Warm Summer Lightning
In the heat of afternoon, thunder threatened. Beyond Francine’s opened windows, the world hung, muted by expectation. No birds sang. She lay upon the bed Arthur’s household had prepared for her, listening to the mutter and cursing of the elements, suffering the clinging heat which, though she wore the briefest of shifts from her limited wardrobe, brought a bloom of perspiration to her cheeks. Earlier, a doctor summoned from the nearby village of Thorpe Harkness, had declared her injured arm sprained but unbroken, bandaged it and prescribed bed rest. It was too hot! Although she lay on top of the covers their fabric clung to her, defying any attempt at sleep. So when someone’s knuckles rapped upon her door she was wide awake.
“Come in!” Expecting her maid, the invitation was issued without thought. Too late she discovered her visitor was Arthur. He stood framed by the doorway, hesitant, and unable, for an instant, to avert his eyes from the vision before him.
“Arthur!” It was a small cry, embarrassed as it was confused, “I thought…I mean, I rang for Peggy…” With her good hand, Francine probed for a sheet that might restore her modesty only to find she was lying on top of all the bedclothes, The hand flapped helplessly. Her face reddened in a furious blush. “Forgive me!”
“No, no, no!” Retreating, Arthur struggled to articulate; “The fault is all mine. I will call upon you later, when you’re…”
He withdrew hastily.
She called after him. “Please stay!” She had’nt rung for her maid. Why had she said it? What possible excuse could she have for saying it?
Why did he turn? What possible defence could he offer for this behaviour? “If you…I mean, do you not..?” Alone with a lady of respectable reputation, in her bedroom, and she in a state of such undress?
She read his thoughts, laughed at herself. She laughed aloud, then rebuked herself immediately for laughing so loudly. “There is such heat in this room,” She said; “Will you stay and sit with me for a while?”
Advancing as a man guilty of outraging common decency at every step, Arthur drew up a chair beside Francine, whose eyes sparkled with delight, reminding him how bewitching she really was. “Why do I feel I remember you?” He breathed. “When I am certain we have not met before this year?”
She raised her injured arm slightly, gesturing towards the ewer on her nightstand. “I feel ridiculous! One petty injury so disadvantages me I cannot reach a cloth to bathe my face, Arthur. Could you…?”
“Of course.” He stood once more, his back turned to her as he drenched a flannel in cool water from the jug. The thought of his muscled thighs, clothed though they were to respectability by his breeches, so awakened her that she almost lost herself when he turned to her once more. Then cold water dripped upon her arms and breasts and she giggled girlishly.
“You saved my life, sir, today.” She murmured through the cloth, as using her good hand she bathed her face luxuriantly; “And now it feels as though you have saved it again! Ah, this revives my spirits so wonderfully!”
“It was your son who saved you, ma’am,” Arthur returned, “Young Samuel discovered you were not abed, then led us to your aid. He is a fine fellow.”
“Then I have another debt of gratitude,” She declared. “Is my little frog quite well?/”
“Exuberantly so, ma’am. He has made a confidante of your maid. Peggy and he conspire together in the servants’ hall.”
“And I am forever in your debt. Ah, me! So many obligations!” Francine drew the wetted cloth from her face, slipping it over her chin and throat to her shoulders, gently stroking her pale skin with its moist relief. A tiny trickle found its way beneath the hem of her shift before vanishing into the cleft between her breasts, Arthur was captivated, “You watch me closely, sir,” she chided him kindly, and it was his turn to blush.
With no further comment she reclined for a while, the exposed part of her bosom draped by cold cloth. When its pleasing effect had dissipated, she asked, in altered tones and with candour, “Why are you so disturbed by the thought that we might have previously been acquainted? What is it that exists between us?”
He pondered that question deeply: “I feel – no, I am sure – we have met before. On each occasion when we speak of this I grow more certain, yet I cannot explain it. I can tell you the story of my life in some detail and find nowhere that you might fit within it; nevertheless…” He spread his hands.
