The Lady of the Flowers

by Steve Duffy

(from Ghosts & Scholars 27)

In all honesty, I feel unable to recommend the Snowdonia region of North Wales to the out-of-season traveller. One may, I suppose, be lucky - I have heard of such cases - and tramp the wonderful mountain ranges in brilliant autumn sunshine, or glut one's senses with the fullness of springtime in the valleys. Alternatively, one may be confined to one's hotel for days on end, beneath rain more persistent than one has ever known, looking out on a chaos of wet slate, that most dour and lugubrious of roofing materials. Such was the unenviable predicament in which I found myself one October a few years ago; so you see I speak from experience, which you may or may not count as prejudice on my part, and thus wholly libellous and unreliable.

For the best part of a week I had been trapped in a dull little establishment some way up the Conway valley, pacing the floors and gazing sullenly out of the diamond-pane windows at the relentless downpour that soaked the tiny village and hid the peaks beyond. The week before my arrival, my host assured me, had been exceptional in its brightness and mildness: "proper Indian summer, it was." But then it was ever thus, I daresay, and this information was small enough recompense in my current situation.

There was but one other guest staying at the hotel, who took his meals in his room, and seemed not to have anything to do with anybody. I did not meet him until the evening of the third day, when he came down to the smoking-lounge to see if the local paper had arrived. It had, and I was reading it (indicative of the extreme boredom under which I was by then labouring); he asked rather nervously if he might have it when I had done with it, and I relinquished it gladly enough. As he scanned its contents cursorily, I took the opportunity to examine his features: although he looked very pale and run-down and not (I judged) quite himself, I seemed to recognise him vaguely. As he flung the paper aside with a little shudder, as of distaste, I placed him at last. He had been up at King's, at roughly the same time as a younger friend of mine - a mutual friend, as it turned out, for I lost no time in introducing myself and mentioning his name. He seemed glad to have come across someone of more or less his own milieu, and we struck up a conversation. After a little while, I asked him how he came to be at the hotel in Llan... - that is, at the hotel in which we were staying: I have no wish to embarrass its proprietor by mentioning its locality more definitely, and the prefix of the town's name is common enough in those parts.

"I moved in at the weekend," he said. "I was putting up at another place before that, and - well, it wasn't suitable, and so I came here."

I asked whereabouts he had been previously. He told me, and from there on one thing led to another, till eventually I came to hear the story I am now going to relate. He told it stumblingly and with a good deal of hesitation, after a certain amount of sympathetic prompting on my behalf. Mindful of my duties as narrator, I have attempted to shape it more traditionally, and recast it in the third person. I have made, however, no embellishments, nor added any details other than he himself vouchsafed, for I feel the story hardly needs them. I have called the man Hepworth, though that was not his name.

Hepworth came to Wales around the latter part of September, in that season of Indian summer of which my landlord had spoken. He put up at a hotel just outside the village of Llaneirias, ideally placed as a pushing-off point for explorations of the Snowdonia mountain range. The hotel had originally been reckoned a great country house thereabouts, belonging to a family once famous in Welsh history and with a proud bardic tradition at the Eisteddfods. At the time of Hepworth's visit, it had been in business hands some thirty years. Its proprietor, a Mr Emrys Jones, ran the establishment with efficiency and a modicum of good taste, much of the original decor remaining unspoiled, especially in the downstairs drawing-rooms and the library, and in the great hall which now served as the dining-room. The most marvellous views could be had from these rooms, over formal gardens and parkland across to the mountains beyond, and Hepworth was altogether enchanted with his situation.

So much so, in fact, that when the end of his first week came round, he determined to stay on at Llaneirias Hall instead of continuing his journey west along the Lleyn peninsula. He sought out Mr Emrys Jones with a view to communicating his intentions, but was informed by the assistant manager, a man named Fox, that the proprietor had been called away on urgent family business the night before: a matter of a sick relative in Wrexham. Hepworth sympathised, and broached the topic of an extension to his booking with Mr Fox. Might such an arrangement be made?

Mr Fox seemed a good deal flustered; he really couldn't say, and perhaps it might be best to wait till Mr Emrys Jones came back. Was there a problem - was the hotel overbooked? No; it wasn't that; in fact, there were no bookings at all for the next week, and the last guests were departing the day after tomorrow. Then perhaps the hotel was to close down at the end of the season: was that it? No; there were bookings for the week after next, Mr Fox knew for a fact. Then would the hotel be open for business next week, persisted Hepworth (wondering why such a commonplace negotiation should be the occasion of so much complicated to-and-fro); and if so, might he keep on his room for the duration of that week? Yes, conceded Mr Fox with some reluctance; it would, he supposed, be open for business. But as to the other, he had only been at the hotel seven or eight months, and perhaps it wasn't his place, if you see... and so on, until Hepworth eventually came to realise what the problem might be. Suffice it to say that a discreet financial adjustment took place in the course of his making advance payment for the rooms, and that Mr Fox was by no means the loser in this transaction. Nevertheless, at its conclusion Hepworth was secured of his booking at the Hall for the next week, and well enough content.

