Part Three of Conversations
What could have befallen Toqus? Peter’s mind had already lost itself – his nightmare examination of the afternoon, European History and the dusty room with the dusty, pacing invigilator – all gone. The history which had fascinated him since he was first old enough to read was written in local history books. The bricks and mortar of Levenport, its traditions, superstitions, atrocities and victories, all laid out around him. The Rock – St. Benedict’s Rock, sometimes reputed to be inhabited by Satan himself – that loomed above them all, loomed large in his vision now. Callow youth, chin on hands, fingers gripping the cool steel of the handrail, the retreating tide singing to his question in ripples among the stones. Toques, the manservant who never left Crowley’s side, where did he go? That seagull, gripping the rail likewise a dozen yards away, remained inscrutable.
“How would you know?” Peter murmured. The gull cocked its head. “Do seagulls talk about history at all? In the evenings, maybe, perched up there on the ridge tiles, before the kebab shops open?”
The bird fluffed a few feathers as an adjustment, clucking awkwardly, as references to its scavenging lifestyle were obviously discomfiting.
For several years following his memorable dip in the Levenport waters, Horace, Lord Crowley did nothing about the rocky island that was his royal gift. During these (it should be said) quite happy times for the town of Levenport, ownership of its rock was a matter of no concern: a trickle of rent flowed through to His Lordship’s ample London coffers, paid by the tenants of the odd few cottages which nipped like bulldog clips onto the side of the track that led to its summit, but that was all.
Lord Crowley never came, and happily for those who eked a living from certain continental trading activities, The Revenue rarely came – the rock languished in its own particular peace.
At last there befell a time when Crowley’s sun began to sink lower in the Palace sky: the older ‘Prinny’, soon to be King George IV, with his love of laudanum grew tetchy and difficult to please, so many of those friends who, true or otherwise, had found their fortunes at his noble feet were distanced. After Prinny’s coronation Crowley spent less and less time at Court. The parties grew fewer, the invitations sparse. Also older and more circumspect, he took as his wife one Elizabeth Grey, a society beauty who, though herself considered to be past her prime, was yet thirty years his junior.
At such a distance of time and space it was hard to know exactly when the old warlord decided to retire from London and Brighton life, still harder to comprehend why, of all his estates, he picked the Rock of St. Benedict as the windy cradle for his autumn years. He alighted from a coach-and-pair one brisk morning outside Roper’s Hotel on Levenport’s esplanade with his manservant Toqus in his wake, making no secret of his intention to stay. The town was afire with excitement: the news that their distinguished guest intended to build a mansion on the rock flew through the salons and drinking houses so rapidly that the proprietor of Roper’s Hotel learned of it from his fishmonger before he heard it from Crowley himself!
In the weeks before construction began the town was full of rumours: what sort of dwelling could the great man be thinking of, to crown the rock and still satisfy his undoubted subtleties of vision and taste? Would he follow the fashion, so popular at the time, of the Indian Palace, with those great Sezincote windows and high exotic domes?
Unfortunately, enormous wealth does not always imply good taste. Crowley worked hard upon his plans for a mansion to be perched upon the rock: he employed the best architect, listened to the wiser counsels of his wife, his family, his friends. He listened, but he never heard. One by one, the architect’s best endeavours were rejected until at last the poor man found he could suggest no more. He returned to London, leaving in his wake a hotchpotch of drawings and uncompleted notes. These, the noble Lord studied for some time.
Days later there was summoned to Roper’s a certain Mr. Quimple. Mr Quimple was well known within the town as the architect who had created, among other things, Levenport’s charity hospital. This was a fine building, although less artistic than functional. His subsequent commissions, drawing upon this early success, were equally unimaginatively designed, but had the virtue of being built like fortresses, so no-one relished the idea of knocking one down.
“Quimple!” Lord Crowley instructed him grandly: “Build me that!”
Joseph Quimple was a mild, slightly oily little man with disorderly clothes and straggly hair which fell on his head like a well-tossed salad. His outward appearance was in total contrast to that of his buildings. They were flat and uninteresting. Joseph Quimple did not have a flat bit anywhere.
“Er, what did you want built, m’Lord?”
“Dammit, have you no eyes, man? That!”
Crowley’s hand gestured expansively towards a large board propped against a wall: Quimple had already seen it. He felt a lump of horror rising in his throat.
“Well!” He said.
“My word!” He said.
He couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Glued to the board were bits and pieces of architectural drawing, cut apparently at random from the work of an obviously talented architect and reassembled to make a plan for a mansion. Although what resulted was obviously intended to be a vision of a great house, upon first appearance it looked like nothing more than a page from a scrap-book. There were bits of roof turned on end to make walls, gable-ends stuck over the top of windows, chimneys turned into pillars. Where the scraps failed to fit into the rest of the picture an expansive hand had joined them with bold lines in black ink with brief notations beneath:
‘Add step to match with first floor’
‘More roof here’.
