Satan’s Rock

Part 23

A Silent Wisdom

Vincent Harper was standing behind a table laden with food and the paraphernalia of cooking.   He  seemed smaller than Peter remembered him, in fact shorter than himself: and his lined face in a caught-in-the-act smile of welcome added to this impression, as did the quantity of flour and grease adorning his apron, grey shirt, forearms, and face.  The wild guitar player in an apron: it was difficult to assimilate.   Peter tried not to betray his amusement, but of course Vincent noticed.

“Been doin’ some baking, Pete.   You eaten, man?”

Peter had not, at least since his burger that lunchtime.  It was now evening.  The kitchen, a warm, enchanted place laden with shining copper, wrapped itself around him as he accepted offers of bread just baked and cakes so fresh they crumbled to the touch with large brown earthenware mugs of tea to wash them down.    Ignoring the pain of his bruised hands Peter set about the feast while Vincent, saying or doing little except to offer more when he felt it needed, or to cut another slice, or pass a different pot of jam, was content to watch.

“Good stuff, yeah?”

“Yeah.” Peter answered truthfully.  It was so easy to dispense with formalities and slip into familiarity with this man, in spite of the difference in their ages. “What are you doing here, Vince?   Why didn’t you say it was you in your email?”

“Staying out of sight, mate.”  Vincent began clearing plates.  “After our little session back-along, you and I, it wasn’t safe for me to stay on the Rock.  Too many inquisitive people who know what I’m all about will be looking for me.  Can’t even trust email, not with these guys.  They are seriously heavy:  seriously.”

“What are you – and what exactly is this all about?”

Vince would have answered, had not a door in the opposite wall of the kitchen burst open, admitting a woman in a green bathrobe and slippers that should have been fluffy, had they not suffered visible food damage.

“He wants fish, now!   Have we got any bloody fish?”  She stopped short as she saw Peter.   “Oh hi!   Oh, wow, Vincent, is this him?”

“Peter, this is my lady, yeah?  Her name’s Estelle.  Estelle, meet Peter.”

“Hello Peter.”

Estelle was not at first encounter elegant or possessed of Alice’s frail beauty, although with acquaintance her inner grace would find the light.  There were ways about a movement of her hands, or a quickness of her look, which in time could draw the attention of a stranger and make them a fast friend.  The same could be said of her voice, which, with her Mid-Atlantic accent to enrich it, was deep, almost boyish.   In her welcoming smile there was the self-consciousness of the surgically enhanced; leading a critical eye to that strategic placement of her dark hair which covered sins of age not quite effortlessly enough to convince.  To Peter, whether she was thirty-five or fifty-five mattered little, for her greeting was warm and genuine, and her inner softness beckoned:  he instantly liked Estelle.

Vincent asked:  “Is he ready to receive visitors?”

“Not yet.”   Estelle said.   “He’s still eating.  I have to clean him up first.”     She took Vincent’s arm, and, with an apologetic look at Peter, led him out of the room, part-closing the door behind them.   Beyond it, Peter overheard her saying, sotto-voce, “Vince, is this quite all right, huh?  I mean, the old creep tried to grope me just now!  He’s got fingers everywhere- he makes me crawl!”           

“Sorry, sweetheart.  He’s hard to take, I know.  He won’t stay here after tonight, yeah?”

“OK.  I’ll just mop him over a bit.  You find him some goddamn fish for his supper.  If he’d only just stop eating!”

Vincent grinned around the door, then re-joined Peter.   “Someone you should meet.” He explained, as Estelle departed, presumably to renew her confrontation with the ‘old creep’,  “But not for a bit.  Come on through to the front room, Peter mate.  I owe you a few answers.”

Departure from the kitchen and all its temptations was a wrench, but Peter took it well.   Estelle, in the haste of her leaving had left her door ajar, so as he passed he was able to hear raised voices from what he took to be a basement.  The words exchanged were undistinguishable if their sentiment was not:  one of the voices belonged to Estelle, the other, a tenor with an hysterical edge, struck a chord in Peter’s memory.  He could not recall where, but he was certain he had heard that voice before.

Beyond the kitchen a narrow, timber-clad corridor led to a parlour as Dickensian and out of character with the Vincent Peter knew as it was possible to be.  Soft upholstered wing chairs in old brocade, drawn up each side of a luxuriously deep Chinese rug, stood like sentries before a large fire-blacked grate where a crackling wood fire burned cheerfully.  Its flickering glow threw into sharp relief a dark wooden sideboard loaded with Spode and Meissen that leant against a further wall.  Windows of warped and shrunken joints moaned softly in the September wind, their prospect of valley and open moor framed by heavy curtains of dusky red velvet.   A cat had curled itself contentedly on the soft pile of the rug.  

After ensuring Peter was ensconced in one of the chairs, Vincent perched on the sill of the window and began to talk in a voice so mellifluous and comforting that Peter might have been lulled into sleep, were this not an explanation of so much that he did not understand.  He hung, riveted, upon every word.

“I’m not all I seem, Pete.  There’s stories about me livin’ in houses in LA and havin’ a yacht down Barbados way.  Not true.  Oh, yeah, I’ve got the place at St. Benedict’s:  that’s where I play at bein’ twenty-one again and do me music.  And I put it about that I’ve got all these other places.  But it isn’t me; not any more.   I lived all that once, but now I’m getting older I find meself spending more and more time here.   It’s my hideout, yeah?   Oh, and me and Estelle, we’re together, you know?  Have been for ten years now.  She’s a great girl, see?”

“Toby told me you were single.   Didn’t have any regular companions, he said.  I thought you were with Alice.”

“Nah.  Alice?  Just a mate, Pete, like you.  Again…”  Vince spread his hands:  “not something I talk about.  Doesn’t fit the image, yeah?  The rocker thing.

