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For perhaps the first time in seventy-five years Arabia Bolton found life dull beyond endurance. A few days ago the rather amusing sculptor who disagreed violently with everything she said, but who, for that very reason, entertained her (she dearly loved a quarrel), had vacated the ground-floor flat, and she found she missed his visits to her untidy overflowing room upstairs more than she would have believed.
There was no one else in the house whom she cared to make a friend. Perhaps the tall young man, Jeremy Winter, in the basement. He had a twinkling eye and a nice wit. But he was too polite. She liked a broad, even a risqué style. Anyway, he was too young to want to spend time with an old lady absorbed in the past.
The past ... Arabia glanced briefly round the large room that would have been museum-like, had any museum that rich haphazard untidiness. Rather, it was like an untended garden, heavy-headed dahlias and over-blown roses mingling with the delicate plants that scarcely showed their heads. There was that miniature of Lucy, incredibly innocent and fair, completely overshadowed by the portrait of herself at the age of sixty with the parrot on her shoulder. There were the trophies she had picked up in her journeys, an Arab's headdress, camel bells, spears and gourds rubbing shoulders with Victorian ornaments. She loved masses of cushions in bright colours, and they flowed over the couches and on to the floor. The lampshades were long-tasselled and in similar gaudy colours. The gilt parrots' cages were made in the shape of Bedouin tents. One of them contained the active and vociferous Ahmed, the other his predecessor who was now no more than a light handful of stuffed rose and pearl-grey feathers. Persian rugs (she remembered with vivid nostalgia the hot-smelling, dusty Baghdad bazaars) completely covered a very fine parquet floor. If ever Jeremy Winter's yellow cat found his way up here he had a fine time springing and slipping on the rugs, while Ahmed the parrot went wild with excitement and screeched deafeningly, and as likely as not one of the Dresden or Meissen figures was knocked over and broken.
Everything in the room, Arabia was wont to say, told a story. But stories required listeners, and now she had none. What was the use of a colourful and fantastic past if there was no one to whom to recount it? And just anybody would not do. Arabia was critical as to her audience. It had to be both intelligent and appreciative, and preferably argumentative, although she would be willing for admiration and affection to take place of the argumentativeness. It would be nice to be loved and admired in one's declining years. If Lucy ...
Arabia sighed. No use to go over that. Things were as they were, and she was a lonely old woman in a house of strangers, and suddenly life was dull.
She had begun to let rooms several years ago. It was absurd for one old woman and a couple of servants to live alone in such a large house. Besides, servants were hard to keep. If it were not that the house was too big, it was Ahmed screeching at them, or Arabia, with a whim to wear the Arab headdress, frightening them out of their wits, silly creatures.
So she had had the brilliant idea of taking in lodgers, thus killing three birds with one stone—making a little extra money which she enjoyed but did not need, having company, and making the arrangement that one of the lodgers should act as a servant.
The scheme had worked beautifully. She had had a series of gay and interesting people, sometimes a little eccentric like herself (there had been the artist who had painted his walls with slightly Bacchanalian murals which had had to be hurriedly painted over on his departure.) The middle-aged and poverty-stricken daughter of a sea captain, Gloriana Becker, who had taken the ballroom, moving her meagre possessions into the enormous room so that her modest bedstead looked like a lonely tent in the desert, had been with Arabia faithfully for five years and filled the role of a maid excellently. She was willing to cook and do housework for the rent of her room. She was too poor for false pride. The care of the captain, a peppery and domineering invalid, had taken both her youth and all the money she might have expected to inherit. Now she was growing as peppery as her father had been, and Arabia naughtily encouraged her into displays of temper, simply to relieve the boredom.
But one desiccated spinster with a sharp temper was not enough to make life interesting. All at once, in her seventy-sixth year, Arabia discovered that she had let her rooms unwisely, allowing her sympathy to run away with her sense, and there was no one, except possibly Jeremy Winter, to whom she could talk. She thought she might try out the story of the sheik and the ten camels on him and see how he reacted. It was an infallible test. Then suddenly she found that she was tired and wasn't sure that she wanted to tell that story any more. Life was empty, squeezed dry. There was no more relish to it. She was lonely and unloved old woman. In her reckless impetuous life she had given so much, and yet she had come to this. It wasn't fair. Even that wretched little Mrs. Stanhope on the first floor, who could speak only in an unintelligible whisper, had a son to love her. No very bright specimen, Dawson, weak-eyed and with a sly look to him, but with devotion and love to give his mother.
Then there was the violinist, Vincent Moretti. He, with his quick, pale glance, had the look of having an endless fund of good stories to tell, but unexpectedly he had proved disappointing. He had little to say to Arabia and indeed was inclined to avoid her. He spent most of the day practising (with a taste for dirge-like music), and during his idle moments carried on a harmless and probably quite meaningless flirtation with the suddenly coy Miss Glory. This, Arabia found exasperating in the extreme, and extracted what meagre entertainment she could from it by making constant sly digs at Miss Glory on the subject of virtue.
