This story was shortlisted in the Reedsy Prompt Contest (#64): https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/64/submissions/39402/
It was a dark night, and I was motoring home, rumbling along the twin ruts that led past Greymouth Manor. Masses of inky cloud had banished the moon from the sky. My headlamps dimly lit the trees lining the thin lane, casting a thicket of shadows across the road. I watched eagerly for the golden glow from the rows of stately windows, a beacon of prosperity and tradition in an ever-uncertain world, but through the gap in the hedges guarding the main entrance, I saw only a black shape against a black night. The windows were dark, and the manor stood brooding.
A ghostly figure darted in front of me, and I slammed on the brakes. My motorcar shuddered to a stop. A face, deathly white and set with wild eyes, glowed in the light of the headlamps. The young woman stumbled to my door.
“Please,” she said, lips trembling. “Help me.”
The breath that had lodged in my throat from the fright of her appearance rushed out. “Are you hurt?”
“Please!” She was clinging to the motor car to stay on her feet. “There’s no time. They’ll kill me!”
When I opened the door, intending to get out, she scrambled over me into the empty seat. “Go!” she said, shoving my hands toward the wheel. “Go, now!”
Her voice was urgent, frantic, her eyes panicked. I hurriedly obeyed, and the motor car jerked forward. Through the last gap in the hedge before the trees swallowed the manor, I caught a glimpse of dark figures, framed against the light of an open doorway, watching us.
We sat silent as the motor muttered and the road rumbled past. I didn’t know what to do with the white-lipped woman next to me. She sat frozen, hands clutched in her lap, staring ahead unblinkingly. No respectable young woman would get into a strange car with a strange man unless some worse fate awaited her, and from her dress, I knew her to be respectable.
“What’s your name?” I finally asked.
The trees marched steadily by, and a sliver of moon managed to escape the oppressive clouds before she answered. “Elaine.”
She nodded. I’d heard of her but only as a footnote to her father, the Lord Greymouth. What she was doing running into the road after dark, I couldn’t fathom.
“Does your family know where you are?”
She buried her face in her hands and wouldn’t say another word.
My landlady was visiting family, so the narrow house where I lived, wedged into the tight row lining the street, stood dark and silent when we arrived. Elaine sat mutely. Not knowing where else to take her, I helped her inside, half-carrying her as she stumbled along, clinging to my arm. I set her on a chair in the kitchen, tucked a heavy blanket around her shoulders, and pressed a steaming cup of tea into her hands.
“Now, tell me,” I said, sitting across from her. “Who’s going to kill you?”
She tentatively sipped the tea, smoothing back her disheveled hair with a fluttering hand. “We recently discovered we had several distant cousins. My father wasn’t clear on the details, or perhaps he simply wasn’t forthcoming with me, but”—she took a shuddering breath—“they had a line of inheritance.”
The tea in her cup wavered in her shaking hands, nearly spilling.
“They came to visit,” she continued, the composure she’d mustered slipping away. “Mother was in bed, Father in his study.” Her teeth chattered. “Only, Mother was cold as ice, staring. The study… Empty. Auntie was gone. I tried! I looked.”
I leaned closer. “Where were they?”
“They killed them, don’t you see?” she cried, eyes wide. “They wanted the manor! Uncle was last. I begged him, said it was just a house, but he wouldn’t go. There was so much blood, pouring out of his mouth, then it was just me and—“
The teacup slipped from her fingers, shattering on the table. She gasped in horror, but I caught her trembling hands. “It’s only china. I’ll clean it up, but first, I’m calling the police.”
When I came back, she was trying to mop up the mess with a linen napkin. She cut herself on the shards and stood there, uselessly, blood pooling in her palm. I quickly wrapped her hand up and set her back in her chair, grateful my landlady wasn’t here to see the state of her linens. “The police are on their way.”
She nodded quickly. “Who are you?”
“My name is Clarence,” I said, squeezing her fingers to stop the bleeding. “But you can call me Clancy. All my friends do.”
I offered a small smile. She didn’t return it, but she leaned her forehead on my hands, still clutched in hers.
A weary-looking and skeptical sergeant soon appeared at the door to hear her tale. His demeanor changed when I presented “the Honorable Elaine Greymouth,” and we were rushed back to the manor, the police car droning and clanging in the still night.
The manor was a massive affair of brick and twisted metal. The dark windows soon flared with light. Electric torches flickered and bobbed on the grounds, and voices shuddered off the brick as they searched. Elaine and I waited outside: she refused to get any closer. A peevish Inspector, his tie half-tied, arrived, gnashing an unlit cigar and barking orders at the uniforms.
“We found blood!” came a call from the doorway, and he stalked inside, shoving his cigar back in his pocket.
Elaine buried her face in my lapel. “You’re safe now,” I murmured, stroking her hair, but she shook her head.
