Solomon's Gate is an extract from my short story collection The Night Alphabet.
When Solomon Morton first acquired Widow's Chase, it was a small country manor in the vernacular style, which had stood unchanged in the middle of its modest parkland for the previous 180 years. Morton's arrival was quickly followed by a veritable frenzy of building, as he set about converting the chase into a gothic fantasy. Craftsmen were brought over specially from the continent, at a cost (his neighbours presumed) that must have dwarfed the purchase price of the manor itself.
Under Morton's personal direction, along with that of an Italian architect named Martello, the original house was encased in a facade of cream coloured sandstone, the most prominent feature of which was a mock belfry, or gatehouse, three stories high. This tower was faced with elaborate arabesques and bas reliefs in the neoclassical style: nymphs and oneiropomps, mnemosynes and hypnoses, all arranged according to some occult design; and contained within it an equally ornate gate.
The building work, which continued well after Solomon Morton took possession of the house, excited much comment (little of it good), in the local area, as did the strange gatherings over which Morton presided. These house parties, which were often a week long, featured occultists of all sorts: London spiritualists, Indian fakirs, Scandinavian theosophists, and dissolute artists. Their noise, flamboyant behaviours, and outrageous appearances, shocked Solomon Morton's neighbours, who whispered that Morton was involved in something diabolic, and matters might well have come to an unpleasant confrontation, had Morton not been suddenly, and unexpectedly, found dead outside the front door of the house.
Upon Solomon's death the Chase was almost instantly abandoned. His outré friends vanished, his sculptors downed tools, his workmen returned to the continent, and the majority of the servants rapidly found new situations, amidst rumors that the house was haunted. It soon transpired that the majority of Morton's fortune was also gone, and that his estate was burdened with complex debts. (At which news the parish Doctor, Rowlands, suggested darkly that Morton's Satanic dabblings had taken their toll).
For three years the house was mired in tortuous legal battles, until eventually one William Hickert found himself inheriting it; which is where our story properly begins.
William had only a tenuous relation to the Morton family, and none at all to Solomon, an uncle many times removed of whom he had never heard. He had completed a tour of the continent some years before, and had made a tolerable living in London as an editor for an academic magazine, but his health had suffered, growing worse with every day he remained in the capital. It had long been the opinion of William's doctor that he should move to the country, and the sudden arrival of Widow's Chase seemed like a godsend.
So it was that, early in October, William Hickert arrived at Widow's Chase as its new resident. The oak trees were turning brown, and the sky was the pale blue of autumn. In the clear light the house looked strangely etherial, with its unfinished tower reaching skyward.
The sole resident when he arrived was Minwell, the butler, who had remained at his post throughout the years of legal wrangling. Minwell met him at the front gate, conveyed him up the long path beneath the oaks, and showed him to his rooms, which were on the same side of the house as the tower.
William had been struck by the baroque nature of the outside of the house — by the statues, the flying buttresses, and the gothic arches — so he was pleasantly surprised to discover that the interior was comfortably human in scale, with small white rooms and exposed beams. His new bedroom, for example, was so quaintly proportioned that he found it hard to believe he was even in the same house.
"If you'll forgive me sir," said Minwell, "it is my opinion that the old master had far more building in mind, that was never completed."
"Opinion Minwell? Weren't you around when the plans were drawn up then?"
"Oh no sir! The truth is that I was only in Master Morton's service a few months before his death."
William dearly wanted to ask more about the circumstances of Solomon Morton's death, but Minwell remained silent on the subject, and soon a plethora of urgent practical matters served to distract him from it.
Over the course of the following weeks William was kept busy supervising the transfer of his property to the Chase, the re-opening of the grounds, and the tricky business of securing new servants, since none of his own had followed him from London. He had many books, and spent much of his time in Solomon Morton's oak-panelled library, trying to make room for his own volumes amongst the many obscure and occult tomes.
It was around this time that William first became troubled by a recurring dream. He had often been a poor sleeper, and put it down to the disturbance of sleeping in a new bed in a new house, till one day he awoke with a particularly vivid recollection of the nightmare.
He had been standing in a long dimly lit corridor. The walls were dark oak, and ribbed like the vault of a cathedral. To either side of him were the open halves of an enormous gate, which were as pale as ivory. The gate thronged with figures, and it seemed to him that they writhed, and tried to speak; though they made no noise.