Once again the searching intensity of Francine’s stare sought his eyes, and were they windows to his soul she would surely have opened them, for she shared his knowledge. “Is it not as if there were a locked room somewhere that we shared?” Her long fingers had absently guided the cloth to the limits of her neckline and begun to seek beneath her shift as if they mimicked the action of his hands, for she desired his touch qjuite shamelessly.
Then the moment was passed, and he had seen and felt the same temptation. He had risen to his feet.
“I must go!” He exclaimed, afraid of himself. He took her hand in both of his. “Francine, whatever this is, the answer must be found, and I am certain it hides within your vanished history. You may be sure I shall discover the answer!”
Don’t! Stay! Her inner voice wanted to cry out to him, but he had already left, her door closed briskly behind him. She knew as well as him the constricts of reputation which had demanded that he leave, yet her heart and her body saw no reason to resist their mutual passion, and if his hands and his morals had strayed, she would have made no complaint. Was she so permissive, so morally dissolute? Of one thing she felt certain: this Arthur was the man whom she and Maud Reybath, her ‘sister’ from Bleanstead so urgently sought. Although its mechanism was beyond her understanding, Francine knew a door was rapidly closing, a door only Maud could find. A message must be sent to Bleanstead somehow, confidentially and without delay…
The room, far darker now, flared with sudden lightning. Thunder cracked in a fusillade of fury. The storm had begun.
Peter and Melanie made pilgrimages to The Devil’s Rock together a few times after Peter’s first visit to St. Benedict’s House. For his part, maybe, Peter wanted to justify the description he had given Melanie of the Great House, to introduce her to Vincent and Alice. It was important Melanie should be with him if he were ever able to visit there again. From those late March days to this, though, the house had been locked and silent, its gatehouse closed.
The seagull, the bird with the diamond mark on its neck, never reappeared.
Melanie came with him for reasons of her own. She had fallen in love with the place. The rock, with its dark and light sides like the two hemispheres of the moon, its rugged wildness and big, wide open skies was reflective of her mood right now. She needed the sunshine of the seaward slopes, warmed to the cosy little homes, full of summer visitors, which nestled there. And sometimes she needed the damp twilight world of the landward ruins as much. The old rock was a mystical playground, somewhere to release the child which was still so vital a part of her. Here she felt welcomed, and at home.
Then there was a deeper, more brooding affinity. Why, when she so hated thunderstorms, for instance, did she always feel drawn to this place when the weather was at its height? Why did she so want to stand on the roof of that Great House and actually feel the lightning playing around her? Frightened for herself, she would make a shuddering withdrawal from these thoughts, but they always came back when the next storm brewed. Her mother’s bedroom window directly faced the rock across the bay: she would stand sometimes for an hour there, gazing through driving rain at its craggy outline, her head filled with wild dreams.
Last, though by no means least, there was Peter. One reason why the rock always seemed so special was Peter: being with him on this island just fitted somehow, as though the last piece of a jigsaw were slotted into place. In the deepening of their friendship Melanie was finding a meaning – something she was happy to accept and let grow. For the moment, let it suffice that there was nowhere she would rather be than here, sunbathing on the grassy slope of the south side, lying beside Peter. Let the grass be a little wet: the sun had been scarce for a while; it did not matter. Time would cease to have meaning.
“What things did he ask about me, Mel?” Peter’s voice was close: she felt his breath on her cheek.
“Hmmm?” Melanie opened one eye. “Are you asleep, Mel? Well no, not now, Babes.”
His eyes were a bright, disquieting blue. ‘I wish he would kiss me.’ Her thoughts said. She raised herself on her elbows quickly: “Who – what are you talking about?”
“Howard. You said he was asking about me. What did he ask?”
Howard’s first question had been ‘Is Peter your boyfriend?’ and very quickly without thinking she had said ‘yes’ but she would not tell Peter that.
“He asked what we liked to do together; what you were like, where you lived….usual stuff.”
“You didn’t tell him anything about …..”
“This place? Your little nightmare? No, of course not.” Melanie giggled. “I did say you were a bit strange sometimes.”
