'The Hamling House Ghost Incident'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever are private detectives, and lovers, in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. The ladies search for a ghost.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2019 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Caution:— There is some light swearing in this story.
Hamling House sat in its own estate high on the ridge to the north-west behind Delacote City. Originally, in 1885, it had the whole ridge to itself but since then real estate had made inroads into its privacy. Now there were some twenty villas, of varying sizes, spread across the face of the ridge, mostly hidden from each other by the wild thick woods which still clung to the slopes. From the upper storeys of Hamling House there were still wide views of the nearby ocean, but the City itself was hidden by well-placed stands of tall firs. It was, essentially, a private dwelling; sure of itself and not interested in other parties.
Originally built by the 'Christmas King' Ollie Newgate; he who first thought of putting silly kids' games in brightly coloured cardboard boxes and selling them as educational items at Christmas—he swiftly making a fortune thereby. Next in line, some years later—after the collapse of the kids' games at Christmas grift—came Miss Felicia Gerritson, scion of a family who had been making it big in steel in Pittsburgh for generations. She sat in her drawing-room in Hamling House for twenty years in solitary splendour, contributing nothing whatsoever to local society. After her came Henry Jollitoe, the 'Carpet Prince'; he managing to hang onto his pad for a mere eight years before the Crash wiped him out, right down to his boots. The last, or contemporary, householder in residence was at the moment, October 1934, Mrs Susannah Berring, esteemed relict of the lately late Josiah Berring of Berring Cars fame—and fortune, there still being money in cars. And it was she who, one fine Wednesday morning—she having a thing about transacting her most important personal business only on this favoured day of the week—had called in the best detective company in New Hampshire, to lend a hand on deck in a sudden crisis.
"You what?" Alice was somewhat at sea herself, having been peremptorily acquainted with the reason for her, and her secret inamorata's, call to the great house.
"It would seem I have a ghost." Mrs Berring was five feet ten inches in height, and had the bearing to go with this exalted altitude. "Not being a person who sees fit to share her private residence with such occurrences I require you Miss Drever, and your assistant, to get rid of it at once."
Fiona Cartwright, herself a full two inches taller than their present client, regarded this information with the full professional scrutiny such demanded.
"Rubbish—ain't no such things as ghosts." Fiona having solid beliefs thataway. "We'll leave ya now; forget your first deposit, we'll return it pronto, tomorrow. G'bye. Come, Alice. No, we know our way out, thank you."
The two erstwhile detectives already heading purposefully for the nearest oak door Mrs Berring was enjoined to swift action, mostly in a retrograde direction.
"Aah, perhaps I may have been a little, er, dogmatic." These words of near apology falling from her lips in an acid tone, apologies never having been her forte. "To be honest I, er, nor any other servant or visitor, have actually set eyes on the, umm, apparition."
This admition stopped Fiona in her tracks; she loving nothing better than to see a good client squirm—well, one must take one's pleasures where one can, as her Great Aunt Etheldreda had often told her.
"Ya ain't seen it, yet you're adamant it exists, somewhere in this ancient pil—er, house?"
"Well, um, I certainly believe so."
Time for Alice to take her favourite attitude, that of an Utilitarian hard-liner with a headache.
"You, nor yours, haven't seen it; you haven't heard it; you can't attribute any precise activity or action to it—ergo, the bloody thing doesn't exist." Having produced this minimalist description of a non-ghost Alice turned to leave in well-earned triumph.
"I have heard it, and seen the consequences of its, er, actions. It does exist; you must help me." Mrs Berring's tone now one of imploring submission.
Fiona looked at Alice; Alice Looked at Fiona; both sighed inwardly and turned to Mrs Berring.
"Fay, this's got'ta be the craziest thing we've ever done. D'you believe in ghosts?"
"Well, there we are, then."
Alice paused to let this sink in.
"Where? Where are we?"
