——— The News ———-
Lady Dora was in the garden when the phone rang. It was Gordon. Devastated, she called out to her husband, Drake. By four o’clock they had boarded the train to Bideford and then a ferry had brought them to Lundy Island, Devon. Lady Dora doted on the old man. After mother had left the children one night, father was everything to them.
———— The Mourning ——–
The manor house was full of people today, everyone dressed in black; mourners on first look. But only four were really in mourning. The old man’s daughter Dora, his butler, Darby, his younger son’s daughter, Tia and the old dog, Bethan. They mourned their loss. Silently.
Tia with Bethan in tow was visiting all rooms, hoping to catch a whiff of the old man. She remembered the last time she was here five years ago, they sat in the porch reading. His old horn rims hanging down from a chain stuck behind one ear, when he would doze off mid-sentence or his snores or the rhythmic movements of his pot belly while he slept. Young Tia loved those movements. She would naughtily try to balance small articles on his belly as it moved. She remembered his ‘ho ho’ laughter. Lost now. Teary eyed, Bethan and Tia left the room, full of memories. They tread down the stairs and into the lounge.
The family all freshened up, gathered in the lounge right outside the library. Reagan and Gordon lighted cigars. Gordon paused to admire the old man’s collection of cigars cased in an embossed metal box, personalized with his initials, LGB. Darby brought in some wine and whiskey glasses from the bar.
Reagan poured wine for the ladies.
Filling his and Gordon’s whiskey glasses, he took in a long drag before speaking up, “So how did the old man pass away?”
Reagan was the old man’s younger son and Tia’s father.
“Cardiac arrest, the doctor said”, answered Gordon, the old man’s eldest.
Dora, the old man’s daughter, stifled a cry. She made a cross on her chest. Her glass of wine left untouched on the mantel.
There was a long silence. Lady Gordon got up to check on a mantelpiece.
“Dinner is served in the hall”, Darby announced.
Chatting, the group made to move towards the hall.
Lady Reagan stopped by the fireside in the lounge to admire a pair of silver candlesticks. Reagan joined her. They stared at a chest of drawers kept near the lounge chair. Tia, sitting in the corner with Bethan, noticed their looks, sad.
In the dinner hall, Dora tried to steer the conversation towards the old man and their life in the manor house. Lord Gordon heard her and fell silent. His thoughts meandered back to his childhood, the manor house, Paddy, as Lady Bott, their mother was fondly called, the hippie in the night club and the fights he would hear deep into the night… He jerked out of his thoughts as if wishing them to go away.
Gordon being the eldest, remembered more than Reagan or Dora. Besides, Reagan was sent away to live with aunt Martha. Dora refusing to leave her father had remained with Gordon in the manor house.
Lady Gordon brought up the big elephant of a conversation that everyone had on their minds but had been avoiding till then, “How do you suppose the old man divided his assets.”
“Well! I don’t know. But I suppose since Tia was his favourite grandchild, he must have left us a lump sum,” was Reagan’s observation.
“Ah! I suppose there is no consideration for being the eldest in the family,” was Lady Gordon’s immediate retort.
“Then what of Dora? The man loved her.”
Angry, Dora left the table. Drake followed her.
Dinner over, everyone retired to their rooms. Dora awoke to a noise. Thirsty, she got up from her bed. The breeze from the open window swayed the curtains and rattled the chandelier. She walked that way to shut it. Gazing down, towards the backyard, she thought she saw a form. Preening now, she realised it to be the shadow of oak tree branches swaying in the wind. Unable to go off to sleep, she decided to go downstairs.
Reagan was bent over the fireplace, adding sticks from a sack kept nearby.
“You couldn’t sleep either?” he asked looking up at Dora.
“No, too many memories of the old man. I keep feeling he is still here, around us somewhere, watching over us”, replied Dora.
“No, he has gone for sure. Saw his body in the morgue while coming,” Reagan said.
If Dora was surprised to hear this, she did not show it. She was used to such remarks by her two brothers and their wives by now.
She went to the library, switched on the lamp and found a book to read. A pair of horn rims kept on the table nearby kept distracting her. She picked them up lovingly. Looking at them was like peeping into a pair of eyes, her father’s twinkling eyes. It was well past two when she finally made to retire. Reagan had left. She met Darby coming out with wine bottles from the cellar below.
“How have you been, Darby?”
“As well as I can be ma’am with the master gone,” Darby answered.
