Story Four - The Doctor's Wife
"Miss Baker... Emily... Will you marry me?" asked Doctor Victor Smith from his down-on-one-knee position. Her response was to throw her arms around him so forcefully that they both rolled onto the grass in a most unseemly manner. However, since they were alone in that part of the garden it mattered very little and he used the opportunity to steal a kiss before helping her to her feet.
Doctor Smith's practice was in a remote village several miles from Emily's home town. Its most interesting feature was the grand manor house that dominated the hill over-looking the village. Emily stared at it with open curiosity as they drove past in Victor's trim little gig.
"Who lives there, Victor?" she asked.
"A most interesting family," came the reply. "Squire Troughton, his sister Miss Rose, their mother and her mother, Mrs Noble."
"The maiden, the mother and the crone," Emily murmured.
"What was that, my dear?"
"Something my mother used to tell me... I think it was something to do with Irish fairy tales. Her grandmother was Irish, you know?"
"Really? Well, the Troughtons are, of course, the principle residents of the village but keep themselves largely to themselves. It is a great shame because Miss Troughton is quite beautiful and even their mother is still a handsome woman."
"Indeed?" Emily raised an eyebrow in mock anger.
He looked at her in surprise and then realised what he had said. "Oh, but none of them is anything compared to you, my dearest!" he exclaimed.
"Really, Victor? Even the still-handsome Dowager Troughton?"
"Your beauty quite out-shines them all!" he cried, gallantly.
She laughed. "Oh, Victor, I'm sure I shall love them all. Oh, how enchanting!" For now her new home was coming into view and all other thoughts disappeared from her mind.
The village was as picturesque as a village should be. There was a crumbling old church set back from the road and surrounded by its very own graveyard, each plot lovingly tended by the surviving relatives of the village's dear departed. The main street opened into the most charming market square with a prosperous looking inn on one side and a row of cheerful shops on the opposite side. Local residents - her new neighbours - bustled here and there, and some called out greetings to the doctor. Just after the square, they turned right down a leafy lane and after a very few minutes found themselves driving in through their own gate, up their own drive and arriving at their own front door.
The doctor lived in a sturdy little house built of grey stone with a sensible slate roof and pretty lace curtains at the windows. His housekeeper, Mrs Hartnell, and his handy man, Tennant, were standing outside the dark green door waiting for them. Victor jumped down from the gig and then walked round to Emily's side. He scooped her up from the seat and carried her over the threshold of his home.
"Welcome home, Mrs Smith," he said, giving her a quick peck on the cheek, whilst the servants pretended not to notice.
"It's wonderful to be here, Doctor Smith," she replied, blushing prettily.
He set her down and introduced her properly to Mrs Hartnell and Tennant, before leading her on a tour of the house. Everything was as neat and elegant as her town-bred taste demanded. Victor might be a village doctor but he was still every inch a gentleman. There was a little sitting room at the back of the house, its South-facing French windows open to allow the scented breeze from the garden to blow in. As soon as she entered it, Emily fell in love with it.
"Oh, what a delightful room!" she cried.
"Do you really like it?" asked her husband, watching her as she danced around the room. "I would have thought the furniture a little old fashioned for your taste?"
"Well, yes... it is a little old fashioned... But nothing too serious. I shall put up some of my water colours in new frames and it will be quite transformed!"
"Perhaps we can go one better. How would it be if you could fit it up yourself, just as you liked?"
"Oh, Victor! Do you really mean it? Won't that be terribly expensive?"
"It will be worth every penny."
The next day, Emily had her first visitors while Victor was out on his rounds. The Rev McCoy was slightly older than Victor but still energetic, while his wife was a nervous young woman who seemed to be constantly afraid of giving offence. They had brought their children with them - a pretty little girl of three with the longest blonde ringlets Emily had ever seen, and a baby boy of six months who seemed to do nothing but cry. Emily received them in the parlour but it soon occurred to her that the room was far too stuffy for such a beautiful day and proposed moving outside into the garden. This was warmly accepted.
When they were settled, talk quickly turned to the other residents of the village.
"Are you aquainted with Squire Troughton and his family?" asked Emily. "Victor tells me they are very interesting people but rarely go about in public."
"It is true that they stay at home much of the time," Rev McCoy replied, a little stiffly she thought. "Certainly, they have never been to church in all the years I've been here."
"Well, of course, they do have a chapel within the Manor," ventured Mrs McCoy, her voice barely raised above a whisper.
"Their own chapel? Why, how fascinating! Have you ever seen it, Mrs McCoy?"
