The servants’ corridors in the house were far more extensive than those in the ‘main’ part of the house.  As Dave led her through them, he explained to Jen that they had to be that way to enable the servants to reach every room in the house unobtrusively.  “After all,” he said, wryly, “one can’t have one’s staff wandering hither and thither, cluttering the place up – it would just look untidy.”

Jen was astonished at the extent of the warrens behind the grand scenes as they wound their way through passages and up stairways towards the attics.  Their route made little sense to her, since she still didn’t have an internal map of the grand rooms in the house to refer to.

“How on earth do you know your way around here so well?” she asked at one point.  “You’re a gardener, for goodness sake!  Shouldn’t you be outside doing… gardeny things?”

“Well, normally yes, but we had one summer that was so wet that I couldn’t do a damn thing out there, so I came in and explored the house instead.  The winters can be a bit slow sometimes, too.”  He shrugged.  “I get bored.  And like I told you before, Merry sometimes comes down for a chat.  I walk her back up.”

“But you said she’s in her eighties!” said Jen, in amazement.  “How on earth does she manage all of these stairs and corridors?”

“Well, she’s quite spry, you know – and she’s been walking around this labyrinth for most of her life.  I suppose she’s used to it.”  He shrugged again.  “And, of course, the way down is easier than the way back up.  I help.”

“Aw, sweet!” said Jen.  “That’s nice of you.”

He grinned.  “Well, I’m working on the principle that helping old ladies will help balance my karmic scorecard.”

They finally reached the attic after much twisting and turning to find it laid out much more sensibly.  A corridor went right around the top of the house with doors and corridors off leading to bedrooms, washrooms, storerooms, cupboards, and all sorts of other useful rooms.  The living areas seemed to be ranged around the outside of this, the store rooms and things like that mainly seemed to be on the inside, which made sense, since store rooms didn’t really need windows, although some did seem to have skylights.

When they reached Lady Meriel’s door, Dave knocked.  “Who is it?” came from inside.

“It’s Dave.  And I’ve brought you a visitor.”

“Oh, wait a moment while I open the door, then.”  Shuffling sounds behind the door, then those of unlocking.  Lady Meriel threw open the door.  She was quite short and round, with shortish iron-grey hair and sparkling eyes as merry as her name.

“Dave, my precious, how lovely to see you!”  She pulled his face down to her level, for which Dave had to bend quite a long way, and gave him a great smacking kiss on both cheeks.

“Lovely to see you too, Your Ladyship!” he said as he twinkled at her roguishly and took her hand to gallantly kiss her knuckles with a florid bow.

“Now you stop that, young man!” she said crossly.  “I’ve told you about it before.  Now – who do we have here?” she said, turning to Jen.

“Lady Meriel Harrington-Harrington, may I present Miss Jennifer Alexander, archivist of this parish,” Dave replied grandly.

“Dave!” Merry shook a warning finger at him, then turned back to Jen.  “Lovely to meet you, Miss Alexander, please come in.  Oh – and if you could kick Dave on the ankle on your way past, I’d be much obliged.”

Jen giggled and Dave dodged out of her way as they followed Merry into a light and airy apartment.

“Now, Miss Alexander, can I get you some refreshments?”

“Oh, tea would be lovely, if you have it, but please call me Jen, Lady Meriel, Miss Alexander always makes me feel like a primary school teacher.”

“Hmph – I’m not surprised about that if you’ve been associating with miladdo here,” replied Merry.  “It shall be as you wish – as long as you call me Merry.  All of that ‘Your Ladyship’ nonsense never sat too well with me – I married the man, but the title was an unfortunate side effect.  Now, please sit, I’ll be with you shortly.”  And she bustled off into the kitchen.

They sat in a couple of comfortable squashy armchairs and Jen gazed out of the windows onto a miserable and almost invisible day.

“Dreadful weather, isn’t it?” noted Merry, returning from the kitchen, having put the kettle on.  “It always makes me want to curl up under the eiderdown and not poke my head out until the sun’s come out again.  Or eat chocolate cake until I burst  …or both…” she mused, thoughtfully.

