Satan’s Rock

Part Three: Honored Guests

For Arthur, the hour before luncheon had been a restless one.  Even though his encounter with the wild rider on Mountsel Park’s west terrace could not be said to have entirely unnerved him, the powerful odour of the horse, the heat of its breath on his face and the rider’s words haunted him:  ‘The Woman is ours’ had locked in his mind.  Who so wanted to hunt Francine DeLisle down?  Was it even she to whom they referred?  It had to be, yet how quickly had they trailed her to his door?  A morning?  Less?

In his library the master of Mountsel Park resorted to a volume that anonymously recounted the suffering of common soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars:  ‘The Journal of a Soldier of the seventy-first Glasgow Regiment’, seeking to refresh his compassion for the thousands of crippled veterans who were still spilling, years after Waterloo, from the hospitals onto the nation’s streets.  Something in the desperate bearing of the violent emissary spoke to Arthur of the military, while everything about Francine suggested, no matter how she accounted for her absence of a past, that she had been either a widow or victim of those wars.

Edkins had apparently educated Francine concerning the geography of Mountsel, for when he reached the Breakfast Room, he found she awaited him there.

She had pinned her hair back, primly.  He remarked upon it, because to his mind it drained what pallor remained from her cheeks, so she seemed at once vulnerable, and a little severe.  No longer clad in her heavy, travelling clothes she had donned a simple powder blue dress that draped to her ankles in what had come to be known as the Empire Line.   Little Samuel stood at her left hand, looking more confident (or defiant) than his mother.

She patted her hair uncomfortably, in response to his comment.   “It is too long.  Access to care of such personal trifles has been…difficult.”

“I’ll see to it that a maid is placed at your disposal.”

“Oh, there is no need…”

“Nonetheless…”

“It is a woman’s matter.  I should not trouble you…”

“It is,”  he assured her with great gentleness,  “Not the least trouble.”

Francine lifted her gaze to meet his and they laughed mutually, sharing their self-consciousness.  He saw all he wanted in her eyes. 

At table they sampled from a platter of meats; cold tongue, beef and ham with artichoke and Spring leaf.  Samuel ignored his mother’s warnings to  taste his first horseradish and complained loudly about it.  Little was said, although every brain that gathered there blazed with questions.  Only when they had eaten, only when Samuel had been released to return to some toys the Housekeeper had provided in the Withdrawing Room, were the barriers breached.

Arthur’s opening gambit; “I feel I have to discover more about you,”  sounded too eager.

“I wish I had more to tell you,”  Francine rejoined.  “Indeed, I wish I knew myself!”

“Yet you know your name.”

“Nay, sir, not even that.  My guardian, who is one of those who are unstinting in their admiration of the First Republic, insisted I should answer to a name –  in the Gallic mode, he said, and thus I am Francine.  His lettering of ‘DeLisle is a little quaint, but notwithstanding his education on the matter I believe he thought me a casualty of Monsieur Bonapat’s campaigns.”

Arthur acknowledged this ratification of his own theory,  “You have doubts?”

Francine’s hands were laid upon the table before her.  She studied her fingers, taking care with her reply;  “The casualties of war are everywhere, most certainly, as much now as when he discovered me, yet – you will think me foolish – I cannot count myself  among them.  

I have no wounds, no scars, I am not alarmed by sudden noise, as I am told affects so many poor souls;  and I have no nightmares, save only one.”

Arthur smiled,  “And you are not French.”

She shot him an embarrassed smile of her own.  “It seems not.  Pray do not test me with the language, for I cannot understand a word!   I speak only English, I cannot play the Pianoforte, and although I sense that I have some virtuosity on an instrument,  I have no idea what that is!   My guardian’s musical accomplishments were not such that he could aid me in these matters.”

“Needlecrafts?”  Arthur suggested,  She pulled a face.

He shrugged helplessly,  “Knitting?”

“Please!!”

 He laughed, because the disgust in her voice at this last suggestion was another step, as she became more animated, more relaxed in his company, despite his interrogation of her.  He decided to advance further.  “When we first met,”  he said,  “You expressed your enjoyment of the storm with words I found curious.  Do you remember them?”