“Sometimes;” He went on, “I like to sit here and watch the dale through this window.   In the spring the curlews come, in autumn the geese pass by.   And for all the years that I’m here, they come and go just the same. To all of us living things, man, bird or beast, the land don’t seem to change.  That stream, curlin’ along the valley bottom there, it’s been there longer than any man can remember, and it’s always looked just the same as it does now.”   He smiled reflectively, leaning forward to catch Peter’s attention. “But through thousands of years that stream cut this valley.   It made the slope where this house stands!   It worked and worked, for time beyond memory, to carve the groove it needed to get it to the sea.  Think of that, Pete!  Think of the time that took!

“Looking out there, mate, I‘m so amazed how little, we know. Us, Homo-whose-‘is-face; everyone assumes that we sort of spewed out of some genetic witches’ cauldron somewhere and started world domination.  Adam and Eve, y’know: all that? We view other species we share the planet with  along the barrel of a gun, most often, or fattenin’ up prettily in a field, just for the privilege of being eaten by us.”

He turned from the window, suddenly fierce.   “It wasn’t always like that.   It wasn’t never meant to be that way at all!”

“Life started in the sea,” Peter said cautiously, trying to dispel some of Vincent’s surprising anger; “Single-cell creatures, then fish; amphibians, eventually.  I know the dinosaurs developed from the first amphibians, the birds evolved from them, the smaller ones, that is:  Mammals came along and the larger reptiles perished because of climate change, or maybe….no-one knows, really.”

“Or maybe because they over-stretched their food sources, got too bloody big and so over-populated they couldn’t survive?  Anything sound familiar, so far?”

Peter nodded.  “It’s one explanation, I guess, but there are others – volcanic activity polluting the atmosphere, a meteor strike?”

“Could be, mate,”   Vincent agreed.  “Could be.  Thing is, the thing to remember, they were a dominant species long before we came along, a dynasty of creatures which were powerful and clever enough to rule their world.”

“They died out, though.”

“After a hundred million years during which their world changed mightily, for a lot of which they must have been walking a tightrope between their numbers and their resources?  Millions of years of learning, of gathering wisdom?  Perhaps they did die out, but now, Pete;” The guitarist leaned forward to emphasise his words,  “Perhaps their intelligence didn’t.”

Peter didn’t take the bait at first.  He sipped from the mug of tea he had brought with him from the kitchen, contemplating a response.  At last he said, slowly, “So if Archaeopteryx was, as I’ve read it, a dinosaur that evolved into a bird, he’s flying around now with an IQ of umpteen-hundred-and-ninety-nine.  Why wasn’t he the dominant species instead of us?  What about crocodilia, aren’t they a hundred and twenty million years old, or something?  They could have literally had us for breakfast if they’d wanted, couldn’t they?  They’ll have missed a chance there.”

Vincent laughed, “No, it wasn’t quite like that.  For a start, there’s a little matter of equipment, yeah?  Like the old opposable thumbs thing?  The birds aren’t fluttering about with huge brains – for a start they wouldn’t be able to fly.   Put it this way, Pete: You’re learning for your Degree, how do you remember everything?  How are you going to pass on the things you’ve learned?”

“It’s all on my laptop, I suppose.  Disks, flash drives, things like that.”

“Exactly!  You’ve got something not permanent, but more durable than you or I.  Now the big lizards didn’t have laptops. For a long time we had no idea what they did have, but now, just maybe, we’re getting close to an answer.  That’s real exciting, yeah?”

The guitar-player waved at the atmosphere with a manic finger, and sounding for a moment not unlike Toby:  “We’ved always known the kind of wisdom that’s gathered in a hundred million years doesn’t die.   It’s there, somewhere, and god knows we need its guidance, because we’re feckin’ up, man.  How long has Homo-what’s-his-face been around?  Not even one million years, and we’re already well on the way to extinction.  Too many of us, too much plundering and too little planning!”  

The cat, at this precise juncture, elected to forgo its warm nest by the fire and slink gracefully over his  hands to sit upon the window sill.   From there it climbed the scaffold of Vincent’s arms with its front legs and began elegantly grooming his stubble with its rough tongue.  Vince and Peter both collapsed, for a moment, into laughter.

“Oh, bleedin’ ‘ell!”  Vince cried, his sides aching.  “Animals, yeah?”

He raised the cat up in his hands, cradled it and began chucking its chin.  “See, this stupid creature, he’s got more stuff locked inside his head than you’d ever credit.   He knows when a car’s coming at least half a mile before it arrives – and if Estelle’s in the car he’ll be ready for her in the kitchen twenty minutes before she pulls in.  He can sense a storm; he can tell if you’re ill.  How does he do all that – and much more besides?  We put it all down to ‘instinct’ because we don’t have ‘instinct’ anymore and we don’t understand it.”

Peter’s quizzical look betrayed his thinking.  “Anymore?  Meaning we had it once and we lost it?”

“Yes, Pete!  Precisely, mate!  Not very strongly, maybe, but we did have it, before we got too civilised, too wrapped up in our fully-lined and comfortable world.  Like those dinosaurs, we’ve lost touch.”

“So you’re saying the thing we call ’instinct’ is knowledge left for us by reptiles?”  Peter’s furrowed brow betrayed the seeds of a headache. “That’s kind of hard to believe, Vince!”

“It is, isn’t it?  And it isn’t quite like that, to be fair, because we’ve just picked on one previously dominant set of species whereas that knowledge is the sum of everything that’s gone before.  Think of it a source of wisdom without being too specific as to its origins, and you’re there.”

