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Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Black Rose (novel) : Chapter 1

CHAPTER 1 – The Castle/New Beginnings
“In the middle of our life’s path I found myself in a dark forest, where the straight way was lost.”
Dante, Inferno, Canto I, verse 1-3

She looked up at the thing looming high before her and shivered. It was nothing like she had expected, it was worse, much worse. The same look was in her brother’s eyes. She clasped his hand and squeezed it reassuringly, with as consoling a smile as she could possibly muster. With a heavy heart, they mounted the hill.

The castle towered over them so that it almost recoiled, as if their mere presence was an insult. She repressed a shrug and sighed, silently so Julian wouldn’t hear, counting steps to blot out her thoughts. Thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three.
Her uncle was somewhat of a hermit; it was talked off with muffled voices at family parties he stopped attending when she was seven. Though she never mentioned him, mother kept a chair for her brother each time. Eliza had never knew if she ought to believe what they said about him, but now she realized she should have.
Fifty-four, fifty-five, fifty-six. Her feet were reluctant, but in an attempt to clear her head she forced them to pick up the pace with Julian hobbling after her trying to keep up. She wished she could keep her hand from shaking when she lifted a thousand pounds to ring the doorbell. A low jingle, almost as dark as the walls, resonated.
They shuffled at the entrance till an elderly lady in grey opened the door. She harshly commanded them – there was not even a hint of request in her barky voice – to follow her. They hesitated, she tapped her foot on the floor impatiently, and entered as if the doorframe were the open mouth of a dragon.  
Eliza dropped her suitcases on the floor and turned round and round to admire the spacious hall that was all dark exotic woods and high-bent gothic ceilings till she nearly crashed into the housekeeper.
“Keep up, please!”, she barked again.
The woman led them to a musty smelling room fit to be the ‘belly of the beast’ and positioned herself at the doorpost. Eliza and Julian exchanged a glance of near-despair.
“Wait here, please!” How easily the woman could make her please sound like a death threat. Lovely creature... “Your uncle will be with you shortly.” It said and left.
It was dusky, almost dark, inside and big curtains which must have been green a long time ago covered the windows. They blocked every ray of sunlight and apparently converted it into waves of dust.
The same grime that had beaten the colour from the drapes also coated everything else. It filled the air, layered itself on the floor, the chairs which had also been flushed to faintness and all of the other (originally) dark wood furniture. The smell of decay drenched everything as if it were fluid. Her uncle should really fire that house “keeper”. Eliza felt crushed as if the walls were out to get them and could begin moving at any time. Something completely different caught her brother’s eye.
“Look, Liza! A grand piano!”
She smiled at him. He tossed his backpack on the floor and left it there amidst a cloud of rising dust to storm at the piano. He caressed its surface lovingly and his fingers sought the keys with a carefulness that struck his sister as entirely unlike his nature.
She turned her back to him to examine the rest of the room and lined the top of the nearest cabinet with a fingertip. She didn’t even have to look to know her entire finger was covered in filth.
The tones of Beethoven’s Mondschein rose and spread to fill the room. They went so well with the setting. Eliza was convinced the melancholy symphony was never played anywhere more fitting.
She leaned on a window frame and listened with closed eyes. The music drowned her in memories it was not unpleasant to be submerged in, though the low sounds around her made the castle even more frightening than it already was.
Slowly, as if it were to fall apart at first touch, she wrapped her hands in the fabric and opened the curtains one by one with a single jerk, coughing and sneezing in the process.
It was amazing what a bit of sunlight could do for a place like this. Not reverse the effects of time and long negligence, of course, but at least make it more earthly.
“Julian, I’m going to look around and see if the rest of this joint is just as bad, okay?”
“Uh huh.”
He didn’t seem to be really listening, but she was used to that, so she left him to his play and went into the hall, opening all curtains she came across.
The light made the hallways less scary. It even returned a certain charm to them, changing decay into dignity, like wrinkles can make a person either look old or charismatic.
She wandered through the corridors like an angel spreading light wherever she went and paused at a window at the side of the house.
She could see lush woods all around the mansion with still some summer green despite late autumn and even as far as the foot of the hill beyond the trees. What a delight it would be in spring to roam those emerald winding pathways! Whenever spring came around here, with these blasted long, cold northern winters...
Beyond the ring of forest was the village. It seemed to be split by the hill like the sea splits on a rock and wraps itself around it. Like the splatters from crashing waves, houses were spread out over the most level bits and dotted the foot of the hill. Those drops immersed in one big sea of housing beyond the nearly empty circle with the castle as centre, as if it rejected all life or all life rejected it and pulled away.
