‘Rhiannon’s Tomcats’: A free short story by Lucinda Elliot for Halloween

 

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I wrote the following short story  (approximately 2,500 words)  a long time ago, about ten years at least, for a short story writing course.  I believe it was the only one the tutor praised and told me was worthy of publication: he and I did not share the same sense of humour, that’s for sure;  but certainly, I had a lot to learn about writing marketable output in those days.

As I was meaning to write a story specially for Halloween for my blog, and left it too late, I hope this one will do instead to give a few tingles down the spine.  I have left it just as it was written, and the changing patterns of migrating labour show that it was written over ten years ago, as young men coming to look for building work in Mid Wales these days would probably be from Eastern Europe rather than Southern Ireland.

 

Rhiannon’s Tomcats

By Lucinda Elliot

 

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“It might be here!” Liam darted past a row of lock up garages.

Connell, squelching after him in soaked trainers, didn’t answer.  There was nobody else out in the howling wind and driving rain to ask for directions, and he had almost given up hope of ever finding the right road on this dismal housing estate. When he came out by the sign, ‘ Heol Bryn’ the very name of the road for which they were searching, he was amazed.

Number Seven looked even more dismal than the rest of the featureless estate.  It was a mid terraced house with flaking paint, an overgrown garden and a sagging fence.

As they walked up the path, Connell was willing to bet that the man in the pub who had told them that old Mrs Rhys and her great granddaughter took in lodgers had just been talking drunken nonsense.  After all, as the man had staggered away from the bar, the only other customer apart from Connell and Liam, an old man, had looked up from his paper to laugh. “He’s not going to remember a thing tomorrow!”

They started as a black cat dashed out from the straggling bushes to the side with a wild shriek.  It stopped directly in front of them, meeting their eyes and hissing.  Back home, Connell’s grandmother had had a cat that had taken to attacking people.  Thinking of this, he held back, but Liam said, “Scat!” and the cat streaked away round the side of the house.

The doorbell was answered by a woman too young to be Connell’s idea of a landlady, but too old and haggard to be a girl.  She looked pale and unhealthy, with lustreless fair hair hanging in strings over her shoulders.  Her shapeless grey housecoat emphasized her colourless look.

“Yes?”

Her flat voice struck Connell as being surprisingly posh for someone living on such a bleak estate.  That made him nervous, but it didn’t worry Liam, who flashed a wide grin at her.  Everyone said that Liam was very good looking, with his curly black hair and bright blue eyes, and he agreed with them. “We heard you take in lodgers.”

To Connell’s surprise, the woman brightened. “Come in.”

The noises of the storm outside vanished as she shut the door.  In contrast to the neglected outside, the dimly lit hall was quite luxurious, with hardwood flooring, rugs and a heavy gilt framed mirror.

She suddenly became sympathetic. “Isn’t it dreadful weather?  You look drenched.  You didn’t come by car, then?”

“No such luck, by train.” Liam said, as he wiped his feet.  He liked talking about how he’d left a grand car back home, but for some reason he didn’t mention it now.

Connell saw that another cat, a big ginger one, had appeared.  This one wasn’t hostile, merely watching them with a superior air as it wound about the woman’s ankles.

“Come and dry out in front of the fire.”  She led them into the sitting room.  It had expensive looking striped wallpaper, and was furnished throughout in what Connell vaguely recognised as Victorian furniture.  Sitting by a large fire in a rocking chair, a very old woman turned alert dark eyes on them.

Nain (Granny), people to see you about some rooms for the night.”

“Afternoon,” said Connell, gently.  “I hope we’re not disturbing you.”

“We need disturbing…Rhiannon, put the kettle on.  These poor boys are soaked.”  Unlike Rhiannon, Mrs Rhys had a Welsh accent.  Her voice was surprisingly strong for someone so old.

Rhiannon brought hot scones with butter and jam as well as tea.  The old woman and Connell worked out the business transaction as they ate and drank.  Connell knew that he should be glad that he didn’t have to go back out into the wind and rain, yet somehow – for no particular reason – he had an uneasy feeling.

He told Mrs Rhys that they would probably be working at the building site for a couple of weeks, but these things were never certain.  She suggested that they took dinner in too, at a rate so low that Connell felt guilty.  Perhaps she had lost touch with modern prices.

“We can pay a bit more than that!” He ignored Liam’s warning stare.

