‘Murder has took this chamber with full hands
And will ne’er out as long as the house stands.’
~A Yorkshire Tragedy, Act I, Sc. v
In 1605, Sir Walter Calverley’s murderous rampage leaves a family shattered. The killer suffers a torturous execution… but is it truly the end? A noble Yorkshire house stands forever tarnished by blood and possessed by anguished spirits.
Some crimes are so horrific, they reverberate through the centuries.
As an unhappy modern couple vacation in the guesthouse at Calverley Old Hall, playwright Clara, and her scholar husband, Scott, unwittingly awaken a dark history. Clara is trapped and forced back in time to bear witness to a family’s bloody saga. Overtaken by the malevolent echoes, Scott is pushed over the edge from possessive husband to wholly possessed…
Inspired by a true-life drama in Shakespeare’s day, this is itself a play within a play: a supernatural thriller with a historical core.
Only one player can survive.
York, England- 1605
Sir Thomas Leventhorpe had failed the victims in life. He could not fail them now.
Though he longed to be anywhere else that August dawn, his choice was irrefutable. The noble family murders had left him as the village of Calverley’s highest-ranking citizen, and he bore a duty to witness the conclusion of its history’s most tragic chapter. It was his sacred charge to stand present for those innocent lives cruelly dispatched by the very man that should have loved them most.
He lingered in the stark main corridor of Clifford’s Tower, waiting to accompany the killer on his final procession. There seemed to be a delay. From what Leventhorpe could gather, the entourage was incomplete. He glanced about the small, silent group and caught the eye of the anxious man standing at his side—the only other soul afflicted with first-hand knowledge of the horrors that had led them to the Tower. Leventhorpe ventured an encouraging smile at the murderer’s former servant, but John’s pale, scarred face was stony. Sir Thomas touched the younger man on the shoulder and felt him quivering like a nervous beast, his arms tightly wrapped about himself in a desperate embrace. The brutal April morning at Calverley Hall had shattered John. Withdrawing his hand, Leventhorpe wondered why the lad had come to this dread place to be reunited with his nemesis. Perhaps in his own way John had no choice but to see the tragedy through to its conclusion. Leventhorpe could offer him no real solace but to share the burden of bearing witness.
In the Tower’s stairwell door, a grizzled magistrate stood lost in thought, tugging gently at his beard. The elderly head gaoler, Master Key, waited outside the prisoner’s cell door. A younger, assistant gaoler tapped his foot loudly against the flagstones and glowered toward the doorway at the opposite end of the corridor, a sneer playing on his lean face. Turning to his superior, he grumbled in a low voice: “That idiot boy is late again—and today of all days! I say we have tarried long enough.”
Master Key held up his hand. “Be thou patient, Jack. The magistrate is not yet concerned with the time. Hugh must be present to learn the proper order of how matters proceed.”
Leventhorpe’s skin prickled at the thought. He dreaded having to witness the ‘matter’ in question, and felt pity for the unseen boy who would today be taught the finer details of his trade.
Footsteps pounded up the outside stairs and—as if overhearing his cue—a scrawny lad of no more than twelve skidded into sight. White-faced and out of breath, Hugh blanched still further as the men turned as one and fixed him with expectant looks. Giving an awkward bow of his head by way of apology, he staggered as he took a halberd down from the wall hooks. Jack strode over to collect the apprentice and hauled him into place by the ear. Leventhorpe was close enough to hear the gaoler’s hissed threats.
“Yer in luck, boy. The magistrate himself was late to rise, else ye’d be wishin’ ye could trade places with our esteemed prisoner.”
Master Key shot his underlings a sharp glance from beneath his heavy grey brows and they ceased their disruption. Key unlocked the door, and he and Jack entered the cell.
Leventhorpe heard the muted clanking of chains and after a moment, Sir Walter Calverley was led out between the two men. Leventhorpe’s stomach twisted at the sight of his former friend and neighbour. He caught John by the arm, steadying him as the lad’s knees buckled. Neither had seen Calverley for months—not since his hellish rampage. Although Calverley was thin and drawn, he held himself with dignity. He wore a fine black doublet, and his lace cuffs and collar gleamed in contrast to the gloom of the corridor. Leventhorpe couldn’t help but think that Calverley was very well dressed for a dead man: he must have set this outfit aside in anticipation of the occasion. Calverley did not so much as glance in their direction.
Master Key cleared his throat and nodded to the magistrate. The procession began its descent into the bowels of the Tower, the close quarters of the stairwell making for an awkward single-file progress. The stately magistrate set a careful pace for those behind. Leventhorpe and John followed next, with Master Key leading Calverley. Jack and Hugh took up the rear to prevent any chance of the prisoner’s escape.
Time of day carried no meaning as they moved down into the still depths of the Tower. No one spoke: the only sound was the scuffling of heavy-booted feet. Flickering torches from the wall sconces lit the way, casting long, dancing shadows on the muted grey stones. Leventhorpe had the sensation of being buried in the earth as they moved ever deeper. He kept his eyes lowered, mindful of the uneven stairs, eroded by countless footsteps over several lifetimes. Suddenly, a rush of iridescent green-and-black beetles scattered out of the men’s path. Leventhorpe felt a brief flash of delight to see something so lively—these animated jewels—existing in such a bleak place.
