They told me that no old house in the country was without a story, that they all held a long legacy full of intrigue, disaster, mystery, and scandal. I had even heard more macabre, whispered tales of specters on the moors and in the corridors alongside overwhelming family portraits and suits of armor and marble busts, but soon talk of homes was lost in talk of gloves and in flower arrangements, which it seemed held a much greater significance. Marriage was the topic of the day, not hauntings and secrets.
There were numerous differences in both fashions and customs to consider when crossing the pond, I was told, but it was finally settled that the wedding would take place in Richmond for my family’s convenience and that we would make the journey afterwards. There would be no time to wait for his fiancé’s family to make the long journey either, for we wished to marry that spring in the very garden we met and were quite set on it.
Alfred was also eager to introduce me to the peace and majesty of the English countryside and, of course, to his family, an “old” one—whatever that signified. After all, were not all families the result of many generations? But it seemed, though I only could understand this in part at that point in my young life, his family’s station held more weight than mine if not more money in that part of the world.
During the months of preparation, Alfred desperately attempted to assure me that his family would share his enthusiasm for me; I was not entirely convinced.
I would be the first American to interrupt his bloodline, which was said to be one of England’s oldest. He was by no means royalty; in fact, the cost of upkeep on such a sizeable estate and the inability of a gentleman to maintain an actual occupation within society had led his money to be rather stretched, to put it gracefully. As a result, I was fully aware of what he stood to gain financially from our arrangement, my late father having been a rather successful Richmond businessman and I an only child.
Though this would have concerned some young ladies, and many bolder ones took occasion to warn me to guard my riches, I had no fears. Alfred was a kind man and a handsome one. He had never brandished impropriety, nor been harsh or impatient in conversation, nor neglectful in his courting nor been anything but considerate to anyone we met. Neither had he taken upon himself to inquire too deeply into my family’s exact finances, though he would not be disappointed if he had. In short, he was a gentleman, and he would suit the purpose for which a husband was needed.
The match was a smart one, but it was not my wealth that had first endeared him to me, I knew. We had met at a party of a neighbor in Richmond society where he was a guest of the father and was, rumor had it, just ensuing the chase of Miss Marjorie Clemens. Miss Clemens, who was thoroughly smitten with his accent, had not spoken a word to me since that night.
Before knowing my name, he had displayed his interest and began to offer his affections in my direction before word of my status could be thoroughly communicated. As it was, Miss Marjorie Clemens, even being one of three daughters, stood to gain nearly as much as I, but she—it was largely found—was a rather silly thing with a quick laugh and quick tears, large curls and a large smile. Still, she would recover shortly, her interest revived in other suitors, one from New York.
I further doubted an American would be his first choice considering his family’s standing. We genuinely liked one another, and consequently the preparations had been joyous ones, which I had witnessed were not always the case.
I was by no means the first of my friends to be married and indeed narrowly escaped being one of the last. I had seen grand ceremonies joining cold couples and simple, rushed ones joining those all but wild with passion; neither was particularly appealing. Far more common was the lovely town ceremony with a bride, perhaps a bit young, joined to a man she barely knew with some fortune or other. Alfred and I had only known each other a few months, but it had been an unequivocally pleasant time and we were both ready for marriage.
As for the move to Europe, my poor mother was beside herself with excitement and grief at the thought of my parting for England. She would be alone then, in our big house where father had died some five years ago, and her two other born who had not survived many before that. It had been a happy place for us, except these losses, and she had the servants, but it would be quiet, I knew, without me.
The tall thin woman, her long hair graying in its complex braids, stayed as cheerful and sweet as ever, holding back her loneliness as best she could as to not spoil our joy.
Alfred had taken notice, nonetheless, and in private insisted that we bring her to visit England once we were settled, perhaps to stay for the holidays. Then, he explained, she would have the excitement of the wedding followed by a quiet rest with her trip to look forward to and I need not worry for her while trying to adjust. I was taken aback by his thoughtfulness, for who truly would put so much care into the comfort of his mother-in-law when he could be easily short of her without a soul thinking any less?
Yes, Alfred was a good man, and England would be an adventure. Alas, adventure had been something I had been somewhat starved for in my nearly twenty years.
I had been to New York more than once visiting some cousin or another. I had attended the Women’s College, a junior college program offered by Richmond’s Women’s Institute. This had occupied my mind for a while, but I felt constant pressures to lure and entertain suitors.
Then, as Dad ailed, I took upon some secretarial duties and then the keeping of the books. As mother got on in age, I shared the running of the household. But these waters were stagnant. I turned in labor like a waterwheel, always moving in the same scenery. England was not a hot, exotic island or a wild jungle, but I was no bold, hearty adventurer.
I was a young woman from Richmond with a satisfactory education, rather tall and thin, growing more like my mother with each year. I looked hungrily at the wide world from my hillside town through my large brown eyes whose color I never cared for, though their size was appealing I had been told on more than one occasion. My finest feature, or so I gathered, was my voluminous and copper brown hair, and I had no doubt that without this gift I would have ended up hopelessly plain.
