The Housekeeper


Marjorie Bowen

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The Housekeeper

Mr Robert Sekforde, a rather damaged man of fashion, entered with a lurching step his mansion near the tavern of the ‘Black Bull’, High Holborn. He was still known as ‘Beau Sekforde’ and was still dressed in the extreme of the fashion of this year 1710, with wide brocade skirts, an immense peruke, and a quantity of lace and paste ornaments that were nearly as brilliant as diamonds.

About Mr Sekforde himself was a good deal of this spurious gorgeousness; from a little distance he still looked the magnificent man he once had been, but a closer view showed him ruddled with powder and rouge like a woman, heavy about the eyes and jaw, livid in the cheeks — a handsome man yet, but one deeply marked by years of idleness, good living, and the cheap dissipations of a nature at once brutal and effeminate. In the well-shaped features and dark eyes there was not a contour or a shadow that did not help towards the presentment of a type vicious and worthless; yet he had an air of breeding, of gallantry and grace that had hitherto never failed to win him facile admiration and help him over awkward places in his career. This air was also spurious — spurious as the diamonds at his throat and in his shoe-buckles; he was not even of gentle birth; the obscurity that hung round his origin was proof of the shame he felt at the dismal beginning of a career that had been so brilliant.

He entered his mansion that was modest but elegant, and called for candles to be brought into his study.

Taking off slowly his white, scented gloves, he stared thoughtfully at his plump, smooth hands and then at the walnut desk, scattered with silver and ebony stand dishes, pens and taper-holders, and a great number of little notes on gilt-edged and perfumed papers.

There were a great many others, neither gilt-edged nor perfumed; Mr Sekforde knew that these last were bills as surely as he knew the first were insipid invitations to rather third-rate balls and routs.

Everything in Mr Sekforde’s world was becoming rather third-rate now.

He looked round the room desperately, with that ugly glance of defiance which is not courage but cowardice brought to bay.

Nothing in the house was paid for and his credit would not last much longer; this had been a last venture to float his shaky raft on the waters of London society; he could foresee himself going very comfortably to the bottom.

Unless . . .

Unless he could again carry off some successful ‘coup’ at cards; and this was unlikely; he was too well known now.

Every resource that could, at any pinch, afford means of livelihood to an unscrupulous rogue and yet permit him to move among the people on whom he preyed, had already been played by Mr Sekforde.

The sound of the opening door caused him to look up; he dreaded duns and was not sure of the unpaid servants.

But it was his wife who entered; at sight of her, Beau Sekforde cursed in a fashion that would have surprised his genteel admirers, over whose tea-tables he languished so prettily.

‘Oh, pray keep civil,’ said the lady, in a mincing tone.

She trailed to the fireplace and looked discontentedly at the logs that were falling into ashes.

‘The upholsterer came,’ she added, ‘with a bill for near a thousand guineas — I had difficulty in sending him away. Is nothing in the house paid for?’

‘Nothing.’

She looked at him with a contempt that was more for herself than for him; she was quite callous and heartless; a sense of humour, a nice appreciation of men and things alone prevented her from being odious.

‘Lord!’ she smiled. ‘To live to be fooled by Beau Sekforde!’

She was a Countess in her own right; her patent was from Charles II and explained her career; she still had the air of a beauty and wore the gowns usually affected by loveliness, but she was old with the terrible old age of a wanton, soulless woman.

Her reputation was bad even for her type; she had cheated at everything from love to cards, and no tenderness or regret had ever softened her ugly actions. At the end of her career as presiding goddess of a gambling saloon she had married Robert Sekforde, thinking he had money or at least the wits to get it, and a little betrayed by his glib tongue, that had flattered her into thinking her beauty not lost, her charm not dead; only to find him an adventurer worse off than herself, who had not even paid for the clothes in which he had come to woo her. Her sole satisfaction was that he had also been deceived.

He had thought her the prudent guardian of the spoils of a lifetime; instead, selfishness had caused her to scatter what greed had gained, and for her too this marriage had been seized as a chance to avert ruin.

Haggard and painted, a dark wig on her head, false pearls round her throat, and a dirty satin gown hanging gracefully round a figure still upright and elegant, she stared at the fire.

‘We shall have to disappear,’ she remarked drily.

He looked at her with eyes of hate.

‘You must have some money,’ he said bluntly.