Liam, usually so fond of the sound of his own voice, took no part in the conversation as he stretched his legs in front of the fire, drank and ate.  He smiled now and then at Rhiannon, who in the light of the fire looked quite young and pretty; the glow gave a golden light to her hair and a rosy tint to her cheeks.

Mrs Rhys told them that Rhiannon was her great-granddaughter and asked Connell about himself and Liam.  “So you come from Southern Ireland?  I’ve always wanted to visit there, but I’ve never got round to it.  Bricklayers?  That’s a very useful skill.  So you’ve been staying in London.  Did you make many friends there?”

“We didn’t make any,” Connell felt ashamed as he admitted it. “I’d dreamed of working in London and making big money, but after three months of it, I’m glad to get away.  It was all too much for me, to be honest.  People rushing everywhere and the mad traffic, and everybody so unfriendly.  Well, Liam knew some of the lads down the pub, darts and that, but I doubt any of those will miss us.”

“Cities are lonely places.” Mrs Rhys agreed.  “But then, these housing estates can be no better.  Do you know, Rhiannon and I have been living here for years now, and we know hardly any of the neighbours? Well, I suppose you’re talking to your families on your mobile phones every day?  I know about you young people and your mobile phones!”

Her easy chat put Connell more at his ease. “Up to last week I was phoning them up all the time, but then I lost the thing.”

In fact, someone had stolen it.  He suspected one of the other men in the house where they had been staying in Acton.  Of course, Liam had a much better one, but after paying the train fare, he hadn’t got round to topping it up.

Connell went on, “I’ve just realised, our families don’t even know that we’ve left London. Hey, we couldn’t pay you to use your phone, could we?”  He’d had a glimpse of a fifties-style black bakelite telephone in the hall.  Judging by the rest of the contents of the house, it was probably an original.

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Mrs Rhys shook her head.  “I’m afraid that ours is out of order, and we haven’t had it repaired yet.  Oh, I know it’s foolish when we have guests.”

When Rhiannon went out to make up the beds, Connell thought that her walk had changed, becoming vigorous and upright.  He wondered vaguely if the company of a couple of males had worked on her as a sort of beauty treatment?  He’d heard of such things.

They followed Rhiannon’s sturdy legs up to the first floor, hoisting their bags up to their rooms.  The room they were to share was a fourth bedroom at the back of the house, which had been extended at some time.  It was done out with comfortable old-fashioned furniture, but it was chilly, with an unused air about it.  Connell shivered.  Something about the room increased his feeling of unease.  Perhaps it was the silence; he suddenly realised that he couldn’t hear the sounds of the wind or the rain.

Despite the fact that Mrs Rhys had been so friendly and helpful, he couldn’t stop himself asking Liam, “Don’t you think there’s something a bit weird going on?”

Liam laughed scornfully.  “What!  Are you scared of the old lady? The only weird thing is our luck in getting something decent so cheap.”

Connell jumped as something sharp sank into his leg.  A large tabby had clawed him from behind.  “Psst!  Go away!” he tried to scare it off, but it stood its ground, meowing at them.

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Liam couldn’t stop laughing.  “Are you a man or a mouse?”

Connell said, “These cats are surely a pest! Hey, Liam, I wish there was some way of letting them know at home where we are.  It only makes sense, you know.”

“You can always take a walk out in that, looking for a phone box.” Liam jerked his head in the direction of the rain-washed bedroom window.

“You noticed that there’s no sound coming from outside?”

“Special double glazing, I suppose.  Don’t be so daft.”

Connell felt too tired to appreciate the roast lamb that Rhiannon served for dinner.  The tight-fisted woman who owned the house where they’d stayed at Acton wouldn’t have thought of giving the lodgers a roast on a Sunday, never mind on a weekday.  He glanced at Liam; Liam seemed to take it all for granted as he pushed it into his face without much thought for table manners.

Connell felt a bit ashamed of him as he turned to Mrs Rhys, and caught her staring expressionlessly at Liam. “Lovely dinner.  We didn’t expect a meal like this!”

The old woman at once smiled at him warmly.  “I always say that Welsh lamb is the best.”

There was wine, too.  Connell preferred beer with his dinner, and he refused it at first, but Rhiannon smilingly encouraged him; “You must try this, I don’t usually like red either.”

Flattered that she thought his opinion on such a topic worth anything, he accepted a glass.  He realised then that she had hardly said anything since she had first chatted to them in the hall.

