The Lady in the Wood

The Lady in the Wood

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From the horizon of my memory there was, had always been, a lady in the wood.

Walking or running among the fallen of an autumn morning when I was very young I met her there, picking wild herbs and toadstools from among the trees.  This was in the year my mother first sat me down before a piano.  The lady’s clothing was new to me, so as I described her to my father I likened it to the piano keys.  I did not mean it unkindly, Such was the picture I had of her, which would stay with me over time.

My father explained that the lady lived alone in the wood, and I must always be polite to her, so the ‘Piano Lady’ joined my list of those to whom I must always be polite, which in those days was just about everybody.   Was she another aunt, like the ones who visited at Christmas?

“She is not one of your family, Dominic.  Sister Augusta is a recluse, a very religious person.  In many ways, we are her guests.”

This seemed strange to me.  The wood was ours, a part of the ‘grounds’ surrounding our home.  Why was it acceptable for this oddly-clothed lady to live so freely among us, almost as though we were honoured by her presence?

“She’s a bride of Christ.”

“Does she talk to Him?”

“Quite possibly. I wouldn’t be qualified to judge.”

Further answers would trickle down to me gradually, with the years.  Long before I was born, my mother told me, Madders End was a priory.  The peaceful acre of green patrolled by our mower each summer once yielded to the feet of a dwindling order of nuns who tended vegetables in the walled garden where roses now grow or chattered noisily through echoing corridors where I ran, roller-bladed and played chase with a streak of white fur called Taffy.

For centuries Madders End novitiated a steady supply of fledgeling nuns, earnest women who craved the peace to be found within its doors.  But as centuries change fashions and devotions must alter too, so there came an age that brought no new brides to plight their troth to Christ.  One by one His ancient harem kept their appointments with Him in Paradise until so few remained they could no longer sustain their living at Madders End. The old house came up for sale.  My parents saw the place and loved what they saw.  They bought it, the house and all its grounds together – the stony beck which runs down to the River Madder past the orangery, the tranquil little garden alight with spring flowers where those who gave their love to God now rest, and the wood – the five-acre wood, with its solitary tenant.

Sister Augusta, like the little garden, came as part of the deal, her right to remain enshrined as a condition of purchase.  Years before, hearing the priory had a ‘hermit’ in its midst, a benefactor had supplied Sister Augusta with a caravan which was pitched, at her request, within the five-acre wood.  When the Church moved the last two of her Sisters in Christ to a care home Sister Augusta remained, stubbornly self-sufficient and really quite charming, to become my constant companion throughout those special growing years.

Our relationship began with the simple, direct language of childhood.  “How old are you, Sister?”

She looked genuinely perplexed.  “Do you know, I’m not sure.  How old do you think I am?”

“A hundred and fifty.”

“Well, that must be about right.  How old are you?”

“I’m six and three-quarters.”

“You’re very brave, coming into the woods alone.”

It was neither a very large wood nor a very attractive one.  No tree was particularly tall, or statuesque.  There was a lot of ground cover, brambles and the like, over which an anaemic mob of silver birches and struggling oaks milled like hungry gulls.   Early conversations between Sister Augusta (“You must call me Gussy, it’s easier”) and I were conducted sitting on a fallen birch log she favoured as a place for contemplation.  When winter came I would visit her at ‘home’, bringing newspapers from our house and a casserole or two prepared by my mother.

Sister Gussy’s caravan, for some reason, possessed no wheels.  It rested on railway sleepers to one side of a clearing in the wood, glaring defiantly out from the undergrowth with its big windows at one end, buried deep in verdure at the other.  Inside it was as clean and austere as you might expect, its only furniture a bed, a table, two elderly leather chairs and a little cooker that hissed and hiccupped its way through a cylinder of gas tucked from sight beneath its skirts.

Skirts?   Yes, ‘skirts’ were a distinctive influence in Sister Gussy’s décor.  From the heavy velvet divide shielding the dormer end of her caravan to the odd pieces of cloth that draped from curtain wires over every cupboard, nook and cranny; wherever there might be doors there was a ‘skirt’ instead, and each ‘skirt’ had an identity of its own. If Gussy needed the pewter dish from which she ate I would find it ‘behind the rabbits’, a shelf covered by a fragment of child’s pyjamas with a rabbit print; so, too, for her religious artefacts (behind the pink stripes), her toiletries (the pandas), and so on.

“So much better than cupboard doors which are forever falling off, or swelling and becoming stuck when the weather’s wet, you see?”

She had very few cubby holes in that caravan and very few possessions.  With a child’s frankness, I pointed this out to her in one of our early overtures of conversation.

