Young Katherine – or Kat as her parents affectionately called her - crept bare-foot down the dark corridor, her candle held aloft in front of her. As she delicately made her way on tiptoes down the carpeted passageway, the darkness ahead opened up in the flickering light that cast eerie shadows over the portraits that hung on the wood panelled walls. The faces of her paternal ancestors stared down at her as she made her way; the men with expressions of a past arrogance with some holding books displaying a scholarly air, and others with one hand proudly wrapped around the decorative hilt of a rapier, and some with faithful hounds at their feet. The women beheld expressions of gentle self-assuredness with tiny smiles upon their lips, as they sat with their graceful long-fingers resting upon the heads of their lap dogs, or standing with one hand gently resting upon a desk or other such portrait painter’s prop.
Kat stopped briefly to look at her favourite of these portraits that had dwelt in this corridor for as long as she had a memory of such things. Lady Margarite had been the first wife of the second owner of the house, Lord Perceval, since their marriage in 1658. There remained no exact details on her death, but it was said that she disappeared one night in early 1660 leaving no trace of her whereabouts, nor reasons for her leaving. The story was told that she had wandered off into the night and had fallen prey to some wild animal or even, perhaps, had fallen foul of a group of marauding Parliamentarians.
It was not so much the delicate oil-painted figure that attracted Kat, but the large carved wooden box that sat upon the delicately worked lace cloth that covered the surface of the beautifully inlaid mahogany chest of drawers on which the richly dressed Margarite rested her left hand. In the background stood the grandfather clock that now resided in the hall downstairs – its clunking mechanism still bravely beating out the hours, albeit slightly slower than it should facilitating a once weekly alteration of the minute hand to bring it back into correct time. In the picture, the time was forever immortalised as twenty minutes to twelve and Kat marvelled that, together with the faded date of 1659 painted in the bottom right hand corner that was scribbled under the undecipherable name of the artist, this particular portrait gave up the exact timing of at least some stage of its origin.
Kat shone the candle upwards to reveal the face of her distant ancestor. Margarite stared out with a thin smile in her delicately formed face. Her hair hung in auburn ringlets over each of her temples with longer curls cascading to her shoulders as was the fashion of the day. A large pearl teardrop earring dangled from each ear and her long, graceful neck was adorned with a delicate pearl necklace. Kat had often wondered whether the smile on Margarite’s face was one of satisfaction in knowing the secret of the box; her hand seemed to rest upon it protectively as if indicating that no-one should open it but her.
Margarite was dressed in a rich, dark burgundy corset, which clung to her bosom and tapered to reveal a tiny waist. Around the neckline, the artist had managed to display the black lace to perfection, its delicate contours shadowed with great skill against the paleness of her flesh. The burgundy skirt that fell to the floor was worked to reveal the softness of the fabric and the one tiny shoe that peaked out from beneath the hem was delicately detailed to show off its embroidery to perfection. While her left hand rested on the box, her right hand hung by her skirt, delicately holding a rosebud – its deep red perfectly complementing the colour of her clothing.
Kat continued her way down the corridor until she reached her desired destination. A large oak door blocked her way into the library, and her hand wrapped itself around the brass doorknob and gave it a tentative turn. She heard the click of the fixings and slowly and gently pushed open the door. Holding her candlestick higher she peered into the room. There it was, the mahogany chest of drawers with its sumptuous inlays and delicate lace runner. And there IT sat just as in the portrait. This is what she had come for.
Katherine had arrived the day before to stay with her Uncle Bartholomew and Aunt Cecily at Barsworthy Manor while her parents sailed off to darkest Africa in search of the unknown. Uncle Bart was the eccentric brother of her father’s father and Aunt Cecily was his lovable, dotty wife, who liked nothing more than to wander around her large garden talking to her cats as they followed her everywhere. There had always been a Manor on the site; the original had burned down in the mid-16th Century before a new, more opulent building was constructed. This rose from the ashes in the early 1600s overseen by the first Lord Perceval, shortly before his death in a hunting accident in 1632.
Kat was ten and had inherited her father’s desire to search for and discover the unknown. Alas she was far too young to accompany her parents on their explorations and had, since she was a small child, come to stay with her uncle and aunt in Kent while her parents went off to foreign lands.
With her childish curiosity and determination, during every stay since she had attained the dexterity in her fingers and the sharpness in her mind, she had tried to open the mysterious box that sat on the chest of drawers. And every year she had managed one step further, but the final puzzle had always eluded her. She had made a secret pact with herself that it was to be on this visit that she would achieve her wish. Her desire could well have been something to do with her Uncle’s insistence that the box should not be tampered with.
No-one knew exactly how old the box really was, nor from where it had originated. Yes, the portrait dated it to 1659, but her Uncle had told her that it had been handed down with each generation – there were even slight burn marks on one corner which suggested that it had survived the fire in 1585. And the box was covered with intricate designs and symbols, some of which seemed to be of Elizabethan, and even earlier origin. It was covered in sliding slivers of wood, and buttons that all had to be pulled, clicked or pushed in a different order to achieve the final prize. She had tried to open it since she was six, and although she had managed to proceed a little further on each visit, she had never achieved the final desired result.
Placing the candlestick on the starched white runner, Kat gently stroked the wood of the box and began to go through the order of puzzles slowly and methodically until she reached the point where she had been beaten on the last visit by its hidden and complicated trickery. With nimble fingers she tried out some of the solutions that her childish mind had thought out in the past year. Several tries proved fruitless and in a typically childish manner she poked her tongue out between her teeth in deep concentration. Her auburn hair that had been ragged for the night to produce soft ringlets the next day, hung over her face as she worked away at the complicated puzzles. Suddenly she was aware of the ornate clock ticking methodically and hypnotically from where it stood on the mantelpiece over the fireplace, where the cooling embers lay waiting to be swept away the next morning by the maid. She held her candle aloft again and noticed that it was twenty minutes to midnight. She shivered in the dampness of the room and watched the pendulum swing from side to side as it ticked the night away.
