Satan’s Rock

Part Two: The Cuckoo and the Nest

When Matthew Ballentine called upon Lady Crowley at the old general’s country estate,she rightly discerned that he had interests beyond the simple business of saving the house on St. Benedict’s Rock.  He would not have acquainted Lady Crowley with them, precisely, upon their first meeting, nor on subsequent occasions; but Elizabeth was a very perceptive woman so there is little doubt that she knew.  In the weeks before his first call upon her, Ballentine had inquired into Lord Crowley’s financial affairs, taking care to learn the devices by which his estate could function in his absence.   He had learned, for example, how attorney rested with a legal partnership who served the Crowley family, and how they had power in an emergency to raise revenue and settle debts:  unable to contact Lord Horace they had only to be persuaded by Lady Crowley that an emergency existed in order for them to take certain measures which he, Ballentine, hoped to play to advantage.  And so it proved.

As winter tightened its grip Crowley’s creditors organised themselves and sought a warrant for his arrest and imprisonment.  Whether they could have succeeded is in doubt, but the threat of scandal was enough.   Ballentine entered into a bond to settle the debts in return for some forgotten acres at the fringe of the Montingshire Estate.

Meanwhile, his influence was spreading through Levenport like a faery ring, with invisible roots reaching out to every wealthy townsperson or merchant in whose interest it would be to see the Great House completed.  Ballentine entered into private contracts with them all: his name was never mentioned but his money underpinned the syndicate which tied the ring together.  As a professed draughtsman, Ballentine busied himself with alterations and amendments to Quimple’s jumbled plans, and although he was often seen at the site, his financial involvement was not questioned.  Work on the Great House resumed  – the road that serviced what little housing adorned the Rock’s lower slopes was extended, by means of a tunnel, to the site, the scaffolds of which crawled with mason-ants as they hewed and crafted the stone walls, perched high above the bay.   Roof –beams that Quimple had planned to hoist from sea-level now slithered like starched worms on dollies across the causeway.   Drovers cursed and horses sweated.  Garden terraces began to form, the Bavarian towers inched upwards.

Peter was sure Elizabeth must have known what was happening.  Although Ballentine took care that she should never see the accounts, she would have reviewed them many times in her imagination;  yet she did nothing to stem a rising financial tide.   She left everything to her new-found draughtsman and manager, whose ‘syndicate’ continued to pay, and pay, and pay.

The veil of mystery surrounding Matthew Ballentine intrigued Lady Crowley;   so much so that she was almost constantly in his company:  sometimes he would call upon her at the Montingshire estate, at other times she would visit Roper’s in the town, to observe the progress of her husband’s amazing house, and to…well, let us say, although the proprieties were always punctiliously observed, it was generally agreed in the town, as well as in the Montingshire mansion’s servants’ hall, that ‘an arrangement’ existed.   This was gossip which suited Ballentine – he did nothing to promote it, but neither did he do anything to deny it.

In the autumn Crowley, a sick and broken man, returned to his Montingshire home.   Work upon the Great House on the Rock was completed in the winter of the year eighteen hundred and twenty six, and whilst it would never be beautiful or acknowledged as a great work of architecture, with Ballentine’s modifications it would at least stand up.  He had come to the work when it was too far advanced to do much about its extravagant towers or bulbous domes, or even the great Moorish Arch over its main doors, but he had curbed their excesses to some extent, to make a house which might not be greeted with outright laughter.

By this time Ballentine had become an established figure in the town, and a personage of some worth.   A member of the Chamber of Trades, he frequented town society, recognised by his affinity to Lady Crowley.   As arrangements began to install the ailing Lord Crowley in his new abode, Matthew Ballentine was at the forefront, organising furnishings, transport for staff, and so on.   He was unflagging too, in his attendance upon Lady Crowley, who now found for herself a new burden in the person of her returned husband.

Lord Horace Crowley was driven into the town quietly one October night to take up residence in his new home.   What he thought of the structure which was meant to be the realisation of a private dream, was never recorded. Quite possibly he was too ill, this pale, gasping shadow of a soldier, to really care:  he was scarcely well enough to travel, barely survived the slow, careful journey from his country estate.   He may only have been concerned with finding a quiet place to end his days.   Borne by a coach and pair, he entered his preposterous gates to be seen no more except by those immediates who attended him.   The town, or such proportion of it that realised he was there, watched with speculative curiosity. 

