There were seven public rooms in the museum, and Jalene Naysure had seen them all a thousand times. She had gotten friendly with the curator, Aileen Royer, and had been in the private office many times.
That left one room Jalene had never seen, the one that was off limits to everyone but the curator. It was an oddly placed addition to the house and was accessible only from the outside. Someone unfamiliar with the floor plan wouldn’t have known of the room just from walking around inside. It was behind a bare wall decorated only with a little molding and two brass candle sconces.
“I’ve never been in there,” said Arnold Pinkhause, a retired volunteer fire chief and one of the volunteer docents. “Cora says it’s just storage.”
“Oh, odds and ends,” Cora Belling, chief volunteer docent, told Jalene. “Junk, really, but junk no one’s made the decision to get rid of over the past fifty years. I’ve never been in there myself, but there’s nothing worth looking at in there.”
The town of Midplain had lovingly preserved the boyhood home of Gen. Melchior Menassah Turvey. He was the only resident of historical note to come from Midplain, and that was based solely on his having achieved high rank. He had been promoted to general from colonel the week before he retired in August 1910, a nod to his lifetime of service to the Army. That service stretched back to being a camp records clerk in Massachusetts during the Civil War and culminated in his many years as head of that facility, which was closed the day after he retired.
The closest Turvey got to the sound of battle was his camp’s little rifle range, but he was a skilled-enough administrator that the Army continued to promote him even as it kept him in the Massachusetts hinterlands.
Every year, the mayor of Midplain would stand at the door to the Turvey home and read an abbreviated version of the Independence Day address Turvey gave his men in 1898, which was generally considered his finest. Mayors used to read the thing in its entirety, but modern civilians weren’t under orders to stand at parade rest in the noonday sun and listen to a three-hour speech and they didn’t. The present mayor had it down to four and a half minutes.
The house showcased the decor and furnishings of an earlier time, and a small display case was devoted to the general’s career. It attracted just enough people each year at 25 cents a head for adults, children under 10 free, to keep the lights on. The part-time curator was paid out of the town’s coffers.
Jalene loved the old house and its beautiful antiques. She was especially fond of the commanding portrait of the general that hung over the display case. It was flanked by his Army dress sword and a sword of some Oriental make he had received while part of a brief fact-finding mission to the Far East.
After the deaths of their parents, the general’s spinster sister, Marnin Magen Turvey, lived alone in the home until her untimely death from pneumonia several years later. The general had outlived the rest of his family considerably.
Jalene hoped one day to be curator of the Turvey House Museum. It would be a socially advantageous career that would keep her in Midplain and not interfere with marrying and raising a family.
Billy Frockman had been a marriage possibility at one time, but poor Billy hadn’t come back from the War in Europe. Lately, the only man showing any sustained interest in her was Warren Gardknecht, and she’d be hanged before she married him and spent her life on a pig farm. It was bad enough to get trapped near the family in church, or, heaven forbid, the Eatemup Diner.
And so, slowly becoming an old maid of 20 a year after the war’s end, Jalene ran the Young Misses department at Fromeyher’s Finery & Furnishings, where she was thought to be young enough to be seen as a friend to the girls in need of wardrobe assistance and yet mature enough to lead them in the path of good taste.
She continued to live at home and help her mother with the housework as she always had. She gently fended off her father’s hamhanded attempts to discuss her future – gently until he began to talk about the unmarried men at the implement dealership where he worked, and then she became rather frosty in her manner. And she spent much of her free time at the Turvey House Museum, which she considered her second home.
That was why the locked room and its unknown contents began to gnaw at her. One did not lock rooms in one’s home, or in one’s second home.
The curator’s office had two mismatched signs. The first read: Curator. The second read: Private. Jalene respected the authority of those notices and she did not, in her most outlandish fantasies, dream of entering without a direct invitation.
The locked room, however, was merely there. Jalene had been raised well and a simple sign saying No Admittance, or even another Private, would have sufficed. The lack of such signage ate at her; it meant that no good reason existed for keeping her out of the room.
“Mrs. Royer,” Jalene ventured one day, “would it be permissible for me to have a look in the added room?”
The request surprised the older woman. “The added room? Whatever for? It merely contains the detritus of the furnishings that weren’t in use or in good repair when the town took over caring for the house. Besides, the flooring is in quite a state of disrepair. It wouldn’t be safe to walk around in. I don’t go in there myself.”
Jalene forced a smile and left the curator to her work. But she had caught the old lady in a lie. She had seen Curator Royer come out of that room a dozen times over the years. Now Jalene’s Irish was up. She vowed she would see the inside of the locked room.
Lock picking has never been considered an appropriate skill for young women. But Jalene had taken it up when her mother, distracted by some unknown sorrow, got in the habit of accidentally locking them out of the house when they went on errands. A bobby pin and a nail file permitted Jalene to gain entry. It was easier than sending for her father at work.
Thus, the next Saturday, armed with these tools, Jalene waited until Curator Royer closed the door to her office to take her luncheon. Then Jalene walked the long way around the house and set to work on the lock. Her skills were still good and the lock retracted with a soft snk.
The room was dark but Jalene’s hand went right to the spot on the wall where a light switch should be, and it was there. She turned the knob, and one hand went to her breast and the other to her mouth to stifle a cry. The light revealed her to be in Hell’s anteroom.
The room was done up in reds: low red couches with red (and gold) pillows, red rugs, red wall hangings. On the longer walls were lurid murals of unclothed men and women, none depicted any older than Jalene herself, preparing to commit acts of lewdness and indecency; the eyes bulged greedily and the hands almost appeared to be twitching.
