Saturday 17 December 2016

The Chimes at Midnight

Paula R C Readman

Chilli Chocolate and Red Wine

I cross the wide expanse of the lawn at the front of Crowhurst Hall; a journey I’ve made many times before. However, this time it feels different.
            High above me the hunter’s moon casts its lengthy shadows as the first flurries of the season snowfall, swirling around me, whipped up by the bitter wind. Tugging at the fabric of my skirt it seems to sweep me up and carries me over the threshold of my home.
In the cold hallway I stand dressed in what was once my finery before the old long-case clock, studying its delicate, ornate hands. In the past, as a child, I found them fascinating too, but then they marked the passing of a happier time. Now as I watch the seconds tick away, I wait for its hourly chime, but they do not come.
            Evoking some half-remembered remark, I recall the past and the present like the sweeping hands of a clock run together. Yet, it seems like only yesterday when I heard it ring out its melancholy chimes to mark my passing. They resonated around my ice-cold body before the soil fell clattering upon my coffin lid as the mourners left me beneath the frosty ground.   
Now the only sound I hear is the ticking of the clock as I wonder what has disturbed the tranquillity of my eternal slumber.
            I know I cannot remain for long within these walls for I’m no longer welcome. He who robbed me of everything I held so dear would be outraged to know I’ve returned once more.
            My faded, black taffeta skirt rustles on the stone tiled floors as I move aimlessly around. For a moment I linger in the library as wisps of tenebrous memories comes flooding back.
            Suddenly I’m aware of some unfinished business, which may account for my homecoming. Climbing the marble staircase I pause; resting my hand lightly on its carved banister. Glancing up I see the gentle smiling faces of my beloved parents whom, with vacant, painted eyes stare back at me.
            As I reminisce about their untimely passing, something cold creeps across the back of my bony neck and shoulders making me shudder. I brush my fingertips across my icy cheek longing to feel unshed tears washing my face with warmth as I cry for what was once mine.
I enter my old dressing room and find that the chilling night air fills it with dampness. Prior to my death my servant, Annie, would’ve made sure a welcoming fire filled it with warmth and light, but now it’s as welcoming as a cold, empty grave.
            In the past, I would’ve sat before the large ornate mirror, with its exquisite carvings of cherubs, love hearts, and doves, combing my glossy, golden tresses while dreaming of my darling Henry’s return from London.
            I recall too how my heart leapt with pleasure on hearing the sound of his carriage on the cobbles outside my window, knowing soon in his embrace I would hear his sweet, whispered words of love.  
            Now seated before it all I see is bone-dry, cadaverous skin stretching across my emaciated face as I brush dirt and worms from all that remain of my hair.
Has time passed me by so quickly that I’m nothing, but bones?
The sound of the door catch lifting brings me out of my reverie and I dissolve into the shadows as a young girl, just ripening into womanhood glides into the room.         Crossing the pool of moonlight she heads in my direction.
            Her beauty astounds me.
            With raven-black hair, she’s clothed only in a long, white nightgown, her bare feet blue with cold. She moves around the room with exaggerated movements while opening and closing the drawers and cupboard doors. In her dream-like state, she seems to be searching for something.
            ‘How could he betray me so?’ she mutters.
            Stepping out of the shadows, I whisper, ‘Hello, young beauty, I wonder, did I disturb your slumber?’
            Though her tear-stained eyes are unblinking, something flickers across her forlorn face makes me realise that, unlike me, death has no claim on her, but something disturbs the noctambulist’s sleep.
            I follow her, but she shows no signs that she’s conscious of me.
            ‘Please, do not be afraid. I mean you no harm. What disturbs your sleep?’ I ask.  
            She turns, her golden eyes dart back and forth as though seeking out a sound.
            Aah, she does not see me, but hears me.
            She lifts her left hand to brush a strand of her raven hair from her lips when something shimmers in the moonlight.
            ‘What’s this you’re wearing?’ I raise my bony, dust-dry hand before her face so she can see what hangs on my fleshless finger, ‘It’s a ring? So he’s wed another, making us three?’ I say as my heart breaks, knowing I’ve failed again.
            Bewilderment settles on her face as her eyes begin to dilate, I realise then she sees me as a dream. Her soft voice carries neither weight nor sound, like a child’s sleeping breath, she asks, ‘Who are you?’
