Old Hall by Lawrence Paulson

Friday, January 7, 2022
Tom and Amy uncover some sinister family history while staying at a creepy old house in York; by Lawrence Paulson.

What Tom told her about the house was true, as far as it went. The rest - the back story, as he thought of it - he would save for when they were settled in. Maybe they could light a fire and drink the bottle of wine they'd bought in York the night before.

He certainly could use a drink after the tense drive in the rental car they'd picked up at the York railway station. It was only thirty miles but about seventy roundabouts, with "left, left" screaming in his head and Amy muttering "Jesus Christ" with some regularity in the seat beside him.

Then there was the matter of finding the place once they reached Calverley. The Heritage Trust's description made it clear that the Old Hall was not a rural retreat but was "situated amid 1950s housing with the close-knit friendly life of the neighbouring streets." It was more like the village had swallowed the place. Any one of about a half-dozen narrow alleyways could have been the "unmarked lane" described in the directions.

Finally he made a random selection from the available lanes, and as he crawled carefully down a rutted track between the back fences of a row of townhouses and a low brick wall, the house suddenly came into view, a rambling, ancient pile built of beige stones that had blackened from what undoubtedly had been centuries of village coal fires. The structure looked less like a single house than a medieval builder's sample book.

He followed the track around a corner and maneuvered the car past a parked contractor's van into a walled courtyard where the directions said he should park. He wondered how he was going to get the car out again through the narrow courtyard opening without hitting the van, if that was where it usually lived, but he decided that was a problem for another day.

"Exactly how old is this house?" Amy asked as she unfolded herself from the car.

"It depends what part of the place you're talking about," Tom said, hauling their suitcases from the trunk. He'd done the research, but he didn't want to sound pedantic. "It's really a hodgepodge, to use a technical term." Amy laughed, as he'd hoped.

"The earliest piece, which I think is somewhere in the middle of the place, was built before 1300. Some more bits were added between 1300 and 1400, and then the chapel in the 1480s."

"There's actually a chapel?"

"Yeah, that's pretty unusual for a relatively modest house like this, especially since there was a church within walking distance. Maybe that generation of Calverleys had a falling-out with the vicar. This end, where we'll be staying, was added in the 17th century. The Heritage Trust promises all mod cons. The rest of the house is off-limits to renters."

He put the suitcases beside what he assumed was the kitchen door and went looking for the lockbox that the instructions said contained the keys. He found it attached to the wall of a kind of lean-to shed and after several tries coaxed it to open and disgorge its contents. He unlocked the door and shoved it open.

The part of Calverley Old Hall that the Heritage Trust had restored and modernized for self-catering vacations made up what looked to be about a third of the house. The outside door opened onto a mud room that in turn led to a kitchen with a large rustic table, the requisite microwave, toaster, and electric kettle, and a wooden breakfront holding several meals' worth of plates and glassware.

A narrow doorway opened up to a small foyer with a steep staircase leading to the upper floor. Straight ahead was a large, dark, L-shaped living room with a low beamed ceiling, a grouping of chairs around a massive fireplace, a substantial dining table, and an alcove with a desk and bookcases. "It certainly has atmosphere," Amy said. She and Tom set their suitcases down by the staircase.

"Let's leave the bags here for now," Tom said. "Can't eat or drink atmosphere. Shall we walk over to the pub?"

"Good idea," Amy said.

There was still enough daylight for them to avoid the largest fissures in the track leading to the village streets. The pub, the Thornhill, was about five blocks away, two of them along the surprisingly busy main road. The rambling greystone building looked suitably timeworn. They claimed a high-top table in the main room near the bar. "Pint o' bitter?" Tom asked Amy.

"Definitely gin and tonic," she said.

He went to the bar and gave his order to a young woman with pink highlights in her cropped blond hair. She asked for a gin preference and he went with Tanqueray. "You staying around here?" she asked.

"We've rented the Old Hall for a few days," Tom said. "We just got there, actually. It's a hard place to find."

"Yeah, it's well hid," she said. "Comfy?"

"It seems very nice." He took the drinks back to the table along with a cardboard menu.

"To your ancestral home," Amy said, and they clinked glasses.

"Well, according to Uncle Ted's genealogy, anyway."

"I thought you said it was pretty conclusive."