At some point between October and December of that year a syndicate representative must have presented Lord Crowley with an account of all the money it had spent in affecting completion of the great house on St. Benedict’s Rock.  Precisely how large a sum was involved is not known although it would have been considerable, well beyond the noble Lord’s reduced means to pay.   So it was that ownership of the last of his estates,  Montingshire, passed to the syndicate, then quietly on to Matthew Ballentine with an ease which may have seemed remarkable to some who witnessed it, but no surprise to those few who personally waited on the old man.

Crowley cannot have relished life, or had much interest in its continuance.  Cuckolded quite openly, he spent his last days struggling from one breath to the next, in the fright of a mansion his addled eye had imagined so differently when he first saw his rock, now so many years ago.  His only redress, as he saw it, was to sign away his treacherous wife’s future security:  he would leave no trust or allowance for her in his will (women were not allowed to inherit property as of right in those days), and with this stroke, no roof over her head.  That Ballentine seemed to be at the helm of the syndicate was a final act of treachery which very probably eluded him; he was certainly not intended to find out.   Would it have deceived the faithful manservant Toqus, whose silent wisdom had guided him so soundly down the years?   Ah, but Toqus was not there.  

No-one was watching when Toqus did reappear.  His dark shade must have wafted through the rain of some December evening:  how or when he gained entry to the great house was never known. He did not enter by the gates, for no-one remembered admitting him there – in fact the servants seemed vague in their recollection of the first time they chanced upon him in the corridors, or saw him at his master’s shoulder.   He arrived ‘sometime before Christmas’.   The servants of the Great House remembered Christmas well.

On Christmas Eve night came before its time.  Concerned mariners watched as the barometer glass dropped like a stone: boats crowded the town’s harbour, those merchants with premises along the seafront boarded up their windows and doors.    The first howling blast of wind fired from the sea like a cannon-shot, exploding against bluff stone walls and thrashing at window shutters as it tore a path through deserted streets.   Great grey ocean rollers in stately procession made their slow march into the bay where they fixed bayonets to charge, white-plumed, upon the sea-wall.   Quoins groaned, dogs howled, the gale grew to a hideous shriek. This, just the advance force, lashed spume across the foreshore, sent spray to the very roof of Roper’s Hotel. Then the main army advanced: walls of water in dress line, breaking disdainfully over the top of the harbour to crash and to crush the feeble wooden hulls inside.   They breached the sea-wall as though it were made of sticks, led forays well inshore to the heart of the town. By eight o’clock that night Levenport was in the grip of a hurricane.

In the black eye of this malevolent  invasion, the Great House was an unearthly thing of cries and groans – tiles flying from the yet-unbedded roof let in cataracts of rain to slough down newly-decorated walls; and wind-demons which, once inside, ricocheted from room to room, guttering candles, shattering window-glass, screeching their need to be free.   Papers flew, furniture was overset, doors blew in:   the mighty main gates themselves, left carelessly secured, broke free from their hinges to crash drunkenly against their gatehouse wall.  The newly planted gardens were stripped and levelled – bedding plants, bushes, infant trees all whisked away like chaff. So many of the household staff had been already sent home for Christmas (Toqus had insisted upon this) that no-one remained to secure that which had loosed, or resurrect that which had fallen.   Far below, the causeway to the mainland  was long gone, only remnants occasionally revealed by the trough of a wave.   The storm blew until morning, when it ceased as suddenly as it had begun. In the leaden dawn, sleepless townspeople surveyed the damage.

No sound or sign of life came from the Great House.  A long gallery which rested on abutments embedded in the face of the rock, had disintegrated and fallen to the sea.  Once-flamboyant Turkish arches from its façade were strewn in pieces along the sea-shore; entangled with much of the planting from the gardens of the house, and flotsam from boats for which the harbour had been no protection at all.   Of the three domes atop the gatehouse, only one survived.  One sat perilously askew on the brink of destruction, the third had completely disappeared.   The causeway was breached in seven places.

