The Lost Son

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Horror  |  House: Booksie Classic
An aristocrat recounts a ghost story he has been told. But the true horror revealed is not supernatural...
WARNING- This is extreme horror. Adults only and not for the easily offended!!

Submitted: February 24, 2016

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Submitted: February 24, 2016

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Kennet Manorhouse

Berkshire

17th October 1916

 

Dear Max,

This is the strangest story I ever heard. It seems utterly incredible to me who was there so I should hardly expect you, who have always been so worldly and sensible, to accept it. You will, I am sure, suspect I am teasing you. The only argument to convince you I can think of is to tell you that your best friend would never jest about a matter so serious. This concerns not merely life and death  but matters beyond both.

It occurred during a weekend at Follet Hall, over in Wiltshire; Arthur Longstone’s pile. Do you remember the place? We did attended a party there, you, Runty, Basil and I, three years ago (how I wish this war were over so we could all get together and have fun again). Anyway, it wasn’t intended to be a shooting weekend but I found the company in the hall so insufferable that George Lovelock and I soon headed out into the woods, breach-loaders in hand. The endless war talk by stay-at homes in the hall had been too much for me. The female company were even worse. They smothered me hideously. I couldn’t bear the fuss they made over my limp after having discharged from a hospital with so many patients missing limbs, scorched by fire or blinded by gas.

The final straw was when the hostess brought out the ouija board. Max, you can’t imagine how strong a hold on English society this nonsense has now. Remember how we laughed at those silly grey-haired women holding hands around the séance table? Whoa betide anyone who scoffs now! It seems every mother who lost a son at Ypres or Gallipoli is trying to contact their darling boy on ‘the other side’.

As I said, George and I fled from the company to do a bit of shooting in the woods.  We had bagged just three partridges, a woodcock and a hare when the heavens opened and a deluge of biblical proportion started. We ran for shelter and soon found a cottage. The stout ruddy faced woman who opened the door was hospitality itself when our man announced me as ‘Lord Kennet’. In no time at all we were sat around her little table, our coats hanging to dry and our hare roasting in her hearth.

Her name was Martha Townsend and she had lived in this cottage all her life, raising chickens and growing cabbages. “Never known anything else or wanted any more for myself, your Lordship,” she said as she poured brandy into our tin cups. (She said it in West –Country, of course. I’ll leave you to imagine the rolling r’s).The good lady was a widower and lived alone there. Like most country people, she had no shortage of hilarious anecdotes concerning the wild animals and simple people of the woodlands. She even shared some funny stories concerning the residents of Follet Hall (while of course making clear her respect for her landlords).

I tried to join in the fun by mocking the ridiculous attempt by lady of the house to contact her departed soldier son, previously mentioned. The mood changed in an instant. Mrs Townsley’s ruddy cheeks turned pale.

“My good woman, it seems I have been unforgivably indelicate,” I said. “I have clearly blundered into a matter close to home. Perhaps you have lost a son in the war yourself?”

The cheerful mood had departed the cottage. The woman was a portrait of mortification. She trembled and whimpered, in what seemed to me to be fear rather than grief. Mrs Townsend sobbed, “I don’t know, Your Lordship. I think so.”

George thought he knew what this meant and nodded. “Ah! Missing in action. No body recovered.”

Mrs Townsend shook her head. “No sir, its not that…its..I don’t rightly know what it is, except that maybe the lady of the hall might not be as foolish as you think, sir.”

“Did you have a son?” I asked.

“Yes, Your Lordship, Alfred’s his name. I haven’t seen him in three years. We quarrelled, Your Lordship, and he walked out that door never to return when he was just fifteen. He thought too much of himself. He said he wanted better things than this life here. I never heard word from him from that day forth. Every day I wondered what became of him. But then three months ago, Your lordship…something…something happened.”

Max, you have never known an atmosphere change so quickly as it did in that cottage: from the warmest cordiality to the iciest trepidation. It was mid-day not the ’dark and stormy night’ of a gothic novel but as I sat in that little peasant chair listening to the rain lash the thatched roof and breathing the smoky odour of the fire, shivers ran the length of my spine. Life-long sceptic of the supernatural that I am, I knew from this honest woman’s bearing that we were about to hear a tale both sinister and unexplainable.

