A true tale by Mr Bamboo.
When my grandmother died just recently at the age of 105, the family went through her house and my father, being the youngest and fastest of his generation, managed to purloin several items long suspected of being quite valuable antiques, some of which allegedly date back to the late 18th century.
Among the objects which my father inherited was a portable writing desk which he noticed seemed to contain something because he is susceptible to detecting rattles where others detect none. There was nothing obvious in the writing desk, but he soon realised that there must have been a hidden compartment, and my mother found a means of opening it using a concealed latch while my father was getting his power saw. This was fortunate, because this particular portable writing desk, which is is excellent condition, is very valuable.
Inside the draw was a tightly rolled sheaf of papers which contained a diary written by my grandmother’s great aunt, Agnes Pembury in around the mid 19th century. I’m not quite sure why the diary was passed on to me (my father said something about it being in Old English, which is clearly not a variety of English he knows), but it turned out to be much more interesting than the china and pewter antiques of utterly uncertain provenance which elderly relatives of a certain generation have had in their keeping for 60 or 70 years.
It will take me some time to transcribe the whole diary because the hand writing is rather dense and can be difficult to decipher at times. Nonetheless, I’ve read enough of it to be able to present this pseudo-novelisation because my great-great aunt’s style of writing shows a flare for story-telling, although I can’t say whether her style was influenced by the likes of, say, Sheridan le Fanu, Bram Stoker, or any other 19th century authors with a penchant for ghost stories. Of course, unlike those writers, Agnes Pembury’s story is wholly true.
“Will you always love me?” said Agnes gazing longingly at Ernest Bell.
“I shall love you forever, body and soul,” he replied.
“Oh Ernest!” Agnes kissed him impulsively.
17th March 184_
Today my joy and happiness have reached their summit, my darling Ernest having proposed, of which papa, knowing him to be of good character and excellent prospects, did not hesitate to approve. I cried; mama cried; and even papa’s lip trembled in response to the general sentiment which prevailed in the room. We are planning to get married in May at St Albans, the delightful church near Alton…
The wedding was duly held on 14th may under the most auspicious circumstances. The weather was fair after a week of overcast skies and rain, and Agnes wrote that God himself must have approved of the match to bless them as he did.
15th May 184_
I was with a man for the first time last night. My hand trembles to confide such an intimate event to my diary, but it is an event of such moment that I feel I need to inform someone or some thing. Yet I am sure that we erred in the way in which we performed the act, though when I raised this point with Ernest, he assured me that that was how they did it at Winton and Cambridge. Since I cannot disagree with the custom of places where the best practices are to be found, I should not object in spite of finding it rather painful.
20th May 184_
I am now rather enjoying it and expect to find myself with child any day now. Nonetheless, I have my doubts about the way we do it. Both Ernest and I long for a child…
21st May 184_
“How is married life?” asked Lucy Atkins.
“To be recommended as the greatest felicity a person can possibly know,” said Agnes pausing while the waiter brought them tea and cakes. “Ernest is an ideal husband, I dare say. I could not hope for more.”
“And is there any news of that happiness being augmented?”
“Not yet.” Agnes leaned forward conspiratorially. “I have some doubts.”
“You don’t want a child?”
“It is not that. It is…” Agnes hesitated before describing as delicately and as periphrastically as possible her most intimate moments with her husband.
“No wonder you are having no success. That is what is known as the,” (and here she lowered her voice even further), “public school method.” With equal delicacy, Lucy described how Agnes and Ernest had erred.
Now knowing that of which I was previously ignorant, I can scarcely wait until tonight for the proper intimacies which pass between a married couple. I also wonder how Lucy, who is unmarried, should know these things better and in more detail than I who am married.
22nd May 184_
Last night, having informed Ernest of the mistake we had been making, I persuaded him to try the act as I originally believed it should be done. Lucy, who is a fount of knowledge which would only be expected among the common sort, says that the public school method is common in Catholic countries. I can only suppose that we now employ the Church of England method. I found it a little painful and yet more satisfying.
In spite of changing how they did the act, Agnes failed to become pregnant that summer even although there seemed to be no impediment on either side. The knowledgeable Lucy explained that conception was a great deal more difficult than commonly believed, but she was sure her friend would soon blessed with a child. As the summer wore on, Agnes was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the frequency of marital relations, and with Ernest’s preference for the public school method.
