A Is For Aunt. Specifically, A is for Aunt Theodolinda, an ancient relative of the Crabtree family.
All of the Crabtrees call her Aunt Theodolinda. But whose Aunt, exactly, is she?
Aunt Theodolinda, after a time, came to herself.
“Dear me!” She said, genteelly, gazing about her. “I’ve gone walkabouts again.” As the gravity of her current situation became clear to her, she made further remarks, not at all genteel in character. For she was swiftly aware of three disturbing facts: that she was outside, that it was snowing, and that she was lost. The fourth fact, that it was rather cold, was one that she suspected she’d been aware of, if she’d been aware of anything, for some time. Perhaps it had brought her round. If so, she supposed she owed the cold a certain grudging gratitude- but only of the type that one gives to an enemy who has shown you some little courtesy. For cold was now her enemy, and it would kill her if it could.
Well, Theodolinda wasn’t having that. Though she was now very old indeed (so old that she’d long since ceased to be specific on the point, though she was fairly sure that she was closer to 90 than to 80), and though she had of late been having these little episodes, she was on the whole a vigorous and cheerful old woman, and she didn’t intend to go, as it were, without a struggle.
She needed to get inside. Unfortunately, this looked as if it was going to be difficult. For one thing, she could not, at the moment, remember where she was, or where she was supposed to be. Also, the snow had reduced visibility to such an extent that her old eyes could descry neither human habitation nor any landmark to assist in the process of remembering. Yet another problem was that she was in some doubt about who she was. That is, she had a vague feeling that her name was Theodolinda. However, she was also quite certain that it was not. So where did that leave her? Outside in the snow, she reflected with a certain grim humour.
For now, what she needed was a trail, and, looking down at the ground, she saw that she had one. Her own footprints, clear in the new snow. Theodolinda set off, scanning the landscape as she went, and scanning also the landscape of memory.
Rising up ahead of her was a dark blotch; squinting, she saw it was a grove of trees. Her footprints led in that direction. She walked on, looking about her as she went. Snow and snow and snow. How tedious.
“I’m like the heroine in a melodrama,” thought Theodolinda as she walked. “They’re always wandering around in snowstorms.” This thought triggered a memory. At first, the memory was just a smell, a sort of oily something. Grease paint. She remembered the smell of grease paint. She followed this sensory footprint to the next impression. Lights, lights that dazzled, and a dark and shifting crowd beyond the lights. She smiled. She’d been an actress, once. It was all coming back. How nice.
Why, she could even remember some of her lines. She’d always played aristocratic ladies, always delivered her lines (“Sir, you presume!” “Tell her I am Not At Home!” and “I rather think…”; that sort of thing) with aristocratic hauteur. Not, she knew, her natural mode of speech- then. She rather thought that it had subsequently become natural, though. Fascinating.
And now the trees, with their offer of some little protection from the wind, were much closer.
But what was that? Something was moving in the grove. Theodolinda’s step hesitated. The thing moved again, and she saw it against a white patch of snow. It was a man, and a man she recognized. It was, in fact, Richard Crabtree. It had to be. Some defect of the spine had made one of Richard Crabtree’s shoulders higher than the other, and had also given him a bit of a lurch to his gait. And in remembering about Richard Crabtree, Theodolinda remembered many other things as well. Much heartened, Theodolinda opened her mouth to call to him – when she remembered that Richard Crabtree was dead. He’d died long ago. And yet she’d just seen him. And therefore…
Well, she didn’t call to him. You don’t attract that kind of attention, not when you’re already in the borderlands, so to speak. You’ll see them soon enough. All of them. These grim reflections were in Theodolinda’s mind as she watched the ghost of Richard Crabtree, who’d been the 9th Earl of Cadblister for only ten days before he’d fled the country on the doomed ship the H.M.S. Miseryguts, disappear back into the shadows.
The bells of a nearby church tolled twelve times. Midnight. How appropriate, thought Theodolinda. Now, what on earth am I going to do now? The grove was no longer an option. She’d never thought there was much harm in Richard Crabtree in life, and she didn’t reckon there’d be much harm in his spirit now. But- well, she just wasn’t going in that grove. But she could get to the village- which was, she remembered, called Cadblister Parva- and someone would let her in somewhere. She headed in the direction from which the bells had sounded, and presently she came upon a narrow lane. She crunched towards it gratefully.
It was when she’d reached the lane that Auntie Theodolinda saw her second ghost.
He came with a rush of wind and a blast of more than usually frigid air. He came boiling up the lane at more than human speed. He came, and with him came a kind of noiseless noise, a sound that was and was not.
Theodolinda stared open-mouthed at the thing as it hurtled towards her, stared at the man in the antiquated garb whose blazing red eyes fixed upon her as he passed. And for an instant, Theodolinda’s eyes met the red gaze of the specter, and he seemed to nod, as if in recognition of one who would soon be kin.
Then he was gone. The quiet of snow-muffled earth surged back, as if to cover the rent in reality under a healing silence of white.
Theodolinda was not alarmed. This was odd, and she knew it to be odd. But she suspected that, at the moment, she was too cold and too wet to feel more than mildly elated. She’d seen The Yeoman. He was the most well-known and well-documented ghost in the county, and she’d seen him. It was a solemn thought, especially as The Yeoman, it was said, only appeared to herald the death of a Crabtree. And here was she, an old, old woman. Surely the death was to be her own. She hoped she’d have the chance to write to the Psychical Research people before she died, giving them all the facts. All the facts. Theodolinda frowned with concentration. There was a fact, an important fact, that she was forgetting. Now, what-
Oh, yes. She wasn’t really a Crabtree. She’d been, for reasons of her own, masquerading as a Crabtree for the last 30 years or so, but- well, it just wasn’t true. So… so she couldn’t see why The Yeoman should appear to herald her death. Surely these afflictions were carried in the blood. And as for the letter to the Society…
There was a pool of blackness in the white of the lane ahead of her. Part of her mind had registered this, the part concerned with moving her limbs. She’d slowed her pace slightly; that had been the extent of the notice she’d taken of it. And then, when she was practically on top of it, the blackness seemed to become a double image, or to split, into a man lying in the snow and a man standing and waving wildly before her.
And Theodolinda found that she wasn’t quite numb inside after all. Fear, kept so long at bay by the cold and the urgent desire to get somewhere warm, now crashed down upon her, scattering the wits she’d so painstakingly gathered up over her long walk, sending her back to that place of dreams and darkness that was all she ever remembered about her little episodes.
The last thing she remembered was the howl that this third ghost had let out.
Why, it almost sounded as if the thing was trying to say, “it wasn’t me!”
“Auntie Theo! Aunt Theodolinda! Oh, you poor dear, where have you been? You’re all over wet! Let’s get you upstairs and into something dry. Here, lean on my arm. That’s right. There, there. Poor you!”
Aunt Theodolinda opened her eyes at the voice. Ah. She was back at Cadblister Hall, and Lady Belinda Crabtree was fussing over her. She was in good hands. She was dreadfully cold, dreadfully tired, dreadfully covered all over in tingling pain. But Belinda was a good girl, and reliable in the sick-room. She shut her eyes again.
And then Aunt Theodolinda remembered.
“Three ghosts,” she mumbled. “Three ghosts, child. I saw three ghosts tonight.”
“Dear me!” Said Lady Belinda, as she tenderly guided the old lady up the stairs.