Today's Reading

CHAPTER TWO

'I'm afraid you'll have to excuse the mess,' Nancy said, kicking the snow from her boots and groaning as she pushed open the great oaken front door. 'Unc never tidies up after himself—he's something of a hoarder—and my time's taken up running after my aunt.'

Bill squeezed past Maria's legs as she followed the girl into the hallway. After the combined illumination of sun and snow outside, the interior of the manor was dim with gloomy tones of mahogany and tan. When her vision adjusted, Maria made out what she could only describe as an overstuffed hallway. She goggled at a moth-eaten grizzly bear, half a dozen dilapidated bookcases, hatstands, occasional tables and two'grandfather clocks.

Nancy saw her staring at the latter and explained, 'Only one of them works. Unc uses this one,' she went on, marching over to the nearest and opening its door, 'as a cupboard.'

The weights and chains had been removed and shelves fitted in the narrow chamber. On these, Maria counted over two dozen pipes of various types.

'He has a rule,' Nancy said. 'Cigars in the house, pipes outside. He selects a different one every time he goes for a wander.' She peered more closely at the array of pipes. 'There's one missing—the cherrywood, I think. That means he's out. We won't be interrupted. This way—no, don't take your boots off. We don't stand on ceremony here.'

Maria wiped her feet extra vigorously and followed the girl along a sepulchral corridor.

They came to a room at the rear of the house, with French windows overlooking a long, snow-covered lawn. In the distance, on adjacent land beyond the lawn, a lone standing stone rose tall and stark against the winter blue sky.

'Would you prefer tea or coffee?' Nancy asked.

'Tea with a little milk would be lovely.'

'I'll be back in half a sec—and I made a ginger cake this morning.'

'You must have known it's my favourite!'

Alone, Maria looked around the room. A fire blazed in a vast hearth, illuminating a living room best described as shabby. As in the hallway, various hues of brown predominated, the walls and ceiling stained over the years with a patina of nicotine. Three great settees were arranged before the fire in a manner that suggested an encampment, or even a stockade. The pictures on the walls were not what she might have expected—an array of long-dead ancestors—but a series of black-and-white photographs depicting stone circles and solitary menhirs.

Bill had curled himself neatly on the rug before the fire, watching her with his big brown eyes.

She moved to the French windows, alerted by movement outside. In the distance, a small figure was pacing widdershins around the standing stone. The man appeared to be in his sixties, small and stout, attired in a Harris tweed jacket, plus-fours and a deerstalker. He carried a shooting stick and waved it about as if to illustrate something he was saying. Maria assumed he had company, but she soon realized that the man was quite alone and talking to himself.

Nancy entered the room with a tray. 'Oh, there he is,' she said, depositing the tray before the fire and joining Maria at the window. 'He talks to it, you know?'

Maria glanced at the girl to see if she was joking.

'No!' 'He does. He's obsessed. Standing stones are his abiding passion, and when the manor came on the market just after the war, he had to buy it. He has some theory or other about standing stones in general and this one in particular. And if you're unfortunate enough, one day he'll bore you to tears. I'm sorry; you must think me an ungrateful little wretch. Unc is OK, but he can be...'

'Yes?'

'Well, he can be an old grumps from time to time.'

They moved to the fireside, and Nancy poured two cups of strong tea and cut thick wedges of ginger cake.

Knees together, Nancy leaned forward, clutching the teacup in both hands, and regarded Maria with her large blue eyes.

'Now, you must tell me. Whatever made you leave London and settle in Ingoldby?'

Maria laughed and tried to explain why the attraction of London, after fifteen years, had begun to pall.
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