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In the Mansion of Elenor Paddock
The horse threw back its head violently, as if trying with all its might to avoid moving forward another step. His haunches bucked and I felt lean muscle ripple—even through the leather saddle. I tightened my grip upon the reins so that I might spare myself the pain of being tossed off, but the effort was in vain. I landed hard upon the uneven pavement, my vertebrae sounding several cracks in a perfect line down my back. I lifted my head in delirium just fast enough to see my steed whirling around to bolt back down the path we'd arrived by. I lay on the cold stone for several minutes in order to collect myself and ward away the vertigo I most definitely would have felt if I had tried to rise too quickly.
When I was capable of comprehending more than the ache in my joints, I sat up in search of whatever had so suddenly spooked the beast. I came to the conclusion that it must have been our destination itself. The mansion cast me in its long shadow, the weak winter sun's light forming a dim halo around the building's dark face. Four columns so tall that a fall from one of their tops would have killed me guarded the door into the mansion, two on either side. The door in question was of ancient make, much like the rest of the architecture, a solid slab of firm, varnished mahogany. The eagle head knocker stared at me from my position on the ground, daring me to approach.
I literally rose to meet the challenge. I hesitated, hand extended, before the brass eagle. Its eyes, dead and yet watching, seemed to follow my fingers as they twitched above the handle. Turning away, I swung the knocker into the door three times, the echo reverberating around me. I stood there for a long while before the door slowly opened, its hinges roaring as if the mansion were some foul creature widening its great maw. A gaunt man with a wispy mustache and sallow skin appeared to greet me.
"Dr. Devereux, I presume?" he asked in a raspy whisper of a voice.
"Yes. Mr. Paddock requested my services," I replied simply, hoping that this sickly man was not with whom I would be dealing.
"Master Paddock is in his study. I will take you there." The man bowed slightly and gestured toward the interior of the mansion, an indication that I should enter. I complied, relieved to learn the odd old man was not Mr. Paddock. The entrance hall was magnificent. A golden chandelier dangled from the vaulted ceiling high above, bathing the room in a fiery glow. Odd statues with heads but no faces dotted the length of the walls, each sculpted in a different pose. But the most impressive element of the hall was the massive staircase at the far end, leading to a platform from which two more staircases on opposite sides led to a balcony on the second floor. I marveled at the construction—and the enormous amount of wealth it must have taken to build.
"Sir, may I take your coat?" the man asked from behind me.
I jumped at being interrupted from my thoughts. "Y-yes, of course," I responded, absently removing my coat. The man accepted the coat with great care, placing it gently upon a rack near the door. His eyes lingered upon the dirt stains on the fabric from when I had fallen, but he said nothing and proceeded to hobble past me.
"This way, sir. Follow me." He peered over his shoulder to see that I was listening before starting toward the staircase. I obeyed without a word. Something about this man, this place, unnerved me, birthed a desire to flee in my heart that I fought with each stair I climbed. Never had I so strongly wished to leave a place, regardless of how beautiful it might be. But like a curious fool, I pressed onward, deeper into the bowels of the mansion.
On the way to Mr. Paddock's study, we passed many strange choices of décor—taxidermy animals of the kind which ought not to be stuffed (cats, dogs, doves, even an ape), framed paintings that were not paintings at all but rather blank pieces of canvas, and a large orb with a single eye that blinked at random intervals. I would have quickened my pace if not for the man in front of me ambling so slowly that one might think he were taking a stroll through a garden. The question of how close we were to Mr. Paddock's study teetered on the tip of my tongue, but I dared not voice it for fear of the answer.
My guide stopped abruptly before a closed wooden door. Unlike the one into the mansion, this door was blackened oak and furnished only with a quotidian metal knob. I looked expectantly at the old man, waiting for him to inform me that we had reached Mr. Paddock's study. When he chose to remain silent, I took the task upon myself.
"This…. is the place?" I prompted warily. He nodded and inclined his head toward the door.
"The master has instructed me to leave you from this point. He will explain everything. Good day, sir." He bowed again, more deeply than he had when greeting me, and slipped away into unseen recesses of the mansion. A chill struck my core, and a cold flash crept up my arms, raising hair and gooseflesh alike. I rapped my knuckles on the wood before my mind could convince me to do otherwise.
"Mr. Paddock…. I'm here to see you. Dr. Devereux, that is," I called in my best attempt to keep the tremble from my voice.
A response echoed from within the chamber. "You may enter."
I turned the knob and leaned my body against the door, gradually allowing it to open until it could open no more. The study was lit by a fireplace across the room, spitting and crackling as it devoured the wood in its mouth. Two armchairs faced the fire, and I could just see the top of a head above the back of one.