"It's fairly clear that Calverley became 'Caverly' in the New World, and my grandmother was a Caverly, so..."

"So welcome home," Amy said.

He smiled. "Thanks."

"So they named the village after the Calverley family. The local movers and shakers."

"Actually the reverse," he said. "These dudes arrive here from Scotland in the 12th century and take the name of the place for their own. Calverley apparently means a place where you graze calves."

"Cow town."

"Exactly." He looked at the menu. "This is mostly bar snacks. I think to get actual dinner you have to go in there." He pointed to an adjacent room lined with banquettes and sporting wallpaper that for some reason depicted shelves of books.

"I do want actual dinner," Amy said.

They found a vacant four-person table and were handed menus. "No gastropub pretensions, at least," Tom said. They ordered fish and chips and lagers.

Then a tall man in a wrinkled blue blazer approached their table. "Excuse me," he said. "If I could bother you for a just a second?" He pointed to one of the vacant chairs.

Amy frowned but Tom said, "Uh, sure," and the man sat down. He reached across the table, offering his hand to Tom. "James McElroy," he said. Amy gave him a slight nod. Tom introduced Amy and himself.

McElroy said, "I was standing at the bar when you placed your drinks order and I heard you say that you're staying at the Old Hall."

"Right," said Tom. "The Heritage Trust has entrusted it to us for a few nights."

"I'm very interested in that house," McElroy said. "In fact, that's why I'm in town. The problem is that the place is only open to holiday renters, and you beat me to this particular weekend."

"Sorry about that," Tom said. He thought that McElroy's accent wasn't British, Yorkshire or otherwise, but wasn't exactly American either. "By the way, I'm no linguist, but you're not local, right?"

McElroy chuckled. "No, I'm from Toronto. I was visiting London and I drove up here hoping I could at least get a look inside the house. So I was wondering: could I visit you for perhaps an hour tomorrow? Maybe around noon? I promise I won't stay longer than that. And I might be able to tell you a few entertaining things about the house. About its former occupants."

"We won't be able to offer you food or drink. We just arrived this afternoon. There's nothing in the house and -"

McElroy held up his hand. "I was just going to say that I will be glad to bring lunch. I'm staying up the road at the Calverley Arms - it's very nice, by the way. I already asked if they could put up a fine spread. So it's all taken care of."

"Ah, you thought of everything," Tom said.

"I'm already imposing on you, so lunch seems the least I can do." McElroy stood up. "I won't take any more of your time tonight. I'll see you tomorrow."

"Do you know how to get there?" Tom asked. "The house is a bit hard to find."

"Oh, I've already been by," McElroy said. He gave a wave and headed back to the barroom.

Their dinners came a few moments later. "I don't think we actually told him, 'Sure, come on over,'" Tom said.

"Noticed that," Amy murmured. She didn't have much else to say while they ate.

"Do you know the way back?" Amy asked as they left the pub. It was drizzling, but they'd brought rain jackets.

"I was just going to retrace our steps," Tom said. They walked a block along the main road, then turned toward the interior of the village.

Amy said, "If we get married -"

Tom stopped. "If? I really thought we were beyond if."

"If we get married, we need to be more in sync about things like people inviting themselves over when we're on vacation."

She walked ahead, and Tom had to hurry to catch up. "Do you really have a problem with him coming over for just an hour? I mean, he's bringing food, which we don't have, and he might be able to tell us some interesting things..."

"I don't really mind his coming by, but you didn't wait to see if I had any objections before sealing the deal."

"You're right," Tom said. "I'm sorry." Then he looked around. "I'm not sure this is the right street." It started to rain harder. "I think we turned off the main road too soon."

"Should we go back to the main road?"

"No, I think we can cut over on this street here," Tom said. He pulled up the hood of his rain jacket, although he hated that because it limited both his hearing and his field of vision.

The next street, lined with terraced houses, didn't seem right, either. Tom was sure that the entrance to the alley that led to the Old Hall was marked by a rather large, white, semi-detached house with a manicured hedge, but the house seemed to have vanished. They turned up the next street and then circled around the block again. "It's like the damn place is hiding from us," Amy said.

"Let's try one more block over," Tom said.

"I'm sure we didn't walk that far to the pub," Amy said. She turned and headed back toward the main road. Water was coursing down the street.

