Sometimes I am compelled to give Mother Nature a stern piece of my mind. That mid-September evening, I pointed out to her with all the authority I could muster (given my bulging eyes and closing throat) that dense fog was all well and good in the appropriate setting. I wouldn't have said a word had I been snugly at home with Tobias the cat on my lap, a book and cup of cocoa to hand while Ben and the three children—nine-year-old twins Tam and Abbey and seven-year-old Rose—were cheerfully occupied nearby.
What I didn't go for was sitting in a state of unbridled terror next to my equally terrified husband as he drove at an uncertain creep down an unfamiliar country road with visibility reduced to a couple of inches at best. We had exited the motorway about forty-five minutes earlier, planning to stop for an early dinner at a restaurant recommended to Ben by a fellow chef who had described the food as superb and well worth a detour.
Not only had we not found the Duck Pond Inn, we had gone twenty miles past the village of Little Woppstone before seeing a signpost with its name on it; by which time it seemed wisest to press on into the wooly gray yonder. What road we were now on was a mystery. I prayed for a ditch into which we might slither and wait lopsidedly until things cleared. It had been ten minutes since we had experienced the small comfort of seeing red pinpricks of taillights ahead of us.
"You're doing wonderfully," I told Ben in a voice that wobbled, "so calm and steady." An image I couldn't hope to present with my long brown hair untidily escaping its coil and hands gripping my jacket collar.
His reply was a grunt which I deemed heroic and befitting his dark good looks. The poor darling was claustrophobic. He had to be desperately fighting down feelings of suffocation along with fear of an accident, but he still maintained that arresting tilt to his chin. Mrs. Malloy spoke from the backseat, causing me to jump. In my state of nerves, I'd forgotten all about her.
"Bugger of a night," she said with unnecessary relish.
I was unable to pry my lips open to respond, but Ben nobly managed another grunt.
"Puts me in mind," Mrs. Malloy went on, "of that ill-fated day when Semolina Gibbons got caught in the mist after saddling the master's wild-eyed stallion and riding out onto the moor to seek life-saving information from the curate's bedridden great grandmother."
In general, I am very fond of Roxie Malloy. She has been my household helper at Merlin's Court since shortly after my marriage. The children count on her as one of the beloved certainties of life, and she and I have from time to time worked as a duo in amateur sleuthing. When Ben and I went to Yorkshire to stay with our relatives Tom and Betty Hopkins, we had been happy to take Mrs. Malloy to visit her sister and brother-in-law in the same village. We had deposited her with them a week ago and picked her back up that morning for our return home, where the children were being looked after by Ben's parents, with help from my cousin Freddy who lives in a cottage on our grounds.
I knew immediately whom Mrs. Malloy meant when speaking of Semolina Gibbons. In addition to other common interests, she and I share an enthusiasm for novels written during what we grandly refer to as the Gothic Revival period of the 1970s. Doing so makes us both feel studious and intelligent. Indeed, we consider ourselves serious collectors of yellow-paged, dingy-covered paperbacks invariably displaying a spooky mansion as the background to a young woman with wind-lashed black hair standing on a rock. Whether it is always the same rock remains open to question—a topic we consider worthy of a doctoral thesis should either of us ever find the time to go up to Oxford and wander the halls of learning, brushing shoulders with tutors and dons and the fearfully clever young. Semolina was the beleaguered but valiant heroine of a recent acquisition titled The Landcroft Legacy, by Doris McCrackle. Okay, maybe such isn't Literature in its purest form. But to the scoffers I make no apologies for what they may view as escapism. Not all of us can be swept away upon burying our noses in The Subverted Subconscious or Principles of Parallel Pragmatism.
Allowances have to be made for the way the twig is bent, and my parents could never have been accused of overdoing reality. Had I (an only child) not arrived in the conventional manner, they would cheerfully have gone through life believing that storks brought babies to couples leaning out windows hoping to catch a glimpse of a pink or blue ribbon. Once they got over the shock, they were (so they told me) relieved that no assembly seemed to be required and got down to the business of remembering where they had put me and how long ago. Occasionally there were meetings at the dining-room table where they sat looking dubiously adult while seeking my advice on how to bring me up. Otherwise, I got to eat my dinner in the bath or wear my party dress to bed if I felt like it. If I developed a practical streak which caused me to decide against becoming a starving artist in favor of a career as an interior designer, it was because someone had to occasionally remember that the gas bill needed to be paid or the windows closed against sheeting rain.
