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At Lorn Hall

Randolph hadn’t expected the map to misrepresent the route to the motorway quite so much. The roads were considerably straighter on the page. At least it was preferable to being directed by a machine on the dashboard, which would have reminded him of being told by Harriet that he’d gone wrong yet again, even when he knew where he was going. Although it oughtn’t to be dark for hours, the April sky beyond a line of lurid hills had begun to resemble a charcoal slab. He was braking as the road meandered between sullen fields of rape when he had to switch the headlights on. The high beams roused swarms of shadows in the hedges and glinted on elongated warnings of bends ahead, and then the light found a signpost. It pointed down a lane to somewhere called Lorn Hall.

He stopped the Volvo and turned on the hazard lights. The sign looked neglected except by birds, which had left traces of their visits, but Lorn Hall sounded like the kind of place he liked to wander around. The children never did, complaining to Harriet if he even tried to take them anywhere like that on the days he had them. They loved being driven in the rain—the stormier the better, however nearly blind it made him feel—and so he couldn’t help feeling relieved that they weren’t with him to insist. He could shelter in the mansion until the storm passed over. He quelled the twitching of the lights and drove along the lane.

Five minutes’ worth of bends enclosed by hulking spiky hedges brought him to a wider stretch of road. As it grew straight he glimpsed railings embedded in the left-hand hedge, rusting the leaves. Over the thorns and metal spikes surrounded by barbs he saw sections of an irregular roof patrolled by crows. Another minute brought him to the gateway of Lorn Hall.

He couldn’t have given a name to the style of the high broad house. Perhaps the stone was darkened by the approaching storm, but he thought it would have looked leaden even in sunlight. At the right-hand end of the building a three-storey barrel put him in mind of a clenched fist with bricks for grey knuckles. Far less than halfway from it on the unadorned frontage, a door twice as tall as a man stood beneath a pointed arch reminiscent of a mausoleum. Five sets of windows each grew smaller as they mounted to the roofs, where chimneys towered among an assortment of slate peaks. Even the largest of the ground-floor windows were enmeshed with lattices, and every window was draped with curtains that the gloom lent the look of dusty cobwebs. Apart from an unmarked whitish van parked near the front door there was no sign of life.

The signpost had surely been addressed to sightseers, and the formidable iron gates were bolted open, staining the weedy gravel of the drive. One of the gateposts in the clutch of the hedge had lost its stone globe, which poked its dome bewigged with lichen out of the untended lawn. Ivy overgrew sections of the lawn and spilled onto the drive. The shapes the topiary bushes had been meant to keep were beyond guessing; they looked fattened and deformed by age. If Harriet had been with him she would have insisted on leaving by now, not to mention protesting that the detour was a waste of time. This was another reason he drove up to the house.

Did the curtains stir as he drew up beside the van? He must have seen shadows cast by the headlamps, because the movements at all three windows to the left of the front door had been identical. Nobody had ducked out of sight in the van either. Randolph turned off the lights and the engine, pocketing his keys as he turned to face the mansion. The sky had grown so stuffed with darkness that he didn’t immediately see the front door was ajar.

To its left, where he might have looked for a doorbell, a tarnished blotchy plaque said LORN HALL. The door displayed no bell or knocker, just a greenish plaque that bore the legend RESIDENCE OF CROWCROSS. “Lord Crowcross,” Randolph murmured as though it might gain some significance for him if not summon its owner to the door. As he tried to recall ever having previously heard the name he felt a chill touch as thin as a fingernail on the back of his neck. It was a raindrop, which sent him to push the heavy door wide.

The door had lumbered just a few inches across the stone flags when it met an obstruction. Randolph might have fancied that somebody determined but enfeebled was bent on shutting him out, perhaps having dropped to all fours. The hindrance proved to be a greyish walking boot that had toppled over from its place against the wall. Several pairs grey with a mixture of dried mud and dust stood in the gloomy porch. “Don’t go any further,” Harriet would have been saying by now, “you don’t know if you’re invited,” but Randolph struggled around the door and kicked the boot against the wall. As he made for the archway on the far side of the porch, light greeted him.

