The report I wish to press upon my employer, always a decent and upright man in his dealings with me, I shall I only submit in writing, lest he have me declared mad and committed to Bedlam Sanatorium for the Insane. Their methods are quite advanced, but the lot of people assigned there are quite beyond the fray and have ventured far beyond any help. Still, as a Christian nation, we must do our part and help the suffering.
As fortune would have it, I had suffered a rather sudden and abrupt dissolution of my engagement to my beloved Nora. Without warning or any indicator that she was unhappy with our plans to marry in the fall, she informed me in a brief letter that she was unable to continue her affair with me, that our marriage was off. She wished me well and said goodbye. Then, also without any forewarning or cry for help, three days later she took her own life. She overdosed on the sleeping powders her aunt Imelda from Ipswich provided her with.
Within these dark days, I went from being a happily engaged man with some future potential to a jilted, grieving mess of a man. I was a vision of woeful, pitiful suffering. I bobbed along inconsolably, and all my friends quickly gave up on helping me rush through my grieving period. The only person who neither tried to help me through my mourning nor chastise me for feeling so poorly in the first place was my employer. Most days, at the conclusion of my workday, I would retire to my little rented room at the boarding house down the street from my employer’s business. I would lie upon my bed for hours. I tried wine for a bit, but such things were frowned upon by the house manager, so I had to settle myself for an occasional bottle consumed away from my rented quarters. While in my room, I would try to distract myself with my sketches or with a quaint and curious volume of forgotten poetry. Neither pursuit proved itself inordinately efficacious in diminishing my sorrow for the rare and radiant lost love of mine, Nora.
But my employer saw my suffering and, being a not-uncaring man towards my general welfare, took it upon himself to busy me with a task. Some of my friends, before sliding away from me forever I assumed, had suggested that I needed a vacation, some time in the sun. But I had spent the bulk of my savings on the honeymoon tickets. A vacation was an unworkable proposition.
While my sketches and poems would sometimes lend me some minor reprieve from my sorrow, inevitably, and often within but a few hours, I was again my despairing and depressed self. My employer, a rather enigmatic set of walking contradictions, intuited that I needed more than a few hours away from my grief. He took it upon himself to construct a task, one that would keep me occupied with some pursuit for more than a few hours, an outing that would involve me taking a not insignificant journey to the north.
Upon the occasion of which my report dwells, my master had impressed upon me the need to visit an estate. He was a man of some considerable means and was forever looking to purchase more and more lands, houses, manors, and all kinds of queer dwellings that most folks would describe as uninhabitable. As I reflect back upon the fellow during my employ under him, I realize he was a very strange fellow, weird even. His pallor gave one the impression of a very sick man, but he had stood under the press and thumb of a great many medical professionals, and none were able to unearth anything wrong with the man. “You need more sun,” many declared. He tried it but returned unchanged in all areas save his pocketbook. “You should fashion your diet around more vegetables” or meat or any such peculiar prescription, other doctors, who to be honest, presented themselves with an appearance a great deal like him. Despite all the diets and all the sun, the fellow, a northerner never looked like anything other than a ghost of some chap, Marley perhaps.
The estate in question was, like the man’s humble origins, in a dark county far to the north. The place was filled with moors, woods where the branches were not quite in keeping with the tamed forests we see when we visit the manicured estates of the wealthy in or on the outskirts of a city like London. These woods were wrong, thick with brambles so dense it might take a young man the better part of an hour to traverse the distance he might otherwise walk in but a few minutes. Visiting the dank moors with their misshapen black birds would leave one lethargic, downcast, and downright dour. But it had not been a favor my master implored of me. It had been an order. So, I traveled to this far northern region where the moors were wrong, the brambles twisted, and where the sun was an infrequent visitor, to investigate this abandoned empty estate for my haggard-looking boss.
