Estimated reading time — 21 minutes
By Brenda Ader
The clock stood in the hall. One of the truly magnificent pieces of the Walter Family’s estate, the clock was made of heavy mahogany and showcased a large, mother-of-pearl face with hands of sculpted bronze. Each hour the tall clock rumbled in the hall, resolutely calling the hour, the passage of time.
No one knew who originally designed the clock. Some in the family claimed it was made by an Austrian watchmaker by special commission. Others said it was given to the family many generations back as payment for some debt. No one knew for sure, but it mattered little. The general consensus was the same: although the clock was magnificent, there was something oddly sinister about it.
It was a hard thing to explain, really. It wasn’t that the clock was ugly. Indeed, quite the opposite was true. It was heavily decorated with carved cherubs, shined glossy. The face radiated pink, blue, and ivory in the sun, while the heavy bronze hands moved about elegantly, their pieces intricately carved. Even the deep groan of its chiming bells resonated with a kind of stately grandeur.
Guests to the house often stopped to comment on its beauty, but only at a distance. Even the most ardent admirers of its artistry rarely approached it directly. Indeed, most people walked by it quickly, suppressing a shudder. Even Nadia, one of Old Lady Rose’s many descendants and the current owner of the estate, rushed passed it when outright avoidance was impossible. In fact, the only person who seemed able to maintain her nerve in the face of the clock’s strange atmosphere was Nadia’s youngest daughter, Isobeth.
At thirteen years old, Isobeth was the quintessential misfit. She preferred books to play, spiders to dolls, and twilight to midday. Although she was both pale and blonde in appearance, she was a dark spirit drawn to all things macabre. However, even she was not totally immune to the influence of the clock.
She’d never mentioned it to anyone, but she’d always felt oddly drawn to the elegant timepiece. Sometimes, as she made her way down the mahogany-paneled hallway, she felt as though it were actually calling to her. She found this somewhat unsettling, but also intriguing. She’d approach the wooden monolith with an odd mixture of curiosity and trepidation. Then, she’d stare it down as though she were challenging it to a duel. Sometimes Nadia would catch her daughter in the act; her back rigid, her violet eyes peering into the clock’s iridescent face the way one might stare down an adversary. Nadia was never quite sure what to make of it.
“What on earth are you doing, my dear?” her mother would ask.
“The clock…it watches me,” is all Isobeth would say.
Nadia was always left standing, awkwardly, in the shadowy hall. After her daughter had gone, she would approach the clock gingerly, trying to feel what Isobeth had felt. But, she could never feel anything but the vague uneasiness.
Things took an odd turn when, suddenly, the nightmares began. Each night at 3am Isobeth would awaken, screaming. It was a blood-curdling scream; the kind that caused one to freeze upright in bed, unable to move. Servants inevitably rushed in to assist her. They always found her in the same posture: in a tight ball under the covers, face on knees. When she was extricated from her sheets, she always seemed oddly surprised, as though she’d been set free from a terrible trap. Then she’d roll over and go right back to sleep as though nothing at all had happened.
This went on for a fortnight. Various attempts were made to explain the sudden appearance of the nightmares, but no solution could be found. When queried, Isobeth could never really recall what had happened to cause her to scream, but she felt, vaguely, that it was somehow connected with the front hall and the clock. After two weeks of disturbed sleep, Nadia became desperate. The staff looked half dead and she was at her wit’s end.
Determined to find a solution, Nadia decided that, since Isobeth seemed bothered by the clock, perhaps she should try having it removed for a while. She called some friends at the local antiques dealership and asked them if they would be willing to keep the clock for a spell. They reluctantly agreed. After all, who would want to take on the protection of such an expensive heirloom?
Removing the clock was a massive undertaking, but in the end, Nadia was glad she’d gone through with the operation. Almost immediately, the screaming stopped. Indeed, Isobeth slept soundly for another fortnight. After two weeks of peace, Nadia was on the verge of declaring the whole experiment a rousing success. However, she soon discovered that she need not have been so bold.
On the fourteenth night, instead of screaming, Isobeth rose at precisely 3am. In a dream-like state she walked out of her room, down the upper hallway, down two sets of stairs, passed the landing, through the gallery, all the way to the front hall where the clock once stood. There, she stood absolutely still for about 10 minutes. And then, as if someone had snapped his fingers, she’d awakened, startled and confused.
