“Seven stairs to seven stars” the phrase ran through my head, recurring, disturbing. Some way off, barely visible through the swirling sea mist, a solitary gas lamp flickered and sang. I pulled my raincoat colour closer about my face and made my way towards it. In the little island of light I looked again at the crumpled cutting. “Dream house” it read “No Mod INCON, Suit Poet, owner moving to castle in Spain” then followed details, either a fine crop of misprints, or the wavering gas light playing tricks with my eyes. “Birth Room, ghost room, 2 Decep, 2 bedlams” then followed the address, ‘Seven Stars’ to Seven Stairs lane, Ninefalls, View immediately.
The very station at which I alighted had seemed unreal in the fog. The train had barely paused long enough for me to get out and the railwayman in his strange sleeved waistcoat had made no attempt to take my ticket. I asked him the way to Seven Stars lane and he made no reply put pointed into the swirling fog. As I stumbled across the granite chips which made up the little station yard, his voice boomed and echoed behind me. “Seven stairs to Seven Stars, Seven Stars to 7 stars”.
The stairs, or steps to be precise, had not, as one would suppose, been together in a flight. A had come upon the first one unexpectedly barking my shins, falling full length. I still felt shaken as I stood beneath the lamp. Five more followed at irregular intervals, and with each the fog seemed to press closer behind me. Once I looked back, I think it was from the top of the fourth step, the steep one of some three feet, and had seen behind me a sea of unbroken fog. Little swirls of vapour danced and eddied on its surface like clouds of noxious vapour on some vast volcanic cauldron. I shivered, certainly not looking forward to the return journey.
Now, beneath the lamp, there remained only one more step. “A decisive step to take” I thought idiotically. I could just see it from where I stood. As the gas lamp flared up, it showed on the fringe of the radiance, steep, a cliff of a step, merging into the gloom on either side.
The 7th step, when I came to it, was slightly higher than eye level. My fingertips, as I reached to get a grip, became perceptibly warmer, in fact the fog seemed to have reached its highest level at the rim. With a violent effort I heaved myself up until I lay face downward on smooth and sweet smelling turf. Some radiance seemed to light each individual blade of grass, shining and sparkling beneath my face, a lawn of silver. I lay still for a moment, winded, enjoying the contrast of the soft warm air. The fog I had absorbed in my trip from the station evaporated like a little sigh and a delicious languor filled me. I rose to my feet.
There it stood, same fifty yards away, surrounded by well-kept lawns, a veritable dream house. Beneath a serene full moon, tiny but not cramped, its clean lines reached upwards, its ivory coloured walls gleamed as though with inner light. Obviously modern, its architect had captured all the magic of the fairy castles of childhood. Don’t mistake me, there was nothing of the prado gothic, it was as though he had taken the essence of all dream castles and had subtly supported it in glass and concrete.
From somewhere beyond the house I could hear the dull booming of the surf and I realized that I must have made my way to the top of a cliff. I glanced back, the fog still lay there, lapping my final step, a yellow sea, turgid and obscene. Even the gas lamp was no longer visible. It had gone out, or been swallowed by the fog.
I turned towards the house. It was further than I thought, but after ten minutes’ walk, it stood there as before, its windows reflecting the light of the moon, so brightly that at first I thought that all the rooms were lighted. Some fifty yards away!
Then I died an irrational thing, irrational that is to most people, those of you who are poets will understand, I think. The house was real, or real to me, but was I real to it. The advertisement had said, ‘Suit Poet’ but also “No Mod INCON”. It was plain to me that a must prove myself a poet, it would be tragic if the house were to mistake me for an INCON.
“Seven Stairs to seven stars” I said and the house seemed to waver, or maybe I blinked, at least it seemed appreciably nearer. “What next” I mused, “The address is 5, Seven Stairs lane, yet as far as I can see there are no other houses, 5 must come into it somewhere”. I tried again.
“Fivefold, the paths to Seven Stars” without waiting to be see the result I let poetic intuition take over. Recurring through the address and the instructions of the porter had been the number 7. Five was mentioned and nine. It wouldn’t be as easy as that – two mystic numbers had been omitted. One and three. Unity and trinity. I decided to hold them in reserve. If this was a fairy house, they might do it irretrievable harm. The silent ones are notoriously pagan. Even today, one and three used together are regarded as unlucky.
“Five the paths to Seven Stairs”.
“Seven Stars, Nine falls” add them together and you get 28, the lunar month. I must be off my rocker, I thought. Nevertheless, my musing had brought me to the house just as a logical train of thought had associated the linear month with 13, the number of moons in a year, the one and three. The omitted numbers. I dismissed them quickly from my mind.