“I understand. Tell me, how was father in his last days? Did he talk about us? Had he been keeping unwell?” Dora asked, anguish in her voice.
“Master was feeble but well ma’am. He spoke very little. Ate even less. He was in conversation with Mr. March most of the time since the last few months.”
“Mr. William March? The solicitor?”, enquired Lady Dora.
“Yes ma’am”, answered Darby.
I wonder why, Dora whispered to no one in particular.
“There were some financial issues ma’am and then the matter of the will as far as I could comprehend with my meagre understanding of the matter, ma’am”, Darby volunteered.
“Financial issues”, Lady Dora repeated.
“The estate had to be mortgaged, ma’am”, was Darby’s reply.
“What ?” This bit was too much for her to digest.
“I must get going ma’am. Must be prepared for the luncheon tomorrow, ma’am. Mr. March would be here, I suppose ma’am?”, Darby’s question needed no answer as Dora deep in her thoughts, nodded in the affirmative, climbing the staircase to her room. Drake was already asleep.
—— The Funeral and the Will —-
Dressed in blacks, hats, bonnets and bows in place, they rested the old man in the family burial chambers. Decorated in wreaths, the casket was lowered with a few neighbours, the solicitor and Dr. Scott in attendance. Conversation was limited.
After the funeral, the family returned to the manor house. The hall was set up with a decent lay. Milk, bread, baguettes, butter, eggs and sausages. There was homemade plum jam. Tia was sitting in a corner with Bethan, feeding him milk and bread. They seemed to be inseparable.
Everyone sat down to eat. Reagan talked about a farmland he had been meaning to buy, rearing Emus for eggs and meat with his share of money from the old manor house. Lady Dora thought it crass of him to be thinking of selling the ancestral home, their only link to their roots. Lady Gordon mentioned a piece of emerald cut necklace she meant to buy with her share. Lady Reagan confessed to having her eye on a boutique. She revealed, she had already talked to the owner about buying it when she heard the old man’s news.
Post breakfast, Reagan walked up to a black and maroon rose, sculpted out of a single piece of metal hung in a frame over the side slab in the hall, puffing at his cigar as he stared on. “The old man did have taste”, he observed, as another frame caught his eye. A piano made of wooden sticks. Briefly, he remembered music flowing in the manor house long time ago.
Darby announced the arrival of Mr. March, the solicitor. Reagan welcomed him in eagerly, guiding him towards the library. Gordon added wood to the fire. The room cosy, everyone gathered around. Mr. March took in his audience. How many times had he been in a situation similar to this one? He mused about the frailty of human behaviour. Standing there he could almost predict the end of this meeting. And for the umpteenth time tonight he thought about the old man, Lord Gregory Bott.
He took out a black leather folder from his briefcase and removing a pale white leaf read out loud, “I, Mr. William March, the sole legal attorney and executioner of the will of Lord Gregory Bott of four, Pennylane Manor, Lundy Island, Devon, do hereby solemnly affirm that this is the true, only and final will drafted by me and signed by Lord Gregory Bott himself in the presence of Mr…. “
the heavy legal jargon followed. The lengthy letter was of no interest to his audience till Mr. March reached the paragraph detailing distribution of assets of Lord Gregory Bott of four, Pennylane Manor. It was announced that due to some incorrect decisions taken in his life, Lord Bott was forced to mortgage the manor house. That at the time of his demise, Lord Gregory Bott was penniless came as a shock to his family, especially to his two sons, would be putting it in too light terms.
“And in the event of his death”, Mr. William March continued, “if any of his children wished to retain the manor house, they would be free to do so after paying the mortgage amount in full through Mr. William March.”
The room broke out in an uproar. The fights and accusations started almost immediately. The solicitor, prepared, tried to answer their questions with patience. Lady Dora only stared, thinking of how much could she and Drake come up with.
The next day Lady Dora awoke to some loud noises and walking down the stairs, she saw Lord Reagan and Lady Reagan already walking out of the house. Their luggage seemed to have doubled somehow. Dora looked up the mantel and the mantelpiece was gone.
She called after her brother, “Stay for a while, Reggie. Let’s discuss the mortgage. You can’t give up on the one memory we have of our father.”
Stay for what Dora. Did you not hear the solicitor? There is nothing here for us. The old man is mocking us in death, even as he did when in life”, Reagan answered without looking back.
“It will do you and Drake well too to leave before they pick the house apart.”
