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Short stories

The Unbolted Door
by Mrs Belloc Lowndes

"LEAVE that door alone, young feller; and remember once for all that it's never to be locked or bolted. Not that there's any fear of it's being locked, as the master always has the key on him."

Mrs. Torquil heard the muffled words. Cote, their seventy year-old butler, instructing the new footman in slow, impressive tones, as is the way of butlers when addressing their humble subordinates.

But this subordinate belonged to the new dispensation, so he answered back.

"That's a funny idea - that is."

"It may seem funny to you, seeing you're a stranger, Henry, but 'tis only a sad one to me."

"Sad? Why that, Mr. Cote?"

From where Anne Torquil had stayed her steps at the door of her bedchamber she heard the now quavering, long familiar, old voice, answer - "'Twas this way it happened. Mr. John - and a rare nice young chap he was - was not just put down 'killed' by his Colonel, when he didn't come back from what was then styled 'a raid in the henemy lines.' He was just reported 'missing'. Cruel I called it then, and cruel I calls it now - for 'twas bound to encourage false hopes."

"It must 'a done, Mr. Cote," - the young voice had become grave.

"Mrs. Torquil knew well enough what 'missing' meant. But the master, he just couldn't bring hisself to believe his son - his heir, too, mind you - had gone, so to speak for ever. I mind well how a few days after the Armistice Mr. Torquil came along one night just as I was locking up, and he says, says he, 'Just leave the door of the small hall as it is, Cote. Master John always came into the house that way, because of the short cut from the gate. Many soldiers are coming back now from Germany who was put down as "missing," so my son may walk through that door hany day. That's what he said then, poor gentleman; and that door, Henry, has never been locked or bolted, since."

The men's footsteps died away, and something stirred in Anne Torquil's unhappy atrophied heart. How very strange that she should not have known, till to-night, of her husband's order? It was true that, at all ages past babyhood, the boy had been wont to burst through the outer door of what was called "the small hall" with a cry of "Mother! Where are you? Upstairs?" And yet, dearly as he loved her, close as they were to one another, she had always known that John had cared most for his inarticulate father.

She was so moved, now, that something of the frightful anguish of six years ago came back and restlessly she began to walk up and down the beautiful bedroom many of her friends envied her. How piteous that to her it should be a room of intolerable memories.

In the wide Jacobean bed, where she now spent her often wakeful nights, had been born the son whose coming had seemed inevitable. Convinced that as to this matter she would be as lucky as in all else, she had laughed at the thought that her baby could be a girl. How often, in the last six years, she had wished she had died on the glorious day her boy was born.

Her good friend then, and still her good friend, Dr. Maynard, the old village doctor, had taken it on himself, more than once, during the perfect years which had followed John's birth, to hint that it was a pity the child had no brother, no sister to share his delightful nursery. But she, Anne Torquil, had been wilfully deaf to such advice. Always, during the whole of her happy spoilt young life, she had done what she wanted; and never had she done anything she had not definitely wished to do. She had given her Jack a splendid son, what good old Cote called an heir; that, surely, was quite enough.

Suddenly now, she stopped in her pacing opposite a carved wood mirror. She had been standing just here during her last happy moment of life. It was in the autumn of 1918; her husband was home, convalescing from what had been a severe wound; there were rumours of Peace, and they were confidently expecting their boy home on his first leave. At exactly three o'clock, on a fine early October day, there had come what had been, then, a very familiar knuckle knock on her door. Even when she was a bride of seventeen, and the two were more like a pair of happy children than a married couple, Jack had always knocked before he came into his wife's, Anne's, room.

Blithely she had called out, "Come in!" And he had come in, with a telegram open in his hand.

It was as if she could hear now, to-night, six years later, the sound of his hoarse voice uttering her name - and then, when she had put up her arm with an instinctive violent movement to ward off the blow, the further words, "Thank God nor killed, my darling! Only missing."

Only missing? And John's father had gone on not only hoping against hope, but firmly convinced that, from the depths of some German prison, or even from some German mental home, the boy would come back.


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Tuesday 20 December 2005