C2 Chapter 2
During the day they were paid a visit by the new director, Steen, who was accompanied by Mr Nicolaysen, the previous owner. Steen, a bloodshot social climber who suffered from a threatening heart condition and had only one interest in life – money – listened somewhat perplexedly to Mrs Sinclair’s account of the restoration of the inn’s old wing and the reason why the door remained untouched. But he thought the idea of having a locked room would make good publicity for the inn.
“Spice it up with a tear-jerking romantic story,” he said to Mrs Sinclair. “Foreigners love that sort of thing.”
But Nicolaysen was upset. “You don’t know what you’re saying! We can’t put the guests’ lives at risk like that! Miss Knutsen here simply cannot stay in that wing. Move her at once!”
Ellen reassured him that she was fine, and that she didn’t wish to burden Mrs Sinclair now, when there were no other rooms vacant. Furthermore, she had absolutely no intention of opening that door; she didn’t even wish to enter that part of the hallway.
With some hesitation Nicolaysen finally gave in. He was a stressed, middle-aged man with nicotine-stained fingers and quivering eyelids. His hair consisted of a small coronet of an indeterminate colour around his shiny bald head. Since he also owned a small chemical factory in the village, he had ended up neglecting the inn to such an extent that he had been forced to sell it. He hadn’t wanted to, but the conscientious villagers had started to object to the respectable old inn falling into disrepair.
So Steen had purchased it a year ago and had immediately started out by giving the façade of the building and the guest rooms a facelift. It was now time for the smaller rooms and the oldest part of the inn to be restored.
Steen was merely passing through and would soon be on his way east. Nicolaysen returned to his factory. And the day continued with its usual routine and plenty of problems.
And then the night came. The night when Ellen began to understand much of what was inside her that had been concealed or vague; when her future was relentlessly determined, and her life changed its course and began to follow a new and exciting path.
Ellen didn’t know what the time was when she awoke, but the summer night seemed to have passed through its darkest phase. A dim grey light filled the room, erasing the colours from her new work outfit – the simple folk costume that hung on the door of the wardrobe. She thought she had heard the creaking of a door, and then she remembered something similar from the previous night. Who could be walking around in the inn at that time of night? Everyone had gone home when she had locked up and turned off all the lights for the night.
All at once Ellen started and was wide awake. She sat up in bed and strained to hear something other than the pounding of her heart. There was someone up here! Careful footsteps could be heard making their way along the hall floor.
“Who’s there?” she called anxiously.
No one answered. The footsteps continued past her door and made their way towards the staircase.
Towards the staircase?
Where had they come from then? And what door was it that had creaked so loudly? On the day that the manager had shown her around the inn, Ellen had noticed that all the old doors to the small rooms were well oiled.
But at the end of the hallway? ... Oh, no! it couldn’t be!
The house was quiet now. Whoever had been walking around had gone down to the floor below. But Ellen couldn’t seem to settle down. The fear, the nauseating, deep-seated sense of fear that she had experienced once in her childhood had now returned. It wasn’t an ordinary fear. It penetrated so deeply and was so upsetting that Ellen didn’t know how she would endure it. It was as though a tremendous sense of loneliness and despair was being forced upon her, actually causing her physical pain.
Oh, no, not again, she pleaded, I don’t want to go through that again.
She sat there for a long time, listening, taking deep breaths and suffering this painful sense of despair in her chest. Ellen was in fact courageous and sensible – well, fairly sensible – but on that occasion many years ago she had crossed the threshold to the senseless, and she was getting alarmingly close to crossing it again, she feared. That stupid story that the lady in the general store had told her returned to her now, and she tried to recall what the lady had said.
But she never got far in her thoughts. She could hear slow, soft footsteps again, now at the bottom of the stairs.
I’m going to scream now, she thought. She glanced at the window. Perhaps she could slither through that? But she knew that below it lay a heap of stones that were one day to become a rock garden, and that the drop would be much too great.
