Magic Cottage, Das Haus auf dem Land, page 1
INTERNATIONAL ACCLAIM FOR JAMES HERBERT AND THE MAGIC COTTAGE
"A modern story of horror and magic . . . will chill your nerves."
—Guernsey Evening Press
—Sunday (London) Times
"James Herbert has again produced a spine-chilling masterpiece."
"One to chill you."
"A chilling yarn . . . Mr. Herbert at his best!"
—Eastern Daily Press
"A spellbinding tale of mystery and magical happenings."
—South Wales Evening Post
"James Herbert continues to enthrall his readers."
—Jersey Evening Post
"A triumph . . . his best book to date!"
—The Liverpool Daily Post
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
NAL BOOKS ARE AVAILABLE AT QUANTITY DISCOUNTS WHEN USED TO PROMOTE PRODUCTS OR SERVICES. FOR INFORMATION PLEASE WRITE TO PREMIUM MARKETING DIVISION. NEW AMERICAN LIBRARY, 1633 BROADWAY. NEW YORK, NEW YORK 10019.
Copyright © 1986 by James Herbert
All rights reserved. For information address New American Library.
The Magic Cottage previously appeared in an NAL BOOKS edition published by New American Library.
Onyx is a trademark of New American Library.
SIGNET, SIGNET CLASSIC, MENTOR, ONYX, PLUME, MERIDIAN and NAL BOOKS are published by NAL PENGUIN INC., 1633 Broadway, New York, New York 10019
First Onyx Printing, December, 1988
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
THE ROUND ROOM
THE GRAY HOUSE
THE PYRAMID ROOM
DO YOU believe in Magic?
I mean, real Magic, capital M. Not rabbits out of hats, disappearing sequined ladies, or silver spheres that dance in the air. The real stuff, not tricks, illusions. I mean spells, enchantments—witchery, even. Damaged limbs that heal overnight, animals that trust in humans, paintings that come alive. Shadowy figures that aren't really there. More, there's more, but it's too soon to tell.
Maybe—probably—you don't believe. Maybe you half believe. Or maybe you want to believe.
A kind of magic I once knew, long before we took the cottage, came from powder or pills shared with friends; but that was just delusion. And a waste. I learned of real Magic when we came to "Gramarye."
That was Good Magic.
Yet everything has its opposite, and I found that there, too.
If you like, and if you're willing to suspend belief for a while—as I eventually had to—I'll tell you about it.
MIDGE SAW the ad first. She'd been scouring the classified columns of the Sunday Times for weeks, circling the more interesting properties with a red felt-tip, her enthusiasm for leaving the dirty city a little greater than mine. Every week she'd been presenting me with a whole number of red circles to peruse, and we'd go through each one, discussing their merits and drawbacks, following up those that survived. So far none had come up to expectation.
On that particular Sunday there was only one circle to look at. A cottage. Adjoining woodland, secluded position. Needed some restoration.
So what's so special? I thought.
"Hey, Midge!" She was in the kitchen of the apartment we rented near London's Baron's Court—a large place with high ceilings and high rent, and a complex of rooms that allowed for Midge's painting and my music, with never the twain unnecessarily meeting. But we wanted something of our own. Something "rustic" was in our minds although, like I say, Midge was keener than me.
She appeared in the doorway, dark haired and pixie eyed, five-foot-one of pure small-featured lusciousness (to me anyway, and I'm not unchoosy).
I tapped the newspaper. "Only one?"
Midge tossed the dishcloth back toward the sink—we'd just finished a late (very late) breakfast—and padded barefoot toward the sofa I loafed upon. She knelt, chastely drawing her summer-thin dressing gown over her knees. When she spoke she looked directly at the ad, and not at me.
"It's the only interesting one."
That puzzled me. "It doesn't actually say much. A dilapidated cottage is all it tells me. And where the hell is Cantrip?"
"I looked it up. It's near Bunbury."
I couldn't help grinning. "Oh yeah?"
"That's in Hampshire."
"At least that's in its favor—I was getting worried about some of the remote places you were taking an interest in."
"A remote part of Hampshire."
A groan from me. "Is that possible?"
"Any idea of how big the New Forest is?"
"Bigger than Hyde Park?"
"Somewhat. A huge what."
"And Cantrip is in the heart of the forest."
"Not quite, but you're getting warm." Then she smiled, her eyes even more pixieish. "Don't worry, you'll be able to get back to London for sessions easily enough. You can pick up highways practically all the way."
I ought to tell you now I'm a session musician, one of that quiet breed that earns a generous living behind the scenes of the upfront pop world, working in recording studios and occasionally backing touring artistes—usually those whose bands aren't allowed over from the States. My instrument's the guitar, my music—well, you name it: rock, pop, soul (I've even dubbed punk), a little jazz and, when I can, some light classical. Maybe more about all that later.
