The first thing Peter remarked was the darkness. The room in which he stood, the room Estelle had given him was not dark; the room he saw in the mirror was. It was not even the same room, but a cavernous hall with candelabra-decked walls, walls freshly clad in panelled oak and hung with tapestries. Through the gloom he could distinguish little else, a bed, perhaps, a well-upholstered chair in the Regency style. Every objective observation he tried to make, however, was overlaid by the presence.
Other than in the touch of those gentle feminine fingers on his arm it had no substance at all, just a skein of grey shredded light that wavered and altered itself into various images, sweeping towards the mirror-glass then tumbling away again, rearranging itself to spiral upwards, almost finding shape before once again descending. At its best it made a half-drawn figure that might be the owner of the voice, at its worst the coiled menace of a snake.
The voice: that voice!
“Arthur? Arthur my dear? Arthur?” A pleading, abandoned sound as of a woman drowning.
And the snake? The snake came slithering and robbing, taking each strand of the woman’s so nearly finished sketch to integrate within itself. Too much! Fearful of spirits that threatened to overwhelm him, Peter tore off his bathrobe, throwing it over the glass, and the voice cried out: “No!” As if defying him. The glass cleared. Exhausted he fell back into the bed and his consciousness left him, but his dreams would not.
Peter spent the rest of his night somewhere in a hinterland between sleeping and waking. His dreams led him first to Crowley House – by the lake where he and Lesley had made love together, and she was there; they were looking down into the water, into reeds which grew at the water’s edge, to something floating there they wanted to reach but could not: Peter woke for a moment, or thought he did. He saw Melanie far away across the lake, her spy-glass glinting in the sunlight.
Was he dreaming again? The man’s approach was undisguised, the heavy boot-tread of one who worked the land. And when he came into view so he proved to be; a gaunt, mean creature whose hardened years had left their trace, like the dendrochronology of a tree, upon his scored features. This was a man of deeds, a worker who, had he not spotted the same small irregularity that had drawn Peter’s and Lesley’s eyes, would be stooping to some merciless peasant labour even now. But his keen eye, which knew every inch of this estate and its lakeside, bade him investigate.
Where Peter and Lesley might hesitate this man did not even pause, but slithered and waded in among the weed-choked shallows. What he found there caused him to draw breath.
“Lord bless us!” He exclaimed, in genuine amazement.
When the man raised a small box from the waters’ edge Peter’s dream followed him, so that he was able to see and understand why he, whose name was Micah, and his wife should take the little naked child inside the box as their own; because they were barren and they thought it a gift from God, They called it Moses because of how they had found it, and in the years that followed they would raise it as their own.
In a single night Peter’s dream revealed the early history of the child (who they named Moses because of the manner of his discovery) through his growing years; how he came to be known in his local Parish, where his past was never discussed by citizens because they lived a little in fear of his deeply religious and ascetic adopted family. Peter found himself a fading witness to those passing years, as Moses grew and proved a true son of his adoptive father; one about whom more would be forgotten than known. But questions, reserved for hushed moments in private corners, were nonetheless asked. For not everything about Moses added up.
There had been a calling together of the secret ones.
They had come by night, in stealth: quiet cars with darkened windows, solitary figures on footpaths which eschewed the beaten track. They came, cowled and silent, to the little monastery because the tolling of a Sanctus bell commanded them, but not to pray. And the plainsong beckoning them from cloister to their holy place was not a holy song, and the monks who sang were not of any order whose name dared be spoken, even there.
Words of wise ones were uttered in hushed tones, so their whispered echoes might not be remembered by the stones they passed across. Their faces in the guttering candlelight not so plain they might be remembered, or want to be. And when their hour was done and they melted back into the dark night, their words would be consigned to darkness too.
“We are concerned…….”
“Too vital to lose….”
“One chance to shake the world……”
“The end of all false truths…..”
The frailest, oldest of them all, a gargoyle from the wall of Mother Church supported behind a lectern of stone, led this faceless gathering: “Be advised!” His wracked voice ranted: “There is one transcendent moment coming, one God-given chance to convert the lost hosts of Islam and bring them to the one true path. It must not be squandered! Our weapons are God’s weapons! Our mercy is His mercy – accept God’s blessing upon your accomplishment, for our war, dear brothers, is a Holy war – our right, the right of Heaven!”
Outside in the cloister as the mysterious ones, these words ringing in their concealed ears, dispersed on their homeward path, two cowled souls met: one, an abbot, the other a monk – a slighter, smaller man whose habit flapped around his ankles as he walked.
“….but Holy Father?”
“Still we must be sure. Sure, Roderick, are you really sure?” The Abbott’s tone was urgent. “You heard his Holiness, did you not? This – this day: it is a day given to us. We must not let it go to waste.”
