A serial adventure in fiction by Brad Sondahl
The winter sun gloomed through the fog like an undercooked pearl of tapioca, its lifeless rays worthless on the cold. Midwinter blues were hard upon, and I read my emails with more diligence than I might on a flowery day in May.
The lines these spammers come up with, to try and snag their victims! Some of them even had my name in the missive, but then I foolishly used my name in my email address, rather than firstname.lastname@example.org or whatever, as the average Joe does, to obscure their identity.
This one particularly caught my eye--
Mr. Steen: Please come at once to help us at Bently Manor. Tis a matter of your family heritage, and the chance to bring joy to a young woman's heart (namely me). Perhaps, since words are cheap in these emails, I should be more explicit. No, it's too complicated. Suffice it to say that only you can undo a wrong which has plagued my family since the days of James I.
Since the exact nature of the service is yet unclear, please plan to spend several days with us at the Manor. We can easily supply you with suitable lodging.
Then it gave an address at a small town called Yarmley in British Columbia. It's strange how these spammers neglected to mention the fortune in gold bullion that would be mine if only I'd send them the processing fees, or whatever the scam might be.
I deleted the message, and thought nothing of it, till I received a second message, similar to the first, with one of those "Receipt Acknowledgment" requests with it.
To this one I decided to reply:
You ought to be ashamed of yourselves, trying to lure me off to some obscure location using a young woman's affection as a low trick. I've a good mind to set the RCMP on you.
This made me feel a bit better, until I received this reply:
You have clearly shown yourself to be a descendant of Robert Shortbottom, from your thickheaded replies to my appeal. I got your name through a genealogical website, as you are the sole surviving heir of Robert, and so are critical here to the situation at Bently Manor.
As to "luring you with a young woman's heart," that's all in your fevered imagination. The "joy in a young woman's hear" I spoke of in my initial email referred to how you could help me in my heretofore feckless love affair with Edward Codswollop, which remains hopeless due to your family's stupidity. It makes my feet hurt just to think of it. So, while I find you to be a bit thick, still I implore you most sincerely to plan a visit here without delay. I know from your website you sell banjos, so if that's what it takes, we'll even buy one of the infernal devices from you to make it worth your while.
Now that's the kind of language I understand. I packed my banjo sampler case, and checked on routes to Yarmley. To my shock, it turned out to be a small mountain lake community accessible only by float plane or railroad. The town's tourist website explained that the lake exits through a narrow gorge between high cliffs, which only affords the narrowest of access, and that was claimed by the Canadian railroad, before a road was put through. So I made the laborious connections to ride the rails there.
I arrived in Yarmley in the early evening. I felt transported back in history, as there were no cars or trucks there, only hand carts and horse drawn wagons. I had emailed ahead as to my arrival time, and as I thought of that I was amazed that the Internet had penetrated this wilderness, but that's the nature of our age.
The train had, rather miraculously, arrived early, so I sat and conjectured more on the nature of this visit. Besides the concrete prospect of a banjo sale, there had been that intriguing business of the "last surviving heir." For that matter, I never did look up what a manor house was. It did sound like something I'd enjoy being the heir of. But, though I'm not the swiftest intellect in the think tank, the tenor of that last email did make me doubt I was in line for that succession...
Soon a trim young woman appeared with a one horse buggy.
"Phil, so good of you to come. I apologize for how I sounded short with you in my correspondence. You can't imagine how my family has suffered from this curse.
"Curse?" I said.
"You may have noticed my limp as I got off of the buggy," she said...
"Well, yes, but I'm too polite to comment on something like that. You have a sprain or something? "
"Over the past 200 years, you name it, and my family's had it. Sprains, bunions, gout, chilblains—if it's anything to do with feet, we've had it. As you'll soon learn for yourself..."
She left off her commentary as the stately manor house hove into view. I've never used the word "hove" before, until that lovely bit of architecture made the word the only one appropriate for the situation. The spires, widow's walks, and parapets were worthy of Charles Addams.