“I have all I need.”  Gussy told me.  “The Lord provides, but He is a bit naughty sometimes, because He lets me forget where He puts things.  He is particularly mischievous in the spectacles department!”

Gussy’s heavy, brown-framed National Health specs were a constant vexation to her.  “They persist in hiding from me the moment I turn my back.”

The only other structure in Gussy’s clearing was a small wooden hut discreetly tucked away in the overgrowth behind the caravan, which she referred to as ‘The Necessary’.  The remaining open ground was her garden, planted with neat rows of turnips, carrots, beans and every naturally rooted comestible you could think of.  There were clamps of potatoes, forcing pots of rhubarb, stakes for peas to climb and raised beds full of herbs, although the visual clinicity of this earthly paradise was rather ruined by an array of polythene cloches and netting.

“The birds are absolute terrors, you see?  They are convinced they need my food more than I,”  Gussy explained, musing, as an afterthought,  “Perhaps they do.”

A small bed of marigolds grew discreetly in one corner of the garden.  I remarked upon these being her only flowers.

“Flowers are rather sinful, aren’t they?  An indulgence.  The Lord said I can get away with marigolds because they are quite nice as a tea and good for the skin, but He knows the truth, you see.  I believe I pointed out that chrysanthemums are very tasty too, but He thought that was a step too far.”

Many were the enchanted hours I spent, child and later youth, talking and reading with the ascetic recluse of our woods, while my family shared in the bounty of her garden because, like all well-tended gardens, it unfailingly exceeded its carer’s needs.   Her protest:  “I shall never eat all these!” as she sent me home with a trug full of goodness became familiar to our kitchen.  She might have shamed us for our feckless treatment of grounds that had once fed an entire priory; now so devoted to lawns and vanity they produced not so much as a lettuce, but she never did.

If I have given the impression that we had our darling Sister entirely to ourselves I have misled you. The winding lane by which, at some distant time presumably, the caravan had made its way to Gussy’s clearing was frequented by others too.  Father Macalbee, our local priest, visited once a week to take her confession, and I remember an acutely shy old man in a black coat who I unwittingly interrupted one day, deep in discussion with her.  I was about to retreat but he spotted me and retreated sooner.  He had a car parked in the lane.  He drove away.

“That is Paul,”  Gussy told me,  “A dear friend!  I am obliged to him for the provision of this caravan, and I have known him since the days when our priory prospered.  Alas, we are not so young these days, but he has been most generous to our church and he does not forget me.  We often pray together.”

For whatever reason, it may have been a visit to the caravan of a supplicant with a media presence, or maybe even an initiative by The Church itself, Gussy’s reputation as a solitary all at once became ‘viral’, and spread far and wide.  As I grew to youth I saw more and more visitors make the pilgrimage up the muddy lane to her door; some who sought only her blessing or her company, others who wanted scraps from the plate of her wisdom, which encompassed much.

In a media-savvy generation the fame of such a good and truly honest person was inevitable, my father said, and it seemed he was right, for soon executives in big cars came creeping over the ruts in the lane, bearing offers from newspapers, radio, and television.  Gussy responded to them all with enthusiasm, never once showing impatience with those who trampled her garden or intruded upon her devotions.

“I have become rather a failure as a recluse,” She confessed when I light-heartedly accused her of straying from her mission; “I have to tell myself I am doing the Lord’s work, and I never take a step without asking Him.”   Her face split into a delighted smile; “If only I didn’t enjoy it so much!”

Our family watched Gussy’s first television appearance on a morning show, unsurprised by her calm, almost lyrical defence of her God but afraid for her then, and with reason.  Soon she was holding down a regular spot on national television, contributing short accounts of episodes in her life which exemplified triumphs of faith.  Those stories were compiled as a book that, if it did not exactly top the sales charts, at least made royalties she could pass on – as she passed on any fees – to her beloved Church.

Throughout these adventures the caravan remained Gussy’s retreat, her garden her consolation. As her travels made increasing demands on her I saw her less frequently, as much my fault as anyone’s because I was immersed in my studies, you see, with the Royal Academy beckoning.  I was committed, by this time, to my music.

Sitting at my bedroom window the other day I recalled the last conversation we shared before I departed for college.  I asked her if she felt there could be any chance she could return to her former life.

She pondered my question gravely for a moment.  “If God asked it of me, of course I would.  He makes the running, Dominic, not me.  If He tells me I am more useful spreading His word, I can’t refuse, any more than you can close the lid on your piano when the world means you to play.  I know you do not share in my belief, but I assure you He lives and moves in us both.”

