Extract from 'After Midnight - Stories of Mystery and the Macabre'
Sidney Wainwright was more thoughtful than I had ever seen him. It was a sunny morning, a rare time for us to meet, but it was a Saturday, I had nothing to do, and Sidney had called me the previous night asking for my company. Wainwright, bathed fully in the light that streamed through the attic window, had the weary but enlightened look of a man who had just lived through a night of great consequence. For some time we sat in silence, at this hour drinking tea instead of our usual brandy or single malt. I didn’t dare say a word. Then, at last, he spoke.
“I may have, Jerome, finally discovered one who speaks the truth.” He let that hang in the air, as if I would know what he meant. Unfortunately, though, unlike Wainwright, I have never been a morning person, and so it did not dawn on me in the slightest what he could possibly mean. Eventually, when I still said nothing, Wainwright spoke again, “A medium.”
“It was near the end of the second war that I first met Cynthia,” he continued, “for reasons I shall not endeavour to explain here. Up until that point, I had been sceptical when it came to spiritualism and remained so. At the time I heard the story about her I was sure it was one of those tall tales one often hears. Yet now, after meeting her again, I see differently. Let me tell it to you now, Jerome, for I think it will interest you.”
Cynthia Wilson, like all the local children, had always been afraid of the House of Ivy. It was Georgian, an imposing stone terrace, but whereas the houses either side had crisp milky stonework, brightly painted window sashes and ornate flower boxes, the House of Ivy was buried in a thick tapestry of overgrown runners.
Not a fleck of stone could be seen within the encased wall, the windows were grimy, covered in cobwebs, and paint peeled from their frames. The house indeed was a living creature, wild, something from another place and time.
It was not really the appearance of the house that frightened children for miles in every direction, although it didn’t help. The House of Ivy was home to an elderly hermit spinster, Miss Fernard, a lady reputedly as dangerous and crazy as the worst of Bedlam. Anyone who entered the house was said to have been unable to leave again for hours and hours, days in some cases, and were tormented by the lady, or whatever it was that lurked inside. In fact, some doubted that she was a living human being, but rather a spirit trapped in a life-sized doll’s house in which everything that happened was strung along by Lucifer’s own hands.
The legend, or at least the version Cynthia had been told by her older cousins when she was very young, was that Miss Fernard had lost her fiancé many years before to illness and that she had sought the Devil’s help to bring him back. Instead, she had been cursed for all time. In the two decades since the Great War, that story had been told and retold many times. The place had gained such a menacing reputation that no one in their right mind would go near it.
Cynthia’s cousins had tried and tried throughout her childhood to get her close to the house, even once abducting her in a sack and leaving her over the wall in the back garden. Now, Cynthia was a lady, a striking young lady, and as she was standing in front of the overgrown door with the grey weathered wood and the round wrought iron knocker, her knees still trembled like they did when she was young. Her cousin’s story had had more impact on her than they would ever know. There was a reason why she was scared of such places, something about Cynthia that made her different.
It all started when she was five years old. At that age, she could frequently be found playing in the long grass at the bottom of the back garden. One day Cynthia’s mother was passing the washing through the mangle while she watched her daughter play and noticed Cynthia was speaking with imaginary friends. She was talking to them, fighting with them, having adventures with them. Cynthia was not her mother’s first child, and Mrs Wilson was not alarmed by what she had seen before in the older siblings. So as sunset came and went, and little Cynthia retreated indoors again, her mother was hardly interested in her own question.
“What were you playing my darling?”
It was then that Cynthia told her. Not about what she was playing, but with whom, two other young girls, twins in fact.
“They had lovely dresses, mama, with blue and yellow ribbon!” she exclaimed, her eyes beaming.
Cynthia’s only distinct memory of that conversation was of her mother’s face which became deathly pale as she almost collapsed.
It was only some years later that Cynthia learned about the two little girls who had once played in that garden. They had gone further than Cynthia was ever allowed, right down to the stream. It was many years before Cynthia was born, but still within living memory for some in that particular street. The little girls had somehow fallen in and were taken by the swiftly flowing waters. Both had drowned in a tragedy that was etched in the imaginations of all the local residents.
As Cynthia had grown older, she became aware that she could see things others could not: strange happenings, floating lights in the night, fluctuating emotional charges in particular rooms, premonitions, presentiment, and even spirits and apparitions. The dead would be alive to her, almost wherever she went. For Cynthia the nightmares and bad dreams of children were very real and very frightening. She was a confused child, unable to understand or comprehend what was happening to her, or to shut it out.