17th September 184_
After getting caught out in the rain yesterday, the worst has come to pass and Ernest has contracted a fever which has confined him to bed. Dr Ashford came this morning and said that Ernest should rest for a day or two. Ernest has been rather busy at work again recently and I think a brief respite would not go amiss. I have written his mother a letter to inform her of his situation and assure her that he is getting the best care.
18th September 184_
I am beside myself with anxiety. Ernest’s malady seemed to have taken a turn for the worse around mid morning, and I summoned Dr Ashford. When the doctor asked me for a few moments alone with Ernest, I regret to say that I did not act with the greatest propriety but listened at the door to the conversation which ensued. As a wife, I believe it is my duty to know about my husband’s condition so that I can provide him with the best care. Dr Ashford explicitly enquired whether Ernest was familiar with the public school method and whether he practised it. When Ernest admitted that he knew it and had done it, the doctor revealed that his ailment had not been caused by the rain (which, he said, has no deleterious effects), but by a long history of using the public school method. Ernest’s first concern was not for himself, but for my well-being, and Dr Ashford having questioned him closely said that he doubted there would be any harm to me.
In just a few months my greatest joy has now become my greatest sorrow. I can write no more.
21st September 184_
I had thought that I would never write another entry, but last night’s events are so extraordinary and unbelievable that they demand to be recorded. I was in bed last night but in spite of my exhaustion, my distress was preventing me from falling asleep. I was sure that I kept slumbering briefly for a few moments, but that Morpheus kept turning me away from his door, which continued until my head was quite dizzy and my sense of reality distorted to such an extent that I was uncertain whether I was awake and hallucinating, or asleep and having the most vivid dreams. I was sure that I could hear someone downstairs, but thought that it was one of the servants; and when I heard footsteps on the stairs, I thought the same.
Because Jane has been most solicitous since my terrible loss, I believed that she was coming to check on me and the footsteps coming nearer stopped outside the door and the handle rattled as it was opened. I feigned that I was asleep so that I might be left alone. The footsteps sounded heavy and ponderous as they approached the bed, which are unlike Jane’s since she is a most light-footed girl, who might come and go from a room without being noticed. But whoever had entered the room came over to the bed and stood on Ernest’s side. There was a pause and a sort of throaty murmur before I felt the sheets being pulled aside and someone get in the bed beside me. If it was Jane, I thought, then she was taking her duties too far, and I demanded to know who it was. The reply was not one I was expecting in an odd voice which sounded as if it was coming from far away. “It is I,” was all it said.
“And who would you be daring to enter a lady’s room and climb into her bed?” Agnes demanded.
“Dare?” replied the voice. “I did not know that I needed to be daring to lie in my bed beside my wife.”
“This is outrageous!” said Agnes angrily and fumbled to light the candle beside the bed to reveal the true identity of the intruder. The light flickered into existence and she raised the candle above the bed where to her utter horror lay the body of her late husband. She opened her mouth to scream, but her terror was too great and no sound came out. The shock of seeing Ernest, his skin grey and waxy, was too much for Agnes’ spirit and she fainted.
When she recovered from her faint, the candle was still burning and Ernest was now sitting in a chair beside the bed. He seemed to be looking at Agnes, but his eyes were dull and lifeless. She shrank back in fright from the apparition and watched with a strange fascination as Ernest’s mouth dropped open and that same distant voice spoke.
“You really ought to be more careful in future. If I had not been here when you dropped the candle, the bed would have caught on fire.”
“Ernest?” Agnes finally found her voice, but it seemed to be as weak and distant as her dead husband’s. “But you are dead.”
“True, but I did not forget the promise I made all those months ago when I said I would be with you body and soul forever.”
“That was just romantic hyperbole.”
“So I was not meant to take my own words literally; and yet I must abide by the promise I made.”
“That’s not possible. You are to be buried tomorrow.”
“Then the funeral will just have to be cancelled.”
22nd September 184_
The terror which I felt when it reappeared the night before last has now given way to a general loathing for this animated corpse which I cannot bring myself to refer to as Ernest because it is a mockery of the man I love. I had Ted fetch Reverend Brewer this morning, but he was uncertain what might be done because it was wilfully refusing to return to the undertaker’s and get back in his coffin. Since the Church disapproves of superstitious practices such as exorcism, he recommended me to seek the assistance of Father Harris. I sent Ted at once to get the man while it chatted quite happily with Reverend Brewer as if there was nothing remotely unusual about the situation.