It had nearly escaped my recall, but the master whose employment I had procured and indeed did wish to retain, was given to night-terrors. He would oftentimes medicate himself with laudanum powders. During my tenure under him, there were several times when circumstances found it convenient and even expedient for me to sleep in his lushly furnished manor. I would estimate the number of times that I had reason to spend the night in one of his luxurious guest rooms to be at least as high as eleven but likely not greater than fifteen. Usually, these stays were related to some project we had engaged in or in preparation for some joint trip somewhere. The latter is an occurrence that happened no less than seven times. During my time at his main estate near the dismal, dark, and dusty woods of Sherwood Forest, not once can I recall a night in which the man did not wake everyone in the place with his nocturnal, piercing shrieks of terror. The memory of those nights fills me with a bottomless, vague dread, but I must press on and file this report as it will be my last official act for the man and his firm.
When I arrived, I was met by a manservant and a caretaker. Neither gentleman seemed particularly happy or eager to tackle the job of showing me the vacant estate. But in the end, reason prevailed, and it was decided the caretaker would provide me a general survey of the full expanse of the estate as this was more within the professional domain of his dealings with the estate owner. When I pressed upon both men to relay to me some details of the man or woman who owned the estate, neither man was eager or agreeable to the request and seemed content with providing no more details than were present in the auction description which listed one “J. Roberts” as the owner of the estate. When I repeated my query and again asked if the owner was a man or woman or what the surname initial “J” possibly represented, both men were pressed to repeat over and over again, the most mundane details from the flyer which indeed I had studied well in preparation for the estate visit. As I said before, I was in good standing with my employer and had no desire to have that arrangement be anything other than forthright.
Once we had reviewed the flyer again (a quite unnecessary task as I had by that time nearly memorized the totality of it as, during the seven-hour carriage ride, I would bury my eyes upon its contents, praying for the relief of the wretched thoughts that assailed me at every bump in the wretched roads to the manor that was my intended destination) we reached an understanding.
The caretaker consented to give me the tour, but he had explained that it was too late in the day and that he must return to the city. This struck me as peculiar; what sort of chap was he? What manner of details about his contract with his unnamed employer (“J. Roberts” was long in his grave by that point and I surmised that his employ was given to some lawyer or middleman managing the transfer of the deceased person’s, the unknown gendered J. Roberts apparently). But through my whole time at the estate, I got the unshakeable impression that the whole thing might well be a joke, an elaborate, pointless prank for an audience of one-me. Everything about this venture, the flyer with its weird emphasis upon the restorative powers of the “country airs” to the miserable alien locale to the two men there to attend to my needs during my stay there.
We agreed to start early the following morning. I bid the caretaker good morrow as he needed to be away quickly, he said as his penchant for glancing towards where the sun would be were it not for the infernal cloud cover. One quickly got the impression or entertained the thought that perhaps the sun never shone upon these parts. None of the foliage or trees were shaped properly and a lack of sunshine might very well be the reason.
Instead, the manservant, of which I had no need other than to show me to my quarters as I was given over to my own company until the following morning. This was certainly a surprise to me. What manner of man or enterprise opens itself for inspection, indeed even with all favorable indicators that the party in question might very well purchase the property, greet that person with such inhospitable representatives? Inhospitable might be an extreme even unfair characterization, but I was weary from my long carriage ride. At the very least, the two men were quite odd and possessed the same countenance as my emaciated employer who was still in London. I wasn’t even given a dinner or any repast whatsoever. I grew quite irate at that and nearly threatened to abandon the deal entirely, and insist they procure me a carriage out of this sunless, godless estate, with its twisted, gnarled tree branches, its gloomy lands, and gardens that would frighten Lucifer himself. The horrors that grew there in that wan light will never escape my memory regardless of how diligently I apply myself to these goals.
The manservant sensed my irritation and pressed upon me to accept his lunch meal, packed in brown papers. It was a sandwich comprised of an unknown meat and a sauce I could not identify, were I asked to do so. He also pushed into my hands a thick thermos of tepid tea that smelled unlike any I had before. It was far from a satisfactory dining experience in either quantity or quality, but I reasoned that it would preclude my starving to death during the night.
The manservant deposited me in a small cottage with a promise to gather me back and present me to the caretaker in the morning at 8:30 AM. When I made some small remark about breakfast, he assured me he would seek out some food to bring me when he returned in the morning.