Liam asked Rhiannon a couple of questions about herself.  He even asked her Great-Grandmother some questions about herself, too, though you could tell that he wasn’t listening to her answers.  Then he told some funny stories about himself in turn.

Connell envied him his arrogance.  He envied him his flashing white teeth, too.   Perhaps they were the secret of Liam’s success with women; well, those teeth and his blue eyes and dark curly hair might be the reason for his success with them.

Connell himself was shy, unremarkable looking, with an equally unimpressive record of girls who had been interested in him.

Rhiannon was saying to Liam, “Work? Oh, I give piano lessons.  I studied music.  Of course, I help Nain with the house, too.”

Connell could tell that Liam was thinking, “That’s really sad.  No sort of life for a young woman.”

In the absence of any girls of his own age, Liam was obviously happy to flirt with Rhiannon.  She was glowing under the attention, so that she looked half a dozen years younger than she had.  Connell felt sorry for her.  Maybe she hadn’t had male admiration for years.  Perhaps she believed that Liam thought that she was special.

Liam was always chasing after girls.  In rural Southern Ireland, that was risky for a man who didn’t want to be tied down.  He’d had to leave the country because of trouble once too often over a girl.  Connell disapproved of Liam’s attitude towards women, but he enjoyed his company so much that he had offered to go with him.  Tonight, however, Connell almost disliked him for his greed and insensitivity.

Suddenly, Connell noticed how attractive Rhiannon was looking, with her long, lustrous lashes, her hair hanging in shining golden ringlets. Of course, women were always doing things to their appearance, things about which men had no idea.  He could only suppose that Rhiannon must have worked on her looks up in her room to change herself to that extent.

Meanwhile, Mrs Rhys under the electric light, looked just as old, but somehow indefinably more powerful, as if she had drawn strength from somewhere.

“You’re a nice boy,” she said suddenly to Connell. “You will be all right.”

Connell smiled politely, though of course, he didn’t want to be a granny’s idea of a nice boy; they never had any fun.

Rhiannon rose to collect the dinner plates, and Liam’s eyes widened as he got up to open the door for her.  Like Connell, he had noticed her amazing, hourglass figure that even the old-fashioned looking print dress that she had changed into couldn’t conceal.  Connell could have sworn that when they had come into the dining room she’d been  dumpy.

As she opened the door, a tabby cat tried to squeeze past her into the room, calling loudly.  Rhiannon laughed at it, pushing it away with one foot.  “Who’s a silly Mr Puss-Puss?  Who wants to talk to the humans?”

This drew Connell’s attention to Rhiannon’s legs.  They were now long and slim; Connell knew that they had been short and sturdy half an hour ago. He wondered if fatigue was making his eyes play tricks.  Perhaps had he been right in sensing that was something sinister about the place?  He glanced at Liam, who was- of course – staring at Rhiannon’s legs too, but with an expression of unthinking lust.

Connell resolved that however much Liam might laugh and however wet he got, after dinner he was going to go straight out, find a phone and let their families know exactly where they were staying.

By the time that Rhiannon came back with the pudding – baked apples – Connell could hardly keep his eyes open.  For his part, Liam couldn’t keep his flashing blue eyes off Rhiannon.  Her Great-Grandmother, far from disapproving, seemed positively to gloat at his interest.

Connell couldn’t remember being so tired since he was a child.  Everything was blurry, as if he had had too much to drink, and yet he hadn’t even finished his glass of wine.  The voices of the others were alternately unnaturally loud and then very faint in his ears.

He knew that he had to act or it would be too late.  It was probably too late already.  He stumbled to his feet, knocking his chair over. “Liam, let’s go!” his voice came out so slurred that it was unrecognisable to him.

The others stared at him. “What are you playing at -?” Liam demanded.

Slowly, as if he was walking through water against a current, Connell fought his way over the fallen chair and across the room.

“Are you ill?” asked Rhiannon. Her voice rang poisonously sweet in his ears.

He felt someone grab his shoulder and he jerked himself away to wrench at the door handle.  There was a rush of cold air as he fell amongst what seemed like twenty cats.

Then there was nothing but darkness.

