Part Two of Conversations
The Prince’s Gift
“Fecking Bloody Proust!”
Such a malediction, especially shouted into the afternoon peace of an English seaside promenade, was bound to attract notice. The few heads there were to turn, turned. Melanie, laughing her embarrassment, clapped her hand over Peter’s mouth.
“European History. I’m supposed to be answering a question about the Third Republic, and what do I do? I write four pages on Proust!”
“Well, he was sort of interesting. Very, um… influential.”
“And ….and….I went on for about an hour. Half an hour per essay, maximum. I know that.”
The girl with the sprite in her eyes grinned sympathetically: “In search of lost time?”
“Oh. Oh, funny!” Peter slammed his fist against the railings. It hurt. “I’ve failed. Oh, I have so failed! Re-sits, now. Oh, god!”
Melanie shook her head sadly, seeing the end of the world in Peter’s eyes, knowing it wasn’t; not really.
“Peter, it’ll be alright. Since when have you ever had to re-sit anything? Since when did you get anything less than an A?”
She leant against the rail beside him, and together they watched the evening tide slinking up the beach. She thought about the face of the serious young man beside her; something she could do without looking at him. She knew his face in this mood – the dark, enclosed eyes with a torment behind them, the strong jaw tucked in, the twitch in his pale skin.
Peter; temperamental, unbearably clever, generally considered something of a geek – her friend, now, of many years. Growing up together in a small town like Levenport, it was never possible to be far apart. After a while she sighed. “Calmer now?”
“Yes, I suppose so.”
St. Benedict’s Rock, the great basalt island across the bay, was a black silhouette in the evening sun. The Bavarian towers at its summit like a pair of accusing fingers, features of a mansion which was more a ludicrous hat than a crowning glory, moved their shade eastward across the town, towards Levenport Head. Once, needing the mental exercise, Peter had tried to devise a means of telling time by those shadows: at seven am they would be pointing to the fish dock, twelve midday the town hall, and so on. By that calculation it was now Woolmarket, or five pm.
“Vince Harper’s back in town.” Melanie tried to change the subject.
“Yeah?” said Peter absently.
“Yeah. Saw his car at lunchtime, crossing the causeway. Look forward to some nice sounds tomorrow morning.”
She referred to the retired rock star who lived in the ludicrous hat atop the rock, and the rooftop guitar solos that were his signature. Fortunately, he was not in town often, for his musical messages, delivered as early as six o’clock even on winter mornings, were of metal intensity. The amplifiers which transmitted them, powerful though they undoubtedly were, could not overcome distortion by the elements, and so arrived at the mainland shore devoid of much of their musical eloquence. Muffled by distance and scarified by the wind, they generated outrage amongst those of the town’s citizenry who were older, and more classically inclined.
“Hey,” Melanie put her arm around Peter’s shoulders and gave him a brief hug, which was something she liked to do. “I should go, Babes. Message me tonight?”
“I guess.” Peter said.
“See you then.” Melanie walked away, doubting Peter would even notice she had gone. “And how did your exam go, Melanie?” She murmured to herself: “Oh, OK, Peter. I forgot all about bloody Proust.”
“Aaark” said a seagull which had taken Melanie’s place at the rail.
“Ah!” Said Peter. “Quite right! But what happened to Toqus? That’s the question!”
Eyes narrowed against the sun, Peter’s gaze led him out over the water. Now Melanie had provided the spark, his own thoughts were turned towards the strange, misshapen house on St. Benedict’s Rock.
St. Benedict’s Rock had a past. Before the monks came and joined it by a causeway to the mainland it had been entirely an island, a looming pile with a reputation for spirits and black magic. The warriors who had been first to land there, those whose castle once stood where the house stood now, and who built a tiny harbour on the landward side, spoke of strange sounds, of constant bird attack and plagues of snakes. They named it Satan’s Rock. In those days the bay had treacherous tides to draw the shore people and their primitive fishing boats to their deaths. A causeway had tamed the seas, but the monastery which succeeded the castle had no less a reputation for evil. The shore people told of skies glowing with fire, young men drawn to the monastery as novices who disappeared, never to be seen again.
Peter knew the history, of course. There had been some sort of structure on top of the rock almost since time began: a castle, a monastery; but the story of the Great House that topped it now, possibly one of the most unusual great houses in the land, had begun one summer early in the nineteenth century.
This was at a time when the monarchy rested in the hands of a Prince Regent (‘Prinny’ to his friends). ‘Prinny’ was something of an innovator, and one innovation which greatly enthused him was the then novel past-time of bathing. He bathed in Brighton – quite often – where his large regal bathing engine, rolled into the sea by flunkies to protect the royal modesty was one of the sights of the fashionable beach. And occasionally he visited un-bathed-in coastal towns elsewhere for ‘a dip in the waters’. Of course large parties of hangers-on invariably followed. Whether many of these sycophants shared Prinny’s desire to immerse themselves in icy water, Peter did not know: but their liege’s love of a good party was something they all concurred with and a future King will always find company in even the chilliest of seas.
In his own eyes of course, Lord Horace Crowley would consider himself a courtier. Lord Horace was an empire builder who had come home laden with gold and audacity from some Middle Eastern wars where, in the best traditions of his ancestors, he had done a considerable amount of despoiling and burning. Horace’s bluff manner was fashionable at the time, and so he came to be courted by the cream of London society; and so, too, came to be visiting Levenport, emerging from a bathing engine adjacent to Prinny’s one cool April afternoon. Both had imbibed freely of the vino.
“Deuced cold!” Prinny had observed. Each wavelet brought fresh needles of ice. “Don’t your servant chappy feel it?”
The prince gestured towards Crowley’s manservant, a tall unsmiling figure with ebony skin who stood motionless beside him in water that was at least waist deep. Toqus, a captive from the last of His Lordship’s foreign expeditions, had an exotic attraction for the Prince – an attraction also felt by many of the high-born ladies in London society. Toqus seemed oblivious to a temperature that had Crowley shivering almost too violently to speak.
The King-to-be took a lengthy quaff from his glass, which he always carried into the water with him. “More wine, old chap?”
A fully-clothed attendant hovered, waist deep, ready to recharge their glasses. Insofar as it was possible for Crowley to feel pity he felt it for this poor flunky, whose slight form bobbed upon (and was almost overset by) each wave.
“Oh, damn it, go on then!” Said Crowley through chattering teeth: “You’re a dreadful generous host, y’know Prinny!”
“D’y’know I am?” Prinny gasped: “I truly am! Generous to my truest and dearest friends, Horace! To you, dear old chap!” Bursting with emotion, the Prince Regent reached across to touch Crowley on the arm: “You know I‘d give you anything, don’t you? You just have to ask me, dear boy – just have to ask.”
The flunky, who had, by now, turned dangerously blue, recharged Crowley’s shaking glass. What with the shaking of the flunky and the shaking of Crowley, and the mischievous intervention of a stiffish east wind, less than half of the wine found its way from bottle to glass, the rest casting itself upon the waters. Crowley was so cold he could feel nothing below his waist. The ludicrousness of this circumstance came home to him so that he began first to giggle, then laugh aloud.
“Anything, Prinny?” He just managed to stutter.
“Anything, dear man! Jus’ anything!”
“All right then – anything.” Crowley looked about him. “Prinny M’dear, I’ll take the damned rock!”
Both men dissolved into laughter at the hugeness of this joke, and Crowley would have thought no more of it; but the following week a messenger brought a legal deed of title to his Kensington Village residence. Toqus presented this document to him with his breakfast tray. The rock was his.
Featured Image Credt: Mollyroselee on Pixabay
© 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.