I only just discovered the next story quite by chance; I didn't make the connection with the peacock feathers until later. There is a copper urn on the main landing, I brush past it so often I often fail even to notice it - and it sports a collection of magnificent peacock feathers. It was only after a rather brief assay at cricket along the upper corridors with great-uncle Frederic on one of his visits, during which we managed to bat the ball into said urn, that I pulled the feathers out, and on turning the urn over, was able not only to extract the ball, but the following story, which had been rolled up around the base of one of the feathers . . . tea stopped play I recall, after which I decided to give up cricket in favour of deciphering the Tale of Threadbare Castle . . .
‘I see him, I see him – there he comes!’ crowed Miss Lydia Pert, jiggling about in excitement.
‘Let me, let me!’ Her sister Miss Elvira took a masterful hold of the binoculars and peered through them.
‘Indeed it is! Hurrah, at last !’
‘Where is Worms ? And Jeremiah ?’ demanded Lord Octagonal.
‘I am here, milord,’ replied Worms ‘ – Jeremiah is waiting and ready at the door.’
‘Well, go and help them to their rooms first, man; we’ll await them in the Grove Chamber.’
‘Them ? Why‘them’, uncle ?’ chirruped both the Pert girls, now alert with curiosity.
‘Your cousin is bringing a friend of his along – now, put those binoculars down before you break them . . .’
Hooves crunched over mossy gravel, wheels squealed on their axes, the coachman pulled hard at the reins and finally, the reeling, shuddering carriage came to an uncertain halt. There were sounds from within as of a peacock in the final throes of death, and somebody fell out. Jeremiah the footman had run down the front steps only just in time to catch this unsteady passenger, whose top hat now fell off, revealing a mass of dark curls. The passenger stood up straight almost immediately, further revealing a bright purple cravat of ridiculous proportions, and fended off the attentions of the footman.
‘Perfectly all right, just relieved to be free of that Preposterous Vehicle,’ he commented, dusting himself down.
‘Not half you weren’t!’ chortled the other passenger, stepping out with easy calm.
‘Gets terrible travel sick, don’t yer, old chap ?’
‘A mild aversion to the low-hung suspension of certain machines, that is all,’ retorted his companion with dignity. He set his top hat on with aplomb and pointed to the interior of the carriage. ‘Ah, yes. In there. Thank you,’ he addressed the footman, who duly relieved the carriage of several boxes and a valise.
‘But uncle, who is he ?’ Miss Elvira and Miss Lydia were now agog with curiosity.
‘His name is Titus Gore. I believe he is an inventor – of sorts. And something of an explorer or similar . . your cousin Howard thinks he may be able to explain something about the crystals.’
‘Ooooh!’ chimed the sisters together and their gaze moved as one to a box on the table in the centre of the room.
The main entrance was huge and draughty. The stairs were solid stone, with thinning carpet, and the upper landing displayed crumbling plaster, cracked wooden panels and paintings in need of some cleaning. The House of Octagonal had seen better days. There was however a healthy fire in the bedroom hearth, the valise and boxes were already on the chest at the end of the four-poster bed and Howard’s valet was at hand. Titus sent him to fetch the day’s paper. As soon as the man was gone, Titus turned to his valise and opened it carefully, lifting out a tray with a frame for supporting a colourful range of silk cravats. These he proceed to hang one by one in the great wardrobe at the far end of the room. By the time the valet returned with the paper, he found Titus seated by the fire, in a magnificent flame coloured cravat, reading a book. The boxes had not been touched, and these Titus allowed the servant to unpack. Books, a hamster in its cage, a black mirror, a bicycle pump . . . the valet was a discreet man, but even he had difficulty in restraining his eyebrows when the other servants asked him later what he thought of Mr Gore.
‘A trifle eccentric . .’ was his rejoinder, his right eyebrow quivering as he spoke.
‘Ah, there you are, Howard,’ Lord Octagonal stretched out a glass to his son.
