Page 2 of 165

Satan’s Rock

Part Two: The Cuckoo and the Nest

When Matthew Ballentine called upon Lady Crowley at the old general’s country estate,she rightly discerned that he had interests beyond the simple business of saving the house on St. Benedict’s Rock.  He would not have acquainted Lady Crowley with them, precisely, upon their first meeting, nor on subsequent occasions; but Elizabeth was a very perceptive woman so there is little doubt that she knew.  In the weeks before his first call upon her, Ballentine had inquired into Lord Crowley’s financial affairs, taking care to learn the devices by which his estate could function in his absence.   He had learned, for example, how attorney rested with a legal partnership who served the Crowley family, and how they had power in an emergency to raise revenue and settle debts:  unable to contact Lord Horace they had only to be persuaded by Lady Crowley that an emergency existed in order for them to take certain measures which he, Ballentine, hoped to play to advantage.  And so it proved.

As winter tightened its grip Crowley’s creditors organised themselves and sought a warrant for his arrest and imprisonment.  Whether they could have succeeded is in doubt, but the threat of scandal was enough.   Ballentine entered into a bond to settle the debts in return for some forgotten acres at the fringe of the Montingshire Estate.

Meanwhile, his influence was spreading through Levenport like a faery ring, with invisible roots reaching out to every wealthy townsperson or merchant in whose interest it would be to see the Great House completed.  Ballentine entered into private contracts with them all: his name was never mentioned but his money underpinned the syndicate which tied the ring together.  As a professed draughtsman, Ballentine busied himself with alterations and amendments to Quimple’s jumbled plans, and although he was often seen at the site, his financial involvement was not questioned.  Work on the Great House resumed  – the road that serviced what little housing adorned the Rock’s lower slopes was extended, by means of a tunnel, to the site, the scaffolds of which crawled with mason-ants as they hewed and crafted the stone walls, perched high above the bay.   Roof –beams that Quimple had planned to hoist from sea-level now slithered like starched worms on dollies across the causeway.   Drovers cursed and horses sweated.  Garden terraces began to form, the Bavarian towers inched upwards.

Peter was sure Elizabeth must have known what was happening.  Although Ballentine took care that she should never see the accounts, she would have reviewed them many times in her imagination;  yet she did nothing to stem a rising financial tide.   She left everything to her new-found draughtsman and manager, whose ‘syndicate’ continued to pay, and pay, and pay.

The veil of mystery surrounding Matthew Ballentine intrigued Lady Crowley;   so much so that she was almost constantly in his company:  sometimes he would call upon her at the Montingshire estate, at other times she would visit Roper’s in the town, to observe the progress of her husband’s amazing house, and to…well, let us say, although the proprieties were always punctiliously observed, it was generally agreed in the town, as well as in the Montingshire mansion’s servants’ hall, that ‘an arrangement’ existed.   This was gossip which suited Ballentine – he did nothing to promote it, but neither did he do anything to deny it.

In the autumn Crowley, a sick and broken man, returned to his Montingshire home.   Work upon the Great House on the Rock was completed in the winter of the year eighteen hundred and twenty six, and whilst it would never be beautiful or acknowledged as a great work of architecture, with Ballentine’s modifications it would at least stand up.  He had come to the work when it was too far advanced to do much about its extravagant towers or bulbous domes, or even the great Moorish Arch over its main doors, but he had curbed their excesses to some extent, to make a house which might not be greeted with outright laughter.

By this time Ballentine had become an established figure in the town, and a personage of some worth.   A member of the Chamber of Trades, he frequented town society, recognised by his affinity to Lady Crowley.   As arrangements began to install the ailing Lord Crowley in his new abode, Matthew Ballentine was at the forefront, organising furnishings, transport for staff, and so on.   He was unflagging too, in his attendance upon Lady Crowley, who now found for herself a new burden in the person of her returned husband.