"You still haven't explained why this one," I persisted.
She was quiet for a moment, just studying the page as though looking for the answer herself. Then she turned to me. "It feels right,' she said.
Yep. It feels right. That's all.
I sighed, knowing Midge always had great intuition, but not quite prepared to accept it this time. "Midge . . ." I warned.
"Mike . . ." she said, just as gravely.
"Come on, be serious. I'm not trekking down to Hampshire just on a whim."
The imp took my hand and kissed the knuckles. "I like forests," she had the nerve to say. "And the price is right."
"There's no price mentioned."
"Offers invited. It'll be right, you'll see."
Mildly exasperated, but not annoyed, I replied, "The place is probably really run-down."
"All the cheaper."
"Think of the work!"
"We'll send the b
"You're a bit ahead of yourself, kiddo."
The merest shadow of uncertainty flickered across her face—or perhaps it was a sudden anxiety; I can read all sorts of things into that expression, knowing what I do now.
"I can't explain Mike. Let me call tomorrow, find out more. It could be totally wrong."
Her last sentence was hardly convincing, but I let things go at that. It was peculiar, but I was beginning to have a good feeling about the cottage myself.
YOU'VE SEEN the film, you've read the book. You know the one—there've been so many: The young couple find the home of their dreams, the wife's ecstatic, the husband's happy but more controlled; they move in, the kids (usually one of each) tear around the empty rooms. But we know there's something sinister about the place, because we've read the blurb and paid our money. Slowly, THINGS start to happen. There's something nasty in the locked room at the top of the old creaky stairs; or something lurks in the cellar below, which is possibly itself the Gateway to Hell. You know the story. At first, Dad's oblivious to his family going nuts around him—he doesn't believe in the supernatural, or things that go splodge in the night; to him, there really is No Such Thing as a Vampire. Until something happens to him, that is. Then all hell breaks loose. You know it like you wrote the story yourself.
Well, this is similar. But different. You'll see.
We drove down to Cantrip the following Tuesday (our work-style allows such freedom), Midge having called the number in the ad the day before and finding it belonged to a real estate agent. He'd told her a little more about the cottage, not much, but enough to increase her enthusiasm. At present it was unoccupied, the owner having died some months earlier; it had taken this long to have the deceased's affairs sorted out before the property could be put on the market. Midge was on edge throughout the journey and kept telling me she didn't expect too much, the place would no doubt be a huge disappointment, but it did sound interesting from the agent's description, it could just turn out to be ideal . . .
The journey took a couple of hours or so, maybe closer to three by the time we'd taken a few wrong turns looking for the village of Cantrip. Still, the scenery, once we reached the New Forest with its wood- and heathland, was worth the long drive in itself. We even came upon herds of ponies and, although we didn't actually catch sight of any deer, there were plenty of signs telling us they were about (and for a city-bred boy, that's almost as good as the real thing). The weather was May-fine, the air crisp and bright. We'd kept the windows of the hatchback down once we were off the last highway, and despite her barely-hidden apprehension, Midge had joined me in choruses of Blue Suedes and Mean Womans and the like (I was going through my old rock period that morning, my musical mood varying from day to day). The fresh air was making me hoarse before we saw the village ahead.
I have to admit, Cantrip was a bit of a letdown. We'd expected thatched roofs, old inns, and a village green with its own rusty-handled pump—National Trust stuff: what we got was a fairly uninteresting high street whose houses and shops must have been built around the late twenties or early thirties. No, it wasn't quite that bad on closer inspection—there really were some ancient properties of crumbling character among the less-old structures—but the overall impression was pretty drab. I could feel Midge's heart sink.
We crossed the bump of a small bridge and drove into the high street, keeping our eyes peeled for the real estate agent's and our disappointment to ourselves. We found his office jammed between a post office-cum-grocer's and a butcher's shop, the frontage so small we'd gone past before Midge tapped me smartly on the shoulder and indicated.
"There!" she cried, as though she'd discovered the Missing Link.
A cyclist wobbled by, scowling because of the car's sudden halt. I shrugged a friendly apology and pointed at Midge so that she could take the blame, but didn't catch his grumbling response. Probably just as well: he looked a mean local.
After reversing into a space, Midge and I left the car and strolled to the agent's office, Midge suddenly nervous as a kitten. Now this was something new to me. We'd been together a long time and I was used to her occasional skittishness, especially when she'd accepted a new commission (I should have mentioned that Midge is an illustrator, and a damned good one, specializing in children's books: you'll see her work on the shelves alongside Shirley Hughes and Maurice Sendak, although you'd know her as Margaret Gudgeon), but nervous of a brick-broker? I quickly realized it wasn't the agent but the prospect of viewing the cottage thai had unsettled her. Hell, the mood had been building from Sunday through to now, and I couldn't understand why.
