by Michele Mixell and Richard Wright
The long, curving driveway had been swept of its customary red-brown layer of leaves earlier that day, the better to make a good impression. Mary fretted anyway. Somewhere there would lie an errant twig or leaf, and her cousin Cecily would tut her disapproval. The only things that Cecily found flawless were those that she herself owned.
The carriage drew to a stop next to her, in the sunlight at the bottom of the drive. The last time Cecily visited, two years ago in happier times, she had demanded to stretch her legs upon arrival. A two hour ramble through the surrounding fields and woods had ensued. Mary had no patience for such an expedition today, and hoped that the stroll up to the house would be sufficient exertion after her cousin’s travels.
The horse panted in the sun as the driver scooted from his seat to open the door. He looked harried. Cecily had that effect on most people unfortunate enough to drop into her orbit. Her voice sliced out. “What is it? Why have we stopped? Am I expected to take the reins for the remainder of the trip?”
The driver looked almost tearful, and Mary rolled her eyes. “Cecily dear, it’s me. I rather thought you might like a brisk walk after your journey.”
Her cousin emerged, descending with the aid of the driver. She wore a heavy dress, no doubt the height of fashion in London but hardly practical for travel. Discomfort was written all over reddened face. As she straightened her floral hat she looked around. “No further landscaping, I see? Really, Mary. I know it’s been a difficult time but there’s no call for a slip in standards. Victoria’s coronation is in but a few short weeks, and the commoners must be made to appreciate the order of things. What is the point of a country home if it is not majestic?”
Mary let it wash over her. Being careful not to make her scrutiny obvious, she took note of the additional weight her cousin carried, and the fresh lines around her eyes. Cecily was five years her elder, and they had grown up almost as sisters. Now she looked more the corpulent aunt. “I think you’ll like the interior, dear. There has been slow progress. It is quite charming now.”
After a brisk pat down of her skirts, Cecily took a moment to observe the house. “Well. The potential is not in question. Roger always did have an eye for potential, may he rest in peace. I could certainly put it to good use. Not for myself of course, far too small, but perhaps a charitable endeavour? A home for wayward children? Bring some life to the place” Mary flinched, and Cecily paused as she replayed the statement in her head. “I apologise,” she said, with no hint of embarrassment. “That was thoughtless. Do you forgive me?”
Mary took her cousin by the arm and raised a parasol against the hot June sun. They began to stroll towards the columned entrance of the house. “Of course, dear. When have I not forgiven your little blunders?”
Cecily drew in breath to reply, and then thought better of it.
Evans the butler held the door to the study open from them, his eyes hard and hateful. Mary acknowledged him with a nod as she ushered Cecily inside. “Through here dear. We will make ourselves comfortable in the conservatoire, and Evans will bring lemon cakes and tea.”
“With the utmost pleasure ma’am.”
Cecily took a few steps into the study and then stopped. Mary dismissed the now smiling Evans with a nod, and closed the door behind them. “Dear Evans,” she said. “He has such a soft spot for me. I don’t know how I’d have survived the last year without him. One of Roger’s better moves, retaining him when we did.” There was no answer from Cecily, whose gaze was fixed on little Sebastian. “Straight through dear.”
“Mary.” Cecily spoke with enormous delicacy. “Is this…”
“Yes dear, of course it is.”
“I rather imagined he had been buried. In fact, I would swear that I attended his funeral and watched his little coffin be lowered into the ground.”
“That’s right dear. I had him disinterred. Come along. The warmth in the conservatoire is just to die for at this time of year.” She stepped into the glass-walled extension, choosing the chair facing onto the garden. When Cecily joined her she would have no option but to take the one with a view back into the study. Making herself comfortable, the shade from the ferns a pleasing relief from the magnified heat of the sun, she waited.
It took a few moments for Cecily to join her, and she paused when she saw how the seating was arranged. The remaining chair was big and heavy, too great a burden to be manoeuvred with any delicacy. Realising this, Cecily sat.
“So,” said Mary. “How is the city? Does it miss me?” Cecily was staring over her shoulder, at Sebastian, and seemed not to hear the question. “Since you shipped me out here? How has the city been?”
“It’s well,” said her cousin, distracted still. “Sends best regards.”
“The whole city? My word, I knew we were well liked but that seems excessive.”
“What? Oh, no, I mean Percy sends his best regards. He worries for you.”
“Aha. The grieving widow. The bereaved mother. Well, you can see for yourself that I’m doing very well. It has been a year, after all.”
“Yes,” said Cecily. Suddenly her attention was so focussed that Mary felt it, as though she were being stabbed with pins. “You appear to be in robust health. Physically.”
“What of little Thomas? How has he coped, these many months?”
“The scarring fades, though it will never heal completely. Fortunately the damage is confined to his torso and upper legs. When clothed it is impossible to tell that he is… disfigured.”
” I never did ask how it came to be that he was entirely naked when the fire broke out.” Cecily’s mouth closed, and she looked away. Mary shrugged. “I don’t suppose it matters.”
“He is sorry, you know. He has nightmares, every time he sleeps. I hope you do not blame him.”
“Certainly not! My word, what do you take me for? He’s but a child himself.”
