Authors: Morgan Kelly
Finally, the door gave way, whooshing inwards as though a wind had pushed it open. Alaric used the momentum to fling it wide, preparing for his encounter with the unannounced, and very peculiar, guest. The mottled October light meandered across the threshold into the dark foyer, barely illumining the polished marble floor beneath his feet.
Alaric immediately began rambling, as he usually did when confronted with a stranger. “Good morning. Please allow my footman to take your things. I am afraid we weren’t expecting guests quite so soon—” he said cordially.
To no one.
There was no one there, as Danby had said. The front step was quite abandoned. Fallen leaves strewed the scrubbed stone, and there were no fresh wheel marks disturbing the gravel drive. No one had pulled a carriage up to the house in several days, other than deliverymen, who drove their carts around the back. Alaric stared, baffled.
“Danby,” he said. “I swear to God there was a very strange young woman standing not two feet from this spot a few moments ago. What is more, I heard the very distinct sound of a key turning in the lock just as I was opening the door. And as I turned the handle, there was someone on the other side, countermanding my efforts.”
He turned to look at the young man, to gauge how Danby was taking what he was saying. To his credit, the footman did his best to retain an expression of polite credulity, but his visage clearly betrayed a more practical sentiment. “Sir,” he said, his eyes widening slightly. “Mayhap you don’t know it, but there’s no key to that door—never has been, as long as I’ve been here. Mr. Crawley locks up at night and unlocks it in the morning, all from the inside. Once I was locked out on me day off, and I had to sleep in the stable.” Danby blushed furiously at that confession, and looked down at his feet, clearly expecting a reprimand. He looked immensely relieved when none was forthcoming.
Alaric stared abstractedly out of the door for a few moments longer, before patting him on the shoulder. “Alright, Danby,” he said. “You may close the door. And Danby”—he cleared his throat, glancing sidelong at the flustered footman—“you needn’t mention this to anyone. Especially Miss Wright.”
“Mention what to me?” Ellen said brightly, wafting into the room in one of her many morning gowns that looked more like confections in a
window than they resembled items of clothing. Her hair was elegantly coiffed, her cheeks rosy, and her figure pert. Alaric felt a minute stirring of affection for her that didn’t quite bloom into anything more endearing than an appreciation for the pleasant freshness of her complexion. Was it enough? He didn’t know.
“That the front door will need polishing and the hinges oiled before our guests arrive,” he replied smoothly. “I am afraid the staff has rather been neglecting it of late, and I didn’t want to trouble you with it, with all you have to do.”
Danby nodded, and bowed, melting away in that singular fashion of servants without needing to be dismissed.
“Thank you, Alaric. That was most considerate of you.” Ellen smiled, clearly pleased that he was taking an interest in the party preparations. She took his arm, placing her fingers lightly on his sleeve as she looked up into his face. Thankfully, he had shaved before noon that morning, even though he would only have to do so again before dinner. He wondered idly what Ellen would think if he were to grow the sort of patriarchal beard some sea captains of the region favored. He doubted she would tolerate such an affectation. Facial hair seemed to be the one thing about which she put down her elegantly slippered foot. Indolence and ennui paled in comparison to her aversion to unsightly stubble.
Ellen’s eyes shone with the sort of admiration to which most gentleman felt entirely entitled. Alaric only felt unequal to the task of living up to her expectations. He patted her hand absently, his gaze straying again to the door as she began to chatter about party decorations and French desserts. He walked with her into the morning room, which was filled with a watery light. He allowed it to dispel the last cobwebs of unease that still clung to his thoughts.
He had imagined it. That was all.
Clearly he had not been getting enough sleep or exercise. He had been penned up too long in the dreary rooms of Stonecross Hall, which, like all houses of its size and antiquity, was somber at best during the autumn months. Perhaps Ellen was right—a party would do him good.
n the week following the initial shock of her inheritance, Laura went on much as she had before, forcing upon her life at the very least a semblance of the ordinary, with the exception that she had stopped seeing clients, no longer taking their meager handfuls of copper gleaned from the week’s housekeeping money.
That part of her life was finished.
Laura was done with the dead.
