Content Warning: Abuse of children: emotional (bullying, belittling) and physical (hitting)
Lindom Hall was a cold place; a lonely place; an empty place of stone and echoes. Margaret had her servants, of course, but they hardly counted. She had grown used to the silence, perhaps, but never truly comfortable with it.
Yet now that her son was returned at last to the Hall, she took no solace in the company.
"Mother, please," he said. "It is not so much money to ask for, is it?"
She shook her head as she crossed the entrance hall to him, her cane clicking on the hard wooden floor. "It is not the amount," she said, brushing an autumn leaf from the felt brim of his hat. "It is that you ask at all."
"Heavens, Mother, I should not need to ask!"
"And I should not still need to instruct you in pride." All his life she had driven him to be better, to live up to the name of Lindom and be a worthy gentleman: yet all her efforts seemed to amount to less than the weight of an insect.
Thomas hesitated, swallowed, and spoke quieter. "Do you not think I have fought my pride to return here? But I must place my family's welfare first. I only wish you would do the same."
Margaret's hand lifted from his shoulder, her voice tense and wary. "I have always put the name of Lindom first."
"Before me, no less."
"And what would you have me do? I shall not have that common wife of yours in this Hall. It would be an affront, after everything."
Thomas' countenance grew dark. "I should not require permission. I am the Viscount Lindom."
"In title, perhaps, but your father still willed the estate to me. It is not yours until my passing. And you would not wish me dead, would you?"
She had said it mockingly, but his silence stung and she shoved him towards the door in anger. Old as she was, she caught him off guard, and he stumbled back. "Get out," she said. "Get out!"
He pulled the great oak door open, his face purple with rage, an absurd contrast to his copper hair. "Even now I expect you wonder why I do not love you, Mother. Even now I expect you are blind to your cruelty." He turned into the darkness, leaves swirling about him as he climbed into the waiting hansom cab.
Shock settled into rage and condensed into a cold rock in Margaret's chest. It was a familiar sensation where Thomas was concerned, even after years of his absence. It nestled in the hollows of her like a bird in the nest.
Cruelty? He did not know what cruelty was.
Let him learn, wicked child.
She snatched a chamber stick from the hallway table, its candle half-melted, and stepped into her drawing room. Her mahogany bureau stood between tall bookshelves, redolent with beeswax; she sat down at its high-backed chair and set fountain pen to sheaf, addressing her solicitor:
With immediate effect, and being of sound body and mind, I hereby instruct you to begin proceedings to bar the entail and disinherit my son, Thomas, of the Lindom Estate--
A sudden shiver of cold struck Margaret, as if a draught had stirred up from nothing and run through her bones. She reached for a bell to summon a servant, then stopped short: a slender spider, its legs no sturdier than the lines of her looping script, was moving across the paper in quick dashes. She was suddenly furious at it, as if it were the very embodiment of her son's disrespect. How dare it treat her anger with such casual disregard? Such blatant defiance?
Reaching slowly so as not to hurry the creature off, Margaret fetched down the candle from the bureau-top and poured a small puddle of wax onto the paper before it. Then, taking up her fountain pen, she nudged the spider forward, limiting its options with another sheaf of paper such that it had no path but the wax. It stepped fully into that hot white puddle and stopped, not strong enough to pull itself free despite its struggles. The wax was cooling and solidifying around it, and the fight grew ever more futile: it pulled so hard on one leg that it tore free of its body, and the limb fell onto the wax like a thin crack.
Well, there was some satisfaction from the evening at least. Perhaps that would settle her mind and aid her sleep.
She finished the letter, folded it into an envelope, and placed it on the hallway table. Her errands boy would visit in the morning, and he could deliver it to her solicitor posthaste.
Content, she retired to bed.
Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap.
Margaret woke quickly, like a cat roused to alertness. The chill of autumn had already settled in her old bones and left her incapable of more than a light sleep.
Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap.
She had heard it, then. And it wasn't the sycamore blowing against her window; it came from inside the house.
Curious, but confident of her safety--she had lived here most of her life, after all, and an English lady's home was her castle as much as any man's--she stepped out of bed with her lantern held high.
Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap.
Downstairs. It was a curiously hollow noise, one she couldn't place. Doubt whispered at her, and she turned back to fetch the fire poker before proceeding down the sweeping staircase.
Behind the stairs she went, into the house, away from the cold moonlight spilling in shapes and shadows through leaded windows. Down the small stairs and into the narrow servants' quarters, quiet now except that curious tapping noise. Past unfamiliar rooms and to a single black door in the centre of it all, one she didn't recognise--but she had no need to attend her servants down here, so why should she? Poker held forth in one hand, she pushed the door open.
Tap tap. Tap tap. Tap tap.
The room was surprisingly large for the servants' floor: square, high-ceilinged, and empty of furniture and furnishings with no smell of damp or dust; if anything, there was a strangely sweet scent to the air. Wall lanterns flickered with dim candles, though she could not conceive why they would be lit. Stranger still were the windows on all four walls. This room was deep in the house, and could not have any exterior aspect, so what purpose did windows serve?
Margaret approached one. It had a faint grey light to it, like dawn struggling through heavy rain, but as she stepped nearer it brightened towards sunlight, distant voices issuing from it. They didn't sound threatening, but no-one else should be about the house at this hour: if she could edge closer to the window, perhaps she could spy them before they--
The sun is unpleasantly hot as Margaret steps from the coach, nervous and excited and not quite sure how to comport herself in the circumstances. Thomas runs ahead, leaping up the grand steps two at a time, full of youthful energy.
Charles comes round from the other side of the carriage and offers his arm. Margaret takes it, and together they walk to the entrance of Lindom Hall, her skirts rustling in a breeze just strong enough to carry the delicate scent of the flowerbeds.
It is so many years since Margaret has been home to the estate. If she had known Father had so little time left, she might have forgiven his cruelties... but she has already lost too many evenings to that dark introspection. It is time to set that guilt away, now, and make this a home for her family.
A chill crosses her heart as she steps into the hallway. The stone walls are cold even in this summer heat, and the windows are draped with a preponderance of black lace that is queerly unfashionable. She is turning to comment on this to Charles when Thomas runs back. "Look at all these strange curtains, Father! Wasn't Grandfather an odd sort? Will you go so strange now we live here?"
Before she is quite aware of what she is doing, she cuffs Thomas around the ears, rather severely. Silence reigns for a moment as shock ripples out: then Thomas flees, bursting with tears.
"Margaret!" says Charles. "What in Heaven was that in aid of?"
Margaret pauses, in shock herself, then finds her composure. "You are the 13th Viscount of Lindom now, Charles. You are nobility, and you must be respected in your own home."
--Margaret stumbled back, catching her balance with the poker. The window before her was as dark as any other now, though a black lace curtain hung anew before it, motionless in the dead air.
Unsettled, uncertain, unsure, Margaret turned and rushed back to her bed, and the scant security offered by her curtained four poster.
Margaret sat in her drawing room chair and stared at the drizzle running down the window pane, the constant thrum of rain lulling her into dull sort of lassitude. A cup of Earl Grey sat by her elbow, untouched and gone cold, and she had not the drive to call for another. Each night since the first she had been awoken by the tapping sound, and, unable to ignore it, she had visited that room at the centre of the house, and each night fallen into a new window, an old memory: it had been three evenings now of ill rest and painful recollection, and they had left her listless and lethargic.
"Ma'am?" Her errands boy, Patrick, trod warily into the drawing room, flat cap clutched to his chest and dripping rain onto the floorboards. She could not muster the energy to chastise him for it. "Is everything alright, ma'am?"
Margaret harrumphed, a sound that conveyed dissatisfaction and disinterest all at once. Everything was patently not alright, yet there was little this miscreant could do to improve her mood. In the room at the centre of the house, black lace curtains hung heavy across the windows she had looked through; there remained many yet uncovered. The implication weighed on her mind.
