and window frames. Gasping, those who wait outside the walls are aching for the decay inside that house.

Dr Barnstable has long since left. He took with him his servant and his big, leather bag. The clasp snapped shut on his box of tricks, the claw hammer has nailed its last. He is going into retirement now, never to come back to this place. The stake and sacrament can be left to someone else, he says, as his servant merrily throws open the gate. There is blood on his collar and cuff, gore trails the trouser leg, but a pipe is lit and a night of comfort is waiting for old Dr Barnstable and his servant.

What happened afterwards? There had been a fire in that old place, just before the sun went down. They all saw it, the ones outside the gate. They saw a burning in the attic window, and a figure on fire, plummeting to Earth like Lucifer, evaporating on the North Wind in a pathetic final puff of desperate half-life.

Now the house is empty. Only the living can enter, and none will buy the place. Left to rot on the old plantation, the house sleeps restlessly, and the dead watch it. They are gnawing at the gate post, digging in the dirt until it stings them. Their limbs disappear, their essence annihilated while others take their place. It is the Holy Water burning them but they will not leave the house of their King, even long after Dr Barnstable dispatched him into thin air.

Slipping past the crowds of phantom watchers the gate will easily swing upon your touch. You put the cold, iron key back in your pocket and proceed because you did not hear them cry to see a living soul walk where they cannot. Down the gravel path to the sound of cawing crows, to the beating wings of ravens and the creak of the bows of the antique scarecrow. Knocked down and losing his stuffing, birds have pecked out his eyes and in the patch, pumpkins are rotting.

Towards the house your steps are crunching on the pebbles. The leather of your newly shined boots is scuffing and your tailored jacket is too fine to resist the cut of the wind through the corn field. It stretches away out to right and something perpetually rustles through it along the rows.

The house is here and waiting. The door you unlock with another, newer key. They changed the locks. Dr Barnstable ordered it done and the man came on Sunday and now the key is small and neat in your hand, and sparkling. But see how it turns uncertainly in the lock. The man has made rough work, the key struggles, you twist and twist. The key snaps. The door, as if aware of the resistance, opens creaking loudly, you think it could almost be laughing.

The house is barren now. Holy Water on the hearth, the door jam smeared with brick dust from a pouch. There is the smell of burnt sage wafting down from the gallery like a host creeping down the stairs to greet you, now that the old host is gone. Trails of blood will never be washed from the floorboards, decades of viscera smeared into the carpet. Half the rooms are shut up, and will never be opened again. The others are places where graveyard earth has been scattered . Consecrated broadcasting, Dr Barnstable was thorough as he sewed the Holy grains from space to space. It doesn’t matter that no one will ever buy the place.

The dead waiting in droves at the gate spend hours just sniffing. They long for the night when the smell of sanctity finally ebbs and flows away. Its sacred atoms scattered to the wind, just like their King. Inside the house you stare out of a French window. Is there something unusual about the line of darkness beyond the tall, black fence?

A picture collapses down the wall, but you only jump inside. Are you afraid to move? The key is broken, you think. You have to call the man back tomorrow, but he will only come on a Sunday. Dr Barnstable has gone back to Germany. There you go, he is saying to you again in your memory, it’s your inheritance now.

Dr Barnstable died in his bed in the brand new hotel. The hotel with the plump towels and the bright lights and monogrammed bathrobes. His servant found him face down in the scatter cushions with lash marks all over his spotted, wrinkled body. They think the local call girl did it. They found a leaflet in his trouser pocket with her picture on it. Vampira. She looks to old to be only 16.

You are standing in the kitchen looking out at the herb garden. You laugh because they won’t be growing garlic in there. You need to laugh because it’s getting colder and you only wanted to see the place. You’re staying at the little inn on the crossroads because you don’t have Dr Barnstable’s bag of tricks. You don’t even know he’s dead. No one can reach you on your room phone, it’s ringing off the hook and hits the ground. The servant replaces his receiver and quickly packs. He’s thinking about driving out to you, but he has a boat to catch.

What does the house do, now that it is so empty? No one can use these rooms. Fortified against the dead they lie waiting, crumbling into themselves. Ivy is tracing a lineage already up through the cracks, plunging its way into the masonry, hunting out the houses’ heart. You take a look upstairs. The beds are writhing. Beetles are clicking through holes in the Egyptian cotton and take no notice of Holy curses. The master bed is positioned in front of the altar. It hasn’t been slept in in years. You think about going to the attic.

Dr Barnstable said the cellar was fine, but the attic was out of bounds, which sounds ridiculous. Everything Dr Barnstable said was ridiculous, including his fee. You push open the attic door and peer inside. Dust motes are swirling delicately in the moonlight. Your lamp is only disturbing them, clashing with the moon, making monstrous light where shadows should be. The room is resentful. A giant cross is hogging the room. Oh, you think, so that’s where my money went. not only on fancy hotel rooms, and monogrammed bathrobes. The cross has nailed a shadow to the floor. It might have been intended to look like silver, but you’re guessing it’s tin plated. You lift the cross, but it’s heavier than it looks. I paid for it. You say this aloud to the room as it watches you. Somewhere outside the gate, the sniffing stops. You’ll never hear it with your ears.