So the day passed uneventfully, and the next as well. Hepworth tramped up one of the minor Snowdonia peaks, and expended several plates of his box-Kodak on the views therefrom. He wrote some letters, enclosing picture-postcards, that his friends and colleagues might feel envious of his circumstances; he sat on a reclining deck-chair in a pergola out in the gardens and read, or cat-napped, as the mood took him. Towards dinnertime on the second day it was cat-napping, rather than reading, in the pergola: Hepworth had passed into a gentle sleep with Humphry Clinker from his book-bag open on his lap, and as he slept he dreamed, with no great coherence but with a pronounced degree of vividness.

He seemed to be in amongst some wild foliage - bushes and high grass and shrubbery - very tall it was, or else he was shrunken somehow, so that he was little larger than a rabbit or a squirrel. There was commotion in the dream, and panic, and he felt himself moving through the undergrowth at speed, blundering along in search of cover from something - something above, that swooped and hovered and seemed to track him down. This is how an animal must feel, he thought to himself, and with this came the realisation that he was not an animal but a man, and he endeavoured to stand upright and challenge his pursuer. The perspectives changed as he rose from amongst the shrubbery, and he became aware of the more general features of his surroundings - of trees, and waist-high vegetation, and of a path that wound along, which he might follow. But in the instant of his rising, he realised that he had made a fatal mistake, and was now thoroughly exposed to that which meant to take him. A shadow fell across the path, and a sudden movement split the air above him. Helpless, he raised his arms to cover his head and sank back down upon his knees - but the involuntary motion must have transmitted itself to his sleeping limbs, for he awoke with a start in his chair, his book and his pipe sent tumbling to the floor from his lap.

Well, all this was by-the-by, and we have surely all experienced equally absurd daydreams from time to time. After a few minutes of blinking and gaping and rubbing his eyes, Hepworth very soon cast off his momentary disorientation, and collected his things from around the pergola before going back into the hotel to prepare for dinner. He was, you may recall, the only guest by that time, and he made brief work of the courses, feeling somewhat self-conscious among the rows of empty tables. He passed the hours before bedtime in an examination of the various framed paintings and photographs that hung around the dining-room: among the latter, he noticed one which appeared to depict the late owners of the Hall. It was a conventionally posed family group: father, mother and three daughters standing rather awkwardly on the sweep of lawn in front of the main doors. The old man was of a military bearing, and his wife was half-hidden under an extravagant sun-hat and scarf; the daughters were bare-headed, and even through the unsympathetic medium of the overexposed and faded print seemed to Hepworth particularly charming and vivacious. There is sometimes a kind of life in old photographs quite beyond the skill of the photographer; something inherent in the subject which defies age and distance and speaks with surprising vitality and persistence from the past on into the future. I have noticed this myself on occasion, and find it not at all surprising that Hepworth was more than usually enamoured with the print, fancying to himself the artless laughter that must have rung across the lawns all those years ago as the sisters primped and jostled, coquettish for the camera.

In this spirit of idle capriciousness, Hepworth was disposed to learn more, and before retiring he asked Fox what he knew of the Llewelyns, having noticed the family name printed along the bottom of the picture. Fox was unable to be of any great help, suggesting that if he wanted to find out more of the family he might ("Wait for it...") ask Mr Emrys Jones when he came back ("Thought so"), or alternatively travel into Conway on the morrow and seek enlightenment of a Mr Ieuan Jones, the proprietor of a local gallery, who he believed had published several years ago a popular work of local history.

This latter piece of advice Hepworth took, running his motor-cycle down into Conway after breakfast the next morning and locating the gallery nestling almost under the arches of the Castle walls. Mr Jones, a rotund and sociable old gentleman with a shock of white hair and a startlingly florid complexion, came out to greet this putative customer in person, and directed him with enthusiasm towards a selection of canvases, for the most part local studies ranging from the commercial and the chocolate-boxy to the energetic verging on the Caspar David Friedrich. Hepworth displayed a perfunctory but polite interest in these, before bringing up the true purpose of his visit.

"Ah," said Mr Ieuan Jones (who, to do him credit, was not one whit abashed): "is it history, then, not art, you were after? Well, then! Yes, indeed; I daresay I could tell you as much about the Llewelyns as anyone nowadays. More than was ever in the book, come to that: so much of it that couldn't be mentioned, all those years ago, you see. About Rhian, and all that business; duw, yes, Rhian, now."

"Rhian who?"

"Why, Rhian Llewelyn: the youngest daughter of the house, when it was still a great hall, and the home of the Llewelyns of Llaneirias. She was a great talent, in those days; sad, what became of her in the end."

"Really?" said Hepworth, moderately curious. "And what did become of her?"

"Oh, it was a great scandal in these parts: she went mad, and killed her two elder sisters in a fire, they said, and had to be taken away to the mad-house up at Denbigh."

"Did she, now?" said Hepworth, perking up. "How very fascinating - tell me, was this long ago?"

"Forty years ago and more it was now: I remember I was a young man in those days, ha-ha! How we all paid court to the Llewelyn girls; dear me, yes. Rhonwen, Angharad and Rhian; beautiful, all of them, especially Rhian, the youngest. Sad it was, very sad; and later on, of course, when she escaped..."

