A Short Story to Chill the Blood.

No songs this week, although there will be some more later. Instead a short story, full of horrors, first published in 1985 when it won a prize in the local paper’s Christmas ghost story competition.

A VISIT TO BLASTINGS MANOR

The visitors to Blastings Manor already looked harassed, although their tour had hardly begun. Their guide, in contrast, looked very cool and efficient. She only allowed them to pause for breath on the second landing of the Great Staircase, where, she informed them:

“The third Duke’s twin sons killed each other when Cromwell’s Ironsides attacked the Manor, led by the elder twin. The younger commanded the defenders. They met just here and stabbed each to death, while their father watched helplessly. When he saw them die, his hair, which had been “of a most bewtiful chestnut hew” turned snow white and he never smiled again. He commissioned the great stained glass window above us as a memorial of the tragedy. It depicts Cain killing his brother Abel.”

They looked up at the window. It was remarkably, even horrifically, realistic. The more sensitive, glimpsing the distorted face and bloody head of the dying Abel, looked quickly away. Fortunately their guide was already hurrying them on. By the time they reached the Long Gallery the ladies, especially, were glancing wistfully at the sofas. But these, like the rest of the furniture at Blastings, were firmly cordoned off.

The Duke had insisted upon this. When his agent suggested opening the Manor to the public, to pay his massive debts, his Grace proved unexpectedly amenable. However, he made certain stipulations. He had no objections, he said, to the Unwashed scuffling their feet along his floors and breathing over his family portraits, if they paid for the privilege, but he was damned if they were going to put their bottoms on his chairs. (It is hardly necessary to say that “damned” and “bottoms” are not precisely the words employed by his Grace).

So visitors to Blastings were not precisely made welcome. The grounds were patrolled by armed keepers, with orders to shoot anyone straying from the rather restricted routes allocated to visitors. School parties were actually accompanied by the head-keeper, his shotgun carried suggestively over his shoulder. And there was definitely nowhere to sit down.

“The Long Gallery,” announced the guide, “is haunted by the first Duke, who was killed here in a duel. The trail of blood-spots on the floor was left by the dying man as he dragged himself towards his wife’s bedchamber.”

Those ladies who found themselves actually standing on a blood stain leaped away with muted cries of revulsion.

“These spots,” the guide lowered her voice dramatically, “cannot be erased.” Then, briskly in more normal tones: “The Duchess, who was slightly deaf, did not hear his agonised moans, but when she opened her door next morning and discovered his hacked corpse she instantly ran mad, rushed shrieking down the Great Staircase and drowned herself in the fishpond. Some say she haunts Blastings Park in the shape of a White Lady with flowing hair, but others insist that this is the ghost of a beautiful young nun who vanished after being abducted from her Convent by the first Duke’s grandfather.”

She threw open a massive oak door and lead them into a small, dark room. “Here, in the Blue Room, the fourth Duke diced with his dissolute cronies for the possession of his lovely young wife, on their wedding night. The evil old Marquis of Braintree won, but she stabbed him to death in defence of her honour and was hanged at Tyburn for his murder. The judge sobbed as he pronounced her death sentence and three jurymen committed suicide not long afterwards. After dark the click of dice, drunken laughter, and the terrified screams of a woman can be heard from within.”
They backed out as rapidly as dignity would allow.

“In the Red Room,” she continued, herding them into an even smaller, darker bed-chamber, “the third Duke imprisoned his orphaned niece in an attempt to force her to marry his younger son, to keep her fortune in the family. She died suddenly with neither clergyman nor doctor in attendance and the Duke gave out that she had killed herself “in a fitte of the melancholike dumpes.” However, it was widely believed that he had starved her to death. Guests sleeping in the Red Room (it is never used by the family) have spoken of seeing a strange young girl, who asks them for food. She appears to be a living person, but looks “terribly thin.” Those who meet the “thin ghost” as she has come to be called, die within the year of a particularly nasty form of anorexia nervosa.”

