The Stone Garden (a The Devil’s Mansion short story)

Preface

This story was written for a writing challenge. This mission was to incorporate the styles of either–or both–Robert Chambers (the writer, not the killer) and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I pray I’ve done them justice.

~Sharon

Sunday

The elegant manor weathered the centuries with a stoic, stately grace. Though many hands had applied their own style, the interior remained true to its original Gothic Revival design. Families came and went, and between their occupation the house remained vacant, the dust of the ages collecting in the corners and passageways. No one stayed long, for misfortune seemed the lot of any who owned the mansion.

The sweeping grounds included a formal garden, and here it was that Mia Talbot, the new mistress of Blessing House, found the stone garden. Not made of stone, you see, for the beds were lush and immaculate even when the house was unoccupied. No one saw the discreet caretakers who came; they were paid well to be unobtrusive and closed-mouthed regarding the many strange happenings on the grounds. The stone garden was so called for the lifelike statues dotting a section of the landscaped grounds.

“Who is the artist?” Mia inquired of her husband. Her hand lay lightly upon his arm, which was bent at the crook to accommodate her. Sensible black pumps crunched the gravel under her feet as they traveled a safe and cautious path amongst the statuary.

“No one knows,” replied her husband. Harold Talbot—Hal for short—straightened his tie and sent a glare into the gardens, as though warning the dirt to not even attempt to molest his smart business suit. A financial executive in New York City, this move to a country estate outside Stamford, Connecticut proved no small amount of trouble for him. But with the death of their small daughter Abigail, Mia had lapsed into a deep depression and the Blessing House seemed peaceful and soothing.

“They didn’t just appear, Hal,” she said now, laughing. Her tea-length dress swished about her calves in a flirtatious manner, and she tugged on the thick woolen shawl shrouding her shoulders. Fog pressed in on the grounds, lying thick in the dips and gullies, drifting as formless wraiths across higher ground. The autumnal chill was invigorating, bringing color to Mia’s cheeks for the first time in months. The death of summer was heralded by the changing of the leaves; gold, scarlet, umber, and burnt orange, they fluttered past their feet in drifts of colorful decay, driven by gusts of wind rolling in from Stamford Harbor.

“That’s just the point, Mia,” Hal said patiently. “They did just appear. Each time the house has changed hands, new statues appear. The artist is unknown, and the statuary, they say, resemble the departed owners.”

Mia chuckled. The wind whipped a glossy lock of her short, black hair into her eyes, and she brushed it away, tucking it behind her ear. Hal scanned his wife’s face with concern, noting the pallor that made the sprinkling of freckles stand out on her cheekbones and the bridge of her nose. Pale and dark-haired with light grey eyes, Mia’s beauty was envied throughout their social circle, but her gentle, kind ways made her an easy target for vicious, gossiping tongues. Yes, better for her to remain in seclusion for a time while she learned to cope with the loss of Abigail.

“Come,” he said, grasping her elbow. “You should go inside before you catch ill. It would be—”

“Oh, look, Hal!” she exclaimed in delight. “Look at the children!”

And indeed the statuary had given way to a grouping of children, playing about in all stages of activity. Here, a group of boys, stone berets set at jaunty angles as they bent to their work: a serious game of marbles. The marbles themselves lay at the base of one such statue, by the knee of a particularly lovely lad. Girls played jump rope games, the swirl and swish of their school dresses fantastically captured by the sculptor, as were the very threads and cables of the rope itself. Mia laughed in delight to find a toddler with a marble frog poking from his pocket; a young girl with a handful of posies and a cricket in her hair; and a boy with his puppy trotting faithfully at his heel.

“Very clever,” said Hal uneasily. And yes, the sculptures were exquisite, the details incredibly lifelike, but he found them rather sinister.

Mia slanted him a look from the corner of her eye, catching his expression of distaste and worry. “Oh, very well, mother hen. Let’s go back to the house and have a hot cup of tea. You’ve a long drive back to New York tomorrow.”

“It’s not that long, Mia,” he said, guiding her with relief out of the stone garden and back toward the mansion. “Only fifty miles.”

