The storm hurled itself against the blurred contours of the house like an angry sea. Thunder roared, lightning flared, and the wind moaned, subsiding for a moment, then whooshing back with renewed ferocity. Clouds drifted across the bruised and bloated sky. It was early afternoon, but it might well have been the dead of night, fit only for human beasts of prey and the shadowy vigils of unholy spirits denied respite beneath a sanctified churchyard earth.
A tree branch brushed my arm with skeletal fingers as I scuttled across the courtyard after parking my car in the old stable. I screeched but did not panic, until a wildly flapping moon-colored thing made a dive for me as I neared the back door. Stumbling sideways, I still became entangled in its clammy folds. No bird this, but a shroud in search of a body. (Well . . . it could be I overreacted a little. My husband, Ben, claims I do that sometimes.) Having fought my way free, I reassessed the situation. Perhaps I was merely dealing with a sheet blown off the line. But a very nasty evil-minded sheet, for sure.
I was glad to step into my bright kitchen at Merlin’s Court. Setting down my handbag and packages, I peeled off my raincoat and hung it on a hook in the alcove, then shook out my damp hair before weaving it back into a plait. Living on our part of the English coast, with its cliffs and rocky shoreline, we are prone to ferocious storms. But I had stayed up late the previous evening devouring the final gripping chapters of The Night Visitor, so it wasn’t surprising that my imagination had started to run amuck on the drive home through the blinding rain.
Tobias the cat was seated on the broad window ledge, where he is never supposed to be. Typically, he looked at me as though I were the one about to get into trouble. Apart from his twitching whiskers there was no sign of life. All was neat and tidy, a kitchen on its best behavior. The copper pans hung in gleaming precision from their rack. Not a cup or saucer was out of place on the Welsh dresser. No stray crumbs on the quarry-tiled floor. No plastic horse tethered to the rocking chair. No sign or sound of husband or children. They had left for London in the Land Rover the previous morning with scarcely a backward wave. The twins, Tam and Abbey, age seven, and five-year-old Rose were to spend the next fortnight with Ben’s parents. I didn’t expect him home till early evening. The unaccustomed quiet was unnerving. Even my household helper, Mrs. Malloy, was conspicuous by her absence. Either she was occupied somewhere else in the house or she had thrown in the duster and gone home. Tobias gave me a smug look from the windowsill, as if to say how pleasant it was just being the two of us. I made myself a cup of tea and poured him a saucer of milk. He was right. What could be cozier? A woman alone with her cat, a cup of tea, and a plate of digestive biscuits.
The rain was still hammering down in a most unsuitable way for July as I seated myself at the scrubbed wood table. When a few minutes had gone by without a disembodied voice asking me to pass the sugar, I forgave the weather and was glad I had paid the second-hand bookshop in the village a visit. Under the Covers is a great place to forage for out-of-print titles. I had even grown quite keen on the smell of mildew that assaults one on entering its quiet gloom.
That day I had been buying not only for myself but also for the thirteen-year-old daughter of Ben’s cousin Tom Hopkins. I’d only met young Ariel once, a couple of years previously, at my in-laws’ flat above their greengrocer’s shop in Tottenham. Ariel was in the company of her paternal grandmother. Oblivious to the tea tray with its assortment of jam tarts and iced cakes, she’d sat with feet and hands together, looking bored to rigor mortis. Seated next to her, I did my best to bridge the child–adult gap. Mercifully, just as I was ready to abandon all hope of drawing her out of the sulks and putting something like a smile on her face, she informed me somewhat fiercely—clearly daring me to approve—that she liked black-and-white movies: especially ones set in spooky old houses. I responded casually that I enjoyed them too and didn’t object to novels of the same sort. What followed was a pleasant half-hour chat. Ariel stopped curling her lip and asked me for names of authors and titles. By the time her grandmother intimated it was time to leave, I was quite sorry to say good-bye to the whey-faced girl and asked if she would like me to sort through my collection and send her a couple of the books we had discussed. Unless her parents would object, I added responsibly.
“It’ll be all right with Dad,” said Ariel.
“And your mother?”
“Betty’s my step.” A toss of the sandy pigtails. “She won’t care what you send me.”