Little else did. His approach had triggered a single yellowish bulb that strove to illuminate a large room. Opposite the arch an empty chair upholstered in a pattern so faded it wasn’t worth distinguishing stood behind a bulky desk. Apart from a blotter like a plot of moss and earth, the desk was occupied by a pair of cardboard boxes and scattered with a few crumpled pamphlets for local attractions. The box that was inscribed HONESTY in an extravagantly cursive script contained three coins adding up to five pounds and so thoroughly stuck to the bottom that they were framed by glue. The carton marked TOUR in the same handwriting was cluttered with half a dozen sets of headphones. As Randolph dug in his pockets for change, his host watched him.

The man was in a portrait, which hung on the grey stone wall behind the desk it dwarfed. He stood in tweed and jodhpurs on a hill. With one hand flattened on his hip he seemed less to be surveying the landscape in the foreground of the picture than to be making his claim on it clear. The wide fields scattered with trees led to Lorn Hall. Although his fleshy face looked satisfied in every way, the full almost pouting lips apparently found it redundant to smile. His eyes were as blue as the summer sky above him, and included the viewer in their gaze. Was he less of an artist than he thought, or was he meant to tower over the foreshortened perspective? Randolph had guessed who he was, since the C that signed the lower left-hand corner of the canvas was in the familiar handwriting. “My lord,” Randolph murmured as he dropped coins in the box.

The clink of metal didn’t bring anyone to explain the state of the headphones. They weren’t just dusty; as he rummaged through them, a leggy denizen scrabbled out of the box and fell off the desk to scuttle into the shadows. “That’s very much more than enough,” Harriet would have said to him in the way she did not much more often to their children. If you weren’t adventurous you weren’t much at all, and the gust of wind that slammed the front door helped Randolph stick to his decision. Having wiped the least dusty set of headphones with a pamphlet for a penal museum, he turned them over in his hands but couldn’t find a switch. As he fitted them gingerly over his ears a voice said “You’ll excuse my greeting you in person.”

Nobody was visible beyond the open door beside the painting, only darkness. The voice seemed close yet oddly distant, pronouncing every consonant but so modulated it implied the speaker hardly cared if he was heard. “Do move on once you’ve taken in my portrait,” he said. “There may be others awaiting their turn.”

“There’s only me,” Randolph pointed out and stared with some defiance at the portrait. If Lord Crowcross had taught himself to paint, he wasn’t the ideal choice of teacher. The landscape was a not especially able sketch that might have been copied from a photograph, and the figure was unjustifiably large. The artist appeared to have spent most time on the face, and Randolph was returning its gaze when Crowcross said “Do move on once you’ve taken in my portrait. There may be others awaiting their turn.”

“I already told you I’m on my own,” Randolph protested. The headphones must be geared to the listener’s position in the house, but the technology seemed incongruous, as out of place as Randolph was determined not to let the commentary make him feel. “I’m on my way,” he said and headed for the next room.

He’d barely stepped over the stone threshold when the light went out behind him. “Saving on the bills, are we?” he muttered as he was left in the dark. In another second his arrival roused more lights—one in each corner of an extensive high-ceilinged room. “This is where the family would gather of an evening,” Crowcross said in both his ears. “We might entertain our peers here, such as were left. I am afraid our way of life lost favour in my lifetime, and the country is much poorer.”

The room was furnished with senile, obese sofas and equally faded overweight armchairs, all patterned with swarms of letters like the initial on the portrait. A tapestry depicting a hunt occupied most of the wall opposite the windows, which Randolph might have thought were curtained so as to hide the dilapidation from the world. Several decanters close to opaque with dust stood on a sideboard near a massive fireplace, where cobwebbed lumps of coal were piled in the iron cage of the hearth. Had the place been left in this state to remind visitors it had fallen on hard times? Everyone Randolph knew would be ashamed to go in for that trick, whatever their circumstances. Quite a few were desperate to sell their homes, but all his efforts as an estate agent were in vain just now. He turned to find his way out of the room and saw Lord Crowcross watching him.

