A Beaten Heart, Part Two
Melanie entranced, no longer confined by the cave but lost within the scene playing out before her, could neither snatch her hand away from the black rock, nor cry out in protest.
Three figures there were, gathered in that sumptuously furnished bedroom as it was buffeted by the storm. An enfeebled Lord Crowley, Toqus, his African manservant, and coldly watching as the old Lord descended into death, Matthew Ballentine, whose noble countenance belied his black heart.
“You are a monster, sir!” Crowley’ wavering voice was barely audible. His blue lips writhed.
Toqus said, slowly: “I will not let my master die.”
Toqus’s and Ballentine’s eyes met. The younger man’s shrug belied the sibilance of tension that stretched between them . “You would save him? I know you have done so, once; but ask yourself, how else can this evening end?” He drew a pistol from beneath his coat. “Let your master’s life slip away, kindly, or receive this ball yourself.” He levelled the pistol at Toqus’s head. “Consider – your loyalties, are they changed? “
Crowley shook his head. “No! No, Toqui, he would not! The shot would be heard, he would be undone!”
“Who will hear a shot, above this wind? Who knows that I am here this night?” Ballentine sneered; “ No, the faithful servant it must be who found his master dead and took his own life in his grief. It would be his hand upon this side-arm when he was found, not mine. I am passing Christmas at Crowley – with your wife, my Lord. Oh, she will swear it, never fear!” Ballentine chuckled, cocking the pistol, “Be done with it, man!” He motioned to Toqus. Moaning, the servant bent over his master, so that Horace Crowley might see the sorrow in his eyes. The look was of one who strayed for just a little, never knowing it should come to this. ‘When I first took money from this man,’ the look said, ‘it seemed to be for the good. We are both betrayed.’ The noble Lord expostulated, feebly; a whimpering sound lost upon the wind. Shaking, he reached for his servant’s neck (to, what, restrain, embrace, who can know?), and gripped the gold chain suspended there.
“Forgive me.” Toqus said. He placed a huge hand on the old general’s chest; and in one second, with just the pressure of his palm, stilled Crowley’s failing heart for ever. A last breath rattled in Horace Crowley’s throat as he slumped back upon the bed, fingers still locked around the chain. It snapped, its broken links tinkling musically to the floor.
As Melanie watched, Ballentine move methodically about the room, re-ordering the furniture, collecting papers from the table. There was a shouted exchange with Toqus: yes, Toqus would be careful to clear up any dossiers, or letters; no, he would not leave with Ballentine by his secret route; rather, he would stay to mourn his master. So Ballentine slid aside a panel in the oak wall behind the old Lord’s bed and stepped through into the black cavity beyond. As soon as he had gone, Toqus closed the panel behind him.
For a long time Toqus sat beside Crowley’s death bed, rocking himself back and forth, head buried in his hands. Finally he got to his feet, lifting Crowley’s inert form in his arms to carry it towards the door. There he hesitated, unsure; should he call for help, announce the death? Did he fear the consequences? Undecided, he laid his master down upon the floor. The vision faded.
“Did you see it? Did you see that too?” Melanie choked: “Peter? Is that what your dream was like?”
It was Toby who answered: “Give ‘un a minute, Missy. He needs to come out of it, see?”
Peter’s face had the tint of old vellum. Although his eyesight was impaired by the departing mist of the dream, his mind was not: connections were being made.
“I’ve seen Toqus, now,” He said at last. “The big dark man in my first dream, the figure of Death, that was Toqus!”
“Ah now!” Said Toby brightly. “You’m back! Come on now, folks, I think it’s time we was out of ‘ere!”
Peter found the return journey less fearsome: in some small way he had acclimatised to the terrifying traverse which defended the cave from curious eyes. He could picture the monks, bare-legged and sandaled, as they stepped nimbly and often across that space, and if they could do it…He willingly took the lead, and although his legs were quaking he found his footings easily. Melanie dallied, taking time for a final look around the cave before following; which was how she spotted the talisman.
In a corner by the cave entrance lay a small black cylinder of wood, the entire eight-inch length of which had been carved with immaculately detailed shapes depicting snakes and winged beasts. It felt light and tactile, and it seemed to fit comfortably in her hand, bringing a burst of music into her head. Her smile did not escape Toby’s notice.
“You keep that, Missy. ‘Twill be a memory o’ this place. ‘Er wants to belong to ‘ee that does.”
Melanie understood completely. Before she clambered back across the slope she hid the talisman beneath her blouse. That evening she would place it in the top drawer of her dressing table where it would lie forgotten for a while.
Later, returned to solid ground, Melanie reminded Toby of her question. “You never did tell us who expected me today. Was it you, Toby?”
“Bless you no, Missy. I were told.”
“When?” Peter asked.
“Why, ‘tis difficult to say. ‘Bout a week ago, I ‘spect.”
“A week ago?” Melanie was astounded. “Before we knew ourselves?”
“Ah, but they know, Missy. They know.”
