Authors: Michelle Harrison
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #General, #Fantasy & Magic, #JUV000000
“Let’s go up there now—it looks like Warwick’s gone right back out again.”
“Fabian,” Tanya began, “after what we’ve been through today can you just tell me what it is first so I can decide if it’s worth the effort? I’m tired, and fed up, and I’m not going on some harebrained mission before I’ve had a shower and got changed.”
Fabian’s blue eyes danced with mischief.
“It’s worth the effort, I promise you.”
“Give me ten minutes,” she said with a sigh. “I’ll meet you up there.”
The second floor was even dustier than the rest of the house, due to the fact that usually Amos and Warwick were the only people who ventured up there. Mounted on the wall at the top of the stairs was the head of a majestic stag. This was only the second time Tanya had seen it, but both times, as she looked into its sad brown eyes, it made her want to weep. She dropped her gaze, concentrating on the thread-bare carpet until she reached the top of the stairs. Fabian was waiting in a small, darkened alcove in which a chair sat in front of a dingy wall tapestry.
“This is it.”
Tanya examined the filthy old tapestry that hung from floor to ceiling against the wall. Apart from its size it was nondescript, and so faded and dusty that it was impossible to make out what it was actually a picture of.
“Wow,” Tanya said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
Fabian pursed his lips. “Not the tapestry, idiot. What’s
Tanya gave him a look, and pulled the tapestry back. A door of solid oak lay behind it, set back into the wall.
“When did you find this?”
“Yesterday. I can’t believe I never knew it was here before.”
“Well, no one really comes up here,” said Tanya. “Even when we used to search the house for the secret passages we never checked the second floor. We were always too afraid of coming up here. Where does it lead?”
“That’s what we’re about to find out,” said Fabian.
“Oh, I get it. You were too scared to investigate on your own.”
“Actually, no,” Fabian said coolly. “The door is locked.”
“So how do you propose we get through it?”
“With this.” From his pocket, Fabian produced an ancient-looking key. “It’s a skeleton key. It’ll open every door in the house.”
“I know what a skeleton key is,” Tanya snapped. “But what are
doing with it?”
“I borrowed it. From Warwick.”
“You mean you
it. There’s no way he’d let you use that.”
“Whatever. Let’s just make the most of it before he finds out it’s missing.”
He inserted the key into the door. It gave a soft click as he turned it. “See?” he whispered triumphantly. “Good as new. Come on.”
As Fabian pushed the door open a waft of damp, musty air descended upon them. He stepped through the darkened doorway, beckoning for Tanya to follow.
“What is it?” she asked, moving forward. “A room?”
Fabian pressed a finger to his lips as Tanya came through the doorway into complete darkness. She stood waiting awkwardly as he carefully arranged the tapestry in its correct position and then closed the door softly behind them.
“Now we can’t see a thing!” she hissed.
“Wait,” said Fabian, and she could hear him fumbling in his pockets in the darkness. There was a small click and then there was light. Fabian stood grinning, holding a small but obviously powerful pocket flashlight.
“I knew this would come in handy one day.”
As her eyes adjusted, Tanya could see that it was not a room they were standing in but a narrow passage that led off to the left and the right. To the right there was a set of stairs leading up.
Fabian shone the flashlight at the walls. “It’s damp in here.”
“And the air is bad too,” said Tanya, wrinkling her nose. “I wonder what this passage was used for… maybe this is one of the secret passages.”
“It would’ve been hidden a lot better than that if it was meant to be secret,” Fabian said scornfully. “I think it’s the old servants’ staircase.”
“But I thought it had been blocked off,” said Tanya.
“It is. Or at least, the main entrance in the kitchen is. Florence had it all closed up years ago—she said it would prevent so much heat escaping in the winter.”
“I thought the entire staircase was blocked off, though,” said Tanya. “I didn’t realize that it was only partially filled in.”
“Which way should we go?”
Fabian aimed the flashlight at the flight of stairs. “We’re already on the highest floor, so those steps must lead up to the attic. I think we should go this way.” He pointed the flashlight at the corridor that led off to the left, lifting the light to the walls. Huge patches of mold had formed from years of moisture in the air. A flash of light dazzled Tanya’s eyes.
“What was that?”
“The light from the flashlight reflected off a window,” said Fabian.
“Look closely and you can see the ivy has grown over it—that’s why there’s no light.”
He was right. As Tanya looked at the window, filthy with years of grime, she could see the mass of entangled leaves growing wildly over the glass from the outside, blocking out virtually all daylight.
Fabian took a step farther into the hallway. “Be careful. This passage is very old. It might not be completely safe.”
They began to edge into the darkness tentatively, the wooden floor groaning under their weight. Things scuffled in the woodwork, and Tanya found herself wondering whether it was mice or fairies—and trying to decide which would be worse.
They had walked only a short distance when he stopped.
“There’s a door on my left.” He rattled it. “It’s locked.”
“Try the key,” Tanya suggested.
Fabian bent down and shone the tiny flashlight into the keyhole. “I think the key is in the lock on the other side.”
“So use the skeleton key to push it out.”
“That won’t work,” said Fabian. “Because we might need the key that’s on the other side. Not all the doors have the original locks.”
“Come on then,” said Tanya. “Let’s see if there are any more doors farther on.”
