A House in the Country

Mr. Cooper's uncle has died, and it is up to him to organize his late uncle's vast collection of rare books in an increasingly oppressive, isolated mansion in the countryside...

The land was vast, open and comprised of rolling hills of dim green, interspersed with long belts of trees of mighty oak and ash. It was a clear, if not cold, November day. The sun was out and bright and the only clouds were a barely noticeable smattering of white across the sky and in the distance. There were remnants of a very old wall running the length of a long and uneven  road upon which the figure of a man was now passing, somewhere in his mid forties, with a bristling moustache and glasses pushed right back to his eyes. He contemplated upon the sparseness of the trees that would look quite beautiful were they full and blooming, without the few straggling yellow leaves still attached. The hedgerows that marked out farmer’s fields would also have looked more normal, he thought, were there any animals to occupy their borders. Above the sound of his footsteps, he believed he discerned the trickle of a stream somewhere. He had denied himself the use of a carriage, a good walk would be the best thing for his health now. In fact, he thought it a perverse blessing that he should be granted such work that would give him a perfect excuse to get some much needed fresh air after his bout illness which had left him an invalid for three months. It was still morning, early morning, and there was only the faintest hint of frost on the grass that began to melt as the sun rose higher. The cold air felt good in his lungs and the slight incline which was beginning made him feel like proper exercise was to begin. This man was Francis Cooper, and he had found himself appointed to do some work in, through some rather bleak avenues of the death of a famous uncle, a large house in the countryside outside of Seeder Point. A famous uncle more to his relations, for Cooper had never actually met this uncle, but had heard his name spoken many times during family gatherings; mostly by older members and never in any context he could understand.

He had neglected to bring a walking stick, which he now regretted. He wasn’t completely over it yet, although it had left his system. Finding himself nearly at the top of the incline and out of breath, Cooper stopped to take in some deep gulps of the frigid air and look over the top of the hill. He shuffled to the summit and raised his head, but now the sun was in his eyes a bit and he closed one as he looked out, and it wasn’t the house with its adjacent ring of trees which first caught his attention, it was the figure of a monk or some such hooded personage a couple yards in front of Cooper, with his back to him, half silhouetted in the light. Just as Cooper was walking up to give him a hearty good morning, he opened his other eye and saw it wasn’t in fact a monk, or even a person. No, it was just a tall post, old and perhaps once part of a set for a gate. A brief chuckle carried Cooper away as he took in the sight of his soon to be new home for the next three weeks.

The allotted time was a vast underestimation, as Cooper came to discover. His profession was as a man of books, of selling and buying and cataloguing, and the latter was his job here. This job was more of a family favour, his payment being lodging in the great old house and access to all of its grounds. He expected to be very solitary here, as upon the death of the aforementioned uncle all of the servants and maids and workers had been relieved of duty. It was no matter, Cooper was a capable man and he hadn’t really expect to take three weeks. But once inside the spacious mansion, he soon found, to his slight dismay, even longer an amount of time might be required, as well as the re-hiring or temporary hiring of staff to help around the place. His uncle was a fervent isolationist and kept to himself all of the time, keeping extensive communication by letter and messenger and a few times by carrier pidgeon. This time kept to himself was spent, it seemed, amongst a vast collection of books of some wide variety of subjects pertaining to medieval demonology, alchemy, the black arts, classical literature and various sordid accounts Cooper found in the worst taste, amongst them a private publication on the ludicrous subject of a census of the damned confined to hell. There were three libraries in the entire house, disorderedly packed from floor to ceiling with irregular stacks of books and pamphlets, some in undignified piles in corners. Much work was to be done in the first of the three libraries, and it was badly lit by tall, slit, latticed windows. He wanted fresh air, and only a few windows he found would open. He took three empty ledgers of prodigious size, one for each room. Before he began his work, he took a quick scan through the collections easily accessible, for reading during the evenings. Amongst the finely panelled and carved shelves were some extraordinarily rare books and he scoffed in disgust at the terrible treatment of some of them. These he took out and placed somewhere proper. One did catch his eye, something in what assumed was Latin, some form of debased Latin he found hard to read whose extensive use of the words ‘abyssus’ and ‘judicatus’ and ‘concalo’ made Cooper feel a little uneasy. Behind a pile of encyclopaedias he found a miniscule tome, handwritten and in nice shape. It was an account of some fantastic realm by a dreamer or poet, light reading and a taste of some of the eclectic and surreal items he might uncover. This he took out for a walk around the grounds before he might begin his work.

