“Black Oak Hall is one of the oldest country houses in England, and one of the few who is open to the public.” The tour guide spoke as she led the group through the gallery. “The oldest parts, which today are the cellars, dates back to 954. The main part of the castle underwent extensive remodeling in 1870’s. Sadly most of it was destroyed in the fire that took the lives of Sir Tristan Corbin and his older sister Victoria, the last of the Corbins to live at Black Oak Hall. But thanks to detailed descriptions that’s been found in letters and journals, we have been able to recreate the rooms that was destroyed in the fire. Some part of the house was spared, and they have remained virtually untouched since then. Like the master bedrooms and the dining room which we will visit later.”
The group of tourists took their time, making their way across the polished wooden floor. They took in the many charming details: the family crest carved into the mantelpiece over the great fireplace, the set of flintlock pistols used for dueling, and next to that a display of Victorian ladies’ fans and silk and lace gloves.
In the upper gallery, they passed a collection of portraits depicting the members of the Corbin family dating back to the first half of the 16th century.
Nora Blair trailed behind the others, taking her time to study the aristocratic faces captured on the canvases. Despite the differences in clothing and hairstyles reflecting the different eras in which the portraits had been painted, the men and women bore a striking resemblance to one another. Whether fierce, proud or amused, there was a haughtiness and defiance to the expressions on their pale, beautiful faces. They seemed to say that they didn’t give a single thought to what anyone thought of them and that they were completely confident and comfortable with themselves.
It was an attitude Nora envied.
The last three years she had lived with a growing sense of desperation. At age 23 she seemed to have the perfect life. A beautiful home in nice area of Boston and a handsome, successful husband who showered her with expensive gifts… What everyone dreamed about, right? Hers and Rogers engagement and wedding had seemed like something out of a dream or a fairytale. But the fairytale had come to a quick end.
Mere weeks after the wedding, Nora had discovered that the love she had thought they shared simply wasn’t there. Roger was controlling, possessive, and there was very little warmth in him. He had a way of looking at her that made her feel like he found her lacking in some undefinable yet important way. Sometimes she wondered if he wanted her at all, or just some carefully censored version of her that was suppose to fit into his neat, perfect life.
It left Nora feeling empty and hollow like her soul had fled her body. Playing the perfect housewife and hostess was not her dream but what Roger demanded, and his family, and her mother expected. Julia, a former high school beauty queen, had resented being stuck in a boring little town in the southern parts of the state of New York almost as much as she resented Frank, Nora’s father. For as long as Nora could remember, her mother had berated him for not being more ambitious, and for settling for a work in a factory. It was a far cry from the classy Manhattan lifestyle she had dreamed of as a girl.
Frank had done his best to keep his wife happy and ignored the often cruel jabs she aimed at him. But when she, to Nora’s horror, had started to sign her up for beauty pageants he had put his foot down. Nora could still remember sitting on the stairs, listening to her parents argue in the kitchen. Her mother’s agitated voice and her father’s calm but stubborn tones, telling Julia that if she forced Nora to participate in the pageants against her will, he would leave her and take his daughter with him.
It was one of the few arguments he had won and to this day Nora was grateful. Her dad had encouraged her to work hard in school, to study, and when she could apply to Columbia University’s School of Art on a full scholarship, Frank had been so proud. He had been sick by then, his lungs riddled with cancer. But on the day the letter from Columbia came, he had been full of energy and enthusiasm. He had taken her to dinner, and the memory of that happy evening was one she still cherished.
When Nora met Roger during her second year at Columbia, he had told her to be careful. To not give up her budding career as a painter. That if Roger truly loved her, he would want her to fulfill her dream.
Looking back, Nora realized that her father had been right. Starting a romantic relationship with Roger had been a mistake. But she was just 19 years old and Roger, three years older, seemed so sophisticated and worldly. The son of a wealthy and successful owner of an Import Export company, he had swept her off her feet, dazzled her with dinners at expensive restaurants and luxurious gifts. Everything had happened so fast after that. The engagement, and then, just a few months later the wedding. Julia had been over the moon. To her the wedding meant that she was finally going to become the upper-class socialite she had always wanted to be.
When Nora after the wedding had realized that the Roger she had fallen in love with was gone, if he had existed at all, Julia had talked her into remaining in Boston with him. They had moved there so Roger could head the Export Import company’s legal office. Julia had convinced her that a divorce would upset her father who was losing his battle with the cancer.
