At some point I must have lost consciousness for the next thing I knew, I was lying across the threshold of the doorway at the foot of the stairs, the animated riding crop nowhere to be seen. I took stock of myself, half expecting to discover I had broken something in my fall, but the total extent of damage was a slightly tender hip and a very reddened face as I realized how very pleasurable had been the beating I had just received.
I was now convinced that I was not to discover the upper floors secrets just yet. Accordingly, I picked myself up with care, straightened the wrinkles from my garments and dusted off the rubber as best I could. Then I turned away from the mysterious stairs to explore the second half of the hall.
I walked past the five rooms I had already explored, crossed the landing and selected the first door on the right. I paused for a moment, my hand on the knob, my heart pounding. What of the sounds I thought I had heard last night, the voices, that delicious moan? And how (and why) had the statues downstairs managed to disappear and reappear? I couldn't have imagined that! The smart thing I told myself, was to leave that house then and there, never to return. Who knew what bizarre fate might befall me, with no one in the outside world ever to be the wiser?
But I was a prisoner of my perversions, a slave to my curiosity- I could no more have left the mystery behind at that point than I could have slit my own wrists. Marshalling my courage, I turned the knob and shoved the door wide, not yet daring to set foot across the threshold.
Within was the strangest thing I had yet seen in that house. Just past the open door, the entrance was occluded by a taught black membrane of the ubiquitous India rubber. It was twisted slightly, and bulged outward in a spiral from a central point, as if it were a… Well, modesty forbids my describing what it reminded me of. The way was blocked. I had no way of knowing what actually lay within the confines of that room, and I wasn't at all certain I wanted to find out. It was then I noticed the moisture dripping from the central point where the folds met. I was overcome then by the thing’s obscene anatomical appearance and I slammed the door in a panic, my breath coming in gasps.
I turned my back on it and flung open the door across the hall before the growing knot of fear in my stomach could become an urge to flee.
Thankfully, this door opened onto a scene more comprehensible, if not entirely ordinary. The room was appointed with bizarre contraptions the prurient intent of which was immediately obvious, as well as opulent and beautiful furniture and draperies, as if the builders could not decide whether to construct a perverse boudoir or a sitting room.
I crept in cautiously, half expecting someone or something to jump out at me at any moment. The elaborate mechanical constructs took up most of the space in the room, and although it was apparent that each was intended to make use of one or more human bodies, the exact function of most of them escaped me at first. Every piece was different, and I could fathom the intended purpose of only a few. Here, a simple horse with padded shackles on either side, over which a body might be bent; there, an elaborate framework of metal tubing, festooned with straps and buckles, its use a complete mystery. Another item which hung from the ceiling by chains, held my attention for some time. It appeared to be a sort of soft case or binder for a person. It was made from very soft white leather, in the general outline of an Egyptian mummy case, and was equipped with numerous straps, lacings, and buckles, as well as several rubber hoses connected to a wheeled cart with tanks, valves and other plumbing on it.
The ingenious devices here made me nervous, and I quit the room after only a cursory inspection of the contents.
When I opened the next door I had to blink a few times to be certain of what I was seeing. Revealed was a chamber far more inviting, nay even pleasing to the eye, than any I had so far entered. It was a kind of bed chamber, I realized, but decorated like a man's smoking room, with a fireplace, heavy drapes, two bookshelves, several large candelabra, a few small tables, and a pair of overstuffed chairs facing the fire. The giant bed stood almost unnoticed in the shadows at the far end of the room. There was a distinctly masculine feel about the whole opulent boudoir.
Very pleasant, at first glance.
I looked more closely and was afraid.
The snarling face of the great bearskin rug on the floor did not startle me, nor even the fire burning merrily, impossibly, in the hearth. It was not the grotesque andirons in the form of gargoyles at either side of the fire. No, what caused icy fingers to clasp abruptly round my heart was the single crystal wine glass, half full, and the bottle, sitting on the table between the chairs. The wine or port, or whatever was in that goblet, glowed a dark red- a deep, blood color, lit from within by the flames dancing on the grate. But not even this disturbing fancy affected me so much as the actions of the liquid itself.
The wine was moving, ever so slightly. Swaying, swaying, back and forth, a quick-tempo tide of red in miniature. It was as if it had been set down only moments before. The whole scene was quite impossible. Impossible, that is, if I was to believe the house truly empty, but after what I had seen so far, I was beginning to expect the unexpected. I did not, however, expect what happened next.
"Please come in Miss Swanson, and make yourself comfortable."
I am proud to say that upon hearing that voice I did not immediately run screaming from the house, even though that was my first inclination. I think my already inflamed curiosity immediately overcame my startled terror just long enough for me to stop and think.
