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Authors: Joan Aiken

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BOOK: Midnight is a Place
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"They wouldn't let us—"Lucas began, but at that moment his words were drowned by a tremendous clatter of hoofs and the sound of drums, as a whole detachment of mounted troopers galloped across the square, sabers ready drawn, to vanish almost as quickly as they had come into the foggy dusk.

"Croopus! What's amiss i' the town? Who's called oot the militia?" exclaimed Mr. Gobthorpe. "Nay, if there's going to be trooble, I'd best shoot oop t'office; I'll bid ye good day, Mester Oakapple." And he vanished indoors, while Lucas and Anna-Marie followed the tutor's example and hastily climbed into the cart.

"We'd better go home by Peggoly's Piece; it's roundabout, but there's not likely to be any disturbance that way," muttered Mr. Oakapple, and turned the mare's head in the opposite direction from that taken by the soldiery.

"And now, why are you here? Why did you disobey my instructions to stay at the Mill until I called for you?" he inquired. "With this trouble in the town—if I had already left—if you had failed to find me—"

"Mr. Smallside wouldn't let us into the Mill. He said it was not convenient," Lucas began, thinking that his explanation sounded extremely lame and unconvincing.

But the tutor hardly seemed to heed his words; with lips pressed tight together and frowning brow, he drove on through the dim, deserted side streets of Blastburn, past the rows of little mean houses; he was evidently almost wholly preoccupied with the problem of Sir Randolph and his taxes. And after a few more unheeded sentences of explanation, Lucas, too, was glad to fall silent. As for Anna-Marie, she had wriggled back under the old carriage blanket and pulled it round her so that it almost completely covered her; Lucas could just see that she was sucking her thumb, and that her eyes held a thoughtful, far-distant expression.

"Tell me a story, Luc-asse?" she invited.

"Hush! Not just now," he said rather crossly, embarrassed in case Mr. Oakapple had overheard.

Anna-Marie was silent after that.

She's only a baby, he thought. It's lucky she didn't realize what a tricky situation we were in, back there.

And for the rest of the silent, gloomy ride he did his best to cheer himself by the recollection of the neat hip throw with which he had disposed of the boy in the velveteen waistcoat.

Anna-Marie was found to be asleep by the time they arrived back at Midnight Court, so the chambermaid, Abby, came out and carried her indoors without waking her.

Mr. Oakapple hurried away, presumably to report to Sir Randolph on the outcome of his discussions with the tax officials, and Lucas wandered rather disconsolately to his own quarters. Although the day was so dark—indeed it had begun snowing on the drive home and the storm promised to be severe—it was still only midafternoon. Lucas found a cold luncheon laid out in his schoolroom: mutton, pickled onions, and a bowl of bread pudding. The slices of bluish-pink underdone mutton, accompanied by three large pale wet pickled onions, looked most unappetizing, and he left them, but ate the bread pudding; it was a dry and tasteless lump but he needed something to chew on after the day's doings.

Munching the dull stuff he remembered that while waiting to speak to Mrs. Braithwaite he had noticed a most appetizing smell of rabbit stew floating from the doorway of one of those miserable little houses. He had a notion that old Gabriel caught rabbits in the park and sold them in the town; or perhaps people from the town occasionally snared their own rabbits in the park on moonless nights?

He knew that he ought to be getting on with his schoolwork and brought his mind back to it with an effort. There lay his unfinished composition: "Industry is a good thing, because it is better to work in a carpet factory than to be out in the rain with nothing to eat."

But suppose the owner of the factory cut your wages by half? Suppose you had six children? Suppose three of them had been badly injured by the press? Would you think industry was such a good thing then?

He wrote a few paragraphs—slowly, with as much effort as if he were cutting the words in marble. Then his eyes strayed toward his leatherbound book. He pushed the composition away, opened the book, and wrote, "Dear Greg: Since I last addressed you, I have had another adventure...." His hand raced. Lines flowed out from his pen. Three quarters of an hour later, he wrote, "Anna-Marie had gone to sleep," stretched his cramped hand with a sigh, and closed the book.

Glancing out the window at the park, dimly visible behind whirling snowflakes, he suddenly remembered that he had promised to try and repair Anna-Marie's broken doll. He jumped up, ran from the room, and made his way to the Oak Chamber, feeling rather pleased with himself for his kindness.

