Ghost

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So overjoyed by the news of his estranged daughter’s return that Lord William Bloodworth failed to ask the reason for Helen’s sudden change of heart. It had been almost a year since that fateful evening, after which he had not gotten a single word from his beloved daughter. Only recently had he received a telegraph saying that she had returned to London and wanted to stay for a while, perhaps a few months. William was more than pleased to receive her; this was, after all, the house where she had grown up. After his death, which he suspected would come in a few years’ time, perhaps even less, this manor would lawfully belong to her, together with his lands and title.

And so overjoyed by her presence that William could not bring himself to question the father of the child in her womb, soon to be brought to this world. Whosever it was, he reminded himself again and again in the silence of the evenings, watching Helen reading a book or dozing on the rocking chair by the fireplace, it was his daughter’s flesh and blood and thus, his own flesh and blood. He would give it the world once it was born, as he had given its mother. Helen would forgive him eventually, speak to him, and they would be a happy family, the three of them, once again.

Her child’s birth was due a week after her return, on a stormy night. Lord William Bloodworth paced anxiously outside the room, lighting cigarette after cigarette as he listened to Helen’s heart-wrenching cries on the other side of the wall. Time seemed to turn back to the night Helen had arrived to this world, also a stormy and thunderous like this night. For the second time in his long life the relatively atheistic nobleman sent a prayer to God.

The wails of the baby were heavenly music in William’s ears. Outside the room, the old man burst into tears.

It was a boy, a beautiful boy with large, black eyes like polished obsidian. William felt love for this little angel the moment he saw his image reflected in those mirror-like eyes.

He had come up with a thousand names for his lovely grandson; however, the one that Helen chose was never on that list. He had thought he would never hear that name again in the rest of his life. How devastatingly wrong he was.

“Adrian Augustine,” Helen nonchalantly uttered the name as she hugged her wailing son to her bosoms, “his name is Adrian Augustine Bloodworth.”

These were also the first words she had spoken to him upon her return. His beautiful Helen, cold and mute as the idol of Mary in the church.

“Ad–Adrian Augustine?” William stammered, holding onto a sliver of hope that his old ears had deceived him.

“Yes, Adrian Augustine.” Unabashed, she opened her blouse, baring her round, full breasts to her father’s eyes. The baby’s little mouth instantly latched on her, hungry for the sweet milk she had to offer.

William averted his gaze.

“Why, Helen? Why such a name? Certainly there’s a plethora of names–”

“Because ‘Adrian Augustine’ is my son’s father’s name.”

The ground beneath Lord William Bloodworth’s feet crumpled.

The next time Lord William Bloodworth got to see his daughter and grandson, it was six years later.

Five months after the child’s birth, Helen left the manor no matter how William had begged her to stay. “He isn’t welcomed here,” said Helen, standing at the door. How picturesque they were, the beautiful young mother holding her beautiful baby in her arms. How pale they looked under the electric light, pale like marble and just as cold. Each of her words a painful stab to his aging heart. Her voice speaking to him in their scarce conversations was never less than cold, her eyes regarding him colder still. They only became softer, affectionate, and loving when laying upon her son, a truth William soon learned with bitterness. Her son with Adrian Augustine.

Even in death did that depraved fiend torture him. Snatched away what he loved more than life.

“I will love him,” he promised. “I will love him with all my heart. If only you give me a chance…”

“No, you won’t.” She shook her head. “The only thing you can give him will be hatred and contempt.”

And they both knew her curt words were the truth while his was only a lie. Had Lord William never known the child’s father, or had he been someone else’s son, a lawyer’s, a soldier’s, a merchant’s, even a thief’s, he would love his grandson dearly. Give him the world if he could. Perhaps God was punishing him for his life-long practice of atheism, and what was a more cruel punishment than making his grandson the child of Adrian Augustine?

Deep down inside, Lord William Bloodworth had always known. He had suspected, of course, the moment he saw her stepping down the coach, her voluminous clothes failing to hide her maternal figure. He was old, not stupid, and he had been there to witness their disastrous romance. Risked all he could have to destroy it. Still he had placed his hope on a thin chance that Helen’s child had been some other man’s other than the one whose name caused him constant pain and wrath. Having his daughter admitted to him only had proven his foolishness.

Helen and the baby were gone the next morning, and Lord William Bloodworth’s manor was cold and empty once more. Cold and empty as the tomb in his heart.

Throughout the years he had been hearing news about his daughter. She had come to the New World they said – hadn’t she always wanted to fly there and leave the Old World behind? New Orleans, he heard from his many friends and acquaintances, a beautiful French city where she had settled and might have married the current Governor. Perhaps not. Perhaps she had established her own business and thrived. Such a successful young woman. All rumors and never a letter, never a word from her.

That summer his sister Agatha passed away, and thanks to that (he was not delighted by her death in the least), he had a chance to see Helen again. Before her marriage to a duke half a country away, Agatha had always been close to her niece, and remained close after. Every summer she would have come to London to pay her brother a visit, bearing all sorts of country presents for her favorite and only niece. Half the globe away (if the rumor about her living in New Orleans was true) and somehow Helen had got the news and returned just in time to bid farewell to deer old Agatha. She looked young, possibly younger than he remembered her – an obvious sign of his failing memory – and extremely gorgeous even in the high-collar grim black dress and black veil. Motherhood had become her. Glued to her side was a beautiful little boy that arose many a question from those attending the funeral.