The voice was deep and resonant, and sounded neither unfriendly nor sinister. I realized then that someone was sitting in one of the chairs, concealed by the high back and wide wings of its upholstery. The light of the fire was in my eyes, casting the chairs into shadow. I would have to enter and walk around the other chair, in fact stand right before the fire place, before I would see his face.
What was more, this person knew my name, another impossibility since I had travelled under an assumed name, and given yet another name in Harrowgate.
"Please… that is… please, I'd rather not," I said, ashamed of the tremor in my voice. I was twenty-four, an adult! It was intolerable that I should stand in that doorway, quaking like a little girl before a schoolmistress, yet there I stood, and quake I did. I could not have moved to enter or flee at that moment had I wished to. I felt as if my clothes, already restrictive enough, had turned to iron, and me with them, I was that paralyzed with fright.
"Come, come, my dear," the voice crooned, more fatherly and familiar now, it seemed to me, "I shan't hurt you… in fact, that is the furthest thing from my mind right now. At least close the door, you're letting in a draft."
I felt foolish of a sudden, and given a decent, civil request to fulfill, I found myself galvanized enough to move again. I stepped forward only enough to pass the threshold, turned, and closed the door behind me.
"Ah, good. Thank you. This old house is a bit drafty, and often becomes chill of an evening. Won't you join me for a short while, warm yourself by the fire?"
I had no intention of joining him for any purpose whatsoever, but I wanted desperately to know to whom I spoke, and what his purpose here might be. I stepped cautiously around the empty chair, gazing all the while at the other. As I drew closer to my goal, I noticed the room seemed to be growing dimmer, and a suspicious glance at the fireplace confirmed this- the fire was inexplicably dying.
"Ah, I am sorry. My nocturnal habits have accustomed me to darkened chambers. But I fear I am being inhospitable… some light then!"
I had a brief glimpse of a smoking jacket sleeve, the gesture of a pale hand, and with that, the huge candelabra behind his chair lit by itself.
This time I did jump.
"My apologies, I did not intend to startle you. But there, that's much brighter, what?"
Despite the improved illumination, his chair was now back-lit, with virtually no light hitting him from the fireplace, and it was now quite impossible to make out who (or what) occupied that seat, let alone his features. I decided to take the offensive.
"How did you do that?" I demanded.
"Do what?" he asked blandly.
"That, that… lighting the candles."
"A parlour trick, a curiosity. Nothing more, I assure you. I dabble in a few… arcane… fields of study, areas poorly understood by the common man… occasionally I learn something that affords a convenience, such as lighting candles. It is unimportant."
His voice was resonant but soothing, reassuring and familiar, and I found myself believing him, relaxing rather more than I had intended. It seemed his voice spoke to my body, not to my ears.
"Your feet must surely be tired if you have worn those boots for long, why don't you sit down there, and rest a bit. I assure you, I shall remain the perfect gentleman." Gingerly, I sat then, with some trepidation, sticking my tightly laced boots out in front of me like two stilts. Despite the corset, I found it easier to sit than I had expected, and I leaned back a bit into the incredibly soft upholstery of the chair. Inexplicably, I felt almost at ease, as if I had suddenly been transported to the sitting room of an old friend, and was quietly discussing the weather while sipping a sherry.
"Who… if I may ask," I stammered, once again embarrassed and unsure of myself, "who are you? Do you live here?"
"But of course, this is my home! As for my name, I think you may already have guessed that. I have, alas, acquired some notoriety hereabout. But no matter. Who I am is of no consequence at the moment. Who you are is far more important, who you have been is almost as interesting, but who you are to become… now that is quite fascinating, and it is my greatest concern!"
"I don't understand… you knew my name…"
"I make it my business to know something about those who visit us here. You are a treasured rarity, my dear. It isn't often we receive guests. Why then should we not take a pointed interest in you?"
His voice was interfering with my ability to concentrate. It's vibrations seemed to resonate within me, stirring something deep in my belly. It was not unpleasant. I tried to remain on the offensive though, despite a sudden, inexplicable longing for whoever owned that voice. "All right then, but what about those statues downstairs? When I came here the first time, there were ten pieces of erotic, perverse sculpture standing in a row. Then when I left, they were gone! And today, they are back…" I faltered. I wanted answers, but I felt somehow that I didn't quite know the right questions to ask.
"Statues? Ah, of course. Statues. The front hall. In good time, my dear, all in good time. I fear you are not quite ready for that… revelation, but rest assured, you will learn all about the many… features of my house, eventually. But I am curious, why did you come here in the first place? And how did you come to be dressed so… strangely? Surely that is unusual fashion for a woman, even in this progressive age."
I heard rather than saw a faintly knowing smile as he said this, and I was taken aback for a moment. He had cut to the heart of the matter, exposed what I was here to confront but had never dared speak plainly of except to a rare few lovers. I was certain now of his identity, impossible though it seemed- he would have to be over a hundred now! But what made my heart beat a little harder was that this man might be willing to accept me for who and what I was. I suspected that he already knew the answers to his questions, that he was trying to evoke a reaction from me. And I wanted to oblige him, too.
