From the author: "The Well" appeared in What Darkness Remains, my collection of tales of the supernatural and unknown. A young man with a fascination for wells finds his life and his sanity threatened when he falls in love with the daughter of an old house, and a family that comes with a curse...
Andrew M. Seddon
Wells have always fascinated me. As a child I was attracted to those dark, stone-lined shafts which, like tunnels, fostered in my youthful mind visions of unknown, mysterious places. Whenever my parents took me to visit a castle, I would always head straight to the well and peer through the protective grating down into the dank, watery depths.
What secrets did they hold? What lay beneath the inky surface of the water?
Was there lost treasure? Weapons with magical powers? Human bones? Ancient amulets? Dire inscriptions?
The dungeons, which fascinated my brother, or the views from the summits of the pigeon-infested towers which my sister loved, held no interest for me. Neither did the gift shops favoured by my friends, with their wooden shields and swords, toy soldiers, and colouring books.
For years I tried and failed to find a rational reason for my attraction. Eventually, though, an explanation presented itself. But to this day I’m still not sure I believe it.
Because to do so would mean either to doubt my sanity or to accept the validity of an ancient curse.
I met Lucinda Hadley when she entered my uncle’s bookshop in the village of Upper Wyton one bright day in April. Uncle Alfred, while vastly knowledgeable in the antiquarian book trade, was absolutely hopeless when it came to finances. An urgent plea from my Aunt Ethel had brought me over from Hereford with the aim of bringing order to his accounts before the minions of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs latched onto his deficiencies.
Being a lover of books myself, although in a more casual way – turn of the century novels in the tradition of Guy Boothby, and Victorian ghost stories - I was minding the store while Uncle Alfred went out to buy cigarettes; indulging a habit against which Aunt Ethel had railed futilely for years.
I was perusing the pages of Adam de Cardonnel’s Picturesque Antiquities of Scotland, first edition, 1788 – which, since it bore a price tag of £750 I handled very carefully – when the bell hanging on the inside of the door jangled.
I hastily replaced the book into its locked display case behind the desk and turned to greet the customer – and caught my breath.
She was nearly as tall as I, and about my own age of thirty-five, with chestnut hair cascading to her mid-back, fine-boned features, and a slender figure worthy of a model. She wore a green Irish shawl over a patterned blouse, a knee-length skirt and leather calf-boots.
“May I help you find something?” I asked, mesmerized by her eyes, a light grey like morning mist.
She seemed nonplussed. “Isn’t Mr. Stanfill here?”
“He stepped out for a few minutes,” I replied. “I’m watching the store for him. I’m his nephew, Philip Stanfill.”
“All right then,” she said. “He has a book reserved for me. Under Lucinda Hadley.”
“The title?” I asked, moving to the shelf of reserved books.
“History of Tewkesbury,” she said, “by James Bennet.”
I ran my finger along the spines, then pulled out a thick volume. “Here it is. 1830.” I removed a file card sticking out. “£100.”
She took it from me and flipped through the pages.
“You’re interested in local history?” I asked.
“Very much so,” she replied.
“Is your family from around here?”
“They’ve lived in Hadley Hall for over four hundred years,” she said, glancing up.
“Not too many people seem to be interested in history anymore,” I commented. “The younger generation doesn’t care. They’re too preoccupied with the latest computer games and gadgets.”
“So true,” she said, closing the book and handing it back to me. Her nails were neatly manicured. “It’s nice, but don’t you think £100 is a little steep? There’s quite a bit of foxing on the pages, and the cover is water-stained.”
“I suppose my uncle has his reasons for the price,” I said, since although I loved to read I knew next-to-nothing about pricing antique books.
She looked disappointed, and the overwhelming urge to please this woman came over me.
“What do you think would be reasonable?” I asked.
She put a finger to her bronze-tinted lips. “65?”
“Done,” I said, thinking that I’d make it up to Uncle Alfred.
