by Katherine Givens
Darkness shrouded the bedchamber as I lay in bed, uncovered. I counted the veins on the ceiling, rocks and mortar pieced together centuries before. Counting kept me from my nightmares. Not the nightmares fabricated by dreams, but living demons coiling through memories.
And if I fell asleep the demons would only follow me there.
The cracks seemed endless. One spawned after another, too many for me to track in my head. It distracted. It kept my mind awake, but away from thoughts that I was a stranger in this great house.
“Please, listen to me….”
In the chamber next door, I heard my aged and widowed aunt mutter in her sleep. During my week spent in Chapple Hall, she often talked in her slumber. She carried full conversations with the figments of her dreams. Or rather figment, for she always seemed to address one person in particular.
“I love you.” She paused, the darkness swarming in. “More than my own soul.”
This wasn’t home. Home was in the cottage by the Cornish sea, where I awoke to waves crashing on the jagged shores. Not here in Yorkshire, where in the morning I heard the creak of my weary aunt’s door and the emptiness of the moors.
I began to slip away. On the ceiling, the cracks blurred. I struggled to stay in the waking, but exhaustion pulled me under. I fell into the lull of sleep, where I saw my father’s corpse. Lifeless in his coffin, his flesh pale and his fingers skeletal. Passed from consumption in the comfort of our cottage, and leaving me into my aunt’s care.
My aunt through her marriage, not in blood.
I tossed and whimpered in my bed, until morning’s bleak light drifted through the slit of my window. And outside in the corridor, my aunt’s light steps passed my door as she went downstairs to start the day.
Somewhere in the tedium of Chapple Hall’s silence, the longcase clock in the entrance hall struck the afternoon hour. Its rings rippled through the halls and corridors, the only sound to rival the rasps and groans of the house.
I sat in the library with the curtains drawn open, as the sun’s rays sieved through the clouds. Shadows stood still against the walls, as if waiting in audience. Waiting for me to move from my perch atop a crimson damask settee.
In my hand I held another trivial book. My aunt’s home reminded me much of the setting in The Mysteries of Udolpho. Perhaps this was why I snapped the book shut on a wave of frustration.
I went to the bookshelf to find myself another diversion. One without gloom. One to stimulate joy in my despair. I shoved The Mysteries of Udolpho back in its nook and sorted through the other titles.
My fingers skimmed along the spines, staying on one title with mild interest. Wuthering Heights. I took the book from its resting place and out from its pages slipped a sheet of paper. Fluttering to the ground, like the feather from the broken wing of a dove.
That tattered page, yellowed at the corners, held more fascination than any book in the library. I placed Wuthering Heights to the side, somewhere I remember not. I bent to pick up the slipped paper, my curiosity flaring.
On a crinkle I unfolded the page to discover a letter written in a rough hand. Swoops and curves jagged, as if written during a carriage ride. It was dated 1830, a full twenty years prior. Piqued, I began to read.
My Sweetest Love,
I break when I think of the news sweeping through our neighborhood. You’ve granted your hand to the most unworthy of suitors, and for what? His fortune and title? Nameless I may be, but my heart beats louder for you than any other man’s. Do you not hear it’s drumming before you fall asleep? Do you not hear its echoes in your dreams? You scorn me, and I understand not why. I refuse to stay to watch you spend your days in the house of another. I write this goodbye bound for London, where I intend to make a name for myself. A name above any hereditary title. Hear my heart in your dreams, wherever you may lay your head.
And remember how I have loved you,
Somehow, in the span of a few words, Chapple Hall blazed with wonderment. Outside the dreariness, as I stared at the love note, a sliver of history captured me. My father’s death forgotten, if only for a time.
But on the creak of a door hinge, my head snapped up.
“Beatrice,” my aunt scolded from the library doorway. “Why do you sit on the floor?”
I peeked over the letter’s edge and into her eyes. Hazel eyes, as barren as the skies above the cliffs and thrushes. She’d seen much, but lived little in this desolation.
“No reason.” I folded the love letter on a crumple. “I was seeking a distraction.”
“And you found one down there?”
“On my paws? No.”