Much later, he had a sensation of swinging, as if he was being carried, and he heard muffled voices.  He struggled in terror to wake up, but sank back into unconsciousness…

 

Connell became aware of cold and damp, and the persistent nuzzlings of a mewing cat.  He opened his eyes, remembering nothing, and long wet grass came into focus.  The cat, a handsome animal with thick black fur and wild blue eyes, now flung itself on his chest, meowing frantically.  He pushed it away and sat up, trying to clear his head by shaking it.  He was unable to make anything of the terraced house at the end of the garden.

He started blankly at the dumpy, faded looking woman in the grey housecoat who was bending over him.  She laughed as she picked up the struggling, hissing cat, holding it at arms length to avoid its claws.  “Silly boy!” she said to it.  Who’s my little pet, now?”

Lucinda Elliot 2007

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Christmas reading: ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ by Marjorie Bowen – An Excellent Classic Ghost Story as Comedy

 

 

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I wanted to add a post about a ghost story at Christmas. Well, I am about to read the new selection by Mari Biella, and expect to revel in those, but for now, which of the many to choose as a seasonal ghost story?

Readers of this blog over the last year or so will have endured my diatrabes on the  debilitating nature of an addiction to escapist romances and happy never after alternative views of history.  Fear not: this isn’t another…

I am in fact recomending – again, but now as Christmas reading – a  ghost story that is about as light as could be. It is also written from a wholly conventional perspective. The only eccentricity is that the protagonist is content to be that figure of horror and ridicule for previous generations,’The Old Maid’.  Still, as that was generally associated with comparative penury and economic dependence, perhaps the fact that she is a successful business woman – an unusual thing for the early twentieth century – has something to do with her contentment.

I think for sheer spooky humour,  ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ takes a lot of beating.

Marjory Bowen seems to have been an intriguing author. I was astonished to find out on Wickipedia that she wrote under six names:

‘Her total output numbers over 150 volumes with the bulk of her work under the ‘Bowen’ pseudonym. She also wrote under the names Joseph Shearing, George R. Preedy, John Winch, Robert Paye and Margaret Campbell. After The Viper of Milan (1906), she produced a steady stream of writings until the day of her death.Bowen’s work under her own name was primarily historical novels.’

To say that she came from a ‘difficult’ background would be an understatement. Her alcoholic father deserted the family, and was later found dead of drink on a London street. Her mother was seemingly a far from fond parent, and so she (Marjorie Bowen) was obliged to support the whole family by her writing for many years.  She was married twice – her fist husband died early, and both their children died in infancy. Her two children by her second husband survived, anyway…

From this, I had to be the more struck by the light, playful tone of ‘The Crown Derby Plate’. Although this is available on project Gutenberg and on Amazon as a Christmas story, the original publication date is not stated.

220px-ImariCI would guess, from the feel to it – and the fact that the heroine for her drive to the isolated house across the marshes uses as a matter of course, a pony and trap – that it was written no later than the 1920’s, before the car became common enough to have such a disastrous effect on our landscape (couldn’t possibly be an environmentalist, could I? But no ranting from me at Christmas)

It is not written as great literature, but as an effective ghost story which, unlike some of the others, is not intended to arouse deep emotion or raise questions. It could almost be used as an example of ‘How to write an entertaining ghost story with the use of humour and economy of style’.  It is set over the Christmas period, so was presumably written for some Christmas Annual or magazine for those days. Accordingly, the vocabulary is simple, and the tone is upbeat, even on such a topic as – for the women of the early twentieth century  a nightmare possibility  for themselves – the image of the Spinster Who Must Earn Her Keep:

‘Martha managed an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was, however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years old, and looked backwards and forwards to a selection of delightful days.’

She is a collector of valuable china. Staying with her cousins in Essex for Christmas, she remembers that years ago she bought a set of Crown Derby plate from an auction at a local house, which unfortunately had one plate missing.

Her cousins remark that that house has a reputation for being haunted, its former owner, old Sir James Sewell, a collector of antique china, having been buried in the garden.

Martha Pym drives over to see if she can find out if the current owner, who she met and forgot two years ago, has found that missing plate.

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The description of the wintry scene is evocative:

‘Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon; the olive brown broken reeds were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first stillness of a frost.  The air was cold but not keen; everything was damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes…’

I quote that at length because so fine a word picture seems incongruous in such a light piece of writing. Marjorie Bowen obviously had exceptional talent, but wrote for the market, which often does not give much opportunity to show it to advantage.

