A Short Story by Ken Wise
Captain Oliver Worthing lay down on his bed, exhausted from his evening’s effort; he had as usual been scouring the countryside for his missing bride of one year. Captain Oliver had recently returned from his tour of duty in the Far East and had arrived unexpectedly at his home just outside Bath to find his wife missing. He found also that the two servants, who he had charged to look after his wife, had also vanished. To increase his concerns even more, the house looked like it had not been actually lived in for some time. All his recent efforts to locate the three people had come to nothing. He had started going out every evening on his horse, first starting with his own estate which consisted of ten acres of grassland. It was as if his wife and servants had all vanished from the face of the earth! He looked at the first signs of the rising sun as it appeared over the horizon and concluded that he should rest, collect his thoughts and then try again the following evening. The strange noises that had started up a few weeks ago meant that his rest would not be without its problems. It was almost as if someone had started up a flour mill, such was the grating and banging that started up daily. The twenty-six year old Captain cursed again as he sought to block out the noises which, as if on cue, had started up again.
Christine and her brother Jack had arrived at her newly acquired stately home, which she and her husband Thomas had bought four months ago from their lottery winnings. 1.6 million pounds was a nice sum to win at any time but coming as it did soon after their wedding made the occasion even sweeter. The house, which had twelve bedrooms, was smaller than most stately homes of similar style but Christine and Thomas had figured that six hundred thousand pounds was enough to pay for it, leaving a bit left over after giving some to their families. The reason that they had managed to purchase the house so cheaply was largely due to its run down condition; the roof needed fixing and the exterior and interior walls were in a sad state but nevertheless the two love birds had fallen for it the moment they had set their eyes on it. The bad condition of the bedrooms meant that the pair had to remain in their small apartment in the nearby town and travel back and forth while they carried out their renovation of the grand building.
However, this was a small price to pay; such was their desire to return the old house back to its former glory. As with most things in life, everything has its down side and after Thomas had worked on the house with Christine for two months he had been ordered back on active duty; he was now serving overseas with his army unit. Jack, Christine’s brother, was Thomas’s best friend and had in fact introduced his sister to his friend and after a whirlwind courtship the two had married. Winning the state lottery had come at the right time and finding the stately home had been the icing on the cake. After Thomas had left to rejoin his unit Jack had taken over some of the more strenuous tasks which Thomas had been doing, so it had worked out well. The earlier part of the reconstruction had been carried out by some professional builders, but they soon realized that as they wanted to keep some money in hand to run the home after it was finished, they would have to do most of the work themselves. They had plenty of time to do the work but Christine promised herself that when Thomas returned from his tour of duty in three months time, he would see a remarkable improvement in the house from when he had left.
Captain Oliver knew his wife would not have left without telling him where she was going and he figured that, as this was the case, foul play must have occurred. His nightly rides on his black mare always followed the same pattern with him searching the surrounding countryside calling out his wife’s name. Grace had not been in the best of health and he had originally thought that she might have been taken poorly and taken to hospital, but searches in the local hospital had proven fruitless, revealing only injured soldiers similar to himself as he had been just a few months ago.
The sight of his fallen comrades did nothing to help his own sorrow and he had left without further ado. Returning to his home he again searched all the bedrooms as if he might have missed a vital clue which might lead him to the return of his beloved wife. As he searched his despair turned to anger; he banged the doors as he left each of the rooms, almost as if he thought that would do any good. Perhaps by carrying out this fruitless task it would help him rest a little easier that evening, that is, if those people working nearby did not start up their noisy activities again. The next day he would pay them a visit and sort them out.
Christine was just finishing up the final touches to the main hall when they came; two official people from the Army, one of whom was a woman. Christine’s face fell as she looked at the two who had been ushered into the great hall by Jack. Looking at Jack’s face confirmed that what she was about to be told could only be bad newsIt was; her beloved Thomas had been killed in a skirmish with some of the insurgents who he had been sent to contain. Christine could hear someone screaming; she soon realized it was herself as she collapsed into her brother’s arms.The two army officials left after receiving assurances from Jack that he could handle everything. They had many more poor souls to visit that day.
It was a quiet funeral which took place some three weeks later and to Christine the old house had suddenly lost its appeal, despite Jack’s gentle suggestions that she tried to get her life back in order; she rebuked all his efforts. The months passed and the house became a distant thought to the distressed wife of Sergeant Thomas Jones. The noises that filled the air had ceased and coldness again took over the old house which had, until then, been coming back to life. Captain Oliver’s searches had become even more frantic; the more time he spent searching, the more desperate he became and it seemed that he would never find his missing wife. The only good thing that had happened was that the noises had stopped; giving the Captain some well earned rest. As the days passed he ceased his evening trips out and remained in his home, trying to picture his missing wife’s face but with every passing day, her face became less vivid to the distraught Captain.
Jack had returned from a trip away to see their mother who had been placed in a nursing home some ten miles away. Pleas to his sister to accompany him had fallen on stony ground and his promise to his sick mother to try to get Christine in a happier frame of mind was his main concern. ‘Come on Chris, let’s go and see how the old house is doing,’ he had said, knowing full well she would most likely refuse. Christine, however, suddenly surprised him by agreeing and the two drove to the house which had, until a few months ago, been the centre of their attention. Christine then dropped her bombshell; she wanted to sell the house as it was! Jack reluctantly nodded his approval and asked if Christine would like him to arrange a viewing of the home by an estate agent. Christine declined and said that she would make the phone call so after locking up the old house they returned to their respective homes.