When at last servants managed to return to the house, they  discovered Crowley’s rigored body at the door of his bedchamber.   Terrified, the frail old man had apparently left his bath chair and taken to his feet to find safety.   The effort or the terror that induced had proved too much for a heart which, but for the intervention of Toqus, should have stopped a year before.

Crowley was buried with a simple ceremony.  His body was laid to rest in a family vault on the Montingshire estate. He died without knowing he would lie beneath land he had wife’s lover while she, far from being dispossessed as he would have wished, visited his memorial regularly that winter and on into the following spring, before her morning ride through the grounds.   Often that same ride would take Elizabeth to those distant acres of estate that had compensated Ballentine when he agreed to settle the debts remaining from Quimple’s days.  She might pause to watch for a while as the navvies worked:  soon there would be a main railway line  through the cutting they dug.

Peter realised his arm, draped over the railing, had gone numb.   He shifted it and the movement disturbed the seagull, still perched at his side. 

So what did happen to Crowley’s manservant?

Crowley’s body had actually been discovered by a maidservant, one of only five staff who spent the night of the storm on St. Benedict’s Rock.   This woman later attested that the body was locked by rigor, suggesting that Crowley had died many hours before, and that he clutched in his left hand a large gold medallion with a chain which was snapped in half – a medallion and chain familiar as that worn by Toqus.   Never thinking of the implications of what she saw, the maidservant first ran to find Toqus, because the African had always been closest to the old man. He was not to be found. By the time she had sought out othersCrowley’s body had been left unattended for perhaps an hour, maybe more:  by which time the noble Lord’s dead fingers had been broken open, and the medallion and chain had gone.

For some reason this piece of evidence was never put to any test.  The maidservant herself did not claim the memory until some weeks after Crowley’s funeral, and then only in the confidence of the servants’ hall.   The undertaker either did not notice, or did not set any store by, the fractured hand, but rumours persisted for many years, until, herself in her final decline, the maidservant swore that she had cowered before the sweat-covered and bloody form of Toqus towering over her in that bedroom, on that terrible morning.

Toqus was never seen again.   So did the servant give a true account?  Was the African giant there?

“I don’t know;” said Peter conversationally to the seagull:   “But I bet wherever he was, Matthew Ballentine wasn’t far away.”

“Really?”   The seagull appeared to consider this for a moment:  “What makes you say that, dear boy?”

“It was all too convenient.   Ballentine’s scheme wouldn’t have allowed him to claim the estate directly while the old man was alive – too obvious.  And if the syndicate charade had been allowed to continue with a sitting tenant like Crowley, they might have wanted to evict him, and then who knows what problems might have come up?”

The seagull fixed him with one beady eye.   “You’ll be saying next that Ballentine arranged for the storm.”

“No.   Toqus might have done that.”

Peter suddenly realised he was speaking aloud:  a large woman in a blue coat gave him a bemused look as she passed on the end of a dog. Talking to a seagull!  What next?    He glanced in the bird’s direction, thinking that they had been together, he leaning, the gull perching, on that railing for some while.   And it had not occurred to him that this was odd behaviour for such a creature, until now, when in his glance he took in a peculiar diamond-shaped mark on its feathered white neck – probably just some irregularity in its natural colouring, yet quite distinctive – and realised that they had been side-by-side there for nearly half-an-hour.   The bird seemed to recognise this, too.    With a lazy flap it wheeled out over the bay:  it was gone.

© 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

Image Credits: Featured Image: Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Storm: Dimitri Vetsikas from Pixabay

BLM and the Mob

Normally, when I watch the tide of events in America I lament quietly, keeping my feelings to myself.   On the few occasions when I do comment I am politely (or rather less than politely) told I don’t know what I’m talking about, and to ‘butt out’.

I feel entitled to comment this time because what is happening to the west of the ditch is stirring the same pot in the UK, and although mine is a very small voice if we are many we make a chorus of conscience, so maybe we will be heard.

It should be no surprise, really.   Americans with their enthusiasm and verve for all things new have embraced and shaped media communications without, perhaps, giving thought to what the consequences would be if media exceeded law at the hub of power.   They – we – failed to police it; in fact, we espoused it enthusiastically:  I did so myself, lauding the freedom it gave us, denying the inevitable; that people with greed for power would quickly shape it and twist it to suit their ambitions.

