"Morgan wait!" Aislinn called out as her older brother vanished through the gap. She looked left and right, up and down the street before reluctantly heaving herself up the crumbling brickwork and through the ivy draped hole.
"We shouldn't be here." Aislinn whispered as she dropped down beside Morgan who was waiting at the base of the wall.
"It's empty, no one will know." Morgan protested as he peered through the bushes at the house. "Besides, aren't you curious?"
Aislinn was curious about the big old house that stood half hidden behind the tall wall at the end of their estate, but she knew it was wrong to go into other people's houses too, even if they were empty.
"You're not scared are you? You can run home if you want but I'm going in!" Morgan looked at her, daring her to leave, Aislinn knew he'd tease her for being a scaredy cat for months if she bottled out now.
"Maybe just a quick look then." She said.
Morgan grinned and stepped out of the bushes.
The house might be unoccupied but the grand lawn had been recently trimmed which gaveAislinn an uneasy feeling as she and Morgan ran swiftly across it. The house was huge and grand, but even from a distance you could see it was crumbling to a ruin. Windows were smashed or boarded up, their timber frames rotting. Weeds grew on the driveway and great bushes of creeper grew unchecked up the walls of the house. The interior was dark and mysterious, and inviting to the two curious children.
"Let's try round the back, then we won't be seen from the gate." Morgan suggested.
They passed under an archway built in a brick wall and found themselves in a courtyard. Several pigeons flew up in alarm from among the high weeds. Brambles snaked across the stone floor and nettles grew out from crevices in abandoned and rusting machinery.
"This looks like the stables" Morgan said "Look here's a stable block, so the ladies could get on the horses easier." He ran up the steps then jumped off into the weeds sending up clouds of dandelion seeds.
They began exploring the yard and stables, poking their heads into every barn and building they could get into.
"I think I found a way in!" Morgan called. Aislinn went to see. There was a small porch built onto the side of the house that didn't look like it belonged to the old house, and in it was a door that had been boarded over, but some of the boards had come loose and fallen away.
"They must have added this porch to the house after it was built. I think we can get in here." Morgan said peering into the dark interior and wishing he'd brought his torch.
"What if someone's already in there?" Aislinn asked, "Like a tramp or something?"
"No one's been through here for ages, look it's strung across with cobwebs." Morgan pointed out. Indeed it looked to have about a 100 years' worth of cobwebs stretched across the opening, all cluttered with dust and seeds.
Morgan grabbed a fallen plank and knocked away the cobwebs, then crawled inside. After a moment his pale grinning face appeared at the hole.
"Come on, there's a door to the rest of the house through here."
Aislinn crawled over rotting planks and rusting nails to join him. It was tatty and filled with dead leaves in the porch, but as Morgan had said, there was another door. Morgan was already opening it to reveal the house beyond.
The house was a faded memory of beauty. They saw it here and there as they explored the silent, still rooms. Beautifully moulded coving on the ceilings, almost hidden and distorted under layers and layers of paint. A scrap of wallpaper that had once been highly patterned, the elegant curl of a brass door handle dulled by years of dirt. They went from room to room, seeing in the pale light filtering through dirty window panes, the refuse of lives that had been lived there over the years.
They came to a huge ballroom. The floor was tiled, but the tiles were cracked and grimy now. Huge floor to ceiling windows lined one wall, mostly boarded over, but a few had fallen down to allow entrance to pale beams of light. Dust motes danced and swam in the sunbeams, disturbed by the children's entrance. Mouldings still showing faded gold paint covered the ceilings, and panels lined the walls. A huge mirror hung on one wall, a spider web of cracks radiated out across its dust covered surface.
"It must have been beautiful once." Aislinn said as the children stared in awe, trying to imagine how the room had once looked.
There were more modern things to be found in the house as well. Broken blinds, big iron radiators, power sockets and light switches, their white plastic turned yellow with time. A broken twirly chair lay on its side on a dull grey office carpet. A mug, forgotten on a grand 18th century fireplace looked odd in juxtaposition. Everything was covered with dust, which lay like grey snow an inch thick in places. The whole house smelled of mould and damp and decay. It was dark and cold inside.
There was little furniture left, but its presence was marked by the scuffs and dents on the floors and by the outlines it left against the walls.
"It feels like a ghost house." Aislinn said with a shiver.
"Let's look upstairs." Morgan suggested.
They climbed the stairs. The wood had shifted so that the steps all sloped at odd angles which made the children feel giddy and unsteady as they climbed. The carpet which had once been lush was worn bare and slouching off the steps like the skin off a snake. Each rise creaked loudly as the children climbed but the wood wasn't rotten.
