The servants of Mumsford House, composed of the cook, the maid, and the butler, were respectively atwitter, aflutter, and aghast.
News had arrived that morning that the master of the house, Lord Arvid Mumsford, was on his way home. He was expected to arrive at Mumsford House that very evening.
“Mercy me,” declared Lily Evans (atwitter), the portly cook, speaking to herself in the kitchen. “I’ll have to prepare something special. This is a fine occasion, and the master deserves no less.”
“Harrumph!” barked the butler (aghast), Seymour Evans (no relation to Lily), to the timid maid, a girl named Marcie Pootz. “The man is certifiably insane.” He glared at the girl, daring her to object. She simply stared at the floor.
“Nevertheless, he is the source of our income, and we are duty-bound to adhere to our contract. As such, you must see to the condition of the entire house, and in particular the parlor. Oh, yes, especially the parlor.”
Marcie Pootz (aflutter) was intimidated by Mr. Evans, whom she considered the true master of Mumsford House. This, because in her short tenure as the newest employee, she had yet to meet the mysterious Lord Mumsford. He was always abroad and visited rarely.
As for the lady of the house, well, although she resided just upstairs in the main bedroom, that is where she remained all day, every day, being an invalid. Marcie was responsible for the upkeep and cleaning of every room in the house – save Lady Mumsford’s room, which she had yet to behold. Mr. Evans himself saw to the maintenance of that room.
Marcie had never set eyes on poor Lady Mumsford. As far as the girl was concerned, the inhabitants of Mumsford House numbered just three: herself, Mr. Evans, and Mrs. Evans.
“Yes, sir,” said Marcie to Mr. Evans, avoiding all eye contact with the imperious man. “But if I may ask, sir, when is the master expected?”
“This evening. Now off with you. There is much to be done. Lay emphasis on the parlor.”
Meanwhile, a hundred miles away in London …
Stanley Swinepool, heir to a fortune and man about town, studied the silver-haired man seated among a cluster of elderly gents in the center of the Devon Club’s lounge. Stanley turned to his constant companion, Sven “Sniveling” Snodgress, and pronounced judgment:
“So that’s the world-famous Lord Mumsford, is it? Back from his tour of the globe, is he?”
Sniveling Snodgress said nothing in reply.
“Doesn’t exactly cut an imposing figure, does he?” Stanley took a drag off his cigarette and left it dangling from a sneering lip. “I don’t see why he bothers to come back, after all. His reputation far outweighs his countenance in the flesh. If I were him, I’d stay in hiding rather than come out and disappoint everyone.”
“He comes back every year about this time. Wants to see his wife,” said Sniveling Snodgress.
Stanley considered this, never allowing his gaze to leave the huddle of men in the center of the lounge. “I read something about that. Some sort of tragedy, wasn’t it? Or was it a scandal of some sort?”
Sniveling Snodgress said nothing.
Lord Mumsford took in the ongoing conversation among his distinguished companions in the Devon Club lounge. Nothing but idle gossip, really. One of the club’s long-time members had recently dissolved his long-time marriage because, apparently, he’d grown repulsed by his wife’s appearance.
“Too fat for his taste,” said one man.
“Hogwash. Her teeth had fallen out,” chipped in another.
“Regardless, the husband said she was more suited to the stable than the bedroom,” quipped a third.
Amid the subsequent burst of laughter, Lord Mumsford cleared his throat. The chortling ceased.
“He sounds like a very foolish husband,” said Mumsford. “Let me explain. Margaret and I have been husband and wife for many, many years now. Physically, you might say the bloom is off the rose. Oh, yes. Certainly that.
“But there are more important things in a marriage. Things like common interests, similar values and, above all, shared memories.”
“All well and good,” snorted a gentleman. “But memories will only take you so far in the bedchamber.”
“As for that,” continued the lord. “A little imagination will work wonders. If a woman’s face no longer arouses a man’s passion, there are other means to attain the desired effect. For example, she can always lend you a hand. If you get my meaning.”
The preparations at Mumsford House had reached peak frenzy. The master had arrived for his annual visit and was expected at the house at any moment.
Marcie Pootz was startled by the change in Mr. Evans and Mrs. Evans (no relation) as the arrival of Lord Mumsford grew imminent. Marcie discovered Mrs. Evans frantically polishing house silver and simultaneously keeping an eye on the special meal cooking on the stove.
“Excuse me, Mrs. Evans. I can’t seem to find Mr. Evans and I knows he wanted me to do one more thing but it’s slipped my mind and –”
“Mr. Evans is upstairs, giving the lady of the house a manicure. After that, he’ll need to carry her down to the parlor. Have you cleaned the parlor as we instructed?”
