Marmaduke was an old friend. In fact, we attended the same school and, as lads, were often caught up in the same trouble together. After leaving university, we eventually drifted apart as our personal lives began to lead toward different goals; his involving much travel with the Camberwell Construction Company, and mine to my desk job in the city. However, after several years, his sudden re-appearance around town was a rather pleasing prospect for me. Wonderful memories came flooding back. Alas, these were soon dashed, as I now saw his more restrained approach to life, a state I had at first assumed must have grown with him over the years as life’s experiences finally caught up with him, although underneath his old self still brewed.
I met him a couple of times over two weeks before the police came to tell me of his death. These meetings took place in the club – after a hard week at the office, there is nothing better than to sit down and relax in one of their over-large leather armchairs sipping the finest brandy. I was just approaching the drowsiness one encounters before the envelopment of sleep, when there was an uproar at the door. This section of the club is usually on the quiet side, and I arose with a start to see a tall, lean, beaming figure in heavy overcoat with bowler and brolly in hand.
Everyone had at once recognised Marmaduke. The loveable cad, the womaniser, the practical joker. Anyone else would have been drummed out of the club for exploits only half as bad as those performed by Marmaduke. I had an instant recollection of him swinging from the chandelier one drunken Christmas Eve eight years ago, singing a rather crude song about his Aunt Milly. Everything was always smoothed over in the end though, as he had a way of pacifying the fiercest beast, usually one of the old Colonels complaining about the noise, and everyone would end up laughing and joking as Marmaduke produced drinks all round on his account for the rest of the evening.
As he entered the room, all of the club members from that previous era at once stood up to greet him. It must have been at least three quarters of an hour when, at last, I was able to corner him for myself. We talked and reminisced for about a further hour before he raised the subject of his sudden arrival back on home shores. It seemed he had fallen on hard times. The Construction Company had invested heavily in America and lost almost immediately. Some of the board members had disappeared owing massive debts, whilst others found the shame too much and took their lives. The majority, like Marmaduke, were left penniless, broken men. However, there was a stroke of luck, as Marmaduke put it, in that his Uncle Ebenezer’s solicitors had written stating that his uncle was approaching death, and Marmaduke, being his only remaining relative, was requested by his uncle to be seen before his demise!
“I”, he said, “must run to my uncle’s bedside to try and squeeze a little of his wealth into my part of the will, for I am more near to being a pauper than you in fact realise!” I didn’t like his tone at first and was about to correct his manner, when he saw the troubled look in my eyes and a broad grin broke across his tanned face. At once I realised I’d quite forgotten his youthful pranks and laughed aloud.
We met again the following Tuesday, and Marmaduke was becoming more like his old self by the minute. We lunched at the Savoy, on me of course, and he related his meeting with Uncle Ebenezer with overpoweringly gleeful, boyish enthusiasm, barely stopping to chew and swallow his food properly. In fact we drew rather painful looks from other diners because, as always when relating a story, he insisted on describing his uncle’s bedridden state with overpowering graphic description.
“He’s as mad as a hatter, old boy! Truly. He rambles on about such things, I could barely keep from laughing straight to his face. Then he’ll switch to more important things, like how I must always keep a good stock of coal for the winter and that ‘a window kept clean, will never let the darkest day look bleak’!”
Marmaduke was enjoying his story more and more, and, as always, you could never be sure whether he’d added the odd part here and there just for effect. However, there was one part to the tale which he barely skimmed over, but later became rather important. His uncle had told him that the house was alive. “Yes alive!” Trying to recollect the facts there and then is a little tricky, for his manner was in no mood to tell a story proper. He was more concerned with the gross hilarity of it all.
It seems that his uncle had told him that ever since he had lived there as a small boy, the rooms had had feelings all to themselves. The library, by all accounts, was a friendly room, where one could relax with a cigar and drink, seated in your favourite armchair, in the shade of a tree, the sun beating down from the wall over the fireplace and friendly wild animals scampering around your feet. “I tell you sir. This man does not deserve to die, he should be put in a show”, chuckled Marmaduke. “He really believes these things exist in the house!”
“He actually sees animals, trees and things in the library?” I said half believing. And that wasn’t all. Apparently the kitchen was a medieval torture chamber, the attic a rather horrid room where all the hauntings of the world collected together whilst they weren’t about their business elsewhere and even the dining room could not escape this wild scenario as it could uphold some of your more erotic fantasies. Uncle Ebenezer had asked to live his last days in a small bedroom at the end of the west wing. According to him, that was where he could recall everything that has ever been in his life, good and bad. “Talk about having your life flash before you!” beamed Marmaduke.
