|All pictures by John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)|
I had to hand it to him: Morgan was never lacking in confidence. As for myself, my curiosity was piqued, certainly, and with it my sense of adventure. And if I have rather more imagination than my friend, I was determined not to let it get the better of me. I rose, throwing the stub of my cigar into the fire, and started to stroll about the room, stretching my legs. We’d uncovered only the two chairs we’d dragged to the hearth; now I twitched the dust sheet off a couple more pieces of furniture, discovering a high-backed oak settle and a coffer that turned out to be empty.
‘Looking for ghosts?’ asked Morgan, spreading his legs indolently.
‘In hostile territory, secure your immediate surroundings,’ I replied, quoting the cadet officer who’d taught us both at Winchester. We shared a grin. I bundled up another sheet and added, ‘Hello!’
It was species of large chaise longue or day bed I’d uncovered: very heavy looking, carved of the black oak so typical of Welsh farmhouses. The upholstery was of Indian cotton, but looked clean enough. ‘Bags the bed here!’ I said smartly.
‘Too nervous to go upstairs?’ Morgan asked teasingly. I shot him a pointed look.
‘It will be cold as Erebus up there, and I don’t suppose the mattresses will be aired.’
He nodded. ‘Well, I intend to sit up. If we stay down here, we can take turns to watch and to sleep.’
‘Sounds fair.’ I turned to the nearest wall and pulled down the sheet draped over a frame there. I was expecting to find a painting: what I uncovered was a mirror, its glass a little spotted at the edges, its depths grey. I paused, struck by the play of firelight on Morgan’s face. His handsome aristocratic features and sandy moustache contrasted with my blunter, darker countenance and my pensive expression. ‘Why is it that the ghost seeks out the Master of the house?’ I asked suddenly.
‘Mm?’ He looked up from inspecting the swirl of brandy in his glass.
‘Is it revenge?’
‘Isn’t it always revenge?’ He laughed shortly. ‘The story is that there was this girl … Hm. I was told her name but I forget the details – Alyce, was it? She was a daughter of border gentry around here. Not sure how long ago, but I believe it was around the Civil War. Something like that. She grew up a proper little hoyden, allowed to run wild, but very beautiful too. She was wilful and wouldn’t marry any of the men her father lined up for her, but one day she was out riding – on her own, mind you, and astride the saddle – and she met one of the neighbours, the Lord of Levingshall. My ancestor.’ Morgan smirked, and watching his reflection in that glass his expression struck me as oddly unpleasant. ‘Now, Lord Price – he wasn’t a Morgan back then - was a very handsome man and quite the charmer. She fell for him, head over heels, out there in the greenwood just like in the old songs. He laid her down on the grass so green and lifted her skirt and with a hey-nonny-nonny…’
At that moment there was a draught down the chimney and the fire flattened, shadows leaping across the room. I spun to face my friend in mock alarm. Well, perhaps it was not all mockery. He’d stopped, lips parted over his next word, eyes glinting. He bared his teeth in a grin.
‘Well, let’s say he taught her a few things about riding she hadn’t learnt at home. Gave her a good churn with his cream-stick, as they say out here in the country. The lucky lass thought she was in Paradise. And when she slipped off back home that night she couldn’t help thinking about him, about how kind he’d been to her and how helpful and how handsome … And how big was his prick.’ Morgan patted his crotch fondly. ‘The upshot was that next day she got on her horse and rode from her father’s lands to his, all the way to the house here, desperate for a repeat performance. But when she got to Levingshall she found the place was in the midst of wedding preparations: Lord Price was to be married that day to another lady.’
I pulled a face, bracing myself.
‘Of course, if she’d have had the least sense she would have scuttled off quickly and kept quiet about the whole thing and salvaged some dignity. But the silly wench had just lost her maidenhead and was wildly in love and she made the most terrible scene, demanding that he marry her instead, and then begging him, and then cursing him for betraying her – which he hadn’t done, never having promised her anything. Lord Price laughed her out of the place. Alyce jumped on her horse in the end and rode away from the hall, to the bridge, where in her rage she threw herself off into the waters. It was spring and the water was icy cold from the hills: servants dragged her out but she was already stone dead. They buried her in unconsecrated ground of course, being a suicide as well as a whore.’
