The Sisters by J.S. Watts
by J.S. Watts
Emily was feeling oddly uncomfortable sitting on her own in the room. The fact she couldn't put her finger on what was causing her discomfort made her all the more uncomfortable. Despite the problems of the last few months, it wasn't as if she was nervous. She was past that. Craig Merrett was an old client and the meeting was a preliminary one to discuss a relatively minor, albeit hugely important to Emily, project. And yet, there was something about the room.
It wasn't the ancestral portraits cluttering the walls. She'd seen more than her fair share in the homes of the great and the good, or at least the very wealthy. Moreover, they most certainly weren't her ancestors, so they could stare down at her with as much disapproval as they liked. She didn't care.
No, it was something about the room itself that was making her twitch.
Emily glanced to her right at the large, closed, oak double doors. Faintly muffled voices were still audible, indicating Craig's previous meeting hadn't finished. It was then she noticed it: a fifth wall, only a few feet across and anachronistically jutting from the wall she had her back to. It was angled towards the oak doors, so she hadn't initially noticed it. It ruined the symmetry of the room and made the wall behind her closer than it should have been, based on the far right-angled corner of the room she could see. She stood up to peer at the clumsy intrusion properly. From her memory of the hall beyond, it was unnecessary and was ruining the proportions of an otherwise perfectly pleasant room. It was almost certainly the cause of her fidgets.
Emily was still peering at the stray wall when the double doors opened and Craig stepped through.
"Emily, darling, so sorry to keep you waiting, but my accountant insisted we talk. You know how it is. He's gone now," Craig waved vaguely in the direction of an open set of French windows behind him, beyond which Emily could see a suited business type walking away from the house towards a parked car. "Come on through. Let's have a cup of coffee and a chat."
Craig took Emily's elbow and steered her away from the annoying wall and into the library-cum-office behind the double door. It was another five-walled room lined with pictures and, in this case, bookshelves full of books. Its dimensions, however, were clean and balanced. It had clearly been designed and built as a perfect pentagram. The disquiet Emily had experienced in the outer room immediately left her.
"What a lovely room, Craig. It's so perfectly proportioned."
"Is it?" was Craig's low-key response. "Well you can thank great, great Uncle Albert for that. He had this room added to the main building in the late nineteen hundreds. Built to his own uniquely personal specifications (he had a thing about the number five), but now it's my turn to leave my mark on the ancestral pile, which is where you come in. Take a seat, pour yourself a cup of coffee, and I'll tell you what I've got in mind."
Craig steered Emily towards a pair of brown leather settees, situated on either side of a low, oak coffee table. A cafetière of steaming fresh coffee, two porcelain cups and saucers, and a plate of petit fours were waiting on the table.
Craig watched while Emily poured herself a cup of coffee and then indicated she should pour him a cup as well. "I appreciate you driving all the way into deepest Gloucestershire for this meeting. The London offices are more convenient, but I thought you should experience the estate for real before agreeing to take on the project. Video-links have their uses, but you creative types like to be hands on."
Emily nodded in agreement. She would have nodded whether or not she agreed with Craig. Craig was the client and the one with the cash. After the still raw fiasco of the last six months she needed the job. She settled herself back onto the settee, peered up expectantly at Craig, and looked as engaged as she possibly could.
"Every viscount since the third one has added to the estate, either the grounds or its buildings. Now it's my turn. For a variety of reasons, I haven't spent as much time here as I should, but it's time for a clean slate. I want to make the place mine, which is where you come in. I've got some ideas and I think you're the architect to make them come to life."
Emily squirmed internally. Hadn't Craig heard about her meltdown after her one and only rural foray and her attempt to become a square post in a round posthole? "But you know I'm more at home with the urban skyline, right? What I've seen of the estate so far is, err, lovely, but I'm more about clean crisp lines and transparent angles than lichen covered Cotswold stone. Don't get me wrong, I'm really hungry for this project, but I'm not sure I'm an obvious fit, am I?"
"You are a perfect fit and that's why I'm hoping you'll take the commission. I want something clean, modern, and startling to offset the antique country gloom. The fourth Viscount, great, great Uncle Albert that is, added to the estate with a vengeance. Unfortunately, apart from this room, much of his legacy is quirky, clumsy, and downright unpleasant. I want to bring the light back in and clean the old place up a bit. I'm looking for something fresh and forthright. I like your designs and think you, they, will do the trick. Look, let's do a tour of the house and immediate grounds and then you can tell me what you think, especially after I've shown you some of the possible locations for the new build. You're going to love the place. I'm sure of it."
Emily did find herself, surprisingly, falling for the estate's ancient charms. It almost felt as if the place had evolved organically rather than been built, which meant the nature and proposed locations for the eighth Viscount's statement piece were going to be all the more startling. Craig wanted clean and inorganic. He wanted perfectly proportioned (balm to Emily's hyper-sensitive nature), but he also wanted steel, glass, and brightly coloured plastic in the middle of a nine-hundred-year-old estate.
Emily hesitantly voiced some of her concerns, "Maybe if you weren't planning on locating it against the front façade of the building. It's going to be visible all the way up the drive from as far as the front gate."
"Exactly. Shock of the new and all that. I'm not looking to have it blend in. I intend to make my mark, literally."
