Tales To Tell
The house had been waiting for us. I know this sounds ridiculous, it really does, and there is no one so sure about that as I am. Basically, I am a very down-to-earth person. The absolute no-nonsense type. I've always been, too.
But when Michael and I entered that house, I felt that it had been waiting for us, I don't know for how long. Waiting is perhaps the wrong expression again -- it wasn't waiting, it was ... lurking.
For years, Michael had had one wish. He had told me about it when we first met, and I must say I felt attracted to a man who had dreams and planned to make them come true -- Michael was not the dreamer type, he was definitely a doer, a making-things-happen-guy.
His dream was to buy an old farmhouse, one of the many houses that lie hidden somewhere on a mountain slope, and to renovate it. To live there, and to get it back to life, as Michael said. Farming the way people used to do, about a hundred years ago. Keeping tradition alive. Making a home with his own hands, working, building. I have to add that Michael's job had nothing to do with farming at all. He had been a city dweller all his life, and worked as a freelance journalist. A rather successful one. He had no idea what farming was about, but he was willing to learn.
I'm a historian, and from that point of view I must say the plan fascinated me as well. I had always loved old houses, and living in a place that had seen so many things happen had a special appeal to me. I wanted to live in a place that had character and atmosphere, whatever that meant, not the sort of flats that looked like hundreds of thousands others. Renovating an old farmhouse could also give me some ideas for my next piece of work -- I wanted to write an essay about rural architecture and its changes during the centuries, and hoped to get some publisher interested in my work.
It was one of those Saturday mornings we always spent with each other. No matter how much work there was ahead, we always managed to keep Saturdays for us. We needed those mornings, too -- during the week we were too busy to really spend time with each other. Michael was sitting at the kitchen table, cup of coffee in one hand, bread-and-jam in the other, and the newspaper lying in front of him.
"Listen," he suddenly said. "What do you think of going into the country in the afternoon?"
"You mean a picknick," I asked him, smiling.
He laughed. "Sort of," he said. "Though I'd like to have a look at a house -- but we can have a picknick somewhere, if you like."
He pointed at the newspaper. "There's an interesting ad," he said.
I drew nearer to him and had a look at the paper. First-rate opportunity, it read. Farmhouse, in need of repair. 15 acres of farmland. Phone:....
"In need of repair," I said sarcastically. "Sounds like a ruin to me."
Michael laughed. "Still, I'd like to have a look at it," he said. "One never knows -- perhaps there's a jewel waiting for us. The Mercedes among farmhouses."
"But the weather is not very promising," I protested.
"Even better," he answered. "If we like the first impression the house gives us, even in bad weather, we know we will like it in good weather, too."
It was plain that he was curious to have a look at the house, so I gave in. Michael phoned the number stated in the advertisement, and made an appointment with the owner.
After a shopping expedition to buy another week's food, we quickly ate some sandwiches and then left into the direction of the country. We had not even left the city when it began to rain. It was early spring, and the hills were slowly growing green, while the mountaintops were still covered with snow -- and at the moment, they were not visible at all. Everything looked gloomy. It took us about an hour to reach the village where this farmhouse was situated. The owner, according to her voice an elderly lady, had agreed to meet us at the local inn -- she had not expected us to find the way to her house, or so she had said to Michael.
We entered the inn, and since there was no one there except a grumpy waitress and some men drinking their Saturday afternoon beer, we sat down at one of the tables and ordered some coffee. We waited for another half hour, without anyone arriving.
"Are you sure she said three o'clock," I asked Michael. "Perhaps you misunderstood something."
"I'm quite certain it was three o'clock," Michael answered, slightly annoyed. He hated it if people didn't keep their appointments in time.
It took another half hour until the door opened and an elderly lady came in. The people seemed to know her, the regulars at their table greeted her with a polite nod, and even the waitress seemed to forget about her general ill-will for a moment and said, "Good afternoon, Emma. What can I do for you?"
The woman smiled and steered towards our table.
"A cup of coffee, please," she said to the waitress while passing her. "But don't make it taste like dishwater this time, will you?"
She extended her hand to Michael. "Mr. Pelegrini, am I right?"
Michael nodded and shook hands with her.
