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Midnight is a Place

Joan Aiken

  Midnight Is a Place

  Joan Aiken

  * * *

  Houghton Mifflin Company


  * * *

  Copyright © 1974 by Joan Aiken

  All rights reserved. For information about permission

  to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions,

  Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South,

  New York, New York 10003.

  The text of this book is set in 11-pt. Cochin.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available for this title.

  RNF ISBN 0-618-19626-9 PAP ISBN 0-618-19625-0

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  HAD 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3

  * * *


  PART ONE Evening [>]

  PART TWO Midnight [>]

  PART THREE Daybreak [>]

  * * *

  Night's winged horses

  No one can outpace

  But midnight is no moment

  Midnight is a place.

  —Denzil's Song



  It had been raining all day. Even in good weather the park around Midnight Court was not a cheerful place. Smoke from the city's many chimneys had blackened and half-killed most of the great chestnut trees which stood like chess pieces from a half-finished game dotted at distant intervals over the sooty grass. It seemed hard to believe that sheep had ever grazed or ladies lolled with parasols under those branches, now so grimy and dripping, or that children had climbed the rocks which came like bared teeth through the ground as if it were too scanty to cover them. And the smoke was always in the sky. Even on a clear day it hung like a thin layer of tissue above the hollow which held the city of Blastburn.

  The boy who sat curled up on a window seat looking out at this dismal view had remained there for the past two hours only because he could think of nothing better to do. On a shelf to his right stood a row of schoolbooks. A partly written composition lay on the ink-stained table. The composition's title was "Why Industry Is a Good Thing." Under this heading the boy had written: "Industry is a good thing because it is better to work in a carpet factory than to be out in the rain with nothing to eat." Having written these words he had stopped, wondering to himself "Is that true?" and had turned to look out at the rain-swept park.

  Dusk was beginning to fall. A faint strip of stormy light showed for a moment where the sun had set and seemed to be reflected in the pools of sodden yellow leaves under the trees; then the light faded and was gone. The trees looked more than ever like sulky phantoms, obliged by an unkind spell to linger shivering out there in the wet. It would be doing them a kindness, the boy thought, to cut them into logs and set them ablaze on some welcoming hearth. But not in this house. He glanced over his shoulder at the meager attempt at a fire smoldering under a black polished mantel. Across the dusky room he could hardly see it. Large fires were unknown in Midnight Court, as were bright lights, or gay voices, or lively music, or laughter.

  The boy blew on the wide rain-streaked windowpane and wrote the words "I'm lonely," then added his name and the date. Tomorrow would be his birthday. He wondered if anybody had remembered the fact. The words Lucas Bell, October 30,1842, faded as the vapor from his breath dissolved. No one in the future would know that they had been written.

  He gave a sigh that was half a yawn. Moving from his cramped position on the stiff brown velveteen window seat, he was about to cross the room and employ his breath more usefully in blowing the wretched fire when, far away across the park, he caught sight of the first interesting object he had seen all afternoon. A carriage, its twin lights flickering in the downpour, had come to a halt while the lodgekeeper unbolted a pair of massive iron gates in the high wall that encircled the park. Now the carriage was in motion again and crept slowly over a slight rise and down the long curving drive that led round to the front of the house, which lay in a shallow saucer of grassy ground.

  The boy watched intently. Visitors to Midnight Court were almost unknown. But during the last few weeks there had been four. Two riders on horseback, two carriages. Here came a third carriage. No information had been given to the boy about these arrivals. Business affairs of your guardian, the tutor, Mr. Oakapple, had said impatiently, no affair of yours.

  Nothing was ever explained to the boy; sometimes he felt like a ghost in the house. Now, impelled into action by boredom, he jumped up, crossed the big shabby room, quietly opened the door, and ran, stealthily but at a rapid pace, down a series of chilly stone passages. Nobody saw him quit the schoolroom quarter and make his way to the main hall.