They climbed and climbed, first up a grand wide staircase which led to more elegant, ruined rooms, they continued on up a smaller staircase and finally up bare wooden steps, narrow and twisting, right up to the attics of the house.
"This is where the servants would have lived." Morgan said as they walked through corridors so narrow and dark that even the children felt claustrophobic. "It must have been crowded in here."
"I wouldn't have liked to be a servant living all cramped up, up here when the masters of the house had so much space downstairs." Aislinn remarked. She kept close to Morgan, afraid of becoming lost in the maze of passageways.
They came to a closed door at the end of the passage. It was lit though a dirt encrusted roof window by a beam of sunlight. The paint on the wood had peeled and cracked revealing the wood below. The bare plaster walls surrounding it were traced with ripples of damp. But the brass door knob was shiny with wear and the sun glinted on it invitingly.
Morgan reached out and opened the door.
Together the children crept into the room. It was filled with light. It was as old and decrepit as the rest of the house, in some ways more so, the whole room seemed badly put together, the walls meeting at odd angles, yet it was warm and inviting and a breath of fresh air after the musty mildewed scent of the rest of the house.
It was a tiny attic room at the very top of the house, a servant's room, yet both children instantly felt it to be the best room in the house.
Sunlight flooded in through fraying lace curtains. One fluttered in the breeze through an open window, bring in the scent of grass and flowers from the garden.
The children entered, their feet clumping noisily on the bare floorboards. They left footprints in the years of dust. The room was bare.
The floor creaked, something thumped against the boards.
"Was that you?" Morgan asked.
"No." Aislinn said going pale.
A rattling cough made them jump and turn. The room was not as empty as they had thought. At the far end, part hidden by the waving curtain and draped in shadow, a figure sat in an old wooden chair.
The children would have bolted, but their feet seemed glued to the floor.
The rattling cough died away.
"Oh, do excuse me!" Came a cracked voice, "Please don't be alarmed."
"We haven't stolen anything!" Morgan blurted out. Aislinn jabbed him in the ribs to shut him up before he gave the man more reason to suspect them.
"We just wanted to look." Aislinn said, "We're sorry for trespassing, we'll be going now."
"Oh hohohoho." The old voice chuckled then dissolved into coughing again. Morgan turned to go, tugging at Aislinn's arm.
"Um, are you ok? Are you here on your own?" Aislinn asked taking a tentative step towards the figure. "Are you sick, should we fetch someone?"
"Aislinn, let's go!" Morgan hissed, reluctantly turning back into the room.
"So kind of you to ask dear child," The man replied, "I'm quite alright thank you. I have no need of aid."
"What are you doing here, on your own?" Morgan asked, feeling bolder.
"I'm the Caretaker." He replied simply. The curtain blew aside finally revealing the mysterious figure. He was an old, old man, wrinkled and crooked with age. His eyes squinted in the sunlight, they were warm and kind. He leaned forward on a polished wooden walking stick, his eyes sparkling as he took in the appearance of his young visitors.
"I don't often have guests." He said, amusement in his voice.
"We didn't think there was anyone here." Aislinn said.
"Indeed, child, I am the last remaining. So many generations of lives lived out here, and now there is only me. And soon I will be gone too." He looked wistful rather than sad.
"How long has this house been here?" Morgan asked. He wasn't afraid anymore. He knew he and Aislinn could easily out run this ancient man, and he couldn't help but feel curious.
"People have lived here since before the Romans came to Britain," The man said, his eyes took on a misty distant look as if he could see as far back as those times. "This house was built in 1550. King Henry the VIII has recently died and William Shakespeare had yet to be born.
"Here let me show you."
As he spoke the room swam and distorted and faded away and Aislinn and Morgan found themselves looking out over an open empty landscape of endless woodland. This quickly faded to grassland, then huts appeared, and morphed into round houses in a stone enclosure. The scene kept changing, like watching a movie in fast forward. They watched fascinated as Romans toiled to build an elegant villa and saw it crumble away and then the more familiar stylings of the house as they knew it began to rise, wing by wing, until the house was complete and new. They watched horses and carts come and go as did people in funny old clothing. The house began to age, around it the town began to grow.
All the while the Caretaker had been murmuring to himself, "Oh Ho yes, I remember that!" and "Ah yes, I did enjoy the Roman villa, central heating, wonderful!" and "Lady Humphery, she did cause a scandal!"