Although: "Have you," she said, voice creaking as she broke her silence, like an old leather book opened after decades, "have you brought a reply from Mr Richmond for me?" She had dispatched him to the solicitors immediately on Saturday morning, his sole and only task for that day, eager as she was for legal proceedings to begin.
Patrick's hands worked his cap in obvious discomfort, squeezing yet more water onto the floor. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I couldn't see Mr Richmond until this morning, so I've only just delivered the letter to him today."
Margaret could not even feel angry at this. Partly it was her exhaustion, but partly, if she was honest, it was simply not a surprise. It seemed her stock in life was to be forever disappointed by boys.
"Very well," she said, her voice a whisper. "Your pay for last week shall be withheld, as you have not performed your duties. You are dismissed."
"But Miss!" said Patrick, in a manner now bereft of the appropriate deference. "My Ma needs that money to feed us! If I don't get my pay we'll go awful hungry this week, and it weren't hardly my fault I couldn't get in to see Mr Richmond, what with him leaving town at the weekends! If I could've I would've!"
Where hunger, discomfort and anger had all failed to rouse her before, cruelty, at last, animated her to motion. "Well then," she said, sitting forward from her armchair. "Perhaps the hunger will be an object lesson to you. Perhaps, as your belly rumbles, and your sister cries in pain, you will think on what it means to have duties, and what it means to fail in them. Perhaps then you will not disappoint me again."
Patrick's courage failed him, and he fled the house.
The tapping begins as soon as she blows the lantern candle out now, and so lately she gets no sleep at all. Even after she has surrendered to the inevitable, and visited the room, and suffered the memories, she gets no rest, for her thoughts afterwards are filled with doubt, regret, and self-recrimination, and then they turn to righteousness and anger and a bitter accounting of all the wrongs life has wrought her. And thus her mind turns, all through the night until grey dawn.
She listens with impatience as Thomas drones through the Bible passage, warm morning sunlight pouring through the study windows. They sit at the mahogany table, and Thomas shuffles incessantly on the hard wooden chair.
He reads: "The tempter came to him and said, 'If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.'
"Jesus answered, 'It is written: Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" Thomas stops, staring at the page.
"Continue," she says.
"Why do I have to read this now, Mother? Can't it wait till later?"
"Your salvation will not wait, Thomas, and Christ your Saviour should be paramount in all your concerns. Continue."
"But it's such a nice day! Can't I fish now and do my reading after dinner?"
A cold rage takes her at this blatant defiance, this rejection of respect for both her and the Lord--and she is not sure which disrespectfulness offends her more. "You, Thomas Lindom, will have no dinner, nor lunch before that. You will go hungry all the day that you may know the suffering the Lord Jesus undertook for your sake, and you will make do with only your faith as he did with his." She stands and cuffs him around the head. "You are confined to your bedroom for the rest of the day. I expect you to fill the time with reading. Go!"
She watches with some satisfaction as he slumps to his room. Today will be instructive to him.
"Margaret," says Charles, suddenly standing behind her. "I do not think starving the boy is conducive to his upbringing. We shall have him down for dinner this evening, and food shall be sent to him before that."
"This is how my father taught me humility and the Bible both, Charles, and it is how I will teach our son. I will instil discipline in him."
"You loathed your father his cruelties. You left him to die alone rather than forgive him. Why now choose to repeat them?"
Margaret flushes cold and angry. "The estate is your business, Charles. Leave the upbringing of our child to me. I must ensure his manners put his breeding beyond reproach, after all."
Charles is taken aback by the barb, and retorts. "It is my business when you fail to distinguish upbringing from cruelty. And it has been overly my business since moving to the Hall."
Black lace curtains hung across windows throughout the house, draped like old webs, weighing the air with that sickly sweet scent. They had spilled out of her nightmares, out of the room in the centre of the house, as if there was too much to be contained there now.
That room. Margaret was certain that, on her first night, there had been only a dozen windows there; but as the nights and visions continued, more had appeared along the walls, all getting closer, narrower, taller. Each had become covered in a long curtain of black lace once she relived the memory there, long sheets of intricate material that hung still, silent and judgemental.
Now that same black lace covered the windows in her study and her reception room and throughout Lindom Hall.