"One moment," interrupted Hepworth; "I think it must nearly be lunch-time - perhaps, if you have no prior engagements, we might continue the story over a spot of something?"

Mr Ieuan Jones was delighted to accept this invitation, and Hepworth had the rest of the tale with pork-pie, salad and beer in the pub across the way. Apparently the Llewelyns had had three daughters, as Mr Ieuan had said, with the youngest, Rhian, evincing a very marked aptitude for singing and dancing and play-acting and make-believe from an early age. However, along with these talents had gone a less prepossessing trait. Mr Jones called it a fey streak, and said that sometimes one might look into her eyes and see a kind of glitter there, which was very far from mere high spirits. Hepworth gathered that it might have been madness, or something like it: take away the natural disinclination to believe ill of the beautiful and well-favoured, and what was left was a personality seriously, perhaps dangerously, fractured. One minute she might smile, and laugh, and sing in her sweet clear voice; the next, she might withdraw into the blackest, foullest mood, and become unmanageable. Incidents took place, which would have been referred to as scandals had not the name of the Llewelyns been so highly regarded, and at length these incidents became so numerous as to necessitate action being taken.

Quite abruptly, the Llewelyns were forced to withdraw Rhian from the wider society in which they moved. There was talk of a nurse being engaged at Llaneirias Hall, who was perhaps less a nurse than a keeper; talk also of a special room being prepared, which was perhaps more of a cell. Rhian was not seen abroad for months at a time. Just once, the Llaneirias folk had seen her, walking through the village barefoot, dressed in a nightgown much torn and damaged, smiling at the children that played in the street and holding out to them flowers she had picked in the gardens of the Hall. At her approach, the children had shrunk away - they who had once rushed to greet her and begged that she might sing to them - for now the talk was of mad Miss Rhian from the great Hall, and not of the beautiful Miss Rhian any more. Then the people from Llaneirias Hall had come for her, and the nurse had led her away into a carriage, and she was not seen again in Llaneirias village, except once.

Soon after that the tragedy had occurred. There was a fire, in one of the bedrooms at the Hall; a lamp had been accidentally overturned, it was reported, and Miss Rhonwen and Miss Angharad had died in the blaze. So much for the official version; but Mr Jones had known the local doctor, and the magistrates, and Cledwyn Morris the police inspector from Caernarvon, and had learned a little more of what happened that night, in September 1892. In their opinion, the overturning of the lamp was no accident. They did not go so far as to say how it had happened that the Llewelyn girls had perished, but soon after it was learned that Miss Rhian had been removed to the asylum in Denbigh, some twelve or fifteen miles away up on the moors.

Thus ended the first stage of the Llewelyn family's misfortunes; the second came five years afterwards, and was perhaps even more terrible. The month was again September, and it was around the anniversary of the deaths that news broke in Llaneirias of Miss Rhian's escape from the asylum. For a while, there had been rumours that her condition had worsened; that she would no longer answer to her proper name, and would go for months without speaking to anyone, and sat as if catatonic in her private cell for weeks on end. The Llewelyns visited her once a fortnight, and kept her supplied with what little she needed. She would not acknowledge them, though; she would turn and face the wall, and when they called her by her name, Rhian, she would stare out through her barred window and whisper, "My name is not Rhian any more," till they went away and left her. Then, so the story went, the warders would hear her from inside, singing to herself in a little rhyme, "Now my name is Blodeuwedd, yes, my name is Blodeuwedd."

"Blod... blodei... I'm sorry?" said Hepworth, stumbling a little over the unfamiliar Welsh vowel sounds.

"Blodeuwedd," said Mr Jones in gentle correction. "It is from the Mabinogion, the book of old Welsh legends, and it is the name of the wife of the great king Lleu Llaw Gyffes, that was made for him by the wizard Gwydion from the flowers of the hills. A beautiful woman he made, out of flowers; but she was wild and unfaithful, and was not as other mortals; and in the end Gwydion turned her into an owl for her falsehood - a wonderful tale, it is, from the third branch of the Mabinogion: the book of Manawydan, son of Llyr."

"I see," said Hepworth; "and you were saying about the Llewelyn girl?"

Rather reluctantly, Mr Jones took up his tale once more. An alarm had gone through the village, one day in late September, that Rhian had broken out of the asylum at Denbigh; apparently, she had tricked one of her warders into colluding in her escape, early on in the morning before the day-shift came on. She had fled from the asylum into the town with him, and there the trail went cold for a little while. The day after, however, the warder was found in a ditch by the side of the road near the village of Llanfair-Talhaiarn, unconscious and suffering from extreme shock, with his eyes torn out, as if by talons or long sharp nails. He died that same evening, in the hospital at nearby Abergele, and a hue and cry went up over the countryside all about as the night approached.

It was dusk when one of the farmers close by Llaneirias saw the woman in one of his fields, down by the banks of the river. She was dressed all in white, he said, and she was very beautiful; but her hands were red, and there were red stains on her dress, and he did not care to approach her. He came home with his cows; and there his wife told him the great news, and he hastened down to the village to tell his story.