"But no buts. It's what I want. You of all people should understand. If mad old great, great Uncle Albert could clutter up the house and grounds with his numerical obsession and other more unpalatable pastimes, I don't see that my little project can offend that much. Anyway, that's where you come in. Design me something to meet my requirements that is architecturally outstanding and sympathetic to the estate."
"But you seem to be looking for something that is expressly unsympathetic to the estate."
"No, I want something distinctive and in contrast to its surroundings, whilst being at home in them."
Emily wanted to say that what he really wanted was to have his cake and eat it, but the need for the work encouraged her to keep her mouth shut and nod ambiguously. Instead she said, "Why don't you show me a bit more of the estate and point out some of great, great, Uncle Albert's work that you are so keen to neutralise? That should help me put your ideas into context."
Craig was more than happy to continue with the tour and took great delight in pointing out Uncle Albert's architectural abominations. Emily didn't think they were that bad. Mostly they blended in with the pre-existing building and surrounding landscape, the exception being a number of additional walls randomly tacked onto the house, ruining its symmetry. Emily felt those like a physical hurt. Albert was definitely obsessed with the number five: the five-sided library, random fifth walls, four-paned windows replaced with five-paned ones, a path raised above the surrounding garden so that a fifth step could be added to the run, false chimneys added to turn groupings of three stacks into five, and so it went on.
"What's with this obsession with the number five?" Emily finally asked.
"Something to do with religious perfection, I'm told. Two were lost when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the perfect Eden, so to restore perfection you have to add two back. Albert reckoned that three was important mystically: the holy trinity, the three crosses of the crucifixion, three wise men, so he added two onto three and made five."
Emily frowned, "But if you follow that through logically, you'd also have the six horsemen of the Apocalypse, the twelve commandments, six six eight and lots of other numbers, come to that. I'm still not clear why just five."
"I didn't say it made sense. Great, great Uncle Albert was, seemingly, madder than a sack full of frogs. He decided five was the number of perfection and everything had to be made perfect. He even had five-sided picture frames made for the family portraits. There's one still left in the house. It only survived because it matches the five-sided painting he had commissioned. All the other frames were junked long ago. I'll show you the painting on the way back to the library."
Craig strode off back towards the house and Emily followed in his wake. They were almost back at the library when Craig stopped by a small, painted door, opened it, and disappeared inside. Following behind him, Emily found herself in a modest, poorly lit parlour cluttered with old chairs and a single lectern. The wallpaper had once been deep red, but old age and accumulated dirt had reduced it to a dull, rusty brown. Rather like the colour of dried blood, thought Emily. The effect was far from appealing.
Surprisingly for an old house, there was only one portrait adorning the walls: a framed, five-sided, and not particularly well-painted watercolour of four young women reclining in the midst of a small cluster of silver birch trees.
"There you go, the infamous pentagram portrait. Not much to look at really, apart from the five sidedness."
Emily attempted to show interest, "Who's it of? I mean, who are the four women? Shouldn't there be five, given your ancestor's fixation with the number? There are five trees forming a quincunx."
"Ah, this is the darker part of Uncle Albert's obsession. Not surprisingly, he wanted five children, preferably sons, but when girl babies started popping out he decided that five girls would be almost as good as five boys. He and his long-suffering wife managed four girls from seven pregnancies, but after the fourth daughter arrived all further babies miscarried or were stillborn. Albert forced his wife to keep trying, but with each additional pregnancy both she and the unborn children became weaker. The final pregnancy ended with her dying in childbirth alongside the baby. Albert was left a frustrated widower with four imperfect daughters. Rumour has it he forced the girls to take the place of his late wife in a variety of repugnant ways, including participation in obscure religious observances and occupying his bed, and was only prepared to stop if a fifth girl was produced. That never happened and all four daughters pre-deceased him.
"The painting has been interpreted as the four daughters as the world saw them, with the five trees symbolically representing the four girls grouped round the dead mother: all the same as Albert saw them. Alternatively, it's the four daughters waiting for the missing fifth, the tree in the centre of the quincunx. If you look, the four outer birches have leaves, while the one in the centre is bare. It could therefore stand for the dead mother or the fifth sister who was never born. All very gothic and macabre."
Emily thought it was dark, but sad and said so. Craig shook his head disparagingly. "No. Unpleasantly gothic wins out for me, I'm afraid. There was even talk of Albert cursing his dead daughters for leaving him, by swearing they would never have rest until they became the perfect five they had failed to achieve in life. As they couldn't produce a fifth sister from the grave, he was cursing his own daughters to eternal unrest. Not a nice man, but enough of my unpleasant ancestors. Shall we go back to the library to talk terms?"
Emily was still hesitant about the rural nature of the project, but the terms were too generous for her to refuse. Craig wanted a quick build and was willing to pay to get it, meaning that Emily needed to come up with designs almost immediately.
Emily's anxieties resurfaced. "But first I'd like to spend a bit more time here, get a real feel for the estate, so I can put the new build into context, as well as crash it out of context as you want. It's going to be a delicate balancing act."
Craig shrugged. "Not a problem. I'll be up in London for a while from next week onwards. You're welcome to stay for as long as you need while I'm away. Come back down here next Friday and make a long weekend of it or whatever. Your call."
"Friday works for me. The weekend will give me time to explore and absorb, take photos, make some preliminary sketches, and come up with some raw ideas for your consideration."