“You’ll catch an illness if you stay put.” She walked over to me, gliding like a wraith across the floorboards. She paused over me and extended a hand. “Come.”
“Where to?” I tucked the letter into a pocket, which escaped my aunt’s notice.
“Far from this room.” She glanced around at the dusty volumes and shelves. Emptiness filled her voice as she added, “Nothing but disappointment comes from within these walls.”
I asked not for an explanation as I reached for her skeletal fingers. She pulled me up with the strength of a goliath. Over the hem of my dress I tripped, colliding into her slenderness.
“Goodness, Beatrice.” She grabbed at my shoulder, steadying herself as well as me. “You must be more careful in how you conduct yourself.”
I nodded to her. “Yes, Aunt Lenore.”
She brushed at her skirts. Without a huff, she smoothed the wrinkles from the midnight taffeta. She seemed not to notice the colors of mourning on her, as if it matched her.
“Mrs. Rush will fetch you for supper within the hour.” She gazed around the library. “Tonight, you will dine downstairs, and not in your rooms. We’ve a guest waiting.”
Off she went, her memories breaking. Her gait quick, as if these walls whispered a curse only she could hear.
Knocking came at my bedchamber door long after dusk dwindled. From my desk I glanced upwards, my mind severed from the love letter still in my hands. Read many times over, but still not understood.
I dropped the page into my desk drawer, locked in my thoughts.
“Open, will you?” Mrs. Rush called.
She beat against the slab. Her echoes resounded through my room, as hollow as a mausoleum. “One moment, please.”
I rose to answer the housekeeper, but without hurry. Dread trickled through me as I considered the seclusion of Chapple Hall. Locals and travelers alike avoided the great house. Few dared the moors, unless departing.
My hand fell onto the brass knob, and opened on the latch’s click. In the hall stood the house’s oldest body. Drab in her greys, she rivalled a doily in all her lace. Her mobcap covered smoky curls, with one astray at her forehead. Sable eyes peered at me from behind thick spectacles, knowing and not knowing.
Mrs. Rush cleared her throat, husky from shouting at the maids through the day. “Will you refuse your aunt company at yet another meal?”
“Not this evening.” I closed the door behind me, only one step from her. “We have a guest tonight?”
“Guest.” She scoffed. “One without appetite.”
Mrs. Rush clipped her heels on a sharp turn. She guided me from the shelter of my room and through a narrow corridor. Down a spiraling staircase, the steps beneath our feet rasped.
In my ears I heard my heart beating. Not once since coming to Chapple Hall had I dined with my aunt. I had chosen to take my meals in my rooms since my arrival the week before, trapped into my grief. But tonight tugged me to her.
“Does Aunt Lenore often entertain guests?” I asked.
Mrs. Rush stopped at the bottom of the steps. Her hands grasped the railing as she glanced at me. “She never has visitors.”
“Except for tonight?”
Her eyes held a secret not whispered. “Tonight is like any other.”
Mrs. Rush continued on to a hall where portraiture hung from the walls. Along the way, painted eyes stared down at us. Generations of Chapple Hall’s residents forever marked in oils. But Aunt Lenore’s likeness, I noticed, hung not with her kin.
“Who dines alongside us?”
“You are filled with questions.” Mrs. Rush came to mahogany doors. She paused once more, her face hidden. “Why ask when you may see for yourself?”
She pulled open the doors and ushered me inside. Before I could thank her for her direction, she shut me into the dining room. I stared at the mahogany paneling, thinking her the oddest creature.
“Beatrice, my dear.” Aunt Lenore’s chair scraped against the floor. “Face us, will you?”
I turned to the room, viewing it for the first time. Aunt Lenore walked to me as I examined. Above, a chandelier swung on a creak. Dimness ringed the oak furnishings below. Around a long table stood twelve chairs with Celtic-like carvings in the backs. Three settings were placed at the end, but without a soul to seat.
“At last, you’ve come.” Aunt Lenore embraced me. “And none too soon.”
I separated myself from her and glanced around the room. “Has our guest not arrived?”
“He sits at the end, there.” She pointed at a vacant chair. Not even a shadow sat in its space.
“I see no one.”
“Beatrice, mind your manners.”