Had Mother and Father been in the car with us now, they would have been delighted to hear Mrs. Malloy's recounting of Semolina Gibbons's visit to the curate's great-grandmother. As it was, she had to focus on Ben as a captive audience.
"Gone ninety was old Mrs. Weathervane and her the only person left alive, Mr. H, likely to know whether it was the archdeacon's first or second wife that disappeared after doing a series of brass rubbings in the village church sixty-three years previous. Your heart would have gone out to Semolina! Getting lost in the fog was terrifying in itself, but the worst was when she heard the muffled footsteps behind her and felt a hand close round her lily white throat, it's no wonder she went to pieces. Have to give it to her that between one scream and the next she tucked away the memory of her assailant whistling an evil little tune; same as she heard the butler doing a week later when she dined at the Deanery on Christmas night."
Momentarily distracted from our own tremulous situation, I gently corrected Mrs. Malloy. "It was New Year."
"Oh, well," she said dismissively, "the fact that the butler had been lost in the fog himself, and blindly grabbed hold of her to save himself from falling, don't alter the case that Semolina would have done better not to have accepted the man's offer to give her a tour of the pantries. She couldn't be sure, for all his apologies, that it weren't him as moments later had took a shot at her with an arrow. But of course, to be fair to the girl, she wasn't herself at the Deanery, what with thinking of how Lord Hawtry's good eye had darkened when she refused his hand in marriage."
"Perhaps if he hadn't produced it in a bloody paper bag she might have been more receptive," said Ben with an admirably steady chortle.
Mrs. Malloy did not appreciate the witticism. "Nothing of the sort; the reason she had to turn him down was because rumor had it he already had a wife floating around."
"In the goldfish pond or the trout stream perhaps?" This second quip and accompanying relaxation of Ben's clenched jaw confirmed my hope that the fog was thinning sufficiently for us now to be able to see a couple of feet ahead.
"Alive and well two villages away, serving up drinks at the Smugglers Arms, Mr. H; but, as I said to meself when reading along, Semolina shouldn't have been so ready to see obstacles. Then again perhaps I'm being too hard on the girl. I've always fancied meself married to a lordship and swanning up and down the stairs as lady of the manor."
We had nearly swanned into a tree that loomed up like an unraveling mummy before being sucked back into the void. Mrs. Malloy was still going on about how Semolina had shown great pluck when pierced in the shoulder by an arrow while sitting in the copse contemplating whether to make her escape that night, or remain until the following Sunday so as to honor her promise to assist with the altar flowers. But enough was occasionally enough. What I needed at that moment was a strong cup of tea accompanied by a Marmite sandwich. There is nothing like Marmite for convincing one there is light at the end of the tunnel. But . . . hold on a moment . . . perhaps such sustenance wasn't necessary in this instance. I heard Ben suck in a breath as I saw a faint ruby glow ahead of us.
"Taillights!" I cried. "We are not the only ones left alive on the planet!"
"It could be a mirage, Ellie, but I think a vehicle is beginning to take shape."
"Don't get too close," I urged.
"Of course the .y in the ointment, was I to get an offer of marriage from a lord of the realm," continued Mrs. Malloy, who would have got on with my parents a treat when in this sort of mood, "is I'd be leaving you to find someone else to drudge on alone at Merlin's Court, Mrs. H. But like I've always said, housework was never me true vocation, not a holy calling, so to speak, but a woman has to put bread on the table after being left in the lurch by four husbands. Or was it five, Mrs. H?"
These men all having come and gone before Mrs. Malloy and I crossed paths, I was ill-equipped to do a body count. Eyes riveted on the taillights ahead, I suggested that she round off the number to six.
"Oh, very nice," she breathed huffily on my neck, "make me out to be Henry VIII. And me the forgiving sort. Even in me worst moments, struggling to bring up young George on me own, I never wished none of them blighters on the chopping block. Except perhaps for number three," she conceded. Mrs. Malloy prides herself on her honesty. "It was him as ditched me for a bleachedblond barmaid that couldn't make change counting on her fingers, she had to take off her shoes and use her toes as well. Come to think of it, she's the one I should have done in. A blow to the back of the head would have taken the smirk off her face."
I saw Ben's face lift in a smile.