What was I to do? I nodded mutely and beheld the tiny quarters before he took his leave of me. I remarked dryly that it was a good thing the caretaker hadn’t accompanied the two of us to this cottage as there wouldn’t be room enough for the three of us, not over large men, to fit within this modest structure.
He merely stared at me. Mute. No laughter that I had expected or outrage at the ungracious remark of mine.
“Well good night, sir,” he said to me and again reminded me where the bedpan was and pressed upon me the importance of not venturing into the night, once he left me for the duration of the day.
I assured him that I had no desire to see anything else of the estate on this day and would not look again upon any of its spaces until the following day when the caretaker acted as my tour guide and we proceeded toward finalizing or abandoning the transaction of its purchase.
I thought I would fall immediately into the narrow bed when the peculiar man retired to wherever it was he would spend the night, yet when the door closed my spirits did crash mightily. Such a heavy dread descended upon me, that I felt sorely tempted to run away from this peculiar place. But where could I go? I had not my own carriage. Not even a horse on which I could ride away from this accursed place. No, I was stuck, I was depressed. Were all of the northern regions like this I wondered at great length? Perhaps this is why my haunted employer suffered night after night of terrors, visions, and nightmares.
I had not packed many belongings as I had expected to be set upon the tour right away. That was clearly not the case. I hadn’t even packed a book with which to distract myself from my usual thoughts. All I had was the flyer. So, as I had done during the bulk of my transport to this place, I buried myself in the confines of that hand-printed document. I read it over and over again. I forced myself to read it quickly then read it so slowly that I would surely grow sleepy and would fall into an early slumber only to awake and have it be the next day. I had no intention of staying more than one night in this place. My unusual employer could add this deed to his stack of deeds, and I would return tomorrow. That was the promise that cycled over and over as I poured over the worn document repeatedly. I felt like Marley after the third ghost had visited me.
I glanced around at the truly tiny cottage. It was little more than a squat bedroom. A space with a narrow, single bed, that wasn’t long enough for me, an average height man, to stretch out fully upon. In the corner was an uninviting sitting chair of an indeterminate color. It may have been brown upon its creation, but I would not swear to a lord of law such a thing lest I be found guilty of perjury and sentenced to live in this place for the rest of my life. This house, ha! This room would become my cell. My imagination skittered away from me for hours and I did understand then, fully and without effort, how the landscape and terrain of a place might instill in one a lifelong propensity for night terrors and laudanum usage. Finally, I found by focusing only on my breathing in and breathing out; I was able to realize some calm.
But surely it was too early to take to my sleep already! I looked around and saw neither a timepiece nor anything else that should be here in a cottage in which one would install guests for any period of time greater than a few minutes. The biggest omission I saw gave me shivers. There were no lamps of any type in the small place. The only light within the structure, the hut, came from a single window that looked deep into gray woods and a brief expanse of gray grass between it and said woods. I wished to draw the curtains and shut out the light. Surrender to the indulgent early settling time and be done with the day entirely. Yet, sadly, there were no curtains either. This annoyed me greatly. It was an abysmal view out this sad window, and despite it being the only source of light within the cabin I wished to, no, I needed to shut it out entirely. Who knows what horrors I might behold in the square pane of glass once night fell? Like a child, I fell into the bed under a dusty, ragged blanket and atop a straw-stuffed mattress. I did the best I could to conceal my entire body from this place. I said a desperate prayer that I could last the night without the occasion of requiring the bedpan, but this, I realized as a no longer young man, was quite unlikely. In the end, I settled myself with grasping the cold metal thing and hugging it to my chest under the itchy wool blanket. Once so arranged, I returned my attention to the in and out cycles of my breathing. Mercifully, sleep found me, and I have no horrors to report about what may or may not have passed by the window facing the dusty, mangled woods and the gray lifeless grass between it and me.
Not that I can, with any honesty, say that I slept well. Indeed, I was plagued by the most unusual dreams during the night. I dreamt of such horrors, such creatures through the night. I might have cried out during the night, but who would have heard me? Not that I, for even an instant, thought I was alone. No, I realized I was not alone. I wasn’t convinced that the manservant hadn’t fled the property after shutting the door of this place. Had the door even a working lock? I wondered but by then the night was fully upon me or perhaps I dreamt that too? So, I remained, under the blanket, clutching at the cold metal–which oddly never warmed in the least to my prolonged touch, hugged as it was to my still clothed person.
