“About time!” Melsham yelled as Slipper clattered breathlessly into the bedroom. “Where’ s that chamber maid? Look at the state of it.” Lady Melsham was not, in fact, about to throw up as Melsham had said, but was merely mumbling in her stupor. It was simply Melsham’s ineptitude with the sick that had caused him to panic.
What was causing Slipper to panic at that moment was the content of Lady Melsham’ s mumbling. Phrases like “Give it to Aunty Sh…Shylvia, big boy!” and “Geronimo!” mumbled as they might be into the pillow through a thickening of alcoholic haze, were hardly calculated to instil a feeling of confidence in one who had, a few moments before, actually been engaged in inspiring the drunken reminiscence and personally remembered the incidents as painfully as if they had been seared into his eyeballs. What with this and Helga lying unconscious upstairs, Slipper felt as if his brain was hanging loose. Stammering, he explained about the accident and Melsham swore. “Well, go and get Carmen then! And get some coffee on to sober her up.” He pulled the bedclothes around Lady Melsham again and something fell with a clatter at his feet.
Slipper turned hurriedly to obey, running on autodrive by now, and immediately plunged into what felt like an overstuffed mattress with which someone had blocked the doorway. Rebounding, he staggered back and gave an involuntary gasp: Helga, far from being unconscious, was rubbing her head ruefully and standing dumbstruck in the doorway staring at Lord Melsham’s downturned head.
Slipper’s gasp, Helga’s incredulous cry of “Mein leibling!” and Melsham’s startled, horrified, cry of recognition, all merged into one. Then, as he took a step backwards in terror, his foot slipped on the vibrator that had rolled free from Lady Melsham’s grasp and he clattered to the floor, banging his head on the bedside cabinet as he went down.
The noise roused Lady Melsham and she sat up in bed looking blearily around, letting the sheets fall carelessly from her body so that her breasts swung free. Helga threw herself forward, cradling Melsham’s bruised head in her lap whilst Lady Melsham leant forward dizzily to see what was going on, overbalanced and slid headfirst off the foot of the bed, knocking Helga off-balance and finishing up with her head cradled on the carpet, where she immediately fell asleep. Helga, meanwhile, gave her own head a fresh knock and immediately lost consciousness again.
It was a tableau that remained engraved on Slipper’s memory for a long time afterwards. Praying to the god of all menials to give him strength and patience, Slipper ran off to find Carmen to help put things back together again. The racket had, however, already alerted her, and Slipper met both her and Freddy hurrying along the corridor towards Lady Melsham’s room.
Arriving there she stood stock still in the doorway. The spectacle inside looked, at first sight, as though some mad axeman had been on the loose, with bodies sprawled all over the bedroom. “Oh my God!” Carmen intoned. “Get the doctor!”
“But…” Slipper began.
“Get the doctor, Slipper, get the bloody doctor!” she yelled as she hauled her mother upright again. “God! She’s stewed! Slipper …
But Slipper had gone to call the doctor. He knew when he was beaten.
When she arrived, Doctor Farmer viewed the unconscious ménage à trois with considerable circumspection, although with a lot less than she might have done had she been there half-an-hour earlier. At least Lady Melsham was now decently covered in bed, though snoring fit to burst, and Melsham’s head had been excavated from between Helga’s legs, although he still lay on the floor. Helga herself had come round just as the Doctor arrived and was now sitting groggily on the bed, nursing her head in her hands.
“Don’t know what it is,” growled Dr. Farmer “Every time I come here, the place is like a bear garden! Pity the nobs have got nothing better to do,” she sniffed. “Good game of hockey do them the world of good.
“Girl’s all right” she said, dismissing Helga. “Couple of aspirin, be as right as rain.
“Stomach pump for that one” she said, indicating Lady Melsham, snapping open her medical bag and producing the necessary equipment. “And as for that one” she said distastefully, pointing at Melsham “I expect he got what he deserved.”
She hustled everyone but Carmen and her patients out of the room and soon, through the door, Slipper and Freddy could hear the unforgettable sound of Dr. Farmer’s stomach pump in action. Freddy excused himself and staggered away, green in the face. Carmen shortly followed, ashen herself, leaving Dr. Farmer alone in the bedroom with the patients.
Slipper poked his head around the door.
“Right, come in then” commanded Dr. Farmer, packing away her equipment. “Nothing more to be done here. Leave that one in bed. Let her sleep it off and keep her off the booze. Girl’s all right. Him! Just a bump and a bit of concussion, I dare say.” She looked down her nose at Slipper. “If people want to have fun and games, the least they can do is make sure they don’t kill themselves doing it.” Her tone of voice made it quite clear that she included Slipper - and the rest of the household, cooks, bootboys and all - in the censure.