There was light behind him; and ahead, at the far end of the passage, was an answering glimmer, like a reflection in a mirror. In the fashion of dreams he walked the length of the corridor without looking back, eyes fixed on the wavering light ahead. At one moment he thought that it was a pool of water fixed to the wall, at another a full length Cheval Glass that had once stood in his parent's house, but finally it settled into the familiar shape of a wardrobe with a mirrored door.
The mirror was grey and dim, as if the silvering had all but worn away, and his reflection was also grey and dim, like a drowned man beneath water. Horribly, the creature reflected in the glass was not him. It was like him, but changed, in a way that his dreaming mind could not grasp, but was terrified of. It was this sensation — of the face in the mirror not quite being his own — which continued to unsettle him after waking.
The next morning William mentioned the dream to Minwell during breakfast.
"I had the most curious dream last night, Minwell. There was a passage, and the most peculiar gate, as white as bone, I thought."
"Oh yes sir," Minwell nodded sagely, "Solomon's Gate."
"You know of it?"
"Of course sir, it is on the property, after all."
This statement amazed William, who was certain that he had never heard of Solomon's Gate before, but he was mollified by the suggestion that he had, perhaps, seen it in one of Morton's books without being fully aware of it.
"I have the keys here sir, if you wish to look."
The gate, naturally enough, was located in the gatehouse, that fantastical and oppressive tower which William had not yet got around to visiting.
Minwell led him out of the house, and round to the unfinished tower by means of a small path, which terminated at a pair of plain wooden doors set into a gothic arch, above which was situated a curious statue — a blind man pouring water.
These doors were large enough to admit a cart, and ought to have led to a courtyard, or other open space. Instead, when the doors were unlocked and opened, William found himself in a curious vaulted grotto of a chamber, similar in size and shape to the porch of a church, which occupied the entire lower level of the tower, and rose high above him.
Within this chamber was a second, blind, arch, set into the back wall, and in front of that, the gate.
William's first impression was of a mass of complex and decorative metalwork that resembled the gates of a crypt. Figures of women with their heads bowed and their eyes covered by their hands flanked curlicues of greenery, poppy flowers, jugs of water, rivers, branches. Unlike the gate in his dream this gate did not shine white, but was cast from some dull metal resembling lead. Behind the gate, separated from it by about a foot of space, was a solid wall onto which a sheet of polished bronze had been fixed. With a shock Williams realised that the wall must back onto the very part of the house where his room was located.
"In my dream the gate was white."
"I do believe, sir, that the intention was to cover the gate with ivory or horn, but the work was never completed. The sculptor, Martello, was one of the first to leave on the old master's death."
William looked around the gloomy vault, with its half-finished carvings, and faceless figures, and was reminded uncomfortably of the hazy face in the mirror in his dream.
"I don't like this place," he said, surprised by his own candour.
"If I may sir, I believe it was this room in particular that the other servants disliked."
"There were suggestions that it was haunted."
William made a dismissive noise, but he ordered Minwell to lock the doors and put away the keys.
After his visit to the tower, William spent some days ensconced amongst Solomon Morton's papers, searching for plans of the house, and some sort of explanation that might explain its bizarre construction. For three days he barely left the library, but all he had to show for it were a handful of esoteric sketches in Morton's hand. There had been other drawings, of that he was sure, but they were not in the house. Eventually a ledger drawn up by Morton's solicitor provided the answer — the plans and architectural drawings had been taken by Martello. At once William took up pen and ink and put his rusty Italian to the test writing a letter to the sculptor.
It was only when he finished that he looked at the letter and said to himself, 'I am becoming obsessed'.
William made sure the letter was posted, and then made an effort to distance himself from both the dreams and the house. It was by now mid-November, but the weather was unseasonably clear and bright, perfect for visiting, and William took the time to make the acquaintance of his neighbours. For the space of two weeks he lunched and dined at the various manor houses and halls of the area, and though he was still troubled by dreams of the gates, he was in good spirits.
It was during this period that William encountered Rowlands, the parish Doctor. The two hit it off, despite the Doctor's dire pronouncements about Widow's Chase and its former inhabitants. It was from Rowlands that William finally learnt the questionable rumours about Morton and his shocking parties, and it was to Rowlands alone (excepting Minwell) that he disclosed his disquieting dreams.