You drag the cross down the stairs. It’s not going to help you sell the place and the agent is coming first thing on Monday morning because they aren’t as easily spooked as the locksmith. They want the money too much. It’s a big house. Tripping on a loose board, admitting defeat, you lay the cross down on the first floor landing and it falls like stone. The crash disturbs the dust. Something is making your skin prickle. It’s allergies, you say, speaking aloud again.

Taking a last look around you get ready to leave. It really smells in here, the sage hasn’t quite done its job. You glance in the downstairs rooms again quickly. The stains are starting to get to you, but they can do all sorts of things now with chemicals. You don’t want to have to pay for new carpets. You never even knew you were the last surviving relative. It’s too much work, and your business won’t run without you.

That’s when you stop, and see the stairs.

The cellar. But you don’t need to go down there. It’d be damp and the smell will be worse. Still, people will pay good money for a wine cellar. Your lamp goes out in a puff. You retrieve your matches and light it, but something feels, different. It’s truly dark now. You can no longer gaze out of the French window and see the line of shadows because they are  now indistinguishable from darkness.

Every step is an adventure. You’re laughing a little nervously because it’s just like being a kid. The sloping wall above the stairs is coated with watery slime and you can’t always dodge the drips. At the bottom is a corridor leading to the rows upon rows of empty stacks. The old miser didn’t leave you any rare vintages. You search around and peer into abandoned alcoves, disappointed to find nothing you’d care to keep. You aren’t even creeped out. It’s even warm down here, strange, the rest of the house is ice cold.

The old master is dead. Dr Barnstable had said before you handed him the cheque. Hocus pocus. It was part of the will, something tacked on at the end by a magistrate official you never got to meet. There was something about a county council, Freemasons, you grunted as you read the will, but there was no fighting it. You had paid up, and now felt a little disgusted that Dr Barnstable clearly hadn’t bothered to make the place look a bit more, respectable. After all, how long could it have possibly taken to perform his mumbo jumbo? His servant had called you and said – in a tone you found unneccesarily cloak and dagger – Would you like to be there when he does it? It had seemed like the entire town was crazy and didn’t realise that Dr Barnstable had connived his way through life and was now probably half-way to Germany with a enough money to buy a thousand silver crosses and teenage girls. No thank you. You replied, and hung up the receiver.

You turn to take the stairs upwards again. You feel less certain now than you did because a hot wind is suddenly at your back. You can hear the old Doctor again, The cellar is fine, I didn’t do too much there, just leave the attic well alone for now. Perhaps it would best if you rent the place, and keep the door up there locked. He had a strange accent. He said he had been adopted. It all made sense. Still, now you’re annoyed that he suggested you rent it. Of course you’re going to sell, of course you’re going to open all these locked doors.

Outside the line is waiting. Still reaching out their hands towards you through the gate. Still risking oblivion for one sniff of their dead King. Somewhere underneath the sage, they can still smell blood. They felt the ground tremble while you were in the attic. They waited in agony. Now the hot breeze is blowing at your back and they are resuming their grasping, frantically pawing the ground in front of the plantation gate.

You worry about what to do with Dr Barnstable’s cross, but you didn’t see the shadow slip from under it, and seep into the wood. The warmth you feel behind you is followed by an aching, roaring, hollow sound as the ground suddenly collapses. Licks of fire are catching at the timbers, ignoring the sage and Holy Water trails. It’s just another job, Dr Barnstable had said, as he had closed the door and felt in his overcoat for the pipe, already imagining the cloying comfort of a cheap floral scent on firm, apathetic young breasts. The fix doesn’t hold if you don’t really care..

You don’t know what is happening as you rush upstairs, but the stairs are collapsing under your feet. Then in an instant there’s a hand on your shoulder, you feel yourself thrust by brute strength upwards onto the floor of the entrance hall. You’re lying on your waistcoat within a finger’s touch of the door but your head is tilted sideways. You’re panting and everything spins so you grip onto the floor. That’s when you notice the house is burning. Outside the gate, hordes are stomping and gnashing, amassing in clots of darkness. A cold hand strokes your neck. Fingers are slipping beneath your collar and you sigh as it loosens the buttons, and rips off your tie. Soon you’ll be able to breathe.

The fingers are caressing your skin lovingly, until suddenly, they stop.

Four nails are plunging into your neck, into the arteries, impaling you in a last gurgle. The arm does not only bend at the elbow, it twists and bends and bends and bends…

A shadow is wearing your clothes. It passes through the door, now left hanging on its broken hinges, swinging with creaks which sound like laughter. Part of what used to be you is leaving, and will never come back.

The fire goes out in the plantation house, smoke smoulders and is caught by the wind but no one will smell it for days. No one will buy it now. Somewhere outside the gate, a trail of black figures trickles away, gnawing at the air, following, sniffing.

One question remains.

