Fosse House, home of the reclusive Luisa Gilmore, harbours curious secrets - secrets that stretch back almost a century, to the ill-fated Palestrina Choir in its remote Belgian convent.
When Oxford don Michael Flint travels to the house to trace the origins of the long-dead Choir, he is at once aware of the house's eerie menace. Who is the shadowy young man who lurks in the grounds, and why does his exact likeness appear in a sketch from 1917? What is the strange whispering that echoes through the corridors? And why is Luisa so afraid when a storm makes it necessary for Michael to spend the night inside the house?
Back in Oxford, when Nell West uncovers the story of the infamous 1917 'Holzminden sketch' - the lost, legendary drawing from World War I - a dark fragment of the past begins to stir. A fragment that Michael, in the lonely old house, may not be able to resist.
|Publisher:||Severn House Publishers|
|Series:||A Nell West and Michael Flint Haunted House Story Series , #4|
|Edition description:||First World Publication|
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Sarah Rayne is the author of novels of supernatural suspense, including the new series featuring Michael Flint and Nell West. She lives in Staffordshire.
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By Sarah Rayne
Severn House Publishers Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Sarah Rayne
All rights reserved.
Memo from: Director of Music, Oriel College, Oxford
To: Dr Michael Flint, English Literature/Language Faculty
A note to wish you well on your journey into the deepest Fens. Fosse House is apparently in rather a remote spot, but I'm sure you'll be all right, once you actually get there. It's a pity Luisa Gilmore didn't feel able to put you up at the house for a couple of nights, but I expect you'll fare well and forage sufficiently at the local pub. I've never met Miss Gilmore, but she's always been very helpful in our exchange of letters. She's a bit of a recluse, I suspect, and possibly a touch eccentric, but at seventy-odd years of age anyone is allowed a bit of eccentricity, I should hope. She's never married, and she's lived in the house all her life. But what's more to the point is that one of her ancestors was part of the ill-fated Palestrina Choir – actually inside the Liège convent when it was destroyed – so there could be a wealth of primary source material in the house.
The OUP are keen on our idea for a book focusing on the musical influences on the work of the Great War poets. They're also what they term 'pleasantly surprised' at the level of sales for our joint book on the influence of music on the Romantic Poets last year, and they even mentioned receiving an email from a TV company about making a documentary based on it. I dare say it won't come to anything, and I expect it's all a flea bite compared to your Wilberforce books (incidentally my small niece is an avid reader of them), but I do feel we've made a modest contribution to the field, and this new oeuvre should add to that.
I'm looking forward to the results of your sojourn at Fosse House, but do try to stay clear of any peculiar happenings while you're there. You seem to attract such odd occurrences. We heard snippets of rather intriguing gossip about your exploits in Derbyshire last year, and if Owen Bracegirdle in the History Faculty can be believed, there were some extraordinary shenanigans in Ireland a couple of years before that. (Dr Bracegirdle is given to exaggeration, however, not to say outright flippancy).
Kind regards, J.B.
Email from: Owen Bracegirdle, History Faculty, Oriel College, Oxford
To: Michael Flint, English Literature/Language Faculty
I know you'll have had a note from J.B. about his new book, and I expect you're smiling with pleased anticipation at the prospect of getting to grips with all that romantic, tragic poetry forged by the Great War.
J.B. asked me if I thought you could cope with the extra workload, to which I said certainly you could, you were equal to anything. You might look like Keats or Shelley in the latter stages of a romantic consumption, and your poor deluded female students might yearn, and even occasionally write a sonnet to you on their own account (listen, I know for a fact that one of them did that), but actually you're as tough as old boots.
Anyway, the old boy seemed more worried about how you'd cope with Luisa Gilmore. He seems to find her rather daunting, and anyone who makes J.B. jittery has to be formidable.
J.B. has invited me to contribute to the book. I think it's on the strength of my treatise The Great War: Causes and Conflicts, which is required reading for all sixth form history students, and if it isn't, it ought to be. I've accepted with becoming modesty, but I have to say I'll enjoy having a hand in the mix. I'll also enjoy any fiscal rewards that might be forthcoming. There's an ancient curse, isn't there, (Ovid?) that says: 'May your debts torment you.' Well, they do. The spectre of bailiffs camping out in the august halls of Oriel College is looming, although I shouldn't think it would be the first time College has seen tipstaffs.
Michael Flint, reading these two missives, thought it was impossible to know where truth ended and dramatic license took over with Owen Bracegirdle. But it would be good to have Owen's input for the book.
As for the Director of Music, it had to be said that he had honed the art of dropping subtle hints to perfection. Reading between the lines it sounded as if the reclusive Luisa Gilmore could be anything from a modern-day Miss Havisham draped in fossilizing wedding finery, to Madeline Usher falling into deathlike trances and being entombed alive by mistake, or even a contemporary version of Morticia Addams, vampiric as to nature and floury as to complexion.
But Michael was keen on the project, which would focus on the musical influences of the poets from the Great War, and flattered to be approached for help.