“I’ve never seen you here before,” she said, “and I’ve been a customer for years.”
“I live in Hereford,” I replied, handing her the receipt to sign and putting the book in a bag. “I just come over every now and then. Right now I’m helping Uncle Alf with his accounts.”
She handed the receipt back and our fingertips touched. Something like an electrical shock went through me, and I could tell by the sudden wideness of her eyes that she felt something as well.
“Thank you,” she said, pivoting quickly for the door.
“Is there anything else you’d be interested in?” I asked.
She paused momentarily and adjusted her shawl. “I’ll call if anything comes to mind.”
Then she opened the door and was gone.
I leaned against the counter, feeling suddenly weak.
“You all right, Phil?” A man’s voice accompanied the banging open of the door.
“Fine, Uncle,” I said, as a short, stocky man in a black-and-white rugby shirt and jeans came over to the desk.
“I saw Cinda Hadley crossing the street.”
“She picked up her book.”
“Nice girl,” Uncle Alf said, subsiding into his creaky old chair. “Good customer, too.”
“And very pretty,” I added.
His eyes twinkled. “Have an eye for the ladies, do you?”
“Anything wrong with that?”
“Nothing at all,” he chuckled. “She normally comes in on a Friday. About two.”
I smiled back. “Thanks for the tip.”
I returned to Hereford with a sense of anticipation not entirely due to the improving state of Uncle Alf’s financial records.
As the head of my own accounting firm, I enjoyed the luxury of being able to adjust my schedule as desired; in this case so as to return to Upper Wyton – only an hour’s drive away – the following Friday.
But to my disappointment, Lucinda didn’t come.
In fact, it wasn’t until three weeks later that she reentered the shop. It was a dreary Friday, with a chill rain sluicing down from heavy clouds, gushing through drainpipes and pouring off slate roofs, and running in streams along the street, soaking the feet of the few shoppers who hurried along under sagging umbrellas. I almost hadn’t come, thinking it unlikely that anyone would be buying books in such inclement weather. And indeed, customers had been few and far between – and tourists, at that.
Uncle Alf watched reruns of Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes on the small telly he kept on the front desk, while I worked on accounts in the back room.
The doorbell tinkled, and I heard Uncle Alf say, “Miss Hadley! Did you take a boat to get here?”
A musical laugh answered him. “No, but I might need one to return home again.”
I closed the account books and stood up.
“I have something you might be interested in,” Uncle Alf said. “Just arrived yesterday. Where did I put it?”
Rummaging noises emanated from the desk area. I picked up a book from a stack of new arrivals, and carried it into the front shop where Lucinda Hadley stood, looking like a Venus newly emerged from the sea, although clad in a dripping leather raincoat.
“Is it this one?” I asked, handing the book to Uncle Alf and giving Lucinda a smile which she returned with a hint of surprise, and, unless I imagined it, a welcoming light in her grey eyes.
“Collection of Gloucestershire Antiquities by Samuel Lyons,” Uncle Alf said, glancing at the title page before passing it on to Lucinda. “1804. It’s not in very good shape, I’m afraid, so I can let you have it very inexpensively…”
She gave it a cursory examination. “It will do for a reading copy.”
“Beastly weather, isn’t it?” I said, as Uncle Alf took the book to wrap. “Just the day for a cuppa at the tea shop around the corner.”
There was the flicker of a pause during which my heart skipped a beat or two before she replied, “That would be brilliant.”
“Wonderful!” I hurried to put on my jacket and cap.
“Take your time,” Uncle Alf said as we headed out.
Tea and Dorset apple cake in the cozy environs of Aunt May’s Tea Shop proved conducive to conversation, which ranged from details of my occupation to a common interest in music – I being a halfway decent amateur pianist while she played the clarinet – to books we had both read and enjoyed, to places we would both like to visit. Both parties were sufficiently pleased with the outcome as to arrange a dinner date for the following week.