“Both sounds pretty good to me, Merry!” laughed Jen.

“There, now!” said Merry, turning a stern eye on Dave, who’d flopped down into an armchair.  “This lovely young lady has managed to call me Merry within two minutes of making my acquaintance – how is it you still insist on using that deplorable title when I’ve told you not to a hundred times?”

“My dear Lady Meriel, it’s simply a mark of my overwhelming respect for Your Ladyship’s august personage.  Your Ladyship” he replied, with a grave tone and an absolutely straight face.

“More like your absolute commitment to being an irredeemable scoundrel” said Merry, crossly.  “Now get up out of that armchair and go and make us some tea, you impertinent pup!”

Dave unfolded himself and wandered through to the kitchen, grinning.  They soon heard the clattering of crockery

“Awful boy!” said Merry, with affection as she settled on the sofa next to Jen, who replied,

“Yes, I found that out almost immediately”

“Really?  Why, what did he do?” asked Merry, with interest.

Jen grimaced.  “Got me drunk on the local moonshine under false pretences.”  She grimaced.  “The hangover was quite something.”

“Oh dear!” chuckled Merry.  “Oh he is awful, isn’t he – a rascal and a scallywag through and through.  Every time someone new comes to work here, he takes them down to the pub and does that to them.  I don’t know what they make it from – eye of newt and toe of bat, probably – but it tastes like cats’ piss.”

Jen laughed in shock that someone could swear and still make it sound so genteel.  “Really?  I can’t honestly remember.”

“Oh, yes – he brought me some home, once – most of it went down the drain.  Still – it unblocked the sink marvelously.”

Presently, Dave returned with tea, cake and biscuits.

“Been raiding my cupboards again?” enquired Merry, with raised eyebrows.

Dave attempted to look innocent, with little success.  He had a face made for unrepentant guilt.  “Me?  Nooo…  Well, maybe a bit, yes.”  He conceded.  “But you wouldn’t want me to starve, would you, Merry?  I’m a growing boy, you know.”

“If you grow any more, we’ll have to raise the ceilings!” retorted Merry, and began to pour.

When they’d settled comfortably with their tea, Dave said, “Actually, Merry, there was something we wanted to ask you about, seeing as how you know so much about the house and the family history and all.”

“Ask away, precious, I’ll do my best to answer.  Not sure how much use I’ll be, though – I don’t know as much as you seem to think I do – there’s much still to discover.”  She looked a little wistful at this.  “I don’t think I’ve got enough years left to finish the family history as it should be finished, you know.  I mourn the loss of the time even before I’ve had it.  Then, of course, my marbles aren’t what they were, either – I forget things so easily, these days…”

There was a short silence as Merry sighed and Jen felt pity and compassion for this sweet old lady.

Then, “You old fraud!” exclaimed Dave.  “Your mind’s sharper than mine’s ever been, so don’t you give us that poor frail old lady crap – it just won’t wash!”

Merry chuckled.  “Oh, well – it was worth a try.  Some of it’s getting truer though, you know – I am starting to have trouble remembering things – it takes me a while, sometimes.”

Dave snorted.  “Only because you’ve got so much stored up there!”

“Mmm…  I hope you’re right.  Anyway – what was it you wanted to know, my precious?”

Jen leaned forward, eagerly.  “I stumbled across a secret room in the library, and we were wondering if you might know about it and what’s in it?” she said.

“The library?  Oh, yes, I’ve known about that one for years, dear.”

“Really?  Can you tell us what’s in it?”

“Well, nothing, as far as I know, dear.  My husband took me in there years ago, when we were first married.”  She smiled.  “It was very dark, and very private – soundproofed, too, I believe.”  The old girl smiled wider.  “Very … intimate…”

“Is that so?”  asked Dave.  “So you just went in there and had a…”

“Dave!” admonished Jen, going red.

“…look around.” he finished, innocently.  He looked at Jen.  “What did you think I was going to say?” he enquired.

“…nothing…” she muttered, staring at her toes.

