Читать онлайн «Winter’s Children: Curl up with this gripping, page-turning mystery as the nights get darker»
Hepzibah found herself shivering in the cold sunlight, hearing the rooks in the churchyard screeching. Blanche was too proud for her own good. Surely she would not tempt providence by gainsaying a man of the cloth.
Stone Walling (#ulink_a7494f94-69f0-5211-a3a5-59e96ffd8e20)
Evie ran through the farmyard splashing in the puddles and the tethered sheepdog, Fly, barked. It was black and white with pale blue eyes, jumping up excitedly as she passed. She would play hide-and-seek from her mother, who was slipping and slithering on the cobbles. There was a line of trees and wood where the leaves were fluttering down like golden snow. Then she saw a rabbit dart from the stone wall ahead of her and she chased it. She would hide from Mummy in the wood and jump out.
This was her playground now, fields and fields of it to explore. This was her fairy wood, just like the story she was reading where people lived in the tops of trees and there were lands you could visit. It was going to be magic. There were so many things at her feet to collect: feathers, stones, pine cones and fallen nuts. She could hear birds rustling in the leaves, drawing her deeper into the peppery darkness. She found some toadstools almost in a ring, jumping into the middle to make a wish. It was the enchanted wood and she expected to see houses in the trees but she looked up into the bare branches with disappointment for there was not even one door in the trunk, just a startled squirrel which darted quickly from her gaze.
For a second Evie felt a stab of fear, suddenly aware that someone was watching her, and she spun round to catch a glimpse of a poor lady with long white hair, dressed in a ragged cloak, who stared like a princess lost in a wood. Evie made to talk to her. How strange to see a white candyfloss mist floating through the trees, and there was a smoky perfume in the air.
Evie blinked and looked again but there was no one there, just the smell of a bonfire. She walked on tiptoe, trying to see where the lady was walking through the thicket. It was getting darker and colder, and suddenly her fear returned. It was time to walk backwards until she got her bearings but even so, she came out of the copse not where she went in. It was scary and exciting at the same time.
There was nothing Nik Snowden liked more than an afternoon’s walling, plugged into Bach and a pipe full of rich tobacco. His tape was playing the Double Violin Concerto, followed by a Mendelssohn Octet, guaranteed to set him up for the day. There was something satisfying in repairing a gap in the wall; eye and hand working together in a harmony of skill, knowing which stone to place where or facing a stone with a chisel to fit a space exactly. It was like making your own jigsaw puzzle.
A good wall was built to last. There were two on his land dated to Celtic times with high stones built in top-heavy fashion. This repair would see him out if he built it up well. It was always a sign of a good farm if there were few gaps in the stonewall boundaries. In the days before the cull he could count up to forty gaps in some stretches on the moors alone, and with grants for walling there was no excuse for slackness. Many of his friends had lost heart and made do, could not afford the expense of a decent stonewaller, but he was determined to put his walls in good nick even if his fields were a mess.
He had been taught by a champion waller. His father, Tom, was one of the best. Whenever there was a row with his wife he would always come out to mend a gap. It soothed his spirits and gave him time to think. It was better than any stress management course, alone on the moors with the wind.
Then he saw the girl from Side House sitting on a piece of bulging stone wall that was far from safe.
‘Get off the wall, it’s dangerous!’ he ordered, but she sat with her arms folded.
‘Why?’ she answered him back.
‘Because I say so.’ He looked up at the sharp little face and piercing eyes staring at him, unused to such cheek from a kid like her. ‘I don’t want my wall flattened and your mother on my heels for letting you bash your head. Just get off my wall this minute.’
‘You can’t make me, Mr Grumpy,’ came her riposte.
‘Yes I can. If a wall breaks and sheep get out, I’ll send you both back south on the next train, Little Miss Rude.’ He was trying not to chuckle. Mr Grumpy just about summed him up these days, but he kept a straight face.
‘You’ve missed a bit … There’s a hole in the wall down there.’ She pointed to a small gap through the wall.
‘That hole is for the sheep to go from one field to another, clever clogs. We call it a cripple hole and you should be in school,’ he snapped, carrying on with his work, ignoring the madam in the orange tights and Puffa anorak.
