She broods alone on the cliff, an old house frowning toward the lines of breakers and beyond, to where the sky submits, kissing the restless face of the vast ocean. The building’s weathered features sag and creak in the cold, briny wind, waiting for her owner. And she does return: in the evenings with the new moon. With her presence, the dark, colossal dwelling is transformed. The old mansion shakes off the dour expression and greets the visitor with gaping smiles from its broken and jagged leaded windows. Light and mist and orchestral music spill out from the cracked front door, across the wrecked porch into the decaying yard, flowing over the edge of the subsiding cliff, colours falling and flowering in the sunset, and then lost in the roiling, inky swell below.
Inside, candlelight flares to play with the shy shadows lurking in the corners, scurrying from room to room at her heel, as the guest paces with gracious mien through the webbed and empty corridors. She chooses to return, and everything forlorn is glad once more.
The visitor glides silently down the central staircase, crosses the leaf-scattered atrium and enters the parlour. Muted laughter and piano music float through with her measured footsteps. Heavy moth-eaten velvet curtains drift in salt-scented drafts. Her light sparkles through dusty cut crystal chandeliers. Grey coiffed ancestors gaze down from flaked and darkening antique portraits, their dulled glares reflected in gilt-edged mouldering mirrors.
In the parlour, a fire blazes and crackles at the guest’s approach. She takes a glass of glowing ruby red from the mantle and surveys the room as she takes a sip. Everything is as it should be. The visitor sets her glass down, smooths her gown, and sweeps back her tresses. The music, echoing throughout, takes up a statelier tone as she makes her way to the great hall. The French doors open for her, and even before she sees him she’s walking to where he’ll be standing: breathless, expectant, but to attention, in full dress uniform.
She smiles, and the light from her is reflected in him. He bows and, taking her gloved hand in his, leads her to the centre of the space. They wait, poised, and then the music changes tempo again, to match their slow circles. As they dance across the scuffed parquetry floor, their movements add further swirling patterns over the broken timber. Eyes lost in each other’s gaze; time stands still. The dance slows. At the centre of the old hall, this night, she leans her head upon his chest as he clasps her close. She can’t see his shining tears, as he buries himself in the scent of her raven hair, haloed in the starlight. He holds her even closer: they incline towards one another always, caught in each other’s gravity. They cling to each other now, waiting.
A tremor runs through the building, almost like a sigh. The couple’s light dims. Flames flicker and go out in the breeze. Finally, the music drifts away on the tide as the spray of stars tilt slowly lower, before fading as they dip below the horizon.
This is how it is, since it happened, for the couple, for the old house. Since the raucous parties at the cliff top mansion fled, and passed onto other shores, once and for all.
Yet, she returns, a promise fulfilled.
For years, people pull up in determined convoys following old stories, rumours and superseded maps, studying the area for remnants of the mansion’s crumbling façade. Each attempt meets failure, and those lines of vehicles full of sight seers, history buffs, and treasure hunters hurtle back along the wrecked and overgrown coastal road in the night. These travellers, frustrated and confused, start determined, and then they dwindle. Each passing decade with no results. Wayward tourists occasionally buy postcards of the infamous manor from the nearby village, until they stop printing them, for lack of interest. The last of picturesque cards remain in the local history museum, fading under glass.
Late some nights, surfers, or gaggles of city students partying in camps further up the coast, fooled by the echoes of happier times, swear they see lights pouring across the ocean from the broken building. Some suggest they hear music and shouts of laughter over the incessant waves. Bemused locals shrug at the stories told out front of the grocery store: they’ve heard it all before, the legends.
The stars, the coast, can play tricks, they tell the young people, tapping their heads. Perhaps a bit too much to drink last night, they suggest. Or smoke?
Students and surfers laugh and leave, moving onto more carefree adventures up the coast, happy to abandon the locals to their mysteries.
The residents, too, take care to point out it’s a new moon.
Of course, they explain, you don’t understand what it’s like here.
Older residents shake their heads, their smiles fixing as they avert their gazes, lost in the past. Some, when prompted, offer their excuses before shuffling away, unwilling to share secrets, leaving searchers thwarted.
There are days though, some rare days, when town folk are roused from reflection to more willingly refer travellers to the fading articles collected in the corners of the library window. Others point towards the old display in that ignored museum, open every third Saturday of the month.
Dutifully following directions, curious visitors shudder as they read about the grandeur of the lost manor house. These tourists, quest complete, shrug into their jackets, chilled after they’ve learned about the newly-weds, the famed heiress celebrated for her charitable works, and her husband, the dashing Great War veteran. They drive off, eager to abandon the little village, tense and overcome, contemplating the beautiful couple, and how, on the night of their fifth anniversary, they disappeared with their shining home on the promontory in the devastating landslip after the biggest storm of the decade, in 1922.
And this is how it continues.
Rebecca Dempsey’s recent works are featured in Provenance Journal, The Ekphrastic Review, Electica Magazine, and Ink Pantry. Rebecca grew up in rural South Australia, and lives in Melbourne. She can be found at WritingBec.com.
photo by Annie Spratt (via unsplash)