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‘Lady in Blue, Unidentified’ – a little vampire story for Halloween

lady-in-blueI write this report on Christmas day in the library of Oxburgh Hall, an agreeable late-medieval moated house in Norfolk where I have been a guest for these past five days. By the end of this week, I am confident that my task will be complete.

The vampires will be dead.

No, please don’t be alarmed. I shall not, in these pages, be taking you into the spooky world of heebie-jeebies and hobgoblins. It is the myth of the vampire that I am here to slay – the farrago of fictional nonsense (fangs! long cloak! crazed blood lust!) that shall be destroyed by the oldest weapon known to man.

Reason. Logic. Our old friend, common sense.

Because, although I earn my living from writing books for children (for telling tales in school, as it were!), I am essentially a man of fact.

So when the publishers of this volume challenged me to write a story that would disprove the existence of vampires, I was tempted. When that firm’s editor Mr Forder told me that I would be required to spend a week over Christmas at the famous tourist haunt, Oxburgh Hall, I needed no further encouragement. I have never been an enthusiast for the so-called ‘yuletide’ festivities and the chance of escaping the season of jingle-bell mummery and flummery by doing some research in an agreeable country house  –  and being paid for the privilege  –  was too good to miss.

You see, I cannot abide superstition; the so-called ‘paranormal’ is, in my humble opinion, nothing more than clutter. Pointless mental clutter.

And yet, as I learnt when arriving here by taxi from Downham Market station, these ancient fears persist.

The taxi-driver, having accepted my fare, cast one glance at Oxburgh Hall, with its dim lantern hanging outside the gatehouse, a pale, wintry moon glinting on the moat, and shuddered. ‘You wouldn’t catch me staying there over Christmas, mate,’ he muttered. ‘Talk about a spooky atmosphere.’ And before I could point out that, without an atmosphere (i.e. the gaseous envelope of oxygen and nitrogen around Planet Earth), we would all be in trouble, he had driven off, leaving me alone, my suitcase beside me, outside the great house.

Whistling, I crossed the small bridge to the gatehouse where I found, by the porter’s lodge, a small doorbell. I pressed, and a distant tintinnabulation could be heard from the dark recesses of Oxburgh Hall.

No lights came on. There were no distant footsteps from within the house, nothing to break the unearthly silence – not even (I jest) the sound of vampiric bats unfolding their wings! I pressed the bell again, and waited.

After a couple of minutes, I left my suitcase by the gatehouse and wandered into the courtyard. By now my eyes were accustomed to the darkness, and for a moment I took in the magnificence of the house which, illuminated by the moonlight, surrounded me. Even to one normally blind to architectural beauty (my family accuses me of being ‘artistically impaired’), the Hall was an astonishing sight.

For five centuries these buildings had belonged to the Bedingfeld family, apart from a brief period in the eighteenth century when the house had been occupied by a Sir Edmund and Lady Challoner. It was around certain unhappy domestic events during these years that a wild vampiric mythology had grown.

‘Mr Blacker?’

The voice, from behind me, interrupted my thoughts. I turned quickly, startled that someone could have appeared at the gatehouse without my hearing his approach. Standing by the door was a tall, broad figure, holding my suitcase.

‘Apologies,’ he said, in a voice that seemed somehow too frail and reedy for his size. ‘I was in my room in the East Wing.’

I stepped forward and introduced myself.

‘My name is Gilbert Franck,’ he said. ‘ I am the caretaker.’

‘I’m relieved to see you, Mr Franck.’ I smiled. ‘For a moment I thought I’d been abandoned to the vampires of Oxburgh.’

Laughing, we entered the Hall by a small door to the left of the gatehouse. As he led me up some winding stairs, it occurred to me that the reason why stories had spread of a supernatural presence at the Hall lay in the peace (gloom would be too strong a word) of the building itself. We made our way down a corridor before Franck opened a door, announcing, almost like an old-fashioned butler, ‘Your room, Mr Blacker.’

