Chapter One: THE GREAT HOUSE
The High House, Evenmere, that lifts its gabled roofs among tall hills overlooking a country of ivy and hawthorn and blackberries sweet but small as the end of a child’s finger, has seldom been seen by ordinary men. Those who come there do so not by chance, and those who dwell there abide long within its dark halls, seldom venturing down the twisting road to the habitations of men. Of all who have lived there, especially those appointed Master of the House, was one born and raised beneath its banners, the man named Carter Anderson, who left not of his own accord, and was summoned back in its time of need. His life and the great deeds he did during the Great War of the High House is told of in The Gray Book of Evenmere, but this is a story from long before his days of valor.
He was born in the Lilac Room, where sunlight, diffused between guards of ivy, wafted through the three tall windows, brightening their rich, mahogany moldings, casting leaf patterns on the red woven quilt and the dusky timber at the foot of the cherry-wood sleigh bed. The doctor pronounced him a “splendid lad”, and his father, waiting beyond the door, smiled and eased his pacing at the noise of his wailing cry.
He remembered his mother only as warmth and love, and slender, dark beauty, for she died when he was five, and he wept many days upon the red quilt in the Lilac Room. Lord Ashton Anderson, his father, the Master of the House, quit his slow laughter after that, and was often gone many days at a time, returning with mud on his boots and shadowed circles around his pale blue eyes.
So Carter grew up, an only child, a lonely boy in the great house, his companions the servants of the manor. Of these, he had three favorites: there was Brittle, the butler, a taciturn man, tall and thin, quite ancient, but still limber; and Enoch, the Master Windkeep, whose sole job was to wind the many clocks throughout the house. Enoch was the companion Carter loved best, ancient as a giant oak and nearly as tanned, older than Brittle even, but burly of frame and jovial by nature, with hair still jet-black, set in tiny ringlets like an Assyrian. The boy often accompanied him on his rounds through the entrance hall, the dining room, the library, the picture gallery, the drawing room, the morning room and then to the servant’s block to wind the clocks in the kitchen court, the servant’s hall, the housekeeper’s room, the back of the men’s corridor, and at the very top of a cherry alcove on the women’s stair, where hung a little coo-coo with a tiny yellow wren. After that, they went up the gentlemen’s stair to the bedrooms, the private library and others, then on to the sleeping quarters on the third floor.
But on the days when Enoch took the door leading from the top of the third story up to what he called ‘The Towers’, Carter was not allowed to accompany him. The boy hated those times, for the Windkeep would be gone many days, and Carter always imagined him climbing a long thin stair, open on either side, with the stars to his left hand and his right, and he ascending past them to the Towers, which surely lay that far if he must be gone so long.
The final companion of the three was the Lamp-lighter, whose name was Chant. He had a boyish face and a boyish smile, though the gray at his temples bespoke middle-age. A bit of the gentle rogue lay upon him, and his eyes were rose-pink, which anyone other than Carter, who knew no different, might have thought bizarre. He had poetry within him; as Lamp-lighter he lit the globes at what he called “the eight points of the compass”, and he quoted Stevenson, saying his duties consisted of “punching holes in the darkness”. Carter liked Chant, though sometimes his conversation was too complex and sometimes too cynical. He had an odd way of turning a corner on the outside of the house and suddenly vanishing. Carter followed many times, racing around to catch some trace of him, but he never did, so that the boy thought he must be marvelously fast. But magic was commonplace in the house, and Carter saw it often without recognizing it for what it was.
Because there were always rooms to rummage through, closets and crannies, galleries and hallways to explore, Carter grew up an imaginative, adventurous boy, full of curiosity. His father often entertained company during the times he was home, men not in frock coats and top hats, but in armor, or robes, or garb even more grand. These were seldom women, though once a tall, graceful lady came to the house dressed like a queen, all in pearls and white lace, who gave Carter beautiful smiles and patted him on the head, reminding him of his mother, so that his heart ached long after she had gone.
These visitors did not come for pleasure; that was always clear, and they seldom entered through the front door; mostly Brittle ushered them in from the library, as if they had stepped fresh from a book. They ate dinner on the oak dining table, and afterwards Carter sat in his father’s lap at the head of the table and listened to them talk. They spoke of wars and disputes in far off countries, of ravaging wolves and robbers. Although the lord was a soft-spoken man, and his chair no higher than the others around the table, they treated him as a king, and implored him to resolve their difficulties. And often, near the end of the evening, when Carter lay sleepy in his father’s lap, Lord Anderson said, “I will come.” Then Carter knew his father would put on his greatcoat the next day, and his tall hat, that he would buckle his strange sword around his waist, the one terraced like a lightning bolt, retrieve his marble-headed walking staff, and be gone many days.