‘The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees, encompassed by an old brick wall…It was a square built, substantial house with “Nothing wrong with it but the situation,”  Miss Pym decided…She noticed at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a headstone showing above the colourless grass’.

The person who answers the door presents a startling appearance: ‘Her gross, flaccid figure was completely shapeless and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained with earth and damp from where Miss Pym supposed that she had been doing some futile gardening…another ridiculous touch about the poor old lady was her short hair.  (In that era, women were not expected to cut their hair at all).

An absurd conversation follows between Martha Pym and the owner:

‘“…I generally sit in the garden.”

“In the garden? But surely not in this weather?”

“You get used to the weather. You have no idea how used one gets to the weather.”

“I suppose so,” conceded Miss Pym doubtfully…’

Later on, the person whom Martha Pym assumes to be the last owner Miss Lefain informs her visitor that she frightens people away from the house:

‘”Frighten them away!” replied Martha Pym. “However do you do that?”

“It doesn’t seem difficult; people are so easily frightened, aren’t they?”

‘Miss Pym suddenly remembered that Hartleys had the reputation of being haunted – perhaps the queer old thing played on that. “I suppose you’ve never seen a ghost?” she asked pleasantly.  “I’d rather like to see one, you know –”.’

The reader doesn’t have a great talent for solving mysteries to begin to have suspicions about the house’s owner.

This is as excellent an example of the ghost story as light entertainment, as distinct from the ghost story which makes a profound impression and is written as literature, as in ‘The Wendigo’.  There is no particular moral to ‘The Crown Derby Plate’ – unless it is the very obvious one that if you are too attached to material objects, then your spirit will be unable to move on.

I am astonished by the output of some of these late nineteenth and early twentieth century authors. Even given that they wrote for a living, however did they manage to get so much writing done – particularly when this was in an era when most of it was done in longhand?

 

 

 

 

Engrossing YA -Jo Danilo’s ‘The Curtain Twitcher’s Handbook’

 

I have always admired this author’s writing, and I am really pleased that this novel is now available on Amazon. I only occasionally read YA, but I really enjoyed this one.

Excellent! I was really impressed.

This novel combines lively action, humour, vivid descriptions and characterisation in an expertly woven creepy supernatural adventure alternated with prosaic high school life in a small Yorkshire town.

There is a curse on a house by Tinker’s Wood, and it must begin and end with a death.
When new neighbours move next door to the protagonist Daisy May and her mother, something re-activates it from its decades long sleep.

This is a spine chilling story, and a funny and a sad one. It’s full of action and vivid descriptions, tersely recounted. I was hooked from the moment I read of foul Mr Braithwate, and his habitual saluation to all – with two fingers.

The protagonist Daisy is a delight; unlike so many heroines,who leave all the wise cracking to the boys, she even retains her wicked sense of humour after she falls in love (I don’t think it’s writing a spoiler to say that she does that ) and retains her sense of identity, too. She’s tender and tough if a bit diffident. She comes from a one parent family, and they’re hard up, and she has to work to help out, but she doesn’t whinge.

Daisy has normal teenage concerns – whether or not to agree to her boyfriend, the school’s prize athlete Fred, taking things further: after all, she’s sixteen now and, they’ve been going out for a couple of years…

But she is dismayed to find herself unaccountably attracted to the new boy in town, Will Mckenzie, soon to become an object of fascination among her friend group. Daisy, who blames him for allowing her dog to be run over, is in a quandary about her mixed feelings over him.

This male lead, Will, is as lovable a hero as Daisy is a heroine – even when he turns Daisy’s life upside down,you have to love him. Daisy is puzzled as to how she comes to attract two of the most desired boys in the school; the reader sees it as evidence of her attractive personality.

The pace is quick, the characters real, the humour perfectly balances the grim happenings, and I found it – here’s a cliche – ‘A real page turner’.

The story begins with the body of the unpleasant Mr Braithwaite being taken from the house next door, where he has lived alone since the mysterious disappearance of his wife many years ago. This sets Daisy off on a new activity for her – ‘curtain twitching’.

She has never spied on him before, as: ‘He had nothing to show me except for his slow crawl into urine-scented senility. There was more entertainment to be had watching bananas slowly rotting in a fruit bowl.’

But then the McKenzies move in and Daisy becomes fascinated by what is going on in the house. What makes Will act so oddly when he is in his room, and why does he feel the need to avoid going home? How does all this tie in with the story her Grandfather tells her, of the disappearance of an encampment of gypsies from Tinker’s Wood at about the same time of Mrs Braithwaite’s disappearance?

