This, dear reader, is the story of how one woman, obsessed with the pleasures of the flesh, has found her dreams in the stuff of other people's nightmares, and how, for daring the frontiers of the supernatural and the perverse, has been condemned for an unknown term to a living… well, heaven. Hell it certainly is not. I had my chance to flee, yet I returned again to embrace this den of deviant spirits… and here I shall willingly, if unavoidably, remain. My story begins almost a year ago…
My parents had died when I was still quite young, and while I had taken some years to recover from this blow, my spirits were somewhat soothed by the generous trust fund they had set by in my name. Being their only progeny, and having no other obligations, my time was my own, and after finishing college (I was the first woman from my parent's neighborhood to obtain a degree), I spent the majority of each day gratifying my own desires. And why should I not? I was a free spirit, just slightly scandalous in my irreverence and independence. I spurned the rules of the society that seemed to hobble and suffocate me at every turn. The only bindings I did not reject were the ties of the occasional lover, many of whom required instruction in the fine art of romantic ligature, and the welcome constriction of my beloved stays, laces, and boots.
It was in the twenty-third year of my youth, at a Christmas party in 1924 to be precise, that I first heard the whispered tales of a haunted brothel in the countryside of England. Now I have never believed in the occult, or in ghosts, mediums, and the like, but as it concerned a house of ill repute, and me already (at that young age) quite the libertine, I was intrigued.
I pressed my informant, an inebriated young medical student making a clumsy attempt to seduce me, for more information. He had got the story from a British professor of psychology, who was guest-lecturing at the young man's college. I granted my suitor one of those empty-headed laughs that such men so love to hear.
"Oh!" I said using my most flirtatious voice, "how delightfully wicked! What do you suppose the ghosts do in such a place?"
It turned out he knew very little, but being the secret connoisseur of the sensual that I was, I determined to ferret out the story's details. From the lad I obtained the name of this visiting doctor, and a few days later, paid him a visit.
After assuring the good doctor that I was not a prospective patient, I revealed the nature of my new obsession, and politely requested whatever information he had on the myth. "Young lady, that place is no myth, and it is dangerous to boot," he told me. "It is hardly the sort of thing a woman of your station ought to be interested in."
I responded by assuring him that I was an amateur student of psychology, of human behavior, the arcane, and the bizarre, and eventually he agreed to tell the rest of what he knew.
"The house was not a brothel at all, not in the literal sense," he said, "it was originally built by a very wealthy landowner by the name of Hargreaves. He was a recluse to the locals, and seldom seen outside his vast estate, yet he was well known for entertaining visitors of wealthy but equally mysterious character, from all over the world. It was rumored that they came from near and far to sample the most bizarre and decadent pleasures that could be devised by Hargreaves and his staff of perverts. It was also said that he kept a harem of wanton women, and every one of those houris was as twisted and debauched as he.
More rumor has it that of all of his revellers and guests, the Lord of that house was the most virile, the most decadent, the most determined to scale the heights of the sensual arts, to plumb the depths of perverse pleasure, as any man who ever lived.
In any case, he took ill suddenly one spring, and died comfortably but unhappily within a few days, complaining bitterly of the delights of the flesh he had not yet sampled or managed to invent. Legend has it that his spirit lives on in the house, waiting for the unsuspecting woman to blunder by, that he may lure her to a permanent place in his retinue of meretricious servants.
Fortunately, the house is situated in a remote valley, and is seldom visited. I believe it is now owned by someone in Germany, who insists on letting the property lie empty, neither renovating it for his own use, nor selling it." Here he lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and in his slight leer, I saw why so many people believe that all psychologists are secretly perverts.
"The best part of the story is this: supposedly, several women from various parts of the world have visited the mansion alone. Whether they went out of scientific curiosity or out of more base desires isn't told. But according to the locals, not one of these women has been seen since!"
"But don't the police investigate?" I asked, incredulous.
"They are never notified. The whole story is kept under wraps by the locals, who are not sanguine about outside attention. They would just as soon forget the mansion, and whatever secrets it holds. Moreover, no one has ever inquired after these women, and the locals are only too happy to let sleeping dogs lie, as it were, since they are deathly afraid of the place. They say that strange lights have been seen in the house, and worse, that frightful noises, moans and groans can often be heard by anyone passing by at night."