One day, a week after Carter’s seventh birthday, it happened that he wandered perplexed in the drawing room, looking behind the gray stuffed sofa, crying softly, when his father entered the room.
“Here, now, what are the tears?” Lord Anderson asked, laying his hand on his son’s shoulder. He was a kind man, if often sad, and Carter had the greatest confidence in him.
“I’ve lost my red birthday ball.”
“Where did you last have it?”
“I don’t remember.”
His father thought a moment, then said, “Perhaps it is time to show you something. Come along.”
Hand in hand, they left the drawing room, through the transverse corridor to the tall oaken doors into the library, an endless expanse of bookcases where Carter had often lost his way. Lord Anderson did not walk between the rows of books, but took his son through the four-paneled door to the left, into a small study, which Carter did not recall ever having seen before. It was windowless, with a tall ceiling, and a blue carpet with gold fleur-de-lis. There were seven buttercup lights already burning in the brass candelabra, but these were scarcely needed because of the stained glass skylight, a mosaic in red, blue and gold depicting an angel presenting a large book to a somber man. The angel looked both beautiful and terrible at once; his long, golden hair flowed to his shoulders and his face was bright where the sun shone through it. A golden belt encircled the waist of his white robe, and the sword strapped upon it gave him a fierce, warrior look. Carter liked him immediately.
The study was furnished only with a kidney-shaped desk, having a leather top fastened with brass hobnails and a matching dark-leather chair. Mahogany panels decorated the walls, a fireplace stood beside the door, and a bookcase with blue-leaded glass rested behind the desk. Unlocking the bookcase with a small skeleton key taken from the top drawer, Lord Anderson withdrew a heavy leather book lined with gold-leaf. He set it upon the desk, sat himself in the leather chair, and bade his son climb into his lap. But he did not yet open the volume.
“This is the Book of Forgotten Things,” his father said gently, but with great reverence. “When you cannot find a thing, when you need to remember something you have forgotten, seek it here. Now open it.”
Carter slowly turned the pages. At first, the volume was blank, but to his delight, a picture arose and came to life at the sixth page, and he saw himself in his room holding his red ball. After playing with it a time, he kicked it under the bed and left.
Carter shouted in pleasure, and would have slammed the book shut and rushed to find the lost toy, but his father held him, saying, “Wait, there is more. Turn to page seven.”
Carter obeyed, and upon the page, written in gold, were seven words.
“What are these, father?”
“These are the Seven Words of Power. They are in another language, but we will say them together, you and I.”
So they did, the man speaking them clearly, the boy stumbling on their curious sounds, and as they pronounced each one, the gold letters burned like fire, but were not consumed, and Carter felt heat upon his forehead. When they were done, his father said, “You are young and will not remember the Words, but someday, if you become Master of Evenmere, you will find them again in the Book of Forgotten Things.”
“Can I see the next page?”
His father hesitated, but said, “Yes, but only one.”
When Carter turned the page, it, too, appeared blank, until the kind, smiling face of his mother gradually rose upon it, her eyes filled with love.
“Mamma,” he said softly.
Then she told him how precious he was, and how perfect, and what a beautiful boy, and he smiled as he had when she had once said the words, three years before, though he had not remembered till just then. And then the picture faded, and he looked wistfully at the book.
“It was mother,” he said, turning to Lord Anderson. But his father sat staring at the wall.
“We will go now,” the Master said, his voice quavering.
They climbed down from the chair, holding hands. “Father, you didn’t look at the book at all, did you? You didn’t see her.”
His father knelt beside him. “I did not see her, but I heard you call to her. None of us see the same thing when we look into the book, but only that which we ourselves have forgotten.”
“But why didn’t you look?”
Tears sprang to the corners of Lord Anderson’s eyes. “There are some things too painful to see.”
Two years passed, and Carter thought little of that day with the Book of Forgotten Things, as he played alone, or accompanied Enoch or Chant on their rounds, or sometimes Brittle. His father had acted less sad in the last year, though his absences had increased.
One day, as Carter was playing with his wooden soldiers in an upstairs room, Brittle came to him.
The tall butler looked down upon him in a way that was all Brittle, his eyes quite wise and not unkind.
“The young master will need to accompany me now, to bathe and change clothes.”
“But it’s the middle of the day, not supper-time.”
The butler could be quite stern, but his severe mouth turned up slightly at the small rebellion. “It is indeed not supper-time, but your father has gone for the afternoon, and will be returning shortly with a guest. He wishes you suitably attired.”
Mystified, Carter followed Brittle toward his own room, but it was late afternoon before his father returned from somewhere in the back of the house, accompanied by a tall, blonde woman, dressed in sky-blue silk blossomed all over with sham daisies, gold bracelets on each wrist and a carcanet studded in amethyst about her neck. Spider-web lace, the same color as her dress, descended from a white, wide-brimmed hat, covering without concealing her brilliant blue eyes. Her gloves were white.