Not particularly heartened by this information, I got the Hopkinses’ address from my mother-in-law and a few weeks later sent off a package of books, addressing it to Tom and Betty, with a letter enclosed. I never heard back from either of them. But Ariel wrote to thank me with an enthusiasm that suggested the genie had been let out of the ink bottle. On paper she was a different child, impish and insightful. She had loved The Curse of St. Crispin’s so much that she was dying—underlined three times—to read everything else by its author. That was the beginning of our correspondence, and it became an enjoyable one for me. Over the course of the next eighteen months, I sent Ariel several more books and always looked forward to discussing them with her in letters.
Then something earthshaking happened to the Hopkins family: Tom and Betty won the lottery. They sold their semidetached home in a London suburb and bought a huge house somewhere in the north. Ben and I learned this information from his mother, but even she was not privy to their new address. And Ariel’s grandmother, who would have been a likely source of this information, had died the previous year.
Now, on this day of storm, it was six months since I had heard from Ariel. I had been thinking about her quite a lot recently, wondering how she was adjusting to her new life. Given my favorite choice of reading matter, I knew all too well that the sudden acquisition of great wealth could be a murky matter, fraught with perils for the child heiress. Ben felt that if Tom and Betty did not want people to know their whereabouts, that was their prerogative. Even so, he had agreed to ask his mother, on his current visit, if she had any updated information on where the family of three had gone to earth.
There was always the chance, I had explained while looking fervently into his marvelous blue-green eyes, that Ariel was desperately hoping I would get back in touch with her. But I had not pressed the point. Ben isn’t much of a fiction reader. He prefers cookery books, which is understandable, seeing that he has written half a dozen of his own, in addition to owning and managing a restaurant named Abigail’s in our village of Chitterton Fells.
Pouring myself another cup of tea, I realized I’d finished all the biscuits. Time slips by so fast when one is Ellie Haskell; blissfully married to the handsomest man outside of a gothic novel, with three lively children and Tobias to round out the family. Having decided to take early retirement, Tobias is underfoot much of the day, meowing about how much better things were when he was young. As if on cue, he demanded a second saucer of milk.
“Don’t interrupt,” I told him sternly. “I am busy relaxing.”
And now came another distraction. Mrs. Malloy entered through the hall door, wafting a feather duster. She was looking her majestic best in a purple taffeta dress and an enormous pair of rhinestone earrings that would have done her proud at a cocktail party hosted by a royal duchess, had Chitterton Fells gone in for such swanky affairs. Her jet-black hairdo with its two inches of white roots is always her chief fashion statement. She also goes in for iridescent eye shadow, lashings of mascara, brick-red rouge, and purple-passion lipstick. That’s Mrs. Malloy. And, as I have said on occasion to Tobias, who admires her fondness for fur coats, all credit to her.
Nothing would induce Her Royal Personage to slop around as I was presently doing in an old green skirt and sweater and no makeup. She routinely takes me to task for not putting my best face forward, explaining that looking like a loaf of bread is no way to keep a husband when there are plenty of fancy cakes on little paper doilies out there. Regrettably, I always let this go in one ear and out the other, telling myself smugly that we can’t all be slaves to fashion. Not being clairvoyant, I did not foresee the danger of ignoring such pearls of wisdom. Oh, woe to the woman who sticks her nose in a book and forgets that real life is not always destined for Happily Ever After.
“I thought you’d left for the day,” I said, getting to my feet.
“What? Be drowned in that storm when no right-minded person would put a cat out in it?”
Tobias looked grateful. Had there been a saucer of milk handy, I am sure he would have offered her a slurp.
Her Mightiness began clattering around the kitchen in her six-inch heels, opening up cupboard doors as if hoping to surprise miniature burglars lurking behind the plates. The noise she made was not Beethoven to the ears, but then she has never been a woman to fade willingly into the next county.
Irritating as this can be, I’ve grown fond of her over the years. We’ve shared some good times and a number of adventures in which we have, more by luck than skill, managed to unmask evildoers bent on reducing England’s population one or two murder victims at a time. A recent escapade had found us on unauthorized assignment to a surly gumshoe named Milk Jugg. Our participation was the result of a silly mistake that could have happened to any pair of well-meaning busybodies. Milk had not been overwhelmingly grateful. We had, however, solved the murder and received a nice little mention in the local newspaper. Mrs. Malloy had sent a copy to George, her son by one of her husbands. (I couldn’t remember whether it was the third or the fourth—but then, neither could she.)