The bedroom in which I now stood was neither grand nor baronial, but a homely little affair with a low, sloping ceiling and a small window overlooking the moat and garden. It had once been a nursery, Franck informed me.

‘I shall be serving dinner within fifteen minutes,’ Franck said. ‘You’ll find the dining-room across the courtyard beyond the gatehouse.’

‘Dinner? Nothing elaborate, I hope.’

‘I like to cook.’

He certainly did. To my pleasure and astonishment, I was treated to a three-course meal by candlelight in the panelled dining-room.

As I partook of the excellent vegetable soup, Franck revealed that he had indeed once been a chef.  Since his retirement, he had been employed part-time to look after property during the closed season when no tourists visited.

‘Retirement?’ I looked up from my soup in some surprise. ‘Forgive me, but you seem rather young to retire.’

Franck inclined his head graciously. ‘I’m older than I look,’ he said. And unfortunately I have a rather delicate heart. My doctor advised me to escape the hurly-burly of the kitchen in favour of a less stressful occupation.’

I observed that I looked forward to enjoying his culinary skills over Christmas dinner.

My remark seemed briefly to disconcert the caretaker. ‘We do not celebrate Christmas at the hall,’ he said quietly.

‘A man after my own heart,’ I chuckled. ‘It is one of life’s mysteries why the world goes collectively mad at this time of the year.’

‘Mad, yes. It is indeed.’ Franck smiled, as if amused by a private joke, then changed the subject of conversation. ‘Presumably you’ll be concentrating on the story of Margaret Challoner while you are here.’

‘Yes. A week among the private papers, and I’ll be able to put the famous vampires to rest for good and all.’

‘You seem remarkably confident, Mr Blacker.’

‘Of course I’m confident. You see, demystifying the so-called “paranormal” is something of a hobby of mine. I’ve already proved to my satisfaction that the original werewolves were nothing more than hungry wolves who were seen by gullible villagers digging up graves for food. As for all those stories about “ghosts” arising from graveyards, it’s clear to me that they were simply the bacterial glow – protobacterium fisheri, it’s called – produced by the decomposing flesh of corpses. Of course, vampires are rather more complex. ‘

So, as I was served my main course   –   some marvellous poultry dish   –   I expatiated upon my latest theory

The myth of the vampire, or vrykolaka as it was known in Romania, dated back to the plague. At that time, there was naturally an almost hysterical fear of death. Stories of ghosts tormenting entire villages. Bodies were disinterred, examined. And what was found? Sometimes there was blood around the corpse’s mouth. Its flesh seemed alive. When cut, blood still flowed.

‘And science has an explanation for all these phenomena?’ asked Franck.

I smiled. ‘Of course it has. Victims of the pneumonic form of the plague frequently bled around the mouth after death. As the lungs and viscera of the body expanded, blood was forced upwards towards the mouth. In the cases of sudden deaths – which were said to have caused vampirism   –   the abrupt removal of oxygen from the bloodstream frequently meant that it wouldn’t coagulate after death. Hence the running-blood theory.’

‘What about the fangs and the long black cloak?’ Franck stood up and filled my glass with wine. ‘What about red-eyed creatures feasting on the jugular?’

‘Pure fiction. As it happens, traditional vampires were said to feast on the heart,’ I said. ‘It was Bram Stoker whose feverish imagination dreamt up the fangs and the neck idea. Before Count Dracula, the folkloric vampire was thought to be a bloated, ruddy-cheeked individual   –   a putrescent, walking corpse in other words.’

Through my discourse, Gilbert Franck had listened politely but now he seemed to wince queasily.

‘How is the swan?’ he asked.

‘Swan?’

‘I cooked swan for you tonight.’

I laughed appreciatively. Teachers and critics have been kind enough to comment on the ‘humour’ of my stories, and I was glad to find that the caretaker was no stranger to zaniness himself. ‘Yes, the swan was excellent, thank you very much.’

