Episode 1, Chapter 7

The tour began on the ground floor with the music room, where Neville tried to entertain his guest on the piano and then the ukulele, both times to no avail. It seemed Mr. Van Heusen was no sensitive soul. With a sigh Neville moved on to the billiards room, the walls of which were decked with antique weapons, including a rusty old khopesh in pride of place over the hearth. “That was my father’s. He used to love lopping heads off with it. The rest of these belonged to old Septimus. Bit of a collector.” The instruments of mayhem seemed to pique the guest’s interest, but when Neville went to pick up an old set of French dueling pistols, Van Heusen hurriedly suggested they move along.

Their next stop was the library, Neville’s favorite room in the house. All dark, polished wood, green leather chairs, and a big wooden globe that doubled as a liquor cabinet. Neville walked past the shelves, touching the spines of books as he went. “Septimus’s books came with the house. Organized by subject—demonology, forbidden cults, astrology, alchemy, several editions of the Codex Goetia, oh, and over here, my own acquisitions—light fiction. I have all of Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories but I’m an absolute Somerset Maugham fanatic. Have you read Of Human Bondage yet?”

“Can’t say I have,” Van Heusen admitted.

They moved through to the conservatory, where the reporter gave a bit of a yelp when he saw an eight inch tall man made of blue faience potting a rhododendron. Others just like it were making mulch or trimming bonsai, all around the glassed-in room. “Just ushabtis,” Neville explained. When that failed to strike the spark of recognition, he went on: “Little pottery men who were buried with me. They were supposed to work in the fields of the underworld in my place. I suppose planting perennials beats threshing wheat, and if I didn’t put them to work they’d just get underfoot. They don’t bite,” he added, despite the fact that one of them was trundling toward Van Heusen with a trowel in its arms. A trowel as big as it was, though it didn’t seem to mind the weight. Van Heusen backed away uneasily. “Sadly I can’t say the same for the giant flytrap behind you.”

Van Heusen went very still. “Another legacy of Septimus Grimbly?”

“Indeed. From what I’ve been told he never traveled much himself but he had agents all over the globe, looking for things that might interest him. The old fellow had rather eclectic tastes.”

“Maybe we should see the upstairs,” Van Heusen suggested.

“Capital suggestion.” Neville took him up the main staircase past portraits of Grimblies past. “Septimus,” he said, gesturing at the largest of the pictures, “had a desire to show off his famous ancestors. There was only one problem: he didn’t have any. Didn’t stop him from having all these portraits done of the kind of forebears he wished he’d had.”

“The man was insane,” Van Heusen said, in the voice of someone who clearly had no trouble passing judgment on the sins of others.

“Ah, but he was very rich.”

“Is that supposed to make a difference?”

“Well, in the history of the world,” Neville pointed out, “it always has. So rather than calling him crackers, we are supposed to use the word ‘eccentric’. And really, is it so odd to want to create a history for one’s self? We all go through life wondering why we’re here, and where we’re going next. Septimus explored that as well. He was a bit of a Spiritualist, actually—come through here.” They passed through a doorway on the landing and into the Séance Chamber, the walls of which were hung with rich blue tapestries embroidered with gold stars and alchemical symbols. A table sat in the middle of the room, a circle of cards on its top, each bearing a letter of the alphabet. In their center stood an upturned water glass for use as a planchette. “Rather quite a lot of a Spiritualist, in fact. He even wrote a book on the subject: My Travels in the Summerland. There are a dozen copies in the library if you’d like one to take home. Thick going but it sold well.”

Van Heusen stared, goggle-eyed. “The man who built this house was a sorcerer?” he asked, and for once Neville felt he had his guest’s full attention.

“Hmm? Oh, no, this was all a sham. There’s a quite clever speaking tube behind that tapestry so a servant could stand back there and pretend to be a spirit. There are hidden wires along the ceiling as well so the same servant could trot out white silk handkerchiefs and twitch them a bit to make them look like swirling ectoplasm. I imagine that got quite a reaction in here when the lights were out. Come along, now. This next room is rather special.”