In a nearby harbour, Dr Barnstable’s ship is leaving with an extra crate on board. A cold fog has rendered the deck unusually quiet. As he lights the Doctor’s orphaned pipe, his servant wonders to himself:

What happens to the house now that they are gone?

 

 

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22: The Guest. Part Two.

Image Simon Howden, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-10025542

Julie eventually called the police.

To be honest I was surprised that none of the other guests had, but then really we were the last of the immediate family, I suppose everyone just assumed I would do it.

When they came they asked the usual questions, and we all sat in the ballroom and drank tea and answered them in bewilderment. No one knew anything. No one knew Uncle enough to know anything.

“He was something of an enigma you see.” Julie said. I just laughed at her.

“He wanted everybody to think he was an enigma,” I corrected her. He was just an arrogant prick I was thinking to myself. The letter my grandfather had written to him was etched into my mind. I hated that there were family secrets that my uncle had withheld from us, that he might have gone against Grandfather’s wishes on anything.

“Are you alright, do you want to head back to the city?” Julie asked me anxiously after the police had left to search the grounds.

“No, of course not. We can’t leave not knowing a thing.”

“But you look so tired, and I’m tired, it’s this place, it’s so–I don’t know…”

“You go. I can take care of things from here.”

Julie looked up at me through pink-tinged eyes.

“Are you sure?I really don’t want to abandon you here.” She was desperate to leave.

I told her to go home and she was gone that afternoon. As if taking that as their cue, most of the others abandoned ship too. In the end there was only myself, Marshall and Frank. Frank stayed as he and I went back a long way, to university, he was a friend of the family, Marshall stayed I think because my uncle owed him money. I don’t blame him one bit, but he never got a penny of it back.

We, the three of us, spent the evening discussing events in minute details. When was the last time anyone had seen or heard from Uncle? What correspondence had we had with him? What had we discovered in our searches of the house? Most of it was fruitless chat that led nowhere, I got the distinct impression that all of us knew things about my Uncle that they didn’t want to discuss with the others. Enemies? Of course he had none.

The police found nothing on the first sweep round. They said some officers would come round in the morning to continue the hunt.

“What are you looking for exactly?” Frank asked them. Marshall and I exchanged a look between ourselves and the officer he addressed shifted awkwardly.

Frank cleared his throat. “I mean, you don’t think they’ll be bodies do you?”

That night I dreamt I heard the sound again, that bellowing. I dreamt I was being hunted down by something I could never fully see. It was like a whirling mass of dark hair, sticky with blood which glinted where the moonlight struck it whenever I happened to turn to see the thing advance upon me. I ran until I stumbled, I cried out for my grandfather and I thought I could hear him shouting to me from somewhere through the mist. I called for him, but even in the dream I was still searching for my uncle. The beast was right up behind me and I felt like it would catch me at any minute, I felt myself slowing, and as I did so, it did too. It hunted my steps and drove me forwards. I looked up and saw, illuminated by a ghostly glow, the copse. The mists parted and I saw it clearly; there was a little chapel with a light in the window nestled right in its heart. But something moved and suddenly the light was extinguished. I looked again and the chapel was a ruin. I ran towards it, but it appeared to crumble away to rubble as I advanced. When I reached the copse, I saw that it was as I had always known it, nothing but straggles of overgrowth and mournful, barren trees. I turned then, and looked for the beast, but it had completely vanished. I woke, thinking I heard a howling, and could not get back to sleep.

The police found the room my uncle had been sleeping in. Frank owned up and said he had thought it was just a storage room on the ground floor, and I can’t say I blamed him. It was filled with junk. There were mops and ruined towels covered in paint; some broken cabinets and a couple of pieces of awful wall art. The bed had been almost totally obscured by boxes. Over in the corner, tucked under a mass of bed linen, they found a suitcase.

I don’t know why, but something about seeing that suitcase filled with my uncle’s possessions finally made me feel something. Perhaps I had only ever seen him as a caricature, now, gazing at the open case I saw his life encapsulated in the few things he treasured and had chosen to hide. The police showed it to me, they asked if I could identify it as belonging to my uncle. His name wasn’t on anything. There was a diary, his shaving things, a newspaper clipping from the restaurant he had owned many years ago. There was a battered copy of Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and tucked away within it, a photograph of a woman.

I shan’t go into the rest. I don’t like to think about it. There was a diary too which the police showed to me. I immediately recognised my uncle’s handwriting. How badly I wanted to get out of there! I didn’t want to read his words, but I was suddenly gripped with a desire to find him as I did, to put an end to all the mystery and the waiting. As my eyes scanned the scrawled paragraphs, brief passages about minutiae seemed to me to be obscuring something. I read on a little more and then stopped short.

“Anything in there you think relates to his disappearance?” The officer asked me, waiting.

“No, not a thing,” I lied to him. I didn’t tell him how scared my uncle must have been, to write some of those things. They would find out for themselves.