After escorting Cinda to her silver Vauxhall Astra VXR and watching her drive away down the puddle-filled street, I returned to the shop to find Uncle Alf reading a book.
“Get on well?” he asked.
“Magnificently,” I said.
“Good,” he replied. “I can’t believe I never thought to introduce you before. The Hadleys of Hadley Hall were an influential family in the district at one time. Wealthy, too.”
“Shouldn’t think so. It’s a big old place to keep up.”
“With priest holes and ghosts?”
“Hidden rooms, probably. Ghosts?” He shrugged. “There are stories about most of these historic homes. I expect if you researched far enough back you’d uncover some mystery to do with Hadley Hall.”
And on that note, as the weather was worsening, I bid goodbye to Uncle Alf and motored back to Hereford, paying less attention to the road than I ought to have, as my mind was filled with thoughts of Cinda Hadley.
That dinner proved to be the prelude to exploration of local culinary establishments. Over the subsequent weeks Cinda and I discovered that we shared a variety of interests, from investigating archaeological sites to hiking on the hills (rain or shine) to browsing the back rooms of dusty antique stores to enjoying afternoon tea and cream cakes at outdoor cafés.
One day, I invited her to Hereford; I showed her my office and introduced her to the staff, and then we visited the chained library in the Cathedral. Most of the books are, of course, theological in nature, but Cinda, who was acquainted with the curator, was allowed to show me an ancient volume of local history.
“This is the oldest reference to Hadley Hall,” she said, indicating a small yellowed drawing surrounded by columns of print.
Due to the expense of maintaining a property as old and extensive as Hadley Hall, Cinda had informed me that her parents had transformed one wing into a bed and breakfast. Cinda, with a degree in business, handled the management.
“Has it changed much?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Very little, really. A few trees have been removed, while several more have been added. My family has always been very careful to preserve the original appearance of the house and grounds as much as possible.”
I laughed. “It makes the Stanfills sound like the newcomers we are. The closest to a family estate we had was a row house in Liverpool.”
“Truly. My grandmother must have hated it - she was from this area somewhere, but ended up in Liverpool when she married my grandfather.”
“You’ve never mentioned much about your family,” Cinda said as, holding hands, we exited the cool dimness of the Cathedral into the glory of a sunny afternoon.
“It’s not a happy story, I said. “My grandparents are all gone. Two from cancer, one from pneumonia, and one from a heart attack. They died when I was young, and I never really knew them. My parents were killed in an automobile accident while I was away at university. My brother lost his life in a military training exercise, and my sister moved to Italy. I haven’t heard from her in years. My mother was an only child, so that leaves Uncle Alfred as my sole near relation.”
She gave my hand a squeeze. “I’m so sorry. I have aunts and uncles and cousins galore. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have so little family.”
“One manages. Adjusts.”
“You’re very pragmatic.”
“Realistic,” I countered. “Speaking of which, how about dinner before you head back to Upper Wyton? The Red Lion has an excellent carvery.”
“It sounds delightful,” she said. “But it’s high time you met my parents. Next week, you must come to Hadley Hall.”
“I can hardly wait,” I accepted eagerly, having no intimation of the strange occurrence that lay in store for me there.
Cinda was waiting in the arched, ivy-covered entryway as I drove up the curved graveled drive past a large oak tree and parked beside a splashing fountain in front of Hadley Hall. Neither the picture I had seen nor her description did it justice.
Built of grey stone with a slate roof, the Hall exuded an air of permanence, as if proclaiming that though people would come and go, the building would remain. Asymmetrical wings flanked the entrance; one of two stories, the other of three. Neatly tended flower beds and bushes broke up the severity of straight lines and served to nestle the building into a landscape of green lawn and weeping willows.
Cinda greeted me with a kiss. “Welcome to my home, darling.”
“Would you like to see the grounds before we go inside?” she invited.
I motioned. “Certainly! Lead the way.”
We strolled through a rose garden, skirted the right-hand wing, and then circled behind it, finally reaching the rear of the Hall. We halted beside a glass conservatory.
