Chapter 2 – The attic
She startled and woke from the depths of sleep at midnight. What had woken her? She could have sworn she felt... It was storming, of course.
No wonder she couldn’t sleep. The winds were no soft whisper like home, they roared and howled and made the walls whistle and the floors creak. For a moment she doubted the strength of the bricks that were her shelter, but they had sheltered others for hundreds of years.
Still, the cracking and squeaking kept her from going back to her sweet slumber. Or had it been sweet at all? The imprint of the dream was already gone. She rose and strolled towards the window. It was pouring, rain pattered the glass with a merciless vigour. Thunder seemed creepily close by and so did the forked lightning that tormented the land below her dark ivory tower.
Even the fierceness of nature has its splendour. Yet there was a restlessness outside which caught on and stirred up her inner agitation. She felt trapped. At least the tempest was free, a privilege she had not. She fixed her eye on the horizon instinctively, but what was that to her? Where would she go? To view another skyline and long for that one. The horizon was a myth, though a lovely one.
She picked up a random volume from the pile of books on her desk, something to clean up in the morning, and opened it at an arbitrary page.
At first the words didn’t get through to her, until she noticed that she was reading Poe’s ‘the house of Usher’, more specifically the part where the characters are reading during a storm preceding the rise of Lady Madeline from the dead.
She threw the book back where she had found it in disgust and wrapped herself in her sheets, but the feeling of approaching doom did not quit her. She was a great lover of Poe, but not right now.
Julian! He was so afraid of thunderstorms, he had to be petrified all by himself!
She sprung up, tiptoed across the hallway, startled by each loud blow and opened the door of his room as gently as she could. Thank God, he’s vast asleep. She listened to his deep, regular breathing and was enthralled in the slight quivering of his short black eyelashes. He seemed totally unaware of anything beyond his cosy bed. She envied him a little.
Very carefully she sat at the edge and watched him. Adolescence was creeping up at him already, but his relaxed face still showed full-blown childhood. He looked so peaceful. She gently caressed his forehead and pressed a warm kiss on it. The boy responded with a slight jerk of his head and a low moan, it made Eliza afraid to wake him. She straightened his sheets and tugged him in properly before quitting the room, turning back once more to make sure he was okay.
He was snoozing away like a baby, but her getting some sleep was out of the question, so she just strolled back through the hallway at a leisurely pace, wondering what to do to pass the time, when she froze in her steps.
What was that? She paused and listened. All was quiet... No, there it was again, that sound, very faint. Was that... the piano? Who’d be playing the piano in the middle of the night? Henry couldn’t, she thought and she couldn’t imagine Hawkins touching a thing so delicate, especially at this hour. Apart from herself and Julian, who she knew was asleep, no one else played and yet she could swear she...
She slipped downstairs as quietly as she could and peered into the drawing room, but there was no one there. She shook her head. Delusional, delusional. Had she just imagined it? She caressed the surface, which strangely enough wasn’t filthy, nor were the keys, but it was in use now they moved in after all. It was open. She might have forgotten to close it herself, that wouldn’t be the first time. Must have been nothing. It was only a faint noise after all, she shouldn’t have made quick assumptions, it could have been something else, could have been anything else. Who knows what noises the wind can make in an old house on a stormy night. Would she play it? She couldn’t sleep anyway... But she’d risk waking the others up.
She silently closed the piano and went back into the hall, roaming it purposelessly, opening doors at random, going up and down the stairs and halls for hours, but it didn’t tire her. Without realizing it, she found herself on the second floor, in front of a dark niche. She stopped.
There was a dusty wooden staircase which was narrow and turned upwards somewhat clumsily as if it were not really part of the house anymore, but part of something else, or a portal of some sort.
She hesitated, but her feet had less doubt so in curiosity she followed them to a dark attic. A shabby looking hatch separated this room from the floor below and kept it out of sight.
Inside there were no windows and just one miserable little light bulb that hardly shed light at all when she finally found the string to turn it on.
She found herself in a sea of time-beaten stuff piled up so high as the ceiling. Heaps of things were scattered across the floor.
She wondered what these things were, whom they had belonged to and to what they owed their exile. She tried her best to make out what the shapes surrounding her were, but it was too late and too dark to tell one contour from another, so she decided to return during the day with better preparations.
She had a final look around and wanted to turn the light off when something stirred in a corner. A rat ran off peeping. She turned the light off and shut the hatch.
Five a.m., breakfast was served at eight, sharp, she thought, mimicking her uncle.
After a week’s routine, she knew her uncle left by half past eight in the morning to go to office and never returned till after four. The housekeeper went for groceries or whatever in the afternoon, making it the perfect time to snoop around...
Eliza grabbed some flashlights and plastic gloves (treasures from her more recent strolls), threw on her oldest sweats and a t-shirt and set out to continue exploring. Her patience had been tested enough in a week’s time...
