By Dorian J. Sinnott
Berkeley Square was the darkest corner of London. It wasn’t simply that the trees shaded the streets on the edges of the park or that the street lamps never blazed when twilight fell. No, there were hushed whispers throughout Mayfair of a curse. When the sun set, shadows stretched across the streets and something awoke. Had it not been for the cases of suicide and the descent into madness from previous owners, one would simply say it was a myth. But year after year, the residents of Mayfair watched as the estate of Berkeley chased out its inhabitants, and relocated them into wards.
Mayfair, London, England—1841
“It’s perfect.” Percy Bennett said, gripping the smooth wood of the railing.
“Indeed. It’s large enough to host parties and, of course, when we’re ready to start a family. Not to mention the beautiful study upstairs in the attic. I’m certain you could get most of your writings done up there.” Percy’s wife Emma touched his arm gently. “We’ll take it.”
It wasn’t long before Percy and Emma moved to Berkeley Square, inviting guests over for dinner on the weekends. Each week, they would arrive in their carriages, dressed in waist coats and expensive gowns to discuss the future of what would be the Bennett family.
“We were planning travelling sometime in the spring. Percy says that we should take our holiday in Paris! Such a grand history France has, and I’m certain it will be inspirational for his newest piece.” Emma conversed all night with the other young women of Mayfair. “Percy’s had his hopes up for some time to get a serial of his work out, perhaps in Ainsworth’s. He still thinks he’ll be the next great Byron or Shelley. Literature of the Gothic has alwaysbeen Percy’s niche. Ah! Speaking of, here he comes now.”
Percy hurried down the stairwell, adjusting his jacket. He smirked somewhat, heading towards Emma before taking her hand and planting a kiss against her knuckles.
“My apologies for running late. You know how it can be when I’m trying to finish a chapter.”
“I understand.” Emma smiled.
Just as his wife had, Percy began conversing with the guests of his current works and plans for the future. He mentioned travels he longed to take as well as places he had already been. Yet, the majority of his conversation remained with his closest friend Jonathon around the novel he had been writing. The story of a young woman who was tormented by life and slowly slipping into madness.
“Is that why you chose to live here?” Jonathon asked. “I was rather surprised when I heard you had taken up the offer.”
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, come now, Percy. Surely you’ve heard of the ‘curse’ of Berkeley before.”
Percy was silent for a moment. “No, I’m afraid I haven’t.”
The group around Percy silenced themselves as Jonathon looked him over. His eyebrow was raised in disbelief, yet, he continued on with the story just the same. By now, everyone that had gathered around to listen.
“Legend has it that a young woman used to live here years ago with her uncle. His long hours of work made the young woman’s uncle start to go somewhat mad. He began abusing her; physically and mentally. After she threatened to go to the law, he locked her in the attic. And, it was from there that she jumped from the window and committed suicide on the streets below. Some say she went mad from the abuse and isolation. Others say she was just trying to seek help and make it to the law. People say strange sounds can be heard from the attic at night, and those who live up there will go insane, possibly to the point of suicide themselves.”
Emma bit her lip. “I’ve never heard of such a tale before. I-is that… Jonathon, is that true?”
“Of courseit’s not true!” Percy laughed. “Come now, Jonathon. I do all of my work in the attic. I’ve turned it into my study and I’ve yet to come across a ghost.”
“Believe what you want.” Jonathon shrugged. “But word of this…mythis spreading. Just keep your eyes open up there, lest it be true.”
After clapping Percy on the shoulder, Jonathon turned to walk away. He nodded to Emma with a smile before heading towards the door. Percy wrapped an arm around Emma, he pulled her against him, whispering.
“It’s just a legend…”
Percy dipped his quill into the inkwell. He was nearing the end of his leatherback journal and knew that before the month was up he would have to invest in a new one. The afternoon light from the attic window streamed across his desk. He stopped only when the sound of footsteps ascended up the stairs.
“I thought you refused to come up here.” Percy said once Emma stood in the doorway, carrying a tray with tea and biscuits.
“Well, I figured you needed to take a break.” Emma set the tray beside Percy. “You’ve been up here all day.”
“I’ve been motivated.”
Emma caressed Percy’s shoulders, then leaned in and kissed him. Percy chuckled at the touch.
“Promise me you won’t forget to come down for dinner again tonight, Percy. I’m afraid one of these nights you’re just going to stay up here and never come back downstairs. They say writing’s been known to drive people to insanity if they think about it too much.” Emma said softly once she pulled away.
“As has worrying. I’ll be fine.”