The land around the house was beautiful. The belt of trees was thicker in some parts and the light that shone through them was curious and distant. Cooper felt it a shame he had to come here during the winter. He imagined a verdant summer here with animals and birds and a canopy of glowing green above him and soft loam below him, but instead he had stark veins and crunching dirt. Still, the bleakness carried a melancholic beauty and he loved nothing more than atmosphere for reading. He opened the little book and immediately caught a strong whiff of not mould or mustiness, but age, indefinable age. He scrunched his nose at it and tried not to sneeze. He gave a chesty cough and so flicked the pages out in the air before he even thought about returning it to himself. The dust of ages would certainly not help his lungs, even in the fresh air. The script was quite lovely, flowing but easily legible, the work of a romantic who took every precaution and pride in their work. The author went on at length about his character’s adventure in a surreal dream world with vivid and detailed description, and although Cooper found it on the whole absolutely unnecessary, it was very well written. He wished some of it was reflected in the world around him. He had been sitting against the trunk of a mighty oak whose bare branches overhung like watchful things.  He stood then and looked out to the spaces behind the house and caught a glimpse of a low hill or mound a good way out in the open plains. On it was a single thing, perhaps a tree. Cooper, seeing as the sun was at its height, stretched and closed his book, and strode over the hill. He could begin setting himself up with lunch before he began, once back at the house.

It took Cooper a little longer than he expected, so cold it was and how easily he found himself breathless. It was quite flat terrain, but he was tired enough. He had gained the object of his quest, this hillock with its tree. It was probably some of the highest ground in the lands occupied here, even though there were steeper slopes about. He saw the tree and found it to be quite dead, deader than the rest and not just leafless. It was black, quite low and shrivelled, with an aspect of being burnt or, as Cooper thought abstractly, drained. It brought up the unpleasant memory of the news of his uncle’s death. He had been found in his bed, window smashed, dead, curiously shrivelled and his skin stained black, akin to burnt wood, arms twisted in a motion of warding and pushing. A gruesome image and Cooper was quite glad he hadn’t been around to see it. It was a singular death, and the inquest served only to heighten confusion. They eventually settled on murder with some kind of hideous toxin, although no perpetrator was ever brought to justice. He turned from the tree and saw the house a short distance away. The time was somewhere after three, so Cooper, turning and gazing out across the vast, empty land, banished all thoughts from his mind save for the hunger rising in his belly and thought he might fix himself some lunch.

After dining, Cooper seated himself in the lowest library and penned a new entry in the first ledger. He put down the fantastical book first. There were no other records he could glean information from, so he certainly had his work cut out for him. The house was silent, but pleasantly so. It had the aspect of a hushed college or abbey that Cooper found quite comforting and invigorating. He took stacks from the shelves around him and even though he knew he was wasting valuable time, he couldn’t resist taking a quick look through the random ones that interested him. There was little to no variation for the first couple of hours, all biographies of some kind on old scholars or works pertaining to their works. Cooper, being a man knowledgeable in this field, didn’t seem to recognize more than a scant few, and these he knew hadn’t a wide publication history. They were rare, but not in that way that made them exactly valuable in any way. This went on for some time until Cooper found it was very hard to see. He looked out of the tall slit window that was directly in front of him and saw night was falling quickly. He didn’t need to get up, there were matches and a few candles around him, but he did, to move the finished books further away from the naked flames. He had seen a carless student set a book on fire before through brazen foolishness, and the boy had been reprimanded not by his schoolmaster but by Cooper himself. He inwardly scoffed at the ineptness of some colleges. Once lit, there was a comfortable glow around his vicinity. He didn’t intend to work too long, so as to not strain his eyes. He pushed his glasses back up the bridge of his nose and took a new stack of books over to the desk.

