Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Alchemy of the Macabre

The taxi turned into the drive that meandered through lush foliage. The drive's final curve led past large pine trees to a glorious Tudor house, all mullioned windows and warm red brick with a high imposing roof. There was ivy growing on the West side and over an out building, that later I found served as a garage.
I had received a communication advising me that I had been appointed the postion of Musical Director at Hammerstead, a boy's College. I had also been asked if I would consider acting as a caretaker of a house nearby. The college had ideas of making the house into a music museum and library. This intrigued me, so I accepted enthusiastically.
Mrs Stanton, the housekeeper, greeted me at the door. She had lit fires in the gigantic stone fireplaces and from the front I could see a sitting room with an antique desk that could be used for my work. Further in was an alcove where a grand piano sat, the area easily large enough for recitals and lesons. Already I could imagine the strains of music. It was term break and classes were due to begin in a week's time.
Mrs Stanton asked if I would like tea served. After a rather long train journey a pot of freshly brewed tea was particularly enticing.
"Has the house been empty long?" I asked, as I motioned for Mrs Stanton to sit and join me. She settled herself, taking a few moments before answering.
"There is Oliver Blake. He's a young Scientist who has been working down below and is writing a book. He comes and goes. Strange man, always talking to himself. I never did take to him." She stirred sugar into her tea. "Last I heard he's in London, trying to get his book published." She made a face as if to say the chances of that were remote.
"I thought I was the only one here?"
"I suppose with Mr Blake gone so much it may have been thought better to have somebody here, rather than shut up the house," she replied.
"He works below you say? Is there a basement of some sort?"
"Oh yes, that's his laboratory. Under this house all manner of experiments are done. The smells that would rise from that place!" She wrinkled her nose.
After taking tea, I decided to retreat to the sitting room and settle my things. Adding another log to the fire, I immersed myself in assorting my music in the sitting room. I was disturbed only once, when Mrs Stanton said goodbye. Soon it was so dark I could only just perceive the outline of furniture from the light cast from the fire. I stretched my arm to switch on the lamp. It clicked uselessly. Upstairs I found a box of fat beeswax candles in the linen closet. I carried as many as I could and placed all of them in the various candelabras. Settling back at the desk, I continued reading and sorting. The fire cracked loudly. A movement across the room caught my eye. In the large wing chair, slightly turned toward me, sat a man. His dress was formal and we gazed at each other. He inclined his head in some sort of acknowledgement. I blinked. Once...twice. He was gone. My body trembled. Was he a trick of the light? Had I imagined him? I sat in my chair not daring to move. Slowly the fire died down and the candles burned low.
The next morning I heard movement downstairs. Last night I had eventually built enough courage to rise from my chair and go upstairs. I lay in bed fitfully, as questions jabbed my mind. Finally I conceded that it was an old house and there could very well be ghosts. Quickly I made my ablutions and went downstairs. Mrs Stanton fried eggs and bacon for my breakfast. The only sounds were of the house creaking and the opening and closing of kitchen cupboards together with the rattle of pots and pans, as I ate silently. A few times I thought I could hear footsteps overhead. Thrice I attempted to ask Mrs Stanton about spirits or any haunting, but each time I tried to formulate the words I felt foolish, so in the end I said nothing.
It being a Saturday I was in the habit of a constitutional walk after breakfast. By the side of the house I found four steps leading down, which I surmised to be the basement that Oliver Blake used as a laboratory. Access was gained through two wooden doors, which swung outwards. As they were not locked, I pulled at them, revealing more steps leading even further down. I peered within, but it was too dark to see. I could vaguely discern the smell of sulpher and could well understand Mrs Stanton's dislike of the experiments performed here.
I continued roaming the grounds. On the outskirts of the property I came upon a crypt. The sun had vanished behind some clouds, and the chill of winter was now upon my shoulders. The trees over the crypt had lost their leaves and their branches seemed like withered arms, eerily reaching downward to the souls interred therein. A blackbird warbled nearby, breaking the morose silence and I gave myself a mental shake, trying to break the feeling of despondence. I started and my heart leapt to my throat. A figure of a man had suddenly manifested before me, appearing suddenly from behind the stonewall of the crypt.

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