Once upon a day an old butler called Eldon lay dying in his room attended by the head housemaid, Miss Agatha Burch. From time to time the other servants separately or in chorus gave expression to proper sentiments and then went on with what they had been doing.
One name he uttered over and over, ‘Ellen.’
The pointed windows of Mr Eldon’s room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout.
Came a man’s laugh. Miss Burch jerked, then the voice broke out again. Charley Raunce, head footman, was talking outside to Bert his yellow pantry boy. She recognized the voice but could not catch what was said.
‘… on with what I was on with,’ he spoke, ‘you should clean your teeth before ever you have anything to do with a woman. That’s a matter of personal hygiene. Because I take an interest in you for which you should be thankful. I’m sayin’ you want to take it easy my lad, or you’ll be the death of yourself.’
The lad looked sick.
‘A spot of john barley corn is what you are in need of,’ Raunce went on, but the boy was not having any.
‘Not in there,’ he said in answer, quavering, ‘I couldn’t.’
‘How’s that? You know where he keeps the decanter don’t you? Surely you must do.’
‘Not out of that room I couldn’t.’
‘Go ahead, don’t let a little thing worry your guts,’ Raunce said. He was a pale individual, paler now. ‘The old man’s on with his Ellen, ‘e won’t take notice.’
‘But there’s Miss Burch.’
‘Is that so? Then why didn’t you say in the first place? That’s different. Now you get stuck into my knives and forks. I’ll handle her.’
Raunce hesitated, then went in. The boy looked to listen as for a shriek. The door having been left ajar he could hear the way Raunce put it to her.
‘This is my afternoon on in case they take it into their heads to punish the bell,’ he told her. ‘If you like I’ll sit by him for a spell while you go get a breath of air.’
‘Very good then,’ she replied, ‘I might.’
‘That’s the idea Miss Burch, you take yourself out for a stroll. It’ll fetch your mind off.’
‘I shan’t be far. Not out of sight just round by the back. You’d call me, now, if he came in for a bad spell?’
Charley reassured her. She came away. Bert stood motionless his right hand stiff with wet knives. That door hung wide once more. Then, almost before Miss Burch was far enough to miss it, was a noise of the drawer being closed. Raunce came back, a cut-glass decanter warm with whisky in his hands. The door stayed gaping open.
‘Go ahead, listen,’ he said to Bert, ‘it’s meat and drink at your age, I know, an old man dying but this stuff is more than grub or wine to me That’s what. Let’s get us behind the old door.’
To do so had been ritual in Mr Eldon’s day. There was cover between this other door, opened back, and a wall of the pantry Here they poured Mrs T ‘s whisky. ‘Ellen,’ came the voice again, ‘Ellen.’
At a rustle Raunce stuck his head out while Bert, farther in because he was smallest, could do no more than peek the other way along a back passage, his eyes on a level with one of the door hinges Bert saw no one. But Charley eyed Edith, one of two under-housemaids.
She stood averted watching that first door which stayed swung back into Mr Eldon’s room. Not until he had said, ‘hello there,’ did she turn. Only then could he see that she had stuck a peacock’s feather above her lovely head, in her dark-folded hair. ‘What have you?’ he asked pushing the decanter out to the front edge so much as to say, ‘look what I’ve found.’
In both hands she held a gauntlet glove by the wrist. He could tell that it was packed full of white unbroken eggs.
‘Why you gave me a jump,’ she said, not startled.
‘Look what I’ve got us,’ he answered, glancing at the decanter he held out. Then he turned his attention back where perhaps she expected, onto the feather in her hair.
‘You take that off before they can set eyes on you,’ he went on, ‘and what’s this? Eggs? What for?’ he asked. Bert poked his head out under the decanter, putting on a kind of male child’s grin for girls. With no change in expression, without warning, she began to blush. The slow tide frosted her dark eyes, endowed them with facets. ‘You won’t tell,’ she pleaded and Charley was about to give back that it depended when a bell rang. The indicator board gave a chock. ‘Oh all right,’ Raunce said, coming out to see which room had rung. Bert followed sheepish.
Charley put two wet glasses into a wooden tub in the sink, shut that decanter away in a pantry drawer. ‘Ellen,’ the old man called faintly. This drew Edith’s eyes back towards the butler’s room. ‘Now lad,’ Raunce said to Bert, ‘I’m relying on you mind to see Mrs Welch won’t come out of her kitchen to knock the whisky off.’ He did not get a laugh. Both younger ones must have been listening for Mr Eldon. The bell rang a second time. ‘O K,’ Raunce said, ‘I’m coming. And let me have that glove back,’ he went on. ‘I’ll have to slap it on a salver to take in some time.’
‘Yes Mr Raunce,’ she replied
‘Mister is it now,’ he said, grinning as he put on his jacket. When he was gone she turned to Bert She was short with him She was no more than three months older, yet by the tone of voice she might have been his mother’s sister.
‘Well he’ll be Mr Raunce when it’s over,’ she said.
‘Will Mr Eldon die?’ Bert asked, then swallowed.
‘Why surely,’ says she giving a shocked giggle, then passing a hand along her cheek.
Meantime Charley entered as Mrs Tennant yawned. She said to him,
‘Oh yes I rang didn’t I, Arthur,’ she said and he was called by that name as every footman from the first had been called, whose name had really been Arthur, all the Toms, Harrys, Percys, Victors one after the other, all called Arthur. ‘Have you seen a gardening glove of mine’? One of a pair I brought back from London?’
‘Ask if any of the other servants have come across it will you? Such a nuisance.’
‘And, oh tell me, how is Eldon?’
‘Much about the same I believe Madam.’
‘Dear dear Yes thank you Arthur. That will be all. Listen though. I expect Doctor Connolly will be here directly.’
He went out, shutting the mahogany door without a sound. After twenty trained paces he closed a green baize door behind him. As it clicked he called out,
‘Now me lad she wants that glove and don’t forget.’
‘The old gardening glove Edith went birds’-nesting with,’ Raunce replied. ‘Holy Moses look at the clock,’ he went on, ‘ten to three and me not on me bed. Come on look slippy.’ He whipped out the decanter while Bert provided those tumblers that had not yet been dried. ‘God rest his soul,’ Raunce added in a different tone of voice then carried on,
‘Wet glasses? Where was you brought up? No we’ll have two dry ones thank you,’ he cried. ‘Get crackin’ now Behind the old door.’ Upon this came yet another double pitiful appeal to Ellen. ‘And there’s another thing, Mrs T. she still calls me Arthur. But it will be Mr Raunce to you d’you hear?’
‘ ‘E ain’t dead yet.’
‘Nor he ain’t far to go before he will be. Oh dear. Yes and that reminds me. Did you ever notice where the old man kept that black book of his and the red one?’
‘What d’you mean? I never touched ‘em.’
‘Don’t be daft I never said you did did I? But he wouldn’t trouble to watch himself in front of you. Times out of mind you must have seen.’
‘Not me I never.’
‘We shan’t make anything out of you, that’s one thing certain,’ Raunce stated. ‘There’s occasions I despair altogether.’ He went on, ‘You mean to stand and tell me you’ve never so much as set eyes on ‘em, not even to tell where they was kept.’
‘What for Mr Raunce?’
‘Well you can’t help seeing when a thing’s before your nose, though I’m getting so’s I could believe any mortal idiotic stroke of yours, so help me.’
‘So you never eh? You never what?’ Raunce asked. ‘Don’t talk so sloppy. What I’m asking is can you call to mind his studying in a black or a red thrupenny notebook?’
‘Study what?’ Bert said, bolder by his tot now the glass he held was empty.
‘All right. You’ve never seen those books then. That’s all I wanted. But I ask you look at the clock. I’m going to get the old head down, it’s me siesta. And don’t forget to give us a call sharp on four thirty. You can’t be trusted yet to lay the tea. Listen though. If that front door rings it will likely be the doctor. He’s expected Show him straight in,’ Raunce said, pointing with his thumb into the door agape He made off.
‘What about Miss Burch?’ the boy called.
‘Shall I call her?’ he shouted, desperate.
Raunce must have heard, but he gave no answer. Left alone young Albert began to shake.
In the morning room two days later Raunce stood before Mrs Tennant and showed part of his back to Violet her daughter-in-law.
‘Might I speak to you for a moment Madam?’
‘Yes Arthur what is it?’
‘I’m sure I would not want to cause any inconvenience but I desire to give in my notice.’
She could not see Violet because he was in the way. So she glared at the last button but one of his waistcoat, on a level with her daughter-in-law’s head behind him. He had been standing with arms loose at his sides and now a hand came uncertainly to find if he was done up and having found dropped back.
‘What Arthur?’ she asked. She seemed exasperated. ‘Just when I’m like this when this has happened to Eldon?’
‘The place won’t be the same without him Madam.’
‘Surely that’s not a reason Well never mind. I daresay not but I simply can’t run to another butler.’
‘Things are not what they used to be you know. It’s the war. And then there’s taxation and everything. You must understand that.’
‘I’m sure I have always tried to give every satisfaction Madam,’ he replied.
At this she picked up a newspaper She put it down again She got to her feet. She walked over to one of six tall french windows with gothic arches ‘Violet,’ she said, ‘I can’t imagine what Michael thinks he is about with the grass court darling. Even from where I am I can see plantains like the tops of palm trees.’
Her daughter-in-law’s silence seemed to imply that all effort was to butt one’s head against wire netting. Charley stood firm. Mrs T. turned. With her back to the light he could not see her mouth and nose.
‘Very well then,’ she announced, ‘I suppose we shall have to call you Raunce.’
Thank you Madam.’
‘Think it over will you?’ She was smiling. ‘Mind I’ve said nothing about more wages.’ She dropped her eyes and in so doing she deepened her forehead on which once each month a hundred miles away in Dublin her white hair was washed in blue and waved and curled. She moved over to another table She pushed the ashtray with one long lacquered oyster nail across the black slab of polished marble supported by a dolphin layered in gold. Then she added as though confidentially,
‘I feel we should all hang together in these detestable times.’
‘We’re really in enemy country here you know We simply must keep things up. With my boy away at the war. Just go and think it over.’
‘We know we can rely on you you know Arthur.’
‘Thank you Madam.’
‘Then don’t let me hear any more of this nonsense. Oh and I can’t find one of my gloves I use for gardening. I can’t find it anywhere.’
‘I will make enquiries. Very good Madam.’
He shut the great door after. He almost swung his arms, he might have been said to step out for the thirty yards he had to go along that soft passage to the green baize door. Then he stopped. In one of the malachite vases, filled with daffodils, which stood on tall pedestals of gold naked male children without wings, he had seen a withered trumpet. He cut off the head with a pair of nail clippers He carried this head away in cupped hand from above thick pile carpet in black and white squares through onto linoleum which was bordered with a purple key pattern on white until, when he had shut that green door to open his kingdom, he punted the daffodil ahead like a rugger ball. It fell limp on the oiled parquet a yard beyond his pointed shoes.
He was kicking this flower into his pantry not more than thirty inches at a time when Miss Burch with no warning opened and came out of Mr Eldon’s death chamber. She was snuffling. He picked it up off the floor quick. He said friendly,
‘The stink of flowers always makes my eyes run.’
‘And when may daffodils have had a perfume,’ she asked, tart through tears.
‘I seem to recollect they had a smell once,’ he said.
‘You’re referring to musk, oh dear,’ she answered making off, tearful But apparently he could not leave it alone.
‘Then what about hay fever?’ he almost shouted. ‘That never comes with hay, or does it? There was a lady once at a place where I worked,’ and then he stopped. Miss Burch had moved out of earshot. ‘Well if you won’t pay heed I can’t force you,’ he said out loud. He shut Mr Eldon’s door, then stood with his back to it. He spoke to Bert.
‘What time’s the interment?’ he asked. ‘And how long to go before dinner?’ not waiting for answers. ‘See here my lad I’ve got something that needs must be attended, to you know where’ He jangled keys in his pocket. Then instead of entering Mr Eldon’s room he walked away to dispose of the daffodil in a bucket He coughed. He came back again. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘give us a whistle if one of ‘em shows up’
He slipped inside like an eel into its drainpipe. He closed the door so that Bert could not see. Within all was immeasurable stillness with the mass of daffodils on the bed. He stood face averted then hurried smooth and his quietest to the roll-top desk He held his breath. He had the top left-hand drawer open. He breathed again. And then Bert whistled.
