The fire blazed with a brilliance that seemed to make the room feel too bright and like the darkness was getting deeper around them all at once. Jean had curled into the chair and watched his grandmother with rapt attention. He listened eagerly as she watched these memories pass before her eyes. At this last revelation, however, she paused before taking a breath to continue. She seemed to glance at the darkness around them the same as he’d done himself when he arrived. It was as though she was waiting for the shadows to come here now. Jean wondered if they had designs on turning out the lights in this house as well. Before he could think too long on this idea, his grandmother began to speak again.
It was the day before Christmas that the men who would have played treasure hunters came to that terrible road and found their way through the perilous path in the forest. Our foolish friends were none other than Jacob Lord, a barber who had long spoken of his intention on leaving Courtland County for greener pastures, George Canter, a man well known in these parts for his love of gambling and even more well known for his debts, and Charlie Burton, a man who had prided himself on never having a job for longer than a whole month. While hard times had fallen on Jacob, the other two were well known around town for their money woes. Though there is no proof of the matter, it is said that Charlie had been the one to spur the others into action. He had followed the story of the house in the forest hills. He had dreamed out loud for anyone who might have listened about the bounty that could be had within the walls of that house. Though it hardly matters who was the one to start the train of thought, the end result was the same. These three found each other and one night, they made a pact to seek out what everyone else was busy trying to attain through legal channels. They boasted loudly that the method was easy to see. While no one was there to stop them, they would just take what they so desired and leave the rotten house for everyone else to fight over in the end. They had chosen their day carefully, knowing that Courtland County would be busy with its celebrations to concern itself with them. The snow storm that arrived only aided in keeping local attention away from them as the township struggled to dig themselves out of the snow and the cold.
However lucky they might have thought themselves for evading the local authorities when making their way to the house, the weather had conspired to make this hunt a particularly difficult one for them and it was already a fool’s mission if ever there was one. It’s a long road through the forest to get to the mansion, you understand, and it has many areas that are extremely dangerous to travel on. Even during Victor’s lifetime, there were many years where the winter winds would trap the household staff there for days as the road became littered with deadly obstacles that could not be moved until the skies cleared. Such things are no match for the wants of those who seek riches they think might be free, however. These three men, they were determined to get to the house. The call of all those beautiful items that were collecting dust were just too much for them to ignore. While the museum proprietor fought to have the house’s contents added to their collection and yet another wealthy family insisted that the land must be up for grabs if not entirely able to be declared part of their adjoining grounds, these three men had decided on this suicidal mission of most directness and they were determined to ignore the dangers that might get in the way. They were to break into the house and pillage as much as they could lay their hands on. So obsessive they had become about this quest that they put their very lives at risk. This should tell you in no exaggeration how important this house was to those in this township. If you understand how very prized the idea of the house and its contents were to the living, imagine how important they became to the dead.
I have seen those woods, my darling, as you will one day too. There is a darkness that cannot be broken up in that forest. Places where the sun has not seen nor has the heat touched in many years. And in the winter, the snow piles thick on the forest floor, sinking in spots high enough to swallow you in that achingly frozen darkness. But nightfall, it’s terrible up there. Those shadows seem to seep right out of the ground and gather in corners that would welcome them. And what could be more welcoming than an empty house that has seen so much torment over the years? I imagine with how much more tragedy this county has seen since my youth, that road and the house will likely be darker still by the time that you see it. Pay heed to me now, child, and remember to be on your guard when your turn comes. Beware what you see in between the trees. I remember well my own travels up that road and the way the eyes appeared to me. Staring out of that sickeningly thick darkness, their terrible curiosity would drive one to madness if they saw them too often. I can only imagine the horrid things that stalked those three fools as they made their way up that sloping drive in all its treacherous miserable glory. How difficult it must have been to climb such a ruined pathway through that sinister collection of naked, skeletal trees. As I’ve said before, however, greed has a way of blinding its victims and in this case, it was a rather effective motivator in getting the small group through the pitfalls of the landscape. It is true that they made it but only barely. Thinking now, however, I think perhaps that ominous presence in the forest wanted them to see what was waiting. Perhaps, if I believe it to be cruel enough, it was even helping them, though not so much as assisting. It would have been better if they had never made it to that house. The worst was yet to come, you see. While they were content to believe that the trail and all the hardship they had suffered through was behind them, they set their sights on the house without realizing that they were now standing in its darkened and uncompromising gaze. Not only this, they had the full attention of everything around it.