How time flew, Lord William thought, watching the mother and son from afar – something blocked him from coming to her and hugging her so tightly she would feel his ache for her. All the years passed only deepened the wedge between them, already too late to try to fix. He heard the guests speak to one another.

“Don’t they make a most charming picture?” one lady asked.

“Lord Bloodworth’s daughter, isn’t it? God, it is as if time has never touched her!” another remarked.

“She hasn’t got married, has she? That would make the boy illegitimate. A bastard!”

“Shush, lower your voice, they might hear! I heard due to this the father and daughter have been estranged for years. She was even willing to forfeit her title and inheritance! Lord Bloodworth must have been furious.”

“I wonder who fathered that son of hers. What sort of man was he to be able to turn her against Lord Bloodworth?”

“The boy’s father passed away years ago. Adrian Augustine or so I heard.”

A few audible gasps.

“It couldn’t have been that ‘Adrian Augustine’!”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, there was a prodigal violinist by that name about ten years ago. His music was so godly they said he had bargained his soul to the devil. Could he have begot Lord Bloodworth’s grandson?”

“Now that you talk about it, I do remember seeing that man once or twice. God forbid such a face! Who could blame her for falling for a man with the face of Adonis?”

“A shame Adrian Augustine died before the boy was born. Got his throat slit by a madman during his farewell performance. Caused a real ruckus back then…”

“God, that’s awful! No wonder Helen Bloodworth never speaks a word about her child’s father. Poor thing…”

Anger of an unknown cause swelled in his heart, threatening to burst his chest open. He wanted to scream at them to shut the bloody up, all their seemingly harmless gossips that felt like buzzing bees with tiny pricks in his ears. They hurt his head, made tears hot on his cloudy eyes. They tormented him, reminded him of the hideous truth about the boy’s parentage. An abomination. An unforgivable sin. He wanted to lash out at them with his sharp-witted sarcasm and cruel words like Lord William Bloodworth-minus-”the old” used to. Shamed them until their heavily powdered faces turned scarlet, their lips sewn and they scattered away like scared ducks. How good it would feel. But he did neither scream nor lash out, because if somehow the years had not sapped his courage, his ceaseless coughs surely had. So he stood with his back against the stone wall, his cane in hand, chest heaving heavily as he tried to swallow his rage in silence like every other old man of his age. How time flew…

It took much persuasion from the relatives and friends for Helen to change her mind and agreed to stay with her father – the poor, lonely old man who missed his daughter sickly – until she returned to America. That was her home now, she added while her eyes were focus on him as though the words were meant for him alone. Just when his daughter had learn of cruelty? Had the New World taught her so?

The boy’s black eyes sparked with joyous warm upon the idea, a stark contrast to his mother’s cold ones.

It was when the three of them were seated on the dining table, him on one side while Helen and the boy on the other, that Lord William Bloodworth had the chance and courage to study the face of his grandson. On first look one would not doubt the boy was Helen’s: the resemblance was seeable in their raven hair, delicate features and milky skin. In her green adolescence Helen used to pride herself on her look. “Gives me an air of mystique,” she said, like the moon while around her there was abundance of sun in golden hair and rosy cheeks. She was one of a few who possessed pale complexion but never gave a sickly impression, and this trait was inherited in her child.

But…

When he dared look closer, there were certain nuances that distinguished the boy from Helen. His eyes, for instance, were so dark that they reflected light while Helen’s were a pale blue. The mole under his right eye like a small tear. The particular curve of his lips when he smiled. All were pieces of a picture that once William finished putting together would present a familiar portrait. The face of the devil which haunted him day and night. Once he had come to such realization, he could not help seeing the boy at none other than the fiend that had spawned him. Like father, like son. Before he even noticed, the boy would reach adulthood and become the second Adrian Augustine. Such toxic thoughts poisoned him, worn him out, and he felt acutely the effect of time in every marrow of his old bones.

“Let’s retire for the evening,” he told Helen. “I had the servants prepared the rooms for you. Your original room at the east wing and–”

“Adrian will sleep in my room.”

“He’s old enough to sleep in his own room, Helen. You can’t coddle him like a baby forever.”

Helen caressed the top of her son’s head. “Can I?”

He tried to quench the uneasy feeling in his throat by the ever-growing affection in the way she looked at the boy. Something was not right. “He’s growing up, Helen, and sooner or later you have to let him out of your wing. Allow him to decide on his own for a chance.”

“Do you not want to sleep with me tonight, Adrian darling?” She asked teasingly.

“I want to sleep with Helen,” said the boy.

And the queasiness in William’s stomach grew tenfold at the particular manner in which the boy articulated Helen’s name. Adrian Augustine used to pronounce her name precisely the same, with the first vowel slightly longer and more stressed than usual. How that demon had loved to taunt him using his daughter’s name.

“Why is he not talking to me? Is he angry with me?” the boy asked.

“No, he is not. He is just bone-tired by all the things today. No one is angry with you, darling.”

“Should we call a doctor then?”

“That’s not necessary,” William said, waving his hands. “I only need a rest. Goodnight to the both of you.”

He swore he could feel the boy’s eyes on him even as Helen led him out of the dining room.

