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Salvatore House: Steve Sweeney

              

                            

Ill fortune followed Keith Ferguson, as surely as his dark shadow dogged his weary footsteps. A ‘psychic researcher’ for a decade, his reports told the same old sad story of his bad luck; not a single shred of objective proof, not a single ghost captured on film. And it wasn’t for the lack of effort; he had spent many cold and uncomfortable nights in some of the most famously-haunted houses in Britain, listening to the rats scurrying about and the wind howling through the hallways – but that’s all it ever was…rats…and the wind. Proof was as elusive as his own personal honesty, for now he had been obliged to become a professional liar.

His reputation within the Paranormal Research Society was poor, and now here he was, in May 1946, on his way to the celebrated Salvatore House, a place of legend but one which had been investigated thoroughly many times before; he was the Society’s errand boy now, Ferguson mused irritably, someone they dispatched when they wanted another sensationalist book written, another share of the profits. Ferguson’s own works, ‘My Life as a Ghost Hunter’ and ‘Candlelit Vigils in Haunted Houses’ had sold well, the Society took it’s own percentage, and had come to rely on more on book sales than patronage or contributions from the wealthy.

 So Ferguson resigned himself to writing another potboiler, full of lies about how the Grey Lady of Salvatore appeared to him at midnight in the the maze, or the time when a candlelabra floated by itself past the old paintings which graced the walls of Olde Salvatore House; it was all so predictable, all so profitable… He sighed, and continued his brisk walk from the railway station to the servant’s lodging house where Lord Phillip Gower awaited his arrival.

 A swift handshake, small talk and the offer of a malt whisky quickly followed Ferguson’s entrance. Gower was the stereotypical former military man; grey moustache, clipped accent, tolerant of little besides his own moral and social superiority. The small talk faded away, and Gower spoke loudly, hurriedly:

“Now, Ferguson, I have an offer to put to you – I want you to prove that Salvatore House is free of spirits, and is in fact, a perfectly-desirable place to live.”

“I see…but you’ve said yourself that the house is haunted, Lord Gower…I don’t quite understand…”

 “I want shot of that damned house. No-one will buy it, not even the Americans who’ve looked it over – they all know the stories, of course – and that’s why I can’t get rid of it; it’s a hateful place”. His cheeks reddened, and Ferguson sensed that he was embarrassed. Gower’s voice lowered.

“It’s a hateful place…the spirits there take on any form they like…any form that can trouble us deeply. I’ll pay you handsomely to lie about it, Ferguson.”

A price was agreed. To hell with the Society, Ferguson would suit himself, and line his pockets for once. He began to walk the gravel driveway to Salvatore House.

PART TWO

Ferguson ran his fingers along the medieval tapestry, stirring up the dust, just as the hands who created it were now dust too. He lit a cigarette, and watched the smoke rise lazily, gracefully towards the high ceiling. He looked around him.

‘No wonder people see ghosts here’, he thought: if ever a house was truly trapped in the past, it was Salvatore, with it’s dulled-metal knights guarding the walls, and the faces of Gower ancestors watching every move of the timid, entranced observer. But Ferguson was neither timid nor entranced; he was, however, observant – Someone was watching him from the balcony above the staircase…a white flash of light, and it was gone.His curiosity piqued, the ghost hunter fairly sprinted up the steps and found himself in a bedroom untouched by the passing of decades. 

Cherry blossom-embossed wallpaper gave the room an appearance of Summer pleasantness, but the contents within were drab: three brown writing desks, a bed with a quite enormous teak headboard above it, bearing intricate carvings, and no less than three lights, a riot of etched glass and gold-coloured tin. And of course, the obligatory unsettling oil painting, deceptively depicting a smiling girl under a romanticised sky of whispy clouds, a saccharine product of the Post-Millais school.

Light from a large slim, window lent the room the appearance of life, of relevance, but all was truly dead here, and nothing more so than Ferguson’s hopes of a breakthrough, a real story. He dropped upon the bed, sighed inwardly, and noticed the sky darkening outside, to complement his mood. The train journey had been a long one, and he found himself dozing. He placed his legs onto the bed and decided to relax for a short while…just a short while.Ferguson woke with a start. Now, the only light in the room was provided by a full moon. His sleep had been uneasy, despite his exhaustion, and his sweat had stained the pristine white bedsheet. Moonlight glared pointedly at a dressing table to his left, and his weary eyes eventually recognised a faded pink music box, or jewellery box…he couldn’t be certain. A tiny, wretched-looking ballerina posed on top of the lid; it began to turn…slowly, and instead of music, voices filled the room…

“Keep still, damn you!”

“Don’t…please, sir…” “Hold her tightly, you fool!”

“I’ll teach you! Little witch!

