A Beaten Heart – Part One
Melanie stared at the sanguine figure who Peter introduced as Toby. Toby, large and fragrant, who sat on the grassy slope waiting for her to appear as though her visit to the island was planned. “How could you possibly know I would come to The Rock today? I just came for an afternoon out with Peter. We nearly went to the Mall.”
“But you came, didn’t ‘ee? Some just has a tune as calls ‘em, tha’s all. They needs that, see?”
“What tune?” Melanie scowled, because her dislike for the old countryman was instinctive, and she couldn’t hear any ‘tune’ – or could she? She remembered lying in the grass at Peter’s side just a little way from here and just a little while ago,,,
Toby seemed unperturbed, “You can ‘ear ‘un now, missy, in your ‘ead. I knows you can. You’ll hear ‘un more an’ more, now you knows ‘tis there.” He rose to his feet, a violent spinning movement which involved Dervish-like thrashings of arms. “Come along wi’ me, now. I think you needs to start learnin’. ‘Til you do, there‘ll always be them as is ready to take ‘dvantage, see?”
He strode in an oddly uncoordinated lope up the remainder of the hillside towards his cottage. Peter made to follow.
“Oh, no!” Mel whispered: “Not in there!”
She need not have worried. At the boundary of his immaculately-kept garden the big man turned, taking them on a path that plunged into a tangle of under–brush and bramble, leading towards the sheer side of the rock.
“Toby?” Mel called after him.
This song I’m supposed to be hearing. Do you hear it, too?” She bestowed Peter with a significant look, and hissed under her breath, “Is he a head-case, or what?”
“Oh, aye. I hears it all the while, I does. See, it’s part of Old Ben, to them as lives ‘ere. ‘Tis as old as time, that is.”
“Yes,” Melanie whispered to herself, “He is.”
Through the under-brush, with the high wall of the Great House to their left and open sea some three hundred feet below them to their right, their way led into a converging V between wall and precipice, so Peter and Melanie began to feel that their very breath was being squeezed. They were following the boundary of the Great House as it rounded the eastern face of the rock. Now they could see the coastline stretching away north eastward, with Levenport Head’s sheer basalt slab frowning at them from across the bay. Here the path swung right, doubling back upon itself so tightly there was barely room to turn for fear of stepping out over four hundred feet of uninterrupted air with foaming rocks at the bottom. They were descending; clinging to the cliff-face along a stony ledge. Toby wobbled ahead with a casual disregard for the drop. Peter, led Melanie, for whom the sight of his shaking knees lent an unwarranted sense of encouragement, as shared adversity often will. The wind, barely a breeze when they were up on the slopes above, screamed and whipped around them, threatening to prise them from the cliff-face altogether.
“Peter!” Melanie called above the din: “Do you really want to do this?”
“I don’t want to try turning round!” Peter shouted back.
Men had carved this path. There were steps, the worn steps of ages, carved into the steeper reaches: there were passing places, too, though so confined it was hard to imagine even the sparest of bodies being able to edge around one another without falling.
“This ‘ere, ‘twere an old monk’s path.” Toby called back: “This bin ‘ere since the mon’stry times.” They reached a turn in the face of the rock and the path apparently ended. Two vertical spurs of rock barred their way, like the prongs of a fork. “On’y they didn’t want ever’ body to know about ‘un, they monks. Reckon not even the Abbott knew ‘bout this. This las’ bit’s a bugger, so careful now!” He legged himself up into the cleft between the spurs, and disappeared over the far side.
Peter saw that the main pathway had actually doubled back again, dropping away below them. Eroded by time, it had diminished to a grassy lip, a ledge for nesting sea-birds: beyond that, the drop to the sea was uninterrupted. Yet there was evidence the monks had used this means to reach the shore, for at the foot of the cliff a tiny shelf had been hewn from the stone. Shale washed up around it rattled uneasily, chivvied constantly by the waves. The height made Peter’s head swim. Steadying himself for a moment, he made to follow their guide, levering himself up into the gap between the two rocks. What he saw on the further side turned his bones to ice.
There was no path, just a wickedly steep traverse, at the far side of which, some twelve feet away was a ledge, apron to a dark recess in the rock offering sanctuary to those who might reach it. Toby was standing braced against the cliff-side upon this ledge.