Lord William Bloodworth feared that he was going insane. Everything about Helen’s son reminded him of Adrian Augustine, his cockney accent even though he was living in America, his mannerisms, his countenance, as though he was not only the child of Adrian Augustine, he was Adrian Augustine. Atheistic as he was, William had never believed in God and Devil, in soul and reincarnation. Yet Adrian had proven otherwise. He had proven to him that the devil existed amongst humans – the myriad sins of his debauched lifestyle manifested in a bloody, devastating tornado that swept in those he had had eyes on – men and women – ravaged them until there was nothing left of those poor unfortunate souls but an empty, tarnished self. He might have proven to William that the devil was not so easily vanquished and that he might have already returned.

For what purpose? To relive his sinful life? To take revenge on William, torment him? To destroy him? Or to execute a grander, more sinister scheme?

Every night since Helen’s return he lay awake on his bed, thinking about Adrian Augustine, past, present and future. Fear grew in his senile heart, gnawing him like the great vulture that ever fed on the undying Prometheus’s liver. Fear bred paranoia and every time his eyes laid on the boy, the ‘Adrian Augustine’ of this life, he could not help visualizing those small hands wrapping around his throats, or holding a gleaming knife. He could not help imagining his throat slit by that same knife, his blood flowing like a fountain while the little angelic face retained its pure, innocent smile.

Thus, the deeper Lord William delved into his paranoia and many a scenario of Adrian Augustine’s taking his vengeance, the more slippery his promise to Helen became. How could he find in his heart a sliver of love for one who could have been the cause of his doom? Who had already robbed him of Helen’s love, and replaced it with cool animosity?

Lord William’s torments did not last long however, because roughly a month later, Helen took her son back to America, leaving him a lonely old man, who perhaps was finally at peace. Their leave would happen after a few sporadic events that had happened in their stay, which served to further cement William’s belief that there was something awfully wrong with the boy ‘Adrian Augustine’.

I.  Cigarette from Cairo

It was one of the lazy afternoons when William loved to spend on his favorite armchair in his library, perhaps reading a book, contemplating the time gone by or simply dozing. Helen had departed early in the morning to pay a visit to her friend, leaving her son at home. When William stepped in, he found the boy sitting in a far corner, absorbed in some book he had taken from one of the many shelves. He seemed to be quite bookish, such was William’s observation and though being in the same room with Adrian Augustine’s child was not the most pleasant, William also did his best to not appear that he was avoiding the boy. He found small comfort in the fact that the child was a silent company; he did not think he could handle a naughty one running around the manor screaming and causing all sorts of mayhem. Perhaps years ago he might fancy a livelier child, but the William of present was, in his own description, a pitiful bag of old bones that loved nothing more than peace and quietness. Not the best of grandfather, he knew, and could not help it.

If there was one thing old age had not robbed from him, it was his long-term affair with the nicotine. Even when he was young, he did not have the best of lungs; when time weighted on him, so it did his lungs. William could not recall how many times his doctor had advised him to give up smoking, and how many times he had deliberately ignored such thoughtful advice when reaching into his pocket for his silver cigarette case. He remembered giving Adrian Augustine one such case, with his name beautifully engraved on it. They had found that case inside his jacket the night he was murdered. He had kept it all this time even when their relationship had taken a stale turn. An ironic memento.

Nicotine was poison, and the first inhale never failed to result in a string of painful coughs. His face dyed scarlet as tears cornered around his eyes.

“Are you alright, William? Shall I ring Frances?”

The boy’s face was blurry through a veil of tear, constructing an illusion of a young man’s. Of Adrian Augustine’s. His heart skipped a beat.

The boy had abandoned his book and crawled next to his legs.

“It’s ‘grandfather’,” he weakly chided the boy. His wrinkled hand went to his chest, trying to sooth the pain as well as his frantic heart. “Also, call your mother ‘mother’, not her name.”

The boy stared at him with huge, black eyes as though trying to process what he had been told, and failed. “Why can I not call her by her name, and you by yours?”

“Because it’s not appropriate!” William said, exasperated. What were they educating children in America?

“They are imported from Cairo, are they not?”

“What?”

“These,” the boy said, pointing at the cigarettes in the case.

William’s bushy eyebrows furrowed. “How could you know?” he stammered, baffled. Never did he imagine a six-year-old could tell the origin of a cigarette brand by look and smell alone. He serious doubted his daughter would ever teach her son such matter.

“But it is true, right? That they are from Cairo?”

His beaming face seemed to gather all the sunlight of the late summer afternoon outside the library. Its shine hurt William’s eyes.

Lord William Bloodworth nodded, mechanically. His withering memory remembered hearing the same question years ago, spoken in a sonorous voice. The voice of Adrian Augustine.

Adrian Augustine’s admirers only knew his violin was heavenly; not many knew his singing was not any less.

“What’s from Cairo? Care to tell me?” A female voice was heard by the entrance. Helen had returned, and she was leaning against the window, basking in the sun. William found himself not blinking. So beautiful was she that wherever she stood, everything else, including the bouquet of red roses in her arms, seemed dull, monotonic while she became the most vivid color in the picture, the same as her son’s smile would gather all the afternoon’s sun to himself. Perhaps it was her make-up, perhaps it was her voguish black dress that closely hugged her form, or the manner in which she carried herself that no one could imagine she were already in her thirties, and mother to a six-year-old. Soon as she was back to London, her suitors had been lining up outside their manor and filling their chambers with exquisite flowers and expensive gifts. Still, at times when he looked at her, Lord William could hardly recognize his daughter, his Helen whom had raised from birth. A stranger, though mesmerizing, remained a stranger still.

