Here is the second part of the truncated ghost story ‘The Attic Child’ (BTW – it’s the story that’s ‘truncated’ not the ghost ) – the first part of which you can find here.
It’s half-complete status means that its ending doesn’t conform to conventional expectations of what an ending should be – no denouement, no climax of indescribable terror, no hard won truths leaving us, the reader, to move on in our solitary journey, sadder but wiser.
You can think of the ending as some kind of experimental revolt against the finality and neat resolutions we demand of stories – as if Life’s problems ended after ‘they lived happily ever after’…Or you can think of it as you might the Contrapunctus XIV of J.S. Bach’s ‘Art of Fugue’, which was cut short and left to hang unresolved by the intervention of the Grim Reaper (only in the case of my story the fault lies less with Mr G. Reaper than with the author’s incompetence and laziness…)
The Attic Child
(C******* Hall, Shropshire, 1759)
But now she was here, thinking these thoughts, remembering these scenes, in the tight muffled darkness of an unfamiliar hiding place – velvet-lined, comfortable and secure…but maybe a little sleepy now.
When she’d lowered the chest’s cover she’d heard some catch click, and trying to open it the lid found that it wouldn’t move. But she wasn’t worried, she could wait until they found her. She knew that part of being good at ‘hide-and-seek’ was being able to patiently wait out the search and not be tempted into leaving your hiding place to check on the progress of the game.
They’d that evening gone to the Cholmondley-Warners’ house – and as their carriage reached where the road leveled out at the top of the hill and they caught their first glimpse of it, the girls had gasped and stared: in the distance, glowing golden in the afternoon light it stood, set in its valley, like an elaborate jewel on green felt. The house made Sophia think of the palaces her father had told her about in fairy tales – and as they drew nearer, the horses trotting through the wooded grounds, they caught brief glimpses of its magnificent size down the alleyways between the trees of the plantations.
The house was confusingly elaborate. The facade was three storeys high and fifteen-window wide, with immediately set behind it a taller, 5-story, but narrower section that seemed to rise directly out of the facade section. Perpendicular to the extremities of the facade, wings extended backwards with two turrets topped with crenelations where the wings met the facade. Then there were smaller additions emerging here and there from the central structure, rendering the disposition of the house ever more irregular and complex.
It looked to Sophia as if it had been built with the intention of fitting as many architectural structures as possible into the available space and she wondered how many years it must have taken the Cholmondley-Warner children to fully explore its vast and labyrinthine structure.
During the party Sophia had been content to sit and watch the Cholmondley-Warner boys chase and tease her sisters. When the adults weren’t in ear-shot, the boys would make rude rhymes from the girls’ names. And though her sisters would protest and scold and take themselves away conspicuously, they’d soon drift back and sit themselves close to the boys, elbowing them and bothering them as they did so.
And so the party progressed through the games, the meal, the charades. Till finally someone proposed a game of hide-and-seek.
After the older, bolder children had had their turns one of the boys turned to Sophia, asked her name and told her that it was her turn to hide.
The children turned to the walls, covered their eyes and started counting as Sophia silently took herself away.
Sophia had turned right down the passage outside the brightly -lit room in which the party was taking place; she calculated that somewhere down that passageway there would be some door that led to one of the turrets she’d seen from the carriage. It took her a little longer to find that door, after having carefully tried some doors which opening onto dusty half-empty rooms. Eventually she came across a door smaller than the rest, with a rusty key in a lock. The door opened with difficulty onto a wooden staircase which spiraled upwards which she followed up, having removed her shoes so that the hollow wood of the staircase wouldn’t resonate with her steps. At the top she pushed at another old door which opened with a fall of dust and cobwebs, and entered a short passageway with five shut doors along one side. This passageway, though higher up than the one she’d left downstairs, was darker, despite there being windows down one side, the windows all being so dirty that they only let pass through a silvered half-light.
Sophia tried each door but found the rooms beyond all devoid of any furniture, cupboards, curtains or nooks which could be used as hiding places. But at the end of the passageway was a tapestry hanging down to the floor. In the half-light she had difficulty distinguishing what the subject of this tapestry was, but could make out men and women dancing, whilst others carried trays loaded with fruit, and goat-legged men playing flutes and shaking and banging drums above their heads, and faces in the trees and undergrowth which would emerge and disappear as her eyes traveled over its dark dusty surface. If she could hide behind this tapestry and maybe raise herself up and stand still on the wainscot she should be invisible to all but the most careful eye.
She pulled the tapestry to one side only to find that it had been concealing a small door – so small she’d have to get on her hands and knees to pass through. She pushed this open, none too worried by the creaking of old wood and hinges that had not been made to work for decades, maybe centuries – the others would still be searching downstairs for her and would no longer be able to hear her. She shut the door behind her with a click.
Beyond this little door was a dark space containing a ladder, it’s steps topped with ridges of dust like newly fallen snow. Sophia clambered up the ladder, pushed her way through a square hole, entered what must have been one of the mansion’s many attics. Despite it being Summer it was pleasantly cool there. The light was now very low. One or two skylights let through only the faintest glow, and Sophia stood still for several minutes allowing her eyes to grow accustomed to the subfusc light.
The room was full of lumber, stacks of boxes, statues, and objects draped in heavy cloth. Dust stood thick like a layer of grey felt on every horizontal surface. Once her eyes had adjusted she moved gingerly forwards. The dust muffled her steps. Above her head the roof consisted of gnarled old wooden beams and the underside of slates imbricated over them.
What had become clear to Sophia as her eyes adjusted was that this attic was simply full of hiding places – everywhere she turned there were old curtains and dust-cloths to hide behind, wardrobes and boxes to hide inside, and even a rolled up carpet whose hollow centre she’d be just about able squeeze into.
But what really caught her attention was a chest in a corner – made of a golden beautiful wooden panels that seemed to gather the faint rays and glow in the quarter-light.
As she ran her hands over the vertical surfaces of it, displacing small falls of dust as she did so, she could feel soft protrusions and declivities, and as her eyes adjusted to the contours her hands had been stroking she saw again the goat legged men with their flutes, but here drinking from goblets, and with naked ladies gracefully dancing two and two, holding each other by the hand or arm, all beneath great fruit trees heavy with globular wooden fruit on soft, curving hills all elaborately carved in shallow relief into the glowing wood.
And when she tried the lid and found it opened easily onto an interior of rich, soft, padded velvet she knew that she had, at long last, found her hiding place.
And here she had waited for what must now almost been an hour, still comfortable, turning things over in her mind, but sleepy. And it wouldn’t do to fall asleep whilst playing hide and seek: she would need to stay silent for when one of the Cholmondley-Warner boys or one of her sisters entered eventually made their way way into this attic, and if she were to fall asleep they may find her if she snored… but maybe it would be safe for her to rest her eyes a little, for just a few seconds, so that then she could wake up more alert for when they came looking…
Nor would she hear the distant worried voices calling her name, so far below they were and she being so fast asleep. Nor would the voices of the bailiffs who’d come the next day with chains and rakes and dray horses to drag the lake trouble her, nor the yelps of the bloodhounds coursing round the grounds seeking a scent, nor the tears of her mother and sisters days later as they boarded a carriage whilst a constable tried to reassure them that ‘she couldn’t have gone far, we’re bound to find her before too long, Madam’.