Later, well-fed but tired, I made my way across the courtyard and upstairs, having bid my host a very good night.

So this was a haunted house! To tell the truth, I had rarely felt more at home. Why, even the bed into which I slipped seemed warm and welcoming.

Only once that night was my rest disturbed. Some time in the early hours, I was awoken by a soft weight upon my chest. It appeared that a house cat had adopted me. I smiled in the darkness before drifting off into the deepest of slumbers.

The sleep of the dead, you might say.

***

No research can have been accomplished in such agreeable circumstances as was mine during the first part of my week at Oxburgh Hall. Rising at eight, I would be treated to one of Gilbert Franck’s superb cooked breakfasts. Then to the library for a morning amongst the family papers. Light lunch in the Saloon, more work, a brief constitutional around the garden, and a final session in the library. The day would end with a candlelit meal, with the excellent Franck waiting in attendance.

It is no exaggeration to say that quite soon I had begun to feel as at home as any lord of Oxburgh Hall might have done. In fact, such was my natural authority that Franck had taken to calling me ‘sir’ and generally behaving as if he were my faithful servant.

I did not correct him   –   indeed I’m ashamed to say that I discovered I have a taste for being in authority and was rather good at it!

My research, too, was most satisfactory.

The years from which the vampire myth had originated were   –   perhaps unsurprisingly – ill-documented in the Bedingfeld family papers, but fortunately a local rector, the Reverend Herbert Radcliffe, had recorded events of that time in his diary.

Grief-stricken by the death of his young wife Mary, the fourth baronet Sir Richard Bedingfeld had, in 1767, sent his son to London to be educated by nuns and had himself entered a monastery to become a virtual recluse for the next five years. During that time, according to Radcliffe, a man called Sir Edmund Challoner, a merchant and fellow Catholic, had been allowed to use the house. Challoner spent most of his time in Norwich, leaving his wife Margaret (‘a miracle of young comeliness, as spry and gay as a sparrow,’ said Radcliffe) at Oxburgh Hall with their young son Edward.

This, it transpired, had been unwise. in 1769, Radcliffe’s diary reported ‘a tragick vexation at the Hall’.

For some months, there had been noisome rumours in the village, viz. that her ladyship had developed an unseemly affection for Joseph Spiers, a member of the household retinue. Often were the times, according to loose tongues, that her ladyship released her servants from their duties early in the evening, leaving her alone with Spiers and her son, the young Edward. Further improprieties, which it will not be beyond the wit of my readers to imagine, were imputed by local gossips to the young couple.

Whether the word of such outrages reached the ear of Sir Edmund I know not, but the facts of his unhappy discovery are as clear as water. On the night of 21st December, he returned early for the Christmas season to find his wife  and Spiers at sport in the Great Hall. Overcome by an intemperate rage   –    my hand hesitates to record such enormities for posterity    –    Sir Edmund seized a carving knife from a table nearby and slayed the unhappy couple.

The tragedy was not yet over. The following morning, servants found Sir Edmund hanging by the neck from a rope attached to a beam in the Great Hall.

Wandering amidst this unhappy scene was the poor little Edward, no more than nine years of age, so distracted with grief and confusion that be was struck quite dumb.

A messenger brought me post haste to the house where, the bodies having been made decent and laid out in a ground-floor bedchamber, pronounced the Office of the Dead upon the three of them.

While we were thus occupied, Edward was seen to walk in a trance out of the house. His body   –   the final horror   –   was found in the moat, face down, staring into the murky depths of the water and, I fancy, of the human heart.

God rest their unhappy souls.

‘Would you care for some tea, sir?

I looked up from Radcliffe’s diaries to find Gilbert Franck standing before me. I had been so absorbed in the Reverend’s account that I had failed to hear him approaching.

‘So that was why Sir Richard destroyed the Great Hall,’ I said quietly.

‘It is possible, sir. No other explanations have been offered for such a drastic step.’