Lord Gordon and his wife too left by the afternoon. And then Drake said he had some errands to run.
Darby and Lady Dora sat in the porch, discussing the old man and his weird ways. His love for cigars. The smoke curls in the air that he would draw and chase asking Darby to tell him what he saw in the smoke clouds! His little game, he called it. He loved art. The best of the pieces was sadly gone, sold as Darby said to ease the functioning of the manor house. Little that remained was picked up by Lord and Lady Reagan. What they both avoided talking about was that fateful night, when Lady Bott, Paddy as she was called had disappeared, leaving her three children behind.
————— Freedom ——-
Dora roamed the gardens, picking up berries and bottle gourds. Dressed in a simple frock, a scarf to cover her head and some long gloves, like in her childhood, before the fancy air of city life touched her. She found freedom. She found happiness. She would read and walk in the old woody lane behind the manor house. She found her mother’s cycle in the garage and would cycle over to the burial chambers, picking up flowers on the way. It seemed she wanted to take in the very special air of the place as much as possible before it would be lost for ever. She realised, with her husband and brothers gone, it was not in her means to buy the manor house back.
It was the third night after her brothers had left that Lady Dora went down to the library. She was going through the bookshelves looking for something to read when she reached the far end of the room. Her attention was caught by a cabinet in the far corner. On the bottom of the cabinet was a single thick dog eared, dusty volume like an old encyclopaedia, with moth eaten pages. She was surprised. “How was it that she’d never noticed this one before?” She thought aloud. She picked it up. It was heavy. As tattered worn down bits of yellow-brown paper fell, she saw a lever underneath. Curious, she pulled at it. Nothing happened. She tried again; this time harder. The floor of the cabinet gave way. It was a trap door. Surprised, a little edgy, she crouched and peeped down. It was dark. She returned to the lounge for a lamp.
Lamp in hand, Dora saw a wooden staircase going down to the basement. The steps creaked spookily as she ventured down. Sinewy threads of cobwebs clung to her cheeks and she tried to wipe those off with her hands.
The stairs led her to a small cellar-like enclosure. The place smelled dingy. She coughed up dust. Even with the lamp, the place was dark, and she had to move the lamp around the room. In a corner she saw a wooden chest, no more than a large locker in size. It had a heavy padlock. There was no key in sight. Deciding to bring a lever or an iron rod from the garage, she quickly climbed up. Surfacing, she breathed in the fresh air. In the garage she found what she was looking for. As she climbed back down, her lamp traced an arc towards the left side wall. She saw an old piano, its legs broken, a few keys missing, lying in a heap against the wall. Vaguely she remembered her mother’s form pressing keys on a piano. She walked to the chest and stuck the iron rod at an angle into the shackle of the padlock, giving it a forceful twist. It broke with a bang. Lifting the cobwebby, dusty lid, Dora found inside sheets of old yellow, time worn pages. In the lamp light she recognised it as sheet music. She could almost hear the chords and rhythms tumbling around her as she read sheet after sheet of verse. Even without a piano, it was beautiful.
Her heart pounding, she turned around and tripped on something. Lamp light revealed something she could not have been prepared for in a million years. A human skull! Bang! The lamp fell from her hand as she let out a shrill scream. In pitch darkness she collapsed.
————— Recovery ————-
She was lying on the sofa in the lounge with Dr. Scott calling out her name. Dizzy, she moved her head. It hurt to move. Eyes blinking, she tried hard to focus.
“It’s ok. Take it easy,” Dr. Scott said.
“Where? What happened? Oh! The cellar,” realisation dawned.
“Yes! you were very brave to go down, exploring on your own. But rest for now. No more excitement for the night.”
———— The Reunion ————
It was Dr. Scott who told them the rest. The family had been called after more bones were found. Darby had heard a scream. He saw the light in the library. Then the opened corner cabinet, its door ajar and the trap door. He found Dora and called Dr. Scott in, who led the search. Gordon was devastated. He kept saying, “I knew, the old man was no good. I knew mother couldn’t have left us.”
Being the eldest, he remembered Paddy’s affair, fuming old man and their constant fights till mother disappeared one night and the old man declared she’d left them for the hippie she sang and played piano with in the island pub.
Irony was, they lost their father, found their mother and gained a fortune. FBox bought sheet music for a million pounds. Dora was not sure if she wanted to retain the manor house, now that she could afford it.
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