The Hunting Lodge.
The next day, at exactly one hour before sunset everyone had gathered at the entrance to the Hunting Lodge. A large American flag was hoisted up on top of the Lodge’s tower in an obvious attempt to flatter Harry.
The building itself was of modest proportions and its style was very odd. It appeared that, over the years, various additions were made to the original structure. Thick grey walls were badly weatherworn, but most of the damage was concealed by creeping plants.
Wild roses, entwined with thick garlands of hops, reached halfway up the walls.
The windows on the first floor were almost hidden by the bushes of hawthorn and wild jasmine.
Long ago, there was a garden surrounding the Lodge, but over the years, it was completely swallowed by overgrown trees and creeping plants and by now resembled an impassable jungle.
Harry’s manager Smith and his local assistant, Miller, greeted the guests at the steps of the building, inviting them into the dark foyer. The air inside was damp, and the foyer itself with its odd, oversized pillars, was too unwelcoming to stay there for long, and so the guests made their way to a brightly lit dinning hall. The long and narrow room appears to have always served this purpose with its large dinning table, mounted animal heads and a fireplace.
Few heavily framed paintings decorated the walls. Their amateurish execution hinted at their local origin, and they must have had the previous owners of the Lodge as their subjects.
A grey haired man was peering from one frame, his foot resting on the head of a dead bear. On another canvas, a superbly bred hound was sinking its teeth into the neck of a snarling wolf. A hunter lies fallen on the ground, inches away from the wolf’s snapping jaws and another young man, clad in an expensive velvet cloak is hurrying to his rescue.
On the third painting, a beautiful huntress is standing over a carcass of a deer.
Expensive gilded wallpaper had darkened over the years and hung loose and mouldy in places, but ever-resourceful Smith came up with a clever solution, - he covered the really bad places with flags in honour of Harry’s guests and since the guests were of different nationalities, the room was beginning to resemble a village fair.
Brightly patterned Persian carpet hung on the wall opposite the fireplace, its colours adding to the already gaudy atmosphere and contrasting with the sober oak furniture.
Servants were busy setting the table for tonight’s dinner.
Harry decided to look around while waiting for the food to cook and most of the guest agreed to accompany him.
A narrow dark passageway with several sharp turns led from the dinning hall. At its end, a large circular stained glass window barely let in the light. Some of its coloured panels were broken and replaced with plain glass. Even during the day, the passageway was dark.
Several doors along the length of the passageway led to small bedrooms, each furnished with one or two wooden beds. Thought the furniture was old, the mattresses were new and filled with fresh straw.
At one of the turns, Smith pushed open the door in the opposite direction to the bedrooms.
The room was large with a wide window looking out over the lake. Its luxurious furniture stood apart from the rest of the Lodge. High carved bed dominated the room. With its embroidered velvet canopy and the headboard decorated with gilded cupids it could have scarcely belonged to a man and the rest of the furnishings hinted at a wealthy, spoiled woman.
Elegant dressing table with mirrors of Venetian glass, little wardrobes, small chests and graceful coffee tables, all of this would have satisfied the most capricious of women.
“Damn in Harry, it seems that we stepped right into the abode of a fairy!” exclaimed usually cool Wright.
The guests, fascinated by the room, were walking around and inspecting the furniture. Doctor Weiss opened one of the drawers.
“No doubt a woman had lived here. Take a look”, he said pointing to the contents.
Inside, covered with light layer of dust, lay the items of a lady’s handcraft; silks, still retaining their original bright colours, moth-eaten wool, and a large quantity of beads and small seed pearls.
Tiny, golden thimble decorated with mounted opal, elegant scissors, needles and the rest of small odds and ends that no lady could do without completed the picture.
Miller looked at Harry:
“We haven’t touched anything here,” he said apologetically.
“And rightly so. My guests and I are enjoying exploring the room”, said Harry and opened one of the wardrobes in confirmation.
Delicate scent of lavender filled the air.
The shelves were stacked with neatly folded underclothing, trimmed with expensive handmade lace. Silk flowers and ribbons filled the small drawers in the middle and on one of the lower shelves Harry saw a pair of high-heeled shoes.
“And here is the Treasure Chest”, said Doctor pointing to a large jewellery box of undoubtedly Japanese workmanship. It was decorated with gold and mother of pearl inlay.
Harry picked it up, turning it from side to side:
“Let’s see what secrets are hidden here,” he said, “If only I could figure out how to open it”.
He flipped it over, searching for the lock and, frowning, handed it to Doctor Weiss, who shook the box lightly.
“There is no visible lock. The jewellery must still be inside”, he said.
Harry took the box from Doctor and put it back into the wardrobe:
“We will have to leave it till next time”, he said, closing the door.
Captain Wright called them from the opposite side of the room:
“Come over here, this is well worth seeing”
Wright was standing on the large balcony, its pillars and railing completely covered by creeping hops, the fragrant ripe cones cascading above his head in garlands.
Harry joined him, followed by most of his guests.
The view before them was truly magnificent. Last rays of the dying sun bathed the valley in golden light. Thin mist was rising from the lake and, pierced by the rays, it shimmered with gold and pale pink.
