by Chesney Parker
Robert Smith looked over the top of his steel rimmed glasses at the stately old building, and felt a queer sense of disproportion. There was something decidedly odd about the overall shape of this place. And there was something equally odd about the price the owner was asking; it was far too low.
“Now, isn’t that a picture?” said the real estate agent as the car drove slowly up to the house. “It was built nearly two hundred years ago.”
The solid stone residence was set on about 4 acres of gently sloping Sussex countryside, amid trees that appeared to be nearly as old as the house itself. Their branches were spread in wide horizontal layers, creating a wonderful sense of tranquillity on the grassy slopes.
“Oh yes, I like the look of this one,” said Marion Smith. “I love the ivy on the walls. And look, it even has a rose garden!” She rolled the car window down and sat forward to get a better view. “But I do hope the inside isn’t as bad as the last one we looked at.”
The agent said, “Oh, you don’t need to worry about that, the owners have done quite a bit of work on the inside, so I think you’ll be more than pleased.” He smiled to himself, already counting his sales commission.
As he got out of the car and pondered the scene, Robert idly scratched the bald patch on top of his head. It annoyed him not to be able to identify the slightly peculiar feeling he had when he looked at the building. There was something about it that was just not logical.
Then he looked at the trees and was taken by their calm endurance. They created the type of serenity where one could spend a lot of time. Indeed, time seemed to stand still under those majestic branches.
As they examined the inside of the house, Marion moved rapidly from room to room, her blond head bobbing first through one door, then through another. It was obvious to her husband that she was falling in love with the place. In fact, her antics reminded him of a small bird caught up in the enthusiasm of building its first nest.
They had been married only six months and had been living in the somewhat cramped conditions of his small London flat. He had bought it 15 years earlier as an investment, and had sold it last month (for an outrageous price) to an American actress who wanted a quiet place to stay when she visited England. The profit from the sale enabled the Smiths to look for something with much more space.
Robert walked methodically from room to room in the old mansion, examining everything with his accountant’s eye. There were some cracks in the plaster to be patched, some extra plumbing to be installed, and some wooden frames to be repainted. The inside work done by the previous owners was not at all up to his meticulous standards of finish, but that was not unusual; he rarely found anything that was these days. Even so, the place seemed basically sound and he had an engineer friend who would pick up any serious structural defects, if they existed. He still felt a little uneasy about it, however, and remained very suspicious of the low price.
“How long has it been on the market?” he asked the agent.
“Oh, just a couple of months. It’s a bit out of the way for most people. And, of course, it really only appeals to a very limited and selective clientele. There are not too many people who would appreciate the workmanship in a staircase like this, for instance. It’s magnificent, isn’t it?”
Robert noticed the not so subtle change of subject, but decided not to pursue the matter further for the moment. If there was a title problem, like an expressway about to be built through the middle of the property, his solicitor would discover that. He idly scratched the top of his head as he gazed up at the staircase. It was indeed ‘magnificent’, but the overall design did not seem to fully align with all the floors; another puzzlement.
The agent prattled on about other items of interest around the place, but Robert was not listening. He was thinking about how he had always wanted a home in the country; a place where he could find some peace and solitude. And it really was a bargain, despite the minor repairs that were needed; and besides, he liked tinkering around the house. It would give him something to do on weekends and long summer evenings. Of course, Marion had obviously made up her mind that this was indeed to be their dream home.
Two weeks later he arrived home and said, “Well my dear, Bill’s checked the place over and tells me it’s in excellent shape. And the solicitor says there is no legal reason in the world why we shouldn’t go ahead and snap it up; he says it’s a bargain.”
“Oh, that’s marvellous!” she said, hugging him wildly. “When can we move in?”
“Hey, not so fast. Let me at least have some dinner first.” He was very happy to see the delight on his wife’s face. They had married late in life and there was always a small concern in the back of his mind that he might not be able to keep her happy.
“Of course, there are still one or two minor details to arrange, like finance and so forth. I mean, suppose the bank doesn’t want to lend us the extra thirty thousand?”
“Don’t be absurd Robert! There’s no way in the world you would have left that to chance. In fact, I’d be willing to bet you had it all organised long before we even started looking around last month. Now isn’t that so?”
“Yes, you’re absolutely right, my dear. I was only teasing. We just have to sign the mortgage documents, once the legal process has taken it’s course. Oh, and by the way, I think Bill may have discovered why the place looks so odd. It’s just one wing of what used to be a much larger place.”
Four weeks later, the maddening paperwork had all been completed and they were having their first meal in the new house. They sat in the dining room on garden chairs amid a confusion of half opened packing cases and wrongly placed furniture.
“Mmmm! Your cooking smells absolutely delicious, my dear, and I’m so hungry, I could eat a horse.”
“Sorry, no horses on the menu today. How about baked beans on toast?”