Mrs Townsend told her story in a cracked and fearful voice, with pauses to sob and wipe at fretful tears:

“It was down where the big beech trees meet the river, Your Lordship. I was down there, on my knees, gathering mushrooms but it was such a dreadful foggy day I could hardly see passed the length of my own arm. I was thinking I might give up before it got worse but then my mind wandered to my Alfred; it was because this had been his favourite spot as a child. My eyes welled up to think of it, Your Lordship. What a lovely child he was and how happy we had been. Then, I heard a voice calling from the fog.

“I couldn’t make it out clear at first. I only knew for sure that it was a man’s voice – and that it was unearthly. Don’t ask how a sound can be definitely unearthly. Only those us who have heard a ghost know. But it can’t be described except to say that it’s a human sound but not one that could come from a human body. A word seemed to drift out of the air like it was the fog itself that was speaking. The fog- it seemed to cry out: ‘mother’.

“Right away I gasped out ‘Alfred!’. Like you, Your lordship, I’ve always been a sceptic about ghosts and superstition and the like but, mark my words sir, when a voice does cry out to you from beyond a the grave all your doubts disappear in the blink of an eye.

“ ‘Alfred,’ I called out. ‘Where are you?’ And my boy - my sweet darling boy - groaned to me through the fog ‘I’m here mother.’  And then a form started to come out of the grey.

“I had no trouble recognising my son’s sweet voice but the figure that stepped out of the fog I would never have recognized as Alfred. The height and the fair hair on his head was all that was recognizable of my boy. The rest of him was scarred and mangled beyond describing. His face was such a raw ragged mess of flesh that I’m ashamed to say I pulled back from him – cringed away, I did, from my own dear son.

“He reached out towards me and I saw that his hand only had two fingers left on it. He moaned ‘I’m sorry mother. I should never have left you.’ He cried but only one eye shed tears. His other eye socket was a hollow with bits of skull exposed through the tattered flesh.

‘Are you dead, Alfred? What happened to you’ I asked. And my boy nodded his grisly head.

‘Yes, Mother. Dead. Burned to death in France by the banks of the Somme.’

‘I was plucking up my courage now. My love for my son was overcoming my fear. I reached out to touch him. But as soon as my fingers should have touched flesh they went straight through, like Alfred himself was made of mist, and then the image of him started to fade away.

‘I cried out as my boy disappeared before my eyes. I tried to hug him but my arms only wrapped around air. I sobbed for him to stay but it was in vain. I had lost Alfred again. Just after he vanished, I heard his voice cry out one last time through the fog: ‘Forgive me mother. I love you and I’m sorry.’

Well Max, when Mrs Townsend’s tale ended, I doubt I was any less pale or trembling than the woman herself was after seeing her ghost. George gasped, “By Jove, what a dreadful story” and even our gamesman –the bluffest of fellows- looked very shaken.

With her story told, Mrs Townsend seemed a little relieved at having gotten it all out. She tried to change the subject and thaw the frigid atmosphere but it was no good. There was a pensiveness about us all now. The conversation was dead. We sat in near silence and listened to the rain on that thatched room and thought about her tale. I can’t tell you the relief we felt when the rain stopped and we were able to get going. As we left Mrs Townsend fought tigerishly against my insistence she take a shilling for her hospitality. I near had to force it into her apron pocket. As we trudged off she called after us: “And don’t you gentlemen be getting disturbed over my silly story. Why I’m sure now that I am thinking clearly that it was all nothing but the imagination of a stupid lonely old woman.”

George and our man did their best to pretend that they hadn’t been disturbed by the woman’s story but neither of them seemed any keener to hang around those woods than I was. We tramped through those gloomy dells, shadowy copses, with their menacing hint of fog, back as fast as possible to the Hall.

‘All very strange’, I hear you say Max. ‘But hardly enough to shake the scepticism of a pair of sensible fellows like you and I.’ Well, here comes the really strange part, my friend.