This was all discovered through pure chance. A servant had risen to get a glass of water because she couldn’t sleep. When she entered the front hall, she saw Isobeth standing there in her nightdress. Then, while she watched, Isobeth seemed to stir and look around. It was clear the girl had no idea why she was in the front hall. The same set of events transpired on the following evening. This went on for another two weeks. That’s when Isobeth began to see the girl.
At first she was a small, clear light, strangely fog-like and murky. However, as time passed, she became more and more distinct. The first time it happened, Isobeth didn’t know whether she should stay and observe the strange apparition, or run screaming from the hall in terror. She chose the former, much to the relief of the rest of the household.
This went on for some time (the walking, the waking, and the seeing of the bizarre, glowing girl in the hall); however, it was tolerated because Isobeth didn’t seem to mind, and neither did anyone else. No one was being awakened at 3am, no one’s sleep was being disturbed, and Isobeth rarely spoke of it.
Indeed, a kind of routine developed. The only thing that seemed to change was Isobeth’s location. Sometimes she was directly across from the clock. Other times she was kitty-corner from it. Sometimes she was down the hall farther. It became a game among the servants to bet on where she would turn up from one night to the next. Indeed, the serving staff drew lots each evening to determine whose sleep would be disturbed. In most cases, the servant who “won” would have to rise at 3am and take a peek over the banister to see where she was. The following morning, the staff member would report Isobeth’s location on the previous night and payouts would be made.
One December night, Susan, the pantry maid, drew the shortest straw. However, her room was in a different part of the house than much of the serving staff because her room was located right next to the kitchen. This is why, when Susan came to the front hall she was able to see, not only Isobeth, but also the little ghost.
Isobeth had awakened several minutes before Susan’s arrival and, therefore, had heard her approaching. Isobeth turned to look at Susan, but the maid seemed not to see Isobeth at all. She was completely mesmerized by the shimmering light glowing softly at the base of the wall where the clock once stood.
Isobeth was completely unmoved by the sight of the ghost in the hall. She’d seen it for weeks. Instead, she looked at Susan and asked: “What are you doing up?”
“Who is that?” pointed Susan, ignoring the question.
“The girl,” Isobeth answered, quite naturally, “she comes every night.”
“Does she always look like that?” Susan moved closer, calmed by Isobeth’s seemed indifference. She studied the strange apparition, unable to take her eyes from the figure of the ghostly little girl who sat with her face down and her knees drawn up.
“Yes, she’s always in that position. I don’t know why,” Isobeth shrugged, “she seems sad.”
“Does she move?” Susan took another step forward, “Does she speak?”
“I’ve never tried to speak to her,” Isobeth replied, “all I know is, she doesn’t move, and she never looks at me.”
“I wonder if she’d speak to you if you addressed her. She must be here for some reason, mustn’t she? I mean, you don’t just camp out each night in a drafty hallway for no reason, do you?” Susan reasoned.
“I don’t know,” Isobeth shrugged again, “it’s not as though she can feel the chill.”
“For shame!” Susan said quickly, chastising her in a harsh whisper, “You know not what she feels.”
“True, but neither do you,” Isobeth challenged.
“Aye… I suppose that’s true enough,” Susan admitted. A brief silence followed before she spoke again, “it is odd, though, her sitting there like that.”
“I feel like she’s here for a reason, but I don’t know what it is….like she has something important to say, but she doesn’t speak.”
“Maybe you should try speaking to her,” Susan suggested.
“I don’t think she’d speak with someone else here. I’m not sure why.”
“Well, maybe I should go back to bed then…” Susan whispered before attempting to tip-toe away.
Just then, the glowing figure faded in brightness and disappeared.
“She’s gone,” Susan breathed, walking forward suddenly.
“Aye, she does that. She’s only here a short while,” Isobeth answered, nonchalantly.
“I wonder where she goes,” Susan said, not really expecting an answer.
“I’ve often wondered why she suddenly started appearing. The clock was always there before, wasn’t it? It’s odd. I used to walk down this hallway after dark all the time, but I never saw her until recently,” Isobeth replied.