And of course that is exactly what has happened.

The gift of the internet is its appeal to the young,  It is the province of the young – it gives them expression, it keeps their secrets from their elders, it allows them to write their own language.  We all know that to be young is to be an idealist; a crusader, a white knight at the Round Table of truth.  Once I was just so, an avid existentialist, disciple of Sartre and convinced civilised life was spawned on Earth by gods who descended in Erich Von Daniken’s spaceships.

I was correct in all my beliefs.  I was right!  Oh, how right I was!  I would argue down anyone who dared suggest otherwise and whenever I was in danger of losing to reason I would walk away, denouncing my challenger as old, or deluded, or irrelevant.

There’s nothing wrong with that: learning is a lifelong experience that no formal education can suppress, and if it tries so to do, things can go tragically awry.   The fresh young mind is eager to be fed; fresh young muscles are fuelled with immense energy, and when they get together, an unsinkable belief.   

Which is why they are so easy to manipulate.

Which is why those unscrupulous power-hungry elder minds, those paedophile rapists of virtue who largely comprise the political or activist class, can succeed in inciting riot, in subverting values and banishing good sense to serve their own purposes.  Being young, I would not have recognised that;  how can I expect the young of today to be any more discerning?

I huddle the politicians and activists together beneath this same banner because they share the same greed, if for different reasons.  Both have made a study of ‘motivating’ (stirring up) large bodies of people, or opinions, or the media influences that form them.  Both rely for their usually quite comfortable incomes upon the perpetuation of dispute.  Resolution is not within their remit, revolution is, to differing degrees, the aim of both.

We should not be surprised, then.  Not surprised that these people, with this miraculous new tool for their box, have no notion when to stop – where to draw the line – how to to exercise restraint.   And so they set about their programme of destruction with their own clear idea of what should ensue; and no idea what the actual consequences must be.

CERTAIN FUNCTIONS OF THE STATE MUST BE KEPT SACRED.

Who will keep order in the streets, control drug violence and protect the innocent if the police are defunded?

What mechanism will stop genocide if religious or ethnic groups become the focus of the mob?

How can Democracy work if the will of the majority can be so easily overturned by intimidation and public unrest?

If a nation denies its history, how can it remain a nation?

Behind the challenge of these simple questions lies the greatest evil embedded in the evolution of our species:  whether you choose to entitle it Tribalism, Puritanism or Fascism, the rule of the mob always begins with a none-too-serious premise, almost a bit of fun, and it develops into a monster.    

Of course black lives matter, but so do white lives.  Of course the great figures upon whom our history was built were not without flaws, but neither were the African tribes who went on raids to generate prisoners for sale into slavery.   Churchill and FDR were probably not paragons of virtue, but without them we would all certainly be non-Arian Untouchables in a society controlled by the Third Reich. 

Democracy, and therefore freedom, depends upon the validity of the public vote being placed above suspicion.  That, I am certain, is the true target of the activist movement in the United States.  An equally superficially unconnected agenda is extant in the UK, where the fingers of the international corporations are to be discovered stirring the lumpy jam of Brexit.  Money never accepts defeat, never respects opinion.

In the form of BLM, just as once from American Irish investment in the IRA, we have imported violence to our shores.  We were a little bit racist, yes, but we were working things out in our own way, and ‘endemic’ racism is not a fair criticism of society here.  A pity, then, that so much is being destroyed by the self-interest of a few.   They have much to answer for.

One siren voice:

Nowhere Lane – Chapter Sixteen. Muffled Drums

Council offices of Karen Eversley’s generation were not known for their extravagance, and Frank Purton’s little suite was no exception: a drab treatment of brown paint and Buckingham cream walls from the County Hall’s barn-like foyer, all the way up to the second storey and a plain door with a base metal label – ‘F.R. Purton, Deputy Clerk’.  His outer office sported a desk, several filing cabinets, a typewriter and his secretary, a woman whose reputation as a dragon was currency wherever council employees met.  Short, severe and humourless, she certainly dressed for the part; in a beige cardigan over brown blouse and skirt, she almost exactly matched the walls.  She looked surprised as two women entered.  “Who shall I say…?”

“Karen Eversley and Mrs Hallcroft-Smythe.  He’s expecting us.”

