Aunt Mable has been dogging me for some time. Or her portrait has. It’s become a thing that always has to turn up somewhere whenever I’m writing about Cythry. My idea up until now was that she was never going to turn up, that she was always going to be a painting and never a character, a running gag if you like. I got thinking though (always a dangerous hobby) and I started to wonder about what might happen if one day she came strolling up to the castle gates. What if one day, she appeared in person…
THE COMING OF AUNT MABLE
By James Churchill
After breakfast on the morning of the day after the war began I came into my room and found Seb perched on the window seat. The window was wide open, light misty rain spitting in, and he had a spyglass to his eye. I had never seen the thing before but I wasn’t surprised for Seb was always doing it, coming across things that I had never seen before. Where he got them I haven’t a clue. He seemed to pull them out of thin air.
‘What the divil are you doing?’ I asked him.
‘Looking for Nasty soldiers,’ was his response. Of course he was. What else would he we be doing? I joined him at the window and saw that he was staring out into a world of thick fog and couldn’t have been able to see much further than the front gates.
‘They won’t come in this weather,’ I told him. ‘The aeroplanes won’t be able to see where to drop them.’ Seb lowered the spyglass and huffed with disappointment. Instead of putting it down completely he lifted it back to his eye and a minute later he made an announcement.
‘I think I can see one,’ he proclaimed.
I snatched the spyglass from him and peered through it, taking a moment to clean the lens with my shirt. At first I could see nobody, least of all any Nasties, but then on the drive beyond the gates I caught a tiny shadow shuffling out of the fog. It was too wide and too small to be a Nasty but it was best to be wary. You never knew what they might try. Keeping the spyglass with me I went to the door.
‘SEAMUS!’ I called out. Seamus, his hands in his pockets, came waddling into my room from the library down the hall.
‘What is it?’ I handed him the spyglass.
‘Somebody coming up the drive…’
‘Are the gates locked?’
‘They ought to be.’
‘Then what’s the trouble? They’ll go away when they find they can’t get in.’ Seamus knelt on the window seat and pressed the spyglass to his eye.
‘It could be a Nasty,’ Seb pointed out. Seamus laughed.
‘In this weather? Don’t be silly Seb.’ There was a long pause during which he lowered and raised the spyglass several times. Even without the spyglass I could now make out the person. They were standing before the gates and moving from side to side, trying to see through. ‘It’s an old hag,’ Seamus declared, handing me the spyglass.
Seamus, who was always saying that old ladies were hags and witches, was actually correct in his proclamation this time around. She wasn’t just old though, she was positively ancient, a hundred years at a bare minimum. Her skin was wrinkly, so wrinkly that she might have been sitting in the bathtub for over a month. A chap could go mountaineering in those wrinkles. Her clothes, a shawl and bonnet, were rags whilst in her right hand she carried a long walking cane and in the left a carpet bag that was as big as herself. She was the kind of hag you see in fairy tales and picture books, the kind who turn princes into toads and trap princesses in towers guarded by trolls. I didn’t like the look of her so tried to hand the spyglass back to Seamus. He had gone off so Seb took it back instead.
Seamus was not gone long. In less than a minute he came back with Edward in tow. Edward carried with him a pair of field glasses which were usually kept locked in Father’s desk draw but for the last week had been on a shelf in the library.
‘What’s all this about an old hag at the gates?’ he asked us pompously, disbelieving. He stood behind myself and Seb and looked over our heads to see what was going on. He was very quiet and then he worriedly handed the field glasses to Seamus. ‘Seamus… Do you recognise her?’ Seamus stared for a while.
‘Nope.’ Edward took the field glasses from him and handed them to me.
‘What about you Arthur?’ I stared, watching the old hag place her carpet bag on the ground and begin rattling the locks and the gates with irritation. I did not recognize her and told Edward so. He left the room and came back with a portrait he had pulled from the wall of the hall. ‘Recognize her now?’