So while the English countryside was not the wilds of Africa I’d studied, I was not exactly explorer material. Nor was my groom.
He had traveled a little in Europe and had come by invitation to Virginia for his first American visit just this early spring. He spent seasons in London and several years at school. His health did not tolerate, he once said, much traveling to any truly exotic climates. The impending summer heat of Richmond was beginning to stress him, though he tried to conceal it, and I knew that he was quite eager to be on his way back home as soon as we might do so. I planned to leave almost immediately after the wedding, or as soon as propriety would allow.
The crossing was not easy on either of us, though we were well kept and content during most of the journey. During this journey was the first time I noticed, between stretches of terrible seasickness, that Alfred’s family home had a rather cryptic reputation.
I found it strange how our English traveling companions recognized the name of his family home often before they recognized Alfred’s. They spoke highly of the house and quietly of other houses, and I began to suspect my new husband had perhaps been too modest about it.
The weight of anxiety grew in my breast as we grew closer to it, staying a few days in London to recover and see the sights. I must have been a terrible color all that time, but every friend we met gave me warm greeting, and it was scarcely cold or raining as I had always read it described. Ahead, however, awaited my new family, a house several times the size of my own from the sound of it, and a plethora of new rules and manors. There was a very real fear, but at that time it was solely about whether or not I would be happy with the family and they with me.
Each pleasant word on it and my excitement grew, but each day that passed in an entirely new country—where there were so many nuanced differences in each aspect of daily life—and I began to appreciate my foreign status and fear his family’s first reaction to his American wife. It was in little ways I noticed people commented on the distinction, as if they were politely overlooking some fault.
“Very well for an American” they would say, congratulating me.
“Helen, please.” Alfred sighed in our hotel room before dinner one night as I expressed my concerns. He straightened his tie as he spoke into the mirror, “There are many great houses in England and all of them old and drafty with a thousand stories, half of which are nothing more than country gossip.” He laughed, turning to me.
“If you are so anxious about meeting my family, we will leave tomorrow and have it out of the way. Then you can see they are as enthralled by you as I am and you’ll be feeling at home in the place in no time.” I smiled gratefully. “Enough tourism in the city. I need fresh air anyway.”
The train ride to the nearby village only served to swell my apprehension. As my fear mounted, he grew more and more at ease, his color improving as we neared his childhood home. The rolling hills were much larger than those at home, roan and green, mostly treeless; what foliage there was surprisingly familiar. The air was cooler when we stepped out, and it smelled differently. The pigeons were larger, as were the squirrels.
A man in suit awaited us upon the platform. He sent another younger boy to carry our bags to the car. Alfred greeted the older man so warmly I would have thought him family if he had not been in servant’s uniform. Bursting with excitement, Alfred introduced me to Benjamin—so formal, so traditional. I found the butler who had been in charge of running the home Alfred’s entire life so charming that I could not stop smiling; consequently, I must have looked very young and foolish to him.
“Welcome to Dunsinane.” He greeted me in a very deep voice. Though we were not there yet, he seemed unable to contain his welcome. My worry lessened a bit as Alfred’s foot tapped impatiently, his eyes only leaving the countryside to smile at me occasionally. I was now curious as to what this place would look like, if it could indeed hold up to expectation all this time had built for it.
The minutes ticked by as we drove from the village down the pebble drive, turning in a green lawn until the face finally came into view at the top of a hill, though not the highest.
It was a massive structure, large even at a distance, of a million sand-colored stones, all centuries old. It stood there so long, perhaps that was why it now stood as part of the landscape. It was difficult to imagine, though there were larger homes certainly, how anyone could live in such a place, so many beds and fireplaces and pieces of furniture. It had a face, it seemed to me, not a frightening one though, at least not with its window-eyes glistening in the sunlight. It did not scowl, but almost smiled, watching those gathered on the lawn to greet them. It was named as one of the family members and spoken of like one of the staff. This did not seem unusual to anyone. I supposed this was typical of these great country homes, but I was soon to learn that even to those familiar with this life, Dunsinane was not usual.
They told me that no old house in the country was without a story. Nevertheless, in all those I have sought out and heard in the years since I first arrived, I have come to believe that the occurrences at Dunsinane Hall were entirely matchless.
Allow me to relate to you the very first occasion that I bore witness to anything curious. Many times I have examined my memories for the very earliest sign, no matter how slight, that something was amiss. In retrospect, I believe it occurred upon my very first evening in the house.
It will seem trivial to you now, dear reader, as it did to me then. I woke very late in the evening thinking some servant had let themselves in the bedroom to stoke the fire. I blinked into the darkness and strained my ears to hear a soft brushing sound. I did not at first realize where I was, and very little light shone in the room; I felt my heart hammering away.
As soon as I collected my senses, I saw a very slight moonbeam sneaking its way across the hearth from the uncovered portion of the large window to my right. It touched upon the poker that was working at the embers, glimmered off its brass handle, and fell upon no hand.
I turned, but the bed was so large I could not see my new husband at all in the darker half of the room. The poker rested itself again aside with a gentle clang, and the moment passed. I slipped almost immediately into sleep once more, exhausted from our journey, and could not recall hearing a door closing or footsteps receding.
