Never run with scissors!
That’s what his mother always said. One of the many things she said. And Jack was an obedient young lad, so he didn’t run. He crept.
He crept past the row of sternly disapproving portraits, right up to the guest bedroom at the end of the landing. And he knelt and dipped his head to the floor to peer under the door. The crack was dark, barred by something substantial. One of the embroidered draught excluders that mother was so fond of distributing to every room in the house.
Well, it was as he’d expected – and perhaps fair enough. It was a chilly night – the polished parquet floor was cold through the knees of his pyjamas.
If the stuffed cloth sausage hadn’t been there, he would’ve slid his handkerchief under the door to cushion the key’s fall. Folded to three or four layers it would have fitted under the door and still been large enough to provide a generous catchment area. Mother believed in enormous handkerchiefs, possibly as a status symbol – or more likely because her needlework wasn’t as fine as she thought it was and she needed a large canvas to sew his initials in – and she loved to sew his initials in everything. Every item he might wear about his person anyway. JM. It was annoying. As though she expected him to routinely forget his name. As though that was remotely likely.
Nobody ever forgot their name when it was Jack Marvellous. They just set out from the earliest age to be the opposite, to prove the ridiculous surname wrong.
That, he supposed, was what he was doing right now. Although that hadn’t been the heart of his motive when the idea had first occurred to him. Three years ago, that was, when Lady Barrager had begun her annual tradition of wintering in the region and spending two weeks every February residing here, as guests of his mother. And every year she would bring her daughter, Elspeth, because – she maintained – the bracing country air would do her good.
While Jack, from the moment his mother ordered him to shake the girl’s hand, resolved to do the opposite.
He chuckled to himself. Quickly clamped a hand over his mouth. Quiet now.
He shuffled closer to the door and carefully probed the keyhole with the pointy end of the scissors. It was a slender pair, pinched from his mother’s overstocked sewing box. Ideal for precision work.
He poked and prodded with the instrument, levering the key loose and nudging it millimetre by millimetre towards the other side of the keyhole.
Once it dropped, he would have to be quick. He did not want to miss the moment when little Elspeth jumped out of her skin.
Haha. He remembered the day, barely an hour after their introduction, he’d been told to conduct her on a tour of the house and gardens. He’d obeyed, of course, but he’d taken great pleasure in telling the girl how the house was haunted. He’d concocted a story and everything. He’d read plenty of stories so it was no trouble at all making one up as they’d strolled around.
It was from adventure stories that he’d learned this trick with keys and keyholes. Adventurers tended to use it to facilitate their escapes from dungeons and the like. But the method was equally useful for spying.
Clunk! The key dropped.
Jack pressed his eye to the keyhole, his grin primed and ready.
Hahah, yes, there she was!
There, down the end of a dark and feeble telescope. Sitting bolt upright in bed, back pressed up against the headboard, knees tucked up and covers clutched in tiny tight fists. Eyes big as a cat’s, staring, staring, right at him. Well, a few degrees below, doubtless locked on the fallen key. But he enjoyed the way she kept staring, her gaze frozen in his direction – without a clue that he was looking in on her.
What a picture!
Her thoughts were full of ghosts, he could tell that much from her face. She tugged the covers up further, leaving only her eyes peering over the top.
Poor, pale, porcelain Elspeth. She didn’t want to be here any more than he wanted her here. And she was always so frightened when she stayed, she was sure to lock her bedroom door as soon as she turned in for the night. Had it not been for the draught excluder, Jack would have captured the key, withdrawn it under the door and left her locked in her bedroom. Deposited the key in one of the potted plants back along the landing, leaving the girl fearful and trapped when morning finally came. And at the breakfast table, Jack would shrug his shoulders and claim complete mystery as to how the ghosts of Marvellous House could have transported the key from inside the lock.
A mystery his mother would probably solve, but for some reason she never reprimanded him in front of Lady Barrager or Elspeth. She was big on maintaining appearances and one of those, it seemed, was the appearance that he was a good little boy. She’d give him a clip round his ear – and a torrent of cross words to fill it – later, in private.
But it would be worth it for that picture.
What a picture.
Reluctantly, Jack withdrew his eye from the keyhole and crept away to his room.
The image was gone from his view but he would retain it in his mind’s eye until he drifted off to sleep. And maybe even beyond, into his dreams. A beautiful portrait of a frightened, fragile little girl, exquisitely framed in a keyhole.
It was a portrait he carried with him even today, seven years on, even if now only a lightly water-coloured memory, as he sat in the drawing room with his mother and the clock chimed three.
Not three chimes together. No. Three separate, lonely sounds to punctuate the emptiness of the afternoon.
Tea would be served at four. Lady Barrager and her sixteen-year-old daughter would be arriving imminently.
And it was Jack’s turn to shake inside and stare at the door. More with resentment than with fear, if truth be told.
Because he finally understood why his mother had ‘encouraged’ his association with Elspeth all these years.
Engagement. To a girl he didn’t find the least bit engaging.
His mother smiled at him from the sofa. With a delicate snick of her scissors, she snipped a loose strand of thread on her latest piece of needlework.
Was she smiling because she was happy for him? Or because she delighted in his discomfort? As she had subtly played her trick and made off with the key.
Leaving him trapped.
[To Be Continued…]