The house was real enough and my mystic musings seemed ridiculous as a walked round the neat path that bedecked the lawn. I was at the back of the house that accounted for my difficult journey, I must have lost myself in the fog and entered the grounds up a series of terraces which gave their name to the lane leading to the front door. Even as I rationalised my behaviour something of the strange feeling of unreality which had possessed me, lingered still.
The door was made of lined oak decorated in a strange manner. However absurd my thoughts on magic, the owner must himself have been a mystic. A window of red glass, in the shape of a pentagon gleamed in the moonlight. Surrounding it were seven bronze stars. I knocked.
Slowly the red pentagon glowed into light. Some modern trick lighting I thought, it defied my attempts to peer through the little window, and I stepped back embarrassed as the door swung silently inwards.
How can I describe her; she stood there unspeaking, her lips slightly parted, her eyes a startling blue, even in the moonlight which shone full on her young face , turning her fair hair to silver. She was wearing a fall length gown of some soft green fabric which gleamed and shimmered. Her arms and shoulders, which were bare, were very white.
I stuttered something. “The dream house; it’s very late, I’m afraid. It said view immediately”. I broke off, confused.
What was I doing here, talking to a beautiful girl. It was the middle of the night, there was a moon. But I had set out in the morning, or had I, my memory was playing tricks with me. She stood locker at me gravely, but I thought I caught a glimpse of a smile in the eyes that regarded me so steadily.
“View immediately? So you shall” her voice was I liquid music dripping into my ears like, like hemlock the strange thought jarred me with a sudden sense of urgency.
“I’m not very well, the journey was difficult. I — “. She smiled, and like feeling of alarm melted away.
“Newcomers often find the journey — difficult. She mimicked my voice with the last word. I started, a man’s voice from her lips seemed incongruous, disturbing.
“But come” she said “you want to view immediately”. Suddenly formal she turned and led the way into the house.
Here on the ground floor we have the two deception rooms.” she said. I smiled.
“You saw the misprints too?”
“Misprints? but no, I worded the advertisement most carefully. See! and flinging open a door she motioned me to enter…
I stood in the middle of an illimitable desert, a great flat plane stretched before me, mile upon mile stunted cacti thrust their contorted limbs toward a copper sky in a dying plea for rain, and far in the distance a sombre mountain brooded. Suddenly from behind a heap of rocks there loped a great tawny cat, some species of lion, its tongue lolling from the side of its month. His vicious red rimmed eyes crazed with thirst fell upon me, and it snarled, crouching to spring. I turned to run and found myself back in the hallway.
“Hardly the room for afternoon tea”, I said to the girl standing so calmly by the door.
“You think not?” she asked “look”.
I looked into the room again; five old ladies were sitting in a Victorian drawing room. I heard the chink of China and saw a wintry afternoon sun throw its watery light through lace curtains. The old ladies turned their heads towards me and gave a formal little nod, in unison. As I looked they faded before my eyes.
“A small deception” my guide apologised
“Say no more about it. A said politely. “And the second deception room?”
Smiling, she indicated a door on the other side of the passage. “If you are a true poet, you may find this more to your liking”, “Though your first attempt showed a certain barrenness of thought” she said spitefully.
I began to see a glimmer of sense in the mad happenings to date. “Astronomy” I thought as I entered the second room.
Plunged into a vast blackness, suspended in nothing an infinity of emptiness above below around and through. My mind reeded as a sought to convince myself of my existence, of any existence. Slowly I gained control. A Great white mass moving at unbelievable speed grew from a pinpoint of light and swept past me, missing me by a million miles and receded until it vanished from sight. More confident now, I concentrated. Great Galaxies drifted by, each composed of uncountable stars. Galaxy upon Galaxy moving at a billion years a second followed each other in a wide curve. I focussed my mind and the galaxies became smaller and smaller, the curve tighter until at last I could see them all at once. They were moving in an enormous ellipse, in the centre of which there was a nucleus so vast that it staggered my imagination. I was just able to realize that there was a continual flow of matter to and from the nucleus, galaxies falling into it until some critical mass erupted more matter outward to extend space and start the formation of a new galaxy. Old—New—Old for all eternity. And I knew that no man had ever seen more than the most infinitesimal part of this huge galactic circle.
Exhausted I cried “Door” and once again I found myself in the passage.
To my horror the girl seemed to have huddled down into her clothes like an aged crone. As she saw me she made some great effort of will and straightened up, and I saw that far from being the girl I had imagined, she was a mature woman. Somehow she seemed all the more dangerous for this and her eyes as she looked into mine seemed less innocent, more assured and filled with the wisdom of ages. Notwithstanding this she seemed to look at me with a new respect.
