by Matthew Baxter
Oh, of course it’s haunted. I’m surprised you even have to ask. A house like this, in this part of England, could hardly fail to have acquired a ghost or two over the years. Even if by some mischance it had not done so, one would have to invent something for the tourists.
The Hall has several spectres who walk the grounds. There is the Grey Lady, but I suppose every house of any size can boast one of those. Then we have the ghost of the Lady Matravers, who appears as a glowing form which floats across the gardens....
Well, yes, of course. Everyone wishes to know about that particular ghost. I understand that a rather lurid book was published several years ago, and that has certainly contributed to the legend. No, I haven’t read it myself, but many of our visitors have. It got most of the facts wrong, by all accounts, but that is only to be expected. These days, one cannot count on the publishing industry to be any more accurate than Hollywood, not if it gets in the way of making money.
The screaming skull is a genuine apparition, although it has not been seen for many years. And yes, it is related to the rather grisly relic in the library.
Yes, the true facts. It’s not a particularly pleasant story, but then I don’t suppose you came here for that, did you? Very well, then, let me begin.
The house you see today dates to 1748, but its origins are much older. The first building on the site was an abbey, following the Carthusian rule. A rather austere sect as I understand it, not much fun at all, which is probably why the Grey Lady never looks very pleased with her lot.
When King Henry’s men arrived in 1539 they were forced to execute every last monk and nun in the place. They hanged them from the great oaks in the deer park. The king’s agent described the incident as ‘most inconvenient’ and I expect the monks thought it rather inconvenient, too.
Anyway, the abbey stood uninhabited for a long time, and local people used it as a sort of quarry, taking the stones to build their houses, until the Fitzpayne family bought the land around the middle of the eighteenth century.
The most notable scion of the family, and the source of their wealth, was Aubrey Fitzpayne. The family were ancient, noble, and extremely poor until Aubrey attained his majority, when he invested what little capital they still possessed in a single ship.
Shortly thereafter, the ship became two, then four, and finally a whole fleet of fine sailing vessels, plying their trade across the Atlantic: from Bristol to the Gold Coast, thence to Jamaica, and from Jamaica back to Bristol. Trinkets and baubles on the first leg, men and women on the second, sugar on the third.
It was a very profitable business all round, and Aubrey soon raised the family’s fortunes to a greater level than they had ever seen before. He was able to build the magnificent house you see today, with the finest in art and furnishings, and the famous gardens by Capability Brown.
Aubrey preferred not to travel with his ships. He only made the journey once, and was quite appalled by the conditions of the cargo on the second leg, from Africa to the West Indies. He pleaded with the captain that the slaves should be kept in better conditions, to which the captain replied that the reason Aubrey was so rich was that his ships packed in nearly twice as many slaves as anyone else’s. After that one journey, Aubrey never looked too closely at his business again.
He did, however, bring back one souvenir of his trip to the West Indies. That was a fine young slave lad, to whom Aubrey had taken quite a shine. There were rumours of an unhealthy attraction between Aubrey and the boy, but that doesn’t seem likely. Although unmarried, Aubrey went to church every Sunday, and was a thoroughly decent man in every respect. No, his attraction was purely to the boy’s mind.
For this boy was rather intelligent. He had a lively wit, and Aubrey quickly taught him to read and write, and to speak nearly as well as a white man. He saw the lad in much the same way as the pet leopard he once owned, something exotic and unusual to impress his house-guests. He only hoped that the boy would not become as unhappy as the leopard and have to be destroyed, but that’s the chance you take when you have exotic tastes.
Aubrey named the boy Nero, after the Roman emperor, whose name meant “black.” He was quite a wit, was Aubrey, make no mistake about that. He gave the boy a cot to sleep in at the end of his own grand four-poster, a privilege he never allowed the leopard, and dressed the lad in some of his own old clothes.
The boy’s duties were hardly onerous: he merely had to amuse Aubrey’s guests by speaking English in his strange accent, and to make entertaining attempts to behave like a white man. The boy could count to ten, and could even do simple addition and subtraction, but after a few months he was no longer allowed to play cards with Aubrey’s guests. He had a way of winning game after game, by pure luck of course, but the guests began to insinuate that Aubrey was cheating them, and that would never do.
From then on, Nero was restricted to simple conjuring tricks and doing his amusing tribal dances in front of the gentlemen. When there were no guests in the house — which was not often, since Aubrey was a most convivial fellow — Nero was set to work cleaning out the stables and helping the scullery boys. He was quite useful to have around, in fact, and Aubrey was very pleased with his new acquisition.
Unfortunately, Nero himself was not so happy with his situation. Aubrey told himself that he should have seen it coming, but who can truly blame him for his act of kindness in rescuing the boy? Just as the African leopard could never acclimatise to the harsh English winters, the African boy suffered the same difficulties.
As the first winter approached he started sniffling, and by the time January came around he was emitting great, hacking coughs. He would cough up thick, yellow mucus which Aubrey and his guests found most distressing.
In fact, Aubrey found the boy’s illness so disturbing that he moved him out of his bedroom and into the stable block, where he made up a bed of straw for the lad, and gave him the best medical attention that he could afford.
But it was all to no avail. Very soon the doctor came to see Aubrey, cap in hand, and told him that there was nothing he or any man could do, and that it was time to call upon the priest. The doctor told Aubrey that Nero had asked that he might see his master before he died.
Aubrey wasn’t sure that he should listen to the supplication of a slave boy, but against his better judgement he went down to the stable block, where he saw that the doctor was right, and that the boy’s end must be near. Nero could still speak, but just barely.