“You must miss it; the peace, the turning of the seasons, all that?”

“Bless you, they still turn.  I am still here, much of the time.  I miss my few special friends.  You, I shall miss when you are away; Paul, I miss him, too.”

“He doesn’t visit you anymore?”

“No.  His years are a heavy burden, and Paul is a very private person – he rejoices in solitude, you might say, as much as I.  With all the dashing to and fro I have to do these days, he is put off, I think.  I haven’t seen him for almost a year now.  It is God’s will.”

I met Sister Augusta just once more, a year later, on the very day I returned from Academy for the winter break.  Previously, between terms I had called at the caravan,  finding it locked and the precious little garden neglected.  I knew she had many engagements; everyone, it seemed, wanted a share of her: ‘a piece of her’ to echo my father’s words.  I would hear news of her successes from all over the world, from the Americas, Australia, Europe – she even had an audience with the Pope. So when my father told me she had come home, that November, I was almost surprised until the look on his face told the rest of the story.

“A friend of hers, someone called Paul, died this summer, and it seemed to rip the heart out of her,  She’s very ill, Dom.  Too ill to live on her own anymore, so Father Macalbee has arranged for her to be cared for by the nuns over at Monckton Delaval.  She knows you’re home today, so Father Macalbee is bringing her here, because she especially asked to see you.  You should prepare yourself, my boy.  She’s extremely frail. Much has changed.”

In my young years I had yet to be close to one who was dying.  The Gussy who Father Macalbee helped from his car outside our door was not the bright star I had known, but a shrunken husk of a life no more than a step or two from eternity.   She brought a parcel wrapped in brown paper which the good Father carried for her and placed by her chair.

She spoke with difficulty, “It is a picture given to me by my blessed friend Paul, who has left us, so I thought it fitting it should come to you and your wonderful family.  It is a gift, a token of my gratitude, now my work here is done.

“The land is yours, now.  I have arranged for my caravan to be transported to Monckton Delaval: the good sisters there are taking me in, and that is my legacy for them.  God will always protect you, and I pray we shall both have some small memory of each other.”

Mercifully quickly, within a week, my dear Gussy was dead, and I was left to mourn, as we all mourned.  She asked, at the last, if she could be buried alongside her Sisters in the little garden where the spring flowers grow, and we gathered there to watch her take her place in earth I like to believe is made warmer by her presence.  That, we thought, closed the book upon our life with Sister Augusta.

The picture she gave us had a place of honour on our dining room wall.  It was old, an oil painting on board of a pleasant country scene featuring a stone monument beside a river.  My father thought it looked Dutch but of no special merit.  Its value was in the gift.  Gussy wanted us to remember her by it, and this we did.  Before long, though, it began generating memories of its own.

My father’s curiosity led him to some old catalogues.  What he found he laid before us all in the dining room.  What he suspected the internet seemed to confirm.  We deliberated for a long time before we telephoned the police.

An art expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum shared our suspicions, and a representative from a Boston art gallery seemed jubilant that Govert Flinck’s seventeenth-century ‘Landscape with Obelisk’, stolen from his gallery many years before, had been found.

The police acted quickly, and it was good that they did, because the sisters of Monckton Delaval were already stripping Gussy’s old caravan down when they arrived and declared it a crime scene.  Within a false inner wall they discovered three more stolen works of art and more than four hundred thousand pounds in used bank notes, a bequest their priory would never get to spend.

Gussy ’s shy friend Paul, later investigations discovered, as Paul Massingberd, international criminal, had every reason to be shy.  To his unwitting friend, he had given a generous ‘gift’ – a caravan large enough to conceal a portion of his ill-gotten gains, in case forced retirement curtailed his gangland income.  He died, though, before he had a chance to make any withdrawals.  No-one was ever charged.

I like to think that Gussy would have been greatly amused by this turn of events, and beyond the reach of mortal man she could quietly smile, as she saw a fresh aspect of her life’s story unfold.  After all, she had lived most of her life in poverty, sleeping within a few inches of a fortune.  She couldn’t have known, could she?

Photo credit: 

Banner: Marc Pell from Unsplash

Joshua Applegate on Unsplash. 

Frank Eiffert on Unsplash

© 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 Thirteen

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.

“Aye, missy?”