She switched the flashlights on and put them on the smaller piles while she kept one in her hand to find the string. With multiple sources of light on, she discovered that there were windows, but they were so soiled they had almost turned black.
No wait, they were soiled, but black because they had been taped shut. Why would anyone do that?
She carefully removed the tape that fell apart from long service as she pulled it off. Now there was quite enough light, at least to get by.
It seemed as if the grime in the lower parts of the house originated here and had snowed all the way down from this very room.
Every inch of it was covered with junk; old lamps, furniture, discoloured paintings, children’s toys, boxes full of bibelots, saucers, dishes, cups and piles of half rotted paper. For a moment her eye was caught by an old chair. Old was an understatement; it appeared to be ancient. It was robust, roughly cut and rotting away as she was looking at it. The wood had a distinct musty odour and must have been hollowed on the inside, better not sit on it, she wrinkled her nose, as if I would. It stood there, in the dark, like a skeleton, turning inward to keep itself upright, resting on its own deteriorating limbs. The thing intimidated her, made her uncomfortable. It seemed almost like a person in the dim shadows. Peculiar little object. Still it would have been a fine chair if it had had more care in its existence. Her mother would have loved it.
There was one island in this sea of rubbish. A small gray rug in the middle was not covered. It took some effort to shove herself a way through to it.
There didn’t seem to be anything exceptional about it, until a bent piece of metal caught her eye. She drew the mat back a little and uncovered a metal ring on another hatch.
She got the rest of the rug out of the way and pulled the ring. It was heavy and squeaked at every inch.
Finally she managed to open it completely and held her breath lest she should suffocate in the dirt round up.
She grabbed her flashlight tightly and looked down into the opening. There was another staircase, or rather a staired tunnel like those you could find in medieval convents. Perhaps this was a remainder of the original fortress, which would explain the absence of any light source. She knew the castle was rebuild on top of the ruins, using as much of the original material and model as possible, making it a crossbreed between a medieval castle and a Victorian mansion. However, it was highly unlikely that only a staircase had remained upright when everything else had crumbled.
The stairs seemed to lead to a lower room, but even the flash light couldn’t reveal much in that darkness. She would have to descend to get a closer look, however she somehow didn’t quite like the idea of actually going in. She checked the opening for cobwebs, but strangely didn’t see any. Was the tunnel still in use?
Very carefully, like she was afraid the hatch would shut on her and bite it off, she put her foot in the abyss, still holding the frame. Gasp! Startled, she pulled her foot back from the gaping hole. Was something moving down there? There was not a single sound. Must be the nerves... Come on, girl, be brave! You’re behaving like a total idiot. She took a deep breath and began to lower her foot, scanning for a bottom with her toes. Finally she touched something hard and planted her foot on it. She was lowering her second foot when she noticed whatever she was standing on wasn’t exactly stable. The object turned on its side and her feet slipped off. With nothing to support herself, she fell into the tunnel, clinging to the frame of the hatch and banged her knee on the edge of the next step, crying out in pain.
Damn it! Someone was pacing below calling her name. She’s home early! She wrapped her arms around her knees and bit her lip to keep silent despite the aches, waiting for the footsteps to die away. After Hawkins appeared to have left, she kept quiet for just a little while longer, to make sure she was really gone.
Feeling around for the flashlight she dropped when she fell, her fingertips touched on something cool and smooth like metal. She picked it up, it was some sort of box and it must have been what she tripped over. Who would leave something like that out here? What was ever weirder, was that she couldn’t feel even a trace of dirt on it, unlike everything else in the attic, room itself included.
She put the box down, picked up the flashlight and turned it back on. She had had enough of the musty attic. Now was her chance to get down unseen.
She quickly – but silently – covered up her tracks and collected her stuff, rubbing the dirt off her clothes as she went. She was about to leave, when her eye was caught by the curious box, the metal of which reflected the light, making it shimmer with a strange, magical aura. Would she take it with her? Might as well, for all the trouble the thing had caused her. She grabbed it and made her way downstairs, peeping down the attic steps just in case. She sneaked across the halls and stairs and slipped back into her room, gently closing the door with a deep sigh.
Suddenly she heard footsteps again. Someone was walking quite briskly, picking up the pace with every step. Oh, no, did she hear me come in? That old bulldog!
She hid the flashlights in her closed, grabbed a book at random and flung herself on the bed to act as if she had been there all day when Hawkins knocked and entered without waiting for her reply. Eliza strained herself to look at her in mocked surprise.
“Where have you been?”
“Right here, reading.”, she said in an innocent voice. Hawkins threw a meaningful glance at her – visibly filthy – outfit, pausing at her bloody knee.
“And I’m supposed to believe that?” She turned towards her before storming out of the room. “By the way, you’re holding your book upside down.”
The door fell shut.
Eliza put the book aside and threw back the covers to expose her suddenly even more prized treasure. Unsure about what it was, but sure that it was something important, she gave the odd, yet surprisingly pretty, object a place of honour on her cupboard. There! I’ll deal with you later.
