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Ella hadn't meant to walk so far. But the afternoon was so beautiful, so hot and hazy and windless, with the fields full of tall waving grass, white daisies and red poppies, that she had not called to Kitty to stop.
Kitty, in her short yellow dress, danced ahead as lightly as the butterfly she hoped to snare in her net. She waved the net with such eager abandon, however, whenever she saw a butterfly alight on a twig or a flower, that it was gone, floating into the air like a scrap of charred paper, long before she reached it.
Then her enormous expressive eyes were turned on Ella in chagrin, and she complained that butterflies would never stay still, it wasn't as if she intended to hurt them.
Kitty, it was well known, would not have hurt a fly, or an ant, or a worm, or the most humble of living creatures. Kitty was the one who was always begging for damaged things to be made whole. A butterfly in her net now would only be for the purpose of studying with wonder its colors, the iridescent sheen of a red emperor or a clouded yellow. A white cabbage moth would be better than nothing.
Ella remembered that when she had been a child it had been no surprise to find a purple emperor, a clouded yellow and a peacock all in one afternoon. Now, like larks and nightingales, butterflies were disappearing. It was sad.
She longed for Kitty to have all the pleasures she had had, and for this reason, when Kitty saw the vague shape of the ruined house in the distance, standing behind its screen of oaks and rhododendrons, like an image in a cloudy mirror, she didn't insist that they go no farther. They had come a long way, and there would be the walk back, which Kitty's six-year-old legs would find exhausting.
Besides, the house looked intriguing. She hadn't known it was there. They could rest in the shade of a tree before tentatively exploring the garden, and perhaps the house itself. One imagined by the blank look of the windows that the place would be empty. It was a long way from the main road, and even this track across the fields seemed miles from the comfortable suburbia where they lived. Looking back, Ella could see only a low shimmer of roofs in the distance. They were deep in the country. They had never come so far before, simply because there had never been such a warm dreamlike day, since she and Max had lived in Collingham. There had been rain and wind and dripping trees and flattened wet grass. They had stayed in the confines of the garden and the tidy streets. But suddenly, in mid-July, summer had come, and the whole vista was changed. They had horizons beyond the rooftops of Collingham. Today, she and Kitty were explorers.
What fun to have found a ruined house to investigate. Perhaps the overgrown garden, undisturbed by power mowers and fertilizers, would be a haven for all the butterflies she remembered. It would be like turning her life back and becoming a child again.
She wore a sleeveless cotton dress and sandals, and her blond hair hung loose, like Kitty's. She felt blithe and carefree, as she hadn't done since she had lost the baby, certainly as she never seemed to feel when Max was home and his tensions pressed on her.
But what better recipe for being blithe and carefree than walking in the summer fields with one's beloved daughter on a hot still afternoon?
She and Kitty peered through a rusted iron gate down a tangled dark weedy path. Kitty raised apprehensive eyes. Even Ella had the first stirring of rather enjoyable unease.
"Who lives in there?" Kitty whispered, as if the owner were lurking behind one of the dark tree trunks, listening.
"I shouldn't think anybody does. I expect there's a NO TRESPASSING sign on the front gate. But this is the back gate and it doesn't tell us not to go in."
Kitty's hand slid into Ella's and held on firmly. The gate gave a loud groan as Ella pushed it open. They tiptoed up the shaded path until a curve brought them in sight of the garden bathed in the hot hazy sunlight, and alive with the white cabbage moths, and buzzing bees. Beyond its neglected lawns and flower beds stood the old house. The uncurtained, uncleaned windows had a blind look. The house was faded, paintless, dilapidated. One corner of the roof was falling in, the slats beneath vanished tiles like exposed bones. Yet the house didn't look so old, no more than a hundred or a hundred and twenty years. It might have been a Victorian vicarage, except that there was no church near. Or perhaps it had been a rather splendid farmhouse, only where were the stables and cow sheds?
There was the hum of bees, and the cawing of rooks in a nearby elm, and a strong scent of stock and sun-warmed wallflowers, and wild flowering currant.
Kitty was enchanted.
"Mummy, it's a real garden."
The overgrown plants and weeds came nearly to Kitty's head. Was this what she had always imagined a garden should be, rather than the neat oblong that Max brushed and tailored every weekend?
"There's millions of butterflies, Mummy. Oh, look, I've caught one!"
It was only one of the common pesty white ones, but it was Kitty's first catch. She examined it eagerly, then shuddered and threw net and all on the ground. "Ugh, it's got horrid wriggly legs. It's like a caterpillar. I thought butterflies only had wings."
Kitty's first lesson in nonperfection?
"They're caterpillars before they're butterflies, darling. Look, here's a dear little cobbled path. I think it leads up to the house. Shall we follow it?"
"Supposing there's someone at home." Kitty's voice was again a whisper.
"Nobody's lived here for years, by the look of it. I wonder who did use to live here."
"Yes, who? Tell me."