Susan grew brave and moved closer to the wall. On a whim, she began running her hand through the air near the place where the spectral girl once sat. She glanced absently at Isobeth and noted the girl’s confused expression. Slightly ashamed, Susan began tapping on the wainscoting instead. She wasn’t even sure what she was looking for, really, except some clue as to where the ghost might have come from or where she might have gone. At one point, as she patted an area of the wall, she was startled by the strangely hollow sound that emanated from it.
“I wonder what that is,” Susan murmured.
“What do you mean?” Isobeth saw the look of wonder on Susan’s features, “Is there something there?”
“I’m not sure,” Susan answered, before kneeling down to knock more aggressively. She started near the place where the spectral girl had just been seen and then moved down the hallway, rapping on the wall as she moved along. There was no mistaking it. The area behind the clock sounded different than the rest of the wall.
“It IS hollow there,” remarked Susan, walking back toward Isobeth.
“I wonder what it means,” Isobeth wondered aloud.
“There must be an empty space behind the wall,” Susan suggested, “maybe the little ghost is guarding something? Maybe there’s a treasure?”
“Or, maybe a grave,” Isobeth countered.
“Why must you be so morbid?” Susan sighed.
“It’s just as likely as a treasure.”
“Who’d bury someone in a wall?” Susan challenged skeptically.
“Someone who didn’t wish to be found out, I suspect.”
“Ugh,” Susan shivered, looking up and down the long, dark hallway, “let’s talk of something else.”
Isobeth merely sighed and began to walk back to her room.
“Will she come tomorrow, do you think?” Susan pursued.
“Most likely,” Isobeth remarked, not turning around.
“If she does, I think you should try speaking to her. Try to find out what she wants.”
“Perhaps,” was all the answer she received.
The following night, Isobeth awakened at 3am and walked down to the hall as usual. Again, she encountered the young girl who sat with her back to the wall and her knees drawn up. Isobeth said nothing for several minutes, gathering courage. She pretended her bravery in Susan’s presence, but there, alone, with the strange apparition, she was terrified. Suppose the ghost was angry? Suppose it didn’t wish to be disturbed? In the end, however, Isobeth collected her wits and spoke:
“Why do you sit there?” she began in a voice that was barely audible.
The ghostly child sat perfectly still, its posture unmoved for several moments. Then, as if roused suddenly, the little head came up and the face of a young girl was clearly visible in its evanescence. And then, a voice like wind in dry grass-
“I sit because I cannot stand. I stay because I cannot leave.”
Isobeth did not answer at first, taken off guard by the sound of the voice. How often had she shared silence with the little ghost? Now, they spoke; two girls in the same hallway, separated by time and life.
“Why can’t you stand?” Isobeth asked, finally, “And why can you not leave?”
“I stay because I cannot leave. I sit because I cannot stand,” the girl repeated.
Never one to be sentimental, Isobeth dove into her questioning, determined to get to the bottom of the child’s sudden appearance:
“Well, how long have you been sitting there?”
“I cannot tell how long I’ve been here behind this clock. It counts away the hours. Day and night, and night and day, I hear the hours fly away.”
“I imagine that’s quite true,” Isobeth began, noting the girl’s antiquated clothing,
“but you can’t have heard the clock much lately. I know, because we’ve had it removed. It unsettled me so.”
“And what now?” asked the ghost.
“What do you mean?”
“Are you settled?” pursued the ghost.
Isobeth paused at this.
“No…I suppose not…Here I am, after all, mulling about in the middle of the night. But I don’t scream anymore, at least.”
“So much the better for the rest of them, I should think,” replied the ghost with a hint of sarcasm.
“Well, what of you? We’re both here at this hour, aren’t we?” spat Isobeth.
“I can’t help it!” snapped the ghost, “Who can blame you for what you see?”
And then, in a huff, she vanished.
Isobeth was equally miffed. She crossed her arms impatiently and marched up the stairs to her room.
The next day she told Susan everything that the girl had said. As she spoke, Isobeth noticed that one of the older maids in her mother’s employ was watching them closely, listening to every word.
“How now,” Isobeth said rather loudly, staring at the woman, “what do you find so interesting?”
“I meant no harm,” Bertha answered, rising from her chair and coming closer, “I just couldn’t help overhearing. You’re talking about the little ghost, aren’t you?”
“Aye,” Susan began, “Isobeth sees her.”
