tagErotic HorrorThe House on the Ridge

The House on the Ridge

byTodd172©

This story is for the "Behind the Walls of Sleep" Gothic Horror invitational. It is a completely different style and type of story for me and I learned a great deal from trying this. Thanks to blackrandi for the invite; these events push me out of my comfort zone and I learn a lot from them. Thanks to blackrandi, sbrooks103x, Bebop03, Piper and stev2244 for the beta reads and editing. MattBlackUK gave me the final setting for the story. This would be unreadable without all of them. There are others who prefer not to be named; you know who you are and you know you are appreciated.

*

We sat in silence as our coach made the passage up the road through the mist-clad Yorkshire moors. Ashen fields, grey and dull, faded into a pallid colourless sky. The sun made no effort to push through the shrouding overcast of clouds, a feeble, mocking imitation of daylight. The nervous whickering of the horses was the only sound beyond wet creaking as the coach crept along the half-mud half-rock course up to the dark shape of Ridge Manor overlooking the bleak countryside.

The coachman was stubbornly mute, having only rumbled the slightest greeting to us at the train platform, telling us Father's solicitor would be meeting us at the house. We passed nobody, not one traveller on the road, just the endless dead pastures and stunted twisted black trees.

It had been a very difficult year since my husband had died of the Fever. It'd left an unshakeable grey pall over our little home. Money was beginning to run short and I'd felt lost and hopeless. His death had left me weak and in a miserable disturbed state. Unremembered nightmares shocked me awake in gasping terror at vague and formless thoughts. Sleep brought me no rest, and I woke in the mornings shaking from ever-worse exhaustion. Sometimes, frighteningly, I woke in odd places. Sometimes I found myself standing in the parlour, or even in the street in front of our little house. I had finally stopped wearing my widow's veil after a year at my daughter's insistence, as she felt it was making my illness worse.

In my desperation, I'd begun to think to ask Father for help.

I swore I would never do that, never turn to the man who rejected me so soundly and coldly.

Father. Elijah Moorhead. Hope, my daughter, had never met him and I was secretly glad that she never would. The very breath of his name made me wince in pain. We had been so very close, once, but it had been so many years since we had spoken, and that last meeting had been harsh; many things had been said that were impossible to take back.

He'd been so angered with my choice of Conall as a suitor that he'd had me forced from the house, saying that he'd never countenance an Irishman in his home, even though my mother was herself half-Irish. I still wore Grandmother's silver Saint Patrick's medallion, as I had from the time I was five. I knew he was really angry because I chose to leave, to live my life differently than he and Mother had.

I'd run to Conall, and we'd run together to the city over fourteen years ago.

For Hope's sake, I feared I would have to turn to Father, accept whatever punishment he would mete out in retaliation for defying him.

As it was, I received word of his death in a letter from his solicitor, a letter that also informed me that I was to be present for the dispensation of his estate, as I was named to receive a substantial inheritance.

I was quite shocked at that, as I had truly believed he would never forgive me for defying him.

Hope and I were nearly bereft of money, and even selling all we could, I was just able to pay for passage on the trains to reach the ancestral family estate that Father had moved to after I had left.

Hope peered up at the foreboding shadow of the manor. "Mother, is it always so unhappy looking?"

I followed her gaze. 'I've never been to the Ridge Manor in my life. My mother, your grandmother, had sworn never to come back here for any reason before I was ever born."

"Why?" She asked it with the guileless honesty of youth. It would be another three or four years before she would begin her passage into womanhood.

"I do not know, only that she found the manor repulsive."

Hope studied the distant shape for a moment. "It doesn't frighten me, Mother."

I smiled at her softly. "I'm quite glad of that. At least one of us should be comfortable there."

"Will it be our new home?"

"I don't know, Hope. That depends on a great many things." Mostly, I thought, it depended on how much Father's anger at me had dissipated.

"It could be a wonderful place to explore, I think."

"You'll not explore anything without telling me first. I know nothing about this place."

"Yes, Mother." She said it agreeably enough, but I knew I would have to watch her carefully, as she had her father's joie de vivre and irrepressible love of adventure. She meant well, but I was certain she would be haring off down every corridor and garden path in search of some great discovery.

Hope so reminded me of my husband; she was the only light in my fog of exhaustion.