Only her mother knew what Cynthia was going through, and even then, she was of little comfort, wanting it all hushed up and repressed. To travel almost anywhere that was a source of darkness, for her was unpredictable, and more than once she had stumbled upon malevolent spirits in the course of what for anyone else would their usual daily business.
The one solace in her communion with the spirit world was a young fellow who tipped his hat each morning as she went past along the gravel walk to school. He was a spirit, not all that long dead judging by his clothes, forever waiting on or near a bench between two yew trees for a forgotten someone to meet him. A charming man, unseen by the rest of the ignorant passers-by, he had a countenance of lonely joy. Nothing seemed to waiver his resignation to wait until his lost love would come to see him.
Sometimes, if she had time, Cynthia would even sit with the man for a while in the sunshine. Together they would watch the people strolling by, so caught up in their own heads as to barely see the path in front of them, and they would find themselves both amused and saddened by such a sight.
Each time Cynthia saw the man she was unable to hide her sadness. For she felt the man had long been forgotten, and since his death, whoever he was to meet would no longer have been looking for him. But each time, the young fellow’s spirits were not dampened. They would never speak but Cynthia could see it in his eyes and feel it in her bones. He was in love, and always would be.
It was all Cynthia’s mother could do to keep her daughter’s abilities a secret. Her gift was not even known about by their extended family or close friends. As she grew up and understood more of the world, Cynthia saw more acutely how right her mother was in calling it “her curse”. It was a part of herself that now, even as a grown woman, she would have to keep to herself.
Knocking on the door of the House of Ivy, after all she had seen in her short years, frightened Cynthia. For whilst she saw the best of those departed in the man she would sit with, she had also seen the worst, those tortured souls that would never leave her be. She swung the great iron knocker out and rapped it three times against the door. The knocks were low and reverberated through the ivy-clad walls themselves as if the house were a very large drum. There was a long moment’s silence in which Cynthia wondered whether her calling would even be answered.
It was not for no reason that she was here. Cynthia’s curse gave her a sense of feeling for others that was, by now, much more in tune than her regard for her own feelings. She may not have control over her communion with the dead, but maybe she could control what she did with the knowledge she had. It was her hope of doing something good that kept bringing her back to the House of Ivy. The previous six days she had knocked on the door, and each time her knocks had received no reply.
But not this time.
The silence ended abruptly when the great wooden door’s latch clicked and it swung open on the rusty hinges with a long low ratchet-like sound. When it hit the stopper the sound echoed through the darkness within. Cynthia did not advance over the threshold initially, but there appeared to be no one within the dimly lit entrance hall to greet her.
“Hello? Good morning…” she called. There was no answer, not even of feet on floorboards.
Cynthia’s first reaction was to look over her shoulder, but suddenly she wondered if she looked back whether she would have the courage to cross the threshold. Taking a deep breath, she placed one foot forward, then the other, stepping inside the door. The dust dispersed from the rug with each footstep, sending up puffs into the air.
Looking around, and behind the door, still, there was no one. The house had dark wood panelled walls. The entrance hall itself was only lit by a grimy half covered window up on the landing right in front of her. The other ground floor rooms appeared to have their curtains drawn. Nearly all the furniture was covered in white sheets, their sizes indicating the house’s former grandeur. Someone or something could be hiding in the next room, or underneath the sheets. Having heard no retreating footsteps after the door was opened, Cynthia wondered whether whatever possessed this place had any corporeal form at all.
Looking up, though, Cynthia finally saw what had opened the door. There was some kind of mechanism attached to the back of it and a wire that seemed to have activated the device. The wire was one of two that ran up beside the staircase to the landing and around the corner to the first floor. Of the second wire, Cynthia was ignorant for a long moment, but then its simple use became apparent.
With the tiniest shiver of movement at first, then more of a tug, the first wire was again triggered and the door swung shut behind her. The bang and click of the closing door rang in Cynthia’s ears for several seconds and she saw haloes of light in front of her as her eyes adjusted to the almost total darkness.
Neither the door closing by itself nor the darkness in which she had been engulfed had triggered any palpitations in Cynthia. But then the second wire moved. The sudden ringing of a high pitched bell, that beckoned, that reached out to her, caused Cynthia’s heart to throb and pulse so as to choke her to the point of lightheadedness.