“All right!” Peter ran in front of Toby, turned to stop him in his tracks. “Time to ‘fess up, Toby. Who are ‘They’?”
The cottager sighed. “Aye, it’s time , I s’pose. Come up home and we’ll ‘ave a nice cup o’ tea or summat. Us’ll talk then.”
The invitation was one Melanie and Peter had both been dreading. Toby’s tumbledown cottage with its torn and faded gingham curtains, promised only filth, darkness and damp. Given all that had passed that afternoon, however, there was no excuse they could make. Evening on St. Benedict’s Rock, when the fresh breeze came in from the sea, was usually cold.
In the event, Toby’s kitchen proved surprisingly warm and clean, if a little sparsely furnished. If the curtains were old and none too fresh, the windows they covered were at least fairly transparent. The pinewood table, pitted by generations of use, had been scrubbed.
“I knowed you was comin’;” Toby reminded them, noticing Melanie’s relief.
They sat around the table clutching big, warm mugs of strong tea. Beyond the kitchen window a pink sky glowed with impending sunset. The homely, subdued light of the room wrapped itself around them.
Peter sat beside Melanie, their thighs touching, just accidentally, absently; sending a warmth through them both. Without really knowing they had done so, they clasped hands beneath the table. Melanie allowed herself to wish that they were alone together.
“Now, you wants to know who called you here, young Missy,” Toby said “ An’ there’s a lot I needs to tell you, but you got to unnerstand there’s a lot I don’t know, see? Some ways you already knows more ‘un me; that’s a solemn fact….” His voice had an easy drone which might almost have lulled Melanie into sleep. She let her head rest on Peter’s shoulder as he spoke of how he had always lived here, on this island, in this house, and how he had learned to accept his part in the island’s story.
“See, I can’t never leave ‘ere. If I does, I won’t have nothin’! I be a servant to the old rock, that’s what I be. An’ bein’ like this….” He gestured to his neck as though to remind himself of that disability Melanie had sensed when they first met: “World won’t ‘ccept me no-how. See?”
“Would you want to live anywhere else?” Peter asked.
Toby shook his head. “Nope. Not for ever-one to know, but this place’s sommat special, young Peter. Sommat very special indeed.”
He spoke of younger days, when he first realised he was ‘different’ and how one day he had gone to the cliff-top half-determined to finish it all. It was then he discovered the cave.
“’Course, I’d always knowed about the path. When you’m a young ‘un you finds these things, don’t you? But that slope, I never tried to climb over there. This day I jus’ didn’t care, see? I thought as ‘ow if I went over, I went over. Didn’t matter, see?”
Toby slurped at his tea. Melanie saw that he did not drink easily, because from certain positions he was unable to tip his head back.
“I reckon I was the first ‘un in that there cave for best part two ‘undred year! Didn’t look nothing like as good as now. I cleaned ‘un up, see? This cave, it gets to be a sort of favourite place o’ mine, don’t it? Once I almos’ lived in ut!”
The young Toby had often spent hours alone there, looking out over the sea or staring at the drawings which embellished the cave’s walls. Later, when his father died and his mother seemed to want no-one near her, he had taken to sleeping there.
“Me and my dad, we did lots of things together. But ‘er, she never got used to me bein’ like I am. No, she never got used to that. An’ what with my old dad passin’ on, she didn’t want me.”
Peter shuddered, trying to picture a young Toby, stretching out to sleep in the cold of that rocky nook with only a dead body for company. Toby told of the first time he touched the rock behind the altar.
“Kids will touch things, won’t they? Nothin’ ‘appened at first. There was no vishuns, or nothing like what you ‘ad. But after I done it a few times, this music started comin’ into me ‘ead.”
“The song of The Rock” Melanie said.
“Aye, Missy – jus’ like you’m ‘earin’ now. Took some time afore it got to be more than that, though.”
“More?” Peter asked. “Do you have the dreams, too?”
“Not like your’n, no. I starts hearin’ voices, on’y in the cave at first. Now, I hears ‘em anywhere on the island – an’ then one day this fella comes to see me.”
“What ‘fella’?” Peter sensed the awkwardness in Toby’s voice.
“He were a diddy-squat man, comes knockin’ on the door ‘ere one day….” Toby described a dapper little man in an office suit and yellow waistcoat which stretched over his corpulence like a net over a football. “’Calm as you please, ‘e tells me ‘ow ‘e knows all about me, an’ I got a gift that only he and a few other people knows about. An’ it comes out that this gift is all to do with this ‘ere rock.”
The little man had told Toby the secret story of the island; of how it drew a small, exclusive brethren of monks to begin a monastery here,. He confirmed what Toby already knew: that a seam of very special stone ran through the island’s heart. It surfaced in only a few places: one at the summit, where Peter had experienced his first vision, another within the cave. There was supposed to be a third (apparently there had to be three) although Toby had not found it yet. Many might touch this stone and feel nothing, but those with Toby’s ‘gift’ who touched it were given an understanding of the magic of the place.