Lord Horace Crowley was driven into the town quietly one October night to take up residence in his new home.   What he thought of the structure which was meant to be the realisation of a private dream, was never recorded. Quite possibly he was too ill, this pale, gasping shadow of a soldier, to really care:  he was scarcely well enough to travel, barely survived the slow, careful journey from his country estate.   He may only have been concerned with finding a quiet place to end his days.   Borne by a coach and pair, he entered his preposterous gates to be seen no more except by those immediates who attended him.   The town, or such proportion of it that realised he was there, watched with speculative curiosity. 

At some point between October and December of that year a syndicate representative must have presented Lord Crowley with an account of all the money it had spent in affecting completion of the great house on St. Benedict’s Rock.  Precisely how large a sum was involved is not known although it would have been considerable, well beyond the noble Lord’s reduced means to pay.   So it was that ownership of the last of his estates,  Montingshire, passed to the syndicate, then quietly on to Matthew Ballentine with an ease which may have seemed remarkable to some who witnessed it, but no surprise to those few who personally waited on the old man.

Crowley cannot have relished life, or had much interest in its continuance.  Cuckolded quite openly, he spent his last days struggling from one breath to the next, in the fright of a mansion his addled eye had imagined so differently when he first saw his rock, now so many years ago.  His only redress, as he saw it, was to sign away his treacherous wife’s future security:  he would leave no trust or allowance for her in his will (women were not allowed to inherit property as of right in those days), and with this stroke, no roof over her head.  That Ballentine seemed to be at the helm of the syndicate was a final act of treachery which very probably eluded him; he was certainly not intended to find out.   Would it have deceived the faithful manservant Toqus, whose silent wisdom had guided him so soundly down the years?   Ah, but Toqus was not there.  

No-one was watching when Toqus did reappear.  His dark shade must have wafted through the rain of some December evening:  how or when he gained entry to the great house was never known. He did not enter by the gates, for no-one remembered admitting him there – in fact the servants seemed vague in their recollection of the first time they chanced upon him in the corridors, or saw him at his master’s shoulder.   He arrived ‘sometime before Christmas’.   The servants of the Great House remembered Christmas well.

On Christmas Eve night came before its time.  Concerned mariners watched as the barometer glass dropped like a stone: boats crowded the town’s harbour, those merchants with premises along the seafront boarded up their windows and doors.    The first howling blast of wind fired from the sea like a cannon-shot, exploding against bluff stone walls and thrashing at window shutters as it tore a path through deserted streets.   Great grey ocean rollers in stately procession made their slow march into the bay where they fixed bayonets to charge, white-plumed, upon the sea-wall.   Quoins groaned, dogs howled, the gale grew to a hideous shriek. This, just the advance force, lashed spume across the foreshore, sent spray to the very roof of Roper’s Hotel. Then the main army advanced: walls of water in dress line, breaking disdainfully over the top of the harbour to crash and to crush the feeble wooden hulls inside.   They breached the sea-wall as though it were made of sticks, led forays well inshore to the heart of the town. By eight o’clock that night Levenport was in the grip of a hurricane.

In the black eye of this malevolent  invasion, the Great House was an unearthly thing of cries and groans – tiles flying from the yet-unbedded roof let in cataracts of rain to slough down newly-decorated walls; and wind-demons which, once inside, ricocheted from room to room, guttering candles, shattering window-glass, screeching their need to be free.   Papers flew, furniture was overset, doors blew in:   the mighty main gates themselves, left carelessly secured, broke free from their hinges to crash drunkenly against their gatehouse wall.  The newly planted gardens were stripped and levelled – bedding plants, bushes, infant trees all whisked away like chaff. So many of the household staff had been already sent home for Christmas (Toqus had insisted upon this) that no-one remained to secure that which had loosed, or resurrect that which had fallen.   Far below, the causeway to the mainland  was long gone, only remnants occasionally revealed by the trough of a wave.   The storm blew until morning, when it ceased as suddenly as it had begun. In the leaden dawn, sleepless townspeople surveyed the damage.