This was one such occasion.

“Helen!” the boy cried with excitement. He rushed to her side, squeezing her body with all the strange a six-year-old could muster. Helen’s ice mask thawed instantly as she kneeled down and kissed his pale cheeks until they turned cherry. “Were you a good boy when I was out?”

The boy nodded. “William’s cigarettes come from Cairo.”

“Precisely,” Helen drawled. “Cairo has the best cigarettes in the world.”

“Did you teach him about cigarette brand?”

“No. I no longer smoke, as you see. But my boy–”

She paused midway to caress her son’s head. “–he seems to know a lot of things on his own. He surprises me sometimes.”

“Does it not strike you as… strange?”

“’Strange’ isn’t a nice word for a child, father. Besides, aren’t we all proud to have an intelligent child of our flesh and blood?”

“Flesh and blood” the two words struck William hard. Helen’s flesh and blood. Adrian Augustine’s flesh and blood.

What could a monster have created but another monster under beautiful skin?

“Helen, William has a beautiful silver case. Can I have one, too? With my name engraved on it?”

Helen’s laughter was like silver bell. “So that you can smoke at the age of six?”

The boy’s cherry lips pursed in an indignant line. “But it is beautiful,” he insisted, “please, Helen.”

“If you are a good boy and ask your grandfather nicely, maybe, just maybe you can have one.” Turning to William, she asked, “Can he, father?”

“Please, Wil… no, grandfather,” the boy pled. “I will be a good boy. Very, very good.”

His huge, expressive black eyes of Adrian Augustine would be the dead of William. Could he ever say ‘no’ to them?

Before long, the nobleman found himself handing his grandson a silver case with the name ‘Adrian Augustine’ carved on it. The boy beamed happily at him when he received the gift and William could not deny he had seen the former Adrian Augustine smiling at him.

How, in the depth of his cold, lonely nights, had he had wished to see that particular smile again, even just once.

II. For My Beloved Helen

Lord William Bloodworth was walking through a long corridor. His feet were bare, and his sleeping robe clung slickly to his skin as a result of a nightmare. Of jumbled images of a gleaming knife, a slit throat and the maniac laughter of a madman. The music had broken the dream’s spell, and once he was done catching his breath and steadying his heartbeat, he left his bed to find its source.

The music came from the room at the end of the long corridor. It was the Music Chamber, the name having come to being by a seven-year-old Helen, where the nobleman stored the grand piano and other musical instruments he had gathered over the years. Helen used to play the piano there every Sunday morning and sometimes in the afternoon, before she turned sixteen and decided to spread her wings. This was the thirteenth year since she had left this manor and during that time although Lord William Bloodworth had always instructed the maids to keep the chamber free of dust, he himself had not stepped inside it. He barely remembered how it looked now.

The wall of the corridor was ornamented with various paintings. William was an ardent collector in his younger days – from musical instruments to sculptures and paintings… If he had even the slightest interest in them, he would get them at all cost. This vast manor was the house to his treasured collections and this was where he showcased his paintings, the majority of which were portraits of countless people. Some of them were well-known historical figures while others were mere obscure faces of the stern Londoners from all walks of life. As he took slow, barefooted steps down the length of the corridor, he had a distinct feeling that all the visages painted from colored pigments became real. Not just their faces though, soon their bodies gathered flesh and they crawled out of their framed canvases to crowd the empty corridor. Gentlemen and ladies in elaborate wigs and fancy frills engaged in conversations – the gentlemen debating politics in boisterous loud voices while the ladies whispering gossips to one another behind their fans, their raucous laughter filling the space as their cigarette and brandy filling Lord William Bloodworth’s nose. The deserted corridor in a lord’s manor became the waiting parlor in a common theater house, he thought. Such a place reminded him of one particular man. Talented as he had been, Adrian Augustine had never fancied the large orchestral houses. It was in common theater houses such as this, where the aristocrats mingled indiscriminately with the folks, that he thrived, playing his demonic music and enchanting many a tender heart in a single night and trampling then when the twilight came. How William had watched the cycle repeat.

The moment William put his hand on the handle and twisted the knob, all chattering and laughter was vanquished by the song behind the door. He briefly closed his eyes and opened them again, expecting to witness a lean figure clad in pristine white. His raven hair fell to his shoulders in tendrils like ink on white cloth, his obsidian eyes half-closed, thick lashes like dark butterfly wings casting two faint shadows on pale cheeks, and he was swaying gently to the divine music from his violin. A devil at heart, but an angel in his looks and his art, that was the paradox of Adrian Augustine. Tonight he was playing a new piece that he had claimed to write in his smoldering passion for his ‘beloved’; he had pronounced neither the name of the music nor his lover’s, making a promise to divulge them both at the end of his performance. He had never managed to fulfill his promise, because when the music was reaching a crescendo, a madman leapt from the front row and slashed his throat with a well-whetted knife.

Lord William Bloodworth had been there to witness the death of Adrian Augustine, seated on a few seats from the madman’s. He had even had Augustine’s blood on his suit.

Now in the Music Chamber, he was listening to that unfinished, nameless piece again.

He did not see the devil in pure white when he opened his eyes; he only saw his beloved Helen in a simple teal gown and the boy sitting on the grand piano, basking in the final breaths of the sun before it died in the west. It was the boy that was sliding his little fingers skillfully on the ivory keys and Helen’s eyes on her son were filled with warm pride.

