A chance encounter. A house in turmoil.
As George Deming closed the heavy front door behind his military friend, Robert, he paused and listened to the sounds coming from deeper in the old house and echoing along its many corridors.
“Oh Lord! Mother’s home, and she’s on the warpath again.” There was a raised voice from a not so distant part of the house.
“Thunder and tarnation! I thought she'd gone off to her dressmaker and was still out.”
He took in the time, displayed on the face of the Grandfather clock standing in the hallway. “Damn! Can that be the time?" He dug out a pocket-watch from his waistcoat pocket and looked at it.
“Stopped! I suppose they will do that, when one does not wind them. No wonder she’s home. I wish I'd known that and we would have come in the other way. Quick, Robert, follow me upstairs. No, dear fellah, don’t leave your hat or gloves here, and watch that you hit nothing with your stick; in fact, leave nothing for her to find.
"We will not be leaving by this door when we go out again, but another way altogether." His voice changed, to lend his next few words an air of theatrical mystery and secrecy. “We shall leave either by the sinister, secret passageway, or the craftily hidden stairs. I knew I should have gone onto the stage, instead of getting caught up in that damned theatre of war with Napoleon.”
He made it all sound so eerily strange and melodramatic as he looked at his friend.
“Oh, the mysterious things that children discover that are unknown to their parents, though I did tell Father, out of necessity. The less evidence of my having returned home; especially with someone else, the better, though as she checks my room regularly since I arrived back home from the Peninsula two weeks ago and is keeping track of my movements, it is hard to deny it.
"She wants me gone! Out of the house! I think she believes I may have brought one of those Portuguese beauties back with me, and must have secreted her somewhere about the house. Or some infectious disease. One could hide an army in this barracks of a place. But if she thinks I've brought some military friend home with me… then she will be sure to seek me out and whoever might be with me, and not let me hear the last of it for a devil's age, and she'll be sure to insult you."
He strove to keep his wits about him after that unpleasant surprise; that his mother was home.
"She hates military men with a passion, including her only son I think, as well as any visits that she does not arrange for herself for a specific and limited time - and keeps away any visitors that are not of her own particular coven, or choosing."
George led the way up the stairs on tiptoe, making as little noise as possible as he gauged where his mother might be, from the distant sound of her voice. He spoke in a low voice so that only his friend might hear him.
“From the sounds of it, Robert, she's in the far dining room. Poor old Williams must have done something she didn’t like. Perhaps he carelessly put a fish knife with the other knives, or didn't arrange the glasses, just so, or there may even be a napkin with a minor crease in it, or a hair on the sideboard, even if it is one of her own. But then, she seems to bounce from one servant to another, and bounce, is the key word."
He led his friend along an upper corridor.
"If mother were the only one here for them to look after, they would all be long gone, and she would be forced to fend for herself; as she was for two weeks once, when everyone, including father and my sisters left to look after my father's ailing mother.
"She watches how far she goes with them, now. That was too much of a wake-up call for her. It is father that does the hiring and firing and not her. No-one would come to work for her once the word was out. I believe even the bats had cleared the attics by then, driven out by her shrill voice."
He paused and listened, to be sure where she was.
"I think they do it all deliberately now... do different things to annoy her... to keep her constantly frustrated, and permanently off balance, and out of Rebecca’s path."
Robert did not ask who Rebecca was.
"They are very protective of Rebecca, and we are too. Rebecca is my younger sister, and seems to be the focus of much of mama’s anger. If I could, I would see her taken out of here to live with our grandmother, but the old lady is not well, unfortunately, and cannot deal with my mother as she would like to.”
Robert was happy to listen to his friend and not interrupt him. They would have plenty of time later, and had much to catch up, on in the meantime.
“Once up here and in the back part of the house we can be sure to avoid my mother. She dislikes it intensely when I bring a friend home, and I have no intention of inflicting her legendary moods upon you or anyone else if I can avoid it, nor upon myself either. She can be embarrassing and can all too easily put one to the blush in any company."
He paused again.
"If she is crossed, or obstructed in any way, she will fly into a screaming rage for as long as a week. Father takes himself off. I joined the military and went off for years, and my sisters keep their heads down and stay out of her way as much as they can. She can take a delightful day, as this turned out to be, as I did not expect to bump into you as I did, and she can turn it into one of the worst."
He relaxed more, the further he progressed into the rambling old structure.
“She rarely comes up here, except that she will go up the back stairs and check on whether I am home or not, so that she can ring another peal over me. My room is down there…" He pointed further along another dark corridor they were just passing. "She will find something to rake me over the coals for, so I will get you to wait for me in another room on an upper floor, before we make our escape again! I just hope she does not find out that I am home." He sighed heavily.
"Home! Some home!" He paused. “We should wait here for a few moments until I hear her elsewhere. The floor creaks loudly, there," he pointed, “…and we can wait for her to relocate, or she will be up here in a flash thinking it is my next sister, and I will not inflict our mother upon her! She can’t hear us however, if we talk quietly. She is deaf to most conversation she does not instigate or direct, or does not wish to overhear.”
He turned and briefly checked his appearance in a mirror beside him. He brushed a small leaf fragment off his coat.
“When did you land?”
“Two days ago! We had a very fast trip on board the Corinthian. I was ordered to check into Greenwich first, to see my surgeon, and they gave me enough of a pass that I might leave. Too few beds anyway, and I did not wish to stay. I was walking wounded, so I walked. They decided not to do any more digging. They have now washed their hands of me. I had long ago decided to cash out, the moment I set foot ashore. I was just leaving my tailor when I bumped into you, or you into me."
“So, we are now both free of the military. I almost regret it, considering what I have come home to. I had forgotten how much I hoped that she might have changed with age, but she hasn’t. No matter; my problems are not your problems. You had enough of your own to deal with. You don’t seem any the worse for your injury. We were not sure you would survive on the battlefield, once that damned surgeon went at you."
“It wasn’t so very bad."
His friend knew better than to believe him. Perkins was a good surgeon, but did not have the time to waste worrying about any pain that he might inflict. You always knew where Mr. Perkins was located once the action started, by the screams that came from the operating tent.
“I survived Perkins, didn’t I? He did manage to get most of that metal out of me, so I can thank him for that, and he didn’t take any legs or arms off me, as he usually did! But what of you, after we got separated in that last action?”
“I survived it, much to my surprise. I never saw so much metal flying about. I managed to avoid your fate."
He held up.
"But later, dear fellah. She’s moved again. We can go now, but stay to the right. The floor makes less noise over there.”
They bypassed the noisy section of flooring with minimal disturbance, and moved deeper into the darker regions of the house, and then up another flight of stairs, on to a much darker, and higher floor.
“She won’t come up here too readily, even if she hears the floor creaking now that it is getting toward dusk. Or I should say, especially not if she hears it creaking. The old family ghost!" He paused and put his hand on his friend’s arm.
“You can go into the last room on the left down there and wait for me, Robert. There should be a book or two or a newspaper there. Father and I like to escape occasionally for a moment of quiet discussion without fear of interruption. She is loath to go to the upper floor when it is getting gloomy outside."
He looked furtively about.
"I should not be even half an hour, though if she gets to me first, I might be longer, so don't get impatient. I’ll send one of the servant’s up if I'm likely to get stuck, and he'll see you out. Help yourself to the wine but go easy on it. You’re not out of the woods yet, my friend, though you’ve packed on a few pounds since I last saw you when you were all skin and bone in the field hospital, and not expected to pull through.”
He watched as his friend proceeded along the corridor to the end and let himself in to that far room, then he turned and retraced his steps downstairs to go to his own room.