In some places, the mist parted a little and the clear blue water of the lake peeked through. To the left, the dark green of pine trees rose in a solid wall and on the right stood the dark foreboding rock, crowned with the ominous looking castle.
Harry whistled softly, and the guests passed admiring comments.
“Not bad”, “Wonderful”, “Amazing” was heard from all sides.
Doctor Weiss cleared his throat:
“And right now, more than ever, I refuse to believe in evil maidens with duck’s feet,” he announced loudly.
The village headman, an old German, invited by Harry to dinner in thanks for the access to the church archive, gave Doctor an odd look:
“It is understandable, Sir”, he said softly “since vampires are confined to their coffins during the hours of sunset and sunrise”
Doctor shrugged his shoulders, and the old man said nothing.
Suddenly Harry’s irritated voice broke the silence:
“You are insane, Smith, if for one second you think that I will agree to sleep on an old mattress, under the dusty canopies! Damn, no! Fresh straw and take down the old rags!”
“Forgive me, Sir, I thought that it was the best room in the house” answered embarrassed Smith.
“And now see to it that my things are taken to one of the smaller bedrooms”.
Smith turned to his assistant Miller and both began to talk very fast. It seemed that there was a problem.
“What’s the matter?” asked Harry.
“We are not sure what to do, Sir. We prepared the rooms according to the number of guests and we are not sure to whom we can possibly offer the big bedroom...” said Miller with a deep bow.
“As a punishment for your lack of foresight, you must sleep in this dusty nest yourself!”
Miller paled and took a step backwards:
“I...I must...be left here alone...” he stuttered, “Sir, I cannot, please, have mercy!”
Harry looked at him, puzzled:
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“In this room, here, lived the ‘Bride’. She died here and the village folk still tell stories about her, that she still walks here at night, weeping” said Miller, fearfully looking around the room.
“Well, Gentlemen, it seems the things have taken on a ghostly turn. Pity, I haven’t heard of it earlier, then I would have definitely stayed in the room. But I have a rule to never take back an order once it is given. So, gentlemen, which one of you would like to meet the otherworldly bride? Maybe you, Wright?” offered Harry, smiling.
“I am game if you will promise me a dozen cigars and a glass of rum”
“After a dozen cigars, especially those opium ones that you like so much, I swear that you will see not only a ghostly bride, but a white elephant and a green serpent as well,” mumbled Doctor.
“All right it is decided, Captain Wright is sleeping here. Lead on Smith, let’s see the rest of the house”
“It is all, Sir”
“How can this be? The house seemed so much larger from the outside.”
“I am meaning to say that this is all that we’ve managed to get ready. The second half of the house, which is probably even larger, we haven’t even had a chance to inspect properly”
“No matter, take us there”
“I am afraid that you will have to walk through the garden, Sir. Yesterday we nailed shut the only door that leads to the second half and covered it with a wall hanging.”
Talking loudly, the guests left the lady’s bedroom and made their way back to the dinning hall.
They came out onto the porch just as the sun was setting and the air was beginning to cool.
The darkness was falling fast as Harry and his friends crossed the overgrown garden.
Miller fumbled clumsily with a bunch of keys in the gathering darkness and eventually pushed the door open. The air inside was musty and stale, and the room was dark.
Smith called for candles.
The first room was nothing out of the ordinary. It was hard to guess its original purpose, but over the years, unwanted things were stored here and now, crowded with extra furniture from the already prepared rooms, it resembled a second hand store. Large writing desk with broken leg stood leaning against the wall.
Smith pointed to it:
“Karl Ivanovich already took a pile of papers from this desk, but there seems to be more left.”
“Do not remove them until he gets here,” ordered Harry.
Guests moved on.
The rest of the rooms appeared quite ordinary. The decor was tasteful, if uninspired. Those with dark furniture had dark picture frames, and the oak panelled ones had matching tables and chairs. Everything appeared oversized and gloomy.
In one of the rooms, a gold picture frame glinted in the uneven light of the candles, catching Doctor Weiss’s attention. The portrait was hanging to the right of the door as if put there in a hurry, using the first available space.
Doctor was edging closer to the painting, bumping into the furniture. Harry followed him, taking a candle from Smith. He held it high, lighting the portrait.
A lean, aristocratic man stared arrogantly form the heavy gold frame. He was wearing a coat of dark velvet with a thick golden chain around his neck. His hair was hidden by a tall hat and he had the nobleman’s high-bridged aquiline nose above the clenched, razor-thin line of the mouth. Harry moved the candle slightly and one of the youths pointed to the picture:
“Look at his eyes...I’ve never seen anything like this”
In uneven flickering light of candle, the eyes glinted with menacing red tint. For a moment, they appeared alive and Harry felt the shivers rise up his back. Everybody agreed that the portrait was a masterpiece.
Doctor Weiss, a lover of antique paintings was examining the portrait from every angle, all the while exclaiming his admiration.
While making yet another turn he accidently collided with the village headman and the old man braced himself against the wall. Suddenly, he cried out and vanished into a dark space.
The portrait was instantly forgotten.
Everyone rushed to help the old man.