"I don't know. A mother and a father and several children, I expect. And a nanny and an under-nanny and a cook and three housemaids and a boots' boy, and a gardener."
They were close to the house now. The path led to a terrace that ran past long low windows, and Ella, pressing her nose against the dusty glass, could make out a large room with two fireplaces, peeling crimson wallpaper, and a floor littered with fallen plaster and soot.
Kitty rubbed a bit of the glass clean, making a porthole through which to look.
"What an enormous room!"
"I expect it was the drawing room."
"Is that where the mother and the father and the children would sit?"
"The mother and father, certainly. The children would be brought in by their nanny when they were clean and on their best behavior. Their mother would read to them out of a book called Ministering Angels and then kiss them good night."
"How many children?" Kitty demanded.
"Oh, I should think six or seven."
"Would their father kiss them, too?"
"Before he went to the office?"
"He may not have had an office. I think he was probably a gentleman of independent means. That's why he built this house away from town and yet not too far away. They would have a carriage and go shopping and visiting."
"Look, Mummy!" Kitty squealed. "One of the children was very naughty. She wrote on the window. What does it say?"
Ella pored over the thin scratching. She had to read the letters backward. What was the name? Suddenly it seemed vital to know. She felt excited. Her make-believe was becoming reality.
"Edith," she pronounced triumphantly.
"Who was Edith?"
"The eldest daughter," Ella said with certainty. "The rebel. She thought living away out here was dull. She wanted to put on her best crinoline and go dancing every night."
"Crinoline?" said Kitty, testing a new word.
"That's a skirt that hung on a wire frame and looked like an enormous lampshade. Very becoming for young ladies with slim waists but also very uncomfortable. You had to have very wide chairs and wide doorways."
"Then what happened to Edith when she put on her crinoline? Did she run away?"
"I don't know. I expect she married a suitable husband."
What was a suitable husband? Someone who was a good provider, who telephoned nightly when on one of his frequent trips abroad, and always brought back gifts for his wife and child, who didn't have affairs with other women (as far as Ella knew, and she was sure she would know if Max did), who was personable and hardworking and ambitious. If anything, too ambitious, too conscious of money as a status symbol, though one admitted it was nice in other more practical ways. Would that kind of husband have satisfied Edith? Not the money part, perhaps. Money to her would have been a vulgar subject.
"Tell me more, Mummy," Kitty demanded.
Ella laughed. "Darling, I'm only making it up."
But she wasn't, entirely. The room, dusky behind the grimy windows, seemed peopled with the family she had created in her mind. The hot dreamy afternoon, the wild garden with its vivid scents, the lonely silent house, were making so deep an impression on her that she wanted to go on wishing herself into the past, into being Edith, the rebel, who borrowed her mother's diamond ring to cut her name in the windowpane, who married a devoted husband and watched Queen Victoria's jubilee procession.
"Mummy, can I pick some flowers?"
Ella looked at the tangle of roses and foxgloves and purple willow herb and perennial phlox and marigolds and marguerite daisies. Who had last picked flowers in this garden? In a wooden basket, with the gardener looking on disapprovingly-as Max looked when she begged for some carnations or delphiniums from his immaculate borders.
"I expect you can, darling. Be careful of the thorns."
She couldn't tear herself away from the sun-baked terrace and the closed windows. She went to look in the next room where a piece of glass was broken out of the window and the dark musty smell of a closed forgotten house came out. Dust, birds' nests, mice. This must have been the ballroom, but now the floor had gaping holes as if the damp had come up and everything was rotted.
There couldn't have been anybody here for years. One wondered why this house had been left to die. Litigation over a will, perhaps. Some sinister happening in the past? A road being planned through the garden and smack through the middle of the house? Or merely bad foundations that would not warrant the expense of renovation?
"Oh, Mummy, there are prickles!" Kitty wailed.
Ella turned vaguely to look at Kitty's small figure, then back to the empty room and fancied she saw something move. Not a rat. Something larger and shadowy in the dark passage beyond the open door.
She pressed her nose eagerly against the pane, then stiffened and gasped as the scream rang out.
Where did it come from? Somewhere in the invisible upper part of the house? A spasm of pure terror had seized Ella. She had to will herself to step backward to look upward at the rows of silent windows.
At the exact moment that she raised her eyes a white form burst from an attic window and floated over the garden, wings outspread. The window hung open after its departure.
Kitty was flying up the path, her face full of alarm.
"What was that, Mummy? That noise?"
"Only a screech owl, darling. Look, there it goes."
Kitty clung to Ella, her small hands damp with perspiration.
"It makes a horrid noise."
"Yes, doesn't it? I've always thought owls are uncanny things. Have you got enough flowers? I'll help you. Then we must go or Daddy will be home before us."
