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Authors: Sam Siciliano

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Holmes gave a weary laugh. “Lord Frederick, I am not a matchmaker or broker between families. Surely you must know that fathers often disapprove of their daughters’ matrimonial choices.”

“Ah, but that’s the peculiar part. He’s been dead for over four months.”

“What?” I exclaimed.

A wary hope suddenly dawned in Holmes’s gray eyes. “Has he indeed? And when did the young lady blurt this out?”

“Today, Mr. Holmes, after she told me it was all over. Wouldn’t say why really, and I kept pressing her for an explanation.”

Holmes put the tips of his long fingers together—another hopeful gesture. “Think carefully, Lord Frederick, and tell me exactly what she said—how her father’s name came up.”

“Well, she kept saying, ‘I can’t, I can’t,’ and I kept saying, ‘But why?’ At last she said, ‘Because of my father.’ ‘Your father?’ I said. ‘Whatever do you mean?’ ‘I mean he forbids it,’ she said. ‘But he’s dead!’ I said. ‘Whatever are you talking about?’ She looked frustrated and frightened. ‘I can’t say anything more.’ And she wouldn’t.”

Holmes nodded. “Promising. Are you familiar with the circumstances of her father’s death?”

“Of course. You may be, too, Mr. Holmes. Her father was a writer, Victor, Viscount Grimswell of Dartmoor. The poor devil fell off one of those rocky piles on the moor, tors they call them. It was in all the papers.”

For the first time in several weeks I saw color return to my cousin’s cheeks, and his eyes had a familiar glow. “Yes, I do recall the incident. I have read one of Grimswell’s novels,
The Dark Grange
.”

I frowned. “I also recall
The Dark Grange.
I started it, but I do not much care for ghost stories.”

“It is more than a ghost story,” Holmes said. “Grimswell was not a Hardy, a Poe or a Dickens, but his works are not without literary merit. They are comparable to the writings of Wilkie Collins or Sheridan Le Fanu. His death caused a stir because of its sinister and sensational nature. There was... Was there not some speculation that his fall might have been suicide rather than an accident?”

Digby gave a reluctant nod. “Yes, although the family doctor apparently thinks it was an accident. Lord Grimswell had a bad heart, angina pains and all that. The doctor says he must have made it to the top, and then his heart gave way.”

“And does Miss Grimswell concur with this opinion?”

Digby frowned, his left hand clutching at his garish glove. “She does not exactly... She has not said. I think she fears it may have been deliberate.”

“Has she told you this?”

“No. It’s just a feeling I have.”

Holmes leaned back in his chair. “Your case begins to interest me, Lord Frederick. Tell me more about yourself and Miss Grimswell. You are, of course, an Oxford man. Balliol College, I believe.”

Digby nodded and raised his right hand. “I’m on to you this time! The old school ring is a bit conspicuous.”

“One might say the same of your dress. Are you acquainted with Mr. Oscar Wilde? His influence upon his fellow Oxford students is well known.”

Digby nodded. “I have had the pleasure of his acquaintance. Oscar and a Cambridge chum of mine are friends—Robbie Ross. Oscar takes a genuine interest in the artistic and aesthetic development of the young.”

Holmes’s smile was faintly contemptuous. “So I have heard.”

Digby raised a single reddish-brown eyebrow, hesitated, then continued. “I finished two years ago. Since then I have been seeking some profitable and fulfilling occupation. The pater urges the military, the cavalry in particular, the mater the church, but neither would suit my artistic temperament. Being a younger son is rather frustrating. My brother Tom only has eighteen months on me, but he gets the title, the land, and most of the income, while I... And the moneylenders are only too happy to give him whatever line of credit he requires. You may think a marquess must be rolling in money, but I’m afraid that’s not the case, what with taxes and poor investments. Father says I can count on precious little. He actually seems to enjoy saying this—as if... But I’m wanderin’ somewhat astray.”

Holmes gave a slight nod. “And Miss Grimswell?”

Digby nodded eagerly. “Yes, yes—well, Rose and I have known each other practically forever. Father is an outdoorsy sort, fond of hunting, horses, angling, hiking, and all that, and the family spent a good deal of time at our Dartmoor home. He and Victor Grimswell were friends, and I remember Rose as a rather sad, dark, sullen little girl. I’m afraid I used to pull her hair. Anyway, I ran into her last July at Hyde Park. She was staying with Susan Rupert, Lord Rupert’s daughter. The two had gone to the same girls’ boarding school near Oxford.”

Holmes tapped his fingertips together. “So this was after her father’s death—after the fall from Demon Tor?”