I told myself later that I was disoriented, half asleep, and the room was dark. I assured myself a hand had to have held the poker; perhaps it simply did not reach into the moonbeam’s path. I told myself that the heavy, down pillow pressed against my ears muffled the sounds of anyone leaving the room.
I only remembered the event abruptly at breakfast when asked if I slept well in a strange house. I said nothing of it, insisting I had slept soundly, which otherwise I had. The family seemed pleased, and we passed most of the rest of the meal in silence. The breakfast was quite good—a buffet of sausages, toast, eggs, tomatoes, beans and fruit.
After breakfast, Alfred took me on a tour of the grounds. The walk became one of our favorites; so green and neat the lawn sprawled out in all directions, the house always in view. Dunsinane during the day was a friendly place. The great arched corridors were well-lighted with the sun streaming in from dozens of windows through colored curtains. Everywhere were family treasures—a French vase, a two-century old painting, a view of a particularly large hill topped by a great, old Elm. I found myself falling for the home, strange to say, adoring it even as much I did my new husband—the feeling of the red carpet under my bare feet, being surrounded by its elegant wallpaper was as intoxicating.
Dunsinane at night was exceptionally dark and massive, like wandering into Dante’s caverns. Everywhere there were noises and shadows.
“It’s the staff walking about,” Alfred explained. “There are so many of them, rising early and going to bed much later than we. So many people’s efforts keep a house this big run smoothly, not just Ol’ Benjamin.”
“The wood on the beams and floorboards creak; they are old,” he reassured me when I stirred in the night.
Once, I swore I heard a strange sound in the corridors, like a crying or laughter. “It’s the wind on the moor.” The family laughed. “It’s notorious for that sort of thing.”
A few weeks later, as I began to learn my way about the place properly, something more pronounced occurred upon a day we had a visitor. Alfred’s mother summoned me to inform me that a neighbor had arrived; she wished to let the older woman sit in a particular downstairs parlor as the room was a closer walk. She wanted the tea brought up at once to meet them due to the growing autumn chill out, so I went ahead to summon the tea.
Inside the blue and yellow parlor, I rang the bell, and the head housemaid brought in a tray with a fresh pot, several cups, and a plate of sandwiches. She immediately curtseyed and left, having forgotten this particular guest’s favorite lemon squares, she hastily explained. I also exited to rejoin the two ladies at the front of the house, shutting the door behind me. I had made it halfway to the main hall, hearing their voices nearing, when I suddenly remembered that I had seen the window open and the older lady would certainly catch a cold!
I scrambled back the straight, uninterrupted distance between myself and the still-closed door and hurriedly threw it open. I shut the window, the fluttering lace catching at my elbow which felt like a spider crawling. Brushing it away, I turned and balked at the table where three cups of tea had been poured and stood steaming. Lemon floated in one. Another was lightened with cream, exactly how her ladyship would take it.
My bewilderment must have been ponderously evident as my expression seemed to alarm the ladies as they entered.
“Whatever is the matter, dear?” I concealed it for the benefit of the elderly guest.
“A sudden gust of wind had slapped me in the face as I pulled this shut. I don’t know why it was left open.”
“Thank you, dear, for closing it. And I see you have poured the tea yourself. You did not need to do that,” my mother-in-law said kindly.
I opened my mouth to speak, but at this point, the flustered maid reentered with the tray of warm lemon bars. “Oh thank you, Minnie!” The little woman all but squeaked with excitement.
I ultimately decided to say nothing then, wishing not to alarm the dear, old crone. I also felt confident that everyone would insist it had been a servant entering through a servant door who had prepared the tea, though I was perfectly certain no person could have entered and poured the tea directly behind my back in the brief time passed without a sound.
And no one would have left the window open.
I sensed they were growing tired of my wild imagination and decided to keep this occurrence entirely to myself and to begin to investigate on my own.
Indeed, the family seemed not remotely bothered by my discomfort. I might have written it off completely as my wild fancies brought on by being suddenly transported to an almost fictional realm if it were not for the most peculiar reaction of the staff.
Whenever I would relate, in a tone of polite amusement, some tale or another of my witnessing of hearing something strange—I cannot recall all of the instances—a glance would be exchanged between the family members. It was an odd sort of knowing glance, not the least bit perturbed, mild amusement; but the staff averted their glances or fell completely silent.
At dinner one evening, Benjamin, usually so fortified, became nearly distraught as a strange series of events unraveled.
It was family only at dinner, including my sister-in-law down from London and a cousin from the north who had spent much of his youth in the house joining the regular party of myself, Alfred, his mother, and his grandfather.
The first fiasco came with the soup course. The footman, Samuel, served the covered bowls, and when we opened them, steam alone floated from their empty porcelain surfaces.
Baffled, everyone stared for a moment and then the tinkle of soft laughter circled the table. Benjamin blanched and hurried the footman away for the soup, who seemed puzzled as to how he had carried steaming, empty bowls without realizing it.
Next was the hiccups. Every time Grandfather began to speak, he was seized by a violent fit of hiccups to his great frustration and most everyone else’s wild amusement as it made eating his soup entirely impossible with his wiry beard.