When it did come time for bed, Cooper had used up three of his five candles in that room. He extinguished one and took the remainder with him to a bedroom, one he was told he could sleep in. Before he arrived he had some clothes and belongings taken to the house. It was quite cold in the halls now, uncomfortably so, probably due to an open window Cooper would hear whistlinf pipin from depth of the house. Nevertheless, he took in the atmosphere of the dark wooden hallways illuminated by the failing light and the glow of his candle. He couldn’t quite put a finger on it, but he liked the way everything looked, how his footfalls only echoed back faintly, making the mansion seem vast. He was about to ascend the stairs when his own musings reminded him of the little book he was reading. He almost stumbled as he turned back for it and thought he should not get so enveloped in his own thoughts. He went back into the library which was now a cavern of shadow. He picked up that little thing from the desk and turned again; taking in a last look at the great shelves of books he could see in his own weak candlelight. The earthiness was contrasted with the inherent reverential aspect of this library. He thought it a shame he never met his uncle, they probably would have got along quite well. As he thought this, he glanced across the room out of a slit window. Through the latticework he stopped and discerned, or imagined, a figure, cowed and indistinct beside another, taller one in great shapeless robes. This he knew to be the poorly tended bushes outside, but kept the image with him as he liked how it made him feel like he resided in some monastic settlement of learning.

Sleep came quite easily to Cooper that night. He read some of the fantastic descriptions in that book and faintly wondered if the author wrote anything else of note, for he would very much like to get his hands on it. In the morning, it was still mostly dark but beginning to brighten up. The clouds he saw in the distance yesterday were here and created great grey masses above the house for quite a ways. It was again, quite cold in the house and he regretted this. The library did not have a fireplace (as it rightly shouldn’t, mused Cooper) and he contemplated perhaps taking a bunch of books into the sitting room, setting up a fire and working there. In the end he decided against it and instead wore an extra jacket. He would perhaps prepare some kind of heating later on, but for now he wanted to work, and he did, quite well, until the chill in his hands caused him to stop. Taking them up, blowing on and rubbing them, he looked out of the window before him at the sky and the unrelenting grey. It threatened rain. But it wasn’t this Cooper thought of, no; it was the curious absence of the huddled, poorly tended hedges. They were but a few withered, straggling leaves on thin winding branches.

In the end, Cooper gave in and took a mighty stack of books in the living room with him. Scrounging for supplies, he began cultivating a fire that might warm him. He chose a large armchair and turned it just away from the fire, for safety. It didn’t take long for him to get quite comfortable and work at a steady pace. The fire in the hearth and the gloominess outside set another fire in him, and again he conjured ideas of atmosphere and setting. He quite liked this house. Cooper found himself back and forth from the living room to the library; bringing stacks of books betwixt the rooms. He was grateful for the movement; he did not wish to take any walks outside today. Eventually, his thoughts ventured to the near future and to the work awaiting him. This might have been the largest library in the house, but the other two were still pretty daunting. They were smaller rooms, and quite packed. He imagined the dust and cobwebs that awaited him. Those rooms had proper windows he could open, and he felt a proper airing of each one would be needed before he even attempted setting up a place to work in them. There came a point when Cooper found being scrunched over himself with a pen and ink, going back and forth from each solitary room – and the piping window he hadn’t located - got to him and he decided, perhaps against better judgement, to retire. He read more of his book.

