Tom’s cottage is snug, though the air is thick from the turf he uses to keep the old range going. I sat at the table and watched as he took plates of cold meats and cheeses out of the fridge.
He had prepared these ahead of time, and I was glad I hadn’t refused his offer of lunch. I was touched and honoured to find he had bought packets of gluten free biscuits for me, and he offered me juice instead of tea. Once he had finished setting the table, he sat opposite and started to talk, as he forked slices of meat onto my plate.
“It all started over two hundred years ago,” he said. “I told you the wall behind that place was part of the manor house? At that time the church was for their private use and part of the estate.”
I nodded; I knew what he was talking about, and found it strange that he couldn’t bear to give the small plot a name. It was not the graveyard to him and never will be. Between mouthfuls, he explained the history of those buried there, and this is how the story goes.
In 1882 the first Lord Fitzwalter died and left behind two sons, Ralph and William. Ralph being the eldest inherited his father’s estate, which was a wealthy one and made him one of the most eligible bachelors in the country. Those who worked on the land belonging to the estate, must have felt the first stirring of fear on hearing of the death of the old Lord, as Ralph was known as a womaniser and his taste for the ale houses and gambling dens was the talk of the district. I have since found photographs of the portraits of both brothers and in looks they were the complete opposite. Ralph was fair and well built, while his brother was dark with more delicate features. William did not only differ to his brother in looks, but he was more reserved and secretive. The reason for this will become clear later on.
The old Lord was barely cold in the grave, when the influx of mothers, anxious to make a good match for their daughters, began. Ralph had no interest in any of the women he was introduced to, but his brother fell for the charms of a Miss Emily, who he later married. If her mother felt disappointed at her daughter’s choice of husband, she kept it to herself. William was, after all, rich in his own right and first in line to his brother’s estate. Emily was pretty and her presence in the house must have made Ralph realise what he was missing, because soon after William’s marriage, he announced that he too was taking the same step. Isabella, his future wife was of Spanish descent.
While her exotic looks and fiery temperament was off putting to some men, it was these attracted Ralph to her, and in a time when maidens were demure, she was a welcome change from the norm. She on the other hand, thought her future husband a bore, and her eyes were drawn to the more familiar, dark looks of his brother. Nevertheless, not one to turn down the change of marrying into royalty, she went ahead with the engagement. From the moment she entered the manor as Lady Fitzwilliam, there was trouble. Jealous of her sister-in-law and the bond between her and her husband, she contrived to cause as much trouble as she could between the couple. They ignored her as best they could and stayed out of her way, by making the west wing of the house their own little kingdom.
Ralph soon tired of his new wife. Her endless tantrums and demands sent him running for the sanctuary of the ale houses and gambling dens. Word reached her that his marriage had not stopped his roving eye, and she went mad with rage. She didn’t want him, but neither did she want anyone else to have him. As the months passed, it became clear to those around her, that she was not quite right in the head. Emily’s announcement of an impending birth was the final straw, as Isabella’s stomach remained flat, despite her husband’s drunken fumbling. When baby Stephen was born, Isabella saw her hopes of holding on to her title fade. If she did not produce an heir, then William would inherit, should anything happen to her husband. Her demands on Ralph grew more urgent and led to bitter quarrels between them. She berated him for his inability to provide her with a child and he, in turn, grew bitter at her words. Their clashes were the talk of the district and both showed the signs of battle, as the fights became physical.
When Stephen took his first steps, the sight of his little form toddling along the great hall, made her grind her teeth in frustration, while praising his efforts to his doting mother. How dare Emily have what she so desired. Perhaps, those who spoke of her madness were right; because it was then she started to hatch her plan. She had inherited from her mother a mixture of potions. These were intended to be used to enhance the complexion, but some held deadly poisons and Isabella knew which ones to choose.One day, while Ralph and William were at a horse fair in the town, she set her plan in motion by poisoning Emily and Stephen’s food. She copied their symptoms, even making herself vomit in the presence of the attending doctors, but while Isabella recovered, her two victims grew frailer. Stephen was too little to fight the poison and he died three days later. While his mother lay on her death bed, his little coffin was laid in the tomb beside the grandfather he had never known. Emily lingered for eight more days, with Isabella as her devoted nurse. No hint of suspicion fell on her, as the servants put the sickness down to some bad meat, and Isabella’s recovery, to her more robust, foreign genes. It was while Emily lay in the throes of the poison, that Ralph, returning one night from the ale house, fell from his horse and was killed. Such was Isabella’s jealousy that she demanded her husband be buried outside the walls of the manor and not beside his father and nephew.
“I want to keep him close to me,” was her tearful explanation.
William, stunned by the blow of his double loss, agreed with her request and the tomb was hastily erected. Ralph was dead four days when Emily finally succumbed and it is her grave that lies closest to the tomb.
“It’s her sobbing I hear,” Tom paused. “Isabella’s cruelty means that Emily is forever separated from her baby and she can’t rest.”
“I wonder why William didn’t insist on her being buried in the family tomb.” I said.
“The poor man was out of his mind with grief, the story goes and he let Isabella see to all the arrangements.” Tom shook his head and sighed. “Was there ever a more evil woman?”