No sound or sign of life came from the Great House.  A long gallery which rested on abutments embedded in the face of the rock, had disintegrated and fallen to the sea.  Once-flamboyant Turkish arches from its façade were strewn in pieces along the sea-shore; entangled with much of the planting from the gardens of the house, and flotsam from boats for which the harbour had been no protection at all.   Of the three domes atop the gatehouse, only one survived.  One sat perilously askew on the brink of destruction, the third had completely disappeared.   The causeway was breached in seven places.

When at last servants managed to return to the house, they  discovered Crowley’s rigored body at the door of his bedchamber.   Terrified, the frail old man had apparently left his bath chair and taken to his feet to find safety.   The effort or the terror that induced had proved too much for a heart which, but for the intervention of Toqus, should have stopped a year before.

Crowley was buried with a simple ceremony.  His body was laid to rest in a family vault on the Montingshire estate. He died without knowing he would lie beneath land he had wife’s lover while she, far from being dispossessed as he would have wished, visited his memorial regularly that winter and on into the following spring, before her morning ride through the grounds.   Often that same ride would take Elizabeth to those distant acres of estate that had compensated Ballentine when he agreed to settle the debts remaining from Quimple’s days.  She might pause to watch for a while as the navvies worked:  soon there would be a main railway line  through the cutting they dug.

Peter realised his arm, draped over the railing, had gone numb.   He shifted it and the movement disturbed the seagull, still perched at his side. 

So what did happen to Crowley’s manservant?

Crowley’s body had actually been discovered by a maidservant, one of only five staff who spent the night of the storm on St. Benedict’s Rock.   This woman later attested that the body was locked by rigor, suggesting that Crowley had died many hours before, and that he clutched in his left hand a large gold medallion with a chain which was snapped in half – a medallion and chain familiar as that worn by Toqus.   Never thinking of the implications of what she saw, the maidservant first ran to find Toqus, because the African had always been closest to the old man. He was not to be found. By the time she had sought out othersCrowley’s body had been left unattended for perhaps an hour, maybe more:  by which time the noble Lord’s dead fingers had been broken open, and the medallion and chain had gone.

For some reason this piece of evidence was never put to any test.  The maidservant herself did not claim the memory until some weeks after Crowley’s funeral, and then only in the confidence of the servants’ hall.   The undertaker either did not notice, or did not set any store by, the fractured hand, but rumours persisted for many years, until, herself in her final decline, the maidservant swore that she had cowered before the sweat-covered and bloody form of Toqus towering over her in that bedroom, on that terrible morning.

Toqus was never seen again.   So did the servant give a true account?  Was the African giant there?

“I don’t know;” said Peter conversationally to the seagull:   “But I bet wherever he was, Matthew Ballentine wasn’t far away.”

“Really?”   The seagull appeared to consider this for a moment:  “What makes you say that, dear boy?”

“It was all too convenient.   Ballentine’s scheme wouldn’t have allowed him to claim the estate directly while the old man was alive – too obvious.  And if the syndicate charade had been allowed to continue with a sitting tenant like Crowley, they might have wanted to evict him, and then who knows what problems might have come up?”

The seagull fixed him with one beady eye.   “You’ll be saying next that Ballentine arranged for the storm.”

“No.   Toqus might have done that.”

Peter suddenly realised he was speaking aloud:  a large woman in a blue coat gave him a bemused look as she passed on the end of a dog. Talking to a seagull!  What next?    He glanced in the bird’s direction, thinking that they had been together, he leaning, the gull perching, on that railing for some while.   And it had not occurred to him that this was odd behaviour for such a creature, until now, when in his glance he took in a peculiar diamond-shaped mark on its feathered white neck – probably just some irregularity in its natural colouring, yet quite distinctive – and realised that they had been side-by-side there for nearly half-an-hour.   The bird seemed to recognise this, too.    With a lazy flap it wheeled out over the bay:  it was gone.

© 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: Featured Image: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Storm: Dimitri Vetsikas from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

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.”

© 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.