Too late, as it transpired. By the time the police had been summoned from Conway and Llandudno, and had arrived at the Hall, murder had been done, and the culprit put out of the way of the law by a sterner justice. The mad Rhian had seemingly lain in wait in the gardens of Llaneirias Hall, and attacked one of the servant women as she returned from the village; the woman had been killed, in much the same manner as the warder from the asylum, and from there Rhian had gained the house. She was caught by her father, old Sir Huw Llewelyn, in what must have been an attempt to set fire to the Hall once more. There were no witnesses to whatever passed between them in that fateful hour, but evidently he had shot her dead with his shotgun, and then turned the weapon on himself. The bodies were removed, and the fire put out; the scandal took longer to die down, and very soon afterwards the last of the Llewelyns, Sir Huw's distraught widow, moved away from the district, and died before the year was out.

Hepworth was, as you can imagine, enthralled by this reminiscence of Mr Ieuan Jones. There is something in all of us, I think, that responds to so splendidly melodramatic a tale, and now he pressed his lunch companion for more details - in particular, of that last confrontation between Rhian and her father.

"Ah, then: what I told you is all that anybody knows hereabouts," said Mr Jones regretfully. "I never heard of anything else that happened that evening, from inside or from outside the family. If there was more, I daresay Sir Huw's widow took it with her to Ross-on-Wye, when she moved away from Llaneirias. If she did, then she took it to her grave. There is one possibility, perhaps..."


"Perhaps - I only say perhaps... I believe that one of the servants at the Hall was supposed to have been close by, the night Rhian came back, and no-one knows what he might have seen. He wouldn't talk about it to me, nor to anyone that I know of. They were a queer bunch, the family: Jones, the name was, Aneurin Jones, from Llandudno - a house up on the Orme. He was the butler or some such, I think: he was provided for, at any rate, after her ladyship left, and the talk was that he knew more than most about what happened with the sisters, that first time, do you see."

After a little more prompting from Hepworth, Mr Ieuan Jones came up with an address for Aneurin Jones, the butler (I am sorry to introduce still another Jones to this story, but the fault is perhaps more the locality's than mine). Thus armed, Hepworth set off for Llandudno on his Triumph, determined to track down whatever else there might be of the story.

The address, Hepworth discovered, was of a house on a street some half-way up the Great Orme, a spectacular promontory to the west of Llandudno, jutting out into the Irish Sea. The view from the top is said to resemble that of the Bay of Naples; but Hepworth paid it little attention as he drew up outside the Jones' house, which was secluded behind high hedges at the end of a steep and unfrequented rise. He dismounted, and opened with some difficulty a gate bearing the legend "NO TRADESMEN - NO HAWKERS", which gave on to a pathway leading through an overgrown garden to the house: two storeys with an attic room, in dire need of decoration at the very least, built almost into the cliffside.

He knocked at the front door, and waited; he knocked again, and was this time rewarded with a twitch of a very dirty lace curtain at the window of a ground-floor room. Hepworth gestured encouragingly, and after perhaps a minute the front door was opened by an old woman who peered out at him suspiciously - from which Hepworth deduced that callers were neither a regular nor a particularly welcome occurrence at the Jones'.

The woman proved to be Aneurin Jones' widow. The former butler had died five years previously, she said, and since then she had lived very much alone, and desired no visitors. Hepworth apologised for his intrusion, and promised to be as brief as possible. He had heard the story of her late husband's experiences at Llaneirias Hall, and wondered...

Mrs Jones broke across him with what seemed to Hepworth unnecessary sharpness. "That? Is it that old thing you're after raking up, then? No, I won't have it spoken of in my presence - I could no more talk of such a thing, knowing what I know, what my husband Mr Jones told me about that one, that Miss Rhian - ach y fi!"

Hepworth was a little startled at her vehemence, but a moment's consideration suggested a probable cause. If money had changed hands over the scandal - if Aneurin Jones had indeed been paid off to ensure his silence - then his widow might well seek to deflect any enquiries over the matter, even at this late remove. This being the case, he was unlikely to glean any further scraps of information from this casual visit, and had wasted the best part of an afternoon on a dead end. However, hope springs eternal, it is said, and he tried once more, with a more oblique approach, in which sympathy was not entirely unmixed with self-interest.

"Oh, I understand, Mrs Jones - absolutely - my goodness, yes - I'm sure all that business was very trying for everyone concerned, and I certainly shouldn't wish to bring any of it back unnecessarily..."

But again the widow cut him off, with even greater passion. "Bring it back! Bring it back, you say! And who that knew the half of it would seek to bring it back, tell me that? It comes back of its own accord, surely enough - why, didn't she come back, herself, and bring a curse back with her, the flowers of the fields, and the birds of the air? Didn't she come back, after she was sent away, that last time - and wasn't it death that came after her - death, I tell you - first her sisters, then her own father, even, and my Aneurin, that saw how it was with her, at the last - that saw her..."