This time William got to hear the ending.

“Have you ever listened to this one, father?” Helen suddenly asked. She straightened her back and let her nimble fingers run through her son’s soft hair.

To her question Lord William Bloodworth nodded. “Is it alright to teach a child such sensual music?”

Helen let out a soft laugh. “Oh father, music is beauty and there are no beauties that shouldn’t be taught to a child.”

“Is that how things are in America?” His voice was hoarse with emotions evoked by the music, though William himself did not realize.

“That is how things are in my home, father,” Helen replied coolly. “They said this was the music he was playing when that madman murdered him. Do you happen to know its name?”

“I don’t.”

For My Beloved Helen, that was the name. He wrote this piece for me. Yet I only found it when scavenging his notes, scattered around the flat he called his home. Oh the irony, father, can you imagine its bitter taste?”

He turned his head away to avoid her piercing gaze, brimmed with tears. He could never bring himself to tell her that he had been there, and could have had the chance to hear Adrian Augustine’s piece to the end had it not for the madman’s intervention. It would only fuel her wrath for him.

“I’m fine, darling,” Helen’s tear-choked voice said to her son as his small hand came up to wipe away her tears. “Thank you.” She caught his hand, kissing his palm.

“I don’t like this piano. A violin would sound much better.”

“When we come back to New Orleans, you will play the violin for me, promise?”

The boy nodded frantically, causing his mother to burst into laughter.

Helen kissed the top of his head. “Now, one more time before dinner, shall we? Do you care to join us father? Or would you rather retire to your room and get changed for dinner? Viktor is coming tonight. He invited me to the theater on Tuesday night so I thought it was only courteous to invite him to dinner.”

“I think I should go change,” William said, looking briefly at his open robe and bare feet. As he made his way out of the room, he heard Helen. “I remember we had a violin in this Music Chamber – the precious Stradivarius I always begged you to try but you never allowed me to touch. Where is it now?”

“Burnt,” he replied curtly, “in an accident,” and closed the door.

The various figures had returned to their respective places on the canvases, though he could still feel their eyes on him as he slowly made his way to his room.

III. Ghost of the Photograph

Lord William Bloodworth was having a very peculiar dream.

In this dream he was not an old man, having to be extra-careful with his every step so as not to cause unnecessary damage to his old bones; in this dream he was in a much younger body, with strong and swift legs to skip up and down the stairs like a happy little squirrel.

He strode through corridor, eyes sweeping over the portraits. He could feel the muscles around his lips shifted every time he passed a particularly interesting one. That gentleman has such funny whiskers, I wonder if he was called ‘Lord Whisker’. He heard the boy’s thought. Ha, this lady has such a tall wig that takes up two-third of the canvas. Poor her old neck. This body that hosted him was a boy’s, with all a boy’s curiosity and carefree attitude.

The boy had reached the landing where the stairs could lead to the chambers upstairs or the basement deep in the earth. Upstairs it was bright and sunny – it was in the early afternoon when the sun was very strong – while downstairs was dark and ominous. The boy was weighing his fear of the dark and his childish yearning to explore this part of the manor. Go up! William heard himself whisper. The boy had one foot on the tread. Be a good boy and go up! There is nothing down there for you, he told the boy again, putting a little more force behind his command. He could feel the clockwork turning inside the boy’s head. Hesitantly, he put his foot down. Good boy. Now go back to your room or the library, anywhere but here. A sudden spark, and then all his fear and hesitance vaporized, replaced with a fierce determination. The boy rushed up the flight of stairs, got himself a candle and then down again; William’s commands were pitiably lost among the noises of soles on the wooden steps and petulant enthusiasm. A child’s love for discovery was strong, and all an old man could do to subdue it were absolutely nothing.

Through the boy’s eyes he saw the wallpaper on the wall, the patterns of which had faded to non-recognizable and there were holes that revealed the brick wall underneath, courtesy of years of negligence and rodents. The stench of dust and mold grew stronger as the daylight grew weaker with the boy’s each careful step down, until the candle was the primary source of light. No more of the careless running, he had learnt to be caution when venturing into the dark.

At the end of the stairs was a door. William remembered it used to be red, but time had stripped away most of the pretty coat, leaving the rough brown skin. The boy tried opening the door, and found it locked. A surge of disappointment was transferred from him to William. Go back upstairs, before your mother starts searching for you. Once again he whispered, and once again he was unheard. The boy stared at the moldy walls, his small hands running over the wallpaper as if hoping to find something hidden in the myriad of tears. He looked to his feet, where he was standing on a doormat so ancient its original color was indefinable.No. William felt his heart throbbing – how strange it was, to able to feel in his dream, how alarming. Dust rose as the boy turned it over, causing him a string of sneezes. He touched the floor beneath, knocking his fingers on the wooden planks. Again, nothing. Not giving up, he began examining the doormat, pulling at every stray thread. God no. William’s chest hurt. A fire burning in there, cooking him from the inside. The boy let out a startled cry when he found a tear at the seam, in which a small, cool object answered to his searching hand. No. He held it up to his eyes: it was a bronze, unadorned, simple key that would never made it to the set of elaborately carved keys for the luxurious chambers upstairs. Yet it was just what he needed for the “Open Sesame” spell. He beamed with triumph as the lock gave a dry click and the door was opened.  God help us. The boy gingerly stepped inside.