Satan’s Rock

Part Four of Conversations

Intrusion

Mountsel Park, in Arthur’s opinion, was at its best on those Spring mornings when the rhododendrons in the Step-Wood were in full bloom, the lawns were silvered by dew and a gentle mist diffused the hard lines of the house’s stone-hewn grandeur.  Mountsel was an  old house but a merchant’s house, given more to display than beauty, more to theatre than poetry.  Yes, theatre was everywhere; in the echoes of the grand, almost baronial hall, the high windows, the extravagant statuary, heavy tapestries and drapes.  Part of such a place’s function was, after all, to impress, but those it sought to inspire were traders, not literati, and the higher echelons of London centric society were rarely to be spotted here. Instead, on the nights when its doors were thrown wide the salons and corridors were filled by prosperous local stomachs that could comfortably support a wine glass without the aid of a table, and ribald local humour such as graced the better houses of many provincial cities where money was made and exchanges were done.

In the brightness of day the house’s commanding position, too, giving it such clarity as a viewpoint, could only be softened by cloud or rain.  The aspect from which, on brighter days, could be picked out so clearly the urban clutter of Mountchester and extend down the navigable river Leven to the Channel and beyond would be muted by distance to a watercolour palette of melted tones; greys, blues and a dozen more subtle shades.  Upon these mornings Arthur could imagine himself immersed in a timelessness when the hours no longer mattered.  He could lose himself – he could mask the dark and haunting things that pursued him always: in essence,he could forget.

It was the Spring of the year following Hart-Witterington’s passing.   Arthur had not relinquished his mourning, for he missed the old man and his idiosyncrasies sorely; he had regarded him as immortal; never thinking that, despite his great age, death could overtake so dominant a life-force.  But then, on the one weekend he had been away, the one weekend he had extended by a day, his protector, the great man of substance who had built this house, had left him.

Alone in the world was a description Arthur did not care for:  he put it to the back of his mind, for Hart-Witterington had left him everything; the house, the business that provided eggs which, if not golden, were at least sterling silver; everything, in fact, but the gift of good company.  He had much to be grateful for, in terms not just of the warehouses he now owned, stacked along the City bank of the river and bursting with artefacts from the emerging markets of the East, but the organisation which conferred upon him a wealth of leisure to enjoy it.  Too much leisure.

He had breakfasted on his favourite devilled kidneys early, taken one of his horses for exercise in the parkland that surrounded Mountsel, before visiting one of his tenant farmers who was in feud with a neighbour over the damming of a stream.  By the time he had returned to the house and changed out of his riding clothes, the hour was eleven o’clock local time. He was contemplating means to fill the final hour before luncheon when Edkins discreetly tapped upon his study door.

“A visitor, sir.  Without appointment, I’m afraid; a Miss Delisle?  She has a child with her.”  The old butler imparted this information with the controlled horror of a meticulous house servant for whom exposure to children was deeply distressing;  “Shall I tell her you’re unavailable?”

Surprised, Arthur managed a slight shake of the head,  “No, Edkin, show them to the morning room, if you would.”

The old butler raised an eyebrow,  “But a child, sir?”

“A very well behaved one, if my memory serves me.  See if they require refreshment?  A brandy for myself, too, if you please.”

Approaching the doors of the morning room, it would be fair to say Arthur’s emotions were mixed.  After his chance encounter with Francine Delisle he had entertained thoughts of meeting her again and how such a rendezvous could be devised.  The tragic news of his protector’s impending death had all but driven her from his mind, so only recently had she revived in his thoughts.  Yet there must be grounds for this sudden visit:  had some misfortune befallen her?

She was seated on a salon chaise, and much as he remembered, if anything the more alluring because until this moment he had seen her only by candlelight,  or otherwise protected from full view by cape and bonnet against a gale. Her countenance was pale, emphasised by a grey dress trimmed with rose, her eyes the darkest pools of solemn blue

“Mr Herritt, how kind of you to receive me!”  She said quietly,  “I do hope I do not impose?”

He smiled,  “Not at all.  I thought we addressed each other in familiar terms, Francine.  I was Arthur; do you not recall?”

She returned his smile.  “Indeed, I do.”