“There’s six foot–‘olds. They’m solid enough. If you looks for ‘em you can see. You can see six ‘and-‘olds too. They’m just right for ‘ee, I reckon. Take it slow, and don’t ‘ee lean in towards the slope. Use your balance, see? Now, give me yer left ‘and!”
“Slope? It’s sheer!” Peter protested.
“Don’t look down!” Toby advised.
“They always say that!”
“You can do ‘un!” The big man stepped nimbly onto the traverse, stretching out a large, safe-looking hand. Peter thought he could see the holds Toby had pointed out. It would still be a huge act of faith, and if Melanie had not been behind him he might never have stretched tentatively for the first of those foot-holds, a mere fragment of levelled stone nearly a yard away. Shaking with fear, he placed his weight on the tiny pad of rock, grabbing frantically at a protruding stone as he stepped out into space.
A further handhold would be higher up on his left – he had seen it, knew it was there. Transferring his weight to his right hand and forcing himself to stand away from the slope, he shuffled his right foot alongside his left. For a terrifying moment his whole body was pivoting on those two points, with the wind trying to take him like a sail, until he could reach out to the next handhold. His left foot waved in empty air, seeking a projection large enough to take his weight. The welcome firmness of solid rock formed under his foot. His hand found its second grip.
Almost sick with terror, Peter tried to draw himself across the last foot or so separating him from Toby’s outstretched hand, but his legs quivered convulsively and his arms refused to co-operate. Stuck in an ungainly star-shape, he was unable to move, he was going to fall…
“Let go that right ‘and young ‘un. I got ‘ee.” Toby’s big hand grasped his arm,
Within seconds it was over. Feeling foolish, a breathless Peter allowed himself to be half-dragged onto the rocky platform then guided into shelter away from the edge. As soon as he had his breath back, he warned: “Don’t try it, Mel! It’s too dangerous!”
“Too late!” Mel informed him blithely. “I already did.”
She stood behind him with a broad grin on her face.
Toby guffawed loudly, so his voice echoed up and down the rock.
“She’m like a moun’ain goat, that ‘un! No danger!”
“Rock-climbing. Last holidays. Glen Coe.” Mel summarised. “Now tell me why I did?”
“Because as ‘ow you has to see this. I’ll show the’” Toby led them into the deep shadow within the crevice, where they discovered the concealed entrance to a cave, the portal of which, small and round, had been widened and shaped by human hands. The marks of their chisels, ages old, showed what a labour this had been.
“Come on, Babes!” Melanie urged, “Let’s explore!”
“I really wish you wouldn’t call me that!”
Leaving the gale behind them, they followed Toby through the narrow neck of the entrance, which quickly widened to a small chamber, no more than four meters across. There was scarcely any natural daylight, so their eyes took time to become accustomed to the gloom.
“Oh!” Melanie breathed, feeling a little overawed.
At its further end, the chamber wall had been carved to reveal a seam of crystalline rock which, if its short, exposed section were to be believed, ran vertically up through the basalt above them. At its foot had been hewn a stone altar table, draped with the dry threads of ancient embroidered cloth. A terra cotta chalice rested there, flanked by two tallow lamps, their spouts blackened by use. But Melanie’s eyes passed all this by, frozen moment of a forgotten time though it was, to rest upon the figure before the altar, who half-knelt, half laid before it with its faded cloak, or robe, pulled up to conceal its head; as if sleep had overtaken it as it prayed.
“Well!” She exclaimed, “You just never know how things will turn out, do you? There was I, expecting a quiet afternoon picnic in the sun, and what did I get? A cold cave and a dead body,” She touched the edge of the robe experimentally; “I hope he is,like, totally dead?”
“Don’t worry, now, Missy. ‘E can’t do ‘ee no harm.” Toby’s voice was comforting. “’E been gone these two ‘undred years.”
“Who was he, do you think?” Melanie asked: “One of the monks from the Abbey?”
