Читать онлайн «Winter’s Children: Curl up with this gripping, page-turning mystery as the nights get darker»
‘Every blue moon when we had guests, but not now. It’s just one more place to heat. One of my ancestors built it for his wife. The rest are bedrooms on this floor.’ He marched them up to the next floor, opening piles of rooms full of junk, antique brass bedsteads and washstands. There was a spinning wheel that caught Evie’s eye but as she touched the wheel a shower of dust fluttered into the air and made them sneeze.
‘As you can see, there’s not much to Wintergill,’ said their guide briskly, dismissing his home as if he were an estate agent.
‘Oh, but there is. Every one of these rooms could tell a story – and the view!’ Kay enthused, admiring the spacious bedrooms. ‘There must have been wealth here to build such a place.’
‘Sheep made many a fortune until now,’ Nik replied, shrugging his shoulders. ‘It’s said Cromwell spent a night here on a table surrounded by guards during the Civil War. The Snowdens were for Parliament for a while but somehow they ended up right even after the Restoration of the King. They were Dissenters – puritans – and paid fines for worshipping at a chapel not the church,’ he added, sensing her interest. ‘I guess these stone walls could tell the history of Yorkshire, good times and bad. If I had more time, there’s a pile of old papers needing sorted out, deeds, wills and suchlike.’
‘How exciting,’ Kay smiled. ‘If you need any help with Latin …’
‘Thanks, but even farmers like me did Latin at school,’ he quipped, and she blushed, hoping he didn’t think she was patronising him. For a few seconds she could see the enthusiasm bursting out of his grim face. His eyes were blue – not cold ice blue, more the colour of Delft plates. Had the Norsemen left their mark in these hills and dales? she mused, looking at his tall outline, long legs and suntanned skin with interest. Then the warmth of the moment was gone and the grimness returned.
Nik was anxious to get rid of these intruders. The woman was getting too close to what was dearest to his heart. He could sense her fascination with this ancient house or why should she give up a good claret to make this tour? He didn’t normally show people around or let them in through the back door to see the muddle he lived in. What he felt about Wintergill was private. Sometimes he felt it wasn’t just a house, it was a living, breathing being with a character all of its own.
Wintergill had its own heart and soul. It belonged to no one generation, no one time.
He was convinced it was his duty to keep the lifeblood flowing even if it was just keeping the roof sound and the walls intact. If he gave up farming, took his compensation, perhaps he could bring it back to full repair. That was about it. He could rent out the land for grazing and develop the farm buildings, but for what? Without stock Wintergill would no longer be a living entity, but who would take on the burden of its repair when he was gone?
Evie had never been in such a rambling house, with passageways you could ride a bike along, and all those grand faces looking down at her from the walls. There were ladies in funny hats and old men with moustaches and funny collars. There were photos of children on horseback, sitting stiffly in white frilly dresses and floppy hats just like in The Railway Children. There were lines of ladies in sticky-out skirts, who were scowling at her.
The house smelled of smoke, not of soap like the Side House, and as she climbed the stairs she could sniff sweet lavender wafting up the stairs so she turned round. There was a lady, staring ahead, in black skirts all bunched up and her hair hidden under a cap. She was carrying a bunch of pointed feathers tied up like a brush.
Evie paused to point out the lady. ‘Who’s that down there?’ she asked, pulling her mother’s sleeve.
Mummy turned and leaned over the banister rail. ‘Who’s where?’
Evie looked but the lady had disappeared. ‘There was a lady watching us,’ she whispered.
‘It must be Mrs Snowden, she told us to pop in for coffee.’
‘No, it wasn’t her. It was a lady with feathers,’ she insisted, so Mummy felt her forehead.
‘If you say so, muppet. Nobody’s there now. Does this place have ghosts?’ she asked Mr Grumpy. He was waiting at the top of the stairs.
‘Hundreds, but I’ve never seen one in here. Have you spotted someone?’ he asked, looking over her head.
‘I’m not in the least bit psychic … only wish I were,’ Mummy said.
