November 15, 1966
Smoke mingled in meandering curls with the couples on the dance floor. They were moving, at the moment, to the bumping rhythm of "Love Child," which Victoria Winters recognized as she entered the Blue Whale's front door.
She did not often come here alone. In a town as small and out-of-the-way as Collinsport, it was still somewhat frowned upon for young women to enter restaurants, taverns and other such establishments unescorted. But whatever gossip her arrival here tonight might cause did not disturb her. She had needed to escape Collinwood for an evening. At times the momentum of the Collins family's multiple problems caught her up and carried her with them at far too rapidly a pace.
Her mild state of depression guided her to one of the rear tables, into a cul-de-sac in the oddly-shaped room that was only slightly less populated than the others and into a vacant booth, its seats covered with soiled, lime-green vinyl. She struggled out of her heavy coat, at once becoming conscious of the room's temperature and the warm smell of liquor and tobacco smoke.
She watched the dancers for a time, at first introspectively and without really seeing them. Then, forgetting some of her own woes, she looked at them with a renewed interest. All were young, some so much so that she suspected they had lied about their ages to get in (the proprietor was not very conscientious in such matters) and all were dressed to accommodate the current clothing fads. By radical contrast, a number of "old timers" -- most of them fishermen and dock workers -- watched from the perimeter with disapproving eyes, shaking their heads and returning their attention to their half-filled mugs of beer.
A girl in black patent leather granny boots, low-cut peasant blouse and micro-mini skirt danced opposite a male partner in hippy attire, replete with love beads and shoulder-length hair. Another young woman wore a beaded headband and tunic reminiscent of the American Indian (it was, Vicky thought, probably in imitation of Buffy St. Marie) and she danced with a boy similarly attired, down to jangling hells on the toes of his buckskin moccasins. The only betrayal of authenticity in his costume, other than perhaps the color of his skin, was the oversized peace symbol on the end of a glinting silver chain that bounced against his half-bare chest as he moved in time with the music.
The juke-box concluded "Love Child" and started into "I've Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher. Vicky lost interest in the dancers and turned her thoughts back inward. She did not know how long she had been sitting there lost in thought when she became aware of someone standing beside the table, looking down at her.
"Hi," was all he said, and the disarming smile that accompanied the word forestalled any objection to his forwardness Vicky might have had. Then too, he was smiling with his eyes; large, bright sympathetic eyes of a kind that caught and held you. His clothing did not at all match that of the young people on the dance floor. It hung loosely on his tall, thin frame, but his shock of slightly unruly brown hair was right in vogue with the "new generation."
"Hello," was all Vicky could think of to say in response. Apparently, it was enough.
"You mind some company?" he asked.
"Not at all," Vicky heard herself saying, and was surprised at her readiness to accept this stranger's intrusion, charming though he might have been.
As though in response to her thought, he said, "I don't make a habit of approaching unattached young ladies in bars." But something inexplicable gave Vicky the impression he was quite adept at precisely that. "It's just that you looked sort of, well, lonely."
She tried to think of some way around so obvious a line without forfeiting his company altogether. "I don't think I've seen you in Collinsport before," she said conversationally. "Did you just arrive?"
"Yesterday," he replied amiably, and slid uninvited into the opposite seat. "My name is Douglas. Grant Douglas. And yours is Victoria Winters."
She blinked at that genuinely surprised. "How did you know?"
"Oh, I asked," he said emphatically . " I was over at the bar, and I saw you come in. So I grilled the bartender for all the pertinent information."
Vicky found herself increasingly uncomfortable with the direction his words were taking. "Look," she told him, "if you're looking for a little fast company, or a pick-up, or whatever you call it--"
He had a hand up, gently interrupting her protests. "No, now wait a minute." He foraged in a back pocket for a wallet, from which he produced a rumpled press card, pressing it down on the table like an attorney presenting the jury with Exhibit A. "Would it help if I explained that I'm a writer? I work for a New Bedford newspaper, the Herald. You may have heard of it."
She nodded dumbly, puzzled at this new twist.
"I'm interested in doing a story about Collinwood. And they tell me you're employed there as a governess. So you see, I had more than just a personal interest in striking up a conversation. I'm looking for a way in Collinwood's front door.. or back door. ..or any door at all for that matter."
Vicky slowly shook her head. "I'm Sorry. But the Collins family Is not exactly fond of publicity, and they turn newspaper reporters away as a mutter of course. If I were to simply walk in with one, it would be more than adequate grounds for Roger Collins to terminate my position."
"Well," he sighed, "I guess I should have expected that."