It was nearly dawn before we were taken back to the narrow house on the crowded street. They had found blood but no bodies and no killers. Uniforms came and went all day, and Elaine told and retold her story until I thought she might go mad. She answered each question calmly, with composure, but when they finally left that evening, she looked transparent, like she might fade away.
Besides my landlady’s rooms, which were strictly off-limits, there was only my rickety bed, but I could make do with the parlor. Elaine sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, vacantly apologizing for the imposition. I gathered up spare blankets and a change of clothes before bidding her goodnight.
“Clarence!” she called anxiously as I pulled the door shut behind me. She was watching me, eyes wide and fearful.
“I’ll be downstairs.”
After a moment, she seemed to accept this, and I left her tugging at the buttons on her dress.
I tossed aside my jacket and collapsed in a high-backed chair, not bothering to turn on the lights as the sky darkened, and tried to make sense of the past day. One moment I was driving home, the next, the potentially last member of the Greymouth family was asleep in my bed. My home was humble compared to her standard of living, but she’d made no complaint and shown no desire to leave. The police seemed to think we were already acquainted and didn’t question it when she clung to my hand, knuckles whitening, while they questioned her.
I was nodding off when the floor in the hall creaked. Night had settled over the house, clumping in the corners. A dark figure appeared in the doorway. I started to call for Elaine but hesitated. Elaine would glow a soft white in the darkness, like a pale moonbeam, like she had when she appeared in front of my car. Whoever this was, was a shadow against the night, standing silent.
Men who tend to motor after dark also tend to carry revolvers. I slid the small weapon out of my vest pocket. The figure didn’t seem to notice me and turned to leave. I stood up, and the blankets piled in my lap slid to the floor. The figure whirled, and I fired. The room blazed bright as daylight, leaving me blind, ears ringing. I crept forward, feeling around on the floor until my fingers found warm wetness. Blood.
There was no time for relief. The floor above me moaned. I sprinted for the stairs, taking them two at a time, and crashed through her door. Another dark figure stood over Elaine’s bed, framed against the moonlit window. My gun flashed and crashed, and they crumpled to the floor. When I turned on the lights, Elaine was sitting up, white and stiff as a gravestone, coated in a red mist of blood.
Her wide eyes stayed fixed on the figure in the spreading red stain until I pulled her chin to face me, relieved to see the blood she wore wasn’t hers. Her dress had been laid over a chair, and she had on only a thin lace chemise. I wrapped a blanket around her, ushering her downstairs. She froze at the bottom of the steps where the other figure lay, sprawled halfway inside the parlor.
“He’s dead,” I said, guiding her into the kitchen.
The police were again called, and the house swarmed with uniforms. Elaine stared down at the bodies as they were carried out, the black masks they wore peeled back.
“The sons,” she murmured before she went back into the kitchen and sat, staring ahead, the blanket sliding forgotten from one delicate shoulder.
The Inspector, his cigar dangling from one corner of his mouth, hesitated by the door, glancing into the kitchen before he pulled me aside and dug a photograph out of his pocket. “Thought it best you see this.”
I stared down at the grainy image of brick walls lined with shelves, a low ceiling, and a dirt floor. Four figures wrapped in gaudy drapes lay in a neat row at the bottom of a dirt hole, bound up by tasseled cords. “No survivors?”
“Only the girl.”
“What is it?” a thin voice asked behind me.
Elaine stood in the doorway, her face pale.
“They found your family,” I said, handing the photograph back to spare her the horror.
She nodded. “And the killers? There were two more, the mother and the brother.”
“Not a sign of them, ma’am,” the Inspector said, fiddling with his cigar. “I imagine they’re long gone by now.”
I tugged the blanket back over her bare shoulders. “It’s over. You can go home.”
“No,” she said flatly, her face expressionless. “They won’t rest until I’m dead.”
She went back into the kitchen, her gaze turned to the ceiling to avoid seeing the blood on the floor. I shrugged helplessly, and the inspector laid a sympathetic hand on my shoulder before he strode out the door.
I made the best bed I could for her on the chaise in the parlor and covered the bloodstains with sheets, but she wouldn’t sleep or eat. I couldn’t blame her for that. I tried my best, but I was no cook.
“Please try,” I said softly, kneeling at her feet where she sat on the makeshift bed and setting a tray of food, long since cold, on her lap.
She nudged the fork despondently, but we were interrupted by a loud gasp from the hallway that could only be Mrs. M. returning home to find one of her finest sheets laid over an enormous bloodstain on the meticulously cleaned carpets. If she was horrified by the state of the floors, I trembled to think what she would do to me when she discovered the kitchen.
