A Fragment of Life – 3b

‘No, we mustn’t; it’s much too horrible for a joke. Well, of course aunt went home and wondered and wondered what could be the matter, and tried to think it out, but, as she says, she could make nothing of it. She began to be afraid that uncle’s brain was giving way through overwork, as he had stopped in the City (as he said) up to all hours lately, and he had to go to Yorkshire (wicked old story-teller!), about some very tiresome business connected with his leases. But then she reflected that however queer he might be getting, even his queerness couldn’t make whistles in the air, though, as she said, he was always a wonderful man. So she had to give that up; and then she wondered if there were anything the matter with her, as she had read about people who heard noises when there was really nothing at all. But that wouldn’t do either, because though it might account for the whistling, it wouldn’t account for the dandelion or the Sandpiper, or for fainting fits that turned purple, or any of uncle’s queerness. So aunt said she could think of nothing but to read the Bible every day from the beginning, and by the time she got into Chronicles she felt rather better, especially as nothing had happened for three or four Sundays. She noticed uncle seemed absent-minded, and not as nice to her as he might be, but she put that down to too much work, as he never came home before the last train, and had a hansom twice all the way, getting there between three and four in the morning. Still, she felt it was no good bothering her head over what couldn’t be made out or explained anyway, and she was just settling down, when one Sunday evening it began all over again, and worse things happened. The whistling followed them just as it did before, and poor aunt set her teeth and said nothing to uncle, as she knew he would only tell her stories, and they were walking on, not saying a word, when something made her look back, and there was a horrible boy with red hair, peeping through the hedge just behind, and grinning. She said it was a dreadful face, with something unnatural about it, as if it had been a dwarf, and before she had time to have a good look, it popped back like lightning, and aunt all but fainted away.’

‘A red-headed boy?’ said Darnell. ‘I thought–What an extraordinary story this is. I’ve never heard of anything so queer. Who was the boy?’

‘You will know in good time,’ said Mrs. Darnell. ‘It is very strange, isn’t it?’

‘Strange!’ Darnell ruminated for a while.

‘I know what I think, Mary,’ he said at length. ‘I don’t believe a word of it. I believe your aunt is going mad, or has gone mad, and that she has delusions. The whole thing sounds to me like the invention of a lunatic.’

‘You are quite wrong. Every word is true, and if you will let me go on, you will understand how it all happened.’

‘Very good, go ahead.’

‘Let me see, where was I? Oh, I know, aunt saw the boy grinning in the hedge. Yes, well, she was dreadfully frightened for a minute or two; there was something so queer about the face, but then she plucked up a spirit and said to herself, “After all, better a boy with red hair than a big man with a gun,” and she made up her mind to watch Uncle Robert closely, as she could see by his look he knew all about it; he seemed as if he were thinking hard and puzzling over something, as if he didn’t know what to do next, and his mouth kept opening and shutting, like a fish’s. So she kept her face straight, and didn’t say a word, and when he said something to her about the fine sunset, she took no notice. “Don’t you hear what I say, Marian?” he said, speaking quite crossly, and bellowing as if it were to somebody in the next field. So aunt said she was very sorry, but her cold made her so deaf, she couldn’t hear much. She noticed uncle looked quite pleased, and relieved too, and she knew he thought she hadn’t heard the whistling. Suddenly uncle pretended to see a beautiful spray of honeysuckle high up in the hedge, and he said he must get it for aunt, only she must go on ahead, as it made him nervous to be watched. She said she would, but she just stepped aside behind a bush where there was a sort of cover in the hedge, and found she could see him quite well, though she scratched her face terribly with poking it into a rose bush. And in a minute or two out came the boy from behind the hedge, and she saw uncle and him talking, and she knew it was the same boy, as it wasn’t dark enough to hide his flaming red head. And uncle put out his hand as if to catch him, but he just darted into the bushes and vanished. Aunt never said a word at the time, but that night when they got home she charged uncle with what she’d seen and asked him what it all meant. He was quite taken aback at first, and stammered and stuttered and said a spy wasn’t his notion of a good wife, but at last he made her swear secrecy, and told her that he was a very high Freemason, and that the boy was an emissary of the order who brought him messages of the greatest importance. But aunt didn’t believe a word of it, as an uncle of hers was a mason, and he never behaved like that. It was then she began to be afraid that it was really Anarchists, or something of the kind, and every time the bell rang she thought that uncle had been found out, and the police had come for him.’

‘What nonsense! As if a man with house property would be an Anarchist.’

‘Well, she could see there must be some horrible secret, and she didn’t know what else to think. And then she began to have the things through the post.’

‘Things through the post! What do you mean by that?’

‘All sorts of things; bits of broken bottle-glass, packed carefully as if it were jewellery; parcels that unrolled and unrolled worse than Chinese boxes, and then had “cat” in large letters when you came to the middle; old artificial teeth, a cake of red paint, and at last cockroaches.’

‘Cockroaches by post! Stuff and nonsense; your aunt’s mad.’

‘Edward, she showed me the box; it was made to hold cigarettes, and there were three dead cockroaches inside. And when she found a box of exactly the same kind, half-full of cigarettes, in uncle’s great-coat pocket, then her head began to turn again.’

Darnell groaned, and stirred uneasily in his chair, feeling that the tale of Aunt Marian’s domestic troubles was putting on the semblance of an evil dream.

‘Anything else?’ he asked.

‘My dear, I haven’t repeated half the things poor aunt told me this afternoon. There was the night she thought she saw a ghost in the shrubbery. She was anxious about some chickens that were just due to hatch out, so she went out after dark with some egg and bread-crumbs, in case they might be out. And just before her she saw a figure gliding by the rhododendrons. It looked like a short, slim man dressed as they used to be hundreds of years ago; she saw the sword by his side, and the feather in his cap. She thought she should have died, she said, and though it was gone in a minute, and she tried to make out it was all her fancy, she fainted when she got into the house. Uncle was at home that night, and when she came to and told him he ran out, and stayed out for half-an-hour or more, and then came in and said he could find nothing; and the next minute aunt heard that low whistle just outside the window, and uncle ran out again.’

‘My dear Mary, do let us come to the point. What on earth does it all lead to?’

‘Haven’t you guessed? Why, of course it was that girl all the time.’

‘Girl? I thought you said it was a boy with a red head?’

‘Don’t you see? She’s an actress, and she dressed up. She won’t leave uncle alone. It wasn’t enough that he was with her nearly every evening in the week, but she must be after him on Sundays too. Aunt found a letter the horrid thing had written, and so it has all come out. Enid Vivian she calls herself, though I don’t suppose she has any right to one name or the other. And the question is, what is to be done?’

‘Let us talk of that again. I’ll have a pipe, and then we’ll go to bed.’

They were almost asleep when Mary said suddenly–‘Doesn’t it seem queer, Edward? Last night you were telling me such beautiful things, and to-night I have been talking about that disgraceful old man and his goings on.’

‘I don’t know,’ answered Darnell, dreamily. ‘On the walls of that great church upon the hill I saw all kinds of strange grinning monsters, carved in stone.’


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November 2015
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