Lady Jane Lynke was unlike other people: when she heard that she had inherited Bells, the beautiful old place which had belonged to the Lynkes of Thudeney for something like six hundred years, the fancy took her to go and see it unannounced. She was staying at a friend’s near by, in Kent, and the next morning she borrowed a motor and slipped away alone to Thudeney–Blazes, the adjacent village.
It was a lustrous motionless day. Autumn bloom lay on the Sussex downs, on the heavy trees of the weald, on streams moving indolently, far off across the marshes. Farther still, Dungeness, a fitful streak, floated on an immaterial sky which was perhaps, after all, only sky.
In the softness Thudeney–Blazes slept: a few aged houses bowed about a duck-pond, a silvery spire, orchards thick with dew. Did Thudeney–Blazes ever wake?
Lady Jane left the motor to the care of the geese on a miniature common, pushed open a white gate into a field (the griffoned portals being padlocked), and struck across the park toward a group of carved chimney-stacks. No one seemed aware of her.
In a dip of the land, the long low house, its ripe brick masonry overhanging a moat deeply sunk about its roots, resembled an aged cedar spreading immemorial red branches. Lady Jane held her breath and gazed.
A silence distilled from years of solitude lay on lawns and gardens. No one had lived at Bells since the last Lord Thudeney, then a penniless younger son, had forsaken it sixty years before to seek his fortune in Canada. And before that, he and his widowed mother, distant poor relations, were housed in one of the lodges, and the great place, even in their day, had been as mute and solitary as the family vault.
Lady Jane, daughter of another branch, to which an earldom and considerable possessions had accrued, had never seen Bells, hardly heard its name. A succession of deaths, and the whim of an old man she had never known, now made her heir to all this beauty; and as she stood and looked she was glad she had come to it from so far, from impressions so remote and different. “It would be dreadful to be used to it — to be thinking already about the state of the roof, or the cost of a heating system.”
Till this her thirty-fifth year, Lady Jane had led an active, independent and decided life. One of several daughters, moderately but sufficiently provided for, she had gone early from home, lived in London lodgings, travelled in tropic lands, spent studious summers in Spain and Italy, and written two or three brisk business-like little books about cities usually dealt with sentimentally. And now, just back from a summer in the south of France, she stood ankle deep in wet bracken, and gazed at Bells lying there under a September sun that looked like moonlight.
“I shall never leave it!” she ejaculated, her heart swelling as if she had taken the vow to a lover.
She ran down the last slope of the park and entered the faded formality of gardens with clipped yews as ornate as architecture, and holly hedges as solid as walls. Adjoining the house rose a low deep-buttressed chapel. Its door was ajar, and she thought this of good augury: her forebears were waiting for her. In the porch she remarked fly-blown notices of services, an umbrella stand, a dishevelled door-mat: no doubt the chapel served as the village church. The thought gave her a sense of warmth and neighbourliness. Across the damp flags of the chancel, monuments and brasses showed through a traceried screen. She examined them curiously. Some hailed her with vocal memories, others whispered out of the remote and the unknown: it was a shame to know so little about her own family. But neither Crofts nor Lynkes had ever greatly distinguished themselves; they had gathered substance simply by holding on to what they had, and slowly accumulating privileges and acres. “Mostly by clever marriages,” Lady Jane thought with a faint contempt.
At that moment her eyes lit on one of the less ornate monuments: a plain sarcophagus of gray marble niched in the wall and surmounted by the bust of a young man with a fine arrogant head, a Byronic throat and tossed-back curls.
“Peregrine Vincent Theobald Lynke, Baron Clouds, fifteenth Viscount Thudeney of Bells, Lord of the Manors of Thudeney, Thudeney–Blazes, Upper Lynke, Lynke–Linnet — ” so it ran, with the usual tedious enumeration of honours, titles, court and county offices, ending with; “Born on May 1st, 1790, perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828.” And underneath, in small cramped characters, as if crowded as an afterthought into an insufficient space: “Also His Wife.”
That was all. No name, dates, honours, epithets, for the Viscountess Thudeney. Did she too die of the plague at Aleppo? Or did the “also” imply her actual presence in the sarcophagus which her husband’s pride had no doubt prepared for his own last sleep, little guessing that some Syrian drain was to receive him? Lady Jane racked her memory in vain. All she knew was that the death without issue of this Lord Thudeney had caused the property to revert to the Croft–Lynkes, and so, in the end, brought her to the chancel step where, shyly, she knelt a moment, vowing to the dead to carry on their trust.
She passed on to the entrance court, and stood at last at the door of her new home, a blunt tweed figure in heavy mud-stained shoes. She felt as intrusive as a tripper, and her hand hesitated on the door-bell. “I ought to have brought some one with me,” she thought; an odd admission on the part of a young woman who, when she was doing her books of travel, had prided herself on forcing single-handed the most closely guarded doors. But those other places, as she looked back, seemed easy and accessible compared to Bells.
She rang, and a tinkle answered, carried on by a flurried echo which seemed to ask what in the world was happening. Lady Jane, through the nearest window, caught the spectral vista of a long room with shrouded furniture. She could not see its farther end, but she had the feeling that someone stationed there might very well be seeing her.
“Just at first,” she thought, “I shall have to invite people here — to take the chill off.”
She rang again, and the tinkle again prolonged itself; but no one came.
At last she reflected that the care-takers probably lived at the back of the house, and pushing open a door in the court-yard wall she worked her way around to what seemed a stable-yard. Against the purple brick sprawled a neglected magnolia, bearing one late flower as big as a planet. Lady Jane rang at a door marked “Service.” This bell, though also languid, had a wakefuller sound, as if it were more used to being rung, and still knew what was likely to follow; and after a delay during which Lady Jane again had the sense of being peered at — from above, through a lowered blind — a bolt shot, and a woman looked out. She was youngish, unhealthy, respectable and frightened; and she blinked at Lady Jane like someone waking out of sleep.
“Oh,” said Lady Jane — “do you think I might visit the house?”
“I’m staying near here — I’m interested in old houses. Mightn’t I take a look?”
The young woman drew back. “The house isn’t shown.”