Nora knew that her mother was aware of how Roger treated her, that he was both cruel and abusive. But every time she tried to raise the subject, Julia made it clear that she didn’t want to hear it. And when Frank finally died, Nora became aware of just how alone she was. The few acquaintances she had made in Boston, most of whom was the wives and girlfriends of Roger’s co-workers at the law firm, all envied her. In public, Roger was an attentive, caring, loving husband. It was a role he played to perfection. But within the walls of their apartment, he was a control freak, demanding that she kept the apartment in perfect order. Kept herself in perfect order. She dressed in clothes he picked, wore her hair in the style he preferred, even applied her make-up to his his preferences.
He reminded her often that she should be grateful. He had, after all, raised her up from her working-class background to the very top of Boston’s social elite. He had given her a life she could only have dreamed of. He had a right to expect her to behave accordingly, and if she stepped out of line, he made sure to put her back in her place. To punish her.
She had grown to hate and fear those moments.
Like so many abusive men, Roger knew how to hurt her without leaving a mark. He tore her down with words and made her feel worthless. Ugly. Disgusting. And ashamed of the fact that she didn’t stand up for herself. She wanted desperately to break free, to reclaim something of the person she had been before she married Roger. But at the same time, the idea of leaving him scared her to death. Who was she if not Mrs. Roger Blair? In the three years they had been married, her entire life had become so centered around him and his career that it was hard to even to imagine what she would do, how she would live, if she was on her own.
She had dropped out of the university her second year to marry him. Could she even stand on her own two feet, find work and take care of herself?
It was an uncomfortable thought that gnawed on her mind, and when Roger had told her they were taking a trip to England, she had felt as if she was given a reprieve from the decision she didn’t dare to make. Perhaps among the rolling hills and quaint towns and villages of the British countryside, she would be able to come to terms with the things she felt was missing from her life. And perhaps, a secret voice in the back of her mind whispered, would she finally be able to find the courage to leave Roger.
The trip had included a guided tour of London before they continued further north. They had stopped in charming towns and villages on their way to Cumbria and the end of the journey: the newly opened Black Oak Hall Hotel with its four-star restaurant.
Being able to leave Boston, and the apartment that felt more like a prison than a home, had been a relief. Roger had been as attentive as always when there were others around. But she was very aware of the fact that there was something lacking behind his beautiful blue eyes. That all his politeness hid something dark and ugly; a beast that waited just beneath the surface, always ready to pounce if provoked.
Over the years, she had become very good at keeping the beast calm, at staying on its good side. When Roger turned and gave her a smile over her shoulder, Nora quickly assembled her facial expression into a mirroring smile.
“So, what do you think of the place?” He asked, obviously not caring that their tour guide was still talking, telling them about the imported wallpaper that had been all the rage in the late 1800’s.
“It’s beautiful,” she replied quietly. “I can’t believe we will be sleeping here tonight.”
“Hopefully we’ll do more than just sleep.” Roger put his arm around her waist, pulling her against him. Nora wanted to feel her heart skip a beat out of desire instead of out of anxiety, to feel that surge of heat in the pit of her stomach and not a cold tremor of despair. As always, she hid her true emotions and forced another smile.
Passion and love are for romance novels, not real life, she thought as the group started moving again. Even if I had married someone other than Roger that part of our life might have become routine by now. Or perhaps not a part of the relationship at all. Her thoughts were interrupted by a member of their tour group, an elderly woman with neat lavender-tinted curls and thick glasses balancing on her bony nose. “Will this tour include the private graveyard?” She asked. “I have heard it is one of the most beautiful graveyards in Northern England with a collection of Renaissance statues imported from Italy.”
Mentioning the statues caught Nora’s attention. Art was where her true passion still lay.
Their guide shook her head. “When Tristan and Victoria died, the estate was given to the town who created the foundation that now cares for it. One of the conditions was that the graveyard was to remain closed to the public.”
“Because of the restless spirits, right?” Roger suggested and was rewarded with a scattering of chuckles and small laughs.