It took us about three seconds to see that the portrait was of the same person, much younger but still very much the same ugly and haggish harridan. That portrait, the person in it, was our nightmare. When we misbehaved we were told that if we didn’t stop then she would come and get us. When we wanted to scare each other senseless we used her. We used her as a threat, as a bogeywoman. Father told us stories about her, terrible stories about what a wicked and evil lady she was. We even made up our own stories from time to time. She was none other than our Great Aunt Mable, a lady who had not been seen in our part of the world for over seventy years. Nobody alive had ever met her and were it not for the portrait and official records and such things it would have been permissible to claim that she had never even existed. Now all of a sudden she was at the gates and that terrified the four of us.
Seamus had taken the spyglass from Seb and Seb had gone to hide in the corner. Edward was pacing the room behind us.
‘It’s alright,’ he tried to persuade us without sounding convinced. ‘The gates are locked. When she finds she can’t get in she’ll go away.’ Down below Mable finished rattling at the gates and she bent over to search through her carpet bag. She almost climbed into it before climbing out again with some kind of metal tool.
‘What is that thing?’ I heard Seamus’ jaw drop and then he cursed worse than any sailor before answering me.
‘BOLT CUTTERS!’ I watched in horror as Mable pulled the lock towards her and started to use the bolt cutters to cut through the chain. Seamus unleashed another torrent of curse words.
‘Oh god… She’s going to get in,’ I panicked.
‘Right then… Everybody into the priest hole. Double quick.’ Edward took charge and pulled the window shut before grabbing Seb and running from the room.
‘What does *—* mean?’ Seb asked, repeating one of Seamus’ curse words.
‘Never mind,’ Edward snapped at him. ‘Just get into the hole whilst I go and find the others.’ He dropped Seb and ran off down the hallway, shouting for our brothers.
The three of us, Seb, Seamus and I, ran into the library where Seamus began to pull the rug away from before the fireplace. Underneath were four or five loose floorboards and under those a space big enough for all of us to hide in with only a little room to spare. We three got in and shuffled right to the back where we waited. Edward was lightning when it came to finding our brothers and bringing them to the library. It would have been barely enough time for Mable to open the rusty old gates and cross the drive to the front doors. First down was Earnest, only a year old and confused as anything. Edward passed him through the hole and Seamus took him and bounced him up and down to soothe him. Next came Tiberius and he jumped through the hole, laughing and grinning and making an awful racket.
‘Keep quiet you little oaf,’ Edward warned him from above. ‘Do you want us all to be killed?’ That was a harsh thing to say, especially since Ti was only two and understood about as much of what was going on as Earnest did. To him this was all a game, the threat a fantasy. He could have no idea of the danger we were really in. Erasmus, currently going by the name of Geoffrey, came next and he watched with fascination as Edward, his idol, climbed in after him, pulling the boards and the rug back into place at the same time.
‘Where’s Fletch?’ Seamus hissed.
‘I sent him down to the village to get help. I told him to go and get Mrs. Violent.’
‘And you trust him?’ Seamus scolded. ‘You could have sent me or Arthur. Even *—* Gregory here would have been a better choice.’
‘It’s Geoffrey,’ Erasmus snapped at him with impudence. ‘And how many times do you have to be told? Don’t swear in front of the children!’ He tried his best to imitate Edward when he was taking charge. Edward loved the imitation and ruffled his hair, which Erasmus didn’t like.
‘Fletch will go to Mrs Violent because I told him to. I said that if he didn’t then the old hag would get him. Now hush up the lot of you or she really will get us.’
In silence and in the dark and the dust we sat, imagining Mable ringing the doorbell and waiting for an answer that would not come. Then she might try the door and it would allow her wraith like body entrance into our sanctum. It wasn’t locked because Fletch had lost the key somewhere and we couldn’t find it, despite us having looked all over. She would hobble into the entrance hall, her cane banging against the marble floor as she looked around and her eye caught all the things that had changed since she was last here. She would search the downstairs rooms for signs of life and then finding none she would make her way up the stairs to the first floor where she would again check all of the rooms, banging against each door with her cane and peering inside. She would do this with each subsequent floor, becoming more irritated with our lack of presence, until she reached the top and the library and the nursery and all our bedrooms.
