Come in! Oh don’t be shy dear – no, no need to take off your shoes. Heavens! If all my guests were as courteous! Come, come. It’s not everyday I get to show someone my paintings.” Ellen stepped inside and shivered involuntarily. She glanced back, almost remorsefully, at the two stone steps she had just climbed, at the small path which led between overgrown masses of tangled bushes, finally leading to the road. But the door was already creaking on its hinges, about to be closed shut by the wind which had kicked up. She squared her shoulders and looked ahead.
In the dimming light, old Lady Tess Hawthorne of Hawthorne Manor was lighting the candles in the hallway. Hawthorne Manor was not really a manor and lady Tess was not really of any noble blood. But her house, which had been her great-great grandfather’s, was the biggest by far in the small town of Loch Mora and the inhabitants took to calling him and all his descendants Lords and Ladies. Ellen had learnt all this in the 4 days she had been here. She believed this little stretch of land, forgotten by everyone and everything would be the ideal place for her to finish her novel. It had just the right balance of charm and gloom, expected in novels of the time. Only, Loch Mora offered more than she initially thought. Superstitions abound in this village, a day’s ride from the closest habitable town. People feared shapes in clouds, stone formations, a particularly crooked line in the palm of your hand. Just the day before, Ellen gave over her palm to be read to the baker’s wife, more out of sheer amusement than anything else. The baker’s wife took one look and her brow furrowed first in deep thought, then shifting, her eyes widening in a look of utter trepidation. She murmured something then, letting Ellen’s hand fall and then wiping her own hands on her apron, like she had touched something foul. Ellen was only mildly annoyed before she laughed it off and gave her an extra shilling for the discomfort she apparently caused. Yes, it was a far cry from Edinburgh where she had been brought up but she took it in her stride. Just extra flavour for the novel. Exactly what I need.
That was also how she met old Lady Tess. Coming out of church after service (Ellen figured she’d be made feel more welcome if she fitted right in with the community, even if it meant joining religious celebrations she had no interest in), she noticed a fine old lady, willowy in stature and lean, with short curly hair peeking out from under her bonnet. She appeared to be in deep conversation with herself, gesticulating at odd intervals, nodding and laughing. It struck a chord with Ellen whose mind always teemed with characters and peculiar traits. She was on the verge of taking out her notebook and pencil when two women who had just exited the service, accosted her.
“Take no notice of her, child. In fact, better not speak to her at all.”
“And if she calls out to you, pay no heed. Just walk on.”
“She has the devil in her, you know.” Fervent signs of the cross.
“I’m sorry, the what?”
“The devil child! She speaks of creatures and people who do not exist!”
‘Except perhaps in her mind.”
“And in her paintings.”
“Her paintings?” Ellen’s curiosity was quipped enough now, though the women seemed to regret they had said as much. They exchanged furtive glances in an attempt to communicate how best to slide out of the conversation.
“She was a painter you see, and a very good one at that. Her family got rich off of her. Forced her to stay inside to paint more and more. Or so my father used to say, God bless his good soul. Now, if you’ll excuse us. That chicken won’t pluck itself.” They turned to take their leave.
“But, please. Why did you tell me to avoid her? Has she done something, anything to merit such treatment?” The women glanced at each other and one of them nodded, so slightly it could easily have been missed. The other one turned around, took Ellen’s arm and held on tightly. Then she leaned forward and whispered.
“Lady Tess says she has dinner and parties with the people in her paintings. She says they visit often to keep her company.” She stopped for effect. Her eyes seemed to bulge slightly as she tightened her grip on Ellen’s arm. She was so close, Ellen could feel her breath against her skin. A cold drop seemed to slide down her back. Dinner with the people in her paintings. She knew it sounded absurd but she couldn’t shake off the feeling there was more to it. She stared at the woman, willing her to go on, her mind whirring with possibilities. “And John, one of the councillors who does rounds at night once said he saw shadows in the windows miss, shadows! Lady Tess is not always alone at night, but no one ever goes in and no one ever comes out of that cursed place!” And just as suddenly, she let go of her arm. “You stay away miss.” And with that they were gone. The woman in the blue bonnet hurrying down the lane with her friend, left more than a damp patch on Ellen’s arm. Ellen’s eyes had glazed over, her thoughts already full of synopsis and plots. A story dipped in black, darker than a raven’s wings. Already the shadows of her characters were racing each other in her labyrinthine mind, themes criss-crossing over literary elements, while all the time an old lady’s chatter kept up a constant rhythm in the background, like the incessant shrieking of the crow. Ellen hurried home, sat at her desk and started writing. Outside, the autumnal rains sombrely pattered against the windows as the day slowly got darker.
Before her steps led her up to Hawthorne Manor though, Ellen tried enquiring after old Lady Tess. She was hungry for more inspiration but no one else seemed to wish to offer much. The vicar clasped his hands together and told her they should all pray more for Tess’ deliverance. The baker’s wife was out of the question. She had started disappearing as soon as Ellen entered the shop. The woman running a small Haberdashery asked whether she was feeling well and prescribed brandy in her tea as a possible remedy. Everyone else in general seemed to give her a wide berth as soon as Tess’ name was out of her mouth. Fearing the worst, but still too giddy with her novel euphoria to give up, she approached John, the member of the council who had supposedly seen the shadows in Lady Tess’ house. She found him peeling potatoes, sitting on an upturned barrel but before she could utter anything, he took the pipe from his mouth and pointed it at her. Ellen halted in her tracks.
