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Ellie snapped the book shut.
'Is everything all right, Miss Walker?' Tapton asked.
'Yes, yes,' Ellie said hurriedly. 'Everything's fine.'
It felt as if someone had just walked over her grave. It felt as if she had just walked over her own grave.
'I'm just going to go for a walk,' she told Tapton, replacing the book on the shelf.
'Very good,' Tapton said, 'but don't wander too far. Dinner is served at eight sharp.'
Daniel spotted Ellie as he descended the stairs.
'Hello again,' he called out, quickening his pace to catch up with her.
'Hi,' Ellie responded. 'I was going to get some fresh air.' She paused. 'You can join me if you like.'
They stepped out into the cold. Ellie wrapped her arms around herself for warmth.
'So,' she began, 'how was your dad?'
'Garrulous,' Daniel said, forcing a smile, 'as usual. Just not very coherent.'
The smile faded.
'I'm sorry,' Ellie offered.
'I'd just feel better if I knew that he knew was there,' Daniel continued. 'That I wasn't wasting my time coming here.'
'He knows,' Ellie assured him. 'I'm sure some part of him really does know. And appreciates you being there for him.'
'Thanks,' Daniel said. 'I'm being silly, aren't I?'
'No,' Ellie said. 'No, you're not.'
'Oh yes he is.'
The new voice caused both Ellie and Daniel to look up with a start. It was Nana. She was sharing a cigarette with Violet, while the baby slept quietly in its pram.
'You don't really think that he's here for his father, do you?' Nana mocked. 'Boy comes here every Christmas not because he wants to be with the old man, but because he's afraid.'
'Afraid?' Ellie echoed.
'I don't know what you're talking about,' Daniel insisted.
'Of course you don't,' Nana sneered. 'And I suppose you don't come here every year because you're afraid that, if you father's head should clear - not that that's very likely - and he sees that your not there then the old man might cut you out of his will.'
'Nana!' Violet exclaimed, scandalised.
'Oh come now, child,' Nana said, 'you don't seriously expect me to still my tongue for propriety's sake, do you? I've been doing that for far too many years already and look where it's got me, eh? Truth will out. It always does in the end.'
'But that's not true!' Daniel said.
'Isn't it?' Nana asked.
'Come on, Daniel,' Ellie said, 'let's go back inside.'
She glared at Nana who merely shrugged.
'You've a good heart, girl,' Nana said, 'but you're young and na´ve and far, far too trusting. It will be your undoing, you mark my words.'
* * *
'What she said, it's not true,' Daniel insisted.
They had retreated to the common room and had found space on a brown corduroy sofa. The cover had come apart at one arm and pieces of yellow foam were struggling to escape.
'I know it's not, Daniel,' Ellie said.
The common room was crowded. Those people who had been playing bingo in the dining-room had now been forced in here while the dining-room was made ready for dinner. Ellie glanced about her even as she patted Daniel's arm as comfortingly as she dared. This place made her uncomfortable. She had thought that in Daniel she had found a friend with whom she could shelter from the worst of it, but, now that he had crumbled, Ellie felt more exposed than ever. Even the slow tick-tock of the grandfather clock seemed ominous. The people here were simply marking time, playing bingo without prizes because there was nothing that would be of value to them any more or sitting in front of the television because there was little point in moving anywhere else. Ellie could almost smell the decay in the air. Everyone here knew that the end was coming, it was simply a question of when.
Ellie found herself wishing that Abigail were there. She would have found some humour in the situation and punctured Ellie's morbid reverie, but Abby wasn't there and thoughts of her only made Ellie feel even more alone in the crowded room.
'Penny for them,' Daniel said.
'Sorry, what?' Ellie said, snapping her attention back to him.
'Your thoughts,' Daniel explained. 'Penny for them.'
'Just thinking about back home,' Ellie told him.
'Anyone in particular?' Daniel asked. 'Boyfriend maybe?'
'No, no boyfriend,' Ellie replied, rolling her eyes.
'Really?' Daniel leaned slightly towards her, his eyes sparkling.
Ellie pulled away from him.
'Daniel,' she said. Then she shook her head.
