Vine Manor

Chapter 10

"Paul! Is it really you? You must come home, Paul, as soon as you can. A terrible thing has happened. Jim Morgan is at Vine Manor. He's taken your place; he's pretending to be you! It's making Maria very unhappy. She doesn't like having him there but because she thinks he's you, she can't bear to throw him out. For her sake, Paul, please come home!"

"Wait a minute! If you know Jim is at Vine Manor, why were you asking me about him? If you know it's him, why don't you just tell Mama?"

"Maria won't believe me! She won't hear a word against him because she thinks he's her son. She was so happy when she thought you had come back! She's afraid to lose her son again. It's only been two days since I found out he was old Mrs Morgan's son. I never met him; I only got to know her after he was sent to prison. Mr Sanderson thought he recognised him and found out the address of the charity, and I came to London to track down someone who knew him, so we could prove he was not Paul Grayling. I never thought I might find the real Paul!"

"I see! I suppose I'd better go down there and send him packing. I just hope Mama won't tell me off too much, about taking off like that and not getting in touch."

"Of course she won't! She'll just be happy to see you home at last. Can we leave right away? I don't like to think of Maria being left alone with him any longer. I suspect he tried to poison me a few weeks ago."

"Poison you? He must have gone mad! And you've left Mama alone with him? I think we'd better get going!"

In a few minutes Paul had packed a bag and called his employer to say he had to go away urgently because of a family crisis. While waiting for a train at Paddington, Helena phoned George Sanderson at home. She was not surprised to find he was sceptical about the man she had found at Jim Morgan's last known address being the real Paul Grayling. He offered to drive to the station to meet them. Helena was sure he would have a list of questions for Paul.

On the train, as they rushed away from London, Helena asked a question about something that had puzzled her for a long time. "Paul, why did you go away? Why did you leave Vine Manor, all those years ago? You made your mother so unhappy! She missed you, and she was afraid for you! Why did you do it?"

"I didn't think she'd miss me for long, and I'd have done anything rather than go back to that boarding school! I was afraid she'd want me out of the way after she was married."

"Married! Why did you think she was going to get married?"

"You mean she didn't? I was sure she would get married, because of you."

"Because of me? What do you mean?"

"At the end of the war, when your father was staying with us, everyone thought they would get married. They had both lost their spouses and it was obvious that Maria loved you as if you were her own little girl. I knew she would not be able to give you up and let you be taken away to France! You could hardly remember your real mother and your father hadn't seen you since you were a baby; Mama was the only parent you knew. It made sense for the two of them to bring you up together. Of course I was just a boy then and I didn't see all this for myself, but one day Eve Perry told me what everybody in the village was saying. I hated the idea! I know he's your father, Helena, but I just wanted things to go on as they had before. We were happy, weren't we, the three of us? I suppose it was very selfish of me. Anyway, Eve Perry said that when they were married they'd be sure to send me away to school. That was when I knew I would have to leave."

"Oh, Paul! You shouldn't have listened to Mrs Perry, she's such an old gossip! In the end my father decided it would be better for me to stay with Maria, so I've lived at Vine Manor all the time you were away. I've seen very little of him over the years. A few months ago he married a Parisienne. I don't think Maria's seriously considered getting married. I'm sure if she had, she wouldn't have sent you away to school! Paul, you have no idea how much she's missed you!"

There was a long silence as Paul pondered how different his life might have been if he had not made such a foolish mistake so many years ago. It was only now that he realised how much pain he had caused his mother to bear. He hoped she would forgive him; he found it hard to forgive himself. From now on he would do everything he could to make her happy.

The sun was setting as they stepped out of the train. Helena was reminded of her journey back from Paris not long ago. This time she did not have to wait as the sun went down and the air around her cooled. George Sanderson was already on the platform waiting for them. He looked closely at Paul's face, examining his features in the dying light.

"Hello, Mr Sanderson," Paul said. "I don't expect you to be pleased to see me. I know I caused a lot of worry for my mother and all I can say is I'm very sorry for it. I wish I'd come back long before. But now I'm here, at least I can get rid of that ungrateful Jim Morgan. I let him stay at my flat and this is how he pays me back!"

"On the contrary, Paul, I'm extremely pleased to see you. I was never convinced that the impostor was Paul Grayling, even though your poor short-sighted mother was easily fooled. It's good to have you back! And welcome back to you too, Helena. I hope you're not too tired after the journey? Tessa said I should bring you straight back to our house, but I thought you would prefer to come to Vine Manor with us and be there when Maria is reunited with her son. Especially as it was you that found him!"

"Of course I'll come with you! I wouldn't miss it for anything."

"Good! Paul, just as a formality I'll have to ask you some questions to prove your identity. Then if there's any doubt left in Maria's mind, I'll ask Morgan the same questions. I'm sure there'll be some he won't be able to answer, and then we'll have him. Now I've seen you, it's obvious to me you're either Paul Grayling or his double, but there still has to be proof."

