Short Story: Her Father’s Ghost

Her Father’s Ghost, black ink and watercolour

 

“She shot herself, they say. Driven to an early grave by her father’s ghost. What a cruel man he must have been, keeping the girl all to himself for so many years, never letting her out of his sight or allowing her to marry… but coming back from the grave to haunt her… who would have thought… who would have even imagined…” The old lady shook her head.

 

The city was buzzing with gossip.

 

“This morning, they say,” whispered another. “Her poor husband found her in the library, blood everywhere. Blew her brain out, they say. Didn’t even aim properly. Still alive the poor thing. It took hours, I heard the maid say. Finally died this afternoon.”

 

The doctor was there. Later the police came. They talked to the bereaved husband and his brother, also still in shock.

 

Two young women put their heads together. “What a gentleman, what a charmer. Not the husband, the brother. No idea why she decided to marry the older one. Perhaps he reminded her of her father,” giggled one. “Don’t be so cruel,” hushed the other. “Apparently her husband was very enamoured and much in love with her and very kind after her father’s death. Poor man. Did you see him? So pale. Shaking all over. The doctor had to come for him, they say. Collapsed. Wouldn’t let go of her. Had to part them by force, so that they could put her in a bed to die more comfortably… can you imagine? With a bullet in your head? Do you think you can still feel anything?” The first shook her head in disgust. “I can’t even imagine… how horrible.”

 

There was a court hearing. It all seemed so very dubious: The husband claiming his wife had become half-mad shortly after the marriage, seeing her father’s ghost at night. The suicide with the gun that belonged to her brother in law. The shouting and the fight some of the staff had heard shortly before a shot was fired.

 

“Did you hear,” said the old lady. “The poor husband gets nothing. All of it, house, money, the estate. Gone. Lost to a distant cousin in America.”

 

“How strange this all is,” whispered another.

 

And the two young women sat together again, gossiping and poisoning each other with the latest news: “The case was dismissed. Apparently he had no reason to kill her. Her father had made a will, stating that should his daughter die without a male heir everything would go to his younger cousin’s son. A merchant from America, they say. The husband’s brother is furious…”

 

It took a few more weeks for the city to forget: The elderly gentleman with his shy daughter, kept more like a prisoner than befitting a daughter. His sudden death and her happy marriage to a gentleman in his best years. The husband’s younger brother and his overwhelming charm so many young women in the small market town had fallen for. And of course the tragic death.

 

The story about her father’s ghost did linger a bit longer like ghosts always do. But then it also started to fade and disappeared into nothingness. Later someone believed to see the ghost of the lady wandering the streets weeping for her father, shouting for a husband lost. But that story also became nothing more than a memory after a century had passed. A historian later found it and published it in a volume about local folklore and tales.

 

None ever spoke again about the young lady who had shot herself in front of her husband and his brother – not because she had seen a ghost, but because for her it seemed like the only logical way to punish those who had planned an even darker fate for her than death could ever be.

 

 

Courtship is not always a slow process when following a father’s death

 

It was in spring 1851, the year of the Great Exhibition, a year full of excitement and change. And more than for anyone else this was true for Elisabeth Fairchild, who now that her father had died was free to explore the world and discover all the delights it had to offer, delights she had missed out for so many years stuck in a house with a grumpy old man. Once the time of mourning had past, the joys of the future would begin.

 

“There are two gentlemen here to see you, Miss. Should I send them in?”

 

Elisabeth had chosen the library as her favourite spot from a very early age. No matter what other people were saying, she actually preferred the peace and quiet books gave her. In the beginning her father had indeed not locked her away, but accommodated her keen interest in reading and drawing in the quiet corners of his library or study. It was later, when it became time to introduce the young woman to society that he began to fail his responsibilities and the clear guidance of a mother was sorely missed indeed.

