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Chapter Five (a)

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« on: September 07, 2023, 11:32:49 am »

MISS Columba announced Miss Silver’s forthcoming arrival at the evening meal which everyone except Miss Janetta and Robbins now called supper. That is to say, in reply to Roger’s jerky “When are you expecting your friend Miss Silver?” she produced the single word “Tomorrow.”

There was immediately a slight domestic stir. Lona Day looked up as if she were going to speak, and then down again. Miss Netta turned upon her sister with a flounce of heliotrope silk.

“Your friend Miss Silver? I’ve never heard of her. Who is she?”

It was Roger who supplied the answer. “An old schoolfellow. I met her in town. She wanted to get down into the country for a bit, so I asked her here.” He crumbled a bit of bread with a nervous hand, whilst Judy pricked up her ears, and thought what wasteful creatures men were.

“Schoolfellow?” said Miss Netta in an exasperated voice. “My dear Roger! Collie, who is this person, and why haven’t I ever heard of her?”

Miss Columba continued to eat fish in a perfectly collected manner. In contrast to her sister’s bright rustling silk she herself wore a voluminous garment of tobacco-coloured woollen material which had once been an afternoon dress. It was still warm, and nothing would have induced her to part with it. She said, “I suppose she would be about my age. She has been a governess.”

After which she went on eating fish.

Later, in the morning-room, used instead of the big drawing-room because it was so much easier to warm, Lona Day said to Judy what she had stopped herself saying at the table.

“I do wish he hadn’t asked anyone else down just now. Of course I can’t say anything---or at least I don’t like to. I don’t know Roger so well as the rest of the family, but it isn’t---no, it really isn’t good for Captain Pilgrim.”

Judy thought, “How odd---she says she doesn’t know Roger, but she calls him by his name, and she talks about Jerome as Captain Pilgrim. If there’s anyone in the world she must know inside out, it’s him. Of course he’s older than Roger, and so is she. I wonder how old she is---thirty-fivish? She ought always to wear black velvet.”

Here she had to repress a giggle at the idea of all the things a nurse has to do. It petered out, because the likeness which had bothered her on her first evening came sharply to her mind, and this time she caught it. Lona Day in a long black velvet housecoat, with her auburn hair taken loosely back off her forehead, bore a quite undeniable resemblance to the portraits of Mary Queen of Scots. There was the look in the eyes, the look that charmed. There was the warm and winning way. Of course, she ought to have had a ruff, and one of those entrancing little caps, or a Scots bonnet with a feather at the side. Judy found the idea so beguiling that she lost everything except Lona’s voice flowing on in a rich undertone.

When she came to, Miss Day was saying, “I know he likes to have her, and I hate to deprive him of the least pleasure, but I can’t help feeling anxious. You do understand, don’t you?”

Judy hadn’t the faintest idea what she was talking about, and hoped for a gleam of light. It came.

“She is such a darling child, but I do feel perhaps it would be wiser if you could keep her out of his room.”

“But, Miss Day, he loves having her, and honestly, I think it is doing him good.”

“I know. But he really does have to be kept very quiet. Those stories he tells her---I’m afraid of the effect it may have on him. You see, he used to write. I’m afraid of his wanting to start doing it again.”

“Why shouldn’t he? I should have thought it would be a very good thing.”

Lona shook her head. “I’m afraid not---too exciting. That is what we have to avoid at any cost---he mustn’t get excited.”

Judy felt a queer sort of antagonism rising in her. How could it do Jerome Pilgrim any harm to make up stories for a child of four? She thought, “They’ve all got into a regular fuss about him. I should think the most of what’s the matter with him now is being nearly bored to death. I won’t stop Penny if he wants her.”

As if Lona Day was aware of what was passing in her mind, she smiled rather sadly and said, “You think it’s nonsense, don’t you? I suppose that’s natural. But we are all so fond of him, and so sorry---we have all tried so hard to help him. And of course you don’t know how much care he needs. If you were to see him in one of his attacks you would understand---but I hope you never will.”

Judy felt as if a cold finger had touched her spine. She was being warned. She was being warned about Penny.

As if she had spoken the name aloud, Lona said, “Don’t leave her alone with him, my dear.”