She returned her attention to the box and stood looking at it as if willing it to reveal its secrets. She began to slide the wooden slats again, backward and forward, before pushing a few jewelled buttons at the front. Kat felt sure that she was nearly there and that just a slightly different combination would do it. She pushed her hair away from her face and bent closer to the box. And then success. Sheheard a click, and her eyes sparkled in the candlelight with the feeling of victory. She had done it. The box was open and it was now time to find out what secret Lady Margarite seemed to be hiding in her smile and what her Uncle was so reticent about being discovered.
Gingerly she opened it and peeked into the dark crack as it widened before her. The lid completely open she stared with disappointment into the emptiness within. Perhaps her Uncle Bart had never been able to work out the puzzle and had made up the story of the unknown within? She stood back and sighed. All that build up over the years, with the sadness of bidding her parents farewell made less so by the excitement of perhaps being able, at last, to open the mysterious box on each visit.
Her disappointment was overwhelming but she decided that she would quiz her uncle the next day. She placed a hand on the lid and began to inch it down slowly when she noticed, out of the corner of her eye, a peculiar movement from deep within the cavernous space. She blinked her eye and looked more closely but could see nothing. She tutted. It was like looking at the night sky on a clear night when all the stars are twinkling down and a cluster of smaller stars can be seen from the corner of one’s eye, but when you turn your gaze to them directly they seem to disappear.
But there it was again. And it was gone.
Kat was concentrating so closely that when the clock began to chime the midnight hour it made her jump with fright. She reverted her gaze to the timepiece and watched the little brass cherub emerge from its panel on the left side of the clock face. As the mechanism jerked unsteadily, the little figure’s arm descended upon the small brass drum that sat dully from years of disregard. With a tiny movement, the cherub beat the drum with a small brass stick. Kat watched as it beat out the hour. On the tenth stroke, out of the corner of her eye she noticed the activity in the box heightening and she looked down again, half expecting to see nothing once more. But this time a thick grey mist was swirling in the base of the box, gradually increasing in volume as it rose towards the lip. And then – just as the cherub hit the drum on the twelfth stroke - a fearsome head emerged from within the mist. It had two small dark eyes, no visible nose, and a large, gaping, toothless mouth. Kat was transfixed by the abominable worm-like creature, and watched as it rose from the mist towards her. Suddenly it opened its jaws wider than could ever be imagined and she screamed when she realised that it was growing in size as it rose. It was nearly the same size as her by the time its gaping, dribbling maw towered over her. This was impossible. How could something so big fit into such a small space that the box provided? For a fleeting second she remembered the character in the book that she had found neatly tied up with a bow on her bed when she had arrived the year before. Her Uncle and Aunt had always given her a book when she came to stay and this had been the best they had ever given. That was it, she felt like Alice, but she had a feeling that this was no wonderland from whence this creature had come forth .
She raised her arms above her head as if in some meagre protection against the beast as it began to descend towards her. No-one heard the last scream as it swallowed her in one move and slowly shrunk back into the mist of the box again. The lid slammed shut and all the viewable and hidden mechanisms clicked, clunked or slid back into place. The cherub withdrew into its panel and the candle by the box flickered out, sending thin wisps of smoke across the room. Save for the ticking of the clock, the library fell into an uneasy silence.
The dawn’s light was beginning to shine through the stained glass window at the top of the stairs. It cast its light down the corridor and slowly and gradually it revealed the portraits one by one. Little Bess, the maid, made her way up the stairs with her brush and bucket to sweep out and lay the fire in the library. She yawned as she went, and shivered in the early morning chill. She did not like the long corridor that led to the library, there was something about the atmosphere down that dim passage that chilled her to the bone, even on the most sunniest of July days. There was always an unexplainable faint scent of perfume that wafted down it, this always stronger near the portrait of Margarite. As usual, there was a noticeable rise of speed in her step as she passed the picture, but this time she stopped suddenly when she noticed something laying on the floor directly under it. Putting down her bucket she bent down to take a closer look. A shrivelling and faded dark red rosebud, its petals crisp and browning, lay on the edge of the fraying carpet. No longer immortalised in oil paint, it lay decaying in front of her eyes. The smell of perfume became stronger than she had ever known and she slowly and nervously looked up at the picture. Her eyes wide with terror she screamed.
Margarite was no longer holding her rosebud in her right hand, but had her arms wrapped around a crying child; a child with rags in her auburn tresses, who had her head buried in her hands as she sobbed. Bess ran down the corridor, kicking over the bucket as she went. Still screaming, she ran down the stairs to alert her master and mistress.
The aged couple stood in front of the portrait, with horrified looks upon their faces, and gazed at the young girl. The painting had changed from how Bess had described it only minutes before, but there was still no rosebud in Margarite’s gentle clasp. Her right arm was still around the shoulders of a young girl, as the maid had told them, but now this girl was dressed in an exquisitely painted white satin corset and skirt. The light that filtered across the oils caught her flowing auburn tresses and revealed her angelic face with its sad dark eyes. There was no gentle smile across her delicate lips, however, but one of melancholy.
They each stroked the image of their niece; the canvas was dry, its surface wrinkled and cracked with time.
It would seem, then, that curiosity does indeed kill the Kat.