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The mansion on Steeple Hill had stood there for almost a century, overlooking the village below – Robert Walsingham had built the building to stand the course of time and resist the harshest weather. The winds that beat against the exterior of the building from the coastline were powerful. The perimeter of the steep cliffs that looked out to sea was close to the grounds of the mansion, and the storms could be ferocious. Yet despite the inclement weather, the building still stood, and although the original architect – old Walsingham- was long dead, there were those who still dwelt within it.
The carriage drew up outside the old house, stopping by a white marble fountain that gently trickled water. The driver clucked with his mouth and pulled on the reins to still the horses. He looked up at the sky and contemplated the half-crescent moon that had risen before glancing back over his shoulder to see if the occupant of his carriage had deigned to move. Almost at that same moment, the carriage door opened.[private]
A tall gentleman stepped out on to the mansion driveway. He carried a cane and a small travel case. When he walked it was with a slight limp – the permanent reminder of an old war wound sustained in the Crimea. His whiskers were fine and silvery, and underneath his bowler hat his hair was grey and perfectly combed. He paused for a moment to adjust his cravat, while the driver lashed his whip upon the horses. The carriage behind him jolted forward, and the horses pulled the carriage around the fountain and out of the mansion grounds.
The gentleman looked up at the building looming above him, nodding his appreciation at the elegant Gothic architecture, the ornate, towering spires. By the time he had reached the doorway, the heavy oak door had swung open. The butler, a small, cadaverous man with a wrinkled face and shiny bald head, was waiting. He had loyally served two generations of Walsinghams.
“Ah, Mr Barrington,” he said, in a well spoken voice. “Lord Walsingham has been expecting you.”
“Thank you, Harold.” Thomas Barrington stepped inside, and the butler closed the heavy door behind him with a thud. The sharp sound echoed within the house. Even with the door closed, there was a distinct chill to the entrance hall.
“May I take your coat?” Harold suggested. “Also, your case? I’ll take it to your room.”
“Of course.” Barrington eased himself out of his heavy winter coat and handed it to the butler, along with his travel case. Underneath, he was wearing a brown tweed suit with a waistcoat.
“Thank you, sir. Please come with me.”
Barrington followed Walsingham’s servant up two flights of stairs. As they reached the first landing, which intersected with a corridor going in two different directions, Barrington fancied he saw a slim, girlish figure disappear into one of the rooms. If someone had been there, it had probably been a maid. More likely, it had been his imagination. Walsingham did not employ any maids. Mrs Watkins, a short and very stout woman in her early fifties, and Harold were the only staff here, to Barrington’s knowledge.
On the second landing, Harold led Barrington to a room at the far end of the corridor. He knocked on the door. “Sir?” he called.
“Who is that there?” a harsh voice called out. Barrington raised an eyebrow in surprise. It was nothing like the normal tone of John Walsingham’s voice.
“Sir, it’s Thomas Barrington, here to see you.”
“Oh, of course, of course.” The lock on the door was turned with a sharp sound and the door itself opened.
Barrington was shocked by Walsingham’s appearance. His friend had changed remarkably in the months since their previous meeting. Where before Walsingham’s long grey locks had been perfectly groomed, now they stood up in wild clumps around his temples and crown, greasy and unwashed. There was a hollow look to his eyes that alarmed Barrington, and his face seemed more lined and aged than it should, even for a man in his fifties.
“Good heavens John,” Barrington exclaimed. “Are you quite alright?”
“Harold,” Walsingham said sharply. “Could you bring us some tea?”
“Very good, sir.” The thin, aged butler turned on his heel and disappeared down the corridor. Walsingham caught Barrington’s arm and led him into his study, closing and locking the door behind them.
Barrington stared around the room. It was a mess. There were books and papers strewn everywhere, across the desk and piled on chairs, even stood in piles or arranged in designs upon the floor. Barrington perused the content of the papers, many of which contained diagrams. There were some illustrations too, though only a few displayed any kind of full text. Barrington raised an eyebrow and cast a sideways glance at Walsingham. He was wondering if the man had simply gone mad.
There was a couch in the corner. John Walsingham wandered over to it, casually brushed off a number of papers that fluttered like leaves to the floor, and invited his friend to sit.
Suppressing a smile, Barrington sat down on the couch. “So John, would you mind telling me what is going on?”
“Tom, I’ve made a breakthrough.” Despite his haggard appearance, Walsingham’s eyes were shining brightly.
Barrington frowned. “With regard to what?” He vaguely recalled that, on the last occasion he had seen him, Walsingham had declared an interest in spiritualism and the occult. It was nothing that Barrington had attached much importance to. Like his ancestors Walsingham often developed an obsessive interest in passing fads, which would burn brightly for a short period of time before the passion was extinguished, whereupon he would find a new hobby to work upon obsessively.
“With regard to my investigation into spiritual and magical matters,” Walsingham said. “Your arrival coincides with a momentous occasion. Tomorrow night, I will perform a ritual which is the culmination of all my explorations and experiments.”
“A ritual?” Barrington looked hard at his friend. “You sound like one of those tribes-people from foreign lands. I’m assuming this is not a Christian ritual, John?”