Surely, I have died, and this is some version of purgatory, I told myself in a dream or between dreams. And that was the last of it I remember for the night’s duration.
When I awoke, it was with a small wooden creak from the floorboards. I sensed a shadow upon my face, as the blanket had fallen to the floor at some point. My eyes flew open only to show me the manservant who had returned. He claimed he knocked upon the cabin door before entering, but I didn’t believe him. Not at all. I woke at the slightest wooden creak made from the weight and heft of his form upon the discolored alien woods within this floor, but was incapable of waking as the man pounded upon the cabin door, just two feet further away from the bed? I am not a fool. But nor did I want to start the day with such a confrontation. The man lied and entered my dwelling, neigh, my very bedchamber without permission or acknowledgment. He lied. I knew not what reason he would have to lie nor even less of an idea of why he would stare at my sleeping form.
“The caretaker is ready to show you the property,” he said. And with no other words of explanation or greeting or inquiry as to the nature of my slumber, he turned curtly and left the small space. Hearing his footsteps proceed no further than those required to exit the cabin, I sensed that he, and likely the caretaker, were waiting for me outside the cottage.
I returned the bedpan to the floor and slid it under the bed.
Was this why the man had stared at me thusly? Surely, I did present a strange sight for at what point did a grown man clutch a bedpan as if it were some favored doll or token of comfort during a night of sleep?
I thought about lifting the blanket from the floor and remaking the bed, but upon beholding the sparse furnishings of my dwelling, I was left again in a disagreeable mood. “Humbug,” I thought but did not say, lest the men upon the porch hear me. I still needed one or both of them to show me this estate and to arrange for my passage away from this place.
In the end, I settled upon lifting the blanket and laying it across the straw mattress. In the process, I beheld no less than a half dozen large vermin: bedbugs. The largest I’ve ever seen. I wondered why my legs weren’t riddled with evidence of their existence. I sighed once, then left the cabin with the fervent wish to be done with this business as soon as possible.
The manservant shoved two crackers and another thermos in my hands as I exited the sad wooden dwelling. His eyes raised expectantly as if in inquiry to the satisfactoriness of my “breakfast.” Upon my mother’s grave, I cannot recall a more miserable, meager breakfast ever being pressed upon me in my entire life.
All is madness here, I thought. Oddly this recognition did much to calm my demeanor.
I nodded once to the man.
I turned and greeted the other gray fellow before me. The caretaker. I wondered for a minute whether it be the same man or not. My mind was such a storm of thoughts and a tempest of foreboding that it might have been another man, another elaborate part of this prank of which I found myself an inadvertent participant or target.
May the devil take you both, I thought and felt immediately ashamed by the viciousness of such thinking.
“Shall we?” I said after what felt like a fortnight.
Rather than words, the caretaker turned and walked away. The manservant’s eyes followed him and then returned to me as if to hurry me on my way. Apparently, the estate tour had started. I shoved the cookies in one pocket and sought to put the thermos elsewhere. But to my surprise, I discovered that I no longer carried the thing.
“May the devil take it,” I thought or said. The countenance of the manservant thing did not indicate which it might have been.
I hurried after the caretaker, but my breath was labored.
“Restorative country airs? Indeed, I think not, my liege.”
May the devil take it all. I thought for indeed I made sure to keep my lips pressed tightly closed when the thought emerged from my diseased brain.
The tour went along well enough for several hours for indeed the estate was far from the smallest I’ve ever surveyed during my employment with my master.
Several of the structures, the barns, the toolsheds, and various other guest cottages (all of them I noted sourly, did have curtains, lamps, and even clocks of various sorts. All of their beds were equipped with proper linens, so why was I given the worst of the lot? A dwelling not fit for a dog. The image of the bedbugs scurrying under the blanket returned from the floor. I don’t know why, but I found myself depressed by the question and wondering again if this was not purgatory. And these two men were my only companions for eternity? If that was the case, then perhaps, this was not purgatory after all. To be stationed with such odd, incommunicative, peculiar men for more than a week would make this place a kind of hell.