And yet I found myself quite unable to speak, of a sudden. I stammered, made several false starts, and tried again.
"I ah, well… it's not easy for a lady to discuss these things…"
"Nonsense!" he rebuked me gently, "let us not delude ourselves! By the standards of today's society, you are no lady, else you would never have found your way here."
Before I could retort, he cut me off. "Oh, don't look so offended! To speak of a `lady' in this day and age is to speak of an empty, fragile flower- a pretty and decorative thing, but ultimately without PASSION, without LIFE. It is plainly obvious that you are no such blushing virgin.
"You have the look of a woman accustomed to a comfortable life, yet you are no doubt a pariah among high society. You have chosen the path of a libertine, a hedonist, and for that I salute you."
"But I… I'm not sure I'm ready to…"
"Compose yourself. I know perhaps more about you than you know about yourself. You need fear no judgement, no disparagement from me or mine on any score save self-denial. I understand what drives you, it burns within me as well, just as it burns in the hearts of all my… guests. Nevertheless, I will hear it from your own lips, else you may expect no further hospitality from me. I ask you again: why do you wear such strange garments, and where did you obtain them?"
I struggled with myself for a few moments more before the years of social conditioning relented and I could vocalize my desires. I stared at the cooling embers in the hearth rather than meet the unseen but palpable gaze of my host. When I spoke, it was almost a whisper, and I addressed my feet more than my host.
"It's true. I am a libertine. But… I'm not like the other women I know who have a… a `reputation'. I have a great many… strange… desires, perversions, some would say… have had, for as long as I can remember."
I broke off, near to tears. I was confused. I had tied up lovers, had been bound by them in turn. I had dug my heels into the backs of men, had women use all manner of perverse paraphernalia on my most private parts. Why then this reluctance to admit to my fetishes? I thought for a moment. While I had indulged my fantasies before, I had convinced myself and my lovers that it was all a game, that we took up our roles out of stylish ennui, a jaded desperation. Never once had I admitted to a single human being, in frank language, that I enjoyed these things in and of themselves, that I pursued them for their own sake. Never before had I been as close as I was now to opening the vaults of my heart to a total stranger, to letting someone see all of the dark and twisted desires that lived there. It was a frightening yet thrilling denouement.
"Pray, continue," he said after my pause had turned into a lengthy silence.
That simple entreaty completed his spell over me and I poured out my heart.
"I like… I enjoy being bound, and gagged, and held… immobile. It excites me even more than a lover's caresses. I enjoy the most restrictive of clothes for the same reason, it's as if I were in ambulatory bondage. I love my stays and laces- I am never uncorseted."
Once I was started again, I couldn't stop. It all came out in a torrent. It was as if his voice had hypnotized me. I felt slightly distanced, as if some disembodied voice were telling my secrets, not me.
"I love feeling out of control of my body. When I am tightly laced or belted, it's almost as if the lower half of my body is divorced from the upper. My hips sway and my gate becomes more swaggering, the muscles lose some of their control. The same applies to my heels, I suppose. Very high heels are difficult to walk in- they make me feel taller, superior, while at the same time putting me slightly off-balance. When I'm dressed this way, I can't forget about my body, I must concentrate to stay upright, and I'm constantly reminded of what I am wearing."
"Yes…" my host murmured quietly, "go on."
"And, well, I seem to have rather more than my fair share of… libido."
"You mean that you are over-sexed."
I blushed. "Yes."
"NO,: he contradicted harshly, "you are NOT oversexed. Desire is a scale, not some absolute standard. Each person has their own amount, and need simply seek out those who share your level of desire, as well as the nature of your desires. You are above average, it is true, but that does not make you any sort of freak." He chuckled then. "If it did, I and everyone in my house would be freaks."
For this reassurance, I fought the urge to climb into his lap and kiss him.
"Well, yes. All right," I admitted.
"And your clothes," he persisted, "where did you get them?" I screwed my courage up and looked directly into the shadows of his chair.
"I got them from you, as I'm sure you know."
"Yes. At least you are honest."
"But what I want to know is how it is that they all just happen to fit me!"
"What do you think?"
I took inventory of my fears, my fantasies.
"I think… I think that you knew I was coming. I think perhaps you may have even drawn me here somehow."
"Your insight is exceeded only by your licentiousness. Very well then. It's true. I did know you were coming. I… foresaw it. You are not the only visitor of your sort to come to us. And not likely the last. This house is home to a long history of hedonism."
He paused as if to collect his thoughts.
"Are you familiar with the scientific theory of the ether?"
I said that I was.
