Property of a Lady
Author:Sarah Rayne

‘Surely not. Likely, he managed to climb out through a window at the back while you were phoning. It’ll have been some tramp looking for a night’s dosshouse.’

 

 

‘He didn’t look like a tramp,’ said Michael, remembering the round, pallid face and the black-pit eyes. ‘I think I’d better have the locks changed while I’m here. Is there a locksmith who’d do an emergency job at the weekend?’

 

‘No one in Marston Lacy, sir, but I can give you a couple of numbers a bit further afield.’

 

Michael wrote down the numbers and drove back to the Black Boar, puzzled and vaguely disturbed.

 

It was not until he was showering before dinner that he realized there had been something else that was even more disturbing. All the time he was in the house he had heard the ticking of a clock – at times quite loudly, at other times fainter, as if the ticking was coming from behind a closed door.

 

But he and the policeman had searched Charect House from cellar to attic, and every room had been empty. There had been no clock anywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

TWO

 

 

 

 

Charect House, seen in Sunday morning sunshine with the faint sound of church bells somewhere across the fields, had emerged from its semi-haunted state, and it presented a bland, innocuous face to the world. It was elegantly derelict and appealingly battered, and Michael suddenly liked it very much.

 

He had borrowed a colleague’s camera, which the colleague had said was the easiest thing in the world to operate, but which Michael found confusing. It was fortunate that the locksmith, summoned from a nearby town, turned up and helped out. Michael was grateful, and while the man was cheerfully fitting new locks, he managed to get what he thought were several reasonable shots of the house’s outside, which should give Jack and Liz a fair idea of the place. Encouraged, he ventured inside, pressed a series of buttons for the flash, one of which seemed to work, and captured the long drawing-room and also the wide hall and staircase. He stood in the hall for a moment, looking up at the stairs, remembering the face that had seemed to stare out through the banisters of the attic stair. Could it have been a freak of the light? Could the loud knocking sounds have been the old timbers after all, or an animal? Such as squirrels with hobnail boots, demanded his mind cynically, at which point he went back outside, closing the door firmly on Charect’s ghosts. He paid the locksmith’s modest bill there and then, added a substantial tip for the twofold service of Sunday call-out and photographic advice, and drove back to the Black Boar, leaving the locksmith promising to deliver the keys to the solicitor’s office on Monday.

 

Sunday lunch at the Black Boar consisted of something called Chicken á la King, which, as far as Michael could tell, was a chicken portion immersed in chicken soup from a tin. He ate it without tasting it, declined something called Death by Chocolate by way of pudding, and had a cup of coffee in the bar. After this he drove back to Oxford, relieved to be heading for familiar ground. That evening he managed to find the camera-owning colleague, who was reading a batch of second-year essays, and persuaded him to download the Charect House photos on to the computer so they could be emailed to Jack and Liz. Yes, he said, he knew it was the easiest thing in the world – of course he did – but since he was not familiar with the camera . . .

 

Maryland, October 29th

 

Michael,

 

That’s a great batch of photos you sent. Liz is thrilled with every last one. It looks a beautiful old place, despite the neglect – and a whole lot grander than we expected! We’ll hide the photos from all the cousins!

 

Liz is already working out color schemes for that long room with the windows looking over the gardens. She says Wedgwood blue and ivory, whatever Wedgwood blue might be. Beveled bookshelves in the window recesses, and cream silk drapes. (And probably Ellie’s grubby fingerprints all over them to add a touch of avant-garde.)

 

We’re having a survey done next week, and we’ll try to send in local builders and electricians once we’ve got the surveyor’s report. It’ll be difficult from such a distance, but we want to get the really disruptive work done by Christmas. Wiring and plumbing and roof work – oh God, is there going to be roof work? Wouldn’t it be great to spend Christmas in the house? Assuming there’s still money in the bank for food by then. But you’d be part of the festivities, even if it had to be bread and gruel round a single candle, like a scene from Dickens.

 

The efficient Ms West just emailed to say a rosewood table’s being offered in the same sale as the long-case clock, and the provenance indicates it also belonged to Charect House. (One day you’ve got to tell me what that word charect means, because I can’t find it in any reference books here and for all I know it could be anything from one of those old Edwardian after-dinner games to an obscure English law nobody’s used for a thousand years. I’m kidding about the after-dinner game, but I’m not kidding about a thousand-year-old law). Ms West said would we like her to bid for the rosewood table at the same time as the clock, and Liz said yes before I could so much as look at a bank statement.