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Title: The Crown Derby Plate
Author: Marjorie Bowen
* A Project Gutenberg of Australia eBook *
eBook No.: 0607711.txt
Language:  English
Date first posted: September 2006
Date most recently updated: September 2006

This eBook was produced by: Malcolm Farmer


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Title: The Crown Derby Plate
Author: Marjorie Bowen




Martha Pym said that she had never seen a ghost and that she would very
much like to do so, "particularly at Christmas, for you can laugh as you
like, that is the correct time to see a ghost."

"I don't suppose you ever will," replied her cousin Mabel comfortably,
while her cousin Clara shuddered and said that she hoped they would
change the subject for she disliked even to think of such things.

The three elderly, cheerful women sat round a big fire, cosy and content
after a day of pleasant activities; Martha was the guest of the other
two, who owned the handsome, convenient country house; she always came
to spend her Christmas with the Wyntons and found the leisurely country
life delightful after the bustling round of London, for Martha managed
an antique shop of the better sort and worked extremely hard. She was,
however, still full of zest for work or pleasure, though sixty years
old, and looked backwards and forwards to a succession of delightful
days.

The other two, Mabel and Clara, led quieter but none the less agreeable
lives; they had more money and fewer interests, but nevertheless enjoyed
themselves very well.

"Talking of ghosts," said Mabel, "I wonder how that old woman at
'Hartleys' is getting on, for 'Hartleys,' you know, is supposed to be
haunted."

"Yes, I know," smiled Miss Pym, "but all the years that we have known of
the place we have never heard anything definite, have we?"

"No," put in Clara; "but there _is_ that persistent rumour that the
House is uncanny, and for myself, _nothing_ would induce me to live
there!"

"It is certainly very lonely and dreary down there on the marshes,"
conceded Mabel. "But as for the ghost--you never hear _what_ it is
supposed to be even."

"Who has taken it?" asked Miss Pym, remembering "Hartleys" as very
desolate indeed, and long shut up.

"A Miss Lefain, an eccentric old creature--I think you met her here
once, two years ago----"

"I believe that I did, but I don't recall her at all."

"We have not seen her since, 'Hartleys' is so un-get-at-able and she
didn't seem to want visitors. She collects china, Martha, so really you
ought to go and see her and talk 'shop.'"

With the word "china" some curious associations came into the mind of
Martha Pym; she was silent while she strove to put them together, and
after a second or two they all fitted together into a very clear
picture.

She remembered that thirty years ago--yes, it must be thirty years ago,
when, as a young woman, she had put all her capital into the antique
business, and had been staying with her cousins (her aunt had then been
alive) that she had driven across the marsh to "Hartleys," where there
was an auction sale; all the details of this she had completely
forgotten, but she could recall quite clearly purchasing a set of
gorgeous china which was still one of her proud delights, a perfect set
of Crown Derby save that one plate was missing.

"How odd," she remarked, "that this Miss Lefain should collect china
too, for it was at 'Hartleys' that I purchased my dear old Derby
service--I've never been able to match that plate----"

"A plate was missing? I seem to remember," said Clara. "Didn't they say
that it must be in the house somewhere and that it should be looked
for?"

"I believe they did, but of course I never heard any more and that
missing plate has annoyed me ever since. Who had 'Hartleys'?"

"An old connoisseur, Sir James Sewell; I believe he was some relation to
this Miss Lefain, but I don't know----"

"I wonder if she has found the plate," mused Miss Pym. "I expect she has
turned out and ransacked the whole place----"

"Why not trot over and ask?" suggested Mabel. "It's not much use to her,
if she has found it, one odd plate."

"Don't be silly," said Clara. "Fancy going over the marshes, this
weather, to ask about a plate missed all those years ago. I'm sure
Martha wouldn't think of it-----"

But Martha did think of it; she was rather fascinated by the idea; how
queer and pleasant it would be if, after all these years, nearly a
lifetime, she should find the Crown Derby plate, the loss of which had
always irked her! And this hope did not seem so altogether fantastical,
it was quite likely that old Miss Lefain, poking about in the ancient
house, had found the missing piece.

And, of course, if she had, being a fellow-collector, she would be quite
willing to part with it to complete the set.

Her cousin endeavoured to dissuade her; Miss Lefain, she declared, was a
recluse, an odd creature who might greatly resent such a visit and such
a request.

