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Authors: Kate Riordan

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BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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“I don't think I've ever seen so much yew outside a graveyard,” I said.

Mrs. Jelphs didn't answer but continued to stare out the window at the monstrous shrub.

After she left me alone, I made a timid inspection of the room, easing warped drawers open as quietly as I could and setting down the ornaments I picked up exactly where they had been. Every surface had been dusted, but the air smelt musty and old, and slightly sourly of mothballs. It was foolish, but I realised I was behaving as though someone was stationed outside the door, listening.

The room was situated in the corner of the house, and therefore had windows on two sides. It was sparsely furnished, but what there was looked expensive, if rather worn. A large polished mahogany wardrobe squatted in one corner, with a slightly foxed mirror set into the door. My face looked drawn in it, and I wondered if its reflection was true. Inside, half a dozen wooden coat hangers clicked forlornly when I opened the door. A Victorian dresser held an old-fashioned jug and bowl.

A pair of matching tables flanked the bed, which was far bigger and higher than the one I was used to. I had to clamber awkwardly onto it, my swelling stomach getting in the way. I lay down on my back and felt myself sink deeply into the old mattress. Above it was a canopy, its heavy wine-red curtains tied back. I reached up to shake one out. The fabric was a thick brocade with a faded pattern I could just make out, of fruit trees and strange figures picked out in gold thread.

Something tickled my hand, and I jumped, dropping the curtain so it swung down, sending up a small cloud of dust. A large moth, desiccated except for its plump, furry body, had landed on the back of my hand. Its wings flapped open and shut slowly as I held my hand as far from my face as I could, not thinking to just shake it off. Eventually it flew away of its own accord, flitting around the loose curtain until it disappeared above the canopy. I shuddered and rubbed at my hand, though there was nothing there.

It was gloomy on the bed behind the dense weave of the curtain fabric; even the air felt more solid. I couldn't imagine why anyone would ever want to sleep with the curtains down; it would be like a slow suffocation. I told myself I was being silly then—getting jittery about a moth when I had no real fear of them. It
was an old house, after all. The only surprise was that the brocade had survived so long. I tied the curtain back, rising to my knees on the lumpy mattress to manage it, and started humming something tuneless, deliberately making a noise in the silence, ignoring my heart beating hard in my chest. The baby shifted inside me, and I wondered if he could sense my nervousness. I say he. He became a he to me from my first hours at Fiercombe.

The smaller side-facing window supplied the room with most of its light, since the enormous yews grew only at the front of the house. I crossed to it and opened the casement as wide as its swollen hinges would allow. The air outside was a balm after the closeness of the room, and I gulped it down. Leaning out, I could see a long way towards the west, the only direction in which the steep sides of the valley flattened out a little. The sunsets from there would be spectacular.

Beyond a quaint stone building a little way off and the formal garden with its square beds and box hedge, I had an uninterrupted view of the valley floor. A great meadow rolled gently away into the distance. I knew that close up it was probably dotted with weeds and clusters of garish dandelions, but from the window it was a flawless carpet of soft green.

As I watched, a figure came into view on the far side of the meadow, a dog off to his side, running in and out of view in the long grass. It was Ruck, I realised. He wasn't tall or particularly broad, but he carried a shotgun on his shoulder easily. He didn't look up or around him as he walked; his surroundings must have grown so familiar that they were now invisible to him. At the top corner of the meadow he paused, and I heard a low whistle. The dog, which had lingered behind, came careering up at the call and scrambled through the gate leading to the next field.

Feeling oddly shy about watching him, I closed the casement softly, though he couldn't possibly have heard me. Turning back to face my new room, I heard a soft but insistent ticking. It was coming from a clock I hadn't registered before, though it squatted at the centre of the mantelpiece, an ugly thing of gilt. In the silence of the room the ticking suddenly seemed loud, and I couldn't understand how I'd missed it before. Though I immediately dismissed the thought as fanciful, I wondered if I hadn't heard it before because it had only just then started up. I peered at the face across the room, feeling strangely reluctant to approach it. The hands told me it was quarter to six, which I knew was impossible. I turned over my wrist. My own watch had stopped again. I tapped it, but there was not even a flicker of movement this time.

