“You only married me for my money, you bitch.”
That was how he greeted me that evening. I sighed, and turned to leave the room. I knew how these arguments played out. In the last month alone, in the simple space of three weeks, I had relived this same experience many times. Enough so that the experience had become little more than a repeating dance, our own little foxtrot of bitterness.
I could, if I tried very hard, boil the entire repeating cycle down to its core, examine it like a pattern that folded over and over until I knew exactly how it would transpire. He would begin with hurling accusations. I would move my defences up, telling him that he was wrong. He would then shift tact, accusing me of infidelity, of sleeping with someone else behind his back. Tell me that I was only with him for the hope of inheriting his fortune.
The truth was, I had loved him, once. In days that seemed so long ago that they seemed to be little more than a dream. I had, I know I had. Even if I had to remind myself of the fact.
We had married in a great, lavish ceremony. Me, on his arm, among throngs of his friends. We had been the talk of the society column. Who was I? Just some girl, far too young for him, no breeding, no culture. But he, he was Richard White, and as gallant a gentleman as his name would befit. We had been the toast of Paris, and our love could have changed the world.
Now, today. He was old. Thin strands of hair. Deep, dark eyes. Spittle flecked his lips each time he shouted at me, which was often. Arlington Grange had become his tomb, our honeymoon manor which had transformed, as he had so transformed, into an echoing sepulchre. I think, perhaps, it was the loss of his youth that had cost him his mind.
“You’ll never get my money” he rasped, his gravel voice reverberating like the creak of old wood. “Not a single penny, hateful bitch! You wicked, stupid cow!”
I tried to shut out his words. But what could I do to silence then, when the entire hall seemed to reverberate with their lord’s call? I left him there, in his vast bedroom with his silver tea tray and lukewarm coffee. Left him to his mouldering curtains and screams of hated.
I strode through the echoing hallway, the coldness clouding my breath. When I had first met, and been swept off my feet my Richard White, the entire manor had bustled with maids and waiters, gardeners and butlers. The manor had been warm then, the chill of the cold kept at bay by the duties of those who waited on us. But, as the years had passed, even they too had left, drifting gradually away with the seasons, leaving only myself and my husband and the ashen fireplaces. Try as I might, the fires would never burn for me.
The spider webs etched the manor like beads of condensation on a window. I would never admit that they scared me, that I felt a sense of fear from those gossamer strings. But as our servants had deserted, fleeing from lord White’s frequent and indiscriminate rages, the spider webs had come to lay waste to the manor. In the west wing, far from the rooms in which my husband would dwell, I alone maintained a vigil against their encroachment, fighting back against their perpetual invasion. It was into this sanctuary that I fled once again, eager to escape his biting words.
And so I became a prisoner, or as much of one as I could confess to myself as being, locked within the manor with the man to whom my love had grown to hatred. I thought how I despised him. Despised what he had become. More than that, though, I despised myself, my reliance on him. The knowledge that I would be unable to survive outside of this miserable, cobwebbed manse sat as heavy as my anger. I had no friends that were not his friends, no world into which I was a part. Arlington Grange, I thought, was as much my tomb as it was his own.
The night of the dinner party came suddenly. The guests arrived, one by one, five in number. In the days of my youth, they had numbered in the hundreds. Gone now were the nights that rang with music and dance, and instead the guests marched like a funeral procession into the echoing halls of Arlington Grange.
Without our staff, we attended the guests ourselves. Or, rather, I did, while my husband busied himself in the kitchen, awaiting their arrival. I had polished the silver, as best as I could. Yet still the forks were dingy, unkempt and dim. It had been a year since they had touched the table, since the last such party.
The sound of the bell broke through the silence like a dirge, and I opened the door to reveal my husband’s niece. Young and sheer, she brushed past me into the hall, a trail of her red gown crackling behind her, before she was joined a few steps behind by her mother. Cloaked in a shawl of gaudy feathers and bright colours, Mr White’s sister stood in stark contrast to the manor around her. Widowed for almost a decade, I thought, she made no secret that she yearned for her brother’s wealth, speaking of her desire to possess his financial security to maintain her rapidly sinking grandiose lifestyle.
I accepted the coats of our guests, and soon we were joined by the others, each a parade of grim faces, and I enquired as to their health one by one. I spoke with the youngest of our visitors, an earnest gent of a scholarly nature who told me of his ascension into the realms of a doctorate. Before long, my husband emerged from the kitchen to join his guests. Even in their presence, he was dismissive. He greeted his oldest friend, who had served beside him in the army so far back as the mists of time, with little more than a customary grunt. Five friends only remained, standing around the thin waste of a dining room table, and they were alone.
