Julian Oakapple had remained in the surrounding area for most of the twenty or so years since, but there had been nothing to bring him back to Midnight Court until now.
The memory of it that always came first into his mind was one of sunshine, a summer fete, strawberries and cream – and music in the air. He looked up at it now: the windows impassively reflecting the heavy grey sky, the paintwork faded and the roof in visible need of repair. It matched its bleak January setting a little too well. The entire place seemed to have lost its colour. What was not grey or black – the sky and the skeletal, leafless trees – was white with the snow and ice that clung to the ground.
As he knocked at the imposing front entrance, he had an odd fancy that it would stay unopened, that the place was entirely devoid of life. He drew back from the door, giving a brief, wry smile at his entertaining such a notion. It would have been wasteful for anyone to pay to place the advertisement for a tutor in the newspaper if that were so. That thought caused him to look again at the forbidding great house with a passing feeling of pity that a boy should be here, all but alone. Sir Randolph Grimsby was nobody’s idea of a suitable guardian for any child.
There were small sounds of movement from inside and the door at last creaked open, revealing Garridge, the manservant. He gave Mr Oakapple only the curtest of nods and gestured him inside, shutting the door against the icy wind, before instructing him to wait while he told Sir Randolph he had arrived.
Well, you are here, Mr Oakapple told himself, as he glanced around the shabby but large hallway, observing the uneven patches of colour on the walls where paintings had been removed. He took off his hat and waited. That much has been accomplished.
The next part would be a little harder: he was here to tutor the boy, of course, but there were other things. He’d certainly never before taken a post with the intention of murdering his employer.
“You’re the tutor?” Sir Randolph said, when Mr Oakapple had been shown into his study. “Well, don’t stand about here; what do I want with you? You’ll find the boy in the schoolroom. If he’s not loped off elsewhere.”
Mr Oakapple could only disobey, and remain standing there. The voice was less forceful than it had been when he had heard it last; a querulous and higher-pitched note in it now, but it was still startlingly familiar. The sound conjured up an almost tangible memory: dancing firelight in the shadow of the ruined priory, the smell of spirits and of ginger, of wild music, string and pipe, and that same voice sounding over it all; mocking, and taunting as he destroyed a man’s life. No, he thought with sudden, cold anger, it was more than one man’s life Sir Randolph had brought to ruin in that moment.
“Well?” said the man himself, glowering at the tutor’s apparent lack of reaction. He was walking only with the aid of two sticks, Mr Oakapple noted, and his face was red and the smell of brandy was present in the room though it was not yet noon. The disreputable old baronet winced as he moved, as if it caused him pain. Perhaps it did. The dark hair of twenty years ago was grey now and he seemed shrunken from the giant-cum-ogre he had been in a fifteen year-old’s eyes. “Deaf, eh? Or insolent? Neither’s any use to me.”
Mr Oakapple mastered himself and stepped forward, though the other man glared at him. “Yes, Sir Randolph. I am, as you say, Julian Oakapple, the tutor. And, forgive me, but I thought perhaps you might have some instruction to give me before I meet the boy – Lucas, isn’t it?”
“Some such tom-fool name,” muttered Sir Randolph, but he looked mollified and shuffled over to his chair, only pausing to stumble over his hound. He kicked at the beast, which yelped and padded away from him. “Instructions? Don’t know your own business, is that it? Well, I’ve no use for all of that canting in Latin. He’s to run Midnight Mill, like his father, so you’ll teach him what he needs for that; none of your fancy extras. I won’t pay for any frills and falols, so don’t you go thinking you can rob me that way – or any other. Nothing worth taking here anyhow.”
Mr Oakapple permitted himself a small smile. “I understand. I shall do my best to oblige, sir.”
“You’ll do as you’re told, while I pay your wages,” barked the older man, and then waved him away, with another muttered reference to the schoolroom, and returning to both his brandy and a disorderly pile of papers on the desk. “Infernal leeches, the lot of you,” he finished, somewhat obscurely.
Mr Oakapple had hoped that Mrs Gourd, the housekeeper, whom Garridge had found to show him upstairs, would be in evidence, or the manservant himself, but though he wandered down the dark corridor from Sir Randolph’s study, he found no sign of anyone else in the house.