“What did you do?” she shrieked at me when I appeared in the doorway, shaking the bloody linens in my face. “Three days! I left for three—”
She stopped, mouth open, staring past me. Elaine hovered in the doorway, her eyes seeming two sizes too large in her drawn face.
When Mrs. M. heard the whole sordid tale, she insisted Elaine stay with us and would hear no argument. The only protests Elaine made before she agreed were halfhearted and I think more for propriety’s sake than anything else. The days fell into a bizarre rhythm. The search for the remaining killers swept the city, and soon there wasn’t an ear that hadn’t heard what happened that night at Greymouth Manor. Curious visitors, well-wishers, and gawkers tried to call when they learned where Elaine had disappeared to, but I sent them away, saving her from their prying and shallow sympathies.
Mrs. M. fussed over her like an anxious mother. Elaine herself kept a brave face. Through all the horrors and fear she’d endured, she never shed a tear, but I heard the floor creaking as she paced at night. It was only at my coaxing that she picked at her meals and on my arm that she would venture from the house to stroll down the uneven street.
“Poor dear,” Mrs. M. sighed as we stood in the parlor doorway, watching her halfheartedly play the out-of-tune piano in the corner. “One can’t fathom what kind of monster would do such a thing and to such a sweet girl.”
“One never knows, Mrs. M.”
“And heaven only knows what would have happened to her if you hadn’t been there!” She wrung a dishtowel in her hands as if she might strangle the killers herself.
“A coincidence to be sure, Mrs. M.”
“Don’t pretend you aren’t pleased,” she said, eyeing me. “I see the way you look at her when she takes your arm, like a man who’s found lost treasure.”
“Mrs. M!” I said indignantly.
My protest only seemed to confirm her suspicions, and she raised an eyebrow before bustling back into the kitchen.
Elaine was sitting silently now, gazing at her hands in her lap. Her fair hair hung over her shoulders: she hadn’t bothered to pin it up. She turned to me, her eyes forlorn, before the golden locks again hid her thin face, and with a sigh, she began to play, picking out a mournful and naked melody.
Three weeks after a crazed woman darted into the road ahead of my motor car, the last two killers were found on a steamer bound for America. The trial that followed, while a necessary course of law, seemed superfluous. No one doubted their guilt or the word of the thin, pale woman who accused them. One only had to look in her face to see the horrors they’d brought upon her. It was no surprise then when they were sentenced to hang. Elaine insisted on attending, dressed in stark black, and refused to leave until the hoods were removed and she could see the bloated faces of her family’s killers. She sobbed against my chest, though whether from horror or relief, I couldn’t say.
When we stepped out of the courthouse, a pudgy man with a briefcase in one hand and a damp kerchief in the other that he kept wiping across his brow was waiting for us.
“Lady Greymouth?” he asked.
Elaine’s body jerked at the address, but she politely greeted him in response.
“I oversaw your father’s matters. Now that this… beastly affair is dealt with…” He dug around in his stuffed briefcase.
“Now really is not a good time,” she said.
“I’m sure it will only take a moment,” I said, squeezing her hand. “Let’s hear the man out.”
He presented her with a large envelope. “As the last surviving member of the Greymouth family, the whole of your father’s estate passes to you, including Greymouth Manor.”
Her face contorted. “Board it up. I never want to see that horrid place again. I can’t… I can’t go back. I want none of it!”
She dropped the envelope like a snake and rushed past him.
“Sorry,” I snatched it up and shoved it under my arm, hurrying after her. “It’s been a long… month, really,” I called over my shoulder.
I found her standing on the street corner, distractedly twisting her handkerchief, and took her dear little face in my hands. “You’re safe now, darling.”
It was improper, and I knew it, but she smiled up at me, laying her hands over mine. “I don’t know what would have become of me if you hadn’t found me.”
“Don’t you think about that. Not for a moment.”
The horror of that night finally seemed to lay behind us, and there was a future to be looked to, one I had an increasing interest in. When she left the narrow house for furnishings more suitable for her station, I was a frequent visitor, feeling very out of place, but I needn’t have worried. Her solemn face lit up and she rushed to greet me whenever “young Mister Clarence” was announced at the door.
Three months later, we were married and settled into the stately but modest Greymouth townhouse. It was a quiet life. As I told the few visitors we had before asking them to call again another day, the darkness still lingered. While a tragedy, it was less a surprise when six months later, my dear little wife, driven mad by what she’d endured, killed herself. She was too young and innocent to survive the horrors brought upon her.
She was buried on the estate beside her family in a small fenced garden at the edge of the trees, and to stay close to her, I took possession of the manor, pulling the boards from the doors and letting light into the windows once more.
But the truth of it is, when she came down the stairs that last night and I kissed her hand as I always did, she smiled happily up at me, never for a moment suspecting there was strychnine in her tea.
Photo Credit: The Building News, 16 July 1875