“Oh, but not to — not to — ” Jane weighed the case. “You see,” she explained, “I know some of the family: the Northumberland branch.”
“You’re related, madam?”
“Well — distantly, yes.” It was exactly what she had not meant to say; but there seemed no other way.
The woman twisted her apron-strings in perplexity.
“Come, you know,” Lady Jane urged, producing half-a-crown. The woman turned pale.
“I couldn’t, madam; not without asking.” It was clear that she was sorely tempted.
“Well, ask, won’t you?” Lady Jane pressed the tip into a hesitating hand. The young woman shut the door and vanished. She was away so long that the visitor concluded her half-crown had been pocketed, and there was an end; and she began to be angry with herself, which was more often her habit than to be so with others.
“Well, for a fool, Jane, you’re a complete one,” she grumbled.
A returning footstep, listless, reluctant — the tread of one who was not going to let her in. It began to be rather comic.
The door opened, and the young woman said in her dull sing-song: “Mr. Jones says that no one is allowed to visit the house.”
She and Lady Jane looked at each other for a moment, and Lady Jane read the apprehension in the other’s eyes.
“Mr. Jones? Oh? — Yes; of course, keep it . . . ” She waved away the woman’s hand.
“Thank you, madam.” The door closed again, and Lady Jane stood and gazed up at the inexorable face of her old home.
“But you didn’t get in? You actually came back without so much as a peep?”
Her story was received, that evening at dinner, with mingled mirth and incredulity.
“But, my dear! You mean to say you asked to see the house, and they wouldn’t let you? WHO wouldn’t?” Lady Jane’s hostess insisted.
“He said no one was allowed to visit it.”
“Who on earth is Mr. Jones?”
“The care-taker, I suppose. I didn’t see him.”
“Didn’t see him either? But I never heard such nonsense! Why in the world didn’t you insist?”
“Yes; why didn’t you?” they all chorused; and she could only answer, a little lamely: “I think I was afraid.”
“Afraid? YOU, darling?” There was fresh hilarity. “Of Mr. Jones?”
“I suppose so.” She joined in the laugh, yet she knew it was true: she had been afraid.
Edward Stramer, the novelist, an old friend of her family, had been listening with an air of abstraction, his eyes on his empty coffee-cup. Suddenly, as the mistress of the house pushed back her chair, he looked across the table at Lady Jane. “It’s odd: I’ve just remembered something. Once, when I was a youngster, I tried to see Bells; over thirty years ago it must have been.” He glanced at his host. “Your mother drove me over. And we were not let in.”
There was a certain flatness in this conclusion, and someone remarked that Bells had always been known as harder to get into than any house thereabouts.
“Yes,” said Stramer; “but the point is that we were refused in exactly the same words. Mr. Jones said no one was allowed to visit the house.”
“Ah — he was in possession already? Thirty years ago? Unsociable fellow, Jones. Well, Jane, you’ve got a good watch-dog.”
They moved to the drawing-room, and the talk drifted to other topics. But Stramer came and sat down beside Lady Jane. “It is queer, though, that at such a distance of time we should have been given exactly the same answer.”
She glanced up at him curiously. “Yes; and you didn’t try to force your way in either?”
“Oh no: it was not possible.”
“So I felt,” she agreed.
“Well, next week, my dear, I hope we shall see it all, in spite of Mr. Jones,” their hostess intervened, catching their last words as she moved toward the piano.
“I wonder if we shall see Mr. Jones,” said Stramer.
Bells was not nearly as large as it looked; like many old houses it was very narrow, and but one storey high, with servant’s rooms in the low attics, and much space wasted in crooked passages and superfluous stairs. If she closed the great saloon, Jane thought, she might live there comfortably with the small staff which was the most she could afford. It was a relief to find the place less important than she had feared.
For already, in that first hour of arrival, she had decided to give up everything else for Bells. Her previous plans and ambitions — except such as might fit in with living there — had fallen from her like a discarded garment, and things she had hardly thought about, or had shrugged away with the hasty subversiveness of youth, were already laying quiet hands on her; all the lives from which her life had issued, with what they bore of example or admonishment. The very shabbiness of the house moved her more than splendours, made it, after its long abandonment, seem full of the careless daily coming and going of people long dead, people to whom it had not been a museum, or a page of history, but cradle, nursery, home, and sometimes, no doubt, a prison. If those marble lips in the chapel could speak! If she could hear some of their comments on the old house which had spread its silent shelter over their sins and sorrows, their follies and submissions! A long tale, to which she was about to add another chapter, subdued and humdrum beside some of those earlier annals, yet probably freer and more varied than the unchronicled lives of the great-aunts and great-grandmothers buried there so completely that they must hardly have known when they passed from their beds to their graves. “Piled up like dead leaves,” Jane thought, “layers and layers of them, to preserve something forever budding underneath.”
Well, all these piled-up lives had at least preserved the old house in its integrity; and that was worth while. She was satisfied to carry on such a trust.
She sat in the garden looking up at those rosy walls, iridescent with damp and age. She decided which windows should be hers, which rooms given to the friends from Kent who were motoring over, Stramer among them, for a modest house-warming; then she got up and went in.
The hour had come for domestic questions; for she had arrived alone, unsupported even by the old family housemaid her mother had offered her. She preferred to start afresh, convinced that her small household could be staffed from the neighbourhood. Mrs. Clemm, the rosy-cheeked old person who had curtsied her across the threshold, would doubtless know.
Mrs. Clemm, summoned to the library, curtsied again. She wore black silk, gathered and spreading as to skirt, flat and perpendicular as to bodice. On her glossy false front was a black lace cap with ribbons which had faded from violet to ash-colour, and a heavy watch-chain descended from the lava brooch under her crochet collar. Her small round face rested on the collar like a red apple on a white plate: neat, smooth, circular, with a pursed-up mouth, eyes like black seeds, and round ruddy cheeks with the skin so taut that one had to look close to see that it was as wrinkled as a piece of old crackly.
