Friday, 31 October 2008

A Short Story for Halloween: The Looking Glass House by George Matthews

Arnhiem Manor in the rain was ominous, even more so then on a bright summer’s day. The last time my eyes fell on its faded red brick architecture and uneven roof, was on such a warm afternoon, when my feelings were mixed with sadness. Now a clinging apprehension encouraged by the lack of light shining from the windows and exacerbated by the torrential downpour, was dominant. I took the tension to be at root my longing to see Emily after six months of separation. But the Manor’s severe demeanour, its crooked chimneys thrusting into the sky like twisted devil horns, turned this pensive ache into something far more sinister.

I stood in the cold dampness, hunching my shoulders, waiting for the cabman to bring my two leather cases. I pulled the door bell a second time. A peal of thunder echoed in the distance and another gust of wind whipped fallen leaves at my already sodden overcoat and upended my umbrella. I cursed the foul weather as my cases were at last left at my feet. The cabman extended his hand for a tip and roughly I rummaged in my pocket, thrusting a few coins into his hand. Leaving with a grunt he returned to his hansom, the one single horse frisky and agitated, neighing forlornly. I heard the cab rattle down the driveway leaving me alone in the dreary half-light, occasionally lit by weak flashes of lightning. But still the blank façade of the door remained unopened.

It opened after a third irritable pull of the bell. Standing before me was not a servant but my friend, Alfred. I rushed forward carrying my cases to escape the rain although by now it had done its worst. I held out my hand with enthusiasm but only received a grudging squeeze in return. Taken by surprise, he was normally an effusive man, I was forced to take notice of his features. Untrimmed beard, blood shot eyes, hair mussed, he looked older then his forty eight years. Instead of his usual wide grin of welcome, a grimace of forced recognition and bewilderment disfigured his face, which slowly turned to exasperation.

“Ah of course, you were returning today,” he said under his breath. “I had forgotten.” He turned his back on me and entered a doorway on his right, his gaunt and shabbily dressed body starkly illuminated by a flash of lightening. The peal of thunder which inevitable followed shook me unexpectedly. By the time I had recovered Alfred had disappeared leaving me with my cases and a puddle of rainwater at my feet.

The ornate wooden staircase leading to the second floor of the Tudor manor was obscured in a thick gloom. The darkness on the landing was impenetrable like a starless night, like a vacancy in perception. Although I could not see the lower stairs clearly, I could just make out the baleful curls of carved vines entwining the banisters with there overlarge ripe fruits. On entering Arnhiem Manor two years ago as Alfred Boswell’s assistant, these oddly unnerving decorations caught my eye for the first time. Afterwards I noticed other even more disquieting attributes of the 16th Century dwelling but those vividly realistic but grotesque tendrils stuck in my memory. At times in the dim flicker of electric light (the only house for miles around and probable in the whole of Surrey to be equipped with the marvel of electricity) I was convinced the vines actually moved and the fruit bulged outwards obscenely. The present lack of electricity, even any radiance from the spare gaslights and the mysterious shortage of servants kept me rooted in the hallway. But I acted soon enough and went after Alfred not without annoyance, leaving the cases and the broken umbrella.

I had an inkling of where Alfred might have gone. The library was his retreat on the rare moments of vexation: he did most if not all of his extensive extra-curricular studies in this large book-shelf filled space. I never approved of his amateur interests; his pouring over crumbling medieval manuscripts, obscure and priceless Kabbalistic grimoirs and philosophical treatises of the supernatural. We were men of science. In our laboratory in the East Wing we researched the strange but rational properties of electro-magnetism and the tiny, minuscule particles powering the immense energies of the universe. But Alfred explained to me the links between the mumbo-jumbo of men mired in superstition and the early beginnings of scientific rationalism. The Elizabethan astrologer and occultist John Dee, a man who purportedly discovered the language of angels, was also an advanced mathematician, and the greatest scientific genius of them all, Sir Isaac Newton, had an immense collection of alchemical books. Alfred was fascinated with the parallels of the systematic occultist and the scientist; both manipulated nature to uncover the secrets of matter, transcending the mundane veneer of reality, reaching out to the mind of God.

Or maybe the Devil, I thought. Not that I believed in the Devil but a quick glance at the writings concerned provoked an atavistic chill inside. It did not help my state of mind to think also of the origins of Arnhiem Manor, its dark glamour and mystery.

The library at least had some light when I entered. It came from a gaslight over the main reading table, between two long worm holed bookshelves crammed with misshapen and stained leather bound tomes. Alfred was bent over a time-worn book large enough when opened to encompass the table, with his reading glasses on, a bottle of whisky and a glass by his side, gazing intently at what looked like a medieval woodcut illustration. Other then this tiny corner, the library was obscured with shadow. Brief illumination came through two stained glass windows high on the north and south facing walls, but only when bursts of lightening lit up the church-like interior.

There was something disturbingly unorthodox about the windows. The north wall window depicted the Tree of Knowledge from Genesis in intricately crafted colours, lush and tropical, wound with the coils of the Serpent. Unusually no Adam and Eve were present and the scene was incredibly accurate for a 16th Century interpretation. The Tree and the flora in the background were no mere imaginative versions of the artist but based on real types of equatorial plants. The snake was vividly evil, its eyes dead with a malign vacancy, its length crushing the Tree like living muscle. The stained glass window on the south side did show Adam and Eve but their nudity was a detailed carnality, shocking even to the most worldly of individuals. But for all this outlandish art it was the two mirrors in alcoves to the side of the south wall that upset my aesthetic sensibilities the most.

