Of all my many, many treacherous voyages and journeys across ravenous seas and dark oceans, seldom have I come across a destination as broken and dilapidated as this.
It was hardly a year ago when I received the kindest of invitations from Mr. Boyle to attend a gathering taking place at this house. I had paid the land a visit once or twice prior to that, each time on Mr. Boyle’s behest. On what would be my fourth visit, however, Mr. Boyle had not reached out to me. In fact, the retired statesman and myself hadn’t spoken for the better part of three months – a fact that had me perturbed. No, this time I felt a strange sensation gravitate me towards it. Indeed, it was an unexplainable force of power, strength, and sheer will that compelled me to visit The House of the Land once again.
When I arrived there, a rather peculiar-looking fellow – Heinz Van Muller, as was etched into the name tag he wore upon his left breast – greeted me at the front gates, mere moments after I stepped out from my horse-drawn carriage. He stood by the gates, as if longing for my return.
Taking off his top hat in a sign of respect, Heinz looped one arm around one of my own, before ushering me through the large steel gates that swung gently to the left and to the right. The pair of us walked together upon the tarred stretch leading to the mansion of a house – crushing any loose rubble beneath the weight of our bodies. Heinz, in his remarkably feminine voice, informed me of the many joys I was bound to find during my stay here. He bragged about the flowing streams that ran not far from where we currently treaded, as well as the brightly lit sun that never failed to shine its glory down upon the land. He spoke to me as if I were a stranger here; which, to him, I was.
The House of The Land was a great, majestic house to say the least. Built by hard-working, determined, and talented hands over centuries, the house stood proudly in glorious grandeur. Outward, it’s appearance stood tall in the face of many who tried to find fault in it during last year’s daytime gala. Oh, I still remember Pascal pointing out the roof’s slope, claiming its angle wasn’t steep enough to let rain flow over; only for Mr. Boyle to quote, verbatim, the calculations he had done to the contrary. Doctor Lycoudi, the esteemed botanist, remarked that the vines growing at the base of the house would uproot the structure, and so Mr. Boyle lifted the vines to show they grew upon a bed of impenetrable concrete. I shall forever recall Mr. Boyle’s words: “Even if one were to spend a decade analysing The House of the Land from head-to-toe, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a single imperfection.”
Soon, Heinz and I scaled the short flight of marble stairs that led us to a pair of strong wooden doors that guarded the house. With his white-gloved-hands, he pushed open the doors, allowing us in. Quicker than lightning, I was hit with a truly unforgettable odour – one which haunts me even to this day. The smell of burning gasoline mixed with charred bone marrow, with a hint of freshly mined sulphur, threatened to exhume any and all meals I had previously eaten since my inception into this world. For the sake of my host’s dignity, however, I compressed all feelings of nausea deep down back into my soul.
Heinz, undeterred by the smell, continued onwards, dragging me with him towards a set a finely vanished stairs. These stairs were one of two stairways that curved with the bulging walls on either side of the room, converging to form a large balcony a good three metres above ground-level. We trotted between the two stairways, avoiding what would otherwise have been a climb that, for someone of my health, would’ve been akin to scaling Mount Everest.
As we walked along, I distinctly remember inquiring about the house’s owner, Mr. Boyle, expressing to Heinz my deep worry. Heinz immediately stopped and stared. His entrancing gaze pierced the very nature of my being, forcing me to stare deep into his moss-green eyes. The pair of us stood in an emotionless state, neither one of us capable of speaking. Finally, he spoke a few words: “Shall we continue?” His smile was eerie and unwarranted. Wishing to remove myself from this perverse entanglement, I obliged, and our proceeding path led us to a narrow corridor, capable only of fitting us both.
