Authors: Norman Russell
t was on Tuesday, 17 July, 1894, a hot and languid day, that I first heard of Mayfield Court. Uncle Max had received a visitor at our house in Saxony Square that morning, a heavy,
man who had acknowledged my presence with a curt nod before being ushered into Uncle's study. It would never have occurred to me to ask what their business was: Uncle did not invite that kind of question.
I passed the morning in my little sitting-room, discussing the latest wonders of spiritualism with my friend Marguerite. Uncle and the taciturn man were closeted together for over two hours, and then the visitor had left as hurriedly as he had arrived. Marguerite left soon afterwards and, when Uncle Max came out of the study, he suggested that we take a walk in the garden. He contrived to look as sober as ever, but I could sense that he was controlling some inner excitement.
âCatherine,' he said, when we were out of earshot of the house, âthat man was an old acquaintance of my late brother, a solicitor, living in a little town in Warwickshire. He came to tell me that I've inherited an estate somewhere in that countyâ No, don't get so excited about it, girl! It's a broken-down old place, half ruinous, apparently. It's called Mayfield Court. My brother Hector lived there for a while thirty years or more ago.'
âMayfield Court?' I cried. âWhat will you do with it, Uncle? Surely you won't leave our house here in London to live in the country. Will you sell it? How muchâ?'
âHush, girl,' he said, while a humorous smile played about his lips, âyou must give me time to think. After all, I've only just been told the news myself. I think it would be a very good idea if I went down to this place â Mayfield, in Warwickshire â and stayed there for a few days, or perhaps a week, so that I could come to a decision about what to do with the property.'
âBut we're not leaving Saxony Square?' I persisted.
âWell, no, though money has become short of late because of some failed investments â but never mind that: it's none of your concern. I shall do as I said, and go down to Mayfield at the end of the month. You can stay here, if you like, with Milsom to look after you, or ask one of your friends to invite you to stay with them. Was that Marguerite you had in your sitting-room? Well, don't ask
. She has a bad influence on you with her tales of ghosts and spirits. At her age, she should know better. Ask Maisie Grossman if she'll have you. She's a nice, sensible girl, and nearer to you in age.'
âYou've never mentioned this house, this Mayfield Court, before, Uncle,' I said. âDid you know about it, or did it come as a surprise?'
Uncle Max frowned, and his lips tightened in a disapproving line.
âYou're asking too many questions, little Miss Prying Paget,' he said. âAll you need to know is that this property has come my way in some convoluted fashion, and that I intend to go and view it. Perhaps â yes, why not? â you will come with me? If you see the place yourself, perhaps you'll stop asking all these impertinent questions.'
I knew then that I must not probe further. The ruinous house in Warwickshire was clearly yet another secret about which Uncle had no wish to enlighten me.
It is quite possible that these words of mine will one day appear in print, considering the nature of the appalling events that were to befall my family, so I had better give some details now about my uncle and myself, and our family background.
My uncle, Maximilian Paget, was a man well over seventy, a retired City solicitor, who had been my support and stay ever since his great-niece, my mother Emily, had died soon after giving birth to me. I regret to say that Emily was little more than a name. The convolutions of the Paget family tree were such that I had never really known how my mother had fitted in to it, or what had been her exact relationship to Uncle Max.
Nor did I have any recollection of my father, who had
only weeks after his wife's funeral, and had moved away from London. It was thought that he and his new wife had emigrated to Australia, but nothing was known for certain and, as the years passed, I lost the will to enquire further. My world, my security and my well-being, revolved around Uncle Max, the man who had reared me, loved me after his fashion, and protected me from the time of my infancy.
Uncle Max was often gruff and crusty in his manner, much given to growling and muttering when things didn't go his way, but he was always kindly and generous to me, in a cautious sort of way. There were times when he would relapse into gloomy silence for hours on end, and if I asked what was on his mind, he would shake his head, and angrily wave me away. I respected these moods of his, without understanding them, and so we got on very well together.
During the fortnight following our conversation in the garden, Uncle was much preoccupied in writing letters and in replying to a number that he received concerning his proposed visit to this mysterious house called Mayfield Court. I found it very difficult to contain my impatience, as London is very tiring during the summer, and a sojourn in the country would be very welcome.
It was the custom in our house to leave letters for posting on a
brass tray in the hall, where Milsom would collect them when she was free from her duties, and take them down to the post box on the corner of Brandenburg Street. Sometimes I would idly sift through these letters, to see who Uncle was writing to. Mostly, his correspondents were fellow solicitors, but just over a week after our talk, I saw one letter that intrigued me, because it was addressed to a titled lady. I can recall it now:
Lady Carteret, Providence Hall, Upton Carteret, Warwickshire.
I heard the study door opening, and hastily thrust the letter back among the pile, and made myself scarce. Yes, I was intrigued, but knew that it would be dangerous folly to question Uncle Max about it.
We arrived at the hamlet of Mayfield on the last day in July, after a tiresome journey from London which had involved two changes of train. At Warwick, we had been able to hire a pony and trap with a driver, and it was in this vehicle that we had been conveyed across a stretch of heathland and so into a secluded wooded valley. Here, we had been driven up to the rusted iron gates of Mayfield Court.
There was a ruined, roofless lodge beside the gates, and beyond them a wilderness of tangled grass, weeds, and stunted trees. The driver agreed to forge a passage through this
, just enough for us to walk; there could be no question of trying to force pony and trap through that rotting wilderness.