This time his host was in a painting of the room, though this was clearer from the positions of the furniture than from any care in the depiction. Sketchy figures sat in chairs or sprawled languidly on the couches. Just enough detail had been added to their faces—numerous wrinkles, grey hair—to signify that every one was older than the figure in the middle of the room. He was standing taller than he should in proportion to the others, and his obsessively rendered face appeared to be ignoring them. “Do make your way onwards whenever you’re ready,” he said without moving his petulant lips. “I fear there are no servants to show you around.”

“No wonder the place is in such a state”—or rather the absence of servants was the excuse, and Randolph was tempted to say so. By now Harriet would have been accusing him of risking the children’s health. He loitered to make the voice repeat its message, but this wasn’t as amusing as he’d expected; he could almost have fancied it was hiding impatience if not contempt. “Let’s see what else you’ve got to show me,” he said and tramped out of the room.

All the lights were extinguished at once. He was just able to see that he’d emerged into a broad hallway leading to a staircase wider than his arms could stretch. He smelled damp on stone or wood. By the dim choked glow through doorways on three sides of the hall he made out that the posts at the foot of the steep banisters were carved with cherubs. In the gloom the eyes resembled ebony jewels, but the expressions on the chubby wooden faces were unreadable. “Do continue to the next exhibit,” Crowcross prompted him.

Presumably this meant the nearest room. Randolph paced to the left-hand doorway and planted a foot on the threshold, but had to take several steps forward before the light acknowledged him. Fewer than half the bulbs in the elaborate chandelier above the long table lit up. “This is where the family would dine in style,” Crowcross said, “apart from the youngest member.”

The table was set for ten people. Dusty plates and silver utensils stained with age lay on the extravagantly lacy yellowed tablecloth. Like the upholstery of all the chairs, every plate was marked with C. Doilies to which spiders had lent extra patterns were spread on a sideboard, opposite which a painting took most of the place of a tapestry that had left its outline on the stone wall. Although the painting might have depicted a typical dinner at Lorn Hall, Randolph thought it portrayed something else. Of the figures seated at the table, only the one at the head of the table possessed much substance. The familiar face was turned away from his sketchy fellow diners to watch whoever was in the actual room, while a servant with a salver waited on either side of him. “Subsequently the situation was reversed,” Crowcross said, “and I made the place my own.”

Was the painting meant to remind him of the family he’d lost—to provide companionship in his old age? Randolph was trying to see it in those terms when the pinched voice said “By all means make your way onwards.” He could do without a repetition, and he made for the hall. As the chandelier went dark he glimpsed somebody turning the bend of the staircase.

“Excuse me,” Randolph called, moving the earpiece away from his right ear, but the other didn’t respond. If they were wearing headphones too they might not have heard him. He’d only wanted to ask whether they knew what time the house closed to the public. At least he wasn’t alone in it, and he picked his way along the hall to the kitchen, where part of the darkness seemed to remain solid as the weary light woke up.

It was a massive black iron range that dominated the grey room. A dormant fragment of the blackness came to life, waving its feelers as it darted into one of the round holes in the top of the range. How long had the kitchen been out of use? Surely nobody would put up with such conditions now. Chipped blotchy marble surfaces and a pair of freezers—one a head taller than Randolph, its twin lying horizontal—might be responsible for some of the chill that met him. A solitary cleaver lay on a ponderous table, which looked not just scored by centuries of knife strokes but in places hacked to splinters. Randolph looked around for a portrait, but perhaps Crowcross felt the kitchen was undeserving of his presence. “My father enjoyed watching the maids at their work,” he said. “Red-handed skivvies, he called them. I did myself. Since then the world has changed so radically that their like have been among the visitors. Perhaps you are of their kind.”

“Not at all,” Randolph objected and felt absurd, not least because he suspected that Crowcross might have disagreed with him. He was searching for some trace of the people who’d worked here—initials carved on the table, for instance—when Crowcross said “There is no more to see here. Let us move on.”

He sounded like a parody of a policeman—an officious one used to being obeyed. Randolph couldn’t resist lingering to force him to say it again, and might easily have thought a hint of petulance had crept into the repetition. The light failed before Randolph was entirely out of the kitchen, but he glimpsed a door he’d overlooked in the underside of the staircase. As he reached for the heavy doorknob Crowcross said “Nothing of interest is kept down there. I never understood its appeal for my father.”