It turned out every room, all thirty-six of them, had a different ‘life’ and if Marmaduke was clever he could use them to his advantage.
“I haven’t heard such rot in years”, I said, “but you’ve certainly livened this lunch up, that’s for sure”.
“Oh there’s more” he said beaming.
Apparently the room he was staying in was the ‘room of dreams’.
“Uncle Ebenezer said I must be careful what I dream when I am asleep because I could wake to find it coming true! Ha! That could be good, supposing I was dreaming about...”
“Yes, but surely,” I warned mockingly with a wry grin, “this includes nightmares.”
“Well, I’ll just not wake up. Especially if I start again with that one I always had as a boy, where I was falling down an opening in the ground, clutching at blades of grass, trying to haul myself up, but never quite succeeding.”
His mother had become so worried about this recurring dream, she’d taken him to a doctor. It turned out that it was something to do with overpowering parents and he was relating the fear of being dominated in his dreams. His mother, when told of this, threatened to sue the doctor for libel or slander, or both. The prescription was a change in scenery and a tonic, but Marmaduke’s mother only enquired as to when he had visited a doctor himself!
We left the Savoy in high spirits, helped of course by the fact that Marmaduke always finishes a hearty meal with half a bottle of Scotch. We caught a cab to Waterloo and I put him on a train southbound towards Uncle Ebenezer’s estate.
The following evening I was at the club and Marmaduke rushed in as white as a sheet. “Old fellow. My God, if only you… I need a brandy. It’s true! I saw...incredible!”
After calming him down, with the aid of two large brandies, he led me hastily to a small ante-room for privacy. I must confess, thinking back now, he was truly scared, for his eyes were that of a madman, wide and bloodshot, hardly blinking, never focusing on one thing for too long.
“It’s true old boy, it’s true… true… true!”
“What is? What?” I said, waving my hand to try and stop him building up into hysterics again. Apparently, the previous evening, he had had trouble capturing sleep. It was perhaps three in the morning when he at last gave up and decided to venture downstairs to the library for a read. Approaching the top of the stairs he had heard a muffled ‘plodding’ sound from the shadows at the bottom. He crept around the banister. A strange sight met his eyes. The library door, which was to the left of the hall, was fully open. From it there emitted a brilliant light, so bright that his eyes took time to focus. When at last they did, he drew back with a gasp. At the foot of the stairway was a deer, stooping to eat the grass growing from the hallway floor. He could hear birds singing, the noise coming from the library itself. A robin suddenly fluttered through the open door and landed upon the moist grass, perching itself just behind the deer’s rear hooves from whence it began to peck at the ground for worms.
“I must have watched this for perhaps five minutes”, he said. “Different animals appeared and disappeared into the library: a badger, more birds, a beautiful vixen with two cubs and finally a horse. Yes, a horse. Whiter than if it had just been washed by a caring groom. Suddenly I heard laughter, I recognised it at once as Uncle Ebenezer. I called out to him and he replied at once.”
“Ah, my boy. At last.” he said. I feared you may never come down. Come in, come in quickly. Whilst it lasts.”
I nearly fell down the stairs as my shaking legs, trembling with fear, tried their worst to hold me back. The deer bolted and flew back through the open door as it spied my approach. Cautiously, I peeped into the bright light, my heart was beating so fast, a lump stuck to my inner throat. I felt as a small boy again, the feeling you get when you need a companion. Someone to go first, to make sure everything is alright.
Before me was a new world. All the furniture was still there, but the carpet had turned to grass. A grass so green it could have been straight from a Constable. A great oak stood in the middle of where the room used to be. The walls had now become the horizon and I could see distant hills with sheep grazing on the slopes. To the right, where one usually gazed from the window, now lay a vast lake; a warm breeze stirred little ripples across the water’s surface.
“Don’t just stand there, foolish boy. Come in! Whilst you still can,” boomed Uncle Ebenezer. It was only now that I noticed the old chap, sitting there in his armchair under the great oak, a cigar in one hand and a large whiskey in the other. He was dressed in his nightgown and nightcap and looked as well as any day he might! I felt sick with excitement and fear as I trod across the lush grass to seat myself opposite my uncle in the second armchair.
“Now my boy,” he said. “you see? Paradise! You tell me it’s not. I thought I’d never see it again, but hah! Here I am, feeling fit as a fiddle, lapping up the sunshine. Oh joy!”