"We just came this way," Tom said, but she was already half a block ahead of him. Then she pointed toward a narrower street they'd apparently missed on the first pass.

"I'm going this way," she said. Tom splashed after her. Halfway down the block they saw the gateway, the white house with the manicured hedge.

"Found you, you bastard," Tom said, as the Old Hall came into view. The dark mass of the house - they hadn't left on a light - loomed like an obligation he'd unaccountably neglected. He turned on his cell phone light and led the way through the mud and around the lakes that had formed in the rutted alley. The kitchen door yielded to his key after a few tries.

"That was way more of an adventure than it needed to be," he said, flipping on the kitchen light. He took off his saturated rain jacket and hung it over the back of a chair.

"These shoes are absolutely ruined," Amy said. She pulled them off and tossed them in a corner. "I must look like a drowned rat."

"Well, an attractive albeit damp one. Why don't you go upstairs and run a bath? I'll bring up the suitcases."

He found the stairway light and flipped it on. When Amy reached the top of the stairs, she called back, "Be careful coming up. The steps are uneven."

He hauled the bags up one at a time and brought them into the largest bedroom, which had a sloping, wide-planked floor and featured a rather peculiar half-timbered alcove that was furnished with a chest and armchair. The portrait of someone - the house guide didn't identify any of the paintings - was centered over the chest. Tom guessed the alcove was an artifact of the Heritage Trust's conversion of this wing of the house into vacation quarters. God knew what condition it had been in when the work was begun.

Tom took off his wet clothes and changed into pajamas. Amy emerged from the bathroom wrapped in several towels. "The water pressure isn't anything to write home about," she said.

"That's okay. I wasn't planning to write home anyway. Want to come down and have that wine we bought in York? I can tell you some of what I've learned about the Calverleys."

Amy sighed. "Would you mind terribly if we did that tomorrow? I'm really tired. I'd just like to go to sleep."

"That's fine," Tom said, though he'd really thought it would be best if he delivered his history lesson before McElroy's visit. "I think I'll go down and read the Heritage Trust materials about the house. I'll be up soon." He kissed her and headed downstairs.

He opened the wine, a decent Bordeaux, and poured himself a glass, then settled into the desk chair. There was a binder of material that went into considerably more detail than had been on the trust's website, including an account of an architectural competition that had been held to develop plans for a complete restoration and reuse of the Old Hall. He thought the winning scheme made a great deal of sense, but apparently there weren't enough funds at present to implement it.

Tom went to the kitchen to pour himself another glass of wine, then sat in one of the upholstered chairs facing the cold fireplace. The house was by far the most ancient place he'd ever contemplated spending a night, but there were no groans or creaks, nothing that suggested the weight of centuries. He hoped he'd made the right decision to rent the Old Hall for four nights. When he suggested to Amy that they interrupt their long-anticipated London vacation to take the train to York and make this pilgrimage to what Uncle Ted had assured him was the family's ancestral home, she'd agreed readily enough. But he wondered to what extent she was just humoring him. Their courtship, if that was what it could be called, had not been smooth, but there was now a sense of equilibrium that both of them had become scrupulous about maintaining.

Tom's son, Toby, home from college for the summer, had advised him not to expect too much from the side trip to Yorkshire. "It's not as if you ever cared much about family history. Just because you found out some things, some odd things - it's hard to know how other people might react."

"It's not 'other people,' it's Amy," Tom had said. "She'll think it's a blast."

"A blast? I can't quite see Amy enjoying a blast. But you know her better than I do. Obviously."

Tom drained the rest of the wine in his glass. Even though the Old Hall was surrounded by houses, the night was quiet, except for what he thought were faint notes of music. He turned out the lights and went upstairs.

"I hope you weren't caught in that rainstorm last night," said James McElroy, unpacking the lunch he'd brought from the Calverley Arms and setting the containers out on the kitchen table. There was also a bottle of Chablis. "Shall I put this in the fridge?" McElroy asked.

"Of course," said Tom. "As for the rain, yeah, we got a little wet. Nothing serious." He wasn't about to recount the whole story of their walk from the pub. "I'm guessing the lane is still in rough shape."

"I took one look at it and parked on the street. I managed to avoid the muddiest bits." McElroy made a brief circuit of the room. He was a large man, larger than he'd seemed in the pub, and seemed to take up all the available space. "Nice kitchen. The Heritage Trust usually does good kitchens."