A red dot in the distance caught her eye. A red sports car... It moved up the mountain road and parked on levelled ground.
Her eyes focused on the man who had some difficulty getting his legs onto the ground. His beginning baldness made his scull reflect sunlight like the halo of a martyr in the church paintings that had fascinated her as a child. He was a short man, a bit corpulent and walked briskly though his tiny legs didn’t seem in proportion to carry the rest of him. He bobbed slightly as he went. She had better return to the drawing room before her uncle reached the front door.
When she turned to retrace her steps, somewhere behind her one of the old doors squeaked and fell shut. With a shrug she peered into the still dark part of the hallway – had she seen someone slip away through the shadows? – but there was nothing there. These old houses and their noises, she thought. She clasped her arms around herself and returned to the drawing room hastily, listening to the echo of her own footsteps as she went.
She quickly flung herself down into one of the fauteuils and assumed a pose as if she had been sitting there for quite some time, tapping her fingers on the tabletop in pretended boredom.
Her uncle knocked gently and entered. Eliza rose from her chair and Julian immediately closed the piano to stand by her side.
“Uncle”, Eliza stuttered with a tremulous smile. What now? Was she supposed to go to him, or stay?
“Well, when it isn’t my dear niece and nephew. Come here, children.” He hugged them cordially, but to Eliza it seemed there was something off, something anxious in his voice and smile. Sure, his features were much like she remembered, except for the effects of aging of course, but he seemed a different man from the kind, cheerful fellow she used to get piggy rides from and that had played with her and her baby brother on the lawn of her mother’s house. Maybe he was just as insecure about all this as she was. He was almost a stranger now, in this eccentric house that did not suite the man he used to be, or the man she thought he was, so long ago.
“How long has it been? Nine, ten years?”
“Almost precisely ten, uncle.”
“Ha, yes. When I last saw the two of you, one of you still dreamt of being a princess and the other was still in diapers and now look at you: a beautiful young woman” and he patted Julian on the cheek “ and a striking young lad.”
“Thank you for letting Julian and I stay here with you, uncle.” She looked down at her feet, both in sorrow and in humiliation. “We had nowhere else to go.”
“Well, that’s what family is for, isn’t it, especially in these desperate times.” He was staring into space and Eliza was not quite sure whether he was talking about what happened to mother or something completely different. “Besides, I’ve wanted to see you for some time now. I just never got around to visiting.” Not once in ten years?!
He wrapped one arm around each of them and guided them up the stairs, which were still completely covered in darkness, as was the hall she had just brightened. Someone apparently shut the shades again. Her uncle? That fast? Maybe that wretched housekeeper.
“Let me show you to your rooms, children.”, Henry said when they reached the first floor. He pointed at the rooms that were going to be theirs.
With silent abhorrence she noticed that her brother’s room was at one end of the long hallway whereas her own was at the entirely opposite end, but confronting her host with her discontentment seemed intolerably uncivil to her. Though he was their guardian and last remaining relative and though her mother had explicitly requested him to take care of them in her will if anything were to happen to her, he could easily have refused them. Besides, she sighed noiselessly, her mother had taught her better than that. And more importantly, she would turn eighteen soon and his obligation to herself would end when she was no longer a minor; nothing but the bond of blood to keep him from throwing her out. She realized how tin the ice was beneath her feet and what it would cost Julian if he lost his big sister now. She just needed to buy some time to get on her feet and then she would take care of Julian herself.
“Julian, this is your room.” Henry opened the door and she knew she had lost Julian’s support as well as any kind of sibling allegiance when he saw the size of his new room. I’m on my own now.
“Wow, this is great, uncle Henry!”, he said while bursting into the room.
“Glad you like it, laddy.”
Henry turned to Eliza. “I guess we’ll just leave him to it. Shall I show you your room?”
“Yes, please.”, she murmured faking a smile while looking back at Julian doubtfully.
“Well, here we are, missy.” He opened the door. “I suppose you want to unpack and freshen up. Just remember that dinner is at seven sharp, every day, so make sure the two of you are downstairs by 6.30 so I can introduce you to our cook.”
He has his own cook too?! She nodded from the doorway, but he was already pacing back towards the stairs.
She sighed again and closed the door to examine her new room, dropping her suitcases on the bed.
The bedroom was a little darkish, but that seemed to be the rule around here. Then again perhaps it wasn’t entirely hopeless. Nothing a few homey touches couldn’t fix... 
Okay then, let’s brighten this place up. She looked around and opened the wardrobe. I don’t think I even have enough clothes to fill this thing... At least that’s positive. And, opening a door which she thought was another closet and finding a private bathroom instead, her spirits were lifted a little.