Through this corridor we went, passing many open-doored rooms that stood equidistant on either side of the corridor, regular intervals apart as we walked. On each door head was a name. Heinz was proud to explain each room and share its history, which was evidently important to him. With each passing room on either side, he told about the great it had done, and how proud he was of the accomplishments that have only been made in that specific room. Each piece of history he explained was old news to me however. The greatness of Pascal and his discovery of the relationship between the force applied to a surface and it’s cross-sectional area was a season I shall forever remember. The tireless efforts of Gay-Lussac led us to the Ideal Gas equation we use today, one I was very proud to aide in. The door head with Doctor Lycoudi ingrained on it reminded me of the joint discovery into the relationship between plants and fungi she and Mr. Boyle made.
I had to personally correct Heinz when he claimed Doctor Lycoudi did this in the absence of Mr. Boyle. In total, we passed six rooms before arriving to a pair that were both closed shut, and whose door heads, I remember, had been scratched out. Notably still, the stench that had threatened to terminate my subscription to this world grew ever stronger. When I enquired on the two rooms however, Heinz replied with a response so defensive it boarded on the edge of ludicrous: “We don’t talk about that.” Sensing the hostile rattle in his suddenly deepened voice, I chose to leave the matter at that, and allow Heinz to proceed with the tour as he saw fit.
At the corridor’s end was a truly magnificent balcony, one whose beauty I pay homage to today. Together we stood. With our arms uncoiled, we rested them on the top of the thin mahogany beams that ran around in a semicircle, supported by many more beams cut from the Swietenia mahagani tree.
As my eyes scoured the vast expanse of the plains that stretched for kilometres ahead, my mind was at ease and my heart at peace, as my mind conjured memories of standing there alongside Mr. Boyle and the others just one year prior. The air here was much cleaner, which was a great refresher, and allowed me to submit to The House of the Land’s majesty. Heinz, ever the enthusiast, unwittingly interrupted my séance and directed my attention to a site some five hundred metres in front of us. It was a large body of water which Heinz claimed quenches the thirst of exotic birds, wildebeest, gazelles, elephants, hydrophytes, and even some humans. Upon questioning him on the black hue the water had, Heinz rebutted, accusing my eyes of playing tricks on me. However, for the life of me, I cannot recall the water ever looking quite so ominous.
Succeeding the sightseeing was a walk with Heinz back downstairs, this time to enjoy a warm, home-cooked meal he had the help – which was neither seen nor heard – prepare for the pair of us. I graciously accepted his offer when he gestured to me to have a seat on one of the rickety, old wooden chairs, sitting across from his equally tethered seating. Ignoring this – and the torn tablecloth – I smiled at the sight of the meal being brought before me. Such feelings were quickly displaced by their antonyms. While I could bypass the grime of the table, I could not get past the roughness of the ceramic plate and rusting silverware. Nor could I accept in my own mind the grit of the food presented to me, which has left granules of the undesirable lodged between my molars to this very day. Despite my discontent, I continued as if all was well, and welcomed an unexpected side effect of this meal… the smell filled my nostrils no more.
After what one can hardly describe as a pleasant stay, Heinz escorted me towards the large wooden doors, and opened them, taking a step to the clean outdoors. Before exiting, I looked to the top of the two doors, where I expected to find a square-framed portrait of Mr. Boyle, Gay-Lussac, Pascal, Doctor Lycoudi and myself. While my weary eyes saw the same portrait, it was not the same as it used to be. Each of the aforementioned persons had their faces scratched out like, presumably by an enraged child. All except my own.
Out through the large doors I went to join Heinz, landing us back onto the rubble of the tar-way. We walked towards the gates, where my horse-drawn carriage remained, unharmed and untampered. Heinz listed the many wonders he would show me if ever I were to return to The House of The Land, including walking on the plains, and possibly visiting the upper level of the building. Before I entered my carriage, he leaned over, and asked for my name. “Rose,” I replied, “Gerald Rose.”
After having absconded from that area for several months now, I do wonder just what Heinz did with that information, or what he still plans to do with it.
Therefore, I am left with a terrible unease as I write what vivid details I can scrape together in the form of written dialect. Pinpointing just what about my visit there has me this unnerved is a task beyond my aging abilities. Perhaps it was the black water. Perhaps it was the bizarre china. Perhaps it was the closed rooms. Perhaps it was Heinz Van Muller himself. Perhaps I will have to pay The House of the Land another visit if I am to find out. Perhaps, instead, I should make contact with Gay-Lussac, whom I have not heard from since the gathering.