  This was a bare, looted-looking apartment. Paler patches on the painted walls showed where pictures had been taken down. A hole in the ceiling was all that remained of a chandelier. Somebody had hung a torn fragment of brown holland over the carved stone coat-of-arms above the fireplace. Although it was a large room, the hall contained no furniture except for an umbrella stand holding a rusty sword, and a small oval loo-table with one broken leg.

  Nobody was to be seen. Moving silently to the half-open front entrance, through which rain was drifting, the boy looked out and saw the lights of the carriage already retreating into the wet night. Who could have come and gone so rapidly? Or had the driver decided not to stop? Or had somebody alighted? In which case, where were they?

  It seemed to the boy, straining his ears to catch any sound in the silence of the big empty hall, that the ring of unaccustomed voices had perhaps only just died away, that the long marble stairs had only just stopped echoing to the clatter of feet.

  Hesitant, chewing his thumbnail, Lucas came to a halt by the foot of the stair. For many nights now he had slept badly, tossing in his lumpy four-poster, getting up to stare out the window at the livid glare over Blastburn, where by day and night the factory chimneys vomited red-hot vapor and the air was filled with a sour metallic smell. Something was wrong in the house; he felt sure of it. Something, he hardly knew what, an unsettled feeling about the place made him uneasy. Although he was told nothing, he had a sense of trouble; he spent much of his time listening—as now—for some sharp voice, some explosion, some clap of thunder which would explain his anxiety.

  He looked up the staircase. If he were caught at the top, it would mean punishment, for he was strictly forbidden to stray outside his own quarters; Sir Randolph detested children. But the chance of being caught was not very great, much less than it would have been six months ago. Lately the staff at Midnight Court, never large, had been much reduced. Six footmen, eight maids, the steward, the coachman, the head stableman, and most of the grooms and gardeners had been turned off. The great house stood half-empty; thirty rooms had been closed. Many of the windows were broken. Walls were crumbling. The roof had begun to leak here and there.

  Lucas ran upstairs.

  At the stairhead a thin strip of brown drugget still remained, leading as far as the door of his guardian's study. It was possible to creep along this without making any sound. A few candles, not many, had been lit and burned flickeringly in the wall sconces, but there were big patches of shade in between, and the boy slipped from one shadow to the next, moving with great caution, listening alertly, tempted by the faint sound of voices from behind the closed study door.

  As he drew closer, he could hear the words more distinctly.

  A quarrel was going on inside.

  "Idiot! Sapskull! How dared you write and give any such permission? You had no authority to do so!"

  A thin, high, rusty, snarling voice—that was his guardian, Sir Randolph Grimsby. The reply, in a much lower tone, was not audible to the boy; he could not be certai
n yet who was speaking.

  Sir Randolph interrupted the speaker. "Thought it best be damned! Who asks you to think? Who pays you to think?"

  There was a furious thump on the floor. Sir Randolph in his younger days had broken both legs trying, for a wager, to make his horse jump a row of six twelve-pounder guns; and he now walked very lame with two sticks, which were also frequently used to demonstrate his displeasure.

  "Keep your thoughts to yourself, sir! What has the boy to do with the matter? He is enough of an encumbrance as it is. You exceeded your warrant, sirrah—you took an outrageous liberty. Now what the devil am I supposed to do? Is this an orphanage? Or a poor farm? I am plagued to distraction as matters are by those prying jumped-up interlopers from the tax office—not to mention the ill-conditioned rabble at the Mill—bedeviled at every turn—and now to add to all this, you have to meddle where you've no business and harass me with yet another infernal burden—damn it, sir, damn it, I've a good mind to turn you off—"

  Another angry thump was succeeded by an equally fierce volley of barking—evidently Sir Randolph, laying about him with his sticks, had accidentally landed a blow on his wolfhound, Redgauntlet, who mostly lurked, molting and snoring, under the big mahogany desk.

  "Quiet, will you! Curse it, man, now look what you made me do! Give over, damn your eyes, let go! You, fellow, kick the dog out. Will you let go of the cane, rot you—"

  It was difficult to decide whether Sir Randolph was addressing the dog or his companion, but it was plain that he was in his customary bad temper.