"I take it you've rented from them before."

"Oh yes," he said. "That's kind of what I do in the summers. Will your wife be joining us?"

Tom wondered whether to correct McElroy, then decided it could be awkward later on if he didn't. "We're not actually married. Yet. Though it's pretty clear we will be, perhaps even this year." He paused. "It would be the second marriage for both of us, so I guess we're being a bit cautious."

"That sounds very rational," McElroy said.

"I'll go see what's keeping Amy," Tom said, and headed for the stairs.

She'd already started down. "Has the lecture started yet?" she asked, sotto voce. Tom shook his head. They'd slept late, and she'd seemed in a good mood when she awakened. He hoped McElroy wouldn't change that.

"Good morning!" McElroy boomed when Amy came into the kitchen. "Would you mind if we took a walk around the house before we have lunch? I think I could tell you a few things of interest."

"Tom's done a lot of research into the house as well," Amy said.

"Yeah, I've read a few things," Tom said quickly. "But I'd be very interested to hear Mr. McElroy's take on the place."

"James, please," McElroy said. "It's wonderful that you've done research. Most holiday renters don't bother. We can compare notes." He moved toward the passageway into the rest of the house. "Could I take a quick look at the downstairs? I know this is the only part of the interior we have access to."

"Go right ahead," Tom said. He and Amy followed.

McElroy walked through the hall into the living room, where he devoted most of his attention to the beamed ceiling. "They did a nice job with this," he declared.

Tom picked up the Heritage Trust's binder from the desk. "Shall I bring this on our tour?" he asked.

"Sure," McElroy said, heading back toward the kitchen. He stopped abruptly at the narrow kitchen doorway. "Oh my goodness," he said. Mounted on the wall above the door frame were two black, rectangular stones into which faces had been carved. Both of the faces were similar: oval eyes, large triangular noses, round open mouths as if in the midst of screams. The head on the right was somewhat more detailed than the one on the left. Both looked startlingly primitive.

"It was probably just as well that we didn't notice these last night," Tom said.

"Does the Heritage Trust guide mention them?" McElroy asked.

Tom leafed quickly through the binder. "Here it is. It says that in the restoration they built in 'various old stones, including the two carved heads now in the hall.' Presumably they found them around the place."

Amy said, "Could they possibly have been in the chapel? Badly done heads of saints?"

McElroy shook his head. "The chapel was a 15th-century addition. If it had statues and such, they wouldn't have been so crude. These are much, much older." He stared at the faces for several more moments. Then he said, "Well, shall we go outside?"

McElroy led them out the kitchen door and to the right, through the courtyard where the rental car was parked and around the narrow end of the building to its long east side. About a third of the way down he stopped at a battered door. Through an adjacent window they could see an empty water bottle and other signs of the recent presence of workmen.

McElroy turned the knob and gave the door a slight push, but it didn't yield. He shrugged. "Worth a try," he said. "This is the solar, the oldest part of the house. Started out as a two-story wooden structure, probably 1300 or so, then later it was remodeled in stone. There's evidence of an even earlier stone structure that was partly reused to build this bit. You can see that they've stripped out this space, I guess for archaeological analysis, and put up scaffolding."

Amy asked, "Why is it called the solar?"

"It's a name for the family quarters in a lot of medieval manors and castles. It either actually refers to the sun - you can see the large windows - or the Latin word solus, meaning 'alone'. Private space for the family."

"Alone space - how modern," Tom said. McElroy gave a thin smile and walked on quickly. He stopped again after rounding the corner of the building. "This whole east wing is the Great Hall," he said. "Social space, office space, banquet hall. Thirty feet long, carved hammerbeam ceiling. The fireplace in the north wall was so large that it was later turned into two rooms."

McElroy walked rapidly along the Old Hall's south side and came to a stop beside a rectangular extension of the building marked by three tall, narrow tracery windows. "The chapel, of course," he said after Tom and Amy caught up with him. "The altar windows are south facing, which isn't quite canonical. The chapel would have been entered through the solar. I really wish we could get inside. It's quite extraordinary for a house this size to have a chapel."

Tom was turning through the Heritage binder. "It says the chapel was probably built by William Calverley, who was apparently a pious chap. Died in 1488."

