Halloween was an unforgettable occasion for me some thirteen years ago. It was late in the evening, and my friend John and I had just finished a game of billiards, when the phone rang. On the other end of the line was an unfamiliar voice, which seemed to be endeavouring to suppress some mounting excitement: “You and Mr. Arlington have been invited to James Crawley’s house to witness something quite out of the norm. I shall see you there in two hours”. Upon ending this sentence, the mysterious caller put down the phone.
“How curious,” I remarked. “We apparently have been invited to James Crawley’s house. I certainly am not acquainted with the man, although I have heard a little about him. Are you?”. John was stirred by the mentioning of his name, as a flicker of memory seemed to kindle itself in his eyes and burn there, ushering in an almost haunted expression. “Yes. Indeed I am. Although it’s funny, for I haven’t seen him for thirty odd years”. The haunted look remained carved on my friend’s face, until I ventured to ask how it was that the two were acquainted. And then his expression dissolved into something more resembling sadness. “As a matter of fact, he played a part in one of the darker chapters of my past,” he began.
“I used to work for the South Borough Shipping Company, you see. He was a chap who I got friendly with on the docks, and then one night he insisted I stay with him for the night, for we had been working later than usual, and my house was farther than his. And so I travelled back with him, and upon arriving I met his sister, Clara. She was beautiful, and you know me, old chap – I’m not into hearts and flowers and all that tosh – but she really was enchanting. I daresay I fell in love with her the moment I saw her. We grew more and more acquainted as I frequented James’ house, and soon she began to love me too. Ours was a love unbreakable and intoxicating, but it was not to last. For once, while I was journeying through the thick forest that surrounded James’ house, I dropped my pocket watch, which I only discovered upon arriving. Though it was a dark and rainy night, I insisted, much to the disapproval of Clara, that I would go back into the woodland and retrieve it.
“I never found the watch. I was searching for ten, maybe fifteen minutes, before I decided it was useless. I trudged back to the house, where James was standing anxiously on the lawn, with a look of concern scrawled across his face. ‘What on
earth was the matter?’ he asked at once. He must have seen the uncomprehending look on my face, for he then explained that Clara had said she had heard me crying out for help, and she had subsequently ventured into the woodland herself, looking for me. We at once set about trying to find her, after I told James that I had made no such cry of distress. We scoured the woodland in under an hour, yet there was no sign of Clara. We were both distraught and more than a little frightened, fearing an accident had befallen her. We called the police, who postponed a full-scale search until the morning. But alas, all was in vain. With the assistance of James and I, they searched over hill and under stone. Word was even given to all nearby towns of her disappearance. Nevertheless, she has never been found”.
A mournful and life-weary look lingered on John’s hanging face. “I have not given up hope that she is still alive… somewhere. I only saw James once after the police announced she must have been dead. He gazed at me silently in the half-light as I gathered up my belongings and went to depart from his house. In his eyes was a poisonous look of malice and hatred, piercing my soul as I shuddered under his burning gaze. I realised then that it was all my fault, and that the disappearance of Clara had broken something inside James far more violently than it had broken anything inside me.”
I was lost as what to say. I had not known anything so dark and miserable had occurred in my closest friend’s past, apart from, perhaps, the tragic death of his younger brother Stanley when he was a child. “Well, old chap,” I said quietly. “I don’t know what to say. My deepest sympathies.” I knew that this last sentence sounded particularly pathetic. “I suppose you shan’t want to go to this James fellow’s house tonight then, if he bears any ill feeling towards you,” I said finally. John looked up, his face emerging from the dark shadow it had been cradled in. “No. I shan’t. But I think I owe it to him. It was a loss which wounded him more deeply than it wounded me. If there is anything he wishes to say to me after all these years, good or bad, I feel I must hear it”.
And so it was, on that cold and foreboding October night, that John and I found ourselves embarking on a journey via cab to a certain James Crawley’s house. He was a character well-known in the town for never being present at gatherings of any sort, and for never associating with anybody. In fact, he was something of a recluse, keeping himself shut away in his house, concealed completely by the vast woodland that enclosed it. Something struck me as odd whilst I sat there in the
darkness. If James Crawley had called us there to see John again, or to say something to him regarding Clara, why the mounting excitement in the peculiar voice at the end of the line? I assumed that anything concerning a loss of such magnitude would be no cause for excitement. And how was it that James knew John’s and my whereabouts, let alone my telephone number? And why now had he chosen to see John again, on the 31st of October, more than thirty years after they saw each other last?
These thoughts plagued my mind as we pulled up in the drive of James Crawley’s house. Two colossal elm trees stood on either side of the dwelling, and all the lights were off in every window except one, on the ground floor, where a mellow, flickering glow illuminated a curtained room. My troubles eased slightly as we approached the door, for John seemed to be calm and confident, and after all, if he was not troubled, why should I be? He rang the doorbell, and a butler greeted us, who subsequently let us in. In the front passage were several mirrors lined along the wall, and on one side was a painting of a strikingly beautiful woman, whom I took to be Clara. John’s eyes were fixed on her at any rate.
We were led by candlelight into the only illuminated room, where I saw upon entering a circular table laid with a white cloth, with a ring of burning candles arranged along the outside, and a pen and a sheet of paper in front of one of the chairs. There were four chairs in total at the table, and in the corner of the room was an armchair facing the window, upon which was seated James Crawley. He turned to look at us once we entered, and upon his face was a look of anxiety and eager anticipation, and a glint in his eyes also revealed something along the lines of delight. He got up and shook John’s hand firmly, which was unexpected.