"To have been arrested for murder would not have been amusing," I said, having one of my priggish moments, at which he removed his hand from the steering wheel and jabbed a finger at the windscreen.
"That vehicle's left indicator just went on."
"Thank goodness," I craned forward, "we must be coming to some sort of decent road."
"I don't see a signpost." Mrs. Malloy is inclined to put a damper on things when she's feeling cooped up and in need of a reviving beverage, not necessarily tea.
"We still aren't seeing much of anything," Ben replied mildly, "although I can make out that it's a van."
So it was—a fuzzy object of no discernable color, but one with a bread-boxy utility about it that suggested to my eager mind a return to its place of business in a street bristling with lampposts and petrol stations where we could refuel and seek directions. Mrs. Malloy was mentioning a long overdue sitdown in a proper chair as we took the turn, playing follow-the-leader rather too closely for my comfort. To be fair to Mother Nature, the wooly gray blanket must have thinned during the past few minutes, because I was able to make out the shift and shape of a pair of oblongs as we passed between them, and then the dusky darkness of some further encroachment as Ben crept us forward with his nose on the windscreen. I decided we must have entered an alleyway, which belief became a certainty when I perceived ahead of us a solid rectangle that was undoubtedly—even though viewed through the diaphanous veiling—a sizable building of some sort.
"Oh, goodie!" quoth Mrs. Malloy sardonically from the rear. "Looks like a hospital. We can all go in and have heart attacks. They let you sit down when you're in that condition and force liquids down your throats."
"I don't care if it's one of those Victorian-era insane asylums and we're met by a toothless hag with hoary locks whose instructions are to drag us to the lichen-coated ward," I agreed heartily. "I'll bet that van's parked itself outside the emergency entrance. Come on," I patted Ben's arm, "let's get out and talk to the driver."
"I'm ashamed of you, Mrs. H!" A thump on the back of my seat signaled Mrs. Malloy's search for her handbag and the hat without which she wouldn't have been seen dead stepping out of the car. Not when she was on holiday and hoping to be taken for the sort of person who never stayed anywhere less déclassé than Claridges or the Dorchester. "Fancy you making jokes about lunatic asylums after living page by page the hell Wisteria Whitworth endured when her husband, as hadn't been able to get her to sign over her inheritance to him, had her spirited away at dead of night to that dreadful place deep in the heart of the forest."
The aforementioned excerpt was from Perdition Hall, another gem by the prolific Doris McCrackle, but I refused to be drawn. "Sorry, I forget at this moment where the wicked hubby incarcerated her. I tend to be heartless after driving nowhere for hours."
"Persimmon Hall. Known to the locals as . . ."
"And shrouded that night, if you care to remember, Mrs. H, in a fog as bad as this one!"
"Intensifying the sinister aspect of bleak turrets and barred windows to a bone-chilling degree," I agreed, while thinking that what could be seen of the building in front of us looked extremely dull in comparison. No veiled glimpse of pursued fight across the rooftops or ghostly slither down a drainpipe into the waiting arms of the constabulary. And to make for the further mundane, there were lights from within several of the windows.
"Oliver Twist lived it up at the workhouse in comparison." I was looking at Ben, who hadn't budged in his seat.
"More than the lichen-covered walls and rotting floorboards, it were the description of the communal chamberpots that fair broke me heart. And Wisteria, a young lady used to her privacy if you didn't count the maid standing ready to hand her the warmed towel when she got out of the bath." Mrs. Malloy exhaled an anguished breath down my neck. "But for me the worst moment came when the poor dear tried to flee the ward and a hand shot out from under one of the beds to grab her ankle. No wonder her lovely black tresses turned white within the hour. Still," sentimental breath this time, "the happy ending made up for a lot is how we have to look at it. That thrilling moment when Carson Grant, the handsome lawyer, philanthropist, and social reformer, broke into the secret room and rescued her just as the evil Dr. Megliani was strapping that dreadful device to her head that would have destroyed her brain . . ."
A sweetly anguishing moment . . . Wisteria's wondrous topaz eyes opening to light and love . . . Carson Grant's steely sensitivity in determining to allow her time to adjust to the news that her husband was dead, the valet having tied his master's cravat rather too tightly that morning. It was these memories that caused me to ask Ben if he would continue to love me if I were subjected to a mind-altering procedure and had white hair to boot.