While the death of his wife and child was a devastating blow to William, loss had the opposite effect on Isabella, who blossomed. It was said she had never looked more beautiful and she put it to good use. As the months passed, she used all her charms to woo her heartbroken brother-in-law, and as the pain of his loss lifted, he fell for her sly endearments and fake acts of kindness. The attraction she once felt for William had waned, but her need to keep hold of her title had not. They were married a year after the death of Emily. Isabella viewed her new husband in the same why she had her last. She cared nothing for him, but neither could anyone else. She saw to the hiring of all the household staff, and it was said that the manor housed some of the ugliest women in the country. William for all his frail looks, proved to be more virile than his brother and Isabella gave birth to six children, none who survived past its first year. It was whispered that she poisoned the babies, because she couldn’t bear to share her husband’s love with another human being.
William began to think he was cursed and returned to what had once interested him, but what Emily with her sweet nature and goodness had driven from his head, the study of the dark arts. His study became home to every unholy thing he could buy and since his fortune was large, there were many strange and terrible things lining the walls. While Isabella did nothing to discourage him, she became enraged at the time he was spending locked up with his books and the arguments began. They both died in their early thirties, some say at her hand, others from some evil he let into the house.
“If you ask me,” Tom said. “They tormented themselves to death. William would have been all right if he hadn’t taken up with Isabella, but as it turned out, she made him as wicked as herself.”
“So they’re your unholy trinity,” I said. “Ralph, William and Isabella?”
“Aye, that they are,” he brushed crumbs from the front of his jumper. “Emily is like the six little innocents buried around her, free of sin.”
“But you still think it’s she who cries?”
“I do, she can’t rest, I’m sure of it,” he turned and looked at the clock. “The mourners are due here at three.”
It was coming up to two-o-clock when we left the cottage and went back to the graveyard. The rain held off, though it was still cloudy and overcast.
“Do you really think they are haunting the place?” I asked.
“Isabella’s spirit is more malignant than ever,” Tom said. “You can feel it in the air. I imagine they’re still fighting now, beneath the earth. I used to think when I was young, that it was all a fairy tale, but I know better now. I don’t think of them as ghosts or spirits. They have a sort of semi-life, dead, but too tormented to sleep.”
When we reached the church door, Tom took an ancient key from his pocket and turned the lock.
“I have to turn on the heating and light the candles,” he stood back to let me pass.
This church, like many of its kind, no longer has a congregation large enough to warrant a full time priest, so one comes for mass on a Sunday and for funerals. The porch smelt of damp. One of the panes of glass in the inside door has a crack that runs in a vertical line from top to bottom, destroying the features of whatever saint it’s meant to portray. The echoes one expects in such a place seem louder and there is something unholy in their sighing and stretching. I’m sure it’s Tom’s story that makes me feel this way. I stopped short when I saw the coffin in the centre aisle.
“I hadn’t realised he was here,” I said, as I followed Tom up on to the altar.
“Where else would he be?” He looked back at the coffin. “They brought him here last night.”
While Tom went into the back of the church to turn on the heat, I slipped into one of the pews to offer a prayer for the dead. These benches are the most basic you can imagine, and the wooden plank that runs at the back of each one is bare with no cushion to buffer the delicate skin of those who kneel. The silence settled all round me, as I waited to Tom to come back and my thoughts were of Emily and her endless sobbing.
“Are you going to wait for the funeral,” Tom came back out onto the altar.
“No, I’m going home,” I got out of my seat.
He walked me outside and down the path to my car.
“I was thinking about Emily,” I said.
“Aye, she’s a sad case,” Tom agreed.
“No, what I was thinking was that after all this time, all that’s left of her are a few bones.”
“That’s all there would be, if that.”
“What if someone dug them up and moved them into the tomb beside her baby,” I suggested, ignoring the look of horror on his face, I continued. “It would be easy to prise the lid off the old tomb, all you’d have to do is put a crowbar in between the crack and push. Come on, I’ll show you.”
My flight back up the path was stopped by a hand on the back of my coat.
“You get in your car and go home,” he spun me round. “And stop all that talk of sacrilege.”
“It’s not sacrilege if it ends Emily’s sorrow, is it,” I said. “Imagine if I was parted like that from my children.”
“Dear god, woman, you’re not going to start crying are you,” he shuffled from foot to foot.
“No, I’m just saying,” I bit my lip.
“Well, don’t just say,” he held open the car door. “Be off with you now and stop filling my head with your nonsense.”
I got in and let the window down.
“Will you think about it?” I asked.
“I will not, indeed,” he leaned down and kissed my forehead.
His bristles felt like the pricking of a thousand needles.
“Go on,” he commanded. “And don’t leave it so long next time.”
I knew he was sad to see me go, as he was half-way back up the path by the time I turned the car round in the small parking lot. Hidden by the wall, I got out and crept up to the gates of the graveyard. Tom had retrieved his shovel and was standing at the door of the church as though undecided. There was still half an hour before the mourners were due, and even longer before he would need to put the shovel to use. You know how it is when happiness just bubbles up inside you, making you feel so warm you want to hug yourself? Well, that’s how I felt when I got back into the car.
You see, I know what a kind heart my old friend has, and I think by now, you do too. Am I wrong to believe that on overcast, Monday afternoon, in a world beyond our own, that a young mother, after a wait of over two hundred years, lay beside her child and with a sigh of contentment, took him in her arms and finally closed her eyes? I don’t think so.
Sometimes, even ghost stories have happy endings. More next week, dear reader.