Part Five of Conversations
Foreign Deceptions and Home Truths.
Edkins, aged family retainer and butler though he was, reacted immediately to the menacing intruder’s attack on his master. About to seek his instructions for the midday meal, he had been close by, close enough to see and describe both rider and horse. At Arthur’s side in an instant, his expression was one of more than usual concern, “Are you hurt, sir? Should I summon the Watchmen?”
“No, no,” Arthur quickly recovered himself. He had been surprised but was not, in his own estimation, of a mettle to be be intimidated by such a trespass. He leaned across the balustrade, addressing a huddle of anxious upturned faces gathered on the driveway below. “Robinson, ride with a few of the stable boys and make sure that villain is not still on the Park, will you?”
Robinson, his chief ostler, was a sturdily-built man known not to baulk at a fight: “Aye, sir. Will we take a staff or two?”
“To defend yourselves only, I think. I am uninjured. We should not respond with harm.”
In Arthur’s mind,there was no doubt his assailant had long gone. Were he not, and if the lads from the stable should discover him, he was also fairly certain Robinson, being of an uncharitable disposition, would place his own interpretation upon their defence of themselves..
His hour of peaceful contemplation rudely ended, Arthur retired to his library until luncheon. He would be of a mood to put the extraordinary event behind him, were it not for the mad rider’s words. What imagined cause had he to claim ‘the woman’ was his? Arthur presumed this reference was to Francine. Did that man contribute to the cause of her guardian’s anxiety? He decided he must forgo delicacy and urgently discover more about Francine. At his library desk he wrote a note to Abel Montcleif, his business manager in Mountchester and secured it with his seal before summoning a houseboy.
On the Esplanade at Levenport and leaning against the steel railing that kept the unwary or the inebriated from plunging fifteen feet to the beach, Peter could not wipe out the memory of his – as he saw it – disastrous exam. Whether he accepted its historical title of St. Clement’s Rock, or acknowledged the superstitious sobriquet given to it by those who lived in its shadow, the sombre height of ‘Satan’s Rock’ now all but hid a descending sun, a gloomy reflection of his thoughts. Exercising his little pocket of expertise in matters of the Rock’s history helped him, did it not? In some measure was this not the start of his demise, just as once a single failure had begun Horace Crowley’s downward spiral? Such thoughts in one so young were ridiculous, of course, but they fed his mood. And he could claim a cause: he needed to complete the picture, to find the final piece to his personal puzzle – what had become of Toqus?
Lord Crowley did not know of his architect Quimple’s demise when he took ship for warmer climes, leaving his wife in charge of affairs at home, Toqus stood at the old Lord’s side as he left England, believing his house on St. Clement’s Rock would be finished by the coming spring. The noble Lord was greatly troubled with more immediate matters. Powerless to correct the slide of his personal fortunes he embarked upon a very carefully planned programme of visits to those of his wealthier acquaintances who enjoyed a bet or two, and who, like himself, were wintering abroad. Not entirely surprising, then, that he turned to gambling as an extreme measure – he had been, after all, the beneficiary of many of Prinny’s wilder wagers – and perhaps his early success, given the shrewd manner of so many of his past campaigns, might have been expected: not the rapidity of his later losses, though, which had nothing to do with shrewdness or control.
There happened to be a young Contessa whom he met one warm September evening as they took the air on the balcony of a villa belonging to one of Crowley’s gaming companions. She a radiantly beautiful young woman of twenty years, he an ailing soldier soon becoming sixty, he was flattered by her attentions enough to fall, as many an old man will, into her maelstrom of charm. And he would suffer for it, soon enough. Who could tell if she saw anything in him beyond his money? Let us record part of a letter from the Contessa to her closest confidante, written a little before Christmas 1825.
“The dullness of this place is only relieved by a most amusing companion. My dearest Yleni, I believe I have a suitor! His title is Lord Horace Crowley, but he insists I call him Rollo!
Lord Crowley is a man of such blunt manners one may think him coarse upon first acquaintance, yet I am persuaded he has much gentleness in his soul, and his courtesy to me is that of a true gentle-person. Oh, Yleni, I am quite disgracefully besotted by my English Lord! He has monopolized my time far too easily these last months; he lavishes his generosity upon me ceaselessly – there seems to be nothing for which I may not ask!
He is terribly old, I fear, but has land and money enough. Am I very wicked, do you think?”
Only one redeeming feature of this liaison would save Crowley from utter ruin – the Contessa‘s letter acknowledges it:
“A manservant accompanies him whom he calls Toqus. This man seems never to leave his side and he is most distracting! He is, as I believe, of Moorish descent, certainly of a pallor which would hide him well were the night too dark, and of a size which could fairly support the roof to this villa should the walls collapse!
“At times one could be forgiven for feeling as if this Toqus had some curious hold over Rollo. I find him disturbing, and confide I should be quite grateful if he would just not be there. But when I suggest to Lord Crowley that a certain amount of privacy might be attained were the man dismissed; even when, dare I say, there should be some temptation in the prospect, he is most reluctant to allow the creature from the room. I swear this Toqus seems to have us both in his power, and the way he regards me, with such rude discernment, has me quite frightened!”
So, while the balmy Mediterranean winter soothed Crowley’s lungs, he paid court to a pleasant young woman a third his age, who, to give her justice, promised him nothing in return. It was a long winter.
When the lovely Contessa left in the spring she took a sizeable amount of Crowley’s diminished fortune with her: jewels, rich fabrics, gold trinkets and favours, much of the money he had lavished upon her, even small items of salon furniture for which she had expressed desire, all joined the very practical and efficient train that followed her on her progress through Europe.
