‘So this is Mary’s new nanny.’ The minister looked at me with interest. ‘I hope you don’t find our lives here too dull.’ He had an angular face with sharp eyes that were shadowed as if by sleepless nights, and a square chin; he was almost handsome but for a nose that was a fraction too long. ‘And this is Mrs Argylle, my wife,’ he said.
She leaned towards me, taking my hands in both of hers in warm welcome. ‘I’m a very poor traveller,’ she said, ‘or I would certainly have made your acquaintance on the journey over. You must forgive me and let me give you tea very soon. We don’t often have a new face on Skelthsea.’
Miss Gillies stood a little way off, holding Mary tightly to her side, but nobody lingered long. The night had begun to settle and the wind had grown, sweeping down from the ridge and catching our hats and outerwear. We made our way quickly to the bay, where the sea’s edge glimmered in the moonlight.
As we approached Iskar’s path, my eyes drifted upwards to the nursery rooms and I stopped dead. Behind the glass there was a blur of movement. Miss Gillies turned, hearing the cessation of my feet on the shingle.
‘Are you all right, Elspeth?’ she asked.
I stared hard at the window, trying to make sense of what I had seen.
But there was nothing now to observe – and then a movement of cloud was reflected on the panes and I chided myself for my imagination, yet a feeling of unease remained.
Mary paused beside me and I turned to give her a smile but she, like myself, had her attention fixed on the garret rooms. I followed her gaze but was met with only a black veneer against the darkening sky.
In the hall, Mrs Lenister told me that dinner would be served in the dining room that evening with Miss Gillies and I wondered if usually I would be expected to take it alone with Mary. Coats and mufflers dis- carded, we ate roasted grouse while the storm lashed rain against the glass and howled in chimneys. The fires guttered and spat. Dinner was well cooked. Greer, who served us, seemed unconcerned by the weather, as did both Miss Gillies and Mary, and I gave an inward shrug.
Mrs Lenister came in with extra lamps, placing them on the sideboard, and we moved to a simple pudding of stewed fruit. All the while, Miss Gillies talked of the day she had spent, the lessons that had been completed with Mary, and questioned me about how I was finding my duties so far.
Occasionally, I turned to Mary with a comment but she ate stiffly, paying no attention to either myself or her aunt.
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We took coffee in the drawing room where we played cards and I did not notice how late it was until the clock struck eight-thirty. We finished the round and Mary rose.
As we made our way along the upstairs corridor we met Greer, humming a tune as she checked the lamps. ‘Good evening, Greer,’ I said with my kindest smile but she only tightened her lips in answer before moving on.
In Mary’s bedroom I got her ready for bed.
It was strange to be alone with her again and I was self-conscious. But her face was already becoming familiar and I realized that I liked it in spite of its quiet, inward gaze. There was something in the line of her cheek that recalled my sister – Mary’s mouth, although sullen, lifted a little at the corners suggesting that once she had smiled and laughed much. Her hair was soft and carried a breath of the sea in its strands, and as I brushed through its length, I was soothed, remembering the nights I had done the same with Clara’s – how I would glance up to meet her eyes in the mirror. Sometimes, I had wound her locks in rags and tied them and the next day we had combed them into curls.
‘I can ringlet your hair, if you like,’ I said but she did not react and so I plaited it into a loose braid.
When I had finished, she knelt at the bedside and prayed although she made no sound. Afterwards, I removed the copper warmer and pulled the bedding about her neck.
I hovered, wondering whether or not to kiss her, and all the while she looked up at me, Bobbity on the pillow beside her. I only had experience of being a sister, not a nanny, and I was unsure. Then I recalled the smile she had given me as we stood together on the ridge and I leaned over and placed my lips on her cool skin. Her lids were heavy as if she sought sleep and so, taking my candle, I left the bedroom, closing the door quietly behind me.
Later, I made my way to my room, which even a fire could not warm. When I snuffed the candle it was pitch-dark but for the flames that played on the walls. As I thought about my day my mind drifted continually to the room above.
Every now and then the wind found some space or gutter to howl through and the shutters rattled.
I was starting to drift off when I was half-woken by a hummed lullaby from the corridor outside, and I recalled Greer earlier, a tune on her lips. Her step was slow now as she made her way towards the room. When she reached my door, the volume fell nearly to silence, as if she did not want to wake me. The hush swelled uneasily. I imagined her turning down the lamps before making her way to bed. I waited for her to move on but there was a pause that lasted just a little too long and I felt the strange bristle of her dislike.
I crept deeper beneath the covers and listened until finally, her voice rose and then died as she drew further away, leaving me with only the snap of the fire to sing me to sleep.
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Illustration: Alexandra Francis for Penguin
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