The Rug in the Smaller Drawing Room by Adam Z. Robinson.

As Halloween approaches we have a chilling tale, in two parts, from Adam Z. Robinson

Illustration by Max Dorey

Illustration by Max Dorey

The change in Etheridge is most profound. I have been his solicitor for these past four years and yet, when I look at the man now, I could swear that a stranger stands before me. He’s become so kindly; so sweetnatured.

Whenever little Jessica (his erstwhile-neglected niece and ward) enters the room these days, he
showers her with avuncular affections. Her clothes are new. She is awash with toys and trinkets and
playthings. She has become the shined apple of Etheridge’s ragged old eye!

Indeed, whether or not what he told me that afternoon in the corridor was true, the old man is an
entirely transformed character. I must confess, I am not a man who is easily drawn-in nor lampooned by horseplay and trickery. I have what my grandmother used to call ‘balanced nerves’. Nevertheless, something in my client’s breathless, frantic appeal plucked and nagged at the core of me afterwards. In any other circumstances, I would say I believed the man.

His strange report came about two months ago. I arrived at Norton House on a beige Tuesday
morning, when the May air was thick with the mugginess of the season. I was not greeted, as usual, by
Mallory (Etheridge’s housekeeper and, in truth, his advisor across many facets of his ramshackle life.
Without Mallory, Etheridge could barely function). In fact, the front door stood open to the day. I called,
gently, inside.

When no reply came I walked into the hallway with a note of trepidation, for this was a most unusual
circumstance in the strictly-kept house of Etheridge. As I rounded the corner, just past the magnificent,
ancient, staircase, and headed towards Etheridge’s study, Mallory came hurtling towards me and we
narrowly missed a collision.
‘Oh, John! Thank goodness. Thank goodness,’ she said. There was a freneticism about Mallory that I
had never seen before. ‘You should see him. By God, you should see him.’ She straightened her shirt and patted the back of her hair. ‘He’s been impossible all morning.’
‘He’s in one of his more cantankerous moods?’ I asked.
‘Cantankerous? The man’s gone plain-pressed mad, John.’
‘Perhaps I should … come back…?’
‘No! You deal with him. Please, go and see him. I’m simply not getting through to the old fool.’
I cocked my head at Mallory, in such a way as to suggest gentle disbelief. She returned a chiding
stare. She was entirely serious.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘Where is he?’

I found Etheridge in a state of intense agitation. His movements put me in mind of the manner in
which cats pace and fret when some unseen pest is plaguing them. The man was positively bouncing about the place and, as it seemed to me, guarding the door of the smaller of his two drawing rooms. The pallor of his face alarmed me. I took him to be ill; presently and seriously. He stopped dead when he saw me, took hold of my shoulders, and rasped:
‘You must not go in there! Nobody! Not one of us! We must stay out of that room! Lock it off. Yes.
Yes. Lock it off!’
Then, catching my eye, Etheridge forced a strange, crooked smile onto his face. Though, I might
say, it was not nearly enough to convincingly cover his clearly-shaken nerves.
‘We must stay out is all. Yes. Stay out of this room. I shall have to use another one. Now, where is
Jessica? Jessica!’

Ever since he moved into Norton House five or so years ago, this particular room had been his
favourite. The old, high-backed, rouge armchair; the sheer, beech book shelves; the dominant and worn fireplace. It was a space where Etheridge could uncoil in the evenings. Where he could, as he put it, ‘escape’ Jessica and forget his responsibilities to her.

His niece came into his custody after the deaths of her parents in a railway accident. She was seven
years old and if she had been a quiet, unassuming girl before the tragedy, she went beyond the realms of the definition of those characteristics thereafter. For all of the time I’ve known her, Jessica has appeared to be a meek, quiet little girl. A very good girl. Not the scampering brat of whom Etheridge often complained. I knew the old buzzard to be short tempered but, on the rare occasions that I saw her, I could never understand how even his cold heart could not be melted by this goodly cherub. But the old man seemed to practically itch at the thought of her. As if her presence was a physical irritation to him. He shunned and avoided her wherever possible and Mallory added ‘nanny’ to her long list of daily, delegated tasks. Etheridge (as was apparent to me, at any rate) plainly saw the passing of his only brother and sister-in-law as a new inconvenience and little more.

And so it was for Jessica when she first arrived at Norton. She was isolated in her mourning and, I
can only assume, horribly lonely. She seemed to haunt the large old house, silently; causing no fuss nor foul. Yet Etheridge treated her with such disdain; such cruel intolerance that, after already suffering such tragedy, it was a wonder the tiny thing didn’t lose her mind.