‘What are you doing now?’ she said, pointing as she leaped down.
He could not help but notice she was a funny kid, typical only child, nosy and solitary, old for her years. He should know, he had been almost one himself. Why was she not in school? Kids today seemed to have no respect for their elders.
All he wanted now was a bit of peace and quiet to see his way through next month’s decisions. The fact they had to take in strangers to make ends meet was no comfort. Now he couldn’t even wall in peace with those eyes on him.
‘Where have all your sheep gone?’ the girl asked, pointing out the obvious.
‘I’m waiting for some new ones,’ he answered carefully.
‘Did all yours get killed?’ she asked nonchalantly.
It was his turn to go pink. He nodded, then he saw with relief that her mother was storming down the field, her red-gold hair flying. They were a pair, those two, like peas off a pod.
‘Where’ve you been, Evie? I’ve been looking for you everywhere!’ shouted the Partridge woman.
‘I was only exploring and I found nuts and leaves and feathers, and a white lady walking through the trees,’ the kid replied.
‘Oh, yes, where did you see her then?’ he quipped, watching the mother’s lips smile though her eyes weren’t.
‘She waved to me but I couldn’t catch up with her and she disappeared right through the trees like magic,’ Evie replied.
‘What do you feed this kid on, magic mushrooms?’ Nik couldn’t help laughing and the mother blushed.
‘Geneva has a vivid imagination. Only children often do …’
Seeing she was rattled, he tried to explain. ‘We do get hippies wandering up the slopes on the magic mushroom trail,’ he offered, well aware that his waxed coat smelled to high heaven and he must look like a tramp himself in his mucky clothes. ‘Just get her off these walls. This is not a playground. I’ve told her if the wall breaks and my new sheep get out, she’ll be for it. The new stock won’t be familiar with these fields and will wander away.’ The woman did have the dignity to blush as she pulled her kid down in one fell swoop.
‘I did see a lady playing hide-and-seek,’ the brat argued, pointing to the far copse.
‘Never mind about that, do as Mr Snowden says,’ Evie’s mother bristled.
‘Will we see lambing time?’
Nik could see that Evie was a persistent kid so he shook his head. ‘Not this year, you won’t, and you’ll be gone before the season starts again.’ What a relief, he thought.
‘Can we stay until the next lambing then?’ asked the girl, tugging at her mother’s sweater.
‘I’m not sure … Perhaps we can come back for a weekend another time and see them then,’ came the mother’s diplomatic answer. ‘Come on, muppet, let’s not bother Mr Snowden any more than we have to.’ She grabbed Evie’s hand. ‘Don’t sneak off like that again. You must always tell me where you’re going.’
‘But I did see a lady in the wood; she was just like Cinderella gathering sticks. I did, I did!’ Evie pleaded in vain.
‘If you say so,’ came the weary reply.
Nik watched as the woman gave him a look and a sigh, not believing a word. They were an odd pair and he wondered just what was driving them so far north with only each other for company. Perhaps they were running away from someone or something. If so, they’d picked a strange hiding place. There was nothing in Wintergill that wasn’t ferreted out by gossips. Dalesmen were secretive about themselves but curious about offcomers, and his mother would be quietly gleaning information to fill in the gaps, he smiled to himself.
So the kid sees the White Lady too, he mused, lighting his pipe and turning back to his task, switching on his Walkman and losing himself in music. He could have said something to explain who she was but he’d stayed dumb, not wanting to admit to seeing something odd himself now and again. That was none of their business.
He needed no third eye nor any reminders that there would be no lambs, no new life in his fields. The thought of waiting another year to tup his ewes did not bear thinking about.
Suddenly his canned music was grating on the ear and his back ached. Enough of pretending he was busy, he decided, and made for the back door.
He paused, staring over the empty fields again. How many generations was it going to take for his new stock to be hefted to these hills; to know where to graze safely out on the moor, read the weather signs and learn the best walls to shelter underneath out of the snow? He didn’t want kids roaming around, he wanted stock and a proper income. When would life ever return to normal?