‘And you must be Mr Titus Gore – pleased to meet you, have you rested ? Room to your satisfaction ? We have another, overlooking the lake, but I fear it might be even colder than the one you have at present . . good, good. Now, what will you have ?’
All reference to the box on the table was politely avoided until Titus himself drew attention to it, asking ‘And is that the article you were tellin’ me about, Howard ?’
‘Indeed it is, and you’ll see what I mean about them glowing . . .’ So saying, Howard lifted the cover off the box, revealing a set of smallish globes, transparent as glass, yet giving off a light, yellowish glow. Titus stared at them, whisked out a lens and peered at them through it.
‘And that ain’t all –observe, when I go towards the fire –’ continued Howard, moving over to the hearth. Titus followed, and saw the glow increase – and the light change, from yellow through orange to pale purple. Titus frowned and took another lens from another pocket – a green one. He peered through this at some length, then took the box and moved over to the window. The colour of the glowing spheres now changed to green – almost of a green to match the lens. More, the colour grew dense, until it seemed solid malachite, without a hint of transparency about it.
‘And might I inquire as to where this item came from ?’ he asked, almost severely.
‘Well, that’s the queer thing,’ explained Howard, ‘– it’s been kicking about the place for generations – we only noticed the colour changing quite recently. Got any ideas about it ?’
‘From what you told me before we came here, I was expecting merely cleverly cut crystals. Now I see there is something more at hand here. Observe how the colour solidifies . . .’ they gathered round to look at it.
‘Bless me, it ain’t done that before !’ exclaimed Octagonal.
‘Have you observed anything untoward recently about the castle ?’ asked Titus.
‘Not that I am aware of – mind you, there is only a relatively small part of it that we can safely use. Cracks in walls and so on, you know.’ Octagonal was interrupted at this point by the entrance of more guests; the room was taken over by chatter, laughter and liveliness and little more was said of the crystals, except for Howard, who quietly suggested Titus keep the box for closer examination.
Worms straightened his cuffs, picked up the drumstick and rang the gong. A procession of chattering, lively guests made its way from the drawing room to the banquet hall. While much of the castle might be falling to bits, there was nothing much wrong with the kitchen fare, with roasts, pies and jellies spread across the long, uneven, linen-covered table. The banqueting hall was . . . huge. The ceiling arched off into shadows, what lighting there was came from oil lamps and candlesticks in niches and on sideboards. Money was not everything after all. There were such things as . . . place. Time. Old blood . . . Titus discreetly observed more ragged tapestries which had not been moved from their moorings since the day they had been hung up, “ . . . somewhere between 1540 and 1560, I believe, in memory of the hunting parties held here . ..” he overheard Howard mention. The tapestries still contained considerable colour; even by the glimmering light of the lamps and candles, they looked remarkably fresh. Titus took out his green lens again and peered at them studiously.
‘Eh ? Found something waltzing among the tapestries ?’ Howard asked him, as Worms ladled soup into a paper thin bowl.
‘Possibly. They do look in mint condition,’ Titus replied, still concentrating on one tapestry in particular.
‘Why, I suppose they do. I’m not often in here of course, when it’s just us – but yes, they do look rather bright, don’t they.’
‘And that, I imagine, is the minstrel’s gallery ?’ Titus gestured at the further end of the hall, shrouded mainly in shadow, where only a hint of an upper balustrade lurked.
‘That’s right. Not in use now, sadly, in fact, the old Pater has placed it pretty much out of bounds.’
Titus gazed long and hard through the lens again at the gallery. What he saw did not seem to please him much, for his brow puckered.
A distant clock chimed the hour. Something fell from the ceiling and landed in the middle of a plate of kedgeree.
‘What the . . .’
‘Wretched plaster, I suspect, eh, Pater ?’
‘I shall send for another dish,’ apologised Lord Octagonal, but Titus was already spooning out the offending object and staring at it.
‘It is a crystal, Lord Octagonal,’ he said, and looked up at the ceiling. There was a complete lack of anything hanging there.
