The Open Window – Intermediate Level
“My aunt will be down soon, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very confident young lady of fifteen. “Until she does you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel tried to say the correct something which should make the niece of the moment feel important without making the aunt that was to come seem less important.
Privately he thought more than ever that this series of visits on total strangers would do little to help the treatment for his nerves that he was supposed to be having.
“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to move to this quiet country village. “You will cut yourself off from the world down there and not speak to anybody. Then your nerves will be worse than ever from feeling sorry for yourself. I shall give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction came into the nice division.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that there had had been enough silence between them.
“Hardly anyone,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the minister’s house, you know, some four years ago. She gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
He spoke the last statement in a way that showed he truly wished that she had not given him the letters.
“Then you know almost nothing about my aunt?” asked the confident young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was still married or had lost her husband. There was something about the room that seemed to suggest that there was a man living in the house.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton. Somehow in this restful country village the idea of a tragedy seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece. She pointed to a large French window that opened on to a garden.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. On the way to their favorite bird shooting ground they were all three lost when they tried to cross a dangerous part of the marshes. It had been that terrible wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never found. That was the terrible part of it.”
Here the child’s voice lost its confident note. The words came slowly as if she had trouble talking about it. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back one day. They and the little brown dog that was lost with them. And they will walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dark. Poor dear aunt! She has often told me how they went out. Her husband had his white coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, was singing ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’ as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a scary feeling that they will all walk in through that window…”
She broke off with a little shake of her body. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt came hurriedly into the room, saying how sorry she was for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton cheerfully; “my husband and brothers will be home soon from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for water birds in the marshes today, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you men, isn’t it?”
She talked on happily about shooting. How there were so few birds these days, and the chances for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all totally horrible. He tried very hard but was only partly successful in changing the topic to something less terrible. But he could see that Mrs. Sappleton was giving him only a small part of her attention. Her eyes were often looking past him to the open window and the fields outside. It was certainly a piece of bad luck that he should have paid his visit on this sad anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest,” announced Framton. “I must stay away from mental excitement, and not do anything in the nature of heavy physical exercise.” He was one of those people who wrongly think that everyone he meets and even total strangers are hungry for the least detail of their sicknesses and other bodily problems, their cause and treatment. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly sat up straight and her face brightened – but not because of what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
Framton shook slightly and turned towards the niece with a kind look that meant to show that he understood how she must feel. The child was looking out through the open window with her eyes wide open. There was a look of confused horror in her eyes. In a cold shock of nameless fear Framton turned around in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the dying light of the day three figures were walking towards the window. They all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was also carrying a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown dog kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a deep young voice sang out: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton wildly picked up his stick and hat. He ran without looking back out the hall door, along the stone driveway, and through the front gate. A cyclist coming along the road had to run off to the side so as not to crash into him.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the man carrying the white coat, coming in through the window. “Fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who ran out as we came up?”
“A very strange man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton. “Could only talk about his illnesses, and ran away without a word of goodbye or explanation when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
“I expect it was the dog,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once chased into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges River by a pack of wild dogs. He had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures waiting and snarling just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
Romance at short notice was her speciality.