Cooper carried on like this for about a week and found the work melting away before him. It wasn’t long before he had to simply carry a cursory examination of what he had catalogued and if anything remained before the time to begin upstairs came. The days had been singularly gloomy and he had taken a few short walks around the grounds of the house, but never for long. The threatened rain hadn’t come, but each passing day saw the clouds get increasingly darker. Cooper thought to himself that should they continue at this rate, day would soon become indistinguishable from night. There were a great many candles about the house, Cooper discovered. He once found a cache of black ones he thought were exceedingly peculiar, what with the connotations attached. He gave them no notice and used them all the same. The second library was a much smaller room and had about it the feeling of secrecy. There was an aspect of cramped, shoved away and hidden about this room. The piles of book were quite high and ceiling very low. The two windows here were hidden by some of tall stacks and Cooper dreaded to think of what fading might have occurred in the time since they had been placed here. There was a desk or sort of podium almost, a slanted, vaguely pulpit-shaped thing he could access by way of a veritable corridor of books - there was even a corner to turn. Cooper thought quickly maybe he and this uncle might not have gotten along so well after all. There was a decidedly musty smell in this room, a cloistered, clammy, warm smell. The air was stuffy and none to pleasant to breath. At the risk of enflaming his sinus, Cooper ventured in, handkerchief about his mouth and awkwardly dismantled the wall of books blocking the windows. As he did so, the grim light came in stronger and something behind him fell and skidded. Cooper, in the negligible second before realization, thought of something rushing rather than skidding. From this window he could see the knoll with the tree on it and it made him think of his uncle. He didn’t like it. But looking in again, he did like the room. A monk’s secret library, hidden away in an abbey, full of knowledge.

He realized, much to his surprise, the first ledger hadn’t actually been fully filled and thought he could continue this new room in the old ledger. He decided against it. He began a new ledger for a new room and whereas he didn’t look forward to having to sift through dust, he did wonder at what he might find in here of value. He had seen some things already he could persuade the family to sell for a tidy sum, or even buy for himself. He had noted these down on a separate sheet which he hoped he could add to. He thought it best he eat before starting work again, so he let the room air out while he enjoyed a quiet meal with his book, not thinking of the work ahead. When he did get back to it, the room still had that unpleasant odour, but the air was much clearer. He began on the books he had dismantled and found them to be of a terribly frightening sort. Most were individual tomes, handwritten with illustrations he could barely understand. They were in Latin and what he assumed was Greek, only a rare few in an older form of English and a frightening number dedicated to descriptions of various hells. Some of the pages were yellowed and stained and fell open on certain passages, as if they had been kept there for a long time. Some of the books didn’t have titles, so such Cooper had taken to creating a name for these untitled volumes. Whereas he could have simply jotted down ‘Untitled’, he gave unnecessary specifics. These he called ‘Occultism and Spiritualism’. The cloistered little room saw Cooper creating a vacant corner for catalogued books. It meant he had to take a few piles to another filled corner, but in the end it was worth it. What he found most odd about the room, even more so than the weirdness of the books, was the lack of any cobwebs, or indeed, spiders. There was a distinct lack of insects or other vermin nestling amongst the rows, even mould on the pages was absent, they were simply very old. The smell persisted, however. This room took some work, and Cooper took a few more breaks than he intended, but it was half done by the end of the day. He exhausted a good number of candles just lighting the room once darkness fell. When the time came to retire, Cooper felt weary, but not tired. Over the course of the day, the weather had died down a significant amount to warrant a quick stroll outside before bed, as the cloistered aspect of the small library had had an effect on his lungs and breathing.

Taking a candle down with him to the front hall, Cooper noticed the walls were much closer, or seemed to be much closer in the dark. His candle played vast, vague shadows and Cooper fancied he couldn’t actually see the ceiling, imagining himself down in a cyclopean vault. Once outside though, thoughts of closeness left him. Before him was the absolute open, a plain of dark as far as the eye could see. His miniscule candle lit nothing of this, so he left it as he exited the house into the outside. From the house there stretched a great, wide path of grimy, pale yellow stone. There were a few trees about the house and they seemed to tower and arch above him in the night. If anything, he felt very small. The moon cast a strange glare, he thought, as he turned around to the side of the house at a brisk pace, taking in lungfuls of cold air. The chill stung his hands after a while, and he felt himself shiver once or twice. The landscape was totally different in the winter night. Silence was total about this place; he could barely discern his own footsteps. He could just about see his own breath. As he turned from the back of the house to the side again, and then to the front, he kept his eyes away from the hillock and the black tree. Turning back into the house, thankful for the bracing walk, he noticed for just a moment, that no moon shone that night.