But the tour passed, and my mood progressed to a level I’d estimate to be nearly annoyed at several points I thought I might conclude this business and offer these representatives the agreed maximum my master had instructed me to offer. I had no desire to haggle with these two or to dicker over a price. But then what if they rejected that offer? My master would be quite displeased. When he sent me “inspect” what he meant, indeed what he always meant was for me to “procure.” They were one and the same in his eyes and consequently I resigned myself to the fact that at least some negotiation session would be needed. At that point, the devil could take them, this place, these barren, leaden skies, and my boss himself if he was displeased by the final deal we land upon. I want to be finished with this place.
Several of the structures were, as I said, quite satisfactory while noticing the tiny bed and clutched bedpan had left me with an aching back and neck.
We came at last to the great manor.
The caretaker paused as if he too were of the same mindset as me and wished to be done with this affair.
After several seconds, he finally pushed open the door to the great manor. The immense door creaked long and ominously as it swung open into a grand entryway. This place was huge. It seemed to be, impossibly, even larger upon the inside than its façade leads one to believe from the outside. I said as much to my guide. He looked at me with harrowed eyes. I thought he would eventually speak but he just led me onward, deep into the gray manor where no lanterns burned, and no lamps were lit.
We toured the three floors of the manor. It had felt like we were in there for hours. Of course, I glanced out each window we passed, but the skies were again lifeless. No great surprise to my mind. I had verily no idea of what hour of the day it might be.
“And what about this door?” I asked idly to break the silence of the caretaker who I had begun to think of as a mere automaton. Some devilish novelty strewn together by some evil agent.
“It is to the attic,” he said, turning to conclude the tour was my guess.
What happened next truly puzzles me. No one wanted to be away from this foul place more than I did. Yet I pressed onward and to this day I don’t know why.
“I wish to see it,” I said.
The caretaker ceased walking but didn’t turn back to me.
“I wish to see it, the attic, I mean.”
Several seconds and as many feet separated the two of us.
An interminable time later he finally turned to me.
“Are you quite certain, sir?”
A mood had landed on me, and I would not be swayed. Not at this point, not after being offered no repast that I hadn’t had to request like a beggar, not after being housed in the least comfortable structure on the estate and hugging a bedpan like some child for a miserable night, I was not to be swayed.
“I am certain. Please show me the attic.”
My request had included a please, but my tone was rather lacking in any civility by this point.
After another lengthy pause laced with as much insolence as my own, indeed my god-forsaken night had held, he opened the door to the attic.
Before us lay a great long steep staircase upward. It was narrow and within several yards, it had grown so dark as to be night again. But we pressed upward. For an age, it seemed, did we climb upward, upward, upward. Was there no end to this staircase? What kind of attic is this? What hell have I landed in? I thought in passing about recanting my request, but then my inexplicable insolence returned.
The devil take this awful tour guide. The devil can have it all. Indeed, I expect now to not be surprised when we meet Lucifer himself at the top of these stairs, Oh great irony. We ascend upwards for an age only to meet the prince of the underworld. I nearly laughed.
Sensing my thoughts.
“Are you okay, sir? Are you sure you wish to see the attic? Tis only an attic I assure you…”
“No, no. I wish to see it.” I was no longer a man. I was a rebellious teenager, stubbornly invested in seeing this thing through. Despite and without a reason why, indeed I would love to be nowhere else more than far, far away from this dreary place.
He paused again as if trying to understand.
“As you wish, sir,” and we climbed again. But then we were there. Finally, we landed in the attic.
The light might have been a little better, but the illusion was that the attic extended for an eternity in the two directions that were the axis of the manor’s overall layout.
The roof was far overhead and oddly there was the newest most modern convenience. Here! Of all places, here in this remote attic. Carpet.
The attic floor was carpeted.
I was too shocked by this discovery to speak for long seconds
“Is that…, carpet?”
“It would appear that way, yes sir.”
“In the attic?”
He only grunted something which I read as an affirmative to my query.
So many questions pressed upon my weary consciousness that I scarce knew where to start. But the matter was pulled from my mind as the caretaker proceeded to the right.