"It puts one in mind of the gates of horn and ivory," opined the Doctor, as the two of them took tea one blustery late November day, in the sitting room overlooking the Doctor's garden.
"The portals of dreams, if I remember my Homer, at the entrance to the house of Hypnos. Curious that, I do believe there's a statue of Hypnos above the doors of your tower."
"Hypnos! Of course! I wonder …"
At this outburst the Doctor grew serious. "If I were you, I would not delve too far into Solomon Morton's madness."
"I will not!"
William meant what he said, but events were to take a different turn. That very night he dreamt again of the gloomy passage with its sepulchral gates, and its distant mirror. Once again he found himself standing before a reflecting glass, this time of polished bronze, and once again beheld a reflection that was not quite his own.
Only this time the figure did not stay a reflection. Pale hands extended through the bronze, as if it was only the surface of a reflecting pool, and grasped his own. Their grip was obscenely strong. Desperately William struggled to free himself, but could not. The hands pulled him closer, until his cheek was pressed against the cold metal, separated from that hideous face by only the slightest skin. And that face! It ran and shifted like wax! It became like his own!
The maid discovered him the next day, gripped in the throws of a delirious fever, which lasted three days, and demanded a recovery of as many weeks, during which William was unable to leave the house.
Isolated within the Chase's gothic walls William gave in to his obsessions. His days were spent ensconced in the library, with a shawl around his shoulders and a mountain of occult books on every side, while at night he tossed and turned his way through jumbled dreams of gates, passages, and faceless men. He covered every mirror in the house with sheets or blankets, and filled notebooks with scribbled designs. Eventually he grew too weak even for the daily trips to the library, and demanded that the books were brought to him in bed instead.
Dreams, he thought, it was all about dreams. He was convinced that his dreams were were intimately connected with some scheme of Solomon Morton's, and that if he could only understand them, the dreams and their dire portents might end. The key, of course, were the plans to the house, but Martello had taken those.
One late December day, when the snow lay thick on the grounds, and the clouds seemed set to descend and scrape the gatehouse tower, Minwell collected a letter from the postman and brought it to his master, who was now at his customary location in his bed, surrounded by papers and discarded books.
"A letter from London, sir."
"Give it to me! Give it to me!"
William tore open the letter, which was postmarked from Marylebone, and unfolded the single sheet within. It was signed 'Martello', and contained a single line of Italian:
Le porte di corno e d'avorio si aprono in entrambe le direzioni!
William read the letter, and let out a low and mournful groan. "The gates of horn and ivory open both ways," he whispered, and then cried out, "Oh God! I'm lost!"
Shocked, Minwell made to go for the Doctor, but instead William leapt out of the bed, flinging books and notes aside in his haste to rise.
"Enough of this! Minwell, I've let myself languish too long. I will go to London and confront Martello, and get some clear answers! See that a carriage is arranged for tomorrow."
This was the most activity William had shown for weeks, and everyone in his household took it as a positive sign that his long illness, and the mental turmoil that had come with it, were finally over. A carriage was called for, clothes were made ready, and his papers were returned to the Library. William, meanwhile, made plans to travel to Marylbone to confront Martello and then, perhaps, to visit his Solicitor, with an idea towards freeing himself of Widow's Chase and its turbulent dreams once and for all.
But that night, the dream. Again the gates, again the mirror, again the terrifying struggle against the thing that wore his face. When the figure laid its hands upon him he tried to pull away as before, but he was weak for his long convalescence. He could not escape it. He could not prevent it from pulling him against the glass, and this time into it!
"My dreams are my own!" he cried out in defiance, but the mirror closed over him without reply.
He awoke in a small, dark, unfamiliar space. Something hard and cold was pressed against his back, and something cold and hard against his front, trapping him like an insect between pages. Then, from in front of him, came the heavy sound of a door unlocking. A blinding wash of sunlight assaulted his eyes, and he saw bars. The gate! He was trapped between the gate and the mirror!
Before him a numinous figure, barely visible in the light; dressed in his clothes, wearing his face. For one brief moment it paused to look back at him, as if recalling a half–remembered dream, and then slammed the doors.
William had only time to utter one last truncated cry, before the darkness and the mirror claimed him as their own.
Outside a carriage was drawn up, luggage was packed, and something that had dreamt of freedom began its journey to London.