Almost falling over, she reached forward to cling to the end of the bannister. Cynthia pulled herself up the smooth cool wood. She had seen spirits so many times in her life, but nothing ever prepared her for it. It was the not knowing that was the worst of it. She forever expected the most frightening jack-in-the-box or the most violent spectacle. She could not know what lurked in those gloomy rooms, behind, or under, those white sheets that propelled her up the stairs, not until they wanted her to see them.
Cynthia was hoping to back herself up against the wall ahead, to have a view of both floors, with no blind spots. As she came onto the landing and turned around, she could see ahead that there were several doors on the first floor. Each was closed, fastened shut with a large brass lock. Each held secrets. She felt it. Yet the closed doors called her forward, and the lower part of the house was again able to creep up on her. It did not have to.
A door at the end of the corridor swung open with a bang. Firelight flickered from inside the now open room and beckoned her in. Cynthia’s legs felt locked. For a moment they seemed to be in slow but perpetual motion. They dragged her forward automatically. They were making too much noise on the floorboards. Evidently, however, whoever was behind the door knew she was coming. Taking a deep breath, Cynthia plunged through the door and rounded herself into the room.
This door had not been opened by a wire, nor by any other form of mechanical linkage, but by a man. He was well dressed, a Victorian looking gentleman, out of place in the modern world, and he stood just inside the room without making a sound, yet Cynthia knew he was still in the land of the living.
There was the lady herself, a queen in all but the quality of her robes. She sat up amongst a small mountain of pillows in her four-poster bed. Her sparse white hair shot out in all directions, and her face, it was powerful, commanding. The lady’s skin was a harsh grey, almost charcoal with etched wrinkles and great baggy lids looming as she blinked amidst the smoke leaking from the fire. Those eyes locked on Cynthia from the moment she entered the room, like firm iron shackles, imprisoning anything in sight to their will. Unearthly eyes. Possessed. But those eyes, they watered. She too was neither demon nor ghost.
The room had a grand lofty ceiling with more of the same dark wood panelling and the curtains were almost completely drawn together. Only a small shaft of light was allowed to pass through onto the rug. A hearth was built in one side of the room, although it emanated little warmth and leaked its fumes into the house.
“Miss Fernard, it appears you have a visitor,” said the man. A medical bag was open by the bed. The man was evidently a doctor. “You are very eager to see the mistress of this house. You have called how many times this week?” The doctor was as clinical with every syllable as if he were in an operating theatre. Perhaps only someone of such coldness could possibly deal with treating a woman like this, thought Cynthia.
“I do beg your pardon sir, ma’am,” Cynthia nodded to Miss Fernard. “I feel I have something of importance—”
But before she could finish the branches of the trees outside in the garden rocked in the wind and their shadows raced across the shaft of sunlight. This caused the most alarming of reactions in Miss Fernard. With no warning, she flared into a fit of screaming and panic, as if crying murder.
“They’re here. Quick, find Ralph! Find Ralph!” She rose from the bed with speed and jumped onto the floor. There were no spirits at work here, no malevolent demons as Cynthia had been expecting, but the sight was equally as terrifying. Her frail body had a sudden, superhuman power to it, she was a twisted spring, unleashing bitter panic and grief.
It was all the doctor could do to draw the curtains back. Miss Fernard was blinded by the sudden piercing light. She shrunk away, clutching for dear life to a gold locket that hung around her neck. The doctor reached out and caught her just as she fainted and with Cynthia’s aid, they repositioned her back onto her pillow. As she regained consciousness she began to mumble fast, unintelligible phrases, as if she were speaking in tongues. No wonder the tales of this place were dark, thought Cynthia.
“Why have you come here?” asked the doctor, now with an unusual urgency. His coldness was melting away. His initial appearance to Cynthia had been nothing but a facade, hiding his desperation to a stranger.
“I wanted to talk to her, sir. I have a message to give her.”
“Miss Fernard is dying,” said the doctor, insistently. “She has not been out of this house in twenty years, and her other family are all long rid of her. She has no one left in this world. What message can you possibly have?”
“I think I can help her,” said Cynthia. But the doctor’s raised eyebrows expressed all too plainly his ridicule of her apparent naivety. Cynthia turned to the old lady on the bed, wondering where to begin.