"If you'll forgive my saying so, I don't think you look at all like a newspaperman."
He gazed back at her with an open-faced innocence that reminded her of little David when she had trapped him in some childish invention. Then, strangly, he placed one palm over the press card and closed his fist on it, crumpling the paper into a ball.
"I'm not," he said simply.
"Well I was, but I left the job a year ago." His hand came up again. "Now don't jump to sinister conclusions. I just wanted to see the house, that's all. No skulking, ulterior motives... just plain old fashioned curiosity. Call me a history buff. Or maybe some one just a little too preoccupied with the past to live all the way in the present. I've read a lot about this particular house, and I'd give a great deal to see the inside of it."
In her best reproving tone, Vicky said, "Well you might have said so in the first place."
He shrugged. "Sorry."
Their awkward silence corresponded with a break in the music as "I've Got You Babe" gave way to the gentler strains of Paul McCartney's "Yesterday." Most of the dancers scattered to peripheral tables; a few remained on the floor and close-danced to the lyrical tune.
All my troubles seemed so far away;
Now it looks as though they're here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday...
"It's a beautiful song," Vicky offered, but her companion didn't seem to hear her. He did not even look at her again until the song had ended, and then it was to answer her statement as though she had only just made it.
"Yes," he said. "Yes, it is."
"You seemed so preoccupied," she observed. "I thought for a moment you were a thousand miles away."
"I've been a thousand miles away," he said tiredly, and "Cherish" followed "Yesterday" onto the tavern loudspeakers. "And ten thousand, and more. After a while, every place looks just the same."
"You have such a cynical outlook. I don't think I could ever be so pessimistic about life. It's far too short."
His eyes reflected something akin to irony -- she couldn't read the expression precisely -- and he laughed softly. "For some of us," he said wryly, "it seems much. much too long."
The more they talked, the more strangely facinated by this man's enigmatic behavior Vicky became. She did not recall just how or when she had finally cast caution to the winds and invited him to return with her to Collinwood. It was a rash act, but without knowing why, she was convinced of his sincerity, and something else she couldn't pinpoint had persuaded her that there could he no hare in a least asking if he might see the house. To be so trusting of a stranger was unlike her, but she had done a number of uncharacteristic things of late, and besides, she found something about this man every bit as disarming as his smile had been.
They drove up the mountainside is Vicky's car, coming quickly within sight of Collinwood's many lighted windows, easily visible this time of year through the surrounding barren trees. On the way, by odd co-incidence, the car radio segued out of "Bus Stop" into "Yesterday."
Love was such an easy game to play.
Now I need a place to hide away;
Oh, I believe in yesterday...
The song was followed by a news report thoroughly depressing in content. In machine-gun news rhetoric, it talked of multiple slayings committed by a Texas sniper, of jury selection in the Richard Speck mass murder case, of protest marches erupting into violence on Washington D. C. streets, and of the perennially circular progress of the war in Vietnam. Vicky remarked on the severity of the world situation and found that once again, her companion was not listening. He was captivated by the sight of Collinwood above them.
He nearly appeared to have changed his mind, however, when they had parked and approached the front door of the estate. As he stood gazing up at the darkened west wing a certain sadness seemed to overcome him. "Maybe this is not such a good idea after all," he murmured.
Not for the first time, Vicky was baffled by his changeability. "Why?" she wanted to know. "Do you believe in all those stories of vengeful spirits and ghostly goings-on?"
He laughed, but his anxiety did not disappear. "I'm not afraid of ghosts." His breath formed small white clouds in the crisp air as he spoke. "It's just that... well, I haven't any right to impose on you like this. Especially if dragging me up here could cost you your job."
"I won't be fired for asking. But if Mrs. Stoddard dislikes the idea, believe me, we'll know."
"Stoddard..." he repeated the name. "That would be Elizabeth Collins Stoddard, am I right? Her father's name was Jamison Collins."
"You really do know a lot about the Collins family, don't you?"
Nervously, he nodded. "Would you like to hear the list of Collinwood's heirs from 1795 all the way to the present?"
"No. But it might impress Mrs. Stoddard." Vicky opened the front door. "Come on."
He looked reluctant to cross the threshold, but be followed her lead, and when they were inside the cathedral-like foyer, he quietly surveyed the spacious entry hall. Its grey stone walls were hung with portraits and rich tapestries, and its polished rosewood bannister climbed to the second level landing, where triple stained-glass windows mirrored the glowing prisms of the chandelier.