After I had unpacked my suitcase and pushed it to the back of the wardrobe, I felt ready to go and look outside. I found my way back to the main staircase with no trouble, though I kept my eyes on my feet on my way down so I didn't have to look at the painting of the alchemist baronet. I would leave by the front door this time, I thought, but when I turned the heavy iron of the handle and pulled, the oak scarcely budged. Perhaps everyone used the other door.

The kitchen was deserted, all traces of my tea tray tidied away. I found myself creeping through on tiptoe anyway. It was a relief to be outside in the fragrant air of the kitchen garden again. I made my way round to the front of the house, only to be greeted as soon as I turned the corner by the looming yews, which seemed to leach the warm afternoon light away, their foliage almost black against the golden stone of the house. They were sinister enough now, in the middle of the afternoon; I thought about the
shadows they'd cast after nightfall if the moon was out, and my scalp prickled slightly.

A sudden noise made me start. It was an upstairs casement, protesting loudly as it was scraped open. Mrs. Jelphs's pale face appeared above me.

“You're looking at the garden,” she said, her voice carrying easily in the silence of the yew parlour. “It's such a shame you can't see the gardens that used to be here.”

I wasn't sure what she meant, but her closed expression stopped me from asking. She spoke again after a pause.

“There'll be a light supper in the Red Room at seven. If you don't object, I'll join you. There are some things I must tell you about the house—where you can go in the grounds and so forth. You won't find the room easily, so come to the kitchen and I'll take you there myself.”

She withdrew without waiting for me to reply, dragging the casement shut. I realised then that it was my own room she'd been speaking to me from. I had shut the door behind me; she must have knocked, received no answer, and gone in anyway. I wanted to go back and check it immediately, though I don't know what I expected to find. Even if Mrs. Jelphs had gone through my things, she was hardly careless enough to leave behind any clue that she had. Perhaps she had gone in to check that I had everything I needed—enough clothes hangers and so forth—but the uncomfortable image of her fingering my slightly shabby possessions persisted just the same. I wondered with a lurch if she somehow knew I'd been poking around in her sewing box. Could her presence in my room be a warning, to mind my own business if I wanted to be left alone myself?

I spent the next half hour wandering aimlessly around the small formal garden, inspecting the shrubs and flowers with a feigned
interest, in case I was watched from within the house. It was too bright an afternoon for any lamps to be lit inside, so each window was dark and blank, telling me nothing.

The garden was formed of a series of terraces, most of the stone steps cracked and overrun with moss and weeds. A bench had been placed on the uppermost terrace, and I sat down gingerly, expecting the wood to be rotten. It creaked but held, and I looked up to my first proper view of the house's main facade.

The three gables were each slightly different, and I remembered Ruck saying they'd been built at different times, a century between each. At first glance I'd thought the house very beautiful, its age-softened lines and golden stone lovely. But as I continued to look, I found I could soon see only its faults and oddities. The lack of symmetry in the gables and chimneys, the sagging roof, and a small round window just below it, in the oldest part of the house, knocked the whole building out of kilter. There was an air of disharmony about it, and once I'd noticed it, I wasn't sure I could find my way back to being charmed. But then I looked again, and found it had returned to its former benign beauty.

I gave in soon after that and returned to my room, surprised to find it without much trouble. As I'd thought, there was no sign that Mrs. Jelphs or anyone else had been there. I'd more or less stuffed my underwear into the drawer at the bottom of the wardrobe, and nobody had tidied them or the stockings, which lay as tangled as I'd left them. My diary, which I had kept sporadically since I was a small girl, lay next to the bed, just where I'd placed it. There was no way of telling if it had been read, but fortunately it was quite a new one, started only a couple of weeks before. Beyond my frustration with my mother, there was little that could possibly be of interest to Mrs. Jelphs. I had found I couldn't write about James; it was still too painful. I was doing my best to put
him out of my mind altogether, and after reliving our last meeting in the small parlour, I was determined not to indulge myself again for the rest of the day.