"Seems like we have a plan. I'll tell the housekeeper, Mrs. Carlton, to expect you back down here on Friday around five, if that suits?"
It suited and Emily drove home nervously making plans for the following weekend.
* * *
Following traffic problems on the motorway, Emily's return on the Friday was nearer six thirty than the five o'clock planned by Craig, but the housekeeper seemed unfazed by her late arrival. A huge bedroom, complete with a dark blue–draped four-poster bed, had been made up for her, except an extra pole had at some time been added to the head of the four poster, making a five-sided tented-pavilion effect.
Down in the library, detailed architectural plans of the building, along with maps of the estate, both current and historical, were laid out for her. Craig had also provided written notes of his hopes and expectations, but as he'd already told her personally what he was after, she didn't pay them much attention. She'd walk the estate again, adjust to the rurality as far as possible, and get a real feel for the place. She wouldn't make the mistakes she did last time.
Mrs. Carlton, the housekeeper, offered her a choice of dinner at seven thirty or eight. Emily chose eight so she could have a short walk round the immediate grounds and take some sunset photos before dinner. Mrs. Carlton gave no indication whether it was the right or wrong choice.
Emily began her walk by leaving the house via its grand front entrance and surveying the vista from the front steps. She took a photo of the early evening view. Five paths led away from the house in a fanned sunburst of different directions. Taking the farthermost path on the right, Emily followed it across the front of the house and around the side, taking photographs as she walked. Like the view at the front, the side vista was of open parkland with the odd tree randomly dotted across the short grass. Towards the perimeter of the estate the trees became more frequent and eventually gave way to a small, linear copse.
The path continued to bear to the right and eventually brought Emily to the east-facing rear of the house. Here the parkland sloped upwards towards a low ridge where a quincunx of silver birch trees stood in isolated splendour. With a little jolt, Emily recognised them as the trees from the five-sided painting in the dingy parlour. They had to be them, though she had no idea how long birch trees lived. Behind the trees, the grass continued to slope upwards before giving way to woodland on a higher ridge. Emily paused to photograph the view and unexpectedly found herself admiring it. The slender birches were the focal point of the panorama and it created something special. Perhaps designing a build in a sympathetic rural location would not be such a trial after all. Plus, she was sure Craig was a more understanding client than ... the last one had been.
Emily continued her journey around the house that, though modest compared to some country mansions, boasted many, many more walls than the perfect five favoured by the fourth Viscount.
The left-hand side of the house faced more open parkland, this time with a gentle downhill slope that ended in a slash of dark water. From this distance and angle, Emily couldn't make out if it was a narrow lake or part of a small river. She made a note to check the maps in the library.
The path carried on back round to the front of the house, becoming the left-hand ray of the front-facing sunburst of paths. That left the three forward slanting paths to try. Emily glanced at her watch. It was almost seven thirty. The three remaining paths would have to wait until tomorrow. She needed to tidy herself up a bit before dinner. Even if she was eating alone, Mrs. Carlton would be around.
Dinner was served in the dining room and was surprisingly formal given that only one person was eating. Emily was relieved she had made an effort to clean up. The food itself was excellent and the view of sunset through the ceiling high windows was spectacular.
After dinner, Emily explored the house's interior, having first checked with Mrs. Carlton which rooms might be occupied by staff or Mrs. Carlton herself.
"Mr. Craig said you can wander wherever you want. There's just me and I never sleep here. I share the cottage at the bottom of the drive with my sister."
"Does, err, Miss Carlton work for the estate too?"
"It's Miss Merrett. Carlton's my married name, and no, Sylvia doesn't work for the estate. One of us is more than enough."
"Merrett? The same as Craig's surname?"
"Oh, I hadn't realised."
"No reason to. I'll be off now then," and Mrs. Carlton exited through a side door, leaving Emily to wander the house on her own. Her self-guided tour reinforced her earlier impressions of the house: pleasing, well-proportioned (with the exception of the additional walls added by the fourth Viscount), and of historical rather than architectural merit. If she held her nerve and didn't go to pieces again, she could do something with it.
Emily found herself outside the painted door to the small room with the five-sided painting. Having now seen the trees in real life, she felt the urge to reconsider the painting. She opened the door and was surprised to find the room in darkness except for a single, lighted candle below and slightly in front of the painting. Emily attempted to turn the room's electric lights on, but when she flicked the switch by the door nothing happened. That explained the candle, but it really wasn't safe leaving unattended candles burning in an old property. Mrs. Carlton needed a lesson in health and safety.
The candle flickered and drew Emily's attention back to the painting. What had appeared pale and rather insipid by day seemed darker and brooding by candlelight. The five trees were surely those at the back of the house. Emily could see the shadows of the denser, higher wood at the top of the paining. All four women were staring out of the painting at, presumably, the painter and now at Emily. It was an uncomfortable image.
Emily blew the candle out. There was no way she was going to bed on her own in an old house with a candle still burning. She'd speak to Mrs. Carlton about it in the morning.
As soon as the candle flame winked out, Emily decided that plunging herself into pitch blackness in an unfamiliar room randomly strewn with chairs was not especially sensible from a health and safety point of view either. It was a relatively small room, but she still needed to make her way across it, without banging into anything or falling over something else, in order to get to the closed door.