Mrs. Clemm was sure there would be no trouble about servants. She herself could do a little cooking: though her hand might be a bit out. But there was her niece to help; and she was quite of her ladyship’s opinion, that there was no need to get in strangers. They were mostly a poor lot; and besides, they might not take to Bells. There were persons who didn’t. Mrs. Clemm smiled a sharp little smile, like the scratch of a pin, as she added that she hoped her ladyship wouldn’t be one of them.
As for under-servants . . . well, a boy, perhaps? She had a great-nephew she might send for. But about women — under-housemaids — if her ladyship thought they couldn’t manage as they were; well, she really didn’t know. Thudeney–Blazes? Oh, she didn’t think so . . . There was more dead than living at Thudeney–Blazes . . . everyone was leaving there . . . or in the church-yard . . . one house after another being shut . . . death was everywhere, wasn’t it, my lady? Mrs. Clemm said it with another of her short sharp smiles, which provoked the appearance of a frosty dimple.
“But my niece Georgiana is a hard worker, my lady; her that let you in the other day . . . ”
“That didn’t,” Lady Jane corrected.
“Oh, my lady, it was too unfortunate. If only your ladyship had have said . . . poor Georgiana had ought to have seen; but she never DID have her wits about her, not for answering the door.”
“But she was only obeying orders. She went to ask Mr. Jones.”
Mrs. Clemm was silent. Her small hands, wrinkled and resolute, fumbled with the folds of her apron, and her quick eyes made the circuit of the room and then came back to Lady Jane’s.
“Just so, my lady; but, as I told her, she’d ought to have known — ”
“And who is Mr. Jones?”
Mrs. Clemm’s smile snapped out again, deprecating, respectful. “Well, my lady, he’s more dead than living, too . . . if I may say so,” was her surprising answer.
“Is he? I’m sorry to hear that; but who is he?”
“Well, my lady, he’s . . . he’s my great-uncle, as it were . . . my grandmother’s own brother, as you might say.”
“Ah; I see.” Lady Jane considered her with growing curiosity. “He must have reached a great age, then.”
“Yes, my lady; he has that. Though I’m not,” Mrs. Clemm added, the dimple showing, “as old myself as your ladyship might suppose. Living at Bells all these years has been ageing to me; it would be to anybody.”
“I suppose so. And yet,” Lady Jane continued, “Mr. Jones has survived; has stood it well — as you certainly have?”
“Oh. Not as well as I have,” Mrs. Clemm interjected, as if resentful of the comparison.
“At any rate, he still mounts guard; mounts it as well as he did thirty years ago.”
“Thirty years ago?” Mrs. Clemm echoed, her hands dropping from her apron to her sides.
“Wasn’t he here thirty years ago?”
“Oh, yes, my lady; certainly; he’s never once been away that I know of.”
“What a wonderful record! And what exactly are his duties?”
Mrs. Clemm paused again, her hands still motionless in the folds of her skirt. Lady Jane noticed that the fingers were tightly clenched, as if to check an involuntary gesture.
“He began as pantry-boy; then footman; then butler, my lady; but it’s hard to say, isn’t it, what an old servant’s duties are, when he’s stayed on in the same house so many years?”
“Yes; and that house always empty.”
“Just so, my lady. Everything came to depend on him; one thing after another. His late lordship thought the world of him.”
“His late lordship? But he was never here! He spent all his life in Canada.”
Mrs. Clemm seemed slightly disconcerted. “Certainly, my lady.” (Her voice said: “Who are you, to set me right as to the chronicles of Bells?”) “But by letter, my lady; I can show you the letters. And there was his lordship before, the sixteenth Viscount. He DID come here once.”
“Ah, did he?” Lady Jane was embarrassed to find how little she knew of them all. She rose from her seat. “They were lucky, all these absentees, to have some one to watch over their interests so faithfully. I should like to see Mr. Jones — to thank him. Will you take me to him now?”
“Now?” Mrs. Clemm moved back a step or two; Lady Jane fancied her cheeks paled a little under their ruddy varnish. “Oh, not today, my lady.”
“Why? Isn’t he well enough?”
“Not nearly. He’s between life and death, as it were,” Mrs. Clemm repeated, as if the phrase were the nearest approach she could find to a definition of Mr. Jones’s state.
“He wouldn’t even know who I was?”
Mrs. Clemm considered a moment. “I don’t say THAT, my lady;” her tone implied that to do so might appear disrespectful. “He’d know you, my lady; but you wouldn’t know HIM.” She broke off and added hastily: “I mean, for what he is: he’s in no state for you to see him.”
“He’s so very ill? Poor man! And is everything possible being done?”
“Oh, everything; and more too, my lady. But perhaps,” Mrs. Clemm suggested, with a clink of keys, “this would be a good time for your ladyship to take a look about the house. If your ladyship has no objection, I should like to begin with the linen.”
“And Mr. Jones?” Stramer queried, a few days later, as they sat, Lady Jane and the party from Kent, about an improvised tea-table in a recess of one of the great holly-hedges.
The day was as hushed and warm as that on which she had first come to Bells, and Lady Jane looked up with a smile of ownership at the old walls which seemed to smile back, the windows which now looked at her with friendly eyes.
“Mr. Jones? Who’s Mr. Jones?” the others asked; only Stramer recalled their former talk.
Lady Jane hesitated. “Mr. Jones is my invisible guardian; or rather, the guardian of Bells.”
They remembered then. “Invisible? You don’t mean to say you haven’t seen him yet?”
“Not yet; perhaps I never shall. He’s very old — and very ill, I’m afraid.”
“And he still rules here?”
“Oh, absolutely. The fact is,” Lady Jane added “I believe he’s the only person left who really knows all about Bells.”
“Jane, my DEAR! That big shrub over there against the wall! I verily believe it’s Templetonia retusa. It IS! Did any one ever hear of it standing an English winter?” Gardeners all, they dashed towards the shrub in its sheltered angle. “I shall certainly try it on a south wall at Dipway,” cried the hostess from Kent.
Tea over, they moved on to inspect the house. The short autumn day was drawing to a close; but the party had been able to come only for an afternoon, instead of staying over the week-end, and having lingered so long in the gardens they had only time, indoors, to puzzle out what they could through the shadows. Perhaps, Lady Jane thought, it was the best hour to see a house like Bells, so long abandoned, and not yet warmed into new life.
