Penelope: Everyone knows that you are one of the only “reasonable and rational” characters in this entire adventure. How do you maintain your composure when everyone around you has so obviously lost their minds?
Bartholemues: I can tell by your mischievous grin that you are attempting to goad me into saying something I may regret later. The simple truth is, at some point I learned to relax a little and just enjoy myself. Sometimes unexplainable things happen.
Penelope: Of all the things we did, what was your favorite day?
Bartholemues: There were a lot of fun things, but it would have to be either the jousting or the fire festival. Okay, maybe it was the Viking ships. I guess there were a lot of great days. Just nothing to do with the Faerie Queene, she scares me. The Faerie Prince, I can’t say I would want to spend any more time hanging out with him, he is an annoying fop and cheater. I definitely didn’t enjoy being around Calum McCloud, the ghost of St. Andrews, he is a thief and a hooligan. Okay, maybe there were a lot of days that weren’t so great…
Penelope: Alright, those are all things that happened during our adventures in Scotland. Everyone wants to know, were you always this uptight? Was there ever a time when you didn’t have a huge stick…
Bartholemues: Hold on, before you say something I will regret. No. There was a time when I was more open minded. Let me tell you a story about my childhood.
Best Day…Worst Day
When you are a child you believe a lot of things that just seem silly when you are older. When I was young I believed that our estate was haunted. The thing was, I mostly enjoyed it. My parents worked a lot, the estate was huge, I was an only child. My adventures may have been connected to my loneliness. My mother seemed very receptive to the concept of ghosts and encouraged my imagination to run wild. My father, however was more than a little skeptical. I made it my singular mission in life to prove, beyond any shadow of reasonable doubt that our estate was haunted. This proved to be rather more difficult than I imagined, you see, the spirits were not very cooperative.
To understand how difficult the task was, first you would need to understand a little about the Bronte Country Estate. The Country Estate was vast. Originally a reve tower had been built in the 1390’s. This was a defensive fortification to stop raiders from the north. The rest of the house was added over many centuries. You could spend days roaming the halls and sticking your head into rooms, some of these rooms no one other than the house keepers had visited for decades. Then there were the gardens, hectares of well organized perfectly ordered landscaping marvels, fountains and mazes. If you failed to maintain sight of the main house and you weren’t familiar with the layout you could easily become disoriented and lost. After you finished exploring the house and gardens you would still have the main grounds. The main grounds were thousands of hectares of forest, fell, streams, lakes and working farmland. Dotted about the landscape there were barns, stables, grain storage and the homes of workers. It wasn’t unusual to discover tumbled down stone walls and fortifications from the Estate’s military past. In short it was an endlessly fascinating playground.
Even as a child I realized that the spirits and apparitions that haunted the estate tended to stay near the areas of the estate they were familiar with. The Black Brat tended to stay in the areas of the house that had been around in the mid 1500’s while the Abbess roamed the halls that had been around in the late 1500’s. There were soldiers and revers that haunted the tower. My favorite companion was the spirit of a border collie pup that roamed the grounds with me and considered himself my guardian.
My first attempt to convince my father that house was haunted was to try and photograph the spirits. I had very limited success. A few white splotches in the pictures was the best I was able to do. Even though I had hundreds of these pictures, my father dismissed them as a reflection of the flash or a defect in the lens. My next attempt was video. Now the Black Brat of Bletchington was a wailing, screaming apparition that ran through the rooms tearing things apart in the middle of the night. He would make a perfect subject for my video shoot. After my parents had tucked me into bed I waited until midnight to sneak out and headed into the ancient great hall near the tower. I carefully set up the video camera. I waited patiently but dozed off sometime during the night. I was awoken by a blood curdling wail. I looked at my watch, 4 a.m. I flipped on my camera, smiling. The Black Brat was the ghost of a child that roamed the halls screaming for his mother. A very angry spirit that threw books, dumped drawers and slammed doors. Unfortunately the very first thing he destroyed was my video camera. My parents weren’t very happy with me and strangely enough didn’t believe my explanation about a ghostly apparition that didn’t approve of being filmed. They informed me in no uncertain terms that it would be a very long time indeed before I got another camera.