Raunce snatched at those red and black notebooks He had them. He put them away in a hip pocket. They fitted. ‘Close that drawer,’ he said aloud. He did this. He fairly scrambled out again He shut the door after, leaving all immeasurably still within. He stood with his back to it, taking out a handkerchief, and looked about.
He saw Edith. She was just inside the pantry where Bert watched him open mouthed. Raunce eyed her very sharp. He seemed to appraise the dark eyes she sported which were warm and yet caught the light like plums dipped in cold water. He stayed absolutely quiet. At last she said quite calm,
‘Would the dinner bell have gone yet?’
‘My dinner,’ he cried obviously putting on an act, ‘holy smoke is it as late as that, and this lad of mine not taken up the nursery tray yet. Get going,’ he said to Bert, ‘look sharp.’ The boy rushed out. ‘God forgive me,’ he remarked, ‘but there’s times I want to liquidate ‘im. Come to father beautiful,’ he said.
‘Not me,’ she replied amused.
‘Well if you don’t want I’m not one to insist. But did nobody never tell you about yourself?’
‘Aren’t you just awful,’ she said apparently delighted.
‘That’s as may be,’ he answered, ‘but it’s you we’re speaking of. With those eyes you ought to be in pictures.’
‘Come on,’ he said, ‘if we’re going to be lucky with our dinner we’d best be going for it.’
‘No, you don’t,’ she said slipping before him. And they came out through this pantry into the long high stone passage with a vaulted ceiling which led to the kitchen and their servants’ hall.
‘Now steady,’ he said, as he caught up with her. ‘What will Miss Burch say if she finds us chasing one after the other?’ When they were walking side by side he asked,
‘What made you come through my way to dinner?’
‘Why you do need to know a lot,’ she said.
‘I know all I can my girl and that’s never done me harm I got other things to think to besides love and kisses, did you know?’
‘No I didn’t, not from the way you go on I didn’t.’
‘The trouble with you girls is you take everything so solemn. Now all I was asking was why you looked in on us while you came down to dinner?’
‘Thinkin’ I came to see you I suppose,’ she said. She turned to look at him. What she saw made her giggle mouth open and almost soundless. Then she slapped a hand across her teeth and ran on ahead He took no notice. With a swirl of the coloured skirt of her uniform she turned a corner in front along this high endless corridor. The tap of her shoes faded. He walked on He appeared to be thinking. He went so soft he might have been a ghost without a head. But as he made his way he repeated to himself, over and over,
‘This time I’ll take his old chair. I must.’
He arrived to find the household seated at table waiting, except for Mrs Welch and her two girls who ate in the kitchen and for Bert who was late. There was his place laid for Raunce next Miss Burch. Kate and Edith were drawn up ready. They sat with hands folded on laps before their knives, spoons and forks. At the head, empty, was the large chair from which Mr Eldon had been accustomed to preside. At the last and apart sat Paddy the lampman For this huge house, which was almost entirely shut up, had no electric light.
Charley went straight over to a red mahogany sideboard that was decorated with a swan at either end to support the top on each long curved neck. In the centre three ferns were niggardly growing in gold Worcester vases. He took out a knife, a spoon and a fork He sat down in Mr Eldon’s chair, the one with arms. Seated, he laid his own place They all stared at him.
‘What are we waiting for?’ he said into the silence He took out a handkerchief again. Then he blew his nose as though nervous.
‘Would you be in a draught?’ Miss Burch enquired at last.
‘Why no thank you,’ he replied. The silence was pregnant.
‘I thought perhaps you might be,’ she said and sniffed.
At that he turned to see whether he had forgotten to close the door. It was shut all right. The way he looked made Kate choke.
‘I heard no one venture a pleasantry,’ Miss Burch announced at this girl.
‘I thought I caught Paddy crack one of his jokes,’ Raunce added with a sort of violence. A grin spread over this man’s face as it always did when his name was mentioned. He was uncouth, in shirtsleeves, barely coming up over the table he was so short. With a thick dark neck and face he had a thatch of hair which also sprouted grey from the nostrils His eyes were light blue as was one of Charley’s, for Raunce had different coloured eyes, one dark one light which was arresting.
The girls looked down to their laps.
‘Or maybe she swallowed the wrong way although there’s nothing on the table and it’s all growing cold in the kitchen,’ Raunce continued He got no reply.
‘Well what are we waiting on?’ he asked.
‘Why for your precious lad to fetch in our joint,’ Miss Burch replied.
‘I shouldn’t wonder if the nursery hasn’t detained him,’ was Charley’s answer.
‘Then Kate had better bring it,’ Miss Burch said. And they sat without a word while she was gone. Twice Agatha made as though to speak, seated as he was for the first time in Mr Eldon’s place, but she did not seem able to bring it to words. Her eyes, which before now had been dull, each sported a ripple of light from tears. Until, after Kate had returned laden Raunce cast a calculated look at Miss Burch as he stood to carve, saying,
‘Nor I won’t go Not even if it is to be Church of England I don’t aim to watch them lower that coffin in the soil.’
At this Miss Burch pushed the plate away from in front of her to sit with closed eyes. He paused. Then as he handed a portion to Edith he went on,
‘I don’t reckon on that as the last I shall see of the man. It’s nothing but superstition all that part.’
‘And the wicked shall flourish even as a green bay tree,’ Miss Burch announced in a loud voice as though something had her by the throat. Once more there was a pause. Then Raunce began again as he served Paddy. Because he had taken a roast potato into his mouth with the carving fork he spoke uneasy.
‘Why will Mrs Welch have it that she must carve for the kitchen? Don’t call her cook she don’t like the name. There’s not much I can do the way this joint’s been started.’
The girls were busy with their food. O’Conor was noisy with the portion before him. Raunce settled down to his plate. Agatha still sat back.
‘And how many months would it be since you went out?’ she asked like vinegar.
‘Let me think now. The last occasion must have been when I had to see Paddy here to the Park Gates that time he was “dronk” at Christmas.’
This man grinned although his mouth was watering in volume so that he had to swallow constantly.
‘Careful now,’ said Raunce.
Kate and Edith stopped eating to watch the Irishman open eyed. This man was their sport and to one of them he was even more than that. In spite of Miss Burch he looked so ludicrous that they had suddenly to choke back tremors of giggling.
‘It was nearly my lot,’ Raunce added.
‘It couldn’t hurt no one to show respect to the dead,’ Miss Burch tremulously said. Charley answered in downright tones,
‘Begging your pardon Miss Burch my feelings are my own and I daresay there’s no one here but yourself misses him more than me. Only this morning I went to Mrs T., asked leave and told her,’ but he did not at once continue. The silence in which he was received seemed to daunt him. With a clumsy manner he turned it off, saying,
‘Yes, I remember when I came for my first interview she said I can’t call you Charles, no she says “I’ll call you Arthur. All the first footmen have been called Arthur ever since Arthur Weavell, a real jewel that man was,” she said.’
He looked at Miss Burch to find that she had flushed.
‘And now I make no doubt you are counting on her addressing you as Raunce,’ Miss Burch said in real anger. ‘With Mr Eldon not yet in the ground But I’ll tell you one thing,’ she continued, her voice rising, ‘you’ll never get a Mr out of me not ever, even if there is a war on.’
‘What’s the war got to do with it?’ he asked, and he winked at Kate. ‘Never mind let it go. Anyway I know now don’t I.’
‘No,’ she said, having the last word, ‘men like you never will appreciate or realize.’
Next morning Raunce chose to enter Mrs Jack’s bedroom when Agatha Burch was at work on the Aubusson carpet.
He carried a large tray on which he had arranged three stacks of fresh blotting paper coloured pink, white and yellow, two saucers of Worcester china in which were knibs of bronze and gold plated, two bottles of red and blue ink with clean syringes to fill the inkwells, and piles of new stationery which matched those three shades of blotting paper.
He laid this down on a writing table. When he saw her face which was as it sometimes looked on her bad days so called, pale or blotchy as a shrimp before boiling, he cleared his throat. He watched her close but she did not regard him. He cleared his throat again. He spoke.
‘Just the very person,’ he said warmly.
‘Oh yes,’ was her answer.
‘I had a bit of a shock this morning,’ he went on, looking out of the window onto a glorious day, ‘I moved down into the butler’s apartment yesterday as will be known to you because one of your girls got the room ready.’
‘I don’t know how you had the heart,’ she said.
‘That’s all right Miss Burch, everyone has their feelings, but I’m sure Mrs T. would not wish the strongroom left unguarded of a night time.’
‘I hope everything was to your fancy,’ she remarked.
‘I slept very well thank you, mustn’t grumble at all. Sheets nicely aired, a good night’s sleep considerin’. But I had a bit of a shock when my tea was fetched me.’
‘Tea! I never knew you took it first thing.’
‘Oh yes I must have me cup of tea, and I’m not alone in that I believe. I couldn’t start the day without.’
‘And was it all right?’ she asked, so cheerfully she might have thought she had the advantage of him. ‘Had it been made with boiling water?’
‘Yes,’ he said weak, ‘it was a good cup of tea.’
‘Then they’ll have warmed the pot. I’m glad, I am really. Because I’ll tell you something,’ and her voice rose. ‘D’you know I can’t get one for meself at that hour?’
‘You can’t? Is that so? There’s a lot wrong there if you’ll pardon me with all the girls you’ve got to serve you. I should say that wants to be looked into.’
‘They’ve got their work to do same as I have,’ she said in a voice charged with meaning.
‘Yes I had a bit of a shock first thing,’ he went on, ignoring this. ‘It was nasty to tell the truth. That lad of mine Albert brought my tea.’
‘You don’t say. Why I didn’t know he was up so prompt.’
‘I’ll guarantee you this,’ Raunce said, his voice beginning to grate a trifle, ‘he’s up before anyone in the Castle.’
‘I won’t argue,’ she announced.
‘No but if you know any different you’ll oblige by contradicting.’
‘I never argue, I’m not that way,’ she said.
‘Nor me,’ he answered, ‘I never was one to contradict this or that. No, all I had in mind was the lad. It’s his first place and he’s a good obliging boy.’
‘I’m not saying he’s not’
‘Then you don’t deny it,’ Raunce said on a rising tone.
‘Deny what?’ she replied. ‘I’m denying nobody.’
‘That’s O.K. Miss Burch. It was only to make certain I understood like any man has a right. I may have misinterpreted. For if you must know it upset me to see that lad of mine Albert carry me my tea.’
‘That was what he always used to do surely.’
‘Yes, in Mr Eldon’s day that’s the way it used to be every morning,’ Raunce admitted. Then he went on,
‘But one of the girls always brought the old man’s.’
‘And now I suppose you won’t be satisfied unless one of my girls brings you yours,’ Miss Burch said with surprising bitterness. ‘And I don’t doubt she must be Kate,’ she added.
‘I can’t seem to follow you,’ he said.
‘You can’t? I’ll ask you this then. How’s the work to get done of a morning?’
‘Well same as it always has I presume.’
‘Now then,’ she said taking up this last remark She drew a great breath and was about to loose it probably in a storm of angry sentences when Mrs T. entered.
The passage carpet was so thick you never could hear anyone coming.
‘Oh Raunce,’ she said using his new title for the second time, ‘I’ve just come from nanny. Such a nuisance. I don’t really know what we can do. Of course the children must come first but I’m sure everyone is doing their best. We shall simply all have to put our heads together.’ At this point Miss Burch left Her back was stiff She seemed indignant. Mrs T. watched her go with no change in expression. Then turned back to Charley. ‘Raunce,’ she said, ‘surely you aren’t proposing to put that pink blotting paper in the Gold Bedroom.’
‘This is the only shade they could send us Madam.’
She walked away and tried the mantelpiece with her finger which she then examined as though it was going to smell. He cleared his throat Having established there was no dust she rearranged the peacock’s feathers that for years had stood in a famille rose vase which was as always on a woollen scarlet mat in the centre.
‘You write to London for the blotting paper of course?’