By now seriously alarmed and a little contrite, Hepworth sought to calm the old woman, who was on the verge of breaking down in hysterics. He reached out a hand, but she struck it away, glaring at him through her tears. "Who are you? Who are you, to come here and talk to me of her? Death she meant to us - to everyone that laid eyes on her. Now go away and leave me alone, and never come back here - not ever, I tell you!"

She lurched away from him and slammed the door shut, leaving Hepworth on the doorstep in a perfect stew of embarrassment, surprise and perplexity. Such an emotional outburst was to him at that time entirely incomprehensible, and his only thought was to quit the scene with as little delay as possible, lest the neighbours come out to see what was amiss.

As he coasted back down towards the town, it struck him parenthetically that even if the neighbours had heard, they might well have stayed within the confines of their houses. Over and above the matter of mere physical proximity, the Jones house seemed set apart from the rest of the properties on the road. Even its overgrown garden, Hepworth noted, lacked the gay summer riot of flowers that bloomed forth from borders and window-boxes and hanging baskets everywhere else along the lane. He could easily imagine how the old lady might have become isolated from the nearby residents since her husband's death, drawing in upon herself, endlessly reworking the events of forty years ago, walling out behind her thick wild hedges the brighter, saner world outside. Such a story, he supposed, might unbalance anyone, if brooded over sufficiently: he was not, as I have indicated, particularly well versed in the more turbulent among human emotions, and was satisfied enough to leave the matter at this somewhat perfunctory reading.

Back at the hotel that evening, Hepworth dined alone once more. Turning over the story of mad Miss Rhian in his mind, he strolled the grounds for a while after dinner, enjoying the views out across the river and the sound of the birdsong through the trees. From the pergola, he surveyed the rows and crescents of flowerbeds, as well at ease as any man might be, and was in the process of filling a last pipe before retiring when his attention was taken by a rustling in the trees to his left. At length his slow urban eyes detected a pair of squirrels, youngsters from their size and playfulness, frolicking in the lower branches of the oak nearby. He watched them for a little while, then turned to leave the pergola; and in the instant of his turning, a rush of air swept by behind him, and a high-pitched and altogether piteous squeal resounded in the still dusk. On turning back in some surprise, he saw one of the squirrels bolting up into the higher, more thickly-leaved branches, and a movement, fast and low and silent, away off into the undergrowth of shrubbery beyond. Hepworth was not a countryman, yet he recognised in this sudden tableau one of Nature's cruel and minatory tillings - the predator fastening on to its prey, the tiny helpless creature in the grip of its assassin - and he took up his way back to the hotel in a thoughtful frame of mind. Behind him came the hooting of an owl, once, soft and low.

That evening saw a change in the weather: the Indian summer was drawing to a close, and seemed to be about to go out in spectacular manner. There were rumblings of thunder across the mountains, and eerie flashes of heat-lightning along the horizon from time to time; and Hepworth's bedroom was stultifyingly warm, so that he was obliged to leave the windows propped open. Even this gave little relief. He lay on top of the bed, unable to bear the covering of the thinnest sheet, and he slept fitfully, with what rest he managed broken up by odd scraps and flashes of dreams. Some time during the night a gust of wind ballooned his curtains in, overturning a vase of flowers on the chest of drawers; Hepworth awoke with a start, fending off with both arms the wild flapping shadows of the curtains in the ragged moonlight. In the morning, he found the counterpane covered with stray bits and scraps of petals.

The storm had not broken by breakfast, but the atmosphere was ponderous, concentrated with the promise of violence. Huge roiling sulphur-grey clouds were massing in the west over the Snowdonia peaks, and the sky had a brassy tint to it that led Hepworth to think long over his course of action for the day as he completed his toilet. Just as he was finishing, the maid came with dustpan and brush to clear up the debris from the overturned flower-vase: questioned as to the weather, she was of the opinion that the rain might not come till teatime. Eventually he decided to pack his waterproofs, and head off on the Triumph for a spin down the coast to Bangor and Caernarvon.

Thankfully, the tempest held off for the duration of this trip, though the air was still uncomfortably close and still, and the clouds redoubled in volume on the horizon towards evening. The sun was sinking into the western gloom by the time Hepworth was returning home. Just past Penmaenmawr, he noticed a cut-off to his right that he thought might lead more or less directly towards Llaneirias, and thus save him the bother of going through Conway, with its notorious traffic bottleneck at the Castle arch. He swung the Triumph up this turning, and progressed well enough for a few miles until the lane deteriorated into little more than a dirt track through the hills. At this point he might have done the sensible thing and turned back, but a twist of the way brought him to a vantage point over the Vale of Conway, and showed him Llaneirias and the Hall, maybe another mile-and-a-half away, down towards the river. "Oh, well, that settles it. Here goes," said Hepworth to himself, and set off again down the steeply-sloping track, towards his swift undoing.

Extricating himself some minutes later from the thick and brambly hedge into which he had been precipitated, he cursed with fluency and devotion while examining first himself, then the Triumph, for damage. The news was mixed: while Hepworth had apparently suffered little more than the odd bruise and scratch, the front fork of the motor-bicycle was bent all out of shape from its collision with the tree-stump, and several of the spokes on the front wheel had snapped away from the rim and the hub. He could not even push the machine back to the Hall, and was obliged to leave it propped up against the stump which had been the cause of his misadventure, while he completed his journey on foot.