            ‘I’m Eleanor,’ I say “I’m back from whence I slept so peacefully to warn you. Though I’ve failed another I once tried to save. Fate was so cruel.’
            Her young brow creases as she stares right through me, then, as if she’s suddenly aware that I’m standing there.
            She steps back. Her hand flies to her mouth to stifle a cry. With trembling lips, she utters, ‘Incubus, Succubus, be gone!’
            In contempt, I shake my shrunken head as dirt, worms, and hair falls from me scattering around my bony feet.
            ‘I am neither. You may have youth and beauty on your side, but your days are numbered. As you see me standing before you, so you shall be one day. For there’s no escaping from the hands of time. I wish only to see you grow old and not die before time has lined your face.’
Suddenly the sound of the tolling clock echoes with the passing of another hour.
            ‘At last,’ I cry, holding out my fleshless arms as the mournful chimes resound through the sleeping house, and the ravages of time are undone.
I stand clothed once more, flesh upon flesh, muscle, and sinew. Time restores my golden blonde tresses, but I cannot linger. Vanity is a weakness for living as time isn’t mine.
            She too wakes into half-sleep and whispers, ‘You’re Lady Eleanor. I’ve seen your portrait, and your tomb in the cemetery. Five years have passed since you were murdered by an unknown intruder while your husband was away.’
            ‘What tale is this? Come; let me show you the truth, for it too will be your fate, if you aren’t careful.’
            ‘Not the truth!’ with a shudder, she hurries to her bedroom.
            I follow her in fear she’ll wake him.
            In my haste I step into her bedroom. I’m surprised to find how little has changed. All that we selected together for our love nest he now shares with another.
Wiping her tears, the noctambulist stares down at her sleeping husband.
            ‘Fear not, he sleeps,’ say I.
            She glances in my direction, her lower lip trembles as she whispers, ‘When I see him sleeping so peacefully, my heart is full of love. The way the curls of his black hair fall lightly on his ruddy cheek. See how his lips part as he breathes gently. See the line of his jaw, so strong. How could you not fall for such a man?’
            I laugh, ‘Sweet nightwalker, if you heart is full of so much love for this sleeping man, then what makes you roam alone while he sleeps so serenely?’
            A questioning look flickers across her innocent face, ‘Should I not fear you, Lady Eleanor, for am I not talking in my disturbed sleep with a ghost?’
            ‘I’m not here to do you harm. The living should not fear us who’ve passed over. We can do you no injury, sweet child. There’s one who is living that you need to fear far more.’
            ‘How can I trust you, you who have no right to be here?’
            ‘Let me join you in your nocturnal amble through my home. For I was a child here . . .’
            ‘This much I know,’ say she.
            ‘What troubles you so?’
            She gestures to the room, ‘There was another who called this house her home, but unlike you, she’s not a ghost.’
            ‘Come; let’s go where we can talk more freely.’
            As the noctambulist leaves, her husband rolls over. I feel the darkness within the room rearrange itself as I wait for him to awake so I can peer into his dark, soulless green eyes once more, but he sleeps on.
In the hallway, apart from the steady ticking of the clock, the only other sound is that of the noctambulist’s bare feet on the stone floor as we enter the library.
            As though she’s fully awake, she crosses to the fireplace and adds another log to the dying embers. With a crackle, the fresh dry wood ignites throwing its warmth and light around the room, but although its heat cannot warm my dry bones, I still shudder as the shadows of my past gathered in every corner waiting for me to tell my tale of betrayal. 
            ‘Please can you tell me about the other woman?’ I ask, though I fear the worst. For I had visited her on such a night, at least three years ago, to warn her the best I could that death would be at her door. Unlike this noctambulist, the second wife did not have a strong constitution.
            On that night before the clock struck the hour to restore me, I had stepped out of the shadows too early and she had gazed upon my worm eaten face. Her pitiful screams woke what was left of her household.
Standing at the French windows, the sleepwalker has her back to me, staring at the moon through the lightly falling snow.
            She turns and with a heavy sigh saying, ‘My husband has no right to marry me when he has a wife who lives in a mental asylum. I uncovered Lady Helen’s journal in the library and read about her fear of destitution. Her fears slowly descended her into madness. Unlike me, she was not strong, when Henry left her alone for days to travel to London. She feared he wouldn’t return. All too soon, the servants deserted her. With no money to pay them their wages, she roamed the icy corridors alone.
