This short story was inspired by my recent trip to Scotland. It was at the end of winter and the bulbs were just beginning to flower, and every day saw more bluebells, snowdrops and jonquils blooming like paint spatters all over the forests and even on grassy verges beside the road. I drew ghost story for this one, and was pretty excited as I hadn’t written in that genre before. This story scored well and secured me a place in last year’s NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge finals. I moved between time periods to add history- from the present and a real estate agent trying to sell an old manor house that came with a title, to scenes from the tortured past of the former inhabitants. I did something quite despicable in this story, which was to trap a labouring woman inside a large military chest…..
The Military Chest
The approach to Falkland House was slow. The last half-mile snaked through woods of ash and aspen where the moss-covered skeletons of the trees formed loose arches over the road. Rotting leaves made the drive slippery, and on a few occasions Dana found herself gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. She made a note to buy a decent pair of lined gloves. Every time she travelled to a new property, she tried to imagine it as prospective buyers would see it. A pessimist may see the pot-holes and narrow road and notice the isolation, while an optimist would be on the lookout for red squirrels or mating pairs of collared doves. It was her job to paint the property in an optimistic light…not an easy task on this occasion.
Dana had received the offer to show the property a month earlier. The agents like her accent- the slight hint of Australian made her sound honest. She remembered the phone call where she had asked the usual questions and took note of the answers: Yes, a few people had died there since it was built in 1750, but this was not unusual for a building of this age and there was no grave yard on site, which was good. Yes, the property came with a title, but the claiming of which would prove to be a legal nightmare for any prospective buyer, so questions in this direction were to be tactfully evaded. Unfortunately, a series of residents with poor taste and deep wallets had screwed with the aesthetics and due to budget constraints, Dana was advised to refurbish a single room in the classical style as an example of what might be achieved, given the right buyer.
When she pulled in, the vista of the house did not disappoint. The woods had cleared at the last minute to reveal a symmetrical, sepia toned sandstone building straight out of an 18th Century romance novel, complete with a rectangular tower in the centre. Not gothic, but close.
A hive of activity surrounded Sir Ninian’s return to Falkland house, but the man himself seemed exhausted, deflated. His butler was given a private audience in the first instance, and the details of the master’s service in the Boer War was disclosed so that the downstairs help were necessarily informed. Sir Ninian had found it difficult to cope in the heat and humidity of the African continent and his skills in marksmanship and physical endurance were thwarted by the driving sandstorms and poor diet he was forced to endure on the African continent. The British loss was a blow, but he was glad to be back in Scotland. After formalities, he embraced his wife Margaret with all the strength left in his arms and found his wife much thinner than when he had left. He requested that the footman unload his belongings and large military chest, and had the items sent to the master bedroom. Margaret sensed his exhaustion and sent the chambermaid- Hannah- to draw him a bath.
Dana took note that the entrance hall was not as badly ruined as the rest of the house, for the fact that it was plain- dark wood panelling and a scuffed marble floor. It wasn’t covered in lime and yellow wallpaper like some of the rooms, and hadn’t been painted shades of ‘fuchsia’ with trimmings of ‘banana boat’ like the others. The interior for the most part was tasteless and tacky, as if someone in the 80s had tried very hard to brighten it up before boarding up the door and leaving it for good. It was rare that people sold a property with a title, but the man who could have been the Laird had only lived here for a few years as a child, and was adamant in the advice letter that he would never be returning. Her plan was to decorate one of the rooms in the classical style, to show prospective buyers what was possible. She was pleased that the master bedroom, though darkened by a layer of candle soot and in desperate need of a good hot mopping to remove various stains from the floor, was relatively untouched. For now, she set herself up in one of the smaller bedrooms and fell into a heavy sleep.
There was no point hiding the fact of Hannah’s pregnancy. The girl would not say which of the young men it was, and after a stern talking to by Margaret about the continued performance of duties, Hannah was relieved she was able to stay on at Falkland House even after the child was born. ‘We are not so harsh as they are in England. The Scots, at least, have their pride and humanity intact.’ But as Hannah grew round and rosy, the lady of the house seemed to shrivel and shrink. There had been such hope, for such a long time before the Laird had gone to war, that Margaret would conceive an heir. But now that he was back it seemed that their relationship lacked affection, and she seemed much older than her one and thirty years.
Dana gasped awake, left with a sensation of claustrophobia, of being trapped. Her back and legs felt sore, as if she’d spent the night curled in a foetal position. The morning light was falling in pale shreds through the dusty window, and she noticed that there had been a hard frost overnight. A man who maintained the property grounds was coming to assist her today, and she made her way outside when she heard the approaching hum of a land rover.
