I think this is a lesson in why I shouldn't be allowed to read Susanna Clarke's stories, 18th century novels and watch Bakeneko all at the same time!
Title: Little Bitterley
Word Count: 7254
Summary: An attempt to set a Mononoke arc in 18th century, rural England (while shamelessly, and unsuccessfully, trying my hand at Susanna Clarke's glorious style)
The following story was taken from Elizabeth Mayhew’s ‘Tales of spirits and other supernatural occurrences’ (London, 1801), a volume that purports to contain true accounts collected by Mayhew during her lifetime; although close inspection suggests that many of these accounts have been largely altered and sensationalised by Mayhew herself, if not composed entirely from her own imagination.
This particular tale, set in the small Shropshire village of Little Bitterley, is of note for the unusual way in which it mixes components of the traditional English ghost story with hints of a far eastern exoticism; something very novel for its time.
The narration is said to be provided by Lucy Harfield (neé Oakley), Mayhew’s first cousin. According to Mayhew’s introduction:
“This tale was communicated to me some years ago by way of a letter sent directly after the event. My cousin swears to the truth of it, and as she has always been of honest and upstanding character, I see no reason not to believe her.
“I provide the text of her tale below, with no additions or omissions by myself, save for the correction of the spelling of a few words.”
After hearing Rev. Whitmore preach his sermon, my Mother and I were taking a walk around the garden, as was our custom on a Sunday before dinner. My Mother was busy talking of the new dress worn by Mrs. Hewer and “How presumptuous of her to think she could clothe herself in such a way!” and “Did you see the lace on her cap, Lucy? I swear I have never seen such arrogance in all my days!”
I, for my part, answered with only a nod and a “Yes, Mother,” because my thoughts were as far from the business of Mrs. Hewer as they might possibly be.
That very Sunday, you see, was the first after Mr. Thorpe had returned to Gray’s Inn for the Michaelmas term, and he wouldn’t be returning to Little Bitterley for many months.
Before he left, Mr. Thorpe was all a-sighing and saying that he would miss me greatly while he was away in London, and I had thought that I too would be filled with similar sweet and tender longings (for Mr. Thorpe is a good, kind gentleman, and, besides which, will soon come into a large estate). But curiously, since Mr. Thorpe’s departure, I had been quite perplexed to find that I did not miss him at all!
I had thought that not seeing Mr. Thorpe at church that morning would fill me with suitably melancholic musings, but as I walked through the garden with my Mother, I was surprised to find neither hide nor hair of any such thoughts within my breast.
As we were thus occupied, my Mother with the denouncing of Mrs. Hewer, and myself, pondering upon my curious good spirits, Mrs. Ludd, the housekeeper, came running down the path to meet us. And how fretful she looked; her face was somewhat pale, and as she begged pardon for interrupting us, she kept twisting and untwisting her skirts with her fingers.
My Mother bade her speak, at which Mrs. Ludd begged pardon again and asked whether my Mother had just this moment been walking down the lane from the rectory?
Confused, as was I, my Mother replied that she had been in the garden this whole time, upon which Mrs. Ludd said “Oh my!” and “Oh dear!” and several other things of the like.
“Mrs. Ludd,” said my Mother, “whatever is the problem? I would have that you would tell me, rather than stand there and worry me so.”
At these words, Mrs. Ludd grew yet more pale and she twisted her skirts so fiercely in her hands that her fingers turned white. “Well, your ladyship,” she said, “I believe someone has stolen your cape!”
My Mother appeared most shocked at this news, and I must admit that I was little better. We both of us on an instant knew the cape that Mrs. Ludd spoke of, because it is scarce the only cape that my Mother wears (though she owns many others). This cape is a particular favourite with my Mother because she received it as a gift from my dear aunt, Mrs. Pritchard, but three months before she passed away.
After taking a few steps about the garden, then pulling off her gloves and putting them on again, my Mother asked Mrs. Ludd how she knew of the cape’s being stolen, to which Mrs. Ludd recounted the whole tale.
Said Mrs. Ludd, she had been walking past the rectory, where the great yew had fallen in the spring, when she fancied she saw a figure ahead of her. The figure was wearing my Mother’s cape. “On my life, your ladyship, I would recognise that cape anywhere on account of Mrs. Pritchard’s initials at the collar.”