“Not that way,” I said defiantly. I wish to explore the space to the left.” My insolence had returned.
“Well, really it’s the same either direction, sir.”
“That may well be, but I wish it all the same.”
His protracted silences grow longer and longer. Indeed, this is hell and yet I feel I am an equal contributor to my continued imprisonment here. Why can’t I relent and capitulate so that we can end this charade?
I think again about recanting, but he was walking again, passed by me, and nearly bumped into me. We began walking leftward along the attic floor that is inexplicably covered with square miles of carpeting.
After a while, I sense the attic floor growing softer.
As though it were some organic stuff. Not dead, felled lumber fashioned into planks for a floor, and manufactured carpet spun from fabric, but some living, breathing entity holding my feet up in this dimly lit space.
It felt squishy and my feet sink into it more and more as if the carpet were over some muddy bog. I glance upward, but I’m still in the attic. Or so I think.
I gaze down at the wild patterns in the carpet itself.
It’s a trick of the lessened light in here, I reasoned. But my mind perceived that the thin layer of carpet separating me from whatever muck and mud is beneath it seemed to be moving, changing, oozing from one hellish design to another.
“Okay, I’ve seen enough.”
But he walked onward.
“I said I’ve seen enough.”
He didn’t seem to hear me, and I felt an unlikely obligation to go retrieve the fool from this quest upon which I had set for him, but suddenly my charity was nudged aside by something much stronger. Stark fear. Thoughts that I was no longer in an attic, but I was traversing through the bowels of some enormous otherworldly creature. I turned away from the retreating caretaker and begin slowly retracing my steps back, looking for the stairs down and out of this hallucination.
I walked slowly lest I pass by the stairs and end up spending my eternity here.
After an age, I again found the stairs down and out.
The trip down feels even longer, but I force myself to not charge so fast that I miss the exit.
I came to the door, opened it, and stepped back into the third floor of the manor.
“Aha, there you are,” the manservant said to me, startling me. “I was wondering where you had got to.”
What was this fool babbling on about?
“I was touring the manor under the guidance of the caretaker,” I said, nodding over my shoulder towards the attic stairs door as if that explained everything.
“Caretaker, sir?” We’ve not had a caretaker here in years.”
“But you and he picked me up from the cottage this morning. I’m afraid he’s still up in the attic,” I said, turning back to the door to put an end to this childish prank.
My jaw falls agape; the door was gone.
“Sir, this manor has neither attic nor caretaker.”
I stepped towards the missing door and tapped the wall. It was paper over a brick wall. I saw the bricks through a diagonal rend in the paper.
“The devil take it all,” I said out loud. I no longer cared about hurting anyone’s feelings here.
My master is prepared to offer you ______ for this estate, in its entirety including all lands, structures, and buildings as listed in the flyer.
We quickly concluded the transaction.
I sensed there was more trickery afoot. That I would be forced to sleep in the microscopic house again, clutching the bedpan as my only defense against the terrors of the night.
But we concluded the business and there was even a carriage waiting to take me away from this place.
Once the manservant closed the carriage door behind me, I collapsed onto the carriage floor. I couldn’t stop shivering and hugging myself.
That was hell. I had nearly shut myself in there permanently. How many more steps along that mysterious carpeted attic floor would I have taken before the exit behind me would have been shut to me forever? I was so very cold. It was a foregone conclusion that I would spend the rest of my life shivering like a frightened child. But then the carriage was filled with a warm light. I glanced out of the window. We had left the moors behind. I begged the driver to stop, just for a moment. I stepped outside, but left one hand firmly holding the carriage frame, lest it was yet another trick of the devil. I stared up at the sky and there in the middle of it was a patch of clear sky, and even more grand, was the sun herself, lighting the grounds, warming my face, filling my spirits with hope.
“Sir?” the driver said softly.
“Yes,” I said and returned to the confines of the carriage.
I don’t know the logic or laws of hell, but I was quick to be away from this place. I had much to do. I wished nothing further to do with estates, surveying, eccentric men from the north, or even my employer, himself a northerner. I was no longer a gainfully employed man. I filed my report and became a free agent once again. It was terrifying. It was liberating.