Arthur turned his attention to young Samuel, who had positioned himself defensively behind his mother;  “And you, sir.  I trust you are well?”

The child looked uncomfortable, and rather trussed in his blue velvet suit.  He mumbled a muffled  “Well, thank you sir,”  without raising his eyes.

 Francine stepped in hurriedly,  “As are you, Arthur?  We are so pleased to see you are in good health!”

“The cholera, you mean?  That has largely passed, has it not?”

And so, haltingly at first, the ease of rapport they had found over dinner at ‘The Rifleman’ in Bleanstead was renewed, until it was almost as if a momentous three months had vanished altogether.  Edkins brought tea and shandy for the visitors, a brandy for his master.  As the conversation at last turned to the reason for Francine’s visit, her brow creased in a frown. 

 “I suppose I must declare myself, mustn’t I?  First may I ask for your indulgence a little further?  Could Samuel be entertained elsewhere?  Another room, perhaps.  He is quite independent.”

“Mama!”  The boy protested.

“Darling boy, you need not be distressed.  I have something to say that is for Mr Herritt’s ears alone.  A confidence, do you see?  And you needn’t fear for my honour, I promise.  Mr Herritt and I have already flouted convention without his giving me any cause for distrust.  Can it be managed, sir?”

Arthur said it could, and Mrs James, his housekeeper, was sent for, to lead a reluctant Samuel away for ‘A look at he hatchery’.

As soon as they had gone, Francine, having sipped from her tea bowl, as if by doing so she would gain time to choose her words, began her tale.  “You might think this curious, Arthur, that our fortunes should have taken such similar turns these past few months, but they have.  Oh, we have not suffered such tragedies as you, my guardian is still very much with us, Heaven be praised, but he is grievously beset.  His fear is for Samuel and I.  He is convinced our lives are in danger.”

“Why should he reason thus?”   Arthur asked;  “Who wishes you harm?”

“I do not know.  By my faith I don’t.  I have so few answers!   We had returned from Bleanstead only three days when he confronted me with his concerns.  He was quite ashen, as though he had just received a shock, and he told me I must find another, safer situation.  I managed to placate him, as a consequence submitting Samuel and myself to virtual imprisonment within his house, and we have been in this condition every day until last evening when he raised the matter with me again, quite forcefully!”

“You say he is your Guardian,”  Arthur interposed.  “He is not a blood relation?”

“No.”

“Would I know his name?”

“He has begged me to repeat his name to no-one.  He seems terrified to have any association with me.  It is quite unbearable!”

Arthur walked to the window that looked out upon the park, half expecting to see some strange carriage or a posse of runners, so earnest was his companion’s tone, but the tranquil innocence of the park was undisturbed.  The mist of morning was fully lifted now and the lawns might be already dry.  He rather wished the same clarity could have visited his mind. “What, do you suppose, renewed his  anxiety?”

“I can throw no light upon it.  But this morning I discovered a valise packed for us and ready in the kitchen.  A handsome had been ordered to the tradesmen’s door “

“With no destination at all?”

“None!  Oh, he did not leave us without money.  I have sufficient to keep us in lodgings somewhere – until summer, he said.  I am not to contact him or acquaint him with my address because, in his words, it would be better if he could not have the information extracted from him.  To that end, he was also emphatic that I should not return to Bleanstead.  That would, apparently, endanger Maud, because whoever pursues me will expect me to go there.”

Arthur shook his head.  “So we have to assume he is fearful of violence, or torture, perhaps.  Who does he believe to be pursuing you, that is the question?  Could there be somebody from your past who bears you ill-will?”

“ I have no notion.”   Francine’s hands were clasped her in her lap and her knuckles were white.  “It is possible, you see, that I have enemies.  May I be frank with you, Arthur?  Can we rely upon each other’s confidence?”

Exigency in the silk of her voice brought him immediately to her side.  “Never doubt it,”  he said gently.  “What is it you need to say?”

“I did not make my circumstances known to you when last we met, and I should do so now.  Indeed, it is imperative that I do.  Arthur, I have no past.”

