This vignette is part of The Observer’s Casebook, the first book of the noir fantasy series of the same name.
The so-called Empty House of Lemaigne had not always been empty. The eldest salts of the city will tell you that several hundred years ago — shortly after the end of the Peerage — a man named Liam Torville lived there with his wife and two children.
In the same house, if you can believe the story, Torville also maintained a small musical conservatory, boarding rooms for dock officers and Prelatarian deacons, one of Lemaigne’s finest lending libraries, and the press of its oldest newspaper, The Whitecoat Publick Record, which he had rescued from the bared teeth of bankruptcy by filling its pages with the indignities of Commonwealth dignitaries.
Despite its grand proportions, the Empty House had been strictly speaking a rowhouse, closed in on either side by neighbors and backed up against bare rock just like my Observer office and so many other buildings in Lemaigne, with only the façade visible from the outside.
This might seem an odd arrangement to natives of other large cities, where expansive terrain affords urban hauts their broad-lawned estates and only the grimiest sludge of society (who, being near universally illiterate, are spared exposure to that insult) get kenneled in rows and stackhouses.
But, unlike many ports, Lemaigne glares slavishly seaward with little inland traffick and no tendrils of habitation beyond the ancient gates that breach her outermost wall. The cramped enclosure of Lemaigne’s embowled harbor dictates tight plots for plebes and patricians alike.
Torville had been flush enough to score a tony house on a high street but, according to some, his father was just a poor sawyer. Then again, others have told me he wasn’t a sawyer’s son at all, but a half-jenny bastard, which I find an insipid debate since the two prospects are not exclusive.
In order to sweeten the tale with a false touch of romance, some old harlots insist the man’s name was the same as this or that famous admiral or sea captain. For every tale worth telling, there’s a fraud aiming to twist it to her own end.
Whatever the truth of Torville’s origins, he was a generous and gifted man, if not manifestly adept at the gentle arts of society. He spent the bulk of the fortunes he earned from the Publick Record on books to lend and rooms to let and music to publish, all for free, all for the good of the city.
Or perhaps because he had no talent to haggle a price greater than gratis. In the end, regardless of the reason, he had no funds remaining for the repair of his residence.
The stories don’t say why, but the front of Torville’s house had been built sturdier than the rest of it. My guess is either that the original builder used stronger stone in front because this was the only wall with big gaps for windows, or because he just wanted to appear less cheap (or more wealthy) than he actually was.
In whichever case, after Torville had been living there a decade or so, cracks opened in the rear wall abutting the naked rock, as if the raw bones of Lemaigne herself exerted a corrupting influence on the quarried stone. The weaker blocks there began to crumble into the rooms of the mansion, forcing Torville’s family forward.
Then rain poured into the architectural wounds, goading the house’s decay. Of course, this withering was hidden deep behind the façade, where no outsider could see.
Torville appealed for assistance to the mayor and council of alders (Lemaigne still had a working city government, back then), and to the Prelatarian congregations, and to the local naval post commander. After all, didn’t he provide texts and compositions to the residents of the city at no cost? Didn’t he house the deacons of the church, several legal clerks, and the log-keeper for the Red Fleet?
Those receiving his petitions were too polite — or too cowardly — to call Torville a liar to his face, but everyone knew that the house looked strong and beautiful from the outside, and everyone knew that a man resourceful enough to enrich the city with his collected knowledge, his music, and the public servants he kept under his roof certainly could not honestly be in such a weak position that he had to go begging for support.
For all his generosity, Torville was not cordial enough to win the hearts of his fellow Lemaigners; as the civilized are little more than beasts wrapped in cloth, their minds follow whither their irrational guts lead. Liam Torville had an aloof air about him, the accounts agree, and this was all the evidence that mattered in the end.
The attestations of the deacons, clerks, and log-keeper who shared Torville’s roof moved no one, as these ill-payed laborers were suspected of being in on the scheme. Surely, he was angling for donations to support a fancy remodeling project! Even his neighbors (who were unaware of the destruction, though they shared walls) turned him down.
And, the city began to resent her most loyal benefactor for his incessant, yet justified, complaints.
As the aft of the building collapsed room by room, Torville was forced first to abandon the newspaper.