The fire she had had lit in the saloon sent its radiance to meet them, giving the great room an air of expectancy and welcome. The portraits, the Italian cabinets, the shabby armchairs and rugs, all looked as if life had but lately left them; and Lady Jane said to herself: “Perhaps Mrs. Clemm is right in advising me to live here and close the blue parlour.”
“My dear, what a fine room! Pity it faces north. Of course you’ll have to shut it in winter. It would cost a fortune to heat.”
Lady Jane hesitated. “I don’t know: I HAD meant to. But there seems to be no other . . . ”
“No other? In all this house?” They laughed; and one of the visitors, going ahead and crossing a panelled anteroom, cried out: “But here! A delicious room; windows south — yes, and west. The warmest of the house. This is perfect.”
They followed, and the blue room echoed with exclamations. “Those charming curtains with the parrots . . . and the blue of that petit point fire-screen! But, Jane, of course you must live here. Look at this citron-wood desk!”
Lady Jane stood on the threshold. “It seems that the chimney smokes hopelessly.”
“Hopelessly? Nonsense! Have you consulted anybody? I’ll send you a wonderful man . . . ”
“Besides, if you put in one of those one-pipe heaters . . . At Dipway . . . ”
Stramer was looking over Lady Jane’s shoulder. “What does Mr. Jones say about it?”
“He says no one has ever been able to use this room; not for ages. It was the housekeeper who told me. She’s his great-niece, and seems simply to transmit his oracles.”
Stramer shrugged. “Well, he’s lived at Bells longer than you have. Perhaps he’s right.”
“How absurd!” one of the ladies cried. “The housekeeper and Mr. Jones probably spend their evenings here, and don’t want to be disturbed. Look — ashes on the hearth! What did I tell you?”
Lady Jane echoed the laugh as they turned away. They had still to see the library, damp and dilapidated, the panelled dining-room, the breakfast-parlour, and such bedrooms as had any old furniture left; not many, for the late lords of Bells, at one time or another, had evidently sold most of its removable treasures.
When the visitors came down their motors were waiting. A lamp had been placed in the hall, but the rooms beyond were lit only by the broad clear band of western sky showing through uncurtained casements. On the doorstep one of the ladies exclaimed that she had lost her hand-bag — no, she remembered; she had laid it on the desk in the blue room. Which way was the blue room?
“I’ll get it,” Jane said, turning back. She heard Stramer following. He asked if he should bring the lamp.
“Oh, no; I can see.”
She crossed the threshold of the blue room, guided by the light from its western window; then she stopped. Some one was in the room already; she felt rather than saw another presence. Stramer, behind her, paused also; he did not speak or move. What she saw, or thought she saw, was simply an old man with bent shoulders turning away from the citron-wood desk. Almost before she had received the impression there was no one there; only the slightest stir of the needlework curtain over the farther door. She heard no step or other sound.
“There’s the bag,” she said, as if the act of speaking, and saying something obvious were a relief.
In the hall her glance crossed Stramer’s, but failed to find there the reflection of what her own had registered.
He shook hands, smiling. “Well, goodbye. I commit you to Mr. Jones’s care; only don’t let him say that YOU’RE not shown to visitors.”
She smiled: “Come back and try,” and then shivered a little as the lights of the last motor vanished beyond the great black hedges.
Lady Jane had exulted in her resolve to keep Bells to herself till she and the old house should have had time to make friends. But after a few days she recalled the uneasy felling which had come over her as she stood on the threshold after her first tentative ring. Yes; she had been right in thinking she would have to have people about her to take the chill off. The house was too old, too mysterious, too much withdrawn into its own secret past, for her poor little present to fit into it without uneasiness.
But it was not a time of year when, among Lady Jane’s friends, it was easy to find people free. Her own family were all in the north, and impossible to dislodge. One of her sisters, when invited, simply sent her back a list of shooting-dates; and her mother wrote: “Why not come to us? What can you have to do all alone in that empty house at this time of year? Next summer we’re all coming.”
Having tried one or two friends with the same result, Lady Jane bethought her of Stramer. He was finishing a novel, she knew, and at such times he liked to settle down somewhere in the country where he could be sure of not being disturbed. Bells was a perfect asylum, and though it was probable that some other friend had anticipated her, and provided the requisite seclusion, Lady Jane decided to invite him. “Do bring your work and stay till it’s finished — and don’t be in a hurry to finish. I promise that no one shall bother you — ” and she added, half-nervously: “Not even Mr. Jones.” As she wrote she felt an absurd impulse to blot the words out. “He might not like it,” she thought; and the “he” did not refer to Stramer.
Was the solitude already making her superstitious? She thrust the letter into an envelope, and carried it herself to the post-office at Thudeney–Blazes. Two days later a wire from Stramer announced his arrival.
He came on a cold stormy afternoon, just before dinner, and as they went up to dress Lady Jane called after him: “We shall sit in the blue parlour this evening.” The housemaid Georgiana was crossing the passage with hot water for the visitor. She stopped and cast a vacant glance at Lady Jane. The latter met it, and said carelessly: “You hear Georgiana? The fire in the blue parlour.”
While Lady Jane was dressing she heard a knock, and saw Mrs. Clemm’s round face just inside the door, like a red apple on a garden wall.
“Is there anything wrong about the saloon, my lady? Georgiana understood — ”
“That I want the fire in the blue parlour. Yes. What’s wrong with the saloon is that one freezes there.”
“But the chimney smokes in the blue parlour.”
“Well, we’ll give it a trial, and if it does I’ll send for some one to arrange it.”
“Nothing can be done, my lady. Everything has been tried, and — ”
Lady Jane swung about suddenly. She had heard Stramer singing a cheerful hunting-song in a cracked voice, in his dressing-room at the other end of the corridor.
“That will do, Mrs. Clemm. I want the fire in the blue parlour.”
“Yes, my lady.” The door closed on the housekeeper.
“So you decided on the saloon after all?” Stramer said, as Lady Jane led the way there after their brief repast.