She turned towards the large bedroom window and couldn’t help but to gasp. The view dazzled her and she looked forward to exploring the garden which now unfolded itself before her eyes. Dead branches, trees deprived of all leafs, withered flowers but still enough hints and shreds of colour to indicate the full palette of lavish green and rainbow colours that would stretch out before her as soon as it would be a little warmer. Now there was only rotting yellow and flushed brown. Just one single dot of colour, one indistinguishable spot of deep red below her window to freshen up the dying garden. She strained herself to make out what it was, but it was too small and too far away. She sighed, didn’t really matter anyway. She still longed to see the lively beauty of nature contrast with the more stately majesty of the house, which was all too gloomy in its wintery dark bricked presence. Too cold and empty for a child of the sun. There was a pond as well, water deep as the night was dark judging from its colour. A willow tree dipped a sad, leafless finger in the wrinkling surface.
When she was done, she looked at her remodelled room with a critical eye. A big improvement, certainly, but something was missing... It was still too dead, too cold for her taste and she could not feel quite at home in it. It needed a touch of life, some soul, but she lacked the energy to put more thought into what that could be.
“I hope I can get used to this life”, she moaned suppressing a yawn. In her unease she turned to the only refuge besides nature that never failed her: a nice hot bath. At least having your very own bathroom makes up for a lot. She smiled sadly at her steam veiled reflection in the mirror while combing her hair. Now she was fresh and clean and had washed away all of the filth and some of the anxiety of their morning flight, she went to fetch Julian for dinner.
Her heart missed a beat every now and then while they descended the stairs as her thoughts and feelings kept shifting from one extreme to another. Sometimes another shriek of the house made her breath stop for a second. Would she ever get used to that? The sound of footsteps all around when there were none, the feeling of being watched by the walls themselves though you’re all alone. Julian looked at her questionably. She just smiled and shook her head.
“It’s nothing, sport.”
At least dinner was somewhat of a revelation. The cook was an amiable, motherly woman in her late thirties who seemed delighted at having more people in the house to admire her cooking, which was exquisite, than the grave old man she usually spent her evenings with. It was a pity she wouldn’t be at the mansion more than a few hours a day, most of them in the kitchen. Mrs. Jacobs sure was a lot more fun to be around than that housekeeper, that Miss Hawkins...
There was a single red rose in a small vase on the table, a beautiful one at that. She stared at it.
“It’s from the garden.” Henry said to answer her unuttered question.
“The garden?”
“Yes, isn’t that odd? A rose at the brink of winter? And in that garden.”
“What do you mean by that garden? Is something wrong with it?”
“No, it’s just that not all too many flowers grow there, especially not on that rosebush. Do you like it?”
“The rose? Very much.”
“You can have it. Give it a nice place in your room. It’ll only wither away unseen here.”
After dinner and a long chat with the cook, they were about to retreat when their uncle called them back, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
“Before you go, children”, an address she chose to ignore for the greater good, “there are a few things you need to know. When I’m home, you can usually find me in my office. My door is always open, figuratively of course, so come see me anytime you need or want to. Know that we’re here for you. I do have to remind you that Miss Hawkins, our housekeeper, would be really displeased if you make a mess of this place”, no need, Eliza thought, mission accomplished “and quite frankly”, he whispered with a wink, “she is not the kind of person you’d want to annoy.”
“We sort of guessed that for ourselves.” That amused uncle Henry.
“Apart from that, there are a few more rules in this household.”
Of course. Eliza mentally rolled her eyes.
“On the second floor there is a library and a computer room, both of which you are free to use, but the third floor is off limits.” He looked at them severely. “Under NO circumstances are you allowed to venture up there, do you hear me?” He looked from one to the other so intensely that it made them look away. Still she noticed that he appeared to be talking mostly to her.
“Yes, uncle.”, they said in chorus.
“Good.” He smiled softly, “Now off to bed, you two.” He raised a finger in mocking severity and beamed.
Julian and Eliza looked at each other in silence and ascended the stairs. The rose, she ran back and plucked it, vase and all, of the table. If he hadn’t said anything about the third floor, she might never have wondered what was up there...
Back in her room, she mulled things over. How to deal with this new life? This new person, who could never be a parent, perhaps never even a friend. No one to lean on, not one to easily understand either, with his strange rules and his nervous behaviour. He hadn’t said a word about mum. Did he want to spare us? Does he realize it would hurt us to talk about her even though he wants to?
If he brought it up or not, it would still be in her head. It still was in her thoughts, how could it not be? But at least she started to learn how to blot it out, repress it for a peaceful, no peaceful was too much to ask for, for an insentient hour or so. An hour of forgetting, an hour of standing still rather than going back. An hour, she closed her eyes.
(= the piece that started this whole thing; it inspired me to the first scene, well in the hall actually, and subsequently the novel. Hope it has the same creative effect for you ;) )


