A low rumble of thunder reverberated through the closed windows of the silver Bentley. Ringo cast an anxious glance at the ominous grey sky through the car's front windshield. "Please tell me we're almost there," he begged his estate agent, Rowena Montresor.
"Almost," she assured him. She lifted her left hand off the steering wheel and patted his right leg. "We just have to finish driving around this tarn, then the house should be right in front of us."
"What's a tarn?" Ringo asked.
"A small mountain lake," she answered.
"Are you sure we're driving around the right one?" he continued. "There are so many lakes here!"
"That's why it's called the Lake District!" Rowena laughed. "But never you mind. I know the way."
They drove in companionable silence for a short while as small drops of rain started dotting the windshield. Rowena turned on her wipers. "I think you'll like this house," she said. "It's quite grand, and it has a lot of history."
"Yeah," Ringo mumbled, staring at the flock of grey Herdwick sheep grazing by the side of the road.
Rowena darted her eyes at him, then looked back at the road ahead of her. "So why are you interested in purchasing an estate in the Lake District?
"Well, it's in the North, you know. Not too far from where I grew up, so I thought that might make it seem like home," Ringo said. He squirmed impatiently in his seat. "I once took a motorcoach tour of the Lake District with some classmates when I was small. I remember that it was very pretty. And that a lot of famous artists used to lived here."
"You're right about that," Rowena agreed. "Wordsworth, De Quincy, Beatrix Potter – they all owned houses in the Lake District. And many more poets and painters came to visit the area as well, and commemorated the land in their work."
"Yeah. I also thought it would be nice to buy a big place in the countryside, away from London," Ringo added. "My mates all have, you know. John and his missus bought a very posh Georgian mansion near Ascot, and George purchased this groovy Neo-Gothic house called Friar Park in Henley-on-Thames. And Paul bought himself a whole farm in Scotland. It needs work, mind you, but Paul's little farmhouse is set on acres and acres of land. It's very private."
Rowena nodded. "Yes, I realize that privacy must be of upmost concern for you four." A ray of sunshine broke through the clouds and reflected off the surface of the ink-black tarn. The rain stopped pummeling down and Rowena clicked off her wipers. "Here we are. The house is right around this bend in the road."
Ringo stared in slack-jawed amazement as Rowena maneuvered her small car up the long and winding driveway that led to an enormous grey stone mansion. "Damn, this place is gorgeous!" he exclaimed, his face breaking into a smile.
Rowena grinned smugly. "I thought you'd like it. The owner, Roderick Usher, just placed the house on the market on Monday. So if you like it, we should jump on it right away, before a bidding war commences. My sources tell me Mr. Usher has priced it comparatively low, to encourage a quick sale."
Ringo stepped out of the Bentley and admired the mansion's grand façade. It looked like a cross between a medieval castle and a Gothic cathedral, with massive grey stones forming the bulk of the exterior, and tall, narrow steeples and arched stained-glass windows peeking out of the gabled rooftop. "It's amazing," he exclaimed. "My mum and step-dad will be gobsmacked to see me living in a palace like this!"
"Let's check out the interior first, shall we, to see if it lives up the exterior's promise?" Rowena suggested. "Mind the rill," she added as she stepped over a small gully that ran from the house's grand entrance to the lip of the tarn.
Ringo examined the indentation that cut through the entire front lawn. "That's odd," he noted. "Do you suppose that catches rainwater off the roof and carries it down to the lake? I mean, to the tarn?"
Rowena shrugged. "There's no water running through it at the moment, and it's only just now stopped raining." She escorted Ringo up to the front door and rang the bell.
Ringo noticed a small crack in the grout over the door's wooden frame, but didn't have time to ask about it before the door flung open and the master of the house welcomed them inside.
"Good golly!" he exclaimed. "It's you! I can hardly believe it! A Beatle – an actual Beatle – stepping inside my very own, humble house of Usher! I am honored by your presence, Mr. Starr. Or should I say, Mr. Starkey?"
"I answer to both," Ringo said, shaking Roderick Usher's hand. "But people I know call me Ritchie."
"You can call me Rod," offered the building's owner. "And you must be Mrs. Montresor," he added, bowing his head slightly as he shook Rowena's hand.
"Indeed I am, Mr. Usher," she answered. "Is your butler on hand to give us a tour? Or your house manager?"
"Oh no, no," Rod replied. "I've let all my servants go. I'll be showing you around myself."
Rowena arched her right eyebrow in a curious expression. "I'm surprised to hear that."
"I'm sorry, I thought I had made myself clear when I spoke with your agency about the listing," Rod apologized. "I am hoping to sell my home as quickly as possible. Since my sister's death, I can hardly bear to live under this roof anymore. The house feels so empty to me now."
Ringo glanced up at the crystal chandelier hanging near the entrance and noticed a small crack running along the ceiling from the top of the door, past a small stretch of wall that appeared to have been recently plastered, and back to the farthest recesses of the long foyer.
Rowena noticed the crack as well. "Have you had the building inspected yet, Mr. Usher?"
