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 From Magpie, January 1953 

J. Trevor Story

¶ J. TREVOR STORY fell on his head as an infant (“my mother has been watching me for thirty years”) and started writing (The Phantom Squadron) at the age of ten. Twenty years later he started getting published. He has written scientific articles for such journals as the Proc. Amer. Sci. Soc., posters for The National Blood Transfusion Service, nearly two hundred short stories, three books which have been published and banned in various parts of the world and umpteen letters for illiterate friends. He has no interests beyond writing, but feels that he could grow fond of yachting, big half-timbered houses and expensive wine. At present he is publicity manager for a reprint house, on a publishers’ editorial board and helping to launch a new magazine. This is his seventh appearance in Magpie.


ONLY when it was announced in the local and national press that Wick Hall was to be thrown open to the public at two shillings a time, children half-price, did the public of Sparrowswick and the vicinity realize that such a place existed. Standing derelict and forlorn in a wooded hollow several miles from the town it was more of an ancient pile than a stately home; the present Lord Henry de Wick, fifth baron, had lived a contented shirt-sleeves and braces life in the porter’s lodge by the main gates for years.

    A bald, sparse and upright man of fifty, Lord Henry was old enough to remember and relish the past glories of his ancestral home, yet young enough to be realistic about the new status quo. He now had no regrets about cashing in on the commercial possibilities of what had become little more than a big, immovable debt.

    The attitude of his friend, Major George Barnes, a fat, florid, horsey and county man who lived in comparative luxury at nearby Wick Manor was entirely different. The Barnes family had administered the tenant farms and other properties of the de Wick estate for generations before the auctioneer’s hammer started tapping and the major still clung with reverence to the name and traditions and the feudal past.

    “Don’t let them in, Harry,” he implored, time and time again when he knew of Lord Henry’s decision. The major was heavily conscious of the advance of a great common THEM and a small, dwindling, aristocratic we, backs to the wall. “I wouldn’t have them on my own property at a thousand guineas a head, let alone rampaging about Wick Hall for two shillings a time.”

    But Lord Henry was adamant. Notices had gone out, the hall had been cleaned up, pamphlets had been printed bearing the family coat of arms and detailing the items of historic, morbid and — a popular touch — even sordid interest to be found within the hundreds of rooms of the great mansion. As Lord Henry pointed out to his old friend, not unkindly, it was happening to all the best people all over the country and one had to move with the times. It had been decided that the Stately Homes of England were yet another common heritage of the people together with the coal mines, public transport and the steel industry.

    “But you don’t have to worry, George,” he told Major Barnes on the day of the opening; “your little nest is safe.”

    The major had just popped over from his little nest in a last minute effort to stop the invasion. He had been engrossed in the writing of his memoirs, lost in the tranquil past and quietly comfortable in the cool study of the old manor with honeysuckle brushing the window panes and nothing more than the diffident songs of the birds in the summer’s day outside to intrude his privacy. His servants he had sent off for the day, his wife was out riding and suddenly he had appreciated the value and importance of complete, inviolable privacy, with every man’s home his castle. And then he had remembered what was about to happen at Wick Hall and he had driven over straight away to arouse something of his feelings in the breast of Lord Henry de Wick.

“And now that you’re here,” Lord Henry said, “you can lend a hand. They’ll soon be arriving in droves.”

Lord Henry had arranged a trestle table just inside the gates by the lodge, bearing refreshments and garden produce. Still in shirt sleeves and wearing a green apron which a long-defunct butler had once worn for cleaning long-defunct silver, the baron clapped his hands together and rubbed them.

“There’s lemonade to make,” he said, “and a slot to cut in the top of this biscuit tin for the florins and bobs...”

It was obvious that Lord Henry, far from feeling sad or regretful at this vulgar exploitation, was actually enjoying himself. The major sighed and set to, taking comfort from the fact that at least his castle was safe and he could retreat to it whenever he wanted.

.     .     .

    At about the same time on that hot August day Maudie Pontweed and her brothers and sisters with Bessy, fat and five, in the pushchair, were walking along a country road not very far away. What their mother had lightly promised would be a “lovely day’s outing” for them had turned into an uncomfortable and pointless marathon.

As the school holidays had progressed Mrs. Pontweed had found it increasingly difficult to find new things to occupy her children. She had sent them fishing, blackberrying, building tents on the heath and suggested a dozen other exciting projects, but the days had outnumbered her ideas. She had therefore welcomed the opening of Wick Hall to the public as an instructive and healthy excursion for them, cheap at a shilling a head.

“How much farther?” Charlie asked, dolefully. “We must have come ten miles already.”