"Me?" The lady was clearly so shocked by the suggestion that she actually spoke in normal tones. "Oh, no, I've never set foot..."
"Oh, that is a shame! I'm sure it's all stained glass windows and oak beam. Don't you agree?"
"Maybe... I can't say that I've ever really speculated on its appearance." Her voice sank once more into its hushed tones.
"Surely you have been to the house itself, though? Victor and I received an invitation only this morning to dine with the family in two days' time. I am so excited! Will we see you there?"
The clergyman coughed. "We will not be there, Mrs Smith, and the only regrettable thing about it is that we will not have the pleasure of being in your company. However, perhaps you and the doctor would be able to come to us? Shall we say tomorrow night? Will that give you enough time to prepare?" he asked his wife.
She nodded with a mixture of anxiety and pleasure on her face. Speculating on whether the vicar's good lady was more anxious about preparing a dinner with such short notice or how Emily might judge the elegance of her table drove out the rather strange way Rev McCoy had spoken of the Troughtons.
As she and Victor were driving to their engagement with the McCoys, however, his rather criptic responses came back to her and she repeated them to her husband. He shook his head, sadly. "I am not sure why, but McCoy really dislikes the Squire and his family. He has never given me a good explanation but it must be something more than them never coming to church. I believe they use their own chapel, as Mrs McCoy implied. Certainly, Troughton strikes me as a man who is aware of the higher powers in this world. However, perhaps it would be best not to mention the Troughtons, tonight? It is clear that it is a subject that makes our hosts uncomfortable."
Emily agreed and the evening passed without incident.
The next evening, Emily dressed with exceptional care. She put on her most elegant gown, which had been made as part of her trousseau, and the diamond choker that Victor had given her as a wedding present. Victor came in from his dressing room to ask her to help pin his cravat and stopped dead in the doorway.
"Victor! Whatever's the matter?" she cried, alarmed by the expression on his face.
"You are the matter, dearest," he replied with a smile. "You are most definitely the most beautiful woman in the world!"
"Oh, Victor, don't tease me, so!" But she blushed with pleasure, all the same.
They arrived at the Manor exactly on time and were received at the entrance by the Squire himself. "Welcome to my humble abode," he said, with what appeared to be genuine modesty. He raised Emily's hand to his lips and kissed it, murmuring, "Enchante, Madame," for her ears alone. "Ah, Doctor, you have captured quite a beauty here! My sister will be quite wild with envy," he said out loud.
He led them into the hall, whose floor was laid with square tiles painted with intricate designs. Suits of armour stood around as though on guard and two huge swords hung on the wall above the mantlepiece. It was a warm evening but there was still a fire in the hearth. Squire Troughton stretched out his long, slender hands towards the flames and Emily was struck by how pale they were. In fact, his outstanding feature was his paleness from his white-blonde hair, to his ice-blue eyes, to his skin.
"Ah, speak of the Devil!" he cried suddenly with a wink to Emily who blushed. "Here is my beautiful sister and our beautiful mother. See if you can guess which is which!"
She turned to see two women, both with the Squire's pale colouring, walking down the broad staircase together. "I must apologise for keeping you waiting," said Miss Troughton. "It took me forever to find my shoe. Sometimes, I'm convinced we have a poltergeist living amongst us!"
The group laughed politely at this and then Victor told her that there was no need to apologise as they had only just arrived. The butler appeared at that point to announce that dinner was served and it was only then that the Smiths realised that they were the only guests.
"Oh, yes," said Mrs Troughton to Victor's enquiry as he escorted both her and her daughter into the dining room, "just the two of you. We really don't enjoy large parties; too much noise and fuss and too little time to really get to know people. And my mother, as you can see, can't even manage a family dinner but eats alone in her room. She will come down later to take tea, though. She is quite excited about meeting the new bride."
The dinner itself was as elegant as Emily had hoped. Afterwards, the ladies withdrew, leaving the men to talk about whatever men do talk about when they are alone. They found Mrs Noble sitting as close to the drawing room fire as possible with a blanket tucked over her knees. Her companion, a thin girl of about Emily's age, was just arranging her shawl as they entered.
"Thank you, Sarah-Jane," the old lady said. "That will be all for this evening."
"Oh, Mother," said Mrs Troughton with a smile. "You aren't sending poor Sarah away are you? I won't hear of it; please, Sarah-Jane - would you be kind enough to play something for us?"
"Why thank you, Mrs Troughton. It would be a pleasure." She sat down at the gleaming piano in one corner of the room, shuffled through the music lying on top of it, and then began to play.
