August 10, 2015

“The Face of a Beautiful Monster” by Adam Gottfried (Part One)

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“The Face of a Beautiful Monster” by Adam Gottfried (Part One)

This is Part One of Adam’s Three-Part Tale. Come back next Monday, and the Monday after for more beautiful, monstrous mystery. 
Drawing of new Shephall Manor 1865The door swung open with the smooth, silent urgency of a practiced hand. James Atherton, the Congdon butler swiftly took in the man who stood before him. Tall, wide-shouldered, he had a broad face decorated with a well-trimmed beard that was significantly out of vogue with modern sensibilities. His brown wool suit was crisp and clean, and his shirt was white, starched, and well-pressed. He wore a wide-brimmed hat that was also out of style, but it suited him in a rakish sort of way. He removed the cap and ran a large hand with scarred knuckles through his thick mane of dark blond hair, and then produced a calling card with his other.

“Dougal McCullagh for Mister Congdon,” the man said with a faint hint of a brogue which caused the older butler to bristle slightly. He considered the English to be the height of sophistication and refinement with their Victorian values tempered by Edwardian manners and Georgian gall. The Scottish, so far as Atherton was concerned, were the syphilitic afterbirth in the wake of the Britons greatness.

“Of course… sir.” Atherton intoned with his trademark subtle disdain. He slipped the calling card into his left breast pocket and, though grudgingly, showed Mr. McCullagh into the adjacent waiting room. The room itself was meant to reflect the affluence that Mr. Congdon had at his command, and Atherton thought it did so quite well. It hosted a fortune in imported and custom furniture, expensive windows and glasswork, an exceptionally modern DC electric series of call-buttons, and the piece de resistance, the entire ceiling was plated in paper thin gold leaf. To Atherton’s mind it was a triumph of human sophistication, and he awaited the amazed gawping look upon this bumpkin’s face when he saw exactly WHOM he was dealing with. He fully expected to soak in that abject fear and horror when Mr. McCullagh realized he was significantly outclassed, then present the calling card to his master who would promptly ask Atherton to firmly but politely show the ruffian out.

That was what Atherton expected, but it was not what he received. The knave barely glanced at the lavish finery around him—though he did pay close attention to the fine portrait-style photographs the lined the walls of the Congdon family—and ignored Atherton’s presence. This was a distinct slap to the face for Atherton, who had not only expected to bask in the glow of this man’s discomfiture, but also to show through his kindly, though haughty manner that he was Mr. McCullagh’s superior. Atherton concluded that the man was clearly too foolish to understand that the ceiling above him was real gold and not golden-colored paint, and that the furniture was more than….

Atherton sighed. If the man was too stupid to be impressed there was little Atherton could do in the short time that propriety allowed to educate him. He debated taking the calling card to Mr. Congdon at all; rather leave this man alone for a few moments time and return with what would most assuredly be Mr. Congdon’s polite refusal anyway. However, Atherton knew his duty, and departed the room with a quiet promise to return as soon as he had his master’s answer. In the hallway, he brushed by one of the serving girls, Margaret or Cynthia or some such thing, he could never keep them straight they came and went so frequently here. She carried a tray of refreshment, fruit, cheese, and thinly sliced dense bread that was the Glensheen cooks specialty, along with a bottle of 30 year old Glenlivet and a glass. He sniffed as she passed but said nothing. She was only dong her duty, but it seemed to him that such a fine bottle of Scotch would be wasted on a common palette such as that of Mr. McCullagh.

Maggie passed Mr. Atherton on her way to the waiting area and she could see the disdain on the man’s face, though if it were for her or for the individual he had just admitted it was impossible to say. Maggie had only been with the Congdon family a month, and though she had come from a high-born family with good references, most of the rest of the staff treated her as if she were merely a stand-in. The cook, Mrs. Holmes, possibly the kindliest woman Maggie had ever know, treated her well enough. One night after the family was abed and Maggie had volunteered to help Mrs. Holmes prepare for the next morning’s breakfast, the middle-aged cook had confided in Maggie that must servants in her position usually did not last more than three Maggie could not see why. The family treated their servants very well, allowing them each one day off a week—though never the same day all at once—and whenever the family replaced a piece of furniture or linen, the staff was allowed to take their choice of the old piece. The food was good, the accommodations were better, and there was pay! Usually most positions such as this, room and board were considered payment enough, and they were generally not half so good as this.