“No, I don’t think so.” Overcoming his revulsion, Peter stepped closer to examine the mummified form. It had been tall when it had lived, with shoulders that were broad and very, very strong. Prompted by some innate knowledge, he reached down past the dry leather and the drawn grin of the face, delicately pushing its garments to one side, to expose a gold chain around its throat.
“Toqus.” He said. “So you never left.”
“That’s right, young Peter.” Toby murmured softly, taking the young man’s shoulder to draw him back. “’E never did. Come ‘ere after the old man died, likely, an’ jus’ starved hisself to death. ‘Tis a solemn fact.”
Somehow, Peter did not find it too incredible that Toby should know enough of the island’s history to have heard the story of Lord Crowley’s death, and the mysterious disappearance of his servant, Toqus.
“What brought him here?” He wondered.
“Ah well now! This place ain’t exac’ly a Godly one, now, is it? Look around ‘ee. What do y’ see?”
By now, with eyes thoroughly accustomed to the scarce light, Peter and Melanie were able to take in more detail of the chamber. The walls were daubed with crude pictures of strange horned beasts, dragon-like flying creatures, and indecipherable writing: on the front of the stone altar, half-obscured by Toqus’s body, an inverted cross was engraved.
“Devil worship?” Melanie asked, with a slight tremor in her voice. She was not superstitious, but the thought was a little disquieting.
“Maybe – or prob’ly jus’ a bit angry, like.” Toby sat down on the shelf at the cave entrance. “See, the old Abbott, ‘e wouldn’t have been too ‘appy if ‘e’d knowed what ‘is flock was doin’ down ‘ere, now would ‘e? And I don’t think as ‘e ever did know. That path us come down jus’ now, ‘twasn’t no official path, see? An’ that landin’ stage down below us there, that ain’t the official dock, neither. So there was some, like, alternative kind of goin’s on in ‘ere while they up there was prayin’ their socks off. See?” Toby smiled secretively: “Nope, I don’ reckon all they monks were quite so godly as they pretended, were they? No!”
He raised himself to his feet, stooping slightly to avoid hitting his head on the chamber roof. “Mind old Toqus, now, and come over here. There’s somethin’ you should do.”
Toby beckoned Peter over to the altar. “Whenever you’m ready, see how the crystals in that seam feel to ‘ee. Be they sharp, or what?”
“OK.” Peter touched the black band of rock. Immediately, a surge of warmth tingled through his finger-tips, sending a little pulse of heat up his arm. He snatched his hand away.
Toby nodded approvingly: “Now, you know what that’s all about, don’t you, young ‘un?”
It was tempting to deny it; to lie. Peter would have preferred not to acknowledge that this cave with its musty sitting tenant, with the approach which so terrified him, was another source, and possibly a very special source, even the promise of an explanation for the powers that gave him his extraordinary moment of foresight the day before Anzac Day. But there was no choice. He looked at Mel and saw recognition in her eyes, too. “They’re connected, aren’t they?.” She murmured: “This stone and the stone in the House – they link to each other. You felt it, didn’t you?”
“Not linked, Missy. They’m all one. This stone runs right through the whole island. The heart of Old Ben, this is. ‘It’s beatin’ eart. Come ‘ere, now. You try.” Toby gestured to the seam.
“I don’t want to.” Melanie protested.
Peter felt equally sure Melanie should never touch the black stone. “No. No, don’t do it, Mel! Please, just….don’t?”
Toby’s eyes showed how deeply he understood. With something like pity, he said: “’As to be, young ‘un, see? ‘As to be.” He nodded to Melanie: “There’s nothin’ to fear, Missy. ‘Specially for you!”
Although she harboured some misgivings, Melaniewas tempted. She reached out with one probing finger-tip, dabbing at the black crystal. She tried one finger, then two, finally her whole hand. The rock gave her no answer. There were no visions, no sensations of warmth, just cold stone.
“Nothing!” She said, feeling quite glad.
“Ah, but you ain’t used to ‘un yet!” Toby told her. Nevertheless, he seemed confused.