It taunted her with its reality. She had tried to find the room in daylight, of course, but the black door was not there, and her servants knew nothing and looked at her oddly as she asked with increasing persistence and need; and so she had rationalised away the nightmares as a fever, an illness, a sign of age.
But she could not do that now. The room was real. The memories, too: so much sharper in the nightmares than she had previously recalled them. So much harsher.
With this realisation came another: she had been a cruel mother. She had not meant to be, nor had she always been. She could remember, now, the shock she felt in those early days, to see her own cruelty performed unthinkingly and unbidden, as if her father's spirit had infected her now she was returned home. Hers had not been a pleasant childhood, and she had never wanted to continue that chain. Yet what other example had she to follow?
So she sat and waited alone in Lindom Hall (her servants now avoiding her, and her frantic questions, as much as professionalism allowed), waiting for Thomas to return, waiting to apologise. It had been weeks, now: the messages she had sent him had gone ignored, and in all her exhaustion she did not feel capable of the carriage journey into town to meet him directly. She no longer lived but endured, knowing there was no escape from her misery except through Thomas and his forgiveness, yet unable to compel him to attend; and her endurance was all that was left to her, as if it could signal to Thomas the depths of her regret.
There had been so much time to contemplate her life and her mistakes.
Sat in her high-backed armchair, staring through the black lace to the driveway outside the window, she spied at last and to her great relief Thomas arriving in a hansom cab. She hurried to the door and stepped out to meet him in the thick winter fog, and embraced him for the first time in many years, oblivious to decorum. For a moment they stood there in tableau, she clinging to him, he too shocked to respond, until he broke the moment with indignant voice:
"Mother, please. This is most unbecoming before the servants. We must needs talk inside."
"Oh yes we must, we must!" she said, fussing at his tailcoat and leading him onwards as if she were a child with a secret to show. She hurried into the study, pulling a chair out for him.
"Mother," he began once he was seated with hat removed, his nose wrinkling at the smell of the house. "I have come--"
"Thomas, shush, I have been thinking and I need to talk with you," she said, words tripping over her tongue. "There is a hidden room deep within this house that has been showing me recollections of your childhood and our relationship, and I have been thinking on it for quite some time now and it has become clear to me in my contemplations that during your upbringing I was a less than admirable example of Christian values--"
"Quit your babbling, Mother! Heavens, I had not realised it had gotten this bad." The contempt in his tone shocked and stilled her. "Look at you, for goodness' sake. You are quite wasting away, your hair is unkempt, and you have taken to shutting out the sunlight with these atrocious black lace curtains. And a hidden room? Honestly? It is quite clear to me that the course I set myself upon is the correct one; I confess I had my doubts, at first, but seeing you now sets my mind."
"What course?" she asked, suspicious.
"I have been meeting with Mr Richmond. Yes, he informed me of your request to bar the entail as he thought it highly irregular, and in discussion we concluded you were taking leave of your senses. I have come to tell you, Mother, that we have referred you to a commission of lunatics, and are requesting the Justices of the Peace assign your power of attorney to me."
All Margaret's guilt and good intentions disappeared like mist beneath the sun. The unbelievable--the insufferable--the sheer bloody gall of it!
"How could you!" she said, spluttering with rage, falling over herself to shoo him out of the house. "I shall not stand for this insult, and I shall see that your sophistry and your deceit is shown for all to know who you truly are! Out, wicked child! Out! Out!" She pushed at his back and swiped at his ankles with her cane, chased him through the hallway and out of the door and--
--and the chill lifted from her as she crossed the threshold, even as cold as the December afternoon was. She suddenly had the queerest sensation of watching herself, detached, wondering what on earth she was doing. She had waited all these days for Thomas to come so she could beg his forgiveness, and yet here she was, chasing him off almost as soon as he had arrived. Why was she so quick to anger with him? What of all her previous resolve?
"Thomas! Wait!" and now she pulled at his tailcoat, trying to slow him, stop him, keep him here long enough to set everything right again.
"Mother, will you desist!" He slapped her hands away as he opened the hansom cab.