"Perhaps a lazy chap as well," McElroy said. "Couldn't be bothered to walk the half mile to St. Wilfrid's, which, after all, his ancestors built."

"Tom thought there might have been a theological dispute," Amy said.

McElroy seemed to give this serious consideration. "More likely the chapel was built as a status symbol," he said finally.

They continued their circumnavigation of the Old Hall. "These three doors on the west side of the building, you know why they're there, right?" McElroy said.

"The house was broken up into cottages before the restoration," Tom said.

"Right, which actually saved the place," McElroy said. "Renters weren't about to make major structural changes. The cottages were rather brutally inserted into the house after the estate was sold by the Calverleys in the 1750s. The grounds - gardens, pastures, outbuildings - were sold off. This lawn is all that's left."

They'd arrived back at the kitchen door. McElroy said, "Shall we have some lunch?"

The Calverley Arms had packed slices of ham, roast beef, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, salad, grapes, thick-sliced bread. The wine was a nice white Burgundy. They ate at the kitchen table.

"I really appreciate your letting me have a look around the place," McElroy said. He'd constructed a sandwich from the ham and cheese.

"You said you're a frequent renter from the Heritage Trust. Is that a professional interest?" Tom asked.

"In a way. I've written a few pieces about places I've stayed in. Maybe I'll try putting them in a book. I've had some intriguing - experiences, let's say."

Amy looked at him quizzically, but he didn't elaborate. He turned to Tom. "May I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"Why did you pick this place for your holiday from all the properties in the catalogue? Most people choose something considerably more rural. More typically 'England's green and pleasant land.' This house is fascinating, but it's almost urban, so hemmed in by the village -"

"There's a family reason, actually," Tom said.

"Ah," said McElroy, leaning back in his chair. "Ah. Are you related to the Calverleys, by any chance?"

"My maternal grandmother was a Caverly, no initial 'l' or second 'e,' which is one form of the name in the New World."

McElroy grinned widely. "So of course you know what happened here in April 1605."

"Happened here?" said Amy.

Tom silently berated himself for not insisting on the wine and storytelling the previous night, but he couldn't think of any way to change the subject now. "Amy hasn't heard that story yet," Tom said.

"Would you mind if I tell it?" McElroy asked. "It could help me with the writing."

"One of you better tell it before I throw something," Amy said.

"Please go ahead," Tom said. He refilled everyone's wine glass, for want of anything better to do.

McElroy got up and went to lean against the kitchen counter. "I always think better standing up," he said. "Let's hope I remember everything. All right, so in 1605 the owner of this house, the Calverley family seat, was one Walter Calverley. Born in 1579. His father dies when he's still a wee lad, and he becomes the ward of a man named William Brooke.

"At age 19 or 20 Walter enters Cambridge University, but he spends way more time drinking and gambling than hitting the books. He runs up considerable debts, which seems to have been something of a Calverley family tradition. He soon leaves Cambridge, probably involuntarily, and announces plans to marry the daughter of a Calverley neighbor.

"Brooke the guardian has other ideas. He wants Walter to marry one of his - Brooke's - relatives, Phillipa. Walter thinks this over and decides it's not a bad plan. First of all, her family is loaded, and the dowry will go a long way toward paying off his debts. Second of all, Phillipa is the daughter of Sir John Brooke, so Walter will be marrying up. And one goal of the Calverleys in every generation has been to rise in Yorkshire social standing. So Walter and Phillipa marry and settle down here at the Old Hall."

McElroy paused to take a few sips of his wine. "So do they like each other? Opinions differ. But they do manage to produce three kids in quick succession: William, Walter - there's always a Walter with the Calverleys - and Henry. What doesn't change is the elder Walter's drinking and gambling and debt acquisition.

"That brings us to April 1605. So what sets Walter off? For one thing, he learns that a relative of his, a Cambridge student, has been imprisoned for a debt that Walter himself had incurred. Then there's the possibility that Walter wasn't entirely - compos mentis. It seems that mental instability was another thing that ran in the Calverley family. And of course Walter was rather fond of intoxicating spirits.

"In any case, for whatever reason, or combination of reasons, on April 23, 1605, Walter - loses it." McElroy downed the rest of his wine. "In his moments of madness, Walter truly seems to believe that Phillipa has been unfaithful to him, that the children are not his. He picks up a knife and plunges it into four-year-old William and 18-month-old Walter, killing them both."

