It was a foggy November morning when William Saville first arrived at the beautiful English village of Beaulieu. His carriage rolled along the cobbled roads in the direction of the Beaulieu Palace House where he was to stay until his work was completed. The rhythmic clopping of the horses’ hooves against the stones lulled Saville into a blissful torpor. He hardly felt the jostle of the carriage and failed to notice when the carriage came to a halt.
“Here you are, Mr. Saville,” said the coachman. At hearing no immediate reply, he alighted to the ground and opened the coach door for his drowsy passenger.
“Thank you, sir,” William said, coming to his senses.
He picked up the large bag beside him and stepped out of the carriage. As the vehicle rolled away, he fixed his attention on the impressive building towering above him. It was a large, stone castle of gothic style with plenty of windows all around. Its pointed tops pierced the grey sky and seemed quite at home among the bleak clouds with its dull-coloured bricks.
William knocked on the door. There was a slight wait before the door was answered: “Who is this?” A pair of dark eyes peered through the judas.
“William Saville,” William answered, “a barrister from Lyndhurst. I penned Earl Beaulieu a few weeks back, asking if I could stay here, and he responded affirmatively. I can give you my card, if you like.”
“No need,” said the man. “I suppose you want to try your hand at the monster, eh?”
“I want to try my hand at the murder,” William returned. “However, I heard your magistrate has already settled on a verdict, albeit with no real evidence with which to support it.”
The man grunted again but said nothing else to William. The judas closed, and in the space of a moment, the door creaked open to welcome its young guest. The man, who had been previously staring at William through the judas, now stood aside at the entrance of the doorway. He gestured to the inside of the house. By the state of the man’s attire, William assumed he was a servant of high rank, perhaps a butler.
The butler (for that was who William assumed the man to be) led William through the ornate halls overshadowed by flying buttresses, to the drawing room, which despite having many chances in the past to look more modern and mayhap less gloomy, forwent such renovation to retain the same Gothic look as the outer house and the halls; looking far more suitable for a Tudor than a modern man of the eighteenth-century. The butler introduced himself as Mr. Walton and queried his guest if he had yet eaten. At hearing a negative reply, he excused himself, presumably to have some food prepared.
William set his bag at the foot of a chair, then sat down. He held out his hands to the fireplace where a lively fire was crackling. As he warmed himself, his mind began to wander to the strange horrors which plagued Beaulieu.
William had always been fascinated with monsters. He found a strange sense of satisfaction in tales of vampires, sirens, and werewolves. When the Monster of Beaulieu was first sighted a few years ago, it didn’t take long for rumours to spread. He had heard of the Monster, even in Lyndhurst. Many more sightings were reported, each account more horrific than the last. The Monster was described to be huge, at least seven—even eight!—feet tall with thick, elongated limbs which were far too long for its monstrous body. Its jaw was said to protrude at awkward angles, and its brow was broad and misshapen. The features of its face were grossly distorted, but the severity of such distortion varied with each account. Many said its face looked as if it had been patched together by needlework. Some reported discolouration; others claimed to see lines where the face had been horribly sewn together; yet others said there was no visible patchwork, for the creature wore a skeleton-face mask to obscure its hideous face.
Although frightening, the creature had yet to prove itself dangerous—that is, until the murder. A young man, about six-and-twenty, by the name of John Clarke, had been found floating down the River Exe one morning. His body had yet to bear signs of decay, but ugly black marks covered his pale, discoloured neck. According to the coroner’s report, he had been strangled and thrown into the river but a day or two before he was found.
Thomas Wright, a local shepherd, claimed to have seen the Monster near the river on the day of the incident. The matter went to the magistrate, and he, alongside the court, ruled the Monster guilty of the murder of Mr. Clarke. A reward was put on the creature’s head: the one to kill it and bring its body to the magistrate would receive 25 pounds sterling.
Although the offer of such money was certainly enticing, William had not come to hunt this Monster but to discover for himself the events which led to the death of Mr. Clarke. He believed every murder had a reason behind it, whether it be vengeance or bloodlust, and he planned to find the reason which had driven the Monster, or perhaps any townsman, to kill.
William was so caught up in his own thoughts, he heard neither the soft click of heels against the floor nor the gentle frou-frou of a woman’s skirts.
William started, turning sharply to address the speaker who had spoken beside him. She was a small, sable-clad woman, quite young looking, of a particularly depressive countenance. Her skin, which exposed the pathway of veins beneath its sheer paleness, provided an alarming, almost preternatural, contrast against the silken blackness of her gown. Her hair was up and powdered, but she had made no effort to hide the darker, purple-hued skin around her eyes and the wan of her cheeks. She looked, in William’s eyes, to be quite dead. He was taken aback for a moment and truly pondered the state of her mortality.
“Forgive me if I’ve startled you,” said the woman, holding out a slender, white hand to Saville. He took it, shocked to find that it was cold.
“You may call me Lady Montagu,” the woman continued. “I am the daughter of Earl Beaulieu.”
