Once during a time popularly known as "The Gilded Age," there lived a man quite possibly mad who built for himself a house impressive and yet one causing an impossible to pinpoint distress among all who gazed upon it.
It was a typically Victorian structure -- meaning it already looked haunted -- with a turret projecting upwards alongside the first two stories, with which it was connected, and an unattached third floor with a hexagonal roof. The roof was over the low third floor attic and had four gables, two on each side.
On the ground floor was a wide porch which had two doorways, one
at the center, an imposing main entrance, and an smaller one, like a servant's door, leading to the turret. The second floor also
had a small balcony, which a Gothic master, like that found in a story in some railroad station newsstand magazine, might use to watch over his domain.
The roof had black tile shingles and the house was painted a yellowish white, the color of aged ivory or a pensioner's teeth. The banisters were all painted a darker green, a similar shade to a grove of pine trees.
Each floor of the turret had its own purpose. A home office with writing (and later typing) desk and a large file cabinet. The second was, to use a formal British term, a water closet, with all the necessary conveniences, the town early in adopting public sanitation. In the center of the room was a ladder leading to a third floor observatory. Taking a bath on a warm night was always a bit risky as the owner might at any moment rush through the chamber and scurry up the ladder to observe some stellar body, ignoring the interesting bodies soaking in the footed bathtub.
Most disturbing about this abode was that all the windows were
oval in shape and made of stained glass, not of any particular
imagery, but rather distorted, like the imprecise visions of a
nightmare. Looking out, a tree might appear as a horrendous creature. A church as a mausoleum. These images were even worse at night where the dim glow of gas streetlights discolored everything.
And indeed, the architect of this structure, who was also its
owner, was a Mister Henry Durban, a former soldier, defrocked preacher, occasional drunk, and frequent patron of only the highest class of local brothels. It is said that while recovering from being wounded in battle, drunk and having delivered a fiery if rambling sermon, and having visited four of the town's classiest whorehouses the previous evening, he had a divine revelation.
He would build a house as a tribute to himself; an autobiography made of wood and brick, tile and glass. And if he lacked the training, his imagination impressed the local contractors who actually put the thing together.
His great room had his uniforms and weaponry proudly on display.
From his Union blue coat, pocked with bullet holes and spattered
blood stains to his cavalry saber and 1861 Colt revolver. His
kitchen shelves were stocked with every sort of liquor imaginable.
His prize possession there was a bottle of 1838 (not coincidentally, the year of his birth) Monongahela Valley rye whisky, which he marked each passing birthday by sipping a single shot glass full. Others of his large, varied collection were either used as mouthwash or to wash down meals.
The second floor contained four bedrooms, one for each season.
There was the Nordic Room whose pine paneling and thick walnut furniture and tall blondes offered comfort throughout the winter. He might imagine himself an Alpine mountaineer, spending one last night of warmth and intimacy before a dangerous ascent.
The soft greens and light blues of the Celtic Room celebrated springtime with a mystical sense of exploration and discovery. His redheaded companions may be of the wee folk of County Limerick, charming and mischievous, or they could be of the North Berwick witches, whose legends haunted the imaginations of more than one Scottish King.
Summer celebrated the Mediterranean with the reds and violets of imported Italian wallpaper. The women were olive-skinned beauties whose command of English was imprecise and were always bubbling over with passion. Discussions could be heated and their lovemaking always an adventure.
It was Autumn 1864 that held his most painful memories. For every famous battle, there are several less well-remembered; and ever more slight skirmishes. Well, slight except for the dead and wounded. For several days he lay in a field hospital teetering between life and death, watching the brown leaves fall the the ground in silence.
While the other woman were found in area brothels, for autumn he searched the hospitals for young women, usually older adolescents, who had survived a nearly-fatal disease which left them bald-headed and cadaverous in appearance. In the other months he shared intimacy with affectionate companions, adventurous fay, and intense villagers. Now, in autumn, was his intercourse with death.
So he had one woman for each season. Yet these were more than harlots or kept women, for they also served as chamber maids, cooks, secretaries, and confidants. Food, rent, and medical expenses were all provided. They were each contracted for one year, and renewal was by mutual consent, although most did renew their contract.
Durban ignored his losing his status as "reverend," but continued to preach, founding his own denomination, having enough Calvinistic fervor blended with Catholic symbolism to please most of his flock. The four women dressed as nuns during these ceremonies, or 'rituals' they called them as something of an inside joke.
As his old rye bottle had but one drink left, Durban realized his time on Earth was also nearing its end. He dismissed the current quartet of women, giving them each a quarter of his money. Then he sat in his large easy chair, wide arms with red and black paisley upholstery. He poured the last of the rye and as he sipped, doused himself and the chair with kerosene. He first lit his bent apple wood pipe, and then allowed the match to fall onto the chair.
He and the chair were consumed by flames, but the house itself was largely undamaged. A tribute to a vigilant fire chief who felt sure Henry Durban's death would be by self-immolation, perhaps due to conversations they'd had in taverns.
Yet the fire, or the years of undocumented but rumored rituals left an indelible image on the floor, much like that of a modern photocopier. An old man appearing content -- in a ghostly sort of way -- pouring the last drops of whisky into the image of a shot glass, puffing on his pipe.
The house still exists, a decorative but intimidating spiked iron fence surrounded the property. The gate is closed but unlocked. If you travel there, and have the courage, walk inside -- only Henry Durban's collection of liquors were ever looted, a testament to Prohibition -- and pull up a chair beside the image formed of fire and ash, and perhaps magic. Pour your own whisky, if you remember to bring some, and make a toast. Consider briefly to what you are toasting. It may give a hint into the enigmatic mind of the builder, or perhaps, a look into one of the darker corners of your own soul.
Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2014-09-22