“Wait.” Fabian handed her the flashlight and began to rummage through his pockets again.
“What are you doing?” Tanya asked, watching as he removed a folded sheet of paper and a small reel of wire.
“Oldest trick in the book,” Fabian muttered, unfolding the paper.
As Tanya looked more closely, it was evident that the piece of paper had been folded and unfolded many times. It was limp and the creases were well worn.
“What’s that for?” she asked again, but Fabian did not answer. He was now busy unraveling the wire and twisting it into a thin prong of about four inches.
“That should do it.”
He placed the paper at the foot of the door, then slowly slid it through the gap underneath and on to the other side, leaving an inch or so still visible. Carefully, he took the wire and inserted it into the keyhole very slowly. After he wiggled it around for a few seconds there was a small thud, then Fabian pulled on the sheet of paper until it reappeared under the door—with the key sitting neatly in the middle of it.
“That’s brilliant!” said Tanya, staring at the key in amazement.
“Not really,” said Fabian, with a modest grin. “I read about it once in an old detective novel. It’s just common sense.”
Tanya eyed the well-folded piece of paper.
“You’ve obviously done it before.”
Fabian picked up the key and the paper, which he folded again and put carefully back into his pocket. “Once or twice. Although if the key doesn’t land right, it can bounce off the sheet of paper. We were lucky this time.” He fitted the key into the lock and turned it. The door opened, and the two of them stepped into a small, dark room.
As with the secret staircase, there was no light from the window; it was completely wreathed with ivy from the outside. An ornately carved wooden chest stood beneath the window, coated in a gray blanket of dust. There was a huge wardrobe in the corner, one of its doors open slightly as if someone had left the room in a hurry and never again returned.
In the center of the room stood a beautiful crib, complete with a crocheted set of bedclothes that had been hastily turned back. Abandoned in the crib lay a tiny, raggedy bear, and as Tanya reached in and gently picked it up, she saw a jagged rip through which a dirty lump of stuffing protruded.
“It was a nursery,” she said.
Something moved within the bear’s stuffing. With a surprised squeak, Tanya flung it back into the crib.
“What’s the matter?” Fabian asked.
“I think there are mice nesting in here.”
“Pretty creepy room, if you ask me,” said Fabian, lifting the lid of the chest. A cloud of dust shot into the air, causing him to sneeze three times in quick succession. Inside the chest there was another bear, several dolls, and an old spinning top. A jack-in-the-box lay broken, its spring full of rust.
“You’re right,” said Tanya, feeling a sudden shiver. “It is creepy.”
“I never knew this room was here,” said Fabian, moving toward the main door. “I wonder where we are.”
He opened the door cautiously, and Tanya heard him exclaim.
“Come and look at this.”
She moved closer to the door and looked where Fabian was pointing the flashlight. The doorway was barred by a large area of solid wood.
“It’s the back of the dresser… it’s been moved in front of the door. Someone went to a lot of effort to make sure this room was never found.”
“Because of the bad thing,”
a muffled, rasping voice said suddenly.
Tanya stood stock still, watching Fabian for a reaction. There was none; he had not heard. Turning slowly, she moved back to the crib. Her eyelids twitched as she drew nearer. There was a series of small movements, and then a small, pinched face appeared from within the stuffing of the bear in the crib. Its skin was dusty and gray, and Tanya found it impossible to tell whether it was male or female. Her eyes were drawn to the creature’s protruding, rodent like front teeth.
“Bad thing,” it croaked, eyeing her reproachfully. “The bad thing that happened here.” With one suspicious eye firmly on Tanya, the creature delved into the depths of its nest and pulled something out. “Long time ago. Long, long time.”
Bile rose in Tanya’s throat when she realized that the thing it had retrieved from its nest was a half-eaten mouse. “What bad thing?” she whispered to it, careful not to let Fabian hear.
“Not telling,” it muttered nastily. The sound of crunching bones reached Tanya’s ears and she backed away from the crib. The tangy, metallic scent of blood followed her.
“Let’s get out of here,” she said, as the creature chewed and sucked. “This room has a nasty feel to it.”
Fabian closed the door quietly, and the two of them headed back to the servants’ staircase. Tanya stepped through gladly but Fabian paused, shining the flashlight around one last time before leaving the room.
“Fabian! Let’s go!” Tanya hissed, but Fabian went past the crib and peered at something on the wall.
“Oh,” he said. “It’s just an old embroidery.”
“What does it say?”
“I can’t read very well in this light,” said Fabian, removing his glasses and polishing them.
Tanya walked over, ignoring the muttering from the crib, and squinted at the cross-stitch on the wall. It was white, or at least it had been once, and embroidered on it were pale pink roses and the words, “Congratulations on the birth of your daughter,” with a date underneath.
“That’s unusual,” said Fabian, once he had replaced his glasses. “The date of birth is the twenty-ninth of February, which means the baby was born on the extra day of a leap year.”
Tanya frowned. “February twenty-ninth is my mother’s birthday.”
“Oh,” said Fabian. “This must have been your mother’s nursery then.” He sniggered suddenly. “Does that mean you only have to buy her a birthday card once every four years?”
“No,” Tanya replied, shaking her head. “We celebrate her birthday on the first of March, although she always jokes that I’m older than her.”