“Beg pardon,” said Saville, “and I truly beg for your pardon, for what I will say shall be quite rude, but I thought Earl Beaulieu had no remaining heirs.”
At these words, Lady Montagu fell silent. Her silence was brief, yet spanned long enough to make William regret speaking. Following this silence, the lady answered dryly, “You thought correctly”, leaving William terribly confused and slightly worried that the lady was mayhap a ghostly apparition.
The look which crossed his face must have amused Lady Montagu, for her countenance changed, and she added in lighter accents, “Love me! I know not what passed through your mind just now, but let me assure you: I am not an eligible heir to the earl, nor is my younger sister, Elizabeth. That is all I meant.”
Her face resumed its sombre attitude, and she added, “My father will see you shortly, but first, I must tell you that it was I who wrote you. The earl is aware of your presence but under false pretense. Don’t speak of the Monster to anyone in this household. There is something—”
Lady Montagu swiftly cut herself off as Earl Beaulieu and Mr. Walton entered the drawing room. Mr. Walton held in his hand an ornate, silver tray covered with good-looking food, which he offered to Saville. Lady Montagu curtsied politely to the men then hurried out of the room.
To William’s surprise, Earl Beaulieu looked a complete contrast to his daughter. Although he was well into his sixties, he appeared far more alive than the young Lady Montagu. His cheeks were fat and rosy, his skin was of natural hue, and his embroidered clothing was gaily coloured.
“I assume you’ve been acquainted with Lady Montagu,” said the earl, emphasizing the title in an almost mocking tone. “I must admit, she is not the warmest of hosts, but she is of a somewhat kind nature. Never mind her odd attire; she has a queer love of mourning clothes, heaven knows why.”
“Perhaps it was the death of the countess last year, or the death of Lord Montagu this past July,” Mr. Walton said dryly.
“Lady Montagu had a husband?” William asked, taking a tart off the silver tray.
“No, she had a brother,” Walton returned.
“But let us not dwell on misfortune,” said the earl hastily. “I would rather speak on lighter things. I’ve been told you’ve come here on business. I pray you forgive our little village for the ill timing of the…er…murder. I’m sure you would have had a more pleasant experience under more pleasant circumstances.”
“What have you heard of my business here?” William asked. By now, the tray was half empty, and William’s stomach was deliciously full.
“I’ve heard,” said the earl eagerly, “that you are a novelist looking for inspiration.”
Is this what my lady thought up for me? William wondered. In truth, he had little talent for writing and even lesser interest in it.
“I do love a good novel,” the earl continued. “But, alas”—here he sighed—“our village, like many others, is not immune to the most repulsive of horrors.”
“You mustn’t think too heavy of your blight,” said William. “You heard I was a novelist? I have yet to be published, but I prefer to write on ‘the most repulsive of horrors’. It is a subject of greatest fascination to me.”
“Lord have mercy!” cried the earl. “Heaven forbid you take pleasure in such vile sins!”
“I am a barrister, sir,” William said. “Those ‘vile sins’ are mine occupation.”
Earl Beaulieu frowned. “Such is life, eh?” He turned his attention to Mr. Walton. “Fetch Martha. She will show Mr Saville to his room.”
Walton leaned close to the earl’s ear, whispering. William strained his ears to listen.
“What about the room, my lord?” Walton asked quietly.
A troubled look passed across the earl’s face, but it was swiftly replaced by ease. “You mustn’t worry about that,” he said hastily, “Christine alone has the key.”
“Yes, my lord.” Walton bowed respectfully to his master then hurried out of the drawing room.
It did not take long for Martha to arrive. She was an attractive, youngish-looking woman, and it took very little reasoning on William’s part to understand the admiring looks Earl Beaulieu gave her.
“My dear Martha,” said the earl, “show Mr. Saville to his room.”
“The one my lady set aside?” Martha inquired.
“Yes, m’dear, that’s the one.”
Martha motioned to William. “Follow me, sir.” The two walked down the palace’s halls to what seemed to be the farthest rooms from the entrance. Martha stopped in front of a door and pulled a key from her pocket. Handing it to William, she said, “This is your room, sir, and here is the key.” In quieter accents she added, “I suggest you lock your doors at night.”
Taken aback at these words, William asked, “Is the palace not safe?”
“I dunno,” said Martha. “Seems safe enough. But I’ll tell ye this, sir: there is something vile which visits yonder room once or twice ev’ry year. Around this time, us’lly.” She pointed down the hall to a room which would have looked quite normal had there not been a large sign nailed to the door reading “STAY OUT”.
“What is inside?” asked William. What could be bad enough to warrant locked doors?
“I dunno,” said Martha, “but methinks it took Master Charles.”
“Master Charles? Who is he?”
“Blast! I weren’t supposed t’ tell ye ’bout him. He don’t exist.”
“What do you mean?” William asked.
Martha said nothing more. She curtsied to William then hurriedly made her way down the hall.