At first, Mrs. Ludd had thought that the wearer of the cape was my Mother, but she could not be certain, as the lady in front was too far ahead to see clearly. Even so, Mrs. Ludd fancied that this lady seemed a little short, where my Mother is a little tall, and that this lady seemed a little dark, where my Mother is a little fair. Being therefore suspicious that someone who was not my Mother was wearing my Mother’s cape, Mrs. Ludd set upon following the mysterious lady to find out whither she was headed.
As they walked, Mrs. Ludd quickened her pace in an attempt to close in upon the lady, but no matter how fast Mrs. Ludd walked to catch up, she found that the lady in front walked just as fast, so that the distance between them remained always the same.
In this manner, Mrs. Ludd followed the lady from the rectory, along the lane, and up to the door to our house. Very much shocked, Mrs. Ludd watched as the lady opened the door, without so much as a single hesitation, and stepped inside!
Worried that the lady was intending to steal yet more from our family, Mrs. Ludd followed her into the house, but when Mrs. Ludd stepped through the door herself “Lord save me, your ladyship, but there was not anyone on the other side!”
Not knowing what to do, Mrs. Ludd had come rushing through the garden to ask if it was in fact my Mother who she had followed from the rectory?
By this point, my Mother too had turned quite pale. “It was not I,” she said, looking Mrs. Ludd. “It was not I!”
Together, in rather a hurry, she and Mrs. Ludd left to look for my Mother’s cape in her rooms.
Left alone as I was, I continued my walk about the garden. And with my mind full of mysterious ladies in stolen capes, I kept a watch for anything suspicious, but I must admit that I saw nothing out of the ordinary.
When I returned to the house for dinner, I found my Mother in much better spirits. She greeted me with a complacent smile, and I would have asked if she had found her cape, but I was at that moment interrupted by the entrance of two gentlemen.
The first of these gentlemen was Mr. Haynes, my Father’s physician, who had been away for two months previous and had that day returned to attend my Father again (my Father suffering from the gout, which makes him walk about like a horse with only one shoe). As my Father was not present, Mr. Haynes paid his compliments to my Mother with a hearty and exuberant greeting (for most everything Mr. Haynes does is hearty and exuberant). After which, he greeted me as he always does; that is to say, he greeted me as if I were but a young child. As I am, in fact, seventeen years of age and now quite grown, this treatment is to me most unpleasant. But, as my Mother says, “Anger doth not make a lady, Lucy,” thus I took a care to suppress my warmth.
The second gentleman, as Mr. Haynes introduced us, was a foreign traveller who had journeyed all the way to England from the far reaches of the Orient! He had met Mr. Haynes on the coach from London, and Mr. Haynes had persuaded him to spend the night here “for there is nothing more splendid and English than Little Bitterley!”
Mr. Haynes declared that he had not the slightest doubt of my Father’s hospitality toward the foreign gentlemen, as he was convinced that my Father would be as fascinated by the foreign gentleman’s conversation as was Mr. Haynes himself (for everyone knows that there is nothing my Father likes more than interesting conversations). Besides which, said Mr. Haynes, the foreign gentleman was by trade an apothecary, and Mr. Haynes was certain that he may be able to help my Father with his physick.
The apothecary, who had not said a word throughout this introduction, now bowed and greeted us very civilly.
I hope you will forgive me, but I must at this point pause my account to describe this apothecary to you more clearly. His appearance was so curious in nature that it bears attention in more detail (and I dare say, in more detail than I am able to give!)
As he and Mr. Haynes entered the room, my attention was first diverted by how handsome the foreign gentleman was. (I even fancy that my Mother was sensible of the beauty of his person, for I saw her watch him with a flush to her cheeks on more than one occasion.)
His face was in particular pleasing: his features were neat, if a little sharp around the nose; his eyes were wide and blue; and his mouth was small and pretty, containing perfect, sharp, white teeth. His stature was neither tall nor short, but a good medium; his build was small; and his hands were the whitest and most dainty hands on a gentleman that I have ever set eyes upon! His hair, I believe, was his own, as it was fair and hung somewhat loose from beneath a small cap.
I was next struck by his clothes, the like of which I had never before seen. I can only assume that in the East these garments are commonplace, but I cannot know for sure (and if they are, how wild and wonderful the East must be!)
His main dress was a kind of tunic, in a blue as brilliant as the sky, which reached to his knees and was secured by a red sash about his waist. Tunic and sash were decorated with patterns so intricate and so detailed that I half fancied they were different every time I looked at them and that they shifted whenever my back was turned.