 

Father had preferred Elisabeth’s calm and serene presence to that of the city life, seldom visited the theatre or accepted invitations on his or his daughter’s behalf. In a way they had been similar in character, even though getting older Elisabeth had realised that her father most of the time had been rather selfish: Keeping her close and apart from girls and boys her own age had ensured her presence even when he grew old and began to develop a frightening temper, easy to be provoked and only slowly to settle. Just like an autumn storm. The realisation that she had to pay the prize of constant loneliness, so that he could lead the comfortable life he preferred was a bitter one and one that nearly destroyed all the innocence, which had once marked their relationship. Now he was gone and for the first time in her life Elisabeth could decide for herself. It was an exciting, a frightening prospect.

 

“What kind of gentlemen?”

 

“James and Robert Grant, Miss. Friends of your father’s, they said. Come to give their condolences, Miss.”

 

Elisabeth had never heard their names, but this did not come as a great surprise. She had not known many of her father’s acquaintances and in the last days many people had come to speak highly about her father and compliment her on her open display of affection for that honourable men. Many people had come to wallow in her grief, even though she had never met any of them before. Two more made no difference.

 

“Please do let them in,” she said with a sigh. Elisabeth was tired and had not slept well in the days of her father’s surprising and short illness. Horrible days in which her father would slip in and out of consciousness, days in which he would slowly, but steadily loose his mind. He had been volatile in the end, driving a fear into Elisabeth she had not known existed. The doctor instructed the servants to tie him down, but no one had dared to enter his room any longer. Only Elisabeth. She was so tired now, her every bone screaming for some sleep, some rest. But even when lying down, sleep would not come.

 

With a sigh she sat upright, as her father had taught her. Time to greet her visitors.

 

And this was what the two gentlemen saw when they entered the library: the young woman was clad completely in colours of mourning, making her skin seem even paler than it already was. She was no beauty, nor was she ugly to look at. Rather plain, but with as fine a posture as could be expected of a woman of her social standing. She had a soft and polite smile. While the younger of the brothers right away decided this creature was not really worth his attention, apart from the obvious wealth she had just inherited, the older brother found himself being utterly intrigued by the creature rising from her chaise longue when they entered. Her eyes held a lively spark and the way she scanned him, James felt rather exposed as if she could see the nakedness beneath his armour of fine cloth. Her auburn hair shimmered in the candlelight and while she wore it tightly pinned to her head, he could not help himself but to imagine, how it would look like cascading down her back. She was not what he might call pretty, but she was also far from the docile and shy thing he had expected after the description everyone had given of her: hidden away by her father most had expected that something must be wrong with her – if not with her looks, then maybe with her mind. Instead – and that is something James only learned later – he found a rather well educated and strong-minded young woman, whose awkwardness in social situations stood in clear contrast to the letters she regularly wrote. Not brilliant, but sharp. Not witty, but expressed with much dignity and carefully chosen words. What an intriguing little thing she would prove to be.

 

And this is how she saw them: the two gentlemen were different from what she had expected, younger, for once, and far less grim than the other visitors had been. The younger of the two brothers, a talkative young man, presented himself as Robert, before he introduced his older brother – entirely against conventions – as James. James, and nothing more. The older paid his respect with a nod and a light bow; she curtsied. Robert was the bolder of these two and fell into a rhythmic speech, which Elisabeth could hardly follow. The young man was clearly used to the fact that most people – men as well as women – were not flattered or impressed due to what he said, as it seemed not to have any meaning at all, but by the charming way he presented his nonsense ramblings. Elisabeth, not easily impressed in normal circumstances, as tired and exhausted as she was now, could barely bring herself to answer in the short but polite fashion expected from a young lady. And so she nodded silently, making her seem even more shy and recluse than she truly was.

 

James, the older and more serene of the two brothers, was a grey man, wearing dark woollen clothes actually too warm for this weather. His light brown hair was already streaked with fine lines of grey and his face was ashen as if recovering from a long illness. His demeanour was quiet, his movements slow and considerate and his voice far deeper than one would expect from such a slender man.

 

“Excuse my silent brother”, the charming younger man said with a bright smile. “He is still a bit weak on his feet. Just like your father he has been quite ill recently.”

