Regular readers may recall, in the tale ‘The Lord of Misrule’, how a quite violent, and uncharacteristic, bar-fight erupted in The Squid and Teapot on New-Year’s Eve. No one could say exactly who started it, although Bartholomew Middlestreet, the landlord of the inn, vaguely remembered an elegant stranger whispering in the ear of young Ambrose Pinfarthing, just moments before the evening descended into chaos.
The incident was never referred to again, and many of those who were there actually began to doubt that it had ever happened. As for the stranger, only Bartholomew noticed his presence, and all memory of his shape and form left with him, like his shadow, as he slipped away into the darkness.
It was some months after the affray in The Squid that Linus Pinfarthing moved into the family home on Refinery Road. There had been Pinfathings on Hopeless for four generations and, as far as anyone was aware, they had all lived in the same cottage since coming to the island. While most of us would baulk at the concept of a total stranger insinuating himself into our home, strangely enough, no one in the family showed any surprise, although, none could recollect having seen him before. It was as if he had come from nowhere, and cast some sort of glamour over them. Indeed, the same could be said for the rest of the islanders, for to all intents and purposes, before many days had elapsed, the general opinion on Hopeless was that Cousin Linus had always been a presence in the Pinfathing’s household. Unlike the rest of the clan he was noted for his good-looks, charm, wit and affability. Everyone liked Linus – men admired him and women either wanted to marry him or mother him, and sometimes both. He was popularity personified. Even Doc Willoughby and Reverend Davies smiled indulgently at the mention of his name.
Bartholomew Middlestreet was alone in having reservations about Linus, although he never voiced them. For some nagging reason that he could not identify, he felt that there was something not quite right or wholesome about the young man.
“Miss Toadsmoor, what a pleasure to bump into you this morning. I do hope that you are well.”
Linus swept off his fedora, and made a deep, theatrical bow, bending at the knee and throwing his arms wide.
Marjorie Toadsmoor blushed to feel her heart suddenly race. She was, or had been, a Victorian lady of the upper-middle classes. Since being on Hopeless she had all but forgotten about courtly manners, but in Linus’s company the starchy etiquette that had informed her upbringing came flooding back. Controlling her emotions, she curtsied primly and smiled.
“Good morning Mr Pinfarthing. I am very well, thank you.”
Linus looked up at the sky, heavy with fog.
“I think it is going to be a fine and sunny day. Would you do me the honour of joining me for a picnic luncheon later?”
This was all very sudden, and the chances of the day being anything but foggy seemed remote. Despite this, she heard herself saying,
“Why certainly, Mr Pinfathing, but on the condition that I bring a chaperone. It would not be proper otherwise.”
“Naturally,” agreed Linus with a smile. “I will call for you at the Pallid Rock Orphanage at noon precisely, and provide the picnic.”
Still blushing, and not a little confused, Marjorie made her way to The Squid and Teapot, in the hope that Philomena Bucket would agree to be her chaperone.
“If he thinks that there’s going to be clear skies and sunshine,” said Philomena, as they sat waiting in the hallway. “He’s more of a fool than any of us took him for.”
Philomena was slightly put out that Mr Pinfathing had set his cap at Marjorie, who was no more than a slip of a girl, rather than at herself. However, she was not one to hold grudges and – after all – no one could be cross with Linus Pinfarthing for very long.
The clock in the hall chimed the hour and, as if on a signal, there came a sharp rap on the front door.
“It’s him, it’s him,” gasped Marjorie. “Oh, Philomena, what shall I do?”
“You’ll go out… we’ll go out, and we will eat his food, as you agreed,” said Philomena. “It is that simple.”
“Yes, but what if…”
There was another knock on the door. Philomena pulled it open before Marjorie changed her mind.
Suddenly, the hallway was bright with a shaft of honeyed sunlight. The two women stood blinking; they had both become unaccustomed to anything resembling good weather.
“Good day, and yes, it certainly is a good day, as I did indeed forecast. Come – I think that the lower slopes of the Gydynap hills will be a splendid place for us to picnic.”
Without more ado, the young man ushered Marjorie and Philomena through the empty, sunny streets and out towards the hills. Neither of the two women thought that it was at all strange for Hopeless to be deserted in the middle of such a phenomenally fine day. In fact, they didn’t think anything at all, for they were with Linus and that was enough.
It was not a long walk to the hills and it seemed the most natural thing in the world that their picnic was already set out when they arrived. There was a spacious tartan blanket laid out on the lush grass and a small table, heavy with a rich array of food and drink, the like of which neither woman had seen since coming to the island. The hills seemed alive with birdsong and the humming of bees as they gathered nectar from a scattered carpet of harebells, thrift, cornflowers and orchids.
Something kept telling Philomena that this was all wrong; none of this ever happened on Hopeless, but the thought refused to stay in her head. Instead, she downed another glass of sweet cider and munched happily on delicate white-bread sandwiches and soft, delicious honey-cakes. Marjorie and Linus were laughing and sharing food and drink, as lovers do.
“I’m glad that they’re happy,” thought Philomena, sleepily, as her eyes grew too heavy to stay open in the afternoon sunshine.
“Philomena, wake up,” pleaded Marjorie.
“I’m awake, and I wish I wasn’t,” came the reply. “What’s going on? Where are we?”
“I don’t know,” wailed Marjorie. “I can’t remember anything. Oh, I am so cold…”
A thick night-fog lay all around, blanketing all but the closest objects, and the dampness of the rough grass was enough to chill their bones.
“By the feel of the grass, I’d guess we’re on the Gydynaps. How the devil did we…?”
Before Philomena could finish her sentence, a blood-curdling howl rent the silence of the night.
Marjorie stifled a scream, but Philomena silently motioned for her to keep very still and quiet, as the rustle of someone or something moving stealthily in their direction caught her ears. Then their noses were assailed by a noxious smell, foul and unmistakeable.
“Rhys, we’re over here,” Philomena cried with relief, only caring now that the Night-Soil Man would hear her.
“Keep it down,” Rhys Cranham hissed as he emerged from the gloom.
“It isn’t safe out here at night. I don’t know what you’re doing, but you need to be gone. Drury found you. He is over there. Follow him. I’ll cover your backs.”
Gratefully the two struggled to their feet and went towards the spot where they could hear Drury, snuffling and rattling happily in the bushes.
“Are you going to be alright, Mr Cranham?” asked Marjorie concernedly, almost gagging through a hand that covered her mouth and clamped her nostrils together.
“I’ll be fine. There’s not much that can stand to be around the stench of a Night-Soil Man. Now go.”
“And you have no idea how or why you got there? You were gone for hours.”
Bartholomew Middlestreet, along with most of the patrons of The Squid and Teapot, had been searching frantically, once it was known that Philomena and Marjorie were missing.
The two shook their heads.
“If it hadn’t been for Rhys and Drury we’d still be out there,” said Philomena. “I dread to think what might have happened.”
“You gave us all a scare,” drawled a soft, educated voice from the corner of the room. “But at least you are both safe now. The hue and cry is over, so I’m to my bed. Good night all.”
“Goodnight Linus, it was good of you to help,” said Ariadne Middlestreet.
Bartholomew said nothing, but looked hard at the elegant figure, slipping through the doorway and into the night, and wondered why he did not trust Linus Pinfarthing.