He took Van Heusen into the observatory inside the cupola. A brass telescope slanted up across the room, which was otherwise filled with orreries and celestial globes and a copy of Schiaperelli’s map of the planet Mars showing the canals. “They say there must be men on Mars, have you heard that? The last decadent remains of some once-proud race older and more advanced than humanity. I’d like to meet them one day.”

“There’s enough decadence on this planet, far as I’m concerned,” Van Heusen scoffed.

“Fair enough,” Neville said, leading him back out into the hall. “Perhaps we’ll skip over the Red Boudoir then, as you might find it too stimulating. The next room along is one I’ve had to take over for my own use.”

“Your bedroom?”

“My counting-house.” Neville threw back the door and yellow light streamed into the hall. The room beyond was packed floor to ceiling with gold.

Golden death masks. Golden chests full of golden tableware. Golden shrines and statuettes of cat- and crocodile-headed deities. Perfume bottles and lamps and enough plates to cover the dining room table downstairs, all solid gold. Golden circlets, necklaces and fake beards, all of them gold, gold, gold. There were a few pieces of jade and alabaster and ivory as well, but they hardly rate a mention.

“All the old tat they buried me with,” Neville explained. “They thought I would need it in the afterlife. Well, fair enough.”

Van Heusen was only human, and started to reach for that vast trove of treasures.

“Cursed,” Neville warned. “Every last piece of it. Probably why the Egyptian government was so amenable toward me taking it away with me when I left.”

“This is how you fund your lavish lifestyle, is it?” Van Heusen asked.

“I sell off a piece here and there when I need to. I can remove the curse anytime I like. Meanwhile, I don’t have to worry about greedy bankers.” He closed the door before Van Heusen could touch anything, and thereby curse himself to walking the nearest desert without stop until his heart burst in his chest. Considering the nearest desert was in Maine, it would have been terribly inconvenient.

“Which brings us to the end of the tour, or at least of the rooms I’m willing to let visitors see.”

“I get it now,” Van Heusen said. “You put on a good show, but if I threw open this door here,” he said, moving ahead down the hallway, “I’ll probably find a torture chamber or a ritual space set up for a black mass, complete with virgins chained to the walls, drugged and waiting to be sacrificed?”

“Well, that door there is the upstairs bath,” Neville said.

Van Heusen opened the door anyway. Looked in, saw the bathtub, the commode, the sink, the tasteful black and white tiled floor. Closed the door again.

“What about this one?” the reporter said, undaunted, moving to another door and throwing it open. A thick smell of ancient forests rolled out over him, dry and sharp, enough to nearly overcome him.

“Cedar closet. Keeps the moths out of my good clothes.”

Only one door remained.

“Really,” Neville said as Van Heusen stalked toward the ultimate portal, “I don’t think you want to see what’s behind that one. I said that Septimus Grimbly’s séances were a sham, and it’s true, but—”

Van Heusen threw open the door.

And stood, transfixed, by the vast and empty vista that stretched before him. Black as night, made of night, an abyss of untrammeled space that extended to infinity in every direction. A woman’s voice, spectral and faint, swept through his ears, babbling dark secrets in a language older than humanity, older than the Earth. He heard the ticking of a cosmic metronome, and saw two cyclopean yellow eyes staring down at him, into him, blasting him with implacable judgment—and yet a moment later they dimmed and blinked out and he realized he was watching stars die, their sempiternal lifetimes having flared and shone and dwindled to nothing in the span of an eye blink. If he stepped over that threshold, Van Heusen knew he would fall forever more, and yet somehow, all the same, he found himself lifting a tentative foot, moving it forward—

Neville reached around him and shut the door.

“We believe some of Grimbly’s experiments with the occult were more… authentic than others,” he said.

“What… what… what…” Van Heusen gibbered.

“Haven’t a clue. We tend to keep that door closed, on the whole.” Neville and Reggie had discovered the doorway shortly after moving in, and they differed about what to do about it. Reggie suggested they write a letter to the editors of a pulp magazine called Weird Tales, as they had printed stories about such things and might have some suggestions. Neville’s own plan for the room was to hang a small sign on the door that read DO NOT OPEN, and think of it no more.

“As I said, I believe the tour is done,” Neville said, and led Van Heusen back down the stairs.

About David Wellington

Author of horror, fantasy, and adventure novels.
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