 Vince’s narrative was easy to understand, simplistic even, but he could not see where it was going to lead:  clever extinct dinosaurs, pollution and all the warning signs of impending disaster; what did they have to do with his being brought here?  “I’m sorry, I…”

“I know,”  Vincent nodded;  “I found it hard enough to take in, at first.  But this is all about you, and that girl of yours.”

“She is not ‘mine’.  Anyway, me?  What have I got that has any bearing on species extinction?”

“You rediscovered instinct.  You had a moment, only a moment, but you tapped into that knowledge,  A couple of moments, actually –Toby told me about the cave.”

“No!  I just had a sort of dream!”  Peter’s denial was vehement.  “ I wouldn’t have understood it, even, if Mel hadn’t helped.”

Vincent chuckled and shook his head.  “You can’t run from it.  Let’s start from somewhere else, just for a minute, Pete.  Do you understand Time?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Ah, but do you?  If I said to you, time is the process of aging, would you accept that?  You should live, God willing, for your three score years and ten, and that’s a good long life, to you.  But a fruit fly lives no more than a day or so, and that’s a good long life to a fruit fly.

An elephant’s life is more like ours in terms of years, but this puddy-tat, he’ll be lucky if he gets fifteen years.  That’s what time is – a perception; the way we see things through aging.”

“I gues so, but…”

“So what’s a good long life to a rock?”

“But rock’s aren’t living organisms, so they don’t count.”

“Pete, we wouldn’t know if they were living organisms, because with a life-span of billions of years, their metabolism would be undetectable to us.  Nevertheless, mate, they do age.  They erode, too, just like us.  Think about it!”  Vincent urged. 

Peter, with the warm room and the dimming of the light closing around him, felt his eyelids getting heavy,  He wasn’t sure if he could believe what Vincent was saying, and he couldn’t, after the rigours of the day, absorb anything more.   Vincent, watching him, saw the advancing clouds of sleep and grinned.  “Sorry old lad, a bit much, ain’t it?   Bed for you, I reckon,  Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to him downstairs.”

#

A mile after luncheon at The Royal Oak Inn at Mountchester, Arthur Herritt’s landeau took his guests, Francine Delisle and her son Sauel on the turnpike, which followed the course of the River Leven for some miles.   This was a scenically gratifying journey, the road being forced by the Chewlett Hills to run close by the waterside, drawing young Samuel’s fascinated gaze with uninterrupted views of the navigable river, in width by now almost a full estuary.   Question followed question:

“Uncle Arthur…”  (Arthur had acquired the honorary rank of ‘Uncle’)  “Why are no boats going to Mountchester?  They all seem to be headed for the sea.” 

It was true; whether sailing ships, or barges, or mere dredgers, all traffic was headed west.

“The river is tidal here, Samuel, and the tide is ebbing.  They are using it to draw them towards the sea.”

 “What if one should want to go the other way?” Samuel objected.

Arthur smiled, “Why then it would endeavour to sail, given a fair wind, or wait for the tide to turn.  The  Master would put into Levenport harbour and pray for a good westerly to blow him home in the morning.”

“What if it couln’t?”  The boy was rapt, his chin resting upon his hands on the lowered covers of the carriage.

“Samuel!”  His mother rebuked him sharply.

“No, Mama, I mean if its cargo was needed urgently?  Or the ship required repair?”

“Then the Master might resort to  kedging,” Arthur explained.  “An anchor boat must row ahead of the ship, and drop its anchor so the crew might wind it in on the capstan. A second anchor is then transported forward after the manner of the first, and the action repeated all the way up river. That’s very hard work.   As of custom, the larger ships dock in Levenport anyway, and off-load their cargoes onto barges.  Only the smaller ones make sail all the way up to Mountchester.”

“It must be dreadful slow.”  The boy said.

“It is, Samuel.  We hope that Mr  Telford might one day install a tidal lock for us, although I fear it will be a long time hence.”

Samuel sighed weightily.  “You are right, Mama.  I no longer wish to become a sailor.”

It was late afternoon when their Landeau rolled onto Levenport’s esplenade.

“I have taken the liberty of reserving rooms for us at Roper’s Hotel here,”  Arthur informed his guests.  “It is a respectable establishment, indeed I believe Lord Crowley himself stayed here.  In the morning I intend an expedition to the island, I would be honoured if you would join me?”

Later that evening, Samuel accompanied his mother and his adopted ‘uncle’ for a leisurely walk on the waterfront in the gloomy shade of St. Benedict’s rock.    It was a pensive, abnormally quiet affair, during which the boy could not help but sense his mother’s odd distraction, which he attributed to the large and largely ruined house across the Bay.   It was hard to ignore it, for the legacy of the Christmas storm had left a large part of its structure in disarray, and the wreckage of part of it lay in a tangled heap at the foot of the rock which had once supported it.  Yet it seemed to Samuel there were other reasons for his mother’s peculiarly restrained excitement, and being worldly for his age, he wondered if she could be quite trusted to behave acceptably in the night ahead.

  © 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:

Header Image: Julian Hochge Sang-huepD on Unsplash
Cat: uros-miloradovic on unsplash
Sailing Ship: Enzol from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part Seventeen

A Country House

Peter had only met Ronald Harkness’s predecessor once, and that was purely by accident.   He had come to his Dad’s church on an errand and Bishop Penrose was there,.  Penrose was a  polished and shiny golden delicious of a man whose inner sweetness oozed from him: one of those for whom there was no possible career or destination other than faith.   Peter had liked Bishop Penrose.