Wanting to protect the historied press, but unable to house it elsewhere, he donated the Publick Record to a merchant named DeMore, who promised to honor the reputation Torville had built for it, but thereafter used the paper largely to promote his mining ventures in the Sagadock and Pennawsky District.
Next, Torville evicted the public clerks, for their own safety. Outraged, the alders connived with local justices to serve him with an injunction to readmit the boarders — at the prior rate of zero pennies per week, of course. Torville refused, and again attempted to explain his predicament, this time issuing a petition backed up by an affidavit from a licensed mason.
“Scandal and barratry!” the city’s officials declared, and threatened to have him arrested.
Wry gossips accused Torville of all sorts of wickedness. “He’s tossing boarders to the street out of sheer bitterness” and “The man is grievously solicitous of attention” and “God’s Gift Liam is offended by our refusal to finance his paltry project!”
As the denizens of Lemaigne spun and spewed, the house continued its slow collapse, and in the midst of their recriminations Torville was forced to oust the log-keeper as well.
The Red Fleet’s post commander for the Port of Lemaigne, a Captain Bushrock, blustered that he would have Torville hauled before the Judge Herald at Fort Grey for “unceremonious displacement” of an officer of the Commonwealth. It was under the heat of this controversy that Torville’s wife left him, blaming his unaffable carriage for the accumulating misfortunes.
She took their young son and daughter back to her father’s home in the Redlands.
Torville then closed the conservatory. The musicians who once practiced there, unable to afford the extravagant rents they confronted in the remainder of the city, fled to Amberton and Mayport. Suddenly, the lavish chambers of Lemaigne were without chamber music and the hundreds of sheets Torville had penned himself were rendered mute.
As the ruination of the house advanced toward the shelves of books, Torville offered to donate the lot to their most avid borrower, the now-defunct Wardman College. The deans, certain that he was simply trying to transfer expenses for upkeep onto the school, refused the offer.
Desperate to save the collection, Torville handed the library over to the Order of St. Kassiel, who were struggling to maintain a High Church monastery in Lemaigne under the growing shadow of the Prelatarians.
Well, the Prelatarians of Wardman College were not at all pleased at this turn of events, as the monks were adamantly opposed to trusting “heretics” with their newly acquired library. When Torville finally had to evict their deacons, the city’s Prelatarians hung him in effigy from the Unity Tree that once grew just outside the Northwest Gate.
Incited by the sectarian gale roaring in the soggy, salt-edged avenues of Lemaigne, the mayor and his alders marched from the town hall to Torville’s formidable doors, indictments in hand, to demand he restore the services he had once rendered the city.
They hammered the doors with canes and clubs, one matron (again, as some tell it) so incensed at the man’s failure to present himself to justice that she launched a rock through a high window she thought to be Torville’s bedroom.
This swarm were soon joined by many of the city’s finest minds: pious clergy of the Prelatarian church, professors from the College, aristoi accustomed to the melodies of Torville’s vanished players, and Captain Bushrock himself with the bespangled officers of his wardroom in tow.
The slavering mob raged at the face of the house, pounding the doors and the stone itself until, with a sudden and unannounced whump, the façade folded on top of them like the closing of a book cover.
Liam Torville, of course, was already gone. Whether he had set to sea in disgust as some claimed, or flung himself in despair from the cliffs of Hornet Creek as others asserted, is impossible determine at this distance from those early events.
What is certain is that Wardman College stumbled along for a few semesters before the crippling of its faculties became so apparent that matriculation simply drifted off like a breeze-blown fog.
The Red Fleet dissolved the post of Lemaigne, and most other instruments of the Commonwealth eventually faltered as well, save this damnable Observer post that I now occupy.
The mayorship was passed around a few times by fiat of the city’s leading businessmen before being abandoned completely. The Prelatarians, decapitated, devolved into addle-headed mysticism and speculation.
The building itself (what part wasn’t scavenged to make gravestones for the luminaries there crushed beneath its vengeful ballast) now punctuates the plot in the form of several piles of ragged stone, the foundation row of the façade still lining the street like a low, rough garden wall.
And today, several centuries past the fall of the Empty House, when I survey the decrepitude of Lemaigne — her rampant delinquency, depravity, and whoredom — I can’t help but wonder if the dark legacy of the city is not a judgment by natural law for the scorning of Liam Torville.