70: The Maze

At the bottom of the steep hill lay what might once have been an old hedge maze. It twisted and wound inside itself, while any challenge it may once have held had long since vanished; The hedges themselves, even from this distance, looked weak and perforated. The entrance was a large gap in the hedge, flanked by two skeletal statues, one resting a flute against it’s marble teeth, the other leaning its head on a violin, bow poised to play.

http://www.redberryfarm.co.za/events/moonlight-maze/

Image: Uncredited, redberryfarm.co.za

It would have been an imposing image for anyone entering the maze, had not three other large holes into the maze been visible, making the hedge look more like the ancient ruins of a castle than a twisting labyrinth. Edmund shrugged his shoulders against the wind, and plunged forwards into the gray maze.

The dark mist made the way harder to find than Edmund had thought it would. The holes in the hedge provided almost no guidance or direction to his wandering, and his concern became not finding his way out again, but rather finding anything at all in the twisted hodgepodge of branches and leaves. Even walking in a straight line proved difficult with the mists and greenery obscuring his way.

Thankfully, Moulde Hall proved a compass point for Edmund. When he could manage to peer through the mists, the two tall towers of the mansion rose over the hedges, and he could usually keep his bearings. It served him little, though, as he had no idea where he was going or even if there was anywhere to go.

He was considering turning back when a large shape loomed out of the mists in to his right. Edmund gave a cry and jumped away only to bruise himself on a large hard surface that appeared to his left. Edmund staggered, bracing himself to run, when he realized he was jumping at statues. It was a statue of a large grandfather clock, similar to the one that sat in the foyer, except this one was covered with a large group of ravens. Edmund he turned to see that he had hurt himself on another statue, this one of a man with his head in his hands. Looking through the mist, Edmund could see another statue next to it, and another after that. Edmund walked down the path and counted almost thirty statues of various shape and size.

There were statues of men and women, probably lords of the manor, and a few animals. One was a snake, coiled around a sword sticking straight into the ground like a cross, while another one was a sundial that appeared to be made entirely of stones shaped like human and animal bones. Strange and abstract geometric shapes piled on top of each other, creating impossible angles. A thin man was playing chess against an empty chair. A small cat sat on a large plush pillow. A child screamed as she held a balloon, while across the path an old man grinned with a sinister rictus. The statues stretched off into the sooty fog, and seemed to reach out from the mists towards Edmund as he walked along the path.

The last statue was that of a short man, only a head taller than Edmund, holding an umbrella. The statue startled Edmund fiercely when it took a small step forward and spoke to him.

“Master Edmund,” Mr. Shobbinton smiled slowly. “How nice to find you outside, alone.”

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69: The Garden

http://eterealfog.deviantart.com/art/Gothic-Garden-34094113

Image: Gothic Garden by eterealfog

A flash of lightning and a loud thunderclap split the air from behind Edmund, and made him jump in surprise. His head snapped around to see one of the poles on the top of Moulde Hall sizzling and smoking in the rain.

They were lightning rods, Edmund realized, wiggling a finger in his ear to clear the ringing out of his head. They must be grounded through the mansion somehow. He turned back to see Ung staring at him with a calm look on his face.

“Hello, Ung,” Edmund said, as casually as he could with the echo of the thunder still quivering in his ribcage.

“Young master,” Ung said, touching his forehead with a massive hand. “Fine day. Is the young master going for a walk in the maze?” Edmund took a quick glance around the garden. It looked quite straightforward, not a maze at all. Ung seemed to notice his confusion. “It’s further down the hill,” he pointed with a thick finger away from Moulde Hall.

“It’s raining,” Edmund said, wondering if pulling his wet clothes tighter about him was worth it to keep out the chill wind. “Why are you working in the garden?”

“The rain makes the ground loose,” Ung explained, wiping his brow with a soaking sleeve, spreading a long black smudge under his gray hair. “It’s easier to till the soil and get the water deep.”

“It looks like the plants are all dead.” Edmund said, snuggling close to a thin tree for some minor protection from the rain.

“It does,” Ung nodded. “Is the young master wanting an umbrella?”

Reaching down to the pile of sticks he had brought with him, Ung picked up what looked to be a long crooked walking stick. He twisted his hands over the stick, which somehow blossomed into a thin brown fabric from the shaft, and handed the unfolded umbrella to Edmund. Satisfied, Ung returned to his shovel, digging up the black earth. Edmund watched for a few moments before Ung looked back at him. “Perhaps the young master is hoping for an escort?”

“No,” Edmund shook his head. “I’m just watching.”

“Would the young master like to look at something else?”

“What else is there to see around here?”

