Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror (7 page)

BOOK: Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror
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I forced myself to study its gruesome features once more, but it remained resolutely immobile, as I knew it must. I smiled to myself at my foolishness.

'Come away, Edgar,.' said my uncle quietly. 'There are some things that should not be looked at too much.'

'Yes, Uncle,.' I said, humouring him in this fanciful conceit.

There was a small oil painting nearby, overpowered by a heavy moulded frame of mahogany or some such oppressive wood. But the painting at least was a more attractive image than that of the demon bench end.

I am no great judge of paintings, and certainly had no real appreciation of the arts as a boy, but this seemed rather fine, though the varnish had darkened with time and rendered the scene - a fine house and gardens - somewhat more sombre perhaps than originally intended. The gardens to the rear of the house in particular were almost black. I could just make out the signature: A. Trewain.

'It was painted by a young doctor,.' said Uncle Montague from his armchair. 'He had real talent, I think.'

'It has a strange atmosphere,.' I remarked.

'Yes,.' said Uncle Montague. 'Yes, it does. Come and rejoin me by the fire, Edgar, and I shall tell you why.'

The vicarage of Great Whitcot in Suffolk was a rather grand house, built in the 1750s, of warm marmalade-coloured bricks and pantiles. The house bulged forward in two curved bays and the windows of this bow front were tall and wide, separated into a grid of smaller, white-framed panels that looked out on to the gravelled driveway and the orchard plot with its fallen walnut tree. Between them nestled a claret-coloured door with white columns either side.

The grounds of the house were girded all around by a brick wall of such height that it created its own twilight in the areas of the garden that fell into the gloom of its shadow - a gloom only deepened by the towering beech trees at the back of the house.

The wall was pierced in only two places: by a small arched door leading into the graveyard of the enormous and very fine medieval church, and by the entrance to the drive, where the wall curved gracefully down to the two pillars bearing large stone spheres.

Robert Sackville took all this in as he stood by one of the pillars, watching his father marshalling the men who were shuffling back and forth with furniture, boxes and trunks from the large wagon parked on the dirt road beyond the gate.

Robert's mother scurried about, gasping and calling out as chair legs struck doors and the sound of broken glass came tinkling from the morning room. Robert's father stood relatively impassively - his hands behind his back, one slapping the back of the other as was his wont - only becoming animated when the men began shifting boxes of his precious books, shepherding them to the library and watching their every move like a hawk.

Robert, as usual, felt superfluous to proceedings and wondered to himself just how long it would be before anyone would notice were he to simply walk out through the gate and across the field of swaying barley beyond.

He drifted aimlessly towards the gloomy rear of the house, picking up a willow wand left by the gardener, and flicking it through the air with a whistle. As he walked to the back door he stopped, suddenly struck by a feeling that he was being watched. He peered into the shadows but could see nothing. He swished the willow wand again but nothing moved. With a shrug Robert opened the door and went in.

No sooner had the furniture been placed in the appropriate rooms than a procession of locals croc-odiled down the drive, holding baskets and parcels wrapped in muslin or old newspapers.

'Oh dear,.' sighed Robert's father. 'I suppose this is my flock.' He shook his head wearily and went to open the front door as the head of the crocodile reached the steps. Robert went to his bedroom window and looked down.

Hats and caps were snatched from heads and clasped to chests as his father opened the door.

Robert could hear muffled conversation through the thick window panes and saw his father self-consciously take possession of the various gifts being offered. Robert's mother appeared in the doorway and heads were bowed respectfully as she thanked them all for coming.

'God bless you all,.' Robert heard his father say and there was a succession of bows and nods and near-curtseys from the ladies and then hats were replaced and brims tugged in farewell before the delegation crunched its way back down the gravel drive and out of the gate.

'Merciful heavens!' Robert's father was saying as Robert came downstairs. He recoiled from a newspaper parcel that lay, half unwrapped, on the table in the hall. Robert went over to have a closer look as his father backed away. There was a dead rabbit in the newspaper. A note was pinned to the fur, saying:
Well come to Whitcot. Fresh kild this morning.