“John,” he murmured. “My dear John, I have waited thirty three years to see you again. I have missed you greatly”. He turned and looked at me. “And here is a guest whom I have heard a great deal about”. He shook my hand too. I could not prevent myself from letting out, “May I ask whose voice it was I heard on the phone earlier inviting us to your house?”. James relaxed his face somewhat and looked me straight in the eye. “That was our medium for tonight,” he said. “His name is well-known among all great spiritualists and mystics. He will put us through to the other side. Yes, my friends, I have summoned you here tonight to hopefully make contact with my long-lost Clara, whose soul has been softly calling
out to me ever since she left us”. With this he turned to John with an expression of unsuppressed anguish, although looking back now I wonder if it wasn’t bitterness.
The medium then entered the room – a swarthy man dressed in long black robes, with a star-like symbol sewn into the chest. He sat down at the table. I looked cautiously at John, whose mind seemed riddled with memories, and who only gazed forlornly into one of the candles. I clutched his shoulder. “John, this is madness. Loss is always a hard thing, but it cannot be cured by these unholy means,” I whispered to him, fearing that his inquisitive and impulsive nature would instantly fall for the charade in front of us. “Yes”, he said. “Yes, of course”. But he wasn’t talking to me. “Of course, James, my dear friend, Clara has been haunting my dreams for more than thirty years now. She has been calling to me from across the plain that divides the living and the dead. Of course we will stay”. He was bewitched by the entire thing. James clasped his hands together, and the glint in his eyes burned brighter. “Then pray you be seated,” he said to John, before turning to me. “And you, sir, must also sit, for a visitor will only materialise if three clutch hands while our medium calls out to the deceased”, he told me. The burning flames began to chase away the almost suffocating gloom, but nevertheless ushered in a menacing quietness that struck me as altogether unnatural and disturbing.
“I feel I cannot accept your invitation, sir. I do not like to partake in such gatherings”. Just as I uttered these words, John turned to look at me from where he was sitting with eyes adorned with such longing and melancholy that I felt that to leave him now, and leave the spirit of Clara (if such a thing existed) wandering lost in the void where he may never greet her again, would be no short of cruel. Tears found their way to his unblinking eyes, and the world around us closed in with a thick darkness that touched something deep in my heart and conveyed to me the longing that must be haunting his. “Alright, John. I’ll stay,” was all I could say in the returning gloom. Yet still, a cold hand clutched me back as I went to take my seat next to John. The hand was the reason and religion I had lived by all my life, and it tightened its grip on my conscience.
John and I linked hands, and John clutched the hand of the medium, who seemed to have lost himself in some sort of trance, his eyes rolling back entirely into his skull. James sat down in front of the sheet of paper. He picked up the pen and set it motionless upon the blank sheet. “I call to the world of the unliving and the undying, the immortal ones who linger between the Heavens and the earth,” he
cried out unnervingly. The medium threw his head back and uttered – no, shrieked – a line of dialect in some Celtic tongue, or some other dead language, something along the lines of, “Alfoe Kismania Karlfot Fie”. As he did so, James’ pen began to move across the paper. He said excitedly, “We have, at last, a visitor”. The name inked itself upon the sheet. From where I was sitting, I could see it read:
“Stanley”, John whispered. He stared at James and then at me, his eyes shining with disbelief and shock. “Stanley?” he cried out. The dense woodland that surrounded the house shuddered at a sudden gust of wind, and the window crashed open. With the violent blow came a child’s voice, pleading and desperate, carried upon the wind. “Jonathon?” it sang out. “Jonathon, please… can you find me? I’m scared”. John broke his grip on my hand, and stood up, unmoving. Rain must have summoned itself while we were seated, for now it was thundering down from the Heavens. The voice was now unmistakably emanating from the woods. “Jonathon? Oh, please John”. It was more desperate than ever. “Stanley?” was all John said, quietly. He walked towards the open window, and stepped out into the cold night. Then he began walking towards the woods. I called out his name two, maybe three times. But to no avail. Before long, John disappeared into the woodland. It is needless to say that he was never seen again, but before this tale is over, I would like to tell you of two things that happened afterwards.
The first is that some weeks after the séance, I had a dream. I was back in James Crawley’s house, and John, the medium and I were sitting at the table, holding hands. However, the table was laid with a black cloth, rather than a white one. Etched into the medium’s robes was not a star, but a pentagram, and in the centre of it was a hideously distorted goat’s face. Something was engraved along the outline of the pentagram – some writing, which I could not read. The sheet of paper displayed the same writing – ‘Stan A.’ – until the ‘A’ began to rearrange itself. It moved backwards along the text, until now what was written was:
I awoke in a cold sweat. The second thing I wish to tell you is that I only saw James once after the incident. I was strolling along the beach, where workers from the South Borough Shipping Company were toiling away under the dying glow of the
sun. The seagulls were crying overhead. Suddenly I stopped walking, and in front of me he stood, staring out to sea with his hands rooted firmly in his pockets. I said his name, and he turned round, half recognising me and half struggling to remember my name. Before I knew what I was doing, I had told him everything of my growing fears as to the true nature of the séance and my dream about the letters rearranging themselves and the pentagram. And the look that he gave me was one of secret knowledge and suppressed mirth. A look that I never want to see again.
Featured image courtesy of Joan Sorolla (https://flic.kr/p/dPjxBm) via Flickr.
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