Hinckley Hall was said to be haunted. It had changed hands several times in recent years because people couldn't settle there. Some places simply had an aura about them. They had an unsettling effect on those who lived there. Finally it went on the market at a rock bottom price because bad news gets round and nobody wanted to live there anymore.
It was bought by George Graham, a property developer, who was delighted with the place and its spectacular views. Because it was so cheap, he would be able to afford to lavish money on the renovations and he intended to turn the place into a hotel. He planned a spectacular opening with a full-page feature in a glossy lifestyle magazine so that the people with the money would know he was open for business.
His wife, Helena, said he was mad.
"What are you thinking spending all that money on a haunted house?" she asked him. "Nervous people won't come at all and others won't sleep in the haunted room."
"What haunted room?" he asked. "I had a good shufti round when I went to view the place. I'm not daft, you know. I asked the agent which room was haunted. He didn't even know. He'd heard the rumours like everyone else but he didn't know the specifics. Anyway, I managed to contact the seller. The agent wouldn't give me contact details but I know how to use the internet."
"What did he have to say, then?"
"He said it was the Blue Room. Lady Sarah Hinckley is supposed to have died in there about three hundred years ago. I went back for another look and I paid special attention to that room. I tell you, I couldn't sense anything."
"I should think you'd have to sleep in the room. Don't ghosts come out at night?"
"I think that's the superstition. Don't believe it myself. I think, once a rumour starts, people are open to suggestion. They think they feel cold or they've heard a creepy noise or something. It's all a load of rubbish."
"I hope you're right!"
The renovation work went on apace and George and Helena decided they needed to be on site to keep the job on track. The rooms were in no state to be lived in so they brought in a caravan. The grounds of Hinckley Hall were magnificent and had been well laid out many years before. Gorgeous lawns swept right up to the front of the hall and were currently being thoroughly trashed by the workmen and their vehicles.
"Oh, look what they've done to the grass!" Helena cried.
"Don't worry," George reassured her. "I've been in touch with a landscape gardener. His outfit will sort it all out for us when the builders have gone. Not a problem, he said."
George liked to be hands-on with his building projects but Helena's skills didn't come into their own until the structural work was finished. She was an interior designer and it would be her job to turn the empty spaces inside into luxurious rooms for those who wanted to be thoroughly spoilt for a few days. She was looking forward to this.
George and his team redesigned the interior of the building, ensuring the plumbing was upgraded and every room had en-suite facilities. They also totally rewired the place so there were enough sockets for modern living. A luxury kitchen ensured that the food they offered would be second to none. While all this was happening and Helena had nothing to do, she took to exploring the grounds.
There was a network of paths which would give their guests some lovely walks without leaving the premises. There was a small lake, a rock garden and even a waterfall. It was all so beautiful. Whenever Helena took the path which led to the top of the waterfall, she felt as though she was coming out of shelter and into the wind. It was up a hill of course, but there was, however still the day, an inexplicable draught. The view from up there was stunning. It was the most elevated point in the grounds and the house stood proud a few hundred yards away. She could see the back of the building from the top of the falls and would go up there to stand in the strange breeze and watch the progress of the build.
"We're gutting the Blue Room today," George told her one morning. "I've still not seen anything ghostly and the lads haven't either. Do you reckon we'll find anything when we rip all that old Anaglypta and thick paint off? What's the betting on a secret room or a bricked-up nun?"
Helena tutted at him and went off for a walk again.
"I'll keep you posted," he yelled after her, laughing.
She let her mind and her feet wander. Perhaps for tradition's sake she would keep that room blue when she redecorated. It would be good to be able to keep the story going for the tourists. In her mind she chose fabrics for the soft furnishings, decided on swags and tails for the curtains and thought she would go for a patterned paper on one wall.
She slowly climbed the rugged path to the head of the waterfall and as she turned from the sheltered side into the usual wind, right at the edge of hearing, she became aware of a sound like a baby's cry. She turned her head this way and that to try and get an idea of direction. She couldn't hear it now. Had it really been there? Such a small sound. Was it in her imagination? Was it just this inexplicable draught?
When she got back, George saw her approaching and went out to her with a spare hard hat in his hand.
"Want to come and look at the haunted room, then?"
"What have you found?" she asked. He wouldn't tell her. He must have wanted her to see for herself.
"But there's nothing here!" she said, twirling around in the middle of the empty, echoing room.
"Exactly!" George said with a smug smile. "Nothing at all. I told you. That 'haunted room' stuff is a load of baloney!"