We may omit the grumblings and discomforts of his return (some way along, the path was lost completely, forcing him to tackle a succession of ditches, fences and five-bar gates), pausing only to remark on the deepening of the storm-clouds and the almost tropically stifling air. His detour had led him to approach Llaneirias from an unfamiliar angle, and he was navigating more or less by sight alone, keeping the tall chimneys of the Hall before him as he went. This route led him through a thick clump of trees; amidst these he was able to pick up a path, which seemed at one time to have been paved with red brick in a herring-bone pattern, but which was now almost totally obscured by moss. He followed it through the copse, and came out into waist-high shrubbery. This was good, since it bore the signs of having once been formally laid out, and might well have belonged to the gardens of the Hall. "At last," muttered Hepworth to himself, and plunged ahead through the vegetation, while thunder sounded off among the mountains.

It was not an easy passage, even with the remnants of the path to guide him. Burrs clung to his trousers and his jacket; stray creepers threatened to upset him entirely; and a loose brick underfoot managed the job at last, sending him once more to his hands and knees amidst the undergrowth. By this time entirely disgruntled with his lot, Hepworth remained in this position for a minute, puffing and panting and giving rein to his annoyance in the most unparliamentary of language. It was as he made to rise that he became aware of a change in his situation: a change which for a moment disorientated him totally, so queerly did it come upon him.

It is difficult to describe exactly the nature of this disorientation. Hepworth is unable to characterise it more precisely than that his viewpoint seemed all out of kilter, so that nothing seemed quite in its correct perspective, as it were. In point of detail, nothing was especially disturbed, he says; only the sum of the details failed to match up with each other, lending the whole of his perception a curious distorted quality. In his search for an analogue by which to describe the sensation, Hepworth mentions the later canvases of the mad Victorian artist Richard Dadd, who was sent to Bedlam for the axe-murder of his father; and if you are familiar with the works of this rather recherche painter, then you may appreciate the impression I am trying to convey more readily. If not, then I can only liken the effect to that peculiar trick of vision sometimes encountered in a dream, where foreground and background blur and merge and odd isolated elements assume a queer and sinister significance. The thicket into which he had stumbled appeared suddenly tall and jungle-like, says Hepworth, finally abandoning the impressionistic for the concrete, while he himself seemed shrunken, reduced to the size of some small scuttling creature - a rabbit, say, or a squirrel.

In this strange and somehow sinister confusion, Hepworth remained on hands and knees, blinking and goggling and wondering whether he might not have bumped his head more severely than he had at first thought when he came off his motor-cycle. When he had more or less convinced himself that he was suffering from concussion, he sought very gingerly to rise, and the perspectives around him zoomed and wavered as he straightened at the knees. He paused again, very dizzy and very much alarmed, holding on to the bushes around him for support, and it was at that moment that something came at him, very fast, from above.

There was a great rush of air, and a shadowy mass he sensed, rather than saw, for he was sprawling again in the shrubbery, instinctively seeking cover. Reacting entirely in panic, he scrabbled his way under a hugely overgrown lilac bush, like a child who covers up his head and thinks himself hidden. Again came the swooping rush, and this time he felt something graze at the back of his calves; with a little squeal he drew his legs in tight, and curled into the underbrush. From this vantage point, he saw that he could make some ground uphill towards the Hall while still concealed in the wild and tangled brake. Even while realising the utter improbability of his situation, he began to wriggle forwards, like a soldier in no-man's-land, propelling himself on elbows up towards safety.

The air above him was alive with a soft and heavy flapping; bushes rattled violently overhead as he progressed, torn aside by his unseen assailant; and each time the freakish onslaught was renewed he buried his face in the leaf-mould, all but sobbing in his alarm. Concussion or not, his head reeled: he felt himself imperilled by a force entirely beyond his comprehension, let alone his control. There was little of the King's man in Hepworth's bearing throughout these desperate evasions; he scrambled on through the undergrowth, emerging some hundred yards on through a hole in a hedge into a formally laid-out flowerbed and the sickening, overwhelming scent of night-stock and lavender. The commotion above him whirled to a climax, and then vanished as abruptly as it had come. With another great lurch the perspectives shifted around him, and seemed to readjust themselves, and his nausea receded to the point where he felt able at last to rise up and look about him.

He got to his knees gingerly, glancing overhead: there was nothing above him, and hesitantly he made to stand upright again. The extraordinary nature of his attack (such was the word he used, and it may be interpreted as you wish) baffled him more than anything he had ever encountered up to that point in his life: it was a dull kind of disbelief, not in the veracity of the experience - of that he had no doubt - but rather that it should have happened to him, of all people. He wondered whether a blow to the head invariably affected one's senses so strangely, while realising at the back of his mind that even the most severe concussion might not account entirely for the jumble of sensations he had experienced. In a kind of daze he saw that he was in the gardens of Llaneirias Hall, and close by the pergola. The familiarity of these surroundings, while hardly restoring his composure, at least gave him the strength of purpose to make for the Hall. There would be people there - Fox, and the rest of the servants - and with their attentions he might recover himself sufficiently to make some sense of the events of the last few minutes.