"No, Thomas, you must understand! I did not mean to be cruel again! I must explain! You must understand!"
Thomas had climbed into the cab now, and looked down with disdain. "You really have gone quite mad, haven't you? The bailiffs will attend shortly to escort you to your hearing with the commission. Goodbye, Mother."
Margaret clung to the door to try and prevent him shutting it, but he jolted it out and knocked her to the sharp gravel, then slammed it shut. The horse started down the driveway, and Thomas was gone.
His forgiveness was gone.
No. She could not give up so easily. Thomas would not return, so she would go to him.
She must, in fact. The cold winter air and the shock of events conspired to a clarity of thought: why in God's name would she disinherit Thomas? If he did not inherit, her only child, then it would pass to--would it be her nephew, Michael? No, no--he had died in the Crimea, a Russian sword through his ribs.
She had been so obsessed with punishing Thomas for his slight, she had been about to leave the estate to the Crown, and let it slip from her family forever.
Perhaps a madness had settled on her.
Her butler waited at the door. "Bowes, have the carriage prepared. I must travel into town immediately."
Bowes had a pained expression. "Madam, I am afraid the horses are being reshod in the village, and will not return until dusk. You will be able to travel in the morning. My apologies."
"There is no way of travelling into town?"
"I fear not, Madam, barring the twelve mile walk."
Very well. The morning. She could manage one more night in the house, could she not? She would not let her cruelty overwhelm her again. She would not. She would not.
She repeated it in her head as she stepped back inside, the cold settling into her bones and throat and heart.
The tapping had never been so loud. It rolled and repeated and built upon itself, rising to a great clattering sound like looms in a mill, like carriages on cobbles, like all the delirious industry of mad Hell itself.
Margaret knew she could not ignore it, though she feared it tonight more than ever. She feared what she would see after her argument with Thomas. Their altercation had carried a tone of finality that rested ill with her.
But if witnessing her cruelty was punishment for all the years of it, she must bear the weight. Perhaps enduring these revelations was the only way to make amends. Perhaps she would be free after tonight.
The room in the centre of the house was crowded with windows. All but one of them was draped with black lace.
One last nightmare of memory. Come what may, it ended tonight, it seemed.
She stepped forward, and--
Thomas stands at Mother's side and shakes the mourners' proffered hands as they shuffle past in the rain, his skin stinging with the cold. He does not know what to say to them, nor what is expected of him here, but it seems to him that neither do they. They are all strangers to each other, after all.
Mother speaks to these visitors with barely veiled contempt. She made her distaste for them quite clear that morning, complaining to Thomas of the burden of hosting society when they had considered his father beneath them. It should not matter to them that Father had lacked a title by birth, she said, for he had gained one by marriage, yet they ever held his blood against him. Do not repeat my mistakes, Thomas. These are petty people. Give them no excuse.
Thomas is not certain about any of this. The guests all seemed amiable and sincere, and Mother is seeing the very worst in the situation, as usual. Even leaving the house does not lift her mood any more, as it once did.
The rain falls from the grey sky in desultory fashion, and the last mourners depart to their carriages.
"What now then, Mother? I suppose I am the 14th Viscount Lindom, and this is my Hall now?"
She sneers. "It is not. Did your father not tell you before his death? Goodness, he did not even trust you with this. You may possess the title of Viscount Lindom now, yes, but that is all: your father's will declares the estate rests with me till my death, 'in order to postpone as long as possible the terrible weight of Lindom Hall from falling on my son'. He did not think you worthy of the Hall, Thomas, nor capable of the responsibility. He must have been so very disappointed in you, don't you think?"
Thomas' eyes sting with tears, and though he tries to blink them back and hide them in the rain, he knows it is too late. Mother has seen. He feels sick with shame, and he is lost and confused without his father, left to the casual cruelties of his mother. Oh, how he hates her. Oh, how he loathes her.
"Thomas, really? Tears? What a weak little boy you are."
--black lace tumbled across Margaret's face, scratching at her cheeks and eyelids. It was not a soft thing, this lace.