Another flash of something – and a second crystal fell onto the tablecloth where it rolled invitingly.
Titus picked it up and compared the two.
Another crystal droplet fell onto the table. With invisibly engineered precision it landed in the middle of the huge kedgeree and sat glittering, a large inhuman tear.
One of the paintings slipped its moorings and crashed to the floor.
And Howard broke a glass. This was rather more as an indirect result of the two previous incidents so should not counted – he maintains to this day however that it did not slip from his startled fingers but was snatched and flung against the wall behind him. General attention was distracted however by the continuing fall of crystals from above, bouncing, scattering across the floor – yet soundlessly, without shattering or even cracking.
Octagonal snorted and waved his napkin.
‘Explain ?’ It was as much a command as a query. Titus obliged.
‘Ah yes. Very simple. This place is, as laymen put it, haunted.’
‘Well, I know that,’ grated Octagonal.‘Thing is, what’s all the business with the glass thing, eh ?’ Changin’ colour an’ all that.’
‘Oh that, - just another metronome keeping time, so to speak – very high resonances though. Very high. Wouldn’t be surprised if a large amount of extra matasgorical manifestation took off later this evening – seems to be building up to something.’
‘Humph.’ Octagonal returned to his chair and proceeded to ladle more food onto his plate. ‘Last time this happened, Uncle Zebediah disappeared in the grotto.I er, don’t encourage people to go there. All very well, family members disappearing – can’t take on being responsible for other people as well.’
‘Even so, I suggest everyone take extra precautions this night – at least until I have established the exact cause. I shall need to explore the Minstrels’ Gallery.’
‘The Gallery ? Hardly anyone goes up there nowadays . . .’
‘Well, we did,’ cried out Miss Pert and giggled. Titus looked at her gravely.
‘But nothing happened. Just the sound of a violin . . .’ she turned to her friend who nodded vigorously.
‘We couldn’t see who was playing, or where- but it was simply lovely –’
Lord Octavian was most put out.
‘My dear girls, how could I face your mother again if anything were to happen ? I have told you before, the gallery is not fit for purpose – I am not even certain it is entirely stable.’
‘What is its history ?’ asked Titus.
‘Not an entirely happy one,’ continued his host, fiddling with his watch chain, ‘There was a grand occasion, some five or six hundred years ago, and a great banquet was held here. Minstrels performing up in the gallery, guests lined up behind the great table, waiting for the host to open proceedings. One of the musicians, through carelessness it seems, stood too close to the railing of the gallery and somehow fell over it to his death. Legend has it he might have been pushed – some intrigue or other with one of the daughters of the house, or other such nonsense. Since then, there have been those who claim to hear the sound of his viol or whatever it was, still playing the music he played shortly before his death. I suppose I need hardly mention the fact that to hear such sounds now is associated with some kind of imminent misfortune.’
Titus frowned, now much worried.
‘And the tapestries ?’ pursued Titus.
‘The tapestries ?’ Lord Octavian looked briefly surprised. ‘Why, nothing much, I believe – they do date from around the same time, that’s all I am aware of.’
‘That one over there – the hunting scene – if I am not mistaken, there appear to be musicians in it as well as huntsmen ?’
Lord Octavian turned and peered. ‘I see what you mean,’ he said after a while, ‘but I don’t recall hearing much about them.’
He turned to his nieces. ‘I am still most unhappy that you found your way up to the gallery – I had thought the door to it was locked.’
‘Oh so did we – but as we approached, something went crick-crack! And the door just swung open – as if someone were welcoming us.’
‘Yes, and then the music you know . . . was so . .’
‘Yes, it was so …we just felt we had to follow it . . .’ Both the Miss Perts sighed.
Titus looked very serious indeed.
‘I suggest then that tonight you put corks in your ears,’ he advised and produced several from his pocket and handed some first to the sisters, then round the rest of the bemused company. They had barely taken them however when the music began. A slow, melancholy march, performed on an ancient vihuela, taken up by theorbes and flutes.