"Of course not." He had never sounded more distant. But before my heart could break, I realized from his blank stare that he hadn't heard what I'd just said and very likely not a word of the conversation regarding Wisteria Whitworth's sufferings on the road to true love.
"What's wrong, darling?" I placed my hand over his.
"That isn't a hospital out there, Ellie."
"I said it looked like one, not that it was for sure," said Mrs. Malloy at her mostly bristling.
"Nor is it a post office, or a department store."
"So what is it, Mr. H?" Her tone suggested that had she been close enough she would have elbowed him in the ribs. "The Houses of Parliament?"
That I knew was ridiculous. There was no way we could have gone so far off course as to be in the center of London. Although . . . the various thickening and thinning of the mist did create an uncertainty to all things, including the van that had been our beacon. With its lights off, it dissolved and reappeared from moment to moment. Several people-sized shadows had emerged and likewise drifted in and out of vague view.
"It's a residence. This isn't a road we've turned onto. We're on someone's private drive."
"Well, what's so bad about that?" I actually laughed, before taking in his anguished expression and instantly regretting my blatant insensitivity. Men feel these situations far more deeply than women, believing that a sufficient supply of testosterone should have provided them with an inner compass. Maps were invented for sissies, the asking of directions entirely a woman's province. Before I could flounder a meaningless palliative, Mrs. Malloy broke the hollow silence.
"Carson Grant described Wisteria's new hair as moonlight spilling into the dark places of his soul. Some men just have the knack of making a woman feel good about herself. You need to think about that, Mr. H, instead of fretting that you've made a fool of yourself. And," she had to go and add, "your wife and me."
"Now we're here," I said quickly—for fear Ben would shoot the car into reverse taking us back onto the road to nowhere, "I'll get out and ask for directions to the nearest town."
"Coming with you." Sounds of Mrs. Malloy opening her car door. "You'll need my arm to hold on to, Mrs. H, or if I know tuppence you'll get yourself lost before putting one foot in front of the other. Stay put when you're out and I'll come and get you." She is a woman who can't bear to be left out of anything, however small, which is not to minimize her genuine, if often disgruntled, concern for my welfare. What I didn't put much faith in were the four-inch heels she invariably wore except (possibly) to bed.
"No, you stay by your door," I responded firmly, and on the wave of Ben's dejected sigh exited the car, to be met as I rounded the bonnet by his fog-bulked presence. Given the feeling of standing in damp fur, it was a relief to feel his hand cover mine. Mother Nature, having eased up on us, was back to demonstrating how quickly and thickly she could knit up a gray angora blanket. The van had been absorbed into the mix of plain and pearl, and it was with relief that I felt someone speaking with Mrs. Malloy's voice bump into my side.
"A good thing my vision has always been so good, Mrs. H!"
This was a surprise to me; she had always claimed the opposite when I would casually mention the cobwebs dangling from the ceiling. But there are times when it doesn't do to nitpick.
"I can see the outline of steps going up the building. And those blobs moving up them have to be the people that was in the van. There!" If she pointed, I couldn't see her hand. "We just need to move straight ahead. Do you have hold of Mr. H?"
"His hand, I don't know if the rest of him is tagging along. Are you there, darling?"
A response came in the form of a grunt.
We shuffled forward . . . or it was to be hoped that was the direction we were taking. I felt myself becoming increasingly disorientated until my foot touched an impediment that suggested we had reached the bottom step. Galvanized by presumably reaching this same conclusion, Ben reclaimed full use of his voice.
"Ellie," he said with irritable vigor, "do not make excuses for the situation by complaining that the drive should have been better posted. And for God's sake don't agree to a cup of tea if they offer. Let's just get the hell out of here."
"Not getting good vibes from the place?" Mrs. Malloy snorted dismissively as she tugged us onward and upward. "Some of us is too suggestible, is what I say. Seen in a good light it'll be just another stately home . . . with a history of course, that I suppose could include murder and mayhem given its age."
"We don't know anything about its age," Ben rebutted.
Not true, I thought with a lack of wifely loyalty. My impression during that thinning of the fog had been of eighteenthcentury construction. Another sobering thought emerged. Were we shuffling up the steps of one of England's stately homes? Would we be required to purchase tickets before requesting information of the admittance person in braided uniform? Excitement stirred. My work as in interior designer was often sparked by seeing how the upper crust lived. If as Mrs. Malloy had suggested we'd been preceded up the steps—which were certainly of a length to suggest awaiting grandeur—by the person (or people) from the van, it seemed likely they were already inside by now.