The doctor took a final look at Melsham’s head. She had given more than a passing thought to strapping it up - a universal panacea, she had found, when dealing with the male sex - but even she could find no plausible reason to attach the one extremity to the other on this occasion.
Helga hovered over her shoulder. “Iss O.K?” she asked worriedly.
Doctor Farmer straightened. “As O.K. as a man ever will be m’dear. You don’t want anything to do with hanky-panky like this, now.”
Melsham’s eyelids fluttered. His ears were ringing, his head hurt, and, to top it all his worst nightmare had come back to haunt him. Through the slits of unfocussed eyes he thought he could see Doctor Phyllis Bloody Farmer and Helga looming over him, and he unconsciously grabbed his scrotum, then thankfully passed out again.
Slipper and Helga saw Doctor Farmer out. “Keep an eye on ’em for a couple of days” she warned. “Should be all right, though.” She grasped Helga by the shoulders. “Girl’s a good strong one. She’ll suffer no ill effects, I’ll be bound. D’you play hockey girl?” she boomed.
“Hockey? Wass ist?”
“German, eh? Thought so. Thought I recognised that tilt to the chin.” She squeezed Helga’s biceps. “Should have known. I practised there ten years ago y’know,” she said to Slipper in an aside. “Best years of m’ life. A girl knows where she is in Germany. No fannyin’ around out there. Straight in and do the business. None of your namby-pamby milksops there. Marvellous.”
Slipper’s whirling mind had recovered some of its equanimity and he seized the straw before it floated out of reach. “Germany! You must speak the language.”
“Picked up a smatterin’. Y’have to y’know. Most of your sausage-eaters can’t be bothered to learn English, and they only mangle it when they do. Can’t be havin’ that. I like to know what I’m talkin’ about.”
Slipper gave silent thanks for a prayer answered. “Doctor. Could you spare a few moments…?
Sitting in Slipper’s parlour with a glass of Schnapps, the Doctor listened to a highly sanitised version of Helga’s infatuation with Melsham. At the end of it Helga had emerged as the simple country girl in love with the noble Lord of the Manor while said Lord was, meanwhile, nursing a grievous hurt in the loss of his beloved wife to the bottle. The marriage was destined for the rocks, however, and it was only a matter of time. Lord Melsham would never, ever, himself, divulge such privy secrets, but Slipper felt it beholden upon himself as keeper of the family honour - but prevented through lack of a common language - to reveal it to Helga, so that the girl might know her heart’s desire was stoically unavailable, however much he might feel, until the unfortunate matter had resolved itself. The man was an English Gentleman, with all that duty and honour imposed upon the status. She should, however, not think ill of her Mistress, who was her true friend. The marriage, however, was not a happy one and would not last forever. The last bit, at least, was true.
Doctor Farmer listened to Slipper’s fabrication with a degree of scepticism. “Only fella as altruistic as that died 2,000 years ago - and he wasn’t married,” she sniffed. “Girl wants to take up hockey. Do her more good than fawnin’ on some bloke. I’ll tell her that. Oh, I’ll tell her the other as well, but only because I’ve taken a fancy to her, mind. Don’t like to see a girl waste herself, though.”
During a halting exchange in German, Helga’s face and emotions underwent a series of transformations ranging from bathos to raw, sensuality. When the Doctor had finished tears were rolling down the German girl’s cheeks.
“Don’t know if it’ll do ‘er any good, but the story’s told,” Doctor Farmer “She says thank you very much for tellin’ ‘er, though I wouldn’t thank you tuppence m’self. Still. No accountin’ for taste I suppose. Take my advice you’ll keep her out of his way for a bit.” She excused herself and Slipper saw her to the door. “Left her my address and telephone number.” she said wistfully. “If she thinks on about a game of hockey, tell her to get in touch!” and Doctor Farmer strode thoughtfully to her car.
Slipper closed the door and leaned his back against it, sighing with relief. One more problem solved. Then his angst returned with a bang as a roar of “Slipper!” echoed down the stairs. His Lordship was awake!
Not only was his Lordship awake, Slipper found, but decidedly testy although still, mercifully, groggy. “Can you explain to me,” Melsham said icily, “exactly what has been going on here?”
Slipper feigned incomprehension. “Milord?”
“Don’t Milord me, Slipper. Who’s that bloody woman?”
“Doctor Farmer, Milord? You banged your head and … ”
At mention of Dr. Farmer’s name, Melsham started and surreptitiously checked his scrotum. “No. Not Dr. Phyllis Bloody Farmer. The other one.”