The man seemed old, wiry, and he wore a light t-shirt even though the day was icy. ‘You must be Ivan.’ Dana put her hand out and shook the man’s hand and noticed him glance over her shoulder towards the house.
‘I’ve bought the items you asked for. They’re on loan, mind, and must be returned in the same condition.’
‘Of course. Absolutely.’ He gestured towards the back of the vehicle. Inside was a large oil painting with a gilt wooden frame. The shellac gloss had faded and cracked, but Dana could see the proud figures; the Laird and his lady. ‘So, this is Sir Ninian and…’
‘Margaret. Commissioned on his return from the war.’ Looking at the couple felt like looking directly into the past.
‘Have you worked here for a long time?’
‘I’ve been caretaking the grounds since before the family left. My days are much more…predictable now. The young master was a bit of a firebug, and on some days, I felt more like a volunteer firefighter than a groundskeeper. He seemed intent on burning the place to the ground. Hoarded candles. The paintings, curtains and the vintage clothing were removed for safe keeping, and eventually donated to the local museum. There might be some other furniture in the garden shed, if you need more.’ He gestured to the painting, ‘where am I going with this?’
‘The master bedroom.’ She followed him with her eyes and noticed how he hesitated at the threshold, before straightening his back and disappearing inside.
Ivan was clearly uncomfortable in the room; he helped her hang the curtains and the painting but took his leave as soon as this was done. Dana admired the room which looked much better already- the brocade curtains gave it a kind of grace and grandeur she was hoping for, and the painting of the Lord and Lady would be a talking point for potential buyers. She noted the composition of the painting; the figures were central and on one side were the curtains, and on the other side a few items from his service including a large military chest. She considered the back packs modern soldiers used today and wondered at how much the world had changed. Margaret looked fierce and proud, a small woman with dark hair and green eyes. She rested her hand on his shoulder. Sir Ninian had a rifle resting against his leg and his eyes looked towards something in the distance, as if looking out across the moors.
That night Dana could barely sleep. She was restless and her legs and back seemed to ache for no reason. She also thought she heard a woman moaning- not from inside the house but from somewhere in the garden. The sounds would increase in intensity and then fade away again and it was only in the early hours of the morning that they seemed to stop and Dana got some rest.
A cold breath of wind was blowing up the glen the day the Laird set off for Edinburgh. The servants had given lady Margaret a wide berth for the last few weeks as her temperament seemed increasingly irrational and spiteful. Hannah had been relieved of duties as she was nearing term, and the other maids were surprised when the lady summoned Hannah to the master bedroom.
Ivan was right, the garden shed held some very useful items of furniture, as well as spare tallows for the candelabra. She didn’t find the four-poster bed she was hoping for, but she did find an ornate coat stand and the military chest from the painting, which she semi-dragged back to the house.
‘He told me what happened.’ Margaret’s face was pale, even in the orange candleflame, and her eyes were dark and hollow. Hannah sobbed hot tears and bent her head down as she waited for her lady to finish speaking. ‘You disgust me. Pack your bag and be gone by the time he returns.’
‘But the baby…it wasn’t my fault. On the night he returned, he set upon me as I was drawing the bath. He was like an…animal.’ With that Margaret lashed out and grabbed Hannah’s hair, pulling on it so violently that the pregnant woman fell forward onto her knees and the side of her head collided heavily with the corner of the chest. The candelabra was rocking, slashing the room with flickering light and hot drips of tallow.
Dana woke that night to the sounds of the woman moaning as before, but this time it was much louder and coming from the master bedroom. Strangely, she could see the flicker of a flame and as she moved closer saw a woman moving around inside the room. The figure seemed to glow a pale blue and the shadows seemed to twist and blur the edges of the silhouette. Dana froze in horror when she recognised the spectre as Margaret, somehow free from the painting and pacing around the room. The figure continued to pace, wringing its hands and muttering, while the moaning from the military chest got louder and more urgent; sometimes asking for help, at other times enduring what must be the wracking contractions of labour. Why did she not let the woman out? Dana felt sick, but could not look away, and time seemed to speed up and slow down all at once, until the moaning had finally stopped. And then one last sound, barely audible; the gurgling cry of a newborn baby. Then the ghost made for the chest and grabbed at the lock and in that moment the morning light filtered into the room and the vision dissolved.
Dana had to know. She dragged the chest out onto the lawn. With an axe and the vison of Margaret’s ghost in her mind, she swung it and cracked the lock. She had to know what- or who- was inside. The chest seemed to exhale a deep final breath as she opened the lid. Inside were the skeletal remains of a woman, with dried blood on the shreds of her uniform. But…there were no bones belonging to a baby. Then Dana’s vision blurred and she saw Hannah slowly rise on shaky legs, before flowing away on the breeze; the trail of her freed spirit causing clusters of snow drops to burst from their buds.