Then, there was Alfred’s dinner plate. He cut into his pheasant as easily as you please and out hopped a small green frog. I jumped a little in surprise, as did my sister-in-law Beth. The frog stared up at Alfred bravely and he stared down at it, not the least bit bothered. He caught it, smiled, handed it over to the footman like a stray olive. Most conspicuous was that not one word was exchanged at the table about this tricky frog.
Clearly frogs popping out of dinner was not a common event even at Dunsinane, and surely such a wicked prank would be call for some trickster on the staff to be punished, though how they managed not to kill the frog was a mystery.
Before I could collect my thoughts to make an inquiry, at the risk of sounding impertinent, Benjamin stammered some excuse about a country kitchen maid playing silly jokes. I nodded, unconvinced.
Alfred’s good humor was entirely unaffected. He winked at me, the second pheasant was brought in, and we all ate in happy silence once more.
Dessert was a lovely concoction with lots of fresh cream. Taking my dessert fork, I cut into the soft, yellow cake with my mouth watering, and then my hand froze in horror.
Beth made a little gasp and Grandfather’s eyes grew wide under his bushy eyebrows as blood seeped out onto our plates, nearly flooding over onto the white tablecloth. Benjamin’s mouth nearly dropped, I noted, before he clamped it shut. Everything about his face seemed to squeeze up, his eyes, his lips.
Skeptical, Grandfather poked his dessert with his fork for a few moments as the others stared. Then he dug it in, pulled it to his lips, sniffed it like a cat and took a bite.
“Delicious.” He smiled. “Berries.” A sigh of relief was nearly audible as everyone returned instantly to their normal selves and finished the delectable prize—everyone but Benjamin, his face still squeezed very tight and looking rather pale even for him as he stood rigid until the dining room finally emptied. He looked relieved.
With the change of season, the land was transformed. The fog on the moors became thicker, the greens became grey, and the bare branches of the old Elm stretched towards the sky like arms. The halls remained cold no matter how much wood or coal was burned. The ground was crisp. The bed sheets were crisp. I hated to leave the bed, as did Alfred.
When I did drag myself forth for a warm meal, I walked Dunsinane Hall determined. My hands always cold, I opened doors to rooms with music only to find them silent and deserted.
The circles under my eyes grew darker with the landscape as I glimpsed floating vases out of the corners of my eye.
I lay awake at night waiting for the poker to move itself and to rouse Alfred. I tossed and turned, listening to the noises the others excused. They ignored the dinner fiasco just as they ignored when all the hounds were released from their kennels and let loose on the grounds. The staff shooed me away with my questions, out of the stables and the kitchens.
You will understand then, how maddening it became, how even when the mischief of the house seemed innocent, my unease mounted. I began to fear what was being kept from me, what it was that lurked within Dunsinane, and if it wished me harm, being the outsider. I was plagued by the most ghastly nightmares, for present fears are less than horrible imaginings. I began to wonder why the staff kept their silence and the family maintained their unmoved, porcelain smiles. I grew frustrated with them.
I began to wonder if it were I alone—if the strangeness of the new country, homesickness, or the change of season were mentally taxing me. I wondered if they saw what I saw, heard what I heard, and if they did, how it was they remained so unaffected. I began to ask myself, you understand, if I was going mad.
But before you too doubt the astuteness of my senses, dear reader, and the trustworthiness of my temperament, recall as I often did the tea incident.
For even if the rest was my imagining and the pranks of a country scullery maid, there was no conceivable way any person had entered that room behind me and poured the tea, prepared it correctly, and left without a noise in a few seconds time. Who, other than the maid, then hurrying back down to the kitchen, would have known the tea had not been poured? What proper servant coming upon the tea would have left the window open?
No, I was certain my conclusions were sound, but I kept absolutely silent. I had to have undeniable proof, proof they could not shoo out of the kitchen or smile upon silently!
I finally received such proof in the most singular and terrifying incident I had thus far in my life experienced.
It was late November and the ground was hidden in a foot of fresh snow. My shoes were slick from walking the grounds with Alfred that morning, though I had not noticed. I was headed down the staircase alone, when I spotted in the furthest corner of my eye a toy—a simple wooden horse—resting on the edge of the carpet. I mentally noted it was most out of place as there had not been a child here in my entire time at Dunsinane, but I spotted it one moment too late and tripped.
The small crack of my ankle was painful, but it was nothing compared to the terror that seized my chest as my body twisted. My mouth opened, but no sound came out; my arms flailed helplessly like a fish flapping wildly upon a dock. In a very long second, I seemed to watch myself fall in the great, open hall towards the stairs below me, stiffening in anticipation of the hard, uneven surface I would soon meet.
It did not happen.
I found myself instead lying, sliding slightly, upon the stair rug which was levitating nearly seven inches from the steps themselves.
Upon landing, I realized two things in quick succession. First, the rug had caught me, most likely saving me from grievous injuries to my ribs, injuries particularly menacing in the condition I had suspected I was in, though I had said not a word to anyone of my suspicions.
