The Street Sweeper of between – In Progress, Extract 2

This is a relatively self contained flashback chapter, currently about 12k words in, but it can pretty much be lifted and dropped anywhere. As ever likely to be re-written several times before it finally emerges:

 

–>

 

The phrase “Mr Arris is such a kind man to take you in,” was one that echoed through the happy years Cecilia stayed in his household. They were the favourite words of Missus Greene, the housekeeper, who was as fat and ruddy cheeked and busy as the very best housekeepers should be. She was every bit as kind a lady as merited by her generous and thoughtful employer. What had become of Mister Greene, or indeed if there had ever been one, was a mystery Cecilia never did get around to resolving.

 

Mr Arris kept three homes, being well to do in the legal profession and an inheritor of mercantile wealth from his mother’s side. In town there were rooms above his offices, where he stayed when dining late at his club, or seeing to particularly pressing client matters. Ordinarily he stayed in the tall town house, whose gardens sloped into the tributary of the river. There Cecilia had a room all of her own, and a place at the table for breakfast and supper when Mr Arris was at home.

 

When he was away, travelling on business, or in his rooms in the city, Cecilia ate with the staff. Alongside Mrs Greene there was Davis the cook, and Claire the maid, and there were also Big John and Little John, the gardener and his boy, who also did odd jobs around the house and for the neighbours. Maxwell was Mr Arris’ manservant and tended to stay with him at all times.

 

This was the entirety of Cecilia’s social circle, but for her governess Miss Bridges. Unusually Miss Bridges did not live with the family, but came in every day on the penny tram for three hours to conduct Cecilia’s lessons. She spoke little, taught much and as far as Cecilia could tell Mr Arris had never actually met her. She had been recommended by a client to Mr Arris, and every month she left him a written report on Cecilia’s progress, which he would read carefully when he came home.

 

Cecilia knew he read them carefully because he would call her into his study and question her. Except for the warmest days of summer there would be a cheery fire in the grate and Mr Arris would be seated in his large armchair with a glass of sherry, and the report held a little way from him, being examined through his spectacles. He was still a young man, of lithe build and neat black hair, but years of study had taken their toll on his eyesight.

 

Cecilia enjoyed those evenings because she was a eager student and Mr Arris was always pleased. He would quiz her on her arithmetic and geography, and ask her to tell him about the books she was reading. He was particularly interested in her reactions to characters, whom she liked and disliked, whether she felt empathy or disdain for their sufferings. Miss Bridges’ tastes fell to the gloomy and the romantic, Scott and the Brontes, and this seemed to suit Mr Arris very well. And if he did not ask whether Cecilia was a little young, or precocious perhaps for such material, Cecilia did not mind.

 

On rare occasions, at the height of summer, or for Christmas, Mr Arris would close up the town house and take everyone to the country house in Edale which looked out onto Kinder Ridge. It was a remote and lonely place, with forbidding stone walls and old ivy that crept up the corners. In winter the wind would whistle round it, and the rain would pelt down with a thunder all of its own. Spartan fells stretched away in every direction, broken only by the odd stand of trees and the strange piles of rock upon the crags.

 

Cecilia loved it. Beneath the smell of mothballs and old dust was the faint scent of home. Sometimes, in the very dead of night, when the entire household slumbered, she would lie awake in the large, sparse room that was hers in this grand house, and listen to it as it settled. Floorboards would creak, and drafts would whisper, and yet none of this was frightening to the little girl. In every sound she heard the echo of her own breath and the beating heart that said “Welcome.”

 

Miss Bridges never came to stay at the house and Cecilia’s days were free of lessons. She would explore the cold, empty rooms or sit in the library with her feet tucked underneath her, immersed in a book, or dreaming over the large leather bound atlas.

 

It was during one such visit at the age of eleven, in high summer when the stench in London was unbearable, that Cecilia would unknowingly change everything.

 

Mr Arris had returned to London following an urgent message from one of his clients. Without their master to cater for the household went back to its homely mode. Meals were served in the kitchen, with bustle and noise and little decorum. Missus Greene held court over the staff, which was swelled by the elderly groundskeeper and his wife.