Ung thought a moment, leaning on his massive spade.

“The Gazebo,” he said, finally. “And the forest near the end of the maze. There is not much else on the grounds anymore, apart from the Hall and this garden.”

Edmund thanked Ung and let him get back to his gardening. For a moment, Edmund considered heading back inside, but he was as wet and sooty as he was going to be, and the strange umbrella Ung had given him was some help–it made more sense to finish looking around outside now rather than wait for the rain to stop. Pausing only to look briefly at the flower-like fountain, Edmund ran down the straight garden path towards the maze.

68: The Gazebo

The rain was heavy and cold for summer. The large black drops obscured both the dim morning sunlight and Edmund’s vision, and the dusty moisture in the air was casting a thick fog over the ground. His skin quickly became covered with a thin black coat from the soot-filled rainclouds. The wind blew lazily, stirring the ever present smog that hung like a curtain over the city, fed by the large wrought-iron smokestacks that shot up from the cityscape like smooth metal trees.

Holding his hand above his eyes, Edmund glanced around. It was difficult to see further than a few meters in any direction, with the black mists covering his view. Turning to his right, he saw the front walk. The slope of Haggard Hill was gradual at first, an easy slope for horses to walk up from the outer gate. The grass was a faded green that was quickly turning ashen gray in the black rain. Edmund could see only a few trees, and they were quite threadbare, their branches pocked sparsely with sagging leaves. Edmund ducked his head and ran as fast as he could through the rain, slipping through the muddy grass and stepping on weeds and thick bristly plants, towards the dim shape of Ung.

https://www.pinterest.com/jicean/gazebos/

Image: Uncredited, pinterest.com

When he finally looked up, he realized the shape had not been Ung at all, but the yellowed gazebo that sat a ways off from the house. The creaking building was much taller than it looked when he saw it from afar. The wood was old and splintering, at least a decade worth of wind and weather having battered away at the thick wooden planks. The harsh wind wound through the small support beams along the roof, whistling high above his head. The entire structure squeaked and swayed almost as loud as the clatter of the rain on the roof as he stepped forward, the snapping and cracking reminding him uncomfortably of Matron’s voice.

A soft sizzling sound caused Edmund to glance down, where he saw a small round sweet sitting in the grass nearby. It almost seemed to glow a pale-blue, and hissed with smoke when the rain hit it. The small circle of grass around it looked dead.

He remembered Ung throwing it away after Mrs. Junapa Knittle had given it to Edmund.

After taking a moment to catch his breath, he shrugged up his shoulders and ran back the way he came, turning the corner to the rear gardens.

The Flower Garden of Moulde Hall was large, diverse, and almost entirely dead. Giant willow trees hung their bare branches down to beds full of withered flower stalks. A path encircled a dried up fountain full of dead leaves and detritus, and then set off towards the rear of the grounds. Even through the rain and fog, it was only the work of a moment for Edmund to spy Ung near the fountain with the large shovel, digging in the thin and muddy garden.

67: The Furnace

Edmund searched the skin of this metal beast until he found what looked like the a small hinged faceplate of a knight’s helmet with a knob on the side. He pulled at the knob, sliding the metal plate to the side and releasing a massive burst of white ash into the dim room.

The roaring grew louder, filling the dim basement with a deep vibrancy, as if the entire building was trying to wake up and surge down Haggard Hill to Brackenburg. The air didn’t seem any hotter, however, so Edmund pulled himself up on his toes and peeked into the gate. A dark red glow met his eyes as he saw a faint simmering ember squatting in the center of the furnace. There was no flame of any kind, and Edmund could feel that there was almost no heat either. Edmund stepped back on his heels and thought. Where was the roaring coming from, if not from a fire?

Edmund shut the small gate, and the sound subsided again. He glanced around the cellar, noticing the furniture he hadn’t before. All along the walls were rows of shelves, full with strange equipment. Large rolls of rubber sat next to circles of copper wire. A cluster of lanterns dominated one shelf, each with an oddly shaped crank on its side. Several metal rods lay leaning against one shelf, and a massive ball of thick twine sat next to them.

Edmund touched one of the cranks, turning it slowly. The metal resisted, but a faint ember glow flickered in the depths of the lantern. Edmund turned the crank for a while, watching the faint quivering light dance in the frosted glass. There was nothing else of interest, it seemed. He was about to return upstairs when the nearby slam of a wooden door made him jump.

He only had to walk a few steps before he saw Ung halfway down the hallway, wearing a gigantic pair of leather gardening over-alls and carrying a spade, rake, and two other strange implements that Edmund didn’t recognize. He only caught a glimpse of Ung’s face, but he could tell it was firmly set in concentration.