She smiled. "Perhaps we'll have crocuses here."

"Kirkstall Abbey is famed for their crocuses, so if we have none here, perhaps we may see them there."

"The Abbey at Leeds? The ruins we saw when we were on the train?"

"Yes. Some of the stone from the Abbey was used to construct Ridge Manor. Or at least that is what I was told growing up."

As we pulled past the towering wrought iron gate, past the empty stone gatehouse, the road turned into a dark grey cobbled drive.

We slowed to a stop at the foot of the steep stone stairs, and I could see the butler standing at the massive front doors.

Taking Hope's hand, I squared my shoulders and walked up as bravely as I could, but halted when I realized he wasn't our old butler, Martin.

He greeted me graciously. "Mrs. Malone. You may call me Thomas."

"Good afternoon, Thomas. May I ask what happened to Martin?"

"I'm afraid he passed away at the same time as your Father, due to fever."

I sighed. "That's unfortunate, he was a very good man."

"So I have been given to understand. Mrs. Naxby has only the highest praise for him."

I smiled at the name of the old cook. "Nora is still here?"

"She is, Madame. Most of the staff departed after your father's passing, and we've limited taking on help until you determined what course of action to take. We do, however, have a gardener on retainer for the coming spring and one maid who is tasked with maintaining the household for the time being. I do apologize for that rather Spartan approach, but Mister Genovese, your father's solicitor, was quite concerned with preserving the accounts until you arrived."

"I'm sure it will be fine, Thomas." Hope and I were quite used to 'Spartan' as we had had no money, even for a maid-of-all-work, since Conall's death.

"If you have need of anything, I will be on call. I'm afraid Tillie, the maid, and I shall have to serve out meals as we haven't the proper staff, so I will not be as readily to hand as I would prefer."

"Thank you, Thomas."

He paused, almost awkwardly. "Madame?"

"Yes?"

"If I may. Your... It is not my place, but as you appear to have no personal maid... your holy medal seems to have fallen to the outside of your garments."

"That's not an accident Thomas, I wear my grandmother's memory this way at all times."

"I see. All due apologies for overstepping my bounds."

"No, Thomas. No apologies. I appreciate the concern, I understand that many in this area are uncomfortable with the Catholic. I don't wear this for religious purposes."

"Yes, Madame." He paused again. "Tillie will see you to your rooms, and I will arrange to have the coachman bring your bags into the house."

I turned and started as I suddenly found myself facing the maid. I hadn't heard her approach at all. Pale, gaunt and grim, she stood silently, a scar violently crossing her face, her left eye drooped mostly closed. She looked terribly odd and lopsided in a most disturbing manner.

I caught myself as best I could, smiling and nodding to her. "You must be Tillie."

She didn't move. I couldn't even tell if she was breathing.

After a slightly uncomfortable pause, Thomas spoke. "All due apologies Madame, Tillie is quite mute, I'm afraid. She is, however, very competent."

Tillie, slowly and mechanically, grasped her black skirts and then gave a slight, peculiarly smooth, curtsy. Despite her inelegant appearance, she almost appeared to float effortlessly.

Hope stepped forward and took her hand, smiling. "Most pleased to meet you Miss Tillie. My name is Hope."

The little maid looked down at her, expressionless. Hope persisted. "Where is my room Miss Tillie?"

Tillie gave me an ever so slight nod, and with a look, I supposed, of resignation she led us up the stairs to the east wing.

I glanced around, Father's opulent tastes were evident everywhere. Thick rugs covered the floors, and heavily embroidered tapestries hung over every inch of the walls.

Tillie showed us to adjoining rooms. She had obviously been expecting us to arrive as she already had coal burning in the grates, and had very fresh linens laid on.

She stayed with us just long enough to lay in our clothing when the coachman brought our trunks up. The paucity of our clothing didn't seem to register with her at all, and she had it laid in very rapidly, despite Hope's continuing efforts to talk to her.

After she left, I looked over at Hope. "Well, she's just a bit sullen, isn't she?"

"She's a mute, Mother."

"I know that, but she certainly lacks any lightness of spirit."

Hope looked at the closed door. "She's just very sad, Mother, I can feel it."

I reflected on that. "She's probably fearful that we have our own staff and she will be displaced. She has to be very new here from what Thomas said."