“Yes, Mr. Holmes, and she was—and is—rather glum about it. Misses him frightfully, her father, that is. She’s staying indefinitely with Susan; nothing for her at Grimswell Hall.”

“What of her mother?”

“Rose never really knew her mother. She died when Rose was little.”

“Does Miss Grimswell have any brothers or sisters?”

“No, Mr. Holmes. She is an only child.”

“Any male cousins?”

Digby gave a laughing snort. “Ah, I see where you’re headed! No, she has only a couple of maiden cousins or aunts. I’m afraid there’s no male heir to pass the title on to. Victor Grimswell was the last Viscount Grimswell.”

“Ah, how regrettable for the young lady. The title will therefore go extinct, and the land and the hall will revert back to the crown. I doubt Lord Grimswell would have had much money of his own.”

Digby had a certain lunatic grin. “Wrong on both counts, Mr. Holmes! There was the usual entail requiring that the property go to the eldest son or another qualified male heir, but when Rose was about two, her father and grandfather agreed to cut off the entail. Her mother had died. Victor was desolate and never wanted to marry again. There were no other potential male heirs, and although the title might go extinct, he wanted to ensure that his daughter, his only child, could inherit Grimswell Hall. He managed to persuade his father, the viscount. Their solicitor drew up all the necessary papers.”

Holmes nodded. “That is certainly unusual, but possible. Entailment law is quite complex, but the two living heirs in direct lineage would have that power. With the entail broken, both men could do as they chose. The grandfather could still leave everything to Victor, the next viscount, but Victor, in turn, might leave everything to his daughter. And what of the other count to which you referred?”

“Oh, yes, well, both Victor and his father were deuced clever when it came to money. For example, Victor lent a friend a sum to start an export business, and he was repaid a hundredfold. My father would call that dirtyin’ one’s hands in trade, but I wish he were half so sharp! Oh, and Lord Grimswell’s writings were also quite profitable.”

Holmes lowered his hands and set them on his knees. “I see. Lord Grimswell must have left his daughter a considerable fortune.”

Digby nodded cheerfully. “Over four hundred thousand pounds.”

“Good Lord!” I exclaimed. “That’s an extraordinary sum.”

“It is indeed,” Digby said. “To have both land and money...”

Holmes hesitated, an ironic smile pulling at his lips. “Most of which must go to her husband should she marry.”

Digby frowned, a red flush appearing at each cheek. “I hope... I trust you gentlemen do not think Rose’s fortune has anything to do with my feelings for her. I’d marry her even if she hadn’t a farthing.”

Holmes gave his head a shake. “It is not for me to question your motives, Lord Frederick. I am sure they are worthy of a gentleman of your stature. Nevertheless, such an enormous sum may have some bearing on the case.”

“I don’t see how.”

“Exactly how long had you been engaged, Lord Frederick?”

“Since the middle of September.”

“And was the lady difficult to persuade?”

“Damned difficult! She kept saying she wasn’t sure she wanted to marry or that she was ready even if she wanted to, but I kept at it. Told her...” For the first time he hesitated. “Well, I told her I loved her, and by God it was the truth! I said I loved her and that she needed someone to look out for her now that she’s alone in the world. I know I’m not perfect, and I can be a silly ass at times, but all the same, I swear I’d care for her.”

Holmes and I exchanged a glance. Digby had begun to grate upon me, but this declaration of love did seem genuine.

“And you seem to have convinced Miss Grimswell of your sincerity. That was some six weeks ago. When did she first mention any doubts?”

Digby sighed. “When her fool of an aunt Constance sent her this abominable balderdash about the family curse. Said if she were going to marry, she and her future husband should know about this dark episode in the family past. If she’d had any sense at all, she’d never have shown anything like that to a sensitive girl like Rose. Of course, it’s all complete and utter rubbish, but Rose is high-strung and—”

“How long ago did her aunt send this information?”

“Two weeks ago, and I can tell you it shook Rose. I told her it was all foolishness and meant absolutely nothing to me. By the time she left she was laughing at it too, and I thought we were past it, but then this morning I received a letter saying we must never see each other again, that she must never marry, and of course, I went to her at once. I confronted her shortly before I came to you, Mr. Holmes, and she behaved very strangely. Something had badly frightened her, and I’m most worried about her. I...”

Holmes tapped lightly at the chair arm with his long fingers. “Pardon me, Lord Frederick, but I wish to proceed more methodically. Do you know exactly what her aunt wrote to her?”

Digby nodded, then withdrew a rolled-up parchment from his coat. “I have brought the very document she sent Rose.”

Holmes smiled. “Excellent, Lord Frederick—excellent! And how does it come to be in your possession?”