She noiselessly slid out of bed and pulled on her sweater and trousers over the exquisite nightgown. She quickly put on a pair of socks and her shoes. Her heart was pounding wildly and her hands fumbled nervously with a sock that was inside out. But meeting a prowling stranger clad in a flowery see-through nightgown was completely out of the question for her. She had to get out of this house, one way or another.
Easy ... easy now! There must be a rational explanation for this. Anyone could be walking around in the inn now. A carpenter who’s forgotten his equipment, or someone who accidentally fell asleep in one of the rooms and needed to use the bathroom ... Calm down! Don’t worry about this unnatural, stifling sense of fear within you; it means nothing, there is nothing wrong, everything is as it should be, calm down! Ellen took a deep breath.
She felt more confident now that she was wearing proper clothes. That way she wasn’t quite as exposed as before. As the steps started to approach her door she stood motionless in the middle of the room, struggling to control her agitated breathing.
Had I been truly courageous now, she thought, I would have looked through the keyhole in order to convince myself that it’s only a carpenter or Mrs Sinclair who’s out there.
But I’m not that courageous.
The footsteps passed her door and then stopped ...
I’m going to die now, thought Ellen in the vast silence that had arisen.
The inn sign creaked in the wind. There was a faint rushing noise coming from the river and the forest. But inside the old house everything was silent, as though it were lying in wait.
Whoever it is, he or she knows of my existence now, she thought. I can sense it. Impressions are pouring down on me. Fear, wonderment, anxiety, hope ...
But are the feelings that are about to stifle me theirs, or my own? Or a mixture? But you can’t feel other people’s feelings ...
Oh God, I refuse to experience the same thing that happened before! I don’t want to lose my senses like some fleeing, screaming little bundle of nerves! I won’t!
But I’m right in the middle of it again!
Whatever it was that was outside was still standing there, a little distance from her door, she knew that much. The footsteps had ceased so suddenly.
But then she heard them again. Ellen grabbed hold of the two cold iron bars at the foot of her bed. The sounds moved closer to the door.
Ellen was as tense and quivering as a steel spring. What if the creature out there is looking through the keyhole? I don’t dare look out there ... what if I do and I see another eye?
Rubbish! From where you are?
For a breathless moment they stood on each side of the door, waiting, Ellen with her mouth gaping like a child’s and her eyes wide open, though she wasn’t aware of it.
She was gripped by an irresistible urge to ask, “Is there anything I can do?” but her voice didn’t obey her when she tried. It was also a completely meaningless question, she had no idea where it had come from.
Then she heard something else. Something soft and rustling fumbled over the door. Her eyes wild with terror, Ellen saw the door move slightly as if from some kind of pressure. Something pressed itself down on the door handle.
And the door handle slowly moved.
Something blocked Ellen’s throat, so that when she tried to scream she couldn’t. She froze and remained standing in a cramped position. She was no longer conscious of herself, she just prayed that the lock and the door would hold.
Then suddenly the pressure in her chest changed, and a sense of deep resignation came over her. The creature let go of its grip on the door handle, and a dragging sound against the door indicated that it had collapsed in hopelessness. Ellen thought she sensed a faint sigh, but she wasn’t certain.
But now she was released from the paralysis that had gripped her. Wailing, she rushed about the room confusedly before she managed to collect herself sufficiently to think what she had to do. She tore the sheet from the bed, so that the mattress and blankets tumbled to the floor, opened the other creaking window and silently prayed that the ancient crossbar would hold out. She had read about escaping using a sheet and had seen it in the movies, but she would never have guessed that it would be prove so challenging to tie a sheet around a window bar. She felt that the whole thing was taking such a terribly long time, and she knew that as her clumsy fingers fumbled with the sheet, it could enter the room at any moment. Not for her dear life would she turn around.
Finally! She got the sheet to hang properly. It would be make or break!
It broke. The crumbling crossbar gave way with a long, grinding squeak, but Ellen let go of the sheet before the catastrophe became a reality. She was already halfway down, so the fall wasn’t so bad.
Somewhat bruised and battered, she got up from the heap of stones and ran. And now she was there again! The same senseless flight from an imaginary pursuer!
