Mr. Stapleton's Secret
Lord Clive Bilk-Wallinger
(“ A Man of Insufficient Continence,” et al.)
Being a weird Narrative once briefly Celebrated and summarily Forgotten, and now an Archived Document of the Utmost Obscurity; first distributed under imprint of Meinhof Bros., Oxford Street, London; redistributed here with Apologies and Humble Thanks to the still-existing Heirs of that Most Distinguished firm
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TO THE READER
It has been many years since my friend told me of these experiences, but I have never forgotten the rapt intensity with which he related them. He told me then that it was without qualification the strangest set of circumstances he had ever encountered, and that because of them he would be quite happy to pass the remainder of his life in utter silence and dull safety. He had, he said, lost his entire taste for intercourse with the dark and fantastic side of life.
He also asked that I not pass on this account to any other ear or eye until after his death, and that I apply pseudonymous names to the principal figures in the horrible narrative. I have complied with both of these requests.
Here, then, is my late friend’s story. The transcription is mine, but the words, etched in my memory as they have been these forty years or more, are his.
Upon my graduation from the prestigious medical school at Luxembourg, I was eager to return home to England and take up my practice there. As you well know, I am an Englishman in every particular of character and manner; and I had entertained no hope other than to offer my humble ministrations to the good denizens of my native Blackburn.
One of the more obligatory responsibilities of a country doctor newly established is that of touring the estates of his district, making introductions with those who are to be served. I say “obligatory” merely because one English landowner, whatever his peculiar qualities in private life, tends, in outward manner, to be quite like another: the crippling handshake, the roaring laughter, the well-fed bonhomie are traits common to those in gentrified life, so that making the acquaintance of three squires a day can never be thought of as an adventure in the diversity of human character.
It was, then, with only a modest enthusiasm that I knocked at the baronial mansion of one Mr. George Stapleton. Had I possessed a premonitory bent of mind, I might have noted more closely the subtle differences marking this house and its surrounding grounds from those of the landowners whom I had previously visited. Here, one was instantly aware of a certain decrepitude in the aspect of the great house: cracks branching upward through the stone facades, pillars with entire pieces missing from upper and lower escarpments, and viney foliage falling unchecked in thick masses. In addition to this, a certain darkness pervaded the premises, a darkness not entirely attributable to the late afternoon hour, nor to the season, which was autumn. One felt an ineffable discomfort at this gray spectacle of dissolute grandeur, and I resolved to make my visit a crisp one.
Then the immense door groaned and opened, and this resolve was shaken by the sight of my respondent. It was a girl, and she possessed a loveliness I have yet to see surpassed, or even equaled. She stood in the gathering darkness with the luminous aplomb of a destitute angel, regarding me innocently with slightly bowed head and deferential aspect, awaiting my statement of purpose.
I confess to being so enchanted with my taciturn hostess that I found it difficult to myself speak for several seconds. But I regained the power of locution sufficiently to tell the lovely creature my name and the business which had brought me to her door.
“Yes,” the young woman said, “I expect my father will want to meet you. Please come in.”
I entered, and she closed the door behind me. The interior of this strange abode was quite as redolent of faded elegance as its exterior: fine marble floors through which cracks ran like rivulets of black water; oil portraits and wall hangings dingy with accumulated dust; a grand spiraling staircase with several chipped steps. And throughout the cavernous environment, an all-pervading gloom barely qualified by the candles which flickered from the wall fixtures.
“Your father is Mr. Stapleton?” I asked the girl.
“Yes. If you’ll wait here, I’ll alert Father you’d like to see him.” She moved off and disappeared down a shadowy passage, a dolorous figure in ghostly white. As I languished in the silent hall I noticed on one wall an enormous oil painting which had the appearance of a family portrait. In a red velvet chair sat a woman with an infant in her arms, while towering over her was a man with a face the like of which I had never seen. His eyes burned with a malignant ferocity, and his expression generally appeared scarred by the striations of a perpetual scowl. Looking at the visage I was gripped by a nameless panic, a presaging of some dread I dared not articulate even to myself.