Francine blushed prettily,  “You embarrass me Arthur.  I do.  My understanding of them is no greater than yours.”

“You said you found the experience ‘perfect’.  You described it as ‘real’, which I thought both original and luminous, although I had never heard them so used before.  Could there be some dialect in your past that eludes us both?”   When she made no reply, but just stared at the table before her, he quickly stepped back in:  “I must introduce you to the Music Room, Francine.  Our array of instruments is somewhat limited, I fear, but you may find something there to detain you.  I have a meeting with my manager this afternoon, but you will be are well protected.  If you wish to allow young Samuel out into the grounds, I will see to it the ostlers are nearby.”

“Sir, you treat me too kindly.  I must not stay…”

Reaching forward to cover her fingers with his hand, he cut in,  “You are my guests; my very honoured guests.  You are welcomed here.”

#

At around the time that Peter, released from his seafront reverie by the departure of the companionable seagull was making his way home, a very special plane inched into its allotted space on an English airfield, and its V.I.P. (Very Important  Passenger – or Person, if you like) prepared for his first public moment on British soil.  In the aircraft’s aisle a group of six figures in grey overcoats were being marshaled into order by a grim-faced wedge of humanity who snapped out instructions with the brisk percussion of a snare drum.  This was Hal.  

Although Hal undoubtedly had more names than that, the Very Important Person they were duty-bound to protect did not know them, or, for that matter, much care.  He had long learned that it was necessary to know only a very little about a person in order to find that special wavelength, that personal level of concerned inquiry that had made him Very Important.  The security chief’s name was Hal and he had a sick wife in Portland.  That was sufficient for one man.

“Hal, my God!  So good to see you, boy!   It’s been too long, for heaven’s sake!  And tell me, Hal, how is your dear  wife?   I so hope she is better?”

And Hal, who had trouble sometimes remembering that his second name was Bronski, would wait the eight seconds he knew the greeting was timed to take – all the Very Important Person’s greetings took exactly eight seconds – meet that deep, sincere gaze, those eyes almost moist with sorrow, before responding in a voice like a chainsaw ticking over.

“An honour to see you too, sir.   She is much better, thank you.”   He would refrain from adding:   “And living with an Airforce pilot in Kansas.”   It was simpler not to tell the Very Important Person things that were unnecessary, like how his ex-wife had gotten over the flu several years ago.

This evening, Hal was perturbed.   He mistrusted British security and he did not like the publicity surrounding the Very Important Person’s visit, or the political sensitivities it would arouse.

“Are you ready, sir?”

“Yes, fine, Hal.  Go ahead now.”

Shuddering in anticipation of the cold, the Very Important Person followed his protectors as they moved down the aisle which was his last little bit of the United States for a while.

Below on the tarmac, in England, Jeremy Piggott cut a slight, rather pallid figure as he stepped forward, black shoes squelching dismally beside a soggy red carpet in the rain.  When the aircraft door de-pressurised Jeremy had reluctantly lowered a black brolly to expose wispy red hair.   He hated being wet; but this was a great ceremonial moment, or would have been, had this not been a military airfield from which public and press had been excluded; and anyway, his exposed head was expected as a mark of respect.  Jeremy felt he was going to sneeze.

At the foot of the stairway Jeremy’s own Very Important Person stepped forward to greet the visitors.  Two Very Important Hands clasped warmly, while some very unimportant pleasantries were exchanged:

“Senator Goodridge.  Welcome, sir.”   For the Very Important Person was he.

 “Bob Cranforth my God!  So good to see you, boy!   It’s been too long, for heaven’s sake!  And tell me, Bob, how is your dear wife?   I so hope she is better?”

Secretary of State to the Foreign Office Cranforth was one of a very few members of the present government who openly declared his homosexuality.  He smiled distantly, allowed the jnquiry to pass.

Jeremy heard a quiet voice, flint-like, scraping in his left ear.

“Who the hell are you?”  Demanded Hal Bronski.

“Erm….Piggott.  British security.”

Hal looked down at Jeremy as if he were something which had got stuck on his boot.  “My God!”

Jeremy sneezed.

“Stay out of my way, yes?”  Hal grated:   “Peggit?  You got me?”

“Well, yes….it’s Piggott, actually.  And I believe we are supposed to assist each other?”