Rod sighed. "Sadly no, I haven't. And I do realize that the house needs a little work. But I'm willing to consider that when we negotiate the price. Come now, let me show you around."
Ringo and Rowena followed at their host's heels as he led them down the grand foyer and through a maze of rooms that comprised the ground floor. They exchanged secret smiles as they walked past a taxidermy mount of an orangutan that stood at the base of a sweeping marble staircase. Then they proceeded with eyes agog as they strolled through the magnificent dining hall, spacious ballroom, and lavishly stocked library.
"The books will come with the house," Rod announced. "I couldn't possibly box them all up. And you're welcome to any furnishings and paintings that you'd like as well. Except for this portrait, of my great-great-grandfather Auguste Usher." He stopped in front of a massive oil painting depicting a knight slaying a dragon on the shores of a dark mountain lake.
"Your great-great-grand dad was a dragon slayer?" Ringo teased as he admired the portrait.
"No, of course not!" Rod answered, indignation creeping into his formerly fawning voice. "Auguste was a writer, like so many other residents of the Lake District. A very original writer, I might add. He had a penchant for transcribing medieval legends into modern verse. This portrait depicts him as Sir Ethelred – the protagonist of his favorite tale – who took refuge from a storm in a hermit's cave, only to discover a dragon living there, guarding a large pile of gold. Sir Ethelred proceeded to kill the dragon, who let loose a horrifying shriek as he gave up his ghost."
As if on cue, a muffled moan coursed through an open vent on the library's parquet floor. Ringo and Rowena exchanged nervous glances. Rod laughed awkwardly. "Oh, don't mind that. It's just a pocket of air working its way through the central heating. I did mention that this house is equipped with central heating, didn't I? My father spared no expense updating our ancestral home with all of the modern amenities. Now, let me show you my music room."
Rod rubbed his hand over a corner of one of the bookcases, then pushed it gently. The entire panel of wall that held the bookcase opened up into an adjacent chamber.
Ringo followed Roderick into a large room painted with colorful frescos, and admired his host's diverse assortment of vintage instruments – an enormous golden harp, a pair of brass euphoniums, a blonde wooden harpsichord inlaid with a pattern of pearlescent flowers, three lutes of different sizes, and a small Spanish-style guitar.
"My music room," Rod stated proudly. He extended his arm in a grand gesture to show off his collection. "No drums, I'm sorry to say. But the guitar is a family heirloom, passed down from my grandmother to my mother, and then to my sister Madeline." He sighed dramatically. "My poor, dear sister, Madeline."
Another soft moan escaped from the floor's vent. Rod ignored it. He walked over to the guitar and lifted it off its stand. "Could I play you a song, Ritchie?" he asked in a commanding voice that welcomed no argument. "I've heard that you and your bandmates have launched your own record label and are looking for some new artists to sign up."
Ringo's face tightened. "Actually, we have almost all the acts we can handle at the moment," he demurred. "So I'd rather not…"
"This song is called, 'The Haunted Palace'," Rod announced, ignoring Ringo reply. "It's about a castle whose masonry is entwined with the surrounding vegetation to such an extent that the house has become alive and sentient." He plucked out a brief series of arpeggios on the strings, then began to sing.
Rowena approached him and gently placed her hand on top of the guitar's strings. "Not now, Mr. Usher," she said firmly. "My client and I are very anxious to finish our tour of the house before sunset. I don't fancy driving after dark on these mountain roads with their hairpin turns, especially in the rain."
"Oh, the storm has surely passed by now," Rod protested. But he acquiesced to her demand and rested the instrument back in its stand. "I'll show you the upstairs bedrooms now."
Another moan filtered through the heating vents.
"Perhaps we ought to see the basement first, and check out your furnace," Rowena suggested.
"Oh no, no, no, there's nothing to see in the basement!" Rod insisted. He laughed nervously. "Nothing there but the furnace and the laundry room. And a lot of old crates containing who knows what, which my family has collected over the centuries. I'll dispatch them all before I leave. I promise."
He cracked his knuckles and turned his face to the window. The rain had resumed, and was falling in serpentine rivulets down the large panes of glass. "The wine cellar is in the basement too, of course," he added distractedly. "Though I will be taking my entire collection with me. I recently acquired a pipe of a rare vintage of Amontillado, and I couldn't bear to part with it. Though I could leave a cask of it for you, Ritchie, if you'd like. And one for you as well, Mrs. Montresor, to celebrate closing our sale."
He darted his eyes towards the slatted vent on the floor, then looked back up at Ringo and Rowena with an inscrutable expression. "And the crypt is in the basement as well," he announced. "But you needed concern yourself with that."
Ringo's face blanched. "The crypt?"
"Yes, yes, the family crypt," Rod replied, his voice growing tense. "All of the Ushers are interred there. My great-great grandfather Auguste, and his great-great-grandfather too, I suppose. My late sister Madeline, as well."
"Your sister who just died?" Rowena asked.
