An echo created by the splitting impact of wood on stone dwindled to silence in the gloom.
Lesley remained frozen with her arms akimbo, just as they were when the casket fell from them, saying nothing, just staring at the shattered wreckage on the floor. She was visibly distressed.
“Les?” Peter coaxed her her. “It’s was just an empty box, yeah? Those stones were in there to make it seem like it was full.”
She shook her head vehemently. “It wasn’t. Someone – he was resting there! Where is he, Peter? Who took him? Where’s he gone?”
At first Peter thought Lesley must have spotted a plate like those screwed to the other coffins, identifying their occupants; but though he scanned, using the light from his ‘phone, he could see nothing. “He? How are you so sure it was a ‘he’?” This prescience in Lesley was new to him, so he could not be blamed for being surprised as she came to herself, rounding upon him almost angrily; “No! No, I can’t be sure! How would I know that?”
For now the answers could wait. “We’re both getting spooked. Let’s get out of here.” He decided.
As he closed the grille, Peter wondered whose hand had rifled the padlock – were there others as interested in the Crowley story as he? Lesley’s conviction that the little box had once contained a male child, though free of any proof, was so strong it could not be ignored – but then someone, for whatever reason, placed stones inside to make up weight, presumably so that a burial would look convincing. Or maybe not – maybe whosoever rifled the lock had entered here to take the little body from its rest. Why? What had he, Peter, missed? He replaced the padlock, trying in his turn to make it look as if it had not been opened.
Lesley remained subdued for some while. She pretended interest in other features of the garden, but Peter could sense her preoccupation. At last, in the midst of a paved circle less overgrown than most she stopped before the remnants of a sundial, placing her hands upon it for support. Then she simply squatted on her heels, dropped her head so her cascading hair would hide her face, and wept.
Peter withdrew; she did need him to comfort her. Disconsolate as he might feel, he had to allow his friend space for a private sorrow he could not explain, but knew to be real. Lesley had found something in that cold place which had meaning for her, something which had brought a necessity to grieve, so he settled down at the edge of the paving to wait, slotting this new piece of the Crowley family’s chequered past into his mind. Whose was the child for whom such desecration was necessary? He had to assume it to be Lady Elizabeth’s, and a son, if Lesley was right. Had Ballentine been the father?
“Are you going to sit there all day?” Lesley’s toe nudged him. He looked up at her red eyes and she smiled apologetically. “Sorry Petey. I’m a sentimental bitch sometimes, honestly, you wouldn’t believe. Come on, we were looking for a way into the house, weren’t we?”
It took them a while. Finally, at the rear of the old mansion they came upon a wide, cobblestoned yard fringed on one side by the house itself, on two others by buildings which had once been stables. Corroded tethering-rings lined the walls, while the middle of the yard was dominated by a long stone trough, part-filled with stagnant water and the haunt of a million flies. Close by, Peter spotted a loose shutter on one of the house’s smaller windows. Crowley’s defences were breached.
The rotted shutter lifted away without effort, dropping with a clatter onto the cobbles. Behind it, the structure of its window had been smashed aside so a substantial body could pass through.
“We’re not the first!” Lesley hissed.
“Squatters! What if they’re still inside?” Peter suggested in his creepiest whisper, pleased to see Lesley’s shoulders tighten in alarm.
“You go first then.” She whispered back.
Some clambering later, they stood blinking in the dim light of a small ante-room. The walls, their green paint peeling, were hung with impressive growths of mould.
“Try not to touch the paint.” Peter advised: “I think that green used to have arsenic in it.”
From the room they discovered a passage leading into the belly of the house. Deprived of light, oppressed by the reek of damp and aided only by illumination from their ‘phones, they had to grope their way. “Oh piggit!” Lesley swore as she tripped over some rubble. “Peter, this is seriously scary!”
“There’s a door here.” The door fell with a crash.
Lesley yelped: “Don’t DO that! “
They stepped over the old hardwood door into a large hallway, which, had the main entrance not been boarded up, should have afforded them access to the house. This cavernous space reached two storeys high. Windows from the first and second floors, unboarded, lit up a long, curved staircase fringed by moss-damp panelled walls. Beneath their feet, a black granite floor which must once have shone with polish, above their heads a roof-level dome of broken stained glass panels, now a nesting-place for birds. Panicking wing-sounds were all that broke the silence.
“Wow!” Lesley shivered at her own echo. “Castle Dracula!”