Devastated at the Contessa’s loss to him and ravaged by guilt, Crowley sought to recover what he could by a final desperate round of wagers, none of them successful. His credibility, ultimately his credit with his friends guttered like a spent candle; and the seizure which struck him, one hot summer evening on the Avenue des Libes, very nearly snuffed him out. Had Toqus not been there to rescue him he would have died. Passers-by, meaning well, recoiled in revulsion at the sight of the great black fellow who knelt beside Crowley’s lifeless form, alternately apparently kissing him on the mouth and beating his chest – and disgust turned to amazement when Horace Crowley, his pallor that of stone, was seen to be suddenly coughing back to life.
Meanwhile, in England, Lady Crowley was subjected to a visit by an extremely attractive young man – several visits, in fact.
When Quimple the Architect took his death-plunge, all work on St. Benedict’s Rock stopped. Quimple had been, after all, more than just the planner of the great house: he had been its executor too. Although he left behind him drawings, bills, sketches and notes which would guide future construction, he left no management structure, no master of works – he had done all of this himself. So a crew of labourers and craftsmen who were accustomed to remuneration at the end of each week saw no prospect of further wages, and left.
The great house was still roofless, open to the torments of the weather. And winter set about the merciless business of destruction.
Into this rusting breech stepped one Matthew Ballentine. Peter knew little about Ballentine, except that he was a gentleman who, unlike a great majority of his peers, apparently enjoyed an active life. While others such as him might be found sailing uncharted southern seas or hacking through snake-infested jungle, Matthew Ballentine seemed to like exploring closer to home. When Quimple made his dramatic exit it drew some attention from the national press which Ballentine, then at his London Club, read with interest. He took coach for Levenport the very next day.
First sight of Crowley’s intended mansion was a shock for most. When Ballentine saw it he was dumbfounded. Half-raised Bavarian towers, Russian domes, Moorish courtyards and castellations, all within one design: the result, applied to the uneven summit of the rock, being hideous confusion. Ballentine was something of a draughtsman: not an architect; no, no-one had ever addressed him thus, but a skilled artist with a natural appreciation of form. So for some little while, as Peter imagined him, he must have gazed at the amoebic sprawl that crowned St. Benedict’s Rock with horror: then he would have begun to laugh.
Three weeks after this Ballentine sought out Lady Crowley in her country estate. He found a woman, who, though now well into her thirties, had lost none of her classical beauty.
For her part, Lady Elizabeth might have been equally pleased with the tall, elegantly dressed man who stood to greet her in her drawing room that afternoon: he had a natural charm which floated her through the usual pleasantries with unaccustomed ease. Peter could imagine their conversation:
“You wished to see me with regard to the property on St. Benedict’s Rock, Mr. Ballentine?” Her voice was flute-like, musical: but when she spoke of the house, Ballentine fancied he detected a tension in her tone.
“I did.” He approached the essence of the issue delicately: “Such an enterprise must be extremely demanding of your husband’s time?”
“Indeed it is.”
“And the distance involved, given his extensive occupation here, must be taxing.”
“That too.” Elizabeth studied a Turkish urn which graced a corner of her withdrawing room carefully.
“And then there was the sad affair of Mr. Quimple….”
“True.” Ballentine suddenly found himself gazing into the depths behind Lady Elizabeth’s eyes – they were not tranquil depths. “May we dispense with this verbal quadrille, sir?”
“Certainly.” He breathed. He was captivated.
“You are aware that my husband is not here. You will know that he is presently in France, for his health, leaving me to deal with all of his affairs. You no doubt also know that the house of which you speak is in an intolerable state with no work being done upon it. I have my hands full with this estate, so your intention is to – what – perhaps offer my husband a sum to purchase the place? Enlighten me, Mr. Ballentine?”
“No ma’am. Not that.”
Elizabeth suppressed a resigned sigh. Of course, no one would want to buy it now. No-one would ever want to buy it. Still, there was something in this man that encouraged confidence. Whatever his scheme, she might be dangerously tempted.
“I know that communication with the South of France must be difficult, so such a negotiation would be awkward at this time:” Ballentine said. “For the present – I have some comprehension of architecture, ma’am – I would like to offer my services to ensure the house is safely completed.”
“Indeed, Mr. Ballentine?” Elizabeth treated him to a tiny smile. “Then you would be most welcome, for I assure you I have no idea how the situation might be remedied otherwise. But you do not look like a man who builds houses for an occupation. Tell me, were I to gain my husband’s agreement to such an arrangement, what would be your interest in this?”
Ballentine returned her smile with one of his own. It was the gently understanding, knowing smile of a man who had done his research well. “To complete the house would require a large sum of money – freeing capital amounts of such a size might be difficult?”
Lady Crowley understood. “Ah!” She said simply. Should she confide in this man? If ever there was a time to lay cards on the table, it was probably now.
“There may be some things, Mr. Ballentine, which you do not know. I am not, for example, in communication with my husband. Oh, I know where he is, but he does not write to me. Nor does he send me anything else. When poor Mr. Quimple died there were…debts…which, with no authorisation from Lord Crowley, are difficult to settle. Then there is the matter of this estate. I have to deal with issues here which are unmanaged. The Estate Manager my husband put in place was of no use and had to be dismissed, so I have to do the work myself.”
“You must find all this extremely distressing.”
“It is. So you see, sir, the demands of the St. Benedict’s house are far more than just architectural.” His eyes were kind: oh, so kind! “Mr. Ballentine, I confess I am at my wits’ end!”
“Then,” said Mr. Ballentine; “You must, I beg you, accept my offer of help?”
“So may I believe your interests are also more than simply architectural?”
Ballentine paused before replying, stirred inwardly by Elizabeth’s implication and the emanations he knew already passed between them: “Indeed they are, Ma’am. Very much more.”
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