“Just a moment.”  The woman glared briefly at Karen, then hurried through the inner office door, closing it behind her.

Gwendoline met Karen’s eyes, challenging her.  “Are you sure you want this?”  Karen nodded.

There were subdued murmurs from beyond the door before the secretary returned.  “Go in, please.”  She said.

Purton’s domain was marginally less Spartan.  A desk larger and better polished, a side table supporting a vase of flowers that screamed for water, and yes – Karen could not avoid her triumphal grin – that famous Purton Rotadex.  The man himself rose from a leather armchair behind the desk.  It was easy to read the displeasure in his eyes, but he managed a ghost of a smile.  “I wasn’t expecting a deputation, Miss Eversley.”  He said.  “Will you introduce me?”

“Yes of course.  This is Gwendoline Hallcroft-Smythe. ”

“How do you do, Mr Purton?”  Gwendoline’s clipped greeting scythed across the room, finding its target with steely precision.  The Deputy Clerk almost winced at the impact.

He offered chairs.  If he was cringing inwardly, he did not show it.  “Kindly enlighten me?    Mrs Hallcroft-Smythe, what exactly is your role in this meeting?”

Karen responded.  “Mrs Hallcroft–Smythe is my legal representative, Frank.”

“Legal representative?  Why do you need…?”

Gwendoline cut him off, “Perhaps because of the peremptory nature of your summons? I am here to ensure Miss Eversley’s interests are protected.”

Purton ignored Gwendoline, directly addressing Karen:  “I merely intended to monitor your progress in our little investigation, Miss Eversley.  I thought I emphasized our need for confidentiality?  I’ve had reports that some of your questioning has been, for want of a better word, aggressive.  I need your word that this will not continue.”

“As Miss Eversley’s legal representative, I can assure you there’s no need for concern over issues of confidentiality.”  Gwendoline’s tone offered little comfort.

Karen said:  “I must be free to question people.  What do you expect, Frank?  Should I go to Boulters Green and wait for your goon to find me?”  Her words surprised Purton, and shocked Gwendoline.  They dropped into a stony silence.

Purton’s mouth opened and closed soundlessly a couple of times before he could frame a reply.  “I’m afraid I don’t know what you mean, Miss Eversley.”

Again, silence.  Footsteps in a bare corridor somewhere, clipping past, fading.  The slam of a distant door and its tiny echo.

Gwendoline found her thread, “   Can we proceed?  Miss Eversley has the file you requested and it incriminates no named individuals at this stage.  In Miss Eversley’s view, the report so far is inconclusive.  She wonders why her holiday arrangements should have been disrupted for this meeting.”

Karen pulled a file of papers Pat had helped her to prepare the night before from her bag, passing them over Purton’s desk.  “You’ll find I’ve made a lot of progress,” she told him, “although several issues are raised by the disappearances – more than expected.”

Purton took the file and flicked through it absently.  “The summary forms the first two pages of the report,”  she added.  “The invoice for my time and costs is at the back.”

He raised an eyebrow.  “Invoice?”

“Final Invoice.  I no longer wish to pursue your inquiry.  I wanted to be thorough in reporting my activities so far to whomever you elect to be my successor.  Thank you for your business.”

Karen rose to leave.

“You can’t just walk out on this!”  Purton snarled.  “The Council has certain rights…”

Gwendoline raised an eyebrow:  “So my client has a contract with the Council?  I understood this was your personal inquiry?  Disappearances of the kind you asked Miss Eversley to investigate are a police matter – not one for the Council.”

Purton inclined his head. “Nevertheless…”

“In which case, my client could have no binding agreement, either with you or with the Council.”  Gwendoline insisted.

“I disagree!  Your ‘client’ undertook by verbal agreement to complete an investigation, not leave it half-way!”

“Then we must agree to disagree, Mr Purton.  My client feels your manner towards her is threatening, and in breach of your mutual ‘understanding’.  I’m sure my client would be prepared to test the nature of your agreement, if there is one, in court if necessary?”

“There was a witness to our agreement, Madam!”

“Who would be willing to see his, and your, ‘confidential’ inquiry exposed to open examination?  I’m sure the person of influence who is so interested in the disappearance of Miss Parkinson would be pleased to be called in evidence?”