The next few days were uneventful for Cooper, save for a slight creeping uneasiness working away in that tiny room. Also, a terrible oppression seemed to have come over as he tread the halls of the house in the dark. The walls were very high, the ceilings hung like an interior night-sky and other rooms appeared like a void as he passed them on his way to bed. At certain points, when he wasn’t listening to anything else, very far away, but audible in the sense he felt he was supposed to hear it, there came the piping of what he had to continue reassuring himself was an open window. Nights were closing in very quickly now and the weather had returned to its grim state. Cold, dark and very alone, Cooper wondered if he should go ahead and take the daylight tomorrow to go to the nearest other house and call for the servants once employed under his uncle. He was maintaining the fire a lot now, partly for light, partly for warmth. Over all, he felt not alone, but exposed.

As he had catalogued the books he had begun to space them and sort them. In the end, they took up a good third of the room. All the time he worked, he opened the window at intervals, but never did that smell leave. He silently gave thanks as he finished the ledger and locked that library shut. He placed the finished ledger down with the first in the living room. He flicked through it quickly, just a small quirk he had, noticing the dreadful names that appeared in the list, books on witches, medieval demonology, loathsomely ancient mythologies and exactly seven accounts, in what he thought was Dutch, of conversations with the unnamed ‘verdoemde zielen’. He wondered how his uncle, how one his own family had gotten involved in such frightful matters. It was close to the weekend now and Cooper decided he might take one day off to shake off the ghosts of that musty old library he had ended up quite disliking. Time spent at rest in the warmth and light of the living room reading should serve as a good reward for it. But before he did this, he took to going around the various storage cabinets in search of lamps and oil. He found it exceedingly strange he had encountered naught but a collection of candles so far. They were miniscule and at times made his eyes sore. As luck would have it, he did find a few lamps stashed away under the stairs. They were of a good strength and they would serve as his primary source of illumination as he worked on the final library, which he had to locate ‘in the back of the house’, a description given to him by his obtuse cousin. At this rate, he would actually be done before his allotted three weeks, a realization he was quite thankful for. The house had lost its scholarly and monastic charms.

Over the restful weekend, Cooper was host to a series of highly disturbing dreams of foul, creeping shapes, and things that were not what they seemed upon first glance that left him clutching a candle or lantern during the deep hours of the long country nights. Indefinable discomfort was omnipresent here. The house was exceedingly cold, the walls were dark and high, and staircases creaked and echoed uncomfortably with age. Cooper had resolved to call for some servants. He didn’t need help, he needed company. The open window, or so he kept uselessly telling himself was such, was like the wail of a pipe; long, slow and drawn out - it was lilting and musical, but atonal and came without warning and held no pattern of manifestation. Cooper likened it, when the note strained, to the unsettling ululation of yearning for light and warmth from the throat of a man thrown and forgotten in a dungeon. But it sung, and Cooper hadn’t it in his heart or soul to find the singer. Overall, Cooper decided the house, the isolation and the subject matter of his late uncle’s collection acted too much upon his imagination. He needed people, or just a person, some friendly words and familiarity. He often looked out of the windows of the house to the great open and thought himself prisoner, trapped in close walls which existed amidst vastness. He steeled himself for the final leg of his work.

On Monday, he set out once the sun had arisen, for the town which lay a little past the closest neighour. It was a long walk, but refreshing. The house was cold and still, but at least the air was alive with movement, and nature was about him out here. As he walked the wide road he came to the crest of the road the he had passed the first time and noticed the post he mistook for a figure was quite ruined, a blackened stump of rotten wood. Cooper came to the town after a while and sought out the places he knew the ex-servants resided in. They would need a days notice before being able to return, and so Cooper regrettably returned to the house alone, but the promise of company in the final days was re-assuring, and moving about people again lightened considerably his sense of oppression. In the town he had stocked up on oil for his lanterns and once back in the manor, with several hours of daylight still ahead of him, he thought he might take lunch and then begin a cursory examination of the final library, maybe even start it – once he found it.