Will this journey never end? Blanche sighs, for she has travelled down the weary paths of time, over fell and fountain for so many years; a trick of the light, a shadow on the wall. She shimmers in the darkness, seen only in the glint in the eye of a barking dog, which whiffs her scent, growls in the air and sinks its teeth into nothingness.
Only the eye of the innocent may catch a glimpse of a trapped spirit lost between worlds. Cousin Hepzibah will sense her coming and her purpose, but she knows nowt of the world, confined within that cursed house.
Hepzibah is powerless against this annual visitation like some drab nag tethered to a farm’s stable, while she, Blanche, is free to roam like a wild white horse of the hill at a gallop, ever searching in winter’s light. But now her powers are waning.
I am weary of this everlasting search. Only a child’s heart sees my faerie triangles in the woods, my silver toys by the waterfall. I sense a maid is close by even now … I do not know myself any more. Lord have mercy. Give me back what is rightfully mine and I will be content. Jesu, Maria, Libera Me.
On their way back to the Side House, Kay and Evie took a detour to inspect the front of the old house from a vantage point in the higher field. It was a strange house of two halves, a Janus of a house with two faces, one painted white with sandstone lintels, three storeys high with six mullioned windows on each level, three on either side of the main door. There were eighteen windows catching every inch of sunlight like a bright smiling face looking down over the river valley.
To the rear, the house slumped low at the back, facing north with narrow slits of window eyes in rough stone, the side that took the brunt of the weather.
There was no birdsong in the winter air. The hawthorn berries were splattered on the grass like blood clots, leaves were cartwheeling across the walled garden, smoke billowed from the tall chimney stack and Kay was bursting to see the inside. She would have to find some excuse to knock on the door.
Just before darkness closed over them, she tapped on the back door clutching a bottle of red wine as a peace offering to Mr Grumpy, hoping he would offer them a tour. The collie barked as his master opened the door and ushered them in with a nod, surprised by the bottle, thinking they’d come to the wrong entrance.
‘What’s this in aid of?’ He looked down at the label with interest.
‘Just a peace offering from Evie for jumping on your walls … Your mother said you might show us around inside. I hope you don’t mind,’ Kay smiled.
‘Mother’s round the front … but you can go through if you shut your eyes to my mess.’ The farmer ushered them quickly round the table. The kitchen smelled like a farmyard: cow muck, wet dog, damp washing and stale tobacco with a tincture of burned toast and bacon. The breakfast table was littered with Farmers Weekly, junk mail, invoices, a loaf in its wrapper and a milk bottle, a pile of unwashed plates and mugs in the sink; a busy man’s domain. On the rack above the cooking range hung overalls and log-cabin shirts. Kay scuttled past trying not to be nosy, feeling every inch the intruder, tripping over a sack of dog biscuits and a tin bowl of water. Evie made for the dog cowering under the table from her enthusiasm, sniffing her outstretched hand with interest.
After a few minutes of small talk, Kay wished she hadn’t angled for this visit but she was determined to see the inside for herself. They stepped through a black oak door into a corridor and then into a large hall with stone-flagged floor covered with a ragged kilim rug on which sat a huge mahogany table. On the side was a large inglenook fireplace. The table seemed to form a barrier between the two halves of the downstairs. There was a huge dresser full of pewter plates and resting there a telephone, unopened post and a stuffed curlew in a glass dome. She glanced at an old bill dated 1753 framed on the wall, and a salmon encased in its cabinet. The walls were lined with sepia photographs and larger portraits up the stairs. There was a smoky musty smell of dampness as their shoes echoed on the stone flags.
In a side room Kay glimpsed a den of books, CDs, a sound system, a battered old sofa and a marble surround to the fireplace, a once formal room turned into the farmer’s den. The key to this man was music, she mused. The other doors were firmly shut.
They mounted the staircase slowly, looking at the portraits with eyes following them up to the first floor, which opened into a formal sitting room, frozen in aspic, unused and chilly, with some fine Georgian furniture, and miniatures on the walls. This could be a pretty drawing room if the fire was lit and the curtains drawn back, for it faced south, with a magnificent view.
‘Do you ever use this room?’ she asked. ‘It’s gracious and well proportioned.’
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