Cautiously, like a man fresh out of plaster after a bad break, he began to walk along the paths between the beds up towards the Hall. The scent of the flowers, normally so pleasing at evening, was now cloying and oppressive, and brought back to him flashes of his earlier sickliness. This he put down to the effects of his accident, and he quickened his pace towards the French windows of the dining-room, normally left open on fine evenings. On reaching them, however, he found them closed and bolted: a precaution against the rain, he thought vaguely to himself, for the storm that had gathered all day was now on the point of breaking above. Wondering already how much of his recent experience to omit in the retelling, Hepworth made for the main doors at the front of the Hall.

Worse was to follow, though: these doors too were locked, and pinned to the woodwork was an envelope bearing his name. Vexed in the extreme, he opened it, and found inside a note bearing Mr Fox's signature, the text of which read:

"Dear Mr Hepworth - I leave this note for your attention, should our paths fail to cross this evening. It is with the deepest regret that I am instructed by Mr Emrys Jones to inform you that, due to extraordinary circumstances, the Hotel can no longer extend your booking. Alternative arrangements have, of course, been made for your accommodation; all expenses arising from such to be defrayed in full by Mr Jones himself. Mr Jones extends his fullest and most abject apologies for the inconvenience to which you have doubtless been put, and urgently requests that you meet him at the Harp public house in Llaneirias village where he will explain in full."

You can well imagine the frame of mind in which Hepworth read this singular missive. In his current state of exhaustion and mental depletion, the prospect of a further trudge back down into the village was the last thing he wanted. Accordingly he resolved to gain entry by whatever means possible, and once inside to ring down to the Harp for an explanation. Right, he felt, was on his side, to say nothing of the law of contract, and he was disposed to make short work of any arguments to the contrary that Mr Fox or his employer might advance. Let them come to him, was his determination; for his part, he would not be moved. So he made a circuit of the building, eventually gaining access via an unlocked scullery door at the back. He went through to the reception desk in the main hall to collect his key, and was reaching across the counter to grasp it when he noticed a telegram form, left unfolded on the polished wood surface, upon which he could just make out his own name. He picked up the form, and read this:


On top of the events of the last quarter-of-an-hour, this last revelation came pretty much as the final straw to Hepworth. Dumbfounded, he stood at the desk and gazed around him, as if expecting the twin suits of armour on their mounts by the door to explain the situation to him. Given the extent of his stupefaction, it may have been some few minutes before he became aware of the pervasive aroma of flowers that was mounting in the hallway.

When he did notice it, a horrible wave of his former queasiness washed back over him. The solid oak panelling of the hallway swam dizzily before his eyes, and he called out with a trace of desperation, "Hello? Fox! Anyone! Are you there? Anyone?" No answer came, though he fancied that somewhere in the building there was movement, faint and unseen. The scent of the flowers intensified, and went alarmingly to his head; convinced by now that he was quite seriously concussed, he reeled away from the reception desk into the dining-room, which he found bare and unlaid. From room to room he stumbled on, sick to retching point now with the overbearing smell; all the time conscious of rustlings and pattering of feet in a further room, which by the time he reached it was empty. Once, in a mirror at the end of a hallway, he caught a glimpse of white behind him; he turned so quickly that the light-headedness almost overcame him totally, but again he saw nothing. Only now he fancied he heard the sound of a voice, of singing; very soft, very faraway, somewhere in a room upstairs.

On the verge of swooning, he blundered up the wide oak staircase and on along the corridors, flinging each door open in turn, aware that if he did not find help soon he would surely faint. The singing seemed to mock him; it was a woman's voice, ethereal and yet glassy, and still it seemed to be above his head somewhere. At the end of a corridor on the third floor back, a door opened on to a narrow dark set of stairs: "the attic", thought Hepworth, and began to mount the steps with the last of his strength.

The attic was stiflingly hot and oppressive, with hardly a breath of air. Dust rose as he stepped over the rough floorboards, filtering in thick clouds through the dim light that angled in from a dirty barred skylight. Soft grey feathers shed by generations of birds lay all around; Hepworth shivered at the sight of them, though he hardly knew why. The singing was now clearly audible: a weird, haunting tune sung in the Welsh language, from away off in the furthest darkest corner where the rafter beams crowded close at the gable end. He tottered towards the sound, and again saw a flash of white through the all-pervading murk. Then the song broke off in a girlish giggle, and the woman stepped out of the shadows and came towards him.

The worst part of it was that he recognised her immediately. Perhaps he might have been able to keep his reason, had he not seen the photograph downstairs, but as it was, identification was instant and total. There was no doubt, not the slightest uncertainty, and as she advanced upon him, and he saw the stains of red on the white material of her dress, he screamed, and turned to flee, and all but fell down the stairs. In his last glimpse of her she seemed to rise from the floor, and become horribly altered somehow: there was the impression of wings, and of talons, and then he was gone, headlong.