"How curious," was all the response I could muster. My mind was in a state of agitation, my heart aflame with unnamed desires. I HAD to visit the place, if only to confirm my suspicion that the whole story was merely a gimmick of the locals to attract tourism. And I think I can admit now too, that I was searching for something. At that time in my life, I wasn't sure what, exactly, I was searching for, but I knew that I was not satisfied.
Despite my frequent dalliances with the various local Don Juans, I led a solitary existence, living alone in the same house my parents had raised me in. It was familiar, and precious, and I saw no reason to squander the property they had so lovingly built, despite the generous funds I had available to me by then. Alone. Yes, I was lonely, and more than a little bored. My relationships with various lovers did nothing to dispel said loneliness, nor did my various social activities and charitable efforts mitigate the boredom one iota.
It was some weeks before I was able to put my affairs in order. I did not want various suitors and gallant rescuers coming after me, should anything… interesting occur, so I made it clear that I intended to live in a far off country for some years, and that I would correspond as often as possible. Of course, I had no intention of doing any such thing. I have always valued my privacy, and I do not appreciate the well-meaning attentions of those who would save me from myself.
The trip across the Atlantic, while occasionally entertaining, was uneventful. (There was one particularly well-endowed young sailor, an engineer who operated the wireless… but I digress.) The only entertainment I could derive during the voyage, aside from expanding the horizons of my young engineer, was nearly inciting the fashion mavens aboard to riot with my mode of dress. Even at home, I was generally considered an "old fashioned" lady, despite my youth, due to my predilection toward tight-lacing and close-fitting clothing. If any blame was to be laid, lay it at the feet of my dear mother, who insisted upon wearing stays, tightly laced, in the hottest of weather, despite the cries of the medical community that such foundations were antiquated and unhealthy. I recall asking at a ridiculously early age (I think I was seven or eight) for my own stays, and crying when I was refused.
By the age of twenty-three, I possessed a not inconsiderable collection of custom-made corsets, many of which were fashioned from leather, with spring steel stays for durability and strength. The tiny waist granted me by years of this training caused quite a commotion the first time I stepped onto the promenade deck, and even more of a stir that evening in the salon. That, and perhaps my insistence at wearing 22-button calf gloves in June, in the humid sea air, was evidently quite confounding to the wealthy matrons on the trip, who appeared to value comfort above all else. I answered the few questions I received honestly and politely, if not completely. I didn't feel they needed to know just how much pleasure I obtained from such restrictive and close-fitting clothing. If only they could have known what I often wear beneath my petticoats, several fewer dowagers might have arrived in London due to coronary arrests!
I arrived in the charming if small hamlet of Harrowgate, south of London, and promptly let a room in the town's single hostel. A few casual inquiries confirmed the research I had done before leaving America. The manor house was well-known to the townspeople, but they were reluctant to talk of it, and no one would tell me where it lay. It was as if the place was more an embarrassment than a fright to them. I began to reconsider my theory about it being a tourist attraction.
I visited what passed for their library (which doubled as the county record hall), and not only found no clue as to the house's exact location, but a curious vandalism concerning Lord Hargreaves and his estate. Every reference but two obscure notations had been torn or blacked out of the record books. Of those two that had been overlooked, one was a news clipping concerning several specialized craftsmen being sought by Lord Hargreaves. The other was a note in the tax records about the immense duty paid by his Lordship upon a shipment of processed gutta percha from the West Indies.
After two days of persistent research, much of which was spent convincing the locals that I was indeed a researcher from a famous American University, and that my findings would remain strictly confidential, I found a shopkeeper who seemed to know something. I had chanced across his shop, and my attention was drawn by the unusual shoes and boots he had on display in his window. The heels were very high and narrow, and I thought, quite impractical to walk in, since they would obviously be weak and prone to breaking. Many of the boots were much higher than the ankle, in fact some went right up the leg! I was immediately fascinated, and at the same time, I thought that if anyone might know something of Lord Hargreaves and his famous manse, this man would.