The guide smiled. “It is true that there are plenty of ghost stories connected to the Corbin family. Some even believe that Sir Tristan studied alchemy and the occult. Over the years, people have claimed they have seen the restless spirit of Victoria Corbin, Tristan’s older sister, stare at them through the windows, or wander the halls dressed in a black mourning gown. As you may already know, Tristan Corbin, born in 1849, was the last Lord of Black Oak Hall. Both he and his sister are believed to have perished in the fire that nearly destroyed the house in 1882. With no other surviving family member, the estate was given to the town of Black Oak. British Royal Heritage Trust took over the running of it in the late 1990’s. Black Oak Hall was left untouched for decades, but in 2002, the Trust started renovating it, and almost ten years later it could be open to the public for the first time.
“Is it true that the locals thought the Corbin family was cursed?” A man asked.
“It is,” the guide confirmed, then continued, lowering her voice for dramatic effect. “The people in the village believed Tristan used black magic to gain power and economic influence. Today, we would have recognized him as a shrewd and skilled businessman who was charismatic enough to be able to navigate the complicated political climate of that era when many of Britain’s noble families saw their influence decline and their estates struggle financially.
“But despite the success, Tristan and Victoria’s lives seemed to have been filled with tragedies. Their mother and father died when Tristan was nine and Victoria twelve, leaving the siblings in the care of their uncle, a man who was quick to take control of the estate and the family fortune. There are other, darker rumors about how the uncle might have taken an unsavory interest in the children, and it is well known that Edmund mistreated his servants and even had some of them killed for displeasing him. When Edmund died shortly after Tristan’s seventeenth birthday, all of the estates and the title was passed on to him. Even back then there were rumors that Tristan had killed his uncle but nothing was ever proven.
“From historical sources like letters and personal journals, we know that the people in the town of Black Oak were aware of at least some of the abuse Victoria and Tristan had suffered at the hands of their uncle, and many felt sorry for them. But this sympathy turned into fear when Tristan, at age eighteen, fell in love with a local girl. The two became engaged but on the morning of their wedding day, the girl was found dead in her bed by her mother, and the people started whispering that was the so-called Curse of the Corbins that had killed her.
“A year or two later Tristan courted Mary Landry, one of their noble neighbor’s daughters. This is her portrait.” The guide gestured at the painting depicting a young girl with golden blond curls, sitting demurely holding a bouquet of wildflowers in her hands. “From letters, we know that Mary and Tristan were very much in love. But sadly, the Corbin Curse struck again. Shortly after the wedding, the poor girl died in an accident. A maid found her at the foot of the grand staircase, her neck obviously broken. According to the shocked girl, Mary’s neck was so badly twisted that though she lay on her back. ’Her eyes were staring up at the ceiling’ as she put it.” The guide paused as the tourists mumbled their Oh’s and Ah’s. They were clearly delighted by the morbid tale. Once they had settled down, she continued: “There was an official inquiry made at the request of Mary’s family, and it was determined that the girl’s death had been an accident. She had caught her heel on the hem of her long skirts while descending the wide staircase and lost her balance.
“The next unlucky woman to catch Sir Tristan’s attention was Elisabeth Mathers.” The guide moved on to the next portrait and the group followed. “She was the only daughter of a wealthy merchant. Her father died shortly after she had accepted Tristan’s marriage proposal. The couple planned to get married as soon as her mourning period was over. We know from letters written to his sister, that like with the other young women, Tristan seemed to have genuinely cared for Elisabeth. It appears that he planned to remain in London with her but was called back to Black Oak Hall urgently when his sister fell ill. Elisabeth followed him up a week later. They were wed in the church down in the village, and that proved to be a fatal mistake. Just mere days after the wedding, Elisabeth met her fate down in the stables. It appearsthat something spooked her horse and it kicked her, hitting her in the head. Poor Elisabeth died three days later, never having regained consciousness. No doubt these incidents added to Tristan and the house’s reputation as a home of darkness and misfortune. And it does make you wonder, doesn’t it?” The guide said with a little smile. “Perhaps there is such a thing as curses after all? No doubt the villagers here thought so because they started to avoid Black Oak Hall, whispering that the house was haunted and that the accidents that had befallen the girls who had accepted Tristan’s marriage proposals were not accidents at all but murders.”
“Could they be?” One of the tourists asked.