'Oh my Lord,.' said Robert's father. 'I daren't open the others.'

'Don't be silly, Herbert,.' said his mother. 'I think it is very thoughtful of them. The rabbit will be delicious and look, here's a plum pie and there's some honey. You must be sure to thank them in your sermon. They do not have so very much, Herbert. This is very generous.'

'What on earth is all this?' said Robert's father, peeping suspiciously under a layer of muslin and into a wicker basket.

'I rather think they are offerings,.' said a voice behind them. Robert, along with his parents, turned at the sound of the voice to find a tall man in his forties standing in the doorway, hat in hand, dressed in a tweed suit, a wide grin shining out from under a thick black moustache that curved up to meet his sideburns.

The man introduced himself as Arthur Trewain, the local doctor.

'I live on the other side of the village. I was just passing and thought I ought to say hello.'

Robert's father stepped towards him and shook his hand.

'Reverend Sackville - Herbert Sackville. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Dr Trewain,.' he said. 'May I introduce my wife?'

'Mrs Sackville,.' said the doctor, taking her outstretched hand. 'It is a pleasure to meet you.' He turned and looked at Robert, whom his father clearly had no intention of introducing.

'And this must be your son,.' he said.

'Yes,.' said his mother. 'This is Robert.'

'How do you do, Robert,.' said Dr Trewain, holding out a hand, which Robert took and shook. 'I expect you shall find us a little dull. There are no suitable boys for you to play with, I'm afraid. Young David Linklater is about your age, but he is in London for the rest of the holidays.'

Robert said that he would be quite all right - there were only two weeks left of the holidays and then he would be back at school. Dr Trewain smiled, nodded and then retreated backwards out of the door, saying that he should really let them unpack. 'If you need anything,.' he said as he replaced his hat. 'Please do not hesitate to ask.'

'Perhaps you might like to come to dinner?' said Robert's father.

'I would like that very much,.' said the doctor.

'Of course, you must,.' said Robert's mother. 'And is there a Mrs Trewain, may I ask?'

'You may,.' said Dr Trewain. 'But there is not, sadly. I have never found anyone willing to take me on. The life of a doctor's wife is not to everyone's taste.'

'Nor the life of a vicar's,.' said Reverend Sackville with a smile and a sigh. 'I count myself very lucky indeed to have such a wife as Elizabeth.'

'And so you should,.' said Mrs Sackville with a laugh. 'What do you say to coming over on Friday evening?'

'I would be honoured,.' said the doctor.

The next few days moved horribly slowly and Robert counted the hours until he was to return to school - to escape, to be himself. He longed for the company of other boys. He felt uncomfortable about the village and not just because he was a newcomer.

Being the vicar's son was a burden he had shouldered all his life, but it became no easier to bear for all its familiarity. It was as if, by being the son of a man of the cloth, he was expected to behave as if it were a family business he was about to inherit.

But Robert had no interest in following his father into the Church. He wanted to live his own life, to steer his own course. Besides, though he could never, never have brought himself to tell his father, the fact was he simply did not believe in the God his father had pledged his life to serve.

Dr Trewain certainly seemed to be right about the dullness of the village. There were no 'suitable' children to play with, and even the unsuitable ones seemed disinclined to visit the vicarage or its environs. So Robert moved listlessly about the garden, regressing into some of his old amusements: looking for nests among the shrubs and hunting for bugs among the terracotta pots and edging stones of the drive.

But he was always drawn back to the rear of the house - to its permanent and dreamy twilight. Perhaps the very fact that it was shunned by the adults, even the gardener, made it seem something he alone possessed.

Then, one afternoon, to his surprise he saw a boy - a well-dressed boy - sitting on the high wall that stood almost invisible among the shadows under the trees.

'Hello,.' said Robert.

The boy made no reply, but he leaned forward and his face widened into the broadest grin Robert had ever seen and Robert, feelingly instantly at ease, smiled back.

The following day - Friday - Dr Trewain duly arrived in the early evening, holding a small bunch of flowers in one hand and a rather fine bottle of port in the other.