“He tells me I be the guardian of this stone. I has to live ‘ere to watch over ‘un; an’ I says I doesn’t see ‘ow I could. I’m in trouble, like, keepin’ up the ‘ouse now father’s died. But he says someone’s comin’ to ‘elp with that an’ I’d be looked after.”
Peter nodded, “And you were.”
“Aye. That’s when Mr. Vincent comes to live in the big House. He sees I don’t go short. He’s even made an allowance for me if sommat should ‘appen to ‘im.”
“Then Vincent is one of them, these few special people.”
“I don’ know that. Some’ow I don’think no-one’s told ‘im about the stone. An’ I’m not to tell nobody, see?” Toby leaned forward across the table. “This diddy-squat chap, he says I’m to wait, ‘cause ever’ so offen, like once in a cent’ry or sommat, someone comes along who can get much more from the stone than us folks. And that once in a very long time, mebbees never yet, two people comes together! An’ that’s when sommat important is goin’ to take place as hist’ry won’t forget. I’m to wait for they, an’ when they comes I’ll know them. Well, looks like you’m ‘ere, don’t it?”
In the silence, Peter fancied he might hear even the smallest sound. A tap dripping somewhere, a soft breath of wind on the casement, the flap of a bird’s wing outside the glass. At length it was Melanie who spoke. “You still haven’t explained how…”
“’Ow I knowed you was comin’ today?” Toby interrupted, his face creased in a smile that was, for him, close to angelic; “Why, The Rock tells me, Missy – Old Ben! ‘Er’s been getting excited ‘bout it for a week gone!”
“Oh, Peter,” Melanie sighed, “Does this mean we’re going to be famous?”
Within that room, none of them knew what it meant. Toby, who understood the island well, lacked the insight to read the deeper messages within Peter’s visions. Peter, who thought the stone probably imbued him with a gift of foresight, nothing more. And Melanie, who struggled, as yet, to find any meaning: it was there, she knew, but out of reach.
By the time Peter and Melanie left the cottage, a red haze of cloud disguised the discreet departure of the evening sun. Walking together down the old road they passed the summer let cottages, where the little girl played and sang in her back yard. She smiled at them with a sweet, slightly empty smile, but she did not stop playing.
Melanie asked, “Peter, do you want this?”
They had entered the tunnel and Peter was probing its roof and walls for crystalline signs of stone. “See…” He gestured as they emerged onto the north side of the island. “If Toqus’s cave is just around there…”
“I asked you a question.” Melanie said.
“I don’t know what you mean, ‘do I want this’.” He met Melanie’s eyes and saw that they were red. “What, Mel? It’s a lot to take in, that’s all.”
She paused by the roadside, trying to frame her thoughts: “You – me. We’re friends, aren’t we? We…we’ve known each other a long time, Babes.”
“Well, I thought: I mean, I sort of hoped…..Oh god!” The tears came. Peter watched them happen, not understanding, half-frightened by them. One day in a shelter on the Esplanade not so long ago, he had decided he hated it when Melanie cried. He offered a faltering arm but she threw him off. “Don’t!”
He stepped back. “Mel, what’s wrong?”
“I just assumed someday we would be, like, boy and girlfriend, you know? You – me? I thought we might be together, stay together, do all the normal things you do when you’re, well, more than just friends. That’s what I thought. Until today – until this.”
“Okay.” Peter replied cautiously: “So, what’s changed?”
“What’s changed? What’s changed? We’re not normal. That’s what’s changed. We’re some sort of monstrous double act – ‘special people’ with a peculiar talent for seeing things which aren’t there and doing things normal people don’t do! Peter, I don’t want to be a freak! I don’t want to be ‘special’ and spend my days in a cold cave with a withered old corpse for company. I don’t want to see anything like the things I saw this afternoon ever, ever again. It was just – so horrible, so evil.”
“It wasn’t nice,” Peter agreed. “But you have. What do you suggest we do?”
“We exercise our freedom of choice. We turn our backs on this bloody rock and we never come back here, ever again. If we dream about it, we turn over and sleep on the other side. If a seagull pesters you, throw pebbles at it until it goes away.” Melanie caught the guarded look in Peter’s eye. “But you don’t want to do that, do you?”
“No. Well yes, too, in a way.” Peter sighed. “I don’t think I we’re going to be allowed freedom of choice. Now these ‘They’ people have seen what we can do, they’re going to want me – us – to do it again; so I don’t think things can ever be normal from now on.”
Across the bay, Levenport glistened with summer lights – the twinkling stars of hotel windows, the bright neon colours of the arcades. Leaning on the railing together with the sea washing the cliff below, they shared a moment of unspoken truth. Although neither moved, the distance between them grew.
At last, Melanie said: “Sorry Babes, I choose normal.”
© 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.
Header Image: Artem Kovalev from Unsplash
Cave Mouth: Bruno Van der Kraan from Unsplash