Perhaps Randolph did, assuming the servants’ quarters were below. He wondered how his guide’s mother had felt about the arrangement. The scalloped doorknob wouldn’t turn even when he applied both hands to it. As he looked for a key in the thick dust along the lintel Crowcross spoke. “I have told you nothing has remained. Let us see where I was a child.”

His petulance was unmistakable. No doubt the basement rooms would be unlit in any case. Randolph was making his way past the stairs when he heard whoever else was in the house shuffling along an upper corridor. He wondered if there was more light up there, since the footfalls were surer than his own. They receded out of earshot as he pushed open the door of the turret room.

The room was lit, though nothing like immediately, by a single bare bulb on a cobwebbed flex. The round aloof ceiling caught much of the light, and Randolph suspected that even with the curtains open the room might have seemed like a cell to a child. It was furnished with a desk and a table in proportion, each attended by a starkly straight chair. While the table was set for a solitary meal, it had space for a pile of books: an infant’s primer on top, a children’s encyclopaedia many decades old at the bottom. Even when Randolph made the children read instead of playing, Harriet rarely agreed with his choice of books. The stone floor was scattered with building blocks, a large wooden jigsaw depicting a pastoral scene, an abacus, a picture book with pages thick as rashers, open to show a string like a scrawny umbilical cord dangling from the belly of a pig spotted with mould. The desk was strewn with exercise books that displayed the evolution of the omnipresent handwriting; one double page swarmed with a C well on its way to resembling the letter that seemed almost to infest the mansion. “This is where I spent the years in growing worthy of my name,” said Crowcross. “In our day parents hired their delegates and kept them on the premises. Now the care of children is another industry, one more product of the revolution that has overtaken the country by stealth.”

Above the desk a painting showed the room much as it was now, if somewhat brighter and more insubstantial. Crowcross stood between rudimentary impressions of the table and the desk. His arms were folded, and he might have been playing a teacher, except that nobody else was in the room—at least, not in the picture of it. “If you have learned everything you feel entitled to know,” he said, “let us go up.”

Did Randolph want to bother going on, given the condition of the house? Harriet certainly wouldn’t have, even if the children weren’t with them. He’d had nothing like his money’s worth yet, unless he retrieved the payment on his way out. Perhaps the person upstairs might know more about the history of Lorn Hall, and Randolph didn’t mind admitting to a guilty fascination, not least with the companion at his ear. “If you have learned everything you feel,” Crowcross said and fell silent as Randolph left the room.

He was on the lowest stair when he noticed that the cherub on the banister had no wings. Somebody had chopped them off, leaving unequal stumps, and he couldn’t help suspecting that the vandal had been Crowcross, perhaps since he’d found himself alone in Lorn Hall, the last of his line. He had the uneasy notion that Crowcross was about to refer to if not justify the damage. “If you have learned,” the voice said before he could let go of the shaky banister.

From the bend in the stairs he saw the upper corridor, just about illuminated by the dimness beyond several doorways. Whoever he’d glimpsed on the stairs wasn’t to be seen, and no light suggested they were in a room. Presumably they were at the top of the house by now. Barely glancing at a second mutilated cherub, Randolph made for the nearest room along the corridor.

Its principal item was an enormous four-poster bed. Burdened by plaster sloughed by the ceiling, the canopy sagged like an ancient cobweb. More plaster glistened on an immense dressing-table and an upholstered chair that must once have looked muscular. Most of the light from the few live bulbs in the chandelier fell short of a side room, where Randolph was just able to distinguish a marble bath with blackened taps and a pallid hand gripping the side to haul its owner into view, but that was a crumpled cloth. “You are in the master bedroom,” Crowcross said tonelessly enough to be addressing an intruder. “Would you expect the master to have left more of a mark?”

His portrait showed him gripping the left-hand bedpost. As well as declaring ownership he gave the impression of awaiting a companion—watching with feigned patience for someone to appear in the doorway at Randolph’s back. His imperiousness was somewhat undermined by crumbs of plaster adorning the top of the picture frame. “Will you know what robs a man of mastery?” he said. “Pray accompany me along the corridor.”