Second, I saw that I was suspended unnaturally, unable to stand on the surface stretched under me. Quite understandably, I screamed.
At the foot of the stairs, moving quite quickly for his age, Benjamin was the first to appear. He stared at me wide-eyed, his face paled. I saw undeniably upon his countenance that he was seeing what I had. Without a word, he fled the hall. Alfred returned soon with him. The butler’s face seemed squeezed again and Grandfather trailed behind, proclaiming loudly something I could not make out. Alfred sprang up the stairs at once, the carpet smoothing against each step once more under his feet.
It was then I heard that I was still screaming.
“Helen, my dear Helen.” He reached up to me, and taking my hand, pulled me down towards him as if I were floating on a horrific, red cloud. He took me into his arms and carried me downstairs, shouting for someone to call the doctor. It was strange to hear him shouting. I had never heard that sound before.
Inside the blue and yellow parlor, he laid me upon a chaise, covering me with a throw. I hated to be in that room but could not seem to make myself understood that I wanted to leave. I wanted to leave at once, the parlor and Dunsinane Hall and England. I wanted to sit in my mother’s little house on a hill in Richmond where every object was familiar and inanimate!
Alfred paced as Benjamin stood dutifully in the corner of the room giving me the same sort of sad smile that Grandfather did as the latter shambled over with a small glass of his favorite brandy. Eyes sparkling under those formidable eyebrows, he insisted I sip it to ease my trembling. I did not know I had been trembling like the quivering arms of the Elm outside. I felt as bare and cold.
Benjamin let in a physician to examine me not an hour after for he luckily lived right in the village. The ankle was not broken, only a mild sprain. He pressed a cold contraption to my chest to listen as he asked, “What happened?”
“She took a fall down the stairs,” Alfred told him, giving me a significant look behind the man’s large back.
“Well, she was lucky it was not more serious. I shall return to check her progress in one week unless something changes.”
Grandfather led the doctor out, chatting with him as he did anyone who visited. Alfred pressed a kiss to my hair and promised to return shortly, ringing the bell for some tea. He waited for Minnie to bring the tray in, and I heard him say as he slipped out the door, “There’s no need to hide it now. She knows.”
“Well, thank Heavens! I thought we were all about to go mad,” Minnie exclaimed, making me certain I had heard him correctly, though what he could mean by it I had not yet guessed. I still seemed unable to move or think, and things seemed to be happening very slowly around me.
Minnie looked relieved, cheerful even, as she approached me. I stared at her puzzled as she set down the tea tray.
“I am glad you are all right ma’am.” She offered me a smile along with her usually little bow and turned back, heading to the door without pouring anything. Then, as easily as you please, the teapot rose from the tray. It tipped slowly, pouring a single cup without spilling a drop.
“Minnie!” I yelled, pointing frantically at the hot stream from the pot, my body pressed violently against the back of the couch. “Minnie, look! It’s doing it again! It’s pouring itself.”
Thankfully, the maid turned just in time to see the teapot set itself down gently and two sugar cubes fly into my cup with a plop, just as I took it.
She sighed. “Yes, ma’am. It always does.”
I blinked dumbly. “It—it does?”
“Lady Helen, we’ve been doing a lot more around here than we typically do. Haven’t you noticed how small the staff here is for such a large home? Only about a dozen of us.”
“Minnie, please sit down.” She obliged. “Tell me.” I said.
“I came here, Lady Helen, when I was just thirteen. My aunt had worked here, in the kitchens. She was old and came home to see my mother. She sent me back in her stead to work while she recovered from a cold. I worked hard for my age and I so loved the great house. I made so many friends! And in those days, we did everything the old-fashioned way, the elegant way. I was in love with this place.”
I nodded understandingly. She continued.
“It was only a week or so I learned the secret.”
“Dunsinane is different, Lady Helen. Lord Alfred was a boy then, and I watched his toys play with him, move for him. I was so frightened I fainted dead away. Benjamin plucked me up from the floor and told me I was to say nothing to no one ever. I didn’t.
“At first, I was afraid. I thought the place was ‘aunted, or cursed. Paintings moved places during the night, making it hard to learn the hallways. Objects I had dusted the previous day disappeared. But once the floors begin to scrub themselves and the heaviest dishes float up the dining room before you,” she chuckled softly, “you stop worrying.
“Anyway it was not a cold; my aunt had influenza, and it killed her. Benjamin told the mas’er of the house, Alfred’s father, I should be kept on. And I’ve been here nearly twenty years now.”
“And it’s not….dangerous?”
She tentatively placed a hand on my arm. “Lady Helen, whatever it is about Dunsinane that’s special—that’s alive or enchanted or whatever it is—it saved you today. In twenty years, I haven’t seen a normal day at Dunsinane Hall, and in twenty years I’ve not seen it do one bit of harm. Drink your tea, ma’am, and you’ll feel better. It’s safe.”
“But what is it? What happened? How long has it been this way?” I asked after her as she stood.
“No one knows, My Lady.” She replied simply.
Alfred reentered then, looking somewhat abashed. I frowned at him like one frowns at a naughty puppy, not really wanting to be cross. My mother-in-law followed, looking stern as usual.