"Up a bloody gum tree, is what, lover. Bloody ghosts!"
"At least we're being paid, full rates." Alice not losing sight of the important matters in life.
Fiona bucked up tremendously, as this irrevocable fact percolated the mists of depression.
"Say, that's a fact, babe." She sat straighter in her chair, in the office of Drever and Cartwright on the 5th floor of the Packer Building, on the corner of 12th and Rosemartin Road, Delacote City, NH. "So, what's the general technique fer scaring ghosts out'ta home an' hearth? Jes' askin'."
"There ain't none, that I knows of, anyway." Alice took time to consider the arcane matter. "Unless you get a priest t'perform one o'those arcane religious rituals against it. Or, meb'be, haul a séance together, an' let it loose on the dam' thing."
"Yeah, y'know, grab a bunch o'grifters passin' in the street; stack 'em round a table; say a few magic words; an' they, somehow, bring all the ghosties, demons, an' monsters from the depths o'hell in'ta the room t'jostle your elbows in the dark—it havin' t'take place in complete darkness, y'know, fer authenticities' sake, y'see."
Fiona gazed at her partner for an appreciable time in silence, then broke out in aggressive tones.
"Al, ya lost what little remains o'your mind, or what? Yer talkin' nonsense."
Alice went on the defensive immediately.
"It's in all the books; well, the few I've read on the matter—Harry Price, an' all those guys."
"Harry Price—Pheewph." Fiona making her opinion of this particular gentleman completely clear.
"Well, he's kosher at least; more'n most of the other perps in the spiritualist game are, anyways."
"Hah, high praise indeed."
Alice, here having waved a metaphorical goodbye to the last wisps of her patience, got stroppy.
"Fay, gim'me a break, I'm only tryin' t'help, here. You got any great ideas? No, thought not."
A distant fly, industriously searching for a way through the glass of a closed window was, for a significant period, the only living being in the room doing any tangible work; then Fiona grappled with Life once again.
"No point in hiring a priest or vicar or what-not; they'd only flail around with rituals, chants, prayers, an' the rest of it—"
"—at the end of which, we'd be no better off."
"—'zactly." Fiona agreeing without contest. "Gettin' a spiritualist in's a different matter—"
"—grifters, bums, an' deadbeats, pullin' the sheets over their victims' eyes as well's themselves—"
"—too right, sis." Alice agreeing with this righteous portrayal of a wide band of otherwise worthy citizens. "So, that leaves us on our own, don't it?"
"That's what I thought."
Another pause silently rattled the window-sills and door-frame of the large office, as the women contemplated their dubious position.
"At least we're bein' paid; though for what I'm not exactly clear."
"There's that, ducks." Fiona agreeing with the only concrete fact in the case to date. "Well, if we're gon'na do anything worthwhile here we'll have'ta crawl back up the hill t'Hamling House, an' put the screws on the servants, an' Mrs Berring, for real—see what we can squeeze out'ta them about this dam' apparition."
"Huh, probably got more t'do with a glass of sherry too many, all round, than anything more palpable." Alice letting her severely practical nature have free rein in the matter.
The front of Hamling House sat facing the approach road up the steep hill; this highway itself merely a tight lane cut through the thickly growing fir-woods which still covered the slopes of the incline. A sort of artificial plateau had been carved out of the far face of the hill in order to site the houses' foundations; it being the rear of the building that faced the view out over the sharply descending hill, the seashore flat ground where Delacote City now stood, and the wide ocean beyond, stretching to a distant horizon. The front of the house was predominantly flat-sided, with three floors and attic windows in the high sloping roof. It could not clearly be associated with any particular architectural style, simply providing a massive presence, as if to say my solidity is all the introduction needed for those visiting or living there. Painted overall black, which had faded to grey over the years, its atmosphere was less than welcoming though not, by a slight margin, outrightly forbidding. On rolling her Plymouth Roadster to a halt on the small driveway outside the main door Alice made free with her opinion.
