The International Writers Magazine: Family Ghosts
It was a long time since I had stood in the hall of Brierley Grange. I couldn’t tell you the exact date, but it must have been at least forty years ago that I had last visited my great-aunt Beatrice.
Beatrice was by way of being the family black sheep as she had an independent turn of mind and was rich enough to ignore what everyone else thought. Having inherited the Grange and several hundred acres from a distant relative she had no need to be conventional and no inclination to follow the tried and tested route of marriage and children. Although some members of my family regarded Aunt Beatrice as a harmless eccentric, others saw her as a dangerous influence, but for my part I naturally gravitated towards her because of her independence of spirit and as an act of deviance against my mother who loathed her.
From a young age I realized that I was a sorry disappointment to my mother because I enjoyed doing practical technical activities and was good at maths and science and could not be the girly, fluffy daughter she had envisaged. She had wanted a daughter who wore twin-set and pearls and would work in a nice cosy office until she ‘settled-down’ with a husband and children, which always seemed to me to be the definition of hell or a particularly cruel from of imprisonment . My mother could never understand that I wanted to be respected for myself, my knowledge and my work and did not feel the need to be part of couple to be a complete human being. I don’t wish to mislead, I am a quiet subtle feminist and I’ve even had long term relationships but cannot bring myself to compromise to the extent that is required to make a relationship work. I will admit that Beatrice encouraged me partially because I think she recognised a fellow rebel against convention and also because it would infuriate the duller members of the family, my mother included.
The evening of my arrival had been a wild and stormy night with the rain lashing my car windows and the wind howling almost like a wolf, so I was very relieved to arrive at the Grange. It was a relief, at last to able to claim my inheritance. Although Beatrice had died twenty years previously and had left all her worldly goods to me, certain members of the family had decided to contest the will and these issues had only recently been resolved. Fortunately my Aunt had been a very astute investor and her estate was still worth in excess of £5 million, so I had been able to retire from my academic post in a University physics department and look forward to life as a lady of leisure.
The following morning I inspected my new home and wondered why everything seemed so much smaller than I remembered it? I can only assume it’s a combination of growing older and the memory always being better than the reality. The Grange itself was the stereotypical Victorian gothic pile that is no longer fashionable, but I still loved the Grange for all its eccentricity.
In addition to the Grange itself I also had the extensive grounds, within which were the family chapel and crypt. These too were mid-Victorian gothic and would have made a fantastic set for any of the classic hammer vampire films had anyone been so inclined. I had always been fascinated by them as a child and had wanted to explore them but had never been permitted, a situation I was now determined to rectify. It would have somehow been more fitting (although somewhat cliched) if I had been exploring the chapel at dusk with a low lying mist, but as it was a cold sunny winter morning that would have to suffice.
So what was the chapel like, here the similarity with hammer films and the writings of Stoker, Le Fanu and M.R. James really did become apt. When I entered the chapel after opening the solid oak door there was a very ornate pre-Raphaelite stained glass window depicting Christ on the cross with Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mother prostrated at his feet, whilst the blood fell from his wounds in large globules .Other than this striking window there were cobweb encrusted pews and a moth eaten white lace cloth covering the altar. So, by and large the chapel was what I had expected it to be, I was about to leave and look for the entrance to the crypt when I observed a pristine red envelope on the altar.
What on earth was that doing here? Surely no-one had been here in twenty years? Part of me thought that as someone had recently been in here, perhaps I shouldn’t be. The other curious scientist part said hang the danger, there is clearly a mystery to be solved, as I had the only key to the chapel. As was usually the case the scientist won, so I picked up the envelope, locked the chapel behind me and walked back to the house. I will confess that I walked back rather quickly and kept looking behind me periodically, not only because there may be an intruder lurking within the grounds but also because I was now convinced someone was watching me, but I could not have said who or why I knew I was being watched.
