William Henley, third generation of English immigrants to America, casually surveyed the peaked roof shadow of his ancient mansion, an everyday event in the late afternoon. The front of somewhat pretentiously named Henley Hall was on the East end overlooking a spacious drive which wound through the park-like, wooded acreage of this estate. After a few seconds, It sunk in that he was viewing something impossible. Instead of the usual solid mass of black, the outline of the the three joined together attic windows was present.
How could this be? The vacant attic would have no lights on. No one had been up there for months, maybe years. There was nothing up there except the usual collection of junk, a big old chest, a rocking chair, a few mouldering boxes, a dressmaker’s dummy, a lot of dust and debris. There probably were electric lights but why would they be on in the daytime and why would anyone be up there anyway? William, Bill as his friends usually called him, puzzled over this.
He had lived in this house for only a little over three months. He had a good job with a company which manufactured solar energy cells. As an engineer, he had worked on the research to perfect what was considered the best product on the market. He had inherited this old, fourteen room mansion from his grandparents on the Henley side of the family. It took nine months for him to get situated to move in, problems with the settling of the estate, selling his house, and actually moving all his things. Then there was his marriage to Sondra, a joyful event but one which also added complications. The thought always reminded him of a course he took in story writing. His teacher returned his story with a notation to “introduce plot complication here,” so she was tall, blond, leggy, and seductive.
There was a big library which he loved. Typical of many 19th century mansions, his great grandfather, when he became successful in business, had this built. A library was de rigueur and was filled by going to the booksellers and ordering “550 running feet of Culture.” Many of these splendid volumes had never been looked at, the gilt edges never disturbed. He found splendid illustrated editions of science fiction by Verne and George Meredith as well as over a dozen books illustrated by Gustave Dore. There were, he reflected, many things about this house he knew little or nothing about.
When Sondra returned from her trip to nearby Bloomingbed, home of one of the big state universities, a book signing of a famous writer he thought, he discussed it with her. Checking the shadow again, it was back to normal. She responded with the usual, “Maybe you just imagined it.”
But later that week, talking to an old friend of his named Charlie, who lived just down the road, he was surprised by a crack about: “Hey, I see the honeymoon is over with your new wife. Coming by like two o’clock, I see the light burning in the attic. You have a laboratory up there now? Building a better mousetrap so the world will beat a path to your door? Let your old buddy in on it!” Bill was dumbfounded, he didn’t know what to say. He passed it off with a non-committal remark that sometime he’d get into it with him.
Friday afternoon, while Sondra was going to the toilet, she exclaimed, “Oh Drat! There’s no toilet paper!” She looked up to see a roll of toilet paper float across the room and pause in front of her. She jumped up and fled the room!
When Saturday came, he decided there was nothing for it but to look in the attic. He and Sondra unlocked the door and went up the narrow staircase to look around. She found the musty odor of mold and decay very offensive. But there was nothing too remarkable, pretty much the pile of junk he had expected. Three 100 watt bulbs hung from the rafters. The light switch worked perfectly. They walked the length of the attic seeing nothing untoward. Then as they went to leave, it occurred to him they had left footprints in the dust, the only ones. There was a big old chest and a dressmaker’s dummy, right out of the 1900 Sears and Roebuck Catalog. Then as they glanced at the far corner with the old wooden rocking chair, they saw that it had started to rock, slowly at first, then more rapidly. They left.
Monday evening, the Autumn wind swayed the branches of the old trees surrounding the house, heaving to and fro. It howled. now with a low moan like the sound of grief and then with a shrill shriek like a person wrenched in agony. It was a dreary gale which brought to mind thoughts of shipwrecks, of brave crews, tossed in a midnight sea, longing for a safe, sheltered harbor. The lightning flashes and distant, rolling thunder added to the gloomy atmosphere. Bill’s friends Charlie and Willy Smith came over for dinner. Afterword they discussed the strange happenings, they agreed there be some logical explanations, nobody educated and intelligent believes in ghosts. Willy kept repeating himself that believing in ghosts is just plain stupid. After his fourth declaration, the wine bottle on the buffet exploded. The flying glass didn’t hurt anyone but it made quite a mess.
That night Bill and Sondra heard the strangest noises coming from the attic. It sounded like heavy footsteps plodding back and forth. Suddenly they stopped and all was quiet. When Bill looked out in the hallway an hour later, he glanced at the nightlight. At first it gave the usual simple light pattern, then it changed, twisting and turning about in a weird, impossible configuration. A faint sound of maniacal laughter added to the uncanny experience. The following night, as Bill was reading in the library, the lights dimmed and a procession of shadowy figures marched across one wall, then the lights brightened back to normal.
Bill and Sondra questioned the butler and his wife the cook. They had been caretakers of the place while it was unoccupied . No they had never experienced anything unusual. They had spent most of their time on the first floor, their room was at the back of the house. They had usually only gone upstairs in the daytime.
Two nights later, Bill and Sondra were awakened at 3 AM. A rather ordinary looking fellow was standing over their bedside. He just stared at them for a minute. Then he said, “So you don’t believe in ghosts, do you!” They blinked their eyes and he was standing by the door, they blinked again and he had disappeared! Bill jumped up and sprang to the door. Looking down the long corridor he could see no one. The maniacal laughter was louder this time. Stubbornly refusing to admit that they had something which had no “natural explanation,” they finally called in an expert of sorts, a Christian man who had made a study of ghostly phenomena.