“Yes, I hope you won’t be frozen. Mr. Jones swears that the chimney in the blue parlour isn’t safe; so, until I can fetch the mason over from Strawbridge — ”
“Oh, I see.” Stramer drew up to the blaze in the great fire-place. “We’re very well off here; though heating this room is going to be ruinous. Meanwhile, I note that Mr. Jones still rules.”
Lady Jane gave a slight laugh.
“Tell me,” Stramer continued, as she bent over the mixing of the Turkish coffee, “what is there about him? I’m getting curious.”
Lady Jane laughed again, and heard the embarrassment in her laugh. “So am I.”
“Why — you don’t mean to say you haven’t seen him yet?”
“No. He’s still too ill.”
“What’s the matter with him? What does the doctor say?”
“He won’t see the doctor.”
“But, look here — if things take a worse turn — I don’t know; but mightn’t you be held to have been negligent?”
“What can I do? Mrs. Clemm says he has a doctor who treats him by correspondence. I don’t see that I can interfere.”
“Isn’t there some one beside Mrs. Clemm whom you can consult?”
She considered: certainly, as yet, she had not made much effort to get into relation with her neighbours. “I expected the vicar to call. But I’ve enquired: there’s no vicar any longer at Thudeney–Blazes. A curate comes from Strawbridge every other Sunday. And the one who comes now is new: nobody about the place seems to know him.”
“But I thought the chapel here was in use? It looked so when you showed it to us the other day.”
“I thought so too. It used to be the parish church of Lynke–Linnet and Lower–Lynke; but it seems that was years ago. The parishioners objected to coming so far; and there weren’t enough of them. Mrs. Clemm says that nearly everybody has died off or left. It’s the same at Thudeney–Blazes.”
Stramer glanced about the great room, with its circle of warmth and light by the hearth, and the sullen shadows huddled at its farther end, as if hungrily listening. “With this emptiness at the centre, life was bound to cease gradually on the outskirts.”
Lady Jane followed his glance. “Yes; it’s all wrong. I must try to wake the place up.”
“Why not open it to the public? Have a visitors’ day?”
She thought a moment. In itself the suggestion was distasteful; she could imagine few things that would bore her more. Yet to do so might be a duty, a first step toward reestablishing relations between the lifeless house and its neighbourhood. Secretly, she felt that even the coming and going of indifferent unknown people would help to take the chill from those rooms, to brush from their walls the dust of too-heavy memories.
“Who’s that?” asked Stramer. Lady Jane started in spite of herself, and glanced over her shoulder; but he was only looking past her at a portrait which a dart of flame from the hearth had momentarily called from its obscurity.
“That’s a Lady Thudeney.” She got up and went toward the picture with a lamp. “Might be an Opie, don’t you think? It’s a strange face, under the smirk of the period.”
Stramer took the lamp and held it up. The portrait was that of a young woman in a short-waisted muslin gown caught beneath the breast by a cameo. Between clusters of beribboned curls a long fair oval looked out dumbly, inexpressively, in a stare of frozen beauty. “It’s as if the house had been too empty even then,” Lady Jane murmured. “I wonder which she was? Oh, I know: it must be ‘Also His Wife’.”
“It’s the only name on her monument. The wife of Peregrine Vincent Theobald, who perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828. Perhaps she was very fond of him, and this was painted when she was an inconsolable widow.”
“They didn’t dress like that as late as 1828.” Stramer holding the lamp closer, deciphered the inscription on the border of the lady’s India scarf; “Juliana, Viscountess Thudeney, 1818”. “She must have been inconsolable before his death, then.”
Lady Jane smiled. “Let’s hope she grew less so after it.”
Stramer passed the lamp across the canvas. “Do you see where she was painted? In the blue parlour. Look: the old panelling; and she’s leaning on the citron-wood desk. They evidently used the room in winter then.” The lamp paused on the background of the picture: a window framing snow-laden paths and hedges in icy perspective.
“Curious,” Stramer said — “and rather melancholy: to be painted against that wintry desolation. I wish you could find out more about her. Have you dipped into your archives?”
“No. Mr. Jones — ”
“He won’t allow that either?”
“Yes; but he’s lost the key of the muniment-room. Mrs. Clemm has been trying to get a locksmith.”
“Surely the neighbourhood can still produce one?”
“There WAS one at Thudeney–Blazes; but he died the week before I came.”
“Well, in Mrs. Clemm’s hands keys get lost, chimneys smoke, locksmith’s die . . . ” Stramer stood, light in hand, looking down the shadowy length of the saloon. “I say, let’s go and see what’s happening now in the blue parlour.”
Lady Jane laughed: a laugh seemed easy with another voice nearby to echo it. “Let’s — ”
She followed him out of the saloon, across the hall in which a single candle burned on a far-off table, and past the stairway yawning like a black funnel above them. In the doorway of the blue parlour Stramer paused. “Now, then, Mr. Jones!”
It was stupid, but Lady Jane’s heart gave a jerk: she hoped the challenge would not evoke the shadowy figure she had half seen that other day.
“Lord, it’s cold!” Stramer stood looking about him. “Those ashes are still on the hearth. Well, it’s all very queer.” He crossed over to the citron-wood desk. “There’s where she sat for her picture — and in this very arm-chair — look!”
“Oh, don’t!” Lady Jane exclaimed. The words slipped out unawares.
“Don’t — what?”
“Try those drawers — ” she wanted to reply; for his hand was stretched toward the desk.
“I’m frozen; I think I’m starting a cold. Do come away,” she grumbled, backing toward the door.
Stramer lighted her out without comment. As the lamplight slid along the walls Lady Jane fancied that the needle-work curtain over the farther door stirred as it had that other day. But it may have been the wind rising outside . . .
The saloon seemed like home when they got back to it.
“There IS no Mr. Jones!”