‘Yes Madam but this is all Mr Eldon could get. I believe he was going to speak about it’
‘No, he never did,’ she said, ‘and naturally it would be hopeless trying to buy anything in this wretched country. But tell me why if there are several pastel blues can they do only one shade of pink?’
‘I believe it’s the war Madam.’
She laughed and faced him. ‘Oh yes the shops will be using that as an excuse for everything soon. Mind I’m not blaming anyone,’ she said, ‘but it’s going to be hopeless. Now Raunce I’m so very worried about these nursery meals.’
She began to smile, as though pleading with him. ‘I want your help. Everyone is being so very awkward. Nanny has complained that the food is quite cold by the time it gets to the nursery and Mrs Welch tells me it leaves the kitchen piping hot so what am I to believe?’
They looked long at each other. At last he smiled.
‘I’m sure Albert carries the meals up soon as ever they are served,’ he said. ‘But if it would be of any assistance Madam I’ll take them up myself for the next few days.’
‘Oh thank you Raunce, yes that is good of you. Now I promised Michael I would go along, why was it he wanted me? Yes well that will be all.’ She started off to the head gardener. She did not get far. Miss Burch stopped her in the Long Passage.
‘Could I speak to you for a moment Madam?’
Before going on Miss Burch waited until Raunce, who was leaving Mrs Jack’s room, should be out of earshot.
‘It’s Kate Madam. I wouldn’t bother you Madam only it does seem not right to me that a slip of a girl can take him his tea first thing while he lies in bed there.’
‘Whose tea good heavens?’
‘We must call him Raunce now Agatha. It does sound absurd I know. What’s more I don’t like that name.’ Her voice had taken a teasing note. ‘I think we shall have to change it don’t you?’
‘And he would not go to the funeral. He even boasts about it Madam.’
‘Well we wouldn’t have wanted him there would we?’ she said. Miss Burch seemed pleased. ‘And now he’s moved down to Eldon’s room and wants his morning tea brought him?’ Mrs Tennant went on. ‘Yes well thanks very much for telling me. I suppose one of the girls used to carry Eldon his cup first thing?’
‘Yes Madam but that was different.’
‘I know Agatha but I fancy that’s the difficulty you see.’
‘Very good Madam,’ Miss Burch said grim.
‘Oh yes and I forgot, where is the man,’ and she called for Raunce. There was no reply. ‘He must have gone.’ She rang the bell. ‘I meant to tell you both,’ she continued, ‘it’s about Mrs Welch. Her nephew is coming over tomorrow. Not for long mind, just a few weeks. He’s old enough to look after himself. She’ll do everything for the little chap.’
Miss Burch did not look delighted but she said, ‘Yes Madam.’
‘He’s a dear boy I believe and it will be nice for the children to have someone to play with. His name is Albert. Why what a coincidence. Yes Albert what is it?’
‘You rang, Madam.’
‘Oh it’s of no consequence it was Raunce I wanted. That’s all thank you. There’s nothing else I think I will see Raunce some other time. I’ve simply got to rush out now to Michael.’
The morning was almost over and that afternoon, as Raunce was in his new armchair putting his feet up to study those two notebooks Edith, upstairs in the attic she shared with Kate and half undressed, was filling into a jam jar those eggs she had been carrying in Mrs Tennant’s glove and which she intended to preserve with waterglass.
‘You’re surely not ever goin’ to put that dirtiness on your face and neck sometime Edie?’
‘I am that. It’s good.’
‘But not peacocks. Edie for land’s sake.’
‘Peacocks is no use. They only screech.’
‘I can’t make you out at all.’
Edith explained. ‘Their eggs’ve got to be lifted when there’s not a soul to witness, you understand, an’ they must be peacocks. I wouldn’t know for why. But you just ask anyone. They are the valuablest birds, the rarest.’
‘And what if you come out in the spots like they have stuck on their tails?’
Edie turned at this to face Kate and put a hand along her cheek. She was naked to the waist. In that light from the window overgrown with ivy her detached skin shone like the flower of white lilac under leaves.
‘Oh dear,’ she said.
‘And who’s it for?’ Kate went on. ‘Patrick?’ and in one movement she jumped on her bed, lay back. But at the mention of a name and as though they had entered on a conspiracy Edith blocked even more light from that window by climbing on the sill. The sky drew a line of white round her mass of dark hair falling to shoulders which paled to blue lilac She laughed in her throat.
As they settled down Kate said:
‘So Mrs Welch is to have her sister’s little boy to visit Albert his name is.’ Edith made no reply. ‘That’ll be more for us that will,’ Kate added.
‘He’ll do his own work. He’s old enough,’ Edith said. ‘And it’ll be a change for the children,’ she went on referring to Mrs Jack’s girls. ‘They don’t get much out of forever playing on their own the sweet lambs.’
‘I wish I was back ‘ome the age they are Edie.’
‘Hard work never done a girl any harm.’
‘But doesn’t Miss Burch keep us two girls at it dear. Oh my poor feet.’
‘Take your stockings off Katie and I’ll rub ‘em for you.’
‘Not in that old egg you won’t.’
Edith jumped down off the sill. She took up a towel which she laid under Kate’s feet. She turned back to the washbasin to wet her hands in cold water. Then leaning over Kate who had closed her eyes she began to stroke and knead the hot feet. Her hair fell forward. She was smiling as she ministered, all her bare skin above Kate’s body stretched white as spring again.
‘Clean your teeth before you have to do with a woman,’ Edith said, ‘what talk is that?’
‘Have you gone out of your mind then?’ Kate asked, murmuring. ‘But whoever said?’
‘So it’s Mr to you? I shan’t ever. I couldn’t, not after he’s been Charley all this time. Oh honey is that easing my arches.’
‘It’s only right now he’s got the position,’ Edith said. ‘I wish I had your ankles dear I do.’
‘But why the teeth?’ Kate asked.
‘I expect it’s smoking or something.’
‘Oh he’s got a lovely lot,’ Edith said. ‘But I can’t say as I shall see him even this evening. Talk of half days off in this rotten old country, why, there’s nothing for a girl when your time is your own.’
‘You’re telling me,’ said Kate.
Then Edith sat down on the side of the bed, and shook the hair back from off her face.
‘Here we are,’ she went on, ‘the two of us on a Thursday and still inside, with nothing to move for. And the Germans across the water, that might invade any minute. Oh I shall have to journey back home. Why I’m browned off absolutely.’
Kate took her up. ‘I don’t think there’s much in this talk about the Jerries. And if they did come over that’s not saying they’d offer any impoliteness, they’re ordinary working folk same as us. But speak of never going out why Charley Raunce hasn’t shoved his head into the air these three years it must be.’
‘Wrong side of the window is his name for it He should’ve grown up with us as children. Kate, my mother had every window open rain or shine and so they stayed all day.’
‘He writes to his,’ Kate said, ‘not like you you bad girl. When did she get word from you last?’
‘There’s times I say that’s the one thing keeps me here. I daren’t go back when I’ve kept silent such ages, while she’s on every week writing for news.’
‘Why, listen to those birds,’ Kate said.
Edith looked out. A great distance beneath she saw Mrs Tennant and her daughter-in-law starting for a walk. The dogs raced about on the terrace yapping which made the six peacocks present scream. The two women set off negligent and well dressed behind their bounding pets to get an appetite for tea.
‘Was it the beginning or the end of June Jack wrote that he expected to get leave?’
‘Why I told you,’ Mrs Jack answered sweet and low. ‘Any time after the third week in May he said.’
‘I’m so glad for you both. It’s been such a long time. I expect you’ll go to London of course.’
‘Simply look at the daffodils,’ her daughter-in-law exclaimed. ‘There’s masses of new ones out you know. Oh isn’t it lovely. Yes it’s a hopeless time of the year here isn’t it? I mean there’s no shooting or fishing yet. He’d get very restless poor dear.’
‘D’you know what I thought last night?’ said Mrs Tennant. ‘As I got into bed? I shall probably be down at Merlow all the time and you won’t see anything of me but I half made up my mind I would come over with you.’
‘How lovely,’ her daughter-in-law replied clear as a bell. ‘Oh but then we must have an evening all together. Jack would be terribly disappointed.’
‘Darling you’ve seen so little of each other with this war coming directly after the wedding. I do feel for your generation you know., Of course I’d love it. Still I don’t mean to butt in. I mean the leave is precious, you must have all of him.’
There fell a silence.
‘Really,’ she added, ‘I’m not sure what I’m saying,’ and dared to look full at her son’s wife. This young woman was poised with an object, it may have been the dry white bone of a bird that she was about to throw. She flung it a short distance. The dog faced in the wrong direction, ears cocked, whining, while attendant peacocks keenly dashed forward a few paces.
‘Oh Badger,’ she said and wiped her fingers on a frilled handkerchief, ‘you are so dumb.’
‘We could do a play together,’ Mrs Tennant proposed.
‘How lovely. The only thing is the children. I imagine it’s all right leaving them. I mean nothing can happen can it?’
‘I’d thought of that. I don’t think so. We did before.’
‘I know. Then that will be lovely.’
‘When d’you think he’ll let you know dear?’
Mrs Jack showed irritation. ‘No Badger no,’ she said. On being spoken to the dog made as if to leap up at her. ‘Down damn you,’ she said. ‘Oh you know how it is,’ she went on, ‘the usual, three days notice at the most. On top of everything you’ve got to be looking your best as though you’d been in and out of the London shops all winter.’
‘You won’t have to worry your head over that,’ Mrs Tennant archly told her. ‘Oh by the way did I ever mention about Mrs Welch’s nephew coming over to stay?’
‘How old is he?’
‘Just the right age Violet, nine next March. I thought it would be nice for the children that’s why L bought his ticket. His father’s the chauffeur to old Lord Cheltenham.’
‘My dear have you broken it yet to nanny?’
‘No darling to tell you the truth I didn’t dare.’
‘It is a bit of a facer isn’t it?’
‘You see I couldn’t very well refuse,’ Mrs Tennant said, ‘and it will be so good for the children.’
‘What’s he like?’
‘Oh Mrs Welch is a most superior woman. I’m sure he’ll be perfect. I wouldn’t mind if there were any possible children down in the village But even Michael’s eldest boy at the Lodge Gates is dressed as a girl.’
‘Do they really still believe the boys get carried off by fairies?’
‘Well if they do they could expect fairies to see through the skirts. But couldn’t you say the little chap’s been ill?’ she asked her daughter-in-law.
‘Then she’d think she’ll have to nurse him,’ Mrs Jack objected.
‘But couldn’t you promise her that Mrs Welch won’t let him out of sight Violet?’
‘It is so difficult isn’t it? And it’s just what Evelyn and Moira have been wanting. Anyway bother nanny.’ The two women smiled at one another, grew mischievous. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ Mrs Jack went on, ‘why don’t we say it’s Mrs Welch’s illegitimate? Then she’ll be so thrilled she’ll look after him like one of her own.’
Mrs Tennant tee hee’d.
‘Oh Violet you are naughty,’ she said.
‘Well I don’t know why not. After all the worry they bring it would be a score to give them something to really chatter about.’
‘And then we should have to find another cook and another nanny,’ Mrs Tennant objected. ‘It’s quite bad enough having them die on one. Besides, Nanny Swift will think it out for herself. I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if she didn’t start throwing dark hints before the child has been here ten days.’
‘D’you think it’s true then?’
‘My dear what do we know about the servants? Agatha took the trouble only this morning to let out some frightful double meanings in connection with Kate and Arthur. I must remember to call him Raunce.’
‘Kate? I’d’ve thought it would be Edith. I wish I had that girl’s skin.’
‘Yes she’s a lovely child isn’t she? D’you know Violet I don’t think I care what they do so long as they stay.’
‘You poor dear,’ Mrs Jack said. ‘Why look,’ she went on, ‘there it is already.’ And there it was close, on a low hill, surrounded by cypresses amongst which grew a palm tree, the marble pillars lying beside jagged cement topped walls against a blue sky with blue clouds ‘D’you think we have to go right up this time?’ she asked.
‘I don’t think we need today, do you?’ her mother-in-law replied. Calling to the dogs they turned for home. They began a talk about underclothes.
But Kate and Edith were not to get out of the Castle without difficulty. As they came down their passage ready dressed for the afternoon they were halted by a broken noise of sobbing.