Father Harris arrived about an hour later and seemed quite personable for a Catholic. He was, I note, quite handsome. I would expect Catholic priests either to be red-nosed Irishmen with a fondness for communion wine, or untrustworthy, swarthy Frenchmen. He was a rugged, masculine Englishman. He was also sympathetic and understanding about what had happened, and had come equipped to exorcise the fell spirit that was inhabiting my dear Ernest’s blameless mortal remains. But when he began his ritual, it told him to take his popish practices and leave the house at once. I urged Father Harris to ignore these injunctions until it looked up from the newspaper and informed the priest that since he was Church of England, Catholic rites of exorcism would be ineffectual. Father Harris persisted for a time, but seeing that his efforts were having no effect, had to admit defeat and promised to enquire further into the matter.
23rd September 184_
Although the funeral never took place today and the will was never read, I still went to Mr Hughes-Wilson’s office to consult with him regarding what legal recourse I might have under the circumstances.
“You have my deepest sympathy, Mrs Bell,” said Mr Hughes-Wilson whose own cadaverous appearance reminded Agnes of the thing in her house. “I hear there has been an unusual complication.”
“You are correct. I have come to you seeking legal advice about my dead husband who is now living in my house, and refuses to be buried. I want a divorce.”
“If you did not seem to be in a rational state of mind, I would rather think your statement just now that your dead husband still resides with you was mere uxorial hysteria. I think, however, that I can clear this matter up quite quickly by asking you one question. Is there a signed death certificate?”
“There is,” said Agnes producing it. “I brought it with me specifically because I want you to keep it safe for me.”
Hughes-Wilson examined the document and said, “I shall do as you request. I assume that you fear that your late husband may attempt to destroy this document.” Agnes nodded. “So long as this document is in existence, your husband is deceased and all matters which pertain to widowhood such as remarriage apply. In short, there is no need to consider divorce proceedings because Ernest is legally dead and has no legal rights at all.”
25th September 184_
A funeral should be a time of lamentation, but in defiance of convention, it was a time of relief for me. Ernest is finally at rest…
Armed with knowledge of the legal situation and great-uncle George’s French cavalry sabre, I was able to deal with it yesterday. I am, by nature, a normally timid and placid creature. I remember when I was a little girl seeing Uncle George’s sabre (which he won from a dead French cavalry officer in some battle during the Napoleonic Wars) and fearing that although it was hanging on the wall in its scabbard, it might fall and cut me in half. When Uncle George once took it down for me to examine more closely, I shrank in fright from even touching it. Even now that I am much older, I drew the blade with considerable trepidation, fearing both it and what I had to do with it.
The monster which was pretending to be Ernest was sitting in his favourite chair in the conservatory reading the paper. I was grateful for Heaven to have placed it in this way because I am not sure that I could have struck the first blow if I had had to look him in the eye. But though he was facing away from me, I still hesitated before I could summon the resolve to perform that necessary, tragic and terrible duty to bring rest to Ernest’s unfortunate soul. I cannot bring myself to describe what I did. I am trying to forget what I did, and the sickening sound of every blow. It did not even cry out and again I must thank Heaven, for if it had cried for mercy, my resolve would have been swept away. Afterwards I cried from sorrow and relief until I could cry no more.
I invited Father Harris to the funeral to thank him for his recent efforts. Although Catholic priests are celibate, I wonder whether that extends to the public school method.
The cat is scratching at the door, no doubt wanting to curl up on her mistress’s bed for the night.
Agnes put down her pen and went to the door expecting Lucretia to saunter in with her usual feline insouciance. But that night she opened the door not to the cat, but – would she never be free of it? – Ernest’s right hand, which promptly scuttled into the room like an enormous spider made of decaying flesh and leapt onto the bed.
There is no indication of what happened, but the diary, which is quite a large book with a rather solid cover, has a hand-like stain, still visible against the dirty brown leather, on the back cover. I shall leave the reader to draw some conclusion from this since the mark may have some other cause and its shape may just be coincidental.
1. The village near the Bell family seat in Hampshire.
2. A minor public school, now defunct.
3. My great-great aunt’s best friend who would eventually marry Agnes’ brother, Frederick.
4. Like Livingstone, Brewer was a missionary explorer in Africa who was responsible for the discovery of the sources of several tributaries of central Africa’s major rivers. In 1853, he marched into the interior of the continent with a small expedition in search of some ruins which were alleged by locals to be about a week’s march into the jungle, but was never heard from again. It was not until 1978 that ruins were finally discovered in the general area where Brewer had vanished, but it seems unlikely that it will ever be known if he found them.