Stramer proclaimed it triumphantly when they met the next morning. Lady Jane had motored off early to Strawbridge in quest of a mason and a locksmith. The quest had taken longer than she had expected, for everybody in Strawbridge was busy on jobs nearer by, and unaccustomed to the idea of going to Bells, with which the town seemed to have had no communication within living memory. The younger workmen did not even know where the place was, and the best Lady Jane could do was to coax a locksmith’s apprentice to come with her, on the understanding that he would be driven back to the nearest station as soon as his job was over. As for the mason, he had merely taken note of her request, and promised half-heartedly to send somebody when he could. “Rather off our beat, though.”
She returned, discouraged and somewhat weary, as Stramer was coming downstairs after his morning’s work.
“No Mr. Jones?” she echoed.
“Not a trace! I’ve been trying the old Glamis experiment — situating his room by its window. Luckily the house is smaller . . . ”
Lady Jane smiled. “Is this what you call locking yourself up with your work?”
“I can’t work: that’s the trouble. Not till this is settled. Bells is a fidgety place.”
“Yes,” she agreed.
“Well, I wasn’t going to be beaten; so I went to try to find the head-gardener.”
“But there isn’t — ”
“No. Mrs. Clemm told me. The head-gardener died last year. That woman positively glows with life whenever she announces a death. Have you noticed?”
Yes: Lady Jane had.
“Well — I said to myself that if there wasn’t a head-gardener there must be an underling; at least one. I’d seen somebody in the distance, raking leaves, and I ran him down. Of course he’d never seen Mr. Jones.”
“You mean that poor old half-blind Jacob? He couldn’t see anybody.”
“Perhaps not. At any rate, he told me that Mr. Jones wouldn’t let the leaves be buried for leaf-mould — I forget why. Mr. Jones’s authority extends even to the gardens.”
“Yet you say he doesn’t exist!”
“Wait. Jacob is half-blind, but he’s been here for years, and knows more about the place than you’d think. I got him talking about the house, and I pointed to one window after another, and he told me each time whose the room was, or had been. But he couldn’t situate Mr. Jones.”
“I beg your ladyship’s pardon — ” Mrs. Clemm was on the threshold, cheeks shining, skirt rustling, her eyes like drills. “The locksmith your ladyship brought back; I understand it was for the lock of the muniment-room — ”
“He’s lost one of his tools, and can’t do anything without it. So he’s gone. The butcher’s boy gave him a lift back.”
Lady Jane caught Stramer’s faint chuckle. She stood and stared at Mrs. Clemm, and Mrs. Clemm stared back, deferential but unflinching.
“Gone? Very well; I’ll motor after him.”
“Oh, my lady, it’s too late. The butcher’s boy had his motor-cycle . . . Besides, what could he do?”
“Break the lock,” exclaimed Lady Jane, exasperated.
“Oh, my lady — ” Mrs. Clemm’s intonation marked the most respectful incredulity. She waited another moment, and then withdrew, while Lady Jane and Stramer considered each other.
“But this is absurd,” Lady Jane declared when they had lunched, waited on, as usual, by the flustered Georgiana. “I’ll break in that door myself, if I have to. — Be careful please, Georgiana,” she added; “I was speaking of doors, not dishes.” For Georgiana had let fall with a crash the dish she was removing from the table. She gathered up the pieces in her tremulous fingers, and vanished. Jane and Stramer returned to the saloon.
“Queer!” the novelist commented.
“Yes.” Lady Jane, facing the door, started slightly. Mrs. Clemm was there again; but this time subdued, unrustling, bathed in that odd pallour which enclosed but seemed unable to penetrate the solid crimson of her cheeks.
“I beg pardon, my lady. The key is found.” Her hand, as she held it out, trembled like Georgiana’s.
“It’s not here,” Stramer announced a couple of hours later.
“What isn’t?” Lady Jane queried, looking up from a heap of disordered papers. Her eyes blinked at him through the fog of yellow dust raised by her manipulations.
“The clue. — I’ve got all the 1800 to 1840 papers here; and there’s a gap.”
She moved over to the table above which he was bending. “A gap?”
“A big one. Nothing between 1815 and 1835. No mention of Peregrine or Juliana.”
They looked at each other across the tossed papers, and suddenly Stramer exclaimed: “Some one has been here before us — just lately.”
Lady Jane stared, incredulous, and then followed the direction of his downward pointing hand.
“Do you wear flat heelless shoes?” he questioned.
“And of that size? Even my feet are too small to fit into those foot-prints. Luckily there wasn’t time to sweep the floor!”
Lady Jane felt a slight chill, a chill of a different and more inward quality than the shock of stuffy coldness which had met them as they entered the unaired attic set apart for the storing of the Thudeney archives.
“But how absurd! Of course when Mrs. Clemm found we were coming up she came — or sent some one — to open the shutters.”
“That’s not Mrs. Clemm’s foot, or the other woman’s. She must have sent a man — an old man with a shaky uncertain step. Look how it wanders.”
“Mr. Jones, then!” said Lady Jane, half impatiently.
“Mr. Jones. And he got what he wanted, and put it — where?”
“Ah, THAT—! I’m freezing, you know; let’s give this up for the present.” She rose, and Stramer followed her without protest; the muniment-room was really untenable.
“I must catalogue all this stuff some day, I suppose,” Lady Jane continued, as they went down the stairs. “But meanwhile, what do you say to a good tramp, to get the dust out of our lungs?”
He agreed, and turned back to his room to get some letters he wanted to post at Thudeney–Blazes.
Lady Jane went down alone. It was a fine afternoon, and the sun, which had made the dust-clouds of the muniment-room so dazzling, sent a long shaft through the west window of the blue parlour, and across the floor of the hall.
Certainly Georgiana kept the oak floors remarkably well; considering how much else she had to do, it was surp —
Lady Jane stopped as if an unseen hand had jerked her violently back. On the smooth parquet before her she had caught the trace of dusty foot-prints — the prints of broad-soled heelless shoes — making for the blue parlour and crossing its threshold. She stood still with the same inward shiver that she had felt upstairs; then, avoiding the foot-prints, she too stole very softly toward the blue parlour, pushed the door wider, and saw, in the long dazzle of autumn light, as if translucid, edged with the glitter, an old man at the desk.
A step came up behind her: Mrs. Clemm with the post-bag. “You called, my lady?”