The meeting with Sir Randolph had been expected, but he found himself glad of the momentary breathing space, and as he headed back to the stairs to find someone to direct him to the schoolroom, he flexed his gloved left hand on the banister. He would rather have seen that his belongings had been conveyed safe to his quarters, but that would have to wait. He thought of the violin and gave his left hand the briefest of glances again with a faint sigh.
It was not as if it mattered, he reminded himself with only a fleeting bitterness.
He did eventually find Mrs Gourd, who voiced her disapproval of the disruption to her preparation of lunch loudly (although from what Mr Oakapple had seen of her art in his visit to the kitchen, he thought it could hardly be the worse for his interruption). However, she led him up the back stairs and issued directions to the schoolroom, which seemed to involve a number of complicated turns along corridors, galleries and landings. No doubt he would soon familiarise himself, he thought, but it added a fantastical, unreal edge to the situation, and he wondered again about the boy, somewhere in this creaking old maze of a house.
At one gallery, he paused. He had seen this area from below, once before, but then it had been lit by a chandelier that had now been removed. Everything was gloomy, broken and bare now, another sharp contrast to his fairytale memories of this house. He moved away with only a slight shrug. What else was to be expected?
Through one last door, however, he found the schoolroom, and the boy, who was sitting at an old wooden desk, writing.
Lucas Bell was the twelve-year-old son of Sir Randolph’s late partner, Edwin Bell, who had been lately orphaned and sent back to Midnight from India; so much Mr Oakapple had been told. Lucas stood up hastily on seeing a stranger enter. He seemed for a moment to search for something to say, and then gave up and merely stared.
“You must be Lucas,” said Mr Oakapple, entering, and giving the boy a cautious smile. He held out a hand, which Lucas shook, but still warily. “I am Mr Oakapple.”
Lucas frowned slightly, and then said, “Sir?”
“Sir Randolph has engaged me to be your tutor,” Mr Oakapple added, suddenly understanding that in this household it was possible that no one had thought to tell the boy.
So it seemed. Lucas opened his mouth briefly, and then shut it again. “I see. I’m sorry, sir,” he blurted out. “I didn’t know. Are we to begin lessons now?”
There was a sullen set to his mouth as he said it, and Mr Oakapple had to hide weary amusement at the reaction. He supposed few boys had a great love of their books, and in any case, if Lucas expected little of someone engaged by Sir Randolph, he was hardly to be blamed.
“Not immediately,” said Mr Oakapple. “We may as well wait until after your midday meal. In the meantime, I should like to see my room, but I suppose I must find Mrs Gourd again.”
Lucas’s expression lightened. “Oh. I saw they were making ready one of the rooms – I could show you, if you like.”
“Thank you, Lucas,” Mr Oakapple said, with another smile. “That would be helpful.”
He headed for the door and turned back. “I didn’t mean to be rude, sir. Mr Oakapple. I expect – perhaps – I might not have heard-”
“Yes,” he said, with a curt nod, saving the boy the awkwardness of trying to explain without sounding as if he were accusing his negligent guardian. “I trust you pay more attention to your lessons.”
“Sir,” muttered Lucas.
It was all very well to plan to kill someone in theory, Mr Oakapple thought, later that night. He’d seen Sir Randolph again, and seen his age and infirmity and wretched, bitter state. That changed things.
If he didn’t go through with it, though, he wondered, what else was left? He had reached his decision through logic and reason, or so he told himself: he had nothing left to live for, no one to miss him after he was gone and no other means of bringing Denny back. The only hope, the only answer had been this – justice, for what Sir Randolph had done – and the desperate hope that Sir Denzil was still alive, that he would hear the news and know it was safe to return. He was prepared to take the penalty for that action.
And yet Julian Oakapple was not and had never been a man to advocate violence, and though he had wished Sir Randolph dead when he thought of him many a time, it had been years since he was young and foolish enough to fantasise about doing the deed himself. His only fight had not ended well. His mouth tightened instinctively at that memory and his uninjured hand clenched into a fist.
Mr Oakapple had got as far as discarding his jacket, but he was as yet in no mood to sleep with these thoughts circling in his mind. He took his candle and left his room. Midnight Court was large and empty enough for him to walk about a little without disturbing anyone else.