Mrs Noble patted the chair next to her, inviting Emily to sit down. She was clearly very old but her eyes were bright and keen. "Well, well, you are a pretty little thing, are you not?" she asked.
"Why... thank you, Ma'am," replied a rather flustered Emily.
"Oh, I'm only telling you what your husband tells you a thousand times a day, I'm sure. And how do you enjoy being a doctor's wife, eh?"
"Being married to Victor is the most wonderful... That is..." She stopped, worried that she might get carried away with her feelings and embarrass herself or her husband.
"Ah, young love! I remember how I felt when I met my husband. I would have followed him to the ends of the Earth."
"Mrs Smith, would you care to take a turn on the terrace with me?" asked Miss Troughton, suddenly. "Grand-mamma has such a blaze going in here, I feel in need of a little cool air."
A little surprised by the abruptness of the enquiry, but nevertheless glad of it for she was feeling rather hot, Emily agreed. The two of them were still on the terrace when Victor appeared at the window. "Why there you are, Emily!" he exclaimed. "Poor Mrs Noble is quite beside herself with worry. She told us you'd been out here half-an-hour at least."
Miss Troughton laughed. "Dear Grand-mamma! Why, Mrs Smith and I haven't been out here more than five minutes, have we Mrs Smith?"
"Oh, I'm really not sure... No, we haven't been out here very long..."
Victor frowned. "Are you quite well, my dearest?" he asked, laying a hand on her brow.
"Of course I'm well, Victor. Don't fuss, please."
"Very well. Why, my dear... your glove is unbuttoned. However did that happen?"
Emily looked down at the row of tiny pearl buttons that fastened on the inside of her wrist and saw that they were indeed undone. "How strange," she said. "I'm sure I fastened them after dinner."
"Well, fasten them up now and let's get inside for tea. And then I think we'll take you straight home and get you to bed. I think you might have taken a little too much wine, after all!"
True to his word, as soon as tea was finished he whisked her off for home. Their hosts were clearly disappointed but were far too polite to urge them to stay. About half way home, Emily suddenly sat up straight her eyes wide with realisation. "Whatever is the matter?" asked Victor, genuinely worried.
"She licked me!" she replied, her voice trembling.
"Licked... Who licked you?"
"Miss Troughton. That was why my glove was undone. She said something about my perfume and asked to smell it, so I offered her my wrist. She unbuttoned it and then... then she... Oh, Victor, please! Please never, ever take me back there! She frightened me."
"Well, I'll admit it's a bit of an odd thing to do but..."
She gripped his arm so fiercely that he almost lost control of his horse. "Emily, do be careful! You nearly had us all in the ditch, then."
Instead of apologising she stared into his face so intently that he had to pull over so that he could talk to her properly. "Victor, I'm not being silly, or hysterical, and I'm not suffering the effects of too much wine. That woman scared me and I never want to be in her company ever again."
"All right, all right, whatever you want, my dear. But you know we accepted an invitation for next week..."
"NO!!!" she cried so loudly it was almost a scream. "I can't, I can't!"
Victor took hold of her shoulders intending to reason with her but when he saw the tears running down her face and felt how she trembled with fear the words dried in his mouth. "Of course, my dear. We'll put them off, don't you worry. Now, let's get you home and into bed!"
The family at the Manor seemed to take the hint from the polite little note that Victor sent next morning refusing their invitation. At least, there were no further invitations. The summer was now in full bloom, the days long and sunny, and the doctor and his wife spent as much time as they could out of doors. One day, they went for a picnic on the hill, choosing a route that would keep them clear of the Manor. As they were packing up to go home, the sky, which had been clear blue all day, suddenly began to fill with grey clouds.
"Well, I think we timed that well!" said Victor with satisfaction. "We should just make it home before the rain hits. Come along!"
They grabbed their belongings and began to make their way down the hill but the storm was not prepared to wait politely until they got home. The clouds burst and they were lashed with icy-cold, stinging rain that was blown into their faces so that they could hardly see. Victor pulled Emily under the minimal shelter of a small group of trees.
"Emily, I'm sorry... but we're going to have to make for the Manor."
"What?! No, Victor, no. We'll stay here until the storm passes."
"Look at the sky, my dearest. This storm is not going to pass for hours. We need to find some proper shelter."
"Then we'll go home! I can't go to that dreadful place..."
"Emily, look at me. Do you love me? Then please, please let me get you under a solid roof as quickly as possible. One of us could slip on this hillside - you know how dangerous it is at the best of times. What if you turned your ankle up here? How would I get you home, then?"