The summer night was light – the sun was already beginning to rise. Ellen rushed off along the country road towards the sleeping village, whimpering with fear, hunted and pursued by the deep fear she had hoped never to experience again.
It wasn’t far to the houses, but who would be awake at this hour? The doctor? Ellen didn’t know where he lived. The police? Well, she had seen a sign saying “Sheriff’s Office” in front of a small house not far from where she was now. Just around the corner ... there it was!
The office was dark and quiet, but someone lived in the house: perhaps the sheriff himself? Ellen rang the doorbell, pressing it in wild agitation.
An upstairs window opened and a tousled head popped out.
“What is it?”
“Are you ... are you the sheriff? I need ... help!”
She could barely stammer out the words. Her whole body was trembling and her lungs were exhausted, her knees were about to buckle under her, and the sense of terror cut through her whimpering voice.
“I’m coming.” The window was shut.
He was still shoving his shirt into his trousers when he opened the door. A mature, stocky man with thick, red-blond hair and stern eyes that were currently slightly drowsy-looking.
Ellen stumbled into the sheriff’s office and was offered a seat because she looked as if she could use one.
“Well then?” the sheriff’s voice was wearily expectant.
She swallowed a few times and took a deep breath.
“The inn ... I am staying at the inn alone ... the locked door ... someone came out of it ... tried to get into my room ... I jumped out of the window.”
He frowned. “Now hold on a moment. I can see that you really have experienced something. I’ve never seen such pale lips before in my life. Who came out of the locked room? Yes, I know the old story. Did you see anyone?”
“No, but I heard, I think it was ... Sheriff, I assure you that I am a sensible person, I’ve always believed that ghosts are merely delusions, figments of the imagination ... but this felt so strange ... I really think ...”
“Now, calm down while I make you a cup of tea,” he said slowly. “Let’s start from the beginning again. Which room did you say you were staying in?”
And Ellen told him about everything that had happened since she had arrived at the inn. She also included the half-dream she had experienced the previous night, with the creaking doors and heavy banging. The sheriff listened to her politely without interrupting and eagerly took notes. When she had finished he rested his chin in his hands as he stared sternly at the stamp holder on his desk. Finally, after letting out a deep, snorting sigh, he said, “To be honest, I don’t believe in ghosts either. I could accompany you back ...”
“Oh no, I’m never going back there!”
“I said I could accompany you. But I won’t. I’ll do something else.”
He looked at his watch and then reached for the telephone.
“This is a job for Nataniel.”
“Nataniel?” asked Ellen, puzzled.
“Haven’t you ever heard of Nataniel? Oh no, of course you haven’t, only the police know of him. He’s a kind of expert in murky cases like this. I think he can help us here. Hello, yes Miss, I know it’s only five o’clock but may I have an official line? Person to person, to Chief Constable Rikard Brink.”
Ellen suddenly discovered that the edge of her nightgown was showing under her sweater, gleaming white and improperly thin. She pushed it in as best she could.
After a while the call went through. The sheriff’s voice became more official sounding. He introduced himself and then asked, “Do you think you could get Nataniel to come out to us immediately? You know him and know where he is. We have a case here that I think might interest him ... Yes, a girl has come into contact with our little local ghost. It’s clear she’s had a real shock; she’s sitting here with her teeth chattering against a teacup so much that I’m afraid the porcelain will break any second. Oh, you can hear the clattering? I happen to be sceptical when it comes to ghosts, and this girl is as well. That’s why I believe her story. So if Nataniel could come out and help us figure out what’s up, it would be a great help. There’s a door that no one’s been able to open for several centuries, they say. Foul rumours have been going around that anyone who’s tried it has died. It was out of that door that the ghastly spirit emerged last night ... Yes, I think it would interest him.”
There was a long pause as the chief constable spoke on the other end.
“No, I’ll see to that,” said the sheriff. “No one will know anything. We won’t deal with the case in any official way. I understand. Exactly, there are some earthly mysteries like nightly truck transportations, so that might be possible ... Yes, you would both be most welcome.”