I had to admit I was confounded. I was moping near the great hearth while trying to design a plan for revealing the wraiths of our country estate to the world. That was where the Abbess of Penance found me. She was a soul who wished she possessed a kind heart and had decided to attempt to console me. The problem, she wasn’t very good at it. The first issue was that she wasn’t capable of holding together in a solid form for more than a few seconds at a time. She drifted in and out of my perceptions like smoke on a billowing wind. She would appear and begin a sentence and then dissipate as if hit by a gusty breeze. Then she would reappear somewhere else. Her sentences were disjointed and broken by her fading in and out. It was always a struggle to catch more than one or two words, and her meaning was almost always elusive. It really wasn’t a very good idea to ask her to repeat herself.
“Ah my poor, poor child what can I do to help….”
And she was gone, to reappear near the ceiling.
Gone, it was several more seconds and she was was behind me, her ghostly fingers patting my shoulder.
“…would you care to see?”
I had gotten almost no meaning from her. I failed to follow my own advice.
“I am sorry Abbess, I didn’t catch that. Could you say that one more time?”
Out of nowhere a screaming banshee appeared, grabbed my hand and smacked my knuckles with a wooden ruler.
“Ouch! Stop that, we’ve discussed this before. No smacking my knuckles with a ruler!”
“Sorry, very bad habit…”
The Abbess of Penance did not sound contrite. She was smiling slightly and appeared to be rather smug. The Abbess, besides being profoundly devout, had also been the Governess in charge of educating the children of the lord of the estate. As a teacher she was absolutely terrifying. I rubbed my red knuckles and felt deep sympathy for the children that had been in her charge.
“I know….a ghost.”
As she faded in and out she was indicating I should follow.
With a great deal of trepidation I followed after her. She was leading me to the cellars. I didn’t much enjoy the cellars.
As I had said before, the spirits tended to congregate near the areas they had been familiar with when they were living. The poltergeists living in the dark vaults were best left to themselves. The average apparition paid little note to the living. The more malevolent specters would cause mischief. The most dangerous shades would try to harm you. That was why I made a stop in the kitchen and loaded my pockets. I brought several flashlights, a handful of candles, matches and a lighter.
The Abbess was waiting impatiently on the stairs, even she seemed a bit nervous about venturing into the vaults. I turned on the dim overhead bulb, it immediately started to flicker on and off. The Abbess was fading in and out as well, her presence faint in the light, but glowing in the dark. She disappeared through the ancient wooden door at the bottom of the stone steps. I took the rusting ring of keys from off the hook by the door and struggled to open the archaic lock. The door finally opened, I pushed into the musty cellar while the ancient hinges squealed in protest.
The first room was the wine cellar, although it was no longer used for this purpose. It now functioned more as a storage area and had received the occasional visitor over the last hundred years. I had fervently wished that this was as far as our journey would lead us, but the Abbess was waiting near the stairs that led deeper into the catacombs.
It was as if with each step we took we were traveling further back into time. We were in an area beneath the estate that quite possibly no one had visited for hundreds of years. By the shape of the walls and the cut of the stone, I realized we were under the most ancient part of the estate, the ancient reve tower. The walls were damp, the air was stale, the flickering lights made ghostly shadows. I could hear a faint moaning and a rattling of chains. I paused. “Really? Could we be any more banal? You really need to update your material. Ooo…spooky moaning and chains… very cliche.” I knew that I was talking to soothe my own nerves, because the moaning and chains gag really had my heart racing. The Abbess appeared suddenly in front of me. She was carrying an umbrella and used it to rap me solidly on the noggin. I winced and once again exhibited poor judgement. I should have kept my mouth shut. “An umbrella? You’ve brought an umbrella to the cellar. Very useful.”
She disappeared and materialized behind me. Using the hooked end of the umbrella she yanked my ankle out from under me. I stumbled into the corner, bumping my nose and losing the flashlight. I found myself kneeling in the corner in the dark like a reprimanded schoolboy. “Fantastic. I think my nose is bleeding.” After rubbing my nose I put my hands on the clammy walls and tried to regain my feet. The Abbess whacked me on the back of my knees, I cracked my head on the wall as I fell back onto the stone floor.
