Summary: An American in England, lukewarm beer, and haunting experiences. Is it possible to adjust with people who insist you’re from “the colonies?” This is the fourth story in the “Art” universe and a Halloween story.
Word Count: 3000
Pluckley, Kent, autumn 1861.
Langford Poole nursed his first beer on European ground. A Bitter. It tasted just like that: bitter, and much too warm for his taste, but after he had complained about that to the landlord of the Black Horse Pub, he had been informed that this was the way beer was served in England. Lukewarm. Brilliant. Just brilliant. Never in his life would he drink a cold beer again. If he had known that in advance… For a split second he considered that Miss Heatherstone had sent him to the place of warm beers on purpose, but he knew it was only the misery talking here. Miss Heatherstone most probably didn’t even know how beer was supposed to be served. Ladies didn’t drink beer. But then again, if there was a lady who secretly drank beer on this planet, it would be her. If Poole had learned one thing about his benefactor, it was that she lived by her own rules, and everyone seemed to accept that.
From the moment he had handed his reference letter to Miss Heatherstone’s solicitor, Norman Lorbander, less than an hour after his feet had touched English ground for the first time a few days ago, he had learned that the strange lady had made quite an impression here, and that she was missed by more people than he would have thought.
Mr. Lorbander had enquired about her wellbeing in a way that made Poole think he really cared, and he had relived this feeling time and again in the following days.
As Miss Heatherstone had promised, Mr. Lorbander had arranged his transport to Pluckley, where Poole had been warmly welcomed at Barnstoke Hall by the caretaker John Rigby, who apparently had been forewarned by a letter.
Barnstoke Hall was an impressive old building – 16th century, Rigby said – with the thickest walls Poole had ever seen, more rooms than Madame Madeleine’s brothel, and the hugest entrance hall the world had ever heard of. Rigby had shown him only parts of the manor house, and disappointed Poole by telling him that he would not live here, but in the small gardener’s hut at the west end of the property, not far from the caretaker’s house. Rigby tried to tell him it was a privilege most attendants would give their right arm for, and that the manor house was nearly impossible to heat during the coming cold season. Poole still thought back longingly to that great hall, decorated with arms and armour and rugs on the stone walls; the massive old table filling nearly half of the room, with delicately carved chairs around it and heavy silver candle-stands placed in the middle, as if the next banquet was only days away. The rooms upstairs gave witness of the absence of their owner, but also said that it was only temporary: all the furniture was covered by heavy white cloths, yet everything was arranged so that the covers had only to be lifted, and life could be taken up as if the room had never been abandoned.
Rigby had stroked his hands over the covers, straightening this blanket and that cloth, and had said, “We keep everything in perfect condition, Mary and I. Whenever her ladyship comes home, the house will be ready for her.”
Poole hadn’t answered this, even though he had recognized the hidden question. Would the lady come home one day? Did she still consider this home? Poole didn’t know. He tried to imagine Cartwright in the manor house, and to his surprise it wasn’t difficult at all to picture him with his hands on the long table in the great hall, suits of armour behind him, telling Mr. Rigby what to do with those rustlers.
Were there rustlers in England? Poole had no idea. There were cattle all right. They looked different, but that shouldn’t keep an upright rustler from stealing them. Poole snorted into his beer.
“Care to share your joke?”
Poole looked up, alarmed. His hand flew to his side, finding no holster. Age-long habits died hard, but he had to get used to going naked.
The man standing next to his table, carrying two beers, had no weapon, either. He was medium tall, with a sturdy build and a chubby face. When Poole forced a smile and said the words he had quickly learned worked miracles in this country, “Sorry, that was private,” the man grinned, deposited the beers on the table and held his hand out.
“I’m Bob Blanchet. The butcher.” He shook Poole’s hand with a firm grip. “You’re the new gardener, Poole, huh?”
News spread quickly here, apparently. Poole nodded.
“You’re from the colonies, I hear.”
Poole nodded again. He had given up telling the friendly people of Pluckley that he came from America. It was no use anyway. With no exception, everyone he told that had nodded, politely, and said, “Yes, I know, from the colonies,” speaking “colonies” a tad louder, as if he was deaf, not originating from a place called America.
Bob made himself comfortable at Poole’s table, pushed one of the beers over to him, and accepted Poole’s nodded thanks with a grin. Bob the Butcher turned out to be the town’s gossip. He knew everyone and everything, and he liked to share his knowledge. Within half an hour Poole knew more about Pluckley and its residents than he had ever learned about any other place.