  The door flew open, and Redgauntlet was propelled backward, growling, into the corridor. Mr. Oakapple, the tutor, who had pushed him out, stepped back inside, closing the door. The boy retreated hastily—quite apart from his fear of discovery, there had never been any love lost between him and the surly-tempered hound—but Redgauntlet had started in the other direction and continued that way.

  During the moment that the door had been open, Lucas had caught his tutor's eye. Would Mr. Oakapple inform on him to Sir Randolph? Or were the pair of them on such angry terms that he would choose to remain silent?

  Either way, there was little purpose in remaining so dangerously close to the door now that the tutor knew of his presence. Lucas turned and started slowly back in the direction of his own quarters, kicking the brown carpet moodily as he went. He took an upstairs passage, risking the very slight possibility of encountering one of the few remaining servants; at this hour they were mostly below stairs.

  Halfway along the passage, however, he paused in surprise outside the door of a chamber that was usually unoccupied. Inside it he was almost sure that he had caught the sound of a high unfamiliar voice.

  As he stood straining his ears, the door handle turned, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Gourd, came out. At sight of the boy, she quickly slammed the door to behind her.

  "Mester Lucas! What the pest are you doing here?" she said, giving him a sour look.

  "Measuring the distance from the east to the west wing for my arithmetic lesson," he answered glibly. "Mr. Oakapple ordered me. What's wrong with that?"

  Even if she did not believe him, he was not much afraid of old Gourd; at the most, all she could do was cuff his head and deprive him of jam with his breakfast.

  "Wrong? You'll wear out the carpet, you'll raise dust, you'll make a noise and rile Sir Randolph—dear knows, we've trooble enow in the house without your doing owt to make matters worse. Get back to your schoolroom directly, and don't let me find you up here again where you've no road to be. Look sharp, now!"

  Muttering and shaking her gray head, she hurried off in the other direction. She was carrying, strangely enough, what appeared to be an immensely long loaf of bread, made in a shape quite unlike any that Lucas had ever seen before, no thicker round than his wrist but as long as one of Sir Randolph's crutch sticks. As she went, she muttered to herself, "Goo-tay, goo-tay— what like of a words that when it's at home?"

  Lucas ran back to the schoolroom where during his absence the fire had gone out completely. To remedy this mishap (a frequent occurrence due to the poor quality of the coal) he kept a secret hoard of candle ends and sulphur matches stored in an empty wine bin in the disused butler's pantry next door. Now he fetched some from his hoard, burrowed a small crater in the top of the dismal heap of black slag, inserted two fragments of candle, and carefully lit them. A slow pale flame curled up. "Goo-tay, goo-tay," he thought, blowing on the flame. "Goûter? The French word for lunch?"

  But Mrs. Gourd knew no French. He must have misunderstood her.

  While he was coaxing up the fire, Pinhorn, the head housemaid, came in with his meal. It was plain that she, like Sir Randolph, was in a bad mood. Sometimes she could be persuaded to stay and talk a little while he ate his supper, but today she slammed down the tray on top of two schoolbooks and was retreating with a crackle of starched apron over long black bombazine skirt when Lucas asked, "Who came in the carriage, Pinhorn?"

  "Them as asks no questions lives longest!" she snapped and flung the door to behind her, but opened it again and put her head round it to say, "You'll learn soon enough, I dessay, if Sir Randolph thinks fit. Drat that meddlesome Oakapple!"

  Lucas sighed and looked distastefully at his supper. It consisted of a plate of cold mutton chops, a glass of weak beer, and two slices of brown bread. He was hungry, for he had eaten nothing since noon, but the meal was far from appetizing. The chops lay in a puddle of cold gravy, skinned over with congealed fat, and the beer had slopped onto the bread.

  He set the tray on the floor and considered the two books on which Pinhorn had placed it. Double-Entry Bookkeeping and How to Run a Factory, they were called. He opened them listlessly, shut them again, turned back to his unfinished composition, and wrote, "Industry is a good thing, because if you don't work you may get bored."