She looked at the alarm clock on her bed table. At least she had enough time to treat her wounds before dinner. She took off her ripped sweats to assess the damage. Nothing too serious, just a rather deepish cut and some painful bruises on her knee along with some scratches on her hands where she’d tried to hang on to something when she fell. Washing and disinfecting will do. She had to get the filth off her any way, unless she wanted to go downstairs to face the others already convicted rather than on trial.
When she entered the dining room Henry gave her a long, grave look. No question, the hag told on me. Nothing she hadn’t expected.
Throughout both soup and main course, she braced herself for what was to come. Nothing came, well, despite the perpetuating severe looks and plain out stares. The food went down her throat like building bricks, she hardly knew what it was she had such difficulty swallowing. After Julian had excused himself, and she made a weak attempt to escape by following him, the preaching began.
“Not you Eliza, sit back down!”
She obeyed wearily. Oh oh.
“What were you doing on the third floor?”
His tone was steady, but he sounded very angry. She hesitated for a moment. “I was just...”
“I told you to stay away from the attic.” He nearly spat each word out distinctly, creating pauses that hit her mentally as if he was physically attacking her.
“I forbad you to go there, didn’t I?”
Henry sprung up and banged his fists on the table. “As long as you are living here, you will obey the rules of this house! Is that clear, young lady?”
“Y...Y...Yes.” She muttered.
When he saw how his gestures and tones affected her, he lowered his voice a little, but there remained a hissing quality in his speech.
“You could at least show that much respect, especially after we took you into our home in your biggest hour of need. Did you perhaps forget?”
His words seemed to string a noose around her neck. They were what she had feared to hear from the minute her brother and she were consigned to come here.
“No uncle, of course I... Julian and I are very grateful that...”
“Well, you have a wonderful way of showing it then.”
Tears welled up and started to stream across the sides of her face. He continued to look at her unremittingly, not looking away nor blinking even once. She wished she could disappear, become invisible, but his burning gaze relentlessly reminded her that she was not.
He swallowed away most of his fury to try a more pleading approach.
“These rules we have here are for your own good. It’s dangerous up there, do you understand? We just don’t want you to get hurt.”
“You got hurt, didn’t you?”
She felt too humiliated to answer aloud, her injury was just ridiculous as an argument, yet it was sufficient for him to claim being right. And she’d have to agree to it. She just nodded with tears in her eyes.
He smiled sympathetically as if he was on her side. “See.”
She turned away.
“So what were you doing up there?”
“Just... looking around.”
He peered into her eyes intensely, searching. It made her nervous. “See anything interesting?”
She instinctively felt the right answer to be ‘no.’ “Just... some old junk.”
“Ah.” Her uncle seemed relieved and removed his blazingly investigating eyes. “Well, that’s hardly worthwhile, is it?”
“Yes, well, apart from your nightly escapades and inappropriate rambling about, there is another matter I’d like to discuss with you.”
“I have to ask you to refrain from your habit of opening the curtains everywhere you go.”
“What?” She looked from him to Hawkins and back. He silenced her with another of his reproving gazes. She remembered her place quickly.
“I, uhm.” He pulled his collar nervously. “I collect art. Some of it is priceless and sunlight, it damages the paintings and the, uh, pictures.” A drop of sweat made a line across his temple, down his cheekbone, chin and neck to disappear in his collar. “Therefore we keep the house in total darkness.”
She pensively picked up her spoon and stirred around with it in her pudding with no intention of eating it, muttering “living for the art” and “oh, yes, I see.”
She’d seen painting, but few of them had seemed to her, be it unskilled, eyes potentially priceless. It just doesn’t make any sense.
Nevertheless, it was time to put up the act of the reproached lost child that has come to see the light and leaves behind its erring ways. So she took a deep breath, put down her spoon and got up, mustering her best honey-sweet smile and hugged her uncle.
“Well, you’re the boss.” She said, sounding like a perfect angle.
“I’m glad you understand, sweetie. Now go to your room and get some sleep, right, child?”
“Yes, uncle, I will.”
She swayed out of the room, smiling, but only till she was sure to be out of sight. Part of her felt like an annoying spoiled little brat, but somewhere deeper down, she felt sullied in the very core of her soul as if she had lowered herself to some shameful act in her insincerity.
Nonetheless, she would go back up first chance she got.
Both Hawkins and Henry were still looking at her pensively when she left. She wondered what was up there that they were so desperate to hide from her. What was in that secret room she wasn’t supposed to know about and why did it make them so nervous?
Back in her own little space, she picked the special box up again. At least I have this clue to start with.
Note: I was gonna post this the 22nd, but with exams, I could really use something to look forward to, so I stepped on it. Hope you liked it ;).
Note: I was gonna post this the 22nd, but with exams, I could really use something to look forward to, so I stepped on it. Hope you liked it ;).