“This is a Victorian addition to the original building,” Cinda said, “most of which dates from 1590, although a couple of rooms were added in the seventeenth century.”
A wisteria-wrapped pergola sheltered a table and chairs, and overlooked a series of terraces that tumbled down a hillside like a series of waves, ending beside a small, rush-bordered stream.
“It’s idyllic,” I said, before catching sight of a circular stone structure about three feet high on the far side of the uppermost terrace. Heedless of Cinda’s “Wait!” I hurried across and peered into it. I couldn’t see the bottom, just the courses of mossy bricks descending into blackness.
“It’s the original well,” Cinda said catching up to me. “There’s still water in it although it hasn’t been used for close to a century. When I was a little girl it was my wishing well. I don’t know how many pennies might be down there. Until one day my nanny caught me, gave me a spanking, and told me-”
I’d only been half-listening, when suddenly a tide of dizziness surged over me. It felt as if the well was slowly circling… and with it came a sensation – a very strange, disturbing sensation…
I lurched forwards-
“Philip!” Cinda exclaimed, gripping my shoulders. “Are you all right?”
I pushed myself back from the well and turned to face her. “Just a little dizzy…”
Cinda was regarding me with a worried expression.
“Let’s get you inside,” she said, taking me by the elbow and steering me towards a rear entrance.
As we approached the house, the dizziness faded almost as quickly as it had come, and by the time she ushered me into a comfortable sitting room, it had gone completely, although the sensation of something not quite right persisted.
She settled me into an easy chair.
“I’m fine now,” I said. “Don’t know what came over me.”
I was half-tempted to return to the well to see if the reaction occurred again, but my better judgment decided against such an imprudent action.
“Dinner will be ready shortly,” Cinda said, “Let me find my parents.”
George and Violet Hadley were a charming couple of about seventy, and we enjoyed lively conversation over a rack of lamb, roast potatoes, and carrots. Whatever had bothered me at the well hadn’t affected my appetite.
“We’ve heard a lot about you,” George Hadley said.
“All of it good, I hope,” I replied, to which Cinda said, “Except for supporting the wrong football club.”
“For which allowance can be made,” George chuckled. “I’ve told Cinda for years that she needed someone in her life besides her mother and me. I’m glad that you seem to be fitting the bill.” He raised his wine glass. “Here’s to more evenings together.”
My eyes met Cinda’s. “To many more,” we said in unison.
I pondered the incident at the well – and the strange feeling it had engendered - as my car purred homewards along the dark roads. Upon reflection, it seemed to me that the sensation I had encountered was as though the well had wanted me and had sought to draw me into its dank, fetid depths.
It was most peculiar.
No, not peculiar. It was frightening.
I shivered, and turned the heat in the car up a notch.
But surely, I told myself, dizziness wasn’t unusual – maybe I hadn’t eaten or drunk enough at lunch. And as for the weird attraction, perhaps it was the effect of bad air on a mind already fascinated by wells.
Even as I pondered this, the same disquieting urge that I had felt at Hadley Hall rose up within me – the compulsion to turn around, despite the lateness of the night, and return to the well. It was as though I were a character in a horror film, being drawn unwillingly towards something unknown and unimaginable.
My rational mind did its best to squelch such inclinations. I told myself that Hadley Hall was a normal house inhabited by normal people. Something had disturbed my imagination, that was all.
The odd feelings subsided when I pulled into the drive and entered the familiar surroundings of my house. I read a chapter of a novel and had a small drink to help me relax.
But my rational mind could do nothing at night when the unconscious assumed control.
I dreamed that I was leaning over the well, reaching for the coins that Cinda had dropped into it as a child, coins that glittered and shone far below as if in inviting me to gather them.
I stretched my arm as much as it would go, leaned farther and farther, but always the coins were just out of range. And yet I knew I had to reach them… they were there, so far and yet so close… if only my arm was just a little bit longer….
