The Mercer's House (Northern Gothic Book 1) (6 page)

He was smiling at her. She pulled away her hand gently.

‘Off you go, then,’ she said. ‘Don’t forget to report back.’

‘I’ll see you later,’ he said, and went off.

FTER GARRETT had gone, Zanna made her way slowly back to the Coach and Horses. She had been telling the truth when she said she was tired, but that wasn’t the reason she had refused to go with him to Alnwick. He had said they were friends, but all the signs pointed to his still having more than a friendly interest in her, and she wanted to discourage him, as that road led back to a place from which she was only just beginning to emerge. It wasn’t that she didn’t find him attractive, but an irrational desire for revenge brought on by an incipient nervous breakdown was no basis for a relationship, and she knew that was the only reason she had got involved with him at all—to get back at Adam for dumping her. But Adam was far too wrapped up in Ellie, and hadn’t cared in the slightest, and Zanna had soon realized the mistake she’d made. Her guilt at having used Garrett was deep-seated; she’d hurt him, and was determined not to do it again, so it was better to keep him at arm’s length until she could be sure he’d got the message.

Ewan was behind the bar, and was only too happy to rustle her up a sandwich.

‘I see your friend turned up,’ he said. ‘What does he do, then?’

‘He’s a journalist,’ said Zanna.

‘I wasn’t sure whether to put him in your room or not.’

Zanna laughed at the not-so-subtle question.

‘Not,’ she said. ‘He’s just a friend.’

‘Uh-huh,’ he said, throwing her a look, but Zanna did not rise to the bait.

‘Haven’t you got work to do?’ she said pointedly, and he made a face at her and went back into the kitchen.

After lunch, instead of going to lie down as she had said, she went out again with her sketchbook. The tide was still some way out, and the rocks were dotted here and there with people clambering about. Zanna made for a tall, sloping rock with a flat surface which faced north-west, back towards the shore and the Mercer’s House. There she sat and began to draw the building, whose windows glowered over the beach like dozens of watchful eyes. She was soon engrossed in her work, and sat there for some time, producing sketch after sketch of points on the landscape that attracted her interest.

She had been there perhaps an hour when she heard a sudden sound quite close by, and jumped. Someone had screamed. Zanna looked around, her heart beating fast, but there was nobody. Seagulls were wheeling in the air not far off, and she laughed and relaxed, and returned to her work, but she had barely started again when she heard another noise and looked up again. This time the voice was definitely human. It was the sound of a woman sobbing, she was sure of it. At times it was loud, at others it seemed to fade into the breeze, but it was quite unmistakable. As Zanna listened, the sobs turned to gasps and then words, although she couldn’t hear what they were. Whoever it was seemed to be pleading, supplicating for something. There was something pitiful and at the same time quite chilling about it. Then, as soon as it had begun, it stopped, and there was no sound but the waves once more. But where had the sound come from? It must be some sort of strange echo effect from the hollows under the rocks, thought Zanna. She sat for a few more minutes until the thumping of her heart subsided, but the experience had unsettled her, and so she very soon packed up her things and returned to the hotel to lie on the bed and doze for an hour, until it was time to go out again.

At shortly after four, she rang the bell of the Mercer’s House and was admitted by Alexander, who welcomed her as if she were an old friend he hadn’t seen in years.

‘Come in! Come in!’ he said. ‘We’re in the garden. So delightful to have an Indian summer like this, don’t you think? It’s so rare we get any sort of summer up here, in fact, that a few days of this sort of weather are something to be treasured. Come and meet Corbin. I’ve told him all about you and he’s dying to meet you.’

He led her into the kitchen and through a back door into the walled garden she had seen that morning. As far as Zanna could tell, it faced south-west, and at present was in almost full sun, except where bushy creepers overhung the walls in one or two corners. It was mainly laid to path, but here and there were flowerbeds which might once have been neatly planted, but which were now straggly and overgrown.