I looked between her, and the emptiness she defended. Again, I looked around the table, searching for someone not in attendance. We stood alone, she and I, as the chandelier continued to swing. Shadows danced on the walls, like the hearth’s flames, but without warmth.
Aunt Lenore faced the shades. “Meet Mr. Thomas Gandell, my oldest friend.”
Fear strummed through me as I remembered the letter tucked into my desk drawer. Thomas, the name scratched out in loops and jags.
“No one sits there.”
“Of course he does,” Aunt Lenore insisted. “Can you not see him as he reaches for his wine?”
Beside the china, the goblet remained in its place. Silver glinted in the candlelight, but rested as it waited for lips to take from it. My aunt nodded, as if encouraging me to witness what wasn’t there.
I decided to follow Aunt Lenore’s charade, for in her smile she believed in her delusions.
“Mr. Gandell.” I addressed the emptiness, my vision dimming. “What a pleasure it is to see—”
And I saw it. The goblet slid a smidgen. On its own, by a hand unseen.
“Oh, goodness.” I backed against the doors, my legs trembling.
“Beatrice, you’ve grown pale.”
My breathing raced as I watched the goblet. I waited for it to move again, but it stayed still. And I tried to convince myself it was a trick of the mind, but inside I knew. Thomas.
“Aunt, I feel unwell.” I closed my eyes, my hand at my throat. “May I take my supper upstairs?”
“But Mr. Gandell has been eager to meet you.”
“Please, aunt.” I fiddled for the knob behind me, in need of escape. “I am fatigued from the day.”
I fell back a step as the door opened. I waited not for her to answer as I stumbled from the dining room. Dashing past the portraiture, I left Aunt Lenore with her invisible guest.
And to my rooms I bolted.
I reached my chamber with fear following in the shadows. Creeping towards me, like a living thing, waiting for me at my weakest. On my shoulder, I leaned against the slab. I stayed in the hall, my gaze darting about.
Quiet surrounded as I stood, seeking. But nothing came. Nothing, except for fear.
One sound shattered the chrysalis. Rustling came from my chamber. Not the flutter of a curtain from the winds of an opened window, nor the whispers of silk demure. Pages, as if someone read.
Oh, how I longed for my father’s comforting embrace. His scent of whiskey as the stubble on his chin brushed against my temple. His humor, his stories, as he straightened the delusions of my mind. I missed him, as one does a song ended.
Heart, quicker than the beats of a horse spooked, pattered as I reached for the doorknob. I reached without thought, without plan. Beyond entering and intruding into my own chamber, I knew not where to step in this madhouse.
On a moan, the door opened. Darkness hung in the chamber, like the dead man on the noose. Candlelight burned low at my desk, protecting its keeper, Mrs. Rush, in an orb from the nightfall. In her hands, gnarled from decades of work, she held a page.
I blinked at her. “What do you do with my belongings?”
“Your belongings?” She lay the page on the desk, her fingers stroking the words. “This, child, belongs to your aunt. Not you.”
“I found it in the library, neglected in the pages of a book.”
“How can it be neglected, when your aunt keeps it there for reasons of her own?”
I shivered at a draft through the entryway. “It was old and forgotten, and—”
“Oh, not forgotten. Never forgotten.” Mrs. Rush pushed herself from the seat, slow in her rise. “She keeps the letter in Wuthering Heights, because it reminds of her what was and is.”
“Love alive.” Mrs. Rush’s sagging cheeks lifted as she smiled. “Sir Thomas Gandell proposed to her in that library, but she had to rebuff him. Her marriage to your uncle had been arranged and agreed to the day before. Out of convenience. Thomas fled the library on the news. He took the first coach bound to London, but died when it overturned on roads slick with mud.”
“What is this house?” I glanced about the chamber. Walls, cracked with age. Floors, dusted over. Oak furnishings, grand and imposing. “What is this insanity?”
Mrs. Rush picked up her candlestick. “Hope.”
She started towards me, towards the doorway. She stopped before me, her hand taking mine. Without thought or sound, she led me down the corridor and back to the spiraling staircase.
“No.” I tugged against her hold.
“Hush, child.” Her hand tightened on mine. “Your struggling does you no good.”