On my latest visit to The House of the Land, I recall Gustav, the coachman, telling me: “Should you receive an offer of dessert, it will be the time to leave.” I did not reply, but sat there on the backseat chewing on what he had just said. “I'm not supposed to warn you,” the man added, “but my conscience demands I do so.”
I thought the coachman was merely trying to insulate himself against having to wait for me too long. I had hired him for the day, and maybe he was looking forward to go home to his wife and children. Today, I dearly wish I could speak with him again. I'd be willing to pay a pretty penny for his insights.
The village is dull and quiet. I am glad to be sitting at the tavern in the company of two respected men. Both, it is my understanding, have been regular visitors for some years. Father Wright came to pray with Mr. Boyle from time to time, more frequently when the statesman found himself in doubt over some international crisis. Doctor Lucas has confirmed that he did what he could to dull Mr. Boyle's horrific pain from lung cancer. He was unsuccessful in his attempts to persuade Mr. Boyle to seek proper care in a hospital or – at the very end – in a hospice.
“Dr. Lucas, what is your impression of Mr. Heinz?” I ask.
“Strange fellow, actually,” the youthful doctor replies. “In some ways, he has what I would call a typical north-European temperament.”
I ask him to explain, and so he does.
“Reserved at first, but once you get him going, he becomes like an open book and doesn't know when to stop. He brags about his accomplishments, shifts to moaning.”
“Funny you should mention it,” Father Wright injects. “I've never talked with the fellow, but Mr. Boyle did say that his new manager tended to swing between highs and lows within minutes of each other.”
“I see. Dr. Lucas, would you mind saying what he complained about in your presence?”
“Not at all. Imagine him going in his high-pitched voice. Heinz complained that he didn't get many visitors to The House of the Land and, considering he had only worked there for four months, he hadn’t seen many at all. However, he did recall receiving a visitor a few months earlier who reminded him of one of Mr. Boyle’s former associates. The visitor's frame was taller than his own, but not of giant proportions. His shoulders were broad but not excessively so. The visitor spoke slowly, almost melodically. Based off of pictures Heinz had seen, he would swear the two men were identical.”
Without thinking, I knock on the table twice, unable to articulate what I want to ask. My sense of discomfort is growing. The two men look at me with surprise, but I wave dismissively.
“This next part I recall almost word by word,” the doctor continues. “He told me as follows: Just as they were approaching his carriage, Heinz asked the visitor his name. Why, he had to of course! The answer the visitor gave, well it wasn’t at all what Heinz was thinking: 'Rose. Gerald Rose,' the gentleman said. Gerald Rose? Really? Heinz remembered asking himself as soon as the carriage rode away. Certainly that couldn’t be the case…”
Heinz immediately went back into the mansion. Heading up the grand stairs of The House of the Land – or as he likes to call it, The Boyle Mansion – he landed himself on the balcony that overlook the entrance.
Heinz somewhat arrogantly said that the balcony isn’t nearly as impressive as people make it out to be. He still remembered the first guest he hosted, Mr. Gay-Lussac, who bragged to Mr. Boyle about how incredible the whole layout was. He complimented everything from the vanished wooden railings to the grand chandelier that hung from the ceiling. He even bent down to smell the carpet, which he exclaimed smelled 'Most exquisite!'
“Heinz had been told Mr. Gay-Lussac is always this eccentric and excitable.”
“Is or was,” I say. “Has anybody seen him alive recently? He has not responded to any of my letters or telegrams.”
“I have no idea,” the doctor says. “I guess that is one of the reasons we are here.”
“Me neither,” the priest says.
Along the balcony Mr. Heinz had gone until he reached its east end. In that place, there was a landscape group photograph of Mr. Boyle and his associates. Mr. Boyle always had Heinz lay it out there and clean its frame every so often.