 

“Please brother, do not worry the young lady,” said the older and offered Elisabeth a shy smile. He seemed unsteady on his feet and so Elisabeth offered him a seat, an invitation to stay even though she still hoped the two men would leave soon.

 

“I am sorry to hear that, Mister Grant. I hope you are recovering well,” she said and offered a smile back. The younger brother was again the first to speak not giving his elder sibling the chance to reply. “Oh my dear, on the contrary. He will surely tell you that he is already feeling far better, but the process is very slow… I still am very worried.”

 

“Robert, please.” The older brother seemed embarrassed.

 

Robert was a clear contrast to his brother. Dashing and vibrant he radiated a youthfulness that made it impossible to guess his age. His light hair fell in unruly curls around his face and his velvet coat closed around a muscular body. He was clearly used to having an effect on women and all his charms were now directed towards the young woman, sitting opposite his pale brother. But her gaze seemed to be fixed on the older brother, a worried frown upon her forehead. Robert paced the library before finally taking a stand behind his brother.

 

“My brother worries too much. I was simply careless and caught a chill. Nothing to be afraid of,” James Grant said – again with a soft smile. “And I am very sorry, indeed, that we are intruding like this, especially after the loss you had to endure and the hardship you must find yourself in now. I was very sorry to hear about your father’s death, Miss. We were not very close, but I have always respected him as a honourable member of society. Please, do forgive our intrusion and my brother’s boldness. We only wanted to pay our respects and offer you our condolences. If there is anything I can do…”

 

“Thank you,” she said with a voice so unused to speak in her own name. “That is very kind of you.” Elisabeth felt tears welling up in her eyes and it made her feel embarrassed. Not one second had she cried at her father’s grave even though he might have earned her pity. But the last days of his illness had been too full of horrors. While she had tried to care for him, he had tormented her in every way possible. She still carried the bruises on her wrists where he had grabbed her too tightly, shouting at her that her disobedience would cost his life. More and more out of breath he still had berated her, scolded her… cried in silence. His rage was a last futile attempt to mark her, so that even after his death she would follow his choices and not her own. And now confronted with this man’s kindness, she felt her guilty conscience pressing upon her soul. After a last big row she had left the room, she had let her father die all alone, screaming her name, begging in the end, asking for forgiveness she was no longer able to grant. The old man died as he had come into life: Abandoned and naked in a cold dark room. Even later, when the priest came a second time – this time to give guidance to a grieving child – she had refused to see her father one last time. There were no more tears left to cry. Numb. Unfeeling. And then relieved. She had no reason to look back at her past life.

 

She stared at her folded hands, tears falling from her eyes, sitting in complete silence, her far too heavy breathing the only sound. The older brother stayed silent, none the less she felt him move: the rustling of clothes, a shift in the air. His hands were far warmer than his pale exterior had suggested. He did not speak, but simply held her hands until she looked up and met his gaze. Even the restless younger brother stood still, watching a seemingly harmless encounter that indeed would prove to be all but harmless in the end.

 

Days later she wrote James Grant a letter, expressing her deepest regret about how she had behaved: so without dignity. He replied the same day. Four months later they were married.

 

 

Demons often wear the costume of men

 

First there were steps at night. A rattling on the door. Later bloody footprints. Finally she found a message on her bedroom wall, written in black ash and her father’s hand. “Daughter mine.” She had screamed and fled the room, begging her husband to let her stay with him just this one night. In the morning the message had been gone. “No, I haven’t cleaned it,” said the scullery maid who had lit the fire in the morning. The lady’s maid, the housekeeper and the butler also denied to have done the deed. The younger brother just smiled and indicated a bad dream, perhaps. Her husband was very quiet that morning.

 

Two nights later he found her shivering in the hallway. “Dear god, James, I’ve seen him… I’ve seen him…”

 

That was when the gossip started, first among her staff, then in town. The young lady did not seem well. “My poor brother, so full of concern for his dear wife. She wasn’t quite right from the beginning, I guess,” Robert, the younger brother, told everyone who was prepared to listen.

