The Wanderer in Unknown Realms (3 page)

BOOK: The Wanderer in Unknown Realms
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When I was asked my business in Maidensmere, as I inevitably was, I told the truth, more or less: I was there to do some work on behalf of Lionel Maulding, and I would be staying at Bromdun Hall until that work was completed. News of Maulding's disappearance did not appear to have circulated as yet, a testimony to the loyalty of his housekeeper, Mrs. Gissing, and Maulding's solitary ways.
It appeared that Maulding was rarely seen in the village and was considered, at worst, as harmlessly eccentric by his neighbors. But then, this was the old kingdom of East Anglia, which had always regarded itself as somehow different from the rest of England, exhibiting a tolerance for separateness, for otherness. If Lionel Maulding wanted to maintain a private existence, then there were many others like him in these parts, sharing his outlook if not his wealth. I saw no meaningful glances exchanged at the mention of his name, and nobody skulked away into the night, his features clouded with guilt. Such giveaways were the stuff of the Sexton Blake stories in the
Union Jack
, which was why you had to pay only tuppence for them. The real world was gray with complexity.

There was only one reference to Maulding that I failed to understand, although it amused the assembled locals.

“You a bookkeeper, then?” asked the landlord, all muttonchop whiskers and red-faced good cheer, when I told him of my purpose. He tipped a wink to his audience. “A bookkeeper, aye, lads?”

They all laughed, and then laughed the harder when it was clear that I did not understand the reference.

“You'll see, sir,” said the landlord. “No harm meant, but you'll see.”

And off he went to call time, and off I went to my bed.

I slept little that night, which made it no different from any other. I could not recall the last time I had slept through from darkness until dawn. I liked to think that I had learned to survive on less rest than others needed, but surviving and living were not the same. Only shortly before sunrise did I manage at last to snatch a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. I slept through breakfast, but the landlord's wife had set aside some ham and eggs for me, kept warm over a pot of boiling water that she then used to make tea. She talked as I ate, and I was content to listen. She was much younger than her husband and had lost a brother at the Somme. Someday, she said, she hoped to visit his grave. She asked me what
the countryside looked like, over there.

“It wasn't much to see when I left it,” I said, “but I expect the grass has grown back now, and there are flowers in the meadows. Perhaps some trees have survived. I don't know. But it won't be the same as it was before, not for anyone.”

“And you?” she asked gently. “You must have lost someone, too?”

But she already sensed the answer. She would not have asked otherwise. Women have a way of detecting absences.

“We all lost someone,” I said, as I stood and wiped my hands and mouth.

I could see that she wanted to inquire further, but she did not. Instead she said, “Pain and loss are so strange, are they not?”

“I'm not sure I know what you mean.”

“I mean that we have all suffered in the same war, and we all have spaces in our lives now that were once filled by people whom we loved, but none of us experiences it in exactly the same way,” she said, and her gaze was set far from me and far from the inn. “When we talk about it—if we talk about it—nobody quite understands what we're saying, even when we're speaking to someone who is also living with such loss. It's as if we are speaking versions of the same language, but the most important words have slightly different meanings to each one of us. Everything has changed, hasn't it? It's just as you said: the world can never be the same as it was before.”

“Would you want it to be so?” I said. “The seeds of the war were sown in the old world. Perhaps the only good thing to come out of it all is that those seeds have been blasted from the earth and will never grow again.”

“Do you really believe that?” she said.

“No.”

“I don't, either. But we have to hope, don't we?”

“Yes,” I said, “I suppose we do.”

MRS. GISSING
came to the inn shortly after. She was a small, dour woman of indeterminate age but probably somewhere between forty and fifty, and dressed entirely in black. The landlord's wife had told me that Mrs. Gissing lost two sons in the war, one at Verdun and the other at Ypres, and was now entirely alone, having been widowed when her boys were still infants. It was about a mile or so to Bromdun Hall, and Mrs. Gissing informed me that she usually walked to and from there, so I walked with her.

We had to pass through the village to reach Bromdun Hall, and the usual greetings were given and received, although nobody asked me my name or my business, and I could only assume that those who did not know did not care, and those who did care already knew from the men who had kept me company at the bar the night before. At the center of the village was a small green, and on it stood a war memorial with fresh flowers laid at its base. Mrs. Gissing kept her face to the road, as if she could not bear to look at the monument. Perhaps I should have kept quiet but, as Quayle pointed out, I had a perverse habit of speaking my mind, and the landlord's wife had set me to thinking.

“I was sorry to hear of your loss,” I said to Mrs. Gissing.

Her features tightened for a moment, as though reacting to a physical pain, then resumed their previous expression.

“Twelve boys left this village and never came back,” she said. “And the ones who did come back left something of themselves over there in the mud. I still don't understand the point of it all.”

“I was there, and I don't understand the point of it, either,” I said.

She softened at that: just a little, but enough.

“Were you at Verdun, or Ypres?” she asked. I heard a kind of hope in her voice, as though I might have been able to tell her that I knew her sons, and they had spoken of her often, and their deaths were quick, but I could tell her none of those things.

“No. The war ended for me at High Wood.”

“I don't know where that is.”

“The Somme. The French call it Bois des Fourcaux. It has something to do with pitchforks. There was a place called Delville Wood nearby, but the men I served with always called it Devil's Wood. They didn't clear it after the war. They say thousands of bodies are still buried there.”

“You left friends there?”

“I left everything there. I don't suppose it matters, though. The dead are past caring.”

“I don't know if that's true,” she said. “I talk to my boys, and I feel them listening. They listen, the dead. They're always listening. What else is there for them to do?”