“Assist my ass.   I have a job to do, Pluggit, and you are not part of it.  Understand?”

“But I have my orders too, if you don’t mind.  I’ll watch my man, you watch yours.”   Jeremy mopped at his nose, urgently stifling a repeat sneeze as he stepped delicately out from beneath the shade of the talking tree which towered above him.   “Sorry.”  He added diffidently.

“Fine.”   Hal said, waving towards a distant corner of the airfield.  “Go watch him from over there someplace.”

And upon this promising foundation, the co-operative effort of the two nations’ security for the Senator grew.   They all followed as their Very Important People headed for a dismally small airfield terminal and shelter, finally, from the interminable English rain.

#

The arrival in Britain of Salaiman Yahedi on the morning of the very Important Person’s visit was an altogether more subdued affair; but then, Yahedi would have wanted it no other way.   The private yacht which took him aboard ten miles off the Sussex coast had set out from Folkestone the previous afternoon: a family party who often sailed that stretch of coast between Kent and Southampton, living the high life on a boat bought from the profits of their travel company.   They were well known in yachting circles and their presence unremarkable. So when they brought Salaiman to their mooring on the RiverTest he was merely one more for lunch, a business contact perhaps, because they had frequent guests on these trips.  No-one could have known that he had recently been an invitee to quite another party, a French one, which had met with them overnight in mid-channel.  And when he left the restaurant by the moorings after a pleasant lunch with no more than an canvas bag and a briefcase – those who were curious assumed he had to return to work – was not the young man in the lounge suit who picked him up in a BMW the stereotypical personal assistant?     Had they seen the BMW being exchanged for another, smaller car twenty miles up the road, they might have assumed differently.

For Yahedi, such methods of travel were normal – his life consisted of switches between small boats in the dark, private planes on airstrips which were always a little too short.   His worldly goods could only just fill the bag he always carried.  Home was the next back bedroom, the space in a sympathiser’s loft, a futon in an unmarked van.   He didn’t mind:  for his simple business baggage was dangerous. All the luggage he required was fitted delicately but precisely into the briefcase which he kept on his lap – the tool of his trade, the proof of his expertise in a very specialised skill.   When assembled in his experienced hands, the sights were accurate to nearly three hundred and fifty metres.   Yahedi was an exponent of a very rare and valued craft.  He was an assassin.   

  © 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.

Picture Credits:

Featured Image Dominique Devroy on Pixabay

Yacht at Sea Roman Grac on Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part Three of Conversations

Quimple

What could have befallen Toqus?  Peter’s mind had already lost itself – his nightmare examination of the afternoon, European History and the dusty room with the dusty, pacing invigilator – all gone.  The history which had fascinated him since he was first old enough to read was written in local history books.  The bricks and mortar of Levenport, its traditions, superstitions, atrocities and victories, all laid out around him.  The Rock – St. Benedict’s Rock, sometimes reputed to be inhabited by Satan himself – that loomed above them all, loomed large in his vision now.  Callow youth, chin on hands, fingers gripping the cool steel of the handrail, the retreating tide singing to his question in ripples among the stones.   Toques, the manservant who never left Crowley’s side, where did he go?   That seagull, gripping the rail likewise a dozen yards away, remained inscrutable.   

“How would you know?”  Peter murmured.   The gull cocked its head.  “Do seagulls talk about history at all?   In the evenings, maybe, perched up there on the ridge tiles, before the kebab shops open?”

The bird fluffed a few feathers as an adjustment, clucking awkwardly, as references to its scavenging lifestyle were obviously discomfiting.

For several years following his memorable dip in the Levenport waters, Horace, Lord Crowley did nothing about the rocky island that was his royal gift.  During these (it should be said) quite happy times for the town of Levenport, ownership of its rock was a matter of no concern: a trickle of rent flowed through to His Lordship’s ample London coffers, paid by the tenants of the odd few cottages which nipped like bulldog clips onto the side of the track that led to its summit, but that was all.

Lord Crowley never came, and happily for those who eked a living from certain continental trading activities, The Revenue rarely came – the rock languished in its own particular peace.

