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