“I . . . yes . . . ”
When she turned back to the desk there was no one there.
She faced about on the housekeeper. “Who was that?”
“Where, my lady?”
Lady Jane, without answering, moved toward the needlework curtain, in which she had detected the same faint tremor as before. “Where does that door go to — behind the curtain?”
“Nowhere, my lady. I mean; there is no door.”
Mrs. Clemm had followed; her step sounded quick and assured. She lifted up the curtain with a firm hand. Behind it was a rectangle of roughly plastered wall, where an opening had visibly been bricked up.
“When was that done?”
“The wall built up? I couldn’t say. I’ve never known it otherwise,” replied the housekeeper.
The two women stood for an instant measuring each other with level eyes; then the housekeeper’s were slowly lowered, and she let the curtain fall from her hand. “There are a great many things in old houses that nobody knows about,” she said.
“There shall be as few as possible in mine,” said Lady Jane.
“My lady!” The housekeeper stepped quickly in front of her. “My lady, what are you doing?” she gasped.
Lady Jane had turned back to the desk at which she had just seen — or fancied she had seen — the bending figure of Mr. Jones.
“I am going to look through these drawers,” she said.
The housekeeper still stood in pale immobility between her and the desk. “No, my lady — no. You won’t do that.”
Mrs. Clemm crumpled up her black silk apron with a despairing gesture. “Because — if you WILL have it — that’s where Mr. Jones keeps his private papers. I know he’d oughtn’t to . . . ”
“Ah — then it was Mr. Jones I saw here?”
The housekeeper’s arms sank to her sides and her mouth hung open on an unspoken word. “You SAW him.” The question came out in a confused whisper; and before Lady Jane could answer, Mrs. Clemm’s arms rose again, stretched before her face as if to fend off a blaze of intolerable light, or some forbidden sight she had long since disciplined herself not to see. Thus screening her eyes she hurried across the hall to the door of the servant’s wing.
Lady Jane stood for a moment looking after her; then, with a slightly shaking hand, she opened the desk and hurriedly took out from it all the papers — a small bundle — that it contained. With them she passed back into the saloon.
As she entered it her eye was caught by the portrait of the melancholy lady in the short-waisted gown, whom she and Stramer had christened “Also His Wife.” The lady’s eyes, usually so empty of all awareness save of her own frozen beauty, seemed suddenly waking to an anguished participation in the scene.
“Fudge!” muttered Lady Jane, shaking off the spectral suggestion as she turned to meet Stramer on the threshold.
The missing papers were all there. Stramer and she spread them out hurriedly on a table and at once proceeded to gloat over their find. Not a particularly important one, indeed; in the long history of the Lynkes and Crofts it took up hardly more space than the little handful of documents did, in actual bulk, among the stacks of the muniment room. But the fact that these papers filled a gap in the chronicles of the house, and situated the sad-faced beauty as veritably the wife of the Peregrine Vincent Theobald Lynke who had “perished of the plague at Aleppo in 1828” — this was a discovery sufficiently exciting to whet amateur appetites, and to put out of Lady Jane’s mind the strange incident which had attended the opening of the cabinet.
For a while she and Stramer sat silently and methodically going through their respective piles of correspondence; but presently Lady Jane, after glancing over one of the yellowing pages, uttered a startled exclamation.
“How strange! Mr. Jones again — always Mr. Jones!”
Stramer looked up from the papers he was sorting. “You too? I’ve got a lot of letters here addressed to a Mr. Jones by Peregrine Vincent, who seems to have been always disporting himself abroad, and chronically in want of money. Gambling debts, apparently . . . ah and women . . . a dirty record altogether . . . ”
“Yes? My letter is not written to a Mr. Jones; but it’s about one. Listen.” Lady Jane began to read. “‘Bells, February 20th, 1826 . . . ’ (It’s from poor ‘Also His Wife’ to her husband.) ‘My dear Lord, Acknowledging as I ever do the burden of the sad impediment which denies me the happiness of being more frequently in your company, I yet fail to conceive how anything in my state obliges that close seclusion in which Mr. Jones persists — and by your express orders, so he declares — in confining me. Surely, my lord, had you found it possible to spend more time with me since the day of our marriage, you would yourself have seen it to be unnecessary to put this restraint upon me. It is true, alas, that my unhappy infirmity denies me the happiness to speak with you, or to hear the accents of the voice I should love above all others could it but reach me; but, my dear husband, I would have you consider that my mind is in no way affected by this obstacle, but goes out to you, as my heart does, in a perpetual eagerness of attention, and that to sit in this great house alone, day after day, month after month, deprived of your company, and debarred also from any intercourse but that of the servants you have chosen to put about me, is a fate more cruel than I deserve and more painful than I can bear. I have entreated Mr. Jones, since he seems all-powerful with you, to represent this to you, and to transmit this my last request — for should I fail I am resolved to make no other — that you should consent to my making the acquaintance of a few of your friends and neighbours, among whom I cannot but think there must be some kind hearts that would take pity on my unhappy situation, and afford me such companionship as would give me more courage to bear your continual absence . . . ”
Lady Jane folded up the letter. “Deaf and dumb — ah, poor creature! That explains the look — ”
“And this explains the marriage,” Stramer continued, unfolding a stiff parchment document. “Here are the Viscountess Thudeney’s marriage settlements. She appears to have been a Miss Portallo, daughter of Obadiah Portallo Esquire, of Purflew Castle, Caermarthenshire, and Bombay House, Twickenham, East India merchant, senior member of the banking house of Portallo and Prest — and so on and so on. And the figures run up into hundreds of thousands.”
“It’s rather ghastly — putting the two things together. All the millions and — imprisonment in the blue parlour. I suppose her Viscount had to have the money, and was ashamed to have it known how he had got it . . . ” Lady Jane shivered. “Think of it — day after day, winter after winter, year after year . . . speechless, soundless, alone . . . under Mr. Jones’s guardianship. Let me see: what year were they married?”
“And only a year later that portrait was painted. And she had the frozen look already.”
Stramer mused: “Yes; it’s grim enough. But the strangest figure in the whole case is still — Mr. Jones.”