Then she got up and went over to sit by Miss Janetta.

Miss Silver came down next day, arriving in time for tea, at which she appeared in indoor dress, her hair neat under its net, her feet in beaded slippers, her knitting-bag upon her arm. She might have been in the house for weeks. Avoiding the difficult question of Christian names by the use of an occasional “My dear,” she further placated Miss Columba by addressing to her only such remarks as were in no need of an answer. For the rest, she found something to say to everyone else, and when tea was over won Miss Janetta’s heart by her interest in the current chair-cover. The interest was perfectly genuine. She could, and did, admire the pattern, the colour-scheme, the small fine stitches, the pink and blue roses on the ground of pastel grey. Very charming---very charming indeed. Really most beautiful work.

With Miss Day she conversed upon other topics. A nurse has such an interesting life. Such opportunities for studying character. And sometimes for travel. Had Miss Day travelled at all? . . . Oh, in the East? How very, very interesting! China perhaps? . . . No? India? . . . How intensely interesting! Such a wonderful country.

“I have not had the opportunity of travelling myself. The scholastic profession is, to that extent, rather limiting.”

“Do you still teach?”

Miss Silver gave her slight cough.

“No, I have retired.”

Jerome Pilgrim kept his room that afternoon. When Judy came down to supper she found her feet halting and reluctant. The farther they took her from Penny, the more clearly did Lona Day’s words come echoing back in the empty spaces of her mind---“Don’t leave her alone with him, my dear.”

“Don’t leave her alone----” But she was leaving Penny alone, and just along at the end of the passage was the door behind which Jerome Pilgrim sat in his big chair. She knew quite well by now just how he would look, sitting there, his head propped on his hand, staring into the fire. Suppose he really wasn’t sane. Suppose he was dangerous. Suppose---no, she couldn’t even suppose that he would hurt Penny. But . . . Her feet stopped of their own accord, and she found that she was turning round and going back. Frank hadn’t wanted her to come here---Frank had begged her not to come. And she had been obstinate about it.

She had almost reached her own door, when the door at the end of the passage opened and Jerome came out in a dark suit, with the rubber-shod stick he used about the house. As she stood uncertain and a little afraid, he called out to her in a friendly manner, “Are you going down? Then we can go together.”

Judy had a change of mood. Her fear of a moment ago seemed monstrous. She felt so much ashamed of it that she made her voice extra warm as she said, “Oh, how nice! Are you coming to supper?”

She went to meet him, and kept pace with him along the corridor.

“Lona’s furious,” he said. “She’d like to lock me in and take the key. She’ll come down presently draped in sweet reproach. She’s marvellous at registering the emotions. She’s wasted as a nurse of course---she ought to be at Hollywood.”

Judy said cautiously, “She’s attractive----”

He nodded.

“Oh, very. And a most excellent nurse---I owe her a lot. But one likes to escape once in a way, and if you must know, I’m dying to see Aunt Collie’s school friend. What is she like?”

Judy looked over her shoulder and said, “Ssh! She’s got the room next mine.”

He actually laughed.

“Couple of conspirators---aren’t we? Is she a dragon?”

They had begun to negotiate the stairs. Jerome had to take his time. Judy thought, “He’s quite easy with me now---I might have been here for years. He’d get used to seeing people---I’m sure he would. It can’t be right to keep him shut away. He’s friendly. You can feel it when he comes out of his hole.” She said with a little laugh, “Oh, no, not a dragon at all---prim and Victorian, like the people in Aunty Cathy’s nineteenth-century books. I was brought up on them. She makes you feel like schoolroom tea.” She paused, and added with a warmth that surprised herself, “She’s nice.”

At supper Jerome actually talked. Miss Columba, delighted to see him, found herself a good deal embarrassed by the interest he displayed in the school-days which she was presumed to have shared. Judy, tickled, could not help admiring the dexterity displayed by Miss Silver.

“To tell you the truth, Captain Pilgrim, those days seem now so very far away---quite like a dream, or something one has read about in a book. They do not, if you know what I mean, seem to be at all actual. Your aunt will, I am sure, bear me out. I could not myself give you the names of half a dozen of my contemporaries at school, yet I recall the personalities of many more, and am aware of the manner in which each of them affected me.”