At the foot of the tightly coiled stone staircase lay a narrow, low-ceilinged passageway. Leventhorpe glanced along a seemingly endless succession of closed doors and gaping antechambers. Today’s method of execution—‘peine forte et dure,’ less elegantly known as ‘pressing’— could take several hours. His throat constricted. Already he found the dank air putrid and hard to breathe. The clammy walls, coated with an orange mildew, gave off a pungent odour. Here and there between the cracks in the stones grew a strangely pretty fungus with pale yellow flowers. Leventhorpe touched a curious finger to a cluster of the petals as he passed by. They disintegrated instantly and left a lurid smear on his fine lace cuff.
Lord, I pray this ends quickly—
At last, the magistrate came to a halt and peered around to catch the eye of Master Key. Jack and Hugh stepped ahead to replace their Master’s hold on the prisoner. Hugh’s hand clearly shook as he tried to get a firm grip on Calverley’s arm, but he was met with no resistance: Calverley kept his manacled hands clasped before him in the manner of a clergyman and focused his dark eyes into the shadows at the far end of the passageway. Leventhorpe was again struck by the man’s poise. Of those present, he seemed the least moved by what was about to take place.
Fumbling at his belt for an oversized key, the old Master slipped to the front of the group to unlock the low, windowless portal. He heaved his stooped shoulder against the recalcitrant door and swung it inwards. The magistrate ducked his head as he entered the chamber, followed by the others. As Key lit the torches in the iron wall sconces, Leventhorpe blinked and looked about the room. A wide plank of coarsely hewn oak leaned against one wall. Beside it was a heap of stones, each roughly the same size—twelve to fourteen pounds in weight. Four iron rings were set into the flagstones in the centre of the floor. The room was otherwise barren. Once the condemned man was safely inside, the door was shut and bolted. Leventhorpe felt trapped.
“Make him ready,” said the magistrate.
As placidly as a docile horse, Calverley allowed himself to be taken by his chains and roughly stripped by Jack. The assistant gleefully assessed the clothing as he folded each item. Handing the garments over to Hugh, he winked at the boy’s dumbfounded expression.
“For safe-keepin’, lad. A boon for me. They’re about my size—and he won’t be needin’ ‘em in Hell now, will he?”
Leventhorpe was shocked by the outrageous theft but no one else seemed fazed. It must be routine in such matters, he thought. Perhaps it was considered part of the assistant’s payment.
Calverley was made to stretch out face up on the cold floor. A jagged stone was placed underneath the small of his back. His ribs standing out in sharp relief, he arched his body upward to accommodate the work of Master Key’s calloused hands. The prisoner’s long limbs were pulled into a cruciform position and shackled to the iron rings. At a quick count of three, the two gaolers heaved the plank from where it stood. With a grunt, they laid it over top of Calverley’s naked torso. The strain showed immediately in his breathing.
From where he stood, Leventhorpe had the clearest view. Only the doomed man’s face was visible at the top edge of the plank. Leventhorpe looked closely at his one-time friend. Calverley’s full lips were parted as he gasped from the burden already on his chest—and the anticipation of what was soon to come. Beads of perspiration dotted his moustache and beard, and sweat soaked the thick waves of his dark hair. Leventhorpe felt sick with pity. For all that Calverley had so brutally performed to visit this fate upon him, his serene determination from the outset to lighten the work of his own executioners gave him the aspect of a martyr.
Perhaps he hath repented. Will he at last speak his mind to the Law?
Leventhorpe could not catch his eyes to ask this silent question. Calverley had disconnected. He fixed his unblinking gaze on the grimy ceiling, entombing any emotion he may have felt deep within and unreachable.
The magistrate stepped forward from the corner, where he’d been absorbed in the examination of loose threads on the hem of his cloak. He had paid little attention to the tasks of the others. Master Key pulled his apprentice out of the way and made him drop the bundle of clothes he’d been hugging to his chest.
“Ye’ll need to keep yer hands free now, son.”
The nervous boy leaned his halberd against the wall, where it slipped along the moisture and clattered to the floor. Already skittish, Leventhorpe and John started at the racket, and John pressed up against his back as if to be shielded from the very Devil. The magistrate clenched his jaw and waited for the echo to subside. He spoke in a strong voice that belied his great age.
“You had your chance to speak before the Assizes. You chose silence. I therefore put it to you here and now for the Crown, and before these good men: Sir Walter Calverley, how do you plead?”
Leventhorpe stood waiting by his friend’s head. John’s nervous breath was hot on his neck.
There came no reply from Calverley but laboured breathing.
“Very well—” The magistrate stepped aside and nodded to the gaolers. “Lay on the weights.”
With a mason’s ease, Jack handed the stones one by one to his superior, pausing to allow Master Key enough time to place each stone securely onto the plank. The harsh sound of the weights grating together set Leventhorpe’s teeth on edge. He watched as the face above the plank turned a hot red and twisted into a grimace. Gasping, Calverley groaned involuntarily.