The room housed a motley group of objects, big and small, modern and ancient, under a coat of dust. Nonetheless, they did not disappoint the boy; rather, he was intrigued by them as though he had just unearthed a buried treasure ground. His big eyes scanned the room, his heart beating in sync with his excitement when he founded something that appealed to him. So many things that he did not know where to start. Then a small chest, much older than the boy and worn at the edge, caught his best interest. He retrieved it from the low shelf, placed it near the candle on the ground and flicked open the lid. William’s pain morphed into agony; were he in his own body and able to control it, he would scream for the boy not to bring what was inside the chest out to light. He were not, so with horror he had to watch the boy empty the chest’s contents to the ground. A soft thud, and a stack of yellow paper tied together by a red cord rolled over to his feet. Small hands untied the knot and picked up the first paper. His eyes, also William’s eyes, skimmed over the words of the unaddressed letter; the script was not the neatest, but the handwriting was strong and bold enough to give hints to the writer’s personality. Perhaps bored with all the characters, the boy abandoned the first letter to reach for the second, which he soon did the same for the third, the forth, until he found a black and white photograph of a young man amongst the papers. With hair as black as ink, pallid skin and exquisite bones for his face, he possessed a dark beauty that was both unnerving and alluring – a fallen angel made to ruin, now dozing on the armchair like a harmless babe. One look and you would not be able to avert your eyes, your very soul captured by the elegant line of his jaw, the tiny crease between his eyebrows, probably caused by a troubled dream. William felt the boy’s lips stretching into a smile, not the innocuous one he often showed William and his mother but one that was not unlike a smirk, which was mirrored by the pair of lips in the photograph. The eyes shot open, black like midnight, like their owner’s soul, and their stare penetrated the boy to reach the old man. The surface of the photograph simmered and melted like being held under a fire, and the beautiful young man, rather than burning, emerged from the frame that kept him imprisoned, and grabbed the boy, his eyes never leaving William.

Lord William Bloodworth was awaken by his own screams.

With the last image of his dream imprinted in his mind, the old man swung open the door of his chamber. Down the stairs he ran, not giving half a mind to his brittle bones, until he reached the red door at the end. He did not need the key for it was already open. Inside he found the boy holding a black and white photograph in his hands, his large, obsidian eyes opening wide in surprise. The candlelight was on the ground, around which the yellow letters were strewn.

“OUT!” William shouted. His shadow was looming over the little boy, threatening. His face pallid, sweated, his eyes red with tiny veins and the hand that was holding onto the wall was shaking violently. “OUT!” he repeated, louder, with menacing when the boy had not moved from his spot. The old man stalked closer and it was without a shadow of a doubt that he would strike the child if he refused to obey.

Fear finally registered to the young mind and tears started swelling in his eyes.

“Father,” called a voice from inside the room, from where the boy ran to. It was an ice-cold bucket dumping on Lord William Bloodworth, deflating his rage in millisecond and searing a way for terror to settle in. His body sagged instantly as though a torn bag of rice, and the rice had flooded out.

It was not the same as his dream: in his dream, the boy had been all by himself. In reality, Helen was with him.

She stood up from an old chair and let the boy hid his tear-stained face behind her back, shielding him from William. “Father, do you intend to kill my son, too?” she sounded calm, but instead of the mildly cool voice she usually spoke to him, this time it was frigid.

“No, I d–didn’t–I don’t…”

“Like you killed his father seven years ago?”

“What? I didn’t–”

“No more lies, father,” she said. “I have had enough with your lies.”

“Who told you such cruel lie? I didn’t kill him! Adrian Augustine was murdered by madman, everyone there saw that!”

William could hear his teeth clattering as he defended himself from Helen’s accusations; the effect of her chilling stare on him was devastating. His hand gripped the wall until his knuckles turned white, trying to keep himself from collapsing.

“Peter Browning was never a madman. He was only mad on the account of his wife’s consumption and a wealthy man, probably a lord, offered him money to cure her. In exchange for that hefty sum of money, he dressed up, booked a seat in Adrian Augustine’s final performance, and killed the leading star. Little did he know that after the murder, his ‘reimbursement’ for his service were a quick hanging and curses that lasted until today. Did I miss anything, father?”

“I didn’t know any man by the name Peter Browning,” he denied. “Nor did I pay him to kill Adrian Augustine.”

“Oh, don’t disgrace the hard-labor fruits of my six years, father.”

“What are you saying, Helen?”

The boy’s cry had quieted. Helen stroked his soft hair tenderly before sending him upstairs. “Go to our room and play with the new toys I bought you, darling. Mummy will soon join you. If you are hungry, ask Frances to prepare you some snacks.”

“Can I have a lemon cake, Helen? And a blueberry muffin, too?”

“Anything you like, sweetheart. Now, go!”

The boy nodded and proceeded to leave his mother’s side. He glanced nervously at William, afraid that the old man might strike him, as he passed through the door.

“After Adrian’s birth, I didn’t leave London like you, or anyone thought,” she continued. “I traveled to New Orleans often for business but my base was right here, just a few streets from you, father. Can’t you imagine the price I paid for the truth? A much higher than the one you paid for your lies.”

Tears brimmed hotly around his eyes. The Helen in front of him was blurred and flickering like an apparition.

“When did you know?”

