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BEST WESTERN Orton Hall Hotel (2)

A picture of Evil

Her eyes are the colour of seawater.  Not the water that laps on Caribbean shores but the slate grey of angry northern seas. Her brows lie in two caterpillar lines above her eyes, almost black, heavy and unplucked. Her cheekbones are covered with too much plump, mottled flesh which droops down past the corners of her thin, tight lips.

‘She looks miserable,’  Mark says. ‘Come on.’ He jerks my elbow. ‘Let’s get to the tearoom before this lot overtake us.’

A horde of people are following us along the carpet-runner, walking between the two lines of thick red rope, hung on hooks attached to gold-coloured poles that sway and almost topple when nudged. ‘That’s the trouble with going to a National Trust property over Easter weekend,’  Mark says, catching the nearest pole and holding it upright as a boy of about ten chases his sister. ‘Too many people. We’d have been better visiting on a weekday.’
‘Lady Cassandra Mullingford,’ I say, leaning forward to read the engraving at the foot of the picture frame. ‘We have the same Christian name. I wonder whether she lived in the hotel we’re staying in. It was originally the Mullingford family home, wasn’t it?’

I am talking to myself. I thought Mark was still behind me but he has already wandered off to examine a display of ancient handguns, the sort that Dick Turpin used in his hold-ups. My eyes are drawn back to the painting. I can’t say what makes her so mesmerising – she is hardly attractive after all – and she looks as if she is in mourning.

Her dress is black, the material stiff and constricting, a row of small black buttons holding the front of the bodice together, primly fastened from neck to waist. She keeps her hands on her lap, fingers pulled into fists. I wonder what she looked like as a girl and I imagine her then: cheeks a girlish rather than a matronly plump, her lips full, her smile wide. I sigh and step backwards to allow an elderly couple a closer view of the painting. Sometimes life experience bleeds all the beauty out of a person, their face mirroring the hardships that have come their way. As a girl Cassandra would have known hope and opportunity; she would have laughed and danced. I wonder about the black dress she’s wearing – whose death is she mourning? Mother? Father? Child? Perhaps we have more in common than simply our name.

I chase the thought away and join Mark by the display cabinet. ‘How about that cup of tea?’ I slip my hand into his and lean my head against his upper arm. ‘It’s been a while since lunch.’

We walk through the remaining few rooms, history oozing from the oak-panelled walls and vaulted ceilings. It is hard not to stare at the four-poster beds and the dining table, set with cutlery, bone china and crystal glasses, and not feel that the people who walked these floors are still here, no longer alive, but lingering on in the fabric of their possessions.

Outside, the weather has made up its mind to let the sun shine, and if it wasn’t for the wind, it could almost be described as warm. The tearoom is across a gravel pathway, in a sheltered courtyard and we find the one remaining table that hugs the apex of a worn stone wall. ‘You take a seat,’ Mark says and I plonk myself down on a metal chair that is part of a set of four. The ground underneath is also gravelled and the table sways from one leg to the next. ‘Cup of tea coming up and I hear they have home-made scones.’

While Mark joins the queue, I use my BlackBerry to log on to Wikipedia and type in Lady Cassandra Mullingford. The Wikipedia page fills the small screen and, as I start to read about Cassandra, little hairs spring up one by one, a shiver climbing slowly up the back of my neck.

 

She was an only child, like me, both her parents died when she was a child, just like me. She herself was married at age 23 – me too – and she went on to have five miscarriages…

The shiver on my neck arrows into my chest and I bite down hard on my lip. Was that to be my fate too? Another two babies for my womb to nurture and my heart to love… and then grieve over?

‘Here we are!’ Mark eases the tray down onto the metal table. ‘We arrived at just the right time. Scones are fresh out of the oven.’ He moves the teapot and cups, scones, cream and jam from the tray to the table then sits down. The chair squeaks and tips sideways. Without standing up, he clutches it underneath and in short, staccato movements shifts it forward until the base has a firmer footing in the ground. ‘Gravel’s not an ideal surface for chairs. How’s your scone?’

My mouth is full, so all I can do is nod.