“Lady Murmur,” his father said. “This is Carter. Carter, Lady Murmur is a friend of mine.”
She was very beautiful, but when she looked down her long falcon’s nose, Carter saw a gleam in her eyes that made him shiver. Her voice was deep, as if she were always hoarse, and he did not much like it.
“Hello, young man,” she said. “I have heard many good things about you. You are not as tall as a nine-year old should be, nor yet as handsome as your father, though I am sure that will come.” She smiled sweetly at Lord Anderson.
Thereafter, Lady Murmur came often, until she and Carter’s father were married in the spring of that year, beneath the blue skylight in the long picture gallery, between the rows of yellowed paintings of the former Masters of the house. Many people attended the wedding, until Carter thought the entire manor must be filled, and he saw lords and ladies, and even kings and queens, all splendidly dressed, so that he knew his father must be a great man indeed. He played all day with the children who had come, and it was a wonderful wedding, but that evening, after Lord Anderson and Lady Murmur left for their honeymoon, Carter went to his room, threw himself upon his bed, his picture of his mother clutched between his small hands, and wept.
Everything changed after Murmur came to live with them. She rearranged all the furniture and moved all the pictures; nothing seemed to suit her, not even, after a time, his father. But when they had been married less than two years, she bore him a son, blonde and blue-eyed, who they named Duskin, and things went better for a while. And Murmur called the boy, ‘the little heir’, though never in Lord Anderson’s hearing.
A nanny was hired to watch Duskin, and Murmur used every pretense to keep Carter away from the baby, so there was no joy in having a brother after all. During the times when his father was gone on business, Murmur acted especially cold to Carter; he could not see Duskin at all then, and her remarks made him ache a bit, deep inside, though she always smiled sweetly as she said them. Carter learned to avoid her. When Enoch was away, and the Lamp-lighter grew too cerebral for the company of a child, he wandered the house, playing alone.
It happened one day, when his father had been gone an exceptionally long time, and Murmur’s comments had stuck like a thousand small pins, that Carter retreated toward the back of the house, to the servants’ stair, which led to the upstairs bedrooms. Taking his wooden soldiers with him, he opened the narrow door to the alcove behind the stair, a room he had never explored before. To his surprise, a gas-light burned, suspended on the wall about two feet from his head. It was a narrow room, with old hats and coats lying scattered among boxes brown with dust, and at its back wall stood a thin, green door, which Carter tried at once, but found locked. The doorknob was of glass, with the most marvelous miniature inside, an image of Evenmere itself, complete with all its towers and gables, red roofs and brown cornices, colonnades and picture windows. Carter studied it in delight, tugged on it to insure the door was really locked, then sat down before it and looked around. Behind one of the boxes he discovered a marvelous toy carriage, carved with exacting detail in soft pine. Pulling his wooden soldiers from his pocket, he spent a happy hour in play.
Wearying of that, lulled by the warmth of the room and the sputtering gaslight, he had nearly fallen asleep when he heard a soft, scraping sound. Glancing around, he saw the slow turning of the glass knob. He stood up, uncertain what to expect, until the door opened and Lord Anderson squeezed through. Despite his delight at seeing his father, Carter also noticed the wonderful keys the Master held in his hand– the ring was of bronze; a hundred keys slid around it, all different colors, bright as toddlers’ toys. The skeleton key which he had used to open the green door was green itself, but dark like malachite, with speckles of blue, as if carved of stone.
“Father!” Carter cried, startling his sire so badly he fumbled for the Lightning Sword by his side. Lord Anderson looked weary, as he often did after his sojourns. There were deep-crimson stains upon his greatcoat, and once he recognized his son he appeared little pleased to see him. He locked the door quickly and stuffed the keys into his pocket.
“What are you doing here, Carter?”
“Why, just playing, father. But you’re home!”
Lord Anderson took him quickly by the hand and led him out from beneath the stair. “I don’t want you going in there anymore,” he ordered.
Since his father was seldom stern, Carter looked about in confusion. “But, where does the green door lead?”
“Nowhere you should ever go! I want you to promise to speak no more of it. Do you understand? And stay away from the stair! Do you promise?”
“I . . I promise. I’m sorry, father.” Carter was close to tears.
Seeing his son’s distress, Lord Anderson softened. “It’s all right. No harm was done. Come now, let’s go see your brother.”