“You assume quite correctly. It is quite the opposite of a Christian ritual, in fact. Do you disapprove?” Walsingham fixed his gaze upon Barrington, seeming to really see him for the first time.
“You mentioned a breakthrough,” Barrington said slowly. “What were you referring to?”
“I have successfully summoned… beings,” Walsingham said triumphantly. “Beings from another dimension of existence.”
“I think you’ve gone quite mad,” Barrington told him. He was quite concerned now for Walsingham’s mental state. It occurred to him that he had heard rumours of insanity running in the family. Walsingham’s grandfather Robert, who had built the house, had suffered from episodes of mania and his grandson seemed to be exhibiting the same signs.
“Indulge me, Tom. Attend the ritual tomorrow night. This time tomorrow, we shall proceed to the summoning room. You will see the magic at work.”
At that moment there was a knock at the door, and the two men heard Harold’s voice. When Walsingham opened the door to allow the butler to enter with the tea, Barrington noted the nervous manner of the man-servant. Whatever occult practices Walsingham had become involved in, they had definitely had a profound effect on the atmosphere of the house and on Walsingham himself. Curiosity got the better of him, and Barrington decided that he would indeed indulge his friend. He was fascinated to see the nature of the ritual that Walsingham was performing and what would result from it. It would either highlight the extent of Walsingham’s delusions or reveal to Barrington unknown spheres of knowledge. Sadly for Walsingham, Barrington suspected that it would be the former rather than the latter.
The rest of the evening passed without incident. The two men renewed their acquaintance with each other, discussing old friends and memories from previous occasions that they had shared. Walsingham’s mood and demeanour improved during their conversation. Preoccupied and sombre when Barrington had first set eyes on him, now he even laughed upon occasion.
When Barrington was finally ready to retire for bed, Walsingham called his servant to escort Barrington to his room. They clambered up two flights of stairs to a corridor where rooms were reserved for guests. Remembering his vague glimpse of another presences when he had first entered the house, Barrington looked about him curiously, staring down dimly lit corridors and looking down at the stairs beneath him. However, on this occasion he saw nothing. The lack of activity was good for his nerves, he reflected. Walsingham’s words regarding magic and spiritualism had left him feeling rather uneasy.
Harold led him to a room which contained a magnificent four poster bed and a view from four floors up of the rear grounds of the house, which extended almost to the coastline. In the distance, Barrington could just make out the waters of the sea, shimmering in the moonlight. His travel case had already been left upon the bed spread and his coat hung up. He thanked the old servant, who departed discreetly. Barrington made his preparations for bed, undressing and washing his face before sinking gratefully into the welcoming, soft bed. After a short while, he got up and softly padded to the window to open it. It was somewhat stuffy in the room, and he immediately enjoyed the bracing, cool air which met him when he swung the windows wide. Far away, he could hear waves crashing against the distant shoreline. Ah, nothing like fresh sea air, he thought. He awkwardly made his way back to his bed, grimacing at the ache caused by his war wound. He cursed his gammy leg before laying back down again, enjoying the comfort of the mattress. It was only a short while before he drifted off to sleep.
He was awoken by the sound of singing. It took him a while to register where he was due to the unfamiliar surroundings, but eventually he remembered. He looked toward the window and saw that it was still dark outside. The sound of the singing seemed to come from outside the window, and it was this which had disturbed his normally sound sleeping habits. It was a soft female voice, but singing in a language which Barrington did not recognise. It was not English. Was it a maid or a servant? Grumbling softly to himself, Barrington got out of bed and limped toward the window again. He looked outside.
It was almost pitch black outside, apart from the half crescent moon which lit up some of the grounds below. Barrington could not quite identify the source of the singing, but it appeared to be coming from the house, or at least very close to the house. It was nearby, of that he was sure. “Excuse me!” he called out in his gruff voice. “Who is there?”
Abruptly, the singing stopped. There was a complete silence, with the exception of the distant crashing waves of the sea. The silence was so intense that eventually Barrington wished he had not called out. “Is there someone there?” he shouted out again.
Suddenly he heard a soft whispering, one voice, followed by a different whisper in answer from another. Barrington could not make out what was being said. He squinted into the gloom and craned his neck out as far as he could. He examined this side of the house, the one that his window was situated upon and scrutinised the windows around him. He could not see anyone or anything. “Damn strange,” he muttered to himself. He was a war veteran and not easily alarmed, but this was very unsettling.
Just as he was about to retire once again to his bed, he caught sight of movement below him. He peered down through the darkness. Down below, in the grounds of the house, he could see a figure crossing the grass. It seemed to be a woman. She was slim, and almost ethereal to the eye. She wore a long white gown and what seemed to be a hood – although on closer inspection Barrington realised that the woman possessed long, flowing white hair which fluttered out behind her in the breeze. She glanced upward toward the house, and for a brief moment Barrington thought she made eye contact with him. He glimpsed a pale, delicate face and realised that despite the colour of her long hair, the woman was quite young. In a moment, she was gone from view, vanishing into the darkness. Barrington craned his neck for another sight of her, and waited. He saw nothing more. After about half a minute he called out. “Hello? Is there anyone there?” he shouted. There was no response.