‘You okay, pumpkin? You look pale all of a sudden.’ He cranes forward to read the words on my BlackBerry. ‘Wikipedia, eh?’  I watch concern flood his eyes when he comes to the part about Cassandra losing one baby after another. ‘You don’t want to be reading about that, Cass.’ He wraps me up in a swift bear hug made awkward by the expanse of table between us. ‘Let’s enjoy our tea, shall we? And afterwards we can have a stroll around the grounds. The woman on the till told me they have a family of geese down by the lake.’

We eat our scones and we enjoy our walk; we hold hands. Mark makes me smile and then laugh, but still I can’t shake Cassandra’s sour, unhappy face from my mind’s eye. Will I end up looking like her? Will it be the loss of the fourth baby? Or will it be losing the fifth baby that finally breaks me?

When we get back to the hotel I leave Mark whistling in the shower and seek out Melody Smith, the hotel proprietor. ‘And how was your afternoon?’ she asks.

‘Lovely. I’m just wondering…’ I tell her that I’m interested in the history of the hotel. ‘Wasn’t this the Mullingford family home?’

‘Yes, it certainly was. Have you been in the library yet?’ I shake my head and she says: ‘Come and I’ll show you.’ I follow her along a wood-panelled corridor, short on natural
light and slightly shabby at the edges where skirtings meet door frames, but that doesn’t detract from the grandeur. ‘The most famous of all the Mullingfords was Lady Cassandra. You might have noticed the portrait of her when you visited the Great Hall this afternoon?’

‘We did. Why is she the most famous Mullingford?’

‘Well…’ Melody’s eyes widen. ‘More infamous really.’ She opens the door in front of us. ‘This is our library. As you can see, it’s full of books but we also keep our old documents in here – photocopies in fact – because, what with the cost of running a place like this, we’ve had to sell off most of the treasures. And the only painting of Cassandra that we have left is this one.’ She gestures towards the painting that hangs above the fireplace. It’s a group of young people – maybe 20 or more – sitting on bluebell-covered grass with picnic baskets open beside them. And in the foreground a young woman stares directly at the artist. Directly at me. Her eyes are challenging and she’s smiling, a confident, knowing smile.

‘This was painted only a few weeks before Cassandra married Lord Mullingford. She wrote in her diary that this picnic was the happiest day of her life.’

‘Her marriage wasn’t a good one then?’

‘Her husband was a bully and a womaniser and poor Cassandra was unable to produce an heir so that made her life even more difficult,’ Melody says, as a beeping sound goes off in her pocket. ‘That’s the front desk. The bureau in the corner is full of family papers. Feel free to browse. A photocopy of Cassandra’s diary is close to the left-hand side.’

Melody closes the door behind her and I stare back at the painting. The young Cassandra is even prettier than I imagined. It’s not simply her high cheekbones and full lips but there’s a light in her eyes and a flush to her cheeks that’s completely absent in her older self. The other picnickers are also young, all of them in couples. They are either eating and drinking or turned towards each other in conversation. Cassandra is the only one waiting for her companion, her expression expectant. To one side of her, a blanket is spread on the grass and on top are placed two glasses, two plates, two sets of cutlery, two napkins folded lengthways and ringed with silver. And I can almost smell the bread, cheese and fruit arranged in the middle.

I pull away from her steady gaze and walk over to the bureau. The photocopied pages of Cassandra’s diary are filled with neat, regular handwriting. I sit down on one of the easy chairs and begin to read. I learn that Cassandra came to this house from a neighbouring village. She brought her own maid with her and she doesn’t take to the butler who has ‘a manner that frightens me more than I can say’ and the cook ‘does not understand how much I loathe sweetbreads’. It isn’t long before she begins writing about her miscarriages. ‘Robert showed his disappointment by staying out all night. If only I could carry a baby, perhaps then he would love me.’

I’m so immersed in my reading that when the door opens, I jump.

‘Here you are!’ Mark says. He pulls a chair up and sits down beside me. ‘Melody told me you were in here. So what have you discovered?’

His hair is damp and he smells of soap. It makes me want to kiss him and I do, ignoring the hot, prickly sensation at the base of my neck – Cassandra is watching me from above the mantelpiece and I get the feeling she doesn’t approve, that she’s jealous because she sits alone… waiting… without anyone to call her own. While Mark and I have been unlucky with children, we’re lucky with our love for each other and in 12 years of marriage, our love is yet to cool.  We enjoy a relaxed dinner than go to bed early and make love. Losing the babies has loaded sex with a poignancy that is at odds with desire, but at the moment I’m taking a break from trying to fall pregnant and we enjoy each other’s bodies without wondering whether it will lead to the longed-for child.