“Well, now you know,” she announced solemnly, removing her feathered hat as she had just recently arrived home.
“Yes,” I said. “I know.”
“I wanted to tell you at once,” Alfred confessed, sitting at my feet on the chaise. “You would have thought me mad. You had to be the one to discover it, you see. You had to see for sure.”
I struggled to understand.
“You are a very patient woman, Helen,” my mother-in-law proclaimed. “Three months is something of a record here. As you have noticed, we do not take on temporary staff and we do not have guests stay for extended visits. It is a secret kept by us that live here, by my family for ages.”
“You must think me very dull,” I said dejectedly.
Alfred laughed timidly, shaking his head.
“Not at all,” his mother denied. “You noticed something amiss on your first night here. You have been quite persistent, but as Freddie said, you had to be the one to confirm your suspicions. You so tried to believe our obliviousness that I was afraid we might drive you into hysterics. Thank goodness that is over.” She sighed, clapping her thin hand upon my leg.
She smiled, for I believe the first time since I had arrived, such a small and genuine smile that I found it to be the most loveliest smile I had ever seen.
They told me that no old house in the country was without a story, but Dunsinane had only a mystery. There was no story behind it at all, no explanation of the strange dealings that regularly occurred there. Not one soul could remember a time when it had not been this way. No one, it seemed, wanted to.
So, as you can imagine, I kept the secret. At first, it humored me to watch the brooms desist their sweeping and hurry themselves away when guests arrived. I shared the furtive, amused glances of the family when a gravy bowl floated in the dining room when we had them for dinner, Samuel catching it just in time as Benjamin’s face contracted watching the footman fumble. It was a lovely thrill to be privy to such a wondrous thing, to help keep it hidden.
What I could not fathom was the utter lack of curiosity as to the source of this magic. Had it been bewitched? Was it a friendly spirit that haunted the Hall? No one had the slightest idea.
“Is it just this home? Or do all homes in England have similar secrets kept close to their blood?”
“No,” Benjamin assured me pointedly. “I’ve worked and lived in five homes in my life, and there is nowhere like Dunsinane Hall.”
Once, while visiting a neighbor, I tested this theory.
I searched for the uncanny like a hound. But the pictures were stationary. The doors left open never closed. Unoccupied chessboards remained motionless and boring in response to my pawn’s advances.
I was discovered more than once in the most awkward situations, like attempting to goad a broom into moving itself. To these, I stuttered very poor excuses which most people, I believe, simply wrote it off as American, eccentric habits. Alfred laughed heartily at my exploits, his sense of humor always well-meaning and healthy—indeed it was the healthiest thing about him.
“You are just getting restless, my dear.” Alfred smiled, his hand on my back as we readied for bed. The doctor upon his return visit had confirmed my hopes of being with child. It was very early on, but seemed to be progressing well, though it meant I could do little. And my mother was set to visit for the holiday in just a week or so. His explanation was logical, but it was not satisfying.
One thing was certain: the place was magical. Benevolent, perhaps, but the origin, the source, had to be somewhere. There had to be a story deeper hidden within the moving portraits and giddy teapots and playful hedges, and that story was one of the beginnings of magic.
I wished to know what no one else seemed to want to guess, what brought the magic in the house to life. I could not be dismissed or ignored or dissuaded. I knew I was going to find the truth no matter the cost.
There are times even now, my friend, when I wish I had not.
It was my search for this that drove me into family histories and legends and rumors, and worse. Unable to walk the icy grounds or to ride, I buried myself in family history in the library. There were dozens of stories reaching hundreds of years back, romantic love affairs and hushed scandals in abundance, but none of them served to explain the origin of this bizarre affair.
My obsession only progressed. There seemed to be no answer, but I could not stop looking. I spoke to Benjamin then to Grandfather.
“There was a séance, years back,” Grandfather admitted, amusedly. “A whole load of hokum if you ask me. And a gypsy fraud came here once to tell fortunes and ran from the house nearly frightened to death when the bell rang itself.” He chuckled. Some fortune teller.
“What happened in the séance? What was said?” I demanded eagerly.
“Oh I was younger…let’s see. A lot of candles and odd smells and something about the babes in arms.”
“Babes in arms?” I repeated, befuddled. “But what does it mean?”
“No idea.” He popped his fat cigar back in his stained teeth. “Hokum,” he repeated, his eyes disappearing into the grey bushes above them.
I paced the halls for exercise, repeating to myself, “Babes in arms. Babes in arms.”
I had the infant’s room nearly finished already. The house was decorated for the holiday. Mother was due any time now. So much was happening, so much life, and all I could fixate on was the maddening mystery of the haunting or enchantment.
Mother looked greyer, but a little heavier when she arrived. It was so odd having her there, like a face from a dream swimming before my waking eyes. I longed to tell my mother our family secret, but her heart would not handle a great shock. She was so pleased to be with me, to be a grandmother soon, and the family were all excellent hosts.
The halls were joyful again, warm with all the pleasant things like holly and hot cocoa and candles. Together, we strolled them in the morning. She found every portrait fascinating and I knew nearly all of them from my research.
