The Wood Castle
Andrew James Barkley ran flat-footed, his shoes scuffing along the Oriental carpet, to a corner of the room on the other side of the sculpted marble fireplace. He pressed himself into the angle between the two walls, whimpered softly for a moment, then said, “Can’t you see it, can’t you see it, the white dog, he’s behind me. Can’t you hear ‘im, Luther? He won’t leave me be. He won’t stop talking to me. He says he killed my little girls. He killed ’em, Luther….”
Barkley’s butler, Luther, immaculately attired in his black silk suit, cravat, and vest with the gold buttons down the middle, stood speechless and rooted in the doorway. “Mr. Barkley, sir….” he started. He glanced quickly at one of the maids, Ester, in her floor-length skirt and apron with the narrow waist, a perky cap on the top of her brown hair. She hovered beside Luther, bouncing from one foot to the other, looking as if she were about to bolt. Her face was the color of ashes and her eyes were two circles.
“Ester,” Luther said, “Follow him, don’t lose sight of him. I’m going downstairs to call for help.”
“No, no, Mr. Luther,” she said, clasping her hands together in front of her. “I hate this place. It makes no sense. I can’t find my way ’round, I can’t find my way back. And what if he, if he….”
“I have to go, you keep tabs on him, do you hear me?” Luther ordered, and he pivoted on his heel and toe, and walked rapidly away, into one of the arched and domed four-way landings ten feet down the hall.
Ester watched the butler turn to his left; with perfect posture and pumping legs, he held on to a polished wood banister and climbed red-carpeted treads. Then he abruptly vanished, and reappeared on the alabaster staircase immediately in front of her, the top of his head and shoulders visible as he seemed to be descending. Then she lost sight of him again, but she could hear his shoes clicking and she swung around to the right where she just caught the back of his coattail as he moved upward once more on speckled gray-granite steps. Ester plugged her mouth with her knuckles to keep from screaming.
Barkley strode to the middle of the room and began spinning in circles, muttering, “Keep the dog away dog at bay Frisco bay in the day making hay, sunshine while the hay pines….” He stopped, wobbled, and seemed to immediately sense Ester’s presence on the threshold. He glared at her, his eyes floating in bruised flesh, long strands of his gray-streaked hair sticking straight up in the air, his once handsome beard now a checkerboard of ruff and bloody flesh where he’d apparently been gouging at his chin with his fingers.
She took a step backwards, trying to decide which way to run once she reached the four-way passage.
Andrew Barkley began gasping for air, his entire torso rising and falling. He calmed and straightened, tugged the hem of his wool jacket. He pulled a watch from a vest pocket and held it to his ear for a moment. “Which one are you?” he asked, flicking the back of the gold, engraved timepiece with his thumb and forefinger. He dropped it and let it dangle around his groin from its golden chain.
Ester lowered her hands and attempted to speak, stuttering, “Est … Est … Ester, par … par … parlor maid, sir….”
“The dog says we like you. You’re hired, you stay,” Barkley said, but he wasn’t paying any attention to the girl. He was moving to the wall thirty feet opposite the fireplace, the one festooned with gilt and cerulean-blue paneling and frescoes that had been painted by an artist brought all the way from Italy. He began pounding on the wall with his fists. He drove his closed hands against one section, then another, moving sideways, squatting, standing, as if looking for something.
Ester glanced behind her, then bent over and extended her neck forward, trying to keep her employer in her sight without moving any further into the sitting room.
Barkley began to shout, “Ah, ah, ah….” in rhythmic accompaniment to the hammering of his flesh on the plaster and paint. His voice grew louder, and soon he was yelling one long “Aaahhhh….” without stopping, without seeming to breathe.
Ester covered her ears with her palms and tried to turn away, her face screwing up and turning red. Fear shot into her stomach. She could hardly control herself another minute. All the weeks of working in this horrible and bizarre house, of getting lost, of repeatedly stumbling on ever more illogical and inconsistent points of architecture and design, now pushed her to the breaking point. She began to hyperventilate, but then was immediately distracted. By silence. She exhaled forcefully and lowered her hands. She leaned towards the doorway once more, bending over so far that her cap came loose. She couldn’t see Andrew Barkley.
Ester braced herself between the wide, mahogany door jambs and took one step into the chill air and amber glow of the room. With great caution she looked in different directions, her vision skimming and skipping from one detail to another; she really didn’t want to focus on anything. She noted that the far wall — the blue and gold one with the paintings of naked chubby women and men with the hindquarters of goats — was covered in red blotches and red, dripping hand-prints.