He lingered at the window for a little longer, before finally giving up and on this occasion, closing the window. He latched it firmly behind him. He did not wish his sleep to be disturbed by any further incidents – however intriguing or unusual they might be. If he did not have his usual night’s sleep, he would be irritable and feel under the weather the next day. He returned to his bed and fortunately for him, this time he slept soundly.
The next time he woke was when Harold brought him breakfast in bed: tea, with toast and marmalade. While the servant set his breakfast down on the dressing table, Barrington asked him if Walsingham was employing any other servants aside from his good self and Mrs Watkins. Perhaps a young foreign woman? When Harold replied in the negative, Barrington was left to silently consider what he had seen the previous evening.
That morning Barrington left the house to take his regular constitutional. He wandered through the grounds, down to the cliffs and to the coastal path. As he walked, he reflected upon the events that he had experienced at the mansion so far. There was no doubt that something strange was going on, and that there were unaccounted-for presences at the house. To get to the bottom of the mystery, he knew he would have to question Walsingham and indulge his friend’s interest in spiritualism and magic.
He did not see Walsingham until after lunch, which he took alone in his room. He finally caught sight of his friend on one of the landings, and attempted to question him about what he had seen and heard. Walsingham was in no mood to talk, however. “I apologise,” he said. “There is too much to do, too much to prepare. I don’t have time to talk. All will be explained later. I apologise, Tom, for being such a poor host. We will speak of this after dinner this evening.”
They ate dinner in the dining room downstairs that evening, attended to by Harold and Mrs Watkins. Walsingham continued to rebuff all attempts at conversation by Barrington regarding the strange events at the house. For Barrington’s part, the afternoon had passed uneventfully, but he had spent most of it in his room, attempting to read a novel. However, events in real life seemed far stranger than fiction, and Barrington had difficulty concentrating on the plot. He had been relieved when Harold had called him downstairs for dinner, but again left frustrated by his friend’s silence upon matters of importance during the meal.
After dinner, Walsingham finally began to speak of the details of the ‘ritual’ he intended to perform. He escorted Barrington to a room deep within the mansion, a room that he had referred to as the ‘summoning room’. Walsingham carried a number of papers with him, in a brown satchel which he had retrieved from his study, but he did not show them to Barrington.
During the course of the short journey to the ‘summoning room’, Barrington had a nagging feeling that he could not shake off: a feeling that they were being followed. It was not something that he could put his finger on or confirm definitely for his own satisfaction, but it was there. Occasionally, as they wandered through a maze of corridors, Barrington caught a flash of movement out the corner of his eye, too quick for him to pin-point. The point of Barrington’s cane echoed upon the hard floors of the uncarpeted corridors and occasionally Barrington thought he heard a double echo, like something was imitating the sound of their passage. His thoughts briefly returned to Walsingham’s comments about his ‘breakthrough’ and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He made sure that he did not linger too far behind Walsingham as he followed him through the corridors of the house.
The entrance to the room was through double doors, which were locked. Walsingham took out a large key from his jacket and opened them. When he swung them open and Barrington got his first glimpse of the inside of the ‘summoning room’, even the old Crimea war veteran was shocked. Walsingham had spared no expense in customising this chamber. The floor, walls and ceiling were constructed of black marble. As he drew closer and stepped inside, Barrington realised that there were designs inscribed in white upon the floor and walls. Barrington recognised a pentagram and various circles.
The air inside the room was cool. As Barrington continued to examine the designs in the interior, Walsingham took out several candles and began to light them before placing them in small holders positioned in various locations around the room. When he had lit twelve candles, he went to the double doors and locked them shut.
“What now?” Barrington asked.
“Sit down.” Walsingham indicated a place where Barrington should sit, and his friend obeyed – although Barrington was somewhat troubled that Walsingham had locked them inside this place. Walsingham also sat down, and took out the papers and a small knife from his satchel.
He began to chant, reading lines from the papers. Some of it was in English, some of it was in Latin and some of it was in a language that Barrington did not recognise. Barrington waited patiently, but Walsingham continued for over twenty minutes and nothing appeared to be happening. Barrington shifted uncomfortably on the cold marble floor. He was beginning to feel the onset of cramp. He became alarmed when Walsingham raised the knife, but he only pierced one of his fingers and let a little blood trickle on to the floor.
Suddenly Walsingham raised the level of his voice with a particular invocation. Barrington felt a sharp breeze and saw the candlelight flicker. He glanced around in alarm, wondering what was happening. It seemed as though strange shadows were moving against the walls, not the definitive shapes cast by his friend or himself, but indistinct blurs around them. It was as if there were unseen, distorted figures present in the room. Barrington nearly forgot himself and was about to stand up in shock, when suddenly something seemed to materialise in the space between he and Walsingham. It was as if a mini-tornado had been created from thin air in the middle of the room, and within the swirl of energies Barrington could see a shape taking physical form before them. It was then that Barrington looked at his friend, and upon seeing the panic on Walsingham’s face, he realised something had gone tragically wrong.[/private]