The box closed with a snap, as Michael tilted it to with his fingertips, then bringing them up to his mouth to breathe warmly and heavily onto them. ‘I see that they also have some power over you.’ Michael’s voice was stern. He spoke without excuse or sham, but unhappily regretful, and maybe even slightly appalled at himself. ‘I have not been able to stop coming to look at them or able to stop thinking about them. Awful aren’t they? I cannot understand why they trouble me so. Obviously, some family’s sad loss of something they treasured, but I would expect to sympathise and wonder, not lose my heart and my mind in a sadness not my own.’
I spoke quietly. ‘It is as though they themselves embody all the loss of loved things, is it not? I found myself despairing to possess all that I value.’
‘Exactly,’ said Michael. ‘That is quite how I have been feeling since I found them. I cannot escape the feeling.’
‘How did you find them? Were they here, in this house?’
‘They were buried in the garden; I found them while digging into a patch of frost in a bed. You can see in just a moment.’ But he made no movement towards the door. Instead, Michael took up the envelope, and shook it over the folded leaf of the bureau. Out fell the broken shell of a locket on a chain, its gold face pierced through and shorn open. The fine links were knotted and tangled with dirt, and there was nothing left of any keepsake inside. As I watched, a ring of frost formed encircling where it lay on the green leather, and I found myself once again drawn to gaze at it, before I regained control of my eyes.
Michael quickly scooped it back into the envelope and replaced it, with the box, inside the compartment at the back of the writing desk.
‘It is just the same,’ I said. ‘Some once-prized pearl has been made ugly and meaningless. What on earth might explain it all?’
We were understandably sombre, as we stood there and considered these strange objects and the powers they seemed to possess. I vowed to Michael that if I could help discover some explanation that would set his heart at rest, I would. ‘Where did you find this locket?’ I asked. ‘Also in the ground?’
‘That’s right. I’ll show you.’
Outside the night had sunk into the valley around us. The last glimmerings of light hung from clouds in the west. I remember that even despite the darkness and the earliness of the season, as well as our serious mood, the garden made upon me an impression of great beauty. It was shaped as a shallow bowl some twenty yards broad, flattened into a small lawn running to the left of where we stood in the doorway. On the north-west of the lawn were terraces, uneven but elegant, and on all sides the ground rose away behind holly hedges and thick bare undergrowth. Directly across the lawn from where we stood the holly broke apart and the glossy evergreen black gave way beneath the pines of a small copse. Michael sighed beside me at the door. ‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’
He was certainly right. There was a fantastic air about the little dell, quite secluded and lovingly smoothed and shaped. Even now it melted as mist crept under those hedges and sank down before us into the lawn.
‘But where were you digging?’ I asked with a shiver. Michael turned and pointed to a bed beside the wall of the house, dark dry earth beneath the damson-dark brown brick of the wall.
‘The box was here. And the locket… It was tangled in the roots of a briar I tore up from beside the lawn.’
It was not the time to look more closely around the dark garden but just before we went back inside my eye was caught by something I saw on the lawn. There was a brief sparkle as though something had fallen or was dropped from a short height, but as there was no moon yet and no stars under the cloud I suppose it must have been light from the house that was reflected. I did not realise at the time that all the windows on this side of the building were closely tied with shutters.
But something shone. I don’t know if Michael saw it too, but he didn’t ask anything as I left him and walked out onto the lawn, my eyes fixed on the point where I had seen the glint. It was like wading ankle-deep into time’s cold sea. The silken reams of mist hid two soaked inches of grass and I could feel the chill pass up my back to between my shoulderblades like a running steel. About fifteen feet onto the lawn I plunged my hand into the swirling miasma and closed my fingers around the wet and icy shaft of a large old-fashioned key.
I gave out a laugh of loose and enjoyed surprise, as well as some kind of satisfaction, and striding back over the wet grass I brought my prize to where my cousin was waiting at the door with these words;
‘I fancy that this will be the key that you have been looking for, Michael.’
He took it sharply from my hand and held it high up before his eyes, the cold wet metal lying on his pale palm. Eventually he spoke. ‘Goodness, yes.’ It was the key to the door upstairs. I could not see what was the cause of the glassiness in his eyes.