Having reached the security of the Grange I opened the envelope and was astonished by the contents:
‘Welcome Home, Evelyn. It’s most unfortunate that you’ve had to wait twenty years to return to the Grange, but I must confess we were not surprised at the greed and vindictiveness of certain members of our family, but I had every confidence that my lawyers would prevail. I realize of course there must be two major questions that this note has prompted, namely did I write this prior to my death or is it contemporary and who are we? I will answer the first question.
Yes this note is contemporary and was written a week ago, my lawyer Sebastian placed the note in the chapel the day before you returned to the Grange. As to who ‘we’ are that is something you will have to discover for yourself and is part of the reason why I could write this note a week ago, the only clue I will give you is to search my bureau. When you think you have solved the puzzle come to the crypt.
Wishing you luck.
As you may imagine, I was too stunned to know what to make of this missive, so I decided the only logical course of action was to take Beatrice’s advice and carefully examine the contents of her bureau.
I had of course known since I was a child that Aunt Beatrice kept an old 18th Century writing bureau in her bedroom, but it was the one place that I had been absolutely forbidden to enter. Although I had happily accepted this stricture as a young child, I had questioned its fairness as I grew older which had provoked the only harsh words I had ever encountered from my Aunt:
‘Evelyn, there are some things that are completely sacred and private. As far as you are concerned my bedroom is one of them. Never mention this again.’
Normally my Aunt was so gentle, kind and understanding that her response so frightened
Me, that I determined to never broach this sensitive issue again and shortly afterwards I went to University, little realizing I would not return for forty years.
I was now very eager to enter the holy of holies and at last examining the famous bureau. Why is it that when one has anticipated an event for years that when it does eventually happen it is such a massive anti-climax? So what was so special about this inner sanctum of a bedroom? In a word, nothing. In common with the rest of the house the furniture was Victorian and the décor dated from the 1930s. The bureau consisted of the drop down ‘desk’ part and two large storage drawers. The drop down ‘desk’ part also had numerous small drawers which contained general stationery and writing materials, in short nothing mysterious or interesting. The two large drawers each contained three A4 lever arch files, so I spent the next three hours examining their contents. I had searched and read through 20 years of household bills and official correspondence, when at the bottom of the last file I found a letter addressed to my Aunt in mother’s unmistakable scrawny script.
I read the letter which contained my mother’s usual venom and complaints against everyone and everything, until in the final paragraph she finally said something interesting:
‘I know I cannot stop Evelyn seeing you, as you are her father’s aunt, but that does not mean that I have to pretend I feel nothing but loathing for you and everything you stand for. No doubt you think I despise you for your financial and social freedom, but I do not envy you those. I despise you because on my last visit I entered your cellar where I discovered the family secret. I just wish to make you aware that I will do everything in my power to stop Evelyn being initiated into your little group, even if that means her being lost to me as well.’
So the answer was in the cellar? This letter also explained some of my mother’s more bizarre behaviour. When I had graduated with a physics degree my mother not only encouraged me to undertake a research career, but also to go to the United States to study and work, even though I knew she wanted a more traditional life for me. I had not understood this encouragement at the time, but in the light of this letter it made complete sense and left me with the nagging question: What was it about the family secret and the ‘initiation’ that had so terrified her?
Clearly, I would need to inspect the cellar. I was now quite excited as I found the mysterious nature of the whole mystery intoxicating. It was not that the nature of the answer bothered me, I just wished to know what the answer was. The cellar could only be accessed from the back of the house via a set of steps that led down from the kitchen. The cellar itself was huge as it extended beneath the whole area of the house and had originally housed a huge wine cellar when the house had been built, but had been much less used when my aunt was in residence as she was a very private person and did not feel the need to be a society hostess.
I have always suffered from mild arachnophobia, so I was not looking forward to an encounter with the cellar’s eight legged inhabitants, although I need have not worried. When I entered the cellar, I was surprised to find very few cobwebs and absolutely no signs of arachnids anywhere. This mystery was becoming truly bizarre, the chapel was covered in cobwebs, whilst the cellar appeared to have been cleaned on a regular basis, what was going on? The cellar was clearly not being used as a wine cellar anymore, but there were various boxes littered about, perhaps it had been used as a store room?