Standing over Miss Fernard, Cynthia got a closer view of the locket. She could see that it was of the most ornate gold design, yet light and delicate. In the room, though, there was no dressing table, other pieces of jewellery, nor boxes for them of any kind. Cynthia could feel, just by being in Miss Fernard’s presence how dear the locket was to her, and how painful. The answer was in the locket. “Miss Fernard, I have a message for you. I think it is about your locket.”
But then, as Cynthia reached out toward it, Miss Fernard lashed out with claw-like fingers. The old woman slashed at Cynthia’s eyes with alarming ferocity. The young girl recoiled in alarm right to the far wall. It was all the doctor could do to hold back his patient until she had tired herself.
Once the doctor had settled Miss Fernard he motioned for Cynthia to step outside into the corridor. He closed the door before he spoke. “Miss Fernard is dying, young lady. She is in great pain. But more than that, her mind is already beyond our reach; she has been living in her own world for many years.”
“She isn’t possessed, is she?”
“You have heard the stories too, and yet you came?” For the first time, the doctor’s countenance seemed to lighten. Cynthia could tell he was a little impressed by her, even if still confused. “The branches of the trees, they remind her of—”
“Zeppelins, I know.” The doctor looked surprised at Cynthia saying this.
“How do you know?” He turned away from her and paced up and down the floorboards for a moment, his hands in his pockets, thinking. Eventually, he seemed to decide upon telling her. “Yes, she lost someone, back in the war, to the Zeppelins.”
“Please, sir, let me try again.” The doctor shook his head, at first as if he was rejecting her request. But then Cynthia realised, when he opened the door for her and motioned for her to proceed, that he couldn’t believe he was letting a stranger talk with his patient in this way.
“Miss Fernard, I met someone today,” said Cynthia. “I wanted to tell you about him, I think you know him.” Miss Fernard stared at the door, her face totally blank. “A young man, on the gravel walk.” A flicker of clarity dawned in the old lady’s eyes. “Would you please show me your locket?” Miss Fernard seemed to think this over for a very long moment, before attempting to raise a hand towards her chest.
Softly, very gently, Cynthia lifted the locket from Miss Fernard’s chest and opened it, the doctor watching with interest. There it was, a picture of a man. Just one man. A man whom Cynthia knew well, a man who for years she had met every day. The picture in Miss Fernard’s locket was of none other than the lost soul who could always be found sitting on a bench beside the gravel walk, forever waiting for Miss Fernard to go to him. There were some words inscribed by hand at the bottom of the tiny picture. It said “My Ralph”.
“That’s him. He’s very handsome, isn’t he?” The old woman nodded. It had been in an old newspaper clipping that Cynthia had spotted the young man from the gravel walk. The article had a photograph of a memorial service from many years ago, and alongside it had been a series of pictures of the victims of the terrible event to which it pertained, and of the unfortunate souls attending the service who were left behind.
To Cynthia now Miss Fernard was the young woman in that photograph, consumed by love, imprisoned by love, feeling the sting of love that would never leave her as long as she lived. It seemed to Cynthia that what she was saying only slowly dawned on the doctor, but as he realised his concern lifted.
Cynthia stayed there by Miss Fernard for some while, hearing fragments about Ralph, until the old lady slipped into a delirious state. Clearly she was in terrible pain. Cynthia tried to calm Miss Fernard, stroking her forehead, but with little effect.
“Ralph is waiting for you,” she whispered in the old lady’s ear. “I’ve seen him, he is waiting for you.”
The doctor had been watching all this time, weighing up in his own mind the most haunting of questions. He eventually resolved upon something and fumbled with one of the ampoules of Morphine from his bag then checked the label. Drawing its contents through a needle, the doctor took a deep breath and administered the drug to his patient.
Cynthia looked at the doctor. The doctor looked at her. It did not take long before the old woman’s pain was eased as her tense muscles began to relax. Her body settled into the pillows and mattress. A short while later she closed her eyes for the final time. A deep sigh left her. Miss Fernard, the mad woman of the House of Ivy, breathed her last and passed beyond anyone’s reach, but that of the man she loved.
The doctor, witnessed by Cynthia, had hastened a death that night, but rarely had Cynthia felt so at peace. They stayed there by the bedside for some time, until at last he sent her away, and told her not to look back. Cynthia didn’t, and she never went within sight of that house again.
The house itself, they say, was consumed by nature. Only a handful of people knew that its secrets were not so terrifying after all. As for the lone soul that always sat waiting on the gravel walk, he was not there when Cynthia returned to it the next day. She returned in the week that followed, and several times after that, but never again did she see him. His waiting was over.