“Did he react to that?”
“How do you mean, ‘react’? Did his tummy start to wobble sinisterly, did ectoplasm flow from every orifice – what?”
“Ask more questions….”
“He was, well, a little probing. But I didn’t give anything away. Why are you so concerned?”
Peter shook his head. “I don’t like him. I can’t put my finger on why, it’s just a feeling: don’t tell him about the dream, Mel?”
“Don’t worry, I won’t.” Mel started to get to her feet. “And speaking of feelings, its time we moved on, I’m afraid.”
“Do we have to? It’s really peaceful here.”
“Yes, we do.” Mel insisted. She was afraid of herself: afraid if she stayed in this desultory conversation, dreaming and talking and talking and dreaming, she would allow unsaid words to be said, let secrets out.
“I want to see if the House is still locked up. If this Vincent of yours isn’t here today, he should be. No-one should miss a day like this.” It was an excuse, but it was one she knew would work. Peter was as anxious as she to find Vincent at home.
“Okay!” In a sudden burst of energy Peter leapt to his feet: “First one to the top!”
“Oh, no – not a race! You are so juvenile sometimes!” But she watched his retreating back and the strength of his legs as they thrust against the sharp incline, and a little groan escaped her lips. She followed with a resigned heart.
The pair had long since discovered a path which, although steep, wound its way directly up the southern aspect of the rock. Leaving the holiday cottages below, this path led through a minor forest of rhododendrons. The only habitation in sight, occasionally through gaps in the undergrowth above them, was Toby’s cottage.
Peter clambered up the rocky track, oblivious to Melanie’s wanton stare. Soon he was struggling through the bushes and she was out of sight. In the midst of the rhododendron maze, suddenly, there was a sense of loneliness: a harmonizing with the isolation of the island. He heard, in the hovering air, the sounds of violence and betrayal from its past. How many lives had perished on these slopes? How many dreams and aspirations had been broken here? Village fishermen drowning in shattered boats pulverised against the rocks below: the abbot watching as his monastery was torn stone from stone; Crowley’s ashen visage at a window of the House, knowing (Peter was sure he knew) how his wife’s lover planned and schemed at his coming end. And more, and more stories, more and more unsettled accounts. He heard them, these tormented souls, muttering in the rush of breeze among the grasses, lurking in the trees below. An eruption waiting to happen: a vendetta against this terrible place, ready to be repaid.
“Well now young Peter!”
The voice was right behind him and so surprised Peter that he only just suppressed a yelp of alarm.
“What be you doin’ ‘ere maister? The house bain’t open today, you know.”
“Toby.” Peter breathed: “We…..er….my friend and I, we’re just visiting the island.”
“Friend, eh? Don’t see no friend.”
“No…she’s…she’ll be along in a minute.” Peter tried to regain some self-possession: “How are you, Toby?”
Toby did not, in fact, look very well. His always puffy, debauched face was an unnatural pink, and his eyes had a furtive look. He had improved significantly in one regard, however, for which Peter was grateful. Seeing Melanie labouring up the path behind Toby he was very glad the cottager was fully clothed.
Melanie found herself being introduced to a grubby, rather bulky man in a check shirt and the nearest thing to moleskin trousers she had ever seen outside a costume museum. She considered that if the wind were to blow in another direction she would be able to smell him. The prospect was not pleasant.
“Hello Toby.” She said.
Toby reached forward to grasp her shoulders with his big, spade hands. Melanie saw how this movement induced another, a quite convulsive dip of his head and neck. She felt a pain in him – not acute, not suddenly onset, but suppressed; a lifetime-old ache of deformity. She sensed it, and Toby’s eyes met her’s in a moment of communion.
“Well now, everybody knows my name!” Toby grinned, displaying a broken picket fence of grey teeth: “You’m welcome, missy. We don’t get too many volupshous young ladies up ‘ere.” The compliment slithered like an eel from a jar. Melanie felt her skin creep. She took an involuntary step backward.
“Isn’t Vincent here?” Peter stepped in hurriedly.