Amy gasped. McElroy nodded at her in acknowledgment. "The elder Walter then throws the nursemaid down the stairs, killing her, and attempts to stab Phillipa. But the good woman is saved by the fact that she's wearing a corset with metal stays. She's also saved by what she does next: she faints.

"Thinking that he's succeeded in slaughtering every available family member here at the Old Hall, Walter takes the knife and gallops off to finish the job by killing baby Henry, who happens to be with his wet nurse in a neighboring village. But before Walter can reach Henry and complete his bloody rampage, his horse steps in a hole and falls, trapping Walter underneath. This enables the authorities, who have been alerted by servants at the Old Hall, to apprehend the murderer and take him to the magistrate, who commits Walter to prison to await trial."

Tom glanced at Amy, who had a stricken expression. He couldn't, for the moment, think of anything to say. He would have told her all of this the previous evening, of course, though with somewhat more dispassion. "There's not much more to the story," McElroy continued. "Prison seems to return Walter to his right mind. He realizes that he'll be convicted whether he pleads guilty or not guilty, there being no concept of temporary insanity in English law at that time, and that upon conviction all his property, including the Old Hall, will be seized by the state. Phillipa and Henry will be left homeless and penniless.

"So when he's brought to York Castle for trial in October 1605, he makes the rational decision to refuse to plead at all, though this means he'll be found in contempt of court, and the penalty for that is death by pressing. Now in case you don't know what that is, it consists of placing a board on top of the prisoner, then piling heavy stones on top of the board until the victim either enters a plea or dies by suffocation. Walter still refuses to plead throughout his ordeal, and it's said that his last words - forgive me for not being able to do a Yorkshire accent - were: 'A pound more weight! Lay on! Lay on!'"

Apparently having finished his performance, McElroy sat back down at the kitchen table. Tom wondered if they were expected to applaud. Instead, he said, "Seems like you remembered that pretty well."

"Thank you. I guess you know that the Calverley murders caused a great sensation at the time. No tabloid television, so people wrote plays to satisfy the public's appetite for the bloody details."

Tom said, "I've actually read one. The Yorkshire Tragedy. You can find it on the internet. It's pretty dreadful."

"Yes, originally advertised as being by one William Shakespeare, said so right on the title page. Thomas Middleton was probably the actual author."

Tom thought McElroy's recitation, as impressive as it had been, had failed to answer the question of why he was so interested in Calverley history. "When you said you've had intriguing experiences, you meant -"

"I like to write about houses and other buildings that have been the locations of - not necessarily murders, but violence or what you might call events that rend the fabric of normal life a bit," McElroy said. "And I think when things like that happen, some impression stays with the structure, something palpable. I don't mean that I'm a ghost hunter. I don't travel around with electronic sensors. But I think a sensitive person can feel the aftereffects of extreme events."

"If your next question is whether we saw or felt anything last night, for my part the answer is no, though perhaps we're not sensitive enough," Tom said. "Amy?" She gave a barely perceptible shake of her head.

"It's unlikely you would have seen anything right here," McElroy said. "This part of the house was built by the surviving son, Henry. His mother married again, and his father's refusal to plead meant that he eventually inherited the Old Hall. It stayed in the family for over another century."

McElroy stood up again. "I've imposed on you long enough," he said. "Thank you for allowing me to look around. I hope the rest of your holiday is delightful." Amy nodded. She didn't get up. McElroy headed for the kitchen door.

"I'll walk you out," Tom said.

Outside they stood beside Tom's rental car. "I'm afraid I've upset your fiancée," McElroy said.

"It was just a bit of a surprise," Tom said. "I was going to tell her the gist of the story last night, but we were both too tired. We did get a bit drenched from the rainstorm, and frankly we had a little trouble finding the place again."

"That's very interesting," McElroy said. "I think this is a house that likes to keep its own counsel. Anyway, thank you again. I'm sure Amy will come to appreciate what an interesting family she's marrying into." He waved and started to walk away, then turned back and said, "I'm going to go down to St. Wilfrid's cemetery tonight. The story is that after being buried in York, Walter's body was dug up and moved here, to lie beside his murdered sons. Several generations of schoolboys have hung out in the churchyard, hoping to catch a glimpse of Walter's spirit. It's as likely to be seen there as here. You're welcome to join me. I'll probably get there around 10, after it's fully dark."