‘It’s a little messy now,’ said Alexander. ‘Corbin liked to potter in the garden before he fell ill, but he can’t really manage it now. Here’s Zanna, Corbin,’ he went on, raising his voice a little. ‘The young lady who came looking for Helen. Zanna, this is my brother, Corbin. We’re twins, but you wouldn’t know it.’

Zanna looked and saw the man she had seen that morning in the wheelchair, sitting at a garden table with Will. There was a walking-frame standing close by. Corbin pushed himself to his feet with a struggle, and held out his right hand, his left one limp at his side. Although the brothers were obviously not identical, there was a clear resemblance between them in their tall, rangy build and fair colouring. But where Alexander gave the impression of constant nervous energy, Corbin was much more still and self-contained—a quality which had presumably been exacerbated by the stroke, as his movements were slow and deliberate. One side of his face drooped slightly, and his speech was a little slurred, although reasonably comprehensible.

‘It’s a pleasure to meet you,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry you came all this way for nothing. Helen went away many years ago.’

‘Yes,’ said Zanna. ‘But this is such a nice place I don’t feel I’ve wasted my time at all. I had no idea Northumberland was so beautiful.’

‘A lot of people who come here say that,’ said Alexander. ‘It’s quite a little secret among those of us in the know. Now, what would you like to drink? Coffee? Tea? Something stronger? We have white wine, nice and chilled, or there’s beer if you prefer. That’s what Will’s having. I’m going to put some nibbles out in a minute.’

Zanna met Will’s gaze. He held up his bottle of beer.

‘I know, it’s a bit early,’ he said. ‘But it’s a beautiful day, so I couldn’t resist.’

He smiled unexpectedly, and she couldn’t help smiling back.

‘Wine sounds nice,’ she said to Alexander.

‘Oh, good!’ he said. ‘Someone as decadent as ourselves. Sit down. I’ll be back in a minute.’

He returned shortly with her wine and some snacks he had obviously tipped straight from their packaging onto plates. Zanna took a cocktail stick and stabbed at an olive.

‘I don’t suppose you still have that photo of Helen on you, do you?’ said Alexander. ‘I’d like to look at it again if you wouldn’t mind.’

‘Yes,’ said Zanna, and brought it out. Alexander showed it to Corbin, who looked at it and then at Zanna.

‘There is a definite resemblance, isn’t there?’ said Alexander.

‘Yes,’ said Corbin indistinctly, ‘but only at first glance.’

He seemed to be on the verge of saying something else, but changed his mind. Evidently he was not the talkative type.

‘When are you going back to London?’ said Will to Zanna, after a pause. ‘I sent your link to Lou, my partner, and she wants to meet you, but she can’t come until Friday.’

‘I don’t have to be back on any particular day,’ said Zanna, surprised at the speed of Lou’s response, and wondering, despite herself, what exactly he meant by ‘partner.’ ‘I’m kind of between jobs at the moment.’

Will looked amused at her sheepish expression.

‘You don’t paint full time, then?’ said Alexander.

‘Not if I want to eat. I teach adult art classes usually,’ said Zanna, ‘but they didn’t renew my contract this year.’

‘Then the sooner you meet Lou, the better,’ said Will. ‘I don’t like to say for certain, but from what I’ve seen I think your stuff might be quite saleable.’

‘Do you like it?’ she said before she could stop herself, and then immediately hated herself for sounding needy.

‘Yes, I like it very much,’ he said, looking her straight in the eye. She looked away first.

This is ridiculous, she thought. How old am I? Fourteen?

‘Oh, but you haven’t seen the house,’ said Alexander suddenly. ‘I was going to show you around, wasn’t I?’

‘Didn’t you say it’s meant to be haunted?’ said Zanna.

‘That’s what they
,’ said Alexander, ‘but it’s not quite accurate, although this is certainly where the woman in question lived. Come up to the turret room, and I’ll tell you all about it. It’s not really a turret room, obviously, but when one’s up there at the top of the house, it almost seems like a turret, so that’s what we call it.’