It was around 3AM when Emma awoke in a cold sweat. At first, she thought she was hearing things, but when the floorboards creaked above her head, she nudged Percy. He moaned in aggravation, lifting his head to glance at her.
“What is it?”
Emma hushed him as she waited for the next sound to rise, but all was silent. Percy rolled over in an attempt to fall back asleep. It was only when the floorboards creaked again and a low whimper came from above that he raised his head from his pillow. There was another pause before the next sound: a pained howl.
“Percy…” Emma gripped the sheets tightly in her hands. “It’s coming from the attic.”
Percy pulled the covers off and swung his feet onto the cold floor. He reached for the oil lamp beside his bed, lighting it. Emma watched in horror as he got to his feet with the lamp, heading towards the stairwell.
“I’m certain it’s nothing.”
“Percy! Don’t! What if—?”
“I work all day up there, Emma. There’s nothing up there, trust me.”
Again, Emma called for him as he ascended the stairwell into the darkness. The stairs creaked under Percy’s feet as he pushed through the doorway to his study. Shadows stretched across the floor from the light of the lamp. Percy allowed his eyes to adjust to the darkness, creating shapes where his belongings were.
The lamp flickered as Percy scanned the interior. It was only when he turned to head back downstairs that he spotted something move in the corner of his eye—something white. Percy tilted his head in the direction of the movement, raising the lamp to get a better view. The curtain pulled across the window blew softly in the wind, creating a whistle through the cracks. Setting the lamp on his desk, he moved the curtain away, shutting the window for the night.
“I just forgot to latch the window.” Percy explained to Emma once he was back in bed. “It was just the wind. I’m certain that’s all the creaks were.”
Percy wrapped his arms around her before kissing her forehead. “You worry too much. Don’t let Jonathon’s ghost stories frighten you. There’s nothing up there. It’s all in your head.
“Alice drowns herself,” Percy explained to Emma over afternoon tea. His leatherback journal lay opened in his lap as he sipped tea, scanning his story. “I haven’t concluded a reason yet, perhaps something over marriage or an engagement gone wrong, but at least I’m certain about that part.”
“You said she haunts the river where she drowned, yes?” Emma asked.
“I wouldn’t necessarily call it haunting. I see it more that they want something from those who are still living. To me, haunting is about for revenge. Alice’s not like that. She just wants help.”
“Someone to help her find her way to the afterlife, I presume?” Emma raised an eyebrow as she set her teacup down.
“I suppose you could say that. Or perhaps she’s just waiting for her lover.”
Percy continued writing into the late hours of evening. Ink had splotched in some areas of the page due to his exhaustion, but he knew he had to keep writing. There were only a few chapters left now, leading up to Alice’s eventual peace.
“…amber ringlets of hair wet from the river. Alice rose again to greet the young man on the banks. She longed for his poetry, how they reminded her of her past love; the love that abandoned her and led her to her grave beneath the ripples. Now, only his words could set her free.”
Percy ran his hands over his face, his eyes weary from the dim light and small text which now stared back at him like foreign symbols. He was almost finished. Rubbing his eyes, Percy removed the quill from his inkwell once more.
Percy noticed the flame in his oil lamp begin to dim. He peered up from his work, glancing over to examine the lighting. Yet, his eyes didn’t catch the flicker trapped behind the glass. Instead, they fell upon the reflection of a young woman. It was only for a brief moment that he saw her, skin pale and almost blending in with her white dress. Even her wavy amber hair appeared to fade into the flame. Percy looked over his shoulder into the darkness, but no one was there. Slapped the cover of his journal shut, Percy went down to bed. He knew exhaustion was getting the better of him.
“You’re positive you haven’t seen anything?” Jonathon pressed at the gathering Percy and Emma prepared for Christmas.
Through sips of his wine, Percy nodded. “We’ve been here for almost four months now, Jonathon, and no; there’s nothing to speak of.”
“Well, there are some noises at night.” Emma corrected as she looked to Percy. “They come from the attic, but Percy says that it’s nothing. Just the wind.”
“I often forget to latch the window. It gets awfully stuffy up there.” Percy added before turning his head to cough. It was deeper than he expected.
“Even now, in winter?” Jonathon looked suspicious.
“I’d say the wind now is simply coming in through the gaps in the wood around the window or something. I can feel it every once in a while at my desk blowing in, that’s for sure. Blows the pages of my journal and puts the candle out sometimes.”
Clearing his throat, Jonathon put an arm around Percy’s shoulders, leading him away. He spoke under his breath to avoid others around him from hearing.
“So, how exactly is that novel of yours coming along?”