With her arms stretched out in front of her, Emily started to make her way cautiously to where she thought the door was. She had managed five steps forward without bumping into anything when she heard a chair scrape across the floor. She stopped abruptly. She hadn't knowingly touched any furniture and couldn't feel a chair within arm's reach. She took another step and heard a similar scraping sound. She froze and listened intently. Silence. She started moving forward again, quicker this time. A chair scraped again and then again. Regardless of the risk, Emily ran the last few steps, somehow found the door handle, and pulled open the door. She almost fell into the corridor.
In the comparative normality of the well-lit hallway Emily swung round and peered back into the parlour. The light from the hall shone into the room to reveal an uncluttered aisle between two rows of chairs running between the door and the painting. But the chairs had been strewn around the room as before, hadn't they? Cautiously she peered further in. There was just enough illumination to be certain there was no one in the room. So what had just happened? Even if she had inadvertently moved the chairs as she walked, it was impossible to have achieved the two perfectly straight rows she was now looking it. So she must have remembered the room wrongly: seen it as she thought it had been, not as it was. Panic gripped her. She couldn't be hallucinating again. She was better. The doctor had said so.
Emily shut the door of the parlour firmly and walked briskly upstairs to her bedroom. Once inside she locked the door and took a pill, and then, to be on the safe side, propped a chair against the door handle, though whether it was to keep someone out or herself in, she couldn't say.
The next morning she raised the issue of the candle with Mrs. Carlton, but only the candle.
"I can assure you I did not leave any lit candles in the house. There is no way I'd lock up for the night leaving a naked flame still burning and there'd be no reason to light a candle in the first place."
"Hadn't the bulb blown or something?"
"The lights were working fine last time I noticed. Shall we check?"
Emily was nervous, but felt she couldn't refuse. Mrs. Carlton marched down the corridor and pushed open the door to the small parlour. The chairs were scattered around the room as Emily had initially remembered. There was no sign of the avenue of chairs Emily had thought she'd seen the previous night, or of a candle. Mrs. Carlton clicked the light switch by the side of the door and the overhead lights obligingly came on without so much as a flicker.
"As I said."
Emily said nothing.
After a solitary breakfast that felt all the more solitary because of the hovering, but heavily silent, presence of Mrs. Carlton, Emily felt the need to escape the confines of the house sooner rather than later. This time she exited the house via the French windows in the dining room, stepped on to the path that ran round the house, and followed it along. A couple of steps forward she felt her mobile phone vibrate in her jeans back pocket. It dawned on her that it had been set to silent vibrate ever since she'd arrived at the house, but it had been tucked in the bottom of her bag and up until now she hadn't noticed the vibrations. She had two missed calls and a whole bundle of texts.
Emily continued to follow the path round while fiddling with her phone. She'd managed to read all the texts and even acknowledge some of them when she looked up to realise that instead of walking around the house as intended, she'd somehow left the house behind and was now halfway up the slope heading towards the five birch trees. Where was her head? Now she was there, though, she might as well continue on in that direction.
She paused at the birches, standing by the middle tree to admire the view back down towards the house. It was both pleasing and calming and she knew she needed to hang onto the calm, rather than respond to whatever it was that had happened the night before or deal with the contents of one particular text that was especially upsetting her. Were the issues of that last job never going to go away?
Breathing deeply, Emily dragged herself away and continued on up the slope and into the trees at the top of the rise. The wooded area was quite dense and she soon lost sight of the house.
It wasn't unpleasant walking in the woods, but there wasn't much to see except trees and that didn't help Emily with the project. She turned right and slightly back on herself, expecting to emerge on the left flank of the house. It wasn't long before she saw bright sunlight between the trees. She headed towards it whilst bearing slightly left to delay her re-emergence back into the parkland until she was further along. When she finally came out of the trees, however, she was taken aback to find herself looking down on the five silver birches. How had that happened?
With what she intended as a nonchalant shrug of her shoulders, but instead felt stiff and anxious, she set off down the slope towards the birches. She paused in their midst and was relieved to find peace returning. Then she forced herself to carry on down the slope and round the house to its southern flank as originally intended.
The next couple of hours passed without incident as Emily explored the estate to the south and west of the house, including the water she had seen the previous evening, now revealed as a narrow lake. Wherever she went, the house remained visible. Emily saw this as a major positive it terms of design options.
It was now late morning. Emily had asked for lunch to be served at one. Whilst part of her was itching to sit down somewhere peaceful, like the sheltered spot under the birch trees, to sketch out her ideas so far, the pragmatic side of her personality urged her to review the plans and maps in the library. Fortunately for Emily, the pragmatic side won out.
It was Craig's notes that caused the upset. Apparently he had changed his mind about the front of the house and was now playing around with the idea of an art installation at the back, specifically on the top of the first ridge behind the house.
With a sinking feeling, Emily skimmed through the rest of his notes about placing a glass and stainless steel pyramid on top of the ridge from which would flow an artificial waterfall over white stone and copper, or that could be accessed by a flight of white stone stairs with copper edgings, or possibly terracing the whole of the eastern slope leading up to the ridge with alternating terracotta and slate tiles. Craig was happy to be flexible, he assured her via his notes, but he couldn't help but feel the back of the house was the way to go.
