Once the daffodils have flowered in the lanes, and the lesser celandines have made their appearance in the damp woods, Easter falls quickly upon us in an upthrust of stirring life, symbolised by the death and resurrection of Our Lord. People, like small creatures awaking from hibernation now begin to bestir themselves, and descend with a flurry of platitudes upon their friends and relatives. Thus it was at Parkfield when George Midgley announced to the assembled household that he had received a missive to the effect that on Easter Monday they were going to be favoured by a visit from his sister Mrs Haggas and her two young daughters.
Emily May Haggas was a formidable woman, whose domineering manner had long intimidated all of her brothers, whose response to her was usually to try and absent themselves from her presence at the first available pretext. Paradoxically, considering they were the offspring of a supposed dragon, her daughters, Maud and Martha, were spoilt and hopelessly out of control.
Mary's cousin Maud was seven years old, and Martha eight, but being so much older Mary had never held much in common with them. Ruined by their doting mother, noisy, inconsiderate and ill mannered, they seemed to Mary to be clutch of horrid little monsters, worthy of the same scant courtesies her father and uncles reserved for their mother.
On Easter Monday they had arrived early on the 8.15 train, to be greeted at the station by Dickey with the pony and trap. Their arrival at Parkfield had been attended with all the pomp and circumstance of a royal progress, only to quickly fizzle out amid the hurried apologies of her brothers, who were now unable to attend her due to a series of highly convenient 'prior engagements'. In the end Miss Stewart was left to entertain Mrs Haggas while her two daughters were foisted onto poor Mary. A fine Easter this was going to be!
"Cousin Mary, will you come and play with us out in the back yard?"
Mary sighed. She had no desire to waste her precious time with these little terrors, but they were guests, and she being unwillingly cast in the role of host could do little else but oblige.
"Alright then. What do you want to play Martha?"
"Hopscotch. have you got any chalk?"
"But I want to play fivestones!"
"First we'll play hopscotch Maud, then we'll play fivestones."
"But I want to play fivestones now!"
It was only after Mary had threatened to walk out on the both of them that a semblance of order was restored and all parties settled on hopscotch. Thus it was that ten minutes later all three girls were kneeling in the paved yard behind the house frantically drawing numbers on mossy flagstones.
The paved yard behind Parkfield was walled on three sides. On one side were outbuildings, the stable, middens and outdoor privies and on the other, the boundary wall with neighbouring Millfield House. The back wall was high with an arched gateway, now walled up, that had once led out to the wireworks beyond. The front of the yard was overshadowed by Parkfield itself, with its high staircase window.
"Your turn cousin Mary, your turn!" Mary flung the stone and began hopping across the pavement. Halfway along, she stopped, gazing fixedly at where the stone had fallen.
"Come on cousin Mary! What have you stopped for?"
Mary ignored them and scrutinized the paving slab more closely. One one corner it was carved with a simple yet very professionally executed letter 'A'. Odd, she thought, I wonder if there are any more like that? Ignoring the yells of her cousins, Mary strolled onwards for a short distance, staring at the ground. A few yards further along she encountered yet another paving stone, this time sporting an incised letter 'N'. Now what if....
"Cousin Mary. Are you playing with us or what?" With a sigh, Mary made her way back to the two little girls and continued with the game. But her mind was far, far away.
"Cousin Mary, do you not want to play hopscotch?"
Mary turned and smiled sweetly at her two cousins. "Hopscotch? I simply love to play hopscotch!"
That evening, after dinner, Mary confided to her father and Dickey what she had found. "There are paving stones out in the back yard carved with single letters. It's funny papa, but I've never noticed them before."
Her father smiled. "That, my dear, is because you were not looking for them before! So I take it that you believe these letters might have something to do with our little quest?"
"Yes papa. Why else should letters be carved on the paving stones?"
Her father considered a little, then spoke. "There are other explanations you know Mary. Sometimes quarrymen and masons carve identifying marks on their handiwork. But considering what we know so far, it is very possible that your original hypothesis is correct. Did you make a list of the letters? How many were there?"
Mary shook her head. "I'm sorry papa. I was with the weird sisters at the time. I never got the chance."
"My cousins papa."
"Really Mary you must not refer to your relatives so." The tone was admonishing, but Mary was not humbled. She could see from the twinkle in his eye that her father was having a hard time suppressing his mirth.
"But no matter. We'll have to make a list of the letters when there's no-one else around to interfere."
Dickey Postlethwaite grinned. "If you like sir, I'll note them all down for you this instant. I only have to pretend that I'm sweeping out t' back yard."
"Excellent Dickey. You get to it. We'll discuss this matter further when all our guests are settled down for the night. I'll meet you both in my study at nine o' clock prompt."
"Very good sir."
"Now then Mary, if you please... our guests need to be entertained...."
All was still at Parkfield when at nine pm prompt the meeting was reconvened in George Midgley's study. Sitting around the large mahogany desk, their faces illuminated in the dim glow of a glass kerosene lamp, Dickey unfolded a small, tatty piece of paper, and revealed to them what he had gleaned from the paving stones in the back yard.
"Now then sir. I've made a list o' sorts of all them flagstones wi letters on them . Here's what we've got .... 10 'N's, 7'P's, 3'A's, 4 'I's and 1 'S'. That's it sir."
"No other letters?"
"None whatsoever sir."
George Midgley sat silent a moment, looking at the scrap of paper and quite lost in thought.
"It's an anagram. It spells 'SPAIN' same as the message on the chapel window. There are no other letters."
Mary concurred. "But why so many letters papa?"
Her father fingered his pince nez. "I don't know child. I don't really see why they are carved so."
Mary smiled. "That's not a problem papa. Its simply hopscotch!"
"Yes. You simply hop from one paving stone to another until you spell out 'SPAIN' and when you reach the 'N' you've reached 'home' as it were."
"A very good idea Mary. Only trouble is there are 10 'N's!"
Dickey was next to speak. "But there's only one 'S' sir. If you are spelling out 'SPAIN' then you've only got one starting point."
"That's right papa."
George Midgley narrowed his eyes, and clutched his spectacles tighter.
"But given that there is only one starting point, there are umpteen ways of spelling out 'SPAIN' on those flagstones. I think we agree that the last stone must be an 'N'. But which one?"
They all relapsed into silence once more, lost in deep thought.
"I think I know papa"
"Well we're only using half the clue. What about the other half?"
"The four numbers you mean?"
"Yes, of course. We are agreed that there is only one correct way to spell out SPAIN. The numbers are the key, they'll tell us the correct sequence."
"I don't understand Miss Mary."
"It's simple Dickey. The numbers are 5469. From the 'S' we pace 5 flagstones. If we're going the right way, the next letter will be a 'P' then we pace 4 paving stones... and so on!"
George Midgley slammed his fist down on the table and Mary and Dickey almost jumped out of their seats with fright! "That's IT!. You've got it Mary! Now let's get to work. Tell me Dickey, have you seen anything of my two brothers?"
"No sir. They told Mrs Haggas sir, that they had to attend a business gathering in Manchester and would not be returning until the morrow."
"Good. Let's get to it. Dickey. I want you to go out to the stable and secure two lanterns, a pickaxe , some rope and a crowbar. Whatever you do, don't disturb the pony. I don't want it waking up the Haggases. Now Mary, you go and change into some old clothing, I have a feeling we are about to embark upon a potentially dirty enterprise."
"Very good papa."
He pulled out his pocket watch and weighed it in his hands. "Ten pm. Now to your business. And try not to disturb anybody. I think it's going to be a long night.................."