But then I was falling, plummeting headlong into the well, the shining coins coming closer and closer –
And then I hit the water–
-and woke up, to see the reflection of city lights on the
ceiling above me.
I gasped and slowly regained a sense of reality.
But even as the dream dissolved, I had the fading sensation that the well had been calling to me, not audibly, but inwardly, and not benignly, but for some dread purpose that I couldn’t discern.
I had never dreamed like that of a well before.
And I hoped I wouldn’t again.
It was perhaps a month before I returned to Hadley Hall. A business matter took me to Exeter for a week, then the illness of a junior partner compelled me to assume his work… and so it went. Cinda came up to Hereford a couple of times, and we conversed daily, but I was thrilled when I was again able to drive down to Upper Wyton one Sunday.
I parked my car in the shade of the ancient oak that spread its branches towards the Hall and hurried to join Cinda in the conservatory.
After a light lunch we went for a ride along the lanes on a pair of her father’s horses, then sat under the pergola for lemonade and biscuits.
It was a thoroughly pleasant afternoon, although I couldn’t help but regard the well with a curious mixture of attraction and distrust. If Cinda noticed me viewing it warily, she said nothing.
We retired to the music room when clouds rolled in, Cinda insisting that I employ my modest skills on the piano until it was time for dinner. By then, though, a full-fledged storm had developed, and we ate to the accompaniment of the wind whistling around the eaves like a bevy of disinterred ghosts.
“I should go before it gets too much worse,” I said after polishing off a helping of sticky toffee pudding, and eyeing the lashing branches through the dining room windows.
“It’s a frightful evening to be on the road,” Cinda said, reaching up to lay a hand on my shoulder as I set down my spoon and climbed to my feet.
“Yes, but there’s work in the morning,” I replied as George fetched my jacket. “I don’t like to inconvenience clients.”
“Why not drive up early?”
“But if a road is blocked…” I said. “A downed powerline…” She looked disappointed, but agreed. It was as we were saying goodnight in the entrance hall that a loud crack sounded from outside. I opened the door to see that a large branch had fallen from the oak tree.
Not only was it lying across the drive, effectively blocking it, but it had landed across the roof of my 1980 Triumph Spitfire convertible.
“Well, I guess that settles it,” I said, shutting the door against the wind.
“How dreadful!” Cinda exclaimed.
“It’s a car,” I replied.
“Now you’ll have to stay the night,” she said. “There are several unoccupied rooms in the guest wing – you can have one of those.”
“Breakfast included?” I asked, grinning.
“Full, of course,” she smiled back.
And so we stayed up late chatting and listening to music while the wind howled and rain intermittently spattered against the windows.
The en-suite guest room - “Aunt Maud’s Room” according to a brass plaque screwed onto the door - was furnished in a manner designed to appeal to the desire of American tourists for an “olde world” experience. Still, it was charming enough and the bed very comfortable. I had no doubt that I would sleep well, especially once the gale had blown itself out.
And so I did, for a while.
But sometime in the night I dreamed again of the well.
I was out on the patio, with the moon shining from between strands of cloud, and the merest hint of dawn lightening the eastern horizon. The flagstones, littered with fallen leaves, were cool under my feet, and the stones of the well’s edge damp under the palms of my hands.
The shaft was merely a pillar of blackness extending into the earth. No light glimmered in its depths, and not a sound emanated from its recesses.
It was silly to be afraid of an inanimate object, and yet fear clutched at me, wrapping icy tentacles around my heart and paralyzing my will. I knew that it wanted me, and that its desire could not be denied.