It was almost midnight and Captain Oliver was making his nightly rounds in the house, opening and closing each bedroom door, when he heard the distinct sound of his front door opening. The Captain was incensed, who would be breaking into his home at this hour? One thing the house had plenty of was swords, which hung crisscrossed on the walls of the house. Taking down one of these he waited in silence as the person who had entered the house came even further into the hallway. The Captain peered intently into the darkness; he cursed, he could not see anyone, the intruder had disappeared from sight.
Christine had made up her mind; she was not going to sell her lovely old home, she was going to burn it down! Unknown to her brother and after some sleepless nights, she had come to the conclusion that if she and her beloved late husband could not have it, then no one else would. Her grief overwhelmed her as she walked for the last time around the kitchen and the grand hall, and then ascended to the bedrooms on the top floor. Her torch lit up the dark corners of the corridor as one by one she entered the rooms and made her farewells to each one. In some of the rooms she had carried out some major reconstruction, others had not required too much effort from her. The last room she entered was almost in its original state; as she turned to leave, she suddenly saw a crack in the side of the fireplace that she had never noticed before. Christine walked back to the fireplace and peered at the crack, which now seemed even larger; how could she and Thomas have missed it? Her senses told her to leave straight away as it was not a good time to start prodding about in old rooms and this particular room suddenly seemed to have grown colder.
She placed her torch on the mantelpiece and tried to push her fingers into the crack as if to make it larger but to no avail, it would not budge. Christine put her hand up to retrieve her torch but instead took hold of a candle stick, which moved at her touch. The grinding noise that followed suddenly filled her with great fear and she wished that her brother Jack was with her. How could she have been so dumb as to come to the house on her own at such a late hour? The gap that opened up was easily wide enough for Christine, who had now managed to recover her torch, to pass through. The room behind the fireplace was quite large and bathed in an eerie light; looking up she saw a glass dome through which the light from the night’s full moon entered. To her amazement she found the room to be furnished, complete with its own fireplace, a couch and other furniture. Christine gasped as her torch picked out paintings on each side of the room but the centre piece was, without doubt, the large painting which portrayed two people, a man and a lady.
The man was in full military uniform and the lady in an exquisite evening dress, as worn in the eighteenth century. Christine gasped as she took in the splendour of the scene: the man was standing behind the seated lady and he was smiling, looking down at the lady, who Christine immediately took to be his wife.
Christine’s gaze continued around the room and fell on a book which she immediately recognised as an old diary which, although covered in dust, seemed to glow in the light of her torch. It had gold figures on the front and each page leaf was edged in gold. Christine suddenly felt great fear and collecting the book, she left hurriedly. Without even closing the secret door she hurried down to the great hall which only a few weeks ago she had lovingly finished renovating. Her desire to read the diary overwhelmed her and she sank on the chaise longue made herself comfortable and started to read its contents. The light from her torch started to dim and she hurriedly lit one of the numerous candles which had, until now, gone untouched. The coldness of the hour was lost to her as she started reading the beautiful writing which, without doubt, had been carried out by a lady.
Christine just knew that it had to be the lady in the picture and it reassured her that she could at least put a face to the writing. The first twenty pages recanted the lady’s love for her husband who, like her Thomas, had been sent to war and was now fighting the Turks.
To Christine’s horror the tone of the book suddenly became one of deep sorrow; the lady’s husband was missing, presumed dead and she had not received any word some six weeks later to belay her fears. The words turned bitter; she felt that he had betrayed her; after all, her husband had sworn on their bible that he would return to her and now it appeared that he had broken his word. The words then returned to a more forgiving note; she and her staff would journey east and try to find her husband. They would be leaving the very next day; she would pack immediately and leave in the morning. That was the last entry in the book and Christine placed the book down on the floor almost as if she regretted reading the sorrowful and yet romantic words. It was like many other stories which she had read about over the past years but this was more poignant; it was about two people who had apparently lived in her house. The lady’s life had run parallel to her own, even down to her own missing husband.
Christine sank to the floor deeply distressed about what she had read; again she read the words which seemed to jump out from the pages and magnify themselves to her. She picked up the book; it should be returned to the room and the room must be closed, never to be opened again. Christine mounted the stairs with the diary grasped to her chest; her heart was beating fast as she entered the darkened room. She was about to replace the book on the table, when she looked up again at the face of the lady seated in the painting; she thought that it looked familiar.
As she stood there, still holding the book, the room grew even colder and she was suddenly conscious of someone else being in the room. Turning around Christine saw the outline of a man and as he came closer she recognised the face of the handsome officer in the painting. The Captain walked towards her and gathered her in his arms. ‘Grace, my love, you have returned to me.’ Christine heard herself uttering just one response. ‘Yes, Oliver I have.’ When Jack finally entered the room the next day, after an unsuccessful search of the rest of the house for his sister, he stood and looked around. His gaze finally fell on the painting which showed two people with beaming smiles on their faces; he was startled when he instantly recognised the features of his lovely sister, Christine.
Later that evening, Oliver led his wife back to the grand hall with its roaring fire; he poured a glass of red wine and handed to her. ‘Grace, my love, I had given up all hope of finding you again.’ Grace looked at her delighted husband. ‘Me too, my love; when I located you on the battle field you were not looking so good, but now I see that you have your head back on – you look much better!’
(c) Copyright Ken Wise 2012