I pulled her to a stop before pushing open the door and Midge looked at me distractedly, her attention more involved in what lay beyond the glass.
"Take it easy," I told her softly. "There'll be plenty more for sale and we may hate this one anyway."
She took a quick breath, squeezed my hand and went in ahead of me.
Inside, the office was less cramped than it should have been, because although narrow, the single room stretched back a fair way. Pictures and details of properties covered the length of one wall like badly pasted wallpaper. An ample-sized secretary thrashed a typewriter just inside the doorway, while further down a man in a neat gray suit and thick black-rimmed glasses, seated behind an untidy desk, looked up.
I peered over Midge's shoulder and said, "Mr. Bickleshift?" (Yeah, I promise you.)
He appeared not to mind his own name, because he smiled broadly. No, not really; I think he just liked the look of Midge.
"Yes indeed," he said, rising and waving us forward.
I nodded at the secretary, who had stopped clattering to give us the once-over as we passed, and I might just as well have greeted a sullen whale for all the expression she showed.
"You'll be Mr. and Mrs. Gudgeon," Bickleshift surmised, reaching across his desk to shake Midge's hand then mine. He designated two chairs angled toward him on our side.
"No. She's Gudgeon, I'm Stringer." We both sat and the agent glanced from face to face before following suit.
"Then it's only you, Miss Gudgeon, who is looking for a property." I'm not sure, but he may have said Ms. just to show he was part of the new order.
"We both are," Midge replied. "And it's the cottage advertised in the last Sunday Times that we want to see. I told you on the phone."
"Of course. Flora Chaldean's roundhouse."
We both raised our eyebrows and Bickleshift smiled.
"You'll understand when you see the place," he said.
"And Flora Chaldean—she's the woman who owned the cottage?" asked Midge.
"That's correct. Rather an, er, eccentric old lady. Well-known hereabouts, something of a local character, you might even say. Well-known, but not much known about her. Kept very much to herself."
"You told me she'd died . . ." said Midge.
"Yes, some months ago. Her only surviving relative was a niece living in Canada. They'd never met, apparently, but Mrs. Chaldean's solicitor eventually traced the niece and advised her of her inheritance as next-of-kin. I imagine there was a small amount of money left also, but I doubt it amounted to much: I understand Flora Chaldean led a very frugal existence. The niece instructed the solicitor to sell up and send on the proceeds."
"She didn't want to see the place herself?" I asked.
Bickleshift shook his head. "No interest at all. However, Flora Chaldean was sufficiently concerned about the fate of her cottage to have a certain proviso inserted into the Will regarding its sale."
Midge looked anxious all over again. "What kind of proviso?"
The agent's smile widened to a grin. "I don't think it's anything for you to worry about." His hands came up and flattened themselves on the desktop so that for a moment, with elbows bent sideways, he resembled a bespectacled grasshopper. "Now," he said breezily, "I suggest you take a look at the cottage, then we'll discuss the details if you find you're interested."
Bickleshift reached into a drawer and brought out a set of keys, three in all, old and long, attached to a ring and labeled. "The cottage is empty, of course, so feel free to have a good look round. I won't accompany you unless you specifically want me to; I always feel clients prefer to inspect on their own and discuss things freely between themselves."
It was Midge who reached for the keys and she grasped them so reverently you might have thought they were the Keys to the Kingdom.
"Fine," I said to Bickleshift. "So how do we get there?"
He drew us a quick map which was simple enough provided (as he stressed) we didn't miss the small turn-offs. Then we were on our way.
"Okay," I said as I steered through a winding lane, a leafy canopy overhead subduing the light and cooling the air. "I still don't get it."
Midge looked at me curiously, but she knew—oh, she knew—what I meant.
"You act like you're already in love with the place." I tapped the wheel with the back of my hand. "C'mon, open up, Midge. What's got into you?"
Her fingertips sank into the hair at the back of my neck and she lightly stroked; yet her voice was a little distant. "Just a feeling, Mike. No, more of a conviction that it's going to be all right for . . . for us."
The slight pause didn't go unnoticed by me. "Then how come I don't feel the same?"
She was back with me, eyes shining with humor. "Oh, probably because anywhere that isn't within walking distance of a pub, a Big Mac, and a three-in-one cinema isn't civilized to you."
I was hurt. "You know I want to get out as much as you."
She gave a short laugh. "Perhaps not quite as much, but all right, I admit your values have changed recently. I'm not sure our complaining neighbors haven't had something to do with that, though."
"Yeah, I'll agree I need somewhere to play when I want and as loud as I want, but that's not all of it. And anyway, I didn't appreciate their noise too well, either."
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