There was little that was fragrant or remotely fructose in Bishop Harkness.   The churchman who greeted Peter’s gaze as he answered his father’s call to their front room next morning was a spare, crow-like figure.  His long head, with black, sparse hair clinging untidily to its summit, tapered like a rugby ball at chin and cranium,.  His large eyes flickered eagerly from blackened sockets.   A prominent nose hooked over the upper lip of a mouth which might have been gouged out of his skin, so narrow and level a slit did it present.  He was dressed in an attempt at informality; Arran sweater, beige sports slacks, brogues, but there was nothing informal about his presence.  If Penrose was apple, Harkness was medlar; if he were a man of the cloth it was sackcloth – if he were a man of God, Peter instantly decided, his was a most unusual god.

Harkness greeted him in a voice which came from a long way behind his teeth.   “You must be Peter.  How pleasant to meet you.”

From the moment he entered the room, Peter noticed, those eyes never left him.  Although he continued for some time in conversation with his father, Harkness looked only at the son.  After a few minutes, the new Bishop slapped his hands on his knees and stood up.

“Now, Bob.   I should like to have a few words with your fine young man, here.  I suppose we might take a turn in the garden, hmmm?   Would you accompany me, Peter?”

It was a strange request, but then the whole interview had a somewhat bizarre tenor.

“Is that all right with you, Peter?”  Bob Cartwright asked faintly, and Peter shrugged, and said that it was.

There was very little garden.   Harkness placed himself in the centre of what there was of it, with his arms folded, as he looked the pastor’s son up and down.

“So you’re Peter.”

“So you’re the new Bishop.”   Peter sat on the edge of a part-demolished wall, one of his father’s early attempts at a cold frame.

“Do you believe in God?”   Harkness’s words stabbed through the air metallically.   “No, I thought not.  I suppose if I asked you your religion you would say something like Buddhist, or ‘Jedi’ maybe; or something else.  It is awkward isn’t it, being a Pastor’s son, nowadays?”

The man’s attitude was nuanced towards hostile:  Peter prickled inside, but could do nothing to rebut it.  Harkness was his father’s superior, in a sense, and he would not have harmed his father’s interests for the world. He thought carefully before replying.

“Dad’s very good; he manages it for both of us.”

Harkness fixed him with a bird-like stare, turning his head to one side as a blackbird will when it hears a worm moving in the soil. There was no mistaking the inquisitorial intensity of that look, or the weight of unsaid words that were repressed behind it.

“You are still very young.”  The churchman suddenly commented.  “That surprises me.”

“What does?”  Peter could make no sense of this.  “I go to university this year.”

Harkness glanced at him sharply, as though he thought the answer facetious.  But seeing nothing other than innocence in Peter’s expression, a look of doubt, almost of incredulity, spread itself across his face.

“Never mind.”  He said at last, slowly, as if laying something to rest in his mind.  “These are momentous times, you see.   I have to be sure.  I wanted to ask you, Peter.   I wanted to urge you.  Stay upon the chosen path, God’s path.  At your age the choices may seem tempting, but there can be only one right choice.  D’you see?”

“S’pose.”  Such Jesuitical fervour was difficult to confront.  Peter found himself unaccountably fascinated by his own feet.

“Your father needs your support, lad.   These are troubled times, you know?”

“I wouldn’t let Dad down.”

Harkness stepped closer: too close; an invasion of space, an assertion of power.  The Bishop was staring right into his soul, striving to see beneath the innocence.  “Really?   Really, Peter?   I wonder, you see.  I do.”

After this interview was concluded and the usual pleasantries had been observed, Bishop Harkness took his leave.   Father and son saw him from their door, and as he retreated, Harkness cast a warning look of some severity towards Peter. He called back over his shoulder: “Remember my words, young man!”   Bob Cartwright heard this, and was perplexed.

“You know, old son, I could swear he actually came to see you, rather than me.  What do you make of that, eh?”

“I think he’s a sleaze.”

“Certainly he might take some getting used to.”  Bob raised a smile.  “Some of our distinguished brethren are like that.   We’ll rub along, I guess – at a distance.”

At that point the subject closed, and was not raised again.   But Bishop Harkness had left Peter with a feeling of violation that would take a long time to forget.

#

Lesley was in the middle of  a mathematics dilemma  when her ‘phone whirred:

 “Hi Pete.”

“Hi Les,   Missingg me?”

“Didn’t I just walk home with you?      Wasn’t that, like, an hour ago?”

“Two hours, ten minutes and forty seconds.  Admit it, your eveing’s empty without me.” 

“I’m sorta busy.  Okay, be useful.  What’s a perfect number?”

“Six.”

“Oh, very good…” 

“Or twenty-eight, or…I’ve forgotten.  Les, it’s my birthday tomorrow.    Weather forecast’s fine.   Fancy a day in the country?”

“Say the word.  I love country and stuff.   Six?”

“There’s a place I always wanted to see – called Crowley House.  Thought I’d go.  Lay some old ghosts.  Are you up for it?”

“You know me, Pete.  Always.   Six?”

“A perfect number.  Always the sum of its factors.  Six equals one plus two plus three?”

“Oh, yeah – why didn’t I see that?”

“Fabjous.  See you at the railway station, Nine o’clock!”

“Nine o’clock!   What am I – an owl?” 

 They met at the station.  Lesley, in spite of early morning blues, felt lightness in her step whenever she spent time with Peter.   She had always known that something extra went on beneath the shy, arch look of those deep eyes.  But somehow, in the last year or so, the intensity of his nature had become passion.  Physically too, he was higher and wider, more confident in his voice and his walk.   Lesley, who had always sworn not to become involved with Melanie’s first love, found herself drawn so strongly!   Peter was not a ‘trophy’, or simply the right one to be seen with.  She wanted, and she hoped.  She needed him. 

As for Peter?  Well, he did not question his feelings for Lesley.  Even before the sweetness of their first kiss she seemed to have slipped seamlessly into his life; arm into arm, hand into glove.   It was if she had always been there.  