Avarice, the vice of old age, flashed in her glance as jealousy would have gleamed in that of a younger woman.

‘What little I have I need,’ she retorted. ‘The man has turned simple.’ She grinned at her reflection in the glass above the fireplace.

‘Well, leave me, then,’ he said bitterly; could he be rid of her, he felt it would gild his misfortune.

But my lady had come to the end of all her admirers; she could not even any longer dazzle boys with the wicked glory of her past; she had no-one save Mr Sekforde, and she meant to cling to him; he was a man and twenty years younger than herself — he ought, she thought, to be useful.

Besides, this woman who had never had a friend of her own sex shuddered to think of the utter loneliness it would be to live without a man attached to her — better the grave; and of that she had all the horror of the true atheist.

‘You talk folly,’ she said with a dreadful ogle. ‘I shall remain.’

‘Then you will starve, my lady!’ he flung out violently.

‘Oh, fie, sir; one does not starve.’

He could not endure to look at her, but stating??? at the desk began to tear up the notes before him.

‘Will you not go to a mask tonight?’ she asked querulously.

‘I have no money to pay for a chair,’ he sneered.

‘We might win something at cards.’

‘People are very wary.’

‘You were very clever at tricking me,’ remarked the Countess, ‘cannot you trick someone else, Mr Sekforde?’

He wheeled round on her with concentrated venom.

‘Ah, madam, if I were a bachelor —’

She quailed a little before his wrath, but rallied to reply with the spirit of a woman who had been spoilt by a king: ‘You think you are so charming? Wealthy matches are particular. Look in the glass, sir; your face is as ruined as your reputation!

He advanced on her and she began to shriek in a dreadful fashion; the town woman showed through the airs of a great lady.

‘I’ll call the watch!’ she shrilled.

He fell back with a heavy step and stood glaring at her.

‘A pair of fools,’ said my lady bitterly. Then her cynical humour triumphed over her disgust. ‘Your first wife would smile to see us now,’ she remarked.

Beau Sekforde turned to her a face suddenly livid.

‘What do you know about my first wife?’ he demanded fiercely.

‘Nothing at all,’ replied my lady. ‘You kept her rather in the background, did you not? But one can guess.’

Mr Sekforde raged; he loathed any reference to the woman whom he had married in his obscurity, and who had been his drudge in the background through all his shifting fortunes — her worn face, her wagging tongue, her rude manners had combined to make the thorn in the rose bed of his softest days.

He had hated her and believed that she had hated him; she was a Scotswoman, a shrew, thrifty, honest, plain, and a good housekeeper; she had always made him very comfortable at home, though she had shamed him on the rare occasions when she had forced him to take her abroad.

She had died only a few months before his present marriage. ‘One can guess,’ repeated the Countess, showing teeth dark behind her rouged lips in a ghastly grin, ‘that you made her life very pleasant.’

He sprang up and faced her, a big, heavy bully for all his satins and French peruke.

‘Oh,’ she shrilled, frightened but defiant, ‘you look like murder.’

He turned away sharply and muttered some hideous words under his breath.

‘What are you going to do?’ asked my lady, with a quizzical glance round the tawdry splendour that had been hired to lure her into marriage and that now would so shortly be rent away.

Beau Sekforde controlled his wrath against the terrible woman who had deceived him into losing his last chance of retrieving ruin. ‘Where are the servants?’ he asked.

‘All gone. I think they have taken some of the plate and all of the wine. There is some food downstairs.’

Mr Sekforde had seen it as he came up — a hacked piece of fat ham on a dirty dish, a stained cloth, and a jagged loaf had been laid out on the dining-room table.

‘I have had my dinner,’ remarked the Countess.

Her husband rudely left the room; he was hungry and forced to search for food, but the remembrance of the meal waiting nauseated him. He was delicate in his habits, and as he descended the stairs he thought of his late wife — she had been a wonderful housekeeper — even in poverty she had never failed to secure comfort.

As he opened the door of the dining-room he was agreeably surprised. Evidently one of the servants had remained after all.

The hearth had been swept and a neat fire burnt pleasantly; a clean cloth was on the table, and the service was set out exactly; a fresh loaf, butter, wine, fruit, a dish of hot meat, of cheese, of eggs stood ready; there was wine and brightly polished glasses.

‘I did not know,’ Mr Sekforde muttered, ‘that any of the hussies in the house could work like this.’