"Well, if she does I can but come away again," smiled Miss Pym. "I
suppose she can't bite my head off, and I rather like meeting these
curious types--we've got a love for old china in common, anyhow."

"It seems so silly to think of it--after all these years--a plate!"

"A Crown Derby plate," corrected Miss Pym. "It is certainly strange that
I didn't think of it before, but now that I have got it into my head I
can't get it out. Besides," she added hopefully, "I might see the
ghost."

So full, however, were the days with pleasant local engagements that
Miss Pym had no immediate chance of putting her scheme into practice;
but she did not relinquish it, and she asked several different people
what they knew about "Hartleys" and Miss Lefain.

And no one knew anything save that the house was supposed to be haunted
and the owner "cracky."

"Is there a story?" asked Miss Pym, who associated ghosts with neat
tales into which they fitted as exactly as nuts into shells.

But she was always told: "Oh, no, there isn't a story, no one knows
anything about the place, don't know how the idea got about; old Sewcll
was half-crazy, I believe, he was buried in the garden and that gives a
house a nasty name----"

"Very unpleasant," said Martha Pym, undisturbed.

This ghost seemed too elusive for her to track down; she would have to
be content if she could recover the Crown Derby plate; for that at least
she was determined to make a try and also to satisfy that faint tingling
of curiosity roused in her by this talk about "Hartleys" and the
remembrance of that day, so long ago, when she had gone to the auction
sale at the lonely old house.

So the first free afternoon, while Mabel and Clara were comfortably
taking their afternoon repose, Martha Pym, who was of a more lively
habit, got out her little governess cart and dashed away across the
Essex flats.

She had taken minute directions with her, but she had soon lost her way.

Under the wintry sky, which looked as grey and hard as metal, the
marshes stretched bleakly to the horizon, the olive-brown broken reeds
were harsh as scars on the saffron-tinted bogs, where the sluggish
waters that rose so high in winter were filmed over with the first
stillness of a frost; the air was cold but not keen, everything was
damp; faintest of mists blurred the black outlines of trees that rose
stark from the ridges above the stagnant dykes; the flooded fields were
haunted by black birds and white birds, gulls and crows, whining above
the long ditch grass and wintry wastes.

Miss Pym stopped the little horse and surveyed this spectral scene,
which had a certain relish about it to one sure to return to a homely
village, a cheerful house and good company.

A withered and bleached old man, in colour like the dun landscape, came
along the road between the sparse alders.

Miss Pym, buttoning up her coat, asked the way to "Hartley" as he passed
her; he told her, straight on, and she proceeded, straight indeed across
the road that went with undeviating length across the marshes.

"Of course," thought Miss Pym, "if you live in a place like this, you
are bound to invent ghosts."

The house sprang up suddenly on a knoll ringed with rotting trees,
encompassed by an old brick wall that the perpetual damp had overrun
with lichen, blue, green, white colours of decay.

"Hartleys," no doubt, there was no other residence of human being in
sight in all the wide expanse; besides, she could remember it, surely,
after all this time, the sharp rising out of the marsh, the colony of
tall trees, but then fields and trees had been green and bright--there
had been no water on the flats, it had been summer-time.

"She certainly," thought Miss Pym, "must be crazy to live here. And I
rather doubt if I shall get my plate."

She fastened up the good little horse by the garden gate which stood
negligently ajar and entered; the garden itself was so neglected that it
was quite surprising to see a trim appearance in the house, curtains at
the window and a polish on the brass door knocker, which must have been
recently rubbed there, considering the taint in the sea damp which
rusted and rotted everything.

It was a square-built, substantial house with "nothing wrong with it but
the situation," Miss Pym decided, though it was not very attractive,
being built of that drab plastered stone so popular a hundred years ago,
with flat windows and door, while one side was gloomily shaded by a
large evergreen tree of the cypress variety which gave a blackish tinge
to that portion of the garden.

There was no pretence at flower-beds nor any manner of cultivation in
this garden where a few rank weeds and straggling bushes matted together
above the dead grass; on the enclosing wall which appeared to have been
built high as protection against the ceaseless winds that swung along
the flats were the remains of fruit trees; their crucified branches,
rotting under the great nails that held them up, looked like the
skeletons of those who had died in torment.

Miss Pym took in these noxious details as she knocked firmly at the
door; they did not depress her; she merely felt extremely sorry for
anyone who could live in such a place.

She noticed, at the far end of the garden, in the corner of the wall, a
headstone showing above the sodden colourless grass, and remembered what
she had been told about the old antiquary being buried there, in the
grounds of "Hartleys."

