|From Magpie, January 1953|
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.
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.
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.
now that you’re here,” Lord Henry said, “you can lend a hand.
They’ll soon be arriving in droves.”
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
lemonade to make,” he said, “and a slot to cut in the top of this
biscuit tin for the florins and bobs...”
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.
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.
much farther?” Charlie asked, dolefully. “We must have come ten
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.”
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.
down here,” he called. “‘bout half a mile.” Reg was dark, tidy
and ten, a year older than Charlie and good at remembering things.
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.
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.
nodded. “Come on, let’s be the first ones there...”
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.
must be the tradesmen’s entrance,” Maudie said. “I wonder where
we’re supposed to go in?”
on you lot!” Charlie was already in and weaving his way across the
lawn as though dribbling an invisible football.
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.
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.
Come out this minute!” Maudie cried.
Charlie only grinned and vanished.
have to fetch him,” Maudie said.
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.
at that rude statue!” Sue said, pointing.
knocked her arm down. “Don’t be soppy,” she said. “That’s
Venus or somebody.”
walked closer and suddenly put her hand to her mouth. “Goodness! Both
her arms are broke off — I bet that was our Charlie!”
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.”
others agreed, readily, seeing an excuse to play hide-and-seek.
come with me, Bessy,” Maudie said. “If anybody finds him call out
and then come back here.”
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
got up and threw the skin on to the floor.
might have sent her into a fit!” Maudie scolded. “You know she’s
found some old swords,” Charlie said, dismissing the incident. “But
I couldn’t see any armour like our mum told us.”
hope you didn’t touch them!” Maudie said, apprehensively.
not! I couldn’t get them out the clips.”
this time Reg and Louie had joined them and Sue was explaining the
aren’t half awful our Charlie,” Louie commented, and she did a rapid
and almost absent-minded handstand against a marble pillar.
on,” Maudie said. “Before you do some damage.”
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
bet I know where she is,” Maudie said, grimly. “You wait here.”
was in the big, low kitchen, scraping jam out of a jar with a biscuit.
“I’m hungry,” she said when she saw Maudie.
pulled her to her feet. “Greedy guts,” she said. “Other people
don’t want your germs.”
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.
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
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?”
found this theme worth expanding “Suppose they all come upstairs just
be stupid things,” Maudie said. “They don’t let you go in the part
where they live.”
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.”
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 —“
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.
a motor mower,” Reg told her, composedly, “And you’ve started it
out!” Charlie exclaimed, more excited than dismayed. “It’s going
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
she taking it?” Sue inquired.
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.
do I stop it?” she panted.
go of it,” Reg said.
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
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.
completely exhausted, just stared down in horror. The others joined her
look what you’ve done!” Maudie said, turning to the boys.
and Reg looked at her reprovingly, hurt by the injustice.
told you to let go of it,” Reg said. “It can only go while you’re
gripping the handle — it’s an automatic clutch.”
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.”
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.
been stung!” she cried.
she had. Maudie inspected the puncture on Bessy’s plump arm, the
swelling and the colouring, part inflammation and part jam.
must have been a wasp,” Maudie said. “And no wonder.”
was a woman died through a wasp sting,” Reg stated. “On the lip.”
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.”
glanced toward the pond. “How about —“
on!” Maudie said.
“Look!” Reg exclaimed, pointing across the road. “The
signpost has got twisted!”
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.
better shift it,” Reg said, “or nobody’ll ever get there.”
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.
man in shorts looked at the boys, suspiciously. “What are you doing
got twisted the wrong way,” Reg explained. “The house is down that
lane — we’ve just been over it.”
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
a good job we noticed that,” Reg told Maudie, “They wouldn’t have
got anybody there.”
an attempt to salve their conscience it was no great success, but Maudie
appreciated the effort.
. . .
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.
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
“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!”
must go George now,” the telephone said, “there’s a party of nuns
asking for sandwiches. For goodness sake hurry home..."
Barnes ran for his car.
“Better take the biscuit tin for the money!” Lord Henry
called after him, anxiously.
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.
major abandoned his car in a gateway and struck off across country.
Others with the same idea walked ahead and behind him.
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
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.
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.
were only forty-one rooms,” Reg said, “yet in the paper it said
there was hundreds.”
just say that to get you there,” Charlie said, cynically. “There
wasn’t even any armour.” Then he brightened. “Still, we’ve got
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
T he End