"I'm sorry I am so late," the woman said. "But when one has to walk so far, it is hard to calculate time. Is this your wife?"
Remembering his manners, Michael introduced me to the old lady. She gave me a warm smile and said, "There are nicer ways to spend a Saturday afternoon than waiting for an unpunctual old woman, I guess. As I said, I am sorry. It usually takes me an hour to come down here, but today...well, one isn't twenty any more."
"An hour's walk," I asked her. "Is there no one who could have taken you here, Madam?"
"No, there is no one there," she said, laughing. "One reason why I have to sell the house -- I don't want to wait until I'm up there, unable to move, and no one's there to find me. It is a fine place for young people, to be sure, but for an old girl like me -- my name is Emma, by the way, there is no need to call me "madam". I've never been a madam in all my life."
While she was drinking her coffee, Emma told us about the house. It was 600 years old, and it had been in her family for four generations. It was rather large, built of stone, like most farmhouses in this part of the country.
"It breaks my heart to sell it," she said. "But I cannot help it, I'm not getting younger, and there is no one who will take over after me. I don't have any children, only one nephew, and he isn't interested. He'd tear the house down before I'm cold in my grave, that's why I don't want to leave it to him.
There is one thing I have to tell you -- it is rather desolate up there, so if you are easily frightened you'd better not take it. Old houses aren't quiet -- everything is making a noise or the other, and there are no streetlamps up there. There aren't any neighbours either, the nearest ones are about half a mile away. Especially in winter it can get lonely, and with the long nights -- I don't want to frighten you away, but I think you ought to know. What make of car do you have, by the way? You'll need a 4WD to get up there, especially in winter."
Finally, we went to our car and got in. It was true, we would hardly have found the way, had Emma not been with us. The road was winding through a thick forest, and finally there was no road any more -- it had changed into a track, and now I knew why Emma had been concerned about our car. We reached a large clearing, and on this clearing it was -- a large, stone-built farmhouse, with separate stables and barn. Between house and barn there was a small chapel.
Like the houses of its time, it was built like a fortress -- small windows, thick walls. There were some ornamental paintings around the windows, and a large fresco painting of St Christopher on the wall facing the valley. The house had been built to last, and it had lasted. Now it was waiting -- waiting for us.
"Was this a trading path, Emma," I asked her, pointing to the path leading further upwards.
She laughed. "I would not call it trade in the usual meaning of the word," she answered. "But people came along this path very often when I was younger, carrying goods from one side of the border to the other -- preferably without paying any taxes. Why do you ask?"
"St Christopher," I answered. "One can find him mainly on houses and churchwalls along ancient trading paths -- he was the patron saint of travellers, and was said to protect people from sudden death. On a day you've seen Christopher, you cannot die, people thought. A painting of Christopher in such a place would be rather uncommon. Unless this is an ancient route for pilgrims and travellers -- it might be worth exploring."
Michael laughed. "You got her interested in the place," he said to Emma good-naturedly. Once he had seen the house, he had become somewhat excited. It was obvious that he liked what he saw. "May we go inside?"
Emma nodded, and from the pocket of her coat she produced a large, ancient key. She unlocked the front door, and led us into a hallway with a stone floor. There were only two windows, one very small window next to the door that allowed the residents of the house to peek at whoever wanted to get inside, and another small window on the other side.
To the left and right there were
doors leading to the different rooms, and at the end of the corridor there were
wooden stairs leading to the first floor.
Corridor, kitchen and larder were vaulted. In the larder there was a trapdoor, guarding the entrance to the cellar. The cellar was large, too, with an arched ceiling, but not very high.
"This cellar is excellent," Emma said. "Fruit and vegetables last ages."
I nodded. It was dark down there, and cold, and to say the truth I was rather glad when we went back upstairs to the kitchen. Like the corridor, the kitchen had a stone floor, and even though I doubted it was the original one, one could imagine that the original floor had been very much the same. It would be difficult to keep it clean, though...
"The house has no central heating," Emma said. "As for me, it was enough when I could heat the kitchen and living room -- and I sleep right above the living room, there is a hole in the ceiling to let the warmth get up there. But as you see, there is enough room in the cellar if you want to have central heating installed -- only remember that it will be difficult for a lorry to come up here to deliver fuel."