He put down the receiver and turned to Ellen.
“Chief Constable Brink will also be coming. He’s a good friend of Nataniel – distantly related to him, I believe. Nataniel will call here first and receive a full report. But it’ll be another two or three hours before they get here, so until then I suggest that you borrow our couch upstairs and try to get some rest. I’ll be sure to tell Mrs Sinclair what’s happened, but I’ll have to put it down to hysteria on your part and nothing to be concerned about. Because we don’t want anyone knowing that we intend to inspect the old inn. Do you have a key? Good, then we’ll borrow yours for tonight.”
Ellen shuddered. She knew one individual in this room who was not going to be there.
She accepted his suggestion that she borrow the sofa. But obviously she wouldn’t be able to sleep: of that she was certain!
Nataniel? What a strange-sounding name! He was probably some old psychic who could locate water with a divining rod and find people’s lost wallets, that sort of thing.
Ugh! He could hardly be of any help to her!
The sun streamed across the sheriff’s fine sofa and woke Ellen. Or perhaps it had been the big stocky man who had just entered the living room?
He had a sympathetic appearance, friendly and bearlike with a thick mop of hair. His innocent eyes observed her with kind interest.
There’ll be no more falling in love with young men right now, Ellen thought drowsily. She had recently endured a difficult ordeal, when she had given more love than she had received and had ended up feeling rather ridiculous and foolish. But upon closer observation she concluded that this man must be much older than she had first assumed. Around forty-five. A harmless age! What a relief!
“Nataniel?” she asked drowsily, since she knew no other name for him.
But it wasn’t him. This man was the chief constable, Rikard Brink. Nataniel had a long drive but would probably be with them soon, he explained. Ellen sat up and tried to straighten her hair and clothes.
“What time is it?” she asked in a grainy voice.
“Ten – breakfast is ready.”
A few minutes later, after she had tidied herself up a bit, she was sitting at the breakfast table with the chief constable. After a few polite exchanges, Ellen went straight to the heart of the matter.
“Who is Nataniel? Or rather, what is he? What’s his real name?”
“Nataniel is his Christian name. His surname doesn’t matter. Being anonymous is very important to him. He is a relative of mine. We both belong to an unusual family known as ... No, it doesn’t matter. I probably know him better than most people. It may be best if I tell you a little bit about him – so that you know that you can trust him.”
“Yes, I would appreciate that. You’ve made me very curious.”
Rikard Brink was silent for a moment, as though he was considering where to begin.
“I think I should say a little bit about his family,” he said determinedly. “It’ll be a little drawn out, but there’s a point to the story. His grandparents really observed the Bible’s words about peopling the earth. Goodness! You should have seen the obituary when his grandfather departed from this fragile life on earth. Half the column was taken up by the names of his children. His seventh son, Abel – for they all had biblical names – followed in his father’s footsteps when he married for the first time. As a result, Abel’s son Efraim became the seventh son of a seventh son. And everyone knows what that means.”
“I don’t,” said Ellen.
“Efraim had healing hands.”
“Oh, in that sense.”
“Anyway, he grew up in that belief, eagerly encouraged by his father Abel, and his grandfather, and the rest of their family and friends, and ever-increasing numbers of admirers. Strangers would come from long distances to be healed, and Efraim would place his hands on them with an unctuous expression on his face, and everyone was satisfied and believed in his miraculous power. Everyone in Efraim’s family except for ...”
From the deprecating expression on the chief constable’s face, Ellen concluded that he was not one of Efraim’s admirers.
“There were many of us who didn’t believe in Efraim,” he said after a pause. “Because we knew better. One of the first ones to doubt him was, naturally, Nataniel’s mother, Christa, who was Abel’s second wife. She knew better but didn’t say anything because she didn’t want to blacken the reputation of his first wife. She saw that Efraim was simply bluffing and was a charlatan. She knew that the power of suggestion could make people believe that they felt better – even cured, at least for a little while. And Efraim’s followers continued to increase in number as word spread about him. Efraim, who had always been an unpleasant type who was unable to laugh at himself, charged unscrupulous amounts of money for his services and secretly got as drunk as a billy goat on it afterwards. But his admirers worshipped him.