Quimple felt his diminutive soul shrivelling deeper within him. He struggled for words:
“It’s a very original concept.” He managed to blurt out at last.
Crowley swelled with pride: “Glad y’think so!”
“But there are gaps.” Waving a finger at an obvious space: “Here, for example?”
“Stick in a water-closet, or something. You’ll think of it.”
Quimple felt as though the space beneath his feet was no longer supporting him. He struggled in vain for firm footing. “It defies description.” He said finally.
“Excellent!” The Lord took this as a compliment. “Pleased you like it.”
The little architect’s personal diary had provided an account of this conversation, but it was the last regular entry, and thereafter Peter had been unable to discover much concerning Joseph Quimple, or how he took Crowley’s dream glued to a large piece of board up to the summit of the rock and, somehow, brought it together in the agglomeration of styles and peculiar angles which came to be St. Benedict’s House. He did know that the little man regarded the house as his master work, that it eventually sent him mad. He found some clue as to why in a letter from the richly embossed Lord Crowley dated 18th August 1825.
I have received missives from you concerning your progress with the house at St. Benedict’s Rock, and I am disappointed that you should feel cause to repeatedly complain about, as you would have it, “constant importuning of tradesmen for payment”. I surely need not remind one such as yourself, sir, that tradesmen are incessant in their pursuit of money and it is a necessary duty to rebuff them. I do, however, send a draft for a further one hundred and fifty guineas to settle the most necessary accounts, but kindly do not trouble too much with decorators and the like, of whom there are an almost unlimited supply.
You reprimand me for my absence from the project, sir, but I say to you that I placed my complete trust upon you when I gave you instructions, which I expected to be followed to the letter. Reports which I have received suggesting that there are, in fact, substantial variations from my plans, are disturbing to me, sir. I am hopeful for an improvement to my health which shall allow me to return to England to correct these matters, but for the meanwhile I must advise you that you should persist no further with extravagances which, I am persuaded, lend to the house a quite undignified appearance.
I intend to limit my further investment in the house to a further nine hundred and fifty guineas, which will follow at the commencement of next year. You should dispose of this in such manner as will finish the house to an acceptable standard of accommodation. I enclose my plan for the finished building.
Lord Horace Crowley
In even those distant times, though riches beyond the wildest dreams of many nine hundred and fifty guineas for such a project was a completely unrealistic sum, but Crowley was, of course, by this time stumbling down a dusty road towards bankruptcy.
“A book of account, Ma’am,” he said once to Lady Crowley, on one of the few occasions when he spoke to her; “Is a dreadful devious foe. Whichever way ye turn him there’s always another within his ranks to find the weakness on your flank. Set me against an army of the Frenchie and I’ll take ‘im on and thrash ‘im for ye: but this? Ye can never beat him Ma’am. Ye never can!”
In eighteen-twenty-five, after some three years during which he never returned to the seaside town, the old Lord was still battling the elusive book of account. Now, however, he had a second enemy gathering in his lungs.
On the rainy morning when the messenger arrived bearing Quimple’s request for further funds, Crowley had just seen his doctor. He was ordered abroad. He must stay a winter in the warmer climate of the south of France; take the waters regularly, rest as much as possible. If he did not he would live for….a year – two? Who could say?
So Quimple worked alone, with very little money, constantly battling his Patron’s amendments and alterations to a plan which was structurally unworkable. This alone, Peter thought, might have driven him insane. But there were other enticing snippets of history surrounding the rock and its new crowning glory, other pieces to a puzzle which intrigued him and helped, as he returned home this evening, to distract from memories of a bad history examination.
Contemporary accounts relate that a bright summer morning in the Year of Our Lord 1822, when one Matthew Brightley, master mason, laid the first stone of Crowley’s Great House, marked an ending as well as a beginning. Quimple had hitherto been untroubled by the rock’s natural inhabitants, but from that morning on, as if some truce had been broken, the snake population of the rock attacked remorselessly. Viper venom was a constant hazard for all who laboured there. Several were made very ill by it, and two older stonemasons died. It was also the time when the seabirds’ yelling became ceaseless, their molestation unpredictable and vicious. The old title of Devil’s Rock was resurrected more than once in the taverns of Levenport.
Joseph Quimple’s final entry in his diary had always fascinated Peter:
21st August 1825:
Today completed excavations to level the surface of the central courtyard. Exposed a shelf of stone apparently intruding deep into rock – possibly a seam. Not granite. Warm to touch. Suggests hot spring, or similar – investigate.
He never did investigate.
In the gathering darkness of evening on 22nd August, the very day after this entry, those who chanced to be looking seaward were just able to distinguish Joseph Quimple’s bent form running atop the rock, inexorably running towards the lip of the cliff and its three hundred foot plunge to the sea. There were those at the subsequent inquest who testified that madness and obsession were the cause of the little man’s lonely end. There was one townswoman who saw the event, and her evidence spoke of Quimple as being pursued by a large flock of gulls.
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