I met the old man when I was wandering around the churchyard, which was covered with fallen leaves, pondering rather vaguely upon how I was to continue my half-written sermon. He was studying the Celtic cross near the east wall of the church. We fell into quite fascinating conversation. I learnt he was a traveller and explorer, with an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, a great love of history, literature and the sciences, and a taste for mysteries. He would not wish his name mentioned. Mine is Gustavus Ridley and I am rector of Matching, in Yorkshire. 

My new acquaintance accompanied me to the vicarage and joined me for dinner, to the displeasure of my cook-housekeeper Mrs Rothwell, who has an aversion, no doubt justifiable, to last-minute changes. Fortunately, she also dislikes being found wanting and produced, as always, an excellent meal, absolutely on time. By the end of a most enjoyable evening my guest had agreed to stay for a few days. Poor Mrs Rothwell’s fortitude was being sadly tried. 

It was during the fourth occasion upon which he dined with me, and incidentally quite won over Mrs Rothwell with his compliments regarding the saddle of mutton, that I realised I had not once, in all our discourse, touched upon the utterly impenetrable Hastings Ascham business, which had mystified the inhabitants of Matching for half a century. 

‘I would very much like to hear about it,’ my companion assured me when I raised the subject, his sharp eyes shining brighter with interest than I had yet seen them. 

‘We shall take our coffee by the fire and make ourselves comfortable before I commence,’ I decided. ‘In the meantime let us apply ourselves to Mrs Rothwell’s excellent plum duff.’ 

It was a wild night, the rain lashing at the window panes as if in anger. The merry blaze in the fireplace threw colour into the shadows, the only other light being from the two gas lamps on the chimney wall, for the old vicarage had never been converted to electricity. The old man’s white hair shone, illuminated by the blue flame directly above the wing armchair in which he was ensconced. Mrs Rothwell placed the coffee tray on the table near the hearth and departed. 

‘Hastings Ascham is a large residence on the Matching Road,’ I began. ‘It’s frontage is impressive, if overly Gothic, incorporating as it does a number of disturbingly countenanced gargoyles, set in unexpected alcoves and niches, which now seem to peer at visitors through the tangle of ivy that has gradually enveloped the house. The interior, when one enters, immediately conveys a peculiar feeling of heaviness, of a weight pressing down on one’s mind, depressing the spirits almost to the point of dread; yet Mr and Mrs Flinch lived there for several decades. I have known Jemima Flinch, nee Ushgrave, who was widowed six years ago, since she was a girl and so felt able to ask her on one occasion if she and her husband had been aware of the atmosphere that I and others had perceived, and if so how they had succeeded in enduring it.’ 

‘How did the lady respond?’ the old man asked curiously. 

‘She admitted quite frankly that she sensed the oppressive pall that hangs over Hastings Ascham, having first done so as a girl of fifteen, but went on to explain that she and her husband had evolved a way of acknowledging its presence while at the same time remaining detached enough to live a normal life, or something approaching one, within the house’s walls.’ 

My listener’s brow furrowed. ‘Quite an achievement, I daresay. But why did they feel it necessary to remain there at all?’ 

I took a sip of my coffee. ‘Mrs Flinch has always felt it to be incumbent on her not to leave; that the unsolved conundrum of what happened there in 1883, and again much more recently, is in some way her cross to bear as an Ushgrave.’ 

My confidant tendered me a very direct look. ‘So what did happen, eh?’ 

‘The Ushgraves were a well-to-do family,’ I resumed, ‘but in trade, so their ascent of the social ladder was not an easy one. Caleb Ushgrave, a lean-faced, exceedingly stiff and formal sort of man, was a mill owner. His wife Selina was a very beautiful woman, though her manner was cold and haughty. They had five children, four daughters and a son. The two elder sisters, Miriam and Vivien, were afflicted with mental problems from an early age and were secretly committed to the Campden Hayman Asylum for Idiots, as it was called in those days, where they received no visitors and spent the rest of their lives all but forgotten.