“I get it, there is something here you want me to see?” I fumbled in my pockets for the matches and candle. I struck a match and found myself looking at a stone carved lion with a rusted iron ring gripped in it’s teeth. Before I could examine it any further the match was blown out by a gust of wind. Normally, dank dark cellars are not windy. I was fairly certain, the lion had blown out the candle. I have never really claimed to be intelligent, but I am persistent. I lit another match and held it in front of the lion. Out went the match. I tried again, this time lighting the candle and holding it well away. I reached out and tugged on the ring. Once again demonstrating that I am not that bright. I stood up, planted my feet and tugged mightily on the ring. I thought that it moved, slightly, nearly imperceptibly, but definitely. Oddly, I also noted that I thought I heard the lion growl. I set the candle on the ground, grasped the ring with both hands, planted my feet on the wall and pulled with all my strength. Once again illustrating the persistent, not wise nature of my character. I felt the ring begin to move, the stone lion was audibly growling. With a plonk sound, the ring came free. I landed on my behind, a small stream of water flowed out of the lions open mouth, “Ahh, rather like a cork.” The stream began to increase in volume. Perhaps more like the little dutch boy who had his finger in the proverbial dike. I used my finger to try and slow the flowing water while I fumbled for the plug. “Ouch!” The lion had clamped down on my finger. It did help slow the flow but it hurt terribly. Fearing that I was about to lose a digit, I tore my finger free. The water increased rapidly in pressure, more like a fire hose. It knocked me slipping and sliding across the stone floor. The gushing stream of water extinguished the candle. The last thing that I saw before the light went out was the stone wall give way, I had a brief glimpse of what lay behind the wall before I found myself in the most absolute and complete darkness I have ever known.
As the wall broke away and the room was filled with a torrent of water, the source of the moaning and chain rattling made a brief and fleeting appearance, glowing faintly as it made it’s escape. I had little time to ponder the apparition’s importance, but luckily it had briefly illuminated the door. The water was already knee deep and rising rapidly, I found the handle to the wooden door, and fighting with every last ounce of my strength I managed to pull it open. I fled from the cellars, crashing into walls and beams, bashing into closed doors and dead end passages. After an eternity in darkness I stumbled back into the ancient wine cellar and the flickering electric light, grateful to have escaped and vowing revenge on the Abbess.
It was as I made way into the kitchen, my feet squelching and leaving muddy footprints, that I ran into my parents having morning tea over their newspapers.
“What on earth? You look positively bedraggled.” My mother was exhibiting concern for me.
My father’s question was more practical.
“Explain in exacting detail the misbehavior and misconduct that has occurred in our cellar!”
I knew there was no way to justify my soggy and disheveled appearance. I shrugged.
“We seem to have a bit of moisture in the vaults, you might want to consult a competent plumber.”
I was excused from further explanation by their immediate panicked exit. As they disappeared into the cellars to examine the damage, I took myself up the stairs for a nice hot bath. I realized that I would need to fabricate a credible story or that I would be facing a stern lecture or worse.
I had just finished drawing a steaming bath. Little tendrils of white wafted invitingly. I knew that I was a little old to still be enjoying bubble baths but after the harrowing experience in the cellars it seemed like the type of indulgence that would be appropriate. I stripped out of my cold wet clothes and sat on the edge of the tub to pull off my socks.
Of course, that is precisely when the Abbess made an appearance. Startled I fell backwards into the tub. Scalded I shot back up out of the water, slipping, sliding and landing in an inelegant and extremely naked pile on the cold tile floor.
“Terrible….” the Abbess began before fading out. She reappeared a second later. “…mistaken…” I scrambled looking for a towel attempting to cover myself, unable to locate one and with no other recourse available I slid back into the scalding hot water.
“Do you mind? A little privacy, please?”
Frustrated I yelled. “Get out!”
I clearly forgot who I was speaking to.
The wooden ruler came out. I attempted to duck under the water but she was far too swift. She brought the ruler down on my head with such force that it snapped the ruler in two.
“Fine…solve…problems just…beginning.” And she was gone. As I sat rubbing the knot on my head I wondered if perhaps I should have tried a bit harder to decipher what she was saying.