“This is my father, Mr. Stapleton.” The girl had returned, and her thin voice crept up on me from the rear like the fingers of a spectral hand. I turned to face my visitee.
I drew breath at the sight of him, for as surely as I know my own name it was the man in the portrait! True, he was approximately twenty years on in age, with gray hair and reading spectacles to signal the fact. But the essence of his pocked face remained unchanged by the interregnum, save that time had deepened the creases of his scowl, giving it even more the appearance of a piece of stonework. I fancied it reminded me of the marble pillars and the floor beneath me, with their deep-set cracks and rifts.
“Doctor,” this man said gruffly, gravely. He stepped to me and extended his hand. His eyes flamed with distrust and hostility.
“Mr. Stapleton.” I shook the thin white hand; the touch of a corpse could not have chilled me more profoundly.
“My daughter has informed me of the reason behind your visit,” Mr. Stapleton said.
“Yes, it has been my pleasure -- ” I began.
“Quite so,” said Mr. Stapleton distractedly, whereupon he glanced cursorily at his daughter. “Emily, go to your room so that the Doctor and I might conclude this business privately.”
Emily, a docile wraith, mounted the spiraling staircase without a word. She ascended into an upper reach of shadows so deep and thick that it might have been the passage to some unspeakable abyss.
Upon her disappearance Mr. Stapleton said, “Doctor, I shall be blunt. We are not in the habit of receiving visitors here.”
“I apologize for my unsolicited appearance -- ”
“Be so good as to allow me to finish.” The man’s voice was clipped and cruel; his eyes continued to glow like cinders in the shadows. “This is a private house, and we are private people. The sole reason I speak to you now is to inform you of these facts, so that you may be mindful of them in the future.”
Quite taken aback by his brusqueness, I was at a loss to articulate my indignation, except feebly. “I’m sure I am very sorry to have invaded your sanctuary, sir. I only sought to advise you of my presence in the district so that you might avail yourself of my services when and if the need arises.”
“We have no need of physicians,” Mr. Stapleton said with unveiled contempt. “We are from hearty stock and not given to maladies untreatable by simple domestic remedies. Your services, sir, will not be required here.”
I took a moment to absorb the impact of his pointed rudeness, and then drew myself up with as much impressiveness as possible. I fitted my hat and said, “Very well, Mr. Stapleton, you have made your position clear. If you and your daughter are as sound in body as you say, then indeed my presence is redundant.” I moved to the door, almost feeling Stapleton’s eyes sear me as I went. “I dare say that if your good health is at all in proportion to your lack of manners, you may expect a life longer than most.”
Except for a small tightening of the lips Stapleton seemed unmoved by my barb.
“I shall not be back, Mr. Stapleton, have no worry on that score. Good day to you, sir.”
I opened the door and was near to quitting the fetid, dying house when a high, resonant sigh, its sound like a midnight wind, issued from the darkness at the top of the winding staircase. Stapleton and I turned toward the sound; whereupon our astonished eyes were met with the sight of Emily tumbling down the stairs in a cloud of white to lay supine and unconscious upon the fractured and dusty floor.
Fully an hour passed before the poor injured girl stirred among murmurings of pain. Her father and I had taken Emily to her room and laid her abed; I had made an examination of her vital functions and concluded, with no small amazement, that the fall had not inflicted extensive damage. There were, however, slight wounds, and employing a few household chemicals I prepared a medicated poultice for Emily’s lacerated forehead and a cold compress for her twisted ankle.
Now she roused, and looked from Stapleton’s face to mine with an expression of inquiry. I explained what had occurred.
“Oh,” she said weakly; “I fell on the stairs. Yes.”
“You’re all right, daughter,” Stapleton virtually spat out. I raged silently at his conspicuous lack of tenderness, not to mention simple gallantry.