"Looks mighty like the House of Usher t'me."
"For God's sake don't let Mrs Berring hear ya say that." Fiona shuffled her shoulders under her woolen jacket in scorn. "She'll cut us off without a penny, an' kick us out in'ta the snowstorm, like a Victorian villainess."
On approaching the door, massive and windowless, Fiona found no necessity to soil her yellow kid gloves by knocking on the flaking paint as it was opened as they reached it; showing in the interior shadow, not to say darkness, the silhouette of either a dignitary of the servant class, or a mere slavey, which wasn't at first quite clear. So, to make identity doubly sure, Fiona braved the first communication with the unknown.
"Hi'ya, chilly this mornin', ain't it?"
"If you will follow me, ladies, the Mistress is awaiting your presence in the front Drawing-room."
Thus identified as the butler, John Saunders, Fiona and Alice did as asked; following meekly behind the magnificent presence as subjects must have followed the earlier and nastier Renaissance Italian Lords; that is, dam' well knowing their place.
"Ah, so kind of you to drop in again." Mrs Berring rose from the sofa where she had been reclining in a well-rehearsed attitude, made up of three parts hedonistic ennui and one of outright weariness of spirit.
"Saunders, tea and biscuits for three, if you please. Ladies, this double-sofa opposite my own will serve admirably, I believe."
"Yes, ma'am." Saunders, burdened with the heavy orders of his superior, somehow managed to leave the room, like a lost soul flickering through the passages of Hell itself, without making any noise; even managing to exit the door without, as far as Fiona or Alice could tell from the corners of their eyes, the simple necessity of opening it first.
"What, may I ask, is the reason for this visit? Has something of import arisen which has a bearing on my, aahm, difficulty?"
"Might have." Alice, slowly recovering some iota of backbone, eyed her hostess with what could only be called suspicion. "We'd like to interview the servants; find out what they saw, heard, or felt. It'll give us a clearer idea of the shape of things in this here, er, house. Let us figure a way to carry forward our investigation, y'know."
"How many servants do you employ, Mrs Berring?" Fiona finding, like Mr Gradgrind before her, that facts were utilitarian concepts with much going for them, in the right hands.
"Let me see," Mrs Berring lowered her face, contemplating her lap; she being attired in a flowing silk patterned dress some decades out of fashion with a tight bodice held together by jangling dark jet beads and fol-de-rols. "There's Saunders, of course; the backbone of the House, in fact. If there is anything regarding the running of the House you wish to ascertain, Saunders is your man."
"Thanks, er, we'll keep that in mind." Fiona not quite sure how to handle her latest client.
"Then, there are the female servants," The mistress of the House considered this matter, too, with the attention the subject certainly deserved. "Mary Cameron, my personal maid; you haven't met her yet. Cicely Kenreich, the household maid; a young silly gal, but useful about the place. Then Mrs Dorothy Evans, cook; been with me for fifteen years, knows my tastes to perfection. And finally, Iris Niemeister, general maid; eight years here, and completely trustworthy. That is all."
Alice had been industriously filling her notepad, balanced on her knee, and now looked across at Mrs Berring with a questioning eyebrow.
"No-one else? No guests, staying just for the week-end, or whatever? No relations visiting for a while? Just you, and those servants you've enumerated? You sure?"
"Good Grief, woman, of course. What do you take me for; someone halfway to senility, or what?"
Mrs Berring thus unexpectedly coming out of her corner with a metaphorical right-hook that nearly landed Alice on the ropes before the referee, in the shape of Fiona, came to the rescue.
"Just looking for facts, ma'am." She unconsciously quoting one of her literary heroes. "Facts, ma'am, facts is what matter; facts alone are wanted here, at the present moment; rooting out everything else that isn't important. Facts, forming the conclusions of reasoning minds, will be the only things of any service to us in the present circumstances."