“I am confident.” Roderick replied. “Yet, if you wish it, I shall set the seal. I will go to Levenport this very night.”
The Abbott nodded and smiled, though behind the anonymity of his hood it was a secret expression even Roderick would not know.
The train journey south was a protracted affair: there were few fast links at so early an hour of the day, the operators preferring to wring every last customer from every station. It was mid-afternoon before Roderick reached Levenport, and near to dinner-time before he found a hotel.
“Will it be just for one night, sir?” The desk clerk sounded suspicious. He eyed the little man’s cheap, well-worn suit, his battered suitcase. “And how will you be paying – cash or card?”
The instant he stepped off the train, Roderick knew something was wrong. He had been here many times, and Levenport always affected his psyche to some degree; be it because of the closeness of the rock, or all the myriad lines of energy which converged upon the town. Today there was a sensation of disturbance, an electricity not attributable to any natural source. In his hotel, he tried to prepare logically for an evening of waiting. Something was coming, something palpable and strong, he could feel it. Yet it would come in its own time, not his, and he must simply be patient.
“Um, is the restaurant open?” He asked the clerk. He was unused to restaurants, but he hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
“Dinner’s at seven.”
Roderick was dressing, preparing for dinner, when the cry from Peter and Lesley blundered into his head – a scream like a cannon shell in flight pursued by a soft, almost muted feminine presence. Peter was still learning to cope with his enormous powers, while Lesley was encountering them for the first time; but their message, though not intended for him in particular, was clear enough.
For all of his experience Roderick was not the coolest head to have around in a crisis. His first instinct, to throw his arms in the air, running around the room cursing fate and the small “g” gods in general, was, given consideration, probably not wise. The curtains were open and he had neglected to dress his lower self; so there may have been a witness or two to this strange ritualistic dance who would go to their homes that night with his image implanted upon their inner eye for ever. It did not last long, though, this invocation of heathen deities. Gathering his thoughts, the fully-clothed Roderick raced for the stairs.
“Dinner is being served, sir?” The desk clerk hailed him as he almost ran through the hotel lobby.
“Ah! Yes!” Roderick slid to a halt, pivoting on a precariously balanced heel: “Hire cars – have any?”
“No, not here sir.” The desk clerk replied carefully. “Did you want a taxi?”
“Yes! Taxi!” Roderick thought for a moment: “Here?”
“I can call you one, sir.”
“No. No good. Need it now! Now!”
“Restaurant closes at nine-thirty, sir?”
Wrestling with the old-fashioned swing door, Roderick almost fell out onto the street. He had selected, or rather wandered into, a hotel on one of the minor thoroughfares which ran down to Levenport Esplanade: a peaceful back alley as likely to produce a passing taxi in October as fishing in a swimming pool might ensnare a trout. He cast desperately about him for some sign of transport. There were, of course, ranks of parked cars. Swiftly adapting to the role of car thief he peered through car windows looking for keys, attracting the suspicion of a couple of passers-by. Whilst he had no compunction, in the gravity of his cause, about taking without consent, Roderick was not expert at this trade and it showed. Anyway, there were no carelessly abandoned vehicles with open doors or inviting keys, so it dwindled as an option.
Panic was beginning to set in once more. He stilled himself, breathed deeply, looking again at the road and at the buildings which lined it. He had begun to accept defeat and even started to run down to the seafront in the hope of finding a taxi there, when he spotted the yard. Its steel gates were open, and within it stood a vehicle with engine running and driver’s door flung invitingly wide. There was a light in the office behind it, otherwise no sign of life.
Roderick looked dubiously at the vehicle. “It’ll do.” He decided out loud. Without another thought he slipped into the driver’s seat.
Fully ten minutes had elapsed before the vehicle’s absence was discovered; another five before the police were informed by a rather perplexed owner of its loss, by which time Roderick was working his way through the back-streets of Levenport. It was not entirely by chance he came upon Lesley’s disconsolate figure, walking towards him in the rain.
“Last chance?” Roderick asked.
When Lesley had recovered a little, and they were driving away, she said: “Nice choice of car.”
“All I could find.”
“I know. It’ll suffice.”
“Yeah,” Lesley thought for a little before she said: “Have you seen what’s in the back?”
‘Well, here’s a pretty pass!’ Francine Delisle scolded herself. She stared from the window of her rooms in Roper’s Hotel at the sunset profile of St. Benedict’s Rock as if that great black basalt mass might provide her with an answer; ‘It seems I cannot trust myself when I am with you, Arthur, nor can I be trusted when I am without you.’
They were taking supper together, Arthur Herrit and she, before Arthur retired to his adjacent suite. Raising his cup to his lips, Arthur asked, “How may we resolve the matter, pray?”
She had spoken these final words aloud, had she? That had not been her intention. The reaction in his eyes told her he had divined the unspoken part. Did they even think alike, now?