“Father,” Emily whispered, “I wonder if I might have some tea. Is it all right, Doctor?” I indicated that in fact it would be most appropriate just now. Stapleton looked at the two of us with a fierce suspicion, but slowly stood and went to the door. Then he pointed a finger at Emily and said, as if it were a threat, “I’ll be back in ten minutes, daughter.”
She shivered when he had gone, and we passed a healthy interval in silence before she spoke.
“I must talk to someone,” she whispered hoarsely, in tones of barely repressed hysteria. Clutching the sleeve of my coat, she said, “I can tell you’re a decent man, and you’ll help me.”
I was, perhaps, more shocked by her urgent entreaty than I had been by her father’s untoward hostility.
“I tumbled on the stars intentionally,” she said. “I had to find a way of holding you here. You are the first person my father has allowed inside the house in several years. Most accidental visitors he turns away before they can lift the knocker. And accidental visitors are the only ones we receive here. No one who knows this place will come. Oh, the many times I have prayed for someone who would listen to my tale of woe!”
There was something about the fervency of her words that made me wish I had never entered this house myself. And yet it was that same fervency, joined to the desperate helplessness which illustrated Emily’s angelic face, that convinced me to hear her.
“How is it I might help?” I managed to ask.
She reclined a bit on her pillow, and her eyes wandered from mine as she spoke. “My father is a widower; I, a motherless child. When he deemed me of proper age my father told me of my mother. He explained that one day when I was but an infant she had left the house in a rented carriage which was supposed to convey her to a luncheon in the town. But she never came back.
“My father told me of his agonies, the searching, the failure of the officials to turn up any indication as to my mother’s fate. It was as if the hand of God Himself had snatched her from the earth. And it was from that time, my father explained, that he determined to shun the society of people, to curse the world itself, to make every day a fresh rejection of the Lord who would allow such misery to befall an honest Christian man. For many years, I believed what my father told me, and I honored, as a dutiful daughter must, his resolution to blacken the days with spite and resentment.
“But then, near the time of my fourteenth birthday, I had an experience so horrifying that even now I blanch at the remembrance of it. In cleansing myself with soap and water I began to feel the trickling of a substance which was thicker than the water. It was indeed blood, and it ran to the floor in a dark puddle as I stood amazed and horrified -- ”
Emily shut her eyes in pain and turned from me at this point, and her hands gripped the bed covers. She continued in a voice nearly choked with shame.
“At that moment I knew I was marked for a singular doom, for I had been anointed by Satan. I saw that my days were destined for the blackest horror, and that my mind would be beset by visions -- demons, the faces of the dead and damned. For these were now to be my familiars.
“Very soon I suffered the vision I so dreaded and yet fully anticipated. But this vision was of double horror, since the specter who visited me was that of -- my mother! She appeared to me one night in a mist of white, sighing pitifully and regarding me with tenderness and fear. I recognized her face from the family portrait which yet hangs downstairs and was painted I was a mere six months old. To see the insubstantial form and face of my dead, unknown mother -- what can be the sin that warrants such a cruel and melancholy encounter?
“My mother’s wavering form sat at the foot of my bed and, as I shivered in fright, spoke to me. ‘I’ve come so that you will know the truth,’ it said. ‘I did not leave you, as you have been told. I suffered the wickedest, the meanest of all ends. I was murdered by your father -- by my husband.’
“Words have no power to express the horror I felt at this ghastly revelation. But it was only worsened when my mother explained that her body lay buried in a grave near the arbor in the west garden -- on these very grounds.
“’You must avenge my death,’ my mother implored me. ‘Your father has committed evil, and will do so again. For you, my daughter, the alternatives are but two: you must either become the slave and prisoner he demanded that I be, or you must expose his crime and set both our spirits free.’ My mother smiled regretfully and said that she was sorry she could not linger, but that we would meet again. With that, her form vanished, leaving the room dark and me alone with my terror. That was six years ago, and I have not escaped the terror since.”