On his legs, he wore dark breeches and white stockings, which exposed a shapely calf, and on his feet he wore a queer kind of patten, which seemed to my eyes to be most uncomfortable to walk in, but they posed no difficulty to their wearer, who walked with a grace that could match the Queen of France.
Put together, the clothing of the apothecary was a sight indeed, but if that were all I would not trouble myself to recount it to you with such exclamation. In truth, the gentleman’s appearance was all the more extraordinary because his face (while being exceeding handsome, as I have mentioned) was painted with bright and exotic patterns. I dare say, had I not known that he was from the Orient, I would have taken him to be one of Mr. Garrick’s players! Altogether, his appearance was so beautiful and so striking that I could hardly look at anything else. Indeed, I would have missed the call to dinner had not my Mother touched me on the arm and woken me from the enchantment.
At dinner, my Father was much pleased to see Mr. Haynes, and, as predicted, was delighted by the presence of the curious stranger and he welcomed him to his table.
Alongside those of us that I have already mentioned; being myself, my Father, my Mother, Mr. Haynes and the apothecary, there was at dinner that day one other present: Rev. Whitmore, the parson.
Being seated next to the parson, I found myself obliged to talk to him, which I never much enjoy, for his face is fleshy and broad, and set with small round eyes, giving him the appearance somewhat of a pig with an ache in its belly. Besides which, I always feel that his gaze is accusing me of some fault or another (though he never deigns to explain what that fault may be), and the topics on which he speaks are so dull that I often fear I will fall asleep at the table!
But Fortune was on my side that day, as the apothecary's presence meant that we fell to asking him many questions and that the conversation being thus, I was not obliged to talk to Rev. Whitmore at all.
The apothecary answered every question put to him very prettily and we were much charmed by his conversation; though if you were to ask me now where he was travelling and to what purpose, I am afraid I cannot seem to remember anything.
The conversation at one point falling silent, and my Mother being very much in mind of curious things, she recounted the tale that was told to us in the garden by Mrs. Ludd. Said my Mother, she and Mrs. Ludd went to her rooms in search of the cape, and there they found it, exactly where my Mother had left it but two days ago! My Mother was understandably pleased with this outcome, as it meant that her cape had not been stolen at all.
I was much relieved to find that we did not have a thief within our house, and I believe the apothecary felt the same, for I was watching him as my mother told the tale (indeed I had not stopped watching him since he entered the house) and I saw him smile and show his perfect, white teeth.
Mr. Haynes laughed loudly. “How very queer!” he exclaimed. “So what became of the lady who entered this house?”
My Mother replied that she and Mrs. Ludd had searched for the mysterious lady, but had not found her anywhere.
“It sounds to me,” said Mr. Haynes with a mischievous look, “that this lady was never here at all.”
My Mother blanched at this, and asked Mr. Haynes what he meant, but Mr. Haynes just smiled and said that he’d like to hear the tale from Mrs. Ludd herself.
Mrs. Ludd was duly called for and when she arrived Mr. Haynes asked her to describe the lady that she had seen. So Mrs. Ludd recounted her whole tale, of following the lady from the rectory, but not being able to close the distance between them no matter how fast she herself walked, and of the cape being the only part of the lady that she could remember distinctly.
“Mrs. Oakley,” said Mr. Haynes to my Mother, “you say you received this cape as a gift from Mrs. Pritchard?”
My Mother replied that, yes, she had.
“And would you say that Mrs. Pritchard was a little short, where you are a little tall, and that Mrs. Pritchard was a little dark, where you are a little fair?”
My Mother, with a frown, asked Mr. Haynes what he meant by this?
“As I recall,” said Mr. Haynes, “was it not beside the rectory where Mrs. Pritchard suffered her apoplectic fit and passed away?”
My Mother turned exceeding pale and I fancy I saw Mrs. Ludd’s hands shaking. My Father, who cannot suffer anyone to speak so lightly of his late sister, looked to get angry, and he asked Mr. Haynes to explain himself or face the consequences.
Mr. Haynes held up his hands and swore that he meant no harm by it, but that he had a notion that the mysterious lady encountered by Mrs. Ludd was, in fact, the ghost of Mrs. Pritchard herself!
At this point, Mrs. Ludd, who had been trembling more and more by the minute, gave a shriek and fainted clean away.
Mr. Haynes, being a physician, rushed immediately to her side. He turned to the apothecary and asked if he had something that would revive her.
The apothecary replied that he would be able make something if he had his case, and this was immediately called for. When it arrived, with two footmen carrying it (for it was a large, heavy, wooden box, with many drawers), the apothecary got to work, extracting a number of small glass bottles and mixing their contents together.