Karen was already at the door.  “I’ll look forward to receiving your cheque.”  She told Purton.

“Young lady, if you want to do business in this town, you…”

Gwendoline cut him off.  “Is this going to be in the nature of a threat, Mr Purton?”

“Oh for god’s sake!”  Purton muttered.  “Just get out!”

The fiery secretary’s eyes followed them across Purton’s outer office,

“Thanks!”  Karen breathed.

Gwendoline was troubled.  “You realize what you’ve done, Karen?  If that man’s involved in your stalker’s activities, you just called him out.”

Karen nodded.  “I had to lay a few cards on the table.  I wanted to see his reaction.  What did you think?”

“Unfortunately I think he is.”

“So do I.”

“I also think,” Gwendoline added, “That you should keep your cards closer to your chest.”

In the car park, Gwendoline’s Citroen was causing consternation.  Karen had learned in her short exposure to Gwendoline’s driving that she did not park.  She merely stopped.

“These spaces are reserved for councillors.”  A red-cheeked attendant expostulated.  “Have you no idea of the disruption you’ve caused?  I was about to have you towed away!”

Gwendoline glanced meaningfully up and down acres of empty parking spaces.  “Please convey my apologies to a councillor,”  She said,  “Next time you see one.”  As she climbed into her driving seat she nodded towards the far end of the car park and murmured in an aside to Karen, “Notice the blue Jaguar?  I wonder what he’s doing here?”

“Who is ‘he’?”  Karen asked.

“Sir Clive Webster, the Lord Lieutenant of Beaconshire.   Oh, I expect he has plenty of occasions to visit the council, but it’s nevertheless unexpected – he’s in rather poor health at the moment.  His heart, I was told.”

“Would you describe him as a ‘high up’?”

“Oh, yes.  The Queen’s representative for the County?  They don’t come any higher.”

#

The evening promised rain.  As Gwendoline returned with Karen the few miles to Radley Court some first gusts of wind were rattling the treetops. The mood in the car was solemn.

“I’d better not stretch your hospitality any further;”  Karen said.  “I’ll ask Pat to drive me back to Caleybridge – tonight if that’s okay?”

Gwendolie frowned.  “For heaven’s sake why?  You’re better protected here, aren’t you?”

“I am quite good at protecting myself.  You have your family to consider.  I’d hate to be responsible for causing you harm.”

“You’re right, but you’re staying,”  Gwendoline said, in a voice that brooked no argument.

“You’re very generous,”  Karen said,  “considering how little time we’ve known each other.”

“I trust my judgment, Karen dear.  And I am not blind to your predicament.  By the way,”  Gwendoline added:  “We do have some shared history.  I knew your sister, Suzanne.  Distantly, but I knew her.”

Karen had no idea why that information should disturb her, but somehow it did.  After all, Gwendoline had once been a member of Suzanne’s profession, so it was perfectly natural they should meet socially at some time or another, even though their careers were many years apart.

“You’re not in the least alike,”  Gwendoline told her frankly.

“Then that must be a reason to mistrust me, surely?”

“Au contraire; that is why I do trust you.”  Patrick’s mother smiled.  “Striking girl!  Such hair!  Oh, I finished practising myself many years ago, as you know, but one retains one’s associations, one’s contacts, as it were.  And one’s friends – yes, I have many friends in the old way.  We meet, we have dinners, social evenings – that sort of thing.  Suzanne Eversley.  Challenging!”

“I’ve always been led to believe she was very good at her work,”  Karen said.  “Did you not think so?”

“My lord, do you really want me to answer that?  You do, don’t you?  Well, how can I respond?  She was extremely direct, she had what I can best describe as an adversarial attitude.  She could be sparked off by the most trivial things.  Can I be totally frank and say that I didn’t like her, much?  She was very angry, your sister, and it was anger that consumed her, in the end.  Had she not ridden that motorcycle so fast.  I dare say she would have discovered the key to her anger – it was obvious to me.  But, of course…”  Gwendoline spread her hands fatalistically.

“The key to her anger?  I don’t understand.”

“Don’t you?  Good lord, no, I suppose she might never have confided in you.  Well, let me put it thus: did she ever mention a junior at chambers, a girl by the name of Marsha Ellis?”