Nor had her mothering been a soft thing. She had never comprehended how Thomas felt towards her; and now, that understanding had been thrust upon her in a most visceral fashion. The knowledge burned inside her stomach, like acid. Like shame.
The tapping broke through her misery. It was louder than ever, and for the first time it had a sort of intimacy to it, some new characteristic that Margaret could not quite place. An altered nature, quite unlike these past weeks.
It no longer surrounded her. It no longer filled the room equally. It had a direction.
She turned, dreading what she might see.
All the curtains across all the windows were growing and lengthening, slow moving rivers of lace flooding down the walls, running over the wall lanterns and casting crooked shadows. Shifting, creeping, rustling, it gathered and heaped in the centre of the room.
And atop it all sat an enormous seven-legged spider, its legs dipped in wax and streaked glossy white. It sat and span the black lace, its waxen legs tapping together as it wove, tap tap, tap tap, tap tap, a monstrous sound from a monstrous spider, its eight eyes staring down at her, watching, judging.
She had to get out. She had to get away from this nightmare phantasm and get to Thomas and apologise, make amends, beg forgiveness, and she had to do it now, not in the morning but now, right now, now. She ran for the door, stumbling on frail legs and old bones, but without her walking cane she tripped and tumbled, jarring her limbs and cracking her teeth together. A curtain of black lace scraped beneath her, pulled by the spider; then an enormous leg reached out and pulled at the lace and lay it over her, and the sweet smell of it made her gag, poured down her throat like syrup. She was lifted up and spun around, lace wrapped around her and binding her limbs, rough on her skin and cold, a cold that she felt deep inside like cruelty, and the lace was swaddled round and round and ever round and it was across her face and her eyes and she fought to draw breath to scream as the spider brought her close and held her up to its face and its glinting eyes, admiring its work, turning her this way and that; and then it plunged her down into the pile of lace, pushed her down into it where she choked for breath and struggled against the vanishing of the light, against the weight of all her cruelties pressing in, squeezing her, hurting her, forcing her inside the house to be trapped there forever and more.
Thomas stepped out of the hansom cab and opened his umbrella against the rain, then stepped round and proffered his gloved hand for Victoria. Little Miriam followed, and all three of them huddled close, away from the sharp December chill, as they walked to the entrance of Lindom Hall.
Thomas opened the oak door and paused, struck by nostalgia and unhappiness and relief all at once. He still recalled the day he had first moved into the Hall, rushing in and running round as Miriam was now, marvelling at all the space. Swept up in anticipation of the wonderful times he would have here.
"Thomas? Are you alright?" Victoria had been chasing Miriam playfully, but came back to his arm now, concerned.
"Yes, quite. Sorry. Rather caught up in memories of another moment like this, some years ago."
Victoria smiled and hooked her arms through his. "This will be a happy place now, Thomas. Not like it was in your childhood."
He smiled without much conviction, but with Victoria on his arm, he stepped over the threshold and into his inheritance.
A chill crossed his heart as he walked in.
Miriam ran into his legs, perhaps meaning to embrace him, but she nearly knocked him over and back out of the doorway.
Before he quite knew what he was doing, Thomas raised his hand and cuffed her round the ears.
This story was first drafted for a Hallowe'en story contest in the Codex writers group, based on two story seeds provided by Merc Rustad and Stewart C. Baker: "A spider with legs dipped in wax sits atop yards of black lace" and "In the centre of the mansion, there is a room with windows", respectively. The basic idea was pretty easy given such foundations, and the first draft came out suspiciously easily, but as usually happens with these things I didn't fully realise what I was writing about until two or three drafts in.
As my kids grow up into individuals, with their own challenges and celebrations, I'm increasingly aware of the way I come across as a father, and the ways in which we inevitably repeat the mistakes and successes of our own parents--because what other example do we have to learn from? Some of those lessons are sunk in so deep you don't even realise they're there. Though I'm fortunate in never having known the sort of emotional cruelty shown in the story, there are other aspects of who I am that I struggle to keep in check. It's worth the effort, though; to be honest, I can't think of any effort more important.