Daniel deflated, sinking deeper into the sofa's cushions. The light in his eyes dimmed.
'I'm sorry,' Ellie said before getting up and walking away.
* * *
She found herself in the library. She hadn't intended to end up there, hadn't really had any specific destination in mind. She just wanted to lose herself for a bit and where better, she supposed, than in a book. And in one book in particular.
She took the diary from its shelf, settled herself in a chair and began to read.
* * *
I was shaking. I was not used to all of these important people staring at me.
'Have no fear, sir,' Mr Wilkie says. 'I will see that she is disciplined.'
'No,' Dr Smith says. 'I do not want her punished. A healthy curiosity can be a wonderful thing.'
'As you wish, sir,' Mr Wilkie says.
I do not think Mr Wilkie liked Dr Smith's instruction and Dr Smith must have seen that as well.
'Wilkie,' he says, 'if you do lay a finger on Miss Walker here you may consider your employment here at an end.'
'And here I thought I was master of this house,' Mr Searle says.
I had not noticed him arrive. Neither did many of the guests and they jumped as he approached. Mr Searle is a tall figure and would be frightening were it not for his friendly face. In the few times I have seen him he has always smiled at me. Mrs Searle does not smile.
Mr Wilkie makes himself taller.
'Very good, sir,' he says. 'I was about to escort the maid back to the kitchens.'
'Wilkie,' Mr Searle says. His voice, as always, is warm, but it freezes Mr Wilkie to the spot. 'Dr Smith may not be master of this house, but that does not mean that his views are without merit. The maid is not to be disciplined. This time.'
Mr Searle turns to me and I feel as if I am getting smaller and smaller. He smiles and I cannot help smiling back.
'Run along now, girl,' he says and I hurry back to the kitchen and Mrs Baxter.
* * *
Claire has been hit by fever and can not leave her bed. She should be helping to serve the guests their Christmas meal, but she cannot so Mr Wilkie asks me to do it. I cannot believe that I am going to be allowed above stairs again. Mr Wilkie is not as pleased as I am.
'Mind yourself, girl,' he says to me. 'These are important friends of his lordship and I will not have you make him look a fool.'
'I will do my very best, sir,' I promise him.
Mr Wilkie offers me a smile.
'Good girl,' he says. 'Do a good job of this and I might forget to punish you for your earlier indiscretion.'
'But Dr Smith said ' I begin.
'Hold your tongue,' Mr Wilkie snaps. 'Don't you go forgetting who is really in charge down here.'
I hang my head.
'Good girl,' Mr Wilkie says again.
There are two of us, Molly and me, and we have to serve all of the guests. We bring big silver trays up from the kitchens and put them down on the long table. It is a very long table and it is covered in a thick red cloth. And on the cloth there are plates and glasses and so many candles. Is this how they eat their meals above stairs? There seems too much of everything, even for Mr and Mrs Searle and for all their guests. I am watching Molly closely and, seeing that she does not say a word about this huge spread, I do not neither. Then Molly and I go to stand by the door. We stand very still and wait for the guests to finish their meal.
Mr and Mrs Searle sit at the ends of the table. Mrs Searle is very pretty, but she is very cold. She has never once smiled at me.
Major Warren, Reverend Patton and Dr Smith sit on one side of the table. The reverend does not say much. He picks at his food and watches the others. Major Warren loves his food and is happy to tell the others so. His beard is soon stained by Mrs Baxter's cranberry sauce. The reverend glares at him from time to time.
On the other side of the table are Mr and Mrs Morton, Sir Charles Appleton and Mary-Anne Appleton. Lucius Morton leans across his wife to speak to Mary-Anne.
'What is the matter, little one?' he says. 'You are not eating. A pretty young thing like you needs to keep up her strength.'
Mary-Anne looks at the slices of goose on her plate. They look very tasty and I know that they are because Mrs Baxter let me try some when I was helping her in the kitchen.
'I knew a goose once,' Mary-Anne says. Her voice comes from a long way away. 'She told pretty stories. I know we devour stories, but we do we have to devour those that tell them?'
Mr Morton laughs, but I think that his laughter is cruel because Mary-Anne is crying.
'There, there,' says Mrs Morton, putting and arm around Mary-Anne.