“The little girl…” Bertha murmured.
“Yes,” began Isobeth, “I think I made her quite cross with me last night.”
“She speaks to you?” Bertha seemed surprised at this.
“Yes,” Isobeth answered matter-of-factly.
“I’ve never spoken to her, but I, too, have seen her,” Bertha began, “years ago when I was a girl, like you. I think she only appears to young girls. Girls about her age who come into the hall when the clock’s gone.”
“When did you see her?” asked Susan.
“Oh,” Berth chuckled, “many years ago now. My mother worked in the laundry back then. I was maybe twelve or thirteen at the time. I remember that the clock was being repaired and had to be taken out. It was a rare thing, I recall. A clock that heavy isn’t easy to move, you know,” Bertha paused, recalling events, “I remember I woke one night, came downstairs, and I saw her sitting there. When I asked my mother about her, she hushed me and told me never to speak of it. She was very superstitious. But, I was a curious girl. When I could get no answers from her, I asked one of the other servants. It was Miss Watkins, the scullery maid, who finally told me who she was.”
“Well, what did she say?” asked Susan.
“She told me a dismal story,” Bertha began, “and I’m not even sure I have the right of it. Miss Watkins heard it second hand. It’s a very old story.”
She paused, gaining momentum, and then began again to tell the story:
“She was the daughter of a poor woman in town who came to work in the house. This was in the time of Old Lady Rose’s mother, Julia, mind you. She was in her prime then. Not yet thirty, I believe. It was many years ago…Queen Victoria had not been on the throne very long as I recall.
“This poor girl was ordinary in every way except that she suffered from a sleep disorder which caused her to walk about when she was sound asleep. Virtually every night she rose from her bed and walked the halls. After several years, it came to seem normal and no one even remarked on it anymore. Indeed, the situation became so routine that the girl actually began sleeping in her slippers so that she wouldn’t catch a chill from walking on the cold floors after nightfall.”
“What time did she rise?” Isobeth asked, curiously.
“I don’t know,” Bertha shrugged, “but very late at night, I think. Just a few hours before dawn…why?”
“It’s at that time that she wakes each night,” Susan answered, motioning toward Isobeth.
“Three o’clock,” Isobeth remarked.
Bertha looked at her for several moments, a kind of sad interest spreading across her features.
“Aye, so it was with her. She rose and no one paid it much mind. It became routine, the way a thing will, given enough time. The situation was never cause for alarm because everyone in the house knew about her condition. However, things turned tragic one winter’s night.
“It was right before Christmas. At that time, Christmas trees were novelty items enjoyed by the wealthy. They were, therefore, displayed in places of great prominence. That is why the front hall was chosen. The location offered not only a wide open space for lights and decorations, but was also in close proximity to the marble fireplace where the stockings were hung.
“Well, on Christmas Eve of that year, some thieves broke in, most likely drawn by the prospect of holiday gifts waiting there. You can imagine their surprise when, in the midst of their crime, they noticed a young girl standing in the front hall.
“She couldn’t see anything, of course. She was just standing there, asleep. But these thieves would have had no knowledge of her strange condition. They would have assumed that she’d caught them in the act.
“No one is sure what happened next, but it was widely suspected that foul play occurred. One of her slippers was actually found in the snow several miles from here. Some assumed she was kidnapped while others were sure she’d been killed and the body disposed of somehow.
“I’m not sure when the ghost first appeared, but it must have been several years later when the clock was removed from the front hall again. She’s only visible when the clock is removed, you understand. It’s said that she always appears in the place where the tragedy occurred.”
“Terrible,” murmured Susan.
“Why do you suppose she’s always sitting with her head down?” asked Isobeth.
“No one knows,” remarked Bertha.
“She said that she could neither stand nor leave,” asked Isobeth.
“Is that what she told you?” Bertha inquired.
“Aye,” Susan interjected, “she repeats it, according to Isobeth.”
“It is odd…”
“True. Tis strange,” Susan stated, “clearly there’s a mystery in all of this.”
“Well, there’s nothing else for it. You will just have to speak to her again, Isobeth,” Bertha remarked, “there’s no other way.”
That night, as before, Isobeth rose at 3am and walked down into the hall. The phantom girl sat, back against the wall, just as before. A soft white light emanated from her in the darkness. It was both comforting and eerie.