Charlie was walking along the grass bank and jumping over water gulleys and Maudie looked up at him. “Don’t be daft,” she said. “Our mum said it’s only two and a half miles altogether. And don’t dirty your shoes else you won’t be able to come in with us.”

Louie and Sue, eight years old, and completely dis­similar twins, were walking one on either side of their elder sister and holding on to the pushchair. Reg walked several yards ahead, showing them the way. He distinctly remembered passing Lord Henry de Wick’s mansion while out for a bicycle ride and he had been looking for a narrow lane on the right. Now he found it and stopped.

“It’s down here,” he called. “‘bout half a mile.” Reg was dark, tidy and ten, a year older than Charlie and good at remembering things.

Maudie and the others joined him. It was an extremely narrow lane, winding between steep grassy banks and overhung by a tunnel of chestnut trees and undisciplined hawthorn bushes. It was quite deserted, but that was to be expected since the place was not due to open until one o’clock and it was now barely twelve.

As the children stood there weighing Reg’s information against past experience, an A.A. motor-cycle patrol drove up and stopped on the opposite side of the road facing the entrance to the lane. They watched a uniformed man take a yellow signboard and a quantity of wire and approach a small tree.

“See? “Reg said.

Maudie nodded. “Come on, let’s be the first ones there...”

Judging from the appearance of the big house when they got to it, they were not only the first ones, but the only ones there. It was a big, rambling house standing grey and magnificent in the hot sunlight beyond shrubber­ies, terraced gardens and immaculately shaven lawns. The house itself lay sideways-on with the lane, a broad gravel forecourt was at the front and a drive vanished between rhododendrons and giant beeches at an angle almost parallel with the lane.

“This must be the tradesmen’s entrance,” Maudie said. “I wonder where we’re supposed to go in?”

“Come on you lot!” Charlie was already in and weaving his way across the lawn as though dribbling an invisible football.

At the sight Maudie pushed on through the gateway and the others followed. She called to her brother to wait for them; but he didn’t. At twelve Maudie was responsible for the rest of them; she was also old enough to be in­timidated by the grandeur and aloofness of this property and she could not feel comfortable or happy until she had seen somebody and paid their shillings, which would make their entrance seem legal.

But there was nobody to pay or see. They walked all round the house, which took quite a long time, and finished up outside some tall french windows. Maudie had just made up her mind to leave the grounds and search for a more official-looking entrance, when Charlie’s face suddenly appeared at the window — on the inside.

“Charlie! Come out this minute!” Maudie cried.

But Charlie only grinned and vanished.

“I’ll have to fetch him,” Maudie said.

She left the little pushchair on the forecourt outside the great studded door which now stood ajar and it looked singularly out of place. The children entered the house cautiously and in single file. Inside the big hall they stopped and stared in wonder. They stood on a spotlessly clean mosaic floor and looking up they could see a stained glass skylight in the roof from which filtered the hot August sun in orange, yellow red and blue beams. The coloured light shattered into a shower of fragments on three tiers of crystal chandelier which hung centrally in the well of the building; round the sides spiralled a marble staircase, richly carpeted and wide enough to take a pony and trap.

“Look at that rude statue!” Sue said, pointing.

Maudie knocked her arm down. “Don’t be soppy,” she said. “That’s Venus or somebody.”

Louie walked closer and suddenly put her hand to her mouth. “Goodness! Both her arms are broke off — I bet that was our Charlie!”

Reg started a confident but haphazard explanation of sculpture, but Maudie interrupted. “We’ve got to find Charlie and get out,” she said. “We’d better split up.”

The others agreed, readily, seeing an excuse to play hide-and-seek.

“You come with me, Bessy,” Maudie said. “If anybody finds him call out and then come back here.”

Maudie was at the back of the house some five minutes later when she heard a terrified scream which might have been Sue or Louie. She pounded through to the hall and up two flights of stairs and found Sue standing petrified at an open bedroom door. Inside the room, emerging from under the bed, was a huge black bear, its head lolling ponderously from side to side.

“Charlie!” Maudie exclaimed.

Charlie got up and threw the skin on to the floor.

“You might have sent her into a fit!” Maudie scolded. “You know she’s highly strung.”

“I found some old swords,” Charlie said, dismissing the incident. “But I couldn’t see any armour like our mum told us.”

“I hope you didn’t touch them!” Maudie said, apprehensively.

“‘Course not! I couldn’t get them out the clips.”

By this time Reg and Louie had joined them and Sue was explaining the scream.

“You aren’t half awful our Charlie,” Louie commented, and she did a rapid and almost absent-minded handstand against a marble pillar.

“Come on,” Maudie said. “Before you do some damage.”