Logic would clearly have to be applied to search of the cellar. The boxes followed the lines of the old cellar, with three in each row, there being ten rows and so thirty boxes in all. Commencing on the left I began to search the boxes, and marked with red pen the ones I had searched. The first row contained old kitchenware, the second damaged bric-a-brac. However in the second box of the third row my search was much more fruitful. Here I found an old yellowed envelope which contained a large key which clearly fitted a heavy door, but curiously there was no indication of where this door might be, but of course there did not need to be, as it was obvious to which door this was the key. Brierley Grange had a large pointed tower which was reminiscent of the towers of the Alcazar of Segovia, this must be the key to its door. Having discovered this key I exited the cellar and entered the courtyard at the back of the house which was the only entrance to the tower.
Although the key easily opened the heavy oak tower door lock, the door itself was somewhat stiff and I only opened it by forcing all my weight against it. I am not sure what I had expected to find when I opened the door, but as might have been expected there was a long spiral staircase which led up to a room at the top of the tower. When I had started to investigate this mystery I had felt like Miss Marple, was I now to be turned into a mature Rapunzel? There was nothing else for it but to explore the room at the top of the tower. The room had a small square window with black curtains that were uncrossed. It also contained a small table upon which was a three headed candelabra whose three white candles had no more than a couple of inches of wax remaining, this was not of itself strange but what was, was the highly polished black casket in the middle of the room. All that remained was for the casket to be lined with red satin and Christopher Lee lying in it for this to be entirely a scene from a 1960s hammer film. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am not sure which, when I opened the coffin it was lined with royal blue satin and a collection of papers which I removed and returned to the house to read. It was very lucky I was not of a nervous disposition or I would have probably left Brierley Grange in a fit of nervous hysteria never to return. As it was, I was beginning to think the whole mystery was an elaborate practical joke designed by my Uncle in a fit of pique at loosing what he considered to be his rightful inheritance, only a reading of the newly discovered papers would reveal the truth of it.
The papers consisted of a bunch of five separate papers all tied together with red ribbon much like an old-fashioned lawyer’s brief. The first paper was clearly the original architect’s plan for the Grange. The plans were by and large what would be expected except for the stipulation that the chapel crypt be lockable from the inside. Why would the crypt need to be lockable from the inside? Perhaps the other papers would offer a clue, although I was beginning to feel like a character in bad Dracula sequel. The second paper was a letter from the local vicar to the original owner of the Grange, enquiring as to whether the congregation could look forward to the owner’s presence in church, given that he had been living at the Grange for six months and they had yet to be disturbed by his presence. The third paper was obviously the owner’s reply:
‘My Dear Reverend Pettigrew-Smythe,
Although I was pleased to receive your letter and gratified at your concern for my physical and spiritual welfare, I fear I must decline your kind invitation to attend Sunday services for several reasons. I have recently returned to England from the East where I contracted a rare disease which forbids me from the company of any except a select few, for fear I may infect them and vice versa. I am also a secularist and supporter of Mr Charles Darwin so I feel that a house of God is perhaps not an appropriate place for me. If you would like to discuss these matters further please visit the Grange any convenient evening.
In all good faith
So where was the evidence heading? I have an aunt who can write letters from beyond the grave, an impeccably clean cellar, a terrible family secret that my mother was determined to protect me from, a tower containing only a coffin, a crypt that had to be lockable from the inside and a relative with a rare disease that prevented him from mixing with others and was unavailable during daylight hours, the conclusion was inescapable; the family secret was vampirism! Logic may have led me to think the conclusion was vampirism, but I was a physicist, vampirism could not be a real phenomenon, it was only old superstition and a gothic romantic fantasy, there must be some other explanation, perhaps the fourth and fifth papers would reveal the truth.
The fourth paper consisted of newspaper cuttings dated 1905 and 1910 detailing the strange disappearance of two young circus children and its aftermath.