Nor was I disappointed. After a few minutes chat, I discovered that this ancient cobbler had actually served Lord Hargreaves as a young man, apprenticing to his father in this very same shop. He was reluctant to talk about the house, until I mentioned my interest in his boots, and promised to order a pair in his most outrageous design. It had already occurred to me how deliciously wicked it would feel to secretly wear a pair of these boots beneath the concealing folds of my petticoats. After that, he warmed to his topic and hinted, with obvious pleasure, at the perverse delights supposedly explored during Lord Hargreaves stay on the estate. He described in loving detail some of the most intriguing devices, not all of which were footwear, that he and his father had made for the lord over the years. I am certain he meant to shock my delicate sensibilities, (if I had possessed any), but all that he said merely fanned the flames, increasing my desire to visit the mysterious place by ten fold. On that topic he was more reticent however, and it took no small amount of cajoling to divine the location of the property. He seemed to be at once both fearful of the supposed haunting of the place, and deeply reverent of the secret revels and rendezvous that had taken place there. Once I had the location from him I relaxed somewhat, as I had already determined that the hour was too late for a visit, despite it's surprising proximity to the town.
I remained the better part of an hour however, being measured for two pairs of the cobbler's fantastic footwear. The first, which I thought capable of setting fashion trends for years to come, were ankle-length shoes, much like any others, but rather than being buttoned, they were laced up, therefore fitting more snugly, and unlike my other shoes, these had impossibly high heels! The shoe maker measured them as five inches high, and the heels were thin as a pencil. I insisted they be made of the new patent leather, which had only recently reached English shores. He said he would have to order it specially from New York, and I agreed to pay the premium.
The other pair were his unusual tall boots, as tall as my hip, and I felt wonderfully wicked at the thought of the leather being laced tightly about my thighs. Needless to say, I insisted upon taking those measurements myself. The shopkeeper was delighted with my order, and when I asked how soon they might be finished, he surprised me by claiming they would be ready to wear two days after he received the leather. I resolved to wear them out of the shop as soon as they were ready.
After some additional effort about town, I secured the rental of a chestnut gelding for the next morning's jaunt, and returned to my chambers.
I awoke the next day from fevered dreams of dark and forbidden pleasures. A brief sponge bath refreshed me and I devoured breakfast in a most unladylike fashion, my head churning with various unlikely fantasies.
I had dressed for travel, albeit with only a nod toward my usual sensual tastes, for who knew what might await me at my destination? One of my most severe leather and steel corsets came first, and I winced a bit although I was long used to it's firm embrace. For clothes, I wore a rather tight-fitting English riding outfit in brown leather, rather unconventional for a lady of that time, but then I had always been an unconventional lady. This consisted of tight leather jodhpurs tucked into high boots, a close fitting jacket tailored to show off my corseted waist to great advantage, and a ruffle-fronted blouse with a high collar. As an afterthought, I added a pair of calf opera gloves, concealing their unusual length beneath the buttoned sleeves of my blouse and riding jacket.
The horse had been brought round to the hostel as I had requested, and I told my hostess, a widow by the name of Mrs. Robson, that I intended a day trip throughout the countryside, and not to expect me before nightfall. At first she was perfectly horrified at this notion, but I showed her the small pistol I always carry in my bag, and informed her that things were different in America- I was quite capable of looking after myself. That may have been a mistake. She looked even more flustered, but her only further comment was a warning to stay away from Crest Hill Lane, and I assured her I would give it a very wide berth.
I intended no such thing, of course. I took a roundabout path in a half circle, touring the immediate countryside near the town until I came to Crest Hill Lane, which turns off one of the two main roads from town. I rode down this rather beautiful and scenic lane, now little more than a grassy break in the trees, for several hours until I began to worry that I might have got the directions wrong. It was lunch time before I happened across a small wooden sign by the side of the road, it's paint flaking and peeled.
"HARGREAVES ESTATE - NO TRESPASSING", it read.
No gate or fence marked the border between private land and public, but I spotted two small stone pylons in the grass beside the road which must have been property line markers. I didn't know how much further the house might be, so I dismounted and unpacked the small picnic lunch the innkeeper's wife had so kindly prepared.
It was another hour's ride after lunch before I came around a stand of trees and without warning, there before me stood the mansion.
It was quite a stately affair, all in white clapboard and stone, although evidence of some deterioration was visible. Judging from the chimneys, there were over a dozen rooms. It was situated in the middle of a large prepared lawn, on a slight rise between the trees. I admit, I was impressed with the scope and grandeur of the property. I rode right up the drive to the front steps as if I owned the place, tied the gelding loosely to a bush, and marched as bravely as I could up the steps.