“The photograph was of the faceless bodies of Mr. Boyle, Mr. Gay-Lussac, Mr. Pascal and Miss Lycoudi,” Dr. Lucas adds. “The only body whose face was still present was that of the supposed Gerald Rose he had just seen. Naturally, he grew more suspicious and more weary of this man. He returned the photograph with great care, and retreated to the center of the balcony, where he stood and stared straight ahead. There, right in front of him, was a portrait similar to the photograph he had picked up just moments prior. Just like before, it was only the face of this Gerald Rose that remained untampered with.”
I am having goose bumps right now. I do not like where this seems to be going.
“Please, Dr. Lucas, if at all possible, can you tell me what he told you next?”
“He said that if this man was not whom he claimed to be, he may have missed his biggest opportunity for vengeance yet.”
“Let me grant him another,” I say.
My companions look at me intently.
“Mr. Hyde, are you certain?”
“As certain as I will ever be. He must be as afraid of me as I am of him, if not more.”
The ride back to the House of the Land serves as a reminder of its desolate location. Gustav brings the three of us across narrow roads with few signs of civilization apart from some railroad tracks and a few shattered farmhouses. The property is self-sustainable with its large, fertile lands and diverse animal life, and no person of authority has any interest in going out there. Mr. Boyle was famous for his open-door mentality, and Mr. Heinz appears to follow in his footsteps.
“Gustav, I've been meaning to ask you something. I took your advice, didn't stay for dessert, but why did you feel the need to warn me against doing so?”
“The others overstayed their welcome,” he replies. “I saw Mr. Heinz walk them down to the pond somewhere between 2 and 3 in the afternoon. None of them ever came back.”
“Who were they, Gustav?”
“Two men and one woman.”
“I believe I know who they were,” I reply.
Finally, it is reckoning time. Heinz will greet me with a handshake and fake smile, which will stiffen when he sees my two companions. While he and I have a chat, Dr. Lucas and Father Wright will attend to the kitchen help, servants, and any children there may be on property. I have described my last visit in some detail, and the two men appear to be preparing themselves for the worst.
“I have elected to speak with you under four eyes out of respect, Mr. Heinz. Your secrets are safe with me, I can assure you. But I need you to be truthful with me, because I have this power to make life miserable for you. If you hurt me in any way, your days on this property will be numbered. I've made the arrangements to see to that.”
“Well, sir, I was about to say: Please have a seat!”
“I'd rather stand if you don't mind. Moreover, I'd rather not come inside with you.”
“We'll make it brief. What do you wish to speak with me about?”
“Please continue where you left off with Dr. Lucas about your reaction to my previous visit.”
“Where was I?”
“You had found some photos that included me. The other faces had been cut out.”
He grins. “Right! With haste, I made my way down the winding staircase, and onto the entrance again. I paced to the passageway that Mr. Boyle revered so much. Oh, how I miss him so. He gave me more than a job… he gave me a livelihood. He gave me… a purpose. After the lung cancer got to him, I gave him a proper burial, I did. I even buried his body in the pond out on the range, just as he requested; and I did so without anyone’s help. Digging a grave out of the bed of a pond is a laborious task I hope never to repeat for as long as I live.”
He is being truthful so far. “Please go on.”
“Certainly. I sent out letters to each of Mr. Boyle’s associates, notifying them of his passing. Yet, not one of them turned up on the day of the funeral, and none of them wrote back.”
“That is a lie! I never received anything.”
“Yours may have gotten lost in the mail. Anyway, standing by Mr. Gay-Lussac’s door, I was reminded how fondly Mr. Boyle would speak of him. He considered him his protégé, his student, the man who was to continue his work after he died. He paid for Gay-Lussac’s tuition, and funded his studies afterwards, yet the young man couldn’t be bothered to pay tribute to Mr. Boyle.”
“So you killed him?”