The changes began to slow. "I did enjoy the 18th Century." The old man rose from the chair as the building solidified around them. He seemed to have forgotten the presence of the children, lost as he was in his reminiscence. He stumped past them, moving more spryly than would be expected of an old man with a cane, and went out through the door.
"This guy's nuts! Let's get out of here!" Morgan said, wide eyed. Aislinn nodded, but she couldn't help feel something wasn't quite right still.
They both realised what that something was when they opened the door to leave. There was no sign of the Caretaker, but they almost ran straight into a woman dressed a long black dress, tied round with a pristine white apron with a cloth cap perched on her head. She was carrying a huge pile of laundry. She somehow skirted round them without even seeing them and rushed on down the corridor.
Morgan and Aislinn jumped back into the attic room in alarm. They could hear now that the house was alive with the sounds of life. Footsteps raced to and fro in the corridors outside and they could hear voices too. They listened breathlessly through a crack in the door.
"Fetch the boot boy!"
"Lord Bridges will be back before the hour is out and his costume is not yet laid out."
"Beth, tell Cook them pigeons is in the larder behind the taters."
"Are the waiters and waitresses in position yet?"
They had little time to dwell on these snippets however as suddenly a smartly dressed man in breeches, waistcoat and a smart tailed coat came bursting in through the door. He had buckles on his flawlessly shiny shoes. The children stepped back in alarm, but the man, who could have only been a butler, hurried past them without even looking at them.
"Excuse me?" Morgan ventured, stepping out to block the butler's exit. But the man showed no signs of seeing or hearing him and stepping neatly around the boy, he left. Morgan turned grinning to Aislinn. "We're invisible!" He proclaimed excitedly. "C'mon, let's go see what's happening."
"We have to find the Caretaker!" Aislinn said as she nervously followed Morgan out of the attic.
"We will," Morgan reassured her, "But we may as well look round while we're searching for him."
Everything had changed in the house. For a start it was no longer mid-afternoon, but late evening judging by the darkness pressing through the windows. They retraced their steps, along the narrow servant's corridors, which were now spotlessly clean and tidy, and crowded. How they remained unnoticed could have only been magic, as servants hurried past them, back and forth carrying laundry, and mops and all manner of things. Some, the children noticed, were no older than themselves.
They turned out onto the main staircase as soon as they could, rather than take the narrow steep servant's stairs. The grand staircase was resplendent, the carpet was thick and vibrant red with intricate patterns, and the wood of the banisters was polished to a high shine. These stairs were empty except for one grand looking lady in a huge hooped skirt of golden silk and satin, lace trailed from her sleeves, hair piled high atop her head, though it may have been a wig and in one hand she held a glittering gold and silver mask on a stick. She was cautiously making her way downstairs with the aide of two young serving girls.
"The guests will be arriving any moment, I must be in place! Do hurry Lily dear!" She was saying in a haughty voice.
"Looks like there's going to be a party!" Morgan said excitedly.
They followed the lady down and into the grand ballroom. The children gaped in awe at the spectacle. It was hard to believe it was the same room they had passed through earlier.
Now they saw it in its full glory and it was beyond what they could possibly have imagined. It was swathed in blue and yellow satin drapes, and enormous chandeliers hung from the ceiling which was lavishly painted with some mythological scene. The tile floor was polished to a mirror-like sheen and chairs and tables were set at the edges of the room. Flowers overflowed from huge vases on tall plinths.
Costumed servants in masks were already standing ready to serve guests.
"It's a Masked Ball!" Aislinn said, enchanted by the sight.
The guests were already arriving. They could hear the crunch of cart wheels and horses hooves on the gravel drive outside and a footman at the door began announcing the arrivals.
The guest's costumes were of every kind imaginable and stunningly beautiful, dripping with lace and ruffles and shining jewels or sparkling threads. Some were based on animals, others on mythological creatures or fairy-tale characters. Some people came dressed as poor beggars or even servants, except their costumes were to lush and lavish for them to truly be those things. Many of the costumes were unknown to the children.
"They must be famous people of the 18th century who we don't know." Aislinn surmised.
"Aren't the masks amazing?" Morgan said sounding awed.
Everyone of course wore a mask of some kind. There were a few full faced masks and a few wore hoods or veils over their faces, but most were the half-mask kind, covering only the eyes, and held in place with ribbon. Some were plain, looking like they were made of beaten gold, others however were covered with gems and colourful feathers in incredible designs.
Aislinn and Morgan stood and watched in delight as guest after costumed guest entered the ball room. They arrived in pairs or groups and each party went first to the top of the hall and bowed to the lady of the house sat resplendent on a dais.