The air was still, and no birds or creatures of any sort could be heard, so that the creaking of my riding leathers seemed loud enough to be heard all the way back in town. I hesitated in front of the huge double doors, my first instinct being to knock and wait for an answer, but I reminded myself the place was deserted and reached for the knob. It occurred to me that some squatters or homeless persons might very well be lurking about, so I decided to knock anyway, the reports sounding like gunshots in the still air. The sudden noise startled something in a tree to my left, which rattled and rustled among the leaves for a few moments. I told myself that it was only a nervous squirrel or a bird, outraged by my assault on the estate.
I waited nervously, the words of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven" suddenly coming to mind… "long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before."
No one answered my knock, to my great relief. I rallied my courage again and grabbed the knobs.
Opening the front doors wide revealed a great long hallway with a grand staircase leading upward at the far end. I stood transfixed a moment, sunlight streaming in through leaded and bevelled windows fully two stories above, while motes of dust sparkled with surreal beauty in the beams. Looking around, I saw that very little dust lay on the floor, and the beautiful draperies, tapestries, and furniture that appointed the entryway might have been brought in yesterday. In stark contrast to the dilapidated appearance of the outside, the interior looked homey and livable. A bit imposing, perhaps even ostentatious, but livable.
Despite the majesty of the huge atrium, something else immediately caught my attention and held it firm. Sculptures. On each side of the hall were stationed a series of beautiful statues of nude women and men, finely crafted of what I at first took to be ebony. There were ten of them, five on either side of the hall.
At last braving the threshold, I stepped into the hallway, and looking around somewhat fearfully, examined the first statue on my left. On closer examination I saw that the sculptor must have been a kindred spirit, for his work was both erotic and bizarre. The woman was tall, taller even than I and quite thin, with hips like a boy's, yet obviously not a boy, for her nude sex was sculpted in loving detail. I noticed that no pubic hair had been depicted. Nor was she quite nude after all. She wore a complex harness of straps around her body, which circled her small and pointed breasts, her neck, head, waist, indeed, her entire body at many points.
Small rings were attached to the straps, no doubt used to secure the wearer in a desired position, or in place against some unknown apparatus. She wore high boots which laced to the knee, and I recognized the same high thin heels that I had seen at the cobbler's in town.
So great was the artist's skill, and so minute the details, that for a moment I entertained the fantasy that the statue was real, and might walk away at any time. Yet the harness and body were obviously one, and the whole was a polished and consistent jet black, quite impossible for any human complexion, even those especially dark-skinned natives of the congo. I dismissed my fantasy with a nervous little smile. It occurred to me that there was no grain, indicating that the material, whatever it was, was not ebony. What then, obsidian? But where would one find quantities sufficient for so many statues, and how to sculpt it? Obsidian was one of the hardest natural stones, and very difficult to work.
Presently my eye was drawn to another of the sculptures half way down the hall. This one also depicted a woman, of differing proportions and different garb than the first. She too was tall though not so tall as the first, and was clothed in what I took for an elaborate corset, yet a corset quite unlike any I had seen before. For this garment began at the shoulders where there was additional lacing, covered the chest and torso going right under the arms, and extended down, nipping in at the waist in the usual curve, then extending further over the hips, all the way to the ankles. The breasts were uncompressed, having been allowed to protrude through openings over the chest. A high boned collar, looking like nothing so much as another corset, held the woman's head rigid at a regal angle.
The whole thing was depicted as if tightly laced, and conformed quite closely to the wearer's body. It was obvious that anyone wearing such a garment would be quite unable to move, let alone walk. It did not look at all comfortable and yet suddenly, unaccountably, I felt a yen to own, yes and to be laced into, stays just such as these.
Looking down the aisle of statuary, I saw that all of them were detailed portrayals of unique figures, each with his or her own raiment or at least, various pieces of tack in lieu of clothing.
As I looked around in wonder at these strange and erotic works of art amid the glamorous surroundings of the mansion, my gaze fell upon the grand staircase leading upwards. Feeling a sudden desire to know what sort of bed-chambers might be found in a place such as this, I began the climb.