It was a winter’s night early in 1927, with a cold rain pattering against the walls of Grimbly Hall and the wind howling in the eaves. Despite the weather there was laughter in the foyer as Neville and Babs came back from an evening at the pictures. They’d taken in a double feature of Buster Keaton’s new film, The General, which they’d both enjoyed immensely, and The Great Gatsby, which they’d found a little preachy and terribly unrealistic (and they should know) though they both agreed Lois Wilson had been radiant. It was late when they returned, but Babs persuaded Neville to take a nightcap in the library. “One quick snort,” she promised, “and then I’ll let you go to bed.”
“Oh, certainly,” Neville said, knowing that Babs often suggested one drink when she meant three, but hardly being opposed to the prospect. He was no teetotaler himself, though he’d learned not to try to keep up with her. There was a full bar in the library, hidden inside a massive wooden globe, and it contained all he required. He mixed them some Seelbachs, a drink named after a famous hotel in Kentucky, which therefore had to include bourbon. It also contained cointreau, champagne, and not one but two kinds of bitters. While he peeled a lemon for the garnish, she plopped down in one of the big green leather armchairs and kicked off her shoes.
“It’s real jake of you to let me doss here,” she said, and laughed again. “Sorry. I know if I’m going to stick around you’d prefer I spoke English, not Flapper-ese so much. I suppose I should say, it’s ever so frightfully kind of you to permit my continued residence within your domicile.”
Neville laughed at her affected accent and handed her a flute full of the bright red cocktail. “Not at all,” he told her. “You bring some life to a house that sorely needs it. Especially considering it’s owned by a dead man.”
She smiled and beckoned him closer with one crooked finger. When he came to her she lifted her glass and clinked it against his.
“I know you weren’t sure how long you intended to stay with us,” he told her. “I do hope it’ll be a while longer. Another week, at least.”
Babs had never lived anywhere for more than six months at a time, at least since leaving home. She was a water spirit, after all, and such were known for being mercurial. She had intended for Grimbly Hall to just be a quick stop on her itinerary. She knew, though, that Neville was hoping for a long acquaintance. Maybe a very long one. “A week can seem like a very long time,” she told him, “or no time at all. It depends on how you pack the days.” Then she gave him what might be described as a smoldering look. If one might describe the great Chicago fire as smoldering.
Neville was, in point of fact, dead, or rather undead, being a four thousand year old mummy. That did not mean there were no passions stirring in his breast. He thought the time wasn’t right to try to kiss her though (in fact, the time was exactly right, but being a man he couldn’t tell) so he sipped his drink and stepped away, turning toward the windows. As a result he didn’t see Babs’s smirk of frustration.
“Rather well written for a movie, anyway,” he said, as if they’d still been talking about Gatsby. “What was that line, about boats beating against the tide? No, I haven’t got it right.”
“Some bushwa about the past,” Babs said, using what is commonly known as a euphemism. It will be left to the reader to work out what word she had replaced. “For all people flap their gums about Fitzgerald as the poet of the age, he’s goofy for the past.”
“Hmm, let me see if I can find a copy and we’ll get the actual quote,” Neville said. The library shelves were crowded with books left behind by the house’s builder, Septimus Grimbly, and therefore most of them were volumes on demonology and the occult. His own shelf of modern novels looked a bit lost amidst the others. He ran his finger along some spines—the Black Pullet; Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches; the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum; a History of the Canadian Civil Service…
“Hello,” he said. That last one had caught his eye. Mostly because it sounded like a book no one would ever, ever want to read. It certainly didn’t belong with the grimoires. And in fact when he examined it more closely, he noticed that its spine didn’t seem to be made of cloth and cardboard, but instead of painted wood. As if it weren’t a book at all but a cunningly made replica of same.
“Did you find something interesting?” Babs asked, sipping her drink.
Instead of answering directly, and suspecting what was about to happen, Neville tried to pull the History of the Canadian Civil Service off the shelf. It came out from between the other books a little ways—then snapped back, as if it were on a spring.
There was a grinding sound, like mill wheels turning, and then a whole cabinet of books swung back into the wall of the library, revealing a narrow, stone-lined passage that led into darkness.
“Only my favorite kind of thing of all time,” Neville whispered.
Well, he had been born in ancient Egypt. And the builders of the pyramids had just been wild about hidden passages, hadn’t they? One reason Neville was so excited about owning Grimbly Hall was that he kept finding new pieces of it.
When Septimus Grimbly had the place built, he’d employed a number of architects. Most had quit after just a few days, when they saw the plans Grimbly had drawn up for his dream home. One, in what was surely a regrettable coincidence, had gone made and ended up living in a yurt on the American prairie, unable to ever enter a permanent structure for the rest of his days.
As a result no complete plan of the house existed, as no one except old Septimus had seen every part of its construction. Thus hidden rooms and secret passages weren’t so surprising. On the second floor there was a short hidden corridor running behind the Red Boudoir, with a spy lens built into the wall. And a mounting bracket for a camera. And a comfortable chair and a little table you could put a snack and a drink on.
There were the cellars, which Neville kept promising himself he would some day fully explore and chart. It would have to wait until he could outfit the expedition properly, though, and Messrs. Abercrombie and Fitch just didn’t carry the necessary gear.
Of course, most days he just saw the same drab old rooms full of antiquities and curiosities and fripperies of the more exotic and arcane sort. When he did find a new feature of the house it was always like discovering treasure.
“What do you think?” he asked Babs, as he peered into the dark passage. “Is it a priest hole? If we go back there will we find a skeleton trapped behind a hastily bricked-up wall? Maybe it leads to another, but more mysterious, library?”
Babs, who might not share Neville’s hereditary fascination for secret hallways, was still a New Woman and always game for a little adventure. She’d already picked up and lit a candelabra (the only proper source of illumination when exploring cobweb-festooned hidden corridors). “Only one way to find out,” she said.
He’d wanted to kiss her before. At that moment Neville considered proposing. He led the way, brushing aside spider webs as thick as bunting and dust bunnies the size of schnauzers as they traversed the narrow passage. It was warm back there and they could see the slats and boards that formed the outer wall of the house, as well as some of the pipes and wires that formed the Hall’s circulatory and nervous systems. It felt very much like they were in a place where they had never been meant to go. It was not a long journey but by the end of it, when they reached a hidden room, they were both rather up on their tiptoes and they spoke only in whispers, because it seemed like the done thing in that situation.
When Babs’s light suddenly bounced back at them, reflected off hundreds of glass jars and bottles and vessels, they nearly gasped. Slowly their eyes adjusted to the low light and they took in what they’d found, and it was hardly disappointing.
They came out into a small and narrow room, every corner of which was cluttered with glassware and strange implements. Alembics like birds with long glass beaks fed into retorts and flasks, all clustered around a beehive-shaped athanor furnace. Crucibles shared bench space with mortars and pestles and racks of pipettes. Jars of colorful powders and tarry resins filled long shelves, leaving just enough wall space for a periodic table of the elements, over which had been painted the kabalistic Tree of Life and astrological symbols.
A sword with the word AZOTH engraved on its pommel stood propped against one work table. The two of them had to duck as they moved about the room to avoid, of all things, a stuffed crocodile suspended by wires from the ceiling. “A secret alchemical laboratory,” Neville said, in awe. “I knew old Septimus dabbled in black magic. I never thought he’d go in for this kind of out-dated silliness.”
Babs moved her candelabra around to take in each fresh wonder. She found a Petri dish with flecks of gold fused to its surface. A stand holding a selection of wands, each with a different planetary symbol inscribed on its tip. She found something tall and cylindrical covered by a hood, like a birdcage. She lifted the cloth away. Then she gasped and waved Neville over to see what she’d found.
“Fascinating,” he said.
Babs’s discovery was a bell jar, about three feet tall, made of thick glass sealed at the bottom to a wooden base. A scrap of paper was pasted to the front that simply read Na, which suggested part of the inscription had been torn away, perhaps.
Inside the jar was a little humanoid figure made of silvery metal. It lacked clear definition, having no facial features, no fingers or toes. Yet it was clearly meant to possess arms and legs and a head.
Meant to, because most of the time it did. Sometimes, though, it didn’t. The little figure moved inside the jar, pacing back and forth in its tiny prison, lifting its arms toward them as if it wished to be picked up and held. As they watched in fascination one of its arms lengthened and divided into tiny fingers that waved for their attention. Its head disappeared into the main mass, then returned in a different shape. It was not a perfect imitation, but this new head seemed to have a bob haircut and the rudiments of a nose and lips quite similar to Babs’s own.
“It’s alive,” she said, her eyes going very wide. “But what on Earth is it?”