As this was taking place, my Mother asked Mr. Haynes if he really thought that Mrs. Ludd had seen the ghost of Mrs. Pritchard?
Mr. Haynes replied that he couldn’t be certain on the matter, as we had only heard Mrs. Ludd’s account of the events, but that he believed it to be a distinct possibility.
Rev. Whitmore, who had as yet been silent throughout the whole conversation, denounced Mr. Haynes’ assertion and said that a sober man of religion, such as himself, could in no way submit to believe in something as fanciful as a ghost.
Mr. Haynes looked as if he were about to counter Rev. Whitmore’s argument (for he was wearing one of those smiles to which he is often prone when he spies an opportunity to spar with the parson), but Mr. Haynes’ sport was at that moment rudely interrupted, as Mrs. Ludd, being then tended by the apothecary, was revived with considerable commotion.
“Oh Lord!” cried Mrs. Ludd. “I saw her!”
Mr. Haynes tried to calm Mrs. Ludd, but she continued, face as pale as anything and pointing to the now unoccupied chair, where, a few minutes earlier, Mr. Haynes had been sitting at table, “She was there! I swear to God, the room was empty of everyone save her! She was a-sitting on that chair and staring at me. Staring and staring! With ghastly, blank eyes! Lord help me!”
Mr. Haynes asked Mrs. Ludd if she meant that she had seen Mrs. Pritchard? To which Mrs. Ludd replied that it was Mrs. Pritchard without a doubt, and looking as alive as if she hadn’t been dead these two years!
Most everyone started at that, save for the apothecary, who was still busy tending Mrs. Ludd. My Mother, in particular, looked to be unwell and I rushed to her side.
“I do not believe this,” said my Father. “’Tis but the dream of a simple woman who has fallen in a swoon.”
“Oh my!” said Mrs. Ludd, her eyes still fixed upon the empty chair. “Oh my my my! She knows! It’s all my fault! She means to punish me!” The poor housekeeper was now near frantic with fear, pale as death and trembling all over.
Mr. Haynes asked the apothecary if he might provide something to calm her, and the apothecary produced a tincture, of which they made her swallow a few drops.
“Forgive me your ladyship!” cried Mrs. Ludd, addressing the chair. “I only wanted to try the cape once, but the fur was so soft! I swear I meant no harm by it!” And with this final exclamation, Mrs. Ludd fell into a deep sleep.
Mr. Haynes ordered two footmen to carry Mrs. Ludd to her chamber and put her to bed. She would wake in the morning, said the apothecary, and be none the worse for it.
The excitement over, we returned to our meal, though I must admit that none of us felt our appetites very strongly.
“Did she really see the ghost of Mrs. Pritchard?” asked my Mother.
My Father replied that he was certain it was nothing but the ramblings of a weak mind that had been plagued by guilt. To steal my Mother’s cape, and one that my Mother loved so dearly, was inexcusable, and my Father said that he would consider releasing Mrs. Ludd from her service as soon as she awoke in the morning.
Rev. Whitmore agreed wholeheartedly with my Father, and said that he planned to chastise Mrs. Ludd as soon as he was able for frightening us with her ludicrous tales.
Mr. Haynes asked if there might still be some truth to it? He professed to be rather keen on the subject of ghosts, and said that he had heard many a tale that was sworn to be true; such as that of Mme de Beauclair, who met an apparition of the Duchess of Mazarine one night, and so died but half an hour later; or the tale of the first Earl of Holland, who was beheaded for treason, but was loathe to quit his house and can still be seen carrying his head about his chamber!
Rev. Whitmore dismissed each tale with a “Pshaw!” but Mr. Haynes happily ignored him and turned to the apothecary. “Do you have ghosts in the East as we do in England?”
The apothecary smiled courteously and replied that there are many such spirits where he comes from. Indeed, he said, he has been required to lay spirits on a number of occasions.
At this, the room fell silent.
“Pray,” asked my Father, “are you some kind of priest or holy man?”
The apothecary replied that, no, he was not.
“Then perhaps,” asked Mr. Haynes, “you are some kind of mystic or magician?”
Once again, the apothecary replied that, no, he was nothing more than a mere seller of medicines.
“Then how,” asked my Father, “can you lay ghosts when you are but a mere seller of medicines?”
By way of an answer, the apothecary walked to his case and opened one of the wooden drawers. With a smile that I fancy no one saw but myself (for his back was turned slightly) he pulled out a small metal object. Before I could discover what it was, he tossed it toward the far wall, where it landed on the floor, perfectly balanced on a point.