Still, new diary or not, I didn't much like the thought of my privacy being trespassed upon. I went over to the door, but there was no lock, not that I was convinced I would have had the nerve to ask for the key if there had been. A strange thought crept into my mind then, almost as if someone had placed it there.
I might not be able to lock anyone out, but at least that means no one can lock me in
. Tutting aloud—I was rarely given to such melodrama—I climbed up onto the bed and lay on my back, breathing a long sigh of relief as my weight sank into the mattress.

I must have dozed for a while. When I sat up and looked out the windows, the shadows of the trees high on the escarpment had lengthened and now stretched across the meadow. The clock on the mantel was still ticking, but I knew it was wrong. I'd need to find another; the last thing I wanted was to be late for my supper with Mrs. Jelphs. There was a grandfather clock in the hallway, but when I got to it, the pendulum was still, the hands stuck at precisely three o'clock. I sensed, with no evidence or way of confirming it, that it had stopped at three in the morning, not the afternoon. A shiver of unease rippled over my skin, and I rubbed my bare arms, feeling the goose bumps rise. No longer caring whether I might be early and in the way, I set off for the kitchen.

S
upper in the Red Room that first night was quite a sombre affair, though the food was delicious: a few slices of lamb with mint sauce, fine green beans, and potatoes that had been piped to form perfect golden peaks. Apparently most of it had come from the estate, and we managed to stay on this topic for most of the
meal, though I didn't much care about last year's carrot yield (which was paltry). Mrs. Jelphs's portions were not large. She picked at her food, and I felt embarrassed for wolfing mine down to the last scrap.

It was fast growing dark in the valley, and candles had been lit. Even an old oil lamp had been brought in to squat at one end of the table. The electricity supply, temperamental at the best of times at Fiercombe, didn't work at all in the Red Room, which was aptly named. The walls were painted a deep crimson, the windows hung with curtains in a deeper shade still. The effect, especially in candlelight, was Gothic—the shadows of each lit tallow a dramatic spike, the shadows under Mrs. Jelphs's eyes like soot smudges.

She had by now cleared the table of its condiments and serving dishes and produced the pudding. I had been hoping for something stodgy, a schoolboy's jam roly-poly with custard, something that would fill me up and warm me through. With the sun gone, I wish I'd put my cardigan back on. There were no radiators at Fiercombe, needless to say.

Instead, a bowl of tinned pears was placed in front of me. I added as much cream as I could without looking greedy, and watched it marble with the sweetened juice of the fruit.

“So, has the house always relied on the estate for its food?” I said idly, thinking all the while about the starched white sheets of my bed upstairs. Mrs. Jelphs inclined her head.

“I keep up the herb garden, and a couple of hired gardeners come in to tend the formal garden now and then, though not the yews, which they claim is too large a job for what they are paid. Ruck looks after the vegetable patches and keeps an eye on the game birds in the woods. The vegetables we don't eat or preserve are taken to Stanwick and Painswick and sold. Sir Charles used to bring a shooting party during the pheasant season in September,
but then the habit was broken. The grounds and formal gardens are open to the public during summer, on Thursday mornings. Very few come, though, I'm afraid.”

“Are they not allowed in the house?”

“Some of them have asked, especially those with an interest in the Arts and Crafts movement, of course. Americans, occasionally. They come expecting something quite different, I think. They are rather put out when I have to tell them that the house is closed, private. Fewer and fewer come each year.”

“I suppose it's a long way for them to come.”

Mrs. Jelphs was looking off into the middle distance. “Yes. Fiercombe is well hidden. The nearest main road is three miles away, and that's as the crow flies.”

“You said not many come. Do you think that's the only reason why?”

What else had it said in the library book? Something about visitors not being encouraged, I thought. Reading it had given me the sense that the place had turned its back on the world.

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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