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, 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

 

In a Monastery Garden

Another from the archives:

“Will you be comfortable there, Father? The bench is hard; can I bring you a pillow to support your back?”
The novitiate is over-solicitous, as those fresh to the calling tend to be, and he tests Father Ignatius’s patience at times. “A pillow, indeed? Now that would be an indulgence rife with sin, would it not? ” The old Abbot replies.“I wonder, Brother, would you ask Brother Thomas to come and see me when he is spared from his tasks? I would like him to sit with me here for a while, if he can. Oh! (As the young brother moves to depart) And you might ask him to bring a blanket, should he be able.”
The novitiate fades back into the green fog that is all the good Father can perceive of the monastery garden, leaving not a memory behind.
With a contented sigh Father Ignatius leans back on the hard timber bench while his rheumy eyes explore the mist, wandering across the lawns to those vague splashes of colored flowers which are impressions on his palette of memory, remembered rather than seen. There will be campion where Brother Paul always plants it, and perhaps it is already in bloom, a brave red slash along the border before the high wall, and there, too, the meadowsweet and flowering thyme, in softer, more subtle hues. From the orchard beyond the wall a gentle scent of apple blossom on the breeze – a breeze now chill to these old bones, though the sun is strong. And this is his garden, sight and scent, and this the hum of bees, and this, his world.
Left alone, his mind quickly fades to sleep. His breath cracks in his chest. Wafts of grey habit drift by, hither and thither, with greetings he scarcely hears.
“Good day to you, Father!”
“God bless you, Father!”
These, God’s children, some who will pause to touch his hand as they pass, some who will not. On the edge of rest he sighs in sorrow for them. Brother Thomas brings news often of the new King, so discontented with his Spanish Queen; of how his heart is tainted by violence and hatred; so that Thomas fears he would burn down this sanctified place. Father Ignatius makes a silent prayer for his King who, though god himself, needs his true God’s mercy.
He has dozed awhile, has he not? The sun has dropped lower over the presbytery roof, casting its long shadow like a cloak across the grass. How long has he slept? Has he missed Vespers? Why has Brother Thomas not come for him? Some more pressing business, Father Ignatius suspects, for his good friend will soon be Father Abbot in his place, an office he already conducts in all but name. Yet the bees still hum their own plainsong, and the birds’ jealous melodies of evening are scripture to eyes which can no more see the written word. So perhaps God will forgive him for his omission, this once? Father Ignatius settles his conscience with a word or two of prayer, and drifts.
Again? Has he yielded to sin and slept again?
I am cold.
“I am cold.” Father Ignatius says, but no words come, nor can he say to whom he would speak. From deep within something is reaching for him, and someone stands behind him, someone he cannot feel or see. There is a roaring sound in his head like the surf upon the shores of his youth, pounding and pounding. He sees himself, a child again. He sees the beach, and Marian whom he loved once, smiling her welcome, her skin fresh and shining in the salt spray.
A new journey has begun – a journey for which he has been preparing all his life.
Around Father Ignatius the mist is closing, a grey cloak that curls and swirls like speech, though it has no sound. Yet there is sound. Voices: strange voices that utter words of a tongue he scarcely understands.
“Through here. Try the door.” A young man.
“Look how old this wall is!” A girl or a young woman; nervous, by the tremor in her tone.
“It must be original,” The young man again. “The plan shows there was a garden here. See? The handle turns really easily…”
The girl, in wonder: “Oh, Luke!”
Father Ignatius’s half-blind eyes pick out a lance of light, stabbing, flickering, turning towards him! Suddenly, rapidly, they materialize; the young man who sends the light from his hand, the girl who clings to his arm. He is short-haired and beardless with a bright red tunic and hose for both his legs joined in a single garment. The girl is dressed with her legs immodestly exposed, wearing just a loose vest and a strip of cloth about her hips. For a moment, Father Ignatius sees as though the veils of age have been entirely lifted, and the girl sees him too. Their eyes meet, their minds unite. In her shock, she screams loudly, her shrill note echoing through the empty garden.
“Do you see him?” She breathes, “Luke, do you see?”
“No, I can’t see anything,” But yes, he can. His features are frozen in fear. and he has already begun to back away, his feet demanding he run. He drops his lance of light as he grips her shoulder. “We shouldn’t be here! Come on!”
The girl lingers, reluctant. She sees; she knows.
“Bless me, Father?”
After Compline, as the last traces of evening fade, Brother Thomas will discover Father Ignatius still seated at his customary place in the garden, one hand raised as if, with his last breath, he was trying to give a blessing. In the neglectfulness of youth his novitiate never passed on the ancient Abbot’s message. Filled with remorse Brother Thomas will drop to his knees to administer the last rites and as he does so, his knee will find something hard half-buried in the grass; a black cylinder. He will be amazed to discover that in response to his touch it emits a piercing light.

© Frederick Anderson 2020. 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.

Featured photo: Falco at Pixabay