I had the dream again last night. I always dream about the house I grew up in, but the dreams are always different. Oh, I don't do anything different in the dreams. In fact, I don't do anything at all, just walk through the house; more particularly the study. But the house keeps changing in subtle ways, so that now it's difficult to remember just what it used to look like.
If I close my eyes and think very hard I begin to remember. It was a very nice house - an expensive house, Father was well-off and had it built when I was just a baby. To me it was just "home", the place I lived; but I remember Mother telling me how pleased she was that her husband had the money to afford such a nice house. Father wasn't home much, always at his office or with some politician. Sometimes we'd have dinner parties for his important friends, and I always dreaded them because I mustn't say anything unless I was spoken to directly.
It's coming back, a little. The study was a large room, with dark paneled walls and wood floors - and a beautiful carpet all the way from Persia. Lovely furniture with beautifully carved wood, and silk or leather upholstery. It was imported from England, yes, Mother was particularly proud of that furniture. It was dark and heavy, and I always felt so little when I sat in one of those big chairs or stood by Father's desk. There was a large portrait on the wall opposite the big stone fireplace; Mother said it was my grandfather but he'd died before I was born so I never knew him. There were oil lamps on all the tables, at night when they were lit the room seemed to glow with the warm light; I could glimpse it whenever Father opened the door.
That's how I saw it in the first dream, at least I think it was the first dream. Still just the same and all my family sitting in it, except me. Come to think of it, that was odd - that was Father's room, we never gathered there. Father spent his time there (when he was home) reading, and took his guests there after dinner for brandy and cigars. I remember we used to sneak in the study sometimes when we were little, but if Father called us in it was because we were in trouble. As my brothers came of age they were allowed to sit in the study with Father, but us womenfolk weren't welcome there.
As I think of it it's strange that I'd dream about this room, so full of mystery and unpleasant memories. In that first dream everyone was dressed very formally; Mother had a black veil draped over her best hat although it was pulled aside so I could see her face. Not one word was said, but my youngest sister was crying so softly I couldn't hear her. Father stood up from his desk to pour himself another brandy and I was shocked to see Mother had a glass in her hand as well. I don't remember anything more, perhaps because I dreamt it so long ago.
So it was just Mother and my brothers and sisters and me in the house most of the time. We played games in the parlor, and took our lessons there when we were older. We gossiped in our rooms, explored the attic, read in the garden, and helped in the kitchen. Mother took us girls to the dress shop in town and to visit her friends and to church every Sunday, of course. Most of my time was spent somewhere in or around the house. We had lots to do, what with schooling, practicing our piano and singing, painting pretty watercolors (though I was never very good at art), and learning embroidery so we could make our trousseau some day. I spent so much time in the rest of the house, why can't I remember it? Why do I dream of only the study?
The next dream was quite confusing to me. Father was sitting behind his big desk listening to a young man speak, but I couldn't hear what he was saying. I didn't recognize the other man, but he looked frightened and nervous. After a few minutes Father smiled and stood up to shake the man's hand. Father called out (though I couldn't hear that either) and a young woman entered the room. Why, it was my youngest sister, I'm sure of it - but she was a woman now instead of a child! What was happening? She walked into the room and whatever Father said to her obviously made her quite happy. She kissed him on the cheek, then shyly took the hand of the young man. Clearly her suitor had just asked for her hand in marriage but why can't I remember the wedding?
And equally perplexing, why can't I remember anything else about my life? I can't even remember what I did this morning, I seem to be in a perpetual fog. Am I getting old and forgetful, my mind returning to happier times? There were many happy times in that house, but never in the study so why do I only dream of that room?
The dream after that was a sad one. Father was again sitting behind his desk, but he was old and frail. He was wearing his dressing-gown and seemed smaller somehow, with pillows propping him upright in that big leather-upholstered chair. There was a man sitting beside him, unmistakably my brother Charles even though he looked as old as I last remember seeing Father. They were poring over the ledgers and talking, but again I couldn't hear their words. As a female I was never privy to Father's business, but it certainly looked as if Charles were running it now. And, dare I say it? Father looked like he was dying. I don't remember the funeral and yet surely I must have attended it.