He admired the spotless linen, the brilliant china, the gleaming glasses, the fresh and appetising food; and ate and drank with a pleasure that made him forget for the moment his troubles.

One thing only slightly disturbed his meal: among the dishes was a plate of goblin scones; they were of a peculiar shape and taste, and he had never known anyone make them but the late Jane Sekforde.

When he had finished he rang the bell for candles, for the short November day was closing in.

There was no answer. Surprised and slightly curious to see the servant who had been so deft, Mr Sekforde went to the head of the basement stairs and shouted lustily; still there was no reply.

He returned to the dining-room; the candles were lit and set precisely on the table.

Mr Sekforde ran upstairs to his wife. ‘Who is in this house?’ he asked in a tone of some agitation. The Countess was by the fire, seated on a low chair; before her on the floor was a wheel of playing cards from which she was telling her fortune.

‘Who is in the house?’ she sneered. ‘A drunken ruffian.’

Misery was wearing thin the courtier-like manner from both of them.

‘You old, wicked jade,’ he replied, ‘there is someone hiding in this house.’

She rose; scattering the cards with the worn toe of her little satin shoe. ‘There is no-one in the house,’ she said, ‘not a baggage of them all would stay. I am going out. I want lights and amusement. Your house is to too dull, Mr Sekforde.’

With this speech and an air that was a caricature of the graces of a young and beautiful woman, she swept out of the room.

Even her own maid, a disreputable Frenchwoman, had left her, having moved out of the impending crash; but my lady had never lacked spirit; she attired herself, put all the money she had in her bosom, and left the house to pass the evening with one of her cronies, who kept an establishment similar to that which she had been forced to abandon.

Even the departure of her vindictive presence did not sweeten for Beau Sekforde the house that was the temple of his failure.

He glared at the furniture that should have been paid for by bills on his wife’s fortune, and went to his chamber.

He too knew haunts, dark and gleaming, where health and money, wits and time might be steadily consumed, and where one who was bankrupt in all these things might be for the time tolerated if he had a flattering and servile tongue and an appearance that lent some dignity to mean vices and ignoble sins.

He found a fire in his bedchamber, the curtains drawn, his cloak, evening rapier, and gloves put ready for him, the candles lit on his dressing-table. He dressed himself rather soberly and went downstairs.

The meal was cleared away in the dining-room, the fire covered, the chairs put back in their places.

Beau Sekforde swore. ‘If I had not seen her fastened down in her coffin I should have sworn that Jane was in this house,’ he muttered, and his bloodshot eyes winced a little from the gloom of the empty house.

Again he went to the head of the basement stairs and listened. He could hear faintly yet distinctly the sound of someone moving about — the sound of dishes, of brisk footsteps, of clattering irons.

‘Some wench has remained,’ he said uneasily, but he did not offer to investigate those concealed kitchen premises.

That evening his companions found him changed — a quiet, sullen, dangerous mood was on him; they could easily understand this, as tales of the disaster of his marriage had already leaked abroad.

But something deeper and more terrible even than his almost accomplished ruin was troubling Robert Sekforde.

He returned very late to the mansion in High Holborn; he had drunk as much wine as his friends would pay for, and there was little of the elegant gallant about the heavy figure in the stained coat, with wig awry and the flushed, sullen face, who stumbled into the wretched place he named home with unconscious sarcasm.

A light stood ready for him in the hall; he took this up and staggered upstairs, spilling the candle-grease over his lace ruffles.

Halfway up he paused, suddenly wondering who had thought to leave the light.

‘Not my lady wife — not my royal Countess,’ he grinned.

Then a sudden pang of horror almost sobered him. Jane had never forgotten to put a candle in the hall.

He paused, as if expecting to hear her shrill, nagging voice. ‘You’re drunk,’ he said to himself fiercely; ‘she is dead, dead, dead.’ He went upstairs.

The fire in his room was bright, the bed stood ready, his slippers and bed-gown were warming, a cup of posset stood steaming on the side table.

Mr Sekforde snatched up his candle and hurried to the room of the Countess. He violently entered and stood confronting her great bed with the red damask hangings.

With a shriek she sat up; her cheeks were still rouged, the false pearls dangled in her ears, the laced gown was open on her skinny throat; a cap with pink ribbons concealed her scant grey hair.

She flung herself, with claw-like hands, on an embroidered purse on the quilt and thrust it under her pillow; it contained her night’s winnings at cards.

