The following morning Semple came down for breakfast. His covered plate contained the broiled tomato and mushroom, the scrambled eggs and sausages that constituted a “proper” English breakfast. Two slices of wheat toast stood at attention in the toast rack, which was flanked by a small dish of strawberry preserves and the butter dish.
Semple removed the tea cozy that Emma had knitted and poured the day’s first cup of Darjeeling. After stirring in the requisite three sugar cubes and dash of milk he touched the fragrant cup at his lips before putting it down.
Conducting a slow circuit around the kitchen, Semple peered at every shelf and peeked into every cupboard. It was in the act of sitting at the table that what was wrong hit him.
He walked to where the saucers and cups were kept. The latter hung from brass hooks. Five teacups were in their places; one hook was empty. Semple recounted the cups, including the one in his hand. There were six—all of them were whole.
Semple checked and double-checked the saucers and the cake plates. There were as many as before anything was broken in the hall outside the aerie. With unease he minutely examined every piece. Nothing indicated that any repairs had been made. Normally Semple ate breakfast with gusto but now he only picked at what was on his plate.
Abandoning the kitchen and its mysteries for another time, Semple went upstairs and started work. Even thought he forgot to turn on BBC Four the speed with which he focused on churning out pages without the background noise’s help surprised him. He stopped at the sound of his tea break things being set down. This time Semple got to the door before the housekeeper could retreat down the hallway.
“Come here please, Miss H-V.”
The tall woman pirouetted, brushing a stray wisp of auburn hair behind her left ear as she did so. “I’ve a lot to do today.”
“I shan’t keep you long. I want to ask about the time when you dropped the china outside my door. What I do not understand is that nothing appears to have been repaired. Nary a teacup, saucer nor small plate in the kitchen shows any damage. How do you explain it?”
“Mr. Semple, I have never so much as chipped a piece of your precious Royal Doulton, let alone broken any of it: It’s my habit to treat my clients’ belongings with the utmost respect.”
“But I saw you on your knees.” Semple held out his hands. “You were picking up from the accident. You put everything in your apron . . .”
Miss H-V’s expression showed she suspected her employer had gone dotty. “Mr. Semple, you work very diligently. You could not have written 236 pages in so short a time otherwise.
“May I suggest that perhaps you devote fewer hours to your craft? I am confident your novel won’t suffer for it, and that the resolution of the conflict between Lord Creswel and Lady Allith will come in good time. Now, if you will excuse me.”
The woman in the green skirt and peasant blouse strode purposefully away. The constellations on the latter garment winked at him with the movement of Miss H-V’s slender frame. Closing the door behind him Semple went to the keyboard. He’d hardly begun to type when something the housekeeper had said stood out from her denial of having broken Emma’s treasured china.
Semple printed off chapters of his manuscript as they were completed. He preferred to hold the work in his hands, rather than staring at pixelated characters on the laptop. Picking up the latest completed chapter, Semple fanned the pages until the last one’s number came into view: 236.
He had scarcely taken in this information when a Skype call popped up. It revealed Wrenna’s face, framed by a mass of reddish copper curls. His daughter’s hair was spiky and a riot of colors wasn’t it? Now the hue of Wrenna’s face matched her hair. Semple had never seen her so agitated.
“Whatever is wrong, my dear?”
“Father! I hardly know how to tell you this but . . . your Miss H-V does not exist!”
[© 2018 Robert Edwin Stone, II]