‘Why listen,’ Kate said, ‘it must be the old girl herself. Now what do you say to that?’
‘You go on dear,’ Edith answered, ‘don’t wait for me.’
‘Ah now come on Edie, half the day’s gone already, you don’t want to bother.’
‘Why the poor soul,’ Edith said and went in, shutting the door after.
Miss Burch lay on her bed wrapped in a huge blue crocheted shawl. She had taken off her wig and wore a lace mob cap which hung askew. With hands inside that shawl and face sideways on the pillow over a patch of wet Miss Burch seemed given over to despair and sobbed and shook and hiccuped.
Edith took off her beret, sat on the bedside shaking her hair free.
‘Oh Burchie Burchie,’ she said, ‘why whatever’s the matter?’
She got no other answer than a wail. Then Miss Burch rolled over face to the wall. The cap twisted off her head. Edith gently put it back and because her shiny skull was sideways on that pillow she could only place the cap so that it sat at right angles to Miss Burch’s pinched nose, as someone lying in the open puts their hat to protect their face and terrible eyes.
‘Now then,’ Edith tried again, ‘what’s this?’ She spoke soft.
‘Oh I can’t bear it,’ Miss Burch cried out, ‘I can’t bear it.’
‘Can’t bear what dear?’ But the sobbing started redoubled.
‘Now Burchie don’t take on so, you shouldn’t,’ Edith went on, searching over this cocoon with her hand for Miss Burch’s where it lay wrapped warm to her side, ‘listen to me dear, it can’t be so bad. You let me bring you a nice cup of tea.’
‘I can’t bear it,’ Miss Burch replied a trifle calmer.
‘It wouldn’t take me more than a minute to run down. No one would ever know, the kettle was nicely on the boil in the hall when I just left it. You see now if that mightn’t do you good.’
‘Nothing’ll ever be the same,’ was all Miss Burch said.
‘Now don’t talk so wild Burchie. You just go easy and let me fetch you a good cup of tea.’
‘You’re a good child.’
‘Of course I am. There dear. Rest yourself.’
Miss Burch began to sniff, to show signs of coming round.
‘It wouldn’t take but a minute to nip down,’ Edith went on but Miss Burch interrupted.
‘No don’t leave me, Edith,’ she said.
‘Then what is it now?’ the girl asked, ‘what’s happened to upset you like you are?’
Then it came out much interrupted and in a confused flow after she had adjusted her cap. What Miss Burch felt so she said was that nothing would ever be the same, that after thirty-five years in service she could not look forward to being in a respectable house again where your work was respected and in which you could do your best. Yet with the same breath she told Edith that Kate and her were lucky to be in a place like this. She went on that there were not many girls in their position able to learn the trade as she was able to teach it, to pass on all she had acquired about the cleaning and ordering of a house, particularly when over at home they were all being sent in the army to be leapt on so she honestly believed by drunken soldiers in darkness. She said they were never to leave the Castle, that they didn’t know their luck. But at the same time, with another burst of sobs, she repeated that nothing would ever be the same, that it was to throw away a life time’s labour for her to go on here. She made no mention of Mr Eldon. In the end a cup of tea had finally quietened Miss Burch so that the two girls were at last able to set off down the back way which joined the main drive not far from Michael’s Lodge Gate, cut in the ruined wall which shut this demesne from tumble-down country outside.
Another morning, as he had been warned that Captain Davenport and Mrs Tancy were coming over to luncheon, Charley went to his room, got out the red and black notebooks, consulted the index and looked these people up. He read:
‘Davenport Captain Irish Rifles ret’d salmon trout Master Dermot first term. Wife passed away flu’ 1937. Digs after the old kings in his bog’ Then there was a long list of amounts with a date set against each. These possibly were tips. But Raunce noticed that Mr Eldon had touched the Captain for larger and larger amounts. At the last which was for a fiver Charley whistled. He said out loud, ‘Now I wonder.’
Then he turned to the woman’s page. ‘Mrs Tancy her old Morris,’ he found set down and the word Morris had been crossed out Mr Eldon had added above, ‘her old pony male eleven years.’ There came another long list of dates with unvaryingly small payments, not one larger than a shilling, the last in August.
Mr Eldon had always seen to opening the door himself so that when the Captain rang it was the first time that Raunce had received him.
‘Well now if it isn’t Arthur,’ this man said hearty and also it appeared with distaste. He put up the cycle for himself. ‘And what news of Eldon?’
After Raunce told him and he had expressed regret he stood there awkward so to speak. Charley took his chance.
‘And how are the salmon trout running sir?’ he asked.
‘Salmon trout? No fishin’ yet. Close season.’
‘And Master Dermot sir?’ Raunce enquired without a flicker.
‘Very fit thank you very fit. He’s in the eleven. I’ll find me own way thank you Arthur.’
‘Not a sausage, not a solitary sausage,’ Raunce muttered at his back referring to the fact that he had not been tipped.
He waited for Mrs Tancy behind the closed door, presumably so as to have nothing to do with Michael who stood outside to take over this lady’s pony and trap.
‘I’m late,’ she said when she did come. ‘I’m late aren’t I?’ she said to them both. ‘Could you?’ she asked Michael handing him the reins. ‘Oh Punch there now!’
For the cob with lifted tail was evacuating onto the gravelled drive. One hundred donkey cart loads of washed gravel from Michael’s brother’s pit had been ordered at Michael’s suggestion to freshen the rutted drive where this turned inward across the ha-ha. Gravel sold by Michael’s brother Patrick and carted by Danny his mother’s other son who had thought to stop at the seventy-ninth load the donkey being tired after it was understood that Mrs Tennant would be charged for the full hundred.
Michael ran forward to catch Punch’s droppings before these could fall on the gravel which he had raked over that very morning.
‘Asy,’ he said as though in pain, ‘asy.’
‘The dear man he should not have bothered,’ Mrs Tancy remarked in a momentary brogue.
With a pyramid steaming on his hands Michael glared about at the daffodil sprouted lawn Then he shambled off till he could scatter what he carried on the nearest border. Meantime Charley, looking his disgust, stood at the pony’s hazy violet eyes. After a moment of withdrawal Punch began to nose about his pocket.
‘The cob is looking well Madam,’ he brought out.
‘Isn’t he, isn’t he?’ she said. ‘Well thank you Arthur,’ she said slipping a British threepenny bit into his hand and sailed past with not so much as a thank you for Michael.
When there were guests to lunch the servants had theirs afterwards. So it was not until ten past two that Raunce sat down in Mr Eldon’s chair. He carved savagely like a head-hunter. They ate what he gave them in haste, silent for a time. Then Charley thought to ask,
‘That Captain Davenport? Now where would I have heard he seeks after treasure in a bog?’
He got no answer.
‘Do they dig for it,’ he went on, ‘or pry long sticks into the ground or what?’ he mused aloud.
‘Are you thinking you’ll have a go?’ Kate said.
‘Now there was no cause to be pert my girl,’ he said. ‘Why goodness gracious me,’ he remarked to Edith, ‘whatever are you blushing for?’
She looked as though she was going to choke. If he had only known she was stricken by embarrassment. She knew very well that the last time the lady had been over to view the excavations Mrs Jack returned without her drawers. And it was with not a single word. They had vanished, there was not a trace. To turn it perhaps, she said to the lampman,
‘What d’you know Paddy?’
‘Why here we are sitting and we never thought of him,’ Kate said. ‘Come on now. You’d know Clancarty.’
He made no answer. But he laughed once, bent over his dish.
‘Clancarty Paddy,’ Kate tried again, ‘Mr Raunce is asking you?’
Charley watched Edith. He said under his breath, ‘it’s funny the way she blushes but then she’s only a kid.’
‘Are they makin’ a search?’ Kate went on and she fixed her small eyes unwavering on Edith. The lampman made no reply. He seldom did.
Edith while she blushed hot was picturing that wet afternoon Mrs Jack had last been over to Clancarty. While Mrs T. and her daughter-in-law were on with their dinner Edith had been in the younger woman’s room busily clearing up. She hung the thin coat and skirt of tweed which held the scent used, she put the folded web of shirt and stockings into drawers of rosewood. She laid the outdoor crocodile skin shoes ready to take down to Paddy. She tidied the towels then went to prepare that bed, boat-shaped black and gold with a gold oar at the foot. She moved softly gently as someone in devotion and handled the pink silk sheets like veils. The curtains were drawn. Then all that she had to do was done. Those oil lamps were lit. But she stuck a finger in her mouth, looked about as if she missed something. Then she searched, and faster. She had gone through everything that was put away faster and faster. When she was sure those drawers Mrs Jack had worn to go out were astray her great dark eyes had been hot to glowing.
‘I’ll wager they had everything of gold,’ Raunce said, still on about the excavations.
‘And wore silk on their legs,’ said Edith, short of breath.
‘Don’t talk so silly,’ Miss Burch took her up. ‘They never put silk next to themselves in those days my girl. It wasn’t discovered.’
‘Did they have silk knickers then Paddy,’ Kate asked giggling.
‘I never heard such a thing,’ Miss Burch replied. ‘You’ll oblige me by dropping the subject. Isn’t it bad enough to have dinner late as it is,’ she said ‘You just leave the poor man alone. You let him be.’
Bert spoke. ‘The nursery never had much of theirs,’ he said. ‘I must’ve took back the better part of what I carried up.’
‘Oh dear,’ cried Raunce in the high falsetto he put on whenever he referred to Nanny Swift.
‘You should have seen ‘er,’ Bert added.
Both girls giggled softly while Charley still in falsetto asked whose face, holy smoke.
‘Now that’s quite enough of that,’ Miss Burch said firm. There was a pause. ‘I knew Mrs Welch had been upset,’ she went on, ‘and now I perceive why, not that I’m trying to excuse those potatoes she just gave us,’ she said All of them listened. She seemed almost to be in good humour. ‘They were never cooked,’ she added, ‘and I do believe that’s why they put salt on spuds,’ looking at Paddy, ‘but I’ll say this, those precious peacocks of yours would have spurned ‘em.’
Right to the last meal Mr Eldon had taken in this room it had been his part to speak, to wind up as it were, almost to leave the impress of a bishop on his flock. This may have been what led Charley to echo in a serious tone,
‘Miss Swift is a difficult woman whilst she’s up in her nursery. But she can be nice as you please outside.’
‘That’s right,’ Miss Burch said, ‘and as I’ve often found, take someone out of their position in life and you find a different person altogether, yes.’
The two girls looked at one another, a waste of giggling behind their eyes again.
‘But our potatoes this afternoon were not fit for the table,’ Raunce said to Miss Burch.
‘Thank you Mr Raunce,’ she replied. In this way for the first time she seemed to recognize his place.
‘Well look sharp my lad,’ he said to Bert. He appeared to ooze authority. ‘Holy Moses see what time it is.’
He hastened out like a man who does not know how long his new found luck will hold. Also he had to make his first entry in the red notebook, to record the first tip. He put the date under Mrs Tancy’s name, and then ‘3d’. ‘Wonder what happened in that six months gap,’ he murmured to himself about Mr Eldon’s last date, ‘she’s been over to lunch many a time since and he’ll have had the old dropsy out of her. He was losing grip not entering it, that’s what,’ he added aloud. Then he laid the books aside.
He first addressed an envelope. ‘To Mrs William Raunce,’ he wrote in pencil, ‘396 May Road Peterboro’ Yorks’ and immediately afterwards traced this with a pen. Next he began on the letter, again in pencil.
‘Dear Mother’ he wrote without hesitating, 7 hope you are well. I am. Mr Eldon’s funeral was last Tuesday. The floral tributes were grand. He will be sadly missed. At present I am doing his work and mine. I am not getting any extra money which I have spoken of to Mrs Tennant. This war will make a big difference in every home.
‘Mother I am very worried for you with the terrible bombing. Have you got a Anderson shelter yet? I ought to be over there with you Mother not here. But perhaps he will keep to London with his bombing. What will become of the old town.
‘We are all in God’s hands Mother dear. I am very perplexed with what is best to do whether to come over or stay. If 1 went away from here to be with you there would be the Labour Exchange and then the Army. They have not got to my age yet because I will be forty next June you remember. But I’m thinking they shall Mother and sooner than we look to. We must all hope for the best.