The shorter walls held scenes of vines and grapes interspersed with maniacally grinning demons.
Above, a decorative fan with palm-shaped blades turned lazily, also activated by the light switch. The flooring, far from being dangerous, was a solid, polished teak
The centerpieces were six majestic hookahs.
Jalene now pressed both hands to her mouth; she felt ill. She hoped the Rapture would hold off because surely she would be left behind just for standing in this place. She walked around, her eyes darting wildly from point to point, then averting them quickly as they found nothing holy to view.
She had seen enough and made a beeline for the door. She flung it open and two soft shrieks were heard: Jalene’s own and one from Curator Royer, holding her key in the open doorway.
“Jalene Naysure! I am surprised at you! You know this room isn’t to be entered.”
Jalene put up with none of the woman’s ire. “Curator! This is an opium den! At the very least. And it gives every appearance of still being in use. The room is spotless.”
Mrs. Royer backed Jalene into the room and closed the door, shutting off the sight of it to the world. “Yes, yes, it was an opium den, but it hasn’t been used in years. I clean it regularly myself. That’s what I was coming to do while the docents are at their luncheon. You see my cleaning tools in the corner there.”
“But why? What reason is there? Why is this room kept up? Why does it exist at all?”
Mrs. Royer shook her silver locks. “I might as well tell you the story since you’ve come this far on your own. Sit down.”
“I shall not!”
The curator shrugged. “Stand then, but I’m going to sit. It is a privilege of age.” She seated herself on one of the low-slung couches.
“After the general’s parents died, their daughter was left here alone. She was unmarried and – by the looks of the one portrait we have of her – was not burdened by numerous suitors. Her father had left some money but it would not last indefinitely. Her brother, a captain at the time, could spare little from the care of his own growing family. She played the ocarina, but one doesn’t support oneself either by public performance of that instrument or by giving lessons.”
Mrs. Royer sighed. “As so many young women without means do, Marnin Turvey settled on vice to support herself. She had this room constructed and wrote to her brother, fully and frankly describing her plan and asking for his assistance. He somehow got himself attached to a mission to the Far East, where he purchased these water pipes and arranged for regular shipments of opium to his sister.”
“That was the trip where he was awarded the sword that hangs with his portrait,” Jalene said.
“‘Awarded’ may be too strong a word. ‘Purloined’ is likely more accurate. Anyway, he sent the hookahs. By means not known to us, Miss Turvey built a small, discreet, and wealthy clientele. Her record books survive. They show memberships in the Orient Club, as it was known, were sold for as much as $1,000 for a year. This was a few years before the turn of the century and that was a startling sum of money. Yet there were as many as twenty-six names entered in the ledger in a single year: first names only, both men and women. Miss Turvey flourished.”
“None in the town ever knew?”
“The town hadn’t expanded quite this far in those days,” Mrs. Royer said. “There is not one word to indicate that anyone in Midplain had the slightest notion of what was going on out here.”
“What happened to this ‘club’ after her death?” Jalene asked.
“It disbanded, naturally. Captain Turvey chose to remain in the service. We have no idea what happened to the money.”
“And this…” Jalene’s face contorted, “disgusting artwork?”
“It seems that Miss Turvey, wanting to liven up the place, gave an artist a free membership if only he would ply his trade in here. You see the results.”
“But why is it kept as it was?” Jalene demanded. “Why not paint over the walls, destroy the furniture and the pipes?”
“Because, my dear, this is part of the history of the Turvey house. The painter is one of renown and, although he did not sign his work in this room, any expert would instantly recognize it. The pipes, which Captain Turvey would have gotten for a pittance in his day, are worth a great deal now. The fact that we do not like the history of his portion of the house is unimportant. What is in this room is both materially and historically valuable. It would be wrong to destroy it. So I am one of a line of curators who has kept this room in its original condition. And who has kept its secrets.” She looked hard into the younger woman’s eyes. “As you must now do.”
“Whyever should I? If people knew of this, a bulldozer would be here within the hour to destroy it. What does history or mammon matter? This room is evil.”
“And the rest of the Turvey House Museum would likely be destroyed with it. Our town’s only tourist draw. The only thing our community has that no other does. You mustn’t think I approve of what was done here, but I am a keeper of history. Someday the history of this room will be known, after I am long gone, I hope. And then it will serve many purposes, including, one may wish, that of opening people’s eyes to how immorality may blossom even in a small town such as ours. It is a valuable lesson to preserve for posterity.”
Jalene was silent for a long time.
“Think hard, girl, before you utter a single word that would upset our community as nothing has before. Think hard before you substitute your green judgment for that of your elders who have come before you.”
Jalene sighed and looked into the curator’s eyes. “I will bide my tongue and keep this room’s secret.”
“A mature decision, Miss Naysure.”
* * *
Nineteen years later, Jalene Naysure Halstead became the new curator of the Turley House Museum, succeeding Aileen Royer. Several years after that, rocked by assassinations and pointless war and lying presidents, she opened the Orient Club room to the public: $5 for adults, separate admission from the rest of the house; no children.
The historians who arrived were delighted, as were the tourists. The people of Midplain chuckled and purchased the miniature hookahs the museum’s expanded gift shop sold.
Jalene tried to remember the girl she had been, the one who was sickened to her core by the little room. That had been too long ago, though, and the museum’s finances had never been in better shape.