            Now you appeared, haunting me in my dreams . . . Oh, why do I doubt the man I love so true?’       
            ‘Do you not believe her?’ I ask, on hearing the hesitation in her voice. ‘Once I was like you believing every word he uttered. Now I am, but a ghost belonging to the borderland. Like Lady Helen and you, he deceived me too. Not for love he married me, but my father’s money. The day he drove the knife into my beating heart, he took pleasure in telling me so.’
            ‘Were you not killed by an unknown hand?’ she asks, puzzlement lining her clear complexion. 
            ‘No. The hand that took my life was none other than that of my husband, Henry. In this very room, he drove in his knife taking such delight in telling me how he’d taken my parents’ lives too, by having their carriage driven off the road. He’d discovered that my father had made inquiries in London’s high society, finding out that among the gambling set Henry was notorious for being in debt.
With my dying breath, I cursed him. That’s why I’m not free to sleep for eternity, until he has paid his debts in full to me.’
            ‘Oh, it’s all true,’ she sobs, ‘he married me for my money too. While he has been away, I uncovered his secrets here in the library. I found Lady Helen’s journal and a bloodied knife. I wanted so much to know the truth,’ Noctambulist whispers with a heavy-heart.
            She crosses to a shelf. Half-hidden in shadows, pulls out a jewelled handled knife, and lays it before me.
            ‘It’s the knife,’ I utter, ‘with which he took my life.’
Suddenly, the library door bursts open and Henry steps in. On seeing the noctambulist sitting alone, he booms, ‘Oh, I do declare, my new wife betrays me not with another, but I feel madness fills the air yet again.’ Laughing, he continued, ‘Am I so cursed to find that another I took to be my bride suffering from lunacy too.’
            I whisper to the noctambulist, ‘Dear lady, pray take your leave. The time has come to set us free. Take Lady Helen’s journal and keep it safe. Sleep deeply now until daybreaks.’ 
            Picking up the book, the noctambulist turns her back on Henry, and takes her leave without a word.
            He goes to follow, but the door slams shut. Watching in horror, he sees the key spin in the lock and vanishes.
            ‘What trickery is this?’ he cries in surprise.
            Then out of the shadows, I appear still beautiful in a dark unnatural way, as
 I was on the day he took my life.
            ‘None that I can see, my Lord, but revenge for those you’ve betrayed with your lies.’ Laughing, I lift the knife, ‘An eye for an eye.’
            His eyes widen with fear as the cold of the grave radiates from me. His face pales as he raises his trembling hands as if to protect himself.
            ‘This cannot be; you’re a ghost that I should not see. Dear God, help me and send this devil back to the ground where she should be.’
            The French windows burst open as the fire goes out. Shadows draw around him with a sudden lurch; he drops to the ground. Protruding from his chest, the bejewelled knife immerse in his cold, black heart.
            I stand over him as his confused spirit begins to rise.
            Staring down at his dying self, he whispers, ‘What have you done to me?’
            ‘Time to pay for your sins. Now come follow me,’ I turn towards the open doors.
            ‘You cannot do this to me! I’m still breathing and can be saved,’ he screams. With a wave of my hand, he has no choice and reluctantly trails after me.
We cross the lawn to the cemetery. In the freshly fallen snow, only his footprints will be seen by everyone when the new day breaks.
In the distance, I hear the old hall clock ring out its melancholy chimes for the passing of the hour as the old day becomes the new. I sink into my grave, dragging with me what remained of Henry’s conscious self, down to lay at my side.
            Suddenly aware of his surroundings, Henry turns to face me, just as the worms slither back into my eye sockets, nostrils, mouth, and hair as time takes back what it had restored to me. His scream fills our narrow space.
            “Oh, such joys at last to have you here beside me in this cold ground, dearest Henry. Did you think you could escape our wedding vows? Let no man put asunder not even death could keep us part.”
            As I slip peacefully into eternal sleep with my husband at my side, the tombstone above our head now tells the truth; ‘An unknown intruder murdered us who lie beneath this cold, cold ground’.
About the Author
Paula R C Readman has won two short story competitions one which was the Harrogate Crime Writing competition, when Mark Billingham picked her story as the overall winner. She has also been published by English Heritage, Parthian Books and Bridge House in their anthologies. To find out more about her writing:

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