He set off with a vague idea of familiarising himself with the route between his room and the schoolroom. On the back stairs he stopped to look at one of the very few remaining paintings on the wall, its frame catching his eye momentarily as it reflected the candlelight. It could not be worth anything, he thought with a wry smile, and raised his light to examine it.
It was Denny. The figure in the portrait stared back at him, a boy in a cavalier’s outfit, startlingly life-like, and laughing across the divide between them. Sir Denzil, he corrected himself silently.
The song Denzil had written for him danced in his head and he was an unsure of anything for what was probably a mere second, a heartbeat or two, but felt so much longer. Time is only a corner, Age is only a fold…
Why had Sir Randolph kept this, even in an out of the way corner? Mr Oakapple shook himself and turned at the same moment as a shadowy form emerged onto the landing above. Coming so close to his discovery of the portrait, he shook, his good sense and logic deserting him for a moment. He at least retained control enough to stay silent.
The other figure stopped short on seeing the light, and Mr Oakapple realised then that it was only Lucas.
“Sir,” the boy said, his voice lifting first in a startled tone, and next sounding reproachful as if he thought it unfair of the new tutor to be creeping around after him already: “I wasn’t doing anything wrong, sir. I left my book – my notebook -”
“It’s late, Lucas,” Mr Oakapple said, recovering his customary self-possession. “You should have done that earlier, if you had wanted it. If we are to begin lessons in the morning, you should have been in bed at least an hour ago -”
Lucas frowned; he clearly would have liked to have a reason to object, but he only nodded. “Sir,” he said, and hurried away, back up the stairs again.
Mr Oakapple looked upwards, after him as he vanished into the darkness and gave a slight smile. Then he leant on the banister and thought that he should take his own advice and retire.
His decision could wait; tomorrow he would have to set about making a start with the boy.
Lucas was sitting at his desk in the schoolroom, which looked particularly bare in the dull wintry morning light. He closed up his book and looked across at Mr Oakapple, who was standing by the window, his gaze straying outwards. “Must I, sir?”
“It’s merely a short test, a few questions,” said Mr Oakapple. “And, yes, Lucas. How else am I to discover how far along you are with your studies?”
The boy folded his arms on the surface and bit his lip. “I suppose so, sir. When shall I begin?”
“As soon as you are ready,” said Mr Oakapple. He had some standard questions he set on these occasions, but he had had to rise early on this chilly morning to prepare the paper in time. It wasn’t as if this was an aspect of teaching that he found inspiring, either, but that sort of thing never occurred to his young charges, and Lucas was no exception. “Work your way through the questions. I shall stay here while you do.”
“And make sure that I don’t cheat?”
Mr Oakapple turned back towards him; he had already been distracted into looking out of the window, turning over his more pressing dilemma again. “I was assuming you weren’t that foolish, Lucas. Would you want me to set you more difficult tasks? I shall take a look at what books you have here, and you may ask me if there is anything you don’t understand.”
“Sorry,” said Lucas. “It – it was a joke, sir.”
The tutor gave a short smile. “Yes. Perhaps you might want to begin before midday?”
Mr Oakapple then strode across to the one bookshelf and looked again with distaste at the outdated (and in one case, semi-eaten) volumes that were all Sir Randolph had seen fit to provide for his ward’s education. He would have to raid what was left of the library. Any valuable books would have been sold by now, but there must be something that could be used for a schoolboy. He had the few books he’d brought with him, but even the worst of his previous employers had not been as ill-equipped as this.
Having little else to do while Lucas worked, Mr Oakapple’s mind stole back to the portrait, which he had passed again this morning. From there, it was only a short step to thinking of Denzil, something that was becoming only too easy to do now that he had returned here. So much light, and life, and brilliance…
“See,” said Denzil Murgatroyd, out in the grounds of Midnight Place, twenty-two years earlier. He waved a hand up at the clear sky of a winter’s night, and the stars, sharp and bright above. His movement suggested that they shone at his bidding, or at the least that he had choreographed the constellations. The young Julian Oakapple would have half-believed it. “And there are so many more than we can tell – I mean to make improvements to the telescope we have and discover new ones. I shall find new planets, new stars, and name them all.”