She had caught his attention. He said musingly, “Names are just a label. They’re nothing---like clothes, to be changed. Individuality is what counts. That goes on.”

She gave him one of her really charming smiles.

“ ‘A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.’ ”

His interest deepened. There was something in the look and the quality of the smile which enabled her to get away with about the most hackneyed quotation in the whole range of literature. He was conscious of annoyance when Miss Janetta said fretfully, “There really ought to be a law against people calling their children after film stars. Lesley Freyne has two Glorias amongst her evacuees. It’s bad enough of the Pells, but when it comes to three Glorias in one village!”

Miss Silver said brightly, “I heard of some people called White who had their son christened Only Fancy Henry. So it made Only Fancy Henry White. Not very considerate to mark a child out in that way. Names present a great many pitfalls. There are, of course, such charming ones for girls.” She smiled at Miss Columba. “Your name, for instance---most unusual and attractive. And your sister’s too. But when it comes to boys, I must own to a preference for what is solid and plain---William, George, Edward, Henry---all good names, and all, I am informed, quite out of fashion at present.”

Miss Columba looked up from a baked apple.

“My father’s name was Henry.”

Miss Silver gave her the look with which she might have encouraged a diffident or tongue-tied child and said, “An excellent name. Has it been passed on to the present generation?”

There was one of those pauses. Roger muttered something that sounded like “Yes---a cousin,” and Miss Janetta began in a hurry to deplore the prevalence of Peters.

“I’ve nothing against the name, but there really are too many of them.”

Miss Silver agreed.

They went on talking about names.

As they talked, Miss Silver’s eyes went from one to another, seeing all that was on the surface and searching for what might lie beneath. When Robbins came and went she watched him too. Such a secretive face---but a well-trained manservent will look like that for no reason at all. In his own way a goodlooking man---straight regular features and an upright carriage. Perhaps off duty and in his own quarters he could relax and be off guard. The word kept coming back to her. He was on guard. Over what? It might be his professional good manners, his dignity as an old family servant, or it might be something else. She felt a good deal of interest in Robbins.

+++

Miss Columba conducted her school friend all round the house next morning. She did it with an air of gloom, because it is impossible to take anyone over an interesting old house without more conversation that she cared about. It was also an exceptionally good day for the garden and she wished to put in a row of early peas. Pell said it was too soon, but she didn’t intend to let him down her. If the weather was to change over night, it would give him a very unfair advantage, and he would certainly make the most of it. She knew her duty, and she did it without a protest, but certainly not in any spirit of cheerfulness, and she wore her gardening slacks and fisherman’s jersey so as to be ready to go out and confront Pell at the first possible moment.

The house had three stories, and they began at the top. In her capacity as showman Miss Columba was obliged to talk. As a matter of fact, once the ice was broken and she had made up her mind to it, the house was the one topic upon which she could, if she chose, find words. She would not be prodigal of them, but she could produce enough to serve the purpose in hand.

As they emerged upon the top landing, she said, “The hall used to run right up to here. It was sealed over in the early eighteenth century to make the rooms below. These used to be one large garret. They were partitioned off at the same time.”

Miss Silver looked about her with the bright interest of a bird who hopes to breakfast on the early worm. The ceilings were low, the rooms small. There were a great many of them, and none in use except the largest, which was apparently occupied by the Robbinses. Mrs. Robbins came out of it as they passed.

Miss Columba said, “Good-morning. I am showing Miss Silver the house,” and added, “Mrs. Robbins has been with us for a great many years---how many is it, Lizzie?”

“Thirty years.” The tone was colourless, the pale lips hardly moved. The hollow eyes looked once at the visitor and then away.

Miss Silver saw a tall, gaunt woman, very sallow and melancholy-looking, in a dark wrapper with a clean apron tied over it. She went down the stairs and out of sight.