Since this is my
story, you must take a brief intermission while I ponder what the
present tense of "hove" is. I have no idea. It might be
"hive," or perhaps "heave." I'm quite sure it
was never addressed in any English class I ever took. Okay, I'll
save you some trouble and look it up. "Heave."
Fancy that. End digression.
Upon arrival, Ermeline Bently (for such was the young lady's name), pointed out the carriage house and said I could sleep in the room above it. She then said there was some cold food set out up there, and a fire lit, and that she would call after I'd gotten myself settled. I asked if I could tour the manor house, to which she replied, "I wouldn't if I were you, if you value your feet." Then she limped off and left me to unpack.
The room above the carriage house was indeed as described, i.e. Food—cold, and Fire—warm, but there was little else to commend it. A small hard bed with creaky springs, a chair, and the old fashioned bowl and pitcher on a small table completed the decor. I felt the room less a guest room than a servant's quarters. It made me wonder if the manor house was as devoid of character, perhaps stripped for pawn by impecunious baronets. But, from what I could see from the window facing it, the chandeliers and lace curtains, that this was hardly the case... An odd way to treat a guest, I thought.
Long after I'd finished my supper, I heard Ermeline groaning as she came up the stairs to my room.
"I'm sorry to put you in misery coming out here," I said. "I'd be happy to come to you in the house..."
"No, you wouldn't," she said. "But you no doubt WILL come to the house, as no one really believes the Curse of Bently Manor until they experience it. For most people I dispense with the whole story, but since you are the heir of Robert Shortbottom, it's important you hear the whole story."
"Yes," I said. ""I'm not aware of who this Shortbottom was, aside from your claim that he was my relative. Was he an earl, or a duke?"
She laughed a bit without mirth. "Shortbottom was our family footman."
"A footman!" I exclaimed, rapidly deflating my hopes for inheritance. Did he live in this room? And what is a footman, anyway?"
"No, he didn't live in this room. This all happened back in England. And a footman ran beside the carriage, and helped with simple things about the house, like blacking the boots. I'm not sure what all duties your relative aspired to, but to top it off he was a warlock..."
"A warlock? A male witch?"
"Of course, and a stupid one.. The story goes that he was always complaining about his sore feet, and mumbling against the Bentlys, and he began making it clear he was into the black arts. Finally he was denounced by one of the maids, who had failed to be affected by one of his love potions, and was ready to prefer charges. The courts were reluctant to burn a man on such flimsy evidence, but he stood up and cursed my family while the judge was preparing his acquittal. That was too hard for the jury to ignore, so he was sentenced to burn. It was all so stupid, since he cursed your family, that had put up with his little magic fetish without complaint, instead of the maid..."
I said, " I think I understand that one. It's like "deep pockets" in law suits. Since the maid worked for you, he held you responsible."
"Whatever. Your ancestor was clearly stupid," she said. "He couldn't even do a simple love charm..."
"So what exactly is this curse?"
"He said, ye always gave me sore feet, so I'm going ta do the same for ye. Any of ye, and any that enter yer abode, shall suffer sore feet until..."
"We don't know the rest... If there was an escape clause, it didn't get passed down to the present day..."
"So what can you expect me to do, if in fact I'm this Shortbottom's heir?"
"Well, I don't really know. We've tried everything. We even emigrated to Canada, and the curse followed us. I was hoping you could figure it out. After stubbing my toe for the 42nd time, I had an inspiration to locate an heir on the Internet. And that's why you're here..."
"But what's all this about your love of Edward Codswollop? How does he fit in?"
"Edward and I have been soul mates since childhood. He grew up down the lane here in Yarmley. But Edward's goal was to be an Olympic track star. Growing up running the steep hills of our valley put him in excellent condition. But he learned early on he could never enter my house without spraining an ankle, or stepping on a tack. And as a direct heir, I carry the curse with me into marriage. Edward is Canada's best hope in the Olympic marathon... We are star-crossed."