“I know why yer here,” he said scowling. “Yer the talk of town with yer questions.” Ellen gulped and decided to plough on regardless.
“So you know I have come to ask about Lady Tess. They told me you saw… things. Now if you’re too scared, like everyone else, to talk to me about them….” The ploy worked. John grew a slight blush, spreading from his neck to his face, as he stuck the pipe forcefully back in his mouth.
“I’m a God-fearing man, miss. Nottin’ else. I fear no old ladies or shadows, whatever they may be. But I can only talk abou’ what I know, which is not much.” He settled himself in a more comfortable position and continued peeling potatoes. Ellen sat down on a little stool not far off and turned to John. He was old, probably Tess’ own age or slightly younger. If there was anything to be known, he was bound to be the one to know it. “Tess was always a bi’… off. As a little lass she would keep to ‘erself an’ talk to ‘erself, even then. ‘Er parents were righ’ly concerned and would no’ let her out of the house. She grew up a prisoner of ‘er own home, you see. Then, I supp’se, when ‘er parents got wind of ‘er talents, they’d only let ‘er out in the garden ter paint and nothing more. I saw ‘er sometimes through holes in the bushes. She seemed sad an’ lonely. But – their house, their rules. ‘Ts not like they were mistreating the child or anythin’. Then one day, all the family ‘cept ‘er, just upped and left. Like that. No one ever saw them leave min’ you. No carriage or luggage. But no one saw them again. The first time Tess left the house, she was a chang’d woman. Older, yes but she turned a bit, I dunno, stranger. One minute she’s fit as a fiddle, the next she starts blabbin’ on about these tea parties and dinner dances at night. No, she ‘ad no friends to talk of and no one ever saw carriages outside the manor, no sir. Then one night I was doin’ ‘em rounds an’ I ‘eard music an’ I saw … shadows. Not one miss, not 2 but a whole lot, flitting this way and tha’. Some large, some smaller. But I didn’ go peer, no sir. No’ my business.” John stopped for a while, seemed to suppress a shiver. “Tas all I know, miss,” he added with an air of finality to his tone.
“So you never saw anything strange on your other rounds? Other people perhaps?”
“No miss. You see, I avoid Hawthorne Manor now, no need to go pokin’ about restless spirits miss. And if you got half th’ mind as I think you do, you wouldn’t either. No need to poke. No need.”
Restless spirits. The phrase echoed around Ellen’s mind as she stopped by the entrance, waiting for Lady Tess to finish lighting all the candles. She surreptitiously hugged herself for warmth. It was cold in the house and the fact that it was mostly bare did not help. The hallway was long and narrow. Mirrors hung at intervals on the left hand side, large gilded mirrors framed in gold and dust. A strange smell hung in the air, of a room which had not been aired for a long time. Mouldy and putrid. How Ellen had found the nerve to talk to Lady Tess, she still didn’t know. John’s account of things somehow got to her. His honesty, the way he had seemed visibly frightened though he would not admit it made her see that there was more to this story. Lady Tess had seemed confused at first, and then utterly delighted. They had agreed to meet up the next day for a tour of her work and here Ellen was, regretting her decision with every breath she took. But she was here and there was nothing to be done about it. Tess finally lit all the candles and turned expectantly towards Ellen, a huge smile plastered on her face. Ellen straightened up and forced a weak smile in return. “Shall we?”
The paintings were… unsettling. Ellen’s hair stood a little bit more on end with each painting she saw. They would have been ordinary paintings in watercolour, the subjects being fairly common and certainly not out of place. The technique could also have been described as beautiful, ahead of its time even. Ellen had never seen anything like it before. But there was something about them, a recurrent theme which took Ellen a while to point down. When she saw it, her hand flew to her mouth, afraid she would voice aloud her disturbing discovery. All the subjects, the ballerina tying her laces, the little boy by the stream, the man and the woman about to kiss under the tree, they all seemed to stop in the middle of an action and gaze at the viewer. And the eyes… the eyes were the most unsettling part of it all. While the watercolour gave a dreamy effect to the whole painting, the eyes were executed with a certain precision and clarity. They stood out from the paintings for the realism they portrayed, for the uncanny way they seemed to actually look at you. Like they were the sole things to have jumped out of a dream to pull you back in with them. Back into a nightmare.
“The eyes…” Ellen couldn’t help but murmur. Tess nodded absently. They were in a large dining room where most of her paintings hung and she seemed to be setting up the table for as many as it would fit.
“Yes the eyes. The windows to the soul. Some are bleak, some are bright. Some to be admired, others to be gouged out, perhaps” Ellen turned abruptly, shocked at what she had just heard. But Tess carried on as if she had never said anything out of the ordinary, humming a little while she placed cups and saucers.
Ellen suddenly felt a stifling heat creeping up, replacing the cold she had felt a brief while ago. She needed to leave, soon. Now. But something had caught her eye. A painting was resting on the floor, leaning against the wall and a white sheet covered it. Despite the fear which was clinging to her throat, she was curious to see what lay underneath, what needed to be hidden. Ellen glanced briefly at Tess who was standing on tiptoes to reach something on the highest shelf of a cupboard. In one swift movement, Ellen lifted the cover to peer beneath.
End of Part 1