The Darkhouse, pt 4


14th June, 184__

Dearest Philippa

Despite the novelty of my new home and recent progress, I continue to suffer with the variety of sickness that comes with such a dramatic change of scenery. It has been thirteen days since I last saw an unfamiliar face.

The ‘auld store’ has been a most pleasing project, but it has not resolved the deepest pains nor desires of my mind. I have contented myself with the sure assumption that each of my colleagues must have experienced a comparable sense of strangeness on their arrival.

Until I achieve their same degree of ease with the situation, I have opted to pour my agitation into my art. This is not the state of mind I had hoped to approach my work with, but each soul must have its outlet. This is to be mine. 

Wordsworth may have pursued his muses in the scree-cloaked mountains of the Lakes and their drizzling valleys, but the endless expanse of the ocean is where I feel my soul soar. Heedless of the whims and fancies of a person’s heart, the sea continues, utterly ageless and unknowable. There is a peace to be found here in that vast, uncaring truth. 

This morning, I opted to take myself for a brisk clamber around the island to clear my head and find some point of inspiration from which to commence my works. I couldn’t help but cast a glance along the craggy shore to find the entrance to the forgotten tunnel leading to the ‘auld store’s trapdoor.

I was, regrettably, unsuccessful. I considered taking the crew’s rowboat for a more thorough exploration, but decided against it. I did not think that I would be able to perform the same practised acrobatics as Bill had done when we disembarked. Possibly after a few months more of climbing the stairs and hefting supplies!

Perhaps sensing my inner turmoil, perhaps regretful of his attitude towards my enthusiasm, or perhaps on the advice of Thomas who had been keeping a close watch of me since our pitiful conversation some nights previous, I was surprised to find myself joined by the Skipper. Though the thought of them discussing me amongst themselves when they are so reticent to engage me directly does irk somewhat, I was nonetheless pleased to see him. He did not engage me in discussion per se, but instead took the opportunity to identify the birds that call the cove home. I can boast to now being able to identify puffins, gannets, and guillemots with confidence. 

Maybe trying to capture the grace and cunning of these birds would make for a good series of paintings?

As we returned to the lighthouse, I recalled that in just one day, Bill would return and would take the Skipper with him. 

I asked the Skipper how he felt about this and whether or not he was excited to return to the mainland. I asked how long it had been since he had last been to Whitcliffe village.

In response, he muttered something about easterlies and left it at that. 

Whilst keeping watch last night, I asked Thomas what the Skipper had meant. 

He explained that it meant a storm was coming. I was taken aback by this as the weather these last two weeks has remained as calm and clear as the day I had arrived. Here he told me that when one has lived in the area for long enough, one doesn’t look to the sky for insight into the weather, but to the water. The most violent storms come not from inland, but from Scandinavia – to the east. Such storms forecast themselves with a swell that might come and go for two or three days, such a thing observable by those who are familiar with the sea in its typical state.

What this means is that Bill is unlikely to return tomorrow. We will need to depend on the stores for food, and the Skipper will need to wait until the sea has calmed before hopes of returning. This is not, I have been reliably informed, unusual. Comments as to the regularity of Bill’s deliveries were somewhat exaggerated, it seems. 

Please do not be worried about me, darling Pip. Whitcliffe Lighthouse has stood for many years now and has weathered some fearsome tempests in its time. Not least the one that inspired the macabre account of thirty years ago! My concerns remain the lack of engaging reading material and that I might be expected to cook soon!

Greater still is my frustration at not being able to send these letters, nor receive any in turn. Please do forgive me. If I thought it were possible, I would catch an unsuspecting guillemot and have it fly my words to Lancashire! 

As this seems unlikely given their aversion to the isle, I shall instead endeavour to use this time wisely! I shall make every effort to prepare some sketches (my words do not do this place justice). Doubtless there will be work for me to do when the weather turns. Whilst I do not and cannot hope that ill fortune should strike, perhaps I will have some stirring adventures to write of?

Yours with love,

J

 

15th June, 184__

Dearest Philippa

The weather has shifted. The waters have become choppy, crested with white, and I see them lapping ever further up and over the coast I had explored just yesterday. I meet the change in equal parts appreciation and annoyance for both its novelty and the limitations it imposes upon me. 