"I've heard all you've said, but I'm naturally skeptical."
"Of course. They always are. So you want to come into the house and test it... They always do..."
"I'm a very sturdy walker, and have never twisted an ankle in my life..."
"Alright," she sighed. "Come and experience the Curse of Bently Manor..."
I trod extremely carefully as I entered. After a few paces I stopped. "There, I made it," I said.
"No, I'm afraid not. Although some people trip coming through the entry, the curse is sneakier than that. A while ago I started a log. Seven minutes is average. It generally happens when they forget about watching their feet..."
"Then I shall just continuously monitor them, " I said. "Perhaps all it takes to defeat the curse is one person with constant vigilance..."
"Been there, done that," said Ermeline. "How long can anyone keep their attention riveted to something as mundane as feet?"
She had a point. Once you get past counting the toes, or admiring the hose or footwear, feet are easy to forget about. But I was determined to try. It was on about minute 6 when a cat entered the room and jumped up onto the mantle. I determined to not let this deflect my attention. At minute 8, according to Ermeline, the cat rubbed against a vase, knocking it down onto my big toe. Since she was standing across the room at the time, I have no reason to question her version of the event. With my eyes glued to my feet, I didn't see the vase in time to avoid it..."
She said, "That's a new one—you must have been a particularly hard challenge for the curse. While 8 minutes is hardly a record length, using the cat and a vase is a first." She went to log the event while I rubbed my toe. After some mutual commiseration, and a promise on my part to cogitate a solution to this nightmare, I hobbled off to the coach house for the night.
The next day I awoke with a fitting strategy to end the podiatric hostilities. Not that I've ever done such a thing, but in all the movies like this that I've seen, a sťance is just the ticket for negotiating with the pesky past. I went up to the manor house, and rapped gingerly on the door. It was opened by a well dressed white haired gentleman, whose manner of dress suggested either someone had died, or he was a butler. After informing me that Miss Ermeline was out, I learned that his name was Millings, and his family had been in service to hers for many generations. He also knew who I was...
"If I may speak freely, sir, and I feel that I may, we both being of the working class, I think your stupid relative should have put in a clause exempting fellow workers from the curse." I looked down and saw the walking cast on his foot.
"I couldn't agree with you more, " I said. "But I've a plan to end this pestilence. I think we need to renegotiate the contract, so to speak, by way of a sťance connecting us with Great Great whatever Shortbottom."
"A sťance? Miss Ermeline's aunt occasionally dabbled in spiritualism. I could locate the ouija board in with the board games, I believe. The only advice her aunt received from beyond the grave was to buy a specific book on spiritualism. Curiously, it was one written by the woman leading the sťance.
"Sorry to have drifted off. Did I miss anything?"
"Oh yes, it was great! You were possessed by the spirit of Robert Shortbottom. He was willing to negotiate! It turns out that after these many years even he's bored with it. He said it's like giving someone the hotfoot—it's funny for awhile, but after a couple hundred years or so the joke wears off and it just seems stupid. So it's all taken care of, the curse is lifted!"
"So now Shortbottom can go rest in peace, or something?" I asked.
"He said he was ready to move on to demonic possession. It seemed a much more "hands on" approach to haunting."
"That sounds a bit disturbing..."
"Yes, I was a bit shocked at first as well. But, as he pointed out, you're his flesh and blood so to speak, so it seemed only fair..."
"What do you mean?" I said.
"Robert has decided to move in with you for a while, so to speak..."
Suddenly I felt a great pain in the big toe on the foot that had no vase dropped on it...
Greetings, heir of Shortbottom, came a voice inside my head...
|7. The Ravine Runner||8.
|11. The Secret Six||12.
|13. The Old School|
Lost in the City
The Curse of
Pirates of the Puget Sound
Building a platform, plank by plank
How I spent
Help I am trapped
in the future
Nose of Death