Emily exhaled slowly. All her ideas to date had focused on the front and south sides of the house. To her mind they were crying out for innovative landscaping and development. It would be such a waste to hide things away behind the house. Then another worse thought struck Emily. Each and every one of Craig's ill-considered ideas would involve digging up the silver birch quincunx. It was arboreal sacrilege. Emily could feel herself welling up with a potent combination of anger and grief. It couldn't be allowed. Craig might be the client, but she'd have to persuade him to see things differently.
She swallowed a pill and frantically rifled through the plans and maps with the aim of evidencing how unreasonable Craig's ideas were, but after a short while a level of reasoned calm returned. It would be better to work up her own ideas to demonstrate their undoubted benefits, rather than attempt to tear down Craig's daydreams with nothing to replace them. No need to panic. She had a plan. Nevertheless, she went to lunch in a state of agitation that even Mrs. Carlton was obliged to notice.
"Are you alright, Ms Quinton? Has something upset you?"
Emily retained enough self-control to realise that spilling her emotional angst all over Mrs. Carlton was not sensible, as both what she said and how she said it was bound to get back to Craig Merrett. Nevertheless, in what she believed was a calm manner, she explained some of her disquiet about not developing the visible front of the house, but instead digging up the back "and those beautiful birch trees."
Mrs. Carlton fixed her with an impenetrable stare whilst commenting that, "My sister Sylvia will be upset to know the trees are going. She's always had a soft spot for them, but then we don't encourage her to come onto the estate very often. It's for the best. Craig feels differently about things, I know, and wants to eradicate the presence of Albert Merrett as far as possible. Personally, I'm less susceptible to the past, but Albert Merrett was not a good man and the works of bad men are rarely wholesome. Perhaps cutting down the trees will be for the best? Who knows?"
Emily wanted to ask more, but Mrs. Carlton picked up Emily's barely touched plate and made a point of walking briskly out of the dining room.
Emily was obliged to return to the library to continue her perusal of the plans, but felt unable to settle. After a not inconsiderable period of time wasting and agitation, she picked up her camera and went in search of fresh air and somewhere to sit whilst she sorted through the photos she had taken to date. The benches and seats to the front of the house were all in direct sunlight and made viewing the images on the camera screen difficult. Emily headed round the back for the shade of the silver birches and settled herself on the dappled grass with her back to the middle of the five trees. As she skimmed through the photos a sense of tranquility finally returned. Time and time again, the photos evidenced the potential of the west façade of the house. If Craig truly wanted to make his mark on the property, the only sensible place to do it was at the highly visible front of the property.
Emily knew she should go back to the library, to the maps and plans, and begin to work up some of her ideas, but up here, in the centre of the trees, everything seemed so right and perfect. It was with extreme reluctance, bordering on distaste, that she got up and walked back down to the house. Before entering the building, she turned round to stare at the trees, then stepped through the open door. It felt like she was being swallowed up.
At dinner that evening Mrs. Carlton seemed keen to enquire after Emily's health and whether she would be leaving the following day or on the Monday. If she was disappointed when Emily said Monday morning, she was professional enough not to show it. As she was leaving for the night, however, she made a point of telling Emily she had personally checked all the rooms and not a single candle was burning anywhere. She then added that few "lady guests" chose to sleep on their own in the house for too long and wished Emily a peaceful night, before making her way down the drive towards the cottage at the front gate, her electric torch flickering into the distance, just like a candle.
Emily wasn't sure what to make of Mrs. Carlton's parting comment, so ignored it and went straight back to the library to carry on with her work. She had finally managed to get some reasonable work down on paper and was determined to keep at it until tiredness drove her upstairs.
Several hours of frantic scribbling passed. As her head nodded forward onto the desk for the fourth time, Emily decided she had better get some sleep. She stood up feeling decidedly peculiar. She had clearly overdone things.
The most direct route to her bedroom took her past the parlour with the five-sided painting. The door was ajar and, despite Mrs. Carlton's parting assertions, the gloom of the corridor was illuminated by flickering candlelight from inside the room.
Emily peered in through the open door. Instead of one burning candle, there were now four sat on the lectern in front of the painting. The chairs once again formed a perfectly straight aisle from the door.
Emily took one small step into the room to check there was no one in it. Reassured she was the only one there, she turned on the torchlight app on her phone and walked down the aisle towards the candles. Once in front of the painting she blew out each candle and then strode back down the aisle to the door. If that was Mrs. Carlton's idea of a joke, she didn't think much of it. What if she hadn't found the candles before turning in for the night? She felt a sense of righteous anger.
The adrenaline of the candle discovery and the anger that followed it had woken her up, and though she knew she really ought to carry on upstairs to bed, she turned back to the library and resumed her work until her head nodded forward onto the desk for a fifth time and she fell asleep.
It was the dawn of Sunday morning. Emily woke with a start and an involuntary groan. Her shoulders were stiff. Her neck was rigid and the last piece of paper she had been writing on was stuck to her forehead. What had she been thinking? Then again, what had Mrs. Carlton been thinking of with those bloody candles? Presumably she hadn't dreamed it? Of course she hadn't, but ...
Emily stood up stiffly, left the library, and walked somewhat hesitantly towards the small, gloomy parlour. When she got there, the grey light of dawn showed her a room filled with scattered chairs and an empty lectern: there were no candles and the chairs were not arranged in two facing ranks. So either Mrs. Carlton had taken her practical joke seriously and had come in extremely early to tidy up or she had dreamed it. She knew what Mrs. Carlton would say.