“An hour each way,” she pointed out. “Are there things you want me to do while you’re away?”

Their talk turned to the more mundane issues at hand and the tasks he needed her to accomplish during his absence—all designed, she was sure, simply to keep her busy. Hal opened one of the French-paned doors to let her inside, and as he stepped through and closed it behind him, it seemed the house had swallowed them both.

Monday

Mia rattled around Blessing House after her list of tasks had been completed; Hal had not left her much to do during his week-long business conference in New York. A drizzling rain had kept her indoors, thwarting her plans to more fully investigate the stone garden. She’d dreamt of the statues instead, fantastical dreams that had been thrilling but now in the light of day seemed ominous.

She curled up on a sofa that faced the windows looking over the grounds. She could see the tops of the tallest sculptures, the rain gleaming like jewels on marble tresses.  She longed to walk the paths and discover the chiseled delights farther into the garden. Really, Hal was so cautious; it wasn’t as though she were so fragile she would break in two if she exerted herself. He worried incessantly since her emotional collapse, but that had been immediately following the accident. She still dreamed of it: the February chill that left a layer of black ice on the road, the uncontrollable skid that sent the car careening down the embankment beside the bridge instead of across it, the seatbelt catch that wouldn’t release until Abigail had already drowned.

Fog rolled in from the harbor, wrapping the statuary in gauzy layers of white. Mia’s head dropped to the back of the sofa, and she slept.

“Mommy, Mommy! Catch me if you can!” Dark curls dancing in the damp air, Abigail ran ahead of her into the stone garden, a miniature Mia in an organdy dress and blue woolen coat.

“Abby, wait!” One part of her was surprised to see her daughter, for Abigail had never been to Blessing House. Another part seemed to make sense of the young girl’s presence, and this part led her laughing after Abby.

“Come, Mommy! Come deeper into the garden! There’s something I want to show you!”

And so Mia picked up her step, trotting after her daughter as fast as her pumps and dress would allow. Abby waited on the path ahead of her, and just when Mia thought she would catch the little scamp, Abigail darted ahead again, giggling.

Deeper and deeper into the garden, until the light began to fade from the day and ephemeral curtains of fog prevented her from seeing more than two feet before her. Mia paused, unable to see Abby although she could hear her.

“Abby! It’s time to go back to the house now. It’s getting dark and foggy; I can’t see you!”

Childish giggles echoed through the fog. It was impossible to tell where Abigail had gone although Mia thought she was close by.

“Abby!” Fear threaded her voice. Oh, to lose her in the garden in the fog—Hal would be livid!

But what was she thinking? Abigail had died in the car accident; she could not be here at Blessing House.

“Come play, Mia!” a child’s sibilant whisper coaxed her. “We want to play. Will you stay and play with us?”

Mia whirled around. Had the sound come from behind her? Or from the left? Impossible to tell. “Who are you?”

“We live in the garden, Mia. Will you stay with us? We want you to stay!”

“Mommy, please stay! Don’t you want to stay with me?”

But now Abigail’s voice seemed sinister, her tone threatening. Fear washed over Mia and she fled to the house, the laughter of the children seeming to mock her as she ran.

Tuesday

Dearest Hal,

Today was a lovely clear day. I walked through the stone garden and finally saw all the statuary. Don’t worry, I didn’t overdo it. There are wonderful little benches all along the paths, and I rested often on these and studied the statues. They really are remarkable, Hal. So lifelike you can almost hear them at play.  My favorite so far is a grouping of three small girls sitting on a blanket with a litter of kittens crawling on them.  It reminded me of Abigail, but I didn’t cry. Truly, Hal, I didn’t.

I miss you terribly and look forward to your return.

Yours,

Mia

Wednesday

Mia stared at her reflection with dismay. Oh, her skin! So dry and itchy from the ocean air. It felt rough to the touch but not flaky, almost like rough stone waiting to be polished. She slathered her body with expensive moisturizing cream, her fingers stiff and reluctant. Her limbs were heavy and awkward today, and after an uncomfortable two hours on the sofa, staring into the gardens, she went back up to her bed.

