Chapter no 10

The Silent Companions

‘Its eyes moved.’

‘What?’ Elsie’s pen jerked and spluttered over the page. Ruined: her letter to the builder was ruined. ‘What do you want, Mabel?’

After two weeks of resting in bed, Mabel had resumed dusting and other light tasks. Elsie was inclined to think she could manage a lot more. She played up to her misfortune, dragging herself about like a child with a club foot.

Today she stood in the open doorway of the library, her posture crooked, favouring the uninjured leg. Her right hand clasped a dirty cloth and there was a smear of soot on her nose.

‘The thing. Its eyes moved and looked right at me.’

Elsie laid down her pen. ‘What thing?’ she asked. But she already knew. It was as though she had spent the last fortnight just waiting for this to happen.

‘The wooden thing.’ ‘The companion?’

‘That’s it.’ Sweat spangled the thin line of hair showing beneath Mabel’s cap. Her throat worked. ‘I won’t clean it no more. Its eyes moved.’

Words formed in her mind; a thousand cutting remarks. She could not utter a single one of them. ‘The gypsy boy?’

Mabel shook her head. ‘T’other one.’ ‘Show me.’

They walked downstairs in silence, stiffly, like marionettes. Wind gusted through the cracks in the floorboards and skittered leaves

against the windows. From behind the house, Beatrice gave a mournful low.

Helen stood waiting in the Great Hall, her knuckles clenched around a duster.

‘You have moved them again,’ Elsie said, looking at the scratches on the floor. ‘Why do you keep moving them?’

We didn’t move them,’ cried Mabel.

Both companions stood beside the fireplace. There was something different about the boy, but she could not place her finger on it. He regarded her haughtily, staring to his left. He was taunting her, daring her to notice a change.

Something . . . The angle of his face . . . She shook the thought off. There was no change. Paintings did not change, it was a ridiculous fancy.

The little girl looked exactly as Elsie recalled her: the white rose pressed to her breast; her mischievous smile and the olive silk. Her green-brown eyes still carried the same warmth of expression – they had not moved.

She let out her breath. ‘You do not appreciate good art, Mabel. The skill of a painter is to make the eyes look as if they are upon you, no matter where you stand. Go walk past the portraits upstairs. The same thing will happen.’

‘I weren’t walking. Didn’t move a muscle. I stood still, right there, and they slid.’

It was too horrible to imagine. She would not imagine it, or believe any more of these servants’ ridiculous stories. ‘Did Helen see it?’

‘No, ma’am,’ Helen croaked. She wrung the duster. ‘But . . .’ ‘Let me guess: you found writing?’

‘No. I felt . . . strange. Like someone were watching me.’

‘We have all felt like that, Helen. It was probably Jasper.’ She turned away from the companions. ‘I think Mabel had better go to bed. She is clearly still unwell. And since we are here, Helen, I would rather you put the boy back wherever you found him. Miss Sarah only asked for the girl to go on display.’

‘I’ll put it in the cellar if you wish, ma’am. Still can’t get into the garret.’

‘Yes, I was in the middle of writing to Torbury St Jude for someone to open the garret when Mabel started this folly. You put

the gypsy boy in the cellar and I will return to my letter.’ She was heading for the stairs when Mabel’s voice stopped her.

‘What about t’other one?’

‘Miss Sarah wants the girl companion, Mabel. Have Helen clean it if it scares you so.’

‘No.’ Mabel pointed a soot-caked finger. ‘That one.’

On the oriental rug, where Rupert’s coffin had lain, stood a third companion.

An old woman seated on a chair. It was worse than the gypsy boy; not just sneering but decidedly malevolent. She wore a white coif and a black partlet. Propped in her arms was a doll-like child, unnaturally stiff and blank-faced.

‘Where did that come from? Why . . . why would anyone paint such a thing? That face!’ Her words rang out through the hall and bounced back at her.

Helen trembled.

‘Put it away, Helen. Where on earth did you find it?’

Helen’s lips quivered. ‘Here, ma’am. Right here, this morning.’

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