He paused and glanced across at the younger boy, who had come to Midnight with his school’s choir for a Christmas concert. “What names should I give them?” And then he laughed, before Julian Oakapple could give an answer, and said, “It doesn’t matter – I shall write songs about them. Names are too small for the stars. Only music would be enough.”
Julian Oakapple had said that he thought they would probably need names as well, for everyday use.
“No matter. I shall compose music for the stars, and you,” Denzil added, “shall play it for me.” He said this in the imperious manner of a young emperor, but his tone and merry expression mocked his own pretensions. “What a thing it will be.”
“Yes,” agreed the boy, who had starlight in his eyes and music in his mind. “It will.”
Lucas shifted about and kicked the desk leg, presumably in frustration at the question he was currently tackling, and Mr Oakapple returned abruptly to the unwelcome present where he was sitting with his nose in a tedious and dusty book, and his only companion was a sullen twelve year old. He pushed the memories to the back of his mind again.
“Don’t fidget, Lucas,” he said, absent-mindedly.
He must do something, he thought with decision, as he stared out of the window. Sir Randolph must pay; something must be done for Denny while there was hope he remained alive. He tightened his grip on the book unconsciously. Mr Oakapple’s anger was not any the less because it had been hidden and silent for all these years.
“You,” said Sir Randolph, on seeing Mr Oakapple arrive in his study. “What do you want?”
Mr Oakapple paused in the doorway, holding a sheet of paper. “I had thought you might wish to speak to me about Lucas.”
“Oh, the tutor,” he said again. “What is it? Can’t you get on with your work without plaguing me? Can’t handle the brat, eh?” He slurred the last sentence.
Cautiously, Mr Oakapple moved further into the room. He hadn’t expected Sir Randolph to want to talk about Lucas; it would have been a pleasant surprise if he had. He had come here because it was the only way to make his decision.
“You’ll have learned your numbers, no doubt; you can see to these, why not?” Sir Randolph demanded, suddenly, before Mr Oakapple could speak again. He lurched over towards the desk, covered in unsorted papers of varying age and size. He stumbled, losing his grip on one of the sticks and wincing and then cursing loudly as he did so.
Mr Oakapple steadied him without thinking, and handed back his stick. He couldn’t do it, he realised. He should have known that, faced with the reality of a sick, elderly man, however wicked and curmudgeonly he might be, he could hardly try to kill him. The intention had lasted only as long as it was hypothetical. He wasn’t sure whether to be dismayed or relieved by that knowledge.
“Bloodsucking leeches,” Sir Randolph carried on. “Confounded taxmen! Won’t leave me be, and damn them all to Hades and back, it’s mine; they’re not having a farthing more out of me. Make yourself useful, can’t you?”
Mr Oakapple would have liked to argue, but he bit his tongue, realising that it was pointless and not only that, this gave him the opportunity he needed to search for evidence. He merely nodded, and glanced over the haphazard paperwork. “I’ll see what I can do, if you wish. Sir.”
Sir Randolph nodded and collapsed into a large chair that creaked under his weight, giving a grimace of pain as he did so.
Mr Oakapple read through the top papers – bills, rents in arrears and debts, letters from the tax office, from Sir Randolph’s lawyers, and dirty, unevenly-sized scraps of paper with gambling debts of all kinds marked down on them – horses, prize fights, cock-fights, card games… Nothing about Denzil, but he forgot that for a moment, because it was now painfully obvious that the money had gone. All of it; the wealth of the Murgatroyds, of Midnight Mill – Denzil’s inheritance had been squandered by this wretched old scoundrel who had not even gained any pleasure from it.
He lowered his head, and kept his attention on the papers to hide the fact that he was shaking with rage. He pushed the papers roughly into piles, noting as he did so an accounts sheet that, if correct, indicated few of the servants had been paid for the past six weeks, and as he did so, his good hand hit against something heavy. He stopped, and lifted the papers to find one of a pair of duelling pistols. Despite his earlier conclusion, it seemed too providential to ignore: a tool for the job in hand, and he turned back around to look at Sir Randolph.
His employer had fallen asleep in the chair. It was not a pretty sight: the wicked baronet sprawled there, red-faced, mouth open and dead drunk halfway through the afternoon.
Julian Oakapple raised an eyebrow, and then took hold of the weapon. Sir Randolph had no idea that he had let his worst enemy into the house, or that he had handed him the most perfect opportunity he could ever have to kill him.