“You have unsuspected depths, my friend” she said and her voice was a rich contralto. I could have sworn that it was the voice of a girl who had greeted me at the front door.
“What next?” I asked.
“Up here” she said, leading me up a flight of Stairs, “We have the Birth room, the Ghost Room, and the Bed—” she broke off “but time enough for that later” and she threw a glance at me over her shoulder that set me blushing like a teenage boy. All the sensuality in the world was in that glance, and I hurriedly asked to see the ghost room.
“The birth room comes first” she admonished, and became maternal. Mother love looked from her eyes, at once dreamy and gentle but with a quiet authority. I dutifully opened the door and went in. For a moment I stood still, my eyes shut my hands over my ears; the noise was terrific. Babies were crying, kittens mewing, every form of animal life was contributing to the din. I opened my eyes and looked around. I was in a vast cavern teaming with life, the very walls seemed to be alive, pulsating slowly to the sound of an enormous heart. My own perhaps, for intricately interwoven with its pounding I could detect a myriad of other rhythms, some slow, but each the very essence of life. By concentrating I could distinguish a soft, sharp plinkering sound which I knew intuitively to be primitive cell structures splitting and splitting again. Near me a cat gave birth to kittens, and a newborn calf nuzzled a recumbent cow. Suddenly before me I saw a woman, great with child, her face contorted with – no not with pain, that had no place here – but with urgency and a fierce joy.
I stepped quickly back and closed the door behind me.
“Coward” jeered my hostess, as I stood pale and disturbed, still holding the door handle. She was breathing hard, as though she had been running, her magnificent breasts heaving beneath the green gown. No traces now of the demure virgin who had answered the door. I was beginning to get a hunch about that.
“Now for the Ghost Room” I said hastily, not liking the look in her eye. “It has intrigued me since I read the advertisement. I thought at first it was GUEST but now I’m prepared for anything”
“I hope you are” she answered “Still Ghost or Guest they are much of a muchness, they visit and pass on, and this” the indicated a cobwebbed door “is where they pass on to”.
The door creaked dismally as opened it. A great wave of sadness engulfed me and drew me in. I was in a huge vaulted hall peopled with a grey multitude. Men there were, and women but nowhere could I see a child. Some drifted aimlessly about, paying no attention to anything around them, others moved jerkily with some frantic purpose, looking desperately for I know not what. One man stopped and peered eagerly into my face but whatever last desperately hope he had faded and he turned away sadly. I was not the one he sought. A great pity welled in me and I mingled with them, trying to find some purpose in their wandering, trying to find out what they wanted to do, but I could not help. I could not even weep and a turned and left them. My grief threatened to choke me as I reached the door.
Once again she seemed to be an old old woman, but I could not be sure. She sat on the floor with her back towards me, clutching her knees to her chest and rocking her body to and fro.
“Aheu, Aheu” she moaned and a lament which seemed to be ancient Celtic or, Gaelic echoed round the bare walls of the landing.
Hearing or sensing me behind her, she rose turning with a sinuous movement that had nothing to do with age. Her luminous blue eyes fixed on mine.
“Now for the bedrooms”, she breathed, half demure maiden, half vibrant woman. “It is late you must stay”.
“The advertisement said Bedlams”.
“Obviously a misprint” she smiled up at me. “See there are two” and she pointed to two doors side by side at the end of the landing.
“One is mine and the other is – is – NOT” and the girl in her dimpled and a rich flush blooded her face and neck.
“I must be careful, very careful” I thought, already I could feel the blood pounding in my veins, and the tense excitement poignant as a sudden grief, that snatches your breath and clutches your heart in such moments.
“Come” she crooned, and she was every woman who had ever lived. “Come.”
I took a faltering step forward. She opened a door and I caught a sudden glimpse of what was within before I seized the handle of the other door. She made no attempt to stop me, apparently it had to be of my own free will, but the girl turned all woman, all desire. Practically irresistible but my hand on the door knob must have saved me. Seeing it was useless, the big blue eyes filled with tears, and an inconsolable grief and loneliness lined her face and made it old, immeasurable old as she turned from me hunched like a hag.
I could not bear it, and without a word of farewell I too turned and went quickly into my bedroom. Bedroom or bedlam, there is little to choose. There were my tattered possessions, and from the window I could see the familiar factory chimneys and hear the sound of the machines of the late shift.
Many people have pursued the muse, but I never heard yet that any good ever came of a man cohabitating with a Goddess. Still I have caught a glimpse of her room, and what I saw shall be my secret. There are things no man will share – even if they tear him apart.