He rambled on about the delights of his world for heaven knows how long; I just couldn’t take it in. After a while he got up and poured me a drink and clipped a cigar and resumed his talk of what lay beyond the hills and how it never rains here even though it may be winter, summer, spring or autumn in our world. “Who knew?” he laughed. “Who cared?”
Marmaduke paused on his story and sat back on the seat of his chair in the club and sipped again heavily from his brandy glass. A deep sigh passed his lips, then he said:
“My memory from then on is patchy. I recall more animals, all timid, but brave enough to come up and lick my hand. To the right of my chair lay some marvellous red roses. I recall breaking one from its stem and smelling its sweet aroma. In fact, that’s the last I remember of the place. I was suddenly being shaken by the butler. “Master Forsythe, wake up sir,” he demanded. “Terrible news. Your uncle is dead!”
The first few seconds of waking are not ones of any coherence at all. I eventually opened my eyes, fully expecting to see the great oak, the distant hills, the wildlife and Uncle Ebenezer snoring peacefully opposite me. However, I awoke stiff with cold, a book across my lap and the remains of a brandy and cigar on the small table beside me.
My uncle was dead. He’d died in his bed that night and the maid had found him at around six when taking in his early morning tea. After clearing my head I went with the butler to my uncle’s room. I found him propped up on the pillow, looking more alive now in death than when I last saw him feebly forcing his last words into my ear. His cheeks were rosy red, his moustache upright and manicured, not limp and unwashed as before. And I swear he had a smile on his face. By Jove, yes! In fact his appearance was like that of last night in the library. But it couldn’t be true, surely?
I put my hand to my chest and was suddenly pricked by something sharp. Looking down I saw a red rose poking from the top pocket of my dressing gown. The Butler must have thought me stricken with grief or mad, or both, as I suddenly let out a cry and rushed from the room.
All day I spent in a daze. The staff, I must say, were very efficient. The doctor was called to issue a certificate and the solicitor notified to make ready for the forthcoming proceedings. I paced the room ’till I was weary with an overdose of thought. Surely I had dreamed all of last night. But there is nothing of any rational explanation as to my journey to the library.”
I looked at Marmaduke and choose my moment carefully to speak. “Sleepwalking perhaps?” I offered.
“Perhaps. But I have never done so in my whole life. I tell you the house will be on the market the day after the will is read, if I have any say. The whole thing is too spooky for words!”
“Calm yourself dear chap,” I said softly. “You’ve had a worrying time recently; the company going down, your own fortune lost, now a new one gained and to top it all, an uncle you hardly remember offering you fantastic stories to go with your brand new surroundings. It’s all getting too much for you.”
“You’re probably right, except for the train journey here which makes me feel otherwise.”
“Oh?” Marmaduke was now adopting the attitude of an embarrassed man. He wanted to tell me everything, have someone to share his fears, but doing so had left him feeling rather awkward. Now in the surroundings of the club, the previous night must have seemed even more unreal and perhaps he was beginning to think that it was, after all, a dream.
“Go on,” I prompted.
“Yes, well. As soon as I felt it was half decent to do so, I left the house and rode one of my uncle’s old bicycles to the station, where I boarded the first available train for London. Unfortunately I hadn’t studied the timetable properly, and found myself on a slow “shunter”. The damn thing was stopping at every station!
Anyhow, it grew dark after an hour’s travelling and my mind became dull with the constant rhythm of the carriages. The train entered a tunnel, you know the one, just before Clapham. What happened next nearly caused me to hurl myself to another compartment and find company, for I was alone to witness this happening.”
I looked at Marmaduke. His eyes were growing wide again, a faint sweat appearing on his brow and his hands started shaking.
“Yes, yes?” I whispered.
Another deep breath. Then -
“We emerged from the tunnel in brilliant sunshine. No more could I see the black-riddled bricks of outer London, the street lamps and bustle of the commuters. Now before me lay glorious fields of green, as of a summer’s day. Over in the distance, corn swayed in the slight breeze and cattle grazed on the slopes leading up to the railway embankment. I pressed my face to the window to try and observe some kind of trick. I even pinched myself, but the illusion wouldn’t go. Then we came past a huge lake, as clear as glass. A few swans glided effortlessly across the expanse. Some ducks skimmed to a clumsy landing on the far bank, and fishes jumped from the depths to catch the odd fly.