“Not that I recall…”

“Do you remember your sister in any kind of romantic association with a man?”

“Well no.”  Karen’s widening eyes were windows to the explosion inside her head.  Suzanne?  “Are you saying…”

“I am.  It’s entirely understandable she shouldn’t tell you.  We’re not supposed to admit these things, of course, but she was desperately in love with Marsha.  The trouble was, Marsha lacked the same – what shall we say – enthusiasm?  It was a rather one-sided affair that went on – and off – almost from the first week she joined Chambers.  I still meet with Marsha sometimes.  Very talented girl.”

Gwendoline juggled the little Citroen through the gates to Radley Court, observing; “Your sister was your complete opposite in every way.  I’m sorry to say it, because of course you loved her, but had I to choose, I would pick you every time.  There was a self-destructive element in Suzanne.”  She sighed apologetically.  “So now perhaps you can better forgive me for my little interrogation in the kitchen the other night.  I was about to judge you by association with your sister.  Very wrong of me.  I’m sorry.”  Then, as an afterthought, “Or censure me for being bloody rude about your sibling.  We Hallcrofts instinctively speak our minds.”  She braked to a sliding halt on the gravel before the house.  “There, dear, that’s all!  You can get away from me now!”

Karen shook her head.  “Challenging Frank was a mistake.  I was stupid.”

“It wasn’t the best way to get to the truth, but it worked.  Let’s go in and make some tea, I’m parched.”

“How did you get on?”  Patrick wanted to know; and when Karen told him.  “You see?  No-one messes with my mother.”

“You?”  she rejoined.  “How is Jacqui?”

“Better.  Better, I think.  She’s still wandering in and out of consciousness, but the consultant seems hopeful.  She’s been fitted with one of those halo things, you know?  While the bones set?  It’s all about brain damage, now.  We have to pray she’s got away with it.”

 

“Karen’s going to stay with us for a few more days,” Gwendoline told him, “until the end of the week, at least.   If there was a connection between her investigation and the stalker everything should settle down now, but just in case the two are not related, we have time to reflect on what to do next.”

Karen tried to express her joy at the thought of spending a few more days at Radley Court if nobody objected, and Pat said he certainly didn’t object and Gabby bubbled with pleasure at the idea. Karen’s affected happiness did not fool Patrick, however.  As soon as they were alone, he confronted her.

“You’re all being so nice to me…”

“We like you.  No, more than that – we love you.  But that isn’t what’s making you unhappy.  What’s wrong, Karen?”

She shook her head, powerless to explain her conviction that the time she had remaining to her was dwindling; how she was sure, now the second of her predicted three days was drawing to its close, that her fate was sealed.  Instead, she came to him and buried her face in his shoulder, comforted by his return of her embrace and sheltered by his arms.

“So you’re still afraid.”  He said.

#

 Karen changed into a pair of Gabrielle’s old jeans before helping her and Gwendoline in the stables, then, after an amiable evening meal she retired to her room early,

What she really needed was time to reflect.

Before she had come to Radley Court her vision had been clouded by her resentment of middle-class wealth and the rigid structure of the British caste system.  Whether she had formed that view from the depths of her own experience, or from the counselling of Suzanne, her fiery, brilliant sister who Pat’s mother had criticized as ‘self-destructive and angry’ she was no longer sure, but she had immediately suspected Patrick’s motives and rejected him because of that view, and she had been wrong.  In the Hallcrofts she had not only discovered a new circle of supportive friends, but also a new family.  Gabrielle was the sister Suzanne could never have been, Gwendoline as a mother figure the exact counter-point to her own.  As for Amanda, she had yet to form an opinion. Jackson?  Well, Jackson had been absent at dinner:  much later she heard his car growling up the drive and caught the brief flash of its headlights across her window.  She calculated he must have spent at least fourteen hours at work that day, something Pat had affirmed was his regular habit.

“That’s why I declined to join his firm when he asked me.  He’d have me doing the same thing.  I tried it for a week and it nearly did for me.  I was a wreck!”

So there, too, were comparisons to be made.  Karen had to concede to herself that every hour her own father spent in watching television, Jackson spent in making money.  Were all fathers so neglectful of their families, she wondered?  Was it fortuitous that they were?