She fancied, as she tugged marigolds out of the clinging weeds, that she heard a more mundane sound than the cry of a screech owl, the sound of a car starting. But she wasn't sure. The rooks were cawing and there was a tractor put-putting in the distance. Walking to the side of the house to look, it seemed to her that there was a faint cloud of dust hanging over the drive, but on reflection she decided it was only the heat haze. She had meant to explore the front as well as the back of the house, but now thought better of it. She was still affected by that strange eerie feeling, and besides, they had lingered long enough. They would come back again another day. She would bring a picnic lunch and they would eat it on the terrace, and she would tell Kitty more about Edith and her brothers and sisters. Perhaps they had had a sadistic Victorian father who occasionally beat them. Or his wife ... But she, poor thing, would have to suppress her screams in case the servants heard.
It was a haunted house, and Ella, always acutely susceptible to atmosphere, had picked up its aura. She mustn't frighten Kitty. Max would laugh at her when she told him the events of their afternoon walk. He would say it was her subconscious desire for gracious living that had made her like the old house.
But how would he explain the instinctive terror, not entirely dissolved even when one knew its innocent cause?
It must have been that lingering uneasiness that made her imagine someone followed her and Kitty through the dark shrubbery. She thought she heard a twig snap, and when she looked back a branch swayed very slightly. Had a bird just alighted on it? There was no other sign of movement.
It seemed as if the sun had lost a little of its brightness when she and Kitty emerged into the open field and the safe path for home.
Safe? Why had she thought that, as if they had been in danger?
The haze had deepened, the town was a smoky blur in the distance. Looking back again compulsively to the house, shadowy and sad in its nest of greenery, she could see the attic window still hanging open after the owl's precipitate flight.
What, she wondered, had disturbed the bird?
Well, one of a dozen things. Herself calling to Kitty, a stray cat, a stair creaking as stairs in old houses did, or even a nest of fledglings somewhere who would be demanding attention. It was nothing to concern her and Kitty. Their little adventure was over.
Except that she couldn't get rid of the uncanny feeling that they were being followed. The path ran along the side of the hedge, thick with cow parsley, brambles and foxgloves. In some places it was higher than her head. Someone could easily be concealed on the other side.
Nobody was, of course. For who would want to follow a little girl with a butterfly net and a woman with her arms full of a tangled mass of flowers, and never make his presence known? What would be the point?
All the same, now that Kitty was going to school, she must warn her about strange men. It was so sad, having to spoil a child's innocence. First there had been the promised baby that had never come, and now this necessary emphasis on the fact that everybody Kitty met was not her friend. Like the pretty silken butterfly with the ugly crawly feet.
That is life, Kitty, sad to say.CHAPTER 2
Max telephoned from the airport, and said he would be home in half an hour. He was going to treat himself to a taxi. He couldn't wait for the day, Ella knew, when a company car would be sent to meet him after his trips abroad. He had secret hopes that that was going to happen quite soon. The export manager was retiring and applications for the job were open to Max and one or two other candidates. Although Max was the lowest in seniority he was not only hopeful but confident of getting it.
His aura of confidence was the thing that made him so successful a salesman. He managed to make his product an offshoot of his own sincerity and honesty. People trusted him. He usually came back from a trip abroad with a full order book.
If he got the job of export manager he wouldn't need to travel so much, and when he did it would be done with more prestige. A chauffeur-driven car to take him to and from the airport, first-class air travel and first-class restaurants and hotels. It would all suit his taste for luxury.
Undoubtedly it would mean that they would have to get a bigger house, in a snob area, such as one of those new expensive housing estates outside Esher or Weybridge. Ella would have to entertain, too. That was inevitable. The only reason Max hadn't insisted on small smart dinner parties before this was because he was now a little ashamed of their completely ordinary, tasteless house. He hadn't been when they had moved to Collingham. He had thought it a suitable temporary house for a businessman on his way up. But since it was temporary he hadn't wanted Ella to spend money on it, and anyway she had been defeated by it from the beginning. As a consequence she hadn't persuaded him to let her do interesting things with the lounge-dining room, or the ugly staircase leading to the completely characterless bedrooms on the second floor.
One would have had to begin by pulling out the horrible brick fireplace, and that Max would have regarded as really a foolish waste of money. He quite liked it. Neither did he mind the rather coy archway dividing the sitting part from the dining part of the room. At least he hadn't done so at the beginning. Now he was talking loftily of cocktail bars and terraces. He had outgrown the house.
But he had not outgrown his wife. He had been far more farseeing when marrying than when investing in property. Ella, he was very well aware, was a class above him. Indeed, her impoverished but proud country family hadn't liked the idea of her marrying him at all. He frequently complained that they were still damned snooty toward him. But Ella, doing everything wholeheartedly, had flung herself into his arms and into marriage, and, with her looks, which always attracted attention (they were delicate and a little fey, not pretty, but distinctly unusual), and her natural social sense, Max had known that she would fit beautifully into the position of an executive's wife, even that of wife to the managing director. As far as Max's ambitions went, nothing was impossible.
Excerpted from An Afternoon Walk by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1971 Dorothy Eden. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted September 21, 2013
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