He entered the room cautiously, in case Anna-Marie was still asleep. She had woken, however, and was sitting by the fire in a small wicker chair which must have been fetched out from some forgotten lumber room; she was very carefully stitching together the frayed edges of the pink dress that had been torn that morning.

"
Qu'est-ce qu'il y a?
" she inquired, biting off her thread in a preoccupied manner, and giving Lucas a rather lofty glance, as if she were engaged on important business, and not quite sure if she had the time to grant him an interview.

Putting on airs, he thought. One minute she's crying and carlying on and sucking her thumb; next thing she's acting as if she wouldn't call the Queen her cousin.

"I've come to mend your doll," he said.

"
C'est déjà fait.
The old man—Meester Towzir—he has done it." She indicated the repaired doll which lay in a small box by the fireplace, clumsily strapped together in plaster and brown paper, presumably waiting for the glue to dry.

"So you are too late," said Anna-Marie coolly. "
Merci de rien.
"

Apparently dismissing Lucas from her attention, she held up the pink dress and inspected it with great care.

"Well don't strain yourself by saying thank you," he snapped, stung by her condescending manner.

"
Quoi?
I do not onnerstan'."

"In that case I'd better give you an English lesson."

"
Ne vous dérangez pad.
Monsieur Ooka—Ookapool—'e 'ave teach me some already,
c'en est assez.
" She selected a length of pink silk and rethreaded her needle.

Annoyed by this evident lack of appreciation of the trouble and time he had been prepared to spend on her, he said, "Would you like me to tell you a story?"

"If you wish.
Cela m'est égal.
" She bent over the pink dress again.

"I won't trouble myself if you feel like that about it," said Lucas, and he gave her a short severe lecture to the effect that she wasn't going to make herself liked at Midnight Court until she learned to behave with more politeness and gratitude to the people who did her kindnesses.

Then he left, shutting the door sharply behind him. It would be a long time, he thought, before he'd offer to do anything for
her
again.

He might have been even more exasperated if he had reopened the door. Behind it, Anna-Marie had abandoned her sewing and flung herself to the floor, pillowing her head on the pink dress. "Oh, Papa! Oh, Sidi! I don't want anyone to like me in this hateful place! I want you, only you!"

But of this Lucas knew nothing. Hearing an extraordinary sound of banging and thumping from the direction of the main staircase, he had given way to curiosity and walked in that direction. Turning a corner in the passage, he was held riveted by the scene that was taking place a little farther on.

Three men were locked together in what looked like a fight to the death. They strained and stamped, heaved and grunted and struggled, bumping against the wall and the balustrade at the stairhead. The hall was full of the sound of their gasping breath and an occasional damn.

In the dim light—the candles had not yet been lit—it was hard to make out one from another. Somebody seemed to be trying to throw somebody else over the banisters, and a third party was attempting to prevent this. Redgauntlet the hound circled round the group, hysterically barking, letting out an occasional whimper when one of the fighters knocked against or trod on him.

Lucas felt that he ought to help, and yet it was hard to know what he could do. None the less he drew nearer, and caught a glimpse of the turkey-cock red face of Sir Randolph. Now he could see that his guardian had both arms tightly wrapped round another man and seemed engaged in trying to break his ribs by sheer pressure. Sir Randolph was being hindered from his efforts by Mr. Oakapple, who was both struggling and remonstrating:

"Sir Randolph! Sir Randolph,
please!
You must leave go, sir, indeed you must! This will not do, sir, you are forgetting yourself."

"Forgetting himself, rats!" grunted the man whom Sir Randolph was trying to throw over the rail. "If
you
weren't aware that Sir Randolph is the most awkward customer for miles around, Mr. Oakapple,
I
certainly was! I knew it would be taking my life in my hands to coom along this afternoon and serve the Order. But a public servant's got his dooty to do—
agghhh!
" he gasped, as the enraged Sir Randolph managed to get a hand on his windpipe.

Then Lucas recognized the bald head and brass buttons of Mr. Gobthorpe the tax official. At the same moment Mr. Oakapple, catching sight of Lucas for the first time, exclaimed, "Go and fetch Garridge or old Gabriel—Sir Randolph is distempered, he is not himself."

Lucas tried to edge around the group in order to get down the stairs.

