My mind was nearly made up, but I would not be certain until I saw the house again.
The voice had not said where to meet it, so I thought I would seek the owner of the house without the aid of the owner of the voice. I would knock on the doors of the old businesses on the main street until someone pointed me in the right direction.
The neighborhood was beautiful in the daylight. The sun shone brightly as if it were still summer. The lake breeze burgeoned with that feeling of change that is so sweet in autumnal air. I followed the quiet southbound street to where it forked, and then I veered eastward. Suddenly my eyes were again filled with majesty. The house towered on the bluff. I stood in awe at its foot.
“Pretty place, wouldn’t you say?” the voice called from my left.
I turned to spy a short, squat figure straining up the old curvy road that wound up from the lake.
“Big place for a lone gentleman,” the voice rasped.
The squat person was out of breath. I guessed him to be asthmatic. He stood next to me now, well below my shoulder. His posture was indeed bowed by some injury. There was in fact a roundness to his upper back. An odor of decay accompanied his person. He was clad in an oversized wool greatcoat that fell to his ankles and bore a torn collar and holes in the sleeves and on the abdomen.
I was struck by the fact that he wore no hat.
He had long, thin, balding hair; small, sunken eyes; and fleshy jowls. I noticed a patch of golden stubble on the chin, but only on the chin—not on the cheeks, the neck, or the upper lip—and suddenly I was no longer certain of the person’s sex. There were neither trousers nor skirts visible beneath the greatcoat from which to garner a clue. There was an indication of a bosom that could have been feminine or could have been the result of masculine lumpishness. I could not ascertain whether I might have caused offense the night before by calling the person “sir.”
“You don’t speak much,” came the rasp I had been waiting for.
Surely, I had thought, the rasp will indicate the sex. But the voice I had assumed the night before to be masculine now rang in the crisp air with an ambiguous cadence: raspy, indeed, but with a subtle pitch that could have been feminine.
“My name is Morgan,” I said. I held out my hand.
The owner of the voice looked at my hand, then turned and shuffled westward, along the path I had crossed the night before.
“Pray hurry,” the person called without turning around. “It will be dark in an hour.”
I trotted to catch up, but the person did not stop to wait. It did not take long, however, for my long legs to gain on the person’s short ones.
When we reached the main street, I expected to turn right, but the person continued forward several blocks and led me to a small carriage house that was part of a larger property. The big house that reigned the property stood in a sickly manner: Its roof was in poor repair, and its siding bore a wound that had been only partially bandaged with mismatched wooden clapboards that appeared to have been salvaged from a number of different buildings.
The carriage house, though dilapidated too, was at least in one piece. Smoke piped from its chimney in a cozy manner. With a gesture, the person entreated me to knock. The word “Enter” resounded from within.
I opened the door, stepped in, and turned to allow my strange companion entry, when the door handle was pulled from my hand and the door slammed from the outside.
“Lumble!” my host exclaimed, then laughed a hearty laugh. “That cursed Lumble has the damnedest manners!”
My host was a large, robust, bearded man sitting in a chair by the fire on the opposite end of the snug, richly adorned room.
“Well! Come sit, come sit! Lumble says you’ve taken an interest in my house on the lake. I call it my house on the lake, though I have not inhabited it in forty years. But sit, sit! Come where you can warm yourself by the fire. Brandy?”
The large man was in his sixties. He had the appearance of having been stalwart in his youth, but his face, up close, was more wan than I anticipated by the vigor in his voice.
Upon closer inspection I saw that the chair he sat in was a wheelchair. A wool blanket was spread upon his lap. The end table at his elbow was strewn with bottles of health-giving powders. He poured two glasses of spirits from the decanter on the table and handed me one.
“Thank you, sir,” I said. “I, too, called your house the ‘house on the lake.’ Last night, when I tried to ask the man in the old pharmacy—”
“Dr. Herr!” my host exclaimed. “Deaf as a post. And stubborn as a mule. That’s why he remains! But tell me why you want to live so far from fashion, why you would give up safety and society to live in the drafty old mansion of sickly Uncle Griffin.”
“The house speaks to me in a way I can’t explain. I find it beautiful—”
“That it is! That it is! So you are one of the few.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand you, sir. Pray what do you mean?”
Mr. Griffin set his glass on the table and looked hard into my eyes. His voice was rich as an orator’s. “Let it just be said that we have two worlds: one which you live in now, and one which you wish to escape to. No one will stop you. One such as yourself, with delicate sensibilities and a gentlemanly manner, could not affect the status quo. No one will stop you, as I say. And I can only encourage you. But have you not a wife, Mr. ——?”
“Morgan, then. Have you not a young wife, or any kiddies, Mr. Morgan?”
“No, indeed. My fiancée changed her mind, and said she would not marry me.”
Mr. Griffin laughed again, heartily. “Changed her mind! Pray, why?”
“I—I—depressed her, she said.”
“Depressed her!” my host examined me with amusement in his dark eyes.