“Good heavens!” exclaimed my Father, his eyes lighting up at the sight of the strange object. “Whatever can that be?”
On closer inspection, as we all of us gathered round, we saw that it was an intricately formed instrument, made of silver and gold and studded with bright jewels. It stood upon its point without once wavering or toppling, though I know not how, and as we watched, two small, gold bells dropped, with a delicate ring, to hang from its sides.
“It’s beautiful!” cried Mr. Haynes. “Though, I must admit, I have not the faintest idea what it is!”
The apothecary informed us that the object was used as a pair of scales.
“Scales?” asked my Father, peering at the instrument from his hands and knees. “And what do they measure?”
The apothecary smiled. “Spirits,” he said. “Or, to be more precise, they measure the presence of spirits.”
“Extraordinary,” said my Father, leaning so close that his nose nearly brushed one of the bells.
“If I may ask,” said my Mother, who had been rather quiet ever since Mrs. Ludd had fallen into a swoon, “what do these scales tell us now?”
The apothecary smiled some more. “At this moment, there are no spirits present.”
To which, I fancy, all of the company relaxed a little.
“If there were a ghost,” said Mr. Haynes, returning to his seat, “how would you lay it?”
“Do you say prayers?” asked my Father, as my Mother helped him stand.
“No,” said the apothecary, and produced another item from his case, which raised a gasp from all present.
You would understand our surprise if you had seen it for yourself! In his hand, the apothecary held a box of red leather, which he opened to reveal a single sword encased in a scabbard. But this one sword was so splendid and so bedecked with jewels that it would have been fit for a prince! The many stones glimmered in the apothecary's hand and cast lights about the room as if we had been surrounded by stars.
How rich the apothecary must be!
The shape of the scabbard was simple and elegant, but the pommel of the sword was shaped into the head of a fearsome, grinning grotesque. It had sharp eyes and sharper teeth, and while it was certainly magnificent, I must admit that the head produced in me the most unpleasant feeling; that as I looked at it, I fancied it was looking at me in return.
“What a sword that is!” cried my Father. “Do you use it to slay the spirits?”
The apothecary replied that he did, but that it was not possible for him to pull the sword from the scabbard until he had discovered what he called, the spirit’s “cattachy”, “makotto” and “cottowarry”, that is to say, its truth, form and regret.
“So,” said Mr. Haynes, “if you could discover the truth, the form and the regret of the ghost that has been plaguing Mrs. Ludd, you would be able to slay it?”
The apothecary replied that, yes, he would.
“Pish!” said Rev. Whitmore. “I believe we have confirmed that the ‘spirit’ is merely a fancy in the mind of a delusional woman.” He apologised to the apothecary, but declared that there was no need for any heathen mysticism on such an occasion.
But Rev. Whitmore was at that moment silenced by the delicate ring of a small bell.
My Father gasped. “Look to the scales!”
And lo! We saw that, without being touched, the scales had dipped to point toward a corner of the room.
My Mother begged the apothecary to explain what this might mean, but the apothecary did nothing more than smile.
Then, all on a sudden, from the corner, we heard the sound of scratching start up from behind the wainscoting.
What a dreadful sound it was! It was not small and light like the noise of an animal, but slow and deliberate and like nothing I have ever heard before. We were all of us silent as the noise continued, with each sound sending a shiver through me, until I felt as if all my hair were standing upon end. As it grew louder and louder, I fancied that behind the wainscoting there was a demon with long, cruel claws bent on eating us all!
Stricken with fear, I stood from my chair and rushed to the other side of the room beside the fireplace, where I was swiftly joined by all but the apothecary, who remained a-standing in the middle of the room and staring at the corner from whence the noise came.
“It is a ghost!” cried my Mother, clutching my arm.
Rev. Whitmore harrumphed and said that it was nothing more than a rat in the wall, at which point there was a loud bang from the corner, as if something large had hit the wainscoting from the other side, and we all started, Rev. Whitmore included. Then the terrible scratching continued, perhaps even louder than before.
With deliberate movements, the apothecary produced a number of slips of paper from about his person and tossed them in the direction of the noise. Here, they stuck fast to the wall, each showing what appeared to be a crude picture of an eye made in red ink. When asked what he was doing, the apothecary said that he was creating a barrier to prevent the spirit from entering the room.