The living room was wonderful. The walls and ceiling were panelled, which gave the room a cosy touch. Another door led to two more rooms, rather small ones, which might have been used as bedrooms for servants, or could also have been storerooms. One of them could easily take all my books, I thought, and one could also use them as an office -- a place for Michael and me to do our writing work. True, the small windows did not let in too much light, but, well...living in an old house had its drawbacks, we knew that.
The floorboards creaked with every step we took when we were upstairs, walking from one room to the next. There were four large bedrooms, and another staircase and a trapdoor separated the first floor from the attic.
I could see that Michael was enthusiastic. He seemed to be eager to buy the house at once, and had Emma shown him the contract, he might have signed it directly.
I had to admit that the place was better than I had expected -- it was in need of repair, true, but it was far from being a ruin. Considering its age, the house was in a surprisingly good condition.
When we left the house, it was already getting dark, but we decided that we would examine the stables and the barn nevertheless. It looked as if there was more work to be done in the barn than in the house. The roof needed repair, probably the whole roof construction would have to be exchanged. The same was true for the stables -- definitely, a lot of work had to be done before one could keep any animals in there. But on the whole, it looked like an excellent offer.
Before we left, I had a look at the chapel. It seemed as if Emma had taken excellent care of it. There were flowers on the altar, and a candle was burning, too. The place was alive, and I was glad to see it. The chapel was not as old as the house -- it was not older than 250 years. Had I been able to have a closer look at the altar painting, I could have been able to tell how old it was -- but as it was, I had to defer it until later. Something attracted me to this place, something wanted me to stay -- I shook my head. Since when did I have such irrational thoughts? I was interested, from the historian's point of view, that was all.
On our way back to town, Michael and I were talking continuously, sharing our plans for the house, and finally agreeing that we would buy it.
It was as if the house had been waiting for us. It had tales to tell.
Buying a house is never an easy task, and it was even more difficult in our case. It needed a great deal of restoration. Had we only wished to tear the old house down and build a new one, or had we wanted to change the complete inside of the house into something more modern, we would have been better off, I have to admit that. But we had set our mind on restoring the house to what it had been. Only the most elementary changes would be made -- installation of central heating, and we had agreed that the bathroom and kitchen desperately needed modernisation.
There were government funds to finance the restoration of old houses, but to get hold of one of these loans we needed an expert's opinion first. One of the most renowned experts worked for the local Folklore museum -- but I hesitated to go and see him. Not that Dr Daniel Weiler would not do anything I asked him to. That was the problem, actually. Daniel and I had been together before I had met Michael. We had even shared a flat, and marriage had been -- let's say - a likely thing to happen. But one day I had found out that Daniel had an ongoing affair with one of his workmates, and I had packed my things and left him before he had had any chance to justify himself. For months, Daniel had tried to make me come back to him, but with no success whatsoever. Only when I had started going out with Michael, Daniel had realised that it was over -- but still, whenever we met, he tried to win me back. No wonder I didn't really want to ask a favour of him.
Michael offered to go and talk to Daniel himself, but I knew that Daniel would not even move his little finger to help Michael. Then Michael suggested to ask someone else, which would probably have been a good option -- only I knew that Daniel's certificates were highly regarded everywhere. He had an excellent reputation as a scientist. So I finally resolved to phone him.
Michael was not too pleased when I told him about it.
"Of all people," he said. "Can't you ask someone else? Daniel Weiler! There must be some way to get rid of that man."
"Jealous," I asked him, smiling.
"Not jealous, just careful," Michael answered. "He's been after you for I don't know how long..."
"And? Did it help him?"
"No, it didn't, but still...I don't like him, Isa. He's shifty."
"Listen, Mike, I'm not going to see him alone. I'll just phone him and make an appointment with him. Is that all right with you?"
Mike shrugged his shoulders. "Do as you please," he said. "Just don't say I didn't warn you."
"You're angry," I said.
"No, I'm not. Not angry." Michael put his arms around me. "I don't want old injuries to surface again, that's all."
"Weiler," I heard Daniel's voice on the phone. Short, to the point, as usual. Daniel had always been the "you'd better tell me what you want at once or forget about it" type.