“Is that what smells so good?” They were really enjoying the experience and happiness showed on both their faces.
It was at precisely 11:00 PM, as they sat in bed reading, that the ghost walked through their bedroom. It was obviously a ghost, because it entered the room by walking through the wall and, as it passed by the foot of their bed, they could see it’s body was quite transparent.
Marion screamed. Robert looked over the top of his reading glasses. The ghost stopped and looked directly at Marion’s terror stricken face, then it put its hand to its mouth and darted back through the wall through which it had entered.
Robert noticed the apparition had long flowing hair and was wearing a frill-necked shirt and an elegant cape with a jewelled clasp; clearly an aristocrat. He could not see, however, what it was wearing from the waist down, for that part of its anatomy was below floor level. He got out of bed and walked over to examine the wall through which the ghost had vanished. Marion, who was still making small whimpering noises from beneath the security of her bedclothes, watched as he tapped the wall in several places. Finally he stepped back and idly scratched the top of his head with his little finger. “Fascinating.”
“Is that all you can say? Aren’t you going to do anything about it?” She was still shaking with fright.
“I don’t see what I can do about it, my love. It’s gone.” He walked back to the bed, still looking at the wall. “Anyway, it didn’t seem to bear us any ill will; in fact, it seemed to be just as frightened as you were.”
“No ill will? …but… But Robert, it was a ghost! And…” She shrank down further under the bed clothes, trembling, and nothing he could say would calm her down. He held her in his arms for nearly an hour before falling asleep himself. Marion, however, stayed awake until nearly daybreak.
The disturbance meant he had to make his own breakfast in the morning, because Marion was, by then, sleeping soundly. He was not too pleased about that, but the quiet drive to work through the Sussex countryside helped to soothe his nerves. And, as he gazed out upon the luscious green fields and the proud old trees, he concluded he had definitely made the right decision in moving out of town, and no ghost was going to cheat him out of that!
At a few minutes before 11:00 on the second night, they were both sitting up in bed again. Robert was reading and Marion was staring fixedly at the wall through which the ghost had appeared the night before.
“Do you think he’ll come again tonight?” she asked.
“What?… Oh, you mean our well dressed friend with no legs. I really have no idea. He didn’t leave a timetable when he whistled through last night.” Marion was not amused by his attempted levity.
At precisely eleven o’clock, the eighteenth century gentleman again strolled into their twentieth century bedroom, blissfully unaware he was walking on a floor that no longer existed. Again Marion screamed and once more Robert looked over the top of his reading glasses to see the elegant apparition become startled by Marion’s hysteria and make a hasty retreat. Robert was not sure which of the two was more frightened.
It took nearly two hours to calm her down this time and in the morning he found himself once again making his own breakfast. It was now clear he would have to handle the situation. Two nights in a row suggested strongly that night number three would be a certainty. Indeed, the ghost needed no timetable; it appeared you could set your watch by him.
At 9:00 AM Robert phoned the office to tell them he would be taking the day off. He then sat down and pondered the problem for the next couple of hours. He could not understand why Marion was getting so upset. There was no real reason for it; the ghost seemed perfectly harmless. In fact, it almost seemed embarrassed about the disturbance it created. It was just not logical for her to react the way she did.
At noon, he made some tea and toast and took them up to her. She stirred and made a gentle moaning noise as he entered the bedroom. He noticed the bed clothes were all twisted and tossed around on the bed; she had obviously not been sleeping well.
“Good morning my dear,” he said in an over enthusiastic voice. He put the tray down on the table, then opened the curtains wide and slid the window up to let in some fresh air.
“It’s not ‘morning’ any more,” she finally said in a croaking voice, “and it’s definitely not ‘good’. I feel terrible.”
“Now you mustn’t let this thing get you down my love,” he said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “There’s really nothing to be upset about. That silly ghost is just as frightened of you, as you are of it. Why don’t you just put it out of your mind. Here, have some tea.”
“That’s easy for you to say.”
“Just look at it logically. It runs away every time you scream, so there really is no reason at all for you to be frightened. I really don’t know why you get so upset.”
“Well, I don’t know why I get upset either! I mean…, why does anyone get upset about anything? All I know is when a legless ghost walks through my bedroom in the middle of the night, I get upset. And most people would agree that this was more than enough reason to get upset! I mean… it’s just… upsetting!” She dropped the tea cup back on the tray with a clatter, turned away and began to cry.
“I’m sorry, my dear,” he said, trying to console her as best he could, but he was not very good with emotional situations and finally just gave her hand a gentle pat before heading for the door. “I’ll see what I can do,”
His attempt to handle Marion with logic had failed dismally. He still felt, however, there should be some way to apply logic to the problem itself. What he needed was more information. There had to be a clue to the thing somewhere. He decided to take a trip into the local village to see what he could find out.