That came sooner than any of us would have liked for after only a few minutes of waiting we heard the telltale sign of her presence, the tapa-tapa-tapa of her cane against the floorboards of the hallway. The noise stopped outside the library and then it came in. The tapping of the cane over our heads was more terrifying than you can ever know. Even Ti was quietened by it.
‘Look at the state of this library,’ Mable cried in a frightening, awfully posh and domineering voice. ‘There are books everywhere.’ Well it was a library so that was very much the point. I suppose that was not what she meant though. What must have irritated her was the fact that a great many of them were not on their shelves. We eight saw no trouble in leaving them around for what was the point of putting them back whilst we were reading them? We would only forget where they were or what we were reading.
The cane tapped across the floor above us and there was a thud as a book was placed onto a shelf near the fireplace. She was right on top of us and none of us dared to breathe out of fear. Then the cane crashed into the floor directly above our head, creating a tremendous racket. It crashed again and again and again. We were all too frightened to move or make a noise.
‘Alright,’ Mable called out. ‘I know you’re down there. Come out now. This instant! Do you understand?’ Not one of us made a sound. ‘Children… I know every inch of this castle and I know there’s only one space big enough for all seven of you to hide in so come out this instant.’
When we did not come out, for we were too scared to, Mable tore the rug away with her cane and pulled the floorboards away one by one, showering us all with a ghastly light. Her ugly witch’s face leered at us through the hole. Earnest started to cry, Ti screamed and Erasmus tried to hide behind Edward. Edward, however, was to be the first victim of this evil hag. She thrust her cane through the hole and began to jab at him, ordering him out. With his hands over his head he called out for her stop and began to do as he was told. Half way out Mable grabbed him by the ear and pulled him the rest of the way. The rest of us did not move until Edward told us we had to.
‘No point hiding down there you lot,’ he mourned. ‘She knows you’re there so you might as well come out.’
One by one that is what we did, Seamus coming last and handing me the wailing Earnest on the way. Once he was in my arms Mable came close, I could smell mothballs about her personage, and pressed the top of her cane to Earnest’s nose.
‘Stop crying, do you hear?’ she ordered. Out of fear Earnest obeyed and he held onto my collars in terror. Mable crawled to the door and stood there. ‘I want all of you down in the hall at once. I want you lined up in age order.’ We all looked to Edward for guidance. He, who was always the most sober and rational of us and was probably the most frightened at that moment, gave us all a quiet signal to obey and do as we were told.
We ran for the door and I was right behind Seb with Earnest still in my arms when Mable’s cane barred our way. Seb stopped just short of going right over it. Mable bent close to him and he backed away. She followed, the cane tapping ominously against the floorboards. She used the end of it to prod him in the belly.
‘You… Boy! You’re odd,’ she announced. ‘You aren’t like the others. Who are you? What’s your name? What are you doing here?’ When Seb didn’t answer she prodded him again and demanded he answer. When he still didn’t answer I came to his rescue.
‘This is Seb. He lives down in the village but he comes to play up here during the day.’ Mable did not like this and she scowled.
‘Well he can go right back down to the village this instant.’ With her cane she gave him a push towards the door. He was about to go with tears forming in his eyes but Edward, having regained his nerves, grabbed him.
‘I’m sorry but no,’ he defied. Mable rounded on him with a killer’s glare. Edward shook but stood his ground. ‘If Seb goes we all go. He may live in the village but he’s one of us. He stays here.’ Mable’s cane prodded at Seb again and he went to hide behind Edward’s legs. Erasmus was also there. ‘I say again, he stays here with us for as long as he wants.’
‘There are far too many boys in this house as is and I will not be having any more. Do I make myself clear?’