Randolph couldn’t help feeling relieved not to be given the tour by his host in the flesh. He suspected the commentary had been recorded late in the man’s life—when he was turning senile, perhaps. The chandelier in the next room contained even fewer bulbs, which faltered alight to outline another bed. Its posts were slimmer than its neighbour’s, and the canopy was more delicate, which meant it looked close to collapsing under the weight of debris. Had a fall of plaster smashed the dressing-table mirror? Randolph could see only shards of glass among the dusty cosmetic items. “Here you see the private suite of the last Lady Crowcross,” the voice said. “I fear that the ways of our family were not to her taste.”

He held a bedpost in his left fist, but it was unclear which bedroom he was in. His depiction of himself was virtually identical with the one next door. A figure identifiable as a woman by the long hair draped over the pillow lay in the sketch of a bed. Randolph couldn’t judge if Crowcross had given her a face, because where one should be was a dark stain, possibly the result of the age and state of the painting. “Please don’t exert yourself to look for any signs of children,” Crowcross said. “They were taken long ago. My lady disagreed with the Crowcross methods and found another of our fairer counterparts to plead her case.”

“I know the feeling,” Randolph said, immediately regretting the response. There was no point in being bitter; he told himself so every time he had the children and whenever he had to give them up. As he caught sight of the bathroom shower, which was so antiquated that the iron cage put him in mind of some medieval punishment, Crowcross said “You’ll have none of the little dears about you, I suppose. They must conduct themselves appropriately in this house.”

While Randolph thought his and Harriet’s children might have passed the test, at least if they’d been with him, he was glad not to have to offer proof. As he made for the corridor he glimpsed a trickle of moisture or some livelier object running down a bar of the shower cage. “That’s the style,” said Crowcross. “There’s nothing worthy of attention here if you’ve taken in my work.”

It almost sounded as though the guide was aware of Randolph’s movements. To an extent this was how the commentary operated, but could it really be so specific? He was tempted to learn how it would react if he stayed in the room, but when the lit bulbs flickered in unison as though to urge him onwards he retreated into the corridor.

The adjacent room was the last on this side. Shadows swarmed and fluttered among the dead bulbs as the chandelier struggled to find life. All the furniture was stout and dark, the bedposts included. One corner of the laden canopy had almost torn loose. The room smelled dank, so that Randolph wouldn’t have been surprised to see moisture on the stone walls. “This was the sanctum of the eldest Crowcross,” the voice said. “His wife’s quarters were across the corridor.”

Presumably the portrait was meant to demonstrate how the room had become his. He was at the window, holding back the curtain to exhibit or lay claim to a version of the landscape in summer. His eyes were still on his audience; Randolph was beginning to feel as if the gaze never left him. He was meeting it and waiting for the next words when he heard a vehicle start up outside the house.

The bedposts shook like dislocated bones as he dashed across the room, and debris shifted with a stony whisper. The gap between the curtains was scarcely a finger’s width. They felt capable of leaving handfuls of sodden heavy fabric in his grasp, and he knew where at least some of the smell came from. As he dragged them apart the rings twitched rustily along the metal rail. He craned forward, keeping well clear of the windowsill, which was scattered with dead flies like seeds of some unwelcome growth. The grid of cramped panes was coated with grime and crawling with raindrops, so that he was only just able to make out the grounds. Then, beyond the misshapen bloated topiary, he saw movement—the van near which he’d parked. Its outline wavered as it sped along the drive and picked up speed on the road.

Was Randolph alone in the house now? In that case, how had the driver sneaked past him? As the van disappeared into the rainswept gloom Crowcross said “Will you see the woman’s quarters now? Everything is open to you, no matter what your pedigree.”

How distasteful was this meant to sound? Randolph might have had enough by now except for the weather. He felt as if he was ensuring he outran the voice by hurrying across the corridor. A few bulbs sputtered alight in their cobwebbed crystal nest to show him yet another dilapidated bed. A hole had rotted in the canopy, dumping plaster on the stained bedclothes. Crowcross was holding a bedpost again, and a careless scribble behind him suggested that someone had just left the sketched bed. “Any little treasures would be barred from all these rooms,” he said. “Have any found their way in now? Do keep an eye on their behaviour. We don’t want any damage.”