It was a truly depressing sight, and all my romantic notions about a grand country estate vanished in an instant!
The house, a three-storey Jacobean grange built of red brick, was almost certainly beyond repair. Sections of the roof had collapsed, and parasite weeds and bushes could be seen clinging on crazily to parapets and ledges. The top floor had lost the glass from all its windows, and encrustations of ancient soot around some of the casements showed that the building had at one time
been set alight. I discovered later that some rooms on the first floor were habitable but unfurnished, and several of them had breaches in the walls. The floors up there were littered with debris.
The ground floor, however, was still habitable, and we made shift to settle ourselves in four large and decently furnished rooms, which had been made ready for us by a woman from the village, who had been engaged for us, apparently, by the taciturn man who had visited Uncle on the seventeenth.
âI think, Catherine,' Uncle Max had said, grimly, âthat we will camp out in this place just long enough for me to make an
of its value as building-land, and to sift through the bundles of old deeds and letters that came with the place, and then we'll return post haste to good old London. As for the house itself, I'll have it knocked down.'
And so we âcamped out' in Mayfield Court, attended by âthat old peasant woman' as Uncle insisted on calling Mrs Doake, the kindly soul who came in daily from the hamlet of Mayfield, which lay out of sight on the far side of the overgrown gardens of the house. I helped her in the dilapidated kitchen, preparing the main meal of the day, which was luncheon at one o'clock. Chattering all the while, she brought some life and cheer to the abandoned place.
It was Mrs Doake who told me about Helen, the Pale Child of Mayfield, an unquiet entity which was sometimes seen in the house. She was a spirit-child, who wandered the rooms by day, seeking some kind of undefined justice. Some folk had seen her, said Mrs Doake, a forlorn little figure in a muslin dress. Others had glimpsed her in the overgrown garden. At times she had seemed to speak, but no sound ever issued from the phantom lips.
âI've never seen anything myself, miss,' she'd said, âbut there are others who swear they've seen the Pale Child flitting about here, in the house, or out there, in that wilderness of a garden. Rector tells us to set no store by ghosts, but you never know, do you?'
âDoes anyone know who she is?' I asked. âHelen, I mean?'
âNobody round here knows anything about her except for her name, miss. They do say that she came here to stay with a family who lived here thirty years or more ago, and that she was seen arriving at the house, but never seen leaving it. Mayfield Court was never lived in by gentry, miss.'
âSo Mayfield Court was never properly inhabited?' I'd asked.
âOh, no, miss,' Mrs Doake replied. âNot by gentry, I mean. It had been left untenanted for years, and different people came to live here, so they say. People from London. None of them ever stayed long. Maybe the ghost frightened them away. Rector says there's no such things as ghosts, but you never know.'
No, I thought, you never know. We had been at Mayfield Court only a couple of days when I had my first sighting of the wraith of the little girl, standing motionless at the head of the first-floor landing. The child had looked at me intently, and had then pointed along the passage at the head of the stairs. A moment later, the spirit placed a finger to its lips. I found myself trembling with fright, and had closed my eyes. When I opened them again, the spirit-child had gone.
Uncle Max didn't believe in such things, but Marguerite and I both knew that the spirit world actually existed: we had seen wonderful apparitions of spirit babies in the London sÃ©ances that we'd attended, and on one occasion the phantom of a dead sailor had appeared, and played us a tune on a concertina.
One morning, when we had been at Mayfield Court for some days, Uncle and I were sitting in the room where we spent our waking hours, I, engaged in some sewing tasks, and he, sitting at a table on the far side of the room, engrossed in sifting through the bundles of yellowing letters and papers that he had inherited. Perhaps I should elaborate here about their
Almost as soon as we had arrived at Mayfield, Uncle had made his way to a dark corner of the hall behind the staircase and, with the aid of a crowbar, had pulled away a section of panelling. I can still hear the violent protest of ancient nails as he did so. An alcove was revealed, containing a large, rusting, iron chest, which Uncle dragged into our living-room. Using a jemmy, he forced it open, and I saw that it contained a mass of old and yellowing papers, deeds and letters of all kinds.
How had he known that they were hidden there? I dared not ask him, as he well knew.
So, on that particular morning, Uncle Max continued his sifting and searching of these old papers. Occasionally he frowned, or made a little growl of contempt, tossing any offending document into a wicker basket beside the table. Then he would untie a further bundle, coughing at the cloud of dust rising from the musty, yellowing paper.
I could see the gleam of his white teeth where his lips had drawn back from the gums as he concentrated on his task. That unconscious habit of his, together with his luxuriant black beard contrasting with his shock of unkempt white hair, gave him a decidedly sinister appearance, though to me, there was nothing sinister about irascible old Uncle Max.
Uncle strongly disapproved of my interest in the supernatural, but things had happened to me since we had arrived at Mayfield, things that I felt I had a right to share with others. The first sighting of the spirit-child had been fearful enough, but I had seen her again, and it was not right or just that I should bear the burden of what I had seen alone. Should I tell him, and risk his wrath? By an effort of will I had kept my own counsel, but now it was time to speak.
âUncle,' I said, laying down my sewing, âI saw the spirit of that little girl again yesterday. It was in that small bedroom off the second-floor landingâ'
Uncle Max threw down the letter he was reading and drew in
his breath sharply. His keen blue eyes exhibited a sudden flash of anger, and I winced in spite of myself. Evidently I had chosen the wrong moment to share this bizarre confidence with my old uncle.