"Daniel, it's me," I said. "Isabell."
"I'm here," he said, icily. "I didn't think I'd hear from you again."
"Quite unlikely, considering our jobs, is it not?"
"Let's say I hoped so, then," he said. "What can I do for you, anyway?"
I explained the situation to him -- that my husband and I were planning to buy an old house and were interested in a government loan to finance the renovation and restoration work.
"Your husband? That Pelegrini fellow?"
"OK, fine. So what do you want me to do, Mrs. Pelegrini?"
"I was wondering if you could help me get a certificate for the loan," I said. "You don't have to do that yourself, if you don't want to, but...can you recommend someone?"
Daniel sighed. "You aren't going to make things easy for me, are you?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"You know exactly that I'd do anything for you, Isa."
"That's why I didn't want to ask you in the first place. Listen, Daniel, I don't want you to get the impression that I'm taking advantage..."
"I know you well enough to know that you wouldn't do such a thing, Isa. Fine, when do you need that certificate?"
"The sooner the better. We can't start with the work before we have the money. Do you know someone who could do it?"
"Can you give me the address?"
I told him where to find the house.
"Good. Can you be there next weekend? Saturday or Sunday?" Daniel asked. "I need someone to show me around."
"We can go there on Saturday," I said. "No problem."
"I'll be there, then," Daniel said. "Three o'clock? I don't want to get up that early -- it's Saturday, after all."
"You're a dear," I said.
He gave a short laugh. "I know," he said, and hung up the phone.
Suddenly, I felt guilty. I shouldn't have asked him, I thought. It was wrong. There were other people I could have asked. But it was too late now.
Most of the time remaining until Saturday I spent at the University library and at the Diocese's chronicle archives. I needed to find out more about the place where I was going to live.
I was successful, in two ways. In the old chronicles of P__________, there was a note that that particular farm had burned down -- "Anno Domini 1405". There had been "loss of life", apparently, a "Barbara, maidservant" had died in the blaze. But, "luckily, the barn and stables were not harmed". Lucky, indeed. Barbara, the maidservant, may have had a different opinion, I thought.
1405 -- that meant that the house had been rebuilt in the years to follow. It was about 600 years old, Emma's estimate turned out to be fairly accurate, but it was good to have written proof, anyway.
The other bit of information I
found was not quite as useful, but interesting nevertheless. I made a copy of
it and showed it to Michael when I got home in the evening.
I found the story in one of those books that were quite popular in the early 1900s, when some schoolteacher or parish priest had taken the trouble to write down local folklore, to pass it on to the generations to come. This particular book was titled, "Strange Tales, Witch- and Ghost Stories from P____________".
"Look what I found today," I said to Michael, laughing.
He took the copy and read it. "Read it aloud," I said. "I want to hear it again."
"In Christmas Night, between midnight and one o'clock, when every Christian is supposed to be in Church," Michael began, "the animals in the stables talk to each other. They talk about the things to come in the following year. I know that bit. It's quite a common superstition, isn't it?"
"Go on reading," I said.
"But beware, anyone who thinks of eavesdropping! The animals can sense that you are there, and some terrible fate will befall the listener! Anyone who thinks this is just a superstition, be warned by this example. A young woman working as a dairymaid on ____________ Farm heard about this superstition and, curious as she was, planned to go and eavesdrop on the animals. So, when the family prepared to go to the Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, she turned back after a short while, telling her companions that she had forgotten her prayer book at home. Instead of going and fetching her prayer book, however, she went to the stables and hid there.
When the family returned home after the service, they looked for her everywhere, but all they found was her coat, torn to little shreds, scattered on the floor in the stables. It is said that the Devil himself came to fetch that wretched woman, who had indulged in heathen superstition instead of doing her duty as a Christian. She was never seen again. Quite entertaining," Michael said.
"Isn't it? Sounds like an old cautionary tale to me. The sort of story one tells little children to frighten them into doing right," I said.
"Could be," Michael said. "But you know as well as I do that sometimes there is a bit of truth hidden behind these legends. I don't believe the Devil bit, of course, but it could have been that one day a young woman was missing and no one knew what became of her. People tended to blame the supernatural when they couldn't explain a thing logically."