Feeling both resignation and churning anxiety, Emily started to walk along the corridor to the back stairs that would take her, all too belatedly, to her bedroom. The corridor ran along the back of the house. Emily glanced through a small ground floor window and caught site of a ruddy glow emerging over the top of the dark tree canopy on the furthest ridge. Then, without warning, a beam of early morning sunlight pierced the tree cover and flowed down the slope to bathe the quincunx of silver birches in pinkly golden light. It was beautiful. It was perfect.
Emily abandoned all thoughts of sleep. She found the nearest door to the outside, unbolted it, and emerged into the fresh dawn world. Purposefully, she walked towards the birch trees.
Emily stood in the centre of the quincunx, her back to the trunk of the central tree. The first lines of the hymn "Morning Has Broken" came into her head, "... like the first morning." This was magical and pure, like the first ever morning before life had had a chance to sully it. It hardened her resolve that Craig should not be allowed to destroy such perfection, even if legally it was his to destroy. She would return to her drawings to show him how wrong he was, but first she had to stand here and absorb the moment.
She was still standing in exactly the same spot, absorbing many moments, when, some hours later, a slightly breathless Mrs. Carlton walked up the slope to enquire if she was coming in for breakfast before it was cleared away for lunch.
With a start, Emily came back to the here and now and, with pink flushed cheeks, followed Mrs. Carlton back down to the dining room. Nothing was specifically said about what she was doing up amongst the trees, but Mrs. Carlton gnomically commented the estate could have an unhealthy effect on ladies of a certain disposition, "which is why our Sylvia no longer comes up here. If you're like her, you'll need to watch yourself." Emily felt she should respond in some way, but found herself too tired, uncertain, and wooly minded to do so.
After what was, in effect, brunch, Emily woke herself up by having a shower, then generally freshened up and returned to the library to work. The possibility of phoning Craig with her concerns crossed her mind, but she decided to stick to her plan of producing designs to persuade him the front of the house, or at least the south side, were the best places for a new build or installation. Persuasion rather than confrontation seemed the sensible way forward.
As all her drawings and ideas so far were based on the estate in its current form, Emily decided a look back through its history might be beneficial. She'd started digging through the old estate maps when she came across some aged handwritten notes in biro that were clearly not Craig's. The handwriting wasn't that clear and neither were the contents. Eventually she worked out the writer was exploring the mysticism of the number five with a passion the fourth Viscount would have appreciated, though the biro indicated the pages had been produced long after Albert Merrett had shuffled off his mortal coil. There was even a quotation from "Morning Has Broken". The similarity to Emily's own recent thoughts alarmed her. She carried on reading. From what she could make out, the writer wanted to achieve perfection, to become the fifth "something" and to clean the house of its past. There was talk of breaking a curse. Emily found herself questioning the author's sanity and then she noticed the signature and date at the end: Sylvia Merrett, August 1975.
At lunch she showed the papers to Mrs. Carlton.
"Yes, well I told you we didn't let Sylvia come up to the house that often. Now you know why."
"Was, was ill, but we don't want to run the risk of a setback. But this is all private: family business. Mr. Craig shouldn't have left this out for you. I shall speak to him."
"But you've already hinted about this to me, haven't you? The reference to Sylvia not coming onto the estate or to female guests who don't want to stay too long and then there was this morning's reference to the estate having an unhealthy effect on ladies of a certain disposition and telling me to watch myself. If you feel the need to keep dropping me hints, you might as well tell me the whole story."
Mrs. Carlton's normally deadpan features displayed her discomfort. "I'll talk to you while you eat your lunch, but then that's that and there'll be no more talk. As I said, it should all be private."
Emily nodded and made an effort to tackle the food on her plate.
"You know about Albert Merrett and his obsession with the perfection of five." It was a statement, not a question. "I overheard Mr. Craig tell you about it and what he did to his wife and the four poor girls. As Craig said, he cursed them right enough, but the curse was supposedly broader. It wasn't just them as wouldn't rest in death until they became the perfect five, but the whole family and the estate itself. Albert knew he was going to die without a direct heir and that his nephew would inherit. He didn't like that and I reckon he spread news about the curse to make those that came after uncomfortable with their windfall. People are susceptible and it worked.
"Over the years we've had reports of hymn singing in the night, candles left burning in the red parlour, visions and apparitions up by the birches. It's been said the daughters are on the hunt for a fifth so they can rest in peace. This spooked some of our lady guests. They left in a tizz and that fueled the rumours still further.
"Sylvia is the susceptible type. Somehow she got it into her head she was to take the place of the fifth sister and set the family free from the supposed curse. She started hearing things, seeing things. Even tried to kill herself. She was sent away to get better. I think she should have stayed away, but we was low on cash, my husband died, and Craig made us the offer of the cottage. It's too close to the past for Sylvia, but what could I do?
"There, that's the sum of it. I've said enough and more than I wanted. So are you now going to be rushing off in a tizz yourself or are you going to stay till tomorrow morning as planned?"
Emily had to admit Mrs. Carlton's admissions had shaken her, especially the bit about candles in the red parlour, but her stubborn streak didn't like the way Mrs. Carlton had thrown down the gauntlet about staying. There was no way Sylvia Merrett's breakdown was going to plunge her back to her own fragile state of the last six months and cause her to run away from everything again.
"I've got work to do. I'm staying as planned."
