Property of a Lady
Author:Sarah Rayne

But one thing Liz has done is get in touch with an antique dealer in the area, to see if any of the house’s original furniture can be tracked down. The dealer is called Nell West, and she runs Nell West Antiques in Marston Lacy itself. She’s already found a long-case clock that apparently belonged to the house, that’s being auctioned locally on 10th of next month. I’m mailing you the catalog.

 

We’ll try to get to England for the Christmas vacation. It’s far too long since we saw you, and Ellie was seven last birthday, so she’s due some attention from her godfather. She’s already making up stories about the people she thinks lived in Charect House – including someone called, of all things, Elvira. I swear the child will end up being a writer, which means permanently broke. I certainly won’t be able to help her – this English house will have bankrupted us long before then.

 

Jack

 

As Michael worked on his students’ essays about Byron and Shelley, Jack’s letter, which had arrived that morning, was propped up on the edge of the desk.

 

He finished marking the essays, added a few notes, then reached for the catalogues Jack had sent. Lot No. 521 was circled in ink, and Jack had stuck a yellow Post-it note next to it, on which he had scribbled the words ‘Note the reserve price! See what I mean about impending bankruptcy!’

 

Messrs Cranston & Maltravers, Auctioneers of Fine Arts and Furniture (est.1922)

 

 

 

Lot No. 521. The property of a lady. Nineteenth-century long-case clock by Crutchley’s of Shropshire. Mahogany inlaid with rosewood, made c.1888. Brooke Crutchley was the last of the famous clockmaking family, and this piece was made for William Lee. In view of the manner of William Lee’s death, this item is expected to realize a high figure.

 

 

 

Michael glanced at the reserve price and was not surprised Jack was prophesying bankruptcy. But as he stared down at the smudgy reproduction of the photograph showing the long-case clock, he was aware of a vague unease. In view of the manner of William Lee’s death . . . What did that mean? Something slithered within his mind, and for a moment it was as if a soft voice whispered a warning. You’d be much better not to meddle, said this voice. You’d be much better to throw the whole lot on the fire and tell Jack you’re too busy to trek into the wilds of Shropshire.

 

But of course he would go into Shropshire, and of course he would take a look at Charect House. He went downstairs to ask the porter about feeding Wilberforce over the weekend, promising to leave some tins of cat food and an extra pint of milk in his rooms. He would be back on Sunday night, he said. Yes, he would have his mobile phone with him in case anyone needed him. No, he would not forget to charge it this time.

 

He drove out of Oxford early on Saturday morning. He would have preferred to travel by train, because even though he had mapped out the route with diligence, he knew perfectly well he would get lost. Several of his students had said he should buy satellite navigation, which was really cool and you absolutely couldn’t get lost with it. Michael had promised to consider the idea.

 

In the event, he did not go out of his way too many times, and he reached Marston Lacy shortly before lunch. The Black Boar appeared to be the traditional oak-beamed inglenook-fireplaced inn. Charles II had hidden here, Elizabeth I had slept here, and Walter Scott had written something here.

 

‘At separate times, of course,’ said the manager with the automatic geniality of one who produces this epigrammatic gem for all newcomers.

 

‘Of course.’ Michael signed the book, collected the keys which the solicitors had left for him as promised, and deposited his overnight case in a chintz-curtained room on the first floor. Then he went in search of Jack and Liz’s house.

 

‘It’s along the main street towards the A458,’ said the Black Boar’s manager. ‘Turn left at the end by the old corn market, then left again into Blackberry Lane. It’s about a quarter of a mile along. You won’t miss it, Dr Flint.’

 

Blackberry Lane was a winding bouncing lane with bushes and thrusting thorn hedges that pushed against the sides of the car, and whippy branches that painted sappy green smears on the windscreen. A thin rain was starting to fall, making everything look mysterious and remote. Michael began to wonder if he had fallen backwards into somebody’s gloomy metaphysical elegy without realizing, and whether he might encounter flitting shades among tombstones, or disconsolate wraiths, wringing their hands. The lane wound round to the left, and quite suddenly the house was there, set a little way back from the track, standing behind a tangle of briar and blackberry. There were no shades or wraiths, but seen through the rain the house was misty and eerie. Michael regarded it for a moment, then got out of the car, turning up his collar against the rain. There was a low brick wall enclosing the house, and a rusting gate half off its hinges that shrieked like a banshee when he pushed it open. I’m stepping into a house whose name was once a spell against evil, he thought.

 

Charect House was larger than he had expected. It was a red-brick, four-square building with the tall flat windows of the Regency and crumbling stone pillars on each side of the front door. The brick had long since mellowed into a dark, soft red, and some kind of creeper covered the lower portions. Even with the rain it was possible to see the dereliction. The upper windows had shutters, half falling away, and all the window frames looked rotten. The roofline dipped ominously.

 

But the locks still worked, and the door swung open easily enough. The scent of age met Michael at once, and it was so strong that for a moment he felt his senses blur. But this was not the musty dankness of damp or rot; this was age at its best and most evocative: a potpourri of old seasoned timbers and long-ago fires, and a lingering scent of dried lavender. A gentler age, when ladies embroidered and wrote letters on hot-pressed notepaper and painted dainty watercolours, to the gentle ticking of a clock . . .