Now, mindful of my responsibilities as employer, I poured her a cup of tea and got out more biscuits.
“It’s good of you to stay so late this afternoon getting the house really shipshape.” I beamed my warmest smile.
“And nice of you, Mrs. H, to take the trouble to ignore me when I’ve been telling you the same thing twice over. Warms the cockles of me heart, it does, but then it never takes much to make me feel appreciated.” Mrs. Malloy teetered into full view on those stilt heels to strike a dramatic pose, one hand on her hip, the other still holding the feather duster aloft.
“I’m sorry. What have you been saying?”
“Nothing that important, Mrs. H.”
Now I felt guilty, something I do rather well. Had I been into nonfiction, I could have written a bestseller on female neuroses, to the accompaniment of a great many footnotes. Mrs. Malloy is devoted to the children, and it helps enormously to be able to leave them with her when Ben and I occasionally go out in the evening. My cousin Freddy, who lives in the cottage at the end of the drive and is second in command at Abigail’s, also helps out in this regard. Except when, as was currently the case, he is desperately in love with some hapless female who fails to grasp that he is already married to his motorcycle.
“I didn’t mean to ignore you,” I told Mrs. Malloy through a mouthful of digestive biscuit. “I was thinking about The Night Visitor and that ghost child, Oriole, tapping on the window when Miss Flinch was aching to be alone with thoughts of Sir Giles’s refusal to explain his avoidance of a certain corner of the shrubbery on the anniversary of his wife’s disappearance.”
It was the right ploy for making amends. Mrs. Malloy had recommended the book to me. She is every bit as keen on this sort of literary gem as are Ariel and I. Among our favorites are those set in Yorkshire, featuring—nine times out of ten—the orphaned heroine. A young woman who leaps at the chance to become a governess in a decaying mansion where Something Unspeakable is shut away in the north tower and melancholy music drifts up from the crypt. Her charge is frequently a plain child who has not been right in the head since taking a peep through the lepers’ squint and seeing Nanny stuff a body into the priest hole. Given these unhappy circumstances, along with the fact that he only inherited Darkwood Hall because his twin brother drowned in the hip bath, the master of the house tends to be somewhat morose. Sadly, this prevents him from telling the heroine (when first encountering her at dead of night on the secret staircase) that he adores her pale, prim face. Behind the masterful control of his emotions is a searing need. He yearns to explain that if she can overlook his limp, his missing ear, and the scar slashed across his right cheek, he will be willing to forget that his first wife died in childbirth and ravish her on the spot.
Setting the teacups on the kitchen table, I wondered if Lord Darkwood would have doted on the governess quite so passionately were she the one needing an immediate appointment with a plastic surgeon. Probably not. But never mind: there is something utterly beguiling about the image of a man tortured by the realization that he is unworthy of even a stray smile from the woman he adores. It is one of those vagaries of life that enable Ben to look fabulous in old blue jeans and a sweatshirt while I, a part-time interior designer dressed much the same way, look like an assortment of fabric swatches I would avoid using in my work.
Suddenly the air was rent by a piercing scream. It was only the kettle whistling. Mrs. Malloy, however, wilted into a chair as if she had received a mortal shock of her life, and only flickered back to life when I passed her a cuppa.
“I’m a bit unsettled today.” She smiled wanly up at me as she stirred in the third spoonful of sugar. “Yesterday evening I went on a journey . . . a long long journey.”
“Shopping in Pebble Beach?” I asked, receiving a scowl in return.
“It wasn’t that sort of journey. Something quite different. It’s what I was wanting to tell you from the moment you walked in, but it soon became clear you wasn’t listening.”
“Well, I am now.” Seating myself opposite her, I shifted the refilled plate of digestive biscuits her way. “Don’t keep me in suspense. You’re sounding delightfully mysterious.”