Peter had withdrawn to Toby’s shelf at the cave entrance, where he sat with his head on his chin, trying to convince himself that he still had control of his own thoughts. A drawing on the wall to the left of the stone altar fascinated him. He could not drag his eyes away from it. A crude cartoon, it depicted five matchstick figures. One prostrate, either injured or dead, two others standing over it, one bearing a club and the other a spear: he presumed they must be the prone figure’s assailants. To their right a figure in a full robe and head-dress bent to release an asterisk creature, a lizard or snake, perhaps? To their left and above them all, a stick figure with unmistakeable wings looked down, one of its arms extended as if in a blessing. It was hard to dismiss the moral portent of what he saw – murderers watched by a higher being, as if sanctifying their deed..
Melanie had satisfied herself that the stone seam held no fears for her. She traced it with her fingers, absently sensing its dense, gritty structure as the soft song of the island that Toby had described began to play once more in her head. There was a dreamy contentment in everything that was part of St. Ben, even this gloomy room of death. Hadn’t she always wanted to be here? Wasn’t it a part of her soul? The music was in the trees, the grass, the sea-borne wind: it was in this rock, too, as clear as if its singers were all around her.
The music very slightly increased in volume when she realised that Peter had joined her: that was alright; it was meant to be so. When his hand covered hers the music filled her, strong and vibrant, like a possession, like a sleep.
When he pressed her hand to the stone, so strong and firm, determined, knowing, the music overtook her, so she found herself living entirely within it. Her mind was drifting…drifting…
It was another time, a room in another place; an oak-panelled bedchamber, lavishly furnished, with a great four-poster bed.
A banshee wind howled, battering at the oak doors of the room, slamming the shutters of the tall windows open and closed. There were three men here; one, an expensively attired gentleman in his thirties, the second, a great midnight tombstone draped in an African robe who stood like a monument beside the third, a sickly old man in a nightshirt reclining on the bed. Melanie could hear the old man’s voice above the wind, full of quivering rage:
“This is a trick, sir, and I shall not stand for it!”
“I fear you have no choice….” The well-dressed man soothed. “I have all your notes! I could bankrupt you tomorrow if that were my wish. But I will do nothing to sully your family or their name. I will be discreet…”
“Discreet, sir! Aye, I’ll wager you will be discreet!” The old man interrupted. “I have been looking into your affairs, Mr Ballentine!”
“Indeed, indeed! You are not a reputable man, are you Ballentine? How, I wonder, will my capricious wife respond when she learns of your upbringings and your past dealings, with which my letter will acquaint her? Answer me that, sir!” The old man’s voice was rising hysterically. “You are an upstart, a pipsqueak of a stock clerk who made his fortune by stealing his master’s merchandise and selling it for himself. You may cut something of a figure, here, sir, but what will you answer should my wife suggest a tour in Spain, or in the America’s, eh? Will you tell her there are warrants for your arrest in those places, eh, Ballentine? Or should I call you by your real name? Wilbert, is it not?
The well-dressed man’s finely chiselled features paled: “How have you…?”
“Found ye, sir? Found ye? Did you think I was a nincompoop, a fool? I have made you my study, Mr Wilbert! You have been my sole occupation, these last months!”
The dark-skinned sentinel rested a big hand upon his master’s shoulder. Urging him not to excite himself further, but the old man was incandescent. “You sought to rob me of my fortune, sir! Now I shall deprive you of yours. I have a dossier which I shall publish if you do not withdraw. Return me my land, and my wife. If I don’t get them Society shall know you for a scoundrel. I doubt you will have your freedom long.”
In his excitement, the old man failed to notice changes in Ballentine’s demeanour. “Had you researched more thoroughly, my Lord,” Ballentine snapped, “You would also have seen what becomes of those who discover too much. Toqus – work your craft!”
The dark man’s great eyes widened: “What …” He asked (his voice is thick as treacle); “Would you have me do?”
“You know where your future lies, do you not?” Ballentine answered, “ Have we not agreed?”
“We did not agree to murder.”
“Ah! Such an emotive word. I prefer to think of it as timing. Let death promote itself.” He turned his stare upon the old Lord. “How chill it feels, eh, old man? How wildly leaps the beast in that decrepit chest? You cannot still it, can you? No, Toqus: not murder. Just take your master to the brink….he will do all of the jumping.”
© 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
Image Credits: Features Image: Freephotos from Pixabay
Waves: Ilyuza mingazova on Unsplash