On the southwest side of the High House, at the garden entrance, a little door led outside from the kitchen into a yard overshadowed by immense oak trees, bordered by a brick fence four feet tall, with short, bronze statues of angels with longbows drawn, standing atop the wall at each of the four corners. A wishing well, surrounded by red lacecaps, stood in the middle of the yard, with snails drifting like sailboats up and down its sides, and a bronze plate along its rim which read: Masonry From the Ifdawn Marest. A row of tall hedges filled the northern portion of the court, forming a haphazard maze where Carter often played. He loved the yard; it was cool on hot summer days, and when the wind blew, the leaves of the trees rustled like the wings of giant birds. He liked to sit with his back to the well and read books, adventure stories such as The People of the Mist, or even better, The Well at the World’s End, which he thought must be much like this well. Beyond the short wall ran a cobblestone path which circled the entire house, and in its midst stood a black lamp-post. Every evening, Chant strolled out the white, wooden gate hidden behind the grape arbor, singing snatches of verse as he lit the lamp. Ivy covered the fence; verdigris covered the angels; a heavy layer of peace covered the whole yard.
One day, as twilight slipped gray over the world, when the Lamp-lighter had already done his work, Carter lingered upon the lawn, watching a blue beetle, big as his thumb, making its way along the bottom of the fence. Its shell crackled like papyrus as he cautiously prodded it with a stick.
In the midst of his investigation, a shadow fell between him and the lingering sun. Glancing up, he gave a cry of fear, dropped the stick and backed away, for a man stood, watery as a mirage, on the other side of the fence. In the dimness and the long shadows, when he had first glanced up, he had thought the stranger had no face at all, but a smooth, pink blankness. He saw now this was not so, but it took a moment for his heart to calm. Although he had never actually seen an English bobby, he recognized from illustrations in books the man’s tall helmet, dark uniform, and long, wooden billy, swinging on its cord. When he smiled, he had a round, pleasant face.
“Did I startle you, lad?” he asked, in a low, rasping voice, belieing his affable stare. “Terribly sorry. I’m Constable Pratt.”
“Pleased to meet you, sir,” Carter said, remembering himself. “Has there been trouble?”
“None at all. None at all. I’m simply making my rounds. It’s good to check on things.” The bobby drew close to the wall, though he did not touch it.
Carter thought it peculiar that a constable should make rounds so many miles from any village, but he said nothing. His first fear had been replaced by a solid dread, a kind of quiet horror. He did not understand it, but it was made worse each time he glanced away from Pratt, for the illusion of his facelessness returned when Carter saw him only from the corner of his eyes.
“I wonder,” the Bobby said, “Could you perhaps let me in through the little gate? I’d like a bit of water from that well, if you don’t mind.”
“I . . I couldn’t do that, sir. Chant keeps it locked. I could get Brittle to let you in if you’d like.”
The Bobby exhaled with a noise like a low hiss, but he smiled again. “No, don’t trouble him. Perhaps you could bring me a cup of water, then?”
“Of course,” Carter said. If anything, his fear had increased. He fought the urge to back his way to the well, as if he were retreating from a viper, yet every step with the Bobby out of sight filled him with panic. He wanted to dart inside, shouting for Brittle and Enoch, but instead he lowered the bucket and drew water from the well. He dipped the tin cup in, filled it, and brought it toward the constable, who waited, hands outstretched.
And suddenly he knew, as surely as he knew the faces of the angels on the fence, that the Bobby could not pass beyond the wall, that it served as a barrier he could not cross. This, then was the line, and if Carter handed him the cup, he would be crossing it, over into a country where he could be reached. He paused.
“That’s a good lad,” the Bobby rasped. “Bring it to me.”
Carter stretched his hand out and gently set the cup upon the wall. “Here, sir.”
Just at the corner of the constable’s eyes, so slight Carter thought he might have imagined it, he saw the dagger-malice of one thwarted. “Thank you, lad,” he said, but he did not take the cup.
“You’re welcome. I. . I have to go in now.”
“Wait! Before you go, come closer and let me ask you something.”
With all the courage he possessed, Carter stepped toward the fence, not even certain why he obeyed, but quite careful not to cross it with any part of his body. The Bobby, too, drew as near as he dared, and spoke in a whisper.
“What if you took the keys on the brass ring? You could see what was behind the Green Door. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”
Even as he said it, the Bobby leaned closer toward the wall. His hand shot out, claw-like, toward the boy, but struck an invisible barrier above the fence. In that instant, his features went blank again, and he stood like a faceless doll, struggling against the obstruction. Carter backed away and the Bobby did likewise, his features returning.
“Think about it, boy.”
Carter bolted for the house, his courage expended. He dared not look back until he had locked the heavy door behind him. Then he peered through the leaded glass. The Bobby stood away from the wall, beside the lamp-post, his head turned downward, hidden.
Carter saw the Bobby no more that summer, though many evenings thereafter he looked from the windows, half-expecting to see him lurking at the lamp-post. Neither did he tell Lord Anderson the tale, though he did not know why. Perhaps it was because he had never thought of taking any of his father’s things before, and so wrestled with the temptation the Bobby had placed within him. As time passed, he found himself watching Lord Anderson, to see where he kept the keys, though Carter told himself it was only curiosity. His father had them with him always, in his greatcoat when he traveled, but otherwise in his pocket.