‘He stays here,’ Edward said again, this time with more determination. For his defiance Mable gave his legs a swipe of her cane. Seb and Erasmus jumped out of the way. He screeched in agony and rubbed them sulkily. ‘Why you… How dare you!’ Mable swiped him again, harder this time.
‘Do as you are told and respect your elders young man. He goes at once and he does not come back!’ This time Edward did not say anything and only continued rubbing his legs.
Aunt Mable moved around him and again started to prod at Seb with her cane.
‘Go on… Shoo…’ She spoke to him in the way that people speak to unwanted dogs, with a firm and sharp noise. Seb looked to myself and Edward for help, for guidance, but I was too scared of Mable to help and Edward by virtue of the pain in his legs was forced to think twice about such a thing. Seeing, therefore, that he was alone, he responded to the prodding by meekly obeying. The poor mite was crushed, heartbroken, and he shuffled away with tears rolling down his cheeks.
‘Arthur, go after him will you?’ Edward suggested. ‘Make sure he gets home alright. In this weather he’ll fall over a precipice or something.’ I was all set to go but found my way barred by Mable’s cane.
‘NO,’ she barked. ‘He will go home alone. And you…’ She rounded on Edward. ‘You do not give orders around here. Do I make myself clear?’
‘Father left me in charge,’ Edward puffed himself up. ‘He told me to keep an eye on the others and make sure they didn’t come to any harm or mischief.’
‘Did he now? Well let me tell you young man, that boy is none of your concern and if he falls over a precipice then so be it. Now get downstairs, quick sharp.’
We went, in the words of Puck, faster than a tartar’s bow and with Mable’s clacking cane dogging us all the way. We dared not say a word, too frightened to talk, myself too frightened to even dare attempt to challenge the harpy that was pursuing us from the library. Seamus and Ti must have felt the same for when we arrived at the foot of the stairs they were both backed up against the front door with terror in their eyes. Edward and I joined them, along with Erasmus and Earnest who was still holding onto me through fright. Mable was some minutes behind us but we could hear that cane even when she was still two floors up and the noise it made was like a bell from hell, a sign of our impending doom. When she arrived at the top of the stairs she was a spectre, a phantom, a poltergeist who came slowly down in order to drag us all into the depths of the earth.
At the bottom she indicated to the space before her.
‘Line up here. And in age order.’ We reordered ourselves but Earnest would not let go of my shirt and so I held onto him. This did not please Mable. ‘I said AGE ORDER,’ she bellowed at us both. Petrified of what she might do to me I hurried to the end of the line and struggled to place Earnest on the floor. He did not want to go but with a short struggle and some gentle persuasion I was able to get him to where Mable wanted him. Leaving him I could well see that he wished to cry but like all of us he was too afraid of what Mable might do to him.
Out of the folds of her rags Mable pulled a sheet of paper and examined it through squinty eyes, holding it close to her face so that she could read what was written. Lowering it she came close to Edward and used her cane to push his face from side to side.
‘Edward, I am correct?’
‘Yes,’ Edward responded bluntly.
‘You will reply with ‘yes, Aunt Mable,” she told him. He grimaced.
‘Yes Aunt Mable,’ he repeated reluctantly.
‘Good. Now why aren’t you at school?’
‘Whilst Father is away I am needed here to manage the family estates.’ Mable appeared skeptical.
‘Really? How old are you young man?’
‘Ten, Aunt Mable. But Father says that I am more than capable.’
‘Does he now? Well I don’t agree.’
She moved along the line and examined the piece of paper again.
‘Seamus? An Irish name?’
‘Yes Aunt Mable.’
‘Why?’ Seamus looked confused. ‘Why do you have an Irish name?’
‘I don’t know Aunt Mable…’
‘I don’t like it. What’s your middle name?’
‘Montgomery, Aunt Mable.’ Aunt Mable sneered at him.
‘I like it even less than Seamus… I shall have to come up with a nickname for you.’