With a jocular smile, Mr. Haynes asked Rev. Whitmore if he happened to believe in something as fanciful as ghosts now? To which, Rev. Whitmore, rather red in the face, told Mr. Haynes to “Hold your tongue, d__n you,” and asked the apothecary how long he thought the barrier might hold?
At this point there was another mighty thump from behind the wall, causing my Mother to let out a scream.
The apothecary, who was yet as calm as if nothing whatsoever had happened, replied that he did not think the barrier would last long at all.
“Can’t you slay the ghost with that sword of yours?” asked my Father.
But the apothecary reminded my Father that he was not able to unsheathe his sword without first discovering the truth, form and regret of the spirit.
The company then fell to discussing, rather hurriedly, what these might be.
It was decided that the form was most likely to be that of Mrs. Pritchard, though we had no picture of her that the apothecary might see.
The regret then, said my Mother, was the regret of Mrs. Ludd for stealing her cape.
To which Rev. Whitmore said, “To return from death for a mere cape? That is far from the reason and we all know it!”
At that moment the scratching ceased, as abruptly as it had started, and I feel that we were all glad for it.
My Father, getting angry, said that he knew what Rev. Whitmore was insinuating and that he would not stand for us to talk of it.
It seemed to me that everyone present apart from myself knew what my Father spoke of. I begged my Mother to tell me, but she whispered that it wasn’t a story for a child like myself to hear. This frustrated me greatly, but before I could get angry, the scratching resumed, more deliberate and more dreadful than before.
“This is your fault as much as your sister’s,” accused Rev. Whitmore, jabbing a finger in my Father’s direction. “To hide a sinner from punishment is a sin in itself!”
Mr. Haynes, looking warily at the corner, agreed that Rev. Whitmore may well, on this occasion, be correct.
As my Mother had refused to tell me, I asked Mr. Haynes what he meant, “what had happened to Mrs. Pritchard?”
“Bless you, child,” said Mr. Haynes. “I cannot say.”
I was about to ask again, but stopped when I heard the ringing of a small bell. For the briefest of moments I fancied that no one was in the room but myself. The light was faint, as if lit only by the moon, and sitting in a chair by the corner was Mrs. Pritchard. She lifted her head to stare at me with aweful, blank eyes and she opened her mouth as if to speak.
The vision vanished as soon as it had appeared, and once more I was in the room with my Mother, my Father, Mr. Haynes, Rev. Whitmore and the apothecary. In a daze, I clutched on to the mantelpiece to steady myself.
“The scales!” cried Mr. Haynes. “They have moved!”
And indeed they had. They were no longer pointing to the corner, where the scratching had ceased, but were now pointing to the fireplace, where we stood.
Immediately, the apothecary threw more slips of paper at the wall, and we all of us were obliged to duck lest they hit us. Each slip of paper stuck fast to the wainscoting and unfurled to reveal a red eye.
We ran into the centre of the room as fast as we were able, and then, from behind the fireplace, as if coming from the corridor beyond, we heard not a scratching noise, but instead a slow, dragging footstep.
“Lord save us!” cried my Mother. “It is our fault, as the parson says! She means to punish us!”
The apothecary appeared to be studying the wall. “Do you have any salt?” he asked.
We had some in a dish upon the table. My father passed it to the apothecary, who thereupon, curiously, poured it in a careful line around the edge of the room, until it formed a large ring with ourselves in the middle.
When asked what he was doing, the apothecary said that he was strengthening the barrier between ourselves and the spirit, “for,” he said, as if the knowledge were commonplace, “spirits cannot stand salt.”
Yet still the lumbering tread continued, loud and scraping, along the hall and, we realised with horror, slowly making its way toward the door.
“It is the work of the Lord!” said Rev. Whitmore. “He is bringing judgement upon you for harbouring a whore!”
My Father would have landed blows on the preacher were it not for Mr. Haynes holding him back.
“My sister was not a whore!” hissed my Father.
“She was as good as one,” said Rev. Whitmore. “Once a slut, always a slut!”
I looked to my Father, to see him red with rage and struggling against Mr. Haynes’ hold.
“Brought to bed of a bastard?” cried Rev. Whitmore. “There is no greater sin for a woman to commit! Befouling her innocence? She should have been turned out! Sent to Bridewell! She should have been made to suffer her punishment and serve her due!” As the parson paused to point an accusative finger at my Father, the ominous, trudging footstep drew closer and the air in the room grew all of a sudden cold, as if a window had been opened, though they were all of them shut fast.