‘With love Mother to my sister Bell I do hope she looks after you all right tell her. Your loving son, Charley.’
Then he inked it in. As he licked the envelope flap after putting in the Money Order he squinted a bit wild, and this was shocking with his two different-coloured eyes Lastly he laid his head down on his arms, went straight off to sleep.
There was often no real work went on in the Castle of an afternoon. Generally speaking this time was set aside so that Edith could sew or darn for Mrs Jack whom she looked after, and for Kate to see to the linen. But this afternoon as there had been guests they lent Bert a hand to clear away, then helped Mrs Welch’s two girls Jane and Mary whose job it was to wash up everything except the tea things. The four of them chattered in Mrs Welch’s scullery while this woman, seated in an armchair behind the closed door of her kitchen, stared grimly at her own black notebook.
‘How is she?’ Edith asked jerking her head and in a whisper.
‘She’s all right,’ Mary whispered back, ‘though we wondered a bit in the morning didn’t we dear? — ‘ she said to Jane.
‘I’ll say we wondered.’
‘But it was O.K. at the finish,’ Mary went on. ‘All’s well that ends well as they say. There was practically nothing came back from the luncheon nor the nursery and you people do seem to’ve enjoyed your dinners.’
‘Just old Aggie Burch as didn’t like ‘er spuds,’ Kate said, ‘but you don’t want to take notice. I know I don’t.’
‘Doesn’t this sink make your back ache,’ Edith remarked. ‘But there,’ she said, ‘I expect her nephew on his way over is bringing a big change in Mrs Welch. I shouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t have him on account of the bombing Isn’t it dreadful?’
‘The war’s on now all right,’ Kate said, ‘and do these rotten Irish care? They make me sick.’
‘What’s the Irish got to do with it?’ Jane asked. ‘They’re out aren’t they? If they mean to stay out who’s to blame ‘em?’
‘If it wasn’t for the children the little angels I wouldn’t ever remain. I couldn’t really,’ Edith announced. ‘Look I’m going to dry, my back’s broke. I could worship the ground they walks on. They’re real little ladies. And how Mrs Jack dresses them. They’ve got everything so nice I cherish those kids.’
‘Well they’re goin’ to have a boy to keep ‘em company now,’ Kate said with malice. ‘Very nice too and so they should,’ she added.
‘But what will Miss Swift say to that?’ asked Edith.
‘Oh that’s O K.,’ Mary said, ‘Miss Swift she come down to have a chat and Jane and me gets out of the light thinking there will be ructions but not a sound come past that closed door not one. We stayed here to see too didn’t we love?’ she said to Jane ‘Then in the end they both came through proper buddies, Mrs Welch seem’ ‘er out as pleasant as you please and her saying “well I hope the air will do him good. It’s like this with children Mrs Welch,” she says. “One and all they’re better for a change,” she says. I was that surprised.’
‘There now I’m very glad,’ said Edith, ‘I am, honest.’
‘Now you girls hurry with that washing up,’ said the dreadful voice, ‘oh, I see you’ve some help There’s quite a change come over this house I must admit. And don’t you start a’wagging of those light tongues. But would you two young ladies like a glass of milk?’
It was Mrs Welch. It was almost unheard of that she should offer refreshment. Kate and Edith could only giggle.
‘Mary,’ she went on, ‘you run and fetch that pitcher from the larder. What I’ve said over and over is at the age you are you girls don’t get sufficient milk My sister writes it’s short enough at home.’
‘Might it be your sister’s little boy who is coming to visit, Mrs Welch?’
‘That’s so Edith and his name is Albert, same as that Raunce’s sick lad. One name less for Mrs T. to remember And if he had been christened Arthur we wouldn’t understand what to think would we? All the men in this place having to be of the same name, whoever heard of such stuff and nonsense.’
They laughed. Then when Edith and Kate had had their milk these two girls judged it best to be gone.
‘You can’t be sure of her, love,’ Edith said as they made their way up the back stairs ‘We did leave a bit for them yet but I’m positive she meant us to go really, calling us young ladies did you hear? You know what she is.’
‘That’s O.K. Edie an’ if there were a few plates over it’s not our work anyway. I got those sheets from the Gold Bedroom to mend. I wish the people they have to stay would cut their toenails or lie quiet one or the other.’
‘Hush dear they’ll hear,’ Edith said and then went on: ‘But have you ever seen such a change in anyone? Why she made herself quite pleasant.’
‘Well what if she did the old nanny goat …’
‘With that great beard she’s got …’
‘Oh Kate you are dreadful you are really. But do be careful, anyone could hear.’
‘It’s Miss Burch’s afternoon out isn’t it? Besides who would there be to come our way worse luck.’ They had arrived at the door of their room. Kate flung it open. ‘There,’ she cried, ‘look at the great boy you’ve got waiting inside.’
‘What you don’t mean Bert wouldn’t presume,’ said Edith going in. ‘Why Kate you are silly there’s no one. No,’ she went on sitting down on her bed to take off shoes and stockings, ‘it’s her nephew coming over has softened ‘er, that’s what it is, love.’
Kate got down by Edith on her bed.
‘What would you have said Edie if Bert had been in ‘ere?’
‘Why I’d’ve sent him packin’.’
‘Would you Edie? Even if I hadn’t been along?’
‘How d’you mean? Kate, I never heard you speak so.’
Both girls giggled. The sky was overcast so that the light was dark as though under water. The afternoon was warm. It was the first afternoon to be warm since autumn. Though they could not see them the peacocks below were beginning to parade.
‘And if it had’ve been Charley Edie?’
Edith gave a screech then slapped a hand over her mouth. A peacock screamed beneath but they were so used to this they paid no notice.
‘Kate Armstrong what d’you mean?’
‘What I say stupid. Suppose you was come alone up here,’ and her voice went rising, ‘and found ‘im waitin’ on yer bed,’ she ended, with a shriek of bed.
Both gave way at this, collapsed back across the eiderdown giggling. Edith pulled herself together first. ‘No,’ she said, ‘for land’s sake have a mind to the quilting Come on,’ she added, ‘we might as well be comfy’ and they both got underneath, lay at ease with pillowed heads.
‘Suppose it was Charley,’ Kate said again.
‘Why I daresn’t even look at the man with his queer eyes. Each time I have sight of ‘em I can’t stop laughing,’ Edith said. ‘And the strange thing is I didn’t ever properly take it in that they was a different colour till the other day. Not after two years and five months here, not till just the other day,’ she added.
‘You watch out Edie that’s a sign.’
‘A sign? A sign of what, I’d like to know?’ she asked.
‘Ah now you’re asking,’ Kate said. ‘I wonder is she married or was she ever d’you reckon?’
‘No dear she’s only called Mrs like all cooks if you’re referrin’ to Mrs Welch Whatever made you say?’
‘Why nothing. But I wish he was goin’ to be older that’s all.’
‘Kate I’m getting too hot.’
‘Take off some of your clothes then silly. Come on with you I’ll help.’
‘Quiet. There’s Mrs Jack’s stockings I’ve got to go over.’
‘If you lie on your buttons I can’t undo ‘em at the back can I?’ Kate said Then she tickled Edith to make her shift.
‘Mercy stop it,’ Edith screamed. ‘Whatever are you doin’?’
‘You said you was too warm. And struggling like you are will only make you warmer. There.’
‘Kate Armstrong I thought I asked you. It tickles Why you aren’t pulling the dress off my back surely? Whatever are you at?’
But she made it easier for Kate by moving her body here and there as was required.
‘It’s only your old uniform,’ Kate said and soon Edith was lying almost naked.
‘I’ll stroke you dear if you like,’ Kate said. ‘Shut your eyes now.’
‘I ought to be going over those silk stockings.’
‘If you don’t take good care I’ll run over you like you was an old pair Edie and darn you in all sorts of places you wouldn’t think.’
They giggled in shrieks again at this then quietened down. Kate began to stroke up and down the inside of Edith’s arm from the hollow of her elbow to the wrist. Edith lay still with closed eyes. The room was dark as long weed in the lake.
‘What if it had been Charley?’ Kate asked.
‘Why d’you want to go on at me about him?’
‘But supposin’ it was Edie?’
‘Well how would you have acted?’ said Edith.
‘Me? He would never’ve had to ask me twice. Not the way I am these days.’
‘Oh Kate you are dreadful.’ But Edith’s voice was low. Kate’s stroking was beginning to make her drowse.
Then there was a real outcry from the peacocks. Kate slipped out of bed to look She saw Mrs Jack walking down the drive far beneath with Captain Davenport who was pushing his bike.
‘What is if?’ Edith asked.
‘Just those two again.’ Then Edith got up to look. The girls blocked their window, made night in the room.
‘What two?’ Edith, said her back to the darkness And answered herself. ‘Oh Mrs Jack and the Captain. But won’t the children be disappointed. I know they was counting on their mother taking them out the little loves.’
‘Well they can count on summat else then and so can she very likely,’ Kate said.
‘Now Kate you’ve no call to say such a thing.’ Edith’s voice was truly indignant They could not hear their masters.
‘It’s not fair You could get one of these,’ Davenport was saying.
‘Now Dermot,’ she replied, ‘you’ve no right to be beastly,’
‘But a bike’s the only way to get about these days,’ he said.
‘Darling I’ve already told you,’ she said.
‘She couldn’t surely object to your having a bike Violet after all.’
‘Oh I can’t go on like this behind her back,’ she announced from an expressionless face but with tears coming into her blue, blue eyes that matched the curtains in her room, ‘no I can’t Dermot any longer.’ She stopped. She stamped the ground. ‘Oh darling,’ she said, ‘I do wish I could get you out of my system.’
‘Now you’re upset,’ he began. ‘By the way,’ he went on, ‘what’s the matter with that footman you’ve got here? He asked me how the salmon trout were runnin’. I thought everyone in Old Ireland knew it was close season.’
‘Dermot you don’t mean he suspects anything?’
‘Suspect anything? My dear girl I only mentioned it to change the conversation. Good Lord I only meant he seemed a funny sort.’
‘And why d’you say you wanted to change the conversation?’ she asked.
‘Now you’re all upset.’
‘You don’t understand,’ she wailed.
‘All I meant was I’d rather have him than Eldon,’ the Captain said with bitterness. But it seemed that she was not thinking of the servants.
Charley now studied the black and red notebooks each afternoon. In the black he found Mr Eldon had written down peculiarities of those who were invited to Kinalty Castle with a note of the tips received on mentioning those peculiarities. But he did not as a rule spend long over this. There were not many people came to the Castle in wartime.
In the red Charley found Mr Eldon had kept a record of everything he drew under the petty cash account, which was presented monthly to Mrs Tennant. At one end was a copy of each account on which he had been paid. Against every item was an index number. At the other end of this red notebook the leaves were numbered and at least one whole sheet was given over entirely to copious notes on the item in question. Thus with a charge for sashcord of 7s fid in March 1938 which reappeared in September of that year in an amount of 6s 8d and did not recur until July 1939 at 8s 9d, Raunce turned up the page on sashcord to find that hardly a yard had been bought or used in these last three years and that Mr Eldon was reminding himself to charge for more but had not lived to do it.
Once he had got the hang of things and had well studied the amount of corn bought for the peacocks at certain periods, Charley turned to that part which dealt only with the Cellar. By keeping open a Cellar Diary which had also to be shown each month to Mrs Tennant and by comparing the two, he was able to refer from one to the other. Thus much that would otherwise have been obscure became plain.
For instance it was Mrs Tennant’s custom to have on tap a cask of whisky, which had to be replenished at regular intervals by means of ten-gallon jars shipped from Scotland. Not only had Mr Eldon never credited her with the empties, that was straightforward enough, but he had left whole pages of calculations on the probable loss of the volatile spirit arising from evaporation in a confined space from which the outside atmosphere was excluded. He had gone into it thoroughly, had probably been prepared for almost any query. Charley appeared to find it suggestive because he whistled. There was also an encouraging note of recent date to say that no questions had been asked for years.
After the whisky had been blended in cask for a period at a calculable loss it was Mrs Tennant’s custom to have her butler bottle it. Mr Eldon had charged her for new bottles every time. There was even a note of his about a rise in the cost of corks which he had not been able to use over again.