Dangerous curiosity blooming in his mind, Edmund decided to follow him. Prudent caution following suit, he decided to follow quietly.

Ung lumbered through the basement, moving down the hallways like a work-ox, only to vanish through another door. Edmund followed, keeping as close as he dared. Ung walked down a few more halls before opening a large servant’s door and stepping outside into the pouring black summer rain.

Edmund balked, torn between finding out what Ung was doing and staying dry and relatively warm. Finally, his curiosity overrode his caution and he carefully pushed through the door.

66: The Basement

Matron must not like seeing where the servants enter a room, Edmund thought. It was very well hidden. From even a few feet away it looked almost exactly the same as any other carved ornamentation on the trim. Up close, he could see it was a handle. He traced it with his finger until his eye fell on a paper thin seam that was barely visible in the wall, a few inches from the corner. Gripping the small handle, Edmund pulled.

At first the door resisted, but when he tugged again he heard a faint snap and the wall swung open, revealing a long dark staircase headed down. The gas lights were dim, their glass spheres tainted a faint gray from dust, Edmund supposed. A deep hissing noise echoed up from the stairs, reverberating between the wooden walls as it bounced up from below. Edmund strained his ears to see if he could discern its origin, but he couldn’t.

Edmund made his way down the stairs, carefully checking each step in the dark. When he reached the bottom of the staircase, he was excited to find another hallway, similar to the dark bare wood that had framed the kitchen. It was long and thin, the gas lights dark and dreary. A locked door periodically broke up the long plain walls, with faint smells of dust and mildew behind each one. As he walked, the hissing sound became louder and deeper until it was a dull roar.

At the end of the hallway, the passage opened up into a large room. The walls were surrounded by large metal pipes burrowing in and out of the thick brown wood like giant worms. Some of the pipes were square, others round. One looked triangular. Several pipes ended in one corner of the room, where they opened over a large pile of ash. Others gaped wide over dusty and sooty baskets. Some moved from one wall to the other without any openings, and one massive pipe circled the ceiling without seeming to exit the room at all.

In the middle of the room, most of the large pipes converged near the ceiling, and plunged downwards into a massive metal furnace, bigger than the carriage Edmund had come to Moulde Hall in. It was curved upwards, like an onion, and was at least twice as large as Ung, or even Mrs. Mapleberry. The whole room reminded Edmund of a picture he had seen once of a church pipe organ.

It was from this giant furnace the roar was coming from. Edmund crept closer, bracing himself to feel the heat from the flame encased in this giant metal stomach, but it never came. It wasn’t until his hand was almost touching the black iron that Edmund felt the least heat, and it was more than manageable–less than he had felt from a candle.

It was an unsettling warmth. It almost felt alive.

65: The Great Sitting Room

It was almost five in the evening when Edmund thought to look for the basement.

http://www.editca.com/18-amazing-gothic-living-room-designs/18-amazing-gothic-living-room-designs-with-dark-wooden-furniture-sofa-table-chair-and-fireplace-designs/

Image: by Kelly Allen

He was almost ashamed when he did; he remembered walking up the steps to the front door, and how the dining room was on the ground floor but he walked down a small flight of stairs to the kitchens. Yet it had taken him several hours to wonder if there were any other rooms beneath the ground floor.

His first thought was to try to explore via the kitchens, but when he tried sneaking through the servant’s door in the dining room it was suck fast–locked from the other side. Edmund began searching the ground floor high and low, opening every door he could find, hunting for an elusive set of descending stars.

He finally found what he was looking for in the Great Sitting Room.

The sitting room itself was cluttered; full of furniture and shelves covered with strange metal devices, clay pots, and framed cloth fragments. Heads of various animals hung next to the fireplace, and a small cluster of canes, umbrellas, and rifles sat in a tall basket by the entryway. All of the furniture was heaped in small clusters, as if to facilitate several private conversations, while the two large settees sat at the end of the room facing the empty marble fireplace that dominated the far wall.

The fireplace was massive. At first, Edmund had thought it was another door, the hole was so large. He could have easily walked inside and would have to stand on his own shoulders to reach the top of the mantle. The fireplace itself was shaped like an ornate gateway, with straight sides and a curving top that met at a point in the middle. The gate was covered with thick iron crosspieces that gave it a foreboding and infernal air. The design somehow managed to convey the curious dichotomy of an uncontrollable inferno, and an impassable barrier.

When Edmund stepped closer he could hear the echoing drumming of the rain high up on the chimney, giving the fireplace a low humming that sounded more like a warning growl than anything else.