They were about to go out of the front door when they missed Bessy and Maudie remembered that she had left her at the back of the house when she heard the scream.

“I bet I know where she is,” Maudie said, grimly. “You wait here.”

Bessy was in the big, low kitchen, scraping jam out of a jar with a biscuit. “I’m hungry,” she said when she saw Maudie.

Maudie pulled her to her feet. “Greedy guts,” she said. “Other people don’t want your germs.”

.     .     .

Maudie was immensely relieved to get them all out in the garden again with no damage done. While in the house she had noticed that it was only ten minutes to one and realized that the main gates had probably not yet been opened to the public.

She settled Bessy in the pushchair and removed some of the jam from her face. “We’ll go down to the main gates,” she said. “I bet that’s where they’re taking the money and selling the refreshments and everything.”

“Fancy letting all sorts of people come in your house,” Louie said; she was still reflecting on the wonderful home she had just seen. “Suppose they all come just as you was having your dinner?”

Sue found this theme worth expanding “Suppose they all come upstairs just as –“

“Don’t be stupid things,” Maudie said. “They don’t let you go in the part where they live.”

Maudie had rested her foot on the pushchair between Bessy’s knees to retie her shoe lace, when her young sister, looking over her shoulder, said: “I want to go and play with Charlie and Reg.”

Maudie forgot her shoe and swung round. Charlie and Reg were pushing a very big lawn mower away from the edge of the lawn. “Oh!” Maudie exclaimed. “You can’t take your eyes off them! Charlie! Reg!” She ran across the forecourt and skipped over a flower bed and Charlie and Reg stood away from the machine with their hands to their sides. Maudie glared at them and began tugging the mower back to its original position. “I won’t half clout you one before I’ve finished;” she said. “You can’t keep your hands off any —“

She was interrupted by a loud popping which came from somewhere in the machine and Maudie, gripping the handles, began to vibrate. She looked sideways at Reg, her face a picture of surprise. “What’s happened?” she said, the words chattering from her mouth.

“It’s a motor mower,” Reg told her, composedly, “And you’ve started it up.”

“Look out!” Charlie exclaimed, more excited than dismayed. “It’s going off.”

Maudie was also going off, gripping the handles, her shoulders shaking with the engine vibration. Sue and Louie, who had missed the beginning of the incident, now joined Charlie and Reg, who were following Maudie and the machine.

“Where’s she taking it?” Sue inquired.

Reg ran up alongside Maudie. “I wouldn’t go that way,” he said. “There’s a flower —Maudie, quite unable to control the heavy mower, had already gone that way. The machine went the full length of a long border, neatly removing all the dwarf plants at the front and throwing petals of aubretia, dahlias and nasturtium gaily in the air. Somewhere along the border Maudie lost her shoe but she had no time to think about it for the mower seemed to be going faster and faster and was now making for the house.

“How do I stop it?” she panted.

“Leave go of it,” Reg said.

But Maudie, with visions of the machine crashing through the french windows, would not leave go of it and instead swung her weight to one side. Surprisingly the mower turned almost completely round and the others bad to skip aside to avoid being run down. They didn’t know what to make of it for this was something outside all their experience; Maudie was normally a quiet, dis­ciplined girl and not the one to play about. They did not fully appreciate Maudie’s predicament until the machine dragged her down a steep terrace on to the lower lawn and headed for an ornamental pond.

Not until it reached the very brink of the pond did Maudie let go. Astonishingly the mower stopped immediately. But it was too late. The machine balanced for a moment on the edge, then plunged in and lay half-­submerged under a cloud of blue smoke.

Maudie, completely exhausted, just stared down in horror. The others joined her there.

“Now look what you’ve done!” Maudie said, turning to the boys.

Charlie and Reg looked at her reprovingly, hurt by the injustice.

“Us!” Charlie exclaimed.

“I told you to let go of it,” Reg said. “It can only go while you’re gripping the handle — it’s an automatic clutch.”

Maudie drew in a breath to say something, but realized there was nothing to say. “Find my shoe,” she told Louie. “We’ll have to find somebody now, though goodness knows what they’ll say. We haven’t even paid our shilling.”

It was a brave decision, but Maudie was secretly glad when something quite unpredictable prevented her carry­ing it out. She was lacing her shoe when Bessy, who had sat in the pushchair throughout the whole incident with­out amazement, suddenly yelled and clutched her arm.

“I’ve been stung!” she cried.

And she had. Maudie inspected the puncture on Bessy’s plump arm, the swelling and the colouring, part inflammation and part jam.

“It must have been a wasp,” Maudie said. “And no wonder.”

“There was a woman died through a wasp sting,” Reg stated. “On the lip.”

Bessy wailed.