“I think you’re having a bit of a joke,” Randolph said. How senile had the speaker been by the time he’d recorded the commentary? Had he been seeing his home as it used to be? The light stuttered, rousing shadows in the bathroom and enlivening a muddy trickle on the initialled tiles above the marble trough. “If you have had your pleasure,” Crowcross said, “the eldest breathed their last next door.”

“My pleasure,” Randolph retorted, and it was a question too.

The chandelier in the adjacent room lacked several bulbs. In the pensioned light a pair of four-posters occupied much of the cheerless space. Although the canopies were intact, the supports showed their age, some of the thinner ones bowing inwards. “They came here to grow as old as they could,” Crowcross said. “Tell any little cherubs that, and how they had to stay together while they did.”

Randolph thought the commentary had turned childish in the wrong way, if indeed there was a right one. He’d begun to feel it was no longer addressed to him or any listener, especially once Crowcross muttered “And then older.”

The beds were flanked by massive wardrobes almost as dark outside as in. Both were open just enough to let Randolph distinguish shapes within. The figure with a dwarfish puffy head and dangling arms that were longer than its legs was a suit on a padded hanger. Its opposite number resembled a life-size cut-out of a woman drained of colour—just a long white dress, not a shroud. Nobody was about to poke a face around either of the doors, however much Randolph was reminded of a game of hide and seek. He’d never prevented the children from playing that, even if he might have in Lorn Hall. As he did his best to finish peering at the wardrobes Crowcross said “Are you still hoping for diversions? They await your judgement.”

Randolph was starting to feel like the butt of a joke he wasn’t expected to appreciate, since Crowcross didn’t seem to think much of his visitors, let alone their views. When a pair of the lamps in the next room jittered alight, a ball on the billiard table shot into the nearest pocket. Of course only its legs had made it look as large as a billiard ball. Packs of battered cards were strewn across a table patched with baize, and cobwebs had overtaken a game of chess, where chipped marble chessmen lay in the dust beside the board. “This is where games were played,” Crowcross said, “by those who had the privilege. Mine was waiting, and in the end I won.”

He might have been talking to himself again, and resentfully at that. “We haven’t seen your room yet,” Randolph said and wondered if all of them had been. “You aren’t ashamed of it, are you? It’s a bit late to be ashamed.”

He was heading for the turret room when Crowcross said “Eager to see where I was visited by dreams? Since then they have had the run of the house.”

After a pause the room was illuminated by a stark grubby bulb. A bed with no posts and less than half the size of any of the others stood in the middle of the stone floor. The only other furniture was a wardrobe and a comparably sombre dressing-table with a mirror so low it cut Randolph off above the waist. Perhaps the soft toys huddled on the pillow had at some stage been intended to make the room more welcoming, but that wasn’t their effect now. The pair of teddy bears and the lamb with boneless legs had all acquired red clownish mouths that contradicted their expressions. So much paint had been applied that it still resembled fresh blood.

They were in the portrait, where their sketched faces looked disconcertingly human. Perhaps the alterations to the actual toys had been a kind of preliminary study. Crowcross stood at the sunlit window, beyond which a distant figure stooped, hands outstretched. “I used to love watching the keepers trap their prey,” Crowcross said. “They are put here for our pleasure and our use.”

As Randolph turned away he saw what the painting didn’t show. The toys on the pillow almost hid the clasped pair of hands protruding from beneath the quilt, which was blotched with mould. No, they were wings, none too expertly severed from the body—a pair of wooden wings. “This could have been a child’s room,” Crowcross mused. “We always raised our children to be men.”

“Don’t we talk about girls? I thought I was supposed to be unreasonable but my dear lord, my wife ought to listen to you,” Randolph said and seemed to hear a confused violent noise in response. The window was shuddering under an onslaught of rain. He turned his back to all the eyes watching him—the portrait’s and those of the disfigured toys, which were exactly as blank—and heard soft rapid footfalls on the stairs above him.