No, he thought, pushing the gun away; no. He had decided it wasn’t right; the fact that a firearm made the act so much easier did not change that. There were some tools the human race might be better off without. He was not killing an invalid and he was not sacrificing his convictions for this villain. This detestable old man, who might, irony of ironies, be one of the few other people left alive who had cared about Sir Denzil.
He put his gloved hand to his mouth and laughed, softly and helplessly, but there was little humour in it.
It was snowing again. It had been, Mr Oakapple thought, as he paused at the window halfway down the back stairwell, one of those winters that seemed as if it should never end. It was not yet February, he reminded himself. It would surely improve soon.
Mrs Gourd had been lamented the lack of supplies in the house earlier, but they were used enough to the weather. He must tell her, he thought, that he would go into Blastburn himself if it were too much for Garridge or Towser. After all, he already wished to be anywhere but here.
Mr Oakapple passed on, only to encounter the housekeeper, who demanded of him whether he had seen the master’s dog – it wasn’t in the study and she feared the animal might have gone outside.
It didn’t seem likely to Mr Oakapple, but he gave her a short smile and promised to look, carrying on down the stairs, and along the passageway until he came to a side door. He stepped through it, and outside, for a moment, more for the excuse of briefly escaping the house than for any real belief that the dog would have wandered out in this weather.
The snow was coming down heavily now: thick, soft and swift, settling on the frozen ground where the last fall had not yet melted away. The wind was a north wind, owning a chill that stole his breath and sliced through him.
Mr Oakapple stepped out further, a yard or two onwards, and then glanced back to the open door and the dim light from within. This was no use, he told himself. The dog must be hiding somewhere warm, if there was any such corner in Midnight, and all he would achieve out here, if he was not more careful, would be his own decease.
He hesitated, then. It had not been his intention, but it was a dizzying temptation. He had only to walk on, out of sight of the house and it would not take long. Already the cold had penetrated his clothes as if they were thin summer wear, and the white flakes had settled on his ginger hair and caught in his eyelashes. To be lost forever in the snow, in the numbing and painless cold did not seem such a terrible thing.
He remained standing there. It was beautiful out here: he stared about him at the inky blue and grey of the night, the lightness of the snow as it transformed the grounds – and somewhere above for a moment, impossibly, a star winked briefly through a gap in the heavy clouds. After twenty years of continuing on after all the dreams had died and the effort of it, surely, he thought, surely he could now, now that all hope had deserted him, lie down and rest here in the grounds of Midnight?
“Sir?” said a voice from somewhere, sounding distant. Mr Oakapple turned around, shaking himself, to see Lucas in the doorway, silhouetted against the light. “Sir? Mr Oakapple?”
Mr Oakapple shivered, and crossed back towards the boy. “Lucas. Mrs Gourd seemed to think that Sir Randolph’s dog might have escaped.”
“Redgauntlet?” said Lucas. “I saw him trying to get into the kitchen. I expect she’ll have found him by now.”
“Oh, no doubt,” Mr Oakapple said, and followed him back inside, where he stopped, unable to keep from shivering, as Lucas shut the door. The boy turned, and gave him another curious look. He tried to think of something to say to him, some explanation, but in the end settled for: “I shall go through your paper with you in the morning, Lucas.”
Lucas nodded, his expression sulky again. “Sir.” He pushed back the bolts on the door, and then turned with a frown, drawing in his breath, as if to ask something else.
“Good night, Lucas,” said Mr Oakapple, forestalling him with a sudden, curt firmness. He gave the boy a brief smile, however, and added, “Thank you.”
They parted on the stairs, and Mr Oakapple remained where he was for a long moment, belatedly feeling the cold. He did have work to do, for the moment, he told himself. Perhaps he could find the papers he needed among Sir Randolph’s documents and accounts. It might not be too late, and he should not give up now. But, he thought, as he glanced about him at his surroundings in the gloom, this shabby and unloved house, he had stayed out too long and he was chilled through. It felt, he thought, as if he should never be warm again.
Nothing short of a blazing fire could do the trick, but Sir Randolph was far too mean for there to be any likelihood of that here. Julian Oakapple smiled wryly at the idea, and then headed back up the stairs.