‘I did see a lady at the bottom of the stairs, I did,’ Evie protested. Why would no one believe her?
‘There’s a fair few of them up these stairs giving you the eye,’ Mr Grumpy laughed. ‘Their eyes follow you from every angle … Old Jacob there, my great-grandfather, he could tell you a few tales, and that’s his wife … they say she was a witch.’ He pointed to a lady with black eyes and poky bonnet.
Evie was indignant. That wasn’t the lady with the feather brush. She spun round to see if she was there again. The upstairs was disappointing. There were no rocking horses or toys, no secret hidy-holes. It was dark and sneezy, and she was hungry.
‘Can I go and find Mrs Snowden now?’ she asked. ‘I’ll carry the basket back, if you like …’
‘Your mother did invite us to call …’ Mummy was being very polite to Mr Grumpy.
‘Downstairs, turn left down the corridor to the door at the end. She has her own kitchen,’ he replied, and Evie shot down the stairs two at a time.
She was glad they slept in the Side House and not up those creepy stairs, miles from the living room. The Side House was bright and cosy, and she could hear Mummy down the stairs. Suddenly she smelled the lavender again and stopped. The woman in the black skirt was walking ahead, ignoring her, walking straight through the wall as if it wasn’t there. Evie blinked. This was a strange house, and if she told Mummy what she had just seen no one would believe that either.
Then she remembered the story Mummy was reading to her of the Bront? children, who made secret little drawings and stories. This was going to be her very own secret to put in her drawing book. She would write in tiny words and pictures, copying what Emily, Charlotte and Anne were doing. She was going to be a spy in Wintergill and find out if there were any more smelly ladies walking into walls.
‘What are you doing?’ Evie was watching Mrs Snowden chopping carrots and apples into a bowl on her kitchen table. ‘I’ve been making Christmas puddings with carrots and apples, raisins, currants and nuts, all mixed up together,’ she said, pointing to a baking bowl full of a gloopy mixture. On the table were a line of pots waiting to be filled. ‘Now I’ve got to steam them for hours,’ she added.
Evie could smell spices and toffee apples. It looked yummy.
‘You can stir it up for me, if you like, and we can pack it into these tiny bowls. Here’s a spoon, and let me wrap the tea towel round your waist or we’ll get all your clothes sticky.’ There were bowls waiting to be filled, all different sizes.
‘Why do you make so much?’ Evie asked.
‘To sell on the Women’s Institute stall and to give to my friends. Home-made puddings are always favourites. This is my very own recipe. Have a taste,’ said Mrs Snowden, finding a teaspoon and dipping it in the goo. Evie sipped it cautiously. It was sweet and spicy, but something rubbery was sticking to the roof of her mouth so she wasn’t sure.
‘When they’re steamed properly, you can take one home for your mum. Then you can help me make some mince pie mixture,’ said Mrs Snowden. ‘It has to soak for a while yet so all the flavours settle down.’
‘I like your kitchen.’ Evie stared at the shelves full of jars, the bunches of dried herbs and the cauldron bubbling on the stove. It was a witchy kitchen. ‘But why do you have two kitchens here?’ she asked, knowing Mr Grumpy had his own big stove.
‘This was once the dairy room, but it suits me fine. I can do all my baking and read a book at the same time. My son has the big one. It’s handy for the yard and all his mucky clothes. I expect you’ve noticed farmers get very muddy. Come and fill the pound pots,’ she said, not looking at her but offering her another spoon.
‘We don’t do pounds and ounces. We do grams and kilos,’ Evie announced proudly as she shovelled the gloopy mixture into the bowl.
‘Well, I’m too old for all that newfangled stuff. My scales are imperial, not metric. Does your mummy do any baking?’ the old lady asked. Evie wasn’t sure how to answer. She was a bit frightening, like a stern teacher.
‘We cook pasta and rice and noodles and stir-fries,’ she answered.
‘No, I mean real baking: cakes and pies, scones and biscuits.’