Kristen has just reminded me to check the blue bathroom on the ground floor, she thinks there might be rats. She says she can hear them scurrying about near her room and thinks they may be nesting in there. I think she’s being jumpy but I’ll check now anyway. I could leave it til tonight but I hate turning my back on that window that looks out onto the lawn. I keep thinking I can see a light in the copse…

It’s 6am. I had that dream again. Every time it’s like I feel the thing’s breath on my neck. I keep waking thinking it’s tearing me apart.

As soon as I read those final lines, I put the diary back and stepped away. They took what remained of my uncle away in that suitcase and I never saw it again. Julie kept it. I wouldn’t have it anywhere near me.

I told Frank and Marshall that it was pointless to stay. The police would do everything they could. Frank being the affable soul that he was offered to stay but I convinced him to go, Marshall packed up in a hurry, with a face like thunder. The last I saw of him was his bent frame hunched over a telephone in the reception area, speaking to someone in hushed, irritated tones. “This is all some ploy of his, I know it is,” he was saying.

I could have gone then and there, just taken my things and left. But I told the police I would stay one more night and then leave in the morning. A mad idea perhaps, perhaps I should have just left with the others. But for whatever reason, I stayed. I think it was this fading hope that my uncle would return once the police left. I kept looking out for him, listening for the door.

As I watched the others drive away I was greeted with a sunset like a bleeding wound, a red light spilling onto the grounds and a bitter wind. I made a dinner of sorts in the kitchen, and then resolved to head straight to my room, but as I turned the corner on the landing I thought I heard something, a rustling, like rats. Remembering the diary entry I followed the sounds to the blue bathroom and peered inside. The light illuminated a huge bath tub and the usual toiletries, but no rats. I was about to turn to leave when I saw, tucked down behind the bath, a pamphlet. I managed to extract it from where it lay nestled in amongst the pipes and flicked through it. It listed the history of the area, and several pages in, I saw an etching of the old copse as it had once been, complete with the little chapel. The page had been folded over at the corner, as if the reader had specifically marked that spot.

There was a brief paragraph detailing the history of the chapel and its uses, and it remarked how the site had fallen into disrepair generations ago. There was even a little legend about the place, about some goings on between the lady of the house, and a local man of the cloth. It was pretty standard fayre for the most part; the head of the house was rumoured to be involved with the occult, several servants deserted their posts due to strange noises and visions. It was all the usual stuff they put in those sorts of amateur guides, but right at the end there was something odd, about how they had found the two clandestine lovers horrifically mauled inside the chapel.

This part of the pamphlet had gotten wet and was wrinkled enough to make reading difficult. Someone had scribbled something in pen, which had bled in the damp, all I could make out were the words: “- guest”

I resolved to take the pamphlet with me to bed, and scrutinize it further. As I stood up I felt a cold chill on the back of my neck and turned around to see the window, and a light in the copse.

Without thinking I ran out to it. I was afraid and I stumbled as I ran but some vain hope made me think that it might be my uncle. That he might still be alive. I couldn’t stop thinking about that suitcase, about the fragmented life that it contained. We had never seen eye to eye but he was still my uncle, in spite of it all.

As I rushed out to meet the light I never once looked back, I could see, in my minds eye the beast from my dreams at my heels. I thought of the passage in my uncle’s diary and knew that he was haunted by a similar monster. Real or imaginary, it didn’t matter. I arrived at the ruins, panting, fog had descended and made the air painfully cold as it entered my lungs. The grass was squeaky with dew and the ground muddy underfoot, Up ahead the trees loomed, thin and miserable. I hunted for the light, I pushed my way in and trod on jutting gravestones as I did so, but I saw nothing, just the last rays of the sun going down. That was all I had seen.

I had no nightmares that night, not that I slept much. The house was eerily silent, as if it was finished with me, as if it had toyed with us all enough and was now dormant again. I closed the heavy door and locked it, wondering if I would ever return to that place. I’d persuade Julie to sell it; if uncle was really gone then it would pass to one of us, surely. In the cold light of day it seemed plausible that he had simply abandoned the place, that he had run off with that woman, Kristen, determined to leave it all behind. I told myself that as I walked towards the car. Before I could get in, something caught my eye. A man was walking towards me from the grounds, he was waving and I had to stop, frustrated, and wait for him.

“You’re his nephew aren’t you?” The man said, his accent thick, his clothes muddy. I nodded and waited for him to continue.

“Are you for the off then?” Was all he said. “Yes,” I said. “Did you know my uncle?”

He seemed to find this amusing, “Lord no. Spoke to him once maybe, that’s about it.”

I made as if to go but he stopped me.

“They won’t find him.” He raised a bushy eyebrow at me as he said it, and it made me pause.

“Why, exactly?”

“Do you want to know where he is?” He asked.

I nodded. I’ll admit I was a little afraid, but looking at the man I decided that he was too old and slight to be a murderer, so I followed him across the fields in the damp morning.

“You know the place.” He said, we were heading towards the copse.

“Yes. But the police searched in there.”

The man snorted. “Police!” He said and shook his head.

We came upon the copse, it looked a lot meeker, and smaller in daylight. Last night it had seemed so infinite, sprawling, almost alive with menace.