Faced by this unarguable wall of logic Mrs Berring succumbed as well as she felt able.
"Oh well, if you insist. Saunders will show you around the House; possibly the Red Study will prove advantageous as somewhere for you to undertake your questioning of the servants. Ah, here's Saunders returned; shall we partake of tea, then? China or India? I always favour China, myself; sweeter and lighter, you know."
The Red Study, when the ladies took up residence there just under an hour later, turned out in reality to be brown; the red silk with which its walls had been decorated in 1885 and not touched since having faded to this weak ghost of its former self.
Saunders, under his Mistress's orders, had shown Fiona and Alice all round the house; or as much of it as was needful, they having declined to visit the attics, at least on this occasion.
"I've seen prison cells with happier atmospheres than this here room." Alice giving of her private opinion after Saunders had left them in sole command of the study. "Don't look as if anyone's been in here for more than two minutes at a time for the last fifty years."
"It's only forty-nine years since it was built." Fiona, unable to stop herself coming out with the cold facts.
"Well, there you are." Alice being as unclear in her concepts as was relevant in the circumstances, as she laid her trusty notebook on the square table and sat on one of the low-backed wooden chairs. "Who's first?"
"Saunders's sending Mrs Evans, the cook, t'break the ice." Fiona settled herself at the table, leaning forward with her elbows on the flat surface. "Cooks' is good, cooks' are reliable; they always having a finger in every pie, hee-hee. See what I did there, lover?"
Alice had been writing a preliminary note, but now the point of her pencil snapped with a loud, almost echoing, crack; causing her to raise her pained eyes, with a gleam of sadness therein, to the lady sitting by her side.
"So, this's how it starts, then?"
"Senility, dear. Don't worry, I'll look after you, though—hard task as it certainly will be."
"Oh, come on—only a dam' joke; why so serious, break out a smile, at least, gal."
Further discord, however, was waylaid by a sharp tap on the door, which then opened to reveal the lady in question—Dorothy Evans, long-time cook for her mistress.
"You wished to see me, ladies?"
Her voice, like her figure, was deep and broad; her presence exuding an atmosphere of certainty and cinnamon in almost equal quantities.
"Yes, please take a chair, Mrs Evans." Fiona all politeness, aiming to put the woman at ease, though with what success would have to be awaited. "Mrs Berring told you why we're, er, here?"
"About the ghoulies and the ghosties, haunting this back-stairwell t'the Place."
Mrs Evans' sharp emphasis on this last word having its due effect on Alice.
"Place, Mrs Evans?"
"Hell, ma'am; the Earl o'Sich's privy residence." She nodding enthusiastically, a faint tinge of excited pink appearing on her cheeks. "To think that I, a member of the Taffyn a' Clwwd Chapel, back home in Wales, should be exposed to such evil shenanigans! It's a mercy no-one's as yet been took, ma'am's."
Fiona and Alice exchanged glances at this dramatic description of a few creaks and groans going on in an old building.
"Took, Mrs Evans? Where?" Fiona, against her better judgement even as she spoke, couldn't help but let slip the obvious question.
For which in answer, with an expression of doom to come to one and all, Mrs Evans simply raised a thickly-wristed arm and silently pointed straight down at the floor.
Alice fell into the trap of gazing at the dusty floorboards, stained by the passage of the ages, before realising what Mrs Evans actually meant.
"Hah, ah, ha, yes." Alice trying valiantly to make a come-back, but failing entirely.
"Mrs Evans," Fiona attempting to bring the interview back on track. "what have you seen or heard, personally, of the assumed going's-on here. Feel free to be as open as you like; it's information we all want to come out in the open, you know."
The cook took time to consider the ramifications of this question before answering.
"It all started three months since, when Cicely fell down the back-stairs—insisting, after, she was pushed—but no-one being anywhere near on the occasion, as was ascertained by Mrs Berring, later."
This was just the sort of fact Fiona was questing for.