Next she came to myself and as with Edward Mable used her cane to examine my face. Once again I was hit by the smell of mothballs. She did this a second time after again reading the piece of paper. I could now see that on it were all our names in order of age.
‘Arthur… Good honest English name. I approve.’ I hated the way she said this, as though having an English name was something to be proud of. I have never been English in my life. My mother may have been English but in my heart I am pure Welsh to the soul. I was born here and I will probably die here.
‘Why aren’t you in school?’ Mable asked me.
‘Because it’s a Saturday Aunt Mable,’ I replied honestly. She struck me across the legs with her cane and I was nearly crippled.
‘You know precisely what I mean. Why are you here in this castle when you should be at a school somewhere?’
‘Because I don’t go to that sort of school,’ I replied. ‘Sister Mary Rhefrol comes to give us all lessons.’
‘Sister Mary Rhefrol? A NUN???’ Mable seemed aghast at the prospect.
‘If she’s busy she sends Sister Claudia Noeth instead. Or Sister Eugenia Chwarennau-Tethol.’
‘They are nuns too I presume?’
‘Yes Aunt Mable. They live at the convent outside Bethesda.’ Mable became very silent and a calculating look came over her.
‘I see. This will have to change. You simply can’t be taught by nuns. You’ll have to be sent away to boarding school. All three of you.’ Seamus and I choked on air whilst Edward merely became disgruntled. Edward had already spent six months at a prep-school in Cardiganshire whilst Seamus was not due to begin at the same school for another year and myself for another after that. By Edward’s tales, some of which were extremely tall, the place was awful.
Now came trouble for next in line should have been Fletch but was instead Erasmus. Despite the fact that there were only six of us, and she must have known one of us was missing, Mable assumed him to be Fletch.
‘Fletcher… Yes?’ Erasmus shook his head.
‘No. Geoffrey!’ Mable checked her paper, saw no Geoffrey and then took her cane to Erasmus’ legs. Having never experienced such a horrible act in all his short life, for neither Father or Mother would have ever dreamed of striking us, he screamed and started to cry. He tried to run to Edward for comfort but Mable scooted him back into place with her cane. He then sat down on the floor and continued to cry.
‘It is your own fault for being so impudent,’ Mable told him pompously. ‘Now… You’re Fletcher?’ Erasmus shook his head.
‘Then who are you?’
‘That’s Erasmus,’ Edward answered at last. ‘He’s currently calling himself Geoffrey because he can’t say Erasmus.’
‘He’ll have to learn to say it!’
I was horrified by this statement. It was not as though he could help it. Erasmus got some of his words in a terrible muddle, for instance his own name which he could only pronounce as ‘Christmas.’ Knowing this wasn’t right he took on whatever name he happened to fancy at the time and was always offended when people got it wrong. Seamus would get it wrong on purpose. The latest was Geoffrey but previously he had adopted the likes of Gordon, Gerald, Garfield, and Giuseppe. He had a fondness for names that began with a G. The day he had taken to calling himself Gladys had been a particularly trying one. Aside from his constantly changing name his muddles sometimes ended up sticking around. The Nazi’s had been rechristened as Nasties, which was apt, whilst the then Prime Minister was Never Change-A-Lane and if you asked Erasmus he had spent his entire life throwing peas at Hitler. London was Undone, the sisters who came to give us our lessons were sissies and we all lived in a great big whale. This muddling was often amusing, especially to guests and people who had never before met him, but I could see that Mable would be a different kettle of fish.
She came back up the line.
‘If that is Erasmus,’ Mable intoned at Edward, ‘where, may I ask, is Fletcher?’ Edward and Seamus gave each other a worried glance. Mable tapped her cane against the floor and waited for an answer. When none was forthcoming she ceased tapping her cane and there was an agonising moment where we all felt she might do something particularly nasty.
‘He’s gone to get supplies,’ Edward saved at the very last minute. ‘We were running low after breakfast and he volunteered.’ Had Mable known Fletch in any way she would have known that whilst he might certainly volunteer for such a task nobody would ever trust him to complete it. He would either come back with nothing at all or spend all the money on frivolities such as sweets or chocolate.