 

It was in the second week of her torment that Elisabeth decided to investigate. Her husband found her later at the bottom of the stairs with a sprained ankle and bruises all over her body. She might have tripped, she might have been pushed, but all she was talking about was the ghost who had hunted her through the corridors.

 

It was quiet after that. The lady of the house was resting; her husband never truly left her side. The younger brother had gone on a trip to London. Business needed to be taken care of. Slowly the colour returned to Elisabeth’s cheeks and a smile to her lips. Walking slowly on her husband’s arm, she started exploring the garden. Finally they took the carriage into town. “I have always wanted to go to the theatre,” Elisabeth said with a beaming smile. “To the opera, the museum…maybe a trip. James, please let us go on a trip.”

 

The young lady with her pale complexion and feverish eyes caused quite a stir in Great Malvern where they took the waters Queen Victoria was so fond of. Elisabeth’s health improved and with his brother absent, James’ focus and attention shifted from the money they had wanted to the delicate creature clinging to his arm. He was a stern man, but whoever looked closely could see a secretive smile on his lip and a sudden softness around his eyes whenever he watched his young wife. She felt like floating. The horrors of the night were fast forgotten.

 

The younger brother greeted them when they returned from their short recuperation. And so everyone had finally gathered in the old house again. As the living returned, the dead resumed their dark deeds as well. When Elisabeth entered the bedroom she now shared with her husband, she found the sheets ripped and another message on the wall: “Whore,” this time written in blood. That night her father’s portrait burst up in flames and it was only due to Robert’s fast reaction that no greater damage was done. Two nights later, James was in London overnight, the curtains in the couple’s bedroom caught fire. Elisabeth burned her left hand ripping down the burning fabric. Her father’s laughter accompanied her desperate attempt to suffocate the flames.

 

The young woman had to wear bandages the next two weeks, her brother in law sported a black eye. “An unnecessary and stupid fight,” he said with a stern face and a sideways glance towards his brother.

 

The town drowned in gossip. “Madwoman,” they started to call her. “Pyromaniac.” Robert smiled knowingly whenever he heard a new insult directed towards his sister in law. James became even sterner than before.

 

The nights for once were quieter again: No more fires. But still there were unnerving sounds and rattling doorknobs and a young woman ill at ease. James never left her side though and when the sounds became too much, he covered her ears with kisses. One morning when Elisabeth went into town alone, the household staff heard him furiously shouting at his brother, threatening to kick him out of the house. That gossip never made it beyond the doorstep.

 

And then came the day when James had to leave her side again. Looking after her affairs and taking over most of her father’s business came with certain responsibilities. He left reluctantly. The ghost on the other hand returned with greater enthusiasm than ever before, not listening to the warning words spoken by the now absent husband.

 

The sounds followed Elisabeth day and night. She did no longer sleep, rarely ate. A demon dressed in a dead man’s clothes walked the hallways during the night, whispering her name through keyholes. She always ever glimpsed him for a second or two, never saw his face. Once she had not believed in ghosts, but worn down night after night, tormented week after week, the fear overpowered her rationality, doubt crept in leaving a dark stain she could never shake off or rub away. And instead of calling for her absent husband, she started whispering her dead father’s name at night, begged him to forgive her for whatever wickedness he thought to find in her soul. She begged for one night of peaceful sleep. Or to be taken from this world into his.

 

Tired and desperate, she found her only escape in accepting that there might be a darker plane of existence she did not understand. And so night after night she went to bed with a strange prayer on her lips, a daughter’s desperate cry for an absent father:

 

“I have always loved you, father dear. Even later, in our last months together, when all I got from you was a scolding and a door silently shut into my face, I could not forget the father you once were, the father who carried me to bed, when I had fallen asleep on the carpet in the library, the father who would softly sing a nonsense lullaby to scare my nightly terrors away. Your voice was a soft blanket wrapped around my heart, keeping me safe. Those memories from childhood days are like a silken rope binding me to you. Father, dear father! Why did you leave? And why? Why did you come back?”