Jeremy Winter in the basement had not been welcomed so much on account of his potential value as an amusing and diverting guest as because he was a broad-shouldered, strong young man and the basement had, in the past, proved a happy hunting ground for burglars. After two burglaries, in both of which Arabia had lost some of her extraordinary collection of ornate jewellery, she had decided that window bars were not enough. She must turn the basement into a flat and let it to an alert and courageous person. Her advertisement: "Wanted a tenant willing to catch burglars", had produced a motley collection of applicants. Jeremy had been quite the best. He had smiled at her then with that lifting eyebrow and twinkle that promised so much, and had said that he would bring, also, his cat Mimosa who would catch mice.
Arabia had been delighted, and sure that behind his politeness there was a great deal to the young man. But at that time her quarrelsome friendship with the sculptor on the ground floor had been at its height and she was fully occupied. Now the sculptor had gone, and the ground floor flat was empty, and she was dull, dull ...
What amusing advertisement should she put in the evening papers this time? "Ground-floor flat in mansion to let. Grand piano or lap dog not objected to." Or "Applicant must have a mind". In the past she had had some diverting moments in wording advertisements and seeing what they produced. But suddenly she was so tired. Did she want a tenant with a mind? Did she want murals or dissertations on Cretan-age morals? Wouldn't a dull cabbage be preferable now that she was growing so old? Then she would have the house full of cabbages: Mrs. Stanhope and the tall skinny Dawson, Miss Glory with her sudden intolerable coyness, the elusive Vincent Moretti, Jeremy—no, his qualities had still to be tested ...
Arabia looked round her cluttered room. Did she want any more uproarious evenings of telling tales about her old friend, the sheik, of dressing in her Turkish clothes and singing clever naughty songs to the accompaniment of the zither, of teasing Ahmed with the stuffed parrot until he nearly brought the plaster roses on the ceiling down with his hysterical screeching. No, all at once she wanted peace. And love. Particularly love. And who in all the world was there left to love her?
Men still liked her because, although she was old and now quite ugly, she still retained her majestic carriage, and the glamour she had always had was indestructible. But they no longer fell madly in love with her—thank heaven for that at least. Even the memory of that was now curiously wearying. And when she thought back the strange thing was that, for all the love she had enjoyed and for all the intoxicating satisfaction of the power she had over men, the thing that pleased her most was her remembered love for Lucy. It ran like a pure thread through those rich, overflowing days, like the perfume of primroses in a room full of spices. It was clean and delightful, it was like the thought of spring during a burning dry summer.
But now it was gone and she was so lonely. There was no way to bring back the spring.
Or was there? Arabia suddenly straightened herself among the crushed cushions. All at once she was erect, her old head held at its indomitable angle. She, Arabia Bolton, who had crooked her finger and the world had come to her, who all her life had got what she wanted, why could she not bring back the spring? Why indeed could she not?
Her old fingers trembling with excitement and impatience, she pulled out the drawers of her writing-desk and tumbled old letters and bills on to the floor. She found some of her expensive engraved notepaper, unused for a long time. She wrote in her thick black writing:
WANTED TO LET GROUND-FLOOR FLAT IN LARGE WEST END HOUSE. RENT NOMINAL FOR ATTRACTIVE GIRL WHOSE NAMES MUST BE CRESSIDA LUCY. APPLY IN PERSON.
Arabia breathed heavily, chuckling with excitement. What a brilliant idea, what a scintillating, brilliant idea. Who said she could not bring back the spring? She who had power to do so much, she would have power over the seasons, too.
Cressida ... Cressida Lucy ... Lucy ...
Oh, Lucy, I loved you ...
I hate you, I hate you ...
That voice, suddenly ringing in her head, thin and vicious, was not there, really. It was in her imagination, as so much else had been. There, it had gone already; the blackness it had brought over her had gone, too. She was rejuvenated, full of life and excitement. It was springtime, and she was going to have another Lucy, young, innocent, new. Another Lucy to love her and to be loved.CHAPTER 2
Cressida opened her eyes and saw the young man. She promptly shut them again, partly because she was extraordinarily tired and partly because she wanted to think in a comfortably anonymous darkness. Her open eyes would betray her utter bewilderment. Until she knew where she was, how she had got there and who the strange young man was it was better to remain composed and apparently sane.
It might still be a dream, of course. She sometimes had very vivid dreams. Once she had even walked downstairs in her sleep, and when her mother had told Tom the next morning he, quite unperturbed, had said comfortably, "I won't let her do that when we're married."
Tom! Now she remembered. She had run away!
