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 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 at waiting and ready at the door.’
‘Well, go and help them to their rooms first, man; we’ll await them in the Star Room.’
‘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, only 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 move 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. 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.’