With that strange sense of motion common to dreams, I hitched my right leg over the rim and leaned forwards, ready to fall into the darkness that called to me – that yearned to clasp me in its watery embrace –
At last I would learn the secret of my lifelong fascination-
I spread my arms as if to float downwards-
When a scream pierced the night and an unseen force pulled me backwards–
“No!” my dream-voice protested. “Let me go! It wants me… I must go…”
But the force was too strong. The well receded until it vanished, and with a sense of frustration my dream faded away…
I awoke with a start, a feeling of disorientation, and a pounding in my head. Daylight streaming through lace curtains made my eyes water and I blinked to clear them. It took a moment for me to realize that I wasn’t in bed, but on a couch, with a cushion beneath my head and a blanket covering me. I swung my legs to the side and sat up, instantly regretting the movement.
“Are you all right, darling?”
I looked up to find Cinda standing over me. She appeared tired and drawn.
“Other than a nuclear explosion inside my skull.”
“Let me get you something,” she said, moving away.
I rubbed my temples. It finally dawned on me that I was in the living room of Hadley Hall.
Cinda returned with a glass of water and a couple of pills which I swallowed.
“What happened, Cinda?” I asked. “Why am I here and with a most awful headache?”
She sat beside me and took my left hand in both of her own. “What do you remember?”
I pressed my free hand to my forehead. “I was sleeping soundly, then I dreamed about the well – I think I was going to jump into it – and then something pulled me back. That’s all I recall.”
She made an indeterminate sound.
“And then I woke up here. Was I sleepwalking? I’ve never done that before.”
I noticed that the hands holding mine were trembling.
“What were the surnames of your parents?” she asked.
The question took me by surprise, but I answered, “My father, obviously, was a Stanfill. My mother was a Russell.”
“And those of your grandparents?”
“Cinda, what is this all about?”
“Tell me, Philip!”
I took a deep breath. “My grandfather Edward Stanfill married Betty Edgar.” I watched for her response, but she motioned for me to continue.
“My maternal grandfather James Russell married Miranda Hastings – “
I caught her as she turned pale and swayed. “Cinda!”
“No,” she moaned, “It can’t be! It can’t be!”
“What’s the matter?” I asked, turning her chin towards me and staring into her anguished grey eyes. “What is it?”
“I have killed you!” she cried, burying her head against my chest. “Philip, I’ve killed you.”
It took a few moments for me to recover my poise.
“Cinda, I’m very much alive,” I protested, holding tightly to her shuddering form.
She studied my face. “You don’t know, do you? You have no idea!”
“No idea about what?”
“The Hastings curse.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
She got up, crossed over to the bay window, and stood with her back to me. I went to stand beside her. The window looked out over the terraces… and the well.
Something quivered inside me at the sight of it, and I averted my gaze.
Cinda cleared her throat.
“I’ll tell you the story,” she began. “The history of the Hadleys and the Hastings goes back centuries. They were neighbors, and their fortunes and misfortunes frequently ran in parallel. Occasionally there were conflicts and misunderstandings, but for the most part the relationship was one of friendship and frequent intermarriage.”
“So we might be distantly related?” I queried. “That’s not a problem.”
She waved away my interruption. “That’s not the point. It was in the last decade of the 1700s that serious trouble arose. A son of the Hastings was enamored with a daughter of the Hadleys named Annabelle. Normally, no one would have objected to such a marriage, but Louis Hastings was a rake and a wastrel – a dissolute youth who spent his time hunting and playing cards and squandering his inheritance on loose women and drink. Despite this, Annabelle Hadley was infatuated with him – Louis was apparently quite handsome and dashing - and, well, to put it bluntly, he got her pregnant.
“The proper course of action at that time would have been for him to marry her. But Louis pointedly refused. Annabelle told her parents, and they pressed the young man, but he denied that the child was his. There was a fearsome row. Louis’ parents took his side–“
“Not very fair,” I said.
Cinda said, “Historical records are scant, so a lot is conjecture. But it may be that they were concerned for the girl’s welfare – not wanting to see Annabelle marry a good-for-nothing like their son. I have the impression that they were planning to pack Louis off to Australia.
“Whatever the truth, it became an ugly affair. Emotions were running high on both sides, and Annabelle was facing disgrace. And then one day she disappeared.”