 

This was how James found her, finally returning from his business trip. Her pain was so raw it nearly tore him apart. It was not the first time James and Robert Grant had tricked their way into a lady’s good graces, but never had they gone this far. And never had it been James who would tear an innocent woman’s heart to shreds. He softly pushed the door open and walked towards his wife. Slowly he knelt where she huddled on the floor, touched her shoulder. She screamed. Only once. But it disturbed not only the silence of the house. He flinched. She shivered. He intensified the pressure of his hand. “Shhhhh,” he said then. “Shhhh, my dearest. It’s only me.”

 

With a loud sob she suddenly flew into his arms, buried her face in the nape of his neck. “Thank God,” she mumbled. “Thank God, you are back.” Surprised by himself he put his arms around her and held her tight. “And I won’t leave you again,” he said. “I won’t leave you again, I promise.”

 

Still hidden behind the invisible servant’s door the younger brother cursed silently. He should have known his brother was too weak at heart to resist the temptation of a loving wife. Still mumbling curses and swearwords, he made his way back to his room. It was time for step two of his plan – before his brother’s newly developed kindness and affection would ruin everything.

 

 

Unexpected love stories have surprising ends

 

“This has to stop,” he said. “This has to stop.” James’ complexion was even paler than it usually was, his breathing shallow and his eyes bitter. “She is too good a woman, Robert. And I love her.”

 

The younger brother hissed, a sound of utter contempt. “She is a weak and whiny woman, no person with a sane mind is scared so easily. By a fiction. A ghost. An imagination.” Robert was a charming man by day, but at night he turned into a living nightmare – literally. And he was without scruples where money was involved.

 

“Robert…”

 

“You will forget her. It’s not that I want to kill her. We will find a nice little asylum for her. Where she is comfortable. Far more than she could be here. She likes to be on her own.” Robert had started rambling. He did not like to explain things twice. And he thought he had been clear from the beginning, told his brother once and for all what his plans, his intentions were.

 

They had run into difficulties. Three marriage scams were enough to bring a whole county to alert. Of course the parents had always paid to release their precious daughters from a hasty engagement. But after the last scam the magistrate had become suspicious and it had been time to move on. It was sheer luck that he had heard the sad story of the young woman left all alone after the death of her beloved father. This was the big one! The one scam that would set them up for life! Robert would marry the young girl, get rid of her in one of the asylums – which she possibly would not survive long, a delicate flower like her – he would find a rich bride for his brother and then finally marry the wench, he had left behind in London.

 

But from the beginning nothing had gone to plan. Who would have suspected the girl would fall for his brother instead? And who would have guessed that James would not only develop a conscience, but fall in love with such a plain little creature?

 

“You will leave her in peace, do you hear me, Robert? Or I will finally kick you out of this house myself!”

 

Robert had never seen his brother this enraged. He raised his hands in a gesture of submission. “Alright, alright… let’s talk this through, brother dear.”

 

But the time for talks had long past and it was no longer James alone who felt furious anger burning in his veins. Someone else had discovered that ghosts were not always what they seemed to be.

 

It came as a ghastly surprise to Robert Grant: The woman had proven herself to be far more fierce and resilient than he had expected. Dust flakes danced in the pale morning light when Elisabeth finally confronted her brother in law, her husband a forlorn bystander unable to stop the maelstrom the brothers had set into motion months ago.

 

Elisabeth raised the pistol and aimed at her opponent’s breast. “I am not mad,” she said. “No matter what you tell yourself, what you tell me, what you tell other people. I know what you did, how you sneaked through the house every night. How you played ghost to scare me out of my wits.” She was shouting now. Small pearls of salty water adorned her pale red cheeks and her dark eyes glistened with the reflection of fire. “I know what you did… what you both did.”

 

“Elisabeth”, said James softly and slowly stepped in front of his wife, stepped between the gun and his brother hoping that her love was still strong enough not to shoot him – even after everything they had done to her. “Please,” he whispered. “Please let me explain.”