Maggie stepped near-silently into the waiting room and stopped cold, struck by what she saw. He was facing her and for a brief, terrifying moment, his was the face of a beautiful monster. Her hands shook under the tray, causing the china and glassware to vibrate, and then he was next to her, no longer the visage of magnetic terror, but that of a kind, though remarkably handsome, stranger. He took the tray from her handily, setting it down on a nearby open place, took her hands in his and guided her to a chair. She breathed him in as he did so, and he smelled of lilacs and verdant greenery, which was odd given that it was late fall in a place where winter came early and without mercy.

“Forgive me,” the man said in a voice that was not a whisper but that was as quiet and controlled as one. “I must have surprised you.” His voice was accented lightly, and was smooth and soft like wet velvet, and he settled onto his haunches before her.

“You did give me a fright,” Maggie answered distractedly, unable to look away from his ice-blue colored eyes. He smiled and she immediately melted. She knew in that moment she would do anything and everything he asked her to. Part of her hoped that he was not aware of that fact, but another part told her that he probably did.

“I apologize,” he murmured with the ghost of a smile crossing his suddenly very fascinating lips. “I shall not do so again.”

She leaned forward then, and kissed him. She was young, only 17, and had never kissed a man before, let alone one clearly so important as this, but he did not recoil, nor did he seem to be uncomfortable in any way. Almost as if he was used to strange young woman kissing him for no good reason. After a breathless moment, he ended the kiss and smiled again. She could not see past the brilliance of it, could not see the nearly predatory glint in his eyes as he straightened to standing once again.

“Thank you for the refreshment, Maggie,” he murmured, his eyes now dancing merrily. “I will be certain to offer my congratulations to Mr. Congdon for his exceptionally talented house staff.”

She only nodded mutely, managed a polite curtsey, and, quite literally, toddled out of the room. She was so utterly flummoxed by his charisma and charm that she did not even realize that she had never told him her name. She barely managed to get out of the way as Mr. Atherton, looking very disgruntled, moved back down the hallway toward the waiting room.

Atherton barely noticed the wisp of a girl as she wavered by him, nearly jumping out of his way as he approached the waiting room. Not only was this brutish Scotsman NOT going to be ejected from Mr. Congdon’s home, the master had reprimanded Atherton for keeping Mr. McCullagh waiting so long—though it was no longer than any other guest of Mr. Congdon would have been expected to wait—and sent him immediately back to fetch Mr. McCullagh.

Mr. McCullagh was just pouring three-fingers of Scotch into a glass when Atherton rounded the corner. He saw the tray was not situated where it ought to be and made a mental note to verbally chastise the young miss who had brought it. Mr. McCullagh glanced over as Atherton walked in, and shot him what Atherton would call a “roguish smile”.

“The young servant who brought me this fine tray suffered a swoon upon entering the room. I caught the tray and allowed her a moment to sit and rest herself… do not be angry at her, Mr. Atherton.”

It was not lost on Atherton that the man seemed to know his name, but being the butler and in charge of the household of a man like Mr. Congdon brought with it a certain esteem and, in some cases, fame in and of itself. No doubt Mr. McCullagh had researched the house and staff before his arrival, hoping to impress Mr. Congdon, but Atherton knew that his master would not be impressed by such things.

Trying and almost succeeding at keeping the sour look off of his face, Atherton replied. “Of course sir. Mr. Congdon will receive you in the Green Room. Right this way.”