Certainly, as she looked about her, there was no sign of bricked-up apertures or trapdoors. Nothing to suggest any 'leftover echoes' from the past. Against one of the walls the workmen had propped some lengths of plasterboard to be used in making an en-suite cubicle.
"You've checked under the floorboards?" she asked. George and the two workmen looked at one another.
"Erm... no. I never thought of that."
George tapped the boards with a broom handle listening in case any sounded different; hollow. One of the lads lifted a couple of boards by the window. They came up easily. There was a slight gust, a puff of dust, as the boards came up. Inside was a small piece of cloth. It didn't seem to be anything identifiable. Just some old-fashioned fabric, perhaps cut from a woman's dress long ago. Inside it, carefully wrapped in the dark green, patterned velvet, was a pair of small, black leather shoes. They looked a size or two too small for Helena's feet. A woman's, then, but a petite woman's. Their leather was still soft as a glove and they had slightly elevated heels with a metal edge, presumably to prevent wear.
“Oh, aren’t these just sweet?” Helena asked, holding them almost reverently. “We could put them in a display cabinet in Reception and get the story of the Haunted Room printed up and framed to show next to it. Tourists love that kind of thing!”
“I think you’re on to something there,” said George. “If it gets to be famous we could even charge more for the Haunted Room. Like a challenge, you know?”
“I think we need to sleep in it first, though. If it’s too spooky we can just have it as a sort of ghostly exhibition. Maybe I can find out something about Sarah Hinckley and we can make a feature of it?”
Until the rooms were ready for decoration, Helena continued her walks in the grounds. There was an ideal spot by the lake for a little pavilion. She made some notes to ask George if he thought it was a good idea. It would make a superb photo-spot for weddings. Yes, they could branch out into weddings and functions. She was fired up with ideas. Each time she climbed the path to the top of the falls, she listened for the baby’s cry. Her heart beat faster each time she heard it. More often than not when she visited the spot, she heard the little, hiccupping sob of a tiny child.
Eventually, her turn came and though she didn’t do the decorating herself, she supervised a team of painters and paper-hangers. Her strengths were in soft furnishings and she chose fabrics, cut and stitched and was able to produce the most opulent effects for a fraction of what they would have paid if they’d bought them in.
They were almost ready to organise their grand opening and, although they had their own rooms in the attic level, Helena insisted they spend a night in the Blue Room, now decorated dramatically in turquoise with accents of chocolate brown. Three of the walls were painted in the blue with a marbled effect and one was hung with a gorgeous paper featuring peacock feathers with gold highlights. The carpet was brown and so thick you could leave footprints in it. Gold fittings in the en-suite added to the feeling of luxury. Helena was pleased with herself.
They settled to sleep. George tried to convince her that if anything supernatural had clung to the small shoes, it would now be transferred to the reception desk and disturb nobody at night.
The night progressed and George began to snore softly. Helena nudged him awake around 2:00 a.m. to ask if he thought it had gone cold.
“The heating’s gone off, love. Of course it’s cold.”
“Can you hear anything?” she asked, determined to keep him awake and on the alert, as she was.
“Not a dicky bird. Now go to sleep!” he instructed.
Helena heard creaks, groans, the natural settling of a wooden framed house as the temperature changed at night. She started to believe George was right. Then just on the edge of sleep and the borders of hearing, she heard footsteps. She poked poor, long-suffering George again.
“Listen!” her urgent whisper and the bruise-inducing elbow shattered his sleep again.
“What now?” he muttered. He seemed to be trying to make his brain understand where his body was.
“Footsteps! Can you hear them? Can you hear that gentle ‘clop, clop’ of footsteps on floorboards?”
“Where the hell’s it coming from?” he whispered, his mouth falling open as the sound grew closer, louder.
“It’s in this room! But how can it be?” Helena asked. “There’s carpet everywhere. You could clomp round here in steel-soled clogs and not be heard.”
They lay side by side, rigid and tense, as they heard the footfalls crossing the room, passing right by George’s side of the bed and halting at the window. After a few seconds, when they began to release their pent-up breaths, it began again, as though somebody had turned away from observing the view and re-crossed the room, back toward the door.
“Now do you think it’s haunted?” Helena asked, as the footsteps crossed the room and back a third time, clearly ringing on wooden boards.
“I can’t think how else to explain it. I don’t believe in ghosts, though.”
“You believe your own ears, don’t you?” she whispered from the other side of the bed.
Next morning, after a restless night, when each expected another noise, another temperature shift, another heart-thumping fright, they decided to make some enquiries about Lady Sarah Hinckley.