 

Her hand began to shake as she looked at his face that once seemed so honest and kind to her. She could find none of it, saw only the pain he had caused, ripping apart her heart with careless kindness. Oh, she could have survived this had he not made her love him so much, had he not claimed her soul and mind along with her heart. “There is nothing you can say that would change a thing, because I know everything, now” she said. “I know.”

 

James turned around and faced his brother. “You have gone too far this time… we have gone too far.” Why she was different than all the others, James would never understand. But he knew he could not lose her. He should simply step away, should let her shoot his traitorous brother, the brother who had driven him to deeds too cruel to imagine. Again he turned towards his wife. One step after another he came closer. Her hand began to shake. “Please forgive me,” he said. “And please believe me…”

 

“It was very clever of you,” she said. “You read my father’s will, didn’t you? You knew you would get nothing if I were dead. But a wife locked away in an asylum, driven mad by what she believed was her father’s disapproving ghost… you would have had hold over the whole estate, you could have spent the whole fortune and nobody would have even blinked.” Her pain was so raw it pierced through his clothes, skin and flesh.

 

“Please put away the gun, Elisabeth. Please, I do beg you.” He was very close now, but not close enough to get hold of the pistol, to wrestle it from her grip, to embrace her in his arms, to kiss away her tears. Oh, what a phantasy.

 

“But if I am dead, you will have nothing,” she said and with that she moved the hand, the gun. Still shaking, even more than before, she put the gun towards her temple. “If I am dead, you will have nothing…” Her voice was but a whisper and he knew that there was no way back, that she would not falter in her decision. Finally she smiled at him, a smile that never reached her eyes.

 

“No”, he screamed while he lunged at her, trying to grab the gun before it was too late.

 

A shot shattered the quiet of the morning, shattered the bone above her eyes. A bullet pierced her brain, cut through tissue, broke bone again. It did not kill. Her hands shaking, unused to the gun, had made her miss the vital spot. And so she sunk to the floor spitting blood, muttering words that made no sense.

 

He was with her. Not fast enough to stop her, he was still able to soften her fall, holding her in his arms, whispering her name while she died a slow and painful death. Making no sense with what she said, but being clear in her message. “You have killed me,” she seemed to say and her blame fell heavily on his heart. “You have killed me.” And he knew she was right. He held her as long as he could, not seeing his brother, not speaking to him, he who had finally driven her over the edge. He held her and she hated him for it. He held her and could not let go. Even when the doctor came. They had to tear him away while he muttered her name over and over again. Nothing could be done, nothing but making her passing easier. She died in her bed with him holding her hand. She died looking into his eyes, her cushion red with blood, her gaze empty. But still – years later – he imagined that he saw something like forgiveness in her eyes, something like understanding, because he indeed had loved her and no matter if she ever forgave him, he would never be able to forgive himself.

 

But this was not the story that he later told. It was not the story everyone was ready to believe. That story spoke of dead fathers and imagined ghosts, of a young woman that instead of love only found loneliness and despair. How much easier was it to believe a ghost story than face the ultimate truth: The true spiteful demons do not come from other realms but wear the angelic face of a brother.

 

He later saw her wandering the streets. Sometimes she was followed by a little girl with the same auburn curls as her mother and the stern face of her father, a daughter destined to never be born. For the first time James glimpsed her late at night in the little market town that had once been her home, then her grave. No matter where he moved, she followed, walking the streets at night, standing silently next to his bed. Not with a smile but with utter contempt written all over her face. He never spoke of the ghosts he saw. He never looked away. Not when he finally killed his brother. Not when he was caught by the police, judged and found guilty. She was there when they finally put a noose around his neck. He refused the hood in fear he would never see her again. He did not watch the crowds, did not see the old ladies and young women gossiping, the old merchant spitting out in front of him. Steadfast as ever he only saw her. And finally with his last deep breath before the fall she smiled. And as he plunged into the abyss he heard her final greetings. “I forgive you,” she said. “I forgive you.”

 

The End

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