Taking possession of Stonecross Hall so close to the end of the month was perhaps an odd way of showing it, as moving house at All Hallows was thought particularly bad luck. It meant taking all one’s personal ghosts along in the packing crates, not to mention an open invitation to whatever other spirits were looking for a home for good measure, but Laura didn’t want to wait to begin her new life. Superstition be damned.
While she made her preparations, she continued to rise at her usual time, ate her usual fare, and went to bed with the cat curled at her feet in her narrow bed. She didn’t feel like an heiress. She didn’t feel like anything. She simply went through the motions until the new circumstances of her life began to sink in.
Though she might have given up the flat, she decided instead to keep it. She bought quite a few new pieces of furniture, and new draperies, and had the whole place painted and spruced up. She wanted to have somewhere to return to, and she certainly had the money now to indulge her whims. She could of course buy herself a town house, but she didn’t like the idea of rattling around on her own in one of the big, ostentatious London homes of the nouveau riche, a member of which she now undoubtedly was.
Laura hadn’t had much style lately, and she certainly wasn’t a vulgar woman. She had become rather modest since the war, and wore things that were well made and practical. She was tired of it, tired of her respectable dowdiness, and decided to go on a whirlwind shopping spree, using her new-found wealth to treat herself to a little glamour. She bought new clothes at Harrods, a shop she had never before frequented, and had her hair done. She was positively vampish now, with her marcelled curls, lacquered fingernails, and smoky eyes. Wearing costly French perfume simply because she could, she felt like a girl in a cigarette ad, impossibly chic and untouchable. Laura found out at twenty-eight what those born wealthy already knew: style could be bought and wrapped up in elegant little parcels, delivered right to one’s front door. What surprised her most was that she rather liked it, the elegance and utter freedom money allowed. If she wasn’t careful, she could easily grow used to wealth. There was an impetuous streak in her that she had almost forgotten in all the postwar doldrums.
Laura also bought a train ticket to the coast of Devon. Stonecross waited there for her. She could see it in her mind’s eye, clinging to the treacherous coastline like a stone dragon in a tale of valor.
She told no one she was leaving. There was no one to tell. She posted a notice on her door, stating that she was on holiday for the foreseeable future, and asked her neighbor, old Mrs. Malachy, to keep an eye on the flat for her while she was away. She wasn’t worried. Even after she had made her improvements, there was nothing much worth stealing in her pokey little abode. Still, she would miss it. She would miss the sounds wafting up in the small hours from the nightclub down below, the colorful arguments of the drunken clientele as they spilled out each morning into the dawn before returning to whatever unknowable lives they led in the brightness of day. She felt an odd sense of loss, leaving her occasional midnight companions behind. Strangers as they were to her, they were the only people with whom she had shared any real part of herself. Even if it was only a wordless pain she could never express, she could see in their eyes that they knew it well. Now there would be no one. She would dance and drink alone.
The train trip was uneventful, the soot and smoke of London falling farther away with each mile as the first-class car in which she sat ate up the track. It reminded her of the war, as so many things did: the compartments congested with boys in uniform, smelling of damp wool and shaving soap, their faces full of jovial apprehension. How little they understood what was happening to them. How little sense it all made. Now Laura sat in comfort, beautifully dressed in a wool travelling dress, her neatly coiffed hair tucked into a fashionable cloche. Her hands, folded on her lap, were soft and clean—no longer caked in blood. Her fingernails, once broken off in the flesh of some poor lost cause she had tried to help but couldn’t, were smooth and shapely, painted crimson to match her lips. Her hands may be clean, but they remembered the color red, and always would.
After what seemed like an eternity of impatient anticipation as the train juddered into station after station, Laura arrived in the little village of Cropton-upon-Moor, a quintessential English village the like of which she had rarely visited, and usually only saw on picture postcards set out in shops for the tourists. Even in the gloom of October, it was picturesque. Laura liked it right away. It made her feel safe, like a child tucked up in a warm, soft bed.