“And this one?” she paused again in front of a golden-haired girl with piercing, dark blue eyes, the corners of which were wrinkled in laughter.
“The late Lady Caroline.”
“On no, she didn’t die, did she?”
“Yes, as a very old woman then. In this, she was twelve.” Babes in arms…
We passed a statue or armor which amused mother greatly. “The sword is supposedly passed down through the family from the Crusades.” Perhaps it referred to the children’s crusade, babes in arms instead of brothers in arms…
“And this?” It was a tapestry, hard to decipher from the stitching and the age. It depicted the lawn of Dunsinane, family cemetery in the top left-hand corner, the house in the right. I had been there, studying the headstones. There were stillborn infants, but not a single tombstone that was inscribed with angels' arms. “The oldest image of the Hall,” I announced.
“The boys? The ones playing in the yard?”
I squinted, standing on my tiptoes to reach my mother’s height. Sure enough, two blonde children frolicked on the lawn. Two boys I could not place.
“They died, I believe, young as we don’t have their names,” my mother-in-law explained at dinner.
“But then, where are they buried?”
“Somewhere on the moor mostly likely, it was so long ago the cemetery has probably disappeared by now, the headstones sunk into the mire.”
“But how did they both die?”
“Helen, please.” Alfred begged quietly. I simply could not let the subject drop. They were hiding something again.
Alfred’s sister Beth leaned over and offered, “Perhaps you could talk to mother’s third cousin. She’s rather old and batty, but she’s quite obsessed with family history.” Beth winked. I had never liked Beth so much.
“We must invite her for the holiday. Is she well enough to travel the distance?”
Beth shook her head, confused. “She need not hardly travel at all. She married a Devons some fifty years ago. She lives just over the hill.”
The elderly neighbor from that former infamous day of the teapot, dear reader, was in fact a cousin of Alfred’s mother. Batty or not, she may remember whatever it was everyone was trying to forget.
The teapot poured itself yet again in the blue and yellow parlor as I and the elderly neighbor Lady Anne Devons sat by the largest fire the servants could maintain.
I stared out the window at the smooth, white surface of the yard, interrupted by a single, lonely Elm, black hands reaching ever upwards.
“They went missing, they say.” She sipped her tea, finally getting to my question. I had not the heart to cut her off as she seemed so pleased to find someone who cared for the histories as she did. “The boys’ father, Edgar, was the first owner of the Hall some six hundred years ago, about the time that old tapestry was made. They often played on the moors, as they are in the picture, typical adventurous as young boys, and that’s why when they went missing most people thought they’d wandered off.
“Oh, they searched and searched for years, but no one ever found any bodies.” She gave a sad, small smile. Looking out the window, she went on. “They thought the quagmire must have sucked down and buried them out there. People claimed they could hear them playing or calling for help, but they always do say you hear the souls of the lost on the moor.
“People will start nasty rumors about any tragedy.” She wrinkled her already wrinkled nose further. “Since the sons were his only children and would have inherited if they lived, people rumored it was murder. Their uncle inherited, a genuinely disliked man who squandered his riches and nearly lost the Hall. He certainly could have tricked the boys into following him out on the moor and killed them, but without a body no one could prove anything, and it was just as possible the mire had taken them.” She shrugged. That was that then, as far as she or anyone else was concerned.
“Alfred,” I told him that evening all I had learned. “Was there any to your knowledge, any unusual activity at Dunsinane before that time recorded?”
“Well no. There wasn’t much of anything from those days recorded, and what was is mostly gone.”
“Are you quite sure?”
He scrutinized me. “You think it’s the boys that do this?”
“I do. Think of the things that happen here. The jokes, the helpfulness, the toys. It’s as if for hundreds of years these little boys have been missing, but they’ve been right beside us. They’ve walked the halls beside us and joined us for meals and poured our tea the way we like it as if they were listening.”
“But why? Why stay so long?”
“Perhaps because they are welcome here. Or maybe because they were never found. Maybe because they cannot rest. Maybe they were murdered, and maybe their spirits are gently haunting us, begging for our attention in the only way children can, hoping someday someone would follow the clues and set them free.”
“What clues?” He was skeptical.
“Babes in arms…” I mumbled. At this point the window, from a gust of wind or some unnatural force you must decide, flung itself open. I gasped, wrapping my shawl around me as I struggled against the chilly and wild curtains to force the window shut. Try as I might, I had not the strength to close it.
Alfred tried to help, but even together we could not force it.
I stared through the slapping wind, squinting across the lawn out on to the moor imagining them wandering lost upon the moor, calling as I heard voices now calling on the moor. My hair torn loose of my braids and assaulted my face. Still, I stared looking for the babes…for the arms.
I jumped. I should explain that after the stair incident we had taken up residence on the first-floor bedrooms of our own wing, adjacent to the nursery and a guest room where my mother slept, so the distance was not great. Still, I had hopped in my bedclothes into the frosted night.
“Helen!” Alfred called.
“Come at once,” I hissed.