“I thought I was doing rather well lately, but these past few days I’ve barely gotten a word in. Honestly, I sit in that attic all day just staring at my journal.”
Jonathon made sure no one was looking before reaching into his coat pocket and removing a small glass bottle. “I can help with that.”
He slipped it into Percy’s hands. Spinning the bottle around to read the label, Percy raised an eyebrow, stuttering at what he read.
“I know it’s usually only prescribed as a pain killer or for insomnia patients needing sleep, but I do believe that it could help you finish what you need.”
“You want me to take laudanumto inspire me?” Percy’s voice had risen now, and Jonathon was insistent on hushing him.
“You said yourself you wanted to be the next great. How do you think they managed to get their ideas and complete them? Laudanum’s done wonders for the mind, Percy.”
“Just a small dose here and there. It won’t hurt. If anything, it will help you focus for a few hours or at least inspire you enough to continue. On top of that…” Jonathon leaned in closer to Percy, whispering against his ear. “Don’t think that cough of yours isn’t noticeable. Consumption’s been targeting the masses. I hear they’re calling it the “White Plague” or something now. You can never be too sure.”
Percy stared down at the bottle as Jonathon’s hands slid away from his shoulders. The liquid sloshed within as he continued to gaze upon the label. Biting his lip, he tucked it away within his jacket pocket, watching as Jonathon nodded with a smirk.
“I look forward to reading you in Ainsworth’s.”
The laudanum was bitter on Percy’s tongue as the first swig went down. He scrunched up his nose, grimacing at the flavor before pushing the cork back into the top of the bottle and emitting a cough. He wasn’t certain how long it took for the effect to show, but nevertheless began writing a few notes on the back page of his journal.
“Vengeful.” Percy drew circles around the word with his quill tip, as he thought aloud. “Haunting. What if those were Alice’s true intentions for the poet? No… she’s a good spirit.” He pushed his palms to his forehead with a groan. “She’s not vengeful… She simply longs for love.”
The flame within the lamp flickered once more and Percy couldn’t help but squint once it came into his vision. The light was almost too intense for him as he felt a twinge in his temples. The pain was sharp at first, but then drowned itself out, but continued to resurface in waves.
He leaned forward over the desk, gripping his temples with closed eyes, attempting to drown the pain out. Under his breath, he cursed the toxin. Yet, it was the laudanum that made him open his eyes and sit up once more. Percy read the label over again, remembering its prescribed use as a painkiller. Surely it would help with the headache he thought, taking another gulp of the bitter liquid. This time, Percy didn’t grimace. Instead, he picked up his quill and began filling in the gaps of his text.
After his small burst of inspiration, Percy began to feel the drowsiness. His eyelids became heavy and he could no longer focus on the page before him. When he finally closed them, leaning over his journal from exhaustion, was when he heard it. A soft crying rose up from behind him, causing him to steadily reopen his eyes and gaze over his shoulder.
There, standing behind him, was a young woman. Her hair fell in matted auburn ringlets and her white dress was partially torn and smeared with light blood. At first, Percy was taken aback, jolting at the sight of her. Nevertheless, she approached, drying her tears as she held an arm out to him.
“W-wait! Please… don’t go…” Her voice sounded almost familiar to Percy as he watched her, still trembling. “Your stories… I like listening to them. You read aloud, you know? When you think. I think it’s lovely.”
Percy didn’t know if it was his curiosity or the laudanum which kept him from running. From screaming. Yet, he didn’t move from his desk. Instead, he remained silent for a few more moments, until finally gathering the courage to shakily speak.
“W-why, thank you.” He tried to keep his eyes averted, but something kept making him look back at the woman standing there. “May… I ask how long you… how long you’ve been listening? Overhearing my stories, at least.”
“Since you came here,” the woman replied. “I watched you move in up here a few months ago. I was suspicious of what kind of man you were. What talents you possessed… what secrets. We all have secrets, don’t we? Things we keep hidden inside us. When we’re alone, that’s when we seem to let them out.”
Percy was silent.
“I know your secret, Mr. Bennett.” She smiled at him. “You’re sick, the early stages, but still. You know you are… and you don’t want anyone to find out. I also know that you want to complete that story of yours before you literallybecome consumed by your illness.”
“I’ve had hardly any motivation or inspiration…”
The woman approached Percy, causing him to freeze up. “I can help you with that. We all know our secrets are just hidden desires, and that’s what you want more than anything. To complete your story. I can help, Mr. Bennett.”
“And…how could you possibly do that?”
“Why, I already know your entire story. You dotalk in your sleep quite often. All it would take is some annotation from me, and you’ll have your draft completed by the end of the month. Guaranteed.”