 

Cecilia had been feeling out of sorts since her guardian had left. The messenger had ridden up on a lathered horse, and swung off his saddle in a cloud of dust, his wide riding cloak sweeping dramatically out behind him. He had glanced up to the window where Cecilia watched, and nodded gravely at her before hammering on the door. She had not seen his face under the shadow of his broad hat, but a shiver had run down her spine and she had been restless ever since. She ate little, and made her excuses early. In the midst of the noise and laughter it was easy for Cecilia to pick an apple from the bowl and with a wave to Missus Greene slip quietly out of the kitchen.

 

Cecilia knew all the rooms in the house but one. She had been through the entire attic, where the whitewashed walls of the small servants’ quarters were marked in rectangles where the sunlight streamed through the small windows, tracing a yellowed path until the sun rose over the building. She knew the family chambers, which echoed without carpets on their hard wooden floors. With Little John she had been through all the lower rooms and cellars and store rooms.

 

Between the large family chambers and the servants in the attic was the nursery floor. There were three small rooms, which Cecilia knew well. Mr Arris and his late sister Emily had occupied two of them as children, and there were still some signs of their childhood to be found in the cupboards and toy chests. Cecilia sometimes played with Miss Emily’s dolls, but she was always careful to put them back exactly as she found them. There was a third room which had not been used for a generation, dating to a time when there are had been a larger family in residence, and more children to accommodate.

 

The nursery level of the house was dominated by the nursery itself. Double doors off the main staircase that wound up the east side of the house opened into this large square room, and the other rooms led off it.

 

Over the years, as her arithmetic and drawing improved, Cecilia had determined the dimensions of the level, of the main stairwell on the east side and the small servants’ stairs on the north east corner of the building. With her ruler she had mapped out the room Mr Arris had used as a boy, in the south west corner, and the room Miss Emily had used in the south east corner. The rooms had a connecting door which was unlocked, as well as their own doors into the nursery. She had even walked all the way round the building noting where the chimneys rose and how many windows faced out of each wall.

 

The smaller unused room was to the north west, and the mysterious room she had not explored was tucked into the north east corner beside the servants stairs. She knew it was there because none of the other measurements made sense without it. When her calculations were completed she even managed to work out where the door would have been in the nursery, but it seemed to have been bricked and plastered over many years ago.

 

The room beside it, in which there was a rocking chair and a tall chest of drawers, should have had another door; an adjoining door into the mystery room. She had paced and stared and she knew there was a door there, but she could not see it in the gloom of disuse and the shrouding dust sheets.

 

That evening, with Mr Arris away and the staff merrily at dinner Cecilia opened up the small unused room, sat down in the dust and looked at the wall that should have had a door. She rolled the bright green apple in her hands, almost forgetting she held it. When she closed her eyes there was a moment as the grey walls faded into eyelid red that she could see it. An outline half hidden behind the chest of drawers. She had a piece of chalk in her pocket, and she went to stand by the chest. She put the apple on it, unmindful of the drifts of dust caught in the coverings. She closed her eyes again, and this time she traced onto the wall standing on her tip toes to outline the lintel.

 

The chest did not cover the whole of the hidden doorway, but whether it was hidden by boards or plaster or was entirely bricked up Cecilia could not tell. She sat back down and tapped the chalk on her chin, thinking.

 

There was a croquet set in the nursery, neatly boxed with worn and chipped hoops and brightly coloured balls. There were also two mallets. Cecilia had always been a sedate child. Not one given to tantrums, nor one that played roughly with her toys or broke them. She had never swung a mallet before, much less intended to break something. In her mind’s eye she pictured Big John in his little workshop at the foot of the garden in London, hammering a bent hinge straight. She swung the mallet and it sank with a dull, unsatisfying thunk into thick plaster. She swung it again and this time large chunks of the plaster fell away. She got to her knees and pulled away more plaster with her hands, and felt underneath them. No rough, split laths but the smooth solid wood of a door.

 

She didn’t laugh, or crow in delight. This was merely a job half done, if well done so far. She had applied the logic Miss Bridges had taught her, and the careful arts of measurement and deduction, and here was her reward. She knocked away more plaster to reveal that she was on the lock side of the door, and the hinge side was covered by the chest of drawers. Further hits with the mallet revealed that the door opened away from her.