She dreamed she played with the kittens, and the girls giggled and piled on top of her, and for the first time in months Mia was happy.

Thursday

Dearest Hal,

 

I didn’t rise today until after noon. All night I had strange dreams about the statues of the children. They wanted me to come out and play, and at first I was frightened, but…one of them reminded me of Abby, so I went. We played ring-around-the-rosy and duck-duck-goose and sang songs. And then I woke…oh, Hal, I miss Abigail so much!

 

This sea air is invigorating and I enjoy it, but it is drying my skin terribly. I feel lethargic and stiff all over and am comfortable only when I lay still and quiet on the bed. I’m sure it will pass. Perhaps when you return, we can go into the city and pick up some of the cream that works so well. It would be nice to have a late dinner in the city and perhaps stay the night in a posh hotel. I often feel isolated here even with the servants to converse with.

 

Come home soon, darling!

 

Your loving wife,

 

Mia

 

Friday

Cold, so cold! Mia huddled under the blankets, shivering, each tremor sending shooting pain through her limbs. The roughness of her skin was fading in patches, leaving behind flesh as smooth as polished marble. But her fingers skated over those patches as though over ice and she did not feel them, not their warmth or their caress.

Mia pulled the thick wool blanket from the foot of the bed over her quaking body, crying with every agonizing move. Finally she laid back, the shivers subsiding, and she was still and quiet.

Fog puddled on the ground, shrouding her feet as she confidently walked the paths of the stone garden. Although the October day was cold, she wore no jacket. She didn’t need one.

The gravel crunched beneath her feet and the girls looked up as she approached. Smiles wreathed their faces, and Mia thought they seemed more human and less statue than they had before. The kittens scampered to her, clustering around her feet. She could nearly see color in their fur now: calico, grey tiger-striped, Russian blue.

“Are you staying with us, Mia? Please stay!”

“Please, Mia! We’re all alone!”

“Don’t go this time! Stay and play with us!”

Mia considered. “Yes, I’ll stay.”

The children cheered and the kittens wound about her ankles, meowing frantically. Mia stooped to pick up the calico and found the ache and chill had left her limbs. The day was glorious and bright, the sun setting fire to the crimson leaves lying in drifts at the edge of the grounds. Girls with golden curls and black tresses and red ringlets crowded round her, their pretty plaid skirts swishing about their knee-high socks, their patent leather shoes scuffed from play.

Mia laughed joyfully. “Oh yes, I’ll stay!

Saturday

The police had finally left after sweeping the grounds and asking a passel of uncomfortable questions, but Hal Talbot didn’t mind. If it would help them find Mia, he would face disconcerting inquisitions for the rest of eternity.

He’d returned home to find Mia missing and the servants bewildered. A packet of letters lay on his pillow as always; Mia usually wrote him every day when he travelled, and left them for him to read when he returned home if his trip was short. The letters concerned him; she had obviously fallen ill and he worried that she had become delirious and wandered the countryside.

Moonlight gleamed on the heads of the tallest statues, and Hal shrugged into his coat and pushed through the French doors and into the stone garden. His steps took him on a wandering journey through the statuary, deep into the grounds. In the glow from the hunter’s moon, the white marble masterpieces glowed like spirits brought to earth to play amongst the lavender and late-flowering chrysanthemum. Hal found himself enchanted and although he tried, he couldn’t quite shake it off.

The path brought him to a bed where an arrangement of chiseled little girls and kittens frolicked under the watchful eye of a beautiful woman. She held a tiny kitten to her cheek and smiled softly at the girls at play. Hal thought she resembled Mia to a remarkable degree.

The whisper floated softly to him on the night wind:

“Hal, come and play with us! Will you stay? We want you to stay!”

Alarmed, he turned in a circle. “Who’s there?”

“Please, Hal, say you’ll come with us. We want you to come!” Mia’s voice, seducing him, enticing him.

Hal laid a hand against the cold marble cheek of his wife’s likeness and answered as though in a dream, “Yes, I’ll come.”


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Character-driven fiction. Because characters matter.

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