One evening, when the whole family sat down to supper, the Master said to Lady Murmur, “Tomorrow I must go hunting in the country of the Tigers of Naleewuath. I shall be gone no more than a week, I think.”
Carter looked up from his roast brisket and cried, “Oh, father, could I go with you? I’ve never seen a tiger!”
Lord Anderson paused in thought. “You are nearly twelve. This might be a good time. There are no tigers like those in Naleewuath.”
“Do you think it wise?” Lady Murmur asked. “It sounds dangerous.”
“There is some danger, it is true, but a boy must learn to be a man, and seeing is a start. We would not be alone there. The tigers . .”
“Oh, Ashton,” Murmur said, looking away at her spoon, “I did not intend to mention it, but I’m afraid Carter has not been a good boy this week, and I told him to spend the day in his room tomorrow.”
Carter stared at Murmur in wide-mouthed surprise.
“What’s this?” Lord Anderson said, looking hard at the boy.
“I didn’t want to trouble you with it,” Murmur continued. “It’s just that your son is always saying cruel things to little Duskin. He has been absolutely hateful, and spoken back to me as well.”
“Carter, is this true?”
“It’s not true at all!” Carter cried. “How could I be cruel, when she never lets me near him?”
“You see,” Murmur said. “He’s quite sarcastic.”
Lord Anderson gave Murmur a rigid glance, then looked at Carter in perplexity. “Perhaps tomorrow would not be the best time,” he said softly. “You will accompany me to Naleewuath some other day.”
As soon as dinner was over, Carter excused himself and rushed up the stair. Once in his room he slid into a corner and wept, understanding nothing. Why had she lied? His young mind could not conceive of her wish to discredit him so Duskin could become the favored son; his only thought was that he had somehow offended her.
The next morning he woke early, dressed quickly, and hurried into the upstairs hall. Far below, he heard his father’s voice. Almost without conscious thought, he slipped into Lord Anderson’s bedroom, where his greatcoat lay waiting on the bed.
A dim plan, one he had dared not consciously consider, rushed all at once into him. He went to the coat, felt inside the pocket, and drew out the bronze key ring. It gleamed with a hundred colors, but he stared at it only a moment before stuffing it into his own pocket.
He had only one thought: if he could get beyond the Green Door, where Murmur could not reach him, then his father would be glad to see him and they could go together to the Tigers of Naleewuath.
He hurried down the corridor and descended the narrow servant’s stair beside the day-nursery, which brought him directly to his destination. The stair was straight, but very long; the leering gargoyles on the railing knobs seemed to taunt him as he hurried down. Passing to the floor below, he entered the narrow door beneath the stair. The gas-lamp was already on, making him marvel at Chant’s abilities. He gave a sudden rush of breath as he stopped before the Green Door. A twinge of doubt assailed him; the door seemed foreboding– even threatening– this day. For a moment he stood uncertain. There was only the gentle swishing of the gas jet, the door before him, and the keys hanging like a heavy weight in his pocket.
“I don’t care!” he cried suddenly. “I’ll show her!”
His mouth went dry as he took the keys. They shimmered in his hand like phosphorescent stones, all colors, many different sizes, with heads rounded, ovoid, square, triangular, some with angels’ wings or faces upon them, and one with an acorn with eyes. Each key brought a different emotion with it: the royal blue, speckled with gray, radiated peace; the golden key excited; the silver spoke of wonders uncounted; the red key of danger; the rusty key, sepulchers and dust. Carter tried to count them, but the number never totalled the same. There was a power, a strength about them which both frightened and thrilled him, as if they had not been made by mortal men.
With shaking hands he took the malachite key and inserted it into the gray lock; it resisted only an instant before turning with a solid click. He opened the door cautiously and peered within. Seeing no danger, he stepped into a gray hall filled with a light mist. An ashen carpet covered the floor and gray pictures of gray flowers hung upon the dull walls. The corridor led to right and left. After some hesitation, he chose the right.
His entire body felt strange and he experienced minute pains– on his arms, his legs, his back, as if every part were being discreetly torn away and rebuilt. A shuddering overtook him which was not fear, and he knelt upon the carpet until it passed. As he did so, he glanced up and realized he could not see the ceiling, which was hidden by the mist.
As he proceeded down what seemed an endless way, the thought occurred to him that he should turn back, lest he miss his father. He did so at once and found he had traveled farther than he would have believed. When he finally arrived back at the Green Door, he found a figure standing there, half-hidden by the fog.
He ran forward, expecting his sire, then stopped short when he saw the Bobby, his face a smooth nothing save for a crescent-moon grin.
Carter backed away in horror, but when he turned to run, his path was blocked by a man clad in black, who seized him at once, bound him by the hands, and threw him over his shoulder.