‘Have you come to rob me?’ she screamed.

Terror robbed her of all dignity; she crouched in the shadows of the huge bed, away from the red light cast on her dreadful face by the candle her husband held.

Beau Sekforde was not thinking of money now, and her words passed unheeded.

‘Who is in this house?’ he demanded.

‘You are mad,’ she said, a little recovering her composure, but keeping her hands very firmly on the purse beneath the pillow. ‘There is no-one in this house.’

Did you put a candle for me, and prepare my room and light the fire and place the posset?’

He spoke thickly and leant against the bedpost; the candle, now almost guttered away, sent a spill of grease on the heavy quilt.

‘You are drunk, you monstrous man!’ screamed my lady. ‘If you are not away instantly I’ll put my head out of the window and screech the neighbourhood up.’

Beau Sekforde, regarding her with dull eyes, remained at his original point.

‘There was someone in the kitchen this afternoon,’ he insisted. ‘I heard sounds —’

‘Rats,’ said my lady; ‘the house is full of ’em.’

A look of relief passed over the man’s sodden features. ‘Of course, rats,’ he muttered.

‘What else could it be?’ asked the Countess, sufficiently impressed by his strange manner momentarily to forget her grievance against him.

‘What else?’ he repeated; then suddenly turned on her with fury, lurching the candle into her face.

‘Could rats have set this for me?’ he shouted.

The Countess shrank back; when agitated her head trembled with incipient palsy, and now it trembled so that the false pearls rattled hollow against her bony neck.

‘You will fire the bed-curtains!’ she shrilled desperately.

He trembled with a loathing of her that was like a panic fear of fury. ‘You time-foundered creature!’ he cried. ‘You bitter horror! And ’twas for you I did it!’

She sprang to her knees in the bed, her hands crooked as if ready for his face; there was nothing left now of the fine dame nurtured in courts, the beauty nursed in the laps of princes. She had reverted to the wench of Drury Lane, screaming abuse from alley to alley.

‘If you are disappointed, what about me?’ she shrieked. ‘Have I not tied myself to a low, ugly fool?’

He stepped back from her as if he did not understand her, and, muttering, staggered back into his own room.

There he lit all the candles, piled up the fire with more fuel, glanced with horror at the bed, flung off his coat and wig, and settled himself in the chair with arms before the fire to sleep.

The Countess, roused and angered, could sleep no more.

She rose, flung on a chamber-robe, of yellow satin lined with marten’s fur, that was a relic of her court days, and threadbare and moth-eaten in places though giving the effect of much splendour.

Without striking a light she went cautiously out into the corridor, saw the door of her husband’s room ajar, a bright glow from it falling across the darkness, and crept steadily in.

He was, as she had supposed, in an intoxicated stupor of sleep by the fire.

His head had sunk forward on the stained and untied lace cravat on his breast; his wigless head showed fat and shaven and grey over the temples, his face was a dull purple and his mouth hung open. His great frame was almost as loose as that of a man newly dead, his hands hung slack and his chest heaved with his noisy breathing. My lady was herself a horrid object, but that did not prevent her from giving him a glance of genuine disgust.

‘Beau Sekforde indeed!’ she muttered.

She put out all the candles save two on the dressing-table, found the coat her husband had flung off, and began going swiftly through the pockets.

He had been, as she had hoped, fortunate at cards that night; he was indeed, like herself, of a type who seldom was unfortunate, since he only played with fools or honest men, neither of whom had any chance against the peculiar talents of the sharper.

The Countess found sundry pieces of gold and silver, which she knotted up in her handkerchief with much satisfaction. She knew that nothing but money would ever be able to be of any service to her in this world.

Pleased with her success, she looked round to see if there were anything else of which she could despoil her husband.

Keeping her cunning old eyes constantly on him, she crept to the dressing-table and went over the drawers and boxes. Most of the ornaments that she turned out glittered and gleamed heavily in the candlelight. But she knew that they were as false as the pearls trembling in her own ears; one or two things, however, she added to the money in the handkerchief, and she was about to investigate further when a little sound, like a cough, caused her to look sharply round.

The room was full of warm shadows, the fire was sinking low and only cast a dim light on the heavy, sleeping figure on the hearth, while the candlesticks on the dressing-table served only to illuminate the bent figure of the Countess in her brilliant wrap.