“My word!”  He exclaimed, taking her hand in his.  It was cold, trembling slightly within the protection of his fingers.  “Many of us might wish we had no past, but the truth must be otherwise.  What are the circumstances that lead you to this conclusion?”

“If you want me to phrase it differently I shall.  I have no memory of anything before a night when I awoke to find myself lying,  heavy with child, before my guardian’s door.  His housemaid discovered me and I recall it so vividly because I have never felt such cold, never since then.  I really think that within another hour I might have died.”

Very gently, Arthur relinquished his grip on her hand, only to feel her reach for its reassurance once more.  “Oh, I am shameless!  Given a day, you would find me recovered to my usual self.  Today?  Today I had such a need to share my story, and you came first to my thoughts.  I cannot make any other excuse!”

“Nor should you be required to.”  He nodded.  “I am glad to be of service.”

“How must you see me?”

“With nothing but respect for your courage.  I see something must be done, and I see that it would be cruel to persist with this discussion.  I will reunite you with Samuel, and I hope that you will grace this house with your presence, for tonight, at least.  There are clearly many things to be said, but they will not suffer by waiting.  My housekeeper will conduct you both to a room where you can rest.  Perhaps you might join me for luncheon?  I normally eat at noon.”

Was he a little peremptory?  Under disguise of consideration for Miss Delisle’s welfare, had he concluded their conversation too soon?  Might he have learned more if he had allowed the thread to continue?   Arthur took no pride in his suspicions, nor was he blind to the meaningful glance his housekeeper bestowed as she took charge of Miss Delisle and her son: he, a man newly come into a fortune, a fact that was well known in Mountchester; she a young woman in straightened circumstances. A mother possibly without a husband, and certainlyt without alternative means of support.  If his thoughts were darkened by suspicion, who would doubt him, or blame him for that?  Of Miss Delisle he knew very little – one meeting, a convivial evening, some three months since.  Yet such meanness of spirit was not natural to him and he was, before all things, a gentleman, not a gallant.  He would not condemn a beautiful woman to hazard the road alone, without escort:  these were not the most propitious days for travel.   He had to know more.

Left to himself with an hour to squander before next meeting Francine, Arthur could have returned to his library, as was his normal custom before his midday meal.  He did not.  Instead, desiring the fresh air of a very pleasant spring morning he turned his feet towards the terrace on Mountsel’s facade, from which to could overlook the park.  Leaning against the stone balustrade he watched as the normal industry of morning took place on the driveway below: deliveries in a purveyor’s horse and cart diverted by a scullery maid from the road reserved for privileged visitors, to head around the East Wing in the direction of the kitchens; a pair of coach horses being led back to the stable block, three of Mr. Maple, the Head Gardener’s apprentices, attacking the rose beds by the fountain, pruning back to old wood,   Bees from the kitchen garden hives were busy adding their note to the proceedings, peacocks rehearsing in more raucous tones, all playing their instrumental part in the symphony of day.

In spite of all the distractions, it would have to be said Arthur’s inner thoughts were never far from Francine Delisle.  Her solo part in the orchestra of the estate was less voluble, but no less intrusive.  In his rapture, Arthur was unaware of an urgent approach of hooves, a thunder of heavy horse and furious haste.  It came upon him unexpectedly:  not from the driveway he could see, but around the West Wing, around the orangery, around the hatcheries, around the high walls of the tropical gardens.   Challenged by the shouts of the ostlers, the hooves spurned the civilised, muffling crunch of Mountsel’s imperious drive, opting instead for the flight of steps that ascended to the end of the terrace – the very terrace where Arthur stood.   He had barely time to turn before this horse was upon him; before its hot breath was panting down in his face and its rider – its mighty, bronzed rider, whose flint-cold eyes  glared fiercely enough to rip his soul from his breast – parted savage lips in a screeching war-cry.  It was a banshee screech, but the words that followed it were plain enough:

“The woman is ours!”

Before Arthur had time to respond, horse and rider had wheeled around, and by a cacophony of clattering hooves, returned from whence they came..

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