The offer certainly was tempting. Yet, Percy wasn’t sure who this woman was. Was she just in his head; a figment of his imagination brought on by the laudanum, or perhaps he truly was just dreaming? Or, was she real; a woman who had found her way into the attic to listen to his stories? Or…
The feeling of dread began to rise in him.
“My uncle used to read me stories when I was a little girl. That was before he went mad and locked me up here. It was terrible.” The woman looked as if she were about to cry again. “It was an accident what happened… he kept blaming me when the law came and took him away. I watched them do it. But, even after the accident happened, I never really felt free.”
She nodded. “That’s my secret I suppose; my greatest desire. I want someone to set me free.”
Percy looked at her sadly. “If only there were a way I could help. Perhaps, if you help me with my story, I’ll be able to try and help you out. Yes?”
“You… you would set me free of this place?”
Percy nodded. “Yes. In the best way that I can.”
“You mustn’t tell your wife. A-about any of this. I’ve heard how she speaks of me an—”
“Considering how horrified she is of Jonathon’s “tales”, I wouldn’t dream of doing such a thing. Seems you’ll be becoming my newest secret.”
He hugged his journal against his chest at the thought, watching as the young woman smiled to him. “Thank you, Mr. Bennett.”
As she turned to walk away, steadily fading with each movement she made, Percy couldn’t help but call out to her. “Wait! I didn’t get your name.”
The woman stopped once again, glancing back over her shoulder at Percy as she smirked. Percy was certain he saw the flame from the lamp flicker in her eye.
“You’ve been acting rather odd.” Emma carefully watched Percy skim the pages of his journal as he sat propped up in bed.
“Odd?” His vision never met hers.
“You’ve been missing dinner again. And I hardly ever see you downstairs. Is everything alright?”
Percy folded the cover of the journal closed. “Everything’s fine. Honestly.”
“You’ve been muttering Alice’s name in your sleep.”
“As long as you’re sure.” Emma whispered, moving against Percy for comfort. “I just hate seeing you locked up in the attic all day and night. It can’t be good for you. I’m worried you’ll end up going—”
There was silence.
“I want to leave, Percy. I know you love it here, but…”
“I need to finish, Emma.”
“Must it be here?”
“I worry elsewhere it never will be finished. Thisis where it must be done. I’m so close, Emma, and I’ve been inspired these past few days. I’ve stressed enough over it; don’t take that last bit of motivation away.”
Emma sighed and burrowed her head into the pillow. Reaching up, she tenderly stroked Percy’s face, brushing strands of his hair away. He simply stared down at her, not moving.
“I just want you to finish your work Percy, but finish it without worrying too much of it. It’s not healthy to be caught up entirely in fantasy. You forget what’s real and what matters. I want you to be able to complete what you’ve been striving for all these months, so that you can hopefully get it out there somewhere and we can finally move to the country and settle down and be able to start a family. That’s all I’ve wanted, Percy, and I know that’s what you want, as well.”
Percy looked her over once again, leaning in and kissing her, running his hands down her shoulders. She tasted sweet against the fresh, bitter laudanum that still stained his mouth. Rolling on top of her, Percy allowed the drug to fully take control.
The floorboards creaked as Percy entered the attic later that night, the light from the moon illuminating the walls. He squinted as he made his way towards the center of the room, voice low as he approached the young woman in the flowing white dress.
She turned from the window to face him, her pale skin reflecting in the faint light. Percy continued to approach her, watching as her hands slipped from the windowsill. It was then he noticed the blood stains across her chest, from the suicide he presumed. Her light blue eyes were almost piercing questions as they observed him, yet, she didn’t speak.
“I’ve never asked you before, but have been meaning to. Why do you still wait up here?” Percy’s voice was low. “Is it for him?”
The woman was silent for a moment longer, but then answered. “I wait for the one that will take me from this place. There are memories here that I wish could be forgotten. Surely you understand.”
“You make it nearly impossible to write.” Percy said as he watched her. “I know your intentions are pure, but there are times when you distract me from my work. The pacing and crying…”
“If it weren’t for me, you’d hardly have anythingcomplete, Percy.” Alice approached him, taking hold of his hand. She was cold to the touch, but Percy didn’t shudder. He simply allowed her to continue. “I inspire you, admit it. You birthed me from your words and made me all that I am, thus I am here when you are at a loss for them. That was our deal, remember?”