He called for Benjamin and the younger servant Samuel and abandoned the window. Someone exclaimed after me something in curiosity, but there was no time to explain. Cold or no, wet or not, I determinedly strode out across the lawn. Over the wind, I could hear I was being followed. I did not care.
I strode all the way despite all protests and calls to the top of the great hill and breathlessly stared up at the old Elm. The tree was massive and could have been as much as four hundred years old. Its branches had stood out of the edge of this lawn, facing the moor and the Hall since the time that tapestry had been made, its branches reaching like arms.
“Dig,” I instructed the mystified Samuel. He obeyed.
“What is the meaning of this?” Benjamin demanded, his breath coming out in angry puffs.
“Darling! Your health, the baby!” Alfred exclaimed, panting as he reached the summit even after the butler.
“You will see,” I told him. “You will see.”
My mother joined us, as did Grandfather, their eyes full of concern.
“Helen, what on earth—“ Mother began.
“Oh, Helen has been chasing a sort of family mystery, you see,” Grandfather explained, leaning against the tree, staring on with patience and mild curiosity. He allowed my ravaging of the lawn. “It seems her inquisitiveness is insatiable. We must let her have her way in this, I think.”
The faces of the staff, of the old woman, and my mother-in-law appeared in the windows, watching us. Not one of the people on the hill attempted to dissuade me; they knew I would not be talked down from that hill and none of them had the strength to drag me the distance.
Time wore on so slowly, friend, as the digging continued. The soft pile of black earth grew at a tedious pace. I paced through the foot and half of snow. Alfred worried about me, about the baby, even as he shivered. Grandfather offered him his flask, attempting to warm him.
After a while, Mother retired, her fingers turning blue, as she had not had time to grab her gloves when she left.
“Darling, wait inside by the fire.” Alfred halfheartedly attempted to coax me, coughing a little into his handkerchief. “Samuel will come for you the moment he finds anything or reaches China.” But I could not bear the idea of not being there when I finally uncovered something, when I was vindicated to those who thought my obsession so strange, so trivial.
It was nearly an hour when Samuel struck something.
“My God. You were right,” Grandfather breathed before the dark earth had been entirely brushed way. “They were here! They were here all this time. The Uncle hid them in the Elm!” Alfred paled further with understanding. My mother gasped as Samuel extracted a round, white object from the ground. It was small. There was a second, even smaller.
I nodded, locking eyes with my husband. “Among us.”
We peered below at a bed of crisscrossed, long white sticks shoved haphazardly under the base of the Elm. Here and there, a tattered, matted remnant of cloth—what appeared to have once been very fine cloth—hung upon them.
Alfred coughed away, looking wan. “They were right, the rumors. He must have led them out onto the moor and killed them. He buried them inside the base of the tree, its roots. We’ll place them in the cemetery,” he informed me. Grandfather nodded, not bothering to contain his look of surprise that I had been right.
There was no way to be certain, even of their names. Nothing remained from so many centuries before and only the person who had hidden them here could know what their last moments had been like, no matter how fervently I pursued answers.
“Well, you don’t really think it was them all this time?” Benjamin scoffed. “What spirits? Making the house do that? No, I don’t believe. Surely, she solved the mystery, but it’s the house that does it. It’s the house that’s special.”
“I suppose we’ll see,” Grandfather replied, staring into the black hole interrupting the white lawn.
All this time, you see, they were here in the walls, beside us as we walked trays down the halls, crept down them in our nightclothes. They were here the whole time, with us. It was their playful spirit that possessed the house. Perhaps seeking to lead to their revealing, perhaps just wanting to play there forever.
Whatever their reason for joining us, they were laid to rest. Their bones were removed from the arms of the Elm and placed tenderly beneath the earth of the family cemetery, a service held.
And the magic stopped.
After the magic left, Dunsinane Hall became quiet, a different place; or perhaps it just became that way to me. The other members of the house looked upon me as the one who could not stop meddling, the one who could not leave well enough alone, who had to uncover secrets and unearth tiny skeletons and take away the extraordinary happenings of Dunsinane. My curiosity condemned it to a lifetime of quietness and the commonplace strictly by wanting to know the truth behind what made it more than that.
It was worse than that.
Alfred, whose good nature was the only hearty thing about him, fell ill from the cold. He spent much of the holiday in bed, looking thinner and paler with each day. I waited on him myself; I insisted. You cannot imagine the fierceness with which I loathed myself for exposing him wildly to the elements just to satiate my own curiosity. I suspected others did as well.
I bargained with the Heavens, that if they would spare him I would not pry any further. I would not seek a single mystery. I would accept the unknown as the family had, with benevolence.
The baby was born healthy and grew as his family had in that beautiful place for centuries, never knowing things had ever been any different. He brought life to the place and playfulness again, and so did the five children that followed.
Dunsinane was changed, but it still stood magnificently as part of the landscape, with a face that did not scowl, but almost smiled, watching over my family. It was still named as one of the family members and spoken of like one of the staff. It became my home.
I searched out other stories— for no old house in the country was without one—but in all those I have heard in the years since I first arrived, I have come to believe that the occurrences at Dunsinane Hall were entirely matchless.