  1. You definitely build up the suspense. The point of view is steady, and you lavish the setting with description. I also want to know what is on the third floor. It needs a little polish, but this is a great start. I can't wait to read more.

  2. Thanks DL!

    In later rewriting, I really tried to make an effort to add to the suspense. I am afraid there is still too much description though (but believe me, it was worse, much worse *quote ;)*).

    Can you believe I spent years trying to figure out what exactly was up there myself? I left a big blank there in the first version. Drove me nuts. But normally, you won't have to wait that long, I scheduled the next chapter for somewhere next week (the 22nd I believe).

    Glad you want to continue reading, I'll be happy to provide more material ;).

    'needs a little polish' => award for understatement of the year, lol. I want to finish some other projects first, but I really hope to start rewriting (yet AGAIN) soon enough, in relative terms...

  3. Dear Stories,
    I finally got around to reading your chapter, and I find that you have set the scene very effectively. It does move the reader forward with anticipation.
    I look forward to reading more.

  4. Hello Drachma!

    Sorry it took so long, the exams drained me, but everything turned out alright ;).

    Thanks you, I hope I can keep it interesting. I did learn a lot over the last few years about setting scenes and such. Hopefully, after my first year of blogging I'll be able to work out a definitive (and finished) version of the manuscript, that will actually BE definitive...

    I'll publish another chapter today. It is quite overdue, I'm afraid. I'm glad to have an eager audience though :).


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