 

She worked her way up swing by swing to where the handle should have been. There was nothing. When she peered through the hole for the handle there was only darkness, nor could she see anything through the keyhole.

 

She looked at the door for some time, thinking of how to open the lock without either key or handle. She did smile briefly when she found a solution, but the determination to complete her enquiries was greater than her pleasure. She went back into the nursery trailing the mallet, which she put away before going into the childhood room of Mr Arris. The door into Miss Emily’s room was in exactly the same place on his wall as the one she was trying to open in the rooms opposite. All the brass handles on the nursery floor were the same, round, small enough to fit a child’s hand and held in place with a single screw.

 

She undid the screw with her pocket knife and removed the handle and the stem it was attached to. She took these back to the locked door and fitted them. The door gave slightly when she turned the handle, but then stopped after a fraction of an inch. It was locked.

 

The lock was old, and only intended to provide a little privacy rather than keep out anyone truly intent on getting past it. Cecilia jammed her pocket knife into the lock and felt around. The key was still in it from the other side.

 

She sat back down, this time tapping the haft of the pocket knife softly against her lips, deep in thought. If the door was locked from the inside, then surely someone must have left by the other door before it was bricked over. Something about that train of thought didn’t ring quite true, and she teased at it for a while before setting it aside.

 

She fetched a large piece of slate from the nursery, still dusty with chalk from her calculations and slid it under the door. With a deep breath and she pushed the key through the lock. It dropped with a clink onto the slate. She pulled it back through the gap below the door and turned it in the lock.

 

It took a few shoves to free the wood from the thick skin of plaster. The door resisted and then opened suddenly. Cecilia stumbled through into falling dust and the still funk of space in which the air has not moved for a very long time. Her first sharp intake of breath made her gag, she scrambled back out of the room and threw open a window in the nursery, sucking in fresh lungfuls of air. 

 

She was on her way back to her room, hoping to avoid anyone so that she could bring more candles when Missus Greene appeared on the stairs. She gave Cecilia a wide smile, her face flushed with the effects of a little of Davis’ cooking wine. “Time for bed now child,” she said, shooing Cecilia in front of her.

 

She waited while Cecilia changed into her night dress and crawled into bed before she swayed into the bedroom and tucked her in. Unusually she gave Cecilia a little kiss on the forehead. “Our Mr Arris is a good man to take you in, but you’re as good back to him child, I swear it.” She looked at Cecilia a little sadly, perhaps made maudlin by the wine; her eyes were wet with tears. “Such a pretty, precious child.” She kissed Cecilia again and then swayed out, leaving a stub of lit candle on the wash stand as a night light.

 

Silence fell on the house after Cecilia had counted the staff off to bed. Missus Greene’s heavy steps were followed by Claire, who skipped up lightly. The groundskeeper and his wife had left for their little cottage, and the Johns went to the potting shed where they slept in the summer. Cecilia heard them talking as they made their way through the kitchen garden. Finally Davis finished tidying her kitchen, locked the pantry, and made her slow way up the stairs, turning down the lamps as she went.

 

Cecilia let the house slumber for a while before she slipped back out of bed and lit a larger candle. She padded up the stairs on bare, silent feet. The window in the nursery was still open, as no one would have looked in to check. There was a faint breeze that carried the scent of the hills, grass and heather and cool freshness. For a moment she thought of giving the venture up. It could wait til morning, she could ask Big John to clear the doorway for her properly. With another breath of the night air she was resolved and ready to go back to bed, when there was a faint whisper against the back of her neck. Her hair moved minutely, her eyes were drawn back to the pair of open doors. One into the unused room, one still half covered with plaster and half hidden behind a chest of drawers, and the well of darkness beyond.

 

Cecilia left the window and lit the oil lamps in the nursery and then placed candles in the unused room, lighting her way back to the nursery. She had read enough ghost tales to know the foolishness of entering a strange room in the dark, so she took what precautions she could.

