The car reached a clearing at the brow of the hill, and there, across the great wooded valley, Marian saw the lights of Spelbourne House, twinkling through the bitterly cold evening like a cluster of guiding stars.
The snow beat down remorselessly. But as she drew nearer, she could almost feel the warmth of the blazing logs in the hearth and hear the wood-knots popping as her Uncle William worked the bellows. And, even more strongly, she could already sense the joy that would fill his heart at her surprise return. Memories began to flood back.
* * * * *
Four long years had passed since Aunt Josephine had insisted on sending Marian to America, pretending to be doing her duty as a guardian; but with the passage of time Marian had come to realise that her aunt’s only real concern had been to shed as quickly as possible the burden of bringing up her dead sister’s child.
“My dear, you simply cannot go through life like your uncle, unable to read or write”, she announced one evening.
“But aunt, I can read just as well as the others in my class!” protested Marian.
“Nonsense. The abilities of the children at school have nothing whatever to do with your abilities. And we can only discover what they are by sending you to a place of proper tuition”.
“No more buts, child. It’s all arranged”.
Uncle William was astounded by this news.
“You meantersay our Marian’ll have to go to another school, dearest?”, he asked, guessing that there might be more to it than that. Aunt Josephine looked at him over her pince-nez with the same air of superiority that had convinced a much younger Uncle William that here was a woman who was going to get what she wanted, and no mistake – and what she’d wanted was the money that he had inherited.
“She will go to the best school there is – Madame Blinsky’s”.
“I don’t think as I knows that one”, said Uncle William.
“I’d have been most surprised if you had”, replied Aunt Josephine. “It’s in America”.
Uncle and niece stared at each other, completely stunned.
“New York, to be exact. I have made several enquiries, Marian, and I am assured that Madame Blinsky’s Academy for the Daughters of Gentlefolk will be the ideal place for you to pass your formative years. Now there’s an end of it. You leave on Saturday. Prudence will help you pack”.
On the Friday evening before Marian’s departure, Prudence helped her fill a large chest with her belongings. The housemaid looked wonderingly at the address on the side of the trunk.
“I suppose you’re all excited, Miss Marian, goin’ off to America like this?”
“Well, Pru”, confided Marian, “I haven’t had much say in the matter. Aunt Josephine arranged the whole thing. I suppose it’ll all turn out for the best, but …”
“Why is she sendin’ you all that way, though, Miss? Why would she do a thing like that? There’s good schools not five mile away”.
Prudence was right, of course. Within a five mile radius of Spelbourne House there were two alternative schools of excellent reputation. Marian could only suppose that Madame Blinsky’s had something special to offer that was unavailable from the local establishments.
When the packing was complete, Marian went to say goodnight to her uncle and aunt. As her reading ability had improved, she’d taken to reading her uncle a story just before retiring. Recently, Uncle William’s taste had favoured macabre murder mysteries.
“One last bedtime story, child?”, he said, his eyes lighting up expectantly. “I don’t know what I shall do when you’re gone to America. I shall have to find someone else to read to me …”
“And I shall miss reading to you, Uncle”, said Marian sadly. Aunt Josephine, sitting regally in ‘her’ chair before the fire, put down her glass of port.
“I think it would be best if the child went directly to bed, William. There’s no sense in taxing her mind like this. She’ll have a tiring day tomorrow”.
“But dearest, it’s her last night with us …”
“That’s of no consequence”, insisted Aunt Josephine. “And she needn’t bother to write from America, either. I’ve no time to be writing letters”.
“Then how’ll we know she’s orlright?” said Uncle William.
“Madame Blinsky”, explained Aunt Josephine, attending to the crocheted scarf that she had just completed, “is world-famous for her excellent six-monthly school reports”.
“Six-monthy?”, cried Uncle William, aghast.
“That’s enough, William. Let’s not mar the child’s last evening with an argument”.
Marian looked at Uncle William. Whether the fire that was blazing in his eyes was a mere reflection, she was not sure ….
* * * * *
The wheels of the car crunched to a standstill outside the huge house. Madame Blinsky, in her very correct way, would have had Marian knock at the front door. But Marian decided that the tradesman’s entrance would afford her a better opportunity for surprise. She scampered through the snow, round to the back door. Luckily, it was unlocked, and Prudence was nowhere to be seen.
Marian crept along a corridor, towards the lounge. She could hear the sound of conversation coming from the room, though she couldn’t quite make out what was being said. The door was slightly ajar, and the flames of the log fire cast weird shadows along the wall. Marian peered through the crack in the door, and then stifled a sudden cry of astonishment.
There was Prudence, sitting in Aunt Josephine’s chair. She was sipping Aunt Josephine’s port, and reading aloud to Uncle William, whose eyes were closed and who appeared a picture of complete contentment. Now Marian could hear what Prudence was saying:
“The scarf cut deep into ‘er throat, chokin’ ‘er cries for ‘elp. But the murderer ‘ad no mercy …”
Uncle William’s eyes blazed open.
“Read that last bit again, dearest”, he said.
Copyright: Richard Fox 1976
All rights reserved