“I am not going downstairs.” I tried to free myself once more, but the old woman’s grasp was mightier than my will.
“Allow me to show you something, then you may run back to your rooms. Or from this house.” She started down the steps, not looking back. “Whatever you may choose.”
And so she guided like the boatman on the River Styx. Down we went, steady in our descent. Steps creaked until we reached the bottom. Painted eyes watched as we walked through the hall leading to the dining room.
Mrs. Rush stopped at the mahogany doors. “Look and see how from the shadows comes light.”
She shoved at the doors. Light bathed the dining room, but not from the flames of the swinging chandelier. A glow crowded from the end of the table, and within the beams sat the figment of a gentleman. Dressed in coarse country clothing, as if ready to travel. His tall hat on the table, his gloves on his hands. He held a goblet, a smile on his face as he listened to my Aunt Lenore.
“Fear not, child.” Mrs. Rush hooked her arm into mine. “Mr. Gandell is a rather kind soul.”
She coaxed me into the room, our steps sound. Aunt Lenore and her guest stopped their chatter and turned to us. I shielded my eyes as I looked at Thomas, aghast at how bright his blue eyes burned.
“Oh, Beatrice.” Aunt Lenore clapped her hands together. “You’ve returned.”
“Strong,” Mrs. Rush said. I swayed towards the housekeeper, but she held me firm. “Albeit weak in the knees.”
I ogled the man in the light. His smile stayed strong, warm. And his rays, I swore, snuffed out the competing flames of the chandelier.
“Does my sight lie to me?” I asked.
“Not at all,” Mrs. Rush assured. “We all see him.”
Aunt Lenore exchanged glances with Thomas, her vacant eyes filled with the sun. “He burns brightest at night when all may see him.”
Mrs. Rush leaned towards me and whispered, “Only your aunt sees him in the daylight, but that is because he belongs to her.”
I clamored forward, slipping from Mrs. Rush. I grasped the back of a chair, steadying myself. “How…how…?”
“How do you do?” Thomas, the man, rose from his chair. He crooked his neck on a bow. And all the shadows scattered as the midnight hour chimed from the longcase clock in the entrance hall, and his illumination peaked.
“Well, sir.” It was all the reply I could muster.
“Your aunt speaks fondly of you.” He took her hand in his. Grasped her hand. “I couldn’t wait to meet you. Especially after I noticed you read that old letter of mine, tucked away in the library.”
I gave my questioning stare to Mrs. Rush. “How?”
“She hoped for him, and he came.” Mrs. Rush covered her heart. “For her love lives in here.”
Down the length of the table, I saw. Thomas’ rays were not his own, but the tenderness of my aunt. He lived, his soul lived, because she asked for him. And he desired her, even in death.
“Go on, child.” Mrs. Rush pat me on the shoulder. “Sit with your aunt and Mr. Gandell. Come to know your new family.”
I covered my thumping chest. Blood raged from my heart and through my veins as I straightened. I approached, my steps light. And I sat beside Thomas, gawking.
Hope held him in the light.
“I have sensed your fear since your arrival,” Thomas said. “But you needn’t be. Open yourself, and you’ll find Chapple Hall is a place of secluded miracles.”
And I thought on my cottage in Cornwall. My girlhood days in the ocean mist, and frolics along the cliffs. Of my father, gone before I could say goodbye. Of his laughter and his tales echoing through my mind as I lay in my chamber, sleepless.
At the opposite end of the room, the doors groaned open. A second light stretched. For the first moment since coming to this house on the moors, my emptiness vanished. Rays filled me as this second light entered. Caressed, beheld.
My pulse slowed.
Aunt Lenore looked to the doorway, then to me. “Ah, we have another guest.”
And I knew.
I hoped, and I knew.
Katherine Givens is working towards an M.S. in Library Sciences from Drexel University. She has publications in numerous print and online magazines, including WestWard Quarterly, Tipton Poetry Journal, The Copperfield Review, Nazar Look, and From the Depths. She also published Passages of Love: A Collection of Poems with Nazar Look in November 2015. Learn more about Katherine and her writing at katherinegivensauthor.com.