Part Five: Exploration and Discovery
The sounds emanating from Mountsell Park’s music room spoke of fingers engaged in a titanic struggle. Abel Montcleif, too polite to refer to the discordant sounds directly, punctuated his conversation with barely concealed winces and, once, an audible groan.
Arthur Herritt’s business manager shared his employer’s appreciation of good music. Physically, however, he contrasted less favourably. Whereas Arthur surpassed six feet in height, Montcleif fell short of it by four inches, Where Arthur’s nose was prominent and his chin sufficiently determined to support the chin-strap of a cavalryman, Montcleif’s nose would have been inadequate for the oversight of such a jaw as his master’s. Thankfully, his lower features tapered gracefully into the rest of his rather full profile, so there was no need, and if his voice had a flutish pitch about it which might have made him unremarkable upon first acquaintance, the force of his relentless personal drive more than compensated after a little time passed in his company. As a manager of Arthur’s affairs, and those of David Hart-Witterington before him, he was irreproachable. Arthur, so recently succeeded to the Hart-Witterington Estate, had loved him as a friend for years.
“I have seen very little of the lady,” Montcleif piped, referring to Francine Delisle, “In the last several months – since before Lord Hart’s sad passing. If, as you say, her guardian has been keeping her indoors for fear of some danger, real or imagined, that would not surprise me. Jebediah Fletcher is an ungenerous and frightened little man.”
Arthur grimaced as he recalled the name, “I know him! Of Fletcher and Green, the grocers’ emporium. Yet he is always out in Society, whereas I cannot recall encountering Francine in the City at all. Is she habitually so retiring, d’ye think?”
“Francine!” Montcleif raised an eyebrow. “That rather suggests you have been making up for lost time, doesn’t it? Are we enamoured of the young lady?”
“She…interests me. The manner of her appearance at Fletcher’s door, in a Moses Basket, as it were, the absence of any other information concerning her or her son, and now this visit from a crazed Dervish who is clearly far more interested than I? How does it all hinge together, Abel?”
Montcleif nodded, “I shall endeavour to find out. As to your assailant, I would think he is three counties away by now.”
“Truly? Would you? If his message had any honesty, I would say he is close by, waiting for a gap in our defences. It might be worthwhile remembering he used a plural: he said ‘the woman is ours’. I rather fancy he will not be waiting alone. I am not Jebediah Fletcher, yet I can see how the poor man could have been affrighted.”
“In the meantime may I take it Francine has become a guest of Mountsell Park?”
“Do you think it inappropriate?”
“A woman with a child, both in need of protection? A single man of marriageable age? Very, but one does what one must. Perhaps you can help her with her Pianoforte tuition?”
Much of the afternoon had passed when Arthur discovered Francine walking in the walled garden. Finding her had not been difficult, for Robinson the Ostler and one of his stable hands, returned from their pursuit of the trespassing horseman, were under instructions to keep watch upon her whenever she strayed from the House.
“I detain these gentlemen,” She greeted Arthur, nodding to the pair, who stood like sentries at the garden’s single door; “I intended to take the air. Am I a serious inconvenience?”
“Not in the least,” He assured her; “There must be other diversions than music.”
“You heard! You heard and you suffered, I am so sorry! My fingers seem eager to find a tune, yet I can make nothing pleasing come from the instrument. I have taken a decade striving to discover just one accomplishment that survives from the teaching of my past life, but I have found none. I cannot embroider, I cannot paint, and now I have a whole music room to myself I have no escape from my inability to play! I am truly worthless!”
“Please pardon my imposition of an escort upon you. I have no wish to limit your freedom, only to keep you safe. After this morning…”
“I know; I heard. And I do understand. Arthur, will you walk with me?”
“Gladly. Is Samuel not with you?”
“He is within doors. He is much taken with Peggy, the maid you so kindly provided for me. She has a repertoire of grisly tales that are entirely to his taste. He is rapt!”
With this and like subject matter to sustain them, the pair made their way from the garden, Francine treating her two heavily-built bodyguards to a nervous look and enquiring whether the fowling pieces they carried were strictly necessary?