Helen had already retired, and so having assured Michael of the best efforts of my mind and my continued help in resolving this disturbing mystery, I took myself upstairs. Michael also made his way to the master bedroom, expressing as he did his sincere thanks for my reassuring presence in the house. Just before he left me, though, I thought to ask him one thing.
‘Tell me, have you shown anything of what you have found to your wife?’He shook his head. ‘Or talked about it?’ He had not. I would have asked him more, but he cut me off.
‘Listen, Clement. It’s the awful worry that these things have put in me. I fear all sorts of dire, irrational things. I see…’ He hesitated. ‘I don’t want Helen to be bound up by what they’ve induced in me. Maybe you won’t have understood it, but if those feelings had been preying on your mind for as long as they have on mine you’d see.’ It was only later that I discovered just what fears the man had been subject to, and then too late. For the time I fruitlessly wondered what he had been about to confide before breaking off, and then shut myself into my room.
Not quite at my ease, I decided that I would read before taking to bed, and drew the wicker chair closer to the lamp. Fortunate to be one of those whose requirement for sleep is quite subject to will on many occasions I have been glad of the ability to defer my need for rest in the cause of either discovery or security. Thus it was this night. I took a book from my Gladstone, intending to sit up and work on an essay I was bound to submit to a journal. My intention was strangely obstructed, however, when I discovered the absence of my reading glasses from their case. At first I was tempted to go downstairs and check the drawing room to see if I had left them there, but I was prevented not only by my primary reluctance to blunder around an unfamiliar house in the dark, especially one belonging to such dear friends, and then by my subsequent realisation that to do so would be without purpose. I had not removed my glasses from their case, or even the case from the bag itself since I had packed them early that morning. There had been no cause to use them either travelling to the train, on the train, in the carriage or at the house, and it would have been very unlike me to pack an empty case.
In the end I was left pondering. Unable to set myself at my ease, I went to bed and resolved that the next day should be spent enjoying the company of my Michael and Helen in some pursuit that would remove us from the house and divert us all from these worrying circumstances.
We left the house early and were amply entertained by a trip to the nearby county town Longlock for the most of the day. Michael was much better for the distraction and his wife was particularly glad to be among everyday common folk again, for despite her devotion to her husband, it was plain to me that she was the sort who required much contact and intercourse besides that which he could provide.
It was late when we returned to the house. The lanes had flashed by as we drove along in Michael’s sporty little car, but they had gone no faster than the light from the sky above us. An owl swooped overhead as we turned in through the willows around the driveway to the house.
Indeed, the night looked like it would end quite without anxiety on the part of any of the inhabitants of this little house that, I must admit, had come to scare me a little. We were jovial company, well fed, well entertained and amused with ourselves, but our bravado was not so great as to wish any delay before retiring. So, Michael parked the car in the garage towards the rear of the house, at the side of the garden, and we proceeded immediately to the back door.
Helen preceded us to the door but before she arrived at it she let out a small cry of amazement. The mist of the previous evening had not yet begun to gather in the dell, so I quickly saw what it was that had made her gasp. There on the grass of the first terrace beyond the lawn, lay the reading-glasses I had missed last night. I had mentioned my lack by necessity after being unable to read the menu when we had dined earlier in the evening and both Helen and Michael were plainly as amazed as I was that the spectacles which could not have fallen from a closed case within a bag were now to be seen lying at the far side of the garden, where I had not even yet trod.
Despite the return of a chill to my marrow I immediately continued across the grass to where the glasses lay. They were lying on their back on a patch of dry ground between the layered turves, the lenses staring towards the gap in the hedge. Or rather, the lens, for one of the tiny panes of glass was cracked and smashed, a good quarter missing and nowhere to be seen amongst the leaves. As I picked them up I also noticed that one of the arms was twisted. They were quite ruined.
We went indoors. Helen was confused and apologetic, although of course, she had nothing for which to be apologetic, as I tried to convince her. Michael was more troubled though. He had plainly not failed to notice that the glasses had been found only a few feet from where the key had been. What he had not opportunity to observe, however, was the chill I felt in the frames – a chill quite unnatural both for the balminess of the dusk and the slight weight of the eyepieces. It was a feeling that thrilled through me, earthing itself in the cold small of my back, just as had the cold transmitted by the broken christening spoons and the twisted locket.