When, then, the little girl walked into the hallway that particular day, you can imagine how capitally
shocked I was when the old devil scampered up to her and started cooing and singing like some great bird.
‘My little Jessica! How are you this fine day? Only good, I hope! Oh, how blissful it is to see you!
Wonderful, wonderful child!’
Jessica looked disturbed. Her face told of the newness of this fond display.
‘Off you run, child! Go and play! I shall be taking you to town this very afternoon for treats and
sweets!’
As the child moved (evidently as perplexed as I) out of earshot, Etheridge looked at me gravely once
more. I saw a white tinge to his steel-coloured locks which I could have sworn was new to him. Still, I said nothing of it. After a few more moments and as the man began to compose himself a little I moved to ask him what the trouble was.
That’s when he began his odd story. After a few deep breaths, he started, explosively, and calmed
hardly at all. His tale – unbelievable in all aspects – was that of an incident the night before.

It had all started with a stain on his favourite rug. An original Japanese piece that had been present
in the house when Etheridge purchased the place. It was tatty and required a good clean; and Etheridge spared no expense having it cleaned. He was strangely enraptured with the rug from the moment he set eyes on it. Nobody, not even the man himself, was to walk on the thing: heaven forfend! Yet, a few weeks prior to his tale he noticed a small, dark stain at its centre. A damp, murky mark which seemed to worsen each morning. Unfortunately for her, this bothersome blotch coincided almost precisely with Jessica’s arrival at Norton House.

‘I took it to be the brat-…the child’. He said. ‘They wet things, don’t they, children?’ I nodded, more to
spur the story on than in agreement.

The stain grew each morning. Darker and wetter each day. Etheridge pressed Jessica on it. He told
Mallory to watch her every move and threatened to ‘terminate her employment’ should she fail to do so. Mallory, being of a much kinder and more reasonable disposition, asked Jessica directly about the matter. The response from the child was oblique to say the least. But, mainly in fear of losing her job over what she considered to be a trifle, Mallory relayed Jessica’s response to her employer:
‘It was the nightwoman. My friend. I see her in the dark and she sings to me,’ was what Jessica had
said.

Taking this as, at best, an evasion of the subject and, at worst, a bare-faced lie, Etheridge began
locking the drawing room of an evening. He neglected to tell me details of the punishments bestowed on poor Jessica for her ‘lies’. Though his sorrowful countenance spoke clearly enough.

The stain continued to swell at the centre of the rug, conquering and ruining the fabric. It had taken
on a pungent, mouldy odour and Etheridge was beside himself with rage. Nothing he could say or do to the girl would force a confession from her. Despite the locked door and the impossibility of the crime, Etheridge was blinded by his own conclusion. The child must have been wetting the rug somehow. Who else could it be? Mallory would not dare risk such insolence. And, anyway, it was occurring overnight. Apart from Mallory, they lived alone and had no pets and certainly no visitors that weren’t business associates or clients.

Still believing his niece to be a dishonest trickster, old Etheridge decide to lay a trap. He determined
to sit up in the room all night. He angled the armchair toward the door with the rug behind him, protected. When the little girl crept into the room, with whichever offending bucket or vessel aided her scheme, he would ‘…give her the hiding of her short life.

At this, Etheridge lowered his tone. He stared coolly into my eyes. In his own, I saw fear.

‘I was sitting in that damned armchair, with the lights off, for six hours. I admit to you now that I fancy
I must have napped for a few moments here and there. But, for the most part, anger kept me awake. I was so determined to catch the little beast in the act. A little after four, I became convinced I’d been
outsmarted again. That, somehow, she knew of my plot. I almost rose from the chair to retire to bed when something delighted me. The door to the drawing room began to move. Just a crack to begin with. I was about to catch her in the act!

‘As the door opened still further, a huge and near-paralysing draft spread through the room. I was
practically frozen on the spot. I could not even clutch at my robe for warmth! I was distracted for a moment by the extreme chill but when I glanced back at the door I saw what I took to be the girl, crawling slowly along the floor. She was creeping, edging, further into the room. But something was amiss. Oh Lord preserve us, something was horribly wrong. The thing crawling towards me … was not Jessica.’

END OF PART ONE

You can read Part 2 of The Rug in the Smaller Drawing Room here.


IMG_9817_FINAL (2)Adam Z. Robinson is a writer of theatre, short fiction and film. You can see him perform The Book of Darkness & Light, along with musician Ben Styles, at the Hallowe’en Happening at the Lawrence Batley Theatre, Huddersfield, this Saturday 31st October. For tickets visit: www.thelbt.org/Halloween-Happening-1

Adam also runs creative writing workshops for schools and other groups. For more information, please visit: www.adamzrobinson.wordpress.com

An audio version of this story originally appeared as part of the Tales from the Red Barn: http://talesfromtheredbarn.wordpress.com

 

Max Dorey is a theatre set designer and illustrator. You can see more of his design and illustration work on his website: www.maxdorey.com and instagram: @maxmakesstuff

Fiona Gell

Fiona is a lifelong reading enthusiast and book lover. Her career started as a bookseller and has never really veered away from the written and spoken word. It was a dream for her to be a founder member of The Leeds Big Bookend Festival. Fiona is the Festival's Coordinator, helping to bring the whole festival together.

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