One thing you must truly realize if you are to come to that house and walk away is that you must recognize certain truths about this cursed county. It is not enough to know that the ground is tainted and there is nowhere in this place that is not corrupt. No, there are no safe spots or havens to hide and if there were, there would no doubt be a pool of shadows to find refuge there. There is no space like this for the living. Long ago, well before Victor’s arrival or even possibly his birth, there was much blood already spilled in the pursuit of these lands. The ground itself soaked it in and created something fertile but with a lasting sense of malice that grows all about. It taints the soil, the plants, the water and everything else. There have been days when I look to the sky above the town and wonder if that too is touched with the rage that lives in this space. And if you leave it for long enough, it becomes stronger. It does not simply dissipate into the air but rather it pools and creates something bigger. It fills the space it can occupy and it waits. For a whole, long year, that house waited for these three men, Jacob, George and Charlie. Upon their arrival, the house greeted them to that tragically beautiful perfume and they should have known then to abandon their avarice there in the snow. The scent of roses, you see, is the one that poisoned the air the day the ground burnt to cover the tracks of those who had done wrong. The scent of roses was thick in the air when the shadows welcomed Victor into their eager, loving arms. It would soon welcome many more to come as the three men trudged through the snow towards those columns and that shadowy archway.
Think of what it must have been like, child. Walking in that deep snow, the winds no different than today but up there, it would have been so much worse. You see, that clearing up there has a meadow where there is nothing to stop the brutal force of winter as it blasts across the snow, turning the top of it to ice that would crackle when stepped on. Each step they took in that deep driving snow announcing their coming and how eager that house must have been to receive them if they made it through that mess. The three men found their way across where the circle drive once was, across that snowy wasteland and past the large fountain that had already began to fall into disrepair as that year passed. Have you never seen it? Oh I imagine it looks horrid now but then, it once had faces on it. Lovely faces carved in the stone that looked out from behind the cascades of water that flowed down from the blossom of spout at the top. There were places for the water to flow around those faces when it was in its prime, making the flow of water look like their hair and pooling below. It was beautiful to look at once and quite a peaceful place. Then when the house went dark, I cannot imagine anyone took the time to cover it. After a year, that spout that had been the spring the water was already well rusted as were the places where the water trailed down the stone. And the places where the water had once touched those blank faces had already begun to leave rust marks, dark and red, trailing down those faces. I can’t imagine anyone being able to see those dark red tear stains trailing down those weathered faces and think that they should go on to that house. But continue on they did and the house opened its arms to these invaders.
Fighting their way across that perilous walkway, they found the door by the time the sun was low in the sky. Can you think of what it would be like to spend the last light of this holiday standing there, my darling? Not but two days past the shortest day of the year and here these three fools stood, hoping to find beautiful treasures to bring something better for the new year ahead. Ah but you already know, clever child that you are, that there is nothing bright to be gained in such selfish acts. They came to pillage and as such, they brought the means to open the house by force but there was no need. There were no locks, you see, as the house would not need them. The house and those fearful shadows within did not want to keep these men out, after all. They wanted them inside. They wanted to have them come in and hear the real treasure that was kept in that darkness.
The fire before them crackled but seemed too dim for Jean as he watched in silence. He had barely noticed that his grandmother had paused in her tale, too lost in thinking about what she had told him. Often over the last few years, he had thought of that house and what it would be like to see it in person. A part of him had wanted to so badly, he had dreamt of the chance to sneak away. In his childish hopes, he’d once even thought of trying to ride his bike up that long grown over path and trying to find a way there in the height of summer. Hearing this story now, he was grateful he had not. No amount of youthful hope could stand against the images currently swimming in his mind. To think of these men making their way up that sloped hill to get there in the middle of winter. He shivered just at the thought. And the darkness. Jean had never even considered such a thing before but he thought of it now. He thought of what it would be to have that gloom from the library trailing after him, closing behind him. To think of what it would have been like when there was no piles of books nor any spaced out shelves but densely packed trunks standing together, the depths of which were sitting in a deep ditch of long grass poking out of a large depth of snow making it seem shallow. And the dark between those trunks, getting darker as the sun got lower and lower as the day wore on. The darkness that he could not see into but he felt like something was there nonetheless. As if he expected the monster to have found him, he looked behind him at the door again and was relieved to see he was still in the house but it was still so dark there. That doorway was still shrouded in shadow and he swore that it seemed darker than it had before.
“How do you know such things, Grandmother? How do you know what the forest looked like?”
“Oh I saw such things many times, child,” she sighed, looking at him for what felt like the first time since she began this story. “I lived in that house for a great many years before I left and saw the shadows gather over the time that I was there. They had started even before I was there and continued long after I left. I know how haunted Victor had become by the time that he had died. It was inevitable that such things should happen but, much like Victor himself, I became used to this.”
“But you could not know what it was that these men saw when they entered the house,” Jean protested. He cringed a bit at the thought. “You don’t know for certain, right?”
“I know exactly what they saw when they entered, child,” she said, looking at the fire again. Her face was a mask of seriousness and he knew that she would tell the truth.
“Is it what I will see?” he asked timidly.
“Not if you are careful,” she sighed. Her eyes flared with a kind of brightness that he rarely saw and she took a breath to start again. “That house, you see, is always hungry and after that year, it was starving. It had waited for so long and these three men came willingly into his darkened maw. What they saw is no mystery to me, however. If you know these things, you will not suffer the same fate.”