Satan’s Rock

Part Three of Conversations

Quimple

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.

Sir,

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.

I am,

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.

© 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

Featured Image: Manfred Richter from Pixabay

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.

Perseverance

“They’re back!”

“Sorry – what do you mean?  Who’s ‘back’?”

“They are.  The Zog people!”

“Oh, them!  I thought you had some fresh news, Tybalt dear.  One of their little mixed-meta things is crawling all over my ancestor-in-law’s left promontory even as we communicate.  They are a bit of a nuisance, I agree.  My relative complains of the blessed thing drilling little needles into his upper crust.  Most uncomfortable!”

“A bit of a nuisance?  A BIT?  Remember the last time, Penna.  Noise, pollution,  litter everywhere, and the digging – oh, the digging!  They’ve already started leaving their junk all over the place…”

“Well, to be fair we did sort of create that for ourselves.  I told Kovic to bat them back, but he just let the things crash.  They don’t work, or anything.  They’re harmless enough.”

“And now there’s another one coming.  Penna, this one’s going to land right on top of our heads!.  Do you know what they’re calling my head?  A  lake bed.  A lake bed, I ask you?”

“It might crash?”

“It might not.  Who knows what horrors I have in store if it lands successfully.”

“They’re looking for signs of life, Tybalt.”

“Well – suppose they find what they’re looking for?”

“They didn’t the first time.  All the way from Zog, and they stayed here for ten million years without suspecting a thing.  Unless they’re ready to accept silicone life forms and fluid consciousness they won’t find anything now.  Perhaps they’ll just go away.”

“They won’t.   They never go away.  They just breed like Martian rabbits and rip our crusts off to build their revolting little hutches… why can’ they take the hint?”

“Look, we shan’t let it get so far, this time, Okay?  If that starts to happen again we’ll get rid of them, like before.”

“The swapping orbits thing?”

“It worked last time, didn’t it?  I don’t care if you do come from Zog, if you can’t breathe on a planet, you get off.”

“Yes, but they no longer know they’re from Zog…”

“Some of them still think they are…”

“And as Earth people, they might be a bit less easy to deceive…”

“No, believe me.  They are, as you say, Earth people now.  They enjoy being deceived.  Our mistake last time was  making the Henges as markers for them to land their transporters in.  No such clues this time, if the worst comes to the worst.”

“Another orbit swap, more epochs of oceans, swamps, and getting hot and stuff.  Why can’t we simply send them an asteroid?”

“All right, if it gives you peace, Tybalt.  We’ll send them an asteroid.  Now, I feel as though I haven’t slept for a millennium.  Do you mind?”  

Picture Credit: Header picture – CharlVera from Pixabay