I needn’t have wondered if the Abbess would hold a grudge. Of course she did. I was yanked from my bed in the middle of the night and before I could gather my wits I found myself being drug down the hall. The Abbess had a firm grip on my left earlobe as she marched me toward the library. I knew that protesting was futile, so I did my best to keep up. If you’ve never attempted it you probably don’t understand how difficult it is to travel in a straight line when someone has a vice grip on your ear. As she tugged me down the hall, I regularly ran into tables, old suits of armor and various trophy cases that lined the passage. We stopped near the fireplace, she reached up to a top shelf on the bookcase and leveraged an ancient book on heraldry and then yanked down on a sconce. I had always known there were secret passages and even had discovered a few small ones myself, but this one was completely new to me. The bookshelves swung open to reveal a spider web enshrined staircase that led down into darkness.
With a forceful and savage yank she propelled me stumbling down the stone steps. I came to a jumbled stop and looked up just in time to see the Abbess snicker and slam the bookshelf closed. I found myself in near total darkness. There was one small ray of light. I followed the beam to it’s source and discovered if I stood up on my toes that I could just make out a room on the other side of the wall. It was my father’s office and he was in the midst of a heated discussion with someone on the phone.
A pause as he listened.
“No. I am telling you this is remarkable. No, it is not a prank. My son has stumbled across a discovery in our vaults that is beyond any rational explanation.”
“Of course I haven’t told anyone and I won’t tell anyone until we can verify the dates and locate the items mentioned in the scroll.”
“Fine, get here as fast as you can. I’ll wait for your arrival before preceding.”
My father hung up the phone, left his office, and of course, turned off the light. I was intrigued by the conversation. I was curious about what I had discovered. However my over riding emotion was terror, I was trapped in a passageway in complete darkness.
It took several hours of fumbling in the pitch black before I discovered the hidden latch that released me. I crawled out from behind the bookcase and into the library. I swung the shelf closed behind me. A large dusty book on the history of Rome tumbled from the shelf and bonked me on the head. I was in the process of picking myself and the book up from the floor when I heard my mother’s voice.
“Have you stayed up all night reading, again?”
“Yes, mother. I have been completely absorbed in…” I glanced down at the book in my hands “Plinius’ History of Rome. Fascinating reading.” I rubbed the bump on my skull. “I am dizzy with the implications.” Taking the book with me I trudged down the hall toward my bed.
Unable to sleep I decided reading a little Roman history would probably aid my slumbers. I found that no matter how hard I tried, the book always opened to exactly the same pages. The battle of Carrhae, an ill fated Roman expedition against the Parthians led by Marcus Licinius Crassus. I was forced into reading about a battle in 53 B.C. where 10,000 Parthian archers defeated a force of 45,000 Romans when a sketch caught my eye. It matched perfectly the seal I had just seen on the scroll in my father’s hand.
I picked up a letter opener off the desk and I was using it to try to pry open other pages in the book. Not because I had any interest in reading more Roman history, but just because I have a contrary nature and was upset that I couldn’t get any other pages open. I had the point of the letter opener under the next page and had stood up to add more leverage. The metal letter opener was bending with the force, but I couldn’t turn to another page. I heard a moaning sound and rattling chains.
“Really, how long have you been trapped in that cellar? Moaning and chain rattling went out with the dark ages. You need to update your material!”
The angry spirit snatched the letter opener from my hands and stabbed it into the open book. It had just narrowly missed my fingers and stood quivering, stuck through a drawing of an ancient Roman bust.
“That’s better! You very nearly gave me a fright.”
I looked down and read the caption.
“Ahh, not a big fan of Mr. Crassus?”
More moaning and chain rattling. I had noticed in the past that the older the ghosts were, the more difficulty they had staying corporeal and communicating with me. Considering this particular ghosts age, he was doing a fairly decent job. Something truly horrendous must have occurred to him when he was living.
“If we are going to continue this dialog you really must stop with the moaning and chain rattling. You are very likely to draw my mother in here and trust me, that is not a good idea.”
It took a little while but we managed to work out a suitable means of communication. A moan meant “no” and a chain rattle meant “yes”. After ages of yes and no questioning, all I had really learned was that he was somehow associated with the lost Roman legion, but what was interesting was that as it turned out, there had been two Roman legions that had gone missing. One here in Britain, the other after the battle with the Parthians. The ghost was trying to show me some connection, but I had failed to decipher it. The two legions had disappeared a hundred and fifty years apart and in entirely different regions of the world. For the life of me I couldn’t find a connection. The apparition wanted me to follow him to the cellar but I needed sleep and wasn’t keen on heading back into any dark passages without some rest. Despite the constant moaning and chain rattling I somehow managed to doze off.
