I woke from a dream of Catherine Bellefey.
She had been standing in the doorway of her father’s house, her hand poised in farewell as it had been on my last visit, when she had told me, with tears in her eyes, that she could not marry me.
I felt throughout the dream — as I had felt in waking life — steeped in grief; but for the end, which was tinged with a feeling of hope that saturated my bones when I woke.
I had not felt such promise since the spring, when I had hastened every afternoon on my way home from the office with great anticipation to meet Miss Bellefey in the park and stroll with her toward her house.
Presently I pursued that delicious feeling of renewed pleasure.
It was elusive; it undulated; and yet it lingered, pulling me toward it and enticing me to chase it.
But at length I was roused from that sensation of content by distant tapping.
I had hired a workman to bring the crates that contained my remaining books and personal effects. I expected that he was at the door, and that Mrs. Jameson had arrived and would admit him.
But when, after a pause, the tapping resumed and showed no sign of being met with a housekeeperly greeting, I rose, put on my dressing gown, and ambled to admit the man myself.
I had just approached the door when I heard the familiar rasp.
“Meester!” the voice called.
I peered through the glass and was alarmed not at the sight of Lumble — who I had been half expecting, for the person had not yet collected the rent — nay, not at the sight of tattered Lumble lurking on the pathway — but at the disarray of the yard.
I will always remember the sight of the wild bracken, the deadened lawn, and the broken branches strewn about the path — all bewildering components of a peculiar composition that was set against the cheerful backdrop of a fine bright sun hovering above the glistening lake.
Lumble was in the midst of casting a pebble at the siding below the bay room when I opened the door.
The person let a reserve of pebbles drop from a sooty paw and shuffled up the path to the foot of the porch. I believed the pebbles to have been the cause of the tapping, having been pitched in lieu of an ordinary knock on the door.
Lumble was dressed as the day before: hatless, in a long and grubby greatcoat.
Long, lank hair flapped in the breeze, and flat eyes assessed me with an unfavorable appraisal.
“Good morning, Lumble. I am pleased to see you. I have had the most —”
“Eventful night?” came the rasp.
“Indeed!” I replied. Alarm and fatigue rendered me uncharacteristically effusive. “Very eventful indeed. It was, in fact, a series of the oddest —”
“Your new pup is to your liking, I trust.”
Emma had descended the steps and was sniffing my guest’s greatcoat.
“Oh, yes, very much,” I replied.
As I spoke I became aware of how distressed I was. It caused me unnatural exuberance.
“Judging by her appearance — she is quite undernourished, is she not? — I believe she must have been astray for some time. The storm must have made her seek refuge at last. Indeed, what a storm!”
“A storm,” Lumble repeated. “Strange weather, then?”
“Strange weather, indeed! Did its power not alarm you? Are you not amazed by its effects?”
I gestured toward the wind-torn trees and the timbers that covered the path.
The lawn appeared to have grown inches from the rain, as a lawn grows rapidly in spring, though the grass was not the fresh green of tender April shoots. It was, in fact, rather like straw, and it possessed the same appearance of overgrowth and neglect that it had displayed until the day before. And upon closer observance, it became clear that, beneath the strewn branches, the pathway was again cracked. Weeds had begun to creep between its fissures.
Lumble said nothing, and merely observed me through sunken eyes, which seemed to bear an expression of — was it amusement?
I found myself continuing to chatter nervously to compensate for Lumble’s silence and strange manner.
“I’m afraid your industrious efforts of yesterday have been foiled. Forgive me, I presume they were your efforts. Were they indeed? You do not care to say? Well, I thank you nevertheless. It was more than I expected, for Mr. Griffin did not mention that the grounds would be tamed. Indeed, I would have taken the house with the grounds as they were — as, indeed, they are again. I might have hired a groundsman. Which reminds me — speaking of domestic efforts (and of surprises, indeed!), at what time does Mrs. Jameson arrive in the mornings?”
“Mrs. Jameson,” Lumble repeated, as if the name were unfamiliar.
“Indeed, Mrs. Jameson. The housekeeper. At what time shall I expect her?”
“Whatever time you fancy, I suppose.”
“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”
A wry smile passed over the mouth of the caretaker.
“There is no housekeeper,” came the rasp.
Lumble seemed to take delight in this claim.
I was oblivious to the joke.
“Pardon me? No housekeeper? Lumble, you are pulling my leg! Mrs. Jameson opened the door for me yesterday afternoon. I was certainly astonished, as Mr. Griffin had made no mention of her. But she had attended to the interior, and had prepared roast beef and tea…”
Lumble’s chortle morphed into a rasp.
“Perhaps I know of Jameson. A white-haired woman, was she? Quite aged?”