As the knock had no effect she stepped back and looked at the house; it
was certainly inhabited--with those neat windows, white curtains and
drab blinds all pulled to precisely the same level.

And when she brought her glance back to the door she saw that it had
been opened and that someone, considerably obscured by the darkness of
the passage, was looking at her intently.

"Good afternoon," said Miss Pym cheerfully. "I just thought that I would
call to see Miss Lefain--it is Miss Lefain, isn't it?"

"It's my house," was the querulous reply.

Martha Pym had hardly expected to find any servants here, though the old
lady must, she thought, work pretty hard to keep the house so clean and
tidy as it appeared to be.

"Of course," she replied. "May I come in? I'm Martha Pym, staying with
the Wyntons, I met you there----"

"Do come in," was the faint reply. "I get so few people to visit me, I'm
really very lonely."

"I don't wonder," thought Miss Pym; but she had resolved to take no
notice of any eccentricity on the part of her hostess, and so she
entered the house with her usual agreeable candour and courtesy.

The passage was badly lit, but she was able to get a fair idea of Miss
Lefain; her first impression was that this poor creature was most
dreadfully old, older than any human being had the right to be, why, she
felt young in comparison--so faded, feeble, and pallid was Miss Lefain.

She was also monstrously fat; her gross, flaccid figure was shapeless
and she wore a badly cut, full dress of no colour at all, but stained
with earth and damp where Miss Pym supposed she had been doing futile
gardening; this gown was doubtless designed to disguise her stoutness,
but had been so carelessly pulled about that it only added to it, being
rucked and rolled "all over the place" as Miss Pym put it to herself.

Another ridiculous touch about the appearance of the poor old lady was
her short hair; decrepit as she was, and lonely as she lived she had
actually had her scanty relics of white hair cropped round her shaking
head.

"Dear me, dear me," she said in her thin treble voice. "How very kind of
you to come. I suppose you prefer the parlour? I generally sit in the
garden."

"The garden? But not in this weather?"

"I get used to the weather. You've no idea how used one gets to the
weather."

"I suppose so," conceded Miss Pym doubtfully. "You don't live here quite
alone, do you?"

"Quite alone, lately. I had a little company, but she was taken away,
I'm sure I don't know where. I haven't been able to find a trace of her
anywhere," replied the old lady peevishly.

"Some wretched companion that couldn't stick it, I suppose," thought
Miss Pym. "Well, I don't wonder--but someone ought to be here to look
after her."

They went into the parlour, which, the visitor was dismayed to see, was
without a fire but otherwise well kept.

And there, on dozens of shelves was a choice array of china at which
Martha Pym's eyes glistened.

"Aha!" cried Miss Lefain. "I see you've noticed my treasures! Don't you
envy me? Don't you wish that you had some of those pieces?"

Martha Pym certainly did and she looked eagerly and greedily round the
walls, tables, and cabinets while the old woman followed her with little
thin squeals of pleasure.

It was a beautiful little collection, most choicely and elegantly
arranged, and Martha thought it marvellous that this feeble ancient
creature should be able to keep it in such precise order as well as
doing her own housework.

"Do you really do everything yourself here and live quite alone?" she
asked, and she shivered even in her thick coat and wished that Miss
Lefain's energy had risen to a fire, but then probably she lived in the
kitchen, as these lonely eccentrics often did.

"There was someone," answered Miss Lefain cunningly, "but I had to send
her away. I told you she's gone, I can't find her, and I am so glad. Of
course," she added wistfully, "it leaves me very lonely, but then I
couldn't stand her impertinence any longer. She used to say that it was
_her_ house and her collection of china! Would you believe it? She used
to try to chase me away from looking at my own things!"

"How very disagreeable," said Miss Pym, wondering which of the two women
had been crazy. "But hadn't you better get someone else."

"Oh, no," was the jealous answer. "I would rather be alone with my
things, I daren't leave the house for fear someone takes them
away--there was a dreadful time once when an auction sale was held
here----"

"Were you here then?" asked Miss Pym; but indeed she looked old enough
to have been anywhere.

"Yes, of course," Miss Lefain replied rather peevishly and Miss Pym
decided that she must be a relation of old Sir James Sewell. Clara and
Mabel had been very foggy about it all. "I was very busy hiding all the
china--but one set they got--a Crown Derby tea service----"

"With one plate missing!" cried Martha Pym. "I bought it, and do you
know, I was wondering if you'd found it----"

"I hid it," piped Miss Lefain.