On the way in the car, Paul had no trouble answering all the questions George put to him. By the time they reached Vine Manor George had accepted completely that he was genuine. George parked his car at the side of the house and they went in through the kitchen door. They stopped in the kitchen for a moment for Helena to show George the hidden door that led to the secret tunnel. Helena showed them the outline of the door but she could not work out how to open it.

"I'll show you," said Paul, "I used to come down here with a torch and explore the tunnels when I was a boy." He pressed a hidden switch and the door creaked open. The kitchen light did not penetrate far into the blackness of the tunnel.

"Let's go and find Maria," Helena said. She had had enough of tunnels and dark places.

They found Maria in the sitting room. George Sanderson went in first, then Helena, then Paul. "Hello, George," Maria said, getting up to greet him, "this is an unexpected pleasure. And Helena! My darling, you're looking better. George, tell Tessa she's done a good job of looking after my girl. And who..." She looked at Paul, unable to go on. Feeling weak with shock, she had to sit down. Helena and George both began to speak at the same time but no one was listening. Paul had crossed the room in two swift steps and taken his mother in his arms.

"Mama, I'm so sorry," he said as she clung to him in tears. "Can you ever forgive me?"

"You really are my Paul, aren't you? At last!"

"I'll never leave you again, Mama!"

"Where have you been, Paul? Why didn't you come home?"

Paul told her everything he had told Helena on the train.

"You should have spoken to me, instead of rushing off like that! I would never have made you go back to that dreadful school. It was your father's idea to send you there in the first place; not mine. And I couldn't marry and go and live in France, I had to stay here in case you came back."

"I should have come back a lot sooner! I wasn't sure if you'd want to see me."

"Of course I wanted to see you! I longed for you to come back, more than anything. That's why I believed that awful man was you, because I wanted you back so much."

George refrained from saying that he had warned her not to be too ready to believe in the impostor. He merely said, "Now Paul is back, we'll soon be rid of him. Where is he now, Maria?"

"I think he's in the study. Recently he's been spending a lot of time there in the evenings."

"I think Paul and I had better confront him together, just in case he turns violent. Shall we go now and get it over with?"

As George and Paul left the sitting room, Helena gave Maria a hug and then followed after them. She didn't want to miss the excitement. They walked down the ill-lit corridor that led to the study, where just a few days ago she had scared Jim Morgan with her ghostly appearance. As they neared the door of the study it opened and Morgan came out, perhaps warned by some sixth sense of the arrival of his nemesis. The sight of Paul struck his face with fear and the form of Helena lurking behind him only added to the terror he felt as he turned and ran away from them. They followed, running, only a few steps behind when he reached the kitchen. Desperately he ran, not to the back door, but to the door to the secret tunnel which they had left open. Mistaking it for the way out, he ran into the tunnel, almost stumbling in his haste, and vanished into the darkness.

"Mrs Perry used to keep a torch in this drawer," Paul remembered. He opened the drawer and there was the torch. Guided by its weak light they entered the tunnel; Helena followed bravely. The sound of running feet echoed down the tunnel ahead of them. Soon they came to the place where the tunnel forked; one way went straight on, sloping slightly downwards, the other curved sharply to the right. Helena knew that to the right was the tunnel that lead to the Grayling's burial vault. The echoing footsteps told her Jim Morgan had run straight ahead. George started to take that route but Paul held him back.

"No! It's dangerous to go any farther!"

Suddenly the darkness was rent by a piercing scream, followed by a distant splash as if something heavy had fallen into deep water.

"He's fallen into the old well!"

Helena shuddered as the echoes died away, remembering how close she had been to taking that path in complete darkness on her journey from the burial vault.

"Is there a chance we can get him out?" George asked.

"No, it's impossible, it's much too deep. I'm afraid he's gone."

In the end with the help of the local fire brigade and some strong rope, they did manage to pull up the dripping corpse of Jim Morgan, which after a poorly attended funeral was interred next to his mother's. The funeral was advertised in the local paper, but Jim Morgan had no family in the area. After the funeral Maria, Paul, Helena, George and Tessa Sanderson and Eve Perry gathered at Vine Manor for a glass of sherry.

"I should have known who he was!" declared Mrs Perry, " the first time I saw him, when he walked into the laundry room, I thought it was the ghost of Simon Morgan! I knew him when he was a young man and he lived here in the village. But then, you all said he was Master Paul come back, so I knew I was wrong."

That was just like Mrs Perry, Helena thought. The one time she should have spoken out, she had kept quiet, but when it was a matter of spreading gossip about the villagers' love affairs, she saw no reason to keep anything to herself. She would have been appalled if she had known what was going through the old woman's mind at that moment. Seeing the way Paul was looking at Helena as she poured him a glass of sherry, the old woman was predicting that before too long there would be a wedding at Vine Manor. Tomorrow she would find an excuse to go to the shop and tell everyone she met in the village.

The End.