They were shuffling along the top corridor by the time he reached the staircase. “Excuse me, could you wait?” he shouted, raising the other headphone from his ear as he dashed upstairs so fast that he couldn’t have said whether one cherub’s face was splintered beyond recognition. Whenever he grabbed the banister, it wobbled with a bony clatter of its uprights. In a few seconds he saw that the top corridor was deserted.

None of the rooms showed a light. Perhaps whoever was about was trying to fix one, since otherwise their presence would have triggered it. Perhaps they were too busy to answer Randolph. Had the driver of the van been in the house at all? Presumably the person Randolph had glimpsed earlier was up here now. They couldn’t have gone far, and he made for the turret room in the hope of finding them.

He saw he was alone once the meagre light recognised him. A lectern stood beside an imposing telescope that was pointed at the window. Astronomical charts—some crumpled, others chewed or torn to shreds—lay on the floor. “I never saw the appeal of the stars,” Crowcross said, more distantly now. “I’ve no wish to be reminded of the dead. They say that’s how old their light is. I preferred to watch the parade of the world. The glass brought it close enough for my taste.”

He could have used the telescope to spy on the grounds and the road. Beyond the blurred fields Randolph saw an endless chain of watery lights being drawn at speed along the horizon. It was the motorway, where he promised himself he’d be soon, but he could finish exploring while he waited for the rain to stop, particularly since the family wasn’t with him. He left the turret room with barely a glance at the portrait in which Crowcross appeared to be stroking the barrel of the telescope as if it were a pet animal.

The next room was a library. Shelves of bound sets of fat volumes covered every wall up to the roof. Each volume was embossed with a C like a brand at the base of its spine. More than one high shelf had tipped over with the weight of books or the carelessness with which they’d been placed, so that dozens of books were sprawled about the floor in a jumble of dislocated pages. A ladder with rusty wheels towered over several stocky leather armchairs mottled with decay. “This might be tidier,” said Crowcross. “Perhaps that could be your job.”

What kind of joke was this meant to be? Randolph wondered if the last lord of Lorn Hall could have pulled the books down in a fury at having nowhere to hang his portrait. He couldn’t have done much if any reading in here unless there had been more light than the one remaining bulb provided. It was enough to show that Randolph was still alone, and he dodged across the corridor.

An unshaded bulb on a cobwebbed flex took its time over revealing a bedroom. All four bedposts leaned so far inwards that they could have been trying to grasp the light or fend it off. The canopy lay in a heap on the bed. Although Randolph thought he’d glimpsed clothes hanging in the tall black wardrobe as the light came on, once he blinked at the glare he could see nothing except gloom beyond the scrawny gap—no pale garment for somebody bigger than he was, no wads of tissue paper stuffed into the cuffs and collar. “This could be made fit for guests again,” Crowcross said. “Would you consider it to be your place?”

He sounded as furtively amused as he looked in his portrait, which showed him standing in the doorway of the room, gazing at whoever was within. It made Randolph glance behind him, even though he knew the corridor was empty. “I wouldn’t be a guest of yours,” he blurted, only to realise that in a sense he was. Almost too irritated to think, he tramped out of the room.

Next door was a bedroom very reminiscent of its neighbour. The fallen canopy of the four-poster was so rotten it appeared to have begun merging with the quilt. The portrait beyond the bed was virtually identical with the last one, and the light could have been competing at reluctance with its peers. Nothing was visible in the half-open wardrobe except padded hangers like bones fattened by dust. Randolph was about to move on when Crowcross said “This could be made fit for guests again. Would you consider it to be your place?”

The repetition sounded senile, and it seemed to cling to Randolph’s brain. As he lurched towards the corridor Crowcross added “Will you make yourself at home?”

It had none of the tone of an invitation, and Randolph wasn’t about to linger. Whoever else was upstairs had to be in the last room. “Have you seen all you choose?” Crowcross said while Randolph crossed the corridor. “See the rest, then.”

The last room stayed dark until Randolph shoved the door wider, and then the lights began to respond—more of them than he thought he’d seen during the rest of the tour. The room was larger than both its neighbours combined, and graced with several chandeliers that he suspected had been replaced by solitary bulbs elsewhere in the house. They were wired low on the walls and lay on the floor, casting more shadow than illumination as he peered about the room.