'Although,' he said to Nell over supper in his rooms that evening, 'the prospect of driving into the fens in October isn't very appealing. Particularly if Madeline Usher's hosting the party.'
'Yes, but you'll like burrowing among old papers and journals and whatnot,' said Nell, who was inclined to regard Ushers and Addamses as frivolous distractions. 'And you'll like working on the book. Plus, if there's been a serious TV approach about that first one, you need to bash out another as soon as possible.'
Michael pointed out that books of this kind did not lend themselves to being bashed out overnight, that Michaelmas term was apt to be crowded, and also that he was committed to produce a new Wilberforce the Cat adventure for Christmas. As if on cue, the real Wilberforce padded into the room and sat down on a sheaf of proofs cataloguing his latest exploits, which Michael had been trying to read for his editor.
'Yes, but you're used to meeting deadlines,' said Nell, shooing Wilberforce off the proofs. 'And it'll be good to switch roles for once. I'm usually the one who goes yomping off into the wide blue yonder to buy stuff for the shop while you stay smugly at home in the ivory tower.' She grinned at him, and Michael wondered if he would ever stop finding deep pleasure in seeing her curled into the deep armchair like this, her hair lit to polished bronze by the light of the desk lamp. 'And here's another thing,' said Nell. 'While you're delving into the history of the ill-fated Palestrina Choir in the Liège monastery—'
'I still don't know what the ill fate was—'
'No, but while you're looking, you could see if there are any treasures Morticia Addams might be considering selling. Anything that might have found its way to England from Liège,' said Nell. Seeing his look, she said, with affectionate exasperation, 'Michael, darling, Liège is in Belgium. And Belgium means beautiful handmade lace and Flemish tapestries and Delft pottery – all of which would look very nice indeed in the shop. To say nothing of any canvases that might bear the signature of Anthony van Dyck, or Pieter Bruegel or—'
'Well, all right,' said Michael. 'But I'm only there for a couple of days, and I doubt I'd know Delft from Pyrex.'
'And,' said Nell, smiling, 'you'll be so immersed in the Great War and all that heartbreaking poetry of those young men who fought, that you probably won't notice a Bruegel if it falls on your head.' She paused, then with a kind of reluctant anxiety said, 'Come back safely, won't you?'
'I will. Behave while I'm away, won't you?'
'To make sure I do, how about if we misbehave tonight?' said Nell, with the sudden slant-eyed grin that transformed her from a purposeful seller of antiques to a very sexy imp. 'Just very privately and discreetly, but fairly spectacularly?'
'Have I got time to feed Wilberforce first?'
'Oh, God, where's the tin-opener.'
The drive to the Fens and Fosse House took place two days later and was against a gathering storm that brewed itself up from the east and cast flurries of leaves and small branches against the car's windows. Michael eyed the skies with misgiving and tried not to think that invisible, mischievous celestial stagehands were setting the scene for a suitably Gothic backdrop so that Morticia Addams or Madeline Usher could make a grand entrance.
He had set off buoyantly, optimistic that he would find his way to the Fens easily because he had finally succumbed to buying a satnav, which Nell's small daughter Beth said meant he would never get lost again. The satnav had seemed a good idea, and Michael had managed to attach it to the dashboard, and had diligently followed the polite directions. Unfortunately, when he was about forty miles clear of Oxford it worked loose, and by the time Aylesbury was reached, it detached itself altogether and fell on the floor with a dismal crunch. Michael spent the next twenty miles listening to the now-drunken slur of the electronic voice which appeared to have lost all knowledge of the present whereabouts and might as well be saying, 'Here be dragons,' like the old maps on unexplored areas.
After that, he disconnected it, disinterred the road maps from the glove compartment and then, with the idea of getting into the mood of the era he would be researching, switched on a Palestrina tape which the Director of Music had lent him. The voices of the Nunc Dimittis filled the car with eerie beauty, summoning up images of dim, quiet churches, grave-visaged statues, and massive and ancient books with ornate gilt clasps and illuminated pages.
There had not been much time before leaving to find out much about the Palestrina Choir, other than that it had been formed in an ancient monastery in Belgium in 1900 to commemorate the start of the new century, and was named for the sixteenth-century composer of sacred music. One of the reference books had said that the Choir was still remembered, in Liège, as tragic, and until quite recently older inhabitants could be found who would relate how the Choir had sung the accompaniment to its own death throes. This was intriguing, although it could mean any number of things. It could also be a figment of someone's gothic imagination.
Michael drove through the rather bleak landscape. There were deep, straight drainage canals, and occasionally massive sluice gates – grim reminders of the constant menace of flooding in these parts. At intervals were expanses of mud flats or salt marshes. Strong winds whipped across their surfaces, making thick, oozing ripples. Tiny villages were scattered around, providing a reminder that humans had settled here from a very early era – the Romans and the Iceni, wasn't it? Michael started to enjoy the feeling of entering an England whose roots went so far back. There was a bleak beauty to the landscape, and seeing a distant church spire against the thickening skies he remembered as well that this was a part of England that was soaked in sacred lore and memory; this was the 'Holy Land of the English', with its proliferation of cathedrals and churches, and its tradition of monasteries and reclusive saints and hermits. Hermits and recluses. It brought his thoughts back to Luisa Gilmore who had apparently passed her entire life in this place.