Miss Columba led the way along a passage to the housemaid’s cupboard and the sink which was said to have overflowed and brought the ceiling down below. But not immediately below. Miss Silver was able to confirm Roger Pilgrim’s statement on this point when she had been taken into the empty attic over the room with the fallen ceiling. The water would have had quite a distance to travel---ten or twelve feet. The boards which had been taken up were still loose. Miss Silver lifted them and observed what lay beneath. There had been water there. It had dried out, but the marks remained. The water had run in a narrow channel between the sink and the middle of the attic floor. Water had run and left its mark plainly to be traced on the joists and plaster under the floor. But what had made it spread out and form a pool when it came to the middle of the attic? At this point the narrow track became a wide, dark patch smelling of dust and mould, and still extremely wet. All the boards in the middle of the floor had been lifted here, and the window set open, but the damp had not dried out.

Miss Columba stood by in silence until her guest turned away.

When Miss Silver spoke, it was of Mrs. Robbins.

“Thirty years is a long time to be in the same family. She looks ill----”

“It is just her look.”

“And unhappy----”

“She has looked like that for a long time.”

Miss Silver coughed.

“May I enquire since when?”

“They had trouble. It was before the war.”

“What kind of trouble? Pray do not think me intrusive.”

“It has nothing to do with what has happened since. They lost their daughter, a pretty, clever girl.”

“She died?”

Miss Columba was frowning.

“No---she got into trouble and ran away. They couldn’t trace her. They felt it very much.”

“Who was the man?”

“They never knew.”

Miss Columba led the way resolutely to the next floor, where she unlocked the door of what had been Roger’s room and displayed a great mass of fallen plaster.

The geography of the house was extremely confusing. Besides the main staircase there were three others, steep, narrow, and winding. By one of these they presently descended to a passage which led back into the hall by a door beneath the stairs.

Miss Silver looked up at the massive stone chimney-breast. Everywhere else the walls were panelled, but the great chimney stood out in bare grey stone. Across it, deeply carved, ran the lettering of the verse which Roger Pilgrim had repeated:

   “If Pilgrim fare upon the Pilgrims’ Way
    And leave his Rest, he’ll find nor rest nor stay.
    Stay Pilgrim in thy Rest, or thou shalt find
    Ill luck before, Death but one pace behind.”


Miss Columba said gruffly, “Superstitious stuff. Some people believe in it.”

Then, turning abruptly, she walked toward the entrance and threw open the door nearest to it on the right. It was the dining-room, the same gloomy apartment in which they took their meals---door masked by a heavy screen, furniture all in the heavy Victorian style, two windows with an excellent view of a dark shrubbery and the high wall which screened the street, and two more at the end of the room more or less blocked by creepers but affording an occasional glimpse of huge old cypresses. Not an inspiriting room, and certainly not of any historical interest. Such of the walls as were not obscured by the towering furniture had been covered by a wallpaper once dark red but now almost indistinguishable from the surrounding wood. Upon this background two large trophies of arms were displayed, comprising pistols, rapiers and daggers in variety.

Miss Columba opened a door which lurked in the shadow of an immense mahogany sideboard. Here they were in a stone passage again. Miss Columba pursued it until she came to a locked door. Diving into the pocket of her slacks, she produced the key and opened it. As soon as she did so the smell of burnt wood came out to mingle with the smell of damp which had caused Miss Silver to reflect upon the unfortunate fact that old houses really were deplorably unhygienic.

“This is where the fire was,” said Miss Columba.

For once it really was not necessary for her to speak at all. Of the wooden pigeon-holes which had once covered the walls only some charred pieces remained, but the walls, of the same stone as the passage, stood firm. The floor had been swept, the furniture removed. The place stood empty except for the smell of fire. Miss Silver permitted herself to say, “Dear me!” After which Miss Columba locked the door and turned back.

A cross passage ran off in the direction of the kitchen premises. Just beyond it she opened another door and said, “The lift room.”

It was square and quite unfurnished---bare stone walls and a bare stone floor, except where an old-fashioned hand-worked lift bulged out from the left-hand side. There was no window.

Miss Columba explained. “This is the oldest part of the house. There was a spiral staircase going up to the next floor and down to the cellars. My father had it removed and the lift put in after he broke his hip in the hunting field. It comes up just beyond the bedroom you are in, and he had it made to go right down to the cellars because he had some very fine wine, and he liked to be able to go down and look at it.”