“We'll get to that in a moment. Mr. Pascal was Mr. Boyle’s senior, and often tutored him on most things science. Mr. Boyle spoke of how patient Pascal would be with him, never once getting mad or upset when he would make mistakes. He would often remark how if Mr. Pascal were a general, everyone would sign up because he would be the nicest general there ever was. Yet, even he was too proud to attend the wake of our beloved Mr. Boyle.”
“So you killed him as well?”
“Like I said, in a moment. Miss Lycoudi, the botanist, was the most disappointing in my eyes, for she was Mr. Boyle’s one and only love interest.”
“You were in love with Mr. Boyle?”
He blushes, looks down, then pulls himself together and sends me a bright boyish smile.
“He loved Miss Lycoudi so much. Not a day would go by without him commenting on one of her many wonderful features. 'Oh, she’s so gorgeous, Heinz. She has the finest taste in fashion.' 'Oh Heinz, she wrote to me again, I cannot wait to read her letters!' 'Oh Heinz, her penmanship writes sonnets better than those of Francesco Petraca.' Goodness, how he loved her. Despite all that, despite all their alleged correspondence, even she shied away from the funeral. Outrageous, I say!”
“So you killed her?”
“We'll discuss that in a moment.”
“Maybe something about you made them reluctant to come here. Ever thought about that possibility?”
“It has crossed my mind,” he admits. “Although I cannot imagine what it might be.”
“And the fourth associate?”
“Indeed. Then there was Mr. Hyde. Yes, yes… Mr. Hyde! Not Gerald Rose, but Mr. Hyde! Mr. Boyle’s closest associate and most trusted confidante. Had he not professed his love for Miss Lycoudi, I would’ve thought he fancied Mr. Hyde. He spoke of Mr. Hyde with such reverence, you would think he practically worshipped the man. He said it was Mr. Hyde who encouraged him to build The House of the Land, upon which the pair of them could form a team of scientists who would revolutionize the planet. It was Mr. Hyde who initially financed construction of The House of the Land. It was Mr. Hyde for whom Mr. Boyle cried out in his last moments. It was Mr. Hyde who did not show up at the funeral.”
“As I stand before you, I'm telling you I never received any invitation. The three others presumably didn't either. Why? Because there was no funeral! No body to be buried! You had seen to that, hadn't you?”
Heinz shakes his head slowly. “No funeral, I regret to say. Mr. Boyle wanted it that way. He wanted simply to vanish without a trace, the wonderful unpretentious man.”
“My three colleagues came together to see you. I'm sure they wondered why you were still residing here. They demanded that you pack up and leave?”
“Not after I showed them the will, they didn't. It all belongs to me, anyway.”
“Then why did you kill them?”
He shrugged. “They said they had done some homework and found out I have a history, if you get my meaning, of becoming an heir to wealthy men I've only known briefly. I have this charm, believe me. Unfortunately, they didn't see it that way. They threatened me to go, tried bribing me into leaving. I offered them dessert, took them down to the pond to show them his so-called grave. I got myself behind them and shot them one by one with the loaded gun I keep down there at all times, just in case. Since I am incapable of synthesizing my own batch of hydrofluoric acid, obtaining enough of it has been the result of one minor miracle after the other. I think I’m out of minor miracles, and out of space for dumping waste as toxic as that. I know Mr. Boyle wouldn’t approve of my methods, but I believe that his associates, all four of you, betrayed him. Justice must be served!”
I look him straight in the eye. “Speaking of which: I have something of direct interest to you, Mr. Heinz,” I say. “My lien against The House of the Land trumps Mr. Boyle's last and final will any day. He owed me a large sum of money at the time of his death, and I will have you evicted within weeks. You may soon find yourself behind bars or in a mental asylum, where you belong.”
He looks at me with disbelief. “Show me the lien!” he barks.
“I don't have to,” I say calmly. “Go fetch the property records inside Mr. Boyle's study, and you'll see it for yourself. Naturally, it is a matter of public record.”
Since meeting me the last time around, Heinz was unable or unwilling to track me down. I hadn't stopped by for a visit either. He probably thought it was better that way.