The room was gloomy and sparsely furnished but still retained elegance. Plants were being used to fill the gaps where once chairs and tables might have been.
Lady Arlington sat and smiled thinly at Marie. She poured two cups of tea from a tarnished pot.
“No servants,” she said.
“Because of the financial problems?” said Marie.
“That at first,” said Lady Arlington, “then my husband’s erratic behaviour did for the rest. I’m forced to make my own tea now.”
“Your husband was very vague in his letter,” said Marie, “but wrote very convincingly. It seems he genuinely feels something amiss. Do you know the specifics?”
Lady Arlington laughed humourlessly.
“Oh good Lord, yes”, she said. “The house has somehow turned on him, wants him gone. This manifests in strange, uncanny behaviours. Pens writing messages, rooms changing and so on. It’s a complete hallucination, of course. I’ve seen him with my own eyes staring at nothing and shouting absurdities.”
“Do you know why the house has, as you say, turned on him?” asked Marie.
“You’re rather ascribing agency to what is clearly madness,” said Lady Arlington. “But I’ll humour you. The house wants him gone from this place so it may use the place for something more worthy. And with someone more worthy to use it. He, as a financial failure, is not fit to keep it. I’m not an alienist, but it’s not hard to see the ‘house’ is nothing more than his own internal voice, racked with guilt.”
“It’s none of my business, of course,” said Marie, “and maybe I am reading too much into a short conversation. But, you don’t seem very concerned about your husband’s state of mind.”
“Quite the contrary!” said Lady Arlington. “I have lost my best lady’s maid. Frankly I’m livid.”
“I mean, you don’t seem very concerned about him,” said Marie.
Lady Arlington smirked a little.
“My dear,” she said, “I do not wish to patronise, and I am sure things are different on the continent. But it is rare that people of my social standing marry for love. More often we marry for… convenience? For the importance of continuity? A little fondness helps of course, but time and circumstance often cause even that to wear away. I doubt one marriage in four is functioning well in my social circuit. But still, we keep up appearances as best we can. Affection is not expected but appearances most certainly are.”
“Lord Arlingtons behaviour must be affecting those… appearances,” said Marie.
“Quite,” said Lady Arlington. “Another good reason to keep him at home. I’ve gone to quite some lengths and some degree of subterfuge to maintain a degree of respectability. No-one discusses business, so the financial ruin is a secret. And servants are for talking to, not listening to, so I don’t worry about gossip. But it’s frankly a nuisance that with half our furniture absent and him raving, we simply can’t entertain here. I have explained that he is deep into a novel.”
“He likes to read?” said Marie, puzzled.
“No my dear, the poor lunatic is a writer, or at least aspires to be,” said Lady Arlington. “Complete waste of time in my opinion and you can see for yourself what an overactive imagination gives you.”
Lady Arlington looked sourly at the tea.
“Do you want some more, only I’d have to go to the kitchen,” she said forlornly. A small tear formed at the corner of her eye.
Painting in background by Mary Ramsey Pichette