After that the study began to change. An older Charles was behind the desk now, but the oil lamp was gone. The wall behind him held sconces which glowed quite brightly, giving off enough light for him to read by, yet I could see wisps of black smoke curling up from the tops. There was no fire so it must be summer. And the portrait was gone, replaced by a lovely picture of a peaceful mountain lake. As simple as it was, this dream distressed me greatly. What kind of lamps were those on the wall, and when had Grandfather's portrait been replaced? I didn't know.
I understood that time was passing in the dreams, yet it seemed odd that it seemed to progress steadily forward instead of skipping around. Why would I dream of my memories in the order in which they happened? And where was I in these dreams, or did I not see myself simply because they were my memories?
Or were they? In the next dream the man behind the desk looked much like Charles, only it wasn't. His son? Did Charles have a son? Nor was it the same desk. I looked around and realized that all the furniture was new, still dark and expensive but sleeker and without the carved flourishes. On the far wall the lake had been replaced by a picture of two ladies with parasols and shockingly short skirts. I could clearly see their ankles! I walked closer to look at it; even though bright sunlight was streaming through the windows the painting looked fuzzy somehow when I saw it up close. I sensed movement behind me (but heard nothing as usual) and turned to see a girl-child run into the room. Not-Charles smiled and took her on his lap to admire the drawing she was showing him. Father would have been livid if I'd dared to interrupt him. The child looked straight at me, and then buried her head against her father's shoulder as if hiding from something.
Slowly I began to realize that the dreams couldn't have been of memories. The people changed, and even though I could see the family resemblance I had no idea who they were. The furniture had been moved, and occasionally replaced. Strange objects appeared - in one dream there was an odd-looking metal contraption full of buttons on which I could see the letters of the alphabet, but all jumbled up. There was a piece of paper in the top with letters on it. How clever, a miniature printing-press! Another time beside the desk was a machine, visible under a glass dome; when its pieces moved a strip of paper with printed numbers slid out near the bottom. The men's clothing changed too, becoming simpler and the cloth looked to be of an exceptionally fine weave. I longed to see a woman to see how she would be dressed in these new styles.
I was astounded and shocked when I did. This woman (I couldn't in good conscience call her a lady) wore a tight-fitting dress that exchanged an acceptable view of her cleavage for one of much of her lower legs. She wore no hat, but perhaps the long hair piled on top of her head and puffed out to the sides was intended to imitate one. Though I couldn't hear her, I could see that she was speaking into a cup attached by a cord to what looked like a candlestick. There was no one else in the room, who was she talking to? Then I noticed that the oil lamp was back on the desk - no, wait, it was far too bright to be an oil lamp, and there was no flame.
The changes seemed to come faster now. The furniture changed to a simple style, but ornamented with geometric shapes. There were bright lights in tiny chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. The room was full of people dressed in gaudy clothing; the women seemed to be wearing nightclothes, except they were all sparkly. Both sexes were smoking cigarettes and drinking liquor, and one couple was brazenly kissing on a sofa in the corner. I'd never seen anything like it! One woman suddenly looked directly at me, then screamed. I couldn't hear of course, but it was obvious she was frightened of something. Everyone else looked around for a moment, then shrugged and went back to their conversations.
The furniture was more comfortable now, colorful but with no style. The clothing was simpler, the hemlines a bit longer and the women seemed to have re-discovered the art of showing cleavage. The men were wearing some sort of dark green military uniform; I could see badges of rank on their shoulders but did not recognize the attire, it certainly wasn't British. What could the letters 'U.S.' mean? The wood paneling had been covered over with a pattern of roses and I wondered if it was fabric. When I tried to touch the wall I discovered that I could barely feel it, as if my fingers wanted to go through it instead. (The roses were on paper.) I could see the people were laughing, yet somehow there was a somber air to their actions.