“Stop—” Raising his hand, the magistrate stepped forward and leaned over the tortured figure. “We can proceed quickly, or we can draw this out. The choice is thine. I once saw a man linger under the press for three days. Again: how do you plead?”
Calverley said nothing.
The magistrate sighed and signalled to the executioners. Master Key, worn out by his efforts, doubled over in a fit of coughing. Hugh thumped him hard on the back. It only made matters worse. The old gaoler shook his head and gestured for the apprentice to take over as he retreated, leaning against the far wall and catching his breath. Hugh looked unsure of himself as Jack thrust a heavy stone into his arms. All eyes were upon him. The boy hesitated. His knees threatened to give out as he squatted down and placed the stone so gingerly upon the plank that it had no perceptible effect on Calverley. The next stone shoved into his sweaty hands was a good deal heavier and the boy lost his grip, dropping the weight with great force onto the plank. A strangled cry erupted from below. The boy leapt back. John gave a low groan—almost a growl—as Leventhorpe’s throat constricted with dry heaves.
At the magistrate’s command, man and boy paused in their work, and Master Key clapped a steadying hand on Hugh’s shoulder. The magistrate stooped to assess the progress. Leventhorpe’s sight blurred with tears. The tendons on Calverley’s neck were so strained that surely they might snap at any moment. Veins protruded at his temples and his wild eyes bulged. Leventhorpe could no longer recognize his neighbour’s once-handsome features.
“So? How do you plead?”
Calverley made a liquid gasping sound, but no actual words came forth to admit either his obvious guilt or impossible innocence. The magistrate lost all patience. His voice rang sharply off the chamber’s walls.
“Do not be tedious, Calverley! Thy family’s blood was seen on thy very hands by this good gentleman!” Leventhorpe winced as the magistrate jabbed a finger in his direction. “This man—thy servant—bears the scars from the vile attack!” John ducked his head down on Leventhorpe’s shoulder, hiding his face. “Again. For these most foul of crimes, how do you plead?”
Calverley croaked out a few inaudible words. Leventhorpe felt a flutter of hope. Mercy in the form of a swift hanging would be shown if a plea—any plea—was made. The magistrate would then have the authority to seize the condemned’s remaining property for the Crown, and the executioners’ work would be made relatively simple. Leventhorpe could return home and leave this waking nightmare behind. Perhaps poor, broken John could come and work at his manor, and he made a mental note to put an offer to the lad… afterward. Leventhorpe bent down over the grotesque visage to better hear Calverley, whose lips were moving weakly and running thick with bloody spittle. The magistrate encouraged the prisoner in a gentler tone.
“Very good, Calverley. Speak again. Your plea?”
Calverley gave a terrible wet gurgle and repeated himself in a faint rasp. John gathered his nerve and peered over Leventhorpe’s shoulder. Calverley’s eyes rolled and came to rest on John’s face.
“They—that love Sir Walter… lay on—a pound—more weight…”
Leventhorpe felt John’s fingers dig into his arm at the sound of his former master’s voice, then the lad leaned in closer to the man who had caused such grief for so many. Calverley’s words were no more than a whisper. All held their breath.
“I swear they shall—have nothing—more—of me—but my skin—John.”
The two men exchanged a look of mutual understanding, and John’s manner transformed. All signs of fear were gone. Releasing the grip on Leventhorpe’s arm, John stepped away from the nobleman, drew himself up to his full height, and loomed over the dying man. Somehow, through his death’s-head grimace, Calverley smiled.
“Good man. Ever-loyal—to me.”
In the presence of the young man’s intent focus, no one was sure how to react. John raised his boot and calmly set it on the plank. With a huge final effort, Calverley nodded. John obeyed the silent call to duty and began to lean his full weight into the wood, never breaking his gaze from that of his master’s.
“No, John!” Leventhorpe grabbed the servant and tried to pull him away. John roughly shoved him aside, determined to perform this ultimate mad act of service.
“Will someone not control this cur?” the magistrate bellowed.
Leventhorpe desperately cast his eyes about for help, but both Hugh and the formerly brash Jack both seemed equally frozen by shock. Master Key stepped in. He could not hope to bodily remove the strong youth from his task, but perhaps words could sway him.
“Do not be a fool, lad. True, ’tis meet to see him dead for his crimes, but not by your doing. ’Tis my charge to fulfill—mine and my brethren’s. Heed me: fair or no, in the law’s eyes this deed is as much murder as those he hath committed, and thou shalt be made to pay the price. I beg thee—stop.”
Sweat dripped from John’s brow as he redoubled his efforts.
A sickening crunch echoed through the chamber. With a final surge of blood bubbling up between his cracked lips, Calverley’s rattling breath ceased. His eyes glazed and rolled back in his skull.
No one spoke. As Hugh threw up in a corner, the senior gaolers recovered themselves enough to step up, take John by the arms and pull him back from the press. John met Leventhorpe’s look of astonishment with a triumphant half-smile.
“Sir Thomas, do not judge me.” John’s lip curled as he turned his reddened eyes back to Calverley. “Tis blood for blood. Now, I am content.”