"You're not going to let her go, are you?"

I smiled at Hope's distress. "I can hardly replace her with servants we don't have. Besides..." I gestured around the room. "Thomas was right, she is very competent. The curtains have been cleaned, the linens are fresh, and the fire laid on perfectly."

Hope looked around so very seriously. "Everything does seem to be in order. And I will work on making her happier."

I smiled at her relentless optimism. "I think you've chosen quite the task for yourself."

Hope smiled. "I believe she really wants to be happy."

She pulled our small jewellery case from a valise and opened it for a moment. It had those few mementos left to me by my grandmother, her collection of silver Saint's medals. Father had wordlessly handed it to me as I was forced to leave our home after that last argument, though he would let me have nothing else.

We'd had to sell so many other things, but even at my most desperate, I could not part with those.

Hope quietly, reverently, closed the case. She looked at me, studying me. "You should rest, Mother."

"I will be fine. I'm just worn out from our journey."

"At least for a moment or two, Mother. The illness takes so much out of you sometimes."

I felt the exhaustion crawl along the edges of my mind. "For a moment or two."

Hope sat in a chair by the bed, as she often did when the sickness took hold of me.

I lay back and fell into restless sleep.

*****

I drifted down the dim hallway, a dark luminescence floating just ahead of me, a shadowy moon. The stones of the walls twisted and changed as I was drawn forward, unwillingly, until I saw a dim figure ahead.

The figure coalesced and I saw an image of myself, distorted and twisted as by a warped mirror. A curl of lip, a raised eyebrow. The countenance was unrelentingly cruel and dissipated. Her hand reached toward me, clawed with bloody nails...

*****

"Mother!"

I snapped awake, to find Hope gently smoothing my brow, fingertips weaving through my hair. "You were having bad dreams again."

"I didn't try to get up, did I?"

She shook her head. "No, I didn't let you stay asleep long enough to do that, but I fear you would have. We will have to lock the doors at night to keep you in."

My somnambulism was worse when my illness flared. After Conall's death it had become much more frequent, happening even when my sickness was mild; it was as if I was seeking, looking for something vital to me. I'd awaken disoriented and lost, over and over again. Sometimes I would awaken in odd corners of our little house, sometimes much further afield.

I was used to it, in some measure, having been cursed with waking beneath a distant tree or in some other odd place since I was only eleven years old, But this, this was different, plagued with harsh dreams to which I'd never been subject.

Hope and I locked every door and window, yet it still happened all too often. The dreaming path pulled ceaselessly at me until I managed to slip away.

For a moment we sat staring at each other until a sharp rap at the door interrupted our reverie.

Tillie stood at the door bearing a silver tray with a notecard.

Hope walked up to her. "Thank you, Miss Tillie." Her insistently cheerful approach didn't seem to catch Tillie's notice at all, she simply gave the slightest of curtseys and departed silently.

The neatly lettered card informed us that dinner would be served in one hour and that Mr. Genovese, father's solicitor, would be joining us as a guest.

Hope looked through the door thoughtfully as I looked over our dresses for dinner. "Do you think, Mother, that Miss Tillie could be a lady's maid one day?"

I laughed softly. "It's hard to imagine Tillie concerned with dresses and parasols."

"I like her. I think she would be a fine lady's maid."

I very much doubted that, but decided to keep that to myself. "Since Tillie is not here to give her opinion, which dresses do you think we should wear."

She pointed to my dark blue velvet dress. "That one, Mother. It brings out the darkness in your eyes and makes your skin look like the finest ivory."

I pulled her dark blue dress as well. "Then we shall dress alike, you and I."

We dressed and she pulled on silk gloves to fasten our necklaces; there would never be any tarnish on Grandmother's medallions.

*****

Mr. Genovese, I was sorry to discover, was a pallid unctuous man with little strength of character or personable nature. It was all I could do to put off talk of the business at hand until after dinner. Only the arrival of the food, or, perhaps, Mr. Genovese's apparent discomfort with Tillie, was actually able to put an end to his determination to discuss the inheritance.

Dinner itself was quite palatable, not surprisingly as I remembered Mrs. Naxby's skill. Even with the restrictions placed on purchasing by Mr. Genovese, her dinner of cucumber soup and Pheasant Mandarin with Vichy carrots followed by gooseberry fool was the best food Hope and I had eaten in ages.