Rod's face grew rigid and his eyes took on a sharp, flinty glean. "Yes. Madeline suffered from Catalepsy. Her body would go suddenly rigid at odd moments, with no warning. And her breathing would become so shallow that she often appeared to be dead. Though the fits always passed after a minute or two. Until last week, that is, when she suffered her final bout of the disease. I buried her myself. Right next to our mother and father, in the left hand corner of the crypt. Underneath the shelf that held my Great Aunt Lenore's corpse. Come now, let's explore the upstairs, shall we?"
Ringo and Rowena exchanged another set of nervous glances.
"Perhaps we could…um…maybe…" Ringo stammered.
"Perhaps we should come back another day, Mr. Usher," Rowena said on behalf of her client. "That rain does look ominous, and we want to get back to Wyndemere by nightfall."
"Piffle!" Rod sneered in a mocking voice. "This little spot of drizzle is nothing! Why, you should have seen the storm on the night my sister died! It was glorious! Loud claps of thunder! Wild streaks of lighting dancing across the heavens! Rain pounding on the rooftop like the footsteps of giants!"
Rowena motioned to Ringo to follow her out of the music room. They slipped back into the library and walked at a clipped pace past the portrait of Sir Ethelred and the dragon. The once dark lake in the painting's background was now glowing an iridescent shade of blue.
"Wait, didn't that painting used to be…?" Ringo asked.
Before Rowena could answer, a series of loud foot falls started echoing into the library from the open vent. They grew louder as they drew closer.
Ringo grabbed Rowena's hand and started running back to the mansion's front entrance.
"Wait!" Rod yelled after them. "I haven't shown you the bedrooms yet! Or the aviary! We have a lovely aviary in the attic where we keep our pet ravens!"
Ringo reached for the front door's knob. A blood-curdling scream rang out behind him. His skin prickled and the hairs on his neck stood up straight. He cast a wary glance over his shoulder and saw a woman dressed in a long white gown approaching from the end of the hallway. Her long, brown hair was tangled in knots and stood up from her head like Medusa's crown of snakes.
"Roderick!" the woman shrieked. "You have buried me alive for the last time! I am putting a final stop to your madness now!"
Ringo and Rowena stood frozen by the doorway, dumbstruck with fear. They watched in a daze as the woman marched towards Roderick Usher with her arms outstretched like a zombie's. She grabbed her brother's throat. Rod pushed her away and tackled her to the ground. The two siblings rolled around the parquet floor in a furious embrace, kicking and scratching and howling like wild cats. They crashed into the bottom edge of the refurbished wall. A panel of cheap-looking plaster collapsed on top of them, covering the floor with a cloud of white dust and revealing a man's corpse chained inside a large hole in the wall. Rowena gasped in horror.
Then a loud chorus of animal cries filled the air. An unkindness of ravens swooped into the foyer from on high, cawing wildly. An ape which bore an uncanny resemblance to the mounted orangutan from the bottom of the staircase came barreling into the hallway, beating his chest and whooping. A large black cat leapt out of a tall, decorative urn and threw itself on the ape with a shrieking howl.
"Fuck all this," Rowena cursed. "Let's get the hell out of here!"
"Good idea," Ringo replied. He twisted the brass doorknob and threw open the heavy oak door. Then he grabbed Rowena's hand, pulled her outside with him, and slammed the door shut behind them.
They ran to the silver Bentley as fast as their legs could carry them. A deep groaning sound started reverberating behind them. They each turned their heads and saw the crack in the grout over the house's front entrance was rapidly spreading. When the fissure reached the roof, the mansion began to split in two. The steeples that had lined the rooftop fell into the widening maw, and the stones that had formed the house's foundation slipped out from beneath the weight of the building. The remains of the mansion buckled over, and the House of Usher collapsed into a heap of shattered rocks and glass.
Rowena eyed Ringo warily and took a deep breath. "I didn't see any of that. Did you?"
"No. I didn't see a damn thing this afternoon," he agreed.
"Are you a fast driver?" she asked.
"Not as fast as my mate George, but fast enough," he replied.
She tossed him the keys. "Good. Let's get out of here. Now."
Ringo slipped into the driver's seat and started the ignition while Rowena fastened her seat belt. He backed the car around so that it faced the road, then put his foot to the accelerator and took off like a bullet. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that the tarn was now glowing an iridescent shade of blue, but decided not to mention that fact to Rowena.
They drove in silence for several miles until they saw a road sign announcing the approach of the Windermere city limits.
Rowena let loose a long sigh of relief. "It's just as well," she conceded in a sad voice. "That house looked like a money pit to me. As soon as you finished repairing one thing, something else would surely need tending."
"Right," Ringo replied. "I think I smelled some damp in the library too."
"And in the music room as well," Rowena agreed.
"Pity about that Spanish guitar, though," Ringo said. "I rather fancied it."
Rowena smiled at him and rested her right hand on his left knee. "Let's get you a house first. Then I'll buy you a brand new guitar to celebrate."
Inspired by Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Fall of the House of Usher" (1839)