An eerie silence enveloped us along with the fog, broken only by the intermittent wheeze of our collective breathing and the tentative tap-tapping of Mrs. Malloy's high heels. The damp chill had worked its way within my light jacket and it was a relief when my extended hand touched a .at wooden surface. Surely a door! Sir Edmund Hillary could not have felt greater triumph when stumbling to the top of Everest. Not to belittle his achievement in accomplishing his scenic hike, in the pleasant month of June 1953 all that was then required of him was to bask in the moment with his fellow ascender and plant the triumphal flag before nipping back down for a cup of cocoa. Far more taxing to my mind was the need to locate either a knocker or a bell.
"You know what I think," gasped Mrs. Malloy over my shoulder, "it'll turn out this isn't an imposing house like I could feel properly at home in, but a bloody great block of flats. Talk about disappointing, Mr. H!"
I stood immobile—not only because I had been counting on touring a gallery of ancestral portraits after sipping tea from priceless Sèvres cups in the formal salon, but also due to the daunting prospect of pressing any number of bells before making contact with a static voice inquiring after our bona .des in palpable fear that we were either bill collectors or the police. Whether Ben would have suggested turning tail must forever remain questionable because a sound reminiscent of Big Ben shredded the gauzy mantle of gray tranquility.
"Must have hit the buzzer with me knee," came Mrs. Malloy's voice. "It's this reckless leg syndrome I've been plagued with ever since I heard about it on the telly."
"Restless," I corrected.
"Does it matter?" Ben snapped.
We might have gone on to discuss other medical ailments if the door had not opened inward with a grotesque creak to reveal a rectangle of yellowish light surrounding a figure, rather in the manner of a card depicting the image of a saint proffering hope of succor to all who wander parched and weary upon life's barren plain.
"I'd a feeling there was more of you outside," said a male voice that sounded more cockney than saintly, as the three of us scuffled an entrance accompanied by some elbowing in the ribs and trampling on each other's feet. "Didn't seem likely to me and Mrs. Foot that there'd only be them two that just arrived."
Did a fog routinely bring in a stream of lost souls? I should of course have focused on what the man continued to say, but there was the distraction of Ben's rigid discomfort and Mrs. Malloy's jabbing me in the side as she adjusted her hat, which would have been a bit overdone even for Ascot. Added to which I am one of those shallow types as much drawn to the environments into which I find myself catapulted as to those who provide admittance. Rather than wondering if the man was the home owner and who were Mrs. Foot and them two mentioned, I let my gaze pass through him to roam the vastness of a baronial hall shrouded in shadow so thick in places it was as though we had brought some of the fog inside with us. The yellowish light issued from a barely visible fixture suspended from some forty feet up, along with wall lamps that resembled the sort of torches held aloft by wild-eyed wretches screaming for the heads of their oppressors.
A snatch of a maudlin song warbled years ago by a greataunt infiltrated my head, something along the lyrics of: In the gloaming . . . oh my darling . . . when the lights are dim and low . . ." And lo, all these years later, I stood in the gloaming ignoring my own darling in the process. My eyes found the staircase. It stood a quarter of a mile down to my left, and despite the poor visibility there was no mistaking its baronial splendor. Straight ahead in the distance was a .replace vast enough to roast more than one proverbial ox . . . or equally possibly a couple of recalcitrant peasants to be removed when necessary from the correspondingly large log bin to the left of the hearth. On my more immediate right was the outline of a carved screen that might well have been pinched from a cathedral. A trestle table that could have seated an army stood loaded with murky miscellany, and adding to the confusion were numerous squares and rectangles that could feasibly be packing chests brought in on moving day several centuries distant.
One thing was clear. Either I had mistaken the exterior of the building as eighteenth century or this hall dated back to an earlier part of a revamped structure. Tudor? No, I thought, undoubtedly doing some wishful thinking . . . Lancastrian or even further back to Plantagenet times. The name Geoffrey of Anjou filtered back to me from childhood history lessons, but I chose to indulge myself with the image of Henry II sporting a sprig of yellow broom tucked into his crown. By the time Mrs. Malloy pointed out that I was standing there gawking, the number of living persons in hall had dwindled by one.