Try it yourself. You won’t want to put it down (I didn’t, and sadly I’m no YA).

Finally, here are a few of my favourite quotes.

“Death to begin it.” The whisper tore my eyelids open and made me spin round with a gasp. It was so close I could have sworn I’d felt the whisperer’s breath tickle my ear. I stared hard into the blackness but there was nobody there. Nobody at all. I heard the fear in my own uneven breathing. The Braithwaite light surged again, flooding the lane with a brief light and sending the same shooting pain into my temple. “Death to end it.’

‘A gentle breeze made the trees whisper and sway, and patches of sunlight danced across the floor. Everything was tinged with spring green, even the sound nearby fields, the soothing song of the wood pigeon. And through the tree trunks were glimpses of the patchwork hills and chocolate-brown moors beyond the wood, stretching on and on.’

“I wish I had half of what you have,” Will continued. “My grandparents never bothered with me and my parents aren’t interested in anything I do.”

‘He’s a little bit hunched over, as if he has a heavy pack on his back that weighs him down. But all this new vulnerability only enhances his charm. Everyone wants to look after him and take away his hurt.’

‘I twisted round frantically, to see whose dreadful claws were clutching my waist, adrenaline using my veins as a Grand Prix circuit.’

‘He looked awful, the whites of his eyes shot through with red and his skin so pale. Like a dead boy.’

You can buy this book here https://www.amazon.com/Curtain-Twitchers-Handbook-Jo-Danilo-ebook/dp/B07124DZYL/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1497616892

Miss de Mannering of Asham by F M Mayor: A Short Story of Love, Betrayal and Haunting

virago-cover A few months ago, I wrote a post about how one of the stories in ‘The Virago Book of Ghost Stories’, namely, Margery Lawrence’s ‘The Haunted Saucepan’ veered over the thin line between the ludicrous and the ghostly, so that it made me snort with laughter.

To be fair to Margery Lawrence, I believe she wrote some stories generally considered terrifying. Also, part of the problem was the dated ambiance of the story – the plight of the hero, ‘needing’ to live in Mayfair and accordingly forced to choose between living in his club, or ‘the discomfort of hotels’ is not one to arouse much sympathy among many modern readers.

It is interesting, therefore, that a story from the same era – and written from the same perspective of dated assumptions – is to my mind wholly successful as a ghost story, and having written about how one story in this collection fails in its purpose to terrify (though it gave me a wonderful laugh), it seems only fair to write about how to my mind ‘Miss de Mannering of Asham’ (amongst others) strikingly succeeds.

This story, by F M Mayor, was presumably written at some time in the 1920’s (the author died in 1932). It seems ‘the woman alone’ was one of her favourite themes, and this is certainly that of this short story. The atmosphere summed up in her story is tragic, and strangely believable. Also, there is an underlying compassionate attitude towards suffering humanity in the story, which elevates the tale beyond the level of a typical ghost story and leaves a lasting impression on the reader (anyway, it did with me).

The story begins with a couple of school teachers going on holiday to a resort in an unspecified area on the north east coast of England. They stay in an inn, hire a donkey and trap, and set out to explore the area. Duly coming to a great house set in extensive parkland, they enter (in those days, asking to see round stately homes was commonplace).

The day is overcast (as are so many humid summer days in England. As they drive through the parkland, they find it oppressive, particularly an avenue of laurels. Many of the trees in this park have been struck by lightning, and the protagonist Margaret feels a sense of pity for them, and discovers a general claustrophobic dislike of parkland she never realised she had before.

Kate is affected too, and so is the donkey. They come to the Jacobean mansion, and a young manservant greets them, one of a number left there by its current owner, who almost never visits. He hints at a ghostly atmosphere and a shut up room. Kate goes to visit the old church, and comes back pale and uncommunicative.

That night Margaret amd Kate suffer from nervous fears and they share a bed (this was written in the days when no possible sexual connotation regarding this would be made by the readership). The next morning, at breakfast, Kate reads about Asham Hall in her guide book, and suggests they return to look at the tombs. This time they go by bicycle, but Margaret becomes too affected by the atmosphere to go into the churchyard. She stays behind, and sees a woman in the churchyard, who walks down the path, passing Kate. Kate is aware of her approach, but does not see her.

