This is the second part to this very English Christmas ghost story. To find part one, click here.
It was a deeply unsettling incident, but there was so much else which Martin had never experienced that, just for a short while, he could do little else than immerse himself in the exotic world of the wealthy.
He had managed to complete his turn to ecstatic applause and return all items to their owners unblemished. He was the man of the moment: everyone wanted a piece of this self-assured young entertainer with the power to make the everyday object step out of its mundane existence .
He was dazzled. The lights, the beautiful, intelligent women, the sumptuous banquet; it was a brave new world.
Late in the evening he parted from an exquisitely dressed debutante at the top of the magnificent staircase. The conversation had been dizzying and elating, and he stole a kiss before her heels clicked expertly across the tiled floor towards another wing and a waiting room.
And all was quiet. In that moment, after all the sounds and sensations of the wondrous evening, he was able to reflect, and the historian in him came to the fore.
The staircase was a monumental piece of architecture, he thought. Made of some dark wood which swallowed light, its elaborate carving spoke eloquently of the money which had once owned the house. It was built with the language of power: not beautiful, but certainly imposing. And the carvings dated from sometime in the 17th century. Were the grotesques which peered from its corners a 19th century affectation? Possibly, reflected Martin.
And in the way dark thoughts have of ambushing us when we least expect it, the wooden carvings brought that few, disjointed seconds earlier in the evening flooding back. And the dark, and the old wood, and these carvings were suddenly overwhelming to this darling showman of the smart set, and he turned and fled to his bedroom where he passed a restless night, tossing and turning.
The new day, beginning, as it did, in a four-poster bed with the sun streaming through the window and a diamond-clear winter sky, put a new light on things. Martin’s night time conviction that he should not attempt any more juggling within those four walls dissolved as admirer after admirer requested an evening encore. What were the chances of something happening a second time? Martin reasoned to himself. And he would be surrounded by people. What possible harm could become him?
And so it was that he stood in almost exactly the same place, at the foot of the great stairs, surrounded by partygoers, and invited the audience to volunteer their precious possessions.
Tonight the audience had come prepared. They had raided their rooms for the unlikely, the lavish and the strange.
A rabbit’s foot set in silver; a copy of a Jules Verne novel, leather-bound and ancient; an old pewter hip flask. And more. Martin surveyed it all with satisfaction. In a box in the corner stood his secret weapon: the fire torches.
They would keep the dark at bay.
His urbane patter charmed the watchers. And they laughed uproariously as he began to fling antiques into the air, their owners delighted and appalled by the sight of their heirlooms and beloved artefacts hurtling through the ether in a crazed airborne waltz.
And Martin was in that place they call flow. His unconscious rose to the surface and controlled every muscle, every word, every movement in this intricate, sophisticated merry-go-round: so much more than juggling, the beautiful women murmured to their men, so entrancing.
And it stood there again. Martin’s stomach lurched. It was showing no signs of departing as it had the previous evening. It twitched convulsively, about six feet away from where he stood. It was not coming any closer: it was as if Martin was creating an impenetrable circle of light using the paraphernalia of the beautiful people. But it would not go away. It had found the corner of his eye, and it watched, biding its time.
Martin broke out in a sweat. His heart was hammering now: he did not believe in the supernatural, yet how could he disbelieve the evidence of his own eyes? There was, without question, a creature which worked in the same way as a blind spot: if you focused in a particular way, its presence could be not only seen, but felt, an inexorable growing sense of dread.
The juggler was a showman, and he held his ground and completed the act, to cheers from the crowd. And when he lit the torches and began to toss them into the air, the thing cowered away, as if the light pained it, there at the edge of Martin’s vision. And slowly, and it seemed reluctantly, the malevolence faded into nothing.
The crowd was cheering: he was being feted for a performance which he could now barely remember. The dread was so overpowering, so immediate, that Martin had to fight the impulse to jump in the car and drive away, and never come back to that place, for all its glittering company.
But there is nothing so pressing as an aristocrat who desires your presence.
“You were divine, darling. Let me get you a drink. “
The debutante took his arm, and if she noticed the shudder in the juggler’s taut frame, she was too well-mannered to refer to it. Martin sat staring into a brandy. Small talk eluded him. Fear does that to the liveliest conversationalist.