Today was a ‘rest day’ for me. I spent most of the morning painting. Or, to be more accurate, attempting to paint. The light in the ‘auld store’ is, despite my efforts, too poor for me to truly begin. I spent a good portion of time sketching from the door to take advantage of daylight before a growing chill and darkening clouds compelled me to retreat. I really must look to whitewashing the walls as soon as the weather becomes warm once more.

In the passing silence that once ill-used chamber afforded, I could hear a growing churn echoing up from that sealed trapdoor. As I stood in near darkness staring at the blank canvas, it became analogous to the gross mastications performed by Thomas whilst he reads. I was made quite ill by the sound. With that came associations of my frustrated impotence. I admitted defeat soon after lunch had been served to those who wanted it, and went to my bunk.

There I slept fitfully (much as I have done at every attempt since arriving), helped in no small part by Alan clattering and thudding his way around the oil pumping mechanisms that sit directly above the room. It is in this position that I now write in order to rest my addled mind.

Unfortunately, this is to no avail, darling Pip. 

I simply must find something to occupy myself. Books offer little in the way of distraction. Though I had very much hoped to find myself engaged in terrifying escapades of sorts as we small crew of four stood alone against the march of a dread tempest, I have been relegated to little more than surplus. 

This change of weather, whilst not exceptionally foreboding – as the Skipper told me – is rare at this time of year. Still, the turn is apparently not so great as to warrant an extra pair of unskilled hands. 

I cannot help but feel the Skipper is delighted at unfolding events. I suspect he is not overly enthused by the prospect of retirement. I further suspect that this is why he, and indeed the rest of my companions, seem reluctant to teach me where I might be useful when, or if, the conditions should worsen.

Redundant as I am, I shall seek purpose elsewhere.

 

Pip!

A most astonishing thing has just occurred. I am trembling with nerves and barely able to write. But write I must! I am stricken with terrible delight! If I do not capture these thoughts, then I fear that I will come to dismiss them as the result of some feverish, sleep-poor hallucination!

After I finished writing, I returned to the ‘auld store’ to recover my tools. I had set myself upon sketching from one of the galleries, sufficiently buoyed by boredom and unburdened by care that I would have an audience. As I gathered my books and charcoal, it was then that inspiration struck! 

I would open the trapdoor and investigate what lay beneath!

It was no small effort to achieve this. The trapdoor’s edges had been welded by rust and salt to the frame, and whatever rope or handle that may have served as means of entry had vanished leaving naught but a jagged hole in the plate. 

After consideration, I set to the frame with a small whittling knife and spent some hours teasing away at where I believed the joins to be. 

That done, I located a discarded length of wood and attempted to use what traction it could offer to pry the thing up. But alas! I tried as many different positions as I could think of until the wood, not the door, gave way with a dull snap.

In those moments, it came to represent so much of what I have found bothersome about this place. I cursed the thing. Its stubbornness offended me! I do not think I could have stopped attempting to access its secrets if father himself had charged upon me and commanded me leave!

I went this time to the new store and there I availed myself of whale oil and a sturdy rod. I doused the hinges and hatch both with oil, waited for it to permeate through the rust-flecked edges, and once more set to work.

Success!

Though the bar bent under force and the thirsty metal drank deeply of the liberally drenched lubricant, it was the trapdoor this time that ceded!

I threw it open, in part thrilled that I had been successful whilst also dismayed that I had completed my challenge. For, what was there left to do but shine a light into the darkness revealed and gaze upon the increasingly turbulent sea that now sounded so loud and present? Why! I could have done that from any one of the lighthouse windows!

Regardless, I took my lantern and lowered it as far as my reach would permit. I would see this mystery through to its conclusion!

The now-yawning hole was as wide as the trapdoor and no more. Teeth of rust bit into my shoulder but I paid it no heed, for further than the lantern’s light touched I could see the iron rungs of a ladder set into one side of the square-cut, stone pit. 

I squinted, I raised and lowered the light in turn, and even angled myself far enough into the hole that I may have slipped! Yet still, despite my most reasonable effort, there was no sign of a bottom to the descent. 

How peculiar! I thought. If, as was proposed, the tunnel to which this hatch led is flooded, then surely it should share the sea’s level – particularly as the sea was becoming so agitated? Surely I ought to see some glint of light upon the gloomy waters?

The answer that came to me was that the tunnel was not, in fact, flooded, but must emerge somewhere close to the shore! That was the only possible explanation as to why the sound of the sea’s churn was so close! Precisely why I could not see the bottom escaped me, but I was too thrilled to care!