“A look around?  Oh, no – it was much too dark for that.” Said Merry.  “We had sex, instead.”

Neither Jen nor Dave knew where to look.

“D’you know,” continued Merry, thoughtfully – apparently oblivious to their discomfort, “I do believe Ambrose’s father was conceived in that room.  And probably Ambrose, too, come to think of it.  The first son and heir to the title always is, it seems.  Sort of a family tradition, I suppose.  Goodness only knows why, it’s so uncomfortable.  Jolly good fun, though!” she added.  Then, “What?” for she had at last noticed Jen and Dave’s discomfort.  They umed and ahed for a while, until Merry took pity on them and said, “Oh dear!  You should see your faces!” and burst into loud guffaws of laughter that went on for some time.  “Oh, come on, you two – surely you’re not embarrassed?” she said when she could speak again.  “For goodness sake, I’m not a nun, you know!  Never have been.”

“Um, well… we realise that, Merry.  It’s just… we, um…didn’t expect… quite such a …frank… um…” she took a deep breath and tried again.  “We delicate little flowers just aren’t used to it…” she finished, lamely.

“Well, you probably ought to be by now, dear – we’ve all got ‘em, after all!”  She beamed happily.  “Some more than others, though, I shouldn’t wonder.”

“Merry, please!” said Dave, clasping his hands together in supplication, “have pity on a couple of poor innocents!  We might spontaneously combust if you carry on like this!”

“Innocents!” scoffed Merry.  “You’ve never been innocent in your life, my boy!  Still, I suppose we can get back to the subject, if you insist?” she looked at them enquiringly.  Jen and Dave both nodded with relief.

Merry sighed.  “Very well – I suppose I should behave myself.  As it happens, no – I didn’t see if there was anything in there, as I was…busy…and it was dark.”

“Yes, it was very dark.” Said Jen – relieved to be off the subject of Merry’s marital activities.  “I went to get a torch.  When I got back, though, Lord Ambrose was there and he took the torch from me.  He went into the room and told me to take the rest of the day off.  And he locked the library door behind me.”

“Did he?  How odd” said Merry, a puzzled frown creasing her face.  “I wonder why?”

“We don’t know,” said Dave.  “We thought there might be something in there he didn’t want Jen to see, but couldn’t work out what it might be.  That’s why we came to see if you might know.”

“Hmm.  Unfortunately not” said Merry.  “Perhaps you could go and have a look when Ambrose goes to bed.”

“But what if he leaves the door locked?” asked Jen.  “And wouldn’t he be angry if he knew we’d been in there when he obviously didn’t want us to?”

“Well,” said Merry, with the gleam of mischief in her eyes, “What Ambrose doesn’t know won’t hurt him.  That boy was always too secretive for his own good, anyway.  And,” she held up a finger and rummaged in a pocket with the other hand, “I might be persuaded to lend you this – if you’re very nice to me.”  She drew her hand from her pocket and opened it slowly, to reveal what she held.  It was a key.

“You have the key to the library?” asked Jen.

“Skeleton key” said Merry, smugly.  “Opens any door in the house.”

“Where did you get that?” asked Dave in surprise.

Merry looked offended.  “I was mistress of this house, once upon a time,” she said, a bit stiffly.  Then she smiled.  “Here – take it.  Have fun uncovering mysteries.”

“Thank you.” Jen took the key and pocketed it.

“You’re welcome, my lamb.  Just make sure you come back and tell me all about it.”

“Certainly will, your ladyship” said Dave, once more unfolding himself from the armchair.

“And just where do you think you’re going, young man?    You’ve not finished your tea, yet.  You sit down this minute and entertain a poor old dowager in her dotage.”

So they spent a very pleasant hour or so in Merry’s company, talking, laughing, drinking tea and eating cake.  Eventually, Dave had to go.  Despite the damp gloom of the day, the garden was calling and he had things to do.  Jen left also, intending to have an afternoon snooze, which was a luxury she could rarely afford but thought she could today – especially since it seemed that she was likely to be up very late.