I had no immediate response to this astounding account. But something in Emily’s manner convinced me that she believed all she had said, irrespective of its objective truth.
“Again I ask -- what help can I give you?”
“You can help me to lift the horror that veils my entire life. Help me to free myself and my poor mother. Help me to expose that man’s evil.”
The nature of her request was by now more than clear, and I attempted to be reasonable in weighing the sense of my options. Being a man of science I am not inclined to extol the virtues of grave robbing -- for surely this was her implication. But this realization led to questions, the most pertinent of which was this: Was there in fact a grave to be found near the arbor in the west garden?
My puzzling was disrupted with Mr. Stapleton’s bustling entrance. He bore a tea service and a deeper scowl than previously. Setting down the tray he said, “Doctor, she is doing well enough now. The time has come for your departure.”
I pulled on my overcoat and retrieved my hat. I stood at the bedroom door and took a moment to study the two of them together; I was surpassingly moved by what I saw. Stapleton was standing over his daughter as if he were a great tree prepared to block the sun’s rays from falling upon the tender bud below. Emily’s eyes, wet and sad in the dim yellow lamplight, held out to me a desperate question.
I nodded my assent to her, cloaking it in the noncommittal politesse of a farewell, and left the room.
A brief time spent in the gardener’s shed produced a lantern and spade, and with them I moved west in search of the garden and its arbor. The night was brightly moonlit, so I was wary of being espied from the house. A ferocious wind slapped at my face and slowed my progress.
After some time I reached the garden. I circled the foliage and found the small arbor of white latticed wood. The grass surrounding it was fairly uniform in height and thickness, but there was a patch to the rear that seemed, in the lantern light, distinct from those patches on either side of it. I set the lantern down and began to shovel earth with the spade, not fully convinced that the present scene was not some particularly vivid and horrific dream.
I dug steadily and patiently. Soon I had created a hollow of about two feet in width and depth. Then the spade hit an object of some solidity -- perhaps a rock. I set aside the spade, picked up the lantern, and with my jaw shaking from fear as much as cold bent down to see what I had discovered.
Just then I was gripped from behind by thin but powerful fingers. They pulled me up and brought me face to face with their owner -- Mr. Stapleton.
In the raging wind his face bore a look more feral and less human than I would have thought supportable by the physiognomy of man.
“You forgot to hide your horses, you fool!” he shouted at me. “You should have left, damn you! You should never have come!”
I fell back in shock when I saw him lift a pistol and aim it squarely at my heart. I was certain George Stapleton’s loathsome countenance was the last earthly thing I was ever to see.
Then we heard a cry from a distance, mangled by the wind. Stapleton spun about at the sound. Behind him, standing white and solitary in the moonlight, was Emily, dressed only in her bedclothes.
“Mother!” she cried out.
Stapleton was suddenly paralyzed, the impotent pistol now hanging limply from his hand. He stared off in the direction which seemed to attract Emily’s gaze.
“There!” Emily called. “Do you see her, Father? Do you see her!”
George Stapleton’s jaw went slack. He croaked out the words “Good God,” and fell to the cold ground with the lifeless weight of a stone.
The moment I regained my senses I ran to Emily and embraced her. Her skin was ice cold, and yet she did not shiver. She seemed contained within some inviolable membrane of calm. Her eyes remained fixed on the same spot. I looked, and saw nothing.
I shook Emily and shouted, “You’re free now! You and your mother -- both of you are free!”
She did not respond to me, nor did she seem cognizant of any other external condition. Her body, though still possessed of life and breath, was rigid and insensate in my grasp.
Her whole being had been sapped by the horror of a vision perceptible only to her and to the late murderer lying dead near the arbor -- that vision which was now and forever safely locked in the deepest chamber of her lost, tormented mind.