Mrs. Carlton snorted, stood up, and walked away. Emily couldn't tell if it was a snort of disgust or positive acknowledgement.
Emily attempted to finish her lunch, but she'd eaten brunch late and the whole strangeness with Mrs. Carlton had taken away her appetite. She felt the need for fresh air, so she left by the French windows and took a turn around the house. It was not long before she found herself walking up the slope towards the five birches.
Perhaps it was the nature of her recent conversation with Mrs. Carlton, perhaps it was lack of sleep, but Emily could have sworn there was someone up there, standing by one of the outer trees, but when she got there the whole area was deserted. She searched around, but there was nothing to see. Now what?
Emily looked back down at the house. It was a beautiful view and she could stare at it for ages, but she needed something fresh to give her the impetus to finish her designs. On a whim she decided to do something she hadn't done since her teens: climb a tree. It proved to be very easy and she was soon perched in the lower branches of one of the birches nearest the house. She was admiring the new perspective on the property when she saw something nestled in the lower branches of the adjacent tree. She shinned back down her tree and clambered partway up the sister tree until she could reach the object. She pulled it down. It was a candle stub, very similar to the candles she had seen burning in the red parlour. She had no idea what it was doing in the tree, but it made her feel more positive about the lighted candles. Maybe she hadn't been imagining them after all. Her sense of relief was like a rush of unchecked euphoria.
Emily glanced back down at the house again. Another design idea had popped fully formed into her head. She was on a roll this weekend. She'd never had so many sparkling ideas. She really ought to go back to the library to draw it up and finish the drawings she had already started, but yet again she found she did not wish to leave the shelter of the birches. She felt at peace up here. She hadn't felt this calm for ages and didn't want it to end. If she could stay here forever she'd be very happy, but then there was Craig and his stupid plans. She had to do something about them. Somehow, she forced herself to walk down the slope and into the house.
Back in the library, Emily made herself focus on the task in hand and had almost completed her final sketch when she realised she was no longer alone. She looked up to find an unknown woman, wearing a shapeless long black coat, watching her from the far side of the room. The woman bore a familial resemblance to Mrs. Carlton.
The woman said nothing but continued to stare.
"Are you Sylvia Merrett?"
There was a further silence, then the woman turned to go.
"What did you want? What did you come here for?"
The woman stopped and turned back to face Emily, "There need to be five. You know. Without five nothing is perfect, nothing is safe. He's got it wrong. There has to be completion, not destruction. Tell him that."
"Tell who what?" but the woman turned and left. Emily stood up and ran to the door, but by the time she had opened it, there was no one there.
Assuming the woman had been Sylvia Merrett, and who else could it have been, the 'he' she had been referring to must have been Craig. This made Emily think. Perhaps it was time to contact Craig. She'd basically finished her designs. She could take them to him tomorrow or scan them and email them across, but she needed to prepare the ground, make sure Craig was going to be receptive to her ideas. Emily reached for her mobile, found Craig's contact details, and called.
Craig answered after only two rings, but the call did not go as she had planned.
"Hi Emily, I'm afraid it's not a good time right now, but I am keen to see what you've got for me. You have got ideas for me, right?"
"Yes, I'm ..."
"Grand. Can't wait to see them. You've developed my thoughts on the back of the house, right? It really needs to be re-designed. Exorcise some of those old ghosts, right? I'm going to be really busy for a while, so can you edit what you send me? Just stuff focusing on the back of the house and you can further eliminate anything with historical connections. No five-sided constructs, ha ha. No rush. Tomorrow morning will be fine. I'm tied up for the rest of today. On that note, gotta dash."
"Craig, I ..." even as she spoke, Emily could hear the rustle of a hand being placed across the phone's mouthpiece and could just make out the words "Sorry, baby, it's the architect. You know how it is. We're finished now." Then there was a further brief rustling and "Is that all for now? Grand. Look forward to seeing the designs. I'm sure they'll be perfect. Bye," and the connection went dead.
Emily felt the conversation like multiple blows to her stomach. Craig hadn't listened. He hadn't been interested. He'd been just like the last client, exactly like him. Not interested in what she had to say. And just like last time she hadn't been able to say anything. Architects were supposed to be strong, powerful, independently minded, but whatever strength she'd started out with had long since left her, growing weaker with each setback and then failing totally on that last project. This job was supposed to be a return to form, but the only thing that had returned was her inability to stand up for herself or her ideas. She needed the backing of others, shared strength in numbers. She clearly couldn't hack it solo and if the client wasn't on her side, where did that leave her?
She stared morosely at her multiple sketches and then the killer body blow landed. Each and every one featured a five-sided design. It hadn't been a conscious thing, but it was there, sometimes discreetly, sometimes overtly, in every drawing. Each idea resonated to the number five. The one and only design she had produced for the back of the house was a stone sun pavilion, designed to capture the incredible rising dawn light from behind the birch trees. Yes, she could make it four-sided, but it was supposed to echo the trees, create a natural resonance between landscape and artificial construct. Four-sided would work, but four-sided wouldn't be perfect and she didn't want to create anything less than perfect. She was too upset to take one of her pills.
Several hours later, Mrs. Carlton found Emily in a foetal position, rocking and crying in the middle of a sea of torn up paper. Nothing she could say seemed to comfort her, and eventually she got Emily off the floor and up the stairs to her bedroom.