He turned on his heel and led Mr. McCullagh through the hallways of the large home to the breakfast room. It was only on entering that he saw Mr. McCullagh not only holding his glass, but also the bottle. He reached to take the bottle from Mr. McCullagh but the man only grinned and shook his head. “Mr. Congdon has money to spare. I am keeping this as repayment for my summons.” And he walked past Atherton into the Green Room where Mr. Congdon awaited. Summons? Atherton thought with a certain level of dumbfounded incredulity. Why would Mr. Congdon summon that… that… but he could not finish his own thought. Despite his hatred of Scotsmen and his loathing of a man he had taken to be a decided inferior, he was forced to readjust his perception. Perhaps this… Dougal McCullagh was more than he seemed.

Mr. Congdon’s high tenor voice drifted to his ears through the passage. “Atherton?”

Atherton entered the Green Room and gave a slight, half-bow as was Mr. Congdon’s custom, then looked at his master questioningly. Mr. Congdon wore his usual black tailored suit, glasses, and handlebar mustache, also out of fashion, but not quite so long as Mr. McCullagh’s beard was. “Amelia shall wait upon us, Atherton, but stay on hand should we need you.”

Amelia was an illiterate mute, kept on staff to wait on the kinds of meetings where such a servant was beneficial. She could hear perfectly well but could not talk or write anything down so as to not pass on anything that she might hear. Atherton was used to this, but bristled inwardly even more strongly at the implication that not only was Mr. McCullagh more important than he realized, he was very likely a wealthy business partner of Mr. Congdon. Atherton merely bowed and exited the room to fetch Amelia.

Like many mutes in her time, Amelia was considered something of a half-wit, a barely human tool. For years she could not write because no one had bothered to teach her, but she COULD write. Mrs. Holmes, the cook and the unofficial caretaker of the female staff, had learned very quickly that Amelia was more intelligent than she was given credit for and had been slowly and painstakingly teaching Amelia how to read and write. She had been with the Congdons since they had moved into Glensheen Manor in 1908 and Mr. Congdon had hired her on the merits that she COULD NOT speak and she COULD NOT write, so she hid her newfound talents from the family and the rest of the staff.

When she entered the Green Room that day, she discovered Mr. Congdon with another man, this one much younger, already engrossed in conversation. She had brought with her a tray of food, similar to the one that Maggie had brought to the visitor earlier, but without the “…I did not think a summons like that would work in such a… mundane way,” Mr. Congdon was saying as Amelia entered. He barely spared her a glance, but the visitor, a tall well-built man in his early- to mid- thirties, glanced her way and smiled, raising his glass full of Mr. Congdon’s best Glenlivet by way of greeting. Amelia, who had not had an easy life and was not prone to smiling or levity, found that her lips were turning up at the corners as he did so. She could not help it. He was so… irreverent. Most men who visited Mr. Congdon were cowed by his wealth and influence. This man was not.

“Mr. McCullagh,” Mr. Congdon snapped. “I would appreciate it if you would pay attention.”

“I am, Chester,” Mr. McCullagh rejoined with a not-at-all subtle wink to Amelia. “You’re wondering why I came to your front door as opposed to appearing in a puff of smoke inside your little summoning circle.”

Amelia blanched and cast her eyes down. Mr. Congdon would not appreciate her hearing too much of this, despite her apparent inability to communicate it with anyone else.

“Well, come to that, yes!” Mr. Congdon blustered. Amelia supposed if Mr. McCullagh had said the same it would have been considered “thundering” but Mr. Congdon had a high-pitched voice.

“What does it matter how I came to be here, Chester. Just take comfort in the fact that I am. What is it you want of me?” Mr. McCullagh asked nonchalantly.

Amelia quickly put down the tray and started to leave, when she felt a hand, gentle but firm, on her arm. She stopped and met Mr. McCullagh’s eyes.

“Amelia,” he said in a soft voice with a slight brogue. “Thank you.”

Amelia could see the predator behind his smile, but instead of frightening her, it moved something inside of her. Something that had never really moved before. Perhaps it was the fact that she had spent most of her life isolated from the rest of the world by her inability to communicate that she never really felt a human connection to anyone, but this seemed like more. With Mr. McCullagh is was… instinctual. She wanted him.