We were muted, then, as we bade one another good night. The jollity of the day had evaporated like a diaphanous mist, insubstantial compared to the almost tangible unrest caused by the almost facile interference with these everyday obects that guaranteed our peace. None of us had the energy, or even the real will, I realised, to try and re-capture the good-feeling we had been enjoying together not ten minutes previously. My mind transmitted no committed decision to alter the mood, only a wistful weak desire that the past could be changed, whilst I mourned the very loss of our happiness. Our day’s exhaustion had left us vulnerable and quiet, and we crept upstairs like victims over-awed.
I awoke still pondering the meaning of these impersonal disappearances and reappearances. What was causing it? My dreams had been troubled and I observed red-rimmed sleeplessness about my eyelids in the mirror as I shaved. At breakfast both Michael and Helen were silent. Their night had afforded them little more rest, then. I sat at the table just as voiceless, watching Michael pour his wife a cup of tea. I found myself watching him as he poured another for himself and then realised that I was watching him closely as he lifted the cup and drank. Suddenly I realised what it was that I was seeing. He was not wearing his wedding ring.
I made some excuse and left the table without delay. If Michael’s wedding ring was missing – if it had been taken – then I knew where it would be, surely.
The garden was thick with frost and the spring air bit through my thin clothes. Out on the lawn I started to look about in the grass. A fallen branch of holly made an impromptu rake to turn over leaves and push apart the mint-green ice-edged blades.
I could not find the ring in the lawn, so I proceeded to check by the terraces where my glasses had lain. I will admit, I was so sure somehow within me that I did not for a moment consider that the ring might not be found in the garden. But it was neither on the first terrace, the second terrace or the third.
Frustrated, I started to check in the beds now stiff with crackling skeletons of last year’s flowers. My search revealed nothing. I stood upright and shivered heavily. I could have gone to fetch a coat, but I continually felt on the cusp of the discovery, only inches away from what I sought. It would be under the next leaf, beside the next shredded stem of dogwood or rose, in the next tuft of dierama. It would be there.
Turning back towards the house, I threw the holly branch into the hedge and furled up my brow in a frown. Where had I not looked? Then, as I stood there at the end of the freezing garden, I realised where I had to look. Directly in front of me, opposite where I stood and to the right of the door of the house, was the bed from which Michael had dug the wooden box containing the two grotesque spoons – I shivered simply to think of them. Nearer by some five feet was the patch of earth from which the briar had been torn, around the roots of which had been tangled the empty locket. Some ten feet nearer was the spot in the centre of the lawn where I had picked up the key to the guest room, being aired as I stood there and wondered in my shirt. And then some six feet further still, just beneath where I stood had lain my spectacles.
And a straight line passed through each of these spots, and each time a missing or lost object had been found it had been farther along the line. I should not be looking around where the key and spectacles had been, but further beyond them, behind me.
I turned. There, behind me was the gap in the holly hedge and there, on the end of the lowest branch of the nearest, reaching pine, hung the ring. It shone steadily like electric light, unwavering and piercing to the eye, hanging in the sun. I walked between the hedges, reached up, and took it down.
As soon as I did so I was filled with the urgent desire to return to the house. Where I stood I knew I was seen – watched and peered at by something I could not bear to seek. My exposed sides were cold and stuck with the thin linen of my shirt. And in my head I was batted dizzily about by a hundred disguised and confused remembered feelings. I immediately realised, as my hand closed around that golden ring, that Michael’s precious token of his marriage had been deliberately ruined. It was twisted into an unwearable tight ellipse, and a sharp edge ran into the ball of my finger where I held it tightly in my hand. And it was cold. Burningly, icily, destructively cold.
The cold raced up my arm and reached my head, making me spin where I stood. The pines before me seemed to bend down at my face and the shadow beneath them loomed up. The sadness – that same despair I had felt on holding the ruined treasures in the study – that great hollow meaningless fear and sadness mounted in me like a great salt wave. Except now it had a certainty I had not known before: nuisance losses such as a key to an unused room, or reading-glasses were nothing beside the real symbol of this loss. As I staggered back to the house, I subjected my frozen and frantic brain to question I would have rather not asked even when it were operating properly: would I tell Michael and his wife or should I hide the ring? Surely in their current states it would only terrify them further… No, I would not tell them.