Enchanted, the guests stood listening. Only Titus had the foresight to plug his ears.
Slowly the others began to sway, and gradually moved together in a procession, weaving slowly and grandly in time to the music.
The candles flickered, the flames grew long, phantom torches flamed up unexpectedly in their rusty sockets high on the walls.
Another banquet appeared on the table. Pages burst through the side door which had been locked for over a century, bearing suckling boars’ heads, a stuffed peacock, lozenges, other pages toured the table with wine jugs, replenishing the cups of the now eager guests, jostling elbows at this phantom feast. Silks and velvets, line and fur, such colours as had not been seen for five hundred years . . .
Titus meanwhile had left the room and was now climbing the stair up to the minstrels’ gallery; the sound was growing louder, even over and above the corks – it was both enchanting and deadly. His instinct was to stop and listen, to follow; common sense was yelling at him to stop it, somehow, anyhow, or just to get out like a bat from hell.
It was a battle. The closer he got, the louder, more insistent, more paralyzing it became.
‘Come, come, come,’ it said, ‘join us, stay with us, move not away . . .’
‘What are you doing even listening to them!’ demanded Common Sense, trying to aim a boot somewhere painful.
‘Is it not pleasant, is it not quite the most divine sound ever heard . . .’ came the Music again.
‘Have you any brains at all ?’ screamed Common Sense, clutching its brow and quite beside itself.
Something sharp dug into Titus’s hip as he stepped forward, nudging him briefly out of his own, private spell. The little box. His fingers curled around it; he slipped it out and opened it.
The glasses lay there, glowing madly, all colours of the rainbow.
Titus blinked several times.
The tapestry was rippling and flapping against the stone wall, ‘wup,’ it went, and ‘wup’ again.
The scene rippled as well; hunters and huntresses, stepped across the burgeoning foliage, over fat acanthus leaves; they stopped to peer out at the gathered company now executing its stately dance.
The two sisters were now close to the rippling, flapping cloth. Heads and arms came out from it and the two sisters were grasped and escorted over the border of tapestry into the scene itself.
Several things happened at the same time.
A goblet hit the floor and rolled around.
The music stopped. The company stopped moving. The banquet froze.
Titus shouted down from the gallery : ‘The dress – grab hold of the dress – and pull !’
Octagonal was the first to snap from the stupor.
He rushed over to the tapestry and tugged at Elvira’s gown, still trailing over the edge of the tapestry; her sister was already well within the scene, between two of the hunters.
‘Elvira!’ shouted Titus, ‘get hold of Lydia and pull- don’t let go – pull !’
Whether Elvira heard in time or not, was never clearly understood. She seemed to struggle then fell backwards into the banquet hall.
The feast with its colourful servers vanished completely, Elvira let out a shriek, staring at the tapestry, which now hung as before, mute and immobile, only now an extra figure stood in it, with huge eyes and open mouth: Lydia.
Aghast, the horrified company helped Elvira over to a chair.
Titus had by now rushed back down from the minstrels’ gallery and over to the tapestry. Too late to do much else other than beat at the cloth, stamp his foot and bite his lip.
The figures in the wall-hanging stood, sat, hid in behind the trees, as if nothing had happened – save for that one extra figure, Lydia – and even she looked now perfectly at home there, woven into the fabric of the thing.
Elvira, still in a state of shock, was helped to her room.
‘We were lucky to get her back, at least,’ commented Octagonal finally, attempting to rally Titus who was staring at the ground. Titus shook his head and muttered something about corks. He stayed in the hall after the others had gone, pacing, chanting, cursing alternatively. Nothing worked. The only visible change was that the crystals which had fallen from the ceiling completely vanished. The chimes sounded ten, then eleven, then twelve - and still there he was.
‘I say, old chap,’ commented Howard, who came back in to find his friend seated with shoulders hunched, poring over the glasses in the box, ‘there really is nothing to be done, I don’t think. You’ll give yourself a headache to no purpose.’