It’s as I’m falling asleep that I remember what Melody Smith said about Cassandra being ‘infamous’ and I make up my mind to continue reading the diary tomorrow.

My sleep is lively with dreams of the young Cassandra. We’re holding hands and we’re running through a meadow, lifting our full skirts high with our free hands so that poppies and cowslips and giant daisies tickle our bare legs. We’re both giggling, barely able to catch our breath and when we come into a clearing we collapse in a heap on the ground.

There’s chatter all around us – we’re in the middle of the picnic – and when I look up I see Mark on the blanket next to Cassandra. She is holding out an apple, and as he takes a bite, I cry out… and wake up, anxiety bubbling in my throat. My heart is racing like a train and I clutch my hand over my chest. It’s OK! You were only dreaming. You’re in bed in the hotel room and Mark is snoring by your side.

I steady my breathing, then tiptoe into the bathroom to use the toilet and splash my face with water, glimpsing my face in the mirror – fearful, worried – not the way I should be looking when I’m on holiday.

As I turn to go back to bed, light from the bathroom falls on to the dressing table and I notice a small vase of bluebells next to my make-up bag. Strange that I didn’t notice the vase last night. I take my earrings off and lay them on the dressing table, right beside the vase and yet…

‘Bugger!’ There’s a groan from the bed. Mark is tossing around, tying his legs up in the duvet. ‘I feel one of my throats coming on.’

‘On no!’ I climb back under the covers beside him. ‘Poor you. Can I get you anything?’

‘First week I’ve had off in months and I go down with a bug.’

‘It might not come to anything.’ I cuddle him around the waist. ‘We don’t have to go out.’

‘But I thought you wanted to go that Michelin star restaurant?’ His voice sounds croaky and sore. ‘I don’t want you to miss out.’

‘The food’s really good here, Mark. And anyway, the forecast is rain.’ I snuggle closer in to his back. ‘Why would we want to go traipsing around country lanes in the rain when we can be nice and cosy here?’

‘You’ve got a point.’ He relaxes against me. ‘I could do with more sleep.’

‘You’ve been working too hard, that’s the trouble. And now it’s caught up with you.’

I close my eyes and when I wake again, daylight is streaming through the gap in the curtains. Careful not to disturb Mark, I climb out of bed and get dressed. When I tell Melody that Mark isn’t well, she suggests I spend the morning in the spa. ‘Treat yourself!’ she says. ‘I’ll have one of the girls take your husband his meals.’ 

It’s not something I would normally do but I remember my GP’s advice to be kind to myself. The third miscarriage was particularly hard on me and at times I wondered whether I’d ever stop crying.

The morning passes in a blur of face masks and body scrubs. And not wanting a repeat of last night’s dream, I avoid the library.

After lunching with Mark in our room – he tells me he’s feeling better but his forehead is hot and all he can manage is soup – I spend the afternoon in the swimming pool and sauna.

Evening, and Mark is still in bed. He’s hot and sweating and even a bit delirious. ‘This isn’t normal, Mark,’ I tell him. ‘Your throat is swollen on the outside too.’ I bend down to examine him more closely. ‘You look like you have mumps. Are you sure we shouldn’t get the doctor?’

‘I’ll be fine, Cassie.’ He sits on the edge of the bed, despondent, his hand straying up to his throat where he fiddles with his Adam’s apple.

‘Well, tomorrow we’re fetching a doctor.’

‘If you say so.’ He collapses back onto the pillow. ‘This was to be the weekend of a lifetime.’

‘And it still will be! We’ll get some room service and watch a couple of films.’ I help him wash and change then settle down beside him, forgetting all about Cassandra and last night’s dream, simply hoping that Mark will be better in the morning.

My eyes snap open – I’m suddenly and completely awake – and I know it’s because
I heard something, something other than Mark’s breathing and the whispering wind through the trees outside the window. I sit bolt upright, my eyes blinking into the darkness. Shapes, unfamiliar lumpy shapes, loom towards me. And when I take one long, deep breath, I’m sure I can smell lavender.
I wait, absolutely still, for almost a full minute, then hearing nothing more, lie back down again and close my eyes. Tiredness washes through me and I drift into sleep…

There’s a rustle of movement close to Mark’s side of the bed. ‘Who’s there?’ I say.