She sat up in a flurry, and the room swam. It was a large room with a raftered ceiling, rather sparsely furnished, but with a fire burning cheerfully. The largest piece of furniture was a desk. It was extremely littered with papers and on one side of it, on top of the scattered papers, sat a square and dour-looking yellow cat. Behind it was the young man. He had his head bent and seemed to be sketching.
He was real, Cressida told herself. He was not only not Tom, who until recently had dominated her life, but was not in the least like Tom, having rather shaggy black hair that hung forward over his brow, a bony jawline and a drawing-board.
What on earth would Tom say if he knew that she had been sleeping, however innocently, on the couch in the room of a complete stranger? Moreover, a stranger who was not, apparently, the least interested in her. Indeed, he was proceeding with his work as if she were either a piece of furniture or not there at all.
It was becoming increasingly evident to Cressida that she was there and that she had a very odd and rather unpleasant feeling in her stomach.
"Hi!" she said feebly.
The young man's head shot up, displaying a face as bony as the jawline, with slightly crooked black brows and very bright eyes.
"Well, there," he said triumphantly, "I knew you weren't dead. But just keep still a moment longer, will you."
"Keep still!" Cressida repeated bewilderedly. But before her muzzy mind could work that out she was aware that she was clutching something in one hand. It was a crumbled piece of paper. She spread it out and read what was written on it in large scrawling writing. It said briefly, "You're too late!"
Then she began to remember. The little woman in the very large horn-rimmed glasses, whose fingers kept constantly and mysteriously pointing to her mouth, flitted across her vision like a noonday owl. She remembered the piece of paper being thrust in her hand, and her mingled relief and despair on reading the words. She had had a curiously urgent desire to get out of the house, and yet where was she to go? The slippery marble steps had stretches before her, the big door with its shining dragon knocker had banged behind her. She had had the most curious feeling that the silent little woman in the too large glasses had enjoyed banging the door. And that had fitted in with her intuition that she should never have come into the house, anyway. But it was her tiredness that had made her slip.
She remembered seeing the shine of rain on the steps as she fell. And that was all.
Sudden urgent curiosity stirred life in her. She sat up straight and said imperiously.
"Do, for heaven's sake, stop what you are doing and tell me where I am."
The yellow cat turned its head and gave her an incurious stare out of champagne-coloured eyes. The man, after a last deliberate movement of his pencil, looked up and smiled. One of his eyebrows lifted a little higher than the other. His face, when he smiled, went into deep lines, but his eyes had a twinkling brightness that seemed amused at her and her plight.
"At the moment you're on my couch," he said. "Ten minutes ago you were lying at the foot of the front steps. It was raining so I brought you in."
"Thank you," said Cressida inadequately. Now she was beginning to feel sundry aches and bruises. There seemed to be a painful lump on the back of her head. And her stomach felt definitely peculiar.
Presently, since the young man seemed to be staring at her so pointedly, she said diffidently, "You didn't think a doctor was necessary?"
"You didn't seem to have broken anything. I thought I'd wait a little while and see." He got up and came over to her in a leisurely manner. He was very tall. "Do you feel all right now?"
"Y-es," Cressida said uncertainly. Her head was beginning to ache furiously, and her inside—"I think there's nothing that—"
"A small spot of brandy won't cure," her host pronounced.
He disappeared at once, and Cressida heard glasses clinking in the adjoining room. The cat on the desk stood up, stretched himself, and, for all his bulk, gave a surprisingly light spring on to the couch. There he rubbed his head ingratiatingly against Cressida's hand, and began to purr.
Cressida permitted herself a tremulous smile. Here was someone who was friendly and unmysterious, anyway. The young man, coming back with a tray, smiled too, and said, "Oh, that's splendid. Mimosa is extremely fussy about his friends. Now Arabia he won't allow to touch him."
"Arabia? Who's he?"
"She. And you'll meet her presently if you stay. By the way, my name is Jeremy Winter."
"Mine's Cressida Barclay."
"Ah-h-h!" The exclamation was long-drawn-out and interested. "So that explains it."
"Why you came here. You're answering Arabia's crazy advertisement."
"I was," Cressida said confusedly. "But I didn't really mean to. I got scared when I saw the house."
"So you ran away and fell down the steps. Drink this, and tell me about it."
Cressida looked at the brandy doubtfully. She didn't want to admit that if she drank it she would probably be sick. She knew now what was wrong with her stomach. She hadn't had anything to eat for quite a long time. Well, perhaps the brandy would do her good. At least it might make her feel more optimistic about the future.
Recklessly she took the glass from Jeremy Winter and swallowed the contents.
As was to be expected, the room swam again, but this time in rather a pleasant way. The firelight seemed to get mixed up with the brightness of Jeremy's eyes, and Mimosa's hair shone like sunlight. The sunlight and the firelight got into her stomach, too. They made it feel much better.
Excerpted from Eerie Nights in London by Dorothy Eden. Copyright © 1956 Macdonald & Co., Ltd.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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