Poor girl, I thought.
‘A month later, Lord Price was found dead in his bed, cold as ice and wringing wet - and a look on his face like he’d seen the Devil himself. Luckily he had brothers, but the next one went the same way before they worked out it wasn’t safe for the landholder to stay in his own house.’ He sighed. ‘It’s come down to us through cousins and younger sons. No one in the family wants the damn place, and though the rental income isn’t bad it’s no fortune.’
‘I can see your problem. You’ve inherited a bit of a white elephant, haven’t you?’
‘I hope not. I sincerely hope not. And with luck we shall know by the morning, eh?’
‘Mm.’ I wasn’t sure what species of luck he was courting here. I turned back to the mirror and considered recovering it, rather disliking the shadowy room reflected in the tinted glass. Common sense – or pride – got the better of me though. Discarding the sheet, I turned to the fire for something to keep me occupied, but the blaze had steadied and was burning bright and warm. ‘I’ll go get another basket of logs, shall I?’
‘Shh!’ Morgan held up his hand.
I froze. For a moment there was silence except for the pop and crackle of the flames. ‘What?’ I ventured at last.
This time round I heard it: a low squeak. In the time it took me to turn and face in the direction of the noise I’d identified it as the sound a wet fingertip makes upon glass. I took a deep breath. The interior shutters in this room were closed and barred, but I knew from the front elevation that the tall, rectangular windows were made up of leaded diamonds of glass.
Quietly, with a look of grim satisfaction, Morgan opened his gun-case and bent to the weapon within. Breaking it, he slipped in the first cartridge. ‘Open it,’ he said in a low voice.
I barely hesitated. Dropping the steel bar that held the central panel, I pulled the shutter wide open. A multitude of diamond panes reflected the firelight at my back, but the cold draught was immediately felt. The night outside was moonlit, and filled with the soughing of the unseen river. Bushes pressed right up to the house; beyond them I could make out the grey wash of a lawn.
‘It’s a branch rubbing on the glass.’ I glanced back triumphantly at Morgan and caught him stood with gun readied but pointed down and away, for which I was grateful. He cracked a grin.
‘Of course it is.’
I reached out to grasp the shutter again, but stopped mid-motion, puzzled by something half-visible through the shrubbery. ‘I say – what’s that on the lawn?’
‘What?’ Morgan grabbed the oil lamp and started forward, but I waved it away: the more light around me, the less I could see outside the house.
‘Out there – something white on the grass.’
Side by side, we peered out through the thick, bubbly glass and the criss-crossed branches, trying to bring into focus the pale object lying out there at some indeterminate distance. I wasn’t even sure it was an object: it might have been a patch of light or a litter of stones. There was no telling how big it was or even if it was moving.
‘What the hell,’ Morgan muttered, really irritated.
‘We’ll get a better view from the landing window,’ I suggested. We would be higher than those damned shrubs up there, and able to look down on the lawn.
‘Good idea.’ Turning decisively, he strode from the room and I followed, bringing the lamp. It was a good thing I did: the hall was in darkness otherwise and the big oak staircase would have been near impossible to negotiate because the moonlight did not fall further than the half-landing. The ancient treads creaked beneath our feet as we ascended. Shoulder to shoulder again, we stared out onto the back garden lawn.
There was nothing out there. The lawn was a sweep of unbroken grey, the trees beyond as black as India ink.
‘Can’t see a damn thing,’ Morgan complained. ‘Are you sure there was something out there?’
‘I thought so.’ I felt chilly all of sudden, though I attributed it to moving from the only room with a lit fire.
Behind us, the front door knocker crashed. We both jumped like someone had run a galvanic current through us, and spun round to look down the stairs. The ground floor was in impenetrable shadow.
‘Who is it?’ Morgan called. ‘Who’s there?’
There was no answering shout, but the door knocker slammed again.
You can read a later (And much ruder) excerpt from Cold Hands, Warm Heart here
You can read the whole story in Dark Enchantment
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