Pin-drop silence and then a trace of laughter, before the door opens into the well-lit corridor and I see a female figure wearing a long dress, moving away from me. I grab my dressing gown. ‘Wait!’ I shout, following her past all the closed bedroom doors, and although I’m running, she stays ahead of me, seeming to glide over carpet and wooden floor and stairs.

When she reaches the bottom of the stairs, she turns back to catch my eye. One side of her face is in shadow but I can make out enough of her features for me to know that she has the look of Cassandra. I gulp down the fear that explodes into my throat and shout: ‘This isn’t funny! Unless you explain yourself  I’ll report you to your boss.’

She doesn’t reply. She glides away into the older part of the building, unlit at night, and leading to the dining room, drawing room, and at the very end of the corridor, the library. I hesitate for less than a second – I’m not going to be terrorised – ‘I don’t appreciate you playing a joke on me like this!’ I shout, hurrying after her.

Still ignoring me, she opens the door into the library and disappears inside. Literally disappears, because less than five seconds later I follow her in, snap on the light and find no sign of her, except for the merest scent of lavender lingering in the air. She must be hiding, and the first place I look is behind the russet velvet curtains that cover the four windows – nobody there.

Houses as old as this one usually have secret rooms or corridors behind wall panels or fake bookcases, so I spend some time searching along the edges of the bookcases and underneath the huge stone mantelpiece, groping for a lever or a button. All the while I have the distinct impression that several pairs of eyes are studying me. My back and neck are burning from the intensity of their stare. I’ve avoided looking at the painting but can do so no longer, and what I see tightens my stomach into a tense, hard knot, so quickly and so completely, that I gasp.

The picture has changed, reformed, morphed into a different scene. There are still upwards of 20 people – they are still outside; it’s still a picnic but now they are craning their necks forward, their faces turned towards the artist, turned towards me. And in front of all of them is Cassandra’s face, larger than life, her expression questioning, almost hostile.

I scream and then I flee. I race back to my room, taking the stairs two at a time, not stopping even when I stub my toe on a fire extinguisher and bang my elbow on the door frame. In my room, I lock the door behind me, climb back into bed and cover my head
with the duvet, shivering down beside Mark’s bulky warmth.

The next thing I know it’s eight o’clock and with daylight comes disbelief. What a horrible nightmare! I don’t remember ever experiencing such a vivid, unpleasant dream – lifelike in its horror. After all three miscarriages I suffered from insomnia and often, when I did fall asleep, my dreams were full of crying babies and aching loss. And now something about this hotel – perhaps the similarities between Cassandra’s life and mine – has catapulted me into a different sort of nightmare. Either that or I’m coming down with the same thing as Mark. I press my hand on my forehead but it doesn’t feel hot and my throat isn’t sore either. Still, parts of my body are aching and, as I dress, I register tension in my limbs and stomach.

Leaving Mark asleep, I go back down to the library to reassure myself that there’s nothing evil or sinister lurking there. The curtains are open and floating dust motes meander through the air around me. I stand in front of the painting and stare. It’s exactly as it was that first day when Melody showed it to me – good friends joining each other for a picnic. Happy faces, perfect weather, delicious food. The sort of day you’d want to live again and again. I stroll around the room aiming for nonchalance, every so often glancing sharply back at the painting, expecting to catch it unawares but… nothing.

OK then. I smile. I can drop it. It was a weird and frightening dream – plain and simple. Time to get on with my day.

I throw one last challenging glance at the painting, then go to reception. I explain to Melody that I may need to call a doctor and she gives me the number of someone local. ‘He’s good at coming here so you won’t need to get Mark out of bed.’

‘Thank you. Oh, and by the way… as a matter of interest…’ Don’t ask, Cassie. Let it go. ‘What made Cassandra infamous?’

‘Her husband’s death was suspicious. The only reason she wasn’t tried for murder was because he’d fallen sick in a local brothel.’

‘So why did people suspect she was involved?’

‘There was a suggestion of witchcraft. It was no secret how much he and his wife hated one another. She was asleep in her bed…’

‘So what was it that killed him?’ I interrupt.