Their parents never referred to the unfortunate girls and considered them dead years before they actually passed away. Mrs Flinch, in fact, only learnt of their existence and death after her elderly and widowed mother passed away. The next daughter was Margot, who was perfectly normal. The last three children all were, thank the Lord. Margot, who has been dead these ten years, was married to Mr Justice Hallam, the presiding judge in that appalling Webster case. Jemima was the next child, and finally came Gilbert. The Ushgraves were distant with Margot and Jemima, but doted on their son. 

‘Gilbert disappeared from the house as a boy of seven and was never seen again. He had been observed in the nursery playing with his toys only ten minutes before he was missed. A young housemaid, Sarah Pollinger, vanished shortly afterwards. The cook and the scullery maid were the last to see her, having noticed the girl leaving the servants’ hall in the basement carrying a tin of furniture polish and several dusters. 

‘Five years ago Mrs Flinch’s married nephew, Edmund Hallam, a solicitor, came to stay with his aunt for a few days while he attended to some business in the area. He dined with Mrs Flinch on the third day of his stay but has been missing ever since he left the dining room to study paperwork in his room, which was, significantly or not, the former nursery on the first floor. His wife has refused ever since to visit Hastings Ascham or bring her children there, for which one can scarcely blame her. 

‘Mrs Flinch engaged a local cleaning woman, known to all as Vi Boone, who was reluctant to work in the house but needed the money. She arrived as usual one morning nearly three weeks later and commenced her tasks, but could not be found twenty minutes later when Mrs Flinch wanted to speak to her. A rather aggrieved Mr Boone, whose dinner had been conspicuous by its absence when he returned from his work at Pilsworths Woodyard, came in search of his wife. It gradually became clear that another name had been added to the list of those last seen in the house but of whom no trace has ever been found.’ 

The old man stroked his chin thoughtfully. ‘Would Mrs Flinch object if I visited Hastings Ascham, and the old nursery in particular, eh?’ 

We called the very next day. Mrs Flinch, wearing an old-fashioned dress in deep purple, was in the over-furnished Victorian drawing room, seated bolt upright in a green leather armchair by the fire. She was a handsome woman of regal bearing and imposing stance, with rather chilly blue eyes. Having greeted my new friend and I, she acquiesced to our request to see the nursery quite matter-of-factly, as though it were the most natural one in the world, then turned away, obviously disinclined to indulge in any small talk whatsoever. 

As we ascended the creaking stairs the old man gave no indication that he felt the stifling ambience of our surroundings. I still shudder whenever I recall how soon after that the attack came. 

We were standing in the first floor bedroom, which still bore evidence of its previous use. A collection of teddy bears occupied the available surface of a folding table, the two leaves of which were collapsed. On the floor by the table was an old puppet theatre with a wooden box on top of it, which my companion opened and glanced into. I had moved to the velvet-curtained window and was staring down into the exuberantly overgrown front garden when I heard a sudden gasp and wheeled round to see the old explorer, who was facing away from me, with his head and shoulders pulled back in recoil, for he was already in the midst of a titanic struggle against something by no means apparent to me. I hurried over, put a hand on his left shoulder and with a great effort, for I’m no spring chicken, jerked him round to face me. Something dropped from his hand and clattered to the floor. 

He produced a handkerchief, mopped his brow, and after some minutes spent recovering himself he bent to retrieve the fallen object. 

‘A very quick glance only,’ he warned. ‘Don’t dwell on its face, whatever you do.’

He opened his hand and I saw a wooden puppet. It was, I realised, of Jack Frost, and depicted him in a black jerkin with touches of blue. One leg had snapped off and glued back on very carelessly. The head was topped with a row of icicles. My fleeting glance at the face, even originally that of a crafty and sinister mischief maker, chilled me to the heart, for some mishap, probably the also responsible for the damaged leg, had partly crushed it, producing a truly fearsome expression of supreme malevolence and evil such as I had never looked upon before and pray I never have to rest my eyes upon again.