“You have extensive cellars?”

“Oh, yes. That’s what keeps the house so dry. They are very old.”

“This is not the only entrance, I suppose?”

“No---there is a stair in the kitchen wing.”

They proceeded there, returning by way of the dining-room to the hall, and leaving it again by yet another long stone passage.

The kitchen premises were as large and inconvenient as is usual in old houses. There were innumerable rooms, many of them not in use, or devoted to mere collections of lumber. The kitchen itself spoke of the time when hospitality meant endless courses. Ghosts of the enormous meals of other days presented themselves to the imagination---dinner-parties where two kinds of soup were followed by a practically endless procession of fish, entrée, roast, birds, two kinds of sweets, a savoury, an ice, and finally dessert. After more than four years of war the ghosts had a somewhat shamefaced air. Miss Silver gazed at the range, and thought how large and inconvenient it was, and what a lot of work all these stone floors must make.

They came out of the kitchen and branched into another passage. Miss Columba opened a door and switched on the light.

“This is the way to the cellars. Do you wish to see them?”

If she hoped that Miss Silver would say no, she was disappointed. With a slight deepening of gloom she led the way down what was evidently a very old stair, the treads worn down and hollowed by generations of Pilgrims and their butlers visiting and tending that centre of hospitality, the wine-cellar.

“My grandfather was said to have some of the finest madeira in England,” said Miss Columba. “All these cellars on the left were full in his day, but now there is only the one with any stock in it. I believe there is still a bottle or two of the Napoleon brandy. Roger should really go through the cellar-book with Robbins---it has not been checked up since his father died. But I can’t get him to take an interest. He likes a whisky and soda, but he always says he doesn’t know one kind of wine from another. I am a teetotaller, but my father had a very fine palate.”

As this was by far the longest speech she had heard Miss Columba make, Miss Silver was able to assess the importance of the wine-cellar as established by family tradition.

She was presently shown where the lift came down, and the hand-trolley was pointed out by means of which the wine could be transported without being handled or disturbed.

“It can be wheeled into the lift. You see, old wine must never be shaken. My father had these rubber-tyred wheels substituted for the old hard ones.”

The cellars were certainly very extensive. They branched off right and left from a central hall, the roof supported by pillars. Before the days of electric light it must have been unpleasantly dark. Even now there were heavily shadowed corners and a passage or two that rambled away into gloom. The air was still and warm, and the whole place wonderfully dry. Farther in, several of the cellars appeared to be full of discarded furniture. Others were piled with trunks and packing-cases.

“We have all Jerome’s things here, and my other nephew’s too.”

“Mr. Clayton?”

There was a little silence before Miss Columba said, “Yes.” She continued without any pause. “And of course my nephew Jack’s things. He is Roger’s brother. We have had no news of him since he was taken prisoner at Singapore.” Voice and manner set Henry Clayton aside from questioning.

They came to the end of the cellars and turned. There was something about the stillness, the warmth and dryness of the air, that was oppressive. If they stood still and did not talk, there was no sound at all. In any house, in any place above the ground, there are at all times of the day and night so many small unnoticed sounds which blend with one another and are not distinguished or distinguishable---they are part of the background against which thought passes into action. But under the earth that background is blotted out---there are only ourselves, and silence comes too near.

Both ladies were conscious of relief as they mounted the steps and came out into the very moderate daylight of the kitchen premises. Miss Columba switched off the light and shut the door. After which they completed their tour of the house by visiting a large, cold, double drawing-room with all the furniture in dust-sheets. Six long windows were framed in pale brocade. They looked upon the paved garden. Warmed and peopled, the room might easily have been charming. Now it too suggested ghosts---elegant, faded drawing-room ghosts, doing a little vague haunting in their best clothes, nothing more alarming about them than the slight frail melancholy of an old-fashioned water-colour drawing. There were four heads in this style upon one of the walls. Perhaps Miss Silver recognized Janetta Pilgrim’s scarcely altered profile, perhaps she was only guessing. She stopped in front of the four oval frames and admired.

“Very charming---very charming indeed. Your sister? And yourself? And the other two? You had two married sisters, I believe.”

Miss Columba said, “Yes.”

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