"Still, I think it is more of a cautionary tale than a record of anything that really happened in the past," I said. "Now, what would you like for supper?"
"I think..." Michael began, and then took his jacket from the wardrobe. "I think I'll invite you to a fancy dinner tonight," he said with a grin. "Pasta & Co."
Pasta & Co. was our favourite restaurant, because it was the place where we had first met -- I had been there with a friend of mine, he had come in with some friends of his, and he had ended up at our table, since he knew Sylvia from work. After that evening, he had practically begged Sylvia on his knees to give him my phone number (or so he said) -- and Sylvia had finally persuaded me to go out with him.
"Do you really think that is a good idea, Mike," I asked him. "We shouldn't waste money, should we?"
"Oh, please let me waste money tonight, for a change," he said. "You've been very busy, and I've been busy, too, and we both deserve a break, don't you think? Besides, we won't have the opportunity to eat out very often, once we've moved in."
Michael was right, of course, and so we went.
Daniel had a short look at the house from the outside and gave a whistle of astonishment.
"That house is 600 years old?" he asked. "Are you sure?"
He had shaken hands with Michael when he had arrived, but otherwise Daniel seemed to have chosen to ignore my husband.
"I had a look at the church chronicles," I said. "They say the former house burned down in the early 1400s. There are no other entries that would indicate another fire."
"There was an earthquake in these parts in the late 1600s though," Daniel said, thoughtfully. "The house could have been damaged then."
"There's no record on that," I said.
Daniel walked round the building slowly, closely examining the walls. Finally he pointed to a spot above one of the living room windows.
"See, I was right about the damage," he said, satisfied with himself.
There was an iron bar in the wall, but it had been covered with whitewash and was therefore nearly invisible.
"What's that," Michael asked.
Daniel gave him a contemptuous look, but he didn't bother to answer Michael's question. He left it to me to explain matters to Michael, while he made his way around the corner.
"People used that sort of bars to mend cracks in stone walls," I said. "They drove red-hot iron into the walls, and when the iron cooled, it drew the edges together. The remaining crack was filled with mortar."
When we reached Daniel, he was standing there, studying the fresco painting of St Christopher.
"That one is quite unusual," he said, without turning his head. "You said the older building burned down?"
"So why didn't they paint Florian on their wall? He is supposed to shield houses against fire."
"The painting looks to me as if it was done later than the house. It looks quite fresh to me..." I said.
"Does the previous owner know anything about the picture's history?"
"No, she only said it had always been there, whatever that means," Michael said. Daniel gave him one of his "who asked you, anyway" looks.
I tried to ease the situation a bit.
"Whoever did the picture was more afraid of sudden death that fire," I said. "Or perhaps one owner was called Christopher and wanted to have a picture of his namesake on his house? Who knows? We can study as much as we want, we will never understand what was really going on in those people's heads."
Daniel went into the house, had a good look at the interior, and on the whole was able to give us some good advice on restoration. I should have been grateful, I know, but still I was glad when he was gone and we had the house to ourselves.
Daniel's certificate was very positive, and so it wasn't difficult for us to obtain the government loan and to set to work. We decided to do the house first, and to leave the barn and stable to the following spring.
It was late September when the
house was finally ready to receive us -- although it had probably been ready to
do so for hundreds of years. It was a sunny day when we moved in, and still
warm. The warm wind we had so often at this time of year was even worse up here
than it was down in the valley.
While we carried our suitcases into the house, we heard the wind moan in the trees behind us. It grew dark, and now I understood why Emma had said "an old house made noises". The wind howled in the chimneys, and the floorboards made strange noises, too. I woke up twice that night, and could have sworn that there was someone walking around in the attic -- I heard the floorboards creak. When I woke Michael and told him about it, however, he laughed and took me into his arms, soothing me like he would have soothed a child.
"You're not used to this place, that is all," he said, kissing my cheek. "Try to sleep. Everything's all right. No need to worry."
Being in Mike's arms made me feel absolutely safe, as always. I didn't pay any attention to the different noises the house made any more, and finally managed to fall asleep again.
The house allowed us a short break -- it probably tested us, wanted to know if we were listening. But after about two weeks, it began to let its stories ooze out of its walls.
© 2002 Copyright held by the author.