The young woman seemed content to wait until he was ready to talk. She sat watching the flow of admirers to the great Christmas tree as they sat on a cushioned bench in the great hall.
At length, the brandy did its job, and the shock receded, and the sounds of the room returned. Martin glanced gratefully at his rescuer.
“Thanks,” he said, sparingly. “I had a bit of a turn there.”
The woman smiled, and waited.
“The thing is – “ he ventured haltingly – “I saw something. While I was juggling. You’ll think me insane, but I think I may have seen a ghost.”
“You wouldn’t be the first, darling,” she replied in a velvet lilt which, somehow, made the horror of that thing recede. “This place doesn’t have a happy history.”
She knew the story of the house well; she had been visiting since she was a child. She told Martin of the day in 1554 when it was enclosed, illegally, by some opportunists who went on to become powerful political players at Westminster and Whitehall; of their descendants, caught up in espionage, who used the house to entertain captors; and finally of the last of the line, the feted alchemist, who squandered a fortune trying to turn base metals into gold.
This last was the most unsettling case of all: for he began as a glittering fulcrum of society, throwing the most extraordinary Christmas parties. People would come from far and wide to watch the entertainments: he would recruit conjurors and acrobats, and use his arts to create new and breathtaking stunts: jugglers would sport flames of different hues, tumblers used hoops and bars of a strange phosphorescence. It was a spectacular the whole of London talked about, well into the new year, the girl told him
He had fancied himself a cold and rational man of science, it is said. At the pinnacle of his research, he had taken his conclusions before the new forum for scientific advances, the Royal Society. But in a humiliating session, his findings were ridiculed. He was dismissed as a mere conjuror. One of the scientists there, a regular guest at his parties, shouted:”’Tis nothing but a magic trick, Nicholas, a conceit; we are men of real scientific endeavour here: reserve this conjuring for your parties.”
Things were never the same after that.
The substances he used in pursuit of alchemy began, slowly but surely, to cause his brain to decay in life. Towards the end, though his body walked, it was as though he were dead already, the young woman related. He had quite lost his mind to gold. And during these dark times, though the parties continued, the lord of the manor was never in evidence.
The bitterness of defeat wreaks strange revenges: and a half-mad mind settled the blame on the entertainers who had once showcased his art. Every now and then, a conjuror or an acrobat would disappear without trace from those famous parties.
And this, the young woman concluded, is where the family’s trail went cold; the alchemist never had offspring. And if the families of the disappeared came knocking for their beloved, he had power and wealth enough to render them powerless. In his manor, it seemed, he could do as he liked. His body kept him in a kind of walking hell until, at the age of 56, he fell down the great stairs and broke his neck. And that was the end of a most unsettling dynasty.
They sat in silence and the warm glow of brandy, amid the hubbub of this celebration, and Martin suddenly felt stifled.
“Do you fancy getting some air?” he asked the woman.
They strolled away, onto the terrace, into the cool of the gardens. It was a crisp chill evening, and the moon lit the great clipped yew hedgerows, casting strange shadows. They walked, and talked, and the more of this woman’s company Martin had, the more he found he craved it.
At length, she left, to get him another brandy. Martin did as he was wont to do when he was thinking: he scooped three soft leather juggling balls from his pocket and began juggling them.
He had not considered his action. It was automatic; but it seemed the creature did not need the staircase to be present with him.
From the shadow of the yew hedge it did not materialise; rather, it simply was. And this time, with a wild panic, Martin recognised it as a creature who has dabbled in arts too dark and unspeakable, and who has paid the price. It did not know, Martin realised, with creeping horror, that it was dead; what was left of its mind was groping towards him.
And like the entertainers of old, in some horrid way, this thing edged closer and closer to Martin, moving in disjointed spasms, to remove him as it had caused its entertainers of old to disappear. He was just a spectre: yet in that instant the young man knew, without question, that to stay would be to leave this life: and become part of the spectre’s own hell.
The juggler dropped everything and ran. Through the gardens, down the drive, leaving a suitcase and a reputation behind him, the wind whistling in his ears, his breath burning in his lungs, far, far away, he hoped, fervently, from the glittering society ball and that petrifying, ghoulish presence.
To be continued……final part is here