I woke to the sound of screaming and was a little embarrassed when my mother shook me and I realized that I was the source of the commotion. I had been lost in an extremely bad dream. There had been blood, there had been carnage, there had been the loss of both life and limb. Many of the events of the dream were rapidly fading from my mind but there was an overwhelming sense of impending tragedy. In my dreams I had been witness to two of the most devastating losses the Roman legions had ever faced and I believed I may have discovered a tenuous connection.
It was time for me to head back into the cellar.
My parents had been too distracted by the scale of the destruction to the cellar to properly address my punishment, but when I saw the amount of work that was going into straightening out the mess I knew I was going to be in a great deal of trouble. It appeared I had uncovered an underground water source, a small stream. Walls had collapsed and the vault was knee deep in ice cold water. A team of plumbers had been attempting to use pumps to clear enough water to start the repairs, but so far they were having no luck.
I held the lantern high and crawled over the pile of stones that had held the annoying chain rattling spirit captive for the last two thousand years and I found myself in a narrow cell. On the wall of the cell had been sketched a crude figure that slightly resembled the mysterious drawing from the book and my dreams. In addition there was a map. Crudely drawn, very much like the maps depicted in movies, you know the type, a large “X” marked the spot. I snapped a quick picture. I recognized some of the landmarks. The river Tyne and an old Roman Fort known cleverly as Wallsend. My father had taken me there on a number of occasions for his research. It was where Hadrian’s wall either ended or started, depending on your perspective.
My study of the map was interrupted by the sound of sloshing, I held the lantern higher and could just make out a door at the far end of the cell that led to an adjacent passageway. From the darkness I could see a soft glow and the sound of something approaching through the knee deep water. I extinguished the lantern and as quietly as possible moved behind the rubble remains of the fallen wall. I managed to extinguish the lamp just as two men entered the room.
I breathed a sigh of relief, one of the men was my father and the other was a stranger. My father was speaking.
“Yes, I understand. You and the other members of your group have been searching for this for several hundred years, but you can’t honestly expect me to keep something like this from the authorities.”
“Dr. Bronte, you are familiar with the scope and reach of our contacts. By informing me, you have informed the authorities. This site must remain sacrosanct. I can’t divulge the reasons but the very existence of this find must remain a state secret.”
They continued their conversation as they moved out of the cell and back onto dry ground. When I failed to get the lantern to start, I found myself for the third time in as many days in a dark place. I wanted to explore further and discover what my father and the strange gentleman had been discussing but would have to return when I had a better light source.
I struggled up out of the cellar, removed my muddy boots and had the surprise of my life when my mother and father yelled.
They had on paper hats and were blowing on little paper trumpets. It was my birthday, and I had completely forgotten.
The title of this story is “Best Day…Worst Day”, this was the best day part. My parents and I spent the entire day goofing off. We had water balloon fights, we went horseback riding, there was archery, a very grand brunch followed by a trip into town. All the trouble I had gotten myself into, gone like it had never happened. After we went to see a movie we sat down and had ice cream. Every single detail of the entire day has been burned into my mind. I cherish the memories like no other. My mother tucked me into bed, something that I had grown too old for, but today it seemed okay. Then my father came in, tousled my hair and said goodnight. That is when the “Worst Day” part comes in. It was the last time I ever saw him.
As vivid as the memories of the previous day are, the next day is a fog. I remember frantically running all over the house, my mother crying, the police searching the house and the grounds. I was certain he had gone into the newly opened area, but everything was thoroughly searched. There were dogs brought in. My father had vanished. Without a note, without a trace.
Several weeks later, repairmen came and resealed the area of the cellar that I had opened. Over the years I made several trips to Wallsend to see if I could find the area indicated on the map. I was never able to find out who the strange man that had been in our cellar was. I stopped seeing my imaginary friends then as well. I never heard the Black Brat or the Abbess roaming the halls. It was as if my entire childhood dried up and disappeared. Every year on my birthday I relive the memories and renew my vow to one day discover what happened to my father.