“Oh! Helga, Milord. The new chamber maid. And a very good one too. She came very highly recommended.”
“Well. Get rid of her!”
“You heard. Get rid!”
“Don’t but me, Slipper. Get shot!”
Lady Melsham opened one eye. Melsham’s initial roar for Slipper had woken her up and she had lain there, head throbbing, during the exchange. “Over my dead body, Archie!” she said hollowly, raising her head then thinking better of it and sinking back onto the pillow again, groaning. “If you want someone to take your spite out on, pick somebody else. Helga’s the only one who can do anything with my migraine.”
Melsham snorted sarcastically from his bed. “Migraine is it? Funny bloody migraine. Comes in a bottle now, does it?”
“At least it comes!” Lady Melsham retorted, cryptically, looking at Slipper. “Now shut up and let me get some sleep. I’ve got a headache.”
Melsham fumed as Sylvia closed her eyes, painfully.
“All right Slipper. Off you go. But keep the damn woman out of my way, right? I don’t like the look of her,” and he shuddered, resolving that he would face her later on, when he felt more like it, and put her right on a few things … like keeping quiet about Miss Lillian’s. The sooner that was forgotten the better.
Downstairs Helga was doing her level best to do just the opposite and, as Slipper thankfully left the bedroom to consider his next move, she was heaving sigh after heartfelt sigh, savouring every recaptured moment of their encounter in the massage parlour. The object of her desires was within reach and yet she might as well be back home in Bavaria for all the good it would do her. Life, which had dealt Helga a bum deal on the physical hand, looked set to trump the emotional one as well.
And it was in this frame of mind that Slipper found her when he staggered back into his parlour. He sank, haggard, into the chair.
“Iss not fair, Mr. Slipper!” she quavered.
Slipper heartily agreed, he thought, running a hand over his face. Nothing was fair just lately. His mind had run flat. He sighed, and sagged in his chair. Helga sighed and looked so utterly dejected that Slipper felt constrained to rise from his torpor. “Never mind, Helga. Time is a great Healer.”
“Wass ist deis time, Mr. Slipper?” I not vant no time. I vant only mein noddy liddle boy!” she howled.
Slipper ran a hand through his hair, distractedly. “Sleep, Helga. Go to bed. Things will look better in the morning.”
Helga rose, ponderously, shoulders drooping. “Nein. Zings not look better. Zings only look vorse,” and she shuffled out of the parlour towards her bedroom.
Slipper watched her leave with a mixture of sympathy and incredulity. How any woman could fall so deeply in love with such an excremental shit-heap as Melsham was quite beyond him. Still pondering the point, he sank back in his chair and fell into an exhausted sleep. When he awoke, in the early hours, he had at least a partial answer to the problem. It involved paint, the East Wing, and a great, great deal of time which, if it proved not to be such a great healer as he had described might, at least, be the means to an end. He hauled himself stiffly to his feet and staggered off, thankfully, to bed.
When it was put to her the following morning, Helga was less than enthusiastic about Slipper’s idea for keeping her out of the way. “But to paint iss not vork for chamber maid. Iss for building people,” she cried sweeping an expansive arm to take in Fullerton’s workmen outside variously engaged at their several, obscure, duties.
“Ordinarily, yes, Helga,” Slipper patiently explained “But it will give Lord Melsham –Archibald - great pain to see you constantly around the house. His heart will break. You must keep out of the way until you can be together again.”
The drama with which Slipper declaimed the revolting scenario nauseated him as much, apparently, as it enervated Helga. Once she had struggled her way through the complexities of Slipper’s syntax the dramatic picture his words painted struck a Neibelungenlied chord in Helga’s Valkyrie mind: as an imprisoned Brynhild she would toil at her work until the hero Seigfried came to carry her away. She felt it apt. Striking a suitably heroic pose she said “Ja. For my noddy liddle boy I vill paint. I vill paint like for no tomorrow.” And she followed Slipper proudly from the room across to the East Wing, where Slipper had already laid out a gallon or so of paint - enough to keep her busy and out of harm’s way until the next phase of the proceedings were to be initiated. Slipper at last felt more in control of events than he had in the past 48 hours.
Father Lin, on the other hand, felt less in control than he had ever been in the past 48 years - at least insofar as his control of Cherry was concerned. “She refuses to come down” he told Kwan, for the third time that week. “She takes all her meals in her room and talks about nothing but Arthur Ying.” Kwan scowled. He had tried to press his suit on Cherry until - metaphorically - the creases were beginning to shine and still she refused to have anything to do with him. It was not something that Kwan was used to.