Around this fiery gate, the sides of the fireplace were sculpted into large tree-like pillars with pointed tops. Two stone ravens perched on these spires, gripping them with their black talons, glaring out at the room. The mantle looked like a rampart, with blocky serrations like a long row of marble teeth. The chimney rose out of the teeth like a mountain, carved with wolves and dragons, sextants and star fields. An ocean full of ships waved from the left, while proud buildings stood firm on the right. Musketeers charged hills while lambs and farmers slept above them. It was a mural of history and myth that covered half the wall, and teased Edmund’s imagination.

He had only just decided that the sitting room was another dead end, when his eye caught a strange irregularity in the ornate chair rail that encircled the room. Slowly, he walked to the far corner where one of the ornate loops that covered the trim was, in fact, sticking out into the room instead of hugging the flat wood.

64: Eavesdropping

Edmund was about to return to his exploration when he heard Matron’s voice. Drawing his attention to the nearby door, Edmund crept closer and pressed his eye against the keyhole.

Sure enough, Matron was inside the room. She was seated in a black-leather chair, and was facing someone else who had their back to the door. Edmund couldn’t see anything else that was useful, so he pressed his ear to the keyhole instead.

“So that’s that,” said Matron. There was no mistaking her withered and weather-beaten voice, even though the door. “He’s backed down.”

“I’m afraid,” came the thin reedy voice of Mr. Shobbinton, “I cannot confirm nor deny any motives of my clients, even if they had been expressed to me, which, of course…”

“They haven’t,” Matron finished. “Good. At least he’s learning. What have you learned about my problem?”

“Which one?” Mr. Shobbinton asked dryly as the sound of shuffling paper met Edmund’s ear through the thin door.

“The boy,” Matron snapped.

For a moment there was silence, and then Mr. Shobbinton spoke again.

“It appears that the deed is quite explicit, as are the treaties you directed me to. Not only will the young master need to remain your next of kin, but also remain a resident of Moulde Hall.” There was a grumbling noise, followed by the loud thud of something striking the ground in frustration. Edmund felt the blood drain from his face.

“Peel back every document you can find, Mr. Shobbinton,” Matron’s voice cut through the door. “Root out every loophole you can find and scrape every corner you turn. The boy cannot stay, and that’s final!”

“I assure you I already have,” Mr. Shobbinton sounded insulted. “I have explored the possibilities of Summer homes, the long-lost-relative clauses, and any number of mysterious vanishing precedents. The laws are quite clear: The boy must claim Moulde Hall as his primary residence, under all circumstances.”

There was a pause, and then Matron spoke again, her voice soft.

“Then we must create a new precedent. Begin at once.”

“I shall do my best, allowing for my other duties, of course.” Mr. Shobbinton said, soothingly. “But I reiterate, you must begin resigning yourself to the truth of it–if you wish to maintain your control over the situation, the young master must stay.”

The sound of footsteps approaching the door prodded Edmund into movement. He pulled himself up and moved as quickly and as quietly as he could around a nearby pillar, and waited while he heard the door open and close, followed by the calm strides of Mr. Shobbinton fading down the hallway. There was a pause, and then the door opened and closed again, Matron’s footsteps following Mr. Shobbinton’s.

Edmund sank to the ground, his heart tight.

He wouldn’t be the first, he realized. Children returned to the orphanage all the time.

He could escape the endless twisting maze of huge hallways and empty rooms. He could leave behind the strange clothes and stern disgust of Matron, the snide patronizing of her cousins, and return to the familiar, if chaffing, smile of Mrs. Mapleberry.

In his mind’s eye he saw the orphanage door open wide, threatening to pull him back to the same old walls and rafters, the weevils and creaking floors calling to him.

Edmund bolted upright and continued to explore, a storm raging both outside the mansion and inside his chest as well.

63: A Sound from Above

At least it was the top floor as far as the elevator was concerned. Edmund was positive he had counted five floors of windows when he had ridden up in the carriage with Matron, but for some reason the elevator only went up to level four. Perhaps there were different stairs for the rest of the way, he thought as he wandered around, looking for some method to get to the fifth floor.

He couldn’t find anything. Some of the locked doors looked big enough to hold staircases, but Edmund couldn’t see any stairs when he peeked through the keyholes. Perhaps there had been some mistake when the builders had constructed Moulde Hall, he thought. Maybe they had given it an extra floor and there wasn’t anything up there; just a large empty space without walls, furniture, or decorations.

Edmund was about to move on when a soft shuffling noise reached his ears. He looked around, but the hallway was as empty as every other passage he had seen. He paused for a moment in case something was following him, but there was nothing. He took a few more steps when he heard the susurrus again.