‘This reporter can exclusively reveal the strange circumstances of the disappearance of two of the circus children. The children (a boy of eight and his sister aged nine) had been sent by their parents at twilight down to the river to collect water to cook the evening meal, a chore which should have occupied no more than half an hour . When the children failed to return after two hours the alarm was raised, all members of the circus joining in on the hunt. Many have criticised the travellers for not reporting their loss to the local police, but the travellers generally experience nothing but hostility from the authorities so tend to solve their own problems. All the travellers joined the search, but no trace of the children was found save for their two red neck scarves which are worn by all the travelling folk. It was at this point that the local police were called and after interviewing the children’s parents they determined that the scarves had been found half-way between the travellers encampment and the river, close to the grounds of Brierley Grange. The police also conducted their own search which proved to be equally futile after which they determined to seek assistance from the owner of the Grange. It has long been held that Alexander Montgomery is at best a reclusive eccentric and at worst a malignant force in the district, although the latter is a minority one held mainly by the more superstitious members of our community. However in this instance Mr Montgomery could not have been more helpful, answering all questions that were put to him and permitting a full search of his grounds, sadly without any positive results. The police have now decided that given the lack of evidence the children were either abducted by a passing stranger or absconded of their own accord, needless to say the travellers reject these suggestions entirely, but have now departed taking their grief with them leaving only a mystery behind.’
The cutting from 1910 was even stranger:
‘Many of the regular readers of this publication will no doubt recall the strange disappearance of two circus children five years ago this month and it was felt that no more light could be shed on this mystery, until now. This correspondent can reveal the children have been spotted at twilight by several tradesmen finishing their daily activities. The description is always the same, the children are observed walking arm in arm heading out of the village in close proximity to Brierley Grange. The children themselves are wearing the same clothes as when they disappeared, although they are pale and seem oblivious to any activity occurring around them. The witnesses further reported that the children were not the least spectral in appearance and seemed to be solid flesh and blood. Naturally the tradesmen were at first reluctant to offer testimony given the ridicule that they might face but eventually agreed when they realized they had all been observing the same events. There was only one witness who had ever attempted to speak to the children, he reported that they did not answer him, they merely gave a knowing smile and ran off in the direction of the next village. As may be imagined this unnerved the witness, but he was suitably revived by a visit to the local ale house. So what are we to make of these events? Perhaps it is a measure of proof that the children were murdered and that we can expect their presence in the village for some time to come, or possibly our readers have an alternative explanation?
The final paper was an extract from Aunt Beatrice’s reply to my mother’s letter:
‘Given yours and Evelyn’s visits, I fear it was inevitable that you would stumble upon the family secret. However, I do not fear any actions you may take as no-one would believe your wild stories. Additionally, you have a renowned streak of spite and are infamous even within our maladjusted family for sheer spite, so I believe that everyone would merely assume that your story was merely promoted by viciousness.
I am quite insulted that you should think I would corrupt or could ever harm Evelyn in any way. Evelyn is the child of my heart, even though she is not my biological daughter I am closer to her than you could ever be and want only her happiness. You may be certain I would never seek to ‘initiate’ her into the family group without her consent, but I promise you she will lead the life she wants ,when the time comes it will be purely her decision whether she joins the family or not.’
So I finally had all the evidence. I was not yet convinced that I was related to and descended from a vampire family, I could not believe anything so bizarre and was still determined to apply Occam’s razor, if at all possible. There was only one way to solve the conundrum, it was time to return to the crypt.
I had to consider all possibilities so I determined to return to the crypt after dark. Although I am a rationalist I must confess the thought of entering a crypt alone horrified me, but like all our primal fears it had to be faced. The entrance to the crypt was on the right hand side of the chapel through a rusty iron gate and down a set of twenty or so steps. At the bottom of the dusty steps was a solid iron door that was slightly ajar. By the time I reached the door my heart was racing, my palms were sweaty and I was completely terrified, but I had come this far, I was not about to give up now and so with a gentle shove I pushed the door open.
‘Hello Evelyn, welcome to the family, congratulations on solving the mystery. Will you be joining us?’
And this concludes my presentation on the lost manuscript of Brierley Grange. Are there any questions?
© Louise Broadbent Feb 2010