“Indeed! She’s quite aged! How you frightened me, Lumble. Thank heavens you know of her! Yes, Mrs. Jameson is indeed quite aged.”
Lumble did not respond.
I became aware, then, on a westward breeze from the lake, of an odd smell emanating from Lumble’s person. A smell of decay. A perfume of garments that had been lived in day and night for some time. It did not appear that the strange personage was well compensated by Mr. Griffin.
“Come in, Lumble,” I said, “and I will pay you the rent.”
I gestured for Lumble to enter, but the person merely stood before the portico with an expression of patient irritation.
“All right,” I said, “I’ll just retrieve the rent quickly then.”
I crossed the threshold and ascended the stairs quickly, my hand making an imprint in the dust on the banister. The amount of debris that had settled overnight was inconceivable.
When I noticed the cobwebs in the corners of the gallery, I wondered if Lumble had not been jesting after all, if there was indeed no housekeeper, if I had in fact imagined Mrs. Jameson and her efforts of the day before.
But I had seen her with my eyes!
I retrieved twenty dollars — an amount I deemed fair for a year’s occupation of such a strange house with such peculiar attendants — but Lumble would not accept it.
“’Tis not the amount agreed upon,” came the rasp.
“I suppose you want a mere dollar, then?”
“’Tis what he expects.”
“Indeed, Mr. Griffin was firm about the matter. I only thought —”
“A dollar is all he will accept, Mr. Morgan.”
I first observed that the person took delight in mocking Mr. Griffin’s words. I then recalled that the person had not been present when the words were uttered.
“I beg your pardon?”
A whitish tongue slid over blackish teeth. “The master requires a smaller sum.”
“You’re quite right,” I said.
I ascended the stairs again, retrieved a silver dollar, sprinted back downstairs, and deposited the coin in a slender, yet cankered paw that bore remarkably long fingernails.
Payment complete, the person turned away wordlessly and shuffled — the overly long greatcoat swaying left to right — over the branches and down the cracked path toward the street.
“Wait!” I cried, for I intended to query Lumble on a number of topics — among them the workings of the doors and locks, the ownership of the lady’s chamber, and the possibility of hidden passageways — not to mention the identity of the woman at my bedside — but Lumble continued shuffling.
“Halt! Lumble! Please!”
I hurried to catch the person.
A branch caught in my slipper and threw off my footing.
I regained my balance and ran to the corner, but there was no one in sight.
No soul in any direction.
Any hope I had had of dissolving the mysteries of the house had vanished for the moment, for —
“We won’t disturb you but once a year when your dollar is due,” Mr. Griffin had said.
But my landlord had not explicitly said not to disturb him.
I was loath to make unnecessary visits, but I felt that I must call upon Mr. Griffin in the afternoon to pursue answers to the questions that were mounting.
Soon the clatter of wheels and clapping shoes resounded in the air.
A cart drove up, and the workman dismounted and began unloading my crates.
“A storm then, eh?”
“Quite the storm, indeed,” I replied.
He then amazed me by remarking that there had been no storms in his own neighborhood a mile away.
“No storms? Any wind?”
“Old houses… they are strange,” were his only words.
“Indeed,” I agreed. “This house is stranger than I expected.”
“The whole neighborhood’s been different since the war,” the man said. “Didn’t know anyone still lived here.”
His cart now empty, he began loading fallen branches into it, and I followed suit. Together we filled his barrow, then hauled my crates across the cleared path and up to my sitting room.
The man’s account of the weather in his neighborhood had been surprising enough, but when I engaged him to assist me in moving a heavy oak table from one of the rooms on the south wing into the bay room, I was struck by a new discovery.
Facing the windows with half the table’s weight in my hands, I noticed that the floorboards of the bay room were neither damp nor water-stained.
I nearly lost my grip of the table.
The room had been flooded the night before.
Had Mrs. Jameson arrived early and attended to the interior effects of the storm? If she had, then where was she now, and why hadn’t she greeted Lumble?
Such questions, compounded by every other baffling event associated with the house, spread before me like storm clouds.
I asked the man, “Would you expect flooded floorboards to dry on their own overnight?”
“Doesn’t seem likely.”
“Would you believe that this room was drenched last night?”
The man smiled. “I reckon I would. As I said, old houses are strange.”
Once having paid the man, seen him out, and called in vain once more for Mrs. Jameson, I sat down at the table with my manuscript, a pen, and fresh paper.
I gazed out the window and took in the view of the lake, large as an ocean, spreading beyond the ruin of the yard.
While the house dismayed me, the view satisfied me.
As did the fact that I managed to draft a few paragraphs before making my way to The Scrivener.