Strangely, the only time he thought about her looks or her figure were those first moments of meeting; as now when she padded softly in her trainers across the ticket hall to greet him, cream camisole top just short enough to expose a margin of stomach that was firm and flat, jeans so well fitted they might be made for her alone.  These were things Peter saw in Lesley from a distance, that power to turn heads, even in a musty railway station at nine o’clock in the morning.

“You look nice!”   He would say, with honesty, and she would blush briefly, because when he said it to her it meant something more than just a compliment.

“Always.”   A twitch of a smile, a quick peck of lips;  “I didn’t do a card.  Happy Birthday!”

“What’s in the bag?”

“I brought drinks.  It’s going to be hot.”

Then the first greeting was over, and immediately he was with her all that was forgotten:  she was just Lesley.   Lesley, whose pale hair flew about her like a wraith when she ran, who could burst into laughter, suddenly, for no real reason except an insight into the joke of life.   Lesley was – well, fun;   just fun.

Peter learned something though, on the train.   Lesley did not talk much in the mornings.   After half an hour spent sitting across the table from her and feeling the welter of her stare, the rhythm of the rails began to get to him.  His eyelids felt heavy and he began to doze.   A violent kick on his ankle brought him back to wakefulness.

“Don’t you go to sleep on me!”

“Sorry!”   Peter rubbed his ankle.

Lesley glowered at him.   “You don’t get me out of bed at this heathen hour then go back to sleep yourself, Peter!  Nobody drops off on me!”

Peter sighed.  “I was just getting bored:  this is the most conversation I’ve had out of you in hours.   You’re just sitting over there sticking pins in my fith-fath.”

“I’m not!  Really!   I’m just not a before-noon type of person.   Mornings are for cockerels and stuff.”

“You get up on college days.”

“Have to, don’t I?  Anyway, lectures are interesting, not dreary and dull like you.”

“Oh thanks!”  Peter considered for a moment.  “All right,” He said:  “Something interesting, yeah?”

He had never told Lesley about his fascination with St. Benedict’s Rock and its colourful past.  Perhaps he had been frightened to appear in too studious a light; for Lesley, although a brilliant student, never betrayed an interest in such things.   Now he decided to take the chance, to explain his reason for their journey.  He related as much of the Crowley history as he knew, whilst leaving out any reference to visions or instances of foresight, and omitting the story of the cave.   Lesley listened intently, as she always did, or at least appeared to do, until he had finished.

“That’s it?”  She asked.

“That’s it.  I want to see the house where those characters lived.  I want to imagine them at home, receiving visitors in the drawing room by the fire, or riding around their estates in the afternoon.”

“Wicked!   ‘Long as we don’t actually meet them: like, their ghosts or anything?”

“All that.   It wasn’t too boring?”

“Stultifying!”   Lesley grinned.   “I stayed awake, didn’t I?”

Peter did not know what he expected to see, or feel, the first time he saw Crowley.   Whether the tall iron gates of his imaginary picture were really there, or if the circular drive led around an island of rhododendrons as it did in his dreams.   When, in his sleep, he had visited this troubled house it was always a warm, beautiful day in late spring, with sunlight bathing a red sandstone mansion.   The grass and leaves were always verdant green, the paths lit with flowers.  Somehow, no matter how rank the corruption which seeped from within, Crowley House evinced a message of hope, a triumph over penury and despair.   This was how he imagined it would be.

“Oh-My-God!”    Lesley breathed.

Two miles from their railway stop and a mile, by Peter’s calculation, from the nearest habitation, they came upon it around a bend in a narrow country lane.   There were gates, indeed, and they were high.   They were also closed, their open ironwork permitting a view of a circular drive which once might have harboured rhododendrons, but now surrounded only rough turf.  The approach was lined, six on each side, by crumbling statues in the classic mode, cracked and blackened from generations of neglect.   Beyond these, to west and east were gardens which, though they must have been the envy of all who strolled in them a century ago, were nothing now but a mass of tangled growth.   Bramble had skeined itself about decaying ornamental furniture, the trunks of parkland trees, banks where battalions of flowers once laid siege to ponds and fountains, arbours and colonnades: all gone now.

Beyond this battlefield, at least two hundred metres from the gate, the façade of Crowley House looked as if it would rather not receive visitors.   A tall, Jacobean edifice four storeys high, with severe windows, the slab front of the house had very few features other than its glass, much of which was broken on the upper floors, and all of which was boarded up at ground level.  If in some long-gone time Crowley House had intimidated its poor artisan creditors, now it seemed itself to be rather frightened and mistreated.  Window frames, doors, railings slotted into walls of soft sandstone, were etched by erosion.   A roof missing as many tiles as the roof of Crowley must have admitted most of the weather: the sandstone chimneys rising from it, whittled to spindles by the winds of time, could have emitted little smoke.   Only the warmth of the sun saved it, casting a glow over the pitted stonework, in which slight, delicate touch of light there was a glow of remembrance.   This was a house with a past.

The gates were padlocked and chained.   Upon them, as old as their last coat of paint, a faded notice declared the house:

‘Open to the public

Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays,

May to October.

Admission £1.00.

No dogs allowed.’

Above this, and somewhat newer, a board which said:

For Sale.   Country Estate with sixty acres of pasture.

Nifton, Soper and Jakes, Land Agents’.

The front doors were planked over.   The place was deserted.

Peter felt overwhelmed by great sadness.   “I’m sorry, Les:   I expected better than this.”

“What?  Don’t be a dope.   This is just – so – cool!   I love it!  Come on!”  Lesley set off up the road, following the boundary:  “There has to be a way in.  Look, through here!”

In fact there were several ways in; places where the ill-maintained wall which once surrounded the whole estate had given itself up to nature.   Although the owners or their agents had attempted to fill these spaces with barbed wire, they posed no deterrent to a determined teenager.

