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 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.

“Peter!”

“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.”

“Wicked.” 

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.

Behind the Screens

A little narrative:

Recently, a young woman from Eastern Europe who lives in UK, rushed her heavily pregnant sister to hospital, 

Adhering to the letter of their Covid 19 regulations the hospital staff insisted the pregnant sister be separated from her sibling, who was seated on a chair in the ward corridor – a chair she occupied for the next four hours.  An examination of her heavily-pregnant sister was obviously needed, but the staff on duty refused to proceed until an interpreter had been summoned, because she spoke very little English.  

 They refused, inexplicably, to fit her sister (whose English is impeccable) with protective clothing and invite her to interpret.  Instead, they insisted upon sending for an interpreter, a man, living in a town 98 miles away, who took more than three hours to arrive.

The interpreter was lacking in medical knowledge, and extremely embarrassed by the bedside position in which he found himself.  His input was limited to a few sentences, and he frequently felt the need to turn his back on the patient!

It isn’t impossible to extract some humor from that situation, as long as you, a taxpayer, are happy to ignore the discomfort to which this poor woman was subjected over a protracted period, the occupation of staff and bed, and the cost of the interpreter, together with his travel expenses for 186 miles, when more capable help was freely available just yards away.

In  legal parlance this tale is hearsay, anecdotal, although I see no reason to disbelieve it.  There are many such examples of profligacy and waste, yet because whistle-blowing is effectively gagged we rarely have the chance to hear an insider’s view.  Instead we are constantly fed the line  that the Health Service is short of money, that more support is needed, more nurses, more doctors, more this, more that.  It takes emergence of these tales from a patient’s perspective to suggest the problems run much deeper.   Deeper, even, than the Health Service itself.

I can see how easily common sense might have prevailed, were it other than a Sunday night, when a senior person might not have been present.  Perhaps they might have overruled the strict ‘letter-of-the-law’ position that prohibited employment of the English-speaking sister – or perhaps not.

Perhaps everyone in the National Health Service has to tread upon eggshells because there is a phalanx of ambulance-chasing lawyers and journalists waiting in the wings to pounce upon anything that could be made to look like malpractice; ready to sue for millions and campaign across all the mainstream media, if the tiniest chink in the armour of accepted practice is exposed.

This is a malady that afflicts us all.  Not just in the National Health Service, but the Police Force and any one of a list of organisations where contact with the general public is involved.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with protecting people’s rights, or guarding against criminal malpractice, but society has become so litigious everyone is afraid to apply  common sense, and the cost to us all in terms of waste and duplication is huge.   A jet stream of negativity seeks out every crack in the casement, every cranny in the conversation so an action that is not specified by a rule book, a word not in the prepared script can send the unwary tumbling from their career and leave them personally unprotected.

We are knee-deep in poorly-drafted legislation that can be re-interpreted or simply misused in ways that, in the end, offer protection for nobody.  The effect has rather been a tendency to drive the real issues underground.

Personally, I have experienced both good and bad from the National Health Service in the UK. I would not belittle the wonderful care I have received, but nor should I deny the duplicated work and extravagant use of resources – they are enough to persuade me that money itself is not the cure-all the Service would have us believe.

Released finally from her treatment, the pregnant lady concerned has vowed she will ‘never return to that hospital’ as she believes medical care was better in her home country.  In the meantime, she has vowed to have her baby at home!

It is an ill wind that blows no-one any good.  I’ve said this before, but maybe Covid, with its gift for forcing us to re-examine all of our basic structures, might provide a fresh start?

Picture Credit: Stocksnap from Pixabay