“Well this isn’t on the lip,” Maudie said. “But we’ll have to get her home so’s our mum can put the blue bag on it. Come on.”

Charlie glanced toward the pond. “How about —“

“Come on!” Maudie said.

.     .     .

  A thin line of traffic was passing along the road when the children reached the end of the lane.

    “Look!” Reg exclaimed, pointing across the road. “The signpost has got twisted!”

Charlie laughed. “No wonder there’s nobody there.” Maudie was not terribly interested at this stage, but she glanced across the road. The yellow tin sign bearing the words WICK HALL was pointed along the road.

“I better shift it,” Reg said, “or nobody’ll ever get there.”

“It’s not our business,” Maudie said.

    Sue and Louie followed Maudie and the pushchair but Reg and Charlie darted across the road. As Reg pulled the sign round to point towards the lane a group of touring cyclists stopped by the verge.

A man in shorts looked at the boys, suspiciously. “What are you doing with that?”

“It’s got twisted the wrong way,” Reg explained. “The house is down that lane — we’ve just been over it.”

The cyclists swung across into the lane and before the boys had rejoined their sisters two cars and a motor coach had also turned off down the narrow lane.

“It’s a good job we noticed that,” Reg told Maudie, “They wouldn’t have got anybody there.”

As an attempt to salve their conscience it was no great success, but Maudie appreciated the effort.

.     .     .

 By three o’clock Lord Henry de Wick was feeling puzzled and disappointed. He had been expecting several coach loads of visitors from neighboring towns and at least one big party from London, yet so far only the merest trickle had arrived, mostly locals. Major Barnes, sitting with him outside the lodge, was not in the least disappointed.

“A good thing too,” he said, unsympathetically. “You don’t want a lot of strangers poking and prying —“

    He was interrupted by the telephone. It crackled at him before he got it in position.

    “Sounds like your wife,” Lord Henry commented. “Always tell when Margaret’s upset —“

    “Just a minute Harry — what’s that dear? People? What sort of people?”

    “Why don’t you listen, George!” the telephone said, radiating quite clearly to Lord Henry. “I got home and there they were — or rather, here they are. Scores! Hundreds! All over the house! They thought it was Wick Hall — most of ‘em still do. The gardens are trampled, the lawn mower’s in the lily pond, they’re picnicking on the terrace, walking through the bedrooms — they’ve even scribbled all over your memoir manuscript which you must have left out, thinking it was a register for visitors — hold on —“

    Major Barnes had turned pale. “Margaret!”

“I must go George now,” the telephone said, “there’s a party of nuns asking for sandwiches. For goodness sake hurry home..."

Major Barnes ran for his car.

    “Better take the biscuit tin for the money!” Lord Henry called after him, anxiously.

The major did not hear him. He was thinking in terms of shooting the first six to see if the rest would turn tail. Had he got home as quickly as he intended he might have found out, but there was a considerable hold-up. The road for half a mile on either side of the lane was jammed with stationary traffic, the air filled with hoots and whistles and bells and shouting. The lane itself seethed with trapped and struggling vehicles, the root cause of the jam being a large coach which had ploughed into the steep grass banks three-quarters of the way down.

The major abandoned his car in a gateway and struck off across country. Others with the same idea walked ahead and behind him.

“Come on mate!” somebody shouted to somebody else. “You can get to the old place across here!” Major Barnes’ bitter anger and resentment was reduced to a feeling of utter helplessness. THEY were too many and we were too few and perhaps Harry’s biscuit tin was the only answer after all.

.     .     .

In the telling, Maudie’s account of the lawn mower incident did not sound quite so bad. At any rate, Mrs. Pontweed, dabbing at Bessy’s arm, did not dwell on it.

“What kind of curtains did they have’?” she said. Maudie told her about the curtains and Sue and Louie recounted the bearskin rug episode. Apart from the lawn mower going into the pond, Reg and Charlie were not much impressed with the place at all.

“There were only forty-one rooms,” Reg said, “yet in the paper it said there was hundreds.”

“They just say that to get you there,” Charlie said, cynically. “There wasn’t even any armour.” Then he brightened. “Still, we’ve got our shillings.”

“Well, to-morrow’s another day,” Mrs. Pontweed said, brightly. “Save them up and I daresay we shall think of something more interesting for you to do...”

The End

Copyright ©  the estate of Jack Trevor Story 2002. Not for reproduction. Copyright in all work by Jack Trevor Story is the property of the author's heirs. Permission for use of this material can be obtained through Jackie Edwards (Story), Peter Story, Lee Story or Michael Moorcock. Reproduction of copyright material whether in text, visual or audio form by unauthorised sources strictly forbidden.