"Mrs Berring investigated, and found no servant was near Cicely when she fell?"
"Oh yes." Dorothy smiled happily, now wholly certain of her story. "She, Mrs Berring, too notes from everyone; wrote out a diagram of times an' places; then routed out her grandfather's timepiece, a stopwatch chronometer, an' took us all through our routines up to the very split-second Cicely took her fall, near the rear kitchen entrance. No-one was anywhere close to her; certain fact, as made clear to one and all by Mrs Berrings's grandfather's chronometer. Split-seconds, ladies, split-seconds; Cicely, silly strumpet, wholly on her own for sure an' certain. Ghosts, ma'am, ma'am, ghosts—the only reasonable explanation. I'm thinking of giving in my month's notice."
Next to enter the stuffy confines of the study was Mary Cameron, Mrs Berrings' personal maid.
Alice, for one, was surprised that Miss Cameron was in fact of an age with her mistress; grey short hair, thin face, thin frame, dress fashion somewhere around 1917, and a quiet constrained shy temperament; she refraining from smiling throughout the whole of the subsequent interview.
"If you could give us an idea of your own personal association with anything out of the ordinary happening here recently, Miss Cameron." Alice trying with all her might to sound approachable, kind, and compassionate all at once.
"I've heard stories from everyone around me, of course; but the only time I was personally involved, if indeed I was, was when the clock in the rear drawing-room fell off the wall and broke with all the noise of a cavalry regiment charging at Waterloo, if you please."
"Oh, aah?" Fiona already beginning to feel a lack of interest or trust in any of the tales being brought to light.
"Yes, I was in the kitchen corridor; which, as you know, breaks the house almost in two, side to side." Miss Cameron allowing her interrogators more geographical knowledge of the interior workings of the house than they had actually so far been able to command. "The rear Drawing-room door opening on the far end of this passage, I clearly heard the smash as the clock hit the floorboards. Like a bomb going-off, it were; the glass shattered and fly everywhere, the workings came out in bits and pieces, the floor was horribly scratched, it was a terrible, an infernal, disaster."
Alice, writing all this twaddle down industriously, paused in her efforts to transcribe this patent nonsense; she not being able to let such sloppy thinking slip by un-attended by any opposition.
"It was only a clock falling-off a wall; what's supernatural about that?"
Miss Cameron was up for this childish remonstrance.
"Screwed, ma'am," She snapping this out between tight lips, like an alligator with an appetite. "Wholly screwed, all round, if you please."
This time both Fiona and Alice had to give themselves time to absorb the meaning of Miss Cameron's outpourings.
"Ah, you mean, with screws, to the wall—I understand." Alice coming to the surface with a sigh of relief.
"Quite so, ma'am." Miss Cameron continuing unabashed. "Four in all, all three inches long; apparently placed there by Mr Henry Jollitoe, in his day; he liking to know, apparently, what o'clock it was in every room of the house he might find himself in."
"Ah." From Alice.
"Hum." From Fiona, her eyes glazing over the while.
Next in line, of unreliable witnesses, was Iris Neimeister, maid-of-all-purposes.
"Do take a chair, Miss Niemeister." Fiona opening the assault peremptorily; she having by this time lost most of her milk of human kindness. "So, what did you hear, around this wreck? Surprise me."
Miss Neimeister, as both detectives should have guessed well beforehand, coming from Pennsylvania German stock had a hard assertive attitude which took no criticism from any man, or woman.
"If your attitude is to hold my very beliefs and knowledge against me; why, we may as well say our goodbyes' now, ladies."
This remonstrance, spoken with chin high in air, put Fiona and Alice firmly in their place—Fiona being left to hold the fort against this attack till her companion, knocked for six into the long grass, gathered her breath again.
"Not at all, not at all; let me re-phrase it—is there anything you can add to the curious going's-on that have been reported in this residence? Some by your own mistress?"