I shivered. ‘It’s a Christmas story with a difference.’

‘A true Christmas story, sir.’

‘Yes, of course. All fact.’ I closed the book and stood up. ‘Fact is always somehow more disturbing than fiction.’

And I was disturbed. After tea, I walked by the moat, turning over in my mind the details of the Reverend Radcliffe’s account. So deep in thought was I that I soon found myself by the small chantry chapel, which was almost concealed by trees on the far side of the drive. it was from there, as the evening gloom closed in on me, that I heard the sound of a human voice, female, singing quietly.

Approaching stealthily, I saw, seated upon a small stone tomb, a woman, dressed in a long, blue velvet dress. As she sang some kind of lullaby to herself, she swayed backwards and forwards, almost like the trees buffeted by the winter wind.

From my vantage point on the gravel drive, I could just see that the woman was working on some kind of tapestry. Quite suddenly, as if someone had called her, she stopped singing. Slowly, she turned to me, gazing through the trees. That face, those features: they weren’t pale and sad, as somehow I had been expecting, but almost comically dappled and rosy-cheeked.

She smiled, and the look she gave me was of such heart-stopping intimacy, such warmth, that, never having been what they call ‘a ladies’ man’, I found myself blushing. Without a word, I hurried back towards the house.

Franck was laying the table in the dining-room.

‘There’s a woman by the chapel,’ I said, rather more loudly than I intended. ‘Knitting, singing. In the dark.’

‘That would be Miss Preston, sir,’ said Franck.

‘Miss Preston?’ I said angrily. ‘Who the hell is Miss Preston, and what is she doing on my   –   in the grounds?’

‘A nanny, sir. She lives in a cottage, in the village. Retired.’ Something approaching a smile appeared on the caretaker’s face. ‘You weren’t thinking she was from … another place, sir?’

‘Certainly not. It was just that, after reading all about the Challoners, it gave me a bit of a turn.’

‘Of course, sir.’

I returned to the library, where Franck had thoughtfully lit a fire. I felt rather strange, with that peculiar  heaviness that sometimes precedes a bout of flu. Sighing, I returned to my research, reading my way through the Reverend Radcliffe’s diary for the year of 1770. There was, so far as I could see, a single reference to the tragic events at Oxburgh Hall.

On the fifth day of September I was considerably discomfited by a deputation of three servants from the Hall, requesting upon my doorstep that I should use my sacred offices to rid the great house of what they called ‘the curse of vampyres’. In vain I argued with them that the work of the Lord’s servant does not extend to the removal of imaginary hobgoblins, particularly from a Catholic household, and that this story was an insult to reason itself.

Yet their perturbation was so great that, out of sheer pastoral sympathy, I was obliged to listen to them as they told their tales of the vampyric presence of Joshua Spiers and Lady Challoner who now, they averred, held Oxburgb Hall in their thrall. Sir Richard Bedingfeld, the servants said, had already succumbed, as had other members of the household. I was solemnly informed that, because no vampyre is invested with a knowledge of his own state, the afflicted continue to believe that they are normal members of the human race.

 These then were their fancies. A week later, I called at the Hall during my tour of the parish. There I was told, by one of the very manservants who had visited me the previous week, that all was well and that my services were no longer required.

Such are the strange byways of superstition among servant folk.

I leafed through the rest of the Radcliffe diaries, but there were no further mentions of ‘vampyres’ or indeed of Oxburgh Hall.

Slowly, I laid the book back on the desk. Joshua Spiers and Margaret Challoner. Because no vampyre is invested with a knowledge of his own state, the afflicted continue to believe that they are normal members of the human race. I walked out of the library to the West Staircase, where portraits of the family are to be found. All are named, except one. The fifth painting along is of a young woman, described in the guidebook as ‘A Lady in Blue, unidentified’. Slim, pale, she was much smaller than the figure I had seen by the chapel, but there was something in those eyes. The blue dress was identical.