They wandered out into the centre of the dusty floor, gazing around at a room which had no furnishing, no covering, not even a shredded drape to soften its air of ruin and decay. Lesley felt she wanted to throw open doors, beat out the boards from the windows, let in the sun. Peter saw at last how, aside from all the external paraphernalia of Turkish domes and Moorish towers, Horace Crowley had wanted to reproduce his home when he drew up his first madcap plan for St. Benedict’s. This was how the Great Hall would have looked when the place was completed, centuries ago; the one a pattern for the other. It must have been an influence strong enough to have affected even Matthew Ballentine, who had paid homage to this part of the old man’s dream in his finished house.
These recollections apart, he did not see a ghostly Crowley stalking the hall, or get any sense of the past he knew the house to have. He felt nothing to connect him to the place.
“Last one to the top!” Lesley yelled, racing off up the stairs.
“No!” Peter came to himself with a jolt. “Don’t, Lesley! The stairs won’t…”
A threatening creak confirmed that the stairs wouldn’t. Lesley, feeling them lurch, stopped dead. “Oh! Oh, shit!” With a hideous splitting sound the whole bottom section of the staircase tipped to one side. “It’s bloody Titanic all over again…Peter? PETER!”
Peter was beneath the place where she clung to the stair rail, some twelve feet above his head. “Over the rail!” He yelled: “Jump, Les!”
“Oh no!” Lesley groaned, as the stairs lurched again.
“Come ON! It’s easy. I’ll catch you!”
If there hadn’t been a second splitting sound Lesley might have delayed longer, but this final warning was enough. With a squeal of fear she clambered over the crumbling banister and launched out into space. Peter had only a split second to align himself with her ‘phone light’s flicker and to perfectly time her fall, rolling backwards as he caught her against his chest. The lower stairway crashed to earth beside them, powdering to a billowing, choking dust cloud that enveloped them both. It took a long, long time to clear. When she could at last start to make out some detail, Lesley found herself lying on the floor beside Peter. Gingerly, she tested her legs and arms to see if they still worked. Between wheezing breaths, she managed to gasp out: “Is there anything in this place that doesn’t fall down when you touch it?” Then, seeing Peter in improving light, she bubbled into a half-choked effort at laughter. “Am I the same colour as you?”
Peter coughed, “Yep.”
Lesley coughed back, “Did I damage you?”
“Oh, Jesus, let’s get out of here.”
Eyes caked and hawking inhaled dust, they picked themselves up, discovering bruises with every move. Once erect, they leant against each other in mutual support before, bearings regained, they were ready to limp painfully back through the darkened passage. Blinking through streaming tears, like two weary pilgrims they staggered towards the light.
“Do you think anyone heard the noise?” Lesley said. “That was one serious crash!”
“Dunno. Soon find out!”
Restored eventually to the sunlight of the stable yard, they sat on the edge of the horse-trough and Lesley, quivering with delayed shock, buried her face in her hands. Peter stretched out an arm and she responded instantly, draping herself against him as if his strength alone could quell the thought of dying, crushed among the timbers of that forgotten place. “Oh, Peter, I’m being a bit of girl, aren’t I?”
“You’ve been badly frightened…”
“I’m not really like this! I’m not!”
“It’s a reaction and it’s natural, love. You don’t have to prove anything to me.”
“My hero! You did a sort of Superman thing. You saved me, didn’t you?” Lesley brushed back dust-clogged hair so she could look up at him with eyes that shone through the tears, He knew then that she had not missed his use of that old four-letter word but he was not about to take it back, so he licked a patch of her forehead clean and kissed it.
“Personally, I’m very glad you are a girl. It makes you lighter to catch. Somehow, though, we’ve got to get cleaned up, or they’ll never let us back on the train.”
They were masked in dust. Lesley beamed white teeth. “I don’t think we passed a laundrette. We need water.” She wrinkled her nose up at the horse trough; “No, not that!” The flies buzzed appreciatively, “Come on, let’s explore.”
Arm-in-arm the pair limped in the direction of the only land they had not investigated thus far, that of the great park beyond the stables. This offered them instant reward with the pleasantly tranquil prospect of a lake complete with reeds and waterfowl, presided over in gallant dereliction by a row of stone statues. A bank of wild flowers and herbs led down to the water’s edge, basking in the hot sun.
They turned to face one another. Lesley, who seemed to have shed her unselfconscious manners for the afternoon, shuffled awkwardly, “Well?” She murmured.