Percy smirked as he gazed into Alice’s eyes before leaning in and kissing her. Just as her hands were, her lips shared the same icy feel. Unlike Emma’s, however, they were bitter, tasting vaguely of laudanum. Yet again, he didn’t pull away. He drowsily watched her fade in and out as she smiled back at him through his lightheadedness. The sleeves of his shirt were now stained with the same blood that was across her chest, causing him to glance down at it before being drawn back to her.
“Be my poet, Percy. Take me away from this place. Leave her and together we can build your fantasy; make it reality.”
There was a pause, but Percy finally shook his head. “I can’t, Alice.”
“But, you promised me. Promised you would set me free!”
“Oh, Alice…Only words can set you free.”
Percy awoke on the attic floor the next morning, his journal sprawled out next to him. His head throbbed in agony, vision still blurred from the dosage of laudanum he had taken the night before. As he sat up, he noticed the now dried blood on his sleeves, causing him to shake his head in alarm. Nevertheless, he popped the cork free from the bottle and took another sip in an attempt to drown the pain before rising to his feet and heading downstairs.
There was nothing but silence throughout the house and even before Percy entered the kitchen, empty, with no breakfast prepared, did he find it odd. He called out for her again, heading towards the bedroom in hopes she had simply overslept. Prying the doorway open, Percy peered in, only to be taken aback by the horrific sight displayed.
Blood soaked the sheets of the bed where Emma’s body lay. Her throat was slit in a clean line, as if it had been a ribbon of blood tied around her neck. Resting beside her was the blade which did the crime, glinting with the ruby droplets of lost life. Percy staggered into the room without words as he fell to his knees beside her, staring down upon her lifeless and pale face.
He reached out to her, stroking her bloodstained strands of hair as he attempted to blink the tears from his eyes. His throat and chest burned from disbelief and he continued to shake his head, pressing it to hers before trembling.
“Why? Emma, how did… I don’t understand.”
From the attic above, Alice’s laughter could be heard. Raising his head from Emma’s, Percy narrowed his eyes bitterly, pulling away from her. Jonathon’s words continued to litter his mind, of insanity and suicide, while Alice’s longing for Percy to leave his wife overpowered them. Clenching his fists, he stormed up the stairwell.
Percy locked the door leading up to the attic before downing what was left in the bottle of laudanum. Once inside, Alice’s laughter continued to pierce his ears.
“How could you?”
“Oh, Percy, it wasn’t me who took her from you. She simply went insane, just like all the others.”
“No!” Percy shot back. “I know what you did. You wanted me to leave her so that you could have me for yourself. You’ll never have me, Alice.”
Alice stopped her mocking laughter as Percy tugged his journal out, glancing over to the oil lamp on the desk. He walked towards it, removing the glass casing before holding the cover above the flame, the edges beginning to catch fire steadily.
“What are you doing?” Alice cried out.
“You said you wanted me to set you free, and that’s simply what I’m doing. Freeing you and myself from this nightmare.”
Once the fire stretched across the cover of the journal, Percy threw it to the floor of the attic, watching as the pages slowly began to turn to ash. Taking one final glimpse at Alice, he threw the oil lamp next. The attic blazed in the flames that licked the walls and Alice’s screams rose up from the smoke as Percy closed his eyes, allowing the laudanum to send him into his burning dreamland for the last time.
Mayfair, London, England—1923
“It’s perfect.” A young man turned to his wife with a smile as he glanced up the stairwell, refurbished, yet appearing identical to the original structure.
His wife nodded back, holding their infant in her arms. “That it is. A wonderful place to raise a family. We’ll take it.”
No one told them of the hushed whispers of Berkeley Square. The people of Mayfair spoke of a spirit who had gone mad in life. A writer who locked himself away in an attic while illusions slowly drove him to madness. It was said he murdered his wife before committing suicide in the attic by burning his journal filled with the very writings that caused his insanity. It took years for the fire damage to be repaired, most of the structure completely rebuilt and restored. Identical to the original home that stood in the square.
Yet, even though the house had been built anew, the residents claimed the foundation still echoed with the horrors that happened all those years ago. Some said at night, voices could be heard from the attic and all who enter will suffer the same fate. However, whether fact or fiction, one thing was true to those who lived in Mayfair. Berkeley Square was the darkest, and most haunted corner of London.
Bio: Dorian J. Sinnott is a graduate of Emerson College’s Writing, Literature, and Publishing program, currently residing in the beautiful and historic Kingston, NY with his two cats. He spends his weekends cosplaying at comic cons up and down the east coast, and herding cats at his local animal shelter. Dorian’s work has appeared in numerous magazines and journals, including: Disturbed Digest, Coffin Bell, and Spill Yr Guts Zine.
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