While leaning on what he thought was a solid wall, the old man inadvertently pushed on a concealed door.
The door gave in and the old man had fallen.
Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously hurt. He was helped to his feet and exited guests entered the newly discovered room.
Smith and Miller swore that they have never seen it before. No one doubted their words, since the room was so unusual that to miss it would have been impossible.
With its high Venetian windows and the expensive and elegant furniture, it was very similar to the bedroom of the ‘ghostly bride’.
If it wasn’t for a thick blanket of dust covering every surface, the room appeared as if its’ inhabitant had stepped outside only a moment ago.
Sheets of music, books and engravings littered the small tables. A large recliner stood in the middle of the room, its pillow still bearing an imprint of a head. A bouquet of dried flowers stood in a heavy silver vase, and nearby, a lute lay discarded on a seat of a chair.
There was an open decanter surrounded by several dried up roses on top of a small table, and a bright red ladies’ cloak lay crumpled on the floor.
Doctor Weiss felt something under his foot and bend down to pick it up. It was a small Catholic prayer book. He opened it and read an inscription, written in an elegant but obviously weak hand. “Please pray for my doomed soul”.
After Doctor read aloud the request in the prayer book all laughter and jokes died, the visitors grew silent and respectful as if the corpse itself was still in the room.
It seemed that long ago, a great disaster had forced the inhabitants to flee, and once they had left, they never returned.
This was confirmed by the tall gilded birdcage in the middle of the room. A tiny skeleton lay at its bottom. The ornate seashell shaped porcelain feeder was empty. The poor bird probably had perished of hunger.
Guests were moving silently, respectfully. Candles flickered in the stale air and the white lace curtains, peeking from beneath the heavy velvet drapes looked like the wings of vanished angels.
“Damn it Harry, this place reminds me of Sleeping Beauty. Only where the hell is she, so that I might wake her with a kiss?” exclaimed Wright.
It was as if his words broke a spell.
Everybody started speaking at once and everybody seemed to have their own theory.
Smith walked over to the furthest window, pulled aside the drapes and discovered that it wasn’t a window at all, but a large glass door. It was locked but the key was still inside.
Smith turned the key; the stiff door opened with an unpleasant creak, letting in a sudden gust of fresh night air from the garden.
Candles flickered, curtains and dried flowers moved as if the spirit of the dead woman entered the room, angered by the disturbance.
“This room must be adjacent to the large lady’s bedroom”, said Smith “one can see it easily from here, this side of the Hunting Lodge faces the mountain on which the Castle is built. You cannot see the lake from here, and so if you go around the corner, you should find the large balcony”
Harry stepped onto a small balcony, no bigger than a bird’s nest and looked around the corner:
“You’re right, Mr Smith. I can see the large balcony from here”
“I found the door to the bedroom”, called James.
The door was easy to miss at first. It was decorated with a fresco and could be mistaken for a painting. It wasn’t locked but refused to budge.
“It is blocked by a large wardrobe from the other side. No wonder I thought that it looked somewhat out of place, it takes up the best portion of the wall, while its proper place should have been in the corner” said Harry “tomorrow we will sort it all out and right now it is time for dinner. All of these things helped me to work up quite an appetite”.
Everyone obeyed and followed Harry out, leaving the way they came in, through the garden.
After a long day spent hunting, the guests eagerly sat down to the lavish dinner, accompanied by expensive wines.
At first the guests concentrated on their food, polishing away starters, pickles and pâté and only when the hunger, and more importantly the thirst, were satisfied, did the conversation resume once again.
Today there was no mention of the hunt; the entire discussion was centred on mysterious rooms and their occupants. Hundreds of opinions and theories were proposed. Some believed that the woman had died, or rather was killed in a sudden accident; others thought that she may have been kidnapped. Either way everyone agreed that something tragic must have happened in those rooms.
Some of the guests found it strange that a young beautiful woman once had made the Hunting Lodge her residence.
The fact that she was young and beautiful was accepted by all without a doubt.
“Still, it is all very odd”, remarked one of the guests.
The village headman, who spent most of the evening listening, spoke up for the first time:
“She was a foreign lady,” he said.
“How do you know this, Sir?”
“My grandmother told me that a beautiful foreign lady died of grief. She missed her homeland too much. She was very beautiful, but not of our faith, and died without her rites being said the way her people do, and that’s why her soul has no peace. She is asking for prayers to her God”
“Why did she live here and not up at the Castle?”
“My grandmother didn’t say”
Harry turned to the librarian:
“Karl Ivanovich, maybe you can shed some light on this... Have you had a chance to get back to the church archive?”
Karl Ivanovich and the two managers sat at the end of the table without joining in the conversation.
“No, Mister Cardie, it is still locked and I wouldn’t get the key until tomorrow”
“It is true” confirmed the headman, “but tomorrow you will be most welcome”
“If the gentlemen are still interested I have prepared some of the letters for reading” offered Karl Ivanovich.
“Yes please,” shouted the youngsters.
“Wine and cigars” ordered Harry.
Karl Ivanovich waited for his listeners to make themselves comfortable and light their cigars. Once everybody had settled, he put on his glasses and began reading: