Warm, dank air hit us full in the face as we stepped into the entrance hall; colossal cobwebs hung from the heights of the ceiling and dipped low before clinging to the magnificent chandelier, the breeze from the open door causing them to sway eerily. Icy droplets of rain trickled down from my hair all the way down my spine and sent a chill through my veins.
With his free hand, Brody took a torch out of his pocket and switched it on with a small click.
“Shall we set up base camp then, sweetheart?” he said. He gave my hand a squeeze before leading me across the reception area, dust rising like dismal clouds from the faded crimson carpet with every step.
As we approached the staircase, his pace slowed dramatically and I nearly crashed into him before I noticed.
“You know the story behind this place, right?” he said in a low voice. I shook my head but realised he wasn't looking at me. I swallowed before I spoke and noticed how dry my throat was.
“No, actually.” I thought I heard him scoff but I dismissed it; he released my hand as we began to ascend the staircase with trepidation, the flourescent light of the torch shining a shallow path for us.
“Well, you know this was owned by the Lintons right? 50 years ago, old Alastair Linton was mayor and owned most of the west side of town. Apparently he had two sons: the older one, Percy, died at birth, and he never got on with his youngest, Charles. People say Charles fell in love with one of the local girls- Eve Trebore, I think her name was- but seeing as she was but a lowly pastor's daughter, the match wasn't permitted. They planned to run away together, leave his inheritance, their families, everything. Anyway, somehow his father discovered their intentions and packed him off into the army before they could carry it out.
“Some years later, Charles arrives home, war weary and determined to marry Eve come hell and high water, only to find out she'd fallen pregnant and been cast out of her home. They'd found her body in the river the Christmas after he left. Suicide.” The last word escaped his mouth like a slither.
We reached the landing at the top of the stairs and were faced with a long hallway, lined with countless timber doors and paintings of various scenes- mostly landscapes of hills dotted with vegetation and quaint cottages or other such buildings, but others were depicting people of a grand countenance, draped in luxurious clothing and all wearing the same haughty expression upon their painted faces. The tall window that was directly in front of us spilled only a little pale moonlight inside, bathing us in silver and casting tall shadows across the walls. Raindrops fell hard and fast onto the windowpanes that created a steady rhythm which reminded me of fingers tapping on glass.
After some hesitation, Brody shone the torchlight down the right side of the hallway and nodded in gesture to head that way.
“Charles was devastated. Blamed his father for the whole thing. He stormed right in to confront him; things got pretty heated, and old Linton ended up with a knife through the chest.” I thought I detected a hint of amusement in his voice at this. A shiver ran across my skin.
“Wh-What happened to him? Charles, I mean?” I asked. Brody turned to look at me, a glint in his darkened eyes.
“Legend has it he hung himself- poor sod couldn't stand to live without his beloved, the world was now broken to him. They say he haunts the house now, too tormented to go to heaven but not damned enough for hell, forever pining for his lost love.” he murmured. I bit my lip and my gaze dropped to the floor.
“What a sad story...” I said quietly. He stepped closer to me, making me look up into his face again, shadows falling over his handsome features but a small smile forming at his mouth.
“Tragic indeed, darling. But that's how life goes sometimes, isn't it? Just means we have to appreciate the here and now even more.” Brody's eyes went to my lips, and before I knew it his mouth was on mine in a languid kiss. He lingered but for a moment before pulling away, leaving my mouth hung open in surprise. “And who knows- maybe we'll catch a glimpse of him?” he winked at me and turned to continue down the hallway.
A jolt went through my stomach when I realised I’d just had my first kiss. As much as I had gotten caught up in the moment of running away with him, I had never quite been able to imagine actually kissing him. He’d left the tang of apples on my lips when I ran my tongue over them. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, it hadn’t been what I’d imagined; I had pictured ardent declarations of passion, being swept off my feet, and- as much as it is a cliché- fireworks going off as our lips finally met. Not that it had been unpleasant, not at all. But…
“You coming, gorgeous?” Brody’s voice brought my attention back to earth. I looked up to see him halfway down the hallway and turned back to face me, a look of expectancy on his face. I somehow managed a smile as I nodded at him.
Catching up to him, I noticed he was shining his torch on each door as we passed, leaning in to inspect them as he did so. Eventually, three doors from the end of the passage, he stopped at a door that I saw didn’t have a handle.
“You'd better stand back a little,” he instructed.
I didn't need telling twice before I scuttled backwards to stand alongside the entrance to the room two doors down. Brody also took a few steps back and bounced on the spot a bit before launching himself towards the door clumsily. It shook a little but remained sealed. He repeated his actions and when this failed once more, he cursed under his breath before giving the door a rather aggressive kick. At last he did the trick, and sure enough the door went swinging open and granted us entry. Brody glanced at me with a smug expression as he stepped into the room and I had to stop myself from rolling my eyes as I followed suit.
Looking around myself as I entered, I saw that there were bookshelves as tall as the ceiling lining the walls, filled to the edges with various volumes of countless colours, all now coated thickly with a layer of dust after years of abandonment. My fingers itched instinctively to reach out and delve into each and every one of them, to read their words and know their worlds, but the amount of grime that covered them made me think twice about doing so.
In front of the marble fireplace sat a blood red velvet chaise-lounge, a copy of Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey resting beside its cushion, the ornate golden title on the cover flaked and faded; on the side of the room opposite to me was a mahogany desk scattered with papers and stationary and stacks of books, with a large backed chair of a similar red to the chaise-lounge in front of it, faced away from us. Above the mantelpiece hung a magnificent portrait of a portly man dressed in the finest suit money could buy, his grey streaked hair receding but a look of pure superiority upon his rounded face. But what were most noticeable about him were his hooded almond eyes: their intense piercing grey gaze seemed to see right into me, as if passing their judgement. I shivered and quickly looked away.
But stepping further into the room, I once again bumped into Brody.
“Brody, can you please warn me if you're going to suddenly stop-”
But he held up his hand to halt my speech and pointed to a free standing bookshelf close to the wall on the opposite side of the room. I followed his indication and caught a glimpse of the shadowy outline of a man who seemed to be bent over and rifling through the books on the other side. I frowned and a bubble of apprehension formed in my gut. Brody lifted his hand and shone the torchlight at the spot the man seemed to be standing- the rustling of his searching halted immediately.
His steps fell lightly on the thinned carpet as he came out from behind the shelf holding a lighted oil lamp and revealing a face I knew very well indeed. His head tilted to the right and he looked directly at me.