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Authors: Kate Riordan

Fiercombe Manor (31 page)

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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“So how far did you get with that lot?” he said to me when we were settled, nodding towards the cardboard box.

“Not that far, I'm afraid. I fell asleep. Thank you for leaving it out for me, though.”

I glanced over at Mrs. Jelphs, but he didn't seem to mind her being there and hearing what was said.

“Did you find any of the photographs?”

He reached over to where I had left the box on the floor and pulled it towards him.

“Yes. Some of them. You and your brother in the snow, and then later, by the lake.”

Mrs. Jelphs looked up from her embroidery at that.

“It's all right, Mrs. J. Alice knows about Henry. We've shared a few secrets, haven't we?”

He glanced over at me again and held my gaze until I had to look down.

“Has Mrs. Jelphs told you the official Fiercombe ghost story, Alice?”

“There are no ghosts at Fiercombe,” Mrs. Jelphs said tartly.

Tom raised his eyebrows at me.

We sat quietly for a while, me sipping my drink and Tom pouring himself another, until a small snore escaped from Mrs. Jelphs, and I realised that she'd nodded off.

“Was it Margaret of Anjou you meant before?” I half whispered.

“Ah, so I can't be the one to tell you. Shame, I would've enjoyed that. I suppose you've been talking to Nan. She loves that story. If this house was grand and important enough to be written up in all the guidebooks, that would be the obligatory ghost story. It's got all the ingredients: a real historical figure, the tragedy of a dead son—” He stopped.

“I'm glad I didn't know about her on my first night here,” I said quickly, hoping to make him smile again. He looked up questioningly.

“I was woken up by some noise or other in the hall. But when I peeped out into the corridor . . .”

He leant forward, his face mock-serious. “She was there, disappearing around the corner, her furs dragging behind her.”

I laughed. “No, but I did think I smelt flowers. Of course I imagined it, but it makes a nice adjunct to the story, doesn't it?”

“It does indeed. I had a bit of a vivid imagination myself as a boy.” He smiled ruefully. “I used to scare myself by imagining I could be transported somewhere outside in the dark, far from the house. I used to think that if I pictured a place vividly enough, then I might accidentally wish myself there, or something. Daft, really.”

“Where was the worst place you imagined ending up?”

“Oh, that's easy,” he said. “The ruined glasshouse over in the eastern part of the valley. I had visions of myself trying to escape it and cutting my feet to shreds. I took to wearing slippers in bed for a while after I thought up that charming little scene. Have you been to that part of the estate?”

“Mrs. Jelphs warned me never to, but I sort of stumbled upon it. It was the day I met you, in fact. Do you remember I told you about the strange wind?”

“I didn't realise you'd been there,” he said. “It's a lonely place.”

“I bumped into Ruck, actually. I don't think he was too pleased to see me.”

“Yes, that sounds about right. He was forever telling me off when I was young. He'd appear out of nowhere and give me this look.”

“Yes, I've had a few of those. Anyway, after he went off I had a bit more of a poke around. I had asked him to show me where the foundations of Stanton House were, you see. Mrs. Jelphs had told me a bit about it.”

“You did well there,” he said, nodding towards the sleeping housekeeper. “She usually plays her cards very close to her chest. As for me, I know very little about the place: the usual Stanton reserve, you know.”

I dropped my voice after the reminder of Mrs. Jelphs's presence. “I couldn't believe it when I heard about it. A great big mansion like that, gone as though it never was. When I was there, I was
thinking about the people who'd lived there but were now gone.” I rolled my eyes. “No wonder I scared myself.”

We lapsed into silence, though it was another of the easy silences I seemed to be able to have with him. I was thinking back to the photograph I'd seen of the house: black and white, taken some way off, and very slightly blurred.

“Now all this talk of my boyhood fears is absolutely secret, of course,” Tom said after a time, “but I used to imagine all sorts of murderers and ghouls visiting me in the night when I was growing up here. I would never let on to my brother, of course. I had that blue room at the back of the house—do you know it?”

I shook my head.