"I expect you hurt his feelings by not listening to a word he said." She stood majestically, smoothing down the front of the emerald green taffeta jacket to which were pinned enough sparkling brooches to ransom half the nobility of Europe. Clearly she wasn't speaking about Ben, who was pacing on the spot, but in recognition of my stupid look she clarified for me. "Him as let us in, and I'd have thought you'd have thrilled to every syllable, Mrs. H!"
"Who is he and what did I miss?"
"That's his name?" Call me persnickety, but as a sobriquet for a member of the landed gentry this one left something to be desired.
"So he said, and I don't see why he'd say so if it weren't true. Not one of your more romantic names, is it? 'Course, maybe it was pronounced French at one time. 'Ploonkay' has a certain air to it . . ."
"Possibly if he wanted to be a fashion designer, but maybe he's happy as he is."
"Happy is what he didn't look, Mrs. H, when he took an eyeful of you."
"Could we continue this rather banal conversation outside?"
Ben paced further into the gloaming, allowing Mrs. Malloy to ignore him without seeming to be downright rude.
"Never mind that, Mrs. H, before you get all upset, Mr. Plunket is not the owner of this lovely big house."
"No? Then what is he? A policeman directing traffic?"
"The butler." Mrs. Malloy shook her head at my dimwittedness, then, perhaps feeling she had been unnecessarily crushing, added: "Not that he looked the part. More like he'd dressed out of the ragbag."
"I didn't notice."
"What difference does it make what he was wearing?" Ben made an irritable turn and collided with a suit of armor, which made a metallic protest but mercifully did not draw its sword.
"And a face like a gourd," continued Mrs. M remorselessly.
"Still, as I remember thinking on being introduced to my second . . . no, third husband, ugly is as ugly does. Like my American friend says, Abraham Lincoln never won any beauty pageants."
"And where is Mr. Plunket now?" I asked.
"Gone for a word with his nibs, is how he put it." Mrs. Malloy pointed at a door which I estimated could be reached without getting winded by anyone in reasonably good shape.
"About giving us directions? Why couldn't he have done that on his own?"
"Some people can't point the way to the end of their own noses. But never mind that, Mrs. H." Her eyes flashed like a cat's in the dark, and it was finally borne in on me that she was sizzling with excitement. "Get this! Them two people he mentioned as getting here ahead of us—the ones from the van, that is—they're part of a television crew, cameramen, audio, and such. Seems they've come to .lm a documentary! The director's French, if you can believe it!"
"God! What a ghastly stroke of luck!" Ben paced back into view, his footfall echoing up from the flagstones like the march of thousands. "We can't intrude at such a time! What if we get caught on camera explaining we couldn't find our way from point A to point B because of a little mist that wouldn't have stalled a kid on a tricycle. Ellie"—there was a note of pleading in his voice that would have undoubtedly touched my very core had I not been considering the likelihood of the director's name being François and whether he would wear a beret and sit in a canvas chair with his name on the back.
It shames me to report that I turned away from Ben to ask Mrs. Malloy a vital question. "Did Mr. Plunket say what sort of documentary?"
"So now you're interested." She struck a pose indicative of pondering her best side if presented to the camera. "He didn't get round to that. He ran off, it seemed to me"—she paused to give me the gimlet eyes from under penciled brows—"when he took a good look at you, Mrs. H!"
"Keep rubbing it in. I'm sorry I missed his reeling back in horror."
"You don't say. Anyway, from the look on his face it was like he'd seen a ghost."
"What rubbish!" If my laugh sounded hollow, it was due to the acoustics produced by the mile-high ceiling that vanished to a glimpse of the dependent light fixture and a railing girding what was presumably a gallery. I preferred the thought of lepers to minstrels. Was that a grotesquely dehumanized face peering down at us? Ridiculous! My overactive imagination had conjured a bedraggling of hoary locks out of a trick of light. And yet, in my defense, a place like this, reeking with antiquity and seemingly serious neglect, might cause even the normally unsusceptible to overreact.
"It was right after eyeballing you that Mr. Plunket said he'd ask his nibs about the directions. Scuttled off he did like the hounds of hell was at his heels." Mrs. Malloy stood savoring the memory, while Ben took a detour around the trestle table before fumbling his way toward the .replace. I inhaled a thought.