Mrs. Malloy mellowed visibly. “I went to see a psychic named Madam LaGrange. My friend Maisie from the Chitterton Fells Charwomen’s Association had been to her and said she was quite wonderful. Of course, she charges quite a bit. . . .”
“Why of course?”
“She’s a specialist.”
“Not your ordinary general practitioner?” I was wondering if another digestive biscuit would cross my path in the near future. Mrs. Malloy had put a couple on her plate and then proceeded rudely to ignore them. Not that I was one to talk about good manners. If I’d paid attention when she was trying to talk to me earlier, I would already have the scoop on Madam LaGrange. Probably named Mrs. Smith when serving up hubby’s dinner instead of staring into her crystal ball.
“Oh, she does some standard fortune-telling, because that’s what most people want.” Mrs. M smirked disparagingly. “She told me, at no extra charge, to be careful of standing at bus stops when it’s thundering and lightning because she saw a woman with an umbrella take a tumble and go under a double-decker.”
“She didn’t think it was me, more likely someone I knew or would meet in the future.”
That’s right, Madam LaGrange, I thought, keep it vague.
“She also said”—Mrs. Malloy pursed her butterfly lips and stared into space—“that a woman of my acquaintance whose first name begins with E should stop living in a dream world, seeing as her hubby’s old girlfriend is going to show up and this time around she’ll stop at nothing to get him.”
Suddenly, I wished that Madam had been a bit more vague. Did it make any difference that my name was really Giselle, although almost everyone called me Ellie?
“Or she may have said beginning with a B.” Mrs. Malloy waved a negligent hand. “I can’t say as I was listening that close, being eager to get on with the journey back to one or more of me past lives.”
“Oh!” I stared at her, my momentary unease banished.
“That’s Madam LaGrange’s specialty. Transgression is what she calls it.”
“I thought the term was regression. Never mind. What do I know?” Truth be told, I was a little hurt. Mrs. Malloy and I are not joined at the hip, but we share more than a working relationship. She must have known I would be interested in discovering whether I’d ever hobnobbed with Cornish smugglers or queued up in a past life to get the Brontë sisters’ autographs. Unfortunately, being grown-up means having to rise above wounded feelings. “Tell me what happened. I’m dying of curiosity. Did Madam LaGrange hypnotize you?”
“ ’Course not! She told me I’d have to take a couple of trains and then a taxi the rest of the way!” Mrs. Malloy curled her purple lip, before settling back in her chair and sipping her tea.
“Thanks for the sarcasm. I meant, did it work? Did she succeed in putting you into a trance?”
“Madam LaGrange said I was a very good subject. I went all lovely and floaty, like I was made out of gossamer.”
“Weren’t you nervous?” I asked, inching the plate of biscuits toward me.
“Well, I was a bit at first, Mrs. H, sitting in that room with the curtains drawn and dance-of-the-seven-veils music piping up from the old-fashioned gramophone. But then I decided it was silly to get the willies over a little thing like being sent back in time. What’s the worst that could happen? That’s what I said to meself.”
“You could have found yourself stuck back in the eleventh century without your toothbrush or a change of underwear. What if Madam hadn’t been able to bring you back? I’m not sure it does to play around with this stuff.”
“Thought you might see it that way. It’s why I didn’t say anything when I got here this morning! Or could it be you’re jealous?” Mrs. Malloy stuck her nose in the air.
I felt myself blush. It was true. I’d always had a sneaking desire to discover if my interest in gothic romances sprang from having once been a Victorian damsel in distress. Had I glided down the turret stairs at dead of night with only the pale moon’s glance to light my way toward the priest hole in trembling hope of finding skeletal evidence of mayhem at the manor? Had I mustered the moral fortitude to spurn the master’s ardent advances and remind him that his invalid wife still clung to life on the edge of her chaise longue and he could never divorce her because he was a Roman Catholic and the scandal would kill his mother? Had I displayed the heroism of a Jane Eyre in refusing to become his mistress? That would depend, I supposed, on whether the darkly handsome master looked anything like Ben when he slowly removed his dressing gown. Would there be tears in his eyes and that wonderfully husky note of desperation in his voice when he begged me to let him set me up in a fabulously expensive apartment in Paris?