Bravely, Isobeth addressed the girl again.
“Why do you sit there?” she asked.
“I sit because I cannot stand. I stay because I cannot leave,” replied the ghost.
“Why are you not visible when the clock is in its proper place?”
“The clock is more than just a clock- it hides the spot. It hides the spot.”
“What spot?” asked Isobeth, “A stain?”
“The clock, the clock, you cannot see. It hides the place that hideth me.”
“You make no sense at all,” Isobeth fumed with impatience, “you speak in riddles. Speak plainly!”
“The clock, the clock, you cannot see. It hides the place that hideth me,” the ghost repeated.
Isobeth merely shook her head, confused. She paced the floor for several moments, trying to make sense of the ghost’s riddles. In time, the apparition disappeared completely and Isobeth found herself alone in the hall once more.
The next morning, she told Susan all that she’d heard. Susan considered the ghost’s riddles, shaking her head frequently. Suddenly, her face went white. She sat forward in her chair, her hand covering her mouth.
“Have mercy…it can’t be…” she began.
“What?” Isobeth peered into the woman’s face curiously.
“She said that the clock hides the place that hides her. Old Bertha said the girl’s slipper was found miles from here, but that was just her slipper. The girl isn’t gone…Don’t you see? She’s still here.”
“You mean –” Isobeth released the breath she’d been holding.
“I mean, the clock…it hides…where she is,” Susan looked Isobeth in the eyes meaningfully, “she’s still there…in the wall.”
“Who would do such a thing?!” Isobeth exploded.
“Aye, indeed. Who would hide a little girl in a wall?”
“And how would they get away with it?” Isobeth paused, realizing the rudeness of her next question, “I mean…wouldn’t it….smell? How was it not discovered?”
“I don’t know…” Susan’s head moved side to side very slowly. They sat quite still for several moments before Susan seemed to come to life. She took Isobeth’s hands and looked into her face almost imploringly, “ye know what ye must do, aye? Tonight, you must ask her. You must confirm it. If she says it is so…what we think…”
“Then we must open the wall,” Isobeth answered flatly, as though there could be no argument.
“Aye,” Susan nodded, “she’s been in there long enough.”
At 3 am Isobeth opened her eyes and found herself, once again, in the front hall across from the wall where the clock once stood. Within moments, she saw the little ghost appear opposite her. Isobeth began in the usual way-
“Why do you sit there?” she asked.
“I sit because I cannot stand. I stay because I cannot leave,” answered the ghost.
“Where is your resting place? Far from here?” asked Isobeth.
“I think you know- you do, you do. Behind the wall, I am entombed,” the ghost replied.
Isobeth tried to keep her voice steady as she asked her next question: “And who put you there, pray tell? Robbers?”
“The workmen came to fix the clock. They came and took it all away. They saw the wealth and began to plot. They planned to rob the house some way.”
Isobeth almost snapped her fingers. It made perfect sense! She paced, speaking as she walked-
“Of course they did. They’d seen the house. They knew its layout. They planned to do it right before the clock came back. Great Grandma Julia would have insisted it be back in time for Christmas. They decided to break in on Christmas Eve. Then they could reinstall the clock on the morning of Christmas Day…Of course…They’d be eliminated as suspects. Who robs a house and then returns to it the next day?”
But, what about the girl?
“They didn’t expect you, though, did they? That part wasn’t planned. They didn’t know about your sleepwalking…”
The girl’s face was turned downward once more.
“But, how did they…” she paused, “how did they hide you? Where…? In the wall?” she asked, finally, almost fearful of the answer.
The ghost looked up at this. They shared a long, even look. Their faces were so similar. Their ages, so close. They might have been friends, cousins…sisters even.
Finally, the ghost answered her-
“This house is old, it’s not like new. This is no wall, but another room. You see me here, but not inside- within you’ll find the place I hide.”
A second later, she vanished.
“Another room…” murmured Isobeth, “it isn’t a wall at all; it’s another room.”
There was a long pause as she considered this. HOW would they have known that there was a room behind the clock? They were workmen, not the architects of the house.
From the darkness of the hall, she heard the little ghost again-
“I tell you true, there were not two that came for me that evil night. But three, but three, came in to thieve and bury me without warmth or light.”