As she looked round she found herself staring straight at the figure of a woman, who was observing her from the other side of the bed.

This woman was dressed in a grey tabinet fashioned like the dress of an upper servant. Her hair was smoothly banded and her features were pale and sharp; her hands, that she held rather awkwardly in front of her, were rough and workworn.

Across one cheek was a long scratch.

The Countess dropped her spoils; she remembered her husband’s words that she had taken for the babbling of a drunkard.

So there was someone in the house.

‘How dare you?’ she quavered, in a low voice, for she did not wish to rouse her husband. ‘How dare you come here?’

Without replying the woman moved across to the sleeping man and looked down at him with an extraordinary expression of mingled malice and protection, as if she would defend him from any evil save that she chose to deal herself.

So sinister was this expression and the woman’s whole attitude that the Countess was frightened as she never had been in the course of her wicked life.

She stood staring; the handkerchief, full of money and ornaments, dropped on the dressing-table unheeded.

Beau Sekforde moved in his sleep and fetched a deep groan.

‘You impertinent creature!’ whispered the Countess, taking courage. ‘Will you not go before I wake my husband?’

At these last words the woman raised her head; she did not seem to speak, yet, as if there were an echo in the room, the Countess distinctly heard the words ‘My husband!’ repeated after her in a tone of bitter mockery.

A sense of unreality such as she had never known before touched the Countess; she felt as if her sight were growing dim and her hearing failing her; she made a movement as if to brush something from before her eyes.

When she looked again at Beau Sekforde he was alone; no-one was beside him.

In dreaming, tortured sleep he groaned and tossed.

‘The baggage has slipped off,’ muttered the Countess; ‘belike it is some ancient dear of his own. I will send her away in the morning.’

She crept back to her own room, forgetting her spoils. She did not sleep, and Mr Sekforde did not wake till the pale winter dawn showed between the curtains.

The Countess looked round on a chamber in disorder, but for Beau Sekforde everything was arranged, shaving water ready, his breakfast hot and tempting on a tray, his clothes laid out.

When he had dressed and come downstairs he found his wife yawning over a copy of the Gazette.

She remembered last night quite clearly, and considerably regretted what she had left behind in Beau Sekforde’s room in her confusion. She gave him a glance, vicious with the sense of an opportunity lost.

He flung at her the question he had asked last night.

‘Who is in this house?’

‘Some woman has stayed,’ she answered. ‘I think it was Joanna — the housekeeper, but I did not see very clearly. She must be out now, as I have rung the bell and there has been no answer.’

‘My breakfast was brought up to me,’ said Mr Sekforde. ‘So it is Joanna Mills, is it?’

The Countess was angry; she had had to go to the kitchen and pick among yesterday’s scraps for her own food.

‘And who is she?’

‘You said, madam, the housekeeper.’

‘She must be very fond of you,’ sneered the lady.

He stared at that and turned on her a ghastly look.

‘Oh, don’t think I am jealous!’ she grinned cynically.

‘It was the word you used,’ he muttered. ‘I do not think anyone has been fond of me save one —’

He paused and passed his hand over his weary, heavy eyes. ‘I dreamt of her last night.’

‘Who?’

‘Jane, my wife.’

The Countess remembered the ugly echo of her words last night. ‘Your wife — do you forget that I and no other am your wife?’

‘I do,’ he replied sullenly; ‘to me Jane is always my wife.’

‘A pity,’ said my lady sarcastically, ‘that she did not live longer.’ He gave her a queer look.

‘And now we have got to think of ourselves,’ he said abruptly. ‘I cannot keep these things much longer — you had better go.’

‘Where?’

‘What do I care!’ he answered cruelly.

‘I stay here,’ she replied. ‘Is the rent paid?’

‘No.’

‘Well, they will not disturb us till quarter-day,’ said my lady calmly. ‘You do not want to be parted from your loving wife, do you, dear?’

He stared at her as if her words had a double meaning.

‘Cannot you be quiet about my wife?’ he exclaimed.

‘La! The man is off his head!’ shrilled my lady. ‘Jane Sekforde is dead.’

‘That is why I think about her,’ he retorted grimly.

‘A model husband,’ jeered the Countess, eyeing him viciously. ‘I am sorry I never knew the sweet creature you regret so keenly and so touchingly.’

He raged at her like a man whose nerves are overwrought. ‘Will you not let the matter be? Think of yourself, you monstrous horror! You will soon be in the Fleet!’