‘I will not be beaten!’ declared Titus. He stood up. ‘I must talk to my Phantometer –see whether it can help.’
Some little while later, the sound of ceaseless whirring of a hamster wheel and a bicycle drifted across the hall. Howard was pedalling away, while Titus sat in front of a black mirror wrapped in steam, Lord Octagonal standing behind him. The clouds began to clear and a face appeared in the mirror. Lord Octagonal’s eyes nearly popped out of his head as he gaped at the apparition.
‘Well?’ sighed the Phantometer.
‘Well, what ? Set to, and tell me what you see.’
The face in the mirror narrowed its sightless eyes. There was a pause. Followed by a silence. Followed by a gentle snore. Titus thumped at the mirror with the side of his fist. The face quivered and its lips opened in a wordless O.
‘Yes?’ it asked.
‘I told you to tell me what you see – it is urgent!’
‘It is always urgent with you.’ The face finished its yawn, and narrowed its eyes again. Titus gave it a warning look.
‘I see . . .’ began the Phantometer. ‘I see . . . energy. A lot of energy here, in this room.’
‘Where, in particular ?’
There is a tapestry . . .and there is an upper floor. The energy moves between the two.’
‘Why is that ? Can you see ?’
‘Something going back a long time . . . a broken tryst, two spirits waiting to re-unite. That, I believe, has now happened. No danger here.’
‘But a young woman has been spirited away- how do we get her back ? Nothing I do makes the slightest difference !’
‘You cast the spell of Agorath and Osiris, and you invoked the powers of InPah and the Great Kah. More than this you cannot do, and it has served its purpose. She is only partly gone. Wait and see.’ The face gave another yawn . . . and faded.
Indeed, the following morning, when a sober company gathered in the breakfast room, they discovered Miss Lydia seated coolly at the table as if nothing in the least untoward had occurred the night before, munching toast and marmalade. On being questioned about the tapestry, her eyes took on a dreamy expression, and she requested more toast and tea, but answer gave she not. She disappeared again later that day, but Titus explained this was likely to be a regular occurrence. ‘It could have been worse,’ he said. ‘She might have been taken altogether – and we would not see her again at all.’
The house party trickled off in drips and drabs, hushed, embarrassed and not a little fearful, until only Lord Octagonal, his son, his remaining niece and Titus remained.
‘Although what I shall say to your mother, my dear, I cannot imagine,’ muttered Lord Octagonal unhappily. Elvira squeezed his hand and looked at Titus, who felt somehow compelled to offer some assistance when the time came.
Mrs Pert however, when she came to hear of it all, was not in the least surprised.
‘Lydia was always rather a careless girl – and it’s her father’s fault for calling her Lydia in the first place.’
‘How so, Mrs Pert ? What had her name to do with it ?’ Titus was suddenly curious.
‘Why, the legend – the minstrel was murdered for carrying on with the daughter of the house, and her name was Lydia; I did try to warn him, but he was always rather headstrong. Ah well, no doubt she will turn up for tea, as usual ?’
‘I believe so, m’dear.’ Lord Octagonal pulled out his watch and checked the time. He nodded at the sound of a gentle footstep on the threshold. Lydia stepped quietly in and took her place at the tea table.
‘Well, shall I pour ?’ enquired Mrs Pert.
Lydia can still be seen walking the corridors of the castle on occasion.
She will make conversation (if you address her properly), play the harp or fortepiano and spend time on her needlework. But occasionally, she is not to be found. Only the very perspicacious (aside from her sister Elvira and Octagonal, who know where she goes) will notice the extra figure in the tapestry. She likes to spend time there, with the trees and fat acanthus leaves (and is often to be seen standing next to one hunter in particular).
As for the crystals in the little box, they are kept on display in a glass cabinet, with Titus Gore’s card lying next to it – Lord Octagonal knows what to do, should they ever start to glow strangely again.