While Hugh was gone, Stephen was at liberty to look round the room. The walls were painted oddly orange and the light from a central bulb, under a parchment shade, made everything distant from the AGA seem flat and dull. The windows were high, right up against the ceiling. They hadn't been touched for months, possibly years, for the pole with the brass hook on the end which would be needed for opening and closing them, and which was propped handily in a corner, was coated with cob-webs and the skeletons of spiders.
The room was bigger than any kitchen he'd been in before. The table would have been better sited in the grand dining room of The Hall than in here but there was still plenty of space between it and two arm-chairs (islands in a tide of newspapers) for broken baskets and cardboard boxes.
He had just sat down in one of them and was ruffling through the papers, thinking it might be interesting to read about something which had happened a long time ago, when he heard Hugh shout.
His voice was muffled but coming closer. When he'd left the room with the tea, he'd gone through the door which led to the gun room and the yard so Stephen leapt up and headed for that. But the handle was round and brass and slippery and loose. There must be a knack. No. A catch. A catch to lift. It stuck. He rattled and pushed. It shot up - a second nick to his finger! . . . and Hugh burst through a green baize door on the other side of the kitchen.
“Stephen! I’m so sorry. It’s Camellia.” He steadied himself against the back of a chair. Stephen ran to help. Took his elbow. Waited.
Hugh drew a breath but couldn't say more.
“Show me,” Stephen said gently, his own heart thumping. Hugh didn't look well. What if Hugh and Camellia expired on him? Both of them. "Where's Camellia, Hugh?" Hugh just carried on staring. “Show me,” Stephen said again, raising Hugh's elbow a little.
Hugh turned and went back through the baize door. There was hardly any light on the other side. Just the smell of mould and manure. Stephen took Hugh's arm again, not to offer support but to know where they were going. Then they came out from under a huge staircase into a burst of semi-sunshine. A great long, high, wide, entrance hall, with tall windows and oil paintings, and a standpipe, and donkeys pulling hay down from wire baskets on the wall.
"There." Hugh nodded towards the open drawing room door.
Stephen let him rest, leaning against the wall, and went in.
Late afternoon light was filtering through dust into the most extraordinary room he had ever seen and Camellia was there, as if stranded, slumped like a drowned mermaid on a slimy rock that had once been a chair. A standard lamp lay smashed on the floor beside it and a shovel, half filled with muck, lay abandoned at her feet. She was pale. Very pale. And cold, with her hands resting limp on the arms of her rock, her head sideways against its mouldering back. Now Stephen knew what ‘digging up the carpet’ meant. There was a heap of the stuff in the fireplace.
“It could be lovely,” she whispered - and fainted again.
Stephen was worried he too might faint for want of anything worth breathing so he went to one of the windows and tried to push up the sash. It wouldn't budge. Something snorted behind him. He paused. Listened. Wondered. Didn't like to turn and look. Then there was tapping. A series of little taps on the granite floor where the carpet had been scraped away. He drew his arm across a dirty pane. He could see the barn in the courtyard now. It helped to know where he was. Thus strengthened, he turned.
Several sheep were standing in the room and more were arriving, clattering out from behind what had once been a sofa - to look at him. Sam appeared at the doorway. A duck shuffled past Stephen's ankle and hopped onto a chair opposite Camellia and settled on what once had been a cushion.
Hugh said something.
That was it. They must get her head down.
It wasn't easy. Hugh was feeling weak and worried. Stephen was feeling sick and scared.
“She wanted to make it nice for our daughter,” mumbled Hugh. Suddenly, he was angry. “I told her she'd be too tired.”
His voice didn't come out loud. He was anguished and tired and worried and cross and wondering if it would be more comfortable to despair.
“Doesn't he go on!” she said. Then she smiled. It was a weak smile - but a definite one.
Stephen found himself grinning back.
“We though you might like some tea,” he said.
To continue - Sixteen
For the post before this - Fourteen