Emma Hawthorne loved the old and picturesque, and authorities and guidebooks agreed that Dartwood was one of the best-preserved sixteenth-century manor houses in southern England. Erected on the site of a suppressed Benedictine monastery by one of Henry VIII’s favourites — who somehow escaped the executioner’s axe — no careless owner had set it afire after a night’s drunken carousal, nor had it suffered the indignities of being sold to pay gambling debts, or seized by the government for use as a military hospital.
Nevertheless, Dartwood undoubtedly had stories to tell, and when Emma got around to writing her Reminiscences of an Amateur Antiquarian, a weekend visit to it would take pride of place. But despite her acquaintance with the late Colonel Tainton’s daughter Drusilla, and several dropped hints, she had never been asked to stay there. So when the invitation finally came, she seized on it eagerly. Drusilla was a crashing bore, but she could put up with that for one night.
Drusilla welcomed her effusively, then descended to apologies. “The costs of upkeep have become so exorbitant that I’m afraid I’ve let a number of matters slide. I’m almost ashamed of inviting overnight visitors, but I’m sure an old acquaintance such as yourself will make allowances.”
Emma hastened to agree. The years had not dealt kindly with Drusilla, either: she had become painfully thin, age-spots disfigured her trembling hands, a lorgnette dangled from her wrinkled neck on a fine gilt chain. One need look no further for a model of the decayed English gentlewoman.
Dartwood, built for a more spacious age, could overawe the unprepared visitor. Not Emma, though: sitting opposite Drusilla in an overstuffed armchair, beneath age-darkened family portraits in the yellow drawing-room, she half-expected to see a party of tourists appear on the heels of their flag-brandishing guide. She could even have improvised the guide’s patter. Drusilla would make the perfect exhibit, came the wicked thought.
Her hostess’s “Don’t you think, Emma?” recalled her to the present. Collecting herself, she replied noncommittally to Drusilla’s latest platitude.
Dinner — pretentious in conception, parsimonious in execution — seemed interminable. The meal finally over, the cook-housekeeper served weak coffee. They sipped, making halting conversation with lengthy silences. Then Drusilla began to pour out her troubles.
“I fear I shall soon have to leave Dartwood, Emma. We who live on fixed incomes are ill-prepared indeed for ‘rampant inflation’, as the Times calls it. At some point, I must cut my losses and take…a seaside cottage, I think. But leaving Dartwood will break my heart, though it’s far too large a house for a single woman.”
Emma listened with barely disguised impatience to Drusilla’s lamentations, marvelling that anyone could feel affection for such a forbidding pile. But she had experienced Dartwood, and need never come near it again.
Foreseeing further longueurs, she was only too happy to agree with Drusilla’s suggestion of a partie of piquet. A dusty bottle of Grand Marnier made its appearance, and two generous glasses projected Emma into her mellowest mood of the day.
Around ten, Drusilla showed Emma to her room. “I’ve put you in one of the most original. Not totally original, of course: furnishing fabrics don’t survive four hundred and fifty years. But I know your taste for the antique. You’ll be alone in the old wing. My bedroom’s in the Georgian part.”
The four-poster bed, curtained in flowered blue damask, met, if not exceeded, Emma’s expectations. Tonight, she’d sleep like a Tudor lady. Finely-carved wall-panelling complemented it: probably not Gibbons, but at least a talented follower.
Undressing quickly, for it was none too warm, Emma draped her clothes over a high-backed chair and slipped on her nightgown.
A small shelf of dusty books caught her eye: two volumes of The Newgate Calendar, the Collected Works of M. R. James. Far too ghoulish for bedtime reading, but a slim manuscript, yellow with age, protruded from between two of them. She carefully extracted it, seeing on its title-page the date 1736.
Emma’s spirits leapt at the unexpected find. Her familiarity with eighteenth-century penmanship gave her no difficulty in puzzling out its meaning. Her eyes flew over the pages.
A domestic drama unfolded. Discovering that his young wife had been unfaithful, the third and last Viscount Enderby had invited the unsuspecting adulterer to Dartwood, plied him with wine and brandy, then — in his own words, disdaining to shed the blood of so dishonourable a wretch — smothered him in his bedroom as he lay in a drunken stupor. Tried for murder before the Lords and found guilty, the viscount was hanged with the traditional silken rope. Dartwood passed into other hands and eventually came to the Taintons, distant cousins of the Enderbys.
Emma shivered, and not merely with cold. It had been an uncomfortable choice of reading. Perhaps in this room, even in this bed…? The presence of the document might not be coincidence.
Her gaze flicked to the door, guarded by a massive old-fashioned lock. Half-mocking herself for morbid fancies, she turned the key, hearing the satisfying clunk as the bolt shot home. The floorboards creaked softly under her bare feet as she approached the bed.
The voice — low, cultured, with a hint of wry humour — came from within the bed-curtains.
“Now we’re locked in for the night.”
Drusilla rose early, bathed, dressed and hastened to the old wing. Emma’s door was locked, but that would not have availed her. Using her skeleton key, Drusilla entered.
The room lay empty and undisturbed, as if Emma Hawthorne had never been. Drusilla permitted herself a small smile. The spirit of George Enderby had hungered long, and that condescending busybody, a woman of no social consequence, would offer fitting sustenance.
Locking the door behind her, Drusilla turned her steps to the breakfast parlour. She rang the bell.
The cook entered, wiping her hands on her apron. “Yes, Ma’am?”
“Miriam, Miss Hawthorne has been obliged to depart at short notice. Breakfast for one, please.”
Chris Morey lives and writes in Marsaskala, Malta. He has done a wide range of jobs and community projects. He’s widely-traveled, and enjoys performance art and reading. He has been writing creatively since 2015.