“I took it from Rose when she showed it to me two weeks ago—with her permission, of course. I wanted to burn it, but she would not hear of it. I promised I would care for it, but I did not want to leave it with her. I knew she would re-read it and brood upon it in an unhealthy way. That is why I took it.”

Holmes stood and eagerly extended a hand. “May I have a look? Thank you.” He sniffed twice at the paper, then unrolled it upon a small table. “Late seventeenth century. Care to have a look, Henry?”

I stood, then put one hand on the table and leaned forward to read. The black-inked script had an archaic look, but I soon grew accustomed to it.

T
HE
G
RIMSWELL
C
URSE

My children, you have no doubt heard rumors of the Grimswell Curse. Some of our kin have wished to deny this affliction and its origin, a black episode in our family history, but I have no doubt as to its truth. I have, therefore, resolved to set the story down, once and for all, that it may instruct our descendants as to the power of Evil once it gains entrance to a man’s soul.

Before the reign of Elizabeth, over two hundred years ago, the Viscount Reginald Grimswell built the first Grimswell Hall. He was a very learned man, interested in all the arts and sciences, but despite his cleverness and wealth, he had a melancholy disposition. He was always prey to dark and desperate thoughts. Perhaps that is why he abandoned himself to drink and lechery. His wife, Lady Catherine, was wondrously beautiful and possessed a kind and pious disposition, but Lord Reginald preferred the company of harlots and drunken gamesters. The hall became notorious for its wanton debauchery, much to the dismay of its mistress.

His lady bore Reginald four sons, then died of a wasting illness before her fortieth year. Rather than reflecting upon her demise as a warning from the Almighty, Lord Reginald plunged himself into vice with unrestrained fury. In disgust, his father-in-law claimed his grandsons to raise them apart from such iniquity.

Before long, no maiden or matron of virtue would venture near Grimswell Hall. The daughters of local farmers began to disappear. Rumor had it they were victims of foul abominations at the hall. Those who would not submit, perished, vanishing without a trace, while others gave themselves over to the wicked corruption. One yeoman discovered his daughter all bejeweled and bedecked in finery at the hall, but she laughed and pretended not to know him. A week later, the man was found dead on the moor, his throat cut.

Common folks and the gentry shared a disgust toward the hall and its lawless occupants, but naught might have happened had not the Viscount finally outreached himself. He was visited by an emissary of the crown, the Earl of Chadwick, who, knowing nothing of Grimswell’s reputation, brought with him his daughter Rose. At the sight of the fair girl, Lord Reginald’s evil soul was inflamed anew with lust. He determined to take the girl by force that very night, and he did so, despite her desperate pleas. Foolishly he thought she would keep silent of her disgrace or that none would dare touch him should she accuse him.

The pathetic girl wrote a brief note to her father revealing her betrayal, then thrust a dagger into her heart. Imagine Chadwick’s grief and rage the next morning when he discovered his daughter’s corpse and this dreadful testament! It took several men to restrain him from strangling the Viscount, who then mocked him and had him ejected from the hall.

This fell upon a Sunday morning in October, and the Earl went straight away to the church at the Hamlet of Grimpen. Interrupting the service, he strode to the pulpit, told of his daughter’s sad fate, and begged the congregation to help him bring down the wrath of God upon the miscreant. The people of Grimpen listened in horror, and when he raised his fist to Heaven, a low murmur of approbation echoed through the church. The other lords there present asked only for time to gather their forces and arm themselves. Thus, by late afternoon, every able-bodied man advanced toward Grimswell Hall, some carrying scythes or pitchforks, others bearing swords or lances.

Word of what had passed at the church had reached the hall earlier, and all the Viscount’s servants and cohorts had fled, leaving him to face the angry crowd alone. Even then, Lord Reginald might have been saved, had he but prayed for forgiveness. Instead, he turned to the dark powers and begged the Devil for assistance. He found the answer he sought in an ancient tome in his library.

The sun had sunk, and a ghastly orange moon rose over the desolate moor and the dark tower of Grimswell Hall as the avengers reached the portal. Before them was a figure in a black cloak and hood seated upon an enormous black charger. Although they were many, a hush fell over the crowd, and they halted.

The Viscount threw back his cowl, and a peal of Hellish laughter slipped from his lips. He cursed the men and mocked them, but none seemed able to move until Lord Reginald began to ridicule poor dead Rose. At that, Chadwick drew his sword and charged forward with a great cry.

The Viscount headed across the moor on his black stallion, and those who had mounts gave chase. His unnatural steed could have outraced any mortal horse, but Lord Reginald kept only slightly ahead of his pursuers. He halted before the jagged pile of rocks known as Demon Tor, and even as the riders watched, he scrambled up its face like some huge black spider. Hardly had he attained the summit, than the riders drew up about the base. Soon those on foot also reached the tor and surrounded it.