He also heard about “her ladyship,” who seemed to be in the habit of saving people. Bob’s much younger brother Will had been one of them: an angry little boy with too many ideas for creative mischief and too little motivation for learning, finally thrown out of school by a fed-up schoolmaster. Poole lost the thread here somewhere, but that Miss Heatherstone had been informed of the on-goings apparently had something to do with Bob’s sausages, Mary, former cook in Barnstoke Hall and now wife of John Rigby – much to Bob’s chagrin – and poems, of all things. Be it as it may, Miss Heatherstone, on hearing the news, had not only taken it upon her to teach Will manners (something Poole could easily imagine), reading, writing and counting, but had also persuaded the school’s headmaster to give Will a second chance. Poole grinned at the thought of Miss Heatherstone “persuading” a headmaster. Raking him over the coals surely described better what must have happened in that man’s office, he mused.
Bob made Poole swear he’d tell “her ladyship” in a letter that Will had finished his education with flying colours. Poole was surprised how gladly he promised that.
But there were many things Poole was surprised at. Like how right it had felt to fulfill the lady’s request of planting the Ponderosa Pine seeds she had given him at her brother’s graveside. He had done it earlier that day, and – to his utter astonishment – he had mumbled, “She’s fine, y’know” while digging in the soil. After he had finished, he had jumped up and looked around if someone had witnessed it, but he’d been alone in the family cemetery. And so he had patted the headstones of Henry, fourteenth Earl of Barnstoke, and his son, Henry, never to be fifteenth Earl of Barnstoke, like old friends and left the graveside, heading for the Black Horse Pub.
When Poole emerged from his musing, his new friend Bob had provided them with two more beers, and Poole had to admit that it went down rather smoothly, lukewarm as it was. Poole leaned back in his chair. There could be worse places in the world than The Black Horse with a nice glass of beer, friendly company, and a roaring fire that kept the cold outside. Poole shrugged out of his coat and stood up to find a hook for it.
“Oh no, don’t!” Bob held him back. “You don’t want to go looking for that later. Keep it close by your!”
Poole frowned. “What do you mean? No one will steal a coat, surely.”
“Of course not!”
Poole grinned. He had heard that tone before. He’d just never expected it from anyone else but Mi— her ladyship. But apparently it was an all-British problem.
“It won’t be gone for ever, old chap. Only: you don’t know when you’ll find it; and usually clothes don’t turn up until you’ve given up searching and bought something new,” Bob continued.
“Someone hides it?” Poole couldn’t believe it. “Why?”
“Why? Why?” Bob shook his head as if Poole had asked something particularly stupid. “How am I supposed to know why a poltergeist is doing what he’s doing?”
Poole sniffed at his beer. It smelled quite normal. “A poltergeist? You are telling me there’s a poltergeist in the pub?”
“Yup.” Bob considered him. “You know that Pluckley is Britain’s most haunted place, don’t you?”
Poole took another sip of beer and looked expectantly at Bob. “No, really?” This was going to be a very interesting evening.
Several hours and about four beers later, Poole knew everything about the several ghosts Pluckley was home to. There was the specter of the highwayman, who had been speared to a tree a few centuries ago, and now spooked late pub-goers on their way home; the ghost of a gypsy that appeared in random bedrooms and accused people of having set her wagon on fire; a phantom coach and horses, manifesting on frosty nights; the black ghost of a miller haunting the ruins of a windmill; the hanging body of a schoolmaster, appearing at every term break in the schoolhouse and many more Poole couldn’t possibly remember, all in all at least thirteen or fourteen ghosts Bob knew of.
Poole found all that very entertaining. Bob was a good story teller, and he had spiked his tales with personal experiences, like the time when he had been surprised by the White Lady of Barnstoke, a young woman buried inside seven coffins and an oak sarcophagus who haunted the churchyard of St. Nicholas’s. Bob, who had made a shortcut over the yard, had promised the lady to lay some flowers on her grave, and that had obviously made her let him go. He had never again set a foot on St. Nicholas’s ground after dark.
Eventually the pub closed, but before he and Poole parted, Bob issued a last warning. “Poole, old friend, be careful when you go home. Don’t take the direct way through the property. Stay outside, enter from the west side. That way you don’t have to pass the manor.”
Bob looked expectantly at him, and so Poole, with a slight smile and only a touch of sarcasm, did the butcher the favour of asking, “And what would be so bad in passing the manor?”
Bob grabbed his arm. “Poole, listen, this is not a joke. The earl…you know the last earl, he’s…” He looked around and leaned closer to Poole. “Do you know how the earl died?”
Poole shook his head.