The door, when Vicky shut it, closed out only part of the chill. "Take off your coat." She hung her own on the varnished coatrack inside the doorway alcove. "I'm going to find Mrs. Stoddard. I should he back in a moment."
The visitor, busy admiring Vicky's ascension of the stairs, did not remove his coat for several moments. When he did, he came back out of the alcove and paused face to "face" with a portrait that hung just to the right of the door.
"You don't know how much I wish you were here," he said to it aloud. "How much I need to talk to someone, anyone who understands. And this house..." He looked around him. "This house is a vice. It keeps drawing you back. And after half a century, I found I needed to see it again. For some insane reason, this is the only place where I can feel in touch with things. The only place I ever had even the pretense of belonging. I think you'd understand that."
The portrait glared austerely back at him and offered no reply.
"Do you get used to the idea of immortality?" he asked it, and laughed bitterly. "I'm not sure I ever will. More than once I've been tempted to find out what it's like to finally die. All I'd have to do is put a dagger through the thing in that portait, the way Dorian Gray did at the end of the novel. Sounds easy enough. Only I've tried -- three times -- and I can't bring myself to do it. I guess I always was more cowardly than noble."
He stood gazing into the portrait's dark eyes for several minutes until a footfall on the landing signaled Vicky's return. The expression she wore betrayed, before she could verbalize it, the answer to his request.
He gave her a conciliatory smile anyway. "No dice, huh?"
"Don't be. Just getting this far was something. Almost like coming home."
"Coming home? I don't understand."
"Just a figure of speech," he said lamely, and reached to retrieve his coat. "I guess I was right about this not being such a good idea."
Vicky descended the long staircase. "Perhaps another time," she offered then. "I'll drive you back down."
He stayed her hand as she, too, reached for her coat. "You don't have to," he said as she quickly slipped her hand back out of his. "I think you've gone out on a limb for me too far already. And I appreciate it. But if there's no objection, I'd really like to walk."
"Oh, but you shouldn't. This time of night, it can be dangerous."
His laugh was sardonic and almost musical in timbre. "Don't worry. No one could possibly be safer than I."
Vicky looked exasperated. "Grant Douglas," she sighed, "I think you're the strangest man I've ever met."
"I'll take that as a compliment." He shrugged his coat on, then recaptured her hand. "Thank you again for your efforts, Miss Winters. With any luck, maybe we'll see each other again Some day."
"I think I would like that."
Something more he might have said was left unspoken on his lips. He tightened his grasp on her hand momentarily, then without further good-byes, was gone out the door.
Vicky did not linger to watch him leave, and so did not see that his long stride took him not back to the main road, but with familiarity onto the wooded path that led to Eagle Hill and the Collins family cemetery. Where the now-leafless trees broke to form a rounded glade a large stone mausoleum stood, sheltered under overhanging branches and mottled with patches of moonlight that broke through the skirting cloud layer above. It was here he paused again, before the grey stone steps that testified of long disuse with their covering of dust, decaying leaves and fallen twigs. The rusting iron gate was padlocked, an addition made in recent years to discourage would-be fortune hunters.
In the crypt's murky interior, beyond the cobwebbed bars, the slab tops of three stone biers were barely visible. And though he could not see them, the visitor knew that three brass lions overlooked those tombs; that a ring was suspended from the mouth of each, and that one concealed the key to a well-guarded secret nearly two centuries old.
"I know I could have made a real grand entrance in there tonight," he spoke into the gloom, and a breeze rasped shivery branches overhead as though in answer. "Maybe I could even have told them I'm a Collins. But then I'd have to prove it, and it's just too soon for that I think. Too close. Best I stay away a while longer. Maybe this was a mistake, my even coming here, but... no harm done. At least I got to see a piece of Collinwood again, and that's almost all I really wanted. Seeing more would probably only have made me remember too many things that are best left forgotten."
He closed a hand around one rough wrought-iron bar and pulled experimentally, but the gate and its newly-acquired padlock held fast. The branches just above rattled angrily, scolding him for daring to disturb the bones of the dead, which, with their brittle, hollow grating, they themselves seemed to echo.
"I guess the time just isn't right," he said at last. "Not for either of us." Then, with heavy overtones of melancholy, he added, "Maybe one day, Barnabas, we can both come home again."
"Yesterday," the song had said...
All my troubles seemed so far away;
Now it looks as though they're here to stay.
Oh, I believe in yesterday.
I'm not half the man I used to be.
There's a shadow hanging over me;
Oh, yesterday came suddenly...
The man who had called himself Grant Douglas turned to make his way back down the winding hillside, leaving Collinwood -- and home -- behind.