“You!” said Rev. Whitmore to my Father. “You should have punished her, but you did not! Instead you rewarded her sin! You kept her in your house! And tricked poor Mr. Pritchard into marrying the hussy! No wonder he died young! And the bastard child?” There was another great thump to the wall, which made the floor tremble with the force of it. “Even Coram’s hospital would have been too good for him! And yet you suffered to raise him and keep him here as a stable-hand? It is no small wonder that the Lord now seeks to punish you!”
I looked to Mr. Haynes, who acknowledged Rev. Whitmore’s story with a sober nod, then I looked to my Father, who had stilled in Mr. Haynes' hold and had turned white as the linen upon the table.
And the dreadful footsteps continued, dragging heavily along the corridor, now only feet from the door.
“What have we done?” cried my Mother, collapsing into a chair. "What have we done?"
“Now,” said Mr. Haynes to the apothecary, “we have discovered the truth and the regret of it. Can you not unsheathe that sword of yours and slay the ghost?”
The apothecary bowed an apology and said that without all three of the truth, the form and the regret, he could not unsheathe his sword. He reminded Mr. Haynes that he had yet to see the spirit in its true form.
“You still can’t slay the spirit?” said Rev. Whitmore, and then paused. “Why,” he said, “I think I have found the truth of it myself!” He turned to the apothecary. “I have found our ghost right here! Hah! What merry fools we have been! When did all this talk of ghosts begin? When our foreign guest arrived! And who professed to lay spirits, and will likely charge a pretty penny for it too?”
The apothecary looked to the door, where the footsteps had come to a halt. “This is not my doing,” he said.
“A likely story!” said Rev. Whitmore. “I will not be made a fool of by this rascal a moment longer!” And he strode across the room toward the door.
“Stop!” cried my Mother in alarm.
At that moment, the handle of the door began to rattle of its own volition, as if someone were trying to get inside, but it did not dissuade Rev. Whitmore from his purpose.
He scoffed. “A pretty trick, I’m sure.” And without further ceremony, he stepped up to the door and grabbed the handle.
“Stop!” cried my Mother for a second time.
“Heed the lady!” warned Mr. Haynes.
“Do not open the door!” said the apothecary.
Rev. Whitmore scoffed again, and turned the handle.
I fancy, as the door swung open, that I saw the skirts of a black gown on the other side, but Rev. Whitmore shut the door as fast as he had opened it.
He was dreadful pale. “Dear Lord!” he cried, backing into the centre of the room as the handle began to turn on its own. “Don’t let her have me!”
Mr. Haynes asked him to stay calm as the parson clutched his sleeve, “She cannot pass the barrier we have made, is that not right?”
The apothecary looked grave and declared that the barrier had been broken when the door was opened. A broken barrier, he said, would not stop a spirit as determined as this.
“Oh Lord!” cried Rev. Whitmore.
“Oh Lucy!” cried my Mother, squeezing my hand most painfully.
My Father asked if the apothecary had seen Mrs. Pritchard on the other side of the door?
The apothecary replied that he had.
“Then,” said my Father, “have we not now the form as well as the truth and the regret of it? Can you slay the spirit?”
The apothecary said that his sword remained shut fast, which meant that he had discovered the truth and the form, but that he was yet to hear the regret.
“Not the regret?” said my Father. “But I regret it with all my heart! Every shameful detail!”
“Lord help us!” cried Rev. Whitmore, trembling, as the handle stopped turning and the door began to open. “Is there nothing we can do to stop her?”
The apothecary looked upon him. “You have taken holy orders, have you not?”
“Yes,” replied Rev. Whitmore, grasping Mr. Haynes’ arm yet more tightly.
“Then you can pray?” asked the apothecary.
“Of course!” said Rev Whitmore, watching the door with dread in his eyes.
“Then do so,” said the apothecary. “Pray with all your strength.”
Thus, with shaking hands, Rev. Whitmore dropped to his knees and began to pray.
The door faltered for a second, and then swung open. Of a sudden, the coldness in the room turned to an icy chill, as if we were not inside but out on a cold, winter’s night.
And there, behind the door, stood Mrs. Pritchard. She wore a black gown and a black cap, from which her own hair fell lank to her shoulders. Her skin was sallow, and her eyes were the blank, terrible things that I had seen watching me earlier. She held her hands about her neck in the most curious manner, as if she were wearing a necklace that she wished to hide (though I could see no glimpse of jewels beneath her fingers) and we all of us watched in fear as she took a slow step into the room.