He arrived Friday afternoon, a white haired, dignified, retired university professor. They all sat down together before a roaring, crackling fire in the library. Dr. Allison asked them many question about their background and how they had come into possession of this . Then he asked about the former owners and finally he asked them to describe their problem. After their lengthy account, Bill concluded with, “Surely there must be some rational explanation for all this!”
Surprisingly, Sondra commented “I’m not so sure. It depends on what you mean. My father, when he was young, was quite an adventurer. He traveled in the East, Macao, India, Borneo, Thailand, lots of places Westerners seldom penetrated into as well as Africa. He said ‘There are lots of things people dismiss as ignorant superstition that people who live there, traders, colonial administrators, will tell you that Western science can’t account for. And they caution against hasty conclusions.’ My father went on to say that if they tell you it might be dangerous to mess with something you don’t understand, it might be.”
Dr. Allison commented, “That was good advice. However, I think our next step is to show me around this place, starting with the basement.”
“The basement? Nobody ever goes down there!” Bill exclaimed.
“All the more reason. Now, while it’s still daylight.”
“Come on, Bill. He’s the expert. Besides we really need to know more about our house,” said Sondra.
The basement proved to be very Romanesque, with massive arches and solid stonework. There was a wine cellar and a number of rooms, some of which Bill thought would be a good place for a torture chamber.
Dr. Allison, who had gotten hold of a heavy stick, was tapping on the floor and the walls to see if he could find something. This house, built in 1850, was said to have been used by the underground railroad. Of course, after 1865 probably not, but escaping soldiers might have used it later on. Finally, he found a panel that sounded hollow, and removing a loose brick caused it to slide open. A stone stairway went down almost two stories to a rough stone room 10 feet by 15, with a tunnel coming out of it.
The tunnel had been partly cut out of the solid limestone and was party a natural formation with a stream running along one side. Fortunately, they had all brought powerful flashlights. They followed this maybe a hundred feet to a room roughly 15 feet square. This proved to be under the ruins of an old stone church. It was probably a remnant of the Underground Railway, underground indeed! Turning back, they retraced their steps to the hidden door.
The next day, Dr. Allison returned at 10 o’clock in the morning. Again, they resumed their exploration of the house. Bill’s elderly grandparents, being in poor health, had confined their lives to the first floor. Having become very religious during this time, they often conducted worship services in their home. The second floor revealed nothing unusual.
After dinner, they all sat before the fire discussing the subject. Dr. Allison said, “As I suspected, you will find your answers in the attic.” Just then, the lights in the room began to flicker and go out, one by one, until only one was left and a giant shadow of a horned demon appeared before them. The maniacal laughter was loud and deafening!
“There is nothing more we can do tonight. You may be more comfortable sleeping on the first floor. I would like to spend the night so we can get to work in the morning.”
Dr. Allison slept on the couch, Bill and Sondra spent a restless night on camp cots. In the morning they had a good breakfast. The doorbell chimed and four men were on the porch explaining that Dr. Allison had called them out to assist in the project. Dr. Allison informed them it was time to inspect the attic, and so, with some trepidation, Bill and Sondra unlocked the door and they went up. The attic was much as it had been with an old wooden rocking chair, a large trunk, an old dressmaker’s dummy, boxes of junk, and a very thick layer of undisturbed dust.
Dr. Allison and his four assistants stood in a circle, hands clasped, offering a lengthy prayer, placing the group, the house, and everything in it under the blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. Then he said, “We must open the trunk.” With that, the rocking chair began to rock vigorously, the dressmaker’s dummy wiggled back and forth, the electric lights flashed on and off, and they heard the maniacal laughter. “All designed to frighten us,” Dr. Allison said, “But their power is limited.”
The trunk was locked, and so old and corroded a key might be useless. A small crowbar one of the men brought was used to pry it open. The trunk was full of Occult paraphernalia, such things as well worn copies of The 6th and 7th Books of Moses, a peculiar set of knives, Ouija boards, tarot cards, and other less familiar items. There was a stench of death and decay. A dark, misty cloud arose from it and coalesced into a grim figure which gradually transformed to a skeleton with burning eyes. Bill and Sondra had departed, but the five commanded the apparition to leave. Slowly, grudgingly, it departed. It was over!
That afternoon, a crew arrived which cleared everything out of the attic and burned it. As the knife collection was tossed into the fire, all the neatly packed knives flew in every direction.
Bill and Sondra thanked Dr. Allison for all his help. He said, “I’m glad I could be of assistance,” and he walked out the door. Then Bill thought of something he wanted to ask. He stepped quickly to the door to catch him.
Looking out, he was gone! It was quite a way to where the cars were parked, but he was gone!
Later they discussed this and Sondra said, “Well, I guess my father was right. There are some things that science will never understand!”
Bill answered, “I don’t know. I think there has got to be some natural explanation…”
Robert O. Adair has spent over 50 years teaching, studying, and writing. He has a PhD in Philosophy, is a lifetime member of Mensa, and is a world traveler. He often gives workshops on writing poetry.