"Not himself!" burst out the tax official, getting Sir Randolph's hand off his throat again, "he's exactly himself, if you were to ask me—of all the pesky, contumacious, aggravating, bellicocious tax defaulters, he's the wust I ever coom across, or my name's not Esdras Gobthorpe."

His words increased the fury of Sir Randolph, who made another lunge at him. This had the effect of tipping the whole group over the head of the stairs, just at the moment when Lucas had squeezed by them, and they all tumbled down higgledy-piggledy, falling over one another.

Apparently, as it turned out, nobody's limbs were broken, and the sudden upset at least succeeded in disentangling the fighters. The little tax officer, Mr. Gobthorpe, with great presence of mind leapt to his feet and made for the front door, exclaiming, "I give you good day, sir! I have done my dooty. I have served the Order, which falls due in three weeks' time. After that, it's pay or go to prison. And before then you will probably receive a Summons for assault of a revenue officer in pursoot of his lawful occasions!"—
with which parting shot he slammed the door behind him. Sir Randolph, eyes starting, purple with choler, might very likely have gone in pursuit, despite the restraining grasp of Mr. Oakapple, if another visitor had not just then very opportunely arrived and entered through the same door by which Mr. Gobthorpe had departed, conveniently blocking the way. He gazed in dignified surprise at Sir Randolph's face of fury.

"Ah—Mr. Throgmorton. Good afternoon," panted Mr. Oakapple. "Mr. Throgmorton, will you please represent to Sir Randolph that he must not punch a tax official, nor call him a scrimshanked blatherskite—"With caution he let go of Sir Randolph's arm, but kept a firm grasp on the tails of his velvet jacket.

"Heydey! What's all this about?" demanded the new arrival, a small, slim, sour-faced individual, very plainly and neatly dressed in a gray jacket and waistcoat, gray smallclothes and stockings, very white ruffles, and a very crisp gray wig. "What's to do, pray?"

There was a clatter of hoofs from outside as Mr. Gobthorpe the tax man made off up the drive. Sir Randolph sat down furiously on the third step of the stairway, and growled, "Fetch me a glass of brandy!"

"Ought he to have any more?" said Mr. Throgmorton, giving the baronet a sharp look.

"He has had only one bottle, this afternoon, I think," said Mr. Oakapple.

"Then he may as well have a glass—it may calm him. Boy, fetch the brandy."

After looking to Mr. Oakapple, who nodded, Lucas hurried into the huge dining room, in which no furniture now remained save for one tiny round table, a chair, and a small cupboard containing bottles and glasses. Returning with the cognac and a glass, Lucas heard Mr. Oakapple saying, "Would you not wish to return to your study, sir?"

"I don't budge from this spot until I've had a drink," growled Sir Randolph.

Taking the bottle and glass from Lucas, he poured himself a large tumblerful, spilling some, and drank it down.

No one ordered Lucas to leave, and so he remained, wondering what would happen next.

"Well? What did the tax officer say?" inquired Mr. Throgmorton, when Sir Randolph had drunk the brandy.

Lucas observed that Mr. Throgmorton, although so small and pinch-faced, did not seem to be at all in awe of Sir Randolph, but spoke very shortly, as if his patience had been tried greatly and often.

"Filthy ravening brutes! Yapping jackals! Blister them all." Sir Randolph stared furiously about, as if the hall were full of tax collectors. He made no attempt to return to his study, but poured himself a second tumblerful of spirit. "You're my lawyer, Throgmorton, why don't you pr'tect me from those vampires? Eh?"

"What did Mr. Gobthorpe say?"

"He said that either the Mill or this house would have to be sold to pay off twenty years' accumulation of unpaid taxes," Mr. Oakapple said in a low voice.

Happening to glance at Mr. Throgmorton as Mr. Oakapple said these words, Lucas observed a very sharp gleam in the lawyer's eye as if the news had some personal interest for him.

"Almost the moment for Holdernesse to make his offer," Lucas heard him mutter. "Brought so low, Grimsby will be obliged to accept. A year from now, I may be taking my ease in Monte Carlo!"

Nobody but Lucas caught this muttered remark.

"Vultures! Hyenas!" shouted Sir Randolph, thumping his brandy glass down on the stairs so violently that it shivered into fragments. "My own house, m'own place that I won in—in fair play. Give it up t'those gnawing rats? Never!"

BOOK: Midnight is a Place
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