He was lucky not to break his neck; luckier still, maybe, to escape a worse fate. As it was, he hit the floor in a flurry of arms and legs, and around him billowed great clouds of dust from the attic, mixed with downy feathers and torn-off petals that stirred and swirled with a life all their own. The singing and the laughter were now become a screaming, so high-pitched as to be almost inaudible, yet ringing through every fibre of Hepworth's being with a terrible shrill intensity. Scrambling to his feet, he staggered off down the corridor, but as he fled the air was filled with a foul acrid smoke - the feathers were burning now, choking him with their biting fumes. Blinded, he slammed into the wall at the further end of the corridor and was stunned by the impact; his clothes began to singe and smoulder, and he beat weakly about him...

There is no way of knowing what might have become of him, had not succour arrived at last. Hands grabbed under his arms and raised him up: through his swoon he recognised Fox, and Mr Emrys Jones, and together the two of them dragged him back downstairs, through the shower of burning feathers that set light to all around them.

They made the hallway, and from there out on to the lawns. As Hepworth's head began to clear he saw a blaze at the windows of Llaneirias Hall, mounting with stunning speed to an unquenchable furnace against which the now steadily-falling rain beat in a useless hissing fury. Drenched and wholly unmanned, he lay back on the grass and heard Mr Jones' voice, as if from immeasurable distance: "Why did you let him come back? Not this night: not the night she returns to the Hall - Fox, didn't I warn you? What were you thinking of? You see? You see now? Why I warned you to clear out?" Fox was unable to answer, staring open-mouthed at the Hall as it burned fiercely away into the gloom; Hepworth turned to Mr Jones in mute questioning.

"Every year, there are signs," began the hotelier, and paused for a moment, coughing from the smoke and gesturing towards the Hall; "signs to keep clear before the last night; little things, but you always know it's her. Only in the days before, mind, when you first start to notice things: if you take the warning, and clear out before then, it's all right. Even just the morning after, you'd never know. There'll be a few feathers, perhaps, or it might be petals, lying around upstairs, or in the corridors - but what's that, the rest of the year, when there's not the slightest thing to give the secret away? I've managed, for years now - there's never been anyone here before, not on the anniversary, not for a week before. I thought it'd be the same this year, even if I wasn't here: I told Fox - I warned him, but..." Unable to continue, he buried his head in his hands, and the last Hepworth knew of it was the clanging bells of the fire brigade, racing up the road from Conway in time to see the ceiling of the Hall come down in a fury of sparks and flame.

"They'd waited for me in the village, you see," said Hepworth, throwing back the greater part of a glass of whisky as he rounded off the rest of the tale. "They thought I'd be on the motor-bike, and I'd have to pass through the village, so they could stop me before I got to the Hall - but I came the back way, and fooled everybody. Fox left the note tacked to the door just in case: obviously whatever Mr Jones told him about the place when he rang up made him want to get out in a hurry, and he didn't quite finish locking everything up - which would have been the sensible thing to do, of course. Not that I blame the man for not thinking straight: I suppose, you know, it was a funny sort of night all round," he concluded, smiling weakly and refilling his glass.

"And so you came here?" I queried.

"Oh, I spent the night in hospital in Llandudno, just for a check-up: the police came round, but I'd already gathered that Mr Jones had squared it all. Overturned lamp, I think he said - just like the first time, you remember - and they swallowed it just the same. Perhaps they didn't want to go into it too closely: they were all local men, after all, and knew as much as most about the stories thereabouts.

"It was just as Jones said: normally, they'd clear out of the place before the anniversary of - of that, you know, that whole awful business. There'd be no guests the week before, and the staff would have a couple of days off, and not come back till the day after. Only this year, Jones was away in Wrexham, and he and Fox got their wires crossed somehow - Fox had been there less than a year; he only started in February - and so I slipped through the safety net, as it were. Poor old Fox kept the place open for a couple of pounds, and I very nearly ended up paying for it twice over."

Now I understood why Hepworth had asked me for the local paper, when he came down that night. I picked it up from the floor where he had dropped it, and read again the headline: "FIRE AT LLANEIRIAS: HISTORIC HALL UTTERLY DESTROYED IN FREAK CONFLAGRATION." Folding the newspaper and setting it down on the side-table, I asked the last of my questions; carefully, and, I hope, tactfully. I should rather not have asked it, but had I not, I should not have forgiven myself, nor have expected forgiveness from you, my reader.

"And the girl upstairs? The flowers - the feathers? The business in the gardens?"

"Oh, it's all as I said," responded Hepworth, gazing into the embers of the fire in the grate. "I knew it was her straight away. As for the rest of it: they have the book here in the hotel, the Mabinogion, up on the shelf there, and I read the legend the other night when you were all in bed asleep. Owls and flowers and madness... old Jones in the gallery there in Conway was right. It is very beautiful, but rather dreadful at the same time. But then, that's the way of fairytales, isn't it?"

Copyright © 1998 Steve Duffy
October 1998

Back to top
Back to Ghosts & Scholars Main Page

Bar by Syruss