Back in the library, I found a book of household accounts. I turned to the year 1769. There, in the list of ‘manservants and maidservants’ was the name which confirmed Radcliffe’s account of the murders.

Joshua Spiers, Cook.

My limbs heavy from the approaching fever, I made my way out of the library towards the kitchen from where I could hear the sound of Franck preparing my evening meal.

‘Sir?’ The caretaker was standing at the kitchen table, basting what appeared to be a roast sucking pig. ‘Is something wrong?’ His voice betrayed the mild disapproval of a servant whose territory has been encroached upon.

‘A strange coincidence,’ I said, in as natural a voice as I could manage. ‘The lover of Lady Challoner was, like you, a cook. Funny, that. Something else. Near where little Edward Challoner drowned, I just happened to see a woman, singing to herself in the twilight. A lady in blue, unidentified.’

Franck fixed me with those dark, expressionless eyes. ‘I fear you have lost me, sir,’ he said quietly.

‘If I were the sort of person to believe in vampires   –   which I am not   –   I might be tempted to reach the conclusion that Joshua Spiers and Margaret Challoner were here, still alive, singing and – ‘  my teeth chattered  ‘- cooking my supper.’

‘But that would not be fact, sir. That would be hocus-pocus.’

‘Precisely!’ I said angrily. ‘The publishers who sent me here are so desperate to sell their books and encourage children in superstitious beliefs that they have set up little vampire games to fool me, a serious writer and researcher. It’s … it’s a scandal.’

‘May I venture to suggest that you are not well, sir.’

‘Yes, Franck. I have made up my mind. I shall not complete this commission.’ I glanced at my watch. It was five-thirty.  ‘Today is the last working day before Christmas. I shall ring Scholastic right now and tell them of my decision.’

I returned to the Saloon. As luck would have it, Forder was still at his desk when I called. He expressed concern for me in my flu-ridden state. Of course he understood if I had lost my enthusiasm for the commission. No, he wouldn’t dream of allowing me to return to London by train, feverish and distressed as I was. In fact, he would drive down himself and collect me that very night. Would nine-thirty be acceptable?

It would.

In no condition to eat a meal, I tottered miserably back to my room and packed my case. I sat on my bed, exhausted by this exercise, and waited.

Suddenly the drowsiness which I had felt all day closed in on me as surely as the darkness outside the window. I lay back on the bed and shut my eyes.

When I awoke, it was with a start. I discovered, as I tried to sit up, that sleep had done nothing to ameliorate my fever. Looking at my watch, I cursed. Ten o’clock. Where the hell was Forder? Why hadn’t I been awoken?

Unsteadily, I made my way downstairs. A low murmuring sound reached me from the direction of the dining-room. Thank God. The publisher was here. Out of politeness, he must have refrained from …

A strange and singular sight awaited me in the dining-room. At the table, seated close together, their features lit by candlelight, were two figures, one dressed in black and one in blue. Gilbert Franck and the woman I had seen outside, Miss Preston.

As I stood, swaying, at the door, they looked at me in silence. Then, in a voice that was somehow less respectful than I had come to expect, Franck said, ‘It seemed a shame to waste the sucking pig. Since you were indisposed, I invited Miss Preston for supper.’

‘I f-feel terrible. Where’s Forder? He’s late.’

‘Ah. Mr Forder rang. He has been unavoidably detained. He said something about Christmas party, sir. He will collect you tomorrow.’

‘No.’ My legs felt weak and for a moment I felt as if I were about to lose consciousness.

‘My lord  –  ‘ The woman spoke for the first time. She seemed concerned on my behalf but, as she made to stand up, Franck took her hand as if to restrain her.

My lord? Why did she call me that?