“That’s why no one noticed Nataniel.
“Nataniel was Abel’s eighth son. Only his mother, Christa, knew what he was feeling. She knew what the sudden look of pain or fear in his eyes meant. Late at night those two used to sit and whisper together; Christa would pose questions and shudder at her son’s answers.
“Christa didn’t want to tell Abel, but she had discovered that another of his sons, Joakim, was really the result of a passionate and forbidden love affair between his first wife and a touring priest who had been passing through.
“Which meant that the seventh son of the seventh son wasn’t the talentless, boastful Efraim – but Nataniel.”
Ellen objected strongly: “It sounds as though you actually believe that story about the seventh son of the seventh son!”
Rikard gave her a resigned look. “When it comes to Nataniel, I’m ready to believe anything. You see, the story about the seventh son of the seventh son is merely a detail. Nataniel is one of the chosen.”
“What do you mean?”
“I ... can’t explain that now, it would take much too long. All I can say is that we both belong to a rather peculiar family known as the Ice People. And Nataniel is the most peculiar of them all. If I told you about his origin and all the natural traits he’s inherited, you wouldn’t believe me. So I won’t bother.”
“Forgive my scepticism – please continue. I want to know about Nataniel’s abilities.”
“Well, he can probably cure the sick, but it’s not something that he ever demonstrates because that’s not his main task. He has so much innate knowledge, and he almost loathes the strange talent that has been given him.”
“So he’s not envious of Efraim’s ‘stolen triumphs’?”
“Not at all! He’s grateful that no one’s taken any notice of him, and he’s mortally afraid of being discovered. You see, he’s ... preparing himself for a great task, but please be so kind as to not inquire about it. I can’t tell you about it.”
“I understand,” Ellen said thoughtfully. “You mentioned something about him wanting to remain anonymous.”
“Yes. That’s because he doesn’t want to draw any attention to himself ... until he has completed his ... task. I don’t understand how a human being could even begin to accomplish such a task.”
Rikard Brink became lost in thought. Ellen waited.
Then the chief constable continued. “I met Nataniel now and then during his difficult childhood and adolescence, and I’ve seen many strange things happen to him.
“Like the time when I was walking with him along the road in the village. He had been given a five-kroner piece by his mother to buy ice cream for both of us, and I was in charge of it, but would you believe that I dropped it? Nataniel’s melancholy eyes grew even more dreamy. ‘It’s lying in the grass under some harebells,’ he said absentmindedly. ‘There’s an ox-eye daisy behind it, and across from it on the road I can see a round stone with grey and white stripes.’ I didn’t doubt Nataniel’s words for one second. We followed the path back and found the stone, the harebells, the ox-eye daisy and the coin. So we could have our ice creams after all. ‘Actually, Mother has forbidden me from showing off any of my skills,’ Nathaniel said with a shy laugh. ‘But I really wanted an ice cream.’ He knew that I would never tell on him.”
I was right, Ellen thought angrily. He is one of those psychics that people use but laugh at behind their backs. An eccentric. A village idiot.
Rikard went on. “Or the terrible time a year later when Nataniel suddenly curled up in violent pain, gasping for breath. I watched in terror as he fought against it, and I didn’t mind the fact that his fingers had left deep marks on my upper arm. ‘I can’t get out,’ he had gasped, stifled. ‘The water is rising and I can’t get out.’ Finally he calmed down, but he didn’t want to tell me anything, just sat in a kind of despair for a long time. The following day a car was found at the bottom of a lake a kilometre from where we live. Four people had died, clearly at the same time that Nataniel had had his painful experience. But we never told anyone about it.
