Sootprints – a Halloween Short Story
The sun sank into the dark trees at the far end of the great lawn summoning a pale mist to cover the estate like a silent shroud. The plaintive cry of a black crow broke the silence of the coming night, a herald of darkness. Tristan felt the autumn chill run through his bones as he climbed the manor steps and drew the weighty medieval key from his greatcoat pocket. The heavy clank of the ancient lock disturbed the slumbering building which had been closed up since the old Earl died at the start of the Great War.
Tristan had to push hard to release the hinges from the grip of time. Putting his shoulder to the studded black oak, the heavy door burst open and a rush of musty air burst past him, eager to escape it’s neglected prison. Tristan stood on the threshold allowing his eyes to acclimatise to the darkness within. As a child the manor had been warm and welcoming but returning as a veteran of the Western Front the old building was as dank, dark and unwelcoming as a tomb.
“It’s just a house, it won’t bite.” Tristan slung his bag over his shoulder and stepped over the threshold. Suddenly a grey shape from the darkness within rushed at Tristan’s head. He instinctively spun back behind the door as the thing burst through the opening and disappeared into the growing mist with ungodly haste.
Regaining his composure, Tristan fumbled in his pockets for a match. He struck it on the rusted escutcheon and as the flame burst into life he thought he heard a faint moan from the top of the house. He cautiously stepped over the threshold. Turning to find a wall mounted gaslight, he turned the tap but no gas came. In the dying light of the match he caught sight of a paraffin lamp on the marble table inside the door. he shook it and the swill of fuel answered.
The old lamp threw a weak aura into the Grand Hall that left all but the few yards around him in darkness. The building was reluctant to expose itself to the light and Tristan paused for a moment to gather his bearings. From his childhood he remembered visiting his grandfather, the late Earl. The house had seemed to be a massive playground back then and he had loved to explore the miles of corridors, rooms and staircases.
Some of the deeper recesses of the house had been dark, cold and unwelcoming and he remembered keeping away from them. But one room was always cosy and welcoming, the main salon on the first floor. He could almost feel the warmth of the fire which perpetually burned in a fireplace big enough to roast a hog. He pressed on towards the main staircase in pursuit of his memories.
Five years of cobwebs were strung across the stairs. They shriveled and shrank away when Tristan pressed the lantern against them, and as he stepped onto the first marble stair something crunched under his foot. Looking down he saw the skeleton of a pigeon in the dust.
“One less the better. This place will take forever to clean up.”
The darkness fell in behind him as he moved on up between the ornate stone balustrades. At the top, a corridor stretched into gloom on either side and before him was an ornately carved double door. Cobwebs stuck to his coat cuff as Tristan turned the handle. The door opened silently and Tristan stood in the doorway holding up the light. The elegant renaissance furniture had been covered with white dust cloths giving the room an eerie feel. As he stepped into the room the silence was broken by a rushing in the chimney at the far end of the room that stopped Tristan dead in his tracks. A fall of soot rained into the hearth like ebony snow.
“More blasted pigeons I bet,” he said, and as he moved towards the huge mantle the room grew colder, his breath began to mist and a shiver ran down his spine.
“I don’t know why it’s so cold in here,” he set down the lamp on the fireside table, “what we need is a fire.”
At that moment the salon door burst open with a crash and a cold wind blasted into the room causing the the chimney to wail mournfully, blowing soot out of the grate into the hearth.
“I must have left the front door open,” he turned and walked back to the head of the stairs and walked down a few steps. Turning up the lamp wick he could see the front door was firmly closed.
Returning to the salon fireplace he bent to open a smoke blackened mahogany chest beside the hearth. A few yellowed newspapers lay waiting for their funeral pyre beneath a thick blanket of cobwebs. Tristan reached in and a large black spider scuttled across his hand.
“Aargh bastard,” he shook it off his hand and it hurried into the grate, leaving pinprick footprints in the soot. “Stay there for a minute and you’ll be toast, good riddance.”
Tristan looked back into the box and frowned. “Blast, no coal. Where would they keep it? Oh no it will be in the bloody cellars somewhere.” He turned and grabbing the lamp, stomped angrily back down the great stairs, the thud of his heavy boots echoing into the darkness.
In a few moments he stood at the top of a plain stairwell looking down. He hesitated, after a few yards the steps dissolved into a deep blackness that consumed the feeble light of the lamp. Tristan instinctively disliked the feel of the darkness, the hairs stood up on the back of his neck.
“Come on Tristan, you didn’t spend all those freezing nights in trenches to be cold in a British mansion house.” He gathered his courage and plunged into the bowels of the house and the blackness parted reluctantly before the flame. At the foot of the stairs the corridor stretched away into an unseen distance.
“Now I know how Perseus felt looking for the Minotaur.” Something brushed his trouser and he jumped back against the wall. A large black rat scuttled out of sight into one of the rooms.
“Get a grip Tristan, rats and pigeons, the place has got to be full of them, not exactly half man half bull,” he gathered himself and pressed on.
The cold grew more intense as he went from room to room in search of the coal cellar, his breath growing heavier as he worked faster.
“How many bloody rooms has this place got?”
He entered the last room in the corridor and with great relief saw a brass coal scuttle sitting by an inner door. He grabbed the door handle and pulled but the door was locked.
“Blast, the only locked door in the whole house, it’s coal for God’s sake not gold,” he turned and scanned the dingy room, “the whole country’s built on the damned stuff.”
Tristan pulled out drawers and flung open cupboard doors making a racket to wake the dead in his anger. Crash, a door in the corridor shut with a great bang. Tristan whirled round and fumbled for the revolver inside his greatcoat. He stepped out into the dark corridor.