This picture was sufficiently realistic to make the Countess shiver. ‘What are you going to do?’ she asked with sudden feebleness.

He did not know; brooding and black-browed, he withdrew to the window-place and stared out at the leaden November sky that hung so heavily over the London streets.

‘I suppose if you were free of me you would take your handsome face to market again?’ added my lady, with a sudden flash of new fury.

He gave her a red look, at which she shrank away. ‘Well, still we do not decide on anything,’ she quavered.

He would not answer her, but flung out of the house. His unsteady steps were directed to St. Andrew’s Church. It was a long time since Beau Sekforde had been near a church. Even when his wife had been buried here, he had not attended the service.

He stood now in the porch, biting his thumb; then presently he entered. Hesitating and furtive, he went round the walls until he came to the new, cheap tablet with the badly cut draped urn and the florid Latin setting forth the virtues of Jane Sekforde.

‘They don’t say anything about her being a good housekeeper,’ he found himself saying aloud. ‘Why, she told me once she would come back from the grave to set her house in order.’

He looked round as if to seek the answer of some companion, then laughed sullenly, drew his hat over his eyes, and left the church. Towards dusk he wandered home.

The dining-room was neat and clean, the fire attended to, the dinner on the table. He managed to eat some of the food, but without appetite. The Countess was out; there was no trace anywhere of her slovenly splendour.

The whole house was as clean and precise as it had been when that neglected drudge Jane Sekforde had ruled over it.

When the Countess returned he was almost glad to see her — he had been thinking so much, too much, of Jane. He had thought of her as he had seen her last, cold in her bed, clothed in her best grey gown, and how he had stared at her and hung over her and drawn suddenly away, so sharply that the button of cut steel on his cuff had left a scratch on her dead cheek.

‘Where is Joanna Mills?’ he abruptly asked his wife.

She stared at him. In such a moment as this could he think of nothing but the housekeeper? Was he losing his wits?

But she did not now much care; she had found a crony willing to shelter her and exploit her ancient glories.

‘I am going away,’ she said. ‘I do not know who is in the house — I have seen no-one.’

He seemed to pay no attention at all to her first remark. ‘What was that woman you saw last night like?’

‘A very plain, shrewish-looking creature,’ replied my lady, with some bitterness, as she recalled how she had been startled into dropping the filched money.

‘Are you sure it was a woman?’ asked Beau Sekforde with a ghastly grin.

‘Why, what else could it have been?’ she replied curiously.

‘I do not think it has been a woman for — some months,’ he said.

‘Why, do you imagine there is a spectre in the place?’

He would not, could not answer; he left her, and went from room to room throwing everything into disorder, taking a horrid pleasure in making a confusion in the neatness of the house. And then he flung himself away from the dreary mansion, leaving the Countess, like an old, weary bird of prey, wandering among the untidy rooms to see if there were anything worth taking away.

When he returned in the dark hours before the dawn he found the candle on the hall table.

‘Curse you!’ he screamed. ‘Cannot you let me alone?’

He hastened upstairs; everything was neat, his bed, his fire, his posset ready, his shoes warming, his candles lit. His terrified eyes cast a horrid glance round the room.

‘The medicine cupboard — has she tidied that?’ he muttered.

He crossed to where it hung in one corner, opened the door, and looked at the rows of pots and bottles. One he knew well had been stained — had been left with a broken stopper . . . a bottle of a peculiar, ugly look, holding a yellow liquid that stained linen purple.

Such a stain, very tiny, had been on Jane Sekforde’s pillow.

As he stared into the cupboard he saw that the bottle had been cleaned and set in its place, while a new, neat label had been pasted on the front.

The writing was the writing of Jane Sekforde — it said in clear letters, ‘Poison.’

Beau Sekforde dropped the candle and ran into the Countess’s room.

‘Wake up!’ he shouted. ‘Wake up and hear me! She has come back.

I want to confess. I murdered her! Let them take me away . . . somewhere where — where she cannot tidy for me.’

The room was empty of the Countess, who had fled; an unnatural light came from the unshuttered windows and showed a woman sitting up in the great bed.

She had a pale, shrewish face, a grey garment on, and a scratch across her cheek.

As the shrieks of Beau Sekforde’s confession echoed into the night and drew the watch to thunder on the door, the woman smiled.

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