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 bright 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 gentle sensation of content by distant tapping.
I recalled that I had hired a workman to bring the crates that contained my remaining books and personal effects; I expected that perhaps he was at the door. I anticipated that Mrs. Jameson had arrived early and would admit the chap, 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, in a state of somnolence (for I had slept little), 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—whom I had been half expecting, for the person had not yet collected the rent—nay, not at the sight of tattered and strange Lumble lurking on the pathway—but at the violent 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.
The contrast was perturbing.
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 close to the bay room’s windows in lieu of an ordinary knock on the door.
Lumble, or he—for so I determined that very moment to deem him a he, as caretakers were rarely women—was dressed in the same manner as he had been the day before: hatless, in a long and grubby greatcoat. His long, lank hair flapped in the breeze, and his flat eyes assessed me with, I believed, an unfavorable appraisal.
I greeted him amicably.
“Good morning, Mr. Lumble. I am pleased to see you. I have had the most—”
“Eventful night?” came the rasp.
“Indeed!” I replied.
I found that my alarm and my fatigue had rendered me uncharacteristically effusive.
“Very eventful indeed. You’re quite right. 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 indeed!” I replied.
As I spoke I became aware of how disturbed I was by the events of the night before. It caused me unnatural loquaciousness.
“She quite suits me,” I continued. “Judging by her appearance—she is quite emaciated, is she not?—I believe she had been astray for some time. I believe the storm must have made her seek refuge at last. Indeed, what a storm! All is quite a mess, is it not?”
“The storm,” Lumble repeated, a bit dumbly, I thought. “Strange weather, then?”
“Strange weather, indeed! Did its violence not alarm you? Are you not amazed by the effects of the storm?”
I gestured toward the wind-torn trees and the timbers that covered the path. The lawn appeared to have grown five 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, yellowed and rather like straw, and it possessed the same appearance of overgrowth and neglect that it had displayed until the day before. Further, upon closer observance, it became clear that, beneath the strewn branches, the pathway—which yesterday had been repaired—was again quite cracked. Weeds had begun to creep between its fissures.
Lumble said nothing; he 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 his silence and his strange manner.
“I’m afraid that your industrious efforts of yesterday have been foiled,” I observed. “Forgive me, I presume they were your efforts. Were they indeed? You do not care to say? Well, I thank you nevertheless. For seeing to the maintenance of the grounds, that is. Whether personally or in a position of oversight. 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 now . . . that is, again. Er… perhaps I might have even seen to the grounds myself (or, more likely, I must admit, I might have hired a groundsman). That reminds me—speaking of domestic efforts—and of surprises—at what time shall I expect Mrs. Jameson 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?”
Lumble emitted what appeared to be a snicker.
“Whatever time you fancy, I suppose.”
“Pray, Mr. Lumble,” I urged, “please explain—I do not follow.”
A wry smile passed over the mouth of the caretaker. His teeth were quite black.
“There is no housekeeper,” he rasped.
He seemed to take delight in this claim.
I was oblivious to the joke.
“Pardon me? No housekeeper? No housekeeper, indeed? Why, Mr. Lumble, you are pulling my leg! Surely! Indeed, Mrs. Jameson opened the door for me yesterday afternoon. She had made a fire; she had polished the woodwork; a hot supper awaited me upstairs…”
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, Mr. Lumble! Thank heavens you know of her! Of course—Mrs. Jameson is quite aged indeed!”
Lumble did not respond.
I became aware, then, on a westward breeze from the lake, of an odd smell emanating from his person. A smell of feculence. A fragrance 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 in the tattered greatcoat was well compensated by his employer.
“But where are my manners? Come in, Mr. Lumble, and I will pay you the rent.”
I gestured for Lumble to enter, but he did not move. He merely stood before the portico with an expression of patient irritation.
“I take it you do not wish to enter? Perhaps I’ll just retrieve the rent quickly then.”
Lumble said nothing.
“But please do come in if you’d like, I entreat you, sir.”