“He tried to get them to dig it up, all this ground, he said he wanted to build a, what do they call it? A spa. That was it. It was gonna be a small, heated shed, something like that, that’s what they told me.” The man gestured to where the sunken tombstones protruded through the grass like parts of a spine.

“A sauna for the hotel?” He nodded. “Why didn’t they? Why didn’t he build it.”

“Ah.” The man wiped his head. “Well I know why. I mean, they were local boys. But officially, they said it was because the ground wasn’t right. That it would be take too long and cost too much and your uncle didn’t want to listen to all that so he sent them away and tried to clear a lot of the rubble by himself, with the woman.”

We wandered into the heart of the copse, scattered remains of fallen masonry littered the ground under our feet.

“Not far now, though I hope I’m wrong.” The man took me to a spot, bordered by trees and stones.

“The police won’t have looked in here.” He said. I went over to him, and watched him kneel and pull back a covering of thick branches which disguised a hole in the ground, like a rabbit warren big enough for an average man to crawl through.

“Do you want to go or shall I?” He asked.

“What is it?” I didn’t move. I didn’t want to look like a coward but I trembled at the thought of going into that dark tunnel alone.

The man sighed, “It’s a grave, it’s where they buried it, long ago, and they built the chapel over it. But one of the masters got wind of that and tried to bring it back, then when that all went wrong, instead of blocking it in, they just built a trapdoor over the grave and threw away the key. Stupid, foolish thing to do. Your uncle must have found the spot, see how the door’s rotted clean away-” He pointed to the hole. I tried to digest the information he had rattled off at me.

“I don’t understand, what did they bury?” But the man just looked at me as if I was an idiot.

“Do you think my uncle might have fallen down there, is that what you’re saying?” I felt panic mounting, it was looking as if I might have to go down into the dark after all.

The man just pointed to hole, “see for yourself” he said, and handed me a little pack of matches. “For when you get to them,” he said, without optimism.

I got down on my knees and stared into it. I steeled myself and inched forward into the hole. The cloying smell of the earth was rancid, and the air in the tunnel, unusually warm. I pulled myself forward a little way, until I felt the passage begin to slope downwards. I called out my uncle’s name, but the earthen walls deadened the sound of my voice almost immediately. I scrambled along, my heart pounding, desperate to turn back, but compelled by pride and morbid curiosity to keep going.

My hands touched something cold. A stone floor. In that instant I could smell it, that cloying scent stronger, mixed with something foul. My hands shook as I tried to light a match but when the flame ignited I had to struggle not to blow it out. In front of me lay the bodies, a mess of bones and flesh atop a mound of collapsed rubble. I closed my eyes and clapped a hand to my mouth to keep from retching. When I opened my eyes again I saw the same scene of guts and spilled blood, and on the floor, line after line of carvings into the stone. They might have bee words, or just patterns, I only caught a glimpse of them, I can’t be sure what they were exactly, but they encircled the room. A few feet away from me the carvings were disturbed by a hole in the stone, a pick axe lay nearby. It looked relatively modern.

I scrambled out of that hole as fast as I could go backwards. I didn’t dare turn my back on that place. The man took hold of my legs and pulled me out onto the grass, his face pale and etched with concern.

I had no idea what to say to him, I couldn’t erase from my mind the image of those eviscerated bodies.

“Did you not know.” The man said, with pitying eyes. He produced something from his pocket and handed it to me, pointing to a page, on paper I recognised.

“That’s my wife’s handiwork. I gave the woman a copy when I saw her out here, hunting around, I thought it might help but they just laughed of course.”

I looked down at the pamphlet, the same as I had found in the bathroom. I realised that it had been in my jacket pocket since last night.

I brought it out to show him.

“Aah yes, that’s my writing there too,” he pointed to where the words had faded in the water.

“The missing letters, they should be B…A…R.”

The name came back to me, from stories of my youth of black dogs on the moors. I saw again the image on the book my uncle had sent me.

“Barguest.” I said, and the old man nodded.

“I saw the bodies, they were lying on broken stones.” I found it hard to tell him what I had just seen, but he appeared unsurprised, his weathered face long and forlorn.

“Broken stones,” he said, and tutted. “It’ll rise again. Have you had the dreams?”

I stared at him terrified, because I knew what he meant.

“Yes, yes a few times.”

His face grew even darker, “then you best be off. Sell the house, but before you do, send some men to fill in that hole. Cement, anything solid. I don’t know if it will make a difference but it might stop someone new from tampering with it. Your grandfather knew all about it from my father, that’s why he didn’t go poking around, you don’t want to risk the same happening to some other poor fool who thinks you can ignore these things.”

“What do I tell them police?” I asked.

“Not a damn thing.” He said, and he began to walk off. “You must never come back here, never, none of your family can.”

“But what if it’s not them?”

He motioned me to follow him, “what do you think,” I knew in my heart he was right, and that it was my uncle and that women who had been so brutally annihilated.

I followed him out of the copse, and I did as he said. I still have the dreams.

 

 

20: The Guest. Part One.