“My . . . dissatisfaction with my mode of living, you see. My wish for pleasanter lodgings. She thinks I should make my peace with my dull and—er—”
“Uninspiring surroundings? Pray don’t mistake me for one of those, like your former fiancée, who are unsympathetic to your sentiments, Mr. Morgan. I share your sensibility. I feel we must fight to preserve beauty. I fear ugliness; I fear for the future. I would fight a war, Mr. Morgan, to ensure that the spaces we build and inhabit never go to the dogs.”
I stared at Mr. Griffin with some measure of awe. I admired his courage, and simultaneously felt ashamed; for I knew that if there were a battle for beauty, I would take no place in any militia. I was bookish, solitary, and, I knew, cowardly.
“You may be stronger than you think, Mr. Morgan,” Mr. Griffin said, seeming to read my mind. “But that’s enough small talk, Mr. Morgan. We understand each other and I suppose you’ll want the key.”
He pointed to a china jar on the mantelpiece.
“Yes, fish it out of that urn, Mr. Morgan. Do not be shy. You have my permission.”
I took the key from the appointed vessel, and then resumed my seat by the fire, wondering about the rent.
“I was not happy in that house, Mr. Morgan. I was haunted by my demons. But my demons are not yours, Mr. Morgan, and I trust you will be content.”
He watched me with merry eyes.
“Now, about the rent. You are employed, I presume, Mr. Morgan?”
“I prepare the telegraph news.”
“But you do not collect it?”
“No. It is obtained by others. They send it over the wire and I prepare the copy.”
“Which is read by fools,” Mr. Griffin said bitterly. “To other fools.”
I took some offense at this—certainly Mr. Griffin’s thinking made me a fool, too. But quickly I dropped my feelings of offense: The news was indeed ill researched and limited in breadth. I could not be disheartened by the truth.
“You can only be changed by it,” Mr. Griffin said reflectively.
“What?!” I was astounded by Mr. Griffin’s seeming ability to read my mind.
“The house, Mr. Morgan. It may change you. You may grow happier.”
“Oh. I thought—”
“You thought what, Mr. Morgan?”
“Er—what shall I pay you in rent?”
Mr. Griffin considered the nine bedrooms, ten thousand square feet, and the lake view out loud, and quoted an astonishing sum that nearly stopped my breath.
“But you’re stark white, Mr. Morgan! You look like you’ve seen a ghost! I am making a joke, Mr. Morgan! When is the last time you laughed? Ha, ha! I like you, Mr. Morgan. I like you, my young friend, and I’m dying. I don’t care about money. Pay me a dollar per annum while I’m still alive, and I will leave the house to you in my will. I have no wife or children or siblings or family—my mother and father and brothers and sisters are all dead.”
“The same is true for me. But your proposal is not a fair one, Mr. Griffin. I can afford to pay you more than a dollar per—”
“A dollar is all I will accept, Mr. Morgan, and the house will be yours when I’m dead.”
“I beg your pardon, Mr. Griffin. Forgive me, but I cannot accept your offer. I must—”
Mr. Griffin interrupted me with a laugh, which evolved into a hacking cough. It took him several moments to recover himself, and then he slid his handkerchief into the pocket of his dressing gown and gazed at me with grave eyes. “A dollar is all I will accept, Mr. Morgan,” he repeated in a very sober tone.
“Now,” he continued, resuming his jovial pitch: “off you go to spend your last night in your shabby apartment. Bid adieu to your former fiancée, Mr. Morgan; tell her you will marry her still if she comes to her senses. Bring your things tomorrow; get a cat and a dog; and Lumble will help you get settled. Then we will leave you in peace and not bother you but once a year when your dollar is due.”
Again, I was astounded. My tongue had turned to cotton at the words.
“What is it, Mr. Morgan? Have you seen another ghost?”
“How . . . how did you know that I wanted a cat and a dog?”
“Anyone would need companionship in a lonely house, Mr. Morgan. Why not get one of each common domestic animal? The two will warm your feet in the cold.”
I stood to leave, thanking Mr. Griffin for his brandy and his generosity, but halfway across the room I was halted by a last question for which I could not think of tactful phrasing.
“Mr. Morgan?” Mr. Griffin called after me.
“What is your last question, Mr. Morgan?”
“Lumble . . . is Lumble a mister?”
Mr. Griffin threw his head back and laughed uproariously. When he recovered himself, his eyes were moist and merry.
“I could not say, Mr. Morgan. The answer is as unknown as the answer to the age-old question of what becomes of our souls when we die. To me Lumble is just Lumble. Lumble and no more. And certainly no less. Indeed, never underestimate our dear friend Lumble!”
Raucous laughter followed me to the door. I closed it quietly behind me.
As I strolled through the twilight, I reflected briefly on my eccentric new landlord, but soon my thoughts, like my feet, led me in the direction of my imminent dwelling. I felt certain that a last evening drink of the house would fill my heart with enough nourishment to sustain me through my final night in the world I was leaving behind.
Tomorrow I would begin my time in a new old world.