She opened her mouth but all arguments died on her lips when she looked into his eyes. "Very well... but let's not go to the main house. Surely we can shelter in the stables, just until the storm passes?"
He agreed to this and they hurried along as quickly as they could without risking injury. They approached the Manor from the rear and found the stables without difficulty. There was no sign of anyone around and they slipped inside. Any former residents of the stables were long gone and there was no straw on the floor but at least it was dry. They curled up together in a corner and soon drifted off to sleep.
When Victor awoke, he was quite alone. It was almost pitch black inside the stables and he thought that perhaps Emily was there but invisible in the dark, so he tried calling her name. His voice echoed around the empty stables but there was no answering voice. Beginning to worry a little but still sure that she must be near by, he stumbled across to the entrance. Outside, there was more light; the sun had gone behind the hill but was still an hour or so from setting. The stable yard was also empty. He went round behind the stables, sure that at any moment he would find his wife, holding out that certainty against the growing anxiety in his stomach.
There was absolutely no sign of her.
The only remaining possibility, since he could not imagine that she would have set off for home without him, was that she had somehow conquered her fear and had gone to the house. He set his shoulders and walked across the stable yard with as much confidence as he could muster. After all, he was a husband anxious for news of his wife; there was no need for any other explanation. He was still at the rear of the house and as he came past some out-buildings, he found lights blazing from the drawing room window. Thinking that he could at least see if she was there before knocking on the front door, he crept over to the window and peeped over the sill.
Emily was there and his heart leapt for joy. An instant later, it sank back into his boots. She was being led into the drawing room, supported by Mrs and Miss Troughton; Mrs Noble shuffled in behind them. The younger women led his wife to a chair with its back to him and sat her down. Her head lolled over to one side in a most alarming manner. Suddenly, the grip of fear that had held him still and silent was broken as he realised that she was ill, perhaps dangerously so, and the people with her seemed completely indifferent.
He straightened up, intending to march over to the French windows and burst into the room but a cold hand clamped itself over his mouth.
"Now, now, Doctor," whispered Squire Troughton. "We must let the ladies have their fun, mustn't we?"
He gripped Victor's shoulder, forcing him to watch what was going on inside. The Troughton women stood on either side of Emily but were no longer touching her. Clearly, she had been drugged because she offered no resistance to her plight. Mrs Noble had, by this time, reached the chair. She bent down, a greedy look in her bright eyes as she descended on the helpless figure in front of her. The woman who leaned over Emily was almost impossibly old; the one who stood up appeared almost younger than her grand-daughter.
Feeling sick with horror, Victor struggled against the other man's grip but he was held firm. "There's no helping her now, you know?" he said, almost conversationally. "Just know that her sacrifice was not in vain."
Twisting his head, he managed to wrench it free. "What in God's name..."
"Oh, nothing here is done in that name," Troughton said, with a savage smile.
"What do you mean, sacrifice? What have you done with my wife?"
"Clearly, I've done nothing with her."
"Well, your...grandmother... or whoever she is, then!"
"Does it really matter, Victor? Surely the important fact here is that your wife is now... dead." Just for a moment, he managed to look almost sorry but then he had to defend himself against Victor's flailing fists. He easily caught the other man by the wrists lifting him off the ground with no difficulty at all. "Let's have none of that! There are plenty of men who would be happy to be rid of their wives - old McCoy for instance."
"Well, I'm not! I love... loved... her! How could you just take her away? How am I supposed to live without her?" There were tears streaming down his face but he paid them no heed. He was lost in the agony of his loss and the memory of its cause.
Troughton looked at him with his head a little on one side, like a scientist looking at a particularly interesting specimen. "Do you know, I think you really are upset. Or at least, you think you really are upset. How curious!"
"Curious?! How can you throw words like 'curious' at me at this moment? Good God, man..." but at that point his grief overwhelmed him entirely and he sobbed like a child.
"That name again," noted the Squire, a displeased frown creasing his perfect brow. "Perhaps, though, I can take this pain away for you. Would you like that?"
Victor was beyond speech, but he stared into the other man's face with an expression of hope.
"You would? Then I grant you your wish."
Before the doctor quite knew what was happening, he was caught in a vice-like grip around his neck and shoulders. There was a sharp pain and a cracking noise. And then he knew no more.
The doctor and his wife were found at the base of a slope of loose stones and were presumed to have fallen to their deaths in the storm. They were buried in the old church yard, their graves tended by the vicar and his wife.
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