'Not too bored, I hope, Robert,.' said Dr Trewain as they all sat in the parlour.

'Not at all, sir,.' said Robert. 'I have made a friend after all.'

'A friend?' said Dr Trewain, a little surprised.


He was about to ask the identity of the friend when they were interrupted by Jenny, the maid, calling them into dinner, and over the meal the subject of the villagers and their 'offerings' was raised.

'They are good people, sir,.' said Dr Trewain. 'And they are just deeply grateful to have a new vicar.'

'Was my predecessor so very unpopular, then?' asked Reverend Sackville cheerfully.

'No, not at all,.' said Dr Trewain. 'Reverend Benchley was much loved and greatly respected . . .' His voice trailed away.

'Yes?' said Robert's mother, sensing the doctor was not quite telling them everything.

Dr Trewain smiled sadly and told them that towards the end of his life, Reverend Benchley had changed somewhat and that his death was preceded by bouts of rather unpredictable behaviour.

'Poor man,.' said Mrs Sackville.

'Unpredictable in what way, may I ask?' said Robert's father.

Dr Trewain sat back in his chair.

'I am afraid that Reverend Benchley was subject to a kind of morbid obsession. He was a bachelor, as you know. I think perhaps he had spent too much time in his own company. I know a little of the way that can shape a man's thoughts.'

'You said a "morbid obsession", Dr Trewain,.' said Mrs Sackville. 'An obsession with what exactly?'

'An obsession with a notorious previous occupant of this house,.' he replied.

'The house had a notorious occupant?.' said Mrs Sackville. 'I'm intrigued, Doctor.'

Dr Trewain apologised, saying that he had assumed that the bishop might have mentioned something of the vicarage's past history.

'Please, do go on,.' said Mrs Sackville. 'I promise I will not be shocked. Vicars' wives are a fairly unshockable lot.'

'Very well, then. I suppose there's no harm -'

There was a sharp knock at the door and Jenny the maid entered.

'Beg' pardon, sir, madam, but there's a lad come from a Mrs Hunter, whose been taken terrible bad and needs Dr Trewain urgent.'

'I'm terribly sorry,.' said Dr Trewain. 'I will have to go, I'm afraid. Mrs Hunter has been very ill of late.'

'Of course,.' said Reverend Sackville. 'We must go where and when our work takes us, Doctor. We are alike in that respect.'

Dr Trewain nodded, and thanking them for the meal and their company, he hurried away.

Saturday was overcast, and Robert had to concentrate just to see that his new friend was there at all in the gloom under the trees.

The boy had not asked, but Robert knew what it was he wanted and Robert surprised himself at how eager he was to do the boy's bidding. Robert had always been a leader rather than a follower, but he now felt different somehow.

Robert had seen a large plank of wood standing near the greenhouse that would be perfect for the job. The boy nodded and his smile lit up the darkness like a lamp.

Later that evening, Dr Trewain dropped by to apologise for having left in such a hurry the night before.

'How is the patient?' said Mrs Sackville.

'Not so good, I am sorry to say,.' he answered with a sigh. 'Mrs Hunter is a very sick woman.' Dr Trewain was disconcerted to see Robert grinning, and he frowned. Mrs Sackville followed his gaze.

'Robert?' she said crossly. 'I cannot see what there is to be so happy about.'

'Oh,.' said Robert. 'I'm sorry. I was thinking about something else.' Mrs Sackville stared at her son. There seemed something strange in his manner. Reverend Sackville interrupted the silence to ask Dr Trewain what he had been going to tell them about the house. Dr Trewain took on the look of a man who, having said a little too much, knew he would not be allowed to end it there.

'Fear not,.' he said. 'It is ancient history; in fact not even history - more hearsay and rumour and tall tale. I would not have mentioned it at all were it not for the fact that the villagers have long memories and it does have some bearing on the last days of old Reverend Benchley. But perhaps it may be a little disturbing for some ears.' He cast a meaningful glance at Robert, and Robert's mother nodded.

BOOK: Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror
11.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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