 

She stooped through the hole in the plaster and the open door and held up her candle. The room was bare. There was no cradle, no toys, no rocking horse in the corner, or any of the things Cecilia had imagined; just floorboards, dust and some empty shelves. The windows had been boarded up, and she knew now exactly which ones they were. She lifted the candle higher chasing the shadows out of corners. The light fell unevenly on the topmost shelf. She put the candle down on a little pool of wax, and went on tiptoes to reach up. Her fingers scrambled around for a while before a slim wooden object came into her hands.

 

It was a box, a little bigger than her palm, and very light. Thin pieces of hardwood slotted together and then carved with a random array of little circles. She ran her hands over the pattern, feeling the grain beneath her fingers. It grew warmer with her touch. Bringing it close to the candle she could see initials engraved and then gilded on it: EJH.

 

She opened the lid. Inside was a lock of brown hair and a miniature, painted on a locket the size of her thumb and suspended from a thin golden chain. She looked at the picture and felt the floor fall away from her feet. She was being sucked lovingly, gently into the eyes of the beautiful woman in the picture. Her head felt loose upon her shoulders, and her shoulders rolled as she readied herself to fall into an endless promise.

 

It was like sinking into a warm bath after a walk over the cold moors. It was the swell of pride when her work was praised by the fireside. It was arms to hold and comfort her.

 

A large hand closed over hers. Tenderly it plucked the locket from her hands and closed the box in her palms, and then lifted it away. The intoxicating magnetism of the box pulled her towards it as it was lifted over her head.

 

And then it was gone, all she could sense was sweat and horses and the heavy breathing of the man behind her. She could feel his hand hovering over her shoulder. She wanted to grow up into it, she wanted it to drop on her like an anchor that would tether her to this world, and give her a sense of place and belonging. She wanted the hand to close over her in a gesture of unity. It hovered, trembling; her awakened, alerted senses could see the lines of force pushing it up, and the gravity of affection drawing it down. Between his skin and hers was a layer of ache, a yearning for solidarity.  And then it too was gone.

 

“Off to bed now child, I think that is enough for one night.” Mr Arris was weary. Weary beyond the wild race from London, and the miles and fear that had borne down on him. “John, if you could ask Davis please for a little warm milk. I think my ward may need a little help sleeping.”

 

The lanterns were still on the floor. The light glowed up through Big John’s beard making him look fearsome and bear like, but Cecilia barely noticed as he lead her away.

 

When she was gone Maxwell picked up one of the candles and brought it into the room beside his motionless master, he set it on the lowest shelf. In his other hand he held the apple, a single bite had been taken from it by jaws much wider, and teeth much sharper than Cecilia’s.

 

“We knew this day would come.” Maxwell said gently, his tone pitying and sorrowful and far removed from his usual cool, professional demeanour.

 

“We did, and it seems like all our care has come to naught.” Mr Arris held the box as though he held a live snake, a viper that would coil and bite without a moment of hesitation. “You’d best see to the care of this.” He gave the box to Maxwell. In the peculiar light his manservant’s features looked sharper, more angular, almost alien. Maxwell nodded and left.

 

Mr Arris stood in the room alone for some time, despite the fatigue that threatened to drop him then and there, he let the room, and all its pent up anger and frustrations wash over him. There was plaster all over the floor where he had burst into the room, with Cecilia too deeply entranced to notice. Beneath it he could see the signs in the dust where she had fallen, where her bare feet had stepped, and where other, light feet had passed outward. His gaze fell on the other door, bricked over from the nursery side, but plainly visible here. The key was in the lock from the inside as well. When he left he whispered, “I’m sorry,” and “Lord have mercy on us all.”

 

When Cecilia next awoke it was a bright and cheerful summer morning. The church bells tolled in the distance. She frowned, Sunday had come sooner than expected, but she shrugged and hopped out of her bed. A wave of dizziness swept over her, the room swam in front of her eyes. She held on to a bed post, feeling her stomach churn, and then the room snapped back into focus, and the feeling passed.

 

Later that day, after lunch, she went to play with the late Miss Emily’s dolls in the nursery. And there, as they had always been, were the four rooms: Mr Arris’ room and Miss Emily’s room, the unused one, and the one that had once been hers when Mr Arris had first taken her in. Inside she knew she would find her old cradle, some toys and a short brightly painted rocking horse. She didn’t really give the matter any thought; after all she knew well all the rooms of this house. 

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