Arthur apologised, “Scatter-guns are cumbersome, I know. Unfortunately, my noble predecessor had quite individual views on the subject of firearms, so we are woefully lacking. Other than a pair of duelling pistols, gamekeeping weaponry is all we possess. I’m working to correct that.”
“You have so much to defend here, Sir!” Almost without thought, Francine had taken Arthur’s arm and she gave it a hint of a squeeze; “After my privations in the City, this is very close to Paradise.”
They strolled at first by the carriage way which cut through the park, Francine buoyed up by the first bite of evening air, Arthur absorbed by her company. Behind them, the ostler and his stable hand kept watch at what they perceived to be a respectful distance. At a place where the way reached a depression Arthur guided Francine onto a far narrower defile, where they found their way beside high banks of rhododendron. A birch copse framed the path in ragged discipline, their history of leaf-mould soft to the tread. The estate gardeners had cleared this gully and made of it a forest path, full of the rustles and songs of evening, though an hour had passed since it was last touched by the sun. Francine shivered prettily in the chill, he offered his coat and she, adjusting the garment about her shoulders, expressed her gratitude with a ghost of a smile.
“Come,” he encouraged her. “We shall be done with the valley and back among the hills in no time!” As he promised, the lower portion of the path was immediately followed by an ascent which revealed a vista of the parkland to their right side, and Mountsell House to their left. The climb was steep enough for his support to be required, engendering a sensation which, as he clasped the cool submission of her hand, affected him more profoundly than he might have wished.
“That poor tree!” She declared as she found space to regain her balance, “Whatever happened to it?”
The smooth sloping grass beside their path had been massively disrupted by the toppling of a venerable old oak which, torn from the ground by its roots yet supported by its most stalwart branches, lay like a wounded soldier across the hillbrow, as though trying with its gnarled limbs to drag itself to safety.
Arthur nodded solemnly. “A sad casualty of the great gale that occurred on Christmas Night,” he said. “It proved the demise of several trees, but this one remains to be cleared. The work of a summer at least, for our woodcutters. It reduced our Head Gardener to tears.”
“I remember the storm well,” Francine acknowledged, “Nonetheless, I am surprised. One would have thought such a doughty presence capable of withstanding Armageddon, should it occur! What forces must have been needed to do that deed!”
“A fine old tree too – of some five hundred years standing, Mr Maple, our head gardener, asserts. He offered an explanation. Let us look.” Arthur took Francine’s hand again, which, he had to admit, he rather liked doing, and led her to an advantage from which she might see down into the pit left by the tree’s roots. “Do you see how shallow the root bole is? The tree could never grip the soil deeply because rock lies close to the surface here. With the years of growth those ancient boughs were gradually exceeding the effort of its roots.”
Francine looked as she was bidden, and she saw the base of the depression as Arthur described it – and yet more. How smooth, how clean, how extraordinary the surface of the rock appeared, as though freshly washed by rain, although there had been none in recent hours; and quite unreasonably she found herself wondering if somehow Arthur had conspired to lead her here, so she had to tell herself it had been her idea to walk with him, and why would he want, anyway, to impress her with this rock’s unaccountable magnificence or become aware of the warmth that seemed to radiate from it?
“It’s quite beautiful!” She may have spoken aloud.
A thunderous explosion rent the curtains of this illusion in twain and startled her so much she squealed in alarm, and instinctively threw herself into the arms of the Master of Mountsell Park! For a few fleeting moments she succumbed to his embrace before he could explain that the stable hand had accidentally discharged his gun, having jammed its stock heavily on his foot. When she felt able to look elsewhere than the folds of Arthur’s waistcoat she was gratified by the prospect of the culprit dancing on his painful toes. She sensed the gentle touch of Arthur’s fingers as they brushed the hair back from her cheek, and stepped away hurriedly. In seconds the moment was passed; she regained her composure, called out to their chastened escorts to enquire if anyone had been injured, even managed to laugh at the whole affair, but the beating of her heart took far longer to recover, and the vision of that rock would pursue her into dreams that night.