"Maybe that's the reason for crew and the documentary."
"What you mean, Mrs. H?"
"Ghosts. I wonder if this place is to be part of a series on haunted houses. I can't imagine it having been chosen for the glimpse it provides into the golden glory of aristocratic living."
"I'll bet you've hit the nail on the noggin." My trusty cohort is not one to hand out praise on a shovel and she did not now beam approval, but her nod conveyed agreement of sufficient fervor that her hat shifted a couple of degrees.
"What can be keeping the butler fellow this long?" Ben again passed the suit of armor without so much as a nod of acknowledgment. Did the sensation of being preyed upon by unseen eyes and ears emanate from that chunk of metal? Or was there some other hovering presence counting the seconds until Ben dragged Mrs. Malloy and me out the door that would thud heavily and inexorably against us as we went fleeing back into the night? Aware that this was a chapter I had read more often than was good for me, I banished the chills and thrills and concentrated on the logical.
"Very likely Mr. Plunket has interrupted a session between his nibs and the director of the television show and is having difficulty stirring up interest in our trivial situation." I felt regretfully compelled to add: "Under the circumstances, I think you're right, darling, we are making nuisances of ourselves, and from what Mrs. Malloy said of Mr. Plunket's reaction to me, I don't suppose he'll mind one bit returning to find us gone."
Being . . . or thinking . . . myself good at picking up atmospheres, I imbibed waves of gratitude .owing my way from Ben, coupled with even stronger vibes that boded well should he and I ever be blessed in entering our own bedroom once again. But before he could utter more than a reprieved sounding half-syllable, Mrs. Malloy responded vehemently. "That's right, Mrs. H, go blaming me for forcing us to do a bunk. Well, I for one don't hold with bad manners—them being precluded in Article Fortynine, paragraph fourteen of the CFCWA [Chitterton Fells Charwomen's Association] Charter. Besides, it could be the reason Mr. Plunket's not back yet is that his nibs and the director are talking about inviting us to be extras"—her face became a beacon far outshining the inadequate wattage of the hall—"or even give us speaking parts."
To be on television? My shallow nature thrilled to the prospect. And, I reminded myself, on the practical side the exposure would be good for my career and Ben's. He could casually mention his cookery books and the bistro. I could display a charming knowledge of furniture styles, fabrics, and ambience before the camera panned to my logo and business e-mail address. A couple with three children and a cat to support must sensibly seize opportunities offered. Besides . . . my incredibly beautiful fashion model cousin Vanessa would be sick with jealousy, as would that woman at church who always looked down her nose at me because I don't know one opera from another . . . and there was that friend of hers who talked all the time about going to Paris for lunch . . .
Upon catching Ben's eye, I reined in my delusions of approaching fame while being sufficiently resentful of his wet blanket attitude to move away from him and Mrs. Malloy and prowl over to the suit of armor. We have a pair at Merlin's Court positioned against the staircase wall, and I was interested in discovering if there was any familial resemblance. If so, I could give this one an update on how often ours, according to the children, came alive when they thought no one was watching.
"Well," said Mrs. Malloy in a defeatist voice, "could be I'm getting ahead of meself about us being included in the show. Not that it matters to me; it was you I was thinking about, like always, Mrs. H. I expect the truth is his nibs is ninety years old and Mr. Plunket is having trouble waking him from his nap."
"Or deciding if he's dead," muttered Ben nastily. "In this lighting, his viability could be questionable for days."
"No need for jokes, Mr. H, I don't think it's nice considering—now I come to remember—that Mr. Plunket said this had been a difficult evening already." Either Mrs. Malloy or Ben sighed gustily; there followed the irritable tap-tap of her high heels. Without turning my head, I was aware of her standing with her back squarely to me a yard or so from the staircase.
"Good evening," I addressed the suit of armor with the courtesy I had instilled into my children during the process of introductions. "What, my fine fellow, can you tell us of this place?"
Its visored face showed only slightly more expression than a guard at Buckingham Palace.
"Ever get an urge to scratch an itch?"
Oh, the folly of thinking oneself witty at the expense of the immobile. Foolish . . . infantile assumption! Before the smirk fully adhered to my face, I experienced a sharp pain above my right foot, and just as I started to hop, I saw the metal arms begin to rise through the grainy gloom and draw together . . . the metal paws curled inward . . . closing around the general vicinity of my throat.
