And now the last installment of my newest story "Eyes of the Beloved"
““She is here Madam.” A somber voice called from the doorway. It was Mrs. Croft the housekeeper, her face expressionless, her hair still tight in a bun. Mrs. Gates stood stiffly from the chair that she had but occasionally lent herself from in nearly twelve hours. “Oh sweet mother Mary” She whispered in gratitude. Darling Esther had returned and brought the old woman with her. A small glimmer of hope warmed her icy limbs. Throwing her hands through her matted and loose bun, she sighed deeply and headed towards the door. Esther, red-faced and out of breath from the cold October night air, met her mother in the hallway.
“She is outside on the front porch. She refuses to come in until arrangements are made.”
“She has one other stipulation.”
“What does she want?” Caroline asked resigned.
“She asks to be alone with Lillian while she works.”
Caroline Gates stopped short. She opened her mouth in a vehement objection. “Absolutely not! I will never let that ogress alone with my eldest daughter. I will never agree to it!”
Suddenly Mr. Gates appeared at the top of the stairs and slipped one arm around his wife’s waist while grasping her hand in his.
“Caroline, remember,” He whispered softly into her ear. “There is nothing else for us to do.” The feel of his hand and heat of his breath softened her. She pursed her mouth in frustration. Her eyes pleaded with Michael and then Esther. Finally she nodded in agreement,
“If that is what she requests, then we shall oblige her willingly.” Her voice was controlled, though the ringing of her hands gave away a deep apprehension. They walked down the curving staircase. With a nod from Mr. Gates, Mrs. Croft opened the large wooden door.
The withered woman, draped in a black cloak and nearly invisible in the darkness, stood hunched and done-in. A gust blew across the porch and the black hood flitted in the breeze exposing the yellow of her deeply sunken eyes. Caroline stepped back instinctively. Her husband, who had been standing silently behind her, grabbed her arm and squeezed it. She forced herself to meet the ancient eyes, and as she did coldness ran through her veins, sending an icy chill through her.
She shivered. The chime of the Grandfather clock interrupted the otherwise silent exchange.
The old woman spoke first. “Well…what is my payment to be if I save your daughter’s life?” She demanded bluntly.
Michael stood shocked in the hallway, looking from Mrs. Gates to the housekeeper and then to the old woman. “I’d rather discuss this in private. If you please step into my office I’d be happy to discuss-”
“You damned old fool. I don’t play your games. I have a mind to walk away right now. Your daughter is lying near death and you want a private meeting.” She spat roughly on the porch floor. The other three stood staring at the puddle of phlegm, wrestling the urge to wipe it up.
Her black eyes bored into Mr. Gates “I want thirty pounds in gold. In advance.”
He stood staring at her in shock. “How will I come up with that kind of money?”
She cut him off. “ I believe you know exactly where you will get it. Do not be fooled. Your daughter will be dead within the hour if I do not help her.”
His eyes became cold and dark. Finally he spun around and disappeared into the library. The grandfather clock’s tick-tick continued to fill the empty silence. Caroline avoided the old woman’s eyes but the old woman never stopped watching her.
Finally the old woman asked. “Are you going to leave me out here in the cold?” the frozen air swirling from her mouth like an obscure cloud of smoke.
Mrs. Croft glanced at Caroline who gave a quick nod. Mrs. Croft motioned stiffly for her to enter. The old hag struggled up the threshold, grasping the door casings for support, her breathing heavy. She pushed by Caroline, carrying a velvet, paisley bag that seemed too light to be of any consequence. Caroline’s heart pulsed with a foreboding as she imagined the contents, disturbed at the look, the feel, the presence of this old, morose and ancient looking woman— worried about what she was planning and what cost they would pay.
She lifted the candle box up to illuminate the way, cupping the flickering light to prevent it from blowing out as the door closed loudly behind her. Just then the door to the library slid open and Mr. Gates appeared, carrying a brown cloth bag, heavy with gold.
“I was certain coming up with the money wouldn’t be a problem.” She coyed, stealing it from his hands and poking her nose into it. She grunted, “Well then, lead the way.”
Mrs. Croft held a candle up to lead the way. The flame reflected off the elaborately papered walls casting eery Shadows that danced erratically as they climbed the curving staircase. The old lady grunted and gasped as if each step might be her last behind them. Upon reaching the second floor Caroline stopped in front of the first bedroom on the left. Esther, who had been watching from the top of the stairs, stayed frozen in place. The old shrew pushed past Mrs. Croft and Caroline, “No one is to enter this room while I work.” She demanded harshly before slamming the door shut. The echo of the slammed door reverberated through them. This thing they were doing felt so appalling that avoidance of one another seemed the only thing bearable. Mrs. Croft, ever the dutiful servant, was the first to go, disappearing through the hall and down the servant’s staircase. Esther followed after her and then Mr. Gates, with a slight grimace to his wife, disappeared down the sweeping staircase from which they’d come. Lillian’s mother stayed near the door, pacing— with one eye on it at all times, determined to be nearby in case something happened. She strained to hear what the old crone was up to, but all was quiet on the other side.
Esther— relieved to be home and still alive curled up in her favorite quilt next to the parlor fireplace and closed her eyes. But sleep failed her. For try as she might—she could not erase the awful picture of that woman from her mind. She also remembered her words. She had meant what she had said when she’d told her that she would sacrifice her life for her sister’s. But all the same she stayed hidden in the parlor, waiting and listening; straining to hear any noise, but there was only an unsettling silence filling the dusty corners of the house. She pulled the quilt up around her ears and stared into the smoldering fireplace; waiting for something to happen.
Mr. Gates sat in his large wing back leather chair in the library. Perplexed how the old woman knew of the gold he had stashed away, he crossed his leg, lit a pipe, and took two or three puffs. As the sweet smell of tobacco rose he felt his shoulders begin to loosen. His jaw relax. There was a hostile feeling ripe throughout the house; a reeking to this business that he could not shake from his thoughts, like the stench of over-done manure. He took another couple drags and peered intently into the fireplace, waiting for sound. For being such an old unhealthy ogress earlier; she seemed surprisingly light on her feet now. It seemed she could walk and not give away so much as a creak to expose her movements.
Upstairs Caroline continued to pace. It had been several minutes and still not so much as a noise from the room. Red-eyed and sick with worry Carline stopped and stood at the door that was a locked gate to her. How much longer would they have to wait? span>
After several more minutes of unreeling silence, wisps of smoke began seeping through the door cracks. The air was filled with a medicinally pungent scent while slithering its web-like fingers up and across the sides of the wall.
Caroline inhaled the bitter smoke and staggered as the fumes clouded her head. She breathed in deeply, unable to control the urge. Everything around her began to ripple in a dance-like motion. She grabbed at the walls to steady herself.
Smoke now billowed through the cracks and the strange aroma nearly overpowered her. She coughed sporadically as she struggled for more air. The walls began to shudder, swaying to some soundless resonance. A ringing pierced her ears and everything around her acted as if it might swallow her whole. She opened her mouth to cry out, but the intensity of the funnel was too great and she finally succumbed, dropping heavily to the ground.