"Thanks, but I don't think that's quite my thing. And I thought you said you weren't a ghost hunter."

"Well," McElroy said, "you never know what direction things will take." He shook his head. "Old Walter Calverley on his ghostly horse, waving his bloody dagger - that just seems vulgar. I'd much rather a spectral monk chanting mass in that wonderful chapel. But maybe that's just me." He waved again and headed down the unpaved lane toward the village street.

When Tom went back in the house, he found Amy sitting by the cold fireplace. It looked like she'd been crying. "I want to leave," she said.

He sat down next to her. "Leave?"

"Yes, leave this house."

"Look, I'm sorry about McElroy. I should have just told him it wasn't convenient for him to come over. I -"

"It wasn't McElroy," Amy said. "Or it wasn't McElroy in particular. He was just the messenger. It was the whole horrible story. When you talked about the house having seen so much history - if I'd had any idea this was what you meant, I would never have come."

Tom took a deep breath. He hadn't anticipated this, and he wasn't sure there was any way to save the situation, but he knew he had to try. "I really hated that you had to hear it from McElroy. I was going to tell you the story last night, after we got back from the pub, and -"

"And I said I wanted to go to bed. That's right. But I won't have you making this my fault. Why did you wait until we got here to even plan to tell me about the murders?"

"Amy, look. What Walter did happened - 415 years ago. If anything is ancient history, surely this qualifies. And as to why I didn't tell you before, I honestly thought you'd find it more intriguing if you heard the story when you were in the actual place where it happened."

"Intriguing? Is that a synonym for appalling?"

"Obviously it's not an edifying story, Amy, but family history isn't always about noble deeds, right? It's about human beings, and sometimes they can go horribly wrong."

"So this is a history lesson? Okay, I suppose it's one I should have learned."

He'd never felt closer to despair. "If - if you mean maybe the madness is hereditary, it's not as if we're going to have children together. And even Uncle Ted says there are many branches of the Calverley family. The likelihood that I'm a direct descendant of the famous Walter is vanishingly small."

Amy didn't reply, and Tom pressed on. "I know I've handled this badly, and I'm so sorry. But you mustn't doubt that I love you, and I wouldn't do anything knowingly to hurt you."

She didn't speak for half a minute. "I'm not being rational. I realize that. And I know you've already spent a lot to rent this place. I'll pay you back -"

"No, Amy. That's not an issue."

"But I still want to leave."

"That's fine," he said. "We'll go back to York, stay another night at that nice hotel, maybe go to evensong at the Minster. We'll take the train back to London tomorrow. We'll have time to see the Tate Modern, maybe catch a play." And time to put this behind them, talk about it - or avoid the subject entirely. He thought he could handle either eventuality. He thought they could work this out.

"I'll go pack," Amy said, and went upstairs.

Tom stayed seated by the fireplace for a few minutes and then went to the foot of the stairs. Amy had unpacked the night before but he hadn't. He'd just have to get his things from the bathroom and put his clothes from the day before in the suitcase. "Let me know when you're finished, Amy," he called up. "I'll get my bag and take them both down."She didn't answer. He thought of going up but decided to leave her alone for the time being, give her a chance to think about things. Maybe she'd even change her mind about leaving.

He turned and stared at the bizarre rectangular stone faces that had been mounted above the door to the kitchen. What could they possibly have to do with this house? They seemed like relics from another horror story entirely. He went in the kitchen and put all the wrappers from lunch in the trash. There was cheese left and some grapes, so he put them in one of the carryout containers in case they wanted them for later. They'd finished the wine McElroy had brought, but there was some left in last night's bottle. He poured himself a glass and drank it slowly, staring out the kitchen window. He couldn't shake the feeling that there was something about the house that he was meant to understand, but whatever it was seemed to be just out of his reach.

He went outside and stood by the rental car, mentally planning how he was going to maneuver it out of the walled parking enclosure, around the parked builder's van, and then out the lane to the village streets. He wondered if he should go back in and see if Amy needed help. Instead he found himself making another circuit of the Old Hall. It was oddly quiet, and Tom could almost imagine the encroaching village no longer existed. He peered inside the window of the solar, tried the door. He thought he might be able to see into the Great Hall, but the view was blocked by scaffolding. He continued on to the end of the building and around to the south wing.