After the last course was finished, I looked to Thomas. "I believe we will retire to the parlour. If you could be on hand to serve out brandy for Mr. Genovese, I would appreciate it."

I had no choice but to meet with Mr. Genovese, however unseemly and inappropriate it would normally be, but the presence of a male servant would at least render some accountability. To my relief, Thomas picked up on my request immediately. "Of course, Madame."

Hope promptly took a disconcerted Tillie by the hand and asked her to show her around the mansion.

Mr. Genovese's oily manner left me no less disconcerted in the parlour, but Thomas made certain to seat me so as to avoid any possible impropriety, for which I was quite grateful.

We were barely seated before Mr. Genovese started. "If you accept the terms of the inheritance, I will file the necessary paperwork in the morning."

"Terms?"

He paused, sorting through papers. "Nothing particularly intrusive. The house is never to be sold outside the family. You and any children you have or may have are required to stay in residence, though you are, of course, allowed to travel as necessary or desired. None of the attached grounds are to be sold for any reason."

"Just how much land is attached, Mr. Genovese?"

"Just over six hundred acres. Mostly forested land."

"Any other conditions?"

"The usual, maintenance of the staff if they wish to keep their positions. Mrs. Naxby is the only remaining staff to whom it applies, as the others who were listed seem to have tendered their resignations and departed, I'm afraid." He paused. "There is one odd codicil to the will, he added it when he was quite ill, just before he passed."

"That is?"

He read it off. "Dearest Isobel. Please forgive an old man his pride. I know this is late, too late. You have my blessings and apologies." His voice trailed off uncomfortably.

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, refusing to break down. I'd always known, I think, that the only thing that kept us from reconciliation was pride. Pride on both our parts.

Thomas moved slightly closer and even Mr. Genovese seemed to understand the moment.

I caught my breath. "Is there anything further Mr. Genovese?"

He sorted through the papers. "There appears to be nothing else related to accepting the inheritance. I'll file the necessary papers and ensure the accounts are transferred to your name." He looked up. "I don't have exact balances with me today, but your father made several very successful investments and there is more than enough money for you to be quite... comfortable." He looked suddenly disconcerted discussing finances with a woman.

I stared at him for a long moment. "How 'comfortable,' Mr. Genovese?"

He took a deep breath. "Just under five hundred thousand pounds sterling in assets. Madame."

I blinked. Even Thomas blinked. It was unimaginable wealth, far beyond what I had even dreamed possible. I struggled with the shock for a moment, then felt I had to say something. "Thank you, Mr. Genovese."

He nodded slowly, staring at the papers in his hands. "You will be granted access to the accounts as soon as the papers are processed. I will file them immediately in the morning. I suspect the bank chairman will want to meet with you within the week."

"I suspect you are correct, Mr. Genovese."

He bit his lower lip and 'tssked.' "I will return tomorrow with any messages from the bank and to confirm that everything is filed. If you wish, I will continue acting as your solicitor until you decide on a different course of action. Unless you have your own solicitor, of course."

"I have no solicitor, Mr. Genovese, pleases consider yourself on retainer."

I had little energy for further discussion, and our talk wound down quickly.

After we finished our talk, Thomas showed Mr. Genovese out while I slowly went in search of Hope and Tillie. That took no time at all as they were just arriving in the great foyer as I entered it.

Hope held Tillie's arm up to show a circlet of dried flowers around her wrist. "Mother! I found some dried flowers and made a bracelet for Miss Tillie. It's beautiful, isn't it?"

"It is quite pretty." There were at least some dull purple blossoms, lavender, perhaps, amongst the dull grey leaves.

The corner of Tillie's mouth may have twitched up although I suspected it was a mere trick of the light.

Hope stared at me for a moment. "Mother, you look exhausted."

I hadn't realized how much the meeting with Mr. Genovese had taken out of me until that moment. I felt myself sag a bit. "I'm just tired."

She rushed to my side immediately, gripping my arm. "Miss Tillie, we must get her to bed."

To my surprise the taciturn little maid took my other arm with remarkable strength as they escorted me up the stairs to our rooms. Tillie turned down the beds and banked the fires expertly. When she was satisfied with her work, she nodded then left us to our devices.

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