"And have you noticed, or at least heard of, persons who are unusually sensitive to the feelings, moods, even thoughts, of others? How do you suppose that is possible? I have done research, made experiments… It is my belief that our thoughts and emotions create waves in the ether, waves that may be sensed by those who are sufficiently sensitive, or more to the point, those who are particularly attuned to the specific nature of those thoughts."
Here, I felt that he must be staring very hard at me, and I blushed anew.
"The people who have stayed here over the years have reached heights of pleasure unimagined in your ah, outside world. Because of this, the house is steeped in a miasma of lusty energy, a psychic aroma of pleasure and pain conjoined. It is this spreading ether of forbidden delights which attracts the libidinous, the hedonistic, the perverse. Ah, forgive me. In my dotage, I wax poetic far too easily."
I wouldn't have thought him in his dotage! His clear and deeply resonant voice sounded of virility, competence, and masterful debauchery.
"As for your clothes, we have a veritable army of unusual tailors, smiths, cobblers, and corsetieres the world over. The garments you found were made especially for you. I wanted to give you an opportunity to discover, on your own, a little of what is possible. To find yourself, as it were."
"I…I'm grateful, I assure you. But then they changed… I couldn't get them off…"
"Correct. Once you have left that room, they cannot be removed unless you wear my favor, the amulet."
"But… the laces of the corset simply disappeared! The collar of the suit, and the waistband of the skirt…it was like magic."
"Yes… it must have surprised you. But that was my intent, after all. I wanted to be certain that you were the right sort. A less… interested woman would have panicked, perhaps cutting the garments off in her haste to be free. Clearly, you enjoyed what was done to you, what you did to yourself."
I blushed, but persevered.
"But how is it done?"
"The specifics are not your concern. Perhaps in time I shall let you in on a few of my secrets. But really: magic, science, it makes little difference. Think of it however you will. Any sufficiently advanced science is indistinguishable from magic in any case. But speaking of the amulet, I notice you are not wearing it- where is it?"
The question was asked almost casually, but something in his voice had my heart in my throat and my pulse pounding instantly.
"I… I…" I glanced around the room, ready to bolt from my chair.
"Emily," he said, more kindly it seemed, "what happened?"
"I lost it!" I blurted. Instantly, I regretted my honesty.
"Ah, I thought as much. I… felt your excitement as you approached the house this morning. I assumed as much."
"You mean… you're not angry?" I was afraid to feel relieved yet, was still tensed in case his temper erupted.
"Angry? No. Disappointed, perhaps. It was a valuable bauble, and you were careless… but you need fear no reprisals. You were not under my… covenants when it happened."
I heaved a sigh of relief as he continued, although I wasn't at all sure I trusted him yet. Lusted after him, perhaps, for what reason I couldn't say, but trusted? No.
"I want you to feel welcome here. The room in which you first dressed is yours for the duration of your stay, if you wish it. We would be most honored to have you."
"I… I'm not sure…"
"Do not answer yet. If you stay, you will be making a commitment. And I would not ask that of you when you are so newly awakened. You stand at the gateway to a strange and wondrous world, our world. But you are not yet born into that world, and until you are, you must remain forever outside, as a child peering through a candy store window. I would have you join us here… join my family… Eh? You have a question?"
"You keep saying `our', `we', and so on. But you're the only one I've seen here. Are there others living here? And if so, where are they?"
"Oh yes, there are others… a select few. My lovers, my family- loving mistresses, slaves, and masters all. Like me, they are nocturnal in their habits, but they are here. You will meet them, become one of them, if you choose to remain. In fact, you have seen them, though you knew it not."
I shuddered, afraid that I knew to what he referred. He went on.
"But I see I have taxed you… you have had a long day. You should rest now. We will speak again tomorrow."
Untouched by any tangible hands, the doors to the room opened by themselves.
"I believe you know the way to your room. I trust it is to your liking. It is as comfortable as we could devise."
One pale hand gestured to the door, and I realized I had been dismissed. Rather than taking affront, I was only too glad to escape from that hypnotic voice and it's disturbing "parlor tricks". Besides, being in his presence was having a tremendously arousing effect on me.
As I passed through the doors, he spoke again, softly, from immediately behind me.
I whirled, but there was no one there. When his voice came again, it was once again from the chair. A quirk of the room acoustics, I told myself. After all, I was an educated woman, and I ought not to believe in the supernatural.
"Emily, I do not make my offer lightly, nor will it remain open for long. You are of a rare breed. Here alone will you be among those who experience life as you do. If you leave us once more, we will never meet again. In that event, I fear that you shall know an exquisite loneliness for the rest of your life. Think on that, and sleep, and tomorrow we shall speak again."
With that, the candelabra extinguished itself, plunging the room into darkness and putting flight to my feet. I closed the doors a bit too hard and fled down the hall to ‘my’ room.