Tom stood for a few moments facing the chapel. It was a warm afternoon and a light breeze moved languidly through the low trees that bordered the lawn. He noticed something he'd missed during McElroy's tour: There was a door on the chapel's east side, near where it abutted the solar wing, probably installed when the chapel was just one of the cottages whose construction had ironically led to the preservation of the Old Hall's ancient architectural bones. He tried the door, and to his astonishment the knob turned freely. He pushed his shoulder against the door and it opened - not easily, since the wood of the door and the sill had swollen over the decades, but enough for him to step inside.

The lancet windows let in enough light that Tom could see the outline of the room but not enough for him to feel confident about the full condition of the chapel floor. Standing on the sill, he pulled out his cell phone and turned on its flashlight, which revealed that the stones of the floor were largely intact and level. He stepped inside the chapel. He had the sudden impulse to call McElroy but realized he'd hadn't gotten the man's number.

The first thing he noticed was the odor: mustiness, of course, with pungent grace notes that could be decaying wood, but also something else that took him a few moments to identify. "Incense," he said aloud, the word echoing in the empty chapel. Surely odors didn't persist in rooms for centuries, especially rooms that had once been parts of cottages. What had McElroy said? A spectral monk chanting mass. But that was absurd.

Tom walked carefully to the center of the room. At the rear of the chapel there was metal scaffolding that reached almost to the ceiling, possibly to protect the remains of the private gallery that the guidebook had said the family could enter through the solar. He took a few steps back toward the altar wall to see what he could of the gallery. If the Old Hall had a mystery, Tom thought, this place was somehow at the heart of it. Did Walter, paranoid and debt-ridden, ever seek comfort here before the madness consumed him? Certainly there was little solace to be found in his cell in York Castle; his return to rationality had brought not relief but black despair. There was no possible legal defense for him, and so he made no public plea, but could he have confessed in secret and been given absolution? That apparently was not part of the historical record, just that final "lay on, lay on."

Tom turned around and walked toward the altar wall. The lancet windows let in enough light for him to see the intricate wood carving that covered the top of the walls above what would have been the altar. It was harder to make out the details of the hammerbeam ceiling. While he was staring upward Tom heard a rustling sound behind him and turned in time to see something fall from the scaffolding and shatter on the chapel floor. "McElroy?" he called out, the words echoing as before, only louder. He moved toward the scaffolding, bringing out his cell phone again to try to make out what had fallen. He reached down and picked up a shard of what seemed to be china. A coffee cup left by a workman on the scaffolding, dislodged by the breeze? He had, after all, left the door partly open.

Tom took a few steps back, peering up into the scaffolding. Somehow the smell of incense seemed stronger; he wondered if that accounted for the dizziness he suddenly felt. He reached for the scaffolding to steady himself. The wooden planks that had been laid across the top of the scaffolding were the next to fall. When the entire structure collapsed onto the stone floor of the chapel, the sound was deafening, but Tom never heard it.


  1. Loved the story! I wish there were more!

  2. Excellent story! Well written, well paced. Thoroughly enjoyed. Would like to see more from this author.

  3. Loved the authentic writing style. The story moved with its simplicity yet fine addition to details. I could connect to the characters and felt I was at the Old Hall.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Though the narrator told the story a direct, clear-as-a-bell voice, the setting itself spoke wordlessly of “the aftereffects of extreme events.” From the luggage left at the foot of the uneven stairs, to the difficulty finding the path back from the pub, the faint sound of music, the place had the personality of an HP Lovecraft story. I’d like to know what happens next. Maybe the next part of the tale will be narrated by the structure itself?

  5. A super read. I found this balanced, thoughtful with just the right amount of building suspense. The details are terrific.

  6. Just enough detail to engender questions rather than answers. Great read.

  7. I ate this right up! Really engaging, well paced, a nice simple frank style, with just enough mystery to draw you along. Highly readable! Would love to read more from this writer. Characters well sketched-- Liked the overbearing visitor and the girlfriend.

  8. Absorbing tale..interesting juxtapositions between the couple and their relationship and Tom's growing relationship with the house, and where this is leading.

  9. Well crafted prose, just the right atmosphere to this piece. Well done.