Helen went on. “I knew you had him killed the day his death reached me, have always known in my heart. But a part of me, tiny as it was, stubbornly denied the blatant truth. It screamed for evidence, for a blinded faith that you, my father, was guiltless, then the truth crushed it, and burned it to ash.”

“He was devil-incarnate, Helen. An abomination! The filthy breathing proof of his mother’s adultery in her husband’s absence!” he cried. “And you, you were so pure, so innocent. He seduced you, corrupted you for the sake of his vengeance. Didn’t he tell me? He would break your heart, rip it out and trample it under his soles. I had seen him doing so to countless before you, all broken, ruined beyond fix. All ended up in a pool of shame, never to get out. I feared you would be next. I tried to warn you, but you never listened, enchanted by the devil’s silver tongue. I knew you would die once he discarded you. I had to prevent that nightmare. You, my beautiful, darling only daughter!”

Her piercing eyes softened with moisture and for a moment, it seemed his words had managed to touch her cold heart. It was only a moment though: her eyes regained their sharpness and she broke into a peal of laughter. “Did you think I hadn’t an idea of who he was? Did you really kill him to protect me, your helpless ignorant daughter? Oh, you truly make me laugh!”

Lord William Bloodworth stared at her, puzzled.

Helen leisurely walked to a corner, where she took an old violin case in her hands. Blowing softly the layer of dust, she opened the lid and held out a violin. Light from the candle danced on it finely lacquered skin. She sawed a few notes, testing the sound. “Burnt, father? The precious Stradivarius I used to suspect you loved more than your child?”

“I…”

“The Stradivarius, those unsent letters, his photograph… You really built a shrine for him here, didn’t you? But you could have chosen some place… less dark and cramped. You know he always preferred light…”

Lord William Bloodworth was about to open his lips.

“Please, don’t sully the truth, father,” she denied his unvoiced defense. “I have always known. You were attending his debut concert the night mother died, abandoning her on her deathbed as a punishment for her slip of the heart. My poor mother, tormented till her last moments. Yet for all the hatred you had for her, you couldn’t hate him. You gave the Stradivarius to him. You bought his small flat by the south bank. You were his generous patron, who thought you had bought not only his art but his person as well.”

She picked up the scattered letters and the photograph.

“How did I know when you kept those secrets so well? He told me himself, everything there was to know, confessed to me the night we planned our leave.”

“Liar…” he muttered, weakly, “all lies.”

“We were going to leave for America, you see, New Orleans, the French city we both loved. We would settle in the French Quarter, open a small pub, and every evening he would play for our patrons. That beautiful dream of ours. Somehow you learned of it, and you couldn’t stand it. You would have it destroyed at all cost. Was that a lie, too, father?”

“If you have always known, if you despise me so, why did you come back?”

There she laughed again, each sound a silvery stab to his chest.”Has it not occurred to you that I have been planning for revenge?”

He could not tell if it was his legs trembling or the ground was quaking.

“Why didn’t you denounce me to the police? You’ve had all the evidence.”

She stalked closer to him and looked at him in the eyes she spoke, word by word. “I would never betray you, father, despise you as I do for having robbed my first, and only love. Adrian never broke my heart; you did. You tore it out, you smashed it to a bloody pulp. I wanted to torment you but once I stepped inside this manor, I realized that I didn’t have to; you had been doing it yourself very well already, with all your guilt and paranoia. How you were freaked out by the slightest thing my son did! Isn’t he a spitting image of his father? Do you feel haunted looking at his face?”

She cradled his head in her arms, whispering to him, “What date is it today, can you tell me?”

“The day he died…”

“Right, it was today that he was murdered. That I died. Do you have any idea how I have been waiting for this chance to tell you my hatred, my wrath, my pains…”

She kissed him, her lips like snow on his forehead.

“… Then I will leave. I will take Adrian and disappear from your sight forever. Until the day you die, father, remember that I will never forgive you, that I will not shed tears in your funeral.”

The yellow-papered letters and photographs left her hands, fluttered in the mid-air like doves, and landed by her feet.

“Keep them, father, however long you wish in this damned shrine you built, for I have the real Adrian by my side. Trade my soul for it I did.”

Helen did not spare a look at him when she spun on her heels and left.

Left alone in the basement, Lord William Bloodworth’s knees finally gave in.

True to her words, when William finally peeled himself off the floor and ascended the stairs, Frances told him that the lady and her son had long gone.

***

Epilogue

Adrian Augustine’s was the last face Lord William Bloodworth wanted to see in this word. It was also the last face he saw at the final moments of his guilt-stricken existence.

Adrian Augustine stepped in the chamber a beautiful young man. He was precisely the same as the image imprinted on William’s memory: hair and eyes as dark as the starless night sky, a face so otherworldly it inspired only awe and profound affection. He dresses all in white, as such was his beloved color, with a single black pearl adorned his cravat of the finest silk. He took off his hat and bowed deeply to William’s doctor, all polite and fastidious manners, but his eyes were on the dying old man on the bed the moment he entered. A shadow of a smile lingered at the corner of his lips.

“Look, my lord,” the doctor cried. “Your only grandson has come back!”

Oh, how the irony cut deep. If only he were not bone-tied to his deathbed, if only he had a sliver of strength, he would tip his head back and laugh so loud the sound of his laughter would shake the manor. Had he not already known this was how it would turn out?

“Could I be allowed a moment alone with my grandfather, please, doctor?”