“Scarpered?” I guessed.
“If only. They finally found her at the bottom of the well, thanks to one of the family dogs that would sit there and howl.”
“That well?” I asked, once again looking out the window.
Cinda nodded. “It was never determined whether she flung herself in during a fit of despair, or whether Louis threw her in to get rid of her, since she was last seen arguing with him in the gardens one evening.
“Regardless, the Hadleys were devastated – and furious. So furious that the girl’s grandmother, who was supposed to have strange powers – she was reputed to have Celtic blood and was born within sight of a stone circle - pronounced a curse on the Hastings. It went like this:
‘If Hastings come, consider well
The shameful death of Annabelle;
’Til knot is tied and flowers fall,
Hastings shall drown at Hadley Hall.’”
I sniffed. “Not exactly great poetry.”
“Wait until you hear the full story,” Cinda said. “Louis himself was the first victim. The gamekeeper spotted an intruder lurking around at night and took a shot at him. In his haste to escape, the intruder blundered against the rim of the well – it wasn’t as high then as it is now – and toppled into it. When they fished the body out, they discovered it was Louis. Why he was there at night was anyone’s guess.”
“Poetic justice,” I said.
“And then Squire Hastings himself succumbed. He’d come to Hadley Hall to dispute the encroachment of some farmhands onto his property and got into an argument with Mr. Hadley and his foreman. The dispute escalated, both men being somewhat short-tempered, pushing and shoving ensued, and Squire Hadley tumbled backwards into the well.”
“An accident,” I commented.
“No charges were brought, but needless to say, relations between the Hadleys and the Hastings cooled considerably. Each family kept to themselves. But a generation later, when memory of the curse and the unfortunate events which led up to it had faded, another Hastings fell in love with a Hadley. He rode his horse up the terraces to pay court, but the animal shied at something and pitched him into the well.”
“Again, an unfortunate mishap,” I said.
“People were now talking openly of the curse,” Cinda said, twisting her fingers together. “And when it happened a fourth time – to a Hastings cousin who paid a clandestine visit one night and was only located because a fragment of his cloak was found dangling on the edge of the well, even the scoffers were silenced.”
“All very interesting,” I said, “but this happened a long time ago.”
“True,” she agreed. “But time wasn’t good to the Hastings. High Hollow Court, their ancestral home, burned to the ground in 1849. The family, what was left of them, scattered. A Hastings hasn’t come to Hadley Hall in a century and a half.”
She covered her face with her hands. “If I’d known you had Hastings blood, I’d never have brought you here!”
I took a deep breath. “They might all have been accidents,” I said, trying to sound reassuring. “And really, just because I had a bad dream –“
“You didn’t,” she said softly.
“Of course I did!” I exclaimed, despite a sudden doubt that crept into my mind.
“I woke up early,” Cinda said, “nothing unusual, as sometimes I go jogging then, and happened to come out through the conservatory. I saw you perched on the edge of the well and screamed. Fortunately Ned, the gardener, was nearby and grabbed you just as you began to fall in.”
She shuddered. “It was the curse, Philip, and I have brought it on you.”
I could hardly bear the bleakness in her eyes. I put my arm around her shoulders.
“Cinda, we’re modern people. We don’t believe in ancient
curses,” I said with more confidence than I felt. “But I will keep far away from the well, I promise you.”
She wiped a tear from her cheek. “It won’t matter. No one has escaped the curse.”
I thought about the strange perception I had had. The odd dream. The unconscious attraction to the well that had brought me there at night.
The weird pull that, despite my revulsion, still tugged at me.
“You must never come here again,” Cinda sobbed. “Perhaps if you left England… went far away…”
“Would you come with me?” I asked.
“In a heartbeat. But would the curse accompany me?”
Would it? Would the attraction – the compulsion - follow me? Would it stalk me wherever I went, biding its time until circumstance or fate engineered my death?
Could I ever be sure of escape?