I was picturing the endless nights of forbidden passion, the crystal chandelier that cast its radiant glow over the Louis Quatorze bed, the tumbled silk sheets, and the dear little poodle on its monogrammed cushion when Mrs. Malloy intruded with blatant insensitivity into this most private of moments.
“You’re the one off in a trance, Mrs. H!”
“Just thinking your visit to Madam LaGrange must have been an interesting experience.” I poured us both another cup of tea. “Did you find out if you have lived before?”
“After she brought me out of the trance, Madam LaGrange told me I’d never stopped talking the whole time.”
“How much did you remember?”
“No need to sound suspicious, Mrs. H! The veil falls back into place. That’s the way it works. Anyway, it turns out I was in the circus in two previous lives. The first time I was married to one of the clowns and the mother of seven. So it didn’t leave much time for making it up the ladder—”
“To the trapeze?”
Mrs. Malloy eyed me coldly. “Put it that way if you like. The ladder of success is what I was getting at.”
Did the tattered remnants of disappointed ambition explain why she’d emphasized early in our relationship that she didn’t do any jobs that required going up stepladders with a bucket? “Seven children.” I sympathized. “No wonder George is your one and only this time around.”
“My second life in the circus was lots better. I had a thing going with the ringmaster and the man that trained the elephants, but mostly I fixed on me career as a tightrope walker.” Mrs. Malloy attempted, but failed, to look modest.
I visualized her walking the length of our clothesline in her ultra-high heels and a taffeta dress, not a hair out of place. The mind boggled.
“Any other lives in your résumé?”
“Well, yes, so Madam LaGrange said, but I’m not so sure about the last one.” Mrs. M eyed me now with a mixture of awkwardness and defiance. “Leastways, not like I was about the first two.”
“The circus ones do sound completely credible.” I tried not to look at Tobias, who was clearly smirking behind the paw with which he was pretending to wash his face.
“I got the faintest suspicion that Madam LaGrange might be making up stories at the end.”
“No!” If a cat could guffaw, Tobias would have done so. I was truly shocked. Were Madam a fake, she might at least have had the integrity to appear genuine and not crush her client’s fantasies as they flourished. We all need a little escapism, even when completely content with our lives. I with my idyllic marriage and wonderful children was proof of that. And it hadn’t taken long after getting to know Mrs. Malloy to realize she hid the heart of a romantic within her taffeta bosom.
She now studied the hanging rack of copper pans. “It crossed me mind, Mrs. H, that Madam LaGrange could be working from bits and bobs of information I’d given her about meself when I rang up to make the appointment. Seeing that was last week, I couldn’t remember for certain what I’d said about this or that, but I’m almost sure I told her me maiden name.”
“Is that important?”
“I’m getting to that. There we was yesterday evening, sitting at the table with the shadows drifting about and that Taj Mahal music piping away like it wouldn’t stop even if you smashed the gramophone. All properly spine-tingling, I was thinking, Mrs. H, when it came to me that Madam LaGrange seemed a mite bored. Once or twice I caught her looking at her watch, and all at once she says that me last incarnation, before this one, was as a cat in the late eighteen hundreds.”
“A cat?” I reached yet again for the plate of biscuits. This required at least two digestives. “I suppose that would explain why you’re so fond of fur coats. What sort of cat? A pedigree or a regular old—” I was silenced by a baleful glare from Tobias.
“Old tabby? That’s what you was going to ask, wasn’t it?” Mrs. Malloy’s false eyelashes twitched.
“No, I wasn’t!” I said, through a splutter of crumbs. “Not that there is anything wrong with being a tabby. Tobias is one”—I shifted my chair away from him—“and he’s always thought he was the whiskers. I’ve known lots of other tabbies, wonderful people—I mean cats—all of them. Every one, without exception! But I am sure you were a pedigree, Mrs. Malloy. Probably a Persian. Or a Siamese?”
“Tabby was me maiden name.”
Mrs. Malloy sighed deeply. “I think it’s one of the reasons I got married so many times, trying to put the sound of it as far behind me as possible. You’ve no idea, Mrs. H, what it’s like to have a name that makes you the butt of spiteful jokes.”
Copyright © 2007 by Dorothy Cannell. All rights reserved.