“Let’s assume she was crossing the room to look out of the window,” George said. “What’s the view from this window?” He pulled back and tied the drapes carefully – Helena was watching, after all – and stared out across the grounds.
“What’s that big hill back there? You walk around the gardens a bit, don’t you?”
“It’s the hill where the waterfall tumbles into the little lake,” Helena said. “That’s a bit spooky too.”
“You and your ‘spooky’! Who ever heard of a haunted waterfall? What does it do? Shriek and drip blood?”
“George, you can be so sarcastic at times. It’s not clever and it’s not an endearing trait! You didn’t believe the room was haunted, did you?”
“I’m still not sure I do but I can’t explain it any other way. Alright then, in what way is the waterfall spooky?”
“Will you come with me for a walk and you’ll see what I mean? Probably.”
“Well, most times, I hear something. Just occasionally I don’t.”
They put on their coats and took what was George’s first walk around the grounds of his ‘almost ready to open’ hotel.
“I can’t believe you’ve never wanted to explore this place,” Helena said. “It’s a huge selling point. Think of the wedding-photo opportunities.”
They walked hand in hand along the paths, admiring the solitude of the garden and the way its winding tracks gave upon new and unexpected views. Even with dozens, hundreds of people here, you could manage to find a bit all to yourself and imagine you were alone.
They turned a final bend and came upon the steep path which led up the side of the hill to the source of the waterfall.
“Blimey, it’s breezy up here all of a sudden!” George said. “I should have put a scarf on.”
“It’s always like that up here,” Helena replied. “Always draughty, chilly. Let’s stop and see if we can hear anything.” For almost a minute they stood together, the strange little breeze whiffling through their hair.
“Nope! Can’t hear any… Is that a baby?” They both turned their heads slightly. From up here it was always hard to tell where the sound was coming from. Helena had tried to trace it so many times without success.
“I think it’s coming from down there,” said George, pointing down the river of shining water, splashing into a little pool below before running in glistening rills into the lake.
They walked slowly back down the path in silence, straining their ears to hear the sound again. It had quite gone and there was nothing but the chuckling of the water on the stones when they got to the bottom.
“I never hear it anywhere but at the top,” Helena said.
“I’m happy to advertise a haunted room,” said George. “There are some people that will really fancy that – to tell their mates about. But I think I’ll go easy on advertising a haunted waterfall. That’s a bit too bizarre!”
The grand opening of Hinckley Hall Country House Hotel was announced in the local press and in the quality glossy magazine with which George had an arrangement. It would take place in a week’s time. They had a chef working on menus, a cleaning team ensuring that no builders’ dust was left in any dark corners and George had hired gardeners to repair the damaged lawn and tidy up the gardens. They were not exactly neglected but they looked so much better for a bit of pruning and weeding.
Helena had looked on the internet to try to find something about Sarah Hinckley but in vain. Then she thought to look in the local history library. A helpful librarian brought out a couple of ancient books for her and she leafed through searching for the name.
‘Lady Sarah Hinckley. Born 1698; died 1717. Scandal surrounded her death. She was incarcerated in the family Manor House for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. She is said to have killed herself by jumping from her bedroom window. There is no record of the birth or the sex of the child.’
“Yes!” said Helena, then looked around in embarrassment in case anyone had noticed. She was still alone in the room, though. She went through to ask the librarian if she could have a photocopy of the original, which she intended to use for her ‘haunting’ display, with the small shoes.
She returned to the hotel that afternoon with a look of triumph on her face and a sheet of paper in her hands.
“Look, I think we’ve got her! It was a tragic suicide. She threw herself from the window of that room!” Suddenly she realised her elation was callous. It was a young girl’s life they were talking about. No doubt she was driven by parental cruelty to take such a final step.
“It’s going to make a good story for the opening, isn’t it?” George said. “Pity we’re too late to add it to the glossy. It’s gone to press – weeks ago, I think.”
“It’ll catch the locals and we can include it when we re-print our brochure.”
The day before the hotel opened to the public there was a big reception for local business people, the newspapers, the chamber of commerce. Just about everyone George could think of. All was ready apart from last minute titivation in the grounds. One of the lads had decided stones around the plunge-pool beneath the waterfall were getting mossy and could constitute a slip hazard. He’d taken the big, surrounding stones off, one by one, marked their position on a diagram and scrubbed the moss from them. Then he lifted some of the stones in the bottom of the pool only a couple of feet deep in the centre, so he could take out the pond-weed growing there.
His freezing fingers began to lift out miniature rib bones, a small skull, the whole tiny, pathetic skeleton of a new-born baby.