“A third man?” Isobeth stepped forward, “Another workman? Another man who’d come to fix the clock?”
“One who knew the wall was deep. No workman knows this house so well. Only heirs are privy thus. It was by his hand, I fell.”
“Whose hand?” Isobeth demanded, “If it were a relative of mine, I’ve a right to know!”
“The heir, the heir. Old Walter’s blood. The only male. The only son.”
And then, it was like a dam breaking inside of her. The old story. It all made sense, all of it. All of it going back to when she’d first heard about her grandmother’s Uncle Colin. All of it coming back to her in the oddly vivid way that children recall the stories of long-dead relatives. She remembered Grandma Rose’s references to Colin’s quirks. His nervous twitches. His inability to relax. The number of brandies he’d drink in one sitting. His obsession with the clock remaining in its “rightful place” in the front hall. The way he’d become angry if anyone started snooping around the house….It all made sense now.
She recalled the hushed talk about him. His gambling debts. His troubles with alcohol and women. The way he’d gone to ask for an advance on his inheritance all those years ago and his parents’ refusal.
She imagined him planning it all out. Him deciding to call in the workmen; men he’d probably promised a cut if all went according to plan. The room behind the clock chosen to hide the loot….But one question remained: how would they retrieve the stolen items if the clock was back in its place?
“There’s another way in…” Isobeth said it out loud, “of course…there’d have to be another way in so that he could go in, get what he needed, and get out again without raising suspicions. And people never look right under their noses…Never. That’s why they never found the body…”
She had walked some distance from the wall in her thoughts. But, she stopped and turned back suddenly, walking quickly toward it. She put her hand on the wainscoting.
“Where are you?” she asked in a shaky whisper, “I can’t help you get out if I don’t know the way in.”
“The way, the way is here- just here,” a light appeared, glowing softly on the wall just a few feet from where she stood, “just pull the latch and the way is clear.”
She moved toward the light, allowing her fingers to roam along the grooves in the woodwork. Suddenly, she felt it. There was a small latch, invisible to the eye.
Her first instinct was to pull on it, to open the door. But, being practical, she knew she must wait until sunrise. Otherwise, she wouldn’t be able to see anything, even with the spirit’s glow.
“Wake me, will you?” she asked the ghost, “At daybreak. I can’t see much now.”
In response, the light glowed more warmly for a moment and then went out.
She noted the place on the wall. Then, moving into the front hall, she lay down on one of several sofas. Just as the sun peaked over the horizon, she woke with a start. It was just light. No one was stirring.
She rubbed her eyes, rose, and walked toward the wall. She moved her hand along the wainscoting, searching for the lever that she’d found before. She fitted her fingers into the grooves of the wood where the light had shown softly a few hours earlier.
Then, suddenly, her fingers caught on what felt like a bent metal nail. She wiggled this, curiously, her thumb finally knocking it loose. There was a sigh of stale air and a creek of ancient hinges as the hidden door made itself known. She pulled forward on the wooden door, suddenly timid.
It was very dark inside. She knew she must enter, to see what she must see…but, she hesitated, fearfully, at the edge of the dark mouth that yawned before her.
“Do not fear,” the little ghost whispered reassuringly, “I am with you.”
A soft light radiated in the darkness, growing brighter by degrees.
Slowly, Isobeth entered the room. The air was sour. Dank. Stale. Heavy. She felt sick in her stomach, but she moved forward. She had to; she felt that. This girl, this ghost, was depending on her in some way.
She moved further into the casement. This had once been a private parlor of some sort. There were no windows, except in a small adjoining closet. There were plaster walls covered in fabric with wainscoting underneath. There were several small couches, a mahogany table, and a trunk pressed against one wall. A trunk.
Normally, an item like a trunk would have gone completely unnoticed. She would have scanned the room and made no note of such a thing. But there, in the room, the trunk took on a dark, oddly sinister, quality. The words of the little ghost echoed in her consciousness suddenly: I sit because I cannot stand. I stay because I cannot leave.
A key lay on top of the trunk. Isobeth moved forward and took the key between her fingers. She contemplated its significance. What it could mean. A heavy, hitching emotion rose in her chest and she found that she could hardly breathe. A tear stung her eye as she leaned down to put the key into the lock. She turned it roughly, pulling the rusted arm out of the sleeve.