She hired a car to take her to Stonecross from the station, and watched out the window the whole way, taking in the sight of the endless moorland with its odd crags and outcroppings, dotted with sheep and mottled all over with heather that bloomed in a blazing glory of purple and white. She liked autumn heather best, because it bloomed while everything else was dying. There was something wonderfully defiant about that. Laura thought Dartmoor beautiful, a wild, stark sort of grandeur that took her breath away. The endlessness of it was slightly unsettling for a city girl who rarely set foot in the country, and she hoped she would not find it oppressive after the initial novelty wore off. If she felt a twinge of apprehension, Laura pushed it firmly aside. There was no turning back now, unless she wanted to walk the winding country road back to the village, where she would wait two days for the next passenger train.
Laura forgot all of her trepidation as Stonecross came into view.
She stared at it, transfixed. It was monstrously beautiful, its edifice of stone stitched together from varying time periods, from Norman to Elizabethan, with a few Georgian flourishes in the shape of unnecessary Grecian-inspired columns. Whatever she had dreamed or imagined about Stonecross Hall, Laura hadn’t expected to fall in love with it. It wasn’t the sort of building that easily inspired tenderness. Even in her dreams, it had always made her uneasy. And yet, she had always returned to it, again and again. It hadn’t felt like a choice—it felt like an assignation. She
to be with the house, as it wanted to be with her. It was filled with ghosts, and Laura had always been one of them. And now, finally, she was here, in the flesh, to take up residence in the very real and very unearthly ruin that was what remained of Stonecross Hall.
She still couldn’t quite allow herself to believe that it was real. But here it stood. She had a strange sense of dread roiling in the pit of her stomach that was not completely unpleasant. Dread was rather her natural state. She wouldn’t know what to do with herself if she felt easy in the world. It was all so bizarre, this sudden change in her fortunes, which had always been middling at best. It still made no sense. What kind of a man was this Alaric Storm III, who had left her the entirety of his fortune, on top of his moldering pile of stones, before she had even been born, or thought of? How could such a thing be? And yet, it had all come through as though it was only marginally unusual. The money was safe in a bank account to which she held the book. The deed was in her name. She was leaning out the car window as it pulled up the drive, the brisk, salted wind tearing her new hairstyle to pieces as her abandoned hat lay uselessly in her lap.
The driver deposited her in the drive, and turned the car back to town. He had seemed inordinately keen to be on his way, barely stopping long enough to hurl her valise and train case rather unceremoniously from the boot before scarpering. She was on her own, with only her pile of luggage and the pile of stone for company—and, of course, the cat, who had meowed piteously in his basket at intervals the whole way down from London. He had no desire to leave his city, and Laura would have left him to his own devices, but at the last moment, she couldn’t part with him. He was her only friend. And she didn’t want to be entirely alone in the house. Even she needed some form of company when the light dimmed and the fire banked low.
The house itself was exactly the way it had always appeared in her dreams, though somewhat more dilapidated. Sometimes, when she dreamed of Stonecross, it had been little more than a skeleton. At other times, she dreamed of a living house bright with lights, music spilling from the windows, the shouts of laughter and giddiness palpable. Almost too palpable, with an edge of hysteria. It was as though all the lives that had ever been lived there had overlapped, and created a fever pitch of nostalgia. Yet, in all her dreams, she had never seen a single living soul in the house. When she walked up the steps and pushed open the heavy doors, the house was as sullen and empty as a tomb, swallowing her into itself. The interior of Stonecross in her dreams was a terrible, endless void—it was like she was falling forever, blind and voiceless.
Nevertheless, she was always compelled to enter—as she was compelled now to pick up her luggage and struggle as best she could up the cracked stone steps to the wide front door, which sagged sadly on its lintel. Laura also noticed that a great many of the mullioned windows had been broken over the years, and no one had bothered to repair them. She felt fortunate she had the means to do so. She suddenly felt an overwhelming desire to see the much-abused house restored to its former glory, though she supposed it was rather mad to do it for herself. She was just one woman, with no family whatsoever—what did she need with such an alarmingly huge home? She would need to shut most of it up to live in it. She would require staff: gardeners, scullery maids, those sorts of people. And for what? For whom? It was utterly absurd, this notion of her actually
in Stonecross. And yet, she longed for it. The house itself longed for it. She could feel it.