Her gaze was fixed, unfalteringly, upon Rev. Whitmore, who looked on her with wide, wild eyes, his lips still moving in prayer.
“Oh Sophy!” exclaimed my Father, clutching at the table. “What do you want of us?”
But Mrs. Pritchard said nothing, instead taking another step toward the parson.
Rev. Whitmore stopped praying as she came closer, and he stood upon shaking legs, his face as white as his wig. He pulled out a crucifix that he had about his neck and kissed it. “Stay away you demon!” he cried.
But Mrs. Pritchard continued to advance upon him, and he stumbled back, staring at us beseechingly. “Help me!” he cried. “Dear God, help me!”
We none of us moved. I would have made to help the parson, Lord save me I would, but I had the sensation that lead weights had been attached to my limbs, tying me down to where I stood. With dread in my heart, I found I could only watch as Mrs. Pritchard advanced yet further.
Rev. Whitmore, in his panicked retreat, backed into the table, sending a number of plates to the floor. Unable to draw back further, he picked up his crucifix again.
Mrs. Pritchard took another step forwards, her aweful, blank gaze staring him down.
“You!” snarled Rev. Whitmore, of a sudden, the courage of anger surpassing fear. “How dare you plague me so! You are no better than a whore!”
Mrs. Pritchard stepped closer, until there were but a few inches between them, and slowly she removed her hands from about her neck.
“You wish to punish me for that, demon? Whores should be treated like whores. That is no crime!”
But Mrs. Pritchard kept her silence, and stretched out her hands towards the preachers face.
“Wait! Forgive me!” cried the parson, anger taking flight as quickly as it had appeared. His hands scrabbled against the table, sending more plates to the floor as he attempted to lean back out of the reach of those terrible fingers. “I did not mean for you to...! You were not supposed to struggle so! God forgive me, I only wanted to quiet you for a moment!”
But the progress of those hands would not be stopped, and Rev. Whitmore let out a frantic wail as they closed, finally, about his eyes.
At that moment, I fancy I heard a small metallic noise, like that of a hammer hitting a nail.
“Thus, we have the regret,” said the apothecary, and grasped his sword.
I am afraid that I can recount the events of that day no further. I must at that point have fallen into a swoon, for I remember nothing more save for the haziest memory of a great heat and a glimmer of gold.
When I awoke, it was late the next morning, and the house was all a-flurry with activity.
Once I had dressed, I asked my Mother what was happening, and she informed me that, along with my Father, we would be moving to London for a time. “I dare say, Lucy, that a town education will serve you well.”
“But what of Mr. Haynes and the apothecary?” I asked.
My Mother said that Mr. Haynes was to accompany us to London, and as for the apothecary, she pronounced that she knew not whither he had gone (and she affected that she cared not neither), but that there was talk from some that he had been seen taking the first coach to Lincoln.
“And what,” I asked, “of Rev. Whitmore? I thought I saw...”
But my Mother silenced me by saying that it was none of our business what Rev. Whitmore would do with himself, and that a young lady, such as myself, should know better than to let my curiosity take hold of me.
Of the parson, I heard no more from my Mother, but later that morning (and for days afterwards), I fancy I overheard the servants talking of madness.
Comment from: [Member]
I’m glad you weren’t put off by the annoying narration XD
I can say that Mrs. Pritchard wasn’t anything as exotic as a bakeneko. I wanted to give this fic a very English feel, so Mrs. Pritchard is simply a ghost and nothing more.
With Mr. Thorpe, I think Lucy was pretty excited to be the centre of attention, but suddenly, when that attention was gone because Mr. Thorpe wasn’t around to make love to her any more, Lucy looses her interest. In other words, I don’t think she really liked Mr Thorpe as much as she thought she did. And well, she’s off to London in a bit, so I’m sure she’ll find plenty of gentlemen who are much more exciting.
- In truth, I just wanted to add in something a little mundane before the supernatural stuff started.
And as for Mrs. Pritchard’s son, I could say that I wanted to leave his future a mystery, or I could tell the truth and say that I didn’t actually think that far ahead!
I absolutely love this story! You did a great job replicating the feeling of both those ’sensationalist’ ghost stories of the early 19th century and the mood of Mononoke, which is my favorite anime series.
Because we always come in with the Kusuriuri, it was really interesting to experience this exorcism from the perspective of its ‘victims.’ Was Mrs. Pritchard a bake neko? And what happened to her son after the Oakley family moved to London? And why didn’t Lucy miss her fiancé?
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