  Then he chewed his quill pen for a few minutes. Suddenly he pushed aside the composition and pulled toward him a thick, shabby brown leather book with a brass clasp. Opening this in the middle—it was half filled with writing already—he began scribbling very fast:

  Sir Randolph is like an old gray condor with sharp beak and talons. I have seen pictures of birds like him perched on crags, with fierce little red eyed; they live in the wilderness and tear their prey untidily. He is a good man; he built three churched and brought prosperity to the town of Blastburn. He is my guardian; I should be grateful to him. I am afraid of him. This must be because I am bad. Why am I bad? Heredity? Upbringing in heathen country? Is it because I have bad dreams?

  The door behind him opened suddenly, and his tutor came in. His hand jerked guiltily, and the bottle of ink toppled over and rolled off the table, leaving a trail of ink over the unfinished composition and falling on to the supper tray below.

  "You've spoiled your supper," said Mr. Oakapple irritably, stepping forward and looking down at the ink-splashed chops. He was a ginger-haired young man with a long serious face. The skin of his face was pale, dry-looking, and covered with freckles. He had pale sandy eyelashes and pale gray eyes, which generally held an impatient expression when he looked at his pupil.

  "It—it wasn't very nice to start with," stammered Lucas, hoping that the tutor could not from where he stood see the unfinished task, hoping that the spoiled meal might be considered sufficient punishment for his eavesdropping upstairs.

  Surprisingly, Mr. Oakapple did not mention this incident.

  "Get your hat," he said abruptly. "You can't eat that stuff anyway; you may as well leave it. And Sir Randolph wants us to go out."

  "Out?" Lucas was amazed. Sir Randolph never sent him anywhere.

  "Yes. Down to the Mill. Fetch your hat—hurry."

  Mr. Oakapple plainly had no taste for this errand, whatever it was.

  Lucas fetched his hat and jacket from his bedchamber upstairs, and rejoined Mr. Oakapple, more mystified than ever. Momentarily he had had the wild fear that because of his listening outside the study door he was to be expelled from Midn
ight Court, turned out into the world to fend for himself. He was not happy at Midnight Court, but the unknown world outside was more terrifying still. However, if they were being sent to the Mill—but why were they being sent to the Mill? Such a thing had never occurred before.

  Lucas knew, his knowledge having been acquired from Pinhorn and a young groom called Bob who had lately been dismissed, that what money Sir Randolph possessed came from the Mill. Its real name was Murgatroyd's Carpet, Rug, and Matting Manufactury, but locally it was always known as Midnight Mill. Its extensive premises occupied a central position in the town of Blastburn, and its chimneys belched out more smoke than any other. But Sir Randolph himself never went near the place, and nor had Lucas. He entertained very little notion of what the Mill was like, beyond a vague general dread of it, born from Bob's dark saying: "Ah, there's more folk dies at Murgatroyd's, think on, than at all th'other mills put together. They'll alius take on new hands at Midnight, for they go so quick, but chaps looking for work'll try anywhere else first."

  Perhaps Sir Randolph, at no time a kindly or welcoming guardian, had decided to get rid of the burden of his ward altogether by sending him to earn his living in the Mill? Children much younger than himself, ones of nine or ten, and even of seven or eight, did work there, Lucas knew.

  Unhappily, following Mr. Oakapple, he went out to the stableyard, which lay to the rear, between the east and west wings of the E-shaped house. A governess cart stood waiting, with an old cob called Noddy, one of the few remaining horses, already between the shafts.

  They set off in silence, Mr. Oakapple driving.

  "Why are we going to the Mill?" Lucas finally summoned up courage to ask. He always felt ill at ease with Mr. Oakapple whose manner was invariably short, preoccupied, as if the center of his thoughts were a very long way off. Although the two of them spent hours together every day doing French, arithmetic, and geography, Lucas did not have the least knowledge of what went on inside Mr. Oakapple's head.