'Stop that at once,' Sir Charles says to his daughter. 'I'll hear no more of your fantasies. Let me tell you a true tale about birds that tell stories.
'There is a rook that lands in the middle of a field and it stands there all alone. Then, one by one, other rooks arrive, but they do not join the solitary rook. Instead they form a circle round it. One by one they gather until that one rook is surrounded by quite a crowd. And all the birds are silent. And then the rook in the centre begins to speak and it caws out the tale that it has spent many, many days preparing beforehand. And when its tale is done, all is quiet again while the parliament of rooks sits in judgement upon the storyteller. And, if they do not like what they have heard then they fall upon the bird and peck it to death. Woe betide a storyteller not worth his salt.'
'Sir Charles,' Mrs Morton protests, rocking Mary-Anne in her arms, 'is that any kind of story to tell your daughter?'
'It's way past time the little mite grew up,' Sir Charles replied. 'Always got her head in the clouds, that one.'
'I do not have my head in the clouds,' Mary-Anne protests. 'If I did then I wouldn't be able to see because of all the white. But I can see you and you and you. Unless you are clouds. But anyway, I would need a neck like a giraffe, only longer, and my neck is not like a giraffe.'
Mary-Anne turns to Mrs Morton.
'He said I have a neck like a giraffe,' she says.
'Come with me, child,' Mrs Morton says, taking Mary-Anne by the hand. 'I don't think this is the best place for you.'
'Wilkie will show you to her room,' Mr Searle says.
Mrs Morton nods to him and then sweeps out of the room, her long black dress and Mary-Anne trailing behind her.
'It would appear our party is not going as smoothly as we hoped, is it, my dear,' Mr Searle says to his wife.
'It may not be going as you hoped, husband,' Mrs Searle replied, 'but it is going exactly as I expected.'
'Perhaps a story will raise our spirits,' Mr Searle says.
'Something less bloodthirsty than Sir Charles' offering, I hope,' Mr Morton says.
'Indeed, Lucius,' Mr Searle agrees, 'John, would you care to oblige us?'
Dr Smith runs a hand through his brown hair.
'Well,' he begins, 'only if you promise not to peck me to death at the end of it.'
Mr Morton grins at him.
'Only because you asked so nicely, Doctor,' he says.
Dr Smith sits up straighter in his chair. I am drawn in closer, not wanting to miss any of his story, but I notice Molly's warning stare and retreat back to the wall. I hope Mr Wilkie did not notice my error.
'Are we all sitting comfortably?' Dr Smith asks. 'Then I'll begin.
'Once upon a time, there was a large house on the coast of Scotland and in that house there lived a man. What shall we call him? How about Sir Charles?'
Sir Charles Appleton scowls at this, but Major Warren laughs loudly.
'Now Sir Charles lived all alone in his big, dark house and, presumably to alleviate the boredom, he would often take long walks down by the beach. On one of these walks he saw a beautiful woman standing on the cliff top and his heart skipped a beat. His breath caught in his throat as she threw herself from the cliff and dived beneath the surf. And when she emerged again, she was no longer a woman. Instead, she was a seal. And does anybody here know what that means?'
'It means that she was a Selkie, Doctor,' Mrs Searle tells him. 'We are not stupid. These little diversions in your narrative are not amusing, as you seem to believe, simply patronising and I for one find them extremely tedious.'
'My apologies, Lady Searle,' Dr Smith says. 'Sir Charles knew that she was a Selkie as well and he knew that she could be his if only he could steal her shawl, the magic of which allowed her to transform herself into a seal. So he watched and he waited and his walks became all the more frequent and, finally, he came upon her sleeping and he snatched away her shawl before she could wake.
''Where is my shawl?' the Selkie cried on waking.
''I have your shawl,' Sir Charles told her, 'and if you wish to have it back then you will marry me for I have been watching you for some time now and I fear that you have stolen my heart.'