Light did not penetrate the house in many places, and all there was to see with was a dim half-light that bled from the windows and the warm glow of the lantern. Further back in the house, on the upper levels, was situated the final library. Cooper thought it was more than likely as big as the previous one and did spare some thought as to the curious placement of these rooms throughout the house. Through this labyrinth there did echo from whatever unlighted chamber that disquieting piping or howling. He should pass it, thought Cooper, and see to it at last, because there was no use trying to work with that thing bothering him as it did at this stage. Into the bowels of the house Cooper went, and back there he found several unused rooms, empty and dusty and thought why they hadn’t been used to store books. A narrow staircase took him to a singularly long corridor which took him right to the back of the house. He came to a door, a thick one with a round window set in it. There came again, shorter, the piping and it sounded like it may actually be coming from this room, muffled by the heavy door, a fact Cooper found himself trying not take notice of. This was the last library, definitely, ‘in the back of the house’, and so Cooper found himself lucky to kill two birds with one stone. Inside the room, he saw through the window, was absolutely pitch black. He tried the handle and attempted to push the door open, but to no avail. It didn’t pull out, either. The door seemed stuck, not locked (for it actually had no keyhole), so Cooper gave it bash with his shoulder and heard the instant he connected, a shrill, sharp sound. The jam in the door seemed to release, but Cooper kept his hand on the handle as he opened the door inwards. It scuffed along the floor and he thrust his lantern into the room.

Absolute darkness engulfed him, and his lantern was a dim, pale pinprick amidst what seemed like a fog of shadow. Nothing from the hallway illuminated the room, for there was nothing from which illumination may have come. Cooper took steady steps and strained his ears when there came a rustling sound from somewhere in front of him. He stopped and put a hand on what he assumed was a pile of books beside him as he tried in vain to locate the source. He looked to the stack beside him and moved his lantern to it. It was in fact another podium or pulpit like the one from the previous library. Upon it was an open book, a huge book whose length spanned a full two feet and the open width just under twice that. He paper was a light brown and wrinkled with immense age. Black words were ornately spun onto the pages and singular diagrams and graphs and symbols were created with a multitude of dark hues. Yet it was not brittle, but heavy, and Cooper mindlessly went to turn a page, and the sound of the moving paper gave off an exceptionally loud version of the usual sound of a turning page he used to find comfort in, but now only felt gave away his position. He was alerted to a soft whoosh or sigh as he set the page down. He spun as his thrust out lantern’s light found something else. It was a heap of material, black linen of some sort, and what’s more is it seemed humped in many places, and to Cooper’s horror, they moved. The whole thing rose stiffly with a discernible creaking. It hunched and moved upwards to Cooper who now found himself uttering a terrified whimper as a face, sallow and filthy, rose to meet his. Broken, stained teeth grinned with neither mirth nor madness and blind eyes peered like orbs of spoiled milk from black sockets. It breathed and croaked out a single word, its voice carrying the sound of ripping fabric: yes. Cooper stumbled backwards as it’s bowed, thin, shaking legs started to shuffle forward and one long arm drooped from under the shapeless mounds of cloth draped over its form. With a start, Cooper backed out and slammed the door shut, his eyes all the time focusing upon the face which peered through the window in the door at him, breath noticeably fogging the glass. Through the now lightless corridors Cooper ran. He had thrown down his lantern some time back. Far off, the piping issued. He looked for a door out and found himself in the kitchen, found himself with a black, bowed thing that turned to him, both arms, long and with the disgusting dull sheen of off colour meat, thrown about his neck as he fell backwards, gasping as the unmistakable stench of mustiness and age, the mould of a book unopened for years, met all of his senses and he fell into oblivion.

The servants say they found him the next day when they had received no answer from the front door. The kitchen, as it happens, opened into the back of house and outside. They had to smash the glass to get in and they found Cooper quite mad on the floor, eyes staring and red, head staring at a black aperture leading to the pantry, hands raised and shaking. He didn’t speak and only uttered a sound about a week later, when nurses in Northbrook heard him scream and not stop screaming when a porter had taken him to the small library in the hospital.

The End

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