Image Simon Howden, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-10025542

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…

 

15: The Crypt

Image from Flavorwire

amworth

Charles Doughey died on 18th November. He left behind him a modest family but considerable wealth. After the death of his brother, Charles had taken into his care two young nieces Cassandra and Helen, and a nephew, a rather haughty man named Edward. Their mother, who was still relatively young and not without her charms, gladly accepted the offer of a generous roof over their heads and financial support, but of course there was idle gossip spread about due to her age, and her beauty. Many of the townsfolk pondered loudly over their cups as to exactly why Mr Doughey had moved the family into his home, and not relocated them comfortably elsewhere, as he was not without the means and wherewithal to do so.

The sad and somewhat early death of Doughey put paid to numerous rumours quickly, and encouraged yet more salacious accusations to spring up in their place, as though heads of the dread Hydra. The entire estate and Doughey’s fortune were of course left to his closest relatives: the Widow Doughey and her children. Far from being delighted at this change of circumstance, the young wards were devastated at the loss of their beloved uncle, and none appeared to feel this loss as keenly as the youngest, Helen. A pale girl of sixteen, Helen had never possessed the sociable nature of her brother and sister (nor her mother) and instead could often be found in her uncle’s library amongst the books, sat beside a roaring fire. She was not, however, without graces, and her smiles and gentle conversation delighted anyone who shared her company. These pleasant traits were not to be enjoyed by her loved ones for much longer however, for just as her uncle grew sick, so a sickness stole upon the girl, and made her increasingly wan and solitary.

“I do not know why she sulks as she does, the doctor says there is nothing at all the matter with her but melancholy.” Edward would complain on the many occasions when Helen would not come down to dinner, but would dine in her room alone, feigning sickness. Tucking in his napkin he would go on, voicing his distaste regarding her new choice of reading material to his mother and sister who nodded politely at intervals.

“Really those aren’t the sort of things a girl should be reading. Such dreadful periodicals no doubt encourage these bouts of melodrama, I dare say she is quite taken away with stories of spectral visitations and Counts who carry maidens off to dungeons and whatever else rotten these scoundrel writers and their low imaginations can conjure up.”

There was also much speculation at the house when Helen was discovered weak and delirious outside her bedroom several nights before the death of her uncle. She had been found by a maid servant, her small frame draped half-over the stair rod, her eyes glazed, her night dress torn, faint bloody scratches raked across her breast. At first a male servant was suspected of felonious assault. His disappearance coincided with the night in question, and he had been spotted in Helen’s company on several occasions within the house by some of the maids. However, after Helen had been revived and questioned, she was insistent that she had no memory of the man approaching her, but that a vile nightmare had awoken her, and that the scratches must have been the result of her own tormented hands.

Naturally the incident caused a minor stir and Edward was at the point of having the servants search his sister’s room for what he believed to be the cause of the nightmare – the sensational periodicals – when their uncle, Charles, took a turn for the worse, and expired.

He was buried not long after in the family crypt, and those assembled commented how fortunate it was that Doughey could afford such a resting place. Foul weather had besieged the town and turned the cold earth of the church yard into a quagmire. Fierce winds lashed at newly dug graves, desecrating funeral wreaths and battering the walls of the church was a hellish fury. It also happened that the funeral coincided with a dreadful week of unfortunate events. On the Sunday previous, a  faithful servant was revealed to have vanished without a trace, all her belongings still under her bed below stairs. Then there were continued nightmares for Helen, each one leaving her more deranged than the last, weak and delusional she would wander the house until she was discovered and brought back to bed. Finally, one of the younger maids was found dead in the kitchen garden, her throat slit from ear to ear. The rain had washed away every trace of blood (of which there must have been considerable amount) along with any possible evidence of a crime, and as the knife had been found still clutched in her hand, the doctor concluded suicide.

These tragedies were almost more than the household could bear, and resulted in many servants abandoning their posts altogether, believing the house to be cursed by the spirit of Charles Doughey, angry at a death before his time. The only member of the household who could be relied upon with any certainty was Cassandra. It was she who comforted the ladies and quietly saw to the smooth running of daily chores in the absence of several hands. Edward was particularly occupied with matters pertaining to his profession, and thus, found a great many excuses to be absent. Still, Cassandra bore all of the misery upon her proud shoulders and was a rock to her poor deranged sister and mother, just as her own father had once been, before his own mysterious demise.

If the family had hoped their troubles were ended once the funeral had passed, they were sadly mistaken. Helen began to see a spectral presence in her room at nights. The phantom, she claimed, was no longer a figure in her nightmares but a slim, ethereal entity she saw whilst wide awake. Her mother, too, began to be disturbed by strange noises, eerie sounds, and footsteps rattling past her door as she lay a-bed, trembling. On one particularly dark night, when the moon was too thin to cast even the faintest shadow, a servant on his way to bed had his candle knocked from his hand as if by some terrible unknown force. When the man cried out, another came to his aid with a new light, and perceived ahead of them Charles Doughey’s portrait lying face-down upon the ground. A week later, Helen was dead. She joined her uncle in the dark bosom of the crypt, and the entire town was awash with stories of curses and ungodly goings-on.