This seemed to go on for an age and I began to collect my thoughts. If I could see this now, awake, then surely others could. I made up my mind to reach another occupied carriage and see the reaction there. Alas what happened next made the whole thing much worse.”
“Surely not?” I said pouring him more brandy.
“The far end of the lake came as suddenly as it had begun, and there under a great oak tree, seated on a bloody armchair was my damned Uncle Ebenezer. Waving at me. Smiling. Cigar and drink in hand!
I fell back to the seat and covered my head with my coat. I wished to see no more.”
Marmaduke fell silent and gazed through space, remembering his experience with a little too much vividness. He then composed himself and carried on at a more controlled pace.
“The guard woke me as we pulled into Waterloo, the coat still across my head and I leapt up with a start. The guard, surprised, stepped back quickly. I rushed to the window.
“Did we travel straight here, no detours?”
“I’m sorry sir,” he said bemused.
My impatience must have showed and I believe he thought me drunk. “Did the train have to travel anywhere different from its normal route today? I seem to recall passing country I’m not used to”.
“Hardly sir. In fact we made good time today, only two minutes late and in this sudden downfall of snow too.”
“Snow?” I couldn’t believe it.
“Yes sir, started just outside London and began settling at once. The engine had a little trouble with grip on one of the slopes.”
My vision had shown sun and fine weather and now the guard spoke of snow. My heart sank, and I stumbled blindly from the train and walked to the entrance to claim a cab. I felt sick on the journey and was glad to pay the driver his fare and make for the steps leading to the entrance. Just before entering the club I purchased a newspaper and skimmed through it whilst in the elevator. Flicking through the pages, an advertisement came to light that took my breath away. Taking up half a column was: ‘An invitation to enjoy the delights of your very own English Homeland’. Beneath this was a small body of text, but at the very bottom...”
He produced the rolled newspaper from his coat pocket and showed me the advert. The words were there true enough and beneath them an illustration of an appropriate country view.
“I’m not with you,” I began.
It’s where Uncle Ebenezer sits. There, beneath that oak. And look, the lake in the background and the hills...it’s the same.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m bloody sure!”
Marmaduke was now building up inside again and I spent about five minutes reassuring him that I believed every word and that there must be some kind of rational explanation.
“Am I going mad?” He said at last sinking back into his chair. “Do you see any outward signs apart from my weird stories? Am I to spend the rest of my days haunted by this wretched paradise land?”
The situation was indeed one which I felt was beyond me, and yet here was a man who I would certainly not describe as mad. Perhaps confused. I made a promise that the day after his uncle’s funeral I would travel down to the house and reside there for a week or so until he was right again. This seemed to ease his mind slightly and for the first time that evening he appeared more relaxed.
That was the last time I ever saw Marmaduke Forsythe. He booked a room at the club and stayed the night. The next morning he arose and eat a hearty breakfast and left for his new home at around ten. His servants reported that he arrived safely and was in a sullen mood all day. He retired to bed early, at about eight, with a cup of cocoa.
A maid found his body the next morning. She said, “He must have made to get up in the night and tripped, strangling himself on his own sheets after a bad fall”.
The official story from Doctor Richardson was more interesting:
“The whole room was left untouched, so when I arrived on the scene I had a rather disturbing sight of a man who had seemed to have gone through a tremendous struggle. My initial reaction was to instruct the butler to summon the police. However, after closer examination of the room and body, I kept coming to the same conclusion that Mister Forsythe had been fighting with himself!
His body lay about four feet from the foot of the bed, the sheets and blankets were tightly bound and wrapped around him, like ropes about a condemned man. His eyes, still open, rather wide in fact, were staring up to the bed, his head twisted to one side. One intriguing fact was that both arms were outstretched toward the bed, as if reaching for something. Most curious of all though, were the scrapings across the floorboards. At first inspection I hadn’t noticed these, but I then became aware of the state of his fingers. He had actually been clawing at the floor with his bare hands, breaking his fingernails and tearing the skin. I can only conclude Mister Forsythe must have had an alarming nightmare and strangled himself on the sheets whilst wrestling with his own thoughts.”
From the doctors’ account, I couldn’t help remembering what Marmaduke had said to me earlier in the week, about how he was sleeping in the room of dreams. I remembered his boyhood nightmare of falling down a hole, clutching at things in a desperate attempt to pull himself up. Though I find it hard to believe myself, I think Marmaduke’s dream came to reality in that room, at least a reality that he saw. Something that took his life.