I considered fetching one of my companions – most likely Thomas – and showing him what I had found, but found myself against the idea. The crew were, after all, working, and seemed to have little time for me. To tell one would be to tell them all and I was in no mood to withstand their chiding.

I would make this discovery my own!

Thus decided, I descended.

Here is where my tale sounds somewhere far-fetched, darling sister, for in that pit I experienced something strange beyond words.

I took the lantern in my teeth and began to scale the rungs down, down, and into the depths below. 

I went slowly and carefully, mindful at all times of how old the ladder must be. The very last thing I wanted was to have a rung crumble beneath my feet and send me tumbling towards whatever lay beneath, be that water or ground. The cramped dimensions of the space would not permit me to extend my arms or legs fully. I knew there was little hope of being able to brace myself against the stone at my back if my footing were to fail. 

I descended.  One foot first, then the other, then I would adjust my hands and bring them to meet. One by one the rungs rose up and away from my line of sight.

Then more – then more! 

I continued to descend until I was sure I would be swallowed up by the sea as it grew louder with each careful drop. At one point it grew so loud that my lungs compulsively froze in anticipation of icy waters rushing into them, yet I breathed as freely and as easily as I do now. 

Here is where my account becomes stranger still. After I had passed the point at which I was certain I would find myself plunged into water, I was struck by a most unpleasant sensation. As one might experience upon taking a short fall down stairs or perhaps the downward curve on a swing, I felt as though my insides were floating within me. The feeling was not of nausea, but of being turned around somehow, as though my body and mind were pointed in opposite directions.

I faltered, fighting to regain control of my senses. 

Neither certain of my orientation nor quite where I was in relation to the surface, I fell to instinct in something of a panic. It was easier to repeat the actions that had brought me to that point than attempt to reverse them. Thus it was that I must have descended yet still further!

I know this to be true, as after what felt like an eternity in flickering shadow, my foot abruptly met a hard, wide surface.

I gasped in shock! I had been climbing for so long that I had almost forgotten what it was to stand upon more than a rung no thicker than a man’s ring finger.

Once sure of my footing I drew one final great breath then let go of the ladder half expecting to fall!

Above me, I could see no hint of light from the auld store, just the steady line of dull rungs reaching up and ever up.

I shone the lantern about my person in the hopes of something more. I stood upon a surface no greater than the dimensions of the hole I had descended. There was no door set into the walls and there was certainly no mysterious tunnel. As fanciful as it might sound, I even ran my hand across the cold, damp stone and found no hint of a concealed passage. 

The floor was all that remained. Beyond disappointed by the whole experience, I stamped my foot. The noise that followed was not as I had expected! It was a muted, hollow ring that reverberated not only up the shaft, but to somewhere deep below.

I squatted as best as I could in the enclosed space and traced my hands across the thin layer of sand that had crunched as I turned this way and that in hopes of finding an exit.

Placing the lantern at my heel, I took out my handkerchief and swept the sand aside as best I could to gaze upon what was there and – oh darling Pip, you would not believe! – I found another trapdoor!

My entire body quaked at the feel of the thing. It was in better condition than the one I had descended through – constructed with some manner of metal I would say although dark and dull for it. A ring was folded into a well-crafted little niche at one end, opposite to where neat hinges were sunk into the frame.

Giddy with anticipation, I immediately reached to open it!

And there my story must end for now, dear sister. 

I cannot explain how or why, but upon touching the means of entry into whatever lay beyond, I was stricken with a sensation more frightful than that which had come to me while climbing down. My mind reeled – the strength was sapped from my limbs! – and my heart stuttered and fluttered amidst organs that felt utterly turned about.

I released the ring in shock and stood upright, brushing the sand from my palms as though I might rub away the reaction that now rippled through me.

Here, I felt, was not somewhere I ought to go: Here was something that should remain unknown. 

Evidently seized by some numbing mania, I scrambled back up the ladder in the suffocating dark. I cannot speak of my ascent, as I cannot quite recall it. I can be sure that I did not stop climbing until I was birthed once more onto the floor of the auld store. 

Daylight! Beautiful, clouded daylight enveloped me as I slammed the trapdoor shut!

I ran immediately to my bunk and trunk whereupon I seized my pen and wrote this account. My heart beats with thunderous demand though I do not know why! My body quakes still! I have not felt more alive nor awake since I arrived here!

I simply must tell the others what I have found!

Yours with love,

J


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