He pulled his hand away and she curtseyed without turning, her arms crossed under her bosom. It was not until she entered the pantry that she realized there was a folded piece of parchment paper tucked between her arm and her side, slid there no doubt when Mr. McCullagh had placed his hand on her arm. Undoubtedly Mr. Congdon had told Mr. McCullagh that she could not read, write, or speak, so why would he give her a note of any kind?

She took the note and glanced around. Atherton was off moping in the kitchen, well out of earshot of the Green Room. Only Amelia would be allowed in the butler’s pantry until the meeting was complete. She unfolded the parchment paper and, printed in a clear, strong hand was the following statement.

Take Maggie from this place tonight. Accommodations are paid for.

Below that was the address and two room numbers of a hotel in the downtown area. Amelia’s eyes widened. Was this some kind of illicit proposal? Amelia was mortified beyond words, not that she could utter them if she wanted to. She was not versed in the ways of men, though she had been forcibly taken once or twice by less kindly masters than Mr. Congdon. The idea of doing such a thing with another woman present was… Not awful. In point of fact, Amelia was warming to the idea… and Maggie was a very pretty young woman….

This was inconceivable. Her sense of propriety and decorum were being insulted. Perhaps this was a cruel joke, Mr. McCullagh had written her a note that she was not supposed to be able to read as a kind of cruel way to make fun of her. Perhaps because he thought she might take it to someone who could read and they would mock her for her stupidity.

Amelia was livid then, and for the first time in her life. She wanted to hurt Mr. McCullagh, hurt Mr. Congdon, hurt all the men in the world who would play cruel jokes on “unsuspecting” young women.

Amelia was imagining all manner of hellish punishments for the recipients of her ire when she saw the light bulb above the sink flashing, indicating that she was needed in the Green Room. She quickly composed herself, tucking the note in between her breasts, and stepped out into the Green Room.

“Amelia,” Mr. Congdon said smoothly. “Mr. McCullagh will be staying the night here. Please send Atherton to me so to ready the large guest bedroom for his stay.” Amelia blinked and almost forgot to curtsey before turning and leaving. If Mr. McCullagh were staying at the mansion, why would he proposition Amelia in that way? It did not make sense. Perhaps he did not intend to have his way with them… or perhaps he was planning on sneaking out unnoticed? No, that was not likely. He would need a carriage or at the very least a horse to get into town, have his way, and get back before dawn. A horse missing for that amount of time would not go unnoticed.

Amelia gathered the discarded dishes and avoided Mr. McCullagh’s nearly-irresistible grin once again and departed the room. Perhaps Mr. McCullagh did not know that the horses absence would be missed, but that seemed unlikely. Come to that, why would he need two hotel rooms if he wanted them both at the same time? About then, Amelia remembered all of the rumors she had heard about Glensheen and Mr. Congdon over the years. When people think you are an idiot, and know you cannot talk to anyone else, they are a lot freer with their words than they ought to be. Stores that painted a much darker picture of the kindly and conscientious Mr. Congdon than he would certainly have liked. Stories about why Mr. Congdon could not keep a young maid on staff for more than three months. Stories that ranged from the lascivious to the otherworldly.  Amelia went to collect Atherton from the kitchen where he was most likely driving Mrs. Holmes crazy with his presence.

 

unnamedBorn and raised in the Twin Cities, Minnesota, Adam
Gottfried wrote his first short story when he was seven years old. As an adult, Adam is a public servant, author, blogger, podcaster, playwright, gamer and an educator, working with inner city special needs children and Native American children.

Adam has never lost his love of the written word, reading and writing prolifically over the years. He contributed to the number one bestselling anthology on Amazon, Sojourn 2 with his short story “The Winter Hungers”, the Baby Shoes Flash Fiction Anthology with his short story “Queenkiller”, and is currently collaborating with Ed Greenwood on two exciting new novels, the first to be published in 2017 called “The Irascible Mr. Gaunt” and the second to be released in 2018, though the title is a closely guarded secret (even to Adam).

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