“Delivery for Professor Quatrechamps!”
Ben Simple knocked on the doorjamb and peered into the empty hallway. The dust blew freely in from the road, but blowed if he was going to stroll in without an invite from the owner. Even if they were careless enough to leave their front door open. Not to mention off. Where the fine piece of panelled timber with its brass knocker had been relocated, Ben could not guess, but it was not propped up in the hall for that was devoid of coats, boots, hatstands, umbrella-stands, wall-hooks, bureau, pictures and every other detail he’d noticed on prior visits when the staff had been gracious enough to invite him in for a cup of tea.
Reckless in the extreme, he reckoned, to go unhinging your front door altogether.
Not that there was any danger of opportunist burglars straying by this remote clifftop manor. But as removed as this stately residence was from civilisation it had exhibited more signs of life on previous calls and the door had been in place and closed. It reminded him how his dad used to caution him against keeping too open a mind, in case everything fell out.
He knocked again. Louder, at the risk of some bruising to his knuckles.
His voice barged rudely inside and up the stairwell, but returned to him with only the echo of a shrug.
He cupped a hand to his mouth. “Hello?” he hollered.
Only the mat answered. BIEN VENUE, it said. But the place looked as though even the ghosts had cleared out.
Not that Quatrechamps Manor had been graced with enough time to become haunted. Ben had been driving out to this wild and solitary abode every day for weeks now, conveying deliveries by the wagonload. Today’s was supposed to fulfil the last of the items on the customer’s order and yesterday’s, being the penultimate, had been met with servants and labourers queuing up to carry stock from wagon to the cathedral-sized warehouse built on to the leeward side of the house. Positively overflowing with eager busybodies, the place had been, all of them like industrious drones filing back and forth, reporting back to the wagon for more loads and all Ben had to do was stand by and chip in with occasional recommendations as to what item to take down next so as not to cause unnecessary cascades of items and, heavens forbid, breakages. It was a long drive out here from Tortenschloss and returns and replacements were a right headache.
In between supervising offloading, he’d been grateful for the hospitality extended by the staff, but soon as he had his teacup in hand he’d withdrawn here to the porch to sip and slurp al fresco ahead of the journey home. The manor’s insides were not the sort to sully with his dirty tradesman’s boots. Even the specks of ordinary household dust had an air of refinement to them that inclined him to feel he didn’t belong in their particulate company.
And yet, this bright and breezy afternoon, the common grit and sand from the road was rushing in to mingle freely. As for noise, there was only the swash of the ocean against the rocks and cove below and the rickety-clack of the odd shuttered window left unlatched, percussion instruments for the sea winds.
Ben took a step or six back from the porch and scanned the facade. Watched a couple of those shutters flutter like wooden lids over dim and vacant eyes.
Behind him Equinox and George snorted and snuffled and competed to see who could swat the most flies with their tails. A particularly playful gust strummed the strings of the brace of zithers that topped the stacked goods on the cargo bed. Ben glanced back to see the horses’ ears prick backwards, surprised by the musical flourish.
A woman appeared from around the wagon and settled the horses with a pet of each muzzle and an offering of sugar cubes. She had rampant wind-combed curls, dark and glossy like the plumage of an oil-slicked bird, and equally rampant curves, exaggerated by the frills of her blouse down her front and her skirt’s caboose-proportioned bustle at the back. She had a walnut complexion and sly hazelnut eyes, rendered rather owlish by round spectacles.
She sported a criss-crossed pair of belts with holstered flintlock pistols and Ben was uncertain as to whether she was some variety of highwaywoman or perhaps a piratess, washed ashore by some rogue wave. Or one of those opportunist burglars of whom there was no danger of encountering out on this figurative sore thumb of land.
Whatever her chosen profession, she was oblivious of Ben. She paraded along the flank of the wagon and applauded its heaped goods. Possibly admiring the rather rudimentary talents of the wind on the two zithers.
“Yes, yes. Excellent. That really is a lovely collection of clutter. Top-drawer.”
To the best of Ben’s knowledge, there were no drawers of any description included in this delivery, whether top, bottom or the lacey under-variety for the clothing of bottoms.
Ben doffed his cap. “Ma’am, this is a delivery for Professor Quatrechamps.”
“Oh? Really?” She sighed like a breeze, her intended course barred by a draught excluder. She raised both hands as though to show they were clean – although they were hidden in tan velvet gloves. “Don’t fret, I won’t touch any of it. Which leaves you to carry it all inside.”
Ben wrung his cap like an old dishcloth. It wasn’t damp in the least, but he could imagine it being a tad heavy with perspiration after shifting that lot from wagon to storehouse on his ownsome. “Begging your pardon, ma’am, but if it’s all the same to you I’d rather wait for the staff to lend assistance.”
“Oh, you’re welcome to wait. Long as you like. But they won’t be back.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know where they might’ve all gone?”
The lady didn’t look like a local. Other than members of the household, this headland wasn’t the sort of place to have locals. But she did seem to have some knowledge of the subject and it couldn’t do any harm to ask.
“Gone? Nowhere, that’s where they’ve gone. Nowhere interesting, anyway.” She shook her mane and stamped a foot, not too unlike an agitated horse. “And to think. They could have come with me.”
“Come with you, ma’am?” Ben shuffled on the spot. He was beginning to fear this lady was some deranged highwaywoman or bandit and maybe she’d threatened to abduct the residents of Quatrechamps Manor. Which only begged the question, what had she done with them that refused to go with her. He eyed the pistols at her sides and imagined many a grave round the back of the house.
“To the Moon, Master Simple. The Moon!”
The lady pointed to the sky beyond the manor roof and Ben understood two things: she was Professor Quatrechamps and deranged was a moderate assessment at best.
[To Be Continued…]