“Oh, yes ma’am. Everything is clean and everything is tidy, just as you said. I don’t –”
“And especially the table by the master’s chair?”
“Yes ma’am. Especially that. I hope I’m not out of place, but Mrs. Evans I have to say I’m quite excited by this visit. I’ve been here some time now, and yet I’ve only seen the lord the one time, as he was leaving the house. And I have yet to see Lady Margaret.”
Mrs. Evans paused in her work, considering something. “You know, Marcie, the master and his wife, in my opinion, are one of the greatest love stories of all time. I daresay you might not think so; you might find their relationship a bit odd. But then you are a young lass, and you haven’t suffered as they have.
“It was a horrible accident, it was,” continued the cook, wiping away a tear. “I think of it every time I set foot on a train.”
Mrs. Evans composed herself and shot a stern look at the girl. “So it’s best you keep your mouth closed and learn from them. No matter what you might think.”
“Oh, Mrs. Evans, I do so adore a good love story!”
Marcie could not help herself. She knew what she was doing was wrong, but the temptation was simply too great.
The door to the parlor was not completely closed; Marcie had nudged it ajar, and now stood quietly in the hall, straining to hear the words of Lord and Lady Mumsford.
But it was a frustrating exercise for Marcie. Aside from soft murmurings and the occasional coo from Lord Mumsford — “my darling” … “love of my life” — she could make out very little.
She glanced back at the main entrance. Earlier, Lord Mumsford had greeting Mr. Evans and Mrs. Evans and had nodded curtly at Marcie, but that was it. He had handed his coat and hat to the butler and gone straight into the parlor.
She looked at the staircase. Mr. and Mrs. Evans were far away, occupied in the kitchen. The lady’s bedroom would be vacant. This might be Marcie’s only opportunity ….
Meanwhile, a hundred miles away in London ….
Snodgress and Swinepool sat in a seedy bar, having tired of the stifling atmosphere of the Devon Club. Smoke and working-class shouts filled The Black Dog, and a bored waitress stood patiently between the two men-about-town.
Swinepool sized up the waitress: a tallish, red-haired girl wearing spectacles. Not unattractive, he judged, but rather dead in the eyes. He reached behind her and raised her skirt to the waist, then squeezed a buttock.
“What’s the name, darlin’?”
“Kit, sir.” She remained expressionless.
Snodgress leaned over and squeezed her other buttock. “Kit what?”
“Mancini,” said the girl. “Would you gentlemen like another?”
“Certainly,” said Swinepool, as Kit leaned forward to wipe detritus from their table. “But before you go,” he tugged at the girl’s blouse, baring her breast, “let’s have a look at your top.”
As the girl sauntered off with their order, Swinepool turned to his companion. “Now, about Mumsford.”
“Nasty business, that was,” he said. “I remember it well. Mumsford and his wife had just returned from a trip somewhere or the other. At the train station here in London. The lady got off the train, but she oughtn’t. Bad timing.”
“Hmmm,” said Swinepool, who was distracted by Kit Mancini’s swaying backside as it crossed the dingy room.
“One of those parallel tracks, where one set is just a spit away from the other. Of course, just then a second train came along. Mumsford reached out for the wife’s hand, caught it, held fast … but too late. But he never let go.”
Sniveling Snodgress shook his head. “They say the old fellow never recovered.”
Marcie stood in Lady Mumsford’s bedroom and surveyed her surroundings. It was a lavish room, large and well-kept by Mr. Evans. Her gaze kept returning to the bed. It was so small, like a child’s resting place. Beside the bed, Mr. Evans had carelessly left tissue and nail polish, the remnants of his earlier manicure of the lady.
In the parlor, Lord Mumsford was kissing his wife’s hand. As he did so, he caressed a wedding ring attached to a finger of her left hand.
He raised his head, squeezing Margaret’s hand as he did so. Something putrid and vile dripped down the lord’s chin.
“Damn that man, Evans,” he muttered. He used his handkerchief to wipe the preservative from his lips.
“No one cares for you, Margaret, as I do. You know that. My love for you is undying.”
Mumsford took one last, loving look at what remained of his wife, then carefully lifted the pale-green, stiff appendage — cleanly severed beneath the shoulder — and placed it gently back into the large jar of formaldehyde on the table.
Margaret’s arm floated in its liquid preservative for a moment, then began to sink to the bottom of the jar.
“Evans!” Lord Mumsford cried. “I am done in here!”
Evans was aghast. Mrs. Evans, in tears, was atwitter. Marcie, as always, was aflutter.
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