What this forenoon halted Charley in the study while on his weekly round rewinding clocks was a reminder in the red notebook to charge 10s 6d for a new spring to the weathervane. This was fixed on top of the tower and turned with a wind in the usual way. Where it differed from similar appliances was that Mr Tennant had had it connected to a pointer which was set to swing over a large map of the country round about elaborately painted over the mantelpiece. Raunce did not know yet how the thing worked. He stood and pondered and asked himself aloud where he could say he was going to fix the replacements if she asked him.
This map was peculiar. For instance Kinalty Church was represented by a miniature painting of its tower and steeple while the Castle, which was set right in the centre, was a fair sized caricature in exaggerated Gothic. There were no names against places.
As Charley stood there it so happened that the pointer was fixed unwavering E.S.E. with the arrow tip exactly on Clancarty, Clancarty which was indicated by two nude figures male and female recumbent in gold crowns. For the artist had been told the place was a home of the old kings.
Mrs Jack came in looking for a letter from Dermot. The carpets were so deep Raunce did not hear her. He was staring. She noticed he seemed obsessed by the weathervane and turned to find what in particular held him.
When she saw and thought she knew she drew breath with a hiss.
‘Raunce,’ she said and he had never heard her speak so sharp, ‘what is it?’
He faced about, holding himself quite still.
‘Why Madam I never heard you. The thing seems to have got stuck Madam.’
‘Stuck? What d’you mean stuck?’
‘It does not seem to be revolving Madam, and I’m sure the wind is not in that quarter.’
She reacted at once. She strode up to that arrow and gave it a wild tug presumably to drag the pointer away from those now disgusting people lying there in a position which, only before she had known Dermot, she had once or twice laughed at to her husband. The arrow snapped off in her hand. The vane up top might have been held in a stiff breeze or something could have jammed it.
Charley knew nothing as yet about Clancarty. ‘It’s the spring Madam,’ he said cheerful as he took that broken piece from her. ‘You noticed the arm did not have any give Madam?’
‘Oh get on with your work,’ she said appearing to lose control and half ran out. Shaking his head, grumbling to himself, Raunce made his way upstairs.
He made his way smooth down the Long Passage until he found one of the girls. It was Edith opposite Mrs Jack’s chamber, doing out this lady’s bathroom.
‘Hello ducks,’ he whispered.
‘What brings you here?’ she asked as soft.
‘Who d’you think?’ he answered.
‘Get on with you,’ she said.
‘Look it’s like this,’ he began. ‘This weathervane now. Where’s the old works? I mean behind a little door or suchlike there must be a spring to do with some clockwork. At least that’s what I’m led to understand.’
She looked disappointed.
‘Behind a little door there’s clockwork? Whatever’s that?’ she enquired.
‘Don’t ask me but Mr Eldon’s left a book of directions which makes mention. Here,’ he said, ‘give us a kiss.’ She said no as though she had been waiting to say this. She backed away against sweet primrose tiles. ‘No,’ she repeated quite loud and decided.
‘Whatever’s the matter with you these days?’ he asked.
‘I’m fed up I shouldn’t wonder.’
‘No need to take it out on me is there? What’s up?’
‘It’s the war most likely,’ she said pouting ‘I shall have to get me out of this old place.’
‘You don’t want to talk like that my girl. Why we’re on a good thing here all of us. Trust Uncle Charley, he’s seen some. There’s a war on, the other side. You don’t want none of it do you? And there’s the grub question. You got to consider that. About this weathervane now. I’ll have to find the other one of you then, that’s the only thing left for me to do.’ He leered at her. ‘Where is she?’ he demanded.
Edith looked sideways as though embarrassed but she told him.
‘Next door in Mrs Tennant’s bathroom,’ she said.
He whipped out and along that passage. He looked in the next open door. Against deep blue tiles Kate with her doll’s face and tow hair was rearranging a scarlet bathrobe on the chromium towel horse. Edith had followed. But where he went in she stayed by the door, through which she watched as though reluctant.
He slipped up behind Kate, put his palms over her eyes.
‘Guess baby,’ he said, still whispering.
She gave a great screech beneath her breath, so discreetly she hardly made a sound.
‘Why Charley you did give me a start’
‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘but I can’t seem to bring it off these days. See here,’ he went on, hands still over her eyes, ‘where’s there a kind of box in the wall with clockwork inside to do with that weather-vane?’
She stood quiet, seemed almost to press her face into his palms. But she let out a giggle at the question.
‘Oh my,’ she said, ‘what next?’
‘Come on,’ he said murmuring yet, ‘give us a kiss,’ as he turned her. And while he heartily kissed Kate’s mouth her right eye winked at Edith under one of his outstanding ears.
Charley straightened himself at last, passed a forefinger over his lips. At once Edith said as though she could hear somebody. ‘It’s this way Mr Raunce.’
He came smoothly out, automatic. She led him along. Neither looked back. Soon she stopped at a panel with a button. She opened it. He put his head forward to peer. He saw two shafts which met to be joined by three gear wheels interlocked. And caught between those teeth, held by the leg was a live mouse.
At this Edith let a shriek with the full force of her lungs. A silence of horror fell.
Then even over the rustle of Kate hurrying up a paper-thin scream came as if in answer from between the wheels. And as Raunce looked for the person Edith said she had heard and except for Kate not a soul appeared, not one, Edith fainted slap into his arms.
After a moment Miss Burch came bustling towards them. ‘What’s this?’ she asked, ‘and what trick have you played on that poor girl now? Let go of her this instant goodness gracious whoever heard,’ she said to Raunce and taking Edith, stretched her rather rough on the floor.
That same afternoon after dinner Miss Burch paid a call on Mrs Welch, slipping from the servants’ hall out through the vast scullery straight into her kitchen.
‘Come right in,’ Mrs Welch welcomed from where she was seated concentrating over the opened notebook. ‘Jane,’ she called, ‘Miss Burch will have a cup of tea.’
‘Why thanking you,’ Miss Burch said, ‘and is this Albert?’
‘Yes this is Albert,’ Mrs Welch replied. ‘Get up when you’re spoken of,’ she added and the boy stood He had been crying. ‘Come to think of it,’ she went on, ‘run out now and don’t get in the way of my girls at their work nor into any more trouble my word.’
‘Trouble,’ Miss Burch remarked once they were alone as she stirred with a teaspoon, ‘trouble. This morning’s just been one long worry an’ what it’s going to come to I don’t know.’ There was no reply. Miss Burch watched steam from off her tea.
‘I don’t know I’m sure,’ she continued eventually, ‘but it’s him or me that’s the long and short of the whole matter. We can’t go on like it and that’s a fact,’ she said.
‘A large big bird like that,’ Mrs Welch insisted, ‘and with a powerful wallop in each wing. Why ‘e might’ve got killed the little terror.’
‘Killed?’ Miss Burch asked, giving way. ‘I hope he’s not gone and had an accident on his very first day at the Castle?’
‘Children is all little ‘Itlers these days,’ Mrs Welch answered. ‘D’you know what ‘e done. Up and throttled one of them peacocks with ‘is bare hands not ‘alf an hour after he got in. Yes that’s what,’ she said.
‘Oh dear,’ Miss Burch said, ‘one of the peacocks?’
‘I got’m covered up in the larder,’ Mrs Welch went on. ‘I’ll choose my time to bury’m away at dusk. He might’ve been killed easy. I ‘adn’t turned my back not above two minutes to get on with their luncheon when I heard a kind of squawking. I ran to that window and there ‘e was with one in ‘is two fists. Oh I screamed out but ‘e ‘ad it about finished the little storm trooper. There wasn’t nothing left to do but ‘ide the dead body away from that mad Irish Conor.’
‘Yes he’s taken up with the things that man,’ Miss Burch agreed.
‘As to that I’ve only to pluck it,’ Mrs Welch said, ‘and ‘e won’t never distinguish the bird from a chicken they’re that ignorant the savages. Mrs Tennant can’t miss just the one out of above two hundred. But I won’t deny it give me a start.’
‘There you are,’ Miss Burch said, ‘but listen to this. I was upstairs in the Long Gallery this morning to get on with my work when I heard a screech, why I thought one of the girls had come by some terrible accident, or had their necks broke with one of the sashcords going which are a proper deathtrap along the Passage out of the Gallery. Well what d’you think? I’ll give you three guesses.’
‘You heard me ‘oller out very likely,’ Mrs Welch replied, watching the door yet that Albert had shut behind him.
‘It was Edith, and that Raunce had been after her,’ Miss Burch said, ‘that man who makes this place a deathly menace.’
‘Excuse me a moment,’ Mrs Welch remarked and got up. She moved painful across the kitchen dragging her feet. Opening the door between she looked into her scullery. Albert was seated over a cup of tea while Mary and Jane went on with their work.
‘You stay there quiet,’ she said to him. ‘You’ve been trouble enough this morning my oath,’ she said, ‘without your plotting something fresh.’ Her voice was thick with love. She shut the door.
‘Oh these long spaces,’ she exclaimed as she came back.
‘This place won’t ever be the same, not since Mr Eldon left us,’ Miss Burch began again. ‘I said it over his open grave and I don’t care who hears me this minute. With Raunce let loose without check about the house there’s no saying what we’ll come to. And there’s the trouble of his morning tea. He will insist on one of my girls fetching it. They won’t even tell me which one of them it is but I keep watch. She’s Edith though I told Mrs Tennant different by being mistaken at the time. What I say is who’s to answer for it when he gets up to his games with her in the bedroom. Tormenting a girl till she faints will be child’s play Mrs Welch.’
‘It’s the food,’ Mrs Welch answered, ‘though I do speak as shouldn’t seein’ as I occupy meself with the kitchen. They’re starving over there my sister says in her letter she sent. If it wasn’t for that I’d go tomorrer, I would straight. He’s that thin.’
‘Nothing’ll be like it was,’ Miss Burch repeated. ‘I said so at the time.’
Mrs Welch had the last word. ‘Not but what Albert makes a difference being a refugee like the Belgians we had in the last war,’ she said. ‘Yes ‘e’ll be a tie,’ she ended, ‘and he’ll take feedin’.’
But not more than half an hour after Miss Burch had left there fell another blow. Mrs Welch went into the larder for a last look before going to her room. While fixing a cheese cloth in front to hide the plucked peacock she chanced to regard the great jar where she kept her waterglass. With arms upraised in the gesture of a woman hanging out smalls she watched that jar with pursed lips. She called Albert.
‘Ever set eyes on that before?’ she asked.
‘No’m I ain’t,’ he replied in the manner of Raunce’s lad.
‘Ever been in this larder in your puff?’
‘You wouldn’t tell me an untruth would yer?’
‘Because what I ‘ave to say to you is this: it’s ‘ighly dangerous that stuff is. A sup of that and it would be your lot d’you hear me?’
‘So you never seen it before?’
‘And you’ve not even been in this place? Is that right?’
‘All right then and I don’t want to hear any more. But if you so much as breathes a word of what ‘as just passed I’ll tan the ‘ide clean off your back you little poulterer you h’understand?’
‘Yes’m.’ He turned, ran out.
Then high shrieking giggles came faint with distance from without. Mrs Welch moved over to perforated iron which formed a wall of the larder, advanced one eye to a hole and grimly watched.
The back premises of this grey Castle were on a vast scale. What she saw afar was Kate and Edith with their backs to her in purple uniforms and caps the colour of a priest’s cassock. They seemed to be waiting outside O’Conor’s lamp room. This was two tall Gothic windows and a pointed iron-studded door in a long wall of other similar doors and windows topped by battlements above which was set back another wall with a greater number of windows which in its turn was terraced into the last storey that was almost all blind Gothic windows under a steep roof of slate. Mrs Welch after seeming to linger over the great shaft of golden sun which lighted these girls through parted cloud let a great gust of sigh and turned away saying,
‘Well if Aggie Burch can’t hold ‘em in leash it’s none of my business, the pair of two-legged mice, the thieves,’ she added.
But as Edith reached for O’Conor’s latch Kate screamed at her,
‘And what if there’s a mouse?’ Then Edie, hands to the side over a swelling heart, gave back, ‘Oh love you can’t say that to me,’ and leant against the door post. ‘That you can’t say love,’ she said, dizzy once more all of a sudden.
