Curled in the chair, Jean watched his grandmother’s face glow in the wavering light of the fire as she prepared to continue. It was almost as though the flames before them were painting her with the expressions that she remembered and the fire itself was complicit in this telling, helping her to shape it as it moved the shadows around them. It cast her eyes in that same brilliant light that seemed to grow and wane with each new dimension she added to the tale. He shivered when he thought about how she told this story. It was almost as though she had been there. As if she had perhaps been standing there with these men all the while. He wanted to ask but he dare not. A draft from somewhere made the house sigh with creaks and groans like an old body that was settling in to listen as well. The flames themselves contorted and twisted with the breath that had moved about them all but settled as though it were ready to listen again. With that, his grandmother began again to tell the fate of these three unwise men.
At the top of the clearing and beyond the circle drive that had been left to go wild for an entire year, Jacob, George and Charlie had stood ready to claim their prize. They had brought heavy tools with which to pry precious artefacts off walls and out of safes. They had come expecting the doors to be barred. They had also come expecting the whole thing to take less time than it had. All three had known the dangers of the road leading up to the forbidden home but, as fools so often are, they were confident in their ability to make their way up to the space. Along the way they later found tools that had proven unhelpful after all. Axes that might have been used to help chop through doors and walls were stuck in the ice or discarded after they were broken. Small picks that helped them climb up that unforgiving embankment when someone had clearly gotten too curious about what might be lurking in the trees. Oh you need not ask if that was truly what it was. Had he been able to tell you himself, he might have been content to lie. He might have thought to tell you that it was simply a slip of the ice but you must know better. Already the dead of winter was calling these men to the house. It hungered for them so and they wanted so badly to give in already, they nearly did not make it up to see the prize as it loomed, large, dark and completely pitiless before them. I have no doubt that as they stood before the monster itself, they would have felt it but something more drove them. Something heavier than greed at that point and be sure that when your time arrives, you know the difference.
Surely by now, you know the trite rhyme that we all come hear in part. That cautionary tale that tells us that it was curiosity that killed the cat. Ah that may well be true but remember the part that people leave out. The part that would drive anyone to ignore the signals that these shadows had so generously given these men. Perhaps you might say that curiosity indeed killed the cat but, as the saying goes, satisfaction brought him back. There is not a single force in the world that is stronger than this need to know something. To pierce through that which separates us from the things we want, or more importantly, what we wish to know. It must certainly have been the case for these men as they made their way up that treacherous path and found themselves standing in the gloom of that doorway at last light on Christmas Eve.
I’m sure that they assumed that they would be greeted to a great hall that was covered in tapestries and gold leaf paper. That there would be nothing but riches to greet them and opulence that might be waiting for their twitching fingers to caress and snatch like the thieves they thought they were. Alas, they found that the house had been covered in sheets, much of his treasures being placed in storage somewhere in the house after Victor’s death. They entered the empty foyer and into the main hall where they saw nothing but furniture that had been shrouded as though it would keep the dust off forever. Since the house had already started to ache and shift with the lack of maintenance, there were gaps in the windows and cracks that needed mending already. I can almost feel myself the draft that had whistled through those breaks in the foundation and found their way through, making a biting breeze each time that wicked wind blasted and rattled those windows a little more. It would make things shift and move too. The sheets hung awkwardly off the edges of the pieces that they were supposed to protect and looked like nothing more than cheap ghosts that decorated the storefront windows during Halloween. The bitter wind that day that might have taken them off the road or frozen them in their determined tracks on the circle drive echoed through the empty rooms causing the roosting birds to flutter about above them. Vacant and cold, this might have been where anyone else would have abandoned this wretched plan but as I have said, at least one could not allow his curiosity to go unsatisfied. One of the three who could not be convinced to let go of this need, though at this point even he would be hard pressed to tell you what truly drove him on, and it was he who spurred the others on when their courage began to fail. When the doors so willingly opened to them and that foyer led to that large, hollow, echoing room of bitter winter air, they should have turned but it was too late.
At the back of that room, one could find themselves wandering towards the frozen core of the atrium, the place where Victor once found solitude. It was a dazzling room at the height of its grandeur. From the main room, you stepped from that set of double doors to a terrace that looked out over the whole of the interior garden Victor had created. There were vast vaulted ceilings above that were clear, thick glass. Standing there was akin to being under the open sky, surrounded by a cradle of splendor. Victor had first created it when he had been forced to accept his dependence on that awful cane that he so hated. He had a beautiful walking garden that once connected to the atrium but during the long winters, he could not stand to be so hampered by the weather and his beloved atrium was his only escape into a world that was kinder and filled with something beautiful that he could touch and be touched by. He only loved and cared for it more with the arrival of his beloved wife. So much he loved her that he dedicated the entire room to any plant that charmed her or brought a smile to her lips. She spent many hours amid the plants, taking in their delicate perfumes and it was said that the peace that it brought her to be in this room was what made her so radiant. A beauty that she passed on to her children when they were born. It was a very special place that he had built in the house and it was where he often sought solace when his world had been especially cruel to him. It was in this room that he mourned when his wife died. Where he came to be relieved of the pains of loss or when he was overwhelmed by fatherhood. Here he would have heard the voice and the mysterious echo that would not cease until he was gone. It was here that when I was just a girl, I can recall with vivid clarity that I heard it for the first time. That excruciatingly beautiful voice and the sound of life that would echo through that house.