As I confronted my friend I was unable to see the hideously carved frames and smeared cracked glass. They had always been part of the house. The previous owner, who never lived in the building, citing uneasiness with the general atmosphere, particularly emphasised the mirrors in the library. Originally there were three; the missing mirror forming an apex of a triangle and directly beneath the south side window. Albert decided to move the third looking glass, and supposedly the most disconcerting, out of the library long before I arrived at Arnhiem Manor. I had never seen it and was reportedly in one of the rooms on the second floor.

“Obviously you are preoccupied, Alfred but I’ve travelled far and was expecting a warm welcome,” I said, realising in the instant I spoke I sounded harsh. “Please tell me if something is troubling you.”
“Nothing’s wrong Edwin as far as you are concerned. So leave me in peace and go to your room, you know where it is, it’s unchanged since you left.”
“But where are the servants, why no lights,” I said my voice rising. “I’m sorry but this is awfully odd to say the least.”

I’d been away from Arnhiem Manor for nearly six months to be with my elderly and infirm mother. At the time of my leaving Alfred was his ebullient self, upset though at my departure at such a crucial time in our experiments. Emily his daughter was unusually withdrawn even for her quiet and introverted personality. I had written to both of them over the intervening weeks and received replies up to a few months ago. This cessation of communication caused me only slight concern but looking back, Emily’s replies were short and strangely flat. This should have worried me more then it did but presented with the bizarre and unfriendly behaviour of my best friend, a more disturbing light was shone on these past events.

“I have rid myself of my servants except for Mrs Johnston, the housekeeper.” He abruptly ended his sentence and stared vacantly at the wall in front of him. I waited embarrassed for what seemed like a very long time, but eventually he lowered his head and began to read once again.

Irritation at my friend’s rudeness had faded, replaced by anxiety. Something was terrible wrong I belatedly realised. “Nothing has happened to Emily has it,” I blurted. With a sigh but more like a groan, Alfred rose from his desk. His fists were balled and his face deformed by a snarl. I backed away. Emily’s name had triggered a reaction in his brain and now he approached me, wishing to do me harm. But at the last moment he softened slightly and growled softly. “Get out.”

I turned around meaning to leave the library, my mind in chaos. Emily was ill, even dying I thought. This must be the explanation of Alfred’s irrational behaviour. I had to find Emily and it was no use relying on her father. Angry and frightened all at once I strode ahead, my back to my friend. A lightening flash illuminated the gloom. I flinched, as in a split second a ghostly wraith-like figure was revealed. But as my eyes got used to the half-light, I recognised Emily. The door leading to the drawing room was open and standing in her flimsy night gown was my fiancé, my darling Emily.

I rushed forward meaning to embrace her, but the mere sight of her close up stopped me, This was not my Emily of old but a different creature; emaciated and starved. Her face when I last set eyes on her was blooming and animated, but now her rosy features were deflated, sunken to a sallow paleness without flesh. Her hair was reduced to long strands of string, the life gone. And her eyes: empty and haunted, buried in the sockets of her skull. Her body was bone covered by a thin layer of skin, her belly enlarged with malnutrition.

“Emily, my dear…” I whispered in shock.
She spoke then, staring at her father, ignoring me, a ghastly husky parody of a voice. “Nightmares again, father…I’ve dreamt about the corridor, the infinite corridor.” She stood almost on the point of collapse. “It goes on forever, father. Into never ending darkness…” She droned on completely oblivious to my presence. I was too stunned to speak.

Alfred put his arms around his daughter, his anger replaced with concern. He led her from the library and I followed blankly, trailing behind like a forgotten servant. As I walked dejected into the hall, automatically picking up my cases but leaving the useless umbrella behind, my mind raced. My surmise was correct; my darling was dying and the cause of my friends’ strange behaviour. The sweat trickled from my forehead in the hot atmosphere and a terrible urge to shake Emily, to get some reaction from her, surged briefly in my befuddlement.

Alfred went first into the profound darkness at the top of the stairs. Disappearing as if engulfed I waited for him to re-emerge like a swimmer from the bottomless depths. Instead a soft glow like a dying halo revealed the features of my friend and I realised he had turned on the gaslight. Gingerly we plunged forward. Entering the second floor corridor was always unsettling but now the lightless expanse before me, only mildly alleviated by the gaslight, was like entering a tunnel. On both sides were doors embedded in whorled and almost black wood-panelled walls. Beyond the last set of doors, six in all, the abysmal dark began. I could well imagine Emily inflicted with nightmares by the corridor. In her precarious state of health, her feverish imaginings enflamed by the house were keeping her awake. I opened my mouth to warn Alfred about the effect this dreary and overheated pile was having on my fiancé, but as if I did not exist they both vanished into Emily’s bed chamber, shutting the door in my face.

I was left alone. The only move I could make now was to enter my own room. The gloom was less pronounced here but just as unnaturally humid. I was soaked in my own sweat and I stood and wiped my face with my handkerchief fished from my pocket. Throwing my cases into a corner and bypassing my single bed I went to the large bay windows and loosened my stiff collar and necktie. I hauled one window open, letting in the damp autumnal air.

The storm had gone revealing a bright full moon, marred only by long strips of cloud drifting gently across its cratered surface. The moonlight and the stars like uncountable pinpricks in the black velvet of the heavens transformed the garden below me into a mysterious shadowy landscape, where I could make out ripples of light in the pond and in the basins of the non-functioning fountain. A greenhouse loomed on my left beside a tumbledown fence separating the grounds from farmland, the panes dimly reflecting the rays of the moon, but the illumination was more pronounced on the water behind the Sycamores. Stippled with glittering beams the River Thames flowed on its way towards the smoke and grime of London which seemed to me as distant as the silver orb in the sky.

A terrible witch’s cackle arose from the grey fields and it was only after an archaic shock had passed through me its origin registered in my brain. It was a fox’s cry.

To be continued...

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