“Bless you no. Not been here these two months gone. Left the day after you was last here, young Peter.”
Toby looked puzzled. “Alice? Don’t know no Alice.”
“But she was here when I was here. Volupshous young lady – very tall with black hair.”
“Oh, ‘Er! Now I know ‘oo you’m meanin’. But bless you she don’t live ‘ere. Never saw ‘er before that day you came. Never seen ‘er since.”
As this conversation proceeded, Peter learned more about Vincent. The guitarist and songwriter was too wealthy, in Toby’s opinion. One house was enough for any man, especially one like St. Benedict’s, but Vincent had three. In the winter he was to be found in Monaco, and sometimes, when business called, in Los Angeles. In Toby’s opinion after all that a yacht was a terrible extravagance, but Vincent had one of those, too. Anchored in the – well, Toby had difficulty with the name of the sea, but it had all them islands in it.
“Caribbean?” Peter suggested helpfully.
“Ah, yes. That ‘un.” Toby nodded sagely, lapsing into a sort of rumbling, guttural sound which sounded much like an elephant’s stomach. Then he added: “Nothin’ that man ‘asn’t seen, mind. Nothin!”
Toby seated himself awkwardly on the grass, clearly ready for a leisurely conversation. He went on at length, then, about the rock star – his ‘rowdy bliddy instrument’ and the shenanigans that went on within the closed gates of the Great House. Toby’s head was bowed (Melanie had already defined the area of his disability to the vertebrae of his neck, and kept getting sharp reminders of the hurt it caused him) so he had to engage their attention by looking from the top of his eyes, an unintentionally reproachful look, like a mild accusation. Melanie and Peter sat opposite him, listening dutifully.
As she listened, Melanie began to find a musicality in Toby’s voice which lulled her, so that she forgave him those first leering introductions and began to see him as a part of this island, at one with the birds and the wind-song of the afternoon. There was a song to the whole place. Somewhere in her inner ear she could hear it, feel it, wanting to come through. And although it told of a thousand sorrows it was not an unhappy song, but one of hope. Try though she might, Melanie could find no malice in St. Benedict’s Rock. The song was enchanting, maybe bewitching, to her. It drew her towards it with the gentleness of approaching sleep….
“Old Ben be talkin’ to you, eh, missy?” Toby’s words floated towards her on a raft of cloud. They were for her, pertinent to her alone, entering her mind with acuity so precise she thought Peter might not even hear them. She felt a jabbing pain in her right arm. Peter was nudging her.
“Wake up, Mel!”
Mel shook herself out of her reverie. ‘Old Ben be talkin’ to you….’ Had she dreamt the words? Was the rock talking to her?
“Toby, when Peter came here, you said he was ‘expected’ didn’t you?” She found herself asking.
Toby’s face creased in a frown. “Aye. Expected he was, yes.”
“By whom, Toby? Was it Vincent who invited him?”
“Mr. Vincent, he knew young Peter was coming, yes.”
“But he didn’t invite him. It wasn’t Vincentwho sent the bird.” Even as she said it Mel realised how ridiculous the whole premise was. A globe-trotting millionaire with a trained seagull?
Toby looked at her, then at Peter. “Well, of course not. Mr. Vincent was part of it. ‘E knew as how it was happ’nin’, that’s all. ‘Aven’t you worked it out yet, then, you young ‘uns?”
“Worked out what?” Peter felt that he was being incredibly dense.
“Well, Mr. Vincent ain’t ‘ere today, is ‘e? But you be. You’m expected.”
“But….hang on a minute…” Peter reasoned. “You were surprised to see me, weren’t you? You asked me what I was doing here.”
“True.” Toby pursed his lips. “But I didn’t say ‘twas you as was expected now, did I?”
Slowly but surely the truth dawned. Melanie felt emptied. “Me?” She asked: “I’m expected?”
Toby grinned a set of intermittent teeth again. “See? Now you’ve got it!”
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content
Featured Image: Felix Mittermeier on Pixabay
Old Cottage: Werner Weisser, Pixabay.