“When he was twelve years old, he saw a blue glow around his grandmother’s head. The glow grew brighter and brighter each day, until a week later she was dead. Another time when I was visiting them, he and I went for a walk. He doesn’t seem to mind confiding in me, though normally he is very lonely and taciturn. We went into a small cottage where a rather shady family lived. Nataniel told me afterwards that he had been gripped by an intensely unpleasant feeling. All I saw was that he was watching the slovenly young wife until she shouted that I ought to take that scoundrel with me and get out. The next day she turned herself into the police, and they discovered numerous stolen goods hidden in the cottage. But no one connected Nataniel with her sudden confession.
“I could tell you about hundreds of such small episodes. About how impossible it was to play cards with him because he always knew what we had in our hands, and how he knew beforehand that we would meet a car when we turned a corner on the road. No, I’ll stop! Anyway, our paths didn’t cross for a few years; my job took up most of my time and I lived far away from him with my little family ... Then, one day I had a very complicated case on my hands. There were so many contradictions, so many aspects that were unclear, and even a hint of something supernatural. That was when I suddenly thought of Nataniel. It wasn’t easy to track him down, because he had retreated into the mountains to work as a dam watchman, in order to escape all the impressions that would overwhelm him when he was in the company of people. He came – and managed to solve the riddles in no time. By eliminating everything that was anything to do with superstition – which had no part in that story, he saw that immediately – he was able to extract whatever small scraps of factual evidence were left. And then it was up to us to crack down on the culprit. Since then, the police have contacted him several times to help solve the most mysterious disappearances and to purge any alleged ghost stories that might be circulating. It’s amazing how often people try to put the blame on the subconscious and spirits and devils when they have committed a crime.”
“I wouldn’t have thought the police would want to collaborate with someone like him.”
“No, most of them are sceptical. But there are a few exceptions, like the sheriff here.”
“But it’s hard to imagine Nataniel going along with this when he loathes his ability so much.”
Rikard Brink smiled. “Yes, he certainly does, it torments him terribly, yet at the same time he is somewhat proud of it, even though he would never admit that. You could call it a kind of love-hate relationship, if you will. And then he loves to solve riddles.”
“So he’ll want to solve this one?”
“He said yes right away, and do you know why?”
“Because of you.”
Ellen blushed. “Does he know me? I mean, can he see me from a distance or something spooky like that?”
“Oh, no. And he can’t read minds, so you don’t need to worry about that. At least I don’t think he can, I’ve never thought about that before. No, there were two things in your account that interested him greatly. But he didn’t say what those two things were. Only that it was the role of the girl in the story that sounded odd.”
“So he didn’t believe me?” she said disappointedly.
“He gave no indication of that. On the contrary.”
Ellen sat motionless for a moment deep in thought, then she shuddered: “Ugh.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The whole thing. I’m getting this unpleasant sense of pressure in my chest. Out of compassion, perhaps. For Nataniel.”
“You understand him?” Rikard asked gently. “Understand his pain?”
“I have reasons for doing so,” she said curtly and reluctantly.
Rikard nodded. “I thought so. Please don’t think that I normally go around telling people so much about Nataniel. But I chose to tell you. Partly because of something he said, and partly because you have exactly the same expression in your eyes as he does. And what sort of expression that is I can’t explain. Something eternal, if you understand what I mean.”
Ellen didn’t really. “But what’s he like? Is he like Efraim? Because he definitely didn’t sound sympathetic.”
“Nataniel doesn’t have any of Efraim’s nauseating self-righteousness. There are many good people in his family who have distanced themselves from Efraim’s way of life. Nataniel is ... strange. Strong ... frightfully strong mentally, yet still vulnerable. And he is carrying a tremendous burden on his ... Oh, I think I hear his car. I’ll go down to the office and greet him. Come down once you’re finished here.”
Suddenly Ellen was gripped by such an intense sense of nervousness that her hands felt both clammy and cold.
He turned at the door. “By the way ... don’t offer him your hand when you meet him. Nataniel prefers it that way: he receives so many unnecessary impressions from people with whom he has no need to preoccupy himself that he simply doesn’t shake hands.”
It wasn’t exactly reassuring for Ellen to hear that.