“Who is it? I’m armed, show yourself.”
Silence was his answer. He stood motionless, listening, his hand inside his coat loosened the holster flap of his service revolver. A door behind him banged and in a flash Tristan drew the pistol and fired. For a moment it seemed the whole house echoed and rang to the reverberations of the gunshot. As the gun smoke cleared Tristan could see only a splintered, narrow wall cupboard. Inside it hung a bunch of rusted keys.
Tristan snatched the keys and hurried back to the locked door.
“Now I know why I never came down here as a kid.” The third key opened the lock. He grabbed the brass scuttle and yanked open the coal cellar door. Setting down the lamp, he filled the scuttle quickly, glad of the physical distraction. But as he turned to go, the mound of coal shifted with a great rattle and buried the lamp, plunging Tristan into pitch darkness. At the same time the coal cellar door slammed shut and from the far side of the door Tristan could hear doors slamming all the way back up the corridor. In a panic he fumbled for the door but couldn’t find it. The darkness was utter and Tristan felt fear in the back of his throat, his breathing was heavy and despite the cold, beads of sweat ran down his nose. He wiped them away with coal blackened hands and tried to compose himself.
“Matches,” he padded his pockets and found the tin of lights. Striking on the sole of his boot the flame burst into life. He had never felt so grateful for the simple lifesaver. He took an ancient shovel from its place of rest against the wall and cleared the cole from where he thought the lamp must be. The shovel rang against metal and he dragged the old lamp clear. The glass chimney of the lamp was shattered but the wick took to the match flame eagerly and guttered comfortingly. Tristan found the door handle and turned it but the door stayed firmly shut. He rattled the handle and put his shoulder to the door but it wouldn’t give.
“Damned if I’m going to spend the night in here,” he looked up searching for the manhole above through which the coal merchant would have tipped his sacks. Holding up the lamp he could vaguely see the outline of his escape but it was too high to reach. With nothing else for it he set down the lamp and with his bare hands began to heap up the coal beneath the manhole. Scrambling up the pile he was just able to reach the cover. He pushed against it but it wouldn’t budge.
“They must have sealed it up to keep the locals out. Damn,” he swore loudly, “no one knows I was coming back! I’ll be damned if I survived the Somme to be entombed in a coal hole.” Tristan could feel panic rising within and he fought to think. “Of course, you idiot.” Fumbling for the pistol, he inched back down the coal and placed the muzzle against the lock and fired. Still the heavy old door wouldn’t give. He fired again and still the door stood firm as if sealed with a spell. Tristan grabbed the heavy scuttle and swinging it fiercely at the lock the door burst free and Tristan tumbled into the ante room. For a moment he lay panting on the cold tiled floor, then the thud of a distant door closing made him jump to his feet. He grabbed the lamp and scuttle and charged back along the servants corridor, desperate to escape the dungeon. he didn’t stop until back in the upstairs salon. He slammed the double doors behind him and pulled a heavy chaise lounge against them.
Moving quickly to the fireplace he retrieved the yellowed newspapers from the fireside box and crumpled one into the grate. He struck a match on the stone chimney breast and set it to the paper. As the flames roared into life a small sprinkle of soot fell and Tristan thought he heard a faint moan from the flue above.
He paused, “must be the draught,” then placed some coal onto the paper. In no time the edges of the coal began to glow. Tristan reached for more paper, eager to have a roaring blaze to dispel the deep chill of the medieval room. As he ripped the pages a picture of a scruffy boy with a dirty face and blackened clothes somehow grabbed his attention.
“Boy sweep killed in chimney,” ran the headline. “An eight year old boy was killed when he became stuck in a chimney. His employer, believing him to be shirking, lit the fire beneath to smoke him out, but the boy died from the fumes. A representative of the house…” Tristan wanted to find out where it had happened but he had already ripped the page into the fire. The fireplace moaned once more as the flames began to pull higher as the coal sprang to life.
Tristan looked down at himself and realised he now looked like a sweep. He threw the rest of the paper onto the fire in disgust with more coal. Despite the roaring blaze the room felt no warmer. He threw the dust cover from the nearest chair and dragged the red leather Chesterfield closer to the fireplace. He reached a grubby hand into his greatcoat pocket and retrieved a silver, eight ounce, monogrammed hip flask and took a lengthy draught. The fire was having little effect on the outside but the fiery liquor warmed his insides. He stretched and had another from the flask.
The flames weaved and danced, the coal hissed and spat and Tristan stared at the fire and drank until his eyes grew heavy, his grip on the flask loosened, and he gave way to sleep. The chimney moaned and wailed as the flames licked higher. In a dream Tristan could hear the boy sweep crying and choking, he felt himself being drawn towards the fire as if a mighty vortex was dragging him up the chimney. He grabbed the arms of the chair but the force was too strong, the wailing and crying grew louder and louder as the fire grew stronger until the cry became a banshee scream of fearful pain and Tristan felt the flames reach out and engulf him.
“NO.” Tristan leaped from the chair with a great cry.
Panting and terrified he stood unable to move. The room was in total darkness. “Where’s the lamp,” he looked around. The room was colder than ever, and he looked towards where not a few minutes ago a fire was raging, but all was dark and still and the air smelled of coal dust and soot. Afraid to take a step into the dark, he reached in his coat for the tin of matches and struck a light. The lamp was knocked over, beside it lay his flask, the last of the whiskey mingling with the lamp paraffin. He carefully bent to pick them up and relit the lamp. Holding it aloft he could see the fire was covered in a thick blanket of black soot and there in the soot upon the hearth was unmistakably the footprint of a child’s pair of boots.