“Careful!  This might be scratchy!”

   Lesley quickly threaded her way through, Peter, more reluctantly, tagging behind.

“Aren’t we trespassing?  What if someone sees us?” 

“Oh, yeah!  Like who?  Who would care?”  Lesley swore at a retributive bramble, kicking it into submission.   “We came all this way – go back without seeing the place?  Like, I don’t think so!”

They surfaced from a tangle of undergrowth to find themselves in the gardens at the side of the house.

“Oh!  Look at this!  Come on, Petey, be a brave boy!”

Feeling slightly miffed by his new appellation, Peter allowed himself to be led as an enchanted Lesley discovered Crowley for herself.   She ran from him to hide behind the walls of the old vegetable gardens, laughing so much in the ensuing fun-fight that she fell into a rotted cucumber frame and had to be helped, squealing, from the midst of an advancing army of bugs.   At last she made for the house, gazing up in awe at its lofty walls, kicking at the weed clawing at its footings.   “Let’s go inside.”  She said, as if they had only to open the front doors.

Nailed composite boards proved more substantial opposition than the boundary wall.   Window after shuttered window had to be rejected as they walked the entire length of the frontage and found no means of getting through: nor was there any sign of weakness on the south side of the house.  Here trees and undergrowth encroached upon the pathway, so much so that they had to detour a little into the woodland to find a way around.   Again it was Lesley who led, kicking at the cloying net of ground ivy as she brushed past low branches, pushed aside festoons of natural curtain.   At one such moment, her keen eye picked out, in the trees to their right, a small, unnatural-looking mound.

“Hey, check this out!”

 The outline of a stone arch was half-buried by long grasses woven into bramble, which defended and disguised it as though they wanted it to be forgotten. 

“What do’y’ think, Petey?  Like an ice house, or something?”

Flailing away with the stoutest sticks they could find, the pair thrashed a path to the squat, stone building.  A low doorway, defended by a padlocked iron grille, barred their path.  Peter shook at the rusted bars.

“Probably.  Yeah, an ice house or something.”

“It had outer doors, wooden ones.”    Lesley had found the unhinged remains of planks in the undergrowth.   “Why were these taken off?”

His suspicions aroused,  Peter fingered the rusted padlock, testing it for strength.   It opened instantly.   The lock had been forced, a clean, quite recent scrape in its mantle of rust showing where a crowbar had been inserted.   Breathing quickly, they  heaved the grille aside on creaking hinges.

“Yay!”  Lesley exclaimed.

There were steps beyond the grille, leading down into darkness.   Suppressing a shudder at the onset of cold and damp, Peter led the way, guided by a metal rail let into the stone wall.  Lesley kept close behind him, her hand gripping fiercely at his shoulder as she tried to stop her knees from shaking.

“Secret passage?”   She whispered.

“No.   No, this is all there is.    I know where we are now.  This is the family vault.”

They alighted from steps into a gloomy chamber, barely illuminated by tiny leaded windows set into the stone of the upper walls.   Lesley lit up her ‘phone.”.

“Wow!”   she exclaimed  reverently:  “Dead people.”  Then; “Not much marble, or nothing.  Almost like they didn’t want anyone to know they were here.”

The sides of the chamber were lined with openings, each intended to admit a full-sized coffin, but of these there were only three that, once the dust was brushed aside, declared themselves by silver plaques to be the last resting-places of Lord Horace Crowley, Lady Elisabeth Crowley, and Matthew Ballentine.

“Only one generation,”  Peter whispered, half to himself; “No ancestors here?”

“Almost like this was their secret,” Lesley agreed, relishing the conspiracy; “Their hiding place, in death.  Oh Peter, this one was just a child!”   She lit up a shelf at the far end of the chamber supporting a casket no more than a metre in length.   There was no silver plaque upon this lid, no name.  A child, then, certainly, but whose?   In his studies of this ill-fated family, Peter had uncovered no mention of an heir.   Lady Crowley had been childless, as far as he knew.   And the chamber revealed another small inconsistency.   The bodies of the Crowleys were laid side-by-side; that of Matthew Ballentine separated from them on the opposite wall.  Had Elizabeth, finally regretting her betrayal, expressed a wish to lie with her husband?

The little child-casket aroused Lesley’s curiosity.   She probed the tiny coffin with affectionate fingers.   It was as if some distant memory bound her to this sad remnant of a short life.  Her questing arms seemed to need to embrace it, to take it to her.   Carefully, almost tenderly, she reached into the aperture wherein it was laid, gripped the box.   Then she drew it out.

Hearing the scraping sound, Peter suddenly realised what was happening.

“Les!   What are you doing?”

Lesley did not answer.  She had pulled the coffin almost clear of its resting place, supported longitudinally in her arms.   Small as it was, it was too heavy for her strength.   Foreseeing doom, Peter made to help her, diving to grab the further end of the box as it cleared the edge of the stone.   He was too far away and he was too late.

For an eternal moment the casket hung in Lesley’s failing grasp:  then it fell.

The wooden box had languished  in the damp and the dark for nearly two hundred years, as had the flagstones upon which it fell; but the flagstones had survived the centuries free of decay:  the box had not.   With a splintering crash it deconstructed upon the stone.   In horrified silence Peter and Lesley stared down at the wreckage.  

“Well now!”   Exclaimed Peter.

The coffin contained no evidence of a body, no matter how small.

“Why would they bury two rocks?”

© 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: Patty Jansen, from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part Four

An Invitation

Petergunn2:   Hi Mel!  

Melatrix:     Hi Babes – feeling better?

Petergunn2:  Yeah – sorreeee.

Melatrix:    Cool!   Favour 4 me?  JJJ?