“But of course,” said the doctor, taking Adrian’s hands in his and giving an enthusiastic squeeze. “Thanks God you have made it in time. I was so worried that you could have been hindered by transportation, or the telegraph failed to reach you. Your mother–”

The young man placed a finger on his lips.

“I see… Please stay with him, comfort him. He has been suffering great pain recently.”

“That I must do. Thank you, doctor.”

Once the doctor was gone, Adrian took a seat beside Lord William Bloodworth’s bed. He lifted William’s hand, lay beside his body, and placed a kiss on the wrinkled skin.

“I can imagine that I am not the face you wish to see at the moment.”

“H…Helen…my Helen…”

“She, no, we came back together. But she does not want to come in. She made a vow, you see, that she would never again appear in front of you. That day I did not go upstairs as Helen asked. I stayed on the stairs, and I heard all.”

“You…devil…”

Adrian looked genuinely stricken by Lord William’s curse. “Am I the devil, you said?” he asked. “How so? It was not I who murdered a man and robbed away his daughter’s love? Do tell me, is that truly the devil’s work?”

Though he spoke of accusations, his voice was soft, his tone calm, relaxed even. It would not be a surprise if he talked about London’s weather in this voice, or whispered honey into a lover’s ears.

How like Adrian Augustine, William thought. Always smiling even when the world around him shook and crumbled. Always smiling even when all around him screamed and suffered. Only a slit throat could have snubbed out that smile.

“…abomination,” hissed William weakly. Anger cost him a feat of agonizing coughs. He wondered if the flame of Hell could burn stronger than the one in his chest?

Adrian’s eyes were so mellow and gentle they could fool a dying man with spurious affection. Could have almost fooled William.

“Helen may not forgive you but I do. I forgive your cruel words and crueler acts…”

He lowered his head and kissed the spot between the old man’s eyes. “…grandfather,” he whispered at last. “That is why I will not let you pass on with a menacing lie. Helen did not come back to London. She could not, for she was buried beneath the soil of Lafayette Cemetery in the French Quarter. Has been there for two years. Tuberculosis, the same killer that had taken her mother.”

It seemed all the remaining air had been burnt out in Lord William Bloodworth’s ailing lungs. He could not breathe, his face turned ashen, and his bloodshot eyes, sunken deep in his sockets, were nailed on Adrian’s face. Both of his hands gripped the young man’s arm.

“It was her wish that I would tell you a lie and that I would hide the truth about her death from you. In the end I betrayed her will. You are, after all, my grandfather…”

William’s grip grew stronger, and stronger as though he wanted to break his grandson’s arm while Adrian’s words flowed, his serene expression perfectly concealing the pain. His hands slackened and finally dropped on the mattress when the young man was silent.

Adrian’s eyes spoke of profound sadness and loss as he closed Lord William’s Bloodworth’s eyes.

Music was playing when Adrian entered the Music Chamber. Sitting at the piano with her back to the door was a raven-haired woman, her long, black dress flowing down to the white-tiled floor like ink.

Adrian leaned against the door frame, keeping silent until her music ended.

“It’s been so many years since I touched the keys,” the woman said, turning around to face Adrian. “Do you think it sounds awful?”

The green youth of a girl had gone from her, yet what she might have lost was well compensated for by the breathtaking charms of a mature woman at the prime of her life. Her beauty fiercely absorbed the luster of everything around her, making them dull in her presence.

“It cannot be more awful than I was at four.”

He stepped forward and placed a butterfly kiss on her lips.

“He’s gone, isn’t he?”

“It was not a peaceful death,” he confessed. “What pained him more, I can’t tell, that his daughter had died before him or that she had refused to see him out of hatred.”

“Either was better than the truth,” she said, touching her sempiternally youthful face. “Can you imagine what he would have said if he had seen me as I am now?”

“Breathtaking,” he replied.

Her laughter was silvery bells. “That wouldn’t have done well to his condition, right?”

He lowered his head in attempt to hide a sheepish smile.

“What shall we do about this manor, Adrian? Oh, excuse me, Mr. Bloodworth?”

“You have not spoken of that last name since I was three years old,” he teased.

“You are the master of this manor now. The title and land will soon be yours also. I had better get used to hearing your last name.”

Our last name, you mean?” He cocked a fine eyebrow.

“Yes, ours. How will you introduce me to the folks since we share the same last name? Your sister?” She laughed, shaking her head. “Everyone here knows you are an only child. Your cousin? You have no cousin that they do not know. How about our wife? ‘Mrs. Bloodworth’ does have a nice ring to it.”

“Too young to get married.”

“Too old to get married.” She laughed.

He rested his hand on her small waist and spun her into a waltz. Sun beams landed on their lustrous raven hair, their youthful countenance. Stark black contrasted with pure white, her black and his white, so that they seemed an uncanny pair of demon and angel. The beautiful angel and gorgeous demon, dancing with the world’s sorrows beneath their soles.

“Anything you wish,” he whispered into her ears, “my darling Helen.”

End


Note: Anyone caught the incest subtext? *cough*

OK. here’s a cover (or whatever you’d like to call it) I made for the story. Amateurish at best, I know.
So…

Ghost
Ghost
  • Natalie Dormer as Helen Bloodworth
  • Ben Barnes as Adrian Augustine (Bloodworth)
  • Timothy Dalton as Lord William Bloodword

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