“I have a request to make of you, master,” Nero said, so softly that Aubrey was forced to put his ear close to those cracked, hot lips to hear him.
“Of course I shall grant your wish, if it is in my power to do so,” Aubrey said.
“Please, sir, bury me in Africa,” Nero said. “I had a wife there once, and I know she must miss me. I do not wish to be buried in this strange, cold land, among people who are not my own. Will you grant this last wish of a dying man?”
“Of course, of course,” Aubrey said, and the moment the words escaped his mouth, the boy smiled — a wide smile, showing perfect teeth which put Aubrey’s yellowing stumps to shame. It was some minutes before Aubrey realized that the boy was no longer breathing.
To give Aubrey his due, he did research the feasibility of transporting Nero’s body back to the Gold Coast, but it was quite impossible. In any case, what would those heathens do with the corpse when they received it? Put it in the cooking-pot, more than likely.
So Aubrey buried Nero at the back of the gardens, just on the edge of the woods, not far from where he had interred the leopard’s unfortunate remains. The boy was dead, after all, and the dead tend to be uncomplaining. As Aubrey said, it was an open question whether black boys even had souls.
The night after the burial, Aubrey woke up at some unknown time in the morning to see a man at the end of his bed. He rang for the servants, but no one came.
“They cannot hear you,” the man said, and as Aubrey’s eyes adjusted to the dim light he began to make out features that he recognised. He rang the bell by his bed again and again, but still no one came
“It’s just you and me, master,” the boy said, and there was a sarcastic stress on that last word that Aubrey did not like one little bit. Nero was speaking like an educated man now, no strange accent any more, and his eyes burned with intelligence. Intelligence, and something like hatred.
“Nero!” Aubrey said, grasping at rationalist straws. “You’re alive!”
“I do not think so,” Nero said, and offered his ‘master’ a smile that was entirely devoid of humour.
“I tried,” Aubrey said. “You must believe me, I sought out opinions on transporting your remains to your home country, but it was too expensive. We would have had to pickle your body in alcohol, and surely you would not have wanted such an indignity.” He pulled up the blankets to his chin, as though that would offer some protection, and rang the bell again, as though someone would hear it.
“Yes, it was too expensive, says the man who lives in a great mansion,” Nero said. “And why bother going to all that trouble just for a nigger boy, eh? But what you have to understand is that while I am buried in unhallowed ground, my spirit can never be at rest. And that makes me rather annoyed.”
And with that the boy — or whatever this spirit really was — gave out a piercing scream which deafened Aubrey. It drilled into his head and made his skull vibrate like a tuning fork, until he thought that he must go mad if it did not stop.
Finally, much later, the screaming did end. It was only then that Aubrey realized he had been screaming himself, all the time, when the footmen broke down the door to his room and gazed at him in shock and incomprehension.
One of them, still in his nightgown, stopped at the end of the bed. Nero was gone, but he had left a little of himself behind. The footman, shivering in disgust, picked up a skull, still trailing pieces of earth, and held it in his hand, at arm’s length.
“Throw it in the lake,” Aubrey hissed, and the servant looked at him with a question in his eyes. “Throw it in the lake, damn you! Don’t make me tell you a third time!”
And so the footman went downstairs, carrying the skull like a thing diseased, and tossed it into the pond at the back of the house.
The following night Nero made no appearance, though Aubrey could not sleep. He fancied that he heard a high-pitched sound right at the edge of his hearing, a sound not unlike a scream. Every time he drifted nearer to sleep, the sound would increase in volume, burrowing into his brain until he was fully awake again.
The next night, Aubrey snuffed out his candle at the early hour of ten o’clock, but still sleep would not come. The screaming in his head — for that was undoubtedly what it was — was louder, more insistent. And once more it became louder the nearer Aubrey got to sleep. When the servants came to wake their master the next morning, they found him trembling with fear and fatigue, bundled up in his blankets and night-gown.
And they found something else, too. At the end of the bed was a skull, still dripping moisture onto the fine Persian rug. A trail of mud and water led from the skull to the stairs, through the entrance hall, and outside through the garden, ending at the edge of the lake.
A different footman retrieved the object this time — the previous servant would not touch it, even on pain of dismissal. This time the skull was broken up with a hammer.
And at seven the following morning, there was a skull at the end of the master’s bed, expertly reassembled, showing only the faintest traces of cracks where it had split apart the day before. Aubrey himself sat on the bed whining and mewling, and the servants could do nothing to make him stop.
A few days later, the boy’s skeleton was exhumed from its makeshift grave and reburied in the churchyard with the proper ceremonies. It was not what Nero had asked for, but it seemed to quiet him, and he caused no more trouble in the house. Why the corpse should have become skeletal in so short a time was something that few dared to speculate on, as was the question of why no skull was found with it.
By the time Nero was reburied, his master was already dead. Aubrey Fitzpayne had not slept for many days by the time he put the pistol in his mouth and fired the bullet that pulverised his brain. The inquest was hurried through, since it was obvious that poor Aubrey was not in his right mind at the time of his death. To kill oneself in a graveyard might be considered bad taste enough. To do so after an act of desecration, while cradling a grinning skull in one’s hands... well, decent people do not speak of such things.
Of course, no one would believe such a tale. And yet, when one day a skull appeared on a high shelf in the library, none of the occupants of the house found the courage to remove the relic. I would destroy the thing in a moment, but the servants, being simple folk, would not hear of it. Fear does not enter into it, not at all. But perhaps, if that is where Nero wishes to make his home, it is better to let him be.
Copyright © 2011 by Matthew Baxter