Music was struck up by a quartet in one corner and soon the dance floor was awash with men and women swirling around in their brightly coloured costumes. Around the edges people milled and chatted, Aislinn and Morgan kept catching people saying, 'I know you.' And 'Do you know me?' as they wandered through the melee.
"It must be some traditional greeting." Aislinn mused as they passed more people greeting each other.
"I can see why that old man liked the 18th century, this party is amazing!" Morgan remarked.
"You don't believe he was really alive back then do you?" Aislinn asked.
"If we hadn't just been transported through time I wouldn't have." Morgan responded, "He must be a wizard or something."
Aislinn looked a little sceptical. Morgan laughed.
"What, do you think this is all just a dream?" he asked.
"It could be." Aislinn protested, but really she didn't think it was.
"We'll never find the Caretaker in this crowd." She said to change the subject. "How will we get back if we don't find him?"
"Yeah, fun as this ball is, I don't fancy staying and having to become a boot-boy!" Morgan agreed. "Let's check the other rooms."
They made their way out of the ballroom and started checking the rest of the house room by room. The entire house was now beautifully decorated and furnished with exquisite antiques. Except, they weren't antiques yet.
"There, I thought I saw him!" Morgan said, pointing through the crowd. Aislinn struggled to see around the people crowding the room. Morgan was already heading towards where he had seen the Caretaker.
They followed glimpses of a hunched figure through several connected rooms and then out at last into the cool night air.
The figure had vanished. Horses stood on the driveway, stamping their feet and breathing out great gusts of breath into the cold night air, still hitched to the shining carriages.
"There!" Cried Morgan again, seeing a glimpse of a hunched figure behind a carriage.
They crept round to catch him from behind. But when the figure turned, it was not the Caretaker at all. Just a man who had come to the ball dressed as a poor old beggar. When the light from the windows of the house caught his face, he turned out to actually be quite young. The man stared straight through them unseeing.
Aislinn felt herself shivering in the cold air, she was wearing only a t-shirt and jeans as it had been a warm summer afternoon when they had set out to explore the house. But maybe it was not only the cold causing her to shiver, but the worry of how they would get home.
"We'll find him, don't worry." Morgan said as if reading her thoughts, or maybe he said the words for his own comfort. "Let's go back inside and look some more. Maybe he went back to the attic."
They trudged back up the stairs, and couldn't help enjoying the bustle of the masqueraders despite their concerns.
Morgan pushed open the attic door and they stepped through together.
Bright light hit them causing them to squint and their eyes to run. It was several moments before their eyes adjusted and they had wiped away the tears, and they found themselves back in the small, empty attic room, warmed by sunlight. They blinked in amazement, waiting for their minds to catch up with the sudden transformation. Together they stared into the corner of the room. But while the chair remained, the old Caretaker was gone.
"Everything's back to normal now." Morgan reported after sticking his head out through the door and finding the damp stained, paint peeling hallway beyond.
"Look." Aislinn said, pointing at the floor. There were only her and Morgan's footprints disturbing the dust. No sign that anyone had crossed the room from the chair. "Was it real?" She wondered aloud.
"I don't know." Said Morgan.
They left the house in a kind of daze, which seemed far more dreamlike than the vision they had had of the masked ball. They walked slowly across the lawn and Morgan boosted Aislinn up the wall and through the gap. As he stood astride the broken bricks and looked back, he noticed a van parked at the front gates of the house, and a man nailing something on the 'for sale' sign.
He jumped down onto the pavement and started walking towards the gate.
"You're going the wrong way!" Aislinn said exasperated, but following him all the same.
Then she saw the van and the man at the gate.
They stood waiting for the man to finish. When he stood back, they could see the 'sold' sign he had been nailing up.
"It's been sold!? When? Who bought it?" Morgan asked in a rush.
The man jumped slightly, surprised to find the two children behind him.
"I just got the call, not ten minutes ago." He told them, "Seems a big developer bought it, gonna turn it into a new housing estate. 'bout time too, the place is falling down, I hope you kids haven't been playing in there, it's dangerous y'know!"
Morgan was already walking away stunned by the news.
"We haven't, we were just curious." Aislinn said turning after her brother.
As she caught up to him he sighed heavily.
"I bet that's what broke the spell, when someone bought it." He said sadly. "I wonder what will happen to the Caretaker now."
"I don't know, "Aislinn said, "But I'm glad we went to look round, even when it's gone, I'll remember the house, and all the things we saw."
"Yes, I'll never forget it!" Morgan agreed.