"Oh, you did, did you? Well, that's rather funny behaviour. Why did you
hide the stuff away instead of buying it?"

"How could I buy what was mine?"

"Old Sir James left it to you, then?" asked Martha Pym, feeling very
muddled.

"_She_ bought a lot more," squeaked Miss Lefain, but Martha Pym tried to
keep her to the point.

"If you've got the plate," she insisted, "you might let me have it--I'll
pay quite handsomely, it would be so pleasant to have it after all these
years."

"Money is no use to me," said Miss Lefain mournfully. "Not a bit of use.
I can't leave the house or the garden."

"Well, you have to live, I suppose," replied Martha Pym cheerfully.
"And, do you know, I'm afraid you are getting rather morbid and dull,
living here all alone--you really ought to have a fire--why, it's just
on Christmas and very damp."

"I haven't felt the cold for a long time," replied the other; she seated
herself with a sigh on one of the horsehair chairs and Miss Pym noticed
with a start that her feet were covered only by a pair of white
stockings; "one of those nasty health fiends," thought Miss Pym, "but
she doesn't look too well for all that."

"So you don't think that you could let me have the plate?" she asked
briskly, walking up and down, for the dark, neat, clean parlour was very
cold indeed, and she thought that she couldn't stand this much longer;
as there seemed no sign of tea or anything pleasant and comfortable she
had really better go.

"I might let you have it," sighed Miss Lefain, "since you've been so
kind as to pay me a visit. After all, one plate isn't much use, is it?"

"Of course not, I wonder you troubled to hide it----"

"I couldn't _bear_," wailed the other, "to see the things going out of
the house!"

Martha Pym couldn't stop to go into all this; it was quite clear that
the old lady was very eccentric indeed and that nothing very much could
be done with her; no wonder that she had "dropped out" of everything and
that no one ever saw her or knew anything about her, though Miss Pym
felt that some effort ought really to be made to save her from herself.

"Wouldn't you like a run in my little governess cart?" she suggested.
"We might go to tea with the Wyntons on the way back, they'd be
delighted to see you, and I really think that you do want taking out of
yourself."

"I was taken out of myself some time ago," replied Miss Lefain. "I
really was, and I couldn't leave my things--though," she added with
pathetic gratitude, "it is very, very kind of you----"

"Your things would be quite safe, I'm sure," said Martha Pym, humouring
her. "Who ever would come up here, this hour of a winter's day?"

"They do, oh, they do! And _she_ might come back, prying and nosing and
saying that it was all hers, all my beautiful china, hers!"

Miss Lefain squealed in her agitation and rising up, ran round the wall
fingering with flaccid yellow hands the brilliant glossy pieces on the
shelves.

"Well, then, I'm afraid that I must go, they'll be expecting me, and
it's quite a long ride; perhaps some other time you'll come and see us?

"Oh, must you go?" quavered Miss Lefain dolefully. "I do like a little
company now and then and I trusted you from the first--the others, when
they do come, are always after my things and I have to frighten them
away!"

"Frighten them away!" replied Martha Pym. "However do you do that?"

"It doesn't seem difficult, people are so easily frightened, aren't
they?"

Miss Pym suddenly remembered that "Hartleys" had the reputation of being
haunted--perhaps the queer old thing played on that; the lonely house
with the grave in the garden was dreary enough around which to create a
legend.

"I suppose you've never seen a ghost?" she asked pleasantly. "I'd rather
like to see one, you know----"

"There is no one here but myself," said Miss Lefain.

"So you've never seen anything? I thought it must be all nonsense.
Still, I do think it rather melancholy for you to live here all
alone----"

Miss Lefain sighed:

"Yes, it's very lonely. Do stay and talk to me a little longer." Her
whistling voice dropped cunningly. "And I'll give you the Crown Derby
plate!"

"Are you sure you've really got it?" Miss Pym asked.

"I'll show you."

Fat and waddling as she was, she seemed to move very lightly as she
slipped in front of Miss Pym and conducted her from the room, going
slowly up the stairs--such a gross odd figure in that clumsy dress with
the fringe of white hair hanging on to her shoulders.

The upstairs of the house was as neat as the parlour, everything well in
its place; but there was no sign of occupancy; the beds were covered
with dust sheets, there were no lamps or fires set ready. "I suppose,"
said Miss Pym to herself, "she doesn't care to show me where she reeally
lives."