‘He had a strange bite on his neck, close to his Adam’s apple. It swelled up and brought on a raging fever.’

My ears start ringing – bells, buzzers and klaxons are sounding in my head – and my self-assurance vanishes. I take the stairs at a run, my mind in overdrive. ‘Mark!’ I burst into our room and shake him awake.

‘Bloody hell, Cass!’

‘Let me look at you!’

I shine the bedside lamp directly on his neck while he shields his eyes and grumbles, ‘What are you doing?’

His neck is still swollen, flesh puffed up like… like a reaction to a bite. ‘We’re calling the doctor.’

‘No need. I think I’m over the worst.’

‘We’re going home then.’ Fear is careening around inside me like a cannon ball. Cassandra’s alone at the picnic, waiting for someone to join her. ‘I’ll start packing.’

‘What?’ He throws his arms out. ‘Why? We still have two more nights.’

‘Because Cassandra Mullingford’s husband died when he was bitten over his throat.’
Mark is your regular gentle giant, the polar opposite of her own brutish husband. No wonder she wants him. I pull our suitcases out from under the bed.

‘I haven’t been bitten.’

‘You might have been!’ I shout. Cassandra wants to change her fate. She wants a happy ever after. ‘I can’t see any puncture marks but that doesn’t mean you haven’t been bitten and it’s too much of a coincidence!’

‘Cassie, please. Calm down love.’

‘We have to go home.’

‘I don’t feel up to driving.’

‘We could get a taxi,’ I say, cursing myself for my inability to get my driving licence – four attempts and counting.

‘Two hundred miles? It would cost a fortune.’
He’s right. And we don’t have it. I’m self-employed and have had several months off work recently. What to do? What to do? Think, Cassie, think. If last night wasn’t a dream, then Cassandra was standing on Mark’s side of the bed and if he dies in this house then she’ll have him. He’ll be hers. For all of eternity. ‘But ghosts don’t exist,’ I say out loud, my voice wavering with disbelief.

‘What was that? I didn’t quite hear you love.’ Mark puts his arm around me. He’s hot as a furnace. ‘I can see you’re upset. It’s not long since we lost the baby and maybe it was too soon for us to come away.’

‘She can’t have you,’ I say, tears stinging my eyes. ‘You’re mine.’

‘Of course I’m yours. I… Cassie!’

I’m out of the room again and flying down the stairs. Past the dining-room where the clatter of plates tells me that breakfast is in full swing. I open the door to the library and my eyes take a second to adapt to the darkness. In the time I’ve been upstairs, someone has closed the curtains again. The only light seeps from the painting, emptying a gold-coloured aura into a small circle of space directly in front of it. I pull over a chair, place it inside the circle and climb on to it.

Everyone in the painting stands up and walks towards me. ‘Oh no you don’t,’ I say. I lean forward to seize the wooden frame at either side. I don’t know how or why, but there are ghosts in this painting and I’m not letting them take Mark. I have to stand well forward on the chair and it begins to rock and then tip me forward. A little more stretch… just a little… and I have the outside edge of the frame in my grip. I try to lift it up off the hook but it’s too heavy. ‘Damn!’

I try again, powered by the fear inside me. This time I feel the string jump away from the hook. The painting is off the wall, tightly in my grip, and Cassandra’s eyes are level with mine. ‘You can’t have him,’ I say and I watch her eyes darken. ‘He’s mine.’

The other picnickers are gathered around her and their hands reach forward, through the canvas, touching me, grabbing me along my arms – one, then two, then half a dozen warm, grasping hands pulling me forward. ‘Leave me alone!’ I shout, and I lean back into the wall of air behind me. I fall backward… slowly… slowly… backward but I never reach the floor because the hands hold on tight and pull me towards them. Forward… forward… on to the wall and then further still, on to grass, where I feel the sun on my back, and hear a blackbird’s song in the sky.

I scramble to my feet and look behind me, see my lifeless body lying on the carpet in the library, the toppled chair beside me.

‘No, no,’ I shake my head and stare around me, into faces that stare back, curious, unsmiling faces that make my skin feel as if it is crawling with ants.

‘Welcome,’ Cassandra says, placing a small, cold kiss on my cheek. ‘I’ve been waiting for you.’

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