When he arrived, he went straight to the library where he asked for information on local historical buildings. He was directed to the Chief Librarian; an old man who worked in a small room at the back. He had apparently lived in the district for nearly eighty years. Looking around the room at the piles of dusty books and old furniture, Robert was prepared to believe the old man had lived in that room for nearly eighty years.
The librarian was hunched over an old oak table and he was so still it was difficult to tell whether the he was reading or sleeping. “Um, excuse me,” said Robert.
The old man’s head shot up suddenly, “What? Eh?”
“I’m looking for information on the old house at the end of Cantwell Lane.”
“Ok, Ok. No need to shout! I’m not deaf.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Robert, who then began to relate his story. As he did so, the old man listened with growing interest, then started to fill in the gaps.
He confirmed the engineer’s earlier discovery that their house was merely one wing of what used to be a much larger residence; the country retreat of an eighteenth century duke. The rest of the manor had been destroyed by fire in 1799.
“And as for your nightly visitor, I’d say it was the old duke himself. He’s been seen on and off for over a hundred years now. Never does anyone any harm, mind you, but he certainly puts the wind up a few people from time to time. Let’s see, his last visit was about thirty years ago. Or was it forty…?” He looked at the ceiling for several long seconds. “Yes, it was forty. I remember the fuss it caused; the owners eventually left the district and the house remained unoccupied for ages.” He cackled quietly to himself; the wrinkles on his face turning into deep grooves of mirth. Then he went quiet and looked as though he was about to go to sleep.
“What was he like, this duke?”
“Eh? Oh.., he was a real gentleman, that one. Very considerate of others; even his household staff. In fact, if you can believe the old tales, he would not even disturb his servants after eight o’clock at night, preferring to do things for himself when it was late. That’s the type of man he was.”
The flow of words dried up again, so Robert said, “And how did he die?”
“Eh? Oh.., he was murdered by his brother, or so they say. Can’t be sure it was his brother, of course, but certainly he was murdered. The fire was supposed to destroy the evidence, but the staff managed to put it out before it got to your west wing. That’s where they found his body.”
“Excellent!” said Robert. “It’s all falling into a logical pattern. But what about his appearing to walk on a floor lower than the real one?”
“Well, after the fire, the family restructured the remaining wing and put in an extra floor. They couldn’t afford to keep the luxury of the gallery.”
“Yes, it ran right through the entire place from east to west; the old duke was quite an art lover, you know. But the floor of the gallery would have been at a different level, because they restructured the original two storey building into three stories.”
“So now I understand,” said Robert, gazing off into the distance above the old man’s head. “All that remains now is to find a way to stop his infernal nightly strolls through the gallery. That way, my wife can get her sleep and I can begin to enjoy a decent breakfast again.”
“What’s that you say? Breakfast?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was talking to myself. You’ve been enormously helpful. Thank you very much.”
The old man grunted and slumped over his books again as Robert left.
On the way home, he thought about what the old man had said and realised at last how he could handle the situation. But when he walked in the front door, he was disturbed to notice that Marion had packed a small bag which was standing in the hallway.
“Hello dear,” he said cheerily. “How have you been getting on today?”
“Not too well, I’m afraid. In fact, I think I’ll have to stay at the hotel in the village tonight. I really can’t take any more of this.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary my love, I’ve just found the solution to our problem. All it required was a little understanding and some logical thinking.” He grinned broadly, then picked up her small bag and handed it to her. “Here, take this upstairs, then go and put the dinner on. I have something to do outside.”
“Are you sure Robert?”
“Yes, quite sure.” He patted her hand gently, then went outside to look at the eastern wall. Sure enough, part way up the face of the old stonework he could see the outline of what must have been the gallery of the old manor house. He nodded, smiled, then headed for the tool shed to put his plan into action.
Just before eleven o’clock that night they were both propped up in bed as usual. He was reading and she was sitting bolt upright with her eyes glued to the wall, slowly edging the sheet up to her neck as the time approached.
At five minutes past eleven, Marion looked over at the bedside clock and burst out indignantly, “He’s late!”.
Her husband looked at her over the top of his glasses. “Are you never going to be satisfied, my love? Would you like him to revert to his old schedule?”
“NO!” she shouted. “I mean, …I thought… But, what did you do?”
“Never mind, my dear,” he replied, “just be thankful that the situation is handled and rest assured he will not be bothering us again.” He rolled over and went to sleep, feeling very pleased with himself and dreaming of breakfast.
The next morning, after her husband had left for work, Marion Smith went outside to do some work in her new garden. She had been pruning the roses near the east wall for about ten minutes when she happened to look up and see the result of her husband’s efforts of the night before.
“Now, whatever could have possessed him to do that, I wonder.”
What she did not comprehend was the logic behind the neat white letters painted halfway up the face of the old stonework. They simply said, ‘SERVANTS’ QUARTERS’. The good Duke’s visiting time had, of course, been well after eight o’clock each night.