Choice of suitable dinner wear had been slim. My husband, as wealthy as he was, was not one to extend the benefit of his generosity to me, instead clutching his fingers tightly, arthritically, around his purse-strings. What little I had to wear in order to play the gallant hostess amounted to a slender, simple white dress.
Conversation sat as still and lifeless as the roast duck on the plate. Our guests, their eyes turned downwards in the hopes of avoiding my husband’s next volley of ire, rarely dared to offer words to their thoughts. There we sat, not a one of us truly wishing to be present, and the thought grew then in my mind that each of us here had grown to despise my husband. Each of us in turn, across the years, had endured his cruelty, his barbs. I looked around the table, the grey faces young and old, and thought that we were all but trapped here within my husband’s tomb, locked within a cage of his own making. In desperation, I reached my hand around one of the many silver candlesticks that lined the table. “This is dirty” I said, my voice without tone. “I will polish it. Please excuse me.”
I strode from the dining room, clutching the meagre reason for my hasty departure as if it were a lifesaver. In the kitchen, I snatched a dingy rag from the dust-lain countertop and began to polish the silver. My peace from my husband’s presence lasted only a moment. “You are a cow” he croaked. “Why must you embarrass me so?”
Within my heart, I felt the old urge spin. I could sense it again, feeling with intricate familiarity the same pattern, the cycle that would lead irrevocably to my husband’s cruelty. I saw, with all the hindsight that decades of experience had gifted me, the course of the accusations that he was about to hurl at me. “No” I said, my voice little more than a whisper. “Please, not now. Not here, with your friends in the dining room.”
“You think I care about them?” he spat. Flecks of saliva dotted the front of his shirt. “Do you think that I care a jot for any of them? Why do you think they come here?” He jabbed his finger, stabbing it through the air, damning me with its accusation. “They come here for my money. Well, they won’t have it. Do you hear me?”
I turned, clasping the rag to the silverware, polishing it. I tried to ignore his words. Had he been younger, had I been any younger myself, I would have feared that he would strike me. But he was old, too old, almost twenty years my senior, and age had robbed him of his strength and his virility. In my mind I pictured him, a frail old man, twisted and bent under the weight of his loathing. Instead, he stepped closer, and in a tone that sliced through all of my defences he said “You won’t have any of it, either. I’ve changed my will; don’t you know? I have left every penny to the bank.”
Looking around, I thought for a moment that I saw the glimpse of a smile on his cragged lips. He must have seen something there in my eyes, caught a ghost of some terrible emotion that welled up inside me, because at that moment he began to laugh. Laugh a cruel, deep, cackling laugh, which ripped into me like a dagger.
It is true to say that I did not remain with him all those years because of his wealth. That was not, and had never been, the reason that I lingered within these walls with him, haunted by him, cursed by him. No, the money had been his damnation, not mine. But in that moment, I think, I saw inside him the depths of his hatred for me. Staring into the wild eyes that sat in dark sockets and mocked me, I understood that my husband held no love for me, if indeed he ever had. No, it wasn’t for the money; it wasn’t for that at all. It was, I believe, for the years and years of torment – for the yesterdays and the yesterdays of hurt and pain and the utter death of love – that caused me to bring the candlestick up and drive it against his skull. In the moment that I did so, he was gone. He collapsed, his arm crashing against the countertop and upsetting an old china kettle as it did so, before he became a lifeless heap on the floor, empty of all the malice that had animated him these many years.
I stood, clutching the silver candlestick to my chest, watching him. My heart hammered in my chest, its rhythm growing infinitely loud within the echoing emptiness of Arlington Grange. I breathed, and with each breath I expected that he would rise again, claw his way back to spit his last ounce of hatred at me. But he did not. And so it was.
Stepping around the empty, lifeless form that had once been my husband, I moved my way through the dining room, the eyes of our guests upon me, watching me. Surely, I thought, they had heard. Surely they knew, with all their reason. And yet not a one stood to stop me, not one of them rose to condemn me. They knew, I realised, as surely as I did, that they each held a reason for their hatred of my husband, each as strong and as secret and as forceful as my own. His oldest friend, the colonel, who had paid my husband more than he could afford to conceal his gambling debts, and who now nestled a pistol beneath his bulging blazer. My husband’s sister, so envious of her brother’s wealth, who sat with peacock feathers in her hair to disguise a small thin-bladed knife. Even the reverend, in his olive-hued shirt, face as sombre as the grave, clutching a hefty car wrench beneath the table as if it were the key to his own salvation. I sat among them, guests of my husband’s ghost one and all, and sipped my tea from a frail china cup. Who would think, who would truly suspect, among all those who my husband’s cruelty had set against him and had come here tonight with murder in their hearts, that the person who had indeed killed him was none other than Mrs White, in the kitchen, with the candlestick?