This time they fled the room with no regard for dignity at all. It was really something of a stampede and one lady was almost knocked over in the rush. The guide remained calm.

“We now move to the Great Hall, down the Little Staircase, which has hardly been used by the family since the beautiful and virtuous Lady Marjorie was dragged down the stairs to be burned. Her step-mother, who had falsely accused her of witchcraft, afterwards died of remorse, confessing everything on her deathbed. She haunts Blastings churchyard in shape of a huge black hound with fiery eyes, whose breath causes plague, murrain and severe attacks of impetigo.”
“Lady Margaret’s ashes were buried under the bottom stair and a sickening smell of burning is said to fill the stairway occasionally.”

Several people began to cough, and one lady was forced to press her handkerchief over her mouth and nose. They moved on. Very quickly.

“Before we reach the Great Hall, we visit the Chapel,” the guide announced, patting her shining red hair, and brushing her immaculate blazer. “The mural on the north wall was painted by order of the fifth Duke. He was blackballed by the Hellfire Club for excessive depravity and retired to his estate with a mute servant “who was never out of his company” The Duke could never say where he came from, only repeating “he is used to a hotter clime than ours,” she paused, to let them draw the obvious conclusion.

“While the Duke lived at Blastings there were rumours of midnight gatherings in the Chapel, And six village girls disappeared at yearly intervals. Seven years to the day after his arrival here, the Duke was found dead under the mural. Some say his throat was cut, others that his head was turned back on his shoulders, breaking his neck, but all agree on the look of agonised horror which disfigured his features. The strange servant had vanished. After the Duke’s death the superstition arose that if anyone gazes fixedly at the mural for the time it takes to count thirteen, he will see the Devil.”
The Chapel was evacuated even more rapidly than the Red Room had been. Even the lady who had been staring absent-mindedly at the mural all through the commentary waited until she got outside to have hysterics.

The double doors of the Great Hall stood open. Beyond them safety and sanity beckoned. The visitors made for them at a gallop. Fragments of the guide’s commentary reached them as they ran: Strange discoveries: “… the bones of a number of babies … uncovered during restoration work … perhaps a foundation sacrifice, but none were earlier than the beginning of the nineteenth century …”
The fate of a certain Lady Barbara: “… fragments of human skin are said to be still clinging to the doorposts …”

The peculiar tastes of the second Duke: “… found arms and leg bones … split, perhaps to obtain the marrow …”

But they would not listen. Gaining the open air at last they ran for their coach, a reassuring scarlet splash at the end of the drive.

Dusk was falling. A white figure flitted eerily through the trees but they did not wait to see if it was a night-gowned Duchess or a white-robed nun. Among the gravestones in the nearby Blastings churchyard they glimpsed a black shape with fiery eyes. Strange chanting came from the Chapel, mingling weirdly with the sounds of drunken revelry from the Blue Room, while the one lady who was brave enough to look back, saw a hand with very thin fingers beckoning through the bars of the Red Room’s window.
A much shaken party fell panting into their coach.

“Ready for off, then?” said the driver. They chorused weakly that they were indeed. Until one bold spirit protested: “We never tipped the guide!”

There was a pause. They looked back at Blastings Manor. It seemed quite different when viewed from the safety of the coach. The white shape fluttering in the trees was undeniably a truant sheep. The black one, slinking through the churchyard was a homely sheepdog. The house itself lay peaceful, even beautiful in the setting sun. Several ladies, rather ashamed of their earlier panic, were about to volunteer to go back with some money when the driver said, in a horrified half-whisper, “Guide? There’s been no guide at Blastings since that awful tragedy…”

“Well, we had one,” the bold spirit persisted. “Most knowledgeable. Rather attractive. She wore a very smart blazer…”

“Red hair?” breathed the driver.

“Well, yes …”

The driver crashed his coach into gear and drove off as if all the demons in Blastings were after him.
And no one dared to ask what the guide’s tragedy had been.

Tina Rath
Yellow Advertiser 1985/All Hallows 1 1989

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