Or would worry gnaw at me forever?
The words of the curse had burned themselves into my mind, and I repeated them silently:
If Hastings come, consider well
The shameful death of Annabelle;
‘Til knot is tied and flowers fall,
Hastings shall drown at Hadley Hall.
Then I spoke the last two lines out loud, as a flicker of hope blossomed.
I clasped Cinda’s hands and pulled her close. “Do you love me?”
“Of course I do, Philip.”
“And I love you. Marry me, Cinda! Right now.”
“Philip,” she said, pushing me back to arms’ length, “this is hardly the time to be joking –“
“I’m perfectly serious. ‘Til knot is tied and flowers fall. Tying a knot obviously refers to marriage –“
“And flowers fall?”
“When the bride throws the bouquet. Cinda, we can make reparation for the evil committed by my ancestor, heal the breach between the Hadleys and the Hastings, and end the curse!”
Her long hair swung as she shook her head. “But… but we can’t arrange a priest or a church that quickly-”
“So we’ll have a civil wedding now and a proper church wedding later.”
She pursed her lips. “Hadley House is an authorized venue. And the registrar knows us well…”
Her eyes brightened. “It might work.”
“And I promise you a proper proposal and ring.”
She laughed. “Let me make some phone calls.”
“Cinda,” I said, casting a nervous glance out the window as she turned towards the door. “Don’t leave me alone.”
Occasionally, even the most petrified bureaucracies can be persuaded to work quickly. The registrar was most accommodating, and a wedding was performed in the presence of Cinda’s astonished parents, the equally astonished Uncle Alfred and Aunt Ethel, and the house-staff.
When it was over, George Hadley gave me a firm handshake while Violet congratulated her daughter.
“Glad to have you in the family, Philip,” he said. “Even on short notice. I’ll never understand why the younger generations are always in such a rush.”
I’m sure I had a foolish grin on my face. “Sometimes fortune must be seized quickly,” I said. “To have gained a wonderful wife and break a curse on the same day doesn’t happen to everyone.”
“Eh? What curse would that be, then?”
I released my grip. “The curse uttered by Annabelle’s grandmother.”
He frowned and scratched his head.
“Hastings drowning in the well if they came to Hadley Hall…” I prompted.
He rolled his eyes. “Oh, she didn’t tell you about that, did she?”
I nodded. “She did.”
“Lot of nonsense.”
“Come over here.” He drew me aside to a corner of the room and lowered his voice. “When the children were young, they had a nanny. Odd girl, but a good disciplinarian. She had a vivid imagination and enjoyed telling the children all sorts of fanciful tales. One of them had to do with the well and people drowning in it. Maybe she intended to scare the children to keep them away from danger…”
I could hardly believe what I was hearing. “You mean the story’s not true?”
He raised his eyebrows. “I suppose there might be a kernel of truth in it somewhere,” he said vaguely. “A lot can happen in four hundred years.”
“Cinda lied to me?” I gasped.
“That’s not what I – no,” he said hurriedly. “She’d never do that – there’s not a dishonest bone in her body. The thing is, she’s always believed the story to be true. She has an entire library of old books of local history that she pores over, searching for references to the Hadleys and Hastings.”
“Then it could be true?”
He clapped me on the back. “I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.”
I was too stunned to reply.
“You look like you could use a stiffener,” George said, heading for the drinks table.
“But-“ I began, my mind whirling in a confused tangle of thoughts, recollections of bizarre compulsions, and images of weird dreams – one of which apparently hadn’t been a dream at all. Above all the memory, which I would never forget, of the frightened expression on Cinda’s face when she thought she’d condemned me to death.
And yet, George…
I shook my head to try to clear it.
I parted the curtain and glanced out the window at the well, now hardly more than a darker patch in the shadow of the house.
Then I looked across the room and saw the radiant smile on Cinda’s face. I straightened my collar and went to join her.
This story originally appeared in What Darkness Remains.