Did I imagine the macabre chortle and the gleeful murmur of "Who's immobile now?" Would I have stood there trembling on the edge of reason until those salad spoon hands closed around my throat, choking out every last spluttering gasp as my eyes stood out like Ping-Pong balls and . . . with a final expiring breath my nose blew off? It is not a question I allow myself to ponder in the dead of night when the ghastly memory returns. I was saved by a scream of unholy terror from behind me. Had I been capable of coherent thought, I would have assumed Ben or Mrs. Malloy had paused in thinking about themselves to notice my imminent danger. As it was, I turned in automated slow motion to witness Mrs. Malloy with her mouth opened in size to the entrance to a cave. For teeth she had stalactites and stalagmites. But what did it for her appearance was her wearing a hat on top of a hat—one with a circle of corded fringe cutting her face in half.
"I can't see! I'm blind! Blind!" Her screech was one of reverberating panic. Immediately, Ben was at her side making the necessary adjustment to what I realized, on the verge of hysterical laughter, was a lamp shade. His attempts to pull it off completely were unsuccessful. Apparently the hat underneath, having first dibs, refused to give an inch.
"Why are you wearing that?" I asked her in a voice as deadened as the rest of me.
"It dropped from above."
"Better a lamp shade than the roof of the temple. Poor old Samson had it worse!" Ben laughed comfortingly while placing an arm around her, drawing her into a hug, a gesture I would have found endearing had I been capable of the least flicker of emotion. "I expect someone took it off to dust and set it down on a piece of furniture or even the banister railing, forgot about it, and some vibration sent it toppling off balance." His words may have helped soothe Mrs. Malloy but did nothing for me.
"Unfortunately, it's not becoming," I pronounced tonelessly. "Suit yourself, but I wouldn't make it the basis of any future out-fits." Somewhere deep inside I recognized the cruelty. I should have told her that the lamp shade elongated her figure . . . provided an Audrey Hepburn elegance . . . but when one has come close to being murdered by a suit of armor something within the soul dies.
"Ellie!" Ben protested. Could this be the wife he revered except for those times when she failed to pass on telephone messages or interrupted when he was watching football?
"Oh, that's all right!" responded Mrs. Malloy with a pathetically resigned look on her face. "Some people can never bear others being the center of attention, even when it's the nasty sort."
At that I started to shake. "A lamp shade fell on your head! Go ahead and sue his nibs! Insist that he tear down this horrible mausoleum. You won't get any complaints from me. That thing . . . that evil thing kicked me, and that . . . that was before it attempted to choke me."
"What thing, sweetheart?" Ben was at my side in an instant.
"That!" With an immense effort I twisted around to face the suit of armor, my pointing finger gyrating out of control.
"It looks harmless now." The laughter that had been in Ben's voice was back. And, adding insult to injury, Mrs. Malloy relented toward me, saying magnanimously that after all we'd been through it wasn't any surprise that I was overwrought.
"Probably you bumped into it and it tilted forward. Them legs and arms have to move some or the person inside wouldn't have been able to stagger into battle holding his crossbow, or sword, or whatever."
Of course what she said had to be true. It must have happened that way. But it hadn't! It hadn't! I stared at that metal, triangularfronted face with hatred. If I'd had a tin opener at the ready, I would have gone whirring into action as if it were a tin of Heinz Tomato Soup. "Take that, you metal cretin!" I railed silently. In my defense, it had been a tense evening from the moment the fog descended through to our entrapment, or so it seemed, in this oppressive hall. It is almost certain I would have rallied to laugh with Ben and Mrs. Malloy at my overly vivid imagination, but recoiling from the disbelief in their eyes I looked up to see a face above the banisters.
Its features were blurred, but even without the distortions of distance and shadow it was grotesquely, terrifyingly recognizable by its straggling locks and toothless gape as the face of the wardress of the insane asylum in which Wisteria Whitworth was incarcerated by her brutal husband. Could there be any doubt that I was on the verge of a similar fate? Under such melodramatic circumstances, there was only thing to do. Regrettably, I did not have a history of fainting, but it's amazing how quickly one can develop the knack. The room spun, the floor went out from under me, and I went down into blessed oblivion.
Excerpted from She Shoots to Conquer by Dorothy Cannell
Copyright © 2009 by Dorothy Cannell
Published in April 2009 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.