The core that made the house course with vitality would have been silent then but there was a time that house beat with life as we live now. It had a core that would not still and anyone who had been there could hear it. In that atrium when I was there as a girl, I heard for the first time that house had a heart that still beat steadily. When I stood there, marvelling at the sound, I could hear the voices of that garden. Oh how sweet they will sound and I assure you, it will be the first time you will feel something like love. That sound, that beautiful sound, will bewitch you. I promise you this because I know that sound. Sometimes at night, I still hear it myself, whispering its beautiful lies and sweetened promises to me. It will haunt you too, my darling. It will find you when you ache in your younger years. It will taunt you when you grow older as you mature and see the world through different eyes. Maybe, if you live long enough, it will even come to you in those bitter moments when the younger years are far behind you and you find yourself mourning all that you once had. It will come then and quicken your heart in a way that will feel the same as when you look upon the face of one you might love for the first time. I can see in your eyes that you are innocent to that shattering moment when your mind crumbles at the sight of that one person. I will not spoil it for you because it is a pain that we all face down but it is a beautiful, precious feeling that stings so strongly, you’ll never want it to end. It is the most enduring and exquisite ache in the world and that voice, that wretched alluring voice, knows every note that your heart will sing on that day.
Such was the fate of our poor indebted George Canter. Think of the sights he must have seen as his heels clicked along the tiled floor and echoed around. The darkening room with the broken sky light above providing only a halo of light in the middle of that empty floor As the others were content to continue the facade of looking for treasures amid the fluttering dusty sheets, he was being called by a mysterious lullaby. To the atrium he was summoned and much like a man in love, he followed eagerly. Oh how sweet it must have sounded to him to be able to call over the sound of that howling wind that was echoing through the cracks in the windows in that lonely house. How it must have been promising such beautiful things and such magnificent fortunes to pull him so quickly. Considering what was to come, I can only imagine how much contempt the house held for such a man and his greed. I’m told that he had been wandering like a drunkard, stumbling forward toward that door like it was the last salvation. The others were only alerted to the ill-fated man’s fatal error when his hands fell upon the large doors and threw them open with reckless abandon. The last light had sunk into the horizon and the colors painted on the evening sky burst forth into the room as he flung himself into the open arms of the atrium. Onto the terrace he walked in a trance and forward into the curled, cold graveyard of plant life where the railing had rusted and failed to stop his descent. So fell the man who was drowning in debts that he’d promised everyone he met but that did not stop his fall. To this day, his lullaby continues and still he searches for the its source. For its cruel promises that he can no longer claim. George, fool that he was, is of the luckier sort in this tale, I’m afraid. The other two men came to far different ends.
A good man might have seen the fall of his comrade and friend and may well have seen fit to mourn or even attempt to help him. The house knew better than this you see. These men had come up there as one group but each was filled with visions in his mind of what he might do to increase his chances of having more of the share of wealth for himself. It was a fool’s errand, of course. There is more in that house to this day than any group of men could carry, nevermind a group of only three in the midst of a winter snow storm. The house itself cared little for its treasures. It was well aware of its real riches and it had received the gift of more now that these men had come to call. Like a bee come to the scent of the beautiful, deadly roses, these three had arrived and there were no tears to be shed for the loss of one. The house then responded by ensuring that the remaining two would not leave. Their shadows must stay to keep the house company and feed it more tales of woe.
Our greedy barber was next to fall prey to the house and its tricks. Jacob Lord had long wanted to live a life that was fitting for his name. He had, since he was a child, boasted of the things that he would do when he left Courtland County. He had schemed to find wealth long before this but there were tales of the methods by which he tried and failed to create the fortune that he so lusted after. As the years rolled by, he was not a poor man but it was not enough and it had left him a bitter and selfish man. His means for finding more money left many people in his wake feeling the string of his greed as he used them until he could not be satisfied by them any longer. When Charlie and George had come to call, he answered with an eagerness that they should have been wary of. They should have understood what all who dealt with him would know eventually. He was a man who, given the chance, would take everything he could for himself and leave the rest to fend with whatever scraps he could not carry. It had been his method when he had lived in town and it was his plan upon climbing that wretched hill to the house. When George had taken his fatal fall into the plants of the atrium, Jacob felt no need to pause their operation to retrieve him or lament his death. Instead he suggested that they simply avoid anything with the plant life and continue on. They would take for themselves the treasure that would now be split between the two of them and poor old George would simply take the blame. Charlie, being a man of less character, agreed to his callus change of plans and they agreed to part ways to explore the two wings of the house, Jacob to the west wing and Charlie to the east.