He raised an eyebrow. “It vexes me,” he admitted, “Yet I cannot say I find the dilemma unpleasant. Should we discuss your impressions of Lord Crowley’s ruin?”
Francine inclined her head. “There is little more to discuss, than that about which we have already spoken. It is a residence in dire distress, I can see that, not so much from the physical assault of the storm, as from Mr Ballentine’s choice of Housekeeper.”
“The redoubtable Mrs. Cruikshank,” Arthur smiled. “She provided a lunch upon which I must compliment her, although she seemed lacking in certain mannerly aspects of her appointment.”
“I thought her blunt, at best; her warning to beware of snakes even before we had alighted from our carriage, as an instance. She appeared quite anxious to see us from the door, Arthur. I know my behaviour might have been odd, but nonetheless…”
“Nonetheless!” Arthur agreed. In his level of society part of a housekeeper’s function was to show visitors around the property in their charge, but he was prepared to make allowances. “There has been a minor plague of snakes on the island, ‘tis said, since the night of the storm. Could the wind’s destruction have led to their release, I wonder? She did mention that it is impossible to find servants for fear of them.”
“And I did not entirely disgrace myself, did I? What do you suppose will become of the house?”
“Oh, Ballentine will make good the damage, have no doubt of it. He has some special connection with the widowed Lady Crowley, so I imagine she will persuade him.”
“Indeed, sir! A ‘special connection’! He has a reputation, then?”
“Ballentine? A strong business head, mayhap a ruthless nature. Nevertheless he has promoted Levenport’s cause admirably. I would like to turn over a few opportunities with him, should he be of a mind. I left my card.” Arthur’s chair seemed to make him uncomfortable; “Francine? What happened to you there? What could you have found so disturbing…”
“As to so nearly rob me of my senses?” Francine closed her eyes because they were still full of the island. “In faith, Arthur, I do not know. It besets me still. From the moment our coach’s wheels touched The Rock I believe I knew what I should discover there. Then there was the vision of those two young people on the hill which somehow further convinced me.”
“Yes! In the stable yard, of all places! How could something so noble occupy so lowly a space? Who could have cobbled all about it yet left it exposed, if they had not shared my experience? You see what it tells me, Arthur? I am not alone! There are others who know, or knew, the worth of it as certainly as I!”
“Does this not bring us closer to the answers we seek?”
Francine scowled. “I had hoped that would be so, until I tried to touch the stone. Remember how the stone beneath your great oak charmed me so strongly I I was powerless but to fall upon it and hold it near to me? This was the reverse case. Although I feel compelled to get near it, reach out to it, even feel its warmth; when I tried to touch it I thought my head might explode! It thrust my hand aside so brutally I did indeed fear I should faint.” She drew a deep breath to steady her voice above the turmoil she felt inside; “And yet now, with the night, it summons me, just as before. I fear it, Arthur: I am afraid for myself!”
Francine had risen to her feet before the window, her fingers gripping the sill with such intensity Arthur was concerned they might break. His heart bursting, he rose to stay her arm. “This is a temptation to which we may not yield,” he insisted.
“’We’? The temptation is mine, surely. It is I who cannot be trusted.”
“And I must bear the fault for bringing you here.” With a steady hand he drew back a frond of hair that had fallen across her cheek, and stroked the pale flesh at the arch of her neck. Her breathing slipped from her control once more.
“Sir?” She whispered.
“Is young Samuel safe abed?” His hand rested about her shoulder now, and she should have resisted such familiarity, but somehow she could not.
“He is,” She answered; then, unsteadily: “Would you protect me, Arthur, from myself?”
“I would.” There was sternness, but also honesty in his words; “I would not leave you on your own tonight. You need not fear: the couch looks conducive to a night of rest. I will take it gladly.”
“Nevertheless, sir, my reputation…”
“Ah, the bubble reputation!” He smiled down upon her, but kindly, and at this she gave way, melting shamelessly into his arms – that full embrace she had longed to repeat ever since she sought it once in fright at the discharge of a servant’s gun.
“Alas yes,” She managed to say; “It seems if you stay to ward me, my reputation is forfeit…”
“If I leave, can I trust you not to throw yourself on the mercies of that tide?”
“And there, alas, no, for the call of the place is quite beyond my power of resistance…”
“So, am I condemned to take a chair outside your door?”
“I might escape through the window – the fall is not far…”
“So,” He said. “I must be in the room with you, it seems.”
“I would have to know, Arthur. I would have to be sure that we…”
“You do know.” Arthur replied. “Since the day we first met, you have known. We both knew.”
“Indeed, did we? Was I so remiss?” A small tear of affection escaped onto her cheek. “I am glad, sir. That couch seems fearfully uncomfortable, to me.”
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