“It is he!” Cried the Widow Doughey to Cassandra. “It is your uncle, he walks from the grave to torment us all! The man must surely have been cursed in life. If only I had known he would bring us so low! And where is your brother when we have most need of him?”

“Mother, calm yourself! I cannot believe that our dear uncle would ever wish so much misery upon us, even were he cursed as you claim. I do not believe in curses, give me the key to the crypt and I shall prove that he sleeps unmolested in his grave and that will be an end of it!”

But her mother would not consent to such a macabre undertaking, and refused access to the crypt. “We will wait until your brother comes back from Italy,” she told the girl. But Cassandra, refusing to heed her mother, worked her wiles upon their most trusted servant, who consented to reveal to her the hiding place of the crypt key.

Stealing out of the house as soon as midnight struck and the servants were all a-bed, Cassandra took the key and a set of tools stolen from the house carpenter, and headed off down the path towards the church across the fields behind the great house. Clods of mud clung to her feet and the hem of her gown, but she pressed on unheeding, as if a terrible hunger were upon her. Even though she had no light to guide her, she knew her way perfectly well in the darkness. Owls hooted overhead, and night creatures snuffled and rustled in the woods about her, but Cassandra kept her resolve and only paused for a moment to rest when she saw the graveyard appear before her.

With cold, trembling hands, Cassandra slipped the iron key into the lock and the old crypt door leaned to with aching sound. Inside darkness swallowed up every object, and so Cassandra was forced to light a candle to grope her way down the stone aisle. As she passed her candle illuminated the alcoves where the coffins were kept, some still rested solemn and intact, but others had long since decayed, their wood splintered and sagging, their contents disgorged and sampled by vermin. These sights, and the putrid air of the crypt made Cassandra feel faint and nauseous, but she was ravaged by a desire to push on further into the crypt in spite of these ghastly scenes.

The crypt was terribly cold; with only a shawl about her shoulders the young girl searched each alcove for the name she sought. At last she came to rest at the end of the hall of the dead, where two newly erected plinths stood straight ahead. To their left was an older coffin, one which bore her father’s name, and which she alone new to be empty. Thus this she dismissed without thought and instead rushed to the coffin bearing her sister, her corpse only days old. Almost feverish, she attacked the wood with her tools, wielding them with an almost unnatural force, until the lid was off, and slid to the floor with a crack. Helen’s beautiful face was now a mask of death. Even paler than she had been in life, and joyless, her body was as cold as ice. Gasping madly, her chest heaving, Cassandra lifted her sister up, and partially out of the wooden box. She whispered words into her ear and caressed her long blonde hair, pushing it back from the nape of her neck to show the place where two pin-pick wounds stared out of the alabaster skin like the eyes of a demon.

Helen’s eyes now were opened, her hands clenched. She too gasped and looked wildly about, her bloodshot eyes finally resting on her sister.

“What do we do now?” she asked.

“Now,” said Cassandra, her eyes burning with an unholy glare, the candle light illuminating her bloodthirsty maw, “now we wake Uncle Charles.”

The two young women set upon the second casket and to reviving the old man. Decay had barely marred him, and he seemed alert and eager when roused. The party of three then processed through the crypt and out into the night. The town and its sleeping inhabitants lay ahead of them, innocent and unawares – soon the vampires would be at their hideous repast…

End

****

Notes.

This post was inspired by a few too many nineteenth century Gothic tales late at night – the last line is an homage to the wonderful Varney the Vampire.

Varney the Vampire

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

9: Ritual Sacrifices.

 image courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net by Idea go

inferno image

 We both stared into the abyss.

Ready to make the ritual sacrifices.

I had climbed through the lion’s mouth after him, breathless.

He jumping and running and without any fetters to hold him,

I, stumbling and falling and uncertain.

We were like a comet only back to front, the bright burning tail streaking out,

and the dull, burning lump of dust,

desperate to ignite in the wake of that light.

He pointed into the chasm and I balked,

At demons, eyes on fire and bodies plump and greased with sweat.

They were burning, only playing, they had not seen us yet.

“I live down there, with them” he said.

“What, with them, how?”

“Come down and see,” he said.

When I looked into the wake of those long flames

I wondered how a man like him could exist in such a place,

and how I could ever stand the heat to be with him.

“I’d melt” I cried.

He grinned.

To follow him to oblivion, or to wait on the edge like a death itself,

without him.

“Think of all the light left in the world, why are you subservient to shadows?”

He looked at me with those waterfall eyes,

where I, standing at the edge of the abyss was drying up.

“You who were born dancing,” I said to him,

“you’d never let hot coals touch your feet.”

“-and you?” he asked, poised to leap without me.

“All stars are born to burn,” I said,

and I watched his face relent to shock,

as I dived, at last, before him.

8: Trick or Treat.

By Olybrius (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

512px-Toulouse_-_Allée_des_Vitarelles_-_20110121_(1)

The house appeared one day, just as if it had always been there. I did not stare at it dumbfounded as I should have, on first glimpsing. Rather I felt as though I had stumbled into a dream.I even rubbed my eyes in that sleepy way that children do sometimes, before crawling into their beds, afraid to dream of monsters.