He had hoped to check in at the pub, where he had a room booked for two nights, but an unplanned diversion a few miles outside a place with the delightful name of Poringland meant he had added forty-five minutes to his journey. This was nothing to do with the satnav's innards being crunched up, it was simply that Michael had missed a turning, which anyone could do. Clearly, it would be as well to drive directly to Fosse House, so that he could at least introduce himself to his hostess before going in search of the pub.
The roads were wide and there was hardly any other traffic, and he found Fosse House without much difficulty. The sun was setting with a Turneresque rowdiness of oriflammes across the horizon, but the storm was still grumbling menacingly over the North Sea and the wind was dashing itself against the car's sides. Michael began to wish he was back in Oxford.
But here, at last, was the gateway to the house – tall, once-white posts with a somewhat insecure wrought-iron gate. Beyond them was a fairly long drive, fringed with thick shrubbery and elderly trees. Driving cautiously and slowly, Michael could not see the house, but he could see lights shining beyond the trees – erratic glimmerings, like the mischievous beckoning of will o' the wisp marsh people ... Or was it the corpse candles of a ghostly funeral, because if ever there was a gothic setting ...?
He could not see the house, though. Was it shrouded in mystical mist, and only permitted to make itself visible once every hundred years? Did it rise up out of the Norfolk marshes on the occasion of some macabre anniversary, to lure unwary travellers?
It was neither of these things, of course. It was invisible from the first few yards of the drive simply because the trees obscured it. Michael rounded a slight curve in the drive and there it was, coming gradually into view through the trees as they dipped and moved in the storm-wind, as if tantalizingly and deliberately revealing a piece at a time. Fosse House, making a slow, dramatic entrance through the mists. The home of the enigmatic recluse Luisa Gilmore, whose ancestor had been part of a sacred choir that had sung to its own death throes.
It was not, of course, Roderick and Madeline Usher's mansion of gloom, but Michael thought it was not far off. It was four-square as to construction and greystone as to fabric, and there were sprawling patches of discoloration on the walls as if some inner disease had seeped through. The windows were tall and narrow, each one surmounted with curved thick stone lintels like frowning eyebrows. It was the most unwelcoming house Michael had ever seen, and he was guiltily relieved to think he would not be staying in this faded grandeur overnight. Dim lights showed at a couple of the windows, although they were so dim that it was remarkable they had been visible from the drive.
As he went towards the main front door something moved on the rim of his vision. He half-turned and caught sight of a figure walking around the side of the house. Probably someone had heard his arrival and was coming to meet him. Michael waited, but the setting sun was directly in his eyes, and he thought after all there was no one there. Or perhaps it had been a bird flying across the light. He was about to walk on towards the house when the movement came again, and this time there was no doubt. Someone was coming through the shrubbery, and whoever it was moved quickly and lightly. The figure of what looked like a young man wearing a long overcoat. As if suddenly becoming aware of Michael's presence, the boy stopped and looked directly at him. Michael received a brief impression of fair hair and pale features. At the same time a breath of wind stirred through the trees, and words reached him, fragmented as if broken up by the distance, but perfectly clear.
'Mustn't let them find me ... You do understand that, don't you ...? For my sanity's sake, I mustn't be caught ...'
The words made little sense, and the figure was already backing away. But a ray of the setting sun touched the face, and Michael saw that, as he had thought, it was a young man, barely more than twenty or so. He had deep-set eyes and a small scar on one side of his face. Or was it a leaf that had blown there and clung to the boy's cheekbone?
The whisper came again. 'You do understand ...? It's important that you do ... I must get into the house, before they catch me ...'
It seemed inconceivable that this totally strange young man could be addressing these words to Michael, but there was no one else about. Uneasily aware that this might be some local ruffian, fleeing from the police – he said, 'It's all right. I understand they mustn't find you.'
The boy did not look like anyone's idea of a ruffian. He put up a hand in what might be a gesture of acknowledgement, then turned and went back around the house's side. Michael waited, but nothing else happened, and whoever the boy had been, and whatever his reasons for getting into the house were, it was nothing to do with Michael. He would mention it to Miss Gilmore, though, and there would probably be some perfectly innocent explanation. But by now he would have given a great deal to be able to get back into his car and drive as far away as possible from this house. It was not just that it was bleak and remote, or that elusive young men whispered sinisterly in its gardens; it was that he was finding it unpleasantly easy to visualize dark echoing rooms beyond those walls – rooms that might hide decaying memories or cobwebbed humans, or in which forgotten tragedies might still linger and sigh. Nell would look at him quizzically if he said that to her, and tell him the place was nothing more than a slightly run-down old house, and what did he expect in a house standing in the most waterlogged part of the country?
Excerpted from The Whispering by Sarah Rayne. Copyright © 2014 Sarah Rayne. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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