The Bobby approached. The grin had given way to the kindly face he had worn in the yard. Smiling, he searched Carter’s pockets until he found the bronze ring. As he held the keys, they dulled in his pale hands. “Thank you, boy,” he rasped. “You have given us a great gift.”
Carter cried out, but the man holding him thrust a gag over his mouth.
“Should we lock the Door?” the man asked.
The Bobby grinned. “No. Leave Anderson a clue. He will suffer all the more for it.”
For what seemed to Carter like hours, his abductors carried him through endless halls, up winding stairs then down others, through rooms great and small, until he thought they must surely be traveling in circles; no house could be this large. Yet on they went, past bookcases with shelves carved like serpents and night stands sculpted like dragons. Carter was carried facing backwards, so he could not see their direction of travel, but only where they had gone. So miserable was he that his disobedience had brought disaster, he did not think to memorize his path until it was too late.
The men began a long descent, down a stairway woven in shadows and spider-webs, that creaked in protest at every step; ebon carvings of angels of darkness stood in alcoves to the sides– proud, arrogant, their wings like vultures, their hawk noses cruel. Carter whimpered and closed his eyes.
That stair seemed to go on indefinitely; they passed dozens of landings lit by green gas-lights in braziers carved as skulls. Carter only once caught sight of the Bobby during that time, his face blank, ghastly in the eldritch glow.
At last they came to a four-paneled door formed of black marble. The Bobby drew out a long, rusted key, though not from the bronze ring, and unlocked it.
“In you go and in you stay,” he said, taking the gag from Carter’s mouth and the rope from his wrists. “This is the Room of Horrors. You will never leave it.”
With rough hands, they cast him into the darkness, skinning his knees as he slid across the hard floor. He flung himself, too late, back at the door; the lock clicked shut before he ever touched it. Through the heavy marble he did not even hear the men depart. He beat upon the door with his small fists, until he heard an odd, scraping sound behind him.
He turned to face it and screamed.
A ghost stood before him, wrapped in insubstantial white, chains fastened to its gossamer arms. It moaned as it approached, like wind blowing through rafters. Carter backed against the marble, paralyzed with terror. The specter drew near and abruptly thrust its face three inches away from Carter’s own, its mouth and eyes gaping darkness. The boy screamed and bolted, feet pounding against bare boards, fleeing through utter blackness.
He smashed against something hard, and fell back, dazed and weeping, trembling like a fawn. Gradually, he recovered himself, controlled his sobbing, and sat up. No matter how he strained his eyes, he could detect no trace of light.
A low growling rose at his left ear. He leapt to his feet and ran again.
Hours later found him cringing in a corner. He could run no more; he had been pursued through every waking moment by visions and monsters, some visible, others hidden in the night. He had no more tears for crying; he wanted his father, who he now knew to be involved in dangerous business indeed. He wondered how the Bobby could be so cruel.
Finally, he slept a twitching, trembling sleep, a brief cessation from the horror.
When he woke, he found the face of the ghost thrust before him once more. He screamed and ran again.
In years after, he remembered nothing about the Room of Horrors except its night and terror, for it was indeed filled with Fears of every sort, that sent him scurrying across the boards, hiding in closets and crannies, sleeping when he could, only to be awakened by the things of nightmare. He found food sometimes, for it was never the purpose of the chamber to starve its victims. There were moments and even hours of respite, but these were always broken by tramping feet, hideous howls, or leering stares.
He could not have lasted long there, in such dread, not without being broken in spirit. Whether he remained a week, or only a single day, he never knew; it seemed eternal, but eventually he heard the sound of thunder. A blast shook the chamber, blinding him; he thought it only a new peril. But when he could see again he found Brittle, holding a lantern aloft, standing before the marble door, which lay broken and smoking, sundered by a mighty blow, the smell of sulphur roiling from it. Beside the butler stood Lord Anderson, his jagged Lightning Sword held high, fury burning in his eyes. In that moment, Carter understood, perhaps for the first time, that his father would have dared the devil himself to save him. He swept Carter into his arms in one swift motion, wrapping him in his cloak as if he were an infant. Wasting no time in speech, but weeping as he went, he rushed the lad up the stairs.
Carter cried in his father’s arms until he fell asleep, so that he did not even remember being tucked safely into his own bed.
He had nightmares for several weeks thereafter, and his father stayed close, neglecting the business of the house to be with his son. Carter remembered those days as happy ones, despite the lingering fear, because of Lord Anderson’s attentions. Murmur, if anything, was even less kind, and often, as the Master held his son’s hands to help him say his nightly prayers, Carter would see, between half-closed lids, the Lady standing at the doorway, glaring.