Petergunn2:  Ask and it shall b given – if it doesn’t cost me.

Melatrix:    Remember that photo I took of u?   On the prom last Easter?   Can u mail it me?  I have some ideas.

Petergunn2:   WHAT ideas?

Melatrix:     OK, don’t worry then.   Like I care?

Petergunn:   Yeah, right. Look in your inbox.  And Mel?  Don’t give me lizard feet this time!

Melatrix:     Ta babes.

In the privacy of her room Melanie could, and sometimes did, cry hopelessly in those weeks and months when she knew her mum and dad were preparing to part.   Peter helped her.  He had a way of making the day easier to face.  When her father finally left and she missed him and the things she had share only with him, she told Peter those things, and Peter found the words to comfort her.  Tonight, as she played idly with the picture of her friend, morphing his image this way and that, she was reaching a time in her life when she was beginning to wonder just how important he was to her.    

#

Peter had no idea what thoughts drew him across the causeway towards the rock on the morning following his exams.  A prospect of two free periods at class would not be justification enough, nor would the wafted guitar music announcing that Vincent, the Rock’s incumbent mansion owner was at home, have sufficed.  Faint strains from a succession of old songs, they were, middle-of-the-road stuff from the sixties and seventies:  “Brown Sugar”, “Maggie May”, “Aquarius”: they had a magical quality, so that when the final notes died away there was a feeling of loss,  but they would still have failed to turn his feet in their direction.  He had heard them too often.

If he tried to form a picture in his head of the ageing rock star who played them, perched up there on the ramparts of Crowley’s fantasy castle, the images were faded and confused.  They lacked the clarity of his younger years when Vincent had first come to Levenport.  Then he had lain in bed at night for wakeful hours, just imagining.  This morning his academic prospects, the pictures of his future, concerned him more.   Yet here he was.  Why?

It had seemed no time at all before he came upon that seagull.  It had perched, motionless, with one wing partly extended, on a piece of driftwood sticking out of the sand, apparently sunning itself.   The diamond-mark was clearly visible on its neck, the same hard eye watching him as he wandered toward it.

“You liked the music?”  Asked the seagull.

“You’re not real.”  Peter accused him.

“I said, darling chap,” The gull repeated slowly; “Did you like his music?”

The words are forming inside my head, Peter thought.  Is this how schizophrenia starts?

“It’s all right, dear, you don’t have to speak if you don’t want to;” the seagull said testily.  “He wants to meet you.  Come on!”  

And with a few lazy wing-beats it was sky-borne, arrowing through wheeling flocks of its brethren towards the rock. There were a hundred gulls over the bay that morning yet the bird’s identity was never in doubt, for while the others dived, turned, soared upon the breeze, the diamond gull’s direction never varied.   When it perched, a tiny white fleck, atop one of those ludicrous Bavarian towers, Peter saw it clearly, even fancied it may be beckoning to him:  the words “Come – now!” rattled in his head with jangling insistence.

“Alright – I’m coming!   Shut up!”  He reprimanded the bird, forming the words in his mind.

“Oh!   Hissy-fits now!   So sorry!”

What?

So without real justification other than an imagined conversation with a seabird he found himself wandering through a hamlet of fishermen’s cottages that adorned the man-made platform at the foot of St Benedict’s Rock.  The builders of The House had created this platform to assist their labours:  the cottages had sprouted like fungi from it after the carpenters, the masons and the forgemasters left.   Once, the fisher people had populated its quay with boats.  Just two remained, scarcely seaworthy fishing smacks, their rotting hulls slapping and gurgling in the oily water.

 Throughout all of his sixteen years Peter had come to the island maybe five times.   The aggressive wildlife which inhabited the place was kept in check by Levenport’s council; its lurid history of warriors and monks with pagan rites was largely forgotten.  There were holiday lets on the rock, although, perhaps because it was so far removed from the hub of the town, tenancies were rare.   Certainly a necrotic air hung about the tiny houses with their peeling paint, clustered mushroom-like around echoing back-lanes. The rock frowned darkly overhead, depriving them of sun.   Lichens dripped in the cold dampness.   An unkempt dog snuffled by.

Peter, (already doubting the moment of unhinged reason that had brought him here), strode quickly through the little street, anxious to be free of its chill.   But if he had hoped for better from the road which ascended the rock itself he was to be disappointed; for although the narrow path that had long ago led teetering Benedictines to their lofty cells had been widened, burrowing in places into, and in one case through, the sheer basalt, the ocean breeze howled icily of ghosts of the past, dredging up shuddering memories of misery and murder from resources within Peter’s mind.   Around each new bend shades of marauding Vikings lurked: cold monks drifted by, their empty faces set in grim smiles: Quimple the mad architect’s flailing body plummeted past on its fatal fall.

Three small dwellings clung to the landward side of the rock, optimistic summer rents – no-one would winter here.  The first, a fresh-painted Hobbit House, leaned precariously from amid a tangle of greenery, bushes planted in imported earth which made some attempt to soften the stark angles of the stone.   Above it, on the opposite side of the road, two further hovels had fared less well.   Wedged against the rock itself, they awaited final destruction with roofs agape and walls crazed by ominous cracks.   Black windows, their glass long gone, stared sightlessly towards the shore.  It was many summers since anyone had sacrificed their vacation to these.

After climbing westward for almost a half-mile Crowley’s road cut through the rock in a tunnel sufficiently high for a coach and horses, with coachmen aloft in the prevailing fashion, to pass. Dim electricity lit this burrow from algae-green lantern glass recessed in the walls. Peter hurried through, fearful of the shadows it contained and a little revolted by the very specific graffiti daubed over its sides.