At first he wasn’t certain if he had really heard the noise, or if his over-sized pants had simply brushed against a nearby statue. As if cued by his thoughts the shuffling noise reached his ears once more, and he realized the sound was from above. Edmund looked up at the ceiling–a foolish behavior, he realized almost instantly.

He stood still, staring at the ceiling, straining to discern exactly what was making the noise. He held his breath, wishing the sound of his blood in his ears was not so loud. He stood for minutes with the only sound the storm raging outside.

Then, a faint ticking began to echo through the walls, and a deep resonance grew like a rushing wave. Within seconds, the mansion was ringing four-o-clock. Had Edmund not been listening so carefully, he wouldn’t have heard the floorboards above his head squeak just before the hour struck.

Floorboards didn’t creak without being stepped on, Edmund reasoned, so someone was up there. He guessed that he might be somewhere near the east tower. Wasn’t that where he had seen the strange white figure rushing past the window when he was arriving in the carriage? Could it be the same thing he had bumped into after leaving the dining room?

Four, Matron had said. Four others lived with her, and Edmund had only met two.

As quietly as he could, he carefully crept along the hallway, trying to locate the exact position of this strange noise. It was hard to hear it clearly, tall as the ceiling was. And no sooner was he certain he knew where this noise was coming from than he would hear it again a foot or two away. Edmund stepped carefully, stalking the sound as carefully as he could.

As he strained to hear, the sounds of nearby conversation slowly took the place of the soft movements. Then, as quickly as he had heard it, the sound vanished, subsumed into the soft voices from behind a nearby door.

The Thing had vanished.

62: The Elevator

At first, Edmund spent a lot of time wandering a bit aimlessly, opening doors that looked interesting and ignoring those that seemed dull. Several times he found a door that looked fascinating, with ornate designs covering the door, or strange signs in foreign languages framing the doorway, only to try the handle and find it solidly locked. He peeked through keyholes when he could, but never saw anything interesting. He listened at one locked doorway when he thought he heard music, but it stopped almost as soon as his ear brushed the wood and wouldn’t play again, though he waited almost a quarter hour. One door even looked like it had been boarded up from the other side–he could see the nails sticking through the wood.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/yveslecoq/

Image: David Hamilton forgot his hat but not the girl, by Yves Lecoq

Every room he saw was different. Sometimes they were sparsely furnished, other times they were full of furniture thrown about haphazardly. Many were bedrooms of varying design, but others seemed purposeless. In one room the furniture was covered in thick white linen, making it look like chairs and tables were growing like mushrooms from the white carpet. One room was completely empty, except for a strange brown stain on the floor. Few of the rooms he looked into seemed very interesting, and none of them looked used.

As he wandered, the building shivered and rang whenever the clock in the foyer struck the hour, turning the whole mansion into a giant clock-bell. He was gradually becoming used to the bizarre quaking until he barely needed to stop walking as the ground quivered under his feet.

When Edmund guessed he was near the middle of Moulde Hall, he rounded a corner only to find himself face to face with a small cylindrical elevator with metal mesh surrounding it. There was a large button nearby lined with ivory, obviously for calling the elevator to the floor.

Eagerly, Edmund pushed aside the grating, stepped in, and pulled the grating shut behind him. The elevator itself was lined with alabaster and porcelain, with brass railing and grating that wound about its sturdy cylindrical frame.

Edmund looked at the lever that moved the elevator up and down. It was a beautiful design, carved like a leaping hound with its nose pointing to the ornate four that marked the floor on which the elevator rested. There was a three, a two, and a one, but no five.

Edmund reached out and pushed the hound so that it pointed at the number one. There was a whirring clunk, and the elevator began to move. Slowly at first, then gaining speed, the hallway outside the gate rose into the air followed by the third floor rising into view. The second floor soon followed, then the first, and the elevator came to a shuddering halt with a clang that echoed the thunder that shook the whole Hall.

A smile lit on Edmund’s face as he pushed the hound again, this time so it pointed at the four. The same clunk echoed from below, and floors outside the elevator sank away from Edmund as he rose.

Delighted with his discovery, Edmund spent a few minutes riding the elevator before he became bored and stepped out into the hallway on the top floor.

Edmund’s Notebook 5: History

https://www.flickr.com/photos/twm_news/7447732100/

Image: A Young Scholar, Tyne & Wear Archives; Museums

A poem, written in the style of Alam Beets:

I never had a history
Before.
I never had a past.Nowhere to come from
Nowhere to go.
I was just me,
Born in the middle
Of my life.

But now I have a Past, and a Path.
I have places to go and things to do.I have people who think things
About who I am.
And I wonder
If I wasn’t better off
Before.

It was certainly calmer.