The woman’s story niggled at me incessantly the rest of the weekend. And what’s worse I couldn’t tell a soul why. I was a very poor companion for George when he drove me back to Kennet Manor in his Morgan Runabout. I think the forlorn fellow had been expecting an offer of dinner but I couldn’t wait to get him out of the way. I was desperate to get down to the cellar and satisfy my curiosity. You see Max, there were aspects of Mrs Townsends story that had for me (and should for you too) a familiar ring.

When George was gone, I headed down to the cellar vaults to have a look through our souvenirs and our special playthings. Don’t worry, I remain scrupulously careful about its security. Even my servants don’t know where I hide the key. The vault itself has become damnably cluttered: we have collected so many implements, manacles and chains down there that I made the place rattle like an ironmongers as I searched. The collection of carpet beaters has become something of a forest too.

I still keep the souvenir chest under the little iron maiden that Runty enjoys putting cats and badgers into. There’s so many exquisite treasures in that chest I could spend hours rummaging through them and wallowing in nostalgia. The wedding ring from the girl on Basil’s’s Welsh estate, the lock of red hair from that young chimney sweep, the piano wire we used on the two prostitutes in Brussels. The mummified hand from our hunting trip to Borneo and the photographs that same trip: each of us posing with our ‘bag’ (I still maintain that I won that shoot. Basil’s insistence that children only counted for half the points of an adult tribesman was most unfair). The fond memories those mementoes provoked left me feeling so warm inside. As I said Max, I long for this damm war to be over so the four of us can start having fun again.

Finally, I found it. Have you guessed what it is yet, Max? Whose keepsake? You must remember those heavenly blue eyes peeking out from under that flat cap, that timid smile as he showed us his only valuable possession. And there it was: a little brass fishing knife.

I held it in my hand just before I sat down to compose this letter. It glinted dully in the cellar light. It has the name Alfred Townsend engraved in it. Alfred Townsend. I remember that blonde hair and that angelic face so well but I didn’t remember the name at all. Alfred Townsend- did we ever call him that? I think Basil christened him ‘Susie’ on that first night we picked him up and I don’t think we ever called him anything else until the night we killed him.

You must remember him, Max. It was during that glorious summer of 1914 just before the war started. In fact, given that we found him walking along the road to Newbury it wouldn’t surprise me that if we picked him up the very night he decided to leave his mother’s cottage. It was such a wild and carefree time we thought nothing of taking a stray country boy on with us to on to  a London house party and then on to a Paris then on again to the châteaux in Picardy. I forget why it ended as it did. Was it because Basil decided that he was a bore after all. Basil tires of his toys so quickly. Or was it because his beauty was already fading. We had fed him so much opium to keep him compliant.  I was very drunk - Bollinger goes to him head terribly – so I only recall bits and pieces. The boy had a tiresome habit of resisting advances unless thoroughly drugged or tied up. I just remember that, while he was tied up and Basil was raping him, it occurred to me what a lark it would be to gouge out one of his eyes. I think it was soon after that you played eeny-meeny- miny- mo while severing some of his fingers with a cigar cutter.

We could hardly release the poor creature into the world in that state so we put him in a sack drove him down to the Somme to put him out his misery. But when we got there the rowing boats at the river were chained up so we set fire to him instead. He went up like a candle.

I remember, as the four of us gathered around those flames and later when we buried him, the feeling of that unbreakable bond formed during our escapades: our friendship, our uniqueness and all our special secrets. I know that none of us would have uttered a word to any outsider about that or any of our other adventures. So how on earth could Mrs Townsend get the details right: the fingers and the eye and such. Maybe there is a logical explanation for it, Max, but I’m confounded if I can think of it.  

Anyway, I know you are dealing with too many real life horrors out there on the front to be concerned with my silly ‘ghost story’. It’s the first one I have ever told and I imagine it will my last. You and the other fellows are in my thoughts always. I believe Basil and Runty are both stationed near so if you run into them please give them my best wishes.

Your ever faithful friend,

Lord Kennet of Berkshire.

 

 


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