Emerging from the tunnel he might have thought of  himself as entering a different dimension. The island’s south side was brighter, sunnier.  Here the road turned first south, then east, rising upon a gentler slope through wild meadow with trees below him to his right, among which were several compact cottages, all well cared-for and one or two obviously occupied.   As he walked by the front yard of one of these a little girl was engrossed in a kind of skipping game: she grinned at him as he passed – a pretty, vacant grin that somehow spoke of more than greeting.  He scuffed his shoes, a self-conscious “hello” playing around in his throat. A little way behind the houses, screened from the  road by trees, the land fell away in great cliffs to the sea. Above the road on the left clumps of wild rhododendron obscured Peter’s view of the summit and the house which topped it.  Further up, at the road’s final turn, a solitary white-washed cottage was the only sign of habitation.  It was a really small house, maybe one room upstairs and one down, with a lean-to shed on the back.   Gingham curtains in the windows spoke of bygones, their torn dirtiness told of neglect.   A tin bath, an axe, several garden tools hung along the lean-to wall in an orderly rank, though, and the large garden running downhill from the rear was well cared for.

“Now what be you doing ‘ere?”   The voice was amiable and slow, but it alarmed Peter enough to stop him in his tracks.

“I’m going to The House.” He turned to address a full-figured man standing at the cottage door, regarding him with a bland expression.   He noticed with passing interest that the man had no trousers on.

“Are you now!”   This wasn’t a question.   The man hoisted at sagging, stripey underpants.   “What makes you think you can go there?”

Peter thought quickly.  “I’m invited;” he said – which was true in part, at least.

“Are you now!”   The man repeated.  “Who do you be, then?   You got an ‘ppointment?”

“I was asked to come this morning,” He refrained from admitting his invitation had been issued by a seagull.  “I’m Peter Cartwright.”

The man was silent for a moment, while he appeared to chew upon something: ‘Maybe I disturbed his lunch’,   Peter thought.

“Are you now!   Peter Cartwright, eh?”  Peter got ready to run.

“Well, you carry on now, young Peter, you’m expected, you are.   Tell them at the gate they’re to let you past.  Tell ‘em Toby said so.”   The man turned to re-enter his cottage, adding for information: “I’m Toby.”

Toby closed the cottage door behind him, leaving Peter rather wishing he had not seen the back of those underpants. 

Expected?  How could he be ‘expected’ when really a spur-of-a-moment decision was all that had brought him here?   Did that remarkable bird talk in the heads of other people too?   Peter considered himself a logical sort of person, not given to impulses, and this was just so, so impulsive of him!   Perhaps if he turned back, now…

But he had come so far; and if he did turn back, well, then he would forgo the very slender chance, if he somehow was invited, to meet the wild guitarist whose sounds filled him with so many special feelings,and to get to see the inside of The Great House, the Crowley House, a place he had ached to explore ever since he was a small child.   Hidden still from his sight, he nonetheless knew that the gatehouse was just around the next bend.   So, gathering his courage, and with the feeling that his whole life was approaching an irrevocable moment of change, he walked on.

The gatehouse had lost its three Imperial Russian domes the night old Crowley died: one completely removed by the storm, the others unsafe and demolished shortly afterward.   They had never been replaced, so what now stood before Peter, whilst imposing enough, was a gatehouse of relatively modest and sober proportions, where a moderately modest and sober gatekeeper waited for him behind a pair of modern wrought-iron gates.   This smiling, fully-trousered figure greeted Peter with a friendly: “Hello old boy, what brings you to us?”   He sounded like he had been an officer in the army, but his hair would have better befitted a roadie.   “Can I announce you?”

“Hello, I’m Peter.”  Said Peter, feeling somewhat reassured:  “Toby says you’re to let me through.”

“Righto!”  The gatekeeper picked up a telephone from a box on the wall, waiting for a second or two before the line opened at the other end, then saying: “Vincent, someone quite youthful called Peter is here…”   He glanced in Peter’s direction, whispering: “Peter who?”

“Cartwright.”

“Peter Cartwright.  Are you expecting him?”

The voice from the other end was an explosion of sound, which the gatekeeper, with a chuckle, played six inches from his ear.

“You can go on up;” he told Peter, “I think he’s going to like you.”

Beyond the gate, a driveway led through a walled garden with perfectly trimmed lawns to the house itself, a brick-built curved regency façade of three storeys with rows of high windows to welcome the sun.   Its walls were crenulated at roof level, as if to repel some enemy or another, while at each end the slim rocket-tubes of Bavarian towers sprouted like forced asparagus.   Splurged exuberantly into the centre of the facing wall were the great black timber doors of the house, twelve feet in height; these in turn dwarfed by a huge arch, inset with carving and glass of every imaginable colour.   Peter had never seen this view of St. Benedict’s House, which his father dismissed as a ‘half-arsed mosque’, and had to search for his own description of its outlandish marriage of styles.   ‘Disney plays Royal Crescent’ was all he could come up with.

He had almost reached the doors at the centre of the Arabian Arch when, with a clank of metal which made him jump and a somewhat musical grinding noise which made him cringe, they swung open.

         Before him a vaulted hallway of palatial proportions rose to the building’s full height, culminating in a vast dome of glass.   To right and left the sides of this space were formed by the galleried ends of each floor of the house, linked at their further extremity to a perfectly oval glass stairway, railed with chrome, which ascended to each landing in turn.   Central to the back wall, behind the stairs, a huge portrait of a rock star playing on a darkened stage exuded Vincent Harper’s presence: and in the centre of the pink marble floor of the hall stood the man himself.

“Peter! Mate!  Are we glad to see you!  I was beginning to think you wasn’t coming, you know?”

© 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: Header picture by Mohb Zuber Seifi from Pixabay

Guitarist by Clk-Free Vector Imaging from Pixabay