She ground her teeth together, wrapped her arms around herself, and whispered, “Please Jesus, sweet Jesus, help me Jesus,” and tip-toed further onto the ornate rug. “Mr. Barkley, sir,” she called, her voice soft and cracking. She cleared her throat. “Mr. Barkley, please sir, I can’t see you. Where are you?” she pleaded to the lolling nymphs and capering satyrs who gazed at her from between the gilded panel-moldings. “Where did you go, sir? I need t’ keep an eye on you, Mr. Luther’s orders.” She moved her right shoe a few inches forward, and her left. She inspected the area where she’d last seen him. There didn’t appear to be any door, or way out. But in this house, there was no way to tell. “Mr. Barkley,” she called more loudly. “Please sir….”
Sheriff Theodore Crouse lifted the brim of his charcoal-grey homburg, feeling the late-afternoon summer heat even at this elevation. He switched off the vibrating motor of his black 1915 Model T and climbed out onto the running board, hopped to the ground. He slammed the door as he studied the immense, rambling building on top of the sloping hill ahead of him. Mrs. Hankins from the Pocahontas Drug Company had rung him up at the courthouse in Marlinton, crying into the telephone that there was an emergency at “the wood castle.” He’d taken off as fast as he could, jouncing south on Stillwell then turning left and bouncing along the dirt road that meandered beside the stream called Stillhouse Run, the only way to reach the private drive that led up the mountain to the Barkley estate.
“The Wood Castle” the local folk called it. Sheriff Crouse had no more than a grade-school education, but he could tell the thing was a monstrosity, built twenty years before by the timber baron who wrested acres of primeval forest away from his own people. Constructed from the wood of virgin white oak and yellow poplar — some of the biggest and oldest trees in the state of West Virginia — the mansion rambled upwards to a height of five stories, and spread out on either side in a jumble of turrets, gables, porches, balconies, and every conceivable type and size of window. There were rumors that the place had at least one hundred and fifty rooms. The entire exterior was sided in, trimmed in, shingled in, wood that had been clear-cut off this very mountain.
Trophies of the kill, Crouse thought.
The sheriff took off his hat, wiped his brow with a red cloth from his trousers’ side pocket. He noticed a male figure had appeared up above, and was approaching him; the man trotted down the cascading, landscaped limestone stairway that descended from the mansion’s massive rosewood entrance, to the carriage-house road where Crouse presently stood beside his parked car. He quickly pocketed the red bandana, used one hand to set his hat back on his head. He moved towards the bottom steps, raised his chin and shaded his eyes with the side of a hand. He recognized Mr. Luther, Barkley’s butler in charge of the household staff.
The older man lost his balance slightly as he dropped off the last step and reached level ground and stood in front of the sheriff. He was perspiring, his face was florid. He pressed a hand to his chest as he tried to catch his breath. “Thank God, you’re here,” he finally said.
“Is it Barkley again?” Crouse asked.
“It’s worse now, even worse than when they found his two girls,” Luther said, spitting a little as he continued to pant. “I left one of the maids — name of Ester — to keep an eye on him while I went to use the telephone … I was in the first kitchen near the rear of the house. I thought I heard screams. I rushed back up to the third floor sitting room … you have to be careful, you have to know the place because it’s not a normal house … it plays tricks. He built it, he designed it for his own amusement….” He paused and shook his head. He half-turned around to peer over his shoulder back up to the glowering windows of the top two floors. “I can’t find her,” he said, and lowered his eyes. He continued to clutch his chest as if trying to keep his heart from racing. He still wore his white gloves.
Sheriff Crouse squinted into the orange rays of the setting sun as he scanned the “castle” again, this time more carefully, hunting for any movement on the third-floor balconies, or behind the colorful Tiffany stained-glass panes. “Did you look for her?” he asked, putting his hands on his hips. As there was silence, he returned his attention to Luther. “Well?”
Luther dropped his arms, his hands curling into fists at his sides. “I … I searched briefly, where I thought she might be, but I couldn’t find any trace of her. I did not go any further. I … thought … it would be better if you accompanied me,” he said.
“Where are the rest of the servants?” Crouse asked.
“In the second kitchen, the servants dining area. I told them to wait there, and not to leave for any reason.”
The sheriff nodded. It would be night in a couple of hours, and there was no time to waste. He unbuttoned his sack-suit jacket and tossed one side of it back, revealing his holster and his revolver sticking out of it. He patted the handle of the gun. “All right, let’s go,” he said as confidently as he could. “We’ll find them. They have to be in there somewhere. You show me the way.”