‘I see… He has gone alone?’
‘Yes. It isn’t far. Only to Capel Curig.’ Mable pulled a skeptical expression.
‘I have come from that direction and I don’t recall passing any child on the road. How long ago did he leave?’ There was another glance between Edward and Seamus.
‘He left an hour ago,’ Seamus bluffed. ‘He always takes ages… He gets distracted and goes on random wanders to pick flowers and things…’ Fletch was more likely to trample flowers than pick them and the thought of him doing such a thing set me snickering. I imagined him with a wicker basket, skipping through the foothills like a girl. This served to attract Mable’s attention and she glared at me, pondering what I might be snickering at. It was not difficult for her to work it out and once she had done just that she rounded on Seamus and once again there began an agonising moment where it looked as if she might do something nasty. In what was something of an anticlimax she did not do this and only said ‘I shall deal with you when I am done with your brothers.’ As she walked off down the line Edward and Seamus both directed an angry stare in my direction. That kind of stare I knew well for it meant that at some time later in the day they would find me and beat me as consequence of giving their lie away to Aunt Mable.
Mable stood before Ti. He was of an age where he grew bored of things very quickly and by now he had taken to the floor in order to play with his buttons. He was not happy about being interrupted by a tap of Mable’s cane under the chin and he scowled at her.
‘Stand up,’ she ordered. Ernest, who could not yet stand on his own for long periods was also sat down and whilst he got to his feet upon Mable’s order Ti did not. He remained seated. ‘Stand up I said. Do it now boy.’ Still he did not stand so Mable forced him. She bent down and in one movement had him on his feet. He dropped right back down again and in the face of scorn and hatred that glowered down on him he started to laugh. Mable took the piece of paper to her nose to check his name. ‘Tiberius, yes?’ Ti continued to laugh and Mable again asked if he was Tiberius. Again he laughed. I do not think he was aware of how dangerous a game he was playing. The longer he continued to laugh and disobey and not answer the questions the angrier Mable became. ‘Young man,’ Mable ticked, ‘if you do not behave you shall not only be struck very hard but I shall see to it that all of your toys are taken away for the remainder of the war.’ Ti could not, for all his young years, see the seriousness of this threat and so he carried on laughing right up until the moment when Mable struck him with her cane. Then he began to cry. ‘It serves you right young man,’ she snapped. ‘And rest assured, for this disobedience you will not see your toys again until the end of the war.’
Ti continued to cry whilst Mable looked over Earnest. This time she said nothing. He was too young to answer her questions. She left the line and stood where she could see us all at once. She tapped her cane on the floor and pursed her lips.
‘Where are the staff? Where is the butler? The kitchen maid?’
‘Father dismissed them all. He said we need to look after ourselves in order to support the war effort. The only staff member he didn’t dismiss was Crusty, our chauffeur.’
‘So nobody is here keeping an eye on you?’
‘Mrs. Violent comes up twice a day,’ Erasmus blurted out. Mable’s eyes bulged.
‘MRS. VIOLENT?’ she screeched. ‘No. No. Certainly not. A lady with a name such as that will not do at all.’ I should say here that ‘Mrs. Violent’ was not her real name, that was another of Erasmus’ muddles. She was more correctly Mrs. Fuller but Edward and Seamus, having known her since before her marriage, had always known her by her first name. Until Erasmus had learned to speak she had been Mrs. Violet.
Mrs. Violent was in fact, at that moment, marching across the drive. She was not a naturally angry lady but there was one thing that would set her off and that was harming, upsetting or being a bad influence upon Seb. Seamus, always cursing in front of him, was a frequent target of this anger as were myself and Edward for an increasing variety of misdeeds. As the front door slammed against the wall we knew that her tempest was come into our home and so we boys all scattered so as to be out of the way when she inevitably landed upon Mable. Bewildered by our sudden scarpering in all directions she tried to stop us, her main attention being upon Seamus who had sworn out loud. He had gone to scoop up Earnest who was crawling across the floor towards the drawing room but Mable stretched out her cane and he tripped right over and slid across the floor.