Vincent Harper might have appeared to be somewhat dwarfed by the vast proportions of his mansion. He was not as tall as his picture, nor was he as young. But as he bounded forward to greet Peter it was certain that his stellar presence had not diminished. His flaxen hair straggled forward just as it did on his album covers, draping over his narrow shoulders in wavy strings; and if most of these festoons started from a point lower on his cranium than once they did, it would have been unkind to notice. His wiry frame was so spare of flesh that, though the leather jeans and the white tee-shirt he wore were obviously made to be tight, they slipped freely over his body. Only his face, lined heavily by the years and by the harder side of living, gave away a man comfortably into his fifties. Peter was completely overawed.
“Come on, man, we’ve got some serious work to do:” Vincent took Peter by the shoulder. “Never been here before, have you? You’d like some grub, right? Come and have something to eat and I’ll show you round.”
Feeling a little shaky at the knees and not in the least hungry, Peter nevertheless allowed himself to be guided. The great hallway, with its school-corridor echoes and hard stone outlines, reduced him to awe-stricken silence. The walls were hung with pictures – some original oil paintings, some photographs and prints of y eastern origin – some of Vincent the artist and his band, some of women in states of undress, a few obvious family album pictures, too. a panelled oak door beneath the right hand flight of the glass staircase opened to admit him.
“Welcome to my pad, mate. This is the bit I actually live in, right?”
Beyond the door was a room from another world; for, as the great hall had been built to impress, so the salon was furnished to pamper. His feet wrapped by a deep crimson carpet, Peter breathed in a faintly familiar, exotic scent, gazing upon long, deeply cushioned settees and white-curtained walls which were hung, (where they were revealed), with very expensive paintings and prints – A Warhol, certainly, what appeared to be a Lucian Freud, something very like a late Augustus John with many others he couldn’t identify. Six pillars of satin aluminium supported a low padded ceiling dotted with starry lights, from which two womb chairs were suspended. Framed perfectly in one of these sat a svelte, languorous woman in a bright green silk robe, whose straight raven hair sparked from her head like an electric shock. Vincent introduced her.
“Peter, this is Alice.”
“Hi Pete.” Alice’s voice had a slow, dialect drawl. “Want some nosh? Something to drink? Drinkies, yeah?” Her long slender hand gestured at a low table laden with the stuff of luncheon: salad greens, fruit, bread. The hand, with its fine wrist and impossibly thin fingers, should have seemed beautiful to Peter, because Alice was a model who was used to having the finer points of her beauty dissected and admired, but it did not. She seemed formless, like a squid.
“Hullo Alice.” Peter responded shyly.
Vincent gave his shoulder a brief hug. “Have what you like, man. Make yourself at home. Plant your arse somewhere and we’ll tell you what comes next.”
A drink and two sandwiches later, Peter found it easier to talk. Where did he live, what was he studying? All the time he had the impression they knew what his answers would be. He found himself half-accepting this, just as for some reason he seemed to find his hosts’ expectation of his visit unsurprising – it was the most natural thing in the world to issue invitations via a wild bird. Nor did he pronounce himself unwilling when Vincent told him how he absolutely must see the rest of the house that very day. He did try vaguely to protest that he had lectures to attend that afternoon, but already the world outside lacked importance – had faded, almost, into mist. Besides, the rockstar legend was manifestly proud of his ‘pad’ and it would have been rude to deny him. The air in the room felt thick and heavy, the yielding cushions beneath his weight too softly inviting. He began to wash in and out on a tide of sleep. Present gently merged into past, words in his head were befogged by music so he was only able to pick up snatches of conversation. Alice’s voice, quite sharp, was one of these bites.
“Better get him moving now, or he won’t be going anywhere. Once he drops off, it’ll take hours to get him back.”
Vincent’s hand was grasping his shoulder: “Come and have a look around, mate.” He said.
Now, with an odd sensation of floating, he was being steered back into the great hall, Alice following on spidery legs, her slippers shuffling unaccountably loudly over the marble as though they were treading sand. Here, with the fresher air clearing his head, he was ready to be told about the history of the pictures on the wall, the architecture, or maybe even some stuff about Crowley or Ballentine. Could one of the portraits depict Lady Elizabeth herself? But Vincent did not seem to know – or if he did, he gave very little information.
“Truth is, Peter, I’m not too clued up about the past of this place. You probably know more than me. And you’re going to tell me everything you do know, mate; aren’t you?”
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