Evie shook her head. ‘We buy all our stuff from Sainsbury’s. Mummy says sweet things are bad for my teeth. I’m only allowed pudding on Saturdays, so we have fruit yoghurts and fromage frais.’
‘I’m sure it’s all very healthy, but there’s nothing like a bit of home baking to warm your ribs on a cold day.’ The lady paused and gave her a smile. ‘When I was a little girl, we used to buy the flour in sacks, and a tub of treacle and sugar too. We stored eggs for winter and churned our own butter and milk. There was nothing my mother didn’t make on a Thursday. That was baking day, and I used to run home from school just for the smell coming through the kitchen door; bread, floury barm cakes, oven-bottom loaves, scones, tarts and pastries. You get very hungry on a farm.
‘It was a sight to behold, and if we were having company then there were even more to put away in tins until Sunday. Sometimes we’d be snowed in for weeks so we had to have plenty in the larder to tide us over. Who bakes your Christmas cake?’ The old lady was plopping round circles of paper and lids onto the bowls.
‘We buy a small one, because Daddy doesn’t eat cake. Nanny says he’s away on business and he can’t live with us now.’ Evie remembered she wasn’t supposed to talk about Daddy. ‘I only eat the icing but Mummy likes the marzipan.’
‘I shall have to show you how to bake a cake then.’ The cooking lady nodded. ‘I don’t suppose you have cooking lessons yet.’
Evie shook her head. ‘I can put topping on a pizza base.’ They carried on filling the bowls and she wondered what Mummy was doing.
‘Mrs Snowden …’ she paused uncertain whether to continue, ‘who’s the lady on the stairs?’
‘In the painting? That’s Jacob’s wife, Tom’s grandfather … Now she was a real baker and very proud of her kitchen. I’ve got one of her old recipe books. Would you like to see it?’ She wiped her fingers on her apron and pulled an old leather-bound book from a cupboard. The notebook was full of spidery brown writing. ‘Look, this is Agnes Snowden’s ginger parkin, and I still make it to that recipe – I brought you some the other day – and her Christmas pudding is the mixture I’m using now. She was supposed to be a bit of a fortune-teller and a tartar to her servants.’
Mrs Snowden was sniffing. Nanny Partridge never sniffed like that when she was talking.
‘She looks like butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth but it’s said she ruled this place with a rod of iron.’
‘Why does she live on the stairs?’
‘I don’t understand … no, just in the portrait on the wall. What stairs, Evie?’ she asked, curious.
‘I saw a kind lady at the bottom of the stairs with a big white collar round her neck and a long black skirt. She looked very busy.’ Evie watched as the old lady brought down her spoon.
‘When did you see her?’
Evie pointed to the back of the house. ‘I think I saw her looking out of the window this morning but she was there when we went to see Mr Grumpy … your farmer … and he showed us round the house. I saw her again coming to you and she walked right through the wall. But no one will believe me,’ Evie added. ‘Is she a nice ghost? She had a bunch of feathers in her hand.’
‘I think she must be, but I’ve never seen her. It sounds like Mistress Snowden. I heard tell that she’s never left the old place. My little girl used to see her sometimes … They say old houses gather spirits like dust. She must love this place to hang on for hundreds of years with her goose-feather duster. My mother used to have one of them too. They got right into the corners … We never wasted anything in the olden days … not like today. Goose feathers made pillows and eiderdowns.’
Evie was relieved that someone else had seen her.
‘Where’s your little girl?’ Evie was busy licking the bowl.
‘Gone to live with Jesus and the angels, like your daddy,’ Mrs Snowden sighed, looking out of the window and shaking her head. ‘She was only lent to us for a season … too good for this world.’
‘My daddy’s gone away to work but he’ll come back for Christmas. I’ve asked Santa and he can do magic. Have you ever seen an angel?’ Evie asked.
‘Not as I can rightly think of, Evie. I don’t believe in angels with wings flapping. I think they come in other disguises to trip us up.’ Mrs Snowden was shaking her head again and Evie noticed she had a stray whisker on her chin.
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