"Close the door, doctor." I did so.
"Come. Sit with me." I did so.
Mr. Paddock was not an old man, nor was he a young one. Tidy hair parted down the middle came no lower than the tips of his ears. His face was long and hard-lined and shaven, uncommon for men of his age. Austere eyes raked over me in calculation. I struggled not to squirm under his gaze.
"Would you care for some brandy, doctor?" he offered, reaching for the bottle flanked by two snifters on the small table between our chairs.
I thought better of refusing. "Certainly. Thank you, sir."
"You're probably wondering why I've called you here. And why I've paid you so handsomely to do so," he said, pouring the amber liquid into our glasses. He handed me mine before taking his own.
I sipped from the glass so as not to seem rude. The beverage burned all the way down my throat. "Very much so, sir," I replied, sounding more hoarse than I intended.
Mr. Paddock set down his glass without taking a drink. "I will be frank, doctor. My wife, Eleanor, she is…. ill." He paused for a moment. "But not in the traditional sense. It is her mind. I fear she has lost her grip on reality."
Apprehension waded into my being. His wife was mad? "Sir, I am a doctor of medicine, but this kind of case…. It is outside my field of expertise," I informed him, sidestepping outright refusal.
His features softened slightly, as if the burden of appearing so fierce had weighed upon him too long. "I contacted you because I heard that you are the best. I am at my wits' end. You are my only option now," he said softly, almost imploring.
To see a proud man such as him so defeated filled me with pity and also with dread. I tugged at my collar. "Have you considered placing her in some sort of…. alternate residence?" I made the suggestion as innocuous as possible.
Mr. Paddock flew from his chair and twisted so that he was fully facing me. "My wife will NOT be thrown into an asylum! You WILL cure her, doctor! I will see her returned to me as she once was!" he raged, the quiet of the mansion shattered.
I retreated into the back of the chair, the realization that this was not a negotiation dawning on me. I clutched the chair's arms as Mr. Paddock's anger slowly dissipated. When I deemed it safe to speak, I said the only thing I could. "I'm sorry. Take me to her immediately."
Mr. Paddock took a moment to recognize that I was agreeing to treat his wife. He breathed deeply, collecting himself before pointing a finger past me. "In there. She refuses to come out," he said bleakly, sinking back into his chair. "Go. It's unlocked. I do not wish to see that room again."
I made my way hastily toward the door—which I had not originally noticed—he indicated. I beat away the shadowy thoughts clouding my mind as I slid inside. The room was small, perhaps only a few paces wide, and made entirely of stone. The floor was littered with candles, both expired and aflame. None of that caught my eye though; chalk drawings sprawled across every available space of wall. Birds, houses, people, wagons, trees and ferns—I could not count their number. And facing a drawing of a window on the far wall was a woman.
She was slim, her gray dress too big for her frail body. Hair that was once tied into a neat bun now sprang out in frizzy tendrils. A lithe hand traced the edges of the window before her, and a tune I did not recognize hummed from her lips.
The humming ceased. "My husband sent you." She turned around, and I saw her face for the first time. She would have been beautiful under different circumstances, but as she was only her eyes intrigued me: an impossible shade of lavender.
"He's told you I'm mad, no doubt. He does not understand, nor will he ever. They speak to me, and he cannot hear," she sighed wistfully.
A lump caught in my throat. "Who speaks to you, Mrs. Paddock?"
She waved her hands all around her. "Them. The birds and the people and their homes. Even this window. They all speak to me, Dr. Devereux."
My body tensed involuntarily. "I did not tell you my name. Did your husband tell you?"
She shook her head lightly. "It was them. They told me. They tell me all sorts of things."
Movement caught my eye. Had that dove been there before? Surely it had. Pictures couldn't move. I backed into the door. "What…. What else do they tell you, Mrs. Paddock?"
She tilted her head and smiled. "Everything."
I shivered. A wagon rolled, a dove fluttered, the window closed its shutters. No, it wasn't possible. The brandy, I thought. Of course. It's the brandy. A person left their house. It's all in your head. The window opened its shutters.
Mrs. Paddock's breath hitched and she faced the window once more. "They're speaking to me, doctor! They're speaking!" she trilled in delight. "Doctor…. You should leave now."
And I did. I left the room, then Mr. Paddock's study, ignoring his pleas and drowning out his words. I left the mansion, somehow finding my way out of its corridors and passageways. I raced down the cobblestone path, and (to my surprise) found my horse. He didn't have any second thoughts about leaving. As the wind buffeted my skin and seared my eyes, I tried desperately to forget all that I had seen in the mansion of Eleanor Paddock.