“It's always been a nursery of sorts, and when Henry and I were small we shared it. It's quite a big room, and so we played in there, had our meals in there as well. When Henry was ten he decided he was far too old and important to sleep with his annoying little brother and so he moved into a room of his own.”

I remembered the key that had swung on its hook and the neat, handwritten label above it.

“I'd never liked being in there on my own much, even in the day, so you can imagine how I felt about sleeping in there alone. I didn't own up to it, of course, but I don't remember many easy nights there. I used to put the light on and read when it got too bad in the dark. I dragged the hearth rug over to the door to block off the worst of the light from leaking out and giving me away.”

I smiled, feeling the alcohol from the sherry seep pleasantly through me.

“I write lists when I can't sleep.”

He looked up from the box and grinned. “Lists of what?”

“Anything. Counties, names, kings and queens, that sort of thing. But I used to read a lot as a child too. I'm quite the expert on Victorian children's fiction.”

“I'm afraid
Boy's Own
was more my level. Tales of derring-do, chaps swimming the Channel, disgraced boys regretting rustication after cheating, what to do if you caught a newt—all that sort of thing. I never was much of a scholar.”

He glanced over at the sleeping Mrs. Jelphs and then dropped his voice again.

“Did you enjoy leafing through the photographs? I thought they might amuse you.” He held up a sheaf of them. I couldn't read his expression.

“You must miss him,” I said carefully. “Henry, I mean.”

“Yes, of course. It would be unnatural not to.”

His face had clouded over.

“It must be hard for other reasons too,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

The words came out sharply, and, knowing it, he bent to rummage in the box again.

“I don't know, suddenly being the heir—what we talked of in the meadow,” I said. “But also being the only one suddenly. That in itself can be difficult sometimes, I know. You were the younger brother, and I'm sure that was hard in its own way with a brother like Henry, but then it was just you, and that turned out to be hard in a different way.”

My voice tailed off as his gaze met mine. He sighed.

“Yes, you're right. Women always are about these things. How is it you know?”

He attempted a smile, but it looked strained. Throwing the photographs and papers back in the box with studied carelessness, he leant back in his seat.

“It wasn't just that, though, that was hard to live with afterwards.”

“What do you mean?”

“Oh, Alice, you really wouldn't want to know the truth.” His mouth was almost a sneer. “Besides, I'm not yet drunk enough to tell you all my secrets.”

After an embarrassed silence during which he said nothing but stared miserably into the bottom of his glass, which was empty again, I got awkwardly to my feet, cross with myself for minding that I probably looked fat and ungainly to him.

“It's past my bedtime, I think,” I said. “Thanks again for looking out that box for me. I loved seeing all the old photographs. Perhaps I'll see you tomorrow, after I've done my jobs for Mrs. Jelphs.”

My cheeks burned at the last: some compulsion to punish myself—and perhaps him too—by reminding him that I wasn't a houseguest, and he wasn't my host, let alone anything else.

As I got to the door, he stood and came towards me, one hand messing up his hair again.

“Listen, take no notice of me. I've no manners.”

Standing up made the room seem too small for the three of us, and I cringed to think of Mrs. Jelphs waking up. He came closer still and reached out to gently tug a lock of my hair. It felt as intimate as if he'd kissed me.

I turned and half ran to the staircase. It was almost totally dark in the wood-panelled passage that led to my room, but for once I didn't notice.

Once I had held James in my mind almost constantly. Now he was growing fainter and fainter, even as his child inside me grew larger. Sitting up in bed, half listening for the sound of Tom coming upstairs to bed, I tried to make myself picture James instead. He now seemed the less dangerous of the two. For a second he flashed
through my mind with perfect clarity: his dark hair gleaming with brilliantine and as beautifully neat as ever—he went to a barber's close to his office every other week to keep it like that. When I realised I was comparing it to Tom's too-long hair, the fair tips of which always got into his eyes, I cursed myself.
Be careful
, a voice said in my head, as clearly as if someone had spoken aloud.

