the Yellow Room
The sudden bolt of lightning stabbed toward the ground outside the window, as sheets of rain pummeled the glass. Edward looked toward his hosts with a wan smile. “I say, it’s come up a frightful storm. I’ve an eight-mile ride ahead of me; I’d best be off.”
Sir John Wycombe shook his head. “Nonsense, my boy, you’ll stay the night. This is no fit night to be out on the back of a horse. I did my share of that in India. You’ve not seen rain until you’ve experienced an Indian monsoon.” He reached for the bell-pull next to the fireplace mantle, and gave it a sharp tug.
As he spoke, Edward noticed a look of alarm cross the face of Lady Jane, Sir John’s wife and mistress of the house. Not wanting to be an imposition, he hurriedly spoke up. “That’s quite all right, Sir John. I shouldn’t wish to put anyone out. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
The old man noticed the look on his wife’s face, as the butler entered the room in answer to the summons. “My dear, why don’t you and Charles prepare a guest room for Edward? We can’t allow the only physician in the village to catch his death of pneumonia, now can we?”
A frightened glance was exchanged between the butler and Lady Jane, and then she looked to her husband. “John, I’m afraid that the guest rooms aren’t inhabitable at the moment. Remember dear, that wing of the house is being renovated. Edward would have to sleep in the… yellow room.”
“Then the yellow room will be fine. See to it please.” To calm his obviously terrified wife, he placed a hand on her shoulder and gently caressed her cheek. “Jane, it will be fine. We will not send the lad out in this weather. I’ll talk to him.” As his wife led the butler out of the drawing room, Sir John lifted a bottle of Scotch, and poured three fingers worth into a tumbler, handed it to Edward, then repeated the process for himself. Dr. Edward Leigh just stared, embarrassed, at the parquet floor. “I must apologize, Sir John. I fear I’ve intruded on something very private and personal.”
“No, lad, it is I who must apologize. My dear wife is a superstitious sort; a lovely woman, wonderful wife, but very easily spooked. She, and most of the servants, believe the yellow room to be haunted.”
“Surely you’re joking! We’re nearly in the twentieth century. Such superstitions can’t exist in the light of today’s scientific age.”
“My son, we are products of an earlier age. I can … understand, my wife’s apprehensions.”
“Do you share them?”
The gaunt old man shook his head. “No, lad, I don’t. But I don’t dismiss them, either. Lady Jane isn’t a fool, Edward. She is a wise old woman. I may not share her beliefs, but I do respect them.”
“I see. Might I ask the story of the haunting?”
“Of course, my boy, of course. It’s quite simple, really. My ancestors, in the time of the civil war, were Royalists, as well as Catholics. A poor combination under the rule of Cromwell, I’m afraid. One night, a group of Roundheads, while getting drunk in a pub, heard a rumor that they were hiding a relative of Charles II. They stormed the manor, and, not finding the lord and lady present, demanded that the frightened servants take them to the ‘guest’. So, that’s what they did. Only the ‘guest’ was a fifteen year-old niece of the Lady of the house. They fell upon her; they … abused, her; then, when they realized what they had done, they murdered her, along with two of the servants who came to her aid. It all took place in the yellow bedroom.”
Edward downed half his whiskey in one quick swallow, then gave out a nervous chuckle. “But surely that’s just a story, a legend?”
“On the contrary, the murders are well-documented fact. Indeed, the Roundheads responsible were punished. Not for rape and murder, however; but for being drunk on duty.”
“And the ghost?”
“That, Edward, is the legend. The story goes that, ever since the murders, her spirit reenacts her death, at the hour of her death. That is why we seldom use the room.”
“You said ‘Seldom’? Then it is used occasionally?”
“Certainly. Come, come, my boy, don’t let my wife’s fears bother you. Those murders were 230 years ago. You should view this as an opportunity to shine the ‘… light of today’s scientific age’, as you put it, on our superstitions.”
Edward laughed. “Quite so, Sir John, quite so. Very well, if you’ll lead me to my ghostly bedchamber?”
Sir John continued to reassure his guest as they climbed the stairs to the second floor. “It’s really quite a comfortable room. Every modern convenience, a well-stocked bookcase, you should be quite snug, I assure you.”
“I am certain I shall sleep like the de--, like a baby, Sir John. Tell me, have you ever slept in the room?”
Just for a second, a shocked look crossed the old man’s face, then it was gone, as he chuckled nervously. “No. I suppose I’m more superstitious than I claimed to be. Well, here we are.”
Edward surveyed the surroundings, noting that, on the surface, it did indeed seem to be a very comfortable room. The bed had been turned down, and Charles, the butler, was lighting the large fireplace. Lady Jane was not in evidence, and Edward assumed that she had retired for the night. He turned to his host. “Eminently suitable, Sir John. I thank you and your wife for your wonderful hospitality.”
“Think nothing of it, lad. It wouldn’t be Christian of me to do any less. If you need anything, just ring. The servants will hear. Good night.”
As he closed the door behind him, Edward sat down on the bed and pulled off his boots. Not quite tired enough to sleep, (and not willing to admit that he was nervous as well) he grabbed a book at random, intending to sit in front of a roaring fire, reading peacefully until sleep claimed him. He regretted his choice as soon as he saw the title: HAMLET by William Shakespeare. More ghosts.
But Shakespeare had always been a favorite of his, and HAMLET was his favorite of the bard’s works. Soon he found himself, as always, enthralled by the story of the Prince of Denmark, as the storm raged outside.
The storm, as most do, passed quickly, and the sun rose bright and clear, if somewhat colder. Sir John, conditioned by a lifetime spent in the Queen’s service, was up at dawn. So, of course, was the rest of the household. As Lady Jane supervised the breakfast preparation, she sent one of the maids to awaken Dr. Leigh. Within moments, her screams reverberated throughout the large manor house.
The village Constable, along with the local Veterinarian, (the only other person with medical training in the village of Wycombe-on-Thames) arrived by noon, though it was patently obvious that they could be of no assistance. The vet conducted what examination he could, however. “I’m no medical doctor, mind you Sir John, but I believe that this man died of coronary seizure, induced by fright.”
The Constable looked up from his note pad. “Come now, Mr. Harris, surely you don’t mean that. We know Dr. Leigh. He was a young, strong man. What on earth could frighten such a man, a man of intellect, of reason?”
“Jimmy Newbury, I may only be a cattle and horse surgeon, but you look at that man’s face and tell me different!”
Sir John paid little attention to the argument; he now knew the truth of what killed his houseguest. He knelt beside the body, and noticed the book on the floor, and a scrap of paper in the dead man’s hand. He pried the cold, stiff hand open, and retrieved the paper.
“Here now, what’s that?” said the constable reaching for the paper.
“Nothing much. A page from Shakespeare’s HAMLET. Act I, scene 5. “There are more things in Heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”
“Well, then that’s of little consequence. I’ll send Mortimer’s for the body, Sir John. I think it’s obviously a case of death by natural causes. We’ll not trouble you any further.”
As the old man closed the door on the horrific scene, his last view was of the yellow wallpaper, splashed with the brightly shining sun.