And there, there in the guttering candlelight of the dining-room, I looked and I saw. Two hands, one holding the other, both plump, soft, ruddy. In the swirling mists of semi-consciousness, I suddenly knew with terrifying certainty that this was no stunt. Before me stood the revenant forms of Joshua Spiers and Margaret Challoner, swollen, corpse-like vampires. And me? Why, it was obvious: I was their lord, Sir Edmund Challoner, doomed to act out my own death, trapped by   –   trapped by what?

‘Forder.’ My own voice seemed distant, as if it belonged to someone else, speaking in another room. ‘It was Forder who was so keen that I should come to Oxburgh Hall.’ I tried to visualise the publisher. Big, yes, rosy-cheeked   –   but then, now I came to think of it, all the people I had seen at Scholastic had somehow seemed unfeasibly bonny with a strange, bloated quality to them.

‘Not the publishers, surely?’ It was a whisper, almost a death rattle in my throat. ‘They can’t all be vampires. Not the editors. Not the managing director. Not   –   ’ my head spun at the horror of it all   ‘not the sales representatives travelling all over the country.’

‘Bedtime, sir.’ Franck was standing now. ‘Perhaps I could bring you a hot   –  ‘

‘No!’ I backed away from the two of them, stumbling out into the courtyard, the sound of my sobbing breath roaring in my ears. I took the first steps on the stairs and stopped, suddenly aware that there was someone standing before me.

‘Please, sir.’

It was a child, a boy of nine or ten, dressed in a long, flowing night-gown. He seemed to be trying to tell me something, repeating, with a kind of hopeless desperation, the same phrase.

‘Please, sir … Please, sir. . .’

‘What d’you want?’ I asked faintly.

‘Please, sir.’

‘Who are you?’

It was then I noticed that the child’s garment was wet through. He spoke more slowly now, as if the very life of him was ebbing away.

‘Flee, sir.’ Yes, that was what he was saying. It was a warning. ‘Flee  – ’ And, as if he were a dream, a nightmare vision, the child was no longer there.

I was deathly tired. Up the stairs. The bedroom. Lock the door. Out of my clothes. The relief of those warm, welcoming sheets. Sleep.

And, yes, a certain comfort. As usual, I was half-woken by the cat alighting on my stomach. I sighed.

But it was not the sound of my own breath I heard. Like the whispering of the wind through the trees outside, it was the voice of a child.

Flee, sir.

I opened my eyes to look down on the shape that was lying on me.

‘My lord.’

When it looked up, what I had thought was a cat had the face of a woman,  her smiling mouth smeared with blood, her hair clogged and matted. My chest, upon which she rested, was bare. Beside my heart were two neat wounds.

‘Margaret, why?’ I said, feeling no fear now, only an unbearable sense of loss, of betrayal. ‘Why?’

And my voice became a long, peaceful sigh as I felt myself falling into a swoon of silence, and down, down into the sweetest and deepest of sleeps.

***

I am a man of fact and I have tried to record, as factually as I am able, the extraordinary ‘paranormal’ fantasy that the combination of my research and a nasty bout of flu inflicted upon me. I am only grateful that my natural common sense has allowed me to put the weird mental aberrations caused by a temporary fever in their proper context.

Today, on this Christmas morning, I am well again. Mr Forder’s mission to ‘rescue’ me has been cancelled. By the turn of the year, I fully expect to have delivered the final fatal stake to the heart of the vampire myth.

Gilbert and Maggie (a new friend, despite being the creature of my weirdest fantasy) now eat with me of an evening. Indeed the meals that Gilbert prepares are of such magnificence that I find I am dramatically gaining weight   –   to the extent that, as I write, my body tugs at the buttons of my shirt and the very hand with which I write this report seems to swell before my eyes.

I fear that a diet may be ordained when I return home to resume my career, writing books and visiting schools. I can hardly wait to tell my young audiences about the triumph of fact at Oxburgh Hall.

Gather round, children, I shall say. This morning I shall explain to you why there is no such thing as a vampire.

*

‘Lady in Blue, Unidentified’ was first published in Ghostly Haunts, edited by Michael Morpurgo and published in 1994.