Next I saw a large box under the painting, which was now merely shapes of bright colors. The box had a gray picture on the front - and I was amazed to see that the picture moved! I stood transfixed and watched for a few minutes. It was as if this family were watching a stage play in miniature. I walked behind the box, but the only thing I saw was a cord between the box and the wall. From that vantage point I looked at the people again. I suppose I was getting used to all the changes as I couldn't even seem to muster surprise to see the woman was wearing britches. She looked up at me and gave a start; she turned to her husband who looked my way and then shrugged, and put his arm around her shoulders.
Nor did I faint with shock to next see a group of young women wearing dresses so short I at first mistook them for shirts. The young men all had long scraggly hair; they wore exceedingly tight britches and fringed vests over bare chests. They reminded me of savage Indians. They were sharing a single cigarette, as if that were all they could afford, yet they had dreamy smiles on their faces as if they were happy to have even one of the filthy things. The wall was now covered in shiny silver stripes - and wonder of wonders! The moving pictures on the box were in color.
The changes came faster and faster, I can barely remember all of them. Women's skirts got a little longer, yet still showed an indecent amount of leg. The men wore some kind of rough blue trousers, and tight thin shirts that showed the muscles on their chests and arms. Oh yes, the shirts had writing on them, but even though I could read the words they made no sense to me. The picture-box had moved to another wall (now painted a deep wine color) and was smaller yet the pictures looked bigger. And oh look! The people in the tiny play were all wearing clothes like mine, except that some of the details were wrong. And later on the desk I saw a small picture-box with jumbled alphabet buttons like the little printing-press, but when I looked more closely at the front all I could see was writing. The next time I saw it there were pictures, but they didn't move and looked as crude as one of my own drawings.
Now finally I come to last night's dream. At first I thought the dreams were starting over and I would be allowed to see my dear family again. The walls were again darkly paneled and Father's big heavy desk took pride of place in the room. The oil-lamp was back on the desk, yet the bright lights still glared from the ceiling. The rest of the furniture was equally familiar to me, though it was arranged differently than I remembered. And Grandfather's portrait was back on the wall. But the big picture-box was tucked into a corner, so what was happening?
The little picture-box was still there as well, on one end of the desk. A woman was looking at it so I walked behind her chair to see what she saw. There was printing in the frame, so I began to read over her shoulder. It was a story about a young woman named Elizabeth. Why, that's my name! But then it is a very common name so why should I think it would be my story, especially in this place at once so familiar and so different from the room I knew.
This Elizabeth had died in a tragic accident. Her father had been pleased when a rich and influential man had accepted his invitation to dinner. The man's wife had passed away the previous year and it was commonly accepted that he was looking to marry again. He had shown a marked interest in Elizabeth, even though she hadn't quite reached an acceptable age for marriage.
After dinner Elizabeth had been invited into the study to converse with her father and his guest. Her father left the room on a quick errand, and returned to find his beloved young daughter dead on the floor! The guest said Elizabeth had offered to refill his glass of brandy but had seemed nervous in her unaccustomed role as hostess. He'd spoken to her and just as she neared the desk she'd turned to reply, but tripped on a wrinkle in the Persian carpet and fallen head-first against the edge of the desk.
The doctor was called, but it was too late, Elizabeth was dead. The guest was so distraught he insisted on paying the funeral costs, though there was nothing he could have done to prevent the accident. Two months later this man wed the young daughter of a local merchant. Ever since then the women living in the home have described the feeling of being watched in the study, and some have claimed to see a ghost.
A sad story, and who could blame the spirit of that poor girl for haunting that room? She had her life before her, a chance to marry well and have money and social position. To have it all taken from her by a chance misstep was cruel indeed.
The woman seated at the desk touched a small oval beside the picture-box and the writing moved. Now I could see a picture beneath the story. It was a picture of this very room, not as it was now, but as it had been several dreams ago. Was this the room in which that other Elizabeth had met her death? Wait…
It's beginning to come back to me now! Father was so pleased when Mr. Smith and his business associates came to dinner that evening; it was an honor to entertain them in our home. Mother said he was wealthy and well-connected socially, and the subject of much gossip over which young lady he would choose as his second wife. She went on to say that it would be quite a distinction for our family if he were to choose my older sister, not to mention a boon to Father's business.