‘You’ve got him on his pet subject now,’ said Will. ‘Just nod and smile.’

Alexander had already stood up.

‘I’d really like to hear the story,’ said Zanna. She put down her wine and followed him into the house. Will glanced at Corbin, who gave a gesture of dismissal, and came after them. Alexander led them up the stairs to the top floor. Up here, near the skylight in the roof, it was very bright, and Zanna noted the dusty, worn carpet and the dirty, peeling paint. Alexander opened a door at the end of the landing and went in. Zanna stood in the doorway, then felt Will’s presence close behind her and stepped out of the way to let him in.

‘This is what we call the turret room,’ said Alexander.

‘I can see why,’ said Zanna, looking around. In reality, it was little more than an attic room, but it was oddly laid out—almost hexagonal in shape, with a higher ceiling than might have been expected up here under the roof. The only window was tall and narrow, and when the door was closed the room was dark and gloomy. A few odd pieces of furniture stood against the wall, but the room was too impractical a shape to be used as anything other than an occasional bedroom. Zanna went over to the window, which looked out onto the rocky outcrop, and saw the rock on which she had sat sketching earlier.

‘Who was the woman?’ she said.

‘It’s rather a tragic tale,’ said Alexander, ‘and goes back to 1806. At the time this house was owned by a silk merchant, or mercer, named Jonas Humble, who was married to a much younger woman by the name of Sarah. The story goes that she married him against her will, on the orders of her family, and that the two of them lived here. Now, Jonas was away on business very often, leaving his wife alone for much of the time—which was a mistake on his part, because she took his absences as an opportunity to begin an affair with a young man whom she had loved and would have married had her family not had other plans for her. I don’t know how long this went on, but inevitably one day Jonas, who by all accounts was a hard, cruel man, returned home unexpectedly and caught them
in flagrante delicto
. He said nothing, but took his gun, pointed it at them both, and gave his wife a stark choice: her life or that of her lover. Sarah begged and pleaded, but he was immovable, and at last, seeing that he was serious, she told him through her sobs to take the lover.’

‘Oh!’ said Zanna in surprise.

‘Yes,’ said Alexander. ‘It seems she wasn’t quite prepared to sacrifice herself for him. But in any case, her selfishness sealed her fate, because Jonas raised his gun and shot the young man through the heart, and then told Sarah, as she screamed and wept over the bloody corpse, that a woman who could betray not only her husband but also her lover did not deserve to live. He made her kneel and beg forgiveness from God, and then drove her at gunpoint outside and down the path to the beach. It was a grey, cold, early morning in November, and the tide was on its way out, and he forced her, still wearing her bloodstained nightdress, out into the sea. Further and further out he drove her, his gun levelled at her all the while, until she began to beg him to have pity, or the tide would take them both. He replied that it was all the same to him; he had lived a godly life and had no fear of death, but in his final moments he would gain some satisfaction from thinking of the hellfire which awaited his unfaithful wife. At last the water was neck-deep and Sarah could go no further in, and the waves began to wash over her head and she started to flounder. Still she pleaded, and still he was immovable, and at last, gasping and sobbing, she held her arms up towards the sky and with one last appeal to heaven was swept up by the waves, which carried her off inexorably towards the rocks. She must have been dashed against them again and again, because when her body was recovered a few days later further up the coast, it was unrecognizable, and she had to be identified by her wedding ring. As for Jonas, he escaped the tide and went grimly back up to the house, but that night he was taken ill, and died a few days later in his own bed.’

‘Goodness,’ said Zanna. ‘How awful.’

‘Fascinating, though, don’t you think?’ said Alexander.

‘But where does the ghost come in? Is this the haunted room?’

‘Not exactly. This is the room from which Sarah Humble supposedly signalled to her lover with a candle that the coast was clear,’ said Alexander. ‘Those rocks you see down there are the ones against which she was dashed on that fateful night when she was swept out to sea by the tide.’

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