“Well, good. That’s good.”
“How could he possibly be accountable for Sebastian’s death? It’s not as though he chose to be left with the sole responsibility of his care for a whole evening, is it?”
Cecily shifted in her chair, and a preposterous flush of relief swept over her as Evans returned with a tray of tiny cakes and a pot of fresh tea. “May I pour, ma’am?”
He arranged the sugar bowl, cakes, and a milk jug on the small table that stood between the chairs. Placing a delicate cup and saucer in front of Mary, he began to pour. “Say when, ma’am.”
“That’s perfect, Evans.”
He stepped to Cecily’s side, began to pour. “I wish you painful death, ma’am.”
Cecily jerked. “What? What did you say?”
“Say when, ma’am.” The cup was almost full to overflowing.
The butler stepped back, and looked at Mary. “Will that be all, ma’am?”
“I shall ring when I require you, Evans.”
He retreated back into the study, and Cecily gawped after him. “Did you… did he…”
“He… he threatened me, Mary!”
“Don’t be absurd. I’ve know Evans for years. He was there when Sebastian was born, for goodness sake. He is a man who does not make threats.”
“I find him terribly reassuring. Since Roger took his own life after Sebastian, and you sold off our city property and moved me out here -“
“For your own good, Mary! So that you would have peace to recover, and money for your comforts!”
“And I’m very grateful. You managed my affairs so very efficiently in those dark days. And this place? Well, it’s been a blessing. Time to think and heal.”
“Exactly. Exactly the point.”
“You look dreadful dear. Travel must not agree with you. Have a lemon cake. They’re quite delicious.”
Cecily could be relied upon to soothe her nerves through feeding, and seemed especially keen to take a moment or two to think. Killing two birds with one stone, she took an indelicate mouthful of cake. Mary watched her chew, and chew, and swallow, and chew.
When she was done, Cecily brushed away the crumbs that had fallen to her lap, and took a deep breath. There was sweat on her brow, for she did not have the benefit of shade where she sat. “Sweet cousin,” she began, with painful insincerity. “Might I ask an indelicate question?”
“Of course. We are practically sisters.”
“I apologise in advance for my impertinence, but as you have already acknowledged Sebastian is in the room behind you.”
“Well, that almost is the question, cousin dear. Why is Sebastian in the room behind you?”
Mary turned in her seat, looking back into the gloom. Her boy’s polished skeleton, all two hundred and thirty-two bones neatly wired together to hold their original configuration, hung from the back of a chair next to the folded card table. His skull was to the side, where it would hang when he had been naughty and knew it. “Do you think he would be better displayed elsewhere? The dining room, perhaps? I thought that as Roger kept his curios and antiquities in the study…”
“No, it’s… it looks fine there. Ah. Very distinguished. It behoves me to ask though – why have you dug up your son and hung him in the study?”
“Well dear, I was so used to having him around you see. So were the staff who moved here with me. It’s a point of focus, and a talking point. See how we are discussing it now? Just as we are discussing your murderous negligence in caring for my child the only time you ever suggested that you would.”
Cecily choked. “You… you do blame us!”
Mary leaned forward as her cousin spluttered. “Oh no dear, that would be bitter and pointless.” Cecily was unable to speak for coughing, but nodded in enthusiastic agreement. “No, it’s just you I blame. You put my boy in the care of the deviant little horror you spat from between your thunderous thighs, and left to drink wine and play cards with your society friends.”
Cecily’s face was turning a peculiar purple. She slipped inelegantly from her chair, landing on her flabby posterior at its base. Her eyes bulged, and unusual gargling noises squeezed from her throat.
“I’ve often imagined how he felt. It is not the heat that troubles me, but the suffocation. That is what the physician told me caused his death. You would scarcely think so to look at the charred husk of his body, but smoke not flame took him from us.”
Blood dribbled from Cecily’s left nostril. Her flailing hand grabbed at the little table as she tried to pull herself up, and it overturned on top of her. The teapot shattered beside her face, splashing her with recently boiled tea. Mary jerked her legs to one side, neatly avoiding the calamity.
“It must be so odd, to have your lungs fail you after a lifetime of acceptance that they will get on with things without you having to worry about it. You’d know now, of course. It’s a simple poison, but a very effective one. I rather feel the kitchen staff have overdone the dosage. They were very fond of their little master too, you know. They’ve been very patient, waiting for today.”
Cecily’s eyes rolled back in her head, and she stilled.
Evans was already by her side, drawn in by the clatter of scattering crockery. There was an intense satisfaction on his face as he helped her up. “Arrange to have this cleared up, Evans.”
“The remains, ma’am?”
“Might make a rather charming talking point, don’t you think?”
“It is not my place to say ma’am,” he said, but he nodded all the same.
Michele Mixell is a woman of mysterious aliases. As well as being One Spooky Chick, she is also something of a Savage Mouse. I’m proud to say I share space with her in the recent book Anthology II: Inner Demons Out. You should go and like her FB page here, or check out her website. If you do that, she might get round to putting something on it…
This story, and the whole of The 52, is yours for free. If you enjoyed it please check out my other stuff, such as my new novella The Flesh Remembers. It has flensing in it. What more do you need to know?