Childish sobbing floated around the room, varying in pitch and volume. It ceased only when Ferguson grasped the music box. The words he had heard, the crime he had witnessed (for he was certain that murder had been done right here in this room) shook him to the very core of his being. And reinforcing his unease was the realisation that one of the three voices he had heard belonged to Lord Phillip Gower, and another voice was his own.

PART THREE

“It’s a hateful place…the spirits there take on any form they like…any form that can trouble us deeply…”
Lord Phillip Gower

Stunned and confused, Ferguson allowed himself to drop back onto the bed, still holding the battered music box. As he considered what to do next, he cut his hand on one of the old, jagged hinges. He drew a sharp intake of breath, and raised his hand instinctively to his mouth, like a child would, to stem the blood flow and comfort himself momentarily from the pain.

He opened the the music box, and saw within a small, clouded mirror and some strands of dark blonde hair. This was not freshly cut, instead it seemed be rather old, and matted with a crisp, black substance.

Underneath lay a monochrome photograph of a child, dressed as Red Riding Hood.

‘Surely Nineteenth Century…’, he thought to himself. His heartbeat had finally slowed, and he studied the picture closely in the bright moonlight.
‘Victoria’ was inscribed on the reverse.


The girl, who must have been around 12 years of age, did not smile for the cameraman. In fact, she glared.
There was nothing else inside the box, and eventually Ferguson closed the lid and replaced it on the dressing table. He promised himself that, come the dawn, he would write of his experience in his journal, and perhaps write another, sanitised version for the old man; he felt that he had to hedge his bets because despite Gower’s payment, this could be too good a chance to miss – a truly haunted house – at last! Sleep would not come easily on this night, but rather than fear and wonder, it was excitement and avarice that kept Keith Ferguson awake.Then he finally began to drift off to sleep, his mind ignoring the voices he had heard.

In the small hours, he was lulled from his rest by soft weeping, a child’s insistent sobbing. Fear made him remain under the bedclothes, until curiosity made him fumble for the gaslight. He slowly moved the light around the dark room, until it’s flame highlighted a small figure beneath the oil painting.

Her legs were bunched-up beneath her, and her dress was torn in many places. Ferguson stared at her, and because she seemed so harmless, so helpless, her crying took the edge off his trepidation; he got out of bed and walked towards her. By the time Ferguson reached the girl, she wouldn’t stir, even when he stroked her shoulder. She felt solid enough, and he was relieved at this – this night had already changed his cynical attitude towards the supernatural, he didn’t need any more convincing.

Ferguson bent down and picked her up from the floor. He carried over to the bed, and placed her upon it gently. The blankets were draped over her lithe body, smooth skin of her bare shoulder still exposed above the bedclothes.

‘Pretty little thing…’, Ferguson found himself thinking. But the moonlight merely highlighted her white skin and somehow hid the dirt from view – in truth, her frame bore resemblance to the bleached bones of some tiny animal, dried out in the desert. But Ferguson seemed not to notice this; he found that he couldn’t look away, despite his natural timidity in the presence of the fairer sex.

Who was she? What was she doing here, at this time? – these obvious questions never troubled him, as they would any normal person; he was entranced at the sleeping beauty beneath his gaze.

‘No time to be standing on ceremony’, he thought, as the tiredness resulting from disturbed sleep and a long day overcame him. He crawled into bed beside the silent girl, and almost convinced himself that he was trying to sleep again; still he stared.

Her intermittent plainitive cries made him redden, as though he had been caught out somehow. But the girl didn’t wake, much to his relief. He suddenly desired to hear her voice, and he reached out to touch her, stroking her soft, fair hair gently. He couldn’t help himself, it was silken to the touch; his heart skipped a beat. Then Ferguson’s hand felt wet, and he stared at his fingers in the moonlight.

‘That blasted cut!’, he cursed inwardly, but suddenly realised that he was not bleeding…the blood ran freely through the sleeping girl’s hair.

She woke, her eyes fixed upon him, and her smiled corroded from one of innocence to one of knowing, her contempt for him and his weakness revealed, as if she knew what kind of man he was, she had seen his blackened soul; his darkest secret had been exposed.

Her terrible smile grew wider. Her lips split open, as though they had been slashed with a blade. The soft hair fell away from her pale face and for the first time, Ferguson saw that deep, ugly scars marked her, as if some madman had carved her face and enjoyed his work.
That was when he passed out, strands of blood-soaked hair still sticking to his clawing fingers.

Image courtesy of Simon Marsden: http://www.simonmarsden.co.uk

2 Comments »

  1. Mr. Sweeney,
    The crafty way you tell a story is very exciting. I really enjoy your work greatly and I admire your witty and descriptive style of writing. I see many published works in your future my friend.

    Lee

    Comment by Lee — April 3, 2008 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

  2. Very Exciting story and very well written with all the ingredients necessary for a short story. This is the first time I am here and I know I will be here forever.

    Good work.

    Comment by Athisayam Benjamin Wilson — April 8, 2008 @ 2:03 am | Reply


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