It happened shortly after Carter’s twelfth birthday, that he wandered back into the walled garden, which he had avoided since his encounter with the Bobby. Still, looking out the windows, the sunlight against the leaves beckoned him, and he followed after, to play among the hedges, knowing his father was in council with visitors and would be busy throughout the afternoon.
With a carved, wooden sword and a hat made of paper, he charged among the hedges, playing games of war, fancying himself a brave captain, leader of a host. The tall rows of privet provided fortresses, enemy lines, and corners for turning and falling on the foe, and he played while the cool breath of morning lapped his brow.
He was bent down upon the ground, drawing a map in the dirt with a stick, when a shadow suddenly crossed above him. Looking up, he saw the Bobby grinning unpleasantly.
He shrieked in terror and leapt up, but the hedges pinned him roundabout, and the Bobby grasped him in his cruel grip. He cupped one hand over his mouth and dragged him across the yard. They were at the well, heading toward the gate behind the grape arbor, when Carter got his teeth into the thick hands. The Bobby growled in rage and the boy screamed for help as loud as he could. His captor cuffed him sharply, then continued dragging him toward the gate.
At that moment, Brittle bounded out of the doorway, a broad-axe in his hands, running with an agility Carter had not thought possible in the ancient butler.
Seeing himself pursued, the Bobby gave a cry of rage, lifted Carter, and flung him into the well.
He tumbled into darkness, fortunate not to strike his head on the way down, but hitting the water hard. He descended into the depths a great distance; had he panicked he would have drowned at once, for he did not know how to swim. Instead, he clawed his way to the edge of the well, where the uneven rocks gave him a hand-hold, and pulled himself up toward the bright circle of light hovering far above. The air had been knocked from him during his plunge; only an effort of will kept him from opening his mouth to breathe. He felt his pulse hammering in his temples as he narrowed the distance; after his terrors in the Room of Horrors, this seemed a return to that endless nightmare; part of him wanted very much to give in to the lure of the waters, to breathe in once and never again, a subject of sleep eternal. He struggled all the harder.
Then his head broke the surface. He pulled air into his lungs, went under again, then rose coughing. He clung to the rocks; it was all that saved him from a bad blow as the wooden bucket splashed directly beside him. Beyond the noise of the water, he heard Brittle frantically calling his name. He managed to shout.
“Grab the bucket!” the butler ordered.
“I have it!”
“Hold tight! Can you hold? Help is coming.”
What seemed like a long time passed, during which Carter thought he saw the walls of the well closing in all around him, the circle of light becoming smaller and smaller, as if he were at the end of a long tube that was gradually squeezing shut. Looking around, he saw this was not so, yet the claustrophobia nearly cost him his grip on the rope. He closed his eyes to shut it out, found that little better, then concentrated instead upon a patch of rust on the handle-plates of the bucket, that resembled a butterfly, wings outstretched. The water was icy cold.
He gave a cry of fear as another rope flopped into the well, mistaking it at first for a water snake. A man followed the rope, descending hand over hand, his feet slipping against the slick sides. Seeing it was not Brittle, he imagined for a moment that the Bobby had overcome the butler and was coming to seize him once more. But when the figure looked down, it was the slender face of Chant. The lampman lifted the boy from the water, one-handed, with surprising strength. Still, he could not support Carter all the way up, but placed him with his legs astraddle the bucket. At his word those above raised both bucket and boy, while he supported them from below. They ascended rapidly, and once above the lip, Carter found Enoch and two other servants manning the handle, while Brittle stood beside, biting his lip.
Enoch swept the boy into his arms, and they carried him inside, where he was given new clothes and taken swiftly to bed. His last memories before he fell into a troubled sleep was of his father, bending softly over him, examining his bruises and kissing his cheek.
Several hours later, after he had roused and eaten, he was brought into the dining room, where, to his surprise, he found all the many members of the household assembled: the House Steward, the Groom of the Chambers, Brittle’s assistants, the Housekeeper, housemaids, laundry maids, nanny, hall boy, the usher, even the valets and footmen. Enoch and Chant were there as well; Brittle stood by his master, still biting his lip. Lady Murmur sat imperiously in the little gold chaise; Duskin was not present.
Lord Anderson sat at the head of the dining table, the household seated down its length, Carter to his right. The silence of the room was palpable; the Master’s eyes held everyone so, with a simmering look like the fire Carter had beheld in them within the Room of Horrors, but mixed with another emotion he could not comprehend. When the lord spoke, his voice was flame and ash.
“You know what has happened. The Enemy gained entrance to the yard. He did so because the gate was left unlatched, unlocked. Whose neglect caused it?”
The company remained silent, eyes down, not in guilt, but that their master, who they loved, had been ill-served.
“Speak!” he cried, rising to his feet and striking the table a thunderous blow with his knobbed staff. All were startled, including Carter, and the maids gave little shrieks.