“No one has ever been able to prove that they were, but who knows. I suppose we will never know for sure what happened,” the guide said. “And that is just one of the mysteries surrounding Sir Tristan and Black Oak Hall…” She gave them an enigmatic smile and moved on to the next painting. Unlike the others, this one clearly showed signs of having been in a fire. The oil paint had bubbled and melted, making the painting look more like a modern impressionistic painting than a Victorian portrait. You got a glimpse of a green dress and a slim hand resting on the shoulder of a sitting man, who, Nora was sure had to be Tristan. But both his and the woman’s features were completely gone.
“In 1877, Tristan left Black Oak Hall and didn’t return until a couple of years later as a married man. His bride, a young woman named Nora Alden, seems to have brought new life to the house-”
Nora felt a jolt run through her. The strange coincidence of her having the same name as the woman who had lived two-hundred years earlier in this very house, made a shiver crawl down her spine. Her eyes were drawn back to the badly damaged painting as if it had been magnetic. It was all too easy to imagine her own face hiding behind the sooth. A tingle of dread tightened her stomach and she wrapped her arms around herself.
“For a couple of months it seemed as if Tristan had managed to break the curse but sadly, their happiness proved to be short-lived,” the guide continued. “Nora disappeared under mysterious circumstances never to be heard from or seen again. Some locals believe that it was Tristan who killed her in a fit of rage brought on by melancholy. What we today would think of as a psychosis or a mental breakdown.” She gestured at the burned painting. “This portrait depicting Nora and Tristan was just one of many paintings she painted. Sadly, they were all destroyed in the fire. Including a self-portrait depicting Nora as a nymph sitting naked by a pond with flowers in her hair. A picture that was said to be so racy by the standard of the Victorian era, that the Vicar fainted when he saw it, and had to be restored with smelling salts and a large sherry.”
The small joke had helped to lift the mood, and there was a scattering of laughter before the guide continued. “If you are staying at the hotel, you will have an excellent view of the family graveyard, including the Corbin family mausoleum. Now, if you come with me, I will take you up the stairs to the master bedrooms.”
While the others moved ahead, Nora stopped to study the portrait of Tristan Corbin. He was a handsome man, beautiful even, with dark hair, high cheekbones, straight nose and a strong jawline. Though there seemed to be considerable pride in his green eyes, she couldn’t see any of the cruelty the guide had spoken of, only a sadness that touched something in her heart. Dressed in a black jacket over an embroidered silk waistcoat and a high collared shirt, he looked like the epitome of a Victorian gentleman. He met her gaze with such intensity that she felt almost mesmerized.
But it wasn’t just the man, that captured her, it was the portrait itself. It was teeming with life and details. Vines had found their way into the pattern of Tristan’s waistcoat and a butterfly-collection could be seen on the wall in the background. And the little bouquet of heather he was holding was home to a beetle. Nora marveled at the painter’s skill and talent. Remembering what the guide had said, she wondered if it was Nora herself who had painted the portrait. Whoever it was, he or she had managed to capture Tristan in a forceful and lifelike manner that was almost photographic. Looking into the green eyes, she couldn’t help but wonder if the stories were true. Had this man really killed not only his uncle but four women, including his wife, as well?
“Are you coming, Nora?”
She tore herself away from the portrait, and quickened her pace, catching up with Roger at the foot of the wide curving staircase. Somewhere on the landing above them, they could hear the guide: “If you look to your right, you will see the balcony to what was Nora’s rooms. According to the story, she was seen standing on the balcony, looking out over the garden like she so often did and that is the last anyone ever saw of her. She seems to have simply vanished without a trace. Some said she had a lover and the two had run away together, others thought that she had discovered the truth about Tristan’s dead fiances and had taken her own life. But Tristan apparently didn’t believe that, or accepted that she most likely was dead. He never gave up looking for her and swore that he would never rest until he found her.”
“Did he ever find her?” Someone asked, and Nora recognized the voice as belonging to the woman with the lavender-tinted hair and the thick glasses.
“No,” the tour guide replied. “And according to local legends, he is still roaming the moor looking for her. It may well be true,” she added, her voice dropping a little for dramatic effect. “Because the white marble crypt he had built is empty. Neither Tristan’s nor Victoria’s bodies were found in the rubble after the fire had been put out.”
Nora felt herself shiver, then felt silly for becoming so wrapped up in a ghost story. As the tour continued she kept up with the group, unable to shake the feeling that Sir Tristan Corbin’s eyes were following her as they walked through the great house that had been his home.