What was I thinking? The only reason I had even met Tom was the terrible trouble my tender heart had got me into at home. I had fallen for a married man, and that was foolhardy enough. To find myself drawn to another unsuitable man when I was expecting a child was dangerously stupid. Apart from anything else, this was a man who would one day inherit an estate and a title. I shook my head as if the movement could dislodge his presence there. I needed to forget any romantic notions I was beginning to harbour about Thomas Stanton.

My efforts to do just that meant that I got a great deal done for Mrs. Jelphs over the next few days. She had me darning and rehemming old tablecloths and sheets, the latter worn so soft and fine that you could see through the cotton in places. I found that with Mrs. Jelphs's patient instruction—and without my mother looking for my next clumsy mistake—I wasn't nearly so bad at sewing as I'd always thought. It wasn't long before my mending became almost invisible. Meanwhile, the baby continued as still as the sultry weather. There was the occasional rolling sensation that I knew was him moving about, but no kicking at all. The heat had apparently put him in a torpor, and that was perfectly understandable.

Though I listened for it, there was hardly any birdsong, the droning of bees drunk on nectar only a rare ripple in the treacly air. Everything in the valley seemed to have ground to a halt. Everything but the grass and the flowers and the trees, all of which seemed to grow more luxuriously verdant by the day. Even the old
yew columns exuded a new vitality, one that was almost menacing. At night I imagined the new shoots worrying away at the mortar of the manor's soft golden stone, bony green fingers trying to find their way inside.

Tom was conspicuous by his absence again. He seemed to have an endless supply of friends and distant relatives he had to visit in the vicinity, not to mention the estate manager in Stroud he'd told me about. Sometimes I wondered if he was staying away because of me, the unsuitable young widow from London, but I told myself this was my own self-importance. After all, he was precisely the type to have dozens of friends and to spread himself thinly amongst them. I had an inkling that he thought he would be found wanting if he let anyone observe him too closely and for too long. In that sense, coupled with that oddly intense evening we'd spent, he probably was avoiding my company.

One afternoon, when my eyes had begun to ache from the close work of the darning, I looked up and caught sight of Tom's old box from school, which had been pushed under the table by the window. I was surprised that Mrs. Jelphs hadn't spirited it away, but it was pretty well hidden under there. I thought back to what he had said about the nursery, how it had been his room as a boy. That in turn reminded me of how I had wanted to reach out and pluck the key to it off its hook.

It was quiet in the house, and the kitchen was empty when I reached it. The door to the kitchen garden was open, and I presumed Mrs. Jelphs was outside somewhere. In the hidden cupboard the nursery key was hanging up just as it had been. Before anyone could see me, I took it down and slipped it into my pocket. Upstairs in my room I leant out the window. In the garden below, I could see Mrs. Jelphs sitting on an iron bench in the shade. She
was asleep, her chin resting on her chest and her pruning shears forgotten next to her.

I knew the nursery lay in a part of the upper floor I hadn't had reason to explore until now. The first door I tried was locked. I twisted the key both ways, but it wouldn't turn. The next one opened unlocked onto a linen cupboard, stacked high with sheets and pillowcases like those I'd been darning. A narrow passageway took me up a few stairs to another couple of doors. The first room was small, a boxroom with nothing in it but a couple of old tea chests. At the second I paused. I could tell it took up a corner of the manor, so it was unlikely to be some kind of storage room. Along with the boxroom, it was also fairly isolated from the rest of the upper floor.

When I first turned the key, it wouldn't budge, and I was surprised; I had been so sure it was the one. I twisted it back and forth until I thought I would snap the old metal, and then, just as I was about to give up, I felt the mechanism relent. As soon as I saw the faded blue wallpaper dotted with red sailboats above wood panelling, I knew I'd been right. It looked to me as if it nothing much had changed since Tom spent the nights of his childhood here. The hearthrug he'd mentioned dragging over to block out his illicit reading light was in its place by the fireplace. A single bed against the wall opposite was made up neatly, as though in readiness for the end of another boarding-school term. The only sign that the room was not in use was the dust that veiled the window glass and gathered in grey thickets under the bed.

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
11.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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