The Earl cried out for the Viscount to descend and face his punishment. For all his crimes, he must surely die, but as Christians, they would let him confess and be shriven first.

After the Earl had spoken, the crowd stood silently, watching the white face of the man standing atop the tor. The moan of the wind, suddenly icy cold, was the only sound, then came again Hellish laughter. The Viscount cursed them with blasphemous and foul oaths, promising that terror would henceforth be their companion each night. He bared his teeth in a final, hideous grin, then hurled himself forward. Some say he briefly flew like some dark bird or bat, but soon enough he fell and dashed his brains out on the rocks below.

The Earl advanced and turned over his fallen foe. The full moon had risen higher by then, and its blue-white light revealed the shattered skull and leering face of the Viscount, his teeth locked in a fierce grin. All present felt the horror, and then in the distance rose the desolate cry of a wolf. They fled, leaving the shattered corpse lying there bathed in the moonlight.

Would that were the end of my tale, a sinner punished for his evil deeds!

The next day, some men returned to Demon Tor. They found the blood-stains on the granite, but the body was gone. That night, a herdsman returning late noticed a single light burning in a window at the abandoned hall. Many also again heard the terrible cry of a wolf.

The Earl of Chadwick heard it and went pale. He retired late, but no sooner had he closed his door, than a terrible scream came from his chamber. The oaken door held briefly, but when it was burst asunder, the men had a brief glance of a black figure with a dead white face, its mouth smeared with blood. The creature fled to the window and escaped, even though the window was high above the rocky ground. The men saw the Earl’s murderer crawl head first down the stone wall, then run across the moor. None dared follow.

Thus began the reign of terror. No man or woman dared go out after dark. Windows and doors were barred at dusk, but still the people were slaughtered—men, women and children— throats torn open and the blood drunk from their veins.

Many saw the light burning in the high tower of Grimswell Hall, and others spoke of a man in black wandering alone on the moor or accompanied only by an enormous wolf. Others claimed to have seen the man transform into a wolf.

A poor herdsman was caught in a snowstorm, and when he came home, half frozen, he found his wife dead and their babe gone. At this, a great fury came over him. The next day, he rose up at the church and begged the people to help him, lest they all perish one by one.

Accompanied by the priest, they went again to the hall. In the courtyard they found the herdsman’s child, a mere babe, frozen and drained of blood. Outrage seized the good people. They searched the dwelling, but a great oaken door reinforced with iron blocked the way to the tower. They tried long and hard to break in the door, but to no avail. Soon the sun began to sink, and their fury changed to dread.

The stricken herdsman gnashed his teeth and beat at the door until his fists bled. At last he seized a torch and set the door on fire. Soon the entire hall was ablaze.

The people surrounded the edifice and waited. They had armed themselves as best they could. As the sky darkened, the orange flames rose higher and higher, the great conflagration lighting the moor for miles around.

Finally, even as the flames reached the tower, a face appeared at the window. A cry of dismay went up. There could be no doubt: it was the Viscount Reginald Grimswell. He bared his long teeth, and then his fearful laughter rose over the crackling of the flames. He seemed about to hurl himself from the window, when the herdsman loosed an arrow from his bow. The priest had blessed the arrow.

It struck the Viscount square in the throat. With a terrible howl, he clutched at the shaft and fell back into the waiting flames. His cries were dreadful. They were the cries of the damned, this conflagration only a prelude to eternal perdition.

The people watched until the flames had consumed the hall. The priest and the herdsman walked about the smoldering ruins until the first warm yellow glimmer of sunlight flooded the moors. The herdsman fell to his knees and wept while the priest prayed to the Almighty, thanking Him for their deliverance.

The moors have been at peace since that terrible time, and we can only hope, my children, that we of the tainted Grimswell blood have learned our lesson. We can only hope that none of our descendants will lose their reason, bargain with Satan, and become wild beasts preying upon their fellow men. Curb, therefore, those melancholy thoughts and dark passion which may be in our nature. Remember that God in His mercy has given us the strength to rise above our baser selves.

The broken walls and granite stones are all that remain of the old hall, and the lonely site is known as an accursed place. Because the sons were raised apart from their father’s evil influence, they grew to be honorable and worthy men. The eldest built a new Grimswell Hall which we still inhabit today.

Our inheritance is a dark and bloody one, but if it causes us to know ourselves better, to shun Satan and avoid his snares, then some good may yet come of what has befallen, and in times to come, Grimswells may be known for their good works rather than their evil natures.

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