I ascended the stairs quickly, my hand making an imprint in the dust on the banister. The amount of debris that had settled overnight seemed near to impossible.
When I noticed the cobwebs in the corners of the gallery I faintly 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 domestic efforts of the day before. But of course I had not imagined her. I had seen her with my own eyes!
I retrieved twenty dollars—an amount I deemed fair for a year’s occupation of such a strange house—with such unpredictable attendants—but Lumble would not accept it.
“’Tis not the amount agreed upon,” came the rasp.
“I suppose you want a mere dollar, then!” I exclaimed.
“’Tis what he expects.”
“Indeed, Mr. Griffin was quite 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 of two evenings before. 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.”
“Ah,” I said. “Indeed.”
I regarded Lumble with an expression of what I’m sure was nothing less than bewilderment. He did not take the opportunity to explicate his position.
“Well,” I said. “I see. One moment.”
I ascended the stairs again as Lumble remained on the path. He made no move to mount the steps and enter the house.
I retrieved a silver dollar, sprinted back downstairs to my guest, and deposited the coin in his surprisingly slender, yet cankered paw—which bore curiously long fingernails—and, without a word, the person turned abruptly and shuffled—his 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 question the person on a number of topics—among them the workings of the doors and the 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. I thought I glimpsed the grey of a gown beneath the greatcoat as the garments swept against the wan cypress tree at the edge of the property.
“Halt! Lumble! Please!”
I hurried to catch the person. A branch caught in my slipper and tripped my footing. Quickly I regained my balance and pursued Lumble, but when I reached the corner, there was not a soul in sight.
I reproved myself for not querying the caretaker sooner. My dismay at the situation had overshadowed my thoughts and my tongue, and I had missed my chance. Any hope I had had of dissolving the mysteries of the house had vanished, 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, in order to pursue answers to the tide of questions that was mounting.
* * * * *
Soon the clatter of wheels and clapping shoes resounded in the morning air, a cart drove up, and the workman dismounted and began unloading my crates and stacking them beside his cart.
At length he scowled at the branches and began stacking them in a heap in his cart. I was compelled to assist him.
“A storm then, eh?” the man grunted.
“Quite the storm, indeed,” I replied.
The fellow then amazed me by remarking that there had been no storms in his own neighborhood, a few blocks from the house on the lake.
“No storms?” I repeated. “But how could that be?”
“Old houses… they are strange, sir,” were his only words.
Then he hoisted three crates as if they were made of air and strode up the cleared path toward the house.
I followed his steps carrying one crate, and we deposited them in my sitting room, from whence I intended to later distribute the contents to their appropriate places.
The workman’s account of the weather had been alarming enough, but when I further 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 freshly unnerved by a remarkable fact.
Facing the windows with half of the table’s weight in my hands, I noticed that the floorboards of the bay room were neither damp nor waterstained.
I nearly lost my grip of the table.
The sight was inconceivable, for 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? Had the floor in fact dried overnight naturally, without the aid of cloths or rags?
Such questions, compounded by the events of the night before, the morning’s discourse with Lumble, and Lumble’s sudden dissipation, crowded my mind like storm clouds spreading across a darkening sky.
“Pray, sir,” I inquired of the workman, “do you estimate that flooded floorboards could dry overnight? If the water were neither absorbed with cloths nor removed by the bucket?”
“I reckon it depends on how much water there is.”
“Say it were a few inches of water.”
“I reckon that amount would not dry overnight.”
“Would you believe, sir, that this room was in fact flooded last night?”
The man smiled to himself. “I reckon I would, sir. As I said, old houses are strange, sir.”
The man was matter-of-fact—nonchalant—but I was dismayed.
I deemed it better to focus my concentration instead on the placement of the table before the bay windows.
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, which spread majestically beyond the ruin of the yard.
The distant vision satisfied me, as did the fact that I managed to scribble a few paragraphs before shaving, dressing, and making my way to the office.