She was torn between two impulses: throw open the chest in one swift motion or run away. She found that she could do neither. She was afraid to flee…afraid to look inside the trunk.
She sat there on her knees for nearly a quarter of an hour. Then, turning sideways, she allowed herself to fall limply against the wall. She ran her hand over the lid of the chest, trying to will herself into action. She must do this thing. The servants would be downstairs soon. What would they say to her if they saw her in there?
She took a deep breath, gaining resolve. Then, she took hold of the corner of the chest and pulled upward. She did not turn her head…at first. She rose to her feet and took a step away from the chest before turning.
Inside, the girl’s head was down, her face pressed against her knees. Her hair, once brown, had gone an ashy grey. Skeletal shoulders arched downward over boney legs covered in what remained of a dress. Isobeth scanned the small body and noted that her feet were bare. Why had they removed her slippers?
Isobeth looked at one of the feet, pressed flat against the wall of the chest, and then she understood. The slippers might have allowed her to make noise. She could have kicked her slippered feet against the inside of the trunk and made just enough noise to alert someone outside of her presence there….which could only mean….
“She was still alive…” Isobeth whispered, horror slowly spreading across her features.
She looked at the horrid visage again. There were tethers inside the chest for securing items before travel. The men had used these tools to keep her largely immobile. Her mouth, all skeletal, was still gagged with the remains of a lump of cloth.
“She suffocated…or starved,” Isobeth murmured, “and all the while she could hear the passage of time….seated here behind the clock that counts the hours…that’s what she said. How long did she wait here for the rescue that never came?”
She looked around the room, seeking the little ghost absently.
“How long did you wait? A week? Ten days? A fortnight?”
Just then a click sounded behind her. An adjacent hallway was revealed, illuminated by the rosy glow of dawn’s first light. It was lined with several old, burlap sacks. Stepping forward, Isobeth gingerly opened a sack a few inches. Inside the first bag there were several boxes wrapped in brown paper.
“The Christmas gifts,” she murmured, “they must have hidden them in this hallway when they’d disposed of her,” she looked over at the girl again, sadly, before speaking again, “they must have planned to hide them in here all along, but you changed things, didn’t you?” she spoke to the skeletal girl, “They couldn’t risk coming in here to get the gifts with you tied up in here…and later…later, they wouldn’t come in because they were too disturbed by the thought of what they’d done.”
But, there still had to have been another doorway. If the clock was put back, they’d have had no way to access what they’d taken, dead girl or not.
She began moving the burlap bags. She was sure the answer lay in the short hallway. She found her answer in the far corner. There, she found a small door knob hidden by some loose wall fabric. She walked closer and turned the handle slowly.
The creaking door hinges grinded as the door opened by degrees. She couldn’t believe her eyes. She recognized the table barring her exit almost immediately. She was in the parlor adjacent to the front hall. The table’s location and height masked the outer door handle. How often had she walked through that parlor, unaware that there was a doorway into another room right under her nose? She had no idea the door existed, and she doubted anyone else did either.
She closed the door resolutely, putting her back against it, sealing it once more.
“Well, I’d say you fouled that up, Uncle Colin,” she began, “oh, you killed a child and got away with it, that’s true…but you did it for nothing. You never got your hands on any of this treasure either. Poetic justice, I’d say.”
She would tell Susan everything when she woke. It would be soon, she was sure. Isobeth walked through the short hallway into the main part of the hidden room again. Out of habit, she scanned it, finding a small clock lying face-up on the table. She walked toward it, noting its cracked face. It must have been knocked down in a struggle, she mused. The time on the cracked face read 3 o’clock.
A great heaving thing rose in Isobeth’s chest as she gazed at the clock’s face. So many years…so many years, trapped inside.
“But, you’re free now,” she announced through her tears.
Isobeth made her way toward the door and stepped out into the front hall again. She paused briefly, turning one last time.
“You need not sit, for you can stand. You need not stay, for you can leave.”
Then, smiling, she turned on her heel and went to wake Susan. Isobeth couldn’t be sure, but she thought she heard the jingle of laughter as she made her way up the stairs.
The morning sun made its way through the curtains as winter dawn came on fully. It was time to get up.
Credit: Brenda Ader