I remember now, as if it all happened yesterday. I sat quietly eating as Father had always required when we had guests. This was my sister's chance to make a match and Father included her in the conversation so that Mr. Smith might take notice of her. I would soon be of age to be introduced socially and then I would have my own suitors.
I was therefore surprised and more than a little uncomfortable when Mr. Smith spoke to me at length during dinner. I had answered as best I could, but was unused to garnering the attention of men. Besides, I didn't like this man, he was arrogant and clearly used to getting his own way. He gave orders to Mother as if she were a servant!
I sighed with relief when dinner was over and the men retired to the study. I wanted very much to speak with Mother, but she had stationed herself outside the study in case the menfolk should need anything and told me to wait in the parlor. I played at cards with my sisters, but lost every hand as I couldn't keep my mind on the game. An hour or so later I heard the men taking their leave and began to relax.
I was quite surprised when Mother called to me saying I should go into the study. Father was there with Mr. Smith and I was dismayed to notice the low level of the brandy decanter. The room stank of cigar smoke. Father, being a man of few words, got straight to the point. He explained that Mr. Smith's wife had passed away a few months ago and the man had found himself extremely taken with me during the course of dinner. Father was acting most strangely; usually so self-confident but tonight he seemed overly eager to please his guest. I would be doing him a great favor if I would spend a quiet hour in conversation with this man. I daren't refuse.
I sat primly on a chair facing the sofa where Mr. Smith was seated. We spoke of the weather, the new preacher, and other trivial things and I began to think I could endure this ordeal. That was when Father quietly left the room. What was he doing leaving me alone with this man? Young women were required to be chaperoned when in the company of a man, even if they were affianced - and me not even of marriageable age yet!
Mr. Smith's manner changed abruptly. He spoke of my beauty and his loneliness. I was quite afraid now but he seemed not to notice. He went on to speak of marriage, saying we would announce our engagement at my coming-out party and the wedding would be held the next month. I tried to demur but he ignored me. Or rather, he told me I was a silly child who couldn't possibly understand what he offered.
He approached me and bade me stand up. Whereupon he took my hands in his and told me that Father had approved the match and would be angry if I refused. I began backing away, the man was entirely too close, but he merely walked along with me still holding both my hands tightly. I couldn't get away yet I knew I must. I felt Father's big desk behind me and realized I was trapped. Mr. Smith realized it also. He told me he would give me a little taste of marriage - then wrapped his arms around my waist, pinning my hands behind me, and kissed me full on the mouth! In a panic I broke away but it made him angry and he struck me quite hard. I fell, my head hitting the edge of the desk. I felt a moment's terrible pain, then a blessed nothingness.
It was my story, only twisted to make it seem an accident. Mr. Smith had taken advantage of me, and I think would have done more if I hadn't tried to get away. Arrogant man that he was, he clearly expected me to submit to his advances and intended to force me when I did not. He was used to getting what he wanted, and he certainly didn't want to hang! So he made up the story about me tripping, and no one, including Father, would dare gainsay him. Father must have suspected, after all he had allowed me to be alone with the man. But then Father wouldn't have wanted it known that he had permitted that impropriety and would have supported Mr. Smith's story for that reason alone.
The woman at the desk suddenly looked behind herself, and shivered. She touched the oval and the words and picture disappeared leaving a white square, then she got up and left the room. I thought about the two stories and suddenly realized that I must be dead - that it was my spirit haunting this room. That explained why I couldn't remember anything past my girlhood, and why I continually returned to this room.
I had no idea how many years had passed, but surely all the changes I'd witnessed had taken a very long time indeed. It was time the true story was known, but how could I accomplish that task? I thought back to the time I'd touched the wall and looked at the alphabet-buttons in front of the box. Slowly I reached out and touched a button; I had to push hard - but I'd guessed correctly, an "R" appeared in the square. It was taxing, but I continued until I'd spelled out "RAPE AND MURDER". I was so tired I faded away at that point, and woke up here in the sunshine this morning.