“My friend,” Father Lin continued kindly, laying a hand on Kwan’s shoulder, “For all the good you do here, you may as well go home. Your man has disappeared.”
Kwan shrugged the hand off. “No! I stay until Lappit is found. He’s bound to surface sooner or later and I want to be around when he does.”
Father Lin shrugged. “As you will. But do not expect my daughter to come round. Much as I might like a union of our houses it will not be through my Cherry.”
“You underestimate me, Father Lin” Kwan replied, with a shark’s grin. “There are few women who can resist Tony Kwan at his best - in the most proper manner, of course,” he added hastily as he caught the glint in Father Lin’s eye.
“You do not know my Cherry,” said Lin adding coolly, looking Kwan straight in the eye “and take care, my friend, that you do not know my Cherry, if you take my meaning.”
Kwan took his meaning, and also took his leave, loosening his collar at the same time. “You know where to find me if there’s any news of Lappit.”
Lin gazed after Kwan’s gingerly retreating form thoughtfully, and picked up the telephone to urge his minions to redouble their efforts to trace Freddy Lappit. Perhaps a union of houses was not such a good idea after all and the sooner Kwan was out of the way the better.
“Is this place haunted?” asked Freddy, one afternoon, pulling on his socks and extricating bits of straw from between his toes at the same time.
“Not as far as I know” Carmen gasped, struggling into her jeans “unless old Pemberton Horrocks didn’t want to leave his wine cellar. Why d’you ask?”
“No. I don’t mean the Hall. Here. The Hay loft. I dunno. I get the queerest feeling we’re being watched all the time.”
“Guilty conscience,” she said, fluttering her eyelids at him. “Seducing your own cousin.”
Concealed beneath the straw below, hateful eyes bored into the boards above as Harris struggled manfully to retain the sneeze that the straw was coaxing from him. Had they been aware of it, Lin and Kwan might have done worse than to enlist Harris’s help in tailing Freddy for, since his arrival and usurpation of Harris’s accustomed role with Carmen, the thwarted under-gardener had become adept at shadowing him and Carmen everywhere. But, since he knew from first hand experience all Carmen’s usual haunts, the exercise was not a great strain on Harris’s intellect. Hayloft apart, Harris had tailed Freddy and Carmen to the dilapidated Orangery, he had followed them to the hilltop Folly, he had hidden beneath the granary (and got covered in chaff in the process). He had even endured an afternoon skulking in the company of Brandybutt’s pet sow, Porker, while Freddy and Carmen disported themselves in the disused chicken shed next door. He had had added cause for bile after that. And all the time the aura of his baleful presence grew. The whole experience had been an eye-opener for Harris, since Freddy had used his acquired knowledge and endowed equipment to such great effect that Carmen was very nearly satisfied.
What was abundantly clear to Harris, was beginning to be perceived by Freddy, and was breath- takingly obvious to Carmen, was that for the first first time in her life,she had fallen in love.
In the hay loft above, Freddy looked around him disconcertedly. The unseen presence that had become obvious over the past few days was beginning to grate on his nerves - and affect his performance, although there had been no complaints from Carmen on that score. He hadn’t confided in Carmen the real reason for his voluntary incarceration in the depths of Dimpset and, until the eyes had started following him, had almost forgotten the reason himself. But now, with the uncomfortable feeling that this every move was being scrutinised, he began to wonder whether Kwan had not somehow caught up with him and was playing a cat and mouse game.
Carmen tickled the back of his neck with a piece of straw and Freddy nearly jumped out of his skin.
“Steady!” she said “Don’t have a heart attack! You’re jumpy!”
Then, Harris lost his battle with the wisp of hay and let forth a mighty “Harrrrumph!” thrashing at the straw in his extremity, and Freddy jumped to his feet, startled. The sudden and arhythmic movement as Freddy jolted upright finally defeated the ancient timbers and, with a splintering “craaack!” they sagged, swayed and gave, depositing him and Carmen in a flurry of arms, legs and underwear into the straw below.
Harris, hearing the ominous crack and already taking to his heels as a result of the catastrophic announcement of his presence, put on an extra burst of speed and all that Freddy and Carmen saw as they slid down the collapsing boards was a door closing behind a rapidly retreating back. By the time they had struggled free, Harris had long gone and the only evidence he left behind was the collapsed hay loft and a visibly shaking Freddy.
“Aaagh!” Carmen struggled upright, sitting amongst the collapsed timbers. Freddy had already found his feet and had rushed to the door, too late to catch a glimpse of the intruder. Harris had melted away into the landscape. He turned back distractedly to watch a floundering Carmen threshing helplessly in the straw.