He rose in time to see the unstoppable force of Mrs. Violent collide with the immovable object of Aunt Mable.
‘What is the meaning of all this?’ Mrs. Violent demanded. Aunt Mable crossed her palms and spoke in an eerily calm voice.
‘Madam, I have no idea what you are you talking of.’
‘I’ve just had Fletcher come to my cottage claiming, in his words, that there was some evil witch attacking the castle.’ From our various hiding places we all despaired. He couldn’t just have said that Aunt Mable had shown up, could he? ‘Secondly, I’ve just found Seb crying outside the gate… He’s saying he’s not allowed back inside.’
‘Seb? Dirty little urchin, yes?’
‘He is not a dirty little urchin,’ Mrs. Violent cracked.
‘All the same, he is not to come up to this castle again.’
‘May I ask why not?’
‘Because there are already far too many ghastly little boys in this castle as is. Any more shall be an abomination.’ Mrs. Violent was outraged.
‘My son is not an abomination.’
‘I was not saying that he was an abomination, only his presence here. Seven boys is far more than I can handle. Eight would be too many by the distance to Timbuktu and back again.’
‘But he is here every day. The other boys treat him as one of their own. He practically is one of them. He has his lessons here and his midday meal. He is looked after here…’
‘Looked after? With no staff and only a lady with an obscene name checking on them twice a day?’ Mrs. Violent’s eyes fell on Seamus who was trying to discretely crawl away to a hiding place. She wondered if he was to blame for this impression or if it were one of the rest of us and then allowed the matter to drop.
‘The boys are more than responsible enough to look after themselves for short periods. They do not require supervision and Edward is…’
‘Edward is far too young to be looking after himself or his brothers or your dirty little urchin. I don’t care how responsible his father thinks he is, he is a child and requires supervision.’
Mrs. Violent huffed, coming to the conclusion that this lady was not going to budge in her opinions.
‘May I ask who you are?’ She folded her arms.
‘Certainly… I am Mable Morfasson.’ Mrs. Violent was stunned into silence. Over her years living in the village and spending time with my family she had inevitably heard all the tales of this long absent lady but never thought she would come face to face with her. ‘You are probably wondering why I have come back here after so long, yes? It is not through any desire of my own. Because of the war it shall not be safe for me to stay in France much longer so I have naturally come to somewhere that is safe.’
‘And that is here?’
‘Of course! I know of nowhere that is safer. I intend to stay until the war is over.’ All of us children began to silently pray that the war would be mercifully short. ‘It is fortunate, however, that the war began when it did. Any longer and this castle would have fallen into pandemonium.’
‘I do not believe that for a second Miss Mable.’ Mable squinted, not liking how she had been addressed.
‘Miss Mable? Please desist from calling me Miss Mable, madam. I am Miss Morfas. Nothing else will suffice, do I make myself clear?’ Mrs. Violent scowled.
‘There will be a number of changes in this castle whilst I am here. For one thing the children are to be properly educated. There is to be no more of this home schooling by nuns. The older boys shall be sent away to reputable boarding schools, as they should be at their age. Alternative arrangements shall be made for the others. There is a day school nearby, yes?’
‘There is one in Bethesda.’ Mable shook her head.
‘No. Certainly not. That will not do at all. Where is the next nearest?’
‘I would presume Bangor,’ Mrs. Violent told, shocked. Against this monstrosity she was beginning to lose all her usual and formidable nerve.
‘Well we shall have to see if it is appropriate. If not then Bethesda will have to do… But they shall not be taught by nuns if I have anything to do with matters. The second thing… This Mrs. Violent shall no longer be required to check in on them.’
‘I am Mrs. Violent,’ Mrs. Violent said, regaining some of her steel. Mable looked her over.