“Mr. Jones — yes. Her keeper,” Lady Jane mused “I suppose he must have been this one’s ancestor. The office seems to have been hereditary at Bells.”
“Well — I don’t know.”
Stramer’s voice was so odd that Lady Jane looked up at him with a stare of surprise. “What if it were the same one?” suggested Stramer with a queer smile.
“The same?” Lady Jane laughed. “You’re not good at figures are you? If poor Lady Thudeney’s Mr. Jones were alive now he’d be — ”
“I didn’t say ours was alive now,” said Stramer.
“Oh — why, what . . .?” she faltered.
But Stramer did not answer; his eyes had been arrested by the precipitate opening of the door behind his hostess, and the entry of Georgiana, a livid, dishevelled Georgiana, more than usually bereft of her faculties, and gasping out something inarticulate.
“Oh, my lady — it’s my aunt — she won’t answer me,” Georgiana stammered in a voice of terror.
Lady Jane uttered an impatient exclamation. “Answer you? Why — what do you want her to answer?”
“Only whether she’s alive, my lady,” said Georgiana with streaming eyes.
Lady Jane continued to look at her severely. “Alive? Alive? Why on earth shouldn’t she be?”
“She might as well be dead — by the way she just lies there.”
“Your aunt dead? I saw her alive enough in the blue parlour half an hour ago,” Lady Jane returned. She was growing rather blase with regard to Georgiana’s panics; but suddenly she felt this to be of a different nature from any of the others. “Where is it your aunt’s lying?”
“In her own bedroom, on her bed,” the other wailed, “and won’t say why.”
Lady Jane got to her feet, pushing aside the heaped-up papers, and hastening to the door with Stramer in her wake.
As they went up the stairs she realized that she had seen the housekeeper’s bedroom only once, on the day of her first obligatory round of inspection, when she had taken possession of Bells. She did not even remember very clearly where it was, but followed Georgiana down the passage and through a door which communicated, rather surprisingly, with a narrow walled-in staircase that was unfamiliar to her. At its top she and Stramer found themselves on a small landing upon which two doors opened. Through the confusion of her mind Lady Jane noticed that these rooms, with their special staircase leading down to what had always been called his lordship’s suite, must obviously have been occupied by his lordship’s confidential servants. In one of them, presumably, had been lodged the original Mr. Jones, the Mr. Jones of the yellow letters, the letters purloined by Lady Jane. As she crossed the threshold, Lady Jane remembered the housekeeper’s attempt to prevent her touching the contents of the desk.
Mrs. Clemm’s room, like herself, was neat, glossy and extremely cold. Only Mrs. Clemm herself was no longer like Mrs. Clemm. The red-apple glaze had barely faded from her cheeks, and not a lock was disarranged in the unnatural lustre of her false front; even her cap ribbons hung symmetrically along either cheek. But death had happened to her, and had made her into someone else. At first glance it was impossible to say if the unspeakable horror in her wide-open eyes were only the reflection of that change, or of the agent by whom it had come. Lady Jane, shuddering, paused a moment while Stramer went up to the bed.
“Her hand is warm still — but no pulse.” He glanced about the room. “A glass anywhere?” The cowering Georgiana took a hand-glass from the neat chest of drawers, and Stramer held it over the housekeeper’s drawn-back lip . . .
“She’s dead,” he pronounced.
“Oh, poor thing! But how —?” Lady Jane drew near, and was kneeling down, taking the inanimate hand in hers, when Stramer touched her on the arm, then silently raised a finger of warning. Georgiana was crouching in the farther corner of the room, her face buried in her lifted arms.
“Look here,” Stramer whispered. He pointed to Mrs. Clemm’s throat, and Lady Jane, bending over, distinctly saw a circle of red marks on it — the marks of recent bruises. She looked again into the awful eyes.
“She’s been strangled,” Stramer whispered.
Lady Jane, with a shiver of fear, drew down the housekeeper’s lids. Goergiana, her face hidden, was still sobbing convulsively in the corner. There seemed, in the air of the cold orderly room, something that forbade wonderment and silenced conjecture. Lady Jane and Stramer stood and looked at each other without speaking. At length Stramer crossed over to Georgiana, and touched her on the shoulder. She appeared unaware of the touch, and he grasped her shoulder and shook it. “Where is Mr. Jones?” he asked.
The girl looked up, her face blurred and distorted with weeping, her eyes dilated as if with the vision of some latent terror. “Oh, sir, she’s not really dead, is she?”
Stramer repeated his question in a loud authoritative tone; and slowly she echoed it in a scarce-heard whisper. “Mr. Jones —?”
“Get up, my girl, and send him here to us at once, or tell us where to find him.”
Georgiana, moved by the old habit of obedience, struggled to her feet and stood unsteadily, her heaving shoulders braced against the wall. Stramer asked her sharply if she had not heard what he had said.
“Oh, poor thing, she’s so upset — ” Lady Jane intervened compassionately. “Tell me, Georgiana: where shall we find Mr. Jones?”
The girl turned to her with eyes as fixed as the dead woman’s. “You won’t find him a anywhere,” she slowly said.
“Because he’s not here.”
“Not here? Where is he, then?” Stramer broke in.
Georgiana did not seem to notice the interruption. She continued to stare at Lady Jane with Mrs. Clemm’s awful eyes. “He’s in his grave in the church-yard — these years and years he is. Long before ever I was born . . . my aunt hadn’t ever seen him herself, not since she was a tiny child . . . That’s the terror of it . . . that’s why she always had to do what he told her to . . . because you couldn’t ever answer him back . . . ” Her horrified gaze turned from Lady Jane to the stony face and fast-glazing pupils of the dead woman. “You hadn’t ought to have meddled with his papers, my lady . . . That’s what he’s punished her for . . . When it came to those papers he wouldn’t ever listen to human reason . . . he wouldn’t . . . ” Then, flinging her arms above her head, Georgiana straightened herself to her full height before falling in a swoon at Stramer’s feet.
This web edition published by:
The University of Adelaide Library
University of Adelaide
South Australia 5005
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15