It was cluttered with retired items. Rolled-up tapestries drooped against the walls, and so did numerous carpets and rugs, suggesting that someone had chosen to rob Lorn Hall of warmth. Several battered grandfather clocks stood like sentries over wooden crates and trunks that must have taken two servants apiece to carry them, even when they were empty of luggage. Smaller clocks perched on rickety pieces of furniture or lurked on the floorboards, and Randolph couldn’t help fancying that somebody had tried to leave time up here to die. Crouching shadows outnumbered the objects he could see, but he appeared to be alone. As he narrowed his eyes Crowcross said “Here is where I liked to hide. Perhaps I still do.”

“I would if I were you,” Randolph said without having a precise retort in mind. He’d noticed a number of paintings stacked against the wall at the far end of the room. Were they pictures Crowcross had replaced with his own, or examples of his work he didn’t want visitors to see? Randolph picked his way across the floor, almost treading on more than one photograph in the dimness—they’d slipped from unsteady heaps of framed pictures which, as far as he could make out, all showed members of the Crowcross family. Even the glass on the topmost pictures in the heaps was shattered. He’d decided to postpone understanding the damage until he was out of the room when he reached the paintings against the wall.

Though the light from the nearest chandelier was obstructed by the clutter, the image on the foremost canvas was plain enough. It portrayed Crowcross in a field, his arms folded, one foot on a prone man’s neck. He looked not so much triumphant as complacent. The victim’s face was either turned away submissively or buried in the earth, and his only distinguishing feature was the C embossed on his naked back. It wasn’t a painting from life, Randolph told himself; it was just a symbol or a fantasy, either of which was bad enough. He was about to tilt the canvas forward to expose the next when Crowcross spoke. “The last,” he said.

Did he mean a painting or the room, or did the phrase have another significance? Randolph wasn’t going to be daunted until he saw what Crowcross had tried to conceal, but as he took hold of a corner of the frame the portrait was invaded by darkness. A light had been extinguished at his back—no, more than one—and too late he realised something else. Because the headphones weren’t over his ears any more he’d mistaken the direction of the voice. It was behind him.

The room seemed to swivel giddily as he did. The figure that almost filled the doorway was disconcertingly familiar, and not just from the versions in the paintings; he’d glimpsed it skulking in the wardrobe. It wore a baggy nightshirt no less pallid and discoloured than its skin. Its face was as stiff as it appeared in any of the portraits, and the unblinking eyes were blank as lumps of greyish paint. The face had lolled in every direction it could find, much like the contents of the rest of the visible skin—the bare arms, the legs above the clawed feet. When the puffy white lips parted Randolph thought the mouth was in danger of losing more than its shape. As the figure shuffled forward he heard some of the substance of the unshod feet slopping against the floor. Just as its progress extinguished the rest of the lights it spoke with more enthusiasm than he’d heard from it anywhere else in the house. “Game,” it said.

© 2012 Ramsey Campbell.

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Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey Campbell

Ramsey CampbellThe Oxford Companion to English Literature describes Ramsey Campbell as “Britain’s most respected living horror writer.” He has been given more awards than any other writer in the field, including the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Horror Writers Association (HWA), the Grand Master Award of the World Horror Convention, and the Living Legend Award of the International Horror Guild.

Among Ramsey Campbell’s novels are The Face That Must Die, Incarnate, Midnight Sun, The Count of Eleven, Silent Children, The Darkest Part of the Woods, The Overnight, Secret Story, The Grin of the Dark, Thieving Fear, Creatures of the Pool, The Seven Days of Cain, and Ghosts Know. Forthcoming is The Kind Folk. His collections include Waking Nightmares, Alone with the Horrors, Ghosts and Grisly Things, Told by the Dead, and Just Behind You, and his non-fiction is collected as Ramsey Campbell, Probably. His novels The Nameless and Pact of the Fathers have been filmed in Spain. His regular columns appear in Prism, All Hallows, Dead Reckonings, and Video Watchdog. He is the President of the British Fantasy Society and of the Society of Fantastic Films.

Ramsey Campbell lives on Merseyside in the UK with his wife Jenny. His pleasures include classical music, good food and wine, and whatever’s in that pipe. His web site is at