Then there was Patrick.  No, most of all there was Patrick.

These two days which had shattered all her preconceptions about class differences might have convinced her that a future with Pat was more than a vain dream.  If only she was not so certain now of her impending doom – of all the outrageous slings and arrows none had power to hurt her more than knowing she had at last found the man she wanted to be with at the precise moment events were conspiring to take her from him – Karen would have declared herself that night.   Instead, there in the solitude of evening she took a sheet of writing paper from the dressing table and wrote a short note.  She folded it and slipped it into an envelope, addressed to ‘Pat’, which she placed in her bedside cabinet drawer.

For a little while, she rallied.  She told herself these negative feelings were all of her own imagining, that she had armed herself with ju-jitsu training precisely so she possessed the power and weapons to repel an attack by a larger, older opponent.  She was perfectly capable of overcoming Mr Nasty, and only his wild, leather-clad appearance deterred her.  Buoyed up by this thought, she rehearsed routines she had neglected for a few weeks now, working out on the soft carpet of her room until the blood coursed afresh through her veins and she felt revitalized and alive.  But in the wake of those few minutes of breathless elation the memory of his assault upon her and the ease with which he had overcome her defences returned.  He knew as much about those martial arts as she.  When next she faced him, unless Pat was beside her, the outcome would be the same.

At some time, she must have slept, to be wakened in the way every princess would wish, by a gentle kiss on her lips.  “Hi!”  Pat said.  “No buckets tonight!”

Dawn found Karen standing at her window, clutching a dressing gown about her against the morning chill as she gazed out over acres of lawn towards the trees, watching occasional bright lances from a distant road as early risers made their way to work.  Overnight rain had ceased, leaving grass and leaves still moist enough to glimmer with gemstones in a dim candle-glow of first sun.  She had loved these moments, had she not, and if this should be the last, she wanted its images to remain with her as long as she retained the power to remember. Behind her in her room, Pat slept.  She could hear his breathing, even and slow.  The sun was a red line athwart a far-off horizon, and the wind was a ghost, whispering among the trees.  He was out there, her nemesis.  He would be expecting to see her standing here, because she was waiting for him, and he would know.

Over breakfast, Karen only picked at food, and nothing Patrick said or did could lift her despondency.  Jackson had gone to work, Gabrielle left early to visit a friend in Baronchester.  Gwendoline departed after breakfast on her ‘school run’ with Amanda.

“The headmistress wants to see me.  I’ve a distinct feeling she wants to get rid of the little bugger.  We’ve done this before, haven’t we, young lady?”

“So that leaves us,” Patrick said.

They walked Petra, following the path they had taken on their first morning together, repeatedly baptized by trees still heavy from the residue of rain.  Petra seemed ill at ease, reluctant to run or forage as she normally should, but staying close, sniffing anxiously at the air.

“Ready for trouble,”  Patrick commented.  “I wonder what’s got her goat this morning?”

Their seat by the lake was wet, so, although Karen seemed hesitant, they slowly walked back towards the house, unspeaking, because the weight in Karen’s heart had spread to them both.   As they crossed the forecourt, Mrs Buxham loomed large at the front doors.

“Mr Patrick!  There’s a ‘phone call for you!”

While Patrick hurried to answer his call, Karen took Petra around the house to the kitchen door, ready to dry her off and clean her paws.   She was barely through the door when Patrick greeted her, his face pale:   “That was the hospital.  Jacqui’s taken a turn for the worse.  They don’t think she’s going to make it!”

“Oh, Pat!”

“I can’t understand it.  She was fine yesterday.  She was getting better.”

“It can happen.”

“I guess.  Love, she’s got no-one – her parents are god-knows-where and her brother’s in Australia.  She’s alone and…”

“You go.”

“Look, Mrs Buxham’s stays until half-nine and mother’ll be back before long, probably with Sprog.  I have to go to hold Jacqui’s hand – I don’t know what else to do.  Come with me, yes?”

Karen smiled, for she knew that this was how it would be.  “No.  You go,” she told him, fighting an urge to smother him in her arms.   “Gwen won’t be long.  I’ll be fine here.”

 

 

© Frederick Anderson 2018.  All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction.  All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental.  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