"Curious, no doubt," Miss Neimeister, slightly mollified, allowing thereby the discussion could continue. "but with a simple explanation; which Mrs Berring refuses to countenance—the house is falling apart around us, is all."
Here once more Fiona and Alice felt the need to exchange glances; again, not of much help to either.
"As how, Miss Neimeister?" Fiona taking the plunge with a brave face.
"Cicely falling down the stairs, hah!" She making a face wholly expressive of disdain at the very thought. "A warped wooden step she tripped over. A clock falling-off a wall, hurrumph! Merely rust, and the wall plaster ageing to dust. Mrs Berring, bless her but she is a fool, sees and hears things, you know. I am seriously thinking of going back to my sister in Darmont, Tennessee."
"Not Cicely." Alice's voice, as they awaited the appearance of their next clent, held a pleading tone which would not be ignored. "I couldn't take Cicely, at this juncture."
"Oh, well." From an acquiescent Fiona.
And so it was that Saunders, the butler, was next in line for his reminiscences.
"Let me tell you both the facts, straight." He standing four-square on the bare floorboards in front of the two seated detectives; presenting a façade of staunchness against trying times, the while. "Mrs Berring has a problem—"
"Yeah, we know—ghosts in the machine." Alice being as quirky as the circumstances certainly allowed.
"Nothing, go on, please; we're all ears—ain't we, dear?"
"Hurrrph, carry on, Saunders, please." Fiona having by now reached the frayed end of her tether.
"Well, it's like this, ladies," Saunders obviously having decided to come clean at the last hurdle. "There ain't no ghosts in this here house; never was, never will be. The fact of the matter is—well, the house is really only haunted, practically, by Mrs Berring, herself."
"How so?" Fiona bravely still searching for facts above all else.
"This is of the most private nature, ladies; but, under present conditions, I suppose you ought to be made aware. Mrs Berring's doctor has informed me, in complete confidence of course, that she is suffering from a terminal illness—she has a bare few years to go, steadily declining in mind and body the while."
"Oh, dear." Both detectives astounded at this revelation.
"Yes, she is now under constant medical care, including the administration of certain drugs daily." Saunders puffed his cheeks, beginning to crack under the strain of revealing such personal details of his mistress's life. "She is supposed to take her medicines daily, but often—indeed, more and more, recently, she forgets. The result being, er, auditory and even physical delusions. Delusions which have no substance in reality, ladies. Cicely falling down the stairs was a mere accident, nothing else. The clock that Miss Cameron sets such store by, in verifying Mrs Berring's delusions, again simply a case of the plaster weakening over time. All the other incidents, all attributable to Mrs Berring's, ah, illusions. There are no ghosts, ladies; there never were, nor will be; much as my mistress continues to insist. I am very much afraid I called Doctor Jamieson yesterday, with a proposition to install a permanent nurse; allowing of her over-seeing Mrs Berring taking her appropriate medicines daily in future. There you have it, ladies."
"Oh, Good God!" Fiona completely overwhelmed by events.
"Well, yes; that certainly closes the case, an' no mistake." Alice seeing clearly through the mists of obfuscation to the tragic reality beyond.
"I hardly feel right, taking her check, y'know." Alice, for once, chary of accepting money from a client.
They sat in their office, in the Packer Building back in Delacote City, drumming their several fingers on the long table in their private room there, going over the facts in the case.
"Reckon we should return it, with thanks, but no thanks?"
Alice paused for a second, old habits of grasping the loot at any opportunity dying hard; then a harsh resolve filled her being, like Queen Boudicca facing the Roman hordes.
"Yeah, send it back; after all, what did we do?"
"Exactly." Alice acknowledging the truth of the situation. "Well, what's next?"
Fiona paused, to think about this important subject.
"Something either plain awful, dam' dangerous, or so complex it'll make our heads' ache."
"Oh, the usual, then?"
Another 'Drever and Cartwright' story will arrive shortly.