The old fellow closed his hand around this monstrosity and stared at me with haunted eyes.

‘Was there always something foul lurking within this painted piece of wood?’ he murmured, half to himself. ‘Or was something bitter, unnatural and twisted born in its fibres when it was broken, crudely repaired and then left in that box, perhaps never to take its place on the stage of the puppet theatre again?’

I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe that such a thing could exist on God’s good earth.

Yet I had witnessed my new friend struggling in its malignant grip.

‘You came across it very speedily. Surely you didn’t think from the start that something of that nature was responsible for the disappearances?’ I asked incredulously.

‘Such finely-tuned perspicacity I cannot lay claim to, though I felt that the nursery was the key to the problem. Gilbert Ushgrave was last observed there; Edmund Hallam slept there despite its reputation, realistically because it’s location on the first floor rendered it more convenient than the original bedrooms; the housemaid and the cleaner went in to do their jobs. It all fitted.’

‘But why would Edmund and the two staff look at the figure? Gilbert, yes, if only while sorting through the puppets for the ones he favoured…’

‘A passing curiosity, I would think, as to the box’s contents. It cost them dearly, I’m afraid.’

I was about to ask him about the whereabouts of the bodies of the victims when he turned and left that melancholy chamber. I followed him back to the drawing room and the presence of Mrs Flinch.

My pen trembles in my hand as I prepare to describe the closing scene of that unsettling drama.

For the worst is yet to come.

‘I once heard my mother saying to my father that what happened to Gilbert was a judgement on them,’ Mrs Flinch told us without preamble. ‘She was referring to their treatment of my elder sisters, I feel sure, though I didn’t realise that for a long time, of course.’

The old man showed her the puppet quickly, not allowing her eyes to linger on it.

‘The ‘Devil Patient’,’ she exclaimed. ‘Gilbert had trodden on the nasty-looking thing, I remember, and called it that afterwards. He tried to repair the damage, you see, and enjoyed pretending to be a doctor. When the novelty of that wore off he ignored it completely and never played with it again.’

‘He ended up as its victim. Its first victim.’

She stared at him for a moment, then rose from her chair and gave an angry, scornful laugh before impatiently snatching the puppet from his hand and hurling it into the fire. ‘That should close the case for good, then, shouldn’t it?’ 

‘My dear madam, you may mock but I do assure you…’ 

He broke off. She was staring down at the carpet and we both followed her incredulous gaze.

The puppet lay there, charred and smoking. 

The awful realisation of the terrible truth seized Mrs Flinch then and she moved amazingly quickly for an old woman. Furiously, she seized the toy and returned it to the flames, but this time she grabbed her walking cane from beside the fireplace and used it to pin the ‘Devil Patient’ in place amidst the glowing coals. 

‘Vile thing! Vile thing!’ she raged. 

Her body contorted suddenly but she wouldn’t release her grip on the stick. At the same time a nebulous picture, or vision, partly obscured her struggle. I perceived a wintry landscape. Skeletal trees. Dark figures. The brief impression of a face, mouth open in a silent scream. 

The scene began to twist and distort. 

Mrs Flinch dropped her stick and collapsed into a chair. 

The puppet was nothing now but fragile black ash. 

The vision, and I pray the infernal world it depicted, snapped out of existence. 

I looked at the old man, who was already bending over Mrs Flinch. He shook his head sadly.

She was at peace now, I told myself desperately. They all were. 

It was then, as we stood there in the aftermath of that hell, that I felt unexpectedly reassured. My spirits, quite unaccountably in the circumstances, rose. 

But then I knew why. It was almost tangible. 

The oppressive pall that had for so long shrouded Hastings Ascham was, at long last, beginning to lift…

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copyright 2020

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