The fury diminished in the lord’s eyes; he sank back into his chair and rubbed his hands across his face. His voice softened. “You will forgive me if I am distraught. He is my son. I do not ask the question seeking retribution; I assure you there will be none. It is important to know. If the gate was not left open through neglect, then there is a traitor in our midst.”
Carter saw shock and horror on the servant’s faces, but his father’s blue eyes were cold now, and they stared straight at Murmur as he spoke. “I will interrogate each of you now, one by one, to see who might have passed through the gate. We must ascertain the truth of this.”
“I will speak first,” Chant said, “for I can say with certainty that the gate was locked last night after I lit the lamps. I am always careful, but yesterday evening more so; I do not know why. A premonition was on me, as sometimes happens.”
“Very good,” the Master said. “Then it was opened between the hours of eight o’ clock yesterday and ten this morning. We must see who else used it during that time.”
He questioned each of the servants, one after another, but always the answer was no; none had approached the gate, and this was little surprising, for it was seldom used, save by Chant. When all had been interrogated, he turned toward Murmur, saying, in a hard voice: “What of you, my lady?” A slight intake of breath went around the room, that the mistress of the house should be questioned.
“Am I a hired girl, to carry wash buckets beyond the yard?” she replied, her voice unnaturally jovial. “I never leave the house.”
Lord Anderson nodded. “Very well. Then I tell all of you to be watchful. The gate was left open not by accident. If you hear anything, no matter how trivial, bring it to me, or to Brittle. My son’s safety depends upon you all. You are dismissed. Carter, you will remain.”
When all the servants were gone, and the room empty except for the boy and his father, Lord Anderson drew his son to him. He held his small hand in his own two hands and spoke softly but earnestly.
“I have chosen poorly in Lady Murmur. You know that, don’t you?” Without waiting for a reply, he continued: “Duskin is my son as well; I love him equally, whatever his mother’s heart. Carter, you do not know the forces aligned against us; the Bobby was but one, the head of the Society of Anarchists, a group seeking to undermine the whole house. They wait beyond the Green Door, but I had thought to keep you safe within the Inner Chambers. I see now I cannot. Thus, I must send you away.”
“Away?” Carter cried. “Away where? For how long?”
“I do not know. Perhaps for many days.”
“But why? Have I been wicked? Is it because I took the Keys?”
“No. Even with the Master Keys the Bobby cannot easily enter here, not even into the garden. But the gate was left unlocked, and he was invited in. You were the target, you alone. It was not your fault that the Keys are gone; you were tempted and I was not vigilant, but there are consequences: I must seek the Keys now; they are too valuable. I have forces and armies at my disposal, but still I must be away often, perhaps weeks at a time; I must walk difficult, sometimes dangerous ways. With a traitor in the house, I cannot leave you unguarded; you must leave. We will tell no one where you are, save Brittle. You can always trust Brittle or Enoch. Chant as well. I will write, if I can. If the matter is not resolved, you may never see this house again, unless you become its Master.”
“But, am I not to be the Master? I am the oldest.”
“This is not a common house. It is not for me to say who will be its lord, though you would surely be my choice; you are your mother’s son, and I see her goodness within you. If you are worthy, you will be chosen; the house itself will choose. Murmur has never understood this, though I have tried to tell her often; her hunger for power is too strong. We will speak no more of it. One week we will spend together; I can afford no more, then you must go.”
True to his father’s word, they spent the week in sport. They held picnics in the walled yard, rode horses across the wide lawns, fished in the wide pond to the west, hunted fowl in the woods to the east, though they never left the yard through the narrow southern gate. They played hide and seek through the rooms of the house and tag amidst the hedge-rows. They wrestled on the lawns and threw one another, exhausted, upon the grass. And if a sudden sorrow came into the eyes of one of them, the other teased it away, and they played again. So they gave each other a going-away present.
At the midnight hour, when the week was passed, Brittle woke Carter from a sound sleep, carrying a meager lantern. “Your bags are packed, young master, except for the things you most treasure. Fetch them, for we leave within the hour.”
So Carter got his wooden soldiers, his wooden sword, and his small, framed picture of his mother, and put them all with his other things. Then he and Brittle went downstairs together, the lantern making their shadows bob.
His father met them in the drive and clasped his son roughly to him. “Brittle will drive. You will stay with an old friend of mine. He and his wife will treat you like their own. You must always be careful; if they know where you are, they will seek you. Remember I will always love you.”
So saying, he kissed his son, helped him into the carriage, and nodded to Brittle. The horses trotted forward, their hooves clopping on the cobblestones. Carter’s last sight of Evenmere was the shadow of his father, standing before its great shadow, until both man and house were lost in the shadows of the night.
He would not see it again for fourteen years.
© 1999 by James Stoddard. Not to be reproduced in any form what so ever without the express written permission of the author who has provided this for the use of Green Man Review.