And she said no more.

BROMDUN HALL
was a huge, rambling pile set on about five acres, and every inch of the house spoke of slow decay. It was falling into disrepair, and I could feel the drafts as soon as we were in sight of the place. I couldn't imagine that one small woman would be able to maintain a house of that size, even with some help from its resident, but Mrs. Gissing said most of the rooms were used for storage and nothing more. Her main duties consisted of cooking three meals a day, doing laundry, and keeping a handful of rooms in a clean and habitable condition. Mr. Maulding, it seems, made few other demands upon her. She displayed considerable fondness toward him, though, and seemed genuinely concerned for his welfare. When I asked if she had considered calling the police at any point, she replied that Mr. Quayle in London had expressly ordered her not to do so. It was, it seemed, to Quayle that she had first reported her concerns about her master. Maulding's nephew, Mr. Forbes, had learned of his absence only later, when he called at the house, as he was occasionally wont to do when he needed money, and Mrs. Gissing was forced to inform him of the situation.

What I did learn was that Maulding had made a number of sojourns into London in the months before his disappearance, trips of which Quayle appeared to have been entirely unaware, for he had not mentioned them to me. Mrs. Gissing had been surprised by this change in her master's routine but had made no comment upon it. On such occasions, a cab would collect him at the door first thing in the morning, deliver him to the station, and then return him to his home following the arrival of the last train from London. He had made three such trips and had always informed Mrs. Gissing the day before of his intention to travel.

“Is it possible that he might have gone to London without your knowledge and simply not have returned?” I asked.

“No,” she said, and her tone brooked no contradiction. “He always got Ted to take him to the station, and bring him home after, and he always made his timetable known to us. He's a delicate man,
Mr. Maulding. He had polio as a boy, and it left him with a twisted right leg. He can't walk very far without it causing him pain. It's one of the reasons why he has traveled so rarely. There's just too much discomfort in it for him.”

“And do you have any idea where in London he might have been going, or whom he might have been seeing?”

“He didn't share such matters with me,” she said.

“Had he any enemies?” I asked.

“Lord, no,” she said. “He had no friends, neither—not because there was anything wrong with him,” she hastened to add. “He just had all that he needed here.”

She gestured to the house, which was now looming above us.

“This was—” She corrected herself. “This
is
his home. He didn't want to go out into the world, so he found a way to bring the world to him.”

It was an odd thing to say, and I didn't comprehend her meaning until I entered the house itself, and then I understood.

There were books everywhere: on the floors, on the stairs, on furniture both built for that purpose and constructed for other ends entirely. There were bookshelves in the main hallway, in the downstairs rooms, and in the upstairs rooms. There were even bookshelves in the bathroom and the kitchen. There were so many volumes that, had it been possible to extract the skeleton of the house, its walls and floors, its bricks and mortar, and leave the contents intact, then the shape of the building would still have been visible to the observer but constructed entirely from books. I had never seen anything like it. Even the reading rooms of the British Library itself seemed to pale beside it. Standing among all those books it was possible to believe that there was no other space in the world so crammed with manifestations of the printed word than Lionel Maulding's home.

As I walked through the house, Mrs. Gissing at my heels, I examined the titles. I found books on every subject and in every
major language. Some were so large that special tables had been made to hold them, and to move them safely would have required two men. Others were so small that they were kept in display cases, a magnifying glass lying nearby so that the microscopic print within could be made readable.

“Astonishing,” I said.

“Every day more arrive,” said Mrs. Gissing. “I've left the new ones in the library for Mr. Maulding's return.”

For the first time, she showed some sign of distress. Her voice caught, and her eyes grew moist.

“You will find him, sir, won't you? You will bring him back safely to his books?”

I told her I would try. I asked if the grounds had been searched, and she told me that they had: the groundsman, Mr. Ted Willox, knew the property intimately. He and his sons were the only other people in the village aware of Lionel Maulding's disappearance. Willox had engaged his sons to help him search Maulding's land, and they had gone over it, every inch. They had found no trace of the master of the house.

Willox was away that day, visiting a sister who was ill, but was due to return to Maidensmere the following morning. I told Mrs. Gissing to send him to me as soon as he arrived. I was, I confess, surprised at the loyalty of Gissing and Willox to Maulding, and their willingness to protect his privacy even as they feared for his safety. Mrs. Gissing seemed to sense this, for as she showed me to my room, she spoke once more.

“Mr. Maulding is a good and kind man. I just want you to know that, sir. He's always been generous to me. My boys, my lovely boys, they're buried in the cemetery here, and I get to speak to them every day. There are always fresh flowers for them, no matter the season, and the weeds are kept at bay. Mr. Maulding arranged that, sir. He spoke to the generals in London, and they brought my boys home for me, each of them in turn. I've never wanted for
anything, Mr. Willox neither. All Mr. Maulding asks in return is for his meals to be prepared, his clothes to be cleaned, and his bed to be made, and otherwise to be left in peace with his books. There is no harm to the man, and no harm should come to him.”

I wanted to tell her that such was not the way of the world until I remembered that she had buried two sons and was thus more conscious of the world's true workings than any of us. Our arrival at my room saved me from uttering any further foolishness, and she left me to unpack the small bag I had brought with me and to explore my environs alone. Next door to my room was a bathroom with a fine claw-toed bathtub. I could not recall when last I had enjoyed a bath that didn't involve a tin tub, and saucepans of water with which to fill it, and I promised myself the luxury of a lengthy immersion that evening.

BOOK: The Wanderer in Unknown Realms
11.05Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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