"You'll feel better after a sleep. Everything always feels better after a sleep, that's what Sylvia says."
Emily grabbed Mrs. Carlton's arm. "Sylvia. I need to speak to Sylvia. She'll understand. She came to me and told me to ring him."
Mrs. Carlton frowned in consternation, "Sylvia couldn't have told you anything today. I packed her off to friends first thing this morning. She's there now. The presence of a young woman all alone in the house seemed to be setting her off and it all got a bit too much. She'll be back tomorrow after you've gone, but in the shape you're both in, I doubt any form of conversation is going to do either of you any good. You just get some sleep." Mrs. Carlton patted Emily distractedly on the arm and left. Emily lay down on the bed fully clothed and cried herself to sleep.
When Emily woke up it was dark. She was surprisingly hungry, but a glance at the clock on her phone told her she must have missed dinner. The thought of having to face Mrs. Carlton after the hysterics of the afternoon almost made her stay put, but she hadn't had much lunch and she needed to eat something. She snuck out of her room quietly. Only dim table lights were on in the corridors. It looked as if Mrs. Carlton had given up on her and gone home for the evening.
Emily headed towards the kitchen. As she drew level with the red parlour the door was ajar and she saw light spilling out into the corridor. When she pushed the door open wider the aisle of chairs was once more in place, but this time there were five candles burning brightly in front of the painting. Their light cast sharp shadows onto the flat watercolour. There was a particularly dark shadow behind the central tree in the quincunx. It looked as if someone was standing there. In a daze Emily walked down the aisle to take a closer look. Judging from the outline, it was a woman in a long straight dress or coat. The shadow distorted as she drew closer and for a moment it looked as if the woman was hanging from the tree, rather than standing behind it, but as she drew level with the painting the middle of the five candles guttered and went out. Emily could no longer see the shadow or the middle tree clearly. She looked frantically for a match, but couldn't find one. Instead she picked up the nearest lighted candle and used it to relight the central one, but there was a sudden draught and the candle flared. Its flame ignited the middle candle, but also licked the paper of the painting. Emily thought it was okay, because there should have been a sheet of glass in front of the painting, but somehow there wasn't and the paper caught and the fire quickly spread. Emily stepped back in horror at what she had done and the flames flared. Now the frame was alight and in seconds the fire had spread to the old, dry wallpaper and then the curtains went up like torches.
Panicking, Emily felt for her phone to call 999, but it wasn't in her back pocket and she realised she must have left it upstairs in her room. Even in her current state, she knew it wasn't sensible to run upstairs in a burning house.
Emily backed rapidly out of the room. The fire had now taken hold and was advancing towards her. She slammed the door shut and ran towards the library, where she knew there was a phone, but the library door was locked. That couldn't be right. It was never locked and all her work was in there, or what was left of it. She wasted time trying to force open the door, but it wouldn't give. She ran back up the corridor in search of another phone. She could see flames licking under the parlour door, but couldn't see a phone. There would be one in Mrs. Carlton's office, but that would mean running past the parlour door. Even as she was contemplating doing it, the door exploded outwards and the pent up fire poured out into the corridor. Emily turned and ran. The old Ballroom faced the rear of the house and, like the dining room, had floor to ceiling French windows that opened easily from the inside. Emily ran in, charged across the wide floor and threw herself at the windows. They swung outwards without effort and Emily fell through and carried on running, leaving the doors wide open. In the core of the house the fire sucked greedily at the fresh air and roared.
Emily had intended to run round to the front of the house and down the drive to hammer on Mrs. Carlton's door and get her to call the fire brigade, but it didn't happen. She kept running straight, up the rear slope and into the huddle of silver birches. She needed to stop panicking. She needed to think. There was peace here and she would be able to get her brain to work.
She reached the tree in the centre of the group and turned to face the house. There was light burning in every window and wherever she looked she could see five candle flames shining out their message. They demanded perfection: completion not destruction. Craig had planned destruction. Emily had inadvertently caused it, but no one would have peace unless there was completion. Even Emily. She was not a part of the family, but she had ruined her career and now was about to destroy it entirely, as well as the mansion. Failing to deliver on your powerful client's project was bad enough, but burning down his family home because of a stupid mistake was in a league of its own. She'd never work again and all she'd ever wanted to do was design perfect things. She hadn't known peace for months, years even and now she never would. The only place she'd even felt passing peace was here amongst the trees Craig Merrett was going to tear up and even if he didn't, he'd never let her come back: the stupid, flakey woman he'd given a last chance to and who repaid him by burning down several million pounds of property and antiques. There was no way back from this.
Emily stopped in the middle of her personal, internal conflagration. For a blessed, fleeting moment, the tranquility she'd known amongst the trees returned and she knew what to do. Ignoring the noises from the house below, she slowly pulled off her belt and fashioned it into a crude noose. She hung it around her neck and then climbed the middle tree. She tied the other end of the noose round a solid-looking branch and jumped.
* * *
It was Sylvia who found the body. Allowed back to her best-loved place, she had headed straight for the birch trees. Mrs. Carlton was not far behind. Together they surveyed the dark shape dangling a little behind the trunk of the middle tree. Sylvia was very calm.
"It's perfect. There's five now."
Mrs. Carlton looked across at her sister and smiled sympathetically. "Mr. Craig will want to know."
Together they turned and walked back down to the unburnt house.