 The house was a monster, I was sure of that. It sat like a hunchback in the middle of the land, its window-eyes open, but unseeing, its gaping doorway a mouth without teeth. I stood there in silence in that lane for some moments looking at it, and wondered how I had come to be there, in that place in the middle of the night.

The moon was fat and full and gloating over everything. I got the distinct impression that it was because of the moon, that the house was here, or rather, the house and the moon were somehow married together, that they belonged intrinsically to each other, like lovers.

 A gentle wind grew around my ankles, it swirled up and around me, tossing the crisp brown leaves here and there into the street. I felt then that I was the focus of the magic, not the house, or the moon or any of it. I have never enjoyed being the centre of anything, even my own life, so the most perplexing thing about this whole affair was that I was deliciously pleased at now being at the very heart of this energy primordial.

 It was an old as time, I got that distinct impression. The house was as it was because I was looking at it. In another time and place it might have been a mere shed, or a castle, or not a building at all. Perhaps it might have been an ocean, or a tear drop; a note of music or a bottle of cheap wine.

 Ages past. I don’t know how long I should there, gaping at its crumbling masonry. The more I looked, the more I saw. Sometimes I thought I could glimpse a figure gliding past the windows. I saw its silhouette outlined by the yellow glow cast out from the glass by some lantern, lit in perpetuity. Sometimes I would hear a woman singing, soft, melancholy. Her refrain would rise and soar up into the night and then fade sadly into nothing.

 A long time I waited for the house to reveal itself to me. I thought there must be some reason for its presence in that lane that night. Who would call a place like that home? Why did they never leave, and why did they never call me in? They must have known I wanted to be with them now, so much. It was like a narcotic, the call of that house, of those shades and singers.

 I was numb with cold now. My limbs were frozen and felt too heavy for my body. I wanted to escape my corporal self completely, and how I wished I could be transported away from it into the warmth of those lantern lights. But I stayed were I was, waiting.

 Day break came and I must have passed out. The last thing I remember about it were the rays of sunlight thawing out the sky. I heard a door slam shut in the great house and the faint whispering of some maleficent magic. I felt a shudder pass through me and then I slept at last, right where I was.

 When I awoke it was night again, and I had been awakened by the sound of laughter. I tried to move my hands but they remained rigid, cold as bone. My eyes remained fixed on the house. Try as I might I could not tear them away. It was then that I strove to remember how I had come to be in that place, but my memory of all that went before was gone. Wiped clean like an empty slate.

 The laughter came closer. I wanted to turn my head to see who it was approaching me now, coming down the street, but I was trapped inside myself utterly. I kept gazing forward at the house, searching its cragged exterior for a face, or some semblance of life, but the magic had gone and the place now seemed to vanish before my eyes as if it had never been there at all. In my dismay I now heard the sound of a bicycle being wheeled along, slowing, the spokes clicking, and voices talking.

 “Nah, see, there’s nothing down here, let’s go back.”

“Just a bit further, I don’t want to go home yet.”

 They were the voices of children.

 “Yeah but it’s getting late, and we always catch hell for being late, every year.”

“You worry too much.”

“Ah shut up.”

 The children were in front of me now, a skeleton and a vampire. They looked small and tired, in their cheap face paint, now hopelessly smudged. In their hands they carried little pumpkin buckets filled with candy and rainbow coloured party favours.

 “Hey, you remember that guy?”

“What?” The skeleton looked up at me, he scratched his chin and shrugged.

“I guess so, I mean, I don’t know. We didn’t come this way last year, did we?”

The vampire nodded. “Yes we did, but I don’t remember him.”

The two trick-or-treaters stayed a moment longer, gazing up at me, perplexed.

“He’s pretty funny looking isn’t he?”

“It’s weird.”

“What?”

The vampire pointed down towards my shoes.

“Doesn’t say who he is, it usually says, on statues.”

 The vampire placed his arm around the smaller boy and then began to walk away, leading their bicycle with them. I wanted to shout out after them but I had no voice at all anymore.

 “I wonder what the statues’ for?” I heard the skeleton say, looking back over his shoulder. The vampire answered in an authoritative voice.

 “Oh who knows. Maybe it’s something to do with the vacant lot, you know, the one that burnt down.”

“It burnt down?”

“Yeah! Right over there, right across from the statue. Heard they used to do all kinds of weird experiments in there and stuff, at least that’s what I heard.”

 The voices were becoming so meek now. The night was dropping down onto the land thick and fast. I listened to them talk until their voices become just whispers on the wind.

 “They say it used to be cursed.”

“What did?”

“The old house did. But it burned down twenty years ago, something like that. There’s this old story that says that the night before Halloween, the house comes back and the ghosts come out to trick people, yeah something like that.”

“That’s just a story right?”

“Yeah sure it is. No one believes in that kind of thing anymore.”

I was alone in the street now. All around me silence gathered, as my eyes stared straight ahead, trapped, and waiting.