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How things came to be such, I know not. Legends abound as to what led to the nameless curse that gripped the lives of poor Baker and myself; some preposterous, others grounded in terrible fact. Whatever led to the unnatural aura that surrounded the place, there can be no denial of the simple fact that, given the choice again, I would never have set foot in that terrible House on the Hill.
It was in the years leading up to the Great War that I recall sitting with the others in the back of the auto, trying to maintain a respectful silence. Yet my companion, Baker, could not keep his mouth shut.
“I say, chaps” he chimed, “do a fellow a favour and give a hint on what we’re in for, eh?”
The query drew low chuckles from the two college seniors who escorted us.
“Where you’re going, boys,” replied Rutherglen, “I wouldn’t go again for all the money in the world. Spent one night in that place four years ago to get accepted into Queen’s. Worst night of my life. I love Queen’s dearly and don’t regret it for a minute, but I thank God every night that I’m sleeping anywhere but in that damned place”.
“What are you going on about, old fellow?” Baker said with a nervous laugh. “Where exactly are we going?”
“To the House on the Hill, of course”, Rutherglen replied with a humourless grin. “Its best the applicants don’t know too much about it beforehand; only gets the boys all nervous and worked up. But you’re a dead curious one, Baker, so I’ll tell you what I can…
“Everybody who wants to enter Queen’s must spend an entire night in the House. If you’re there in the morning when we come collect you, you’re in. More often’s the case that the lad’s have fled during the night. We usually find ‘em cowering down by the road or at a nearby farmhouse. But sometimes we don’t find them at all. ‘Swallowed up by the House’, some of the Old Boys say. Other times, boys have been found stark raving mad and end up spending their days in the lunatic asylum rather than good ol’ Queen’s”.
“As for the House itself, the place has been that way as long as anyone can recall. Abandoned, alone on the bare hill overlooking the ocean. The locals shun it completely. Neighbouring farmers have given up trying to raise crops in the adjacent paddocks; they say nothing will grow near that place. Many speculate about what might have happened there in the distant past. A farmer going mad and killing his family, or perhaps the place being the site for some ancient, native black magic. Truth be told, no one really knows. Probably best that way, too. Whatever happened, I well remember the night I spent there. I heard, and saw, things that are difficult to describe in words. The place has an aura of corruption that is enough to drive a man mad with fear. It’s difficult to relate to someone who’s never been there, but you two lads will know exactly what I’m talking about before the night’s out”.
Baker became jittery during this speech, but personally I was relieved that all that was in store for us was a so-called “haunted house”, a concept I knew to be utter garbage. I’d been expecting a more material crucible akin to some of the depraved behaviour new boys had been subjected to in my old public school. Memories of having my bare behind paddled in front of a huddle of guffawing boys still haunted me at that time. Baker lost his chattering tendencies for the moment, as he contemplated what lay ahead.
The rest of the journey was spent in silence. Automobiles were still a novelty in those days, but the tension of the evening prevented any enjoyment of such a rare ride. An hour out of Melbourne we rounded a lonely corner of the coastal road and saw the place in the yellow moonlight. It sat atop a hill as bare of vegetation as had been described; a lone, decrepit weatherboard structure looking out over the nearby ocean. As our car ascended the slight slope on the long gravel driveway, I saw the House was a small building of square shape, with the remnants of a verandah collapsed against a gaping doorway. Perhaps it was the wild tales recounted during the journey, for I did shudder somewhat as we approached the place. It was a lonesome sight on that desolate hill. And although I inwardly scoffed at tales of haunted houses, I was not overjoyed at spending the night in that dead, dilapidated place. Judging by the pallor of Baker’s face, I fancied he felt even less enthusiastic about the prospect than I.
I was struck by the weedy smell of ocean as we stepped out of the auto. I usually found the ocean air to be invigorating, but there was something loathsome about it there that spoke of damp corruption. After a few moments, I realised that the mildewy odour emanated from the House. I surmised the proximity of the sea had contributed to advanced damp rot in the timber of the place, and once again did not look happily on the evening ahead.
“Right-o, chaps, we’ll leave you to it”, said Rutherglen. “Won’t see you into your lodgings. I’ve done my time in that horrid place and don’t fancy crossing its damnable threshold ever again. We’ll be back at dawn, and if you’re still here, you’ll be fully-fledged college men! Don’t get any ideas about taking off in the night and coming back at dawn. We’ve got our ways of finding out such things. So we’ll see you in the morning, God willing…”
With dark laughter, the two drove off in the auto.
“What are we to do, White?” Baker asked. All trace of his former wit was gone, replaced by barely-suppressed fright.
“I suggest we go inside, find a place to bed down and make the best of it”.
We’d been left electric torches, sandwiches and a flask of tea. I pointed the torch beam into the entry and made my way into the mouldering abode. Baker followed, apparently concluding there was no other option available to him, except failure and rejection.
Our flashlights revealed a decrepit interior with crumbling walls. Originally, the square structure had been divided into four rooms, but one of the interior walls was so riddled with holes and decay that a man could step through one of the sizeable gaps. The floor tilted at crazy angles, which I surmised was due to the rotten foundation. The floorboards creaked uneasily as we trod upon them, and I avoided imagining the mouldy decay beneath the loathsome structure. Our flashlights exposed unwholesome fungi sprouting between the floorboards; in some places spreading into gruesome patches of weird organic growth. There was little left to furnish the wreck of a place, save a couple of rotting lounge chairs that bled stuffing and broken springs. There were signs of recent habitation, albeit of the most unseemly kind; empty bottles of cheap spirits and discarded garments, suggesting the place was a refuge for young lovers. The walls held a profusion of lewd scribbling, and the occasional curious scrawl that resembled primitive hieroglyphs. The meaning of those mystified me.
We dragged the two old chairs towards the window most conducive to moonlight, spread our coats over the rotting upholstery and sat upon the creaking things to begin our vigil.
“Tonight may be somewhat uncomfortable, but after today’s little interrogation, it will be plain sailing”.
“Do you think so, White?” Baker asked hopefully. “Of course, talk of haunted houses is poppycock, but there’s something about this place that makes me uneasy. The stench alone is distinctly unnatural”.
"Decay, man, that’s all; nothing unnatural about that. Probably the most natural thing in the world.”
We consumed our meagre provisions and I announced my intention to attempt sleep in my chair. Despite the nature of my impromptu bed, I had found the day’s excitement quite tiring and my eyes were heavy, even though Baker’s still flittered about nervously as I drifted off, musing over how I had come to be in this strange place...
Copyright Clinton Green, 2006.
Continued in Butcher Shop Quartet, also featuring a novella each from A.T. Andrea, Michael Stone & Boyd E. Harris. Order for AU$23ppd
Other stories by Clinton Green