'Now the Selkie had no wish to marry Sir Charles, but without the shawl she was nothing and she gave in to his demands. But Sir Charles did not return her shawl. Instead, he locked it in a heavy iron chest, the key to which never left his person. The Selkie and Sir Charles lived together in the large dark house for many years and Sir Charles took his pleasure with her whenever he desired, which was often and, before too long, she bore him twins, two beautiful girls with hair spun from moonlight and eyes the colour of the sea in a storm. This long captivity took its toll on the Selkie. She was a creature of the oceans, not meant to be bound on land. And she begged Sir Charles to let her return to the sea, but her promises to return fell on deaf ears for Sir Charles was too afraid of losing his most treasured possession.
'However, to trap a Selkie is no small thing and one should be prepared to face the consequences. Winter herself was so incensed by the treatment of her beloved daughter that she chose to wage war on that large dark house. She assailed the house with winds, but Sir Charles sealed and barred the doors. She struck with rain, flooding the lower floor of the house, but Sir Charles simply relocated his living-space upstairs. She hammered the house with hail, smashing through the windows as if they were not there. But deep within the large, dark house was a room with no windows, so Sir Charles, his wife and their children hid in their, safe from the hail and the wind and the rain.
'So finally, Winter reached in with her fingers of cold. And Sir Charles shivered. She touched him with her frost and he shook. Ice formed on his skin and his limbs froze and then the Selkie prized the key from his fingertips, went to the chest and retrieved her shawl. Without a word of goodbye, she fled the castle and returned to the ocean.
'Winter retreated, her work done, and Sir Charles could move no more. But he found he had no wish to. He still had his children, but without his wife the spark had gone from his life and he saw little reason to move from his window-less room. Years passed, and still Sir Charles would not go out. The children cared for the father, seeing to his every need, but he was a mere shadow of a man. That which had made him complete had been taken from him.
'And then the Selkie returned.
'She had wanted to stay away. Sir Charles had wounded her deeply and she wished to do the same to him, but, deep in her heart, she knew that his acts, however base, had been driven by love for her and, during that long time she had served him, she had, reluctantly, developed a certain fondness for him and, perhaps, something more.
''I have come back to you,' she said to Sir Charles, 'but if I am to stay then you must do as I ask.'
''Anything,' Sir Charles told her.
''You must swear never to take my shawl from me,' the Selkie said, 'and you must let me come and go as I please for the ocean is my true home.'
''I swear it,' Sir Charles said, for to see his bride again, if only for a brief time, was infinitely preferable to not seeing her at all.
'And so the Selkie, the man and their children became a family once more. Could it last? Who can say? I would not dare. Instead I shall leave the outcome of the story your hands, dear listener. Let their fates be as your imaginings.'
'Bravo!' Major Warren roars.
'Sentimental claptrap,' Sir Charles remarks.
'You don't have a romantic bone in your body, do you, Sir Charles,' Mr Morton says, 'not like our good doctor here.'
'Another story,' Major Warren demands. If I was not compelled to keep silent, I would be saying the same.
Dr Smith waves away the praise.
'Later, perhaps,' he says.
Molly and I clear away the goose, the vegetables and the potatoes and then we return bearing Mrs Baxter's plum pudding. The pudding is so large that Molly and I both must hold the tray. Mr Wilkie has set the pudding alight and I am afraid that the flame will burn my hair. Mr Wilkie tells me not to be so silly. The pudding is sliced and all the guests are given a generous portion.
'This is very good,' Doctor Smith says, taking a bite. 'My compliments to your cook.'
'Mrs Baxter's plum pudding is a highlight of the year,' Mr Searle says.
I agree. It is a highlight for me too because Mrs Baxter lets me lick the spoon clean when she is done.
'You must ask your Mrs Baxter to pass on the recipe to my own cook,' Major Warren says.
'Ah, but then what incentive would you have to come join me for Christmas, Major,' Mr Searle points out.
Sir Charles coughs.
'Too rich for you, Sir Charles?' Mr Morton asks.
Sir Charles' face is going very red. He hands claw at his throat and he is trying to breathe, but cannot. His eyes bulge, and look to me as if they will burst from his head like two pickled eggs, but they do not. Instead, Sir Charles makes one final, rattling moan and collapses, face first, into his pudding dish.
Dr Smith is on his feet and at Sir Charles' side in moments, but he is too late.
Sir Charles is dead.
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