Later a great aunt of their landlady at the inn tells them how her mother worked as a young woman at Asham Hall for the then aging Miss de Mannering, who treated her kindly, particularly when she was upset at being let down by a young man. On Miss de Mannering’s death, she bought some of her personal things so that they would not go to strangers, including, ‘a lot of writing’ and a portrait of Miss de Mannering.

victorian_headstones_englandThe woman shows both to the teachers, to whom she has taken a great liking. The portrait is dated ‘Bath 1805’ and Margaret thinks, ‘I should have been afraid of Miss de Mannering from her mouth and the turn of her head, they were so proud and aristocratic, but I loved her for the sad, timid eyes, which seemed to be appealing for kindness and protection.’

The writing – a story within a story, a device I have always found fascinating – relates the story of Miss de Mannering, an isolated, plain and lonely girl living alone with an elderly, ill tempered father, obsessed by money problems. At the age of twenty-five, she is sent by him to Bath to stay with her aunt and cousin and find a husband.

Her aunt and cousin treat her kindly, but she is not a success at Bath. However, her cousin tells her that a man called Captain Phillimore admires her ‘countenance’.  ‘I congratulate you with all my heart.’

Miss de Mannering relates, ‘Captain Phillimore sought me out again and again’. Though reputedly wild and extravagant, he proposes to her, but insists that he has reasons why their coming marriage should be kept secret. Meanwhile, he asks her to consummate their coming marriage in the summerhouse, dismissing the marriage ceremony, ‘Using the ‘wicked sophistries of the infidel philosophers of France…But alas, there was no need of sophistries. I loved him as no weak mortal should be loved…’

Miss de Mannering returns to Asham, and eagerly awaits Captain Phillimore’s arrival to ask for her. But ‘Certainty was succeeded by hope, hope by doubt, doubt by dread’. She discovers that she is pregnant. She confides in her old nurse, who advises her how best to conceal her changing shape, and arranges for her to go to an associate elsewhere to give birth.

Meanwhile, lonely and forsaken, Miss de Mannering is tormented by the stormy weather, with violent thunderstorms, and the oppressive skies of August. In November, some women she met in Bath come to visit. To her horror, they talk of how Captain Phillimore betted with his friends  that he would seduce the three most innocent maids in Bath.

‘My love was dead, but I could not, could not, hate him.’ She sends for her old nurse, but snow is falling fast, and before she can arrive, Miss de Mannering goes into premature labour. The baby only lives for hours. Miss de Mannering would have buried him herself in the churchyard, but the ground is frozen. She burns the body on the fire. Subsequently, she goes into a fever lasting many weeks.

When she comes to herself, the doctor gently reveals to her that he knows her full story, but ‘A physician may sometimes give his humble aid to the soul as well as to the body. Let me recall to your suffering soul that all of us sinners are promised mercy through our Redeemer. I entreat you not to lose heart.’ The compassionate doctor arranges for her to go on holiday with his sister.

Miss de Mannering returns to Asham with her health restored. ‘I learnt to forgive him.’

Kate and Margaret also find a letter from Captain Phillimore to Miss de Mannering, dated 1810 and sent from ‘Hen and Chicken Court. Clerkenwell ‘ (then a decidedly rough area in London):

‘Standing as I do on the confines of eternity, I venture to address you. Long have I desired to implore your forgiveness, but have not presumed so far. I entreat you not to spurn my letter…my vows were false, but even at the time I faltered, as I encountered your trusting and affectionate gaze…Had I embraced the opportunity offered me by Destiny to link my happiness with one as innocent and confiding as yourself, I might have been spared the wretchedness which has been my portion…’

The letter is stained with tears, which Kate finds incomprehensible over ‘That skunk’. But Margaret guesses far better, ‘All that letter, with it’s stilted, old-fashioned style, which makes it hard for us to believe that the writer was in earnest, would have meant to Miss de Mannering.’

f-m-mayorMy short quotations can do little justice to the atmosphere of the story, and the strong, yet understated, style in which it is written. The tale of the innocent young woman wronged and seduced would have been written countless times even in the 1920’s, yet this ghost story relates it with a freshness and a verve that brings its poignancy to life all over again.

I found it very moving, particularly the ending, and Captain Phillimore’s repentance.  I was interested to read online that interest in the writing of this author, neglected for decades, has recently revived.