But as they passed from one room to another, she could not help saying:

"Where _do_ you live, Miss Lefain?"

"Mostly in the garden," said the other.

Miss Pym thought of those horrible health huts that some people indulged
in.

"Well, sooner you than I," she replied cheerfully.

In the most distant room of all, a dark, tiny closet, Miss Lefain opened
a deep cupboard and brought out a Crown Derby plate which her guest
received with a spasm of joy, for it was actually that missing from her
cherished set.

"It's very good of you," she said in delight. "Won't you take something
for it, or let me do something for you?"

"You might come and see me again," replied Miss Lefain wistfully.

"Oh, yes, of course I should like to come and see you again."

But now that she had got what she had really come for, the plate, Martha
Pym wanted to be gone; it was really very dismal and depressing in the
house and she began to notice a fearful smell--the place had been shut
up too long, there was something damp rotting somewhere, in this horrid
little dark closet no doubt.

"I really must be going," she said hurriedly.

Miss Lefain turned as if to cling to her, but Martha Pym moved quickly
away.

"Dear me," wailed the old lady. "Why are you in such haste?"

"There's--a smell," murmured Miss Pym rather faintly.

She found herself hastening down the stairs, with Miss Lefain
complaining behind her.

"How peculiar people are--_she_ used to talk of a smell----"

"Well, you must notice it yourself."

Miss Pym was in the hall; the old woman had not followed her, but stood
in the semi-darkness at the head of the stairs, a pale shapeless figure.

Martha Pym hated to be rude and ungrateful but she could not stay
another moment; she hurried away and was in her cart in a
moment--really--that smell----

"Good-bye!" she called out with false cheerfulness, "and thank you _so_
much!"

There was no answer from the house.

Miss Pym drove on; she was rather upset and took another way than that
by which she had come, a way that led past a little house raised above
the marsh; she was glad to think that the poor old creature at
"Hartleys" had such near neighbours, and she reined up the horse,
dubious as to whether she should call someone and tell them that poor
old Miss Lefain really wanted a little looking after, alone in a house
like that, and plainly not quite right in her head.

A young woman, attracted by the sound of the governess cart, came to the
door of the house and seeing Miss Pym called out, asking if she wanted
the keys of the house?

"What house?" asked Miss Pym.

"'Hartleys,' mum, they don't put a board out, as no one is likely to
pass, but it's to be sold. Miss Lefain wants to sell or let it----"

"I've just been up to see her----"

"Oh, no, mum--she's been away a year, abroad somewhere, couldn't stand
the place, it's been empty since then, I just run in every day and keep
things tidy----"

Loquacious and curious the young woman had come to the fence; Miss Pym
had stopped her horse.

"Miss Lefain is there now," she said. "She must have just come back----"

"She wasn't there this morning, mum, 'tisn't likely she'd come,
either--fair scared she was, mum, fair chased away, didn't dare move her
china. Can't say I've noticed anything myself, but I never stay
long--and there's a smell----"

"Yes," murmured Martha Pym faintly, "there's a smell. What--what--chased
her away?"

The young woman, even in that lonely place, lowered her voice.

"Well, as you aren't thinking of taking the place, she got an idea in
her head that old Sir James--well, he couldn't bear to leave 'Hartleys,'
mum, he's buried in the garden, and she thought he was after her,
chasing round them bits of china----"

"Oh!" cried Miss Pym.

"Some of it used to be his, she found a lot stuffed away, he said they
were to be left in 'Hartleys,' but Miss Lefain would have the things
sold, I believe--that's years ago----"

"Yes, yes," said Miss Pym with a sick look. "You don't know what he was
like, do you?"

"No, mum--but I've heard tell he was very stout and very old--I wonder
who it was you saw up at 'Hartleys'?"

Miss Pym took a Crown Derby plate from her bag.

"You might take that back when you go," she whispered. "I shan't want
it, after all----"

Before the astonished young woman could answer Miss Pym had darted off
across the marsh; that short hair, that earth-stained robe, the white
socks, "I generally live in the garden----"

Miss Pym drove away, breakneck speed, frantically resolving to mention
to no one that she had paid a visit to "Hartleys," nor lightly again to
bring up the subject of ghosts.

She shook and shuddered in the damp, trying to get out of her clothes
and her nostrils--that indescribable smell.


THE END



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