‘You are, are you? Well take my word. You will not be required, especially with your name being so obscene.’
‘If I may intrude, my name is not Violent. It is Fuller but the boys have taken to calling me Mrs. Violent.’
‘Fuller? Your husband was the chap who vanished a few years ago?’
Mrs. Violent remained stoically silent. This was a tender subject for her as she had taken the disappearance of her husband and the subsequent legal inquiry hard. We children knew nothing of it at the time but in the years since we have all been told of something of it, though not the entire truth. The entire truth is only known to Father and Seb. Charlie Fuller was a great friend to the family and Father had asked for his assistance involving some business in Santiago de Compostela. The business, for a number of reasons, had been an abysmal catastrophe and after it Charlie was not heard from again. Mrs. Violent was still holding out hope that he was alive and that he would return home one day but the more time passed the more unlikely this became. In sympathy Father had taken on a patriarchal duty towards Mrs. Violent, giving her a home and employment and a generous compensation payment for the duration of her husband’s absence. This was marked on the family account books as a pension so it is safe to assume that Charlie was dead and Father knew it all along. I do not agree that he kept it from Mrs. Violent.
‘Miss Morfas,’ Mrs. Violent clipped hesitantly, ‘I would ask that you do not mention my husband. It is a sore subject.’
‘I understand.’ There was no tenderness to the way Mable spoke. ‘You and my nephew have an arrangement I assume?’ There was a nod. ‘Then it shall be kept. I read all of the inquiry of course. Dreadful business in my opinion. My nephew was irresponsible and that is all I shall say on the matter. Does the urchin… Does the care of Seb come into this agreement?’
‘Not as such but it is taken as a given that Mr. Morfasson will look after him in the event that anything should happen to me and as Seb is such good friends with the other boys he is treated like his own son.’
‘I see. Well I suppose we shall have to come to some arrangement of our own on that matter. As for everything else around here… I shall be rehiring the staff and seeing to it that everything around these parts is brought back up to scratch. That is all… You may go.’ Mrs. Violent was shocked.
‘I may go?’ Aunt Mable shooed her with her cane, prodding her shoes and making her skip.
‘Yes… Back to your cottage with your… with Seb. I shall call on you when I have come to a decision as to what our arrangement is to be. You may return Fletcher as well. I wish to speak to him.’
Mrs. Violent lingered and then slowly retreated through the open door. There was a worried glance in Seamus’ direction, he was hiding behind the lower newel post of the staircase with little success, and then she was gone. She was no fan of Aunt Mable, that much was clear, but at present she saw no way in which she could fight her. If Mrs. Violent couldn’t fight her then we boys had no chance either. Alone, even as a single force under Edward’s leadership, we would not be enough to take down this awful woman.
That does not mean that we did not try. Whilst Aunt Mable stood in the hall, waiting to pounce on Fletch, who would yet be some time, we who remained managed to sneak back up to the library.
‘Something has to be done,’ Edward remarked. We all agreed. ‘We simply can’t have that harridan coming here and disrupting our lives.’
‘It isn’t cribbage,’ Erasmus sulked.
‘Quite right. It isn’t cribbage,’ I joined in.
‘We’ve got to drive her out of the castle somehow. By fair means or foul, though at present I’d rather play fair.’
‘Why the *—* should we play fair?’ Seamus shouted. ‘The old bat certainly won’t be playing fair with us.’
‘That’s exactly why we should be playing fair. It shows we’re the better men. It gives us the moral high ground.’ Edward thought and paced the room in the same way that Father always did; hands behind his back and a serious expression on his face. ‘I shall write to Father. I shall tell him that we all unanimously want that woman out of the castle as she is a menace and has no right to come barging in here and taking over, especially after all these years. Father will agree with me, I am sure.’
Even then there was some doubt in my mind as to this latter statement. Edward was always being sure that Father would agree with him and quite often he was wrong. I prayed that this was not one of those occasions for I got the feeling that otherwise it would be a long and arduous war.
Above image from artfactory.com