“Well,” Peter felt equally awkward. “You first?”
“’Course, we don’t have to, like, take off everything, do we?” Peter said. “We can keep the small stuff on.”
“Yes, of course! Keep the smalls! No worse than the beach, yeah?” Lesley agreed, trying to remind herself what ‘smalls’ she had put on that morning, and adding under her breath, “Mine are full of grit, or something.”
“Right then!” Peter hooked his thumbs under the hem of his t-shirt and slipped it over his head, then Lesley did the same with her camisole top and it took him longer to recover.
She was already unhooking her jeans when she caught his stare; “What? It’s a bra, innit? Are you seriously repressed?” Peter was speechless, unable to avert his eyes from diaphanous fragments of cloth that revealed far more than they concealed. Suddenly, the after-shock of her fall came back to Lesley: suddenly she was shy, shaking and unsure, and she drew her arms across her chest: “What’s the matter – haven’t you ever seen…?”
“Not yours. Not you.” He was in the presence of beauty that was new to him. She overwhelmed his senses so, that seeing her quaking and apart from him, he could not do other than reach out; for hands, for arms, for shoulders, taking her to himself. She did not resist. For a long while, neither spoke – a while in which her shivering found calm in the warmth of his body; and for a long while neither moved, other than to comfort and caress.
At last, when he dared trust himself to speak, Peter murmured in her ear, “Should we…?”
And she kissed his neck before she answered, very simply; “If you want.”
He had never wanted anything more in his life.
Later, much later, when early evening was taking the last heat from the sun, Peter woke from a sleep of peace. He looked across to his left and there Lesley lay naked beside him, still sleeping. Amazed, he studied the perfect face of innocence, unlined by guilt or sorrow or time, which nestled in that white-straw nest of hair, and he made a promise to himself that he would never betray that beauty. With a frond of thyme, he gently traced the arc of her forehead, followed the profile of her nose, brushed across her lips.
Lesley twitched and opened an eye. “Hiya! She whispered: “Who are you?”
“I was about to ask the same. I just thought you might know the time, ‘cause my ‘phone’s dead. I think it’s wet.”
She snorted: “Really? You’re surprised?” She hoisted herself onto her elbows. Before rolling across his chest to rummage in the grass for her ‘phone: “Oh, Peter? What time’s the train back?”
“Six-fifteen, I think.”
“Do you know what the time is now?”
Hastily they collected the clothes that they had somehow found space from each other to wash in the lake, then spread upon those warm stone statues to dry. They forced themselves, laughing, into their still damp jeans. Peter, the quicker to dress, sat pruriently watching Lesley smooth unwilling denim over her long legs, listening as she lamented her wild hair.
One older than he might have remarked how his eyes, his ears, his thoughts were all consumed by her: how he hardly spared a parting thought for the estate he had envisaged so often, and come so far to see. In exchange he had a new far greater discovery than those old stones could ever yield, so he would not care. Yet somehow he had expected something of Crowley House that was missing, although he could not be certain what it was. Perhaps Lesley had discovered it in his stead; in a tomb she had found by who knew what guidance, and in a mysterious box with a new tale to tell. If he had not shared her emotive connection to that cold place, he had seen how profoundly it affected her.
No ghosts lingered. The house was just a ruin, tottering on the verge of demolition. The grounds were ill-drained, weed-strewn and forgotten. Only the trees retained any secrets: he tore his eyes from his prettily disarranged companion to look across at the tall sentinel elms that hid this park from the civilised world, as if they might just have something to say: but they remained silent. Not even a newly-risen breeze could ruffle them.
A flash of reflected sunlight from deep within those trees caught his eye. He looked again and – yes – there it was; a momentary flicker, now gone.
“Come on, Les, let’s go.” He felt uneasy: “We’ll miss that train.”
They inspected each other for any mud that had escaped the washing process.
“Look at us!” Lesley said brightly: “Two scarecrows! Will they let us on, do you think?”
The statues, which in their role as clothes-horses had suffered a final ignominy, watched them leave.
On the journey home Peter and Lesley sat together, her head against his shoulder, half-sleeping as the miles rushed past. And Peter asked again, because hecould see Lesley had recovered from her experience in the vault, how she could be so certain the broken casket had contained a little boy, and she answered, from the edge of sleep: “Because I held him in my arms. Just for a second I held him, Peter. One day I’ll find him again. I will!”
© 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.