‘Aw come on I only meant it for a game.’
‘You’re soft that’s what it is dear.’
‘Not after what come to pass this very morning you didn’t ought.’
‘Why see who’s brought ‘erself to have a peek at him,’ Kate said of a moulting peacock which head sideways was gazing up with one black white-rimmed eye. ‘Get off,’ she cried, ‘I don’t like none of you.’
‘Quiet dear. It’s likely his favourite.’
‘Why what d’you know,’ said Kate, ‘she’s not taken up with us at all at all, it’s the buzzard above she’s fixed on, would you believe.’
‘And if I said I didn’t care.’
‘No Kate you mustn’t, don’t strike her I said. You can’t tell what might happen if he came to learn.’
‘Oh Paddy,’ Kate said, ‘I’ll bet he’s well away after that dinner he ate. He’ll never stir. But I shan’t if you wouldn’t rather.’
‘She’s his special I know,’ Edith went on. ‘I can’t distinguish one from the other but there’s something tells me. And who’s to say if he is asleep in the dark?’
‘You go on in to oblige me then,’ Kate said.
‘Not me I shan’t. I couldn’t.’
‘Well I will at that.’
‘Nor you won’t either,’ Edith said. ‘You’ve made me frighted.’
‘I will then,’ Kate answered, raising the heavy latch. ‘But love I’ll never cause a sound even the smallest,’ she said low. Edith plastered her mouth over with the palm of a hand.
‘No,’ she said muffled, ‘no,’ as O’Conor’s life was opened, as Kate let the sun in and Edith bent to look.
What they saw was a saddleroom which dated back to the time when there had been guests out hunting from Kinalty. It was a place from which light was almost excluded now by cobwebs across its two windows and into which, with the door ajar, the shafted sun lay in a lengthened arch of blazing sovereigns Over a corn bin on which he had packed last autumn’s ferns lay Paddy snoring between these windows, a web strung from one’ lock of hair back onto the sill above and which rose and fell as he breathed. Caught in the reflection of spring sunlight this cobweb looked to be made of gold as did those others which by working long minutes spiders had drawn from spar to spar of the fern bedding on which his head rested. It might have been almost that O’Conor’s dreams were held by hairs of gold binding his head beneath a vaulted roof on which the floor of cobbles reflected an old king’s molten treasure from the bog.
‘He won’t wake now, only for tea,’ Kate said. ‘Because after he’s had his he feeds the birds.’
‘Oh Kate isn’t he a sight and all.’
‘Well come on we can’t stand looking. What’s next?’
‘If I make a crown out of them ferns in the corner,’ Edith said, ‘will you fetch something he can hold?’
‘You aim to make him a bishop? Well if I ‘ad my way I’d strip those rags off to give that pelt of his a good rub over.’
‘Don’t talk so. You couldn’t.’
‘Who’s doing all the talking?’ O’Conor gave a loud snore. Both girls began to giggle.
‘Oh do be quiet dear,’ Edith said picking a handful of ferns and starting to twist them. Then they were arrested by movement in the sunset of that sidewall which reflected glare from the floor in its glass.
For most of one side of this room was taken up by a vast glass-fronted cupboard in which had once been kept the bits, the halters and bridles, and the martingales. At some time O’Conor had cut away wooden partitioning at the back to make a window into the next chamber, given over nowadays to his peacocks. This was where these birds sheltered in winter, nested in spring, and where they died of natural causes at the end. As though stuffed in a dusty case they showed themselves from time to time as one after another across the heavy days they came up to look at him. Now, through a veil of light reflected over this plate glass from beneath, Edith could dimly see, not hear, a number of peacocks driven into view by some disturbance on their side and hardly to be recognized in this sovereign light. For their eyes had changed to rubies, their plumage to orange as they bowed and scraped at each other against the equal danger. Then again they were gone with a beat of wings and in their room stood Charley Raunce, the skin of his pale face altered by refraction to red morocco leather.
The girls stood transfixed as if by arrows between the Irishman dead motionless asleep and the other intent and quiet behind a division. Then dropping everything they turned, they also fled.
Miss Swift was deaf and could not always hear her charges’ words as along with Evelyn and Moira and Mrs Welch’s Albert she came that afternoon to the dovecote round by the back. She groaned while she settled herself in the shady seat and the doves rose in a white cloud on softly clapping wings.
‘What’s troublin’ ‘er?’ Albert asked.
‘It’s only nanny’s rheumatism,’ Miss Moira quoted.
‘Why come to that I got an uncle ‘as ‘is joints boiled Tuesdays and Thursdays over at St Luke’s down the old Bow Road.’
‘Now shall poor old nanny tell you a story of the two white doves that didn’t agree?’
Moira nudged Evelyn and pointed. A pair of these birds on a ledge were bowing beak to beak. The two girls copied them, nodding deeply one to the other as they sat on either side of Miss Swift. This woman rubbed a knee with both hands without looking at it. She had closed her eyes.
‘Once upon a time there were six little doves lived in a nest,’ she began and Raunce came out of an unused door in that Castle wall. The rusted hinges creaked. The two girls waved but Mrs Welch’s Albert beyond Evelyn might almost have been said to cringe. Raunce put a finger to his lips. He was on his way back from the round he had made of the peacocks’ corn bins and during which he startled Kate and Edith. Then Miss Evelyn and Miss Moira each put a finger to their mouths as they went on bowing to each other. Raunce made off. Miss Swift continued,
‘Because they were so poor and hungry and cold in their thin feathers out there in the rain.’ She opened her eyes. ‘Children,’ she said, ‘stop those silly tricks’ and the girls obeyed. ‘But the sun came out to warm them,’ she intoned.
‘Jesus,’ Albert muttered, ‘look at that.’
This dovecote was a careful reproduction of the leaning tower of Pisa on a small scale. It had balconies to each tier of windows. Now that the birds had settled again they seemed to have taken up their affairs at the point where they had been interrupted So that all these balconies were crowded with doves and a heavy murmur of cooing throbbed the air though at one spot there seemed to be trouble.
‘You’re very very wicked boy,’ said Evelyn to Albert looking where she thought he looked. What she saw was one dove driving another along a ledge backwards Each time it reached the end the driven one took flight and fluttered then settled back on that same ledge once more only to be driven back the other way to clatter into air again. This was being repeated tirelessly when from another balcony something fell.
‘That’s ripe that is,’ Albert said.
‘I didn’t see,’ Evelyn cried. ‘I didn’t really. What came about?’
‘And then there was a time,’ the nanny said from behind closed eyes and the wall of deafness, ‘oh my dears your old nanny hardly knows how to tell you but the naughty unloyal dove I told of.
‘It was a baby one,’ Albert said.
‘A baby dove. Oh do let me see.’
‘I daresn’t stir,’ he said.
‘Where did she fall then?’ Evelyn asked.
‘Quiet children,’ Miss Swift said having opened her eyes, ‘or I shan’t finish the story you asked after, restless chicks,’ she said. ‘And then there came a time,’ she went on, shutting her eyes again, hands folded.
‘What? Where?’ Moira whispered.
‘It was a baby one,’ Albert said, ‘and nude. That big bastard pushed it.’
‘The big what?’ Evelyn asked. ‘Oh but I mean oughtn’t we to rescue the poor?’
‘Where did she drop then?’ Moira wanted to be told But a rustle made them turn about on either side of Miss Swift who sat facing that dovecote shuteyed and deaf. They saw Kate and Edith in long purple uniforms bow swaying towards them in soft sunlight through the white budding branches, fingers over lips. Even little Albert copied the gesture back this time. All five began soundlessly giggling in the face of beauty.
‘Did you see Mr Raunce?’ Kate asked at last.
‘ ‘E went that way,’ Albert answered while the two girl children sat with forefingers still on their mouths.
‘What did ‘e come out of?’ Kate asked.
‘That door,’ Albert said.
‘And then they were in great peril every mortal one,’ Miss Swift continued.
‘And oh Edith,’ Miss Evelyn announced, ‘we’ve been watching the doves they are so funny.’
‘I shouldn’t pay attention if I was you dear.’
‘Why shouldn’t I pay attention?’
‘Not if I was you I shouldn’t.’
‘Why shouldn’t I?’ Miss Evelyn asked.
‘Because they’re very rum them birds,’ Kate said also whispering.
‘Why are they rum?’ Miss Moira asked.
‘I’ll say they’re rum,’ Albert announced. ‘One of the old ‘uns shoved a young bird and ‘e fell down right on ‘is nut.’
‘Well I never,’ Kate remarked to Edith. They watched that dovecote over the children’s heads.
‘Sssh,’ said Edith watching rapt. The children turned. There were so many doves they hardly knew which way to look.
‘And then there came a time when this wicked tempting bird came to her father to ask her hand,’ Miss Swift said, passing a dry tongue over dry lips, shuteyed.
‘It don’t seem right not out in the open,’ Kate mentioned casual.
‘And again over there too and there,’ said Edith.
‘Where?’ cried Miss Evelyn too loud though not sharp enough as she thought to interrupt Miss Swift. The nanny just put a hand on her arm while she droned.
‘Oh what are they doing then?’ Miss Moira cried.
‘They’re kissing love,’ Kate answered low.
‘Hush dear,’ said Edith.
‘But where Kate I don’t see. Oh look at those two oh look she’s got her head right down his beak, she’s going to strangle him,’ and Moira’s voice rose ‘Nanny nanny stop it quick.’
‘Good gracious child what’s this?’
But the children had got up and as they rose every dove was apart once more and on the wing, filling the air with sighing.
‘Why now Edith and Kate whatever do you think you’re about?’
‘We’ve just finished our dinner,’ Kate replied.
‘Wandering all over the grounds where anyone might see. Who’s ever heard?’ the nanny said. ‘Sit down children and you Albert. If you’re going to stay with us you’ll do as you’re told.’
‘Well we’re accustomed to let our dinner settle,’ Kate said.
‘And I make no doubt you use that to get away of an afternoon and let the work look after itself. You’ll have Miss Burch after you.’
‘Come away, dear,’ Edith said to Kate.
‘Doves kissing indeed,’ Miss Swift called surprisingly after their backs, ‘stuff and nonsense. That’s the mother feeding her little one dears If you sit quiet enough you’ll see for yourselves,’ she said to the children. ‘And now where was I?’
‘You were at that bit where the kind old father says he can marry her ‘cause he’s getting too old to know better.’
‘Well now that’s right,’ Miss Swift began once more and the doves, spiralling down in the funnel made by trees which were coming out all over in a yellow green through chestnut sheaths the colour of a horse’s coat, settled one after another each outside the door to his quarters and after strutting once or twice went on quarrelling, murdering and making love again. ‘So then not knowing any better he let him have her hand,’ the nanny said.
Breathless the children watched this leaning tower. Very soon one white dove was crouching with opened beak before another with stuck-out chest. Not long after that they were at it once more and the fat bird, grown thin now, had his head deep down the other’s neck which was swallowing in frantic gulps that shook its crescent body. Elsewhere another bird trundled an egg to the edge. Yet another chased a fifth to a corner until it fluttered over behind where these two began again. In pairs they advanced and retreated. Then one more small mass fell without a thud, pink.
‘There y’are,’ said Albert.
‘Where? I didn’t see. Oh I’ve missed again,’ Evelyn said. ‘Did you?’ to Moira.
‘You’re none of you listening you naughty children,’ the nanny said. ‘Here’s poor nanny wasting her breath and you don’t pay attention. We’d better get on with our walk if you ask me.’
‘Are you coming?’
‘But why nanny?’
‘Because nanny says so. Come on now. We’ll go down by the fish ‘atchery,’ and she made off, holding Evelyn by the hand. She dragged on her right leg.
‘Tell you what,’ Albert said to Moira as they loitered to follow, ‘I’ll bite ‘is little ‘ead off’n.’
‘Like they did in the local where I was evacuated.’
‘What’s the local?’
‘In the pub down in the country. There was a man there bit the ‘eads off of mice for a pint. The lady I was evacuated with said so.’
‘You shan’t you wicked boy I’ll call nanny.’