“He fell asleep and froze to death at the grave of his son.” Bob held his hands up when Poole frowned. “Believe me, he did. Ask anyone. The old earl, bless his soul,” Bob made the sign of a cross, “he never came to term with the death of his son. We all felt sorry for her ladyship. She was trying to help her father, but he just went insane. He roamed the house at night, looking for his son, crying his name. Poole, it was frightening. Some of the maids resigned, even Mary considered it. Her ladyship did everything she could to calm the earl, but he did it until the day he died.”
Bob downed the rest of his beer, and stared into the empty glass for a long moment as if he was looking for his lost strength in there. Eventually he went on, “Then her ladyship went away. The next night we heard him for the first time. ‘Henry!’ he was crying, and from outside through the windows you could see a light wandering through the house. Just one single little light, like a candle flame; it moves through the rooms, from one to the other, and you hear him: ‘Henry! Henry!’”
Bob pulled his coat on. “John Rigby was brave enough to go inside one night. He found the earl, pale as a sheet, with a candle in his hand, crying—”
“‘Henry! Henry!’ I know.” Poole interrupted.
Bob was not to be deterred. “‘Henry!’ When the earl saw John, he went after him, with a sword in his hand, shouting, ‘You killed my son!’ John barely made it outside alive. He never went into the manor at night again.” Bob looked Poole deep in the eyes. “No one passes close to Barnstoke Hall at night. Who knows if next time the earl will come looking for his son outside the manor?” He patted Poole’s shoulder one last time. “Take care, chap. Be careful.”
Poole found his way home through the dark lanes of Pluckley only with great difficulty. Not only was it a moonless, dark night: there also were those hedges. All of England, at least everywhere outside London, seemed to consist of hedges. They grew high and lined the roads, forming them into narrow, dark passages. Poole stumbled repeatedly, and when he finally reached the great gates to the Barnstoke property he didn’t even consider continuing around the estate on those dark, hedged lanes instead of cutting straight across the open parklands to his hut at the west side of the property.
He saw the light immediately. Even a long distance from the manor house, he recognized the glow of a candle flickering through the windows of the large dark building. Poole was no coward, had never been one, and so he went ahead, straight on to the manor house. He would find out what—
Poole froze. Never before in his life had he heard a sound like this. Sad, devastated. A mournful shriek, if there was such a thing. A howling, wailing screech; utter misery packed into one word: Henry. The cry of a destroyed parent for his doomed child.
The cry came closer.
Poole’s hand, once again, groped uselessly at his right hip. But what good would a gun have done him anyway?
“Henry…. Have you seen my son?”
His mouth was dry. Even if he’d wanted to, he wouldn’t have been able to answer the question. But Poole didn’t want to answer. He didn’t want to speak, or hear, or see.
See. See, what he was seeing.
The earl was wearing one of the old suits of armour, but he had turned up the helmet visor. His white face was contorted with immeasurable pain, his bloodshot eyes virtually glowed in his pale features. He carried a heavy sword, that he held up to threaten Poole as Henry, fourteenth Earl of Barnstoke approached the paralysed gunslinger.
“Youuuu,” the earl growled, “you killed my sonnnn!”
That was the moment Poole could move again. And boy, how quick he moved! He made the quickest getaway in the history of ghost-sightings, racing down the narrow way to the caretaker’s house as if a thousand furies were behind him, not just an enraged dead earl.
He didn’t know how he found the way in the complete darkness, but somehow he made it to John Rigby’s. For a short moment he considered seeking shelter in his own little hut, but he really didn’t want to face whatever was chasing him alone. At least John Rigby had escaped the earl’s clutches once. And so he hammered his fists on the front door of the old building, shouting to be let in, let in!
The door was answered sooner than it felt, Poole thought later, but his relief was short lived, when behind the opening door he came face to face with his haunter, the dead Earl of Barnstoke.
Poole had been a gunslinger for the better part of his life. He had made his peace with the possibility that he might not live as long as, let’s say, a gardener. The decision to become the latter had given him some hope, but he was ready to go to his creator when the time would come. Which apparently was now.
“Oh, go ahead with it, old man,” Poole said. “Stab me and let’s get it over with.”
The door opened wider, and the earl somehow grinned. Poole blinked.
And then the whole house erupted with cheers and whoops, and a multitude of voices cried, “Welcome to England, Mr. Poole!”
Indeed, Poole thought, interesting times lie ahead. What a nice country. And nice beer.
A/N: This story is dedicated to Bob the Butcher, who’s real name is Gary and who actually makes the best sausages in all England, and to all the other lovely people I met in Pluckley.