“Well, don’t just stand there gawping. Give me a hand!” she said.
Freddy pulled himself together and pulled her up. “Who was that?” he asked.
“How should I know? Probably just some tramp kipping down. They do that from time to time. Anyway, why are you in such a state about it?”
Freddy hesitated. “Well ... I ... No reason. Just look at the state of this hay loft” he said, changing the subject.
Carmen dismissed his fears. “Don’t worry about that. Nobody ever uses it. It’s a wonder it hasn’t fallen down before now. Anyway, there’s nothing we can do about it now. Come on, it’s nearly dinner- time, and I’m starving, ” she said, linking arms with Freddy, who allowed himself to be led from the ruined hay loft, with the uncomfortable feeling that his world was about to take a similar dive as the loft.
He threw nervous glances to left and right as Carmen led him, chattering and oblivious, towards the gargantuan supper that her sexual appetite always demanded.
From the safety of Porker’s pig pen, Harris watched them go.
Coming down to dinner after a quick wash and change, Carmen and Freddy met Lord Melsham groping his way gingerly downstairs. “Shouldn’t you still be in bed?” Carmen asked, with some asperity, thinking that she would be alone with Freddy for dinner.
“No!” barked Melsham. “I’ve done enough resting. Besides, there’s too much to do. It’s all right for you gallivanting off, some of us have organising to do.”
“I thought that’s what you paid Slipper for.”
“I paid Slipper to get some domestic help in as well, not King fucking Kong.”
Carmen had gathered that her father hadn’t much taken to Helga. “The poor girl can’t help the way she looks. And don’t swear.”
“Neither can a horse’s arse, but it doesn’t mean I have to look at it. And I’ll swear in my own house if I bloody well want, thank you very much!”
Carmen sniffed, and flounced on ahead, leaving Melsham to struggle downstairs nursing his injured head.
Slipper served the soup to an injured silence. Belligerently, Melsham dug his spoon into the mixture and slurped it down. “Have you got shot of that girl yet, Slipper?”
“Helga has been put to other duties away from the household, milord,” Slipper replied silkily. “And milady, milord, will she be taking dinner?”
“I don’t know. She was still in her pit when I came down. Take her a tray up, if you want. Although, after what she supped yesterday, I’d be surprised if she wanted anything to eat until next pancakeday. Stupid cow.”
Carmen and Freddy squirmed in their chairs in embarrassment and Slipper bridled at Melsham’s insensitivity. It was no wonder that Lady Sylvia had recourse to the bottle if Melsham’s opinions about her were so publicly expressed. Melsham lapsed into bad-tempered mumbling as Slipper served the main course and then prepared a tray for Lady Melsham.
“Come and see me after dinner, Slipper,” Melsham called as Slipper edged out of the door with his laden tray. “I want to go over some arrangements with you’. The rate this show’s going there’s nothing going to be ready this side of Christmas. And how’s that builder … ?”
But Slipper had gone, his face set in a mask of utter hatred, leaving the door to puntuate his going with a solid clunk.
Melsham glared at his steak and sawed at it viciously.
Slipper tapped lightly at Lady Melsham’s bedroom door, and entered when there was no answer. “Milady?” he called, softly, ready to prostrate himself in abject apology if necessary. “Did you wish dinner?”
The humped figure in the bed shifted and flapped the bedclothes down from a tired and haggard face, quickly flapping them back up again when she saw who it was. “No,” she said from under the bedclothes. “Take it away…but … thank you for asking.” A flap of sheet revealed a blood-shot eye.
“As you wish milady,” Slipper bowed and began to back out, hesitated and then, “Milady. Last night, milady. I owe you an apology. Please can I explain? It was inexcusable … ”
“Slipper, please,” groaned Lady Sylvia “Let it lie. I’m too ill to think about it. I owe you an apology. But not now, later,” and she waved him away with a limp hand.
Astonished, Slipper almost dropped the tray. “But… ”
“Oh, Slipper. Do go away, please. I can’t bear to be seen like this,” a muffled sob escaped from beneath the bedclothes. “Tomorrow. Come and see me tomorrow” and, with that, she turned her back to him and lay groaning and sobbing hopelessly.
Slipper backed out, torn between a desire to put a door between himself and sobbing women as quickly as possible and an unservantlike wish to bring comfort to a lost and abused human being: a feeling that Slipper could not remember feeling before. It frightened him.
Had he felt what Lady Melsham felt as she watched his dim figure shuffle out of the bedroom, it would have frightened him even more. Lady Melsham wanted his gallant little servant’s heart - and more besides - but not now. She turned over again and fell asleep.