‘I’ll show yer,’ he said darting sideways towards the base of that tower. ‘You wait till I find’m,’ he said and she burst out wailing. Miss Swift came back, mopped the child’s face. The others watched as though disinterested. She did not ask Albert. ‘I’ll tell Mrs Welch about you’ was all she told him.
Later that same afternoon Raunce was in the pantry lending his lad a hand with the tea things. That is to say while his Albert washed the cups and saucers, the spoons and plates, Raunce held up a heavy silver tray like a cymbal to polish it. ‘Ha’ he went at the expanse of mirror metal, ‘ha,’ then he rubbed his breath away as he whistled through his teeth in time to the short strokes in the way a man will when grooming a horse, and squinting terribly the while.
Suddenly he spoke. Bert grew quiet at his voice. Raunce said,
‘I could have laughed right in her face,’ and stopped.
‘When was that?’ Albert enquired.
‘Yes so I could and with you sitting there still as a mouse.’
The boy looked speechless at him.
‘Oh get on with your work,’ Raunce quoted from another context There was another lull while Albert redoubled his effort and the butler watched. ‘It’s not as if we had all night,’ Raunce went on, ‘which is to say I have not,’ he said speaking genteely and he let a short guffaw, ‘lucky Charley they call me, begorrah,’ he added.
‘Yes Mr Raunce,’ mumbled Albert.
‘It won’t wash your acting the innocent my lad. The moment she come in that door between the scullery and where we was sitting over our tea I could tell you felt the draught.’
‘I didn’t feel nothing.’
‘When Mrs Welch reported present on the steps there was something caused my eyes to settle on that cheese face of yours, something told me. And when she started about that waterglass of ‘ers which is missing I says to myself Charley you don’t have to look far, it’s plain as my face in the mirror. What induced you to take the stuff?’
‘Come on tell uncle.’
‘I never took nothing.’
‘You’ve no call to feel uneasy my lad. I’ve not made out I was any different from what I am now have I?’
‘Mr Raunce I haven’t so much as seen it.’
‘Well, if you won’t, then I will. I’ll tell you. It’s because you overheard me say what my old mother had written that they was on the very brink of starvation over in London with the bombing. You must’ve idea’d you’d go get hold of some to send ‘em a few eggs in.’
‘Gawd’s truth I did not Mr Raunce.’
‘Don’t stand there like a stuck pig my lad. Get down to it for the love of Moses. We aren’t finished with the day’s work by a long chalk. But you got your parents in London yet?’ he went on. ‘Haven’t you?’
There was no reply except for the slop of sink water.
‘Well haven’t you?’
‘Yes Mr Raunce.’
‘All right then why make a mystery? You thought you might send ‘em along an egg or two.’
‘I tell you I never.’
‘I’m not saying you did, all I’m telling you is you thought you might. There’s times I despair of you my lad,’ Raunce said. ‘Well not possibly make anything out of you that’s one item dead certain. And another thing now. Once you can shine a bit of good silver up like this here you’ll have learned a start of the trade that’s took me many a long year to master. And I’m still learning.’
‘I couldn’t even name what that glass is for,’ the boy uttered deep in his sink.
‘D’you want me to fetch you one?’ Raunce shouted at once. ‘Would you provoke me to strike you? No? Then don’t attempt impudence again. There’s the National Service Officer waiting the other side for growing lads such as you soon as you’re of age.’
‘Yessir,’ the boy said as though galvanized.
‘And don’t call me sir,’ Raunce said calmer, ‘give a Mr when you address me that’s all I ask. Well if you won’t tell you won’t. You may be right at that. See nothing know nothing as they say in the Army.’
Albert tried a furtive smile.
‘I don’t say I blame you,’ Raunce went on after pondering a moment He was picking his teeth with a needle he had taken from underneath the lapel of his coat ‘But one thing we will get straight here and now,’ he said. ‘Keep all of it to yourself if you wish. And clean your teeth of course before you have anything to do with a woman. Yet if I ‘ave any more of that side from you there’s one thing you can bet your life. A word to Mrs T. from me, just one little word and it’s the Army for you my lad, old king and country and all the rest d’you understand.’
‘Yes Mr Raunce.’
‘Where’d those two girls of Miss Burch go working after tea did you happen to notice?’
‘Over in the empty place.’
‘Yes but what part?’
‘I couldn’t tell. I never ‘eard. On my oath I don’t bloody know.’
‘O.K. O.K. what’s all the excitement?’ Raunce said. ‘If you don’t know you don’t,’ he said. ‘That’s all there is to it. But I got a message to give one or both of ‘em see? Lucky Charley they call me. I chanced upon one of their little games this dinnertime. And if that bell was to go just you answer it. If they should want to know where I am say I’m down in the cellar d’you understand. All right? But I shan’t be more’n a minute,’ he said as he glided softly out softly whistling. The boy trembled.
As has been explained most of this great house was closed. It was for Kate and Edith once or twice each week to open various dust-sheeted rooms to let the air in. When Raunce after making his way up the Grand Staircase, going through the Long Gallery and past the Chapel came to a great sombre pair of doors which divided one part of this Castle from the other, he passed once he had opened these into yet another world. And in spite of his training they made a booming sound as he shut them behind him.
He stood to listen through a white-wrapped dimness. For what he heard was music. In a moment he knew he heard a waltz.
‘What are they up to now?’ he asked half under his breath. What’s Edith after?’ he repeated. He was grave all of a sudden.
He started on his way, then almost at once stopped by a large bowl which sat naked on a window ledge and which had a sheet of cardboard laid over. He picked this up, set it aside, then dipped his fingers in the rustle of potpourri which lay within. Walking on again he sniffed once at his fingers he had dabbled in the dry bones of roses and to do this was a habit with him the few times he was over in this part.
He went forward, still intently listening. To his left was a range of high windows muted by white blinds. On his right he passed objects sheeted in white and to which he had never raised the cloths. For this house that had yet to be burned down, and in particular that greater part of it which remained closed, was a shadowless castle of treasures. But he was following music. Also he went like the most silent cat after two white mice, and to tell them as well that what had been missing was now found to have been stolen by a rat.
The music came louder and louder as he progressed until at the white and gold ballroom doors it fairly thundered. He paused to look over his shoulder with his hand on a leaping salmon trout in gilt before pressing this lever to go in. There was no one. Nevertheless he spoke back the way he had come. ‘They’ll break it,’ he said aloud as though in explanation, presumably referring to the gramophone which was one of the first luxury clockwork models. ‘And in a war,’ he added as he turned back to these portals, ‘it would still fetch good money,’ talking to himself against the thrust of music. ‘The little bitches I’ll show ‘em,’ he said and suddenly opened.
They were wheeling wheeling in each other’s arms heedless at the far end where they had drawn up one of the white blinds. Above from a rather low ceiling five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of distant day, again and again red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass.
‘You’re daft,’ he called out They stopped with their arms about each other. Then as he walked up they disengaged to rearrange their hair and still the waltz thundered. He switched it off. The needle grated.
The girls said nothing. They stood with arms up rolling their curls and watched. He went over to the window, twitched down that blind. He came back. He spoke at last.
‘Oh all right,’ he said, ‘I only happened to be passing OK.? Yes I know it’s none of my business. Go on play it once more if you like.’
‘Not now,’ Kate said.
‘It was only that one of them might hear you,’ he explained.
‘It’s over now,’ Edith answered him.
‘And that reminds me,’ he went on seeming to forget he had just given another reason for his presence. ‘What I came to tell you girls was I found out about the waterglass. It’s my lad has been and had some. Only a trifle, not enough to notice. He took what he did more out of curiosity than anything.’
‘Albert?’ Edith exclaimed.
‘Fortunate ‘e didn’t try a taste,’ Raunce continued. ‘He’s that sort. He’d never think twice if it came over him to see what the effects might be. He’s a crank that’s why. I know I’ve tried along of that lad but there’s some you can’t do anything with.’
Kate laughed. ‘So it was Albert, Albert after all,’ she said.
‘I came special to mention the matter,’ Raunce added and he had not left Edith with his eyes. ‘Ever since Mrs Welch barged in like that at teatime I thought well you never know maybe these girls will take what she said wrong, think it was addressed to them.’
‘That cap didn’t fit, we never took no notice,’ Kate announced.
‘It’s Edith here,’ Raunce said, ‘with her talk of she must get home and being dissatisfied.’
‘Well thank you very much,’ Edith replied as though astounded.
‘Don’t mention,’ he said. ‘And I must be off. Busy Charley that’s me,’ he wound up with what seemed an empty return to his old manner as he abruptly turned away. He went straight out not saying another word.
‘Well would you believe that?’ Edith murmured half giggling. But Kate was looking at her like she might have been a stranger and she stopped.
‘All right come on,’ Kate said vicious, ‘we’re not goin’ to stay here all night are we? I reckon we’ve done what we can. Enough’s enough,’ she said and they set about leaving this end of the great room as they had found it. And then made their way back to the part that was inhabited, their day’s work done.
It may have been a few days later that Miss Burch came in late for her elevenses. She looked worried. As she sat down she said,
‘She’s mislaid her big sapphire cluster.’
There was no need to ask whose ring that was Ever since the French maid went back to her own country Miss Burch had been in charge of Mrs Tennant’s things. But Mrs T. was always finding what she had just lost, while she seldom bothered to announce that whatever it might be was no longer missing. Charley seriously said, and at the same time imitated Mrs Welch’s nephew,
‘Maybe she put’m down and forgot to pick’m up.’
Except for Miss Burch they none of them bothered. It could be assumed if she did not in good time come across the ring that she would get another of equal value out of the Company and better because it was fresh.
‘Which reminds me,’ Charley asked his lad, ‘did you remember to take her back that glove? Now don’t give me the old answer, don’t say which glove?’
‘It’s in the pantry Mr Raunce,’ Albert said.
‘The gardening glove.’
‘You’ll excuse me it’s not. I ought to know seeing that’s my own pantry. Where is it then?’
‘I put ‘er glove in the cupboard,’ Albert said, ‘on the bottom shelf. I seen it only this morning.’
‘Oh well if you’ve hidden the thing,’ Raunce replied and they fell back on silence.
Edith looked up to find Kate watching her. She blushed.
‘Land’s sakes there she goes colouring again,’ Raunce announced hearty. ‘She should go and give one of them blood transfusions they are asking volunteers for, she’s got too much,’ he commented out of one side of his mouth to Miss Burch next him.
‘Don’t be disgusting,’ was all this woman said.
But he had obviously recollected. Eggs must have made him think of waterglass. ‘Wait a minute,’ he cried. Kate watched. ‘I’ve just remembered summat,’ he went on. He paused, and his eyes were on Edith while her blushes flooded once more, ‘I do believe I done you a real injustice,’ he said to Albert perhaps. But he did not seem able to take his eyes off the girl while she looked at him melting as though at his mercy.
‘We shall have to make them open up the drains for us that’s all,’ Miss Burch stated, still on about the ring.
‘Oh forget it,’ Charley said to Edith, probably meaning this remark for Albert. He lowered his eyes and an odd sort of bewilderment showed in his face. But Miss Burch must have understood that he was answering her for she objected,
‘I can’t forget,’ and she spoke resigned. ‘I’m sure I’ve looked every place and it was a beautiful ring, an antique,’ she added.
At this moment Mrs Welch had an idea away in the kitchen. Leaving her black notebook she shuffled swift into the scullery where little Albert was at table over a cup of cocoa while the two girls prepared vegetables in one of six sinks.
‘There’s none of you girls go talking to the tradesmen?’ she asked in a menacing voice and gave no warning.
‘Oh no m’m.’
‘There’s not one of you so much as passes the time of day with that butcher?’
‘No m’m truly.’
‘Because remember what I said. Don’t have nothing to do with them Irish or you’ll likely bring our own blood on us. By reason of the I R.A. And never forget.’
‘And where do they carry the victuals when they call?’ Mrs Welch went on to ask.
‘They leave ‘em in the outside larder like you said.’
‘Now when d’you fetch what they’ve left?’
‘When they’re gone,’ the girls answered.
‘That’s right. Also I’ll take up with those merchants what they’ve delivered short, what they owe me, on the blower, understand. Nor you ‘aven’t spoken with one of them?’