At last there befell a time when Crowley’s sun began to sink lower in the Palace sky:  the older ‘Prinny’, soon to be King George IV, with his love of laudanum grew tetchy and difficult to please, so many of those friends who, true or otherwise, had found their fortunes at his noble feet were distanced.   After Prinny’s coronation Crowley spent less and less time at Court.  The parties grew fewer, the invitations sparse.  Also older and more circumspect, he took as his wife one Elizabeth Grey, a society beauty who, though herself considered to be past her prime, was yet thirty years his junior. 

At such a distance of time and space it was hard to know exactly when the old warlord decided to retire from London and Brighton life, still harder to comprehend why, of all his estates, he picked the Rock of St. Benedict as the windy cradle for his autumn years.   He alighted from a coach-and-pair one brisk morning outside Roper’s Hotel on Levenport’s esplanade with his manservant Toqus in his wake, making no secret of his intention to stay.   The town was afire with excitement:  the news that their distinguished guest intended to build a mansion on the rock flew through the salons and drinking houses so rapidly that the proprietor of Roper’s Hotel learned of it from his fishmonger before he heard it from Crowley himself!

In the weeks before construction began the town was full of rumours: what sort of dwelling could the great man be thinking of, to crown the rock and still satisfy his undoubted subtleties of vision and taste?   Would he follow the fashion, so popular at the time, of the Indian Palace, with those great Sezincote windows and high exotic domes?

Unfortunately, enormous wealth does not always imply good taste.  Crowley worked hard upon his plans for a mansion to be perched upon the rock:  he employed the best architect, listened to the wiser counsels of his wife, his family, his friends.  He listened, but he never heard.  One by one, the architect’s best endeavours were rejected until at last the poor man found he could suggest no more.   He returned to London, leaving in his wake a hotchpotch of drawings and uncompleted notes. These, the noble Lord studied for some time.

Days later there was summoned to Roper’s a certain Mr. Quimple. Mr Quimple was well known within the town as the architect who had created, among other things, Levenport’s charity hospital. This was a fine building, although less artistic than functional.   His subsequent commissions, drawing upon this early success, were equally unimaginatively designed, but had the virtue of being built like fortresses, so no-one relished the idea of knocking one down.

“Quimple!”   Lord Crowley instructed him grandly:  “Build me that!”

Joseph Quimple was a mild, slightly oily little man with disorderly clothes and straggly hair which fell on his head like a well-tossed salad.   His outward appearance was in total contrast to that of his buildings.  They were flat and uninteresting.  Joseph Quimple did not have a flat bit anywhere.

“Er, what did you want built, m’Lord?”

“Dammit, have you no eyes, man?  That!”

Crowley’s hand gestured expansively towards a large board propped against a wall:  Quimple had already seen it.   He felt a lump of horror rising in his throat.

“Well!”   He said. 

“My word!”  He said.

He couldn’t think of anything else to say.

Glued to the board were bits and pieces of architectural drawing, cut apparently at random from the work of an obviously talented architect and reassembled to make a plan for a mansion.  Although what resulted was obviously intended to be a vision of a great house, upon first appearance it looked like nothing more than a page from a scrap-book.   There were bits of roof turned on end to make walls, gable-ends stuck over the top of windows, chimneys turned into pillars. Where the scraps failed to fit into the rest of the picture an expansive hand had joined them with bold lines in black ink with brief notations beneath:

‘Add step to match with first floor’

‘More roof here’.

Quimple felt his diminutive soul shrivelling deeper within him.  He struggled for words:

“It’s a very original concept.”  He managed to blurt out at last.

Crowley swelled with pride: “Glad y’think so!”

“But there are gaps.”  Waving a finger at an obvious space:  “Here, for example?”

“Stick in a water-closet, or something. You’ll think of it.”

Quimple felt as though the space beneath his feet was no longer supporting him.  He struggled in vain for firm footing.  “It defies description.”   He said finally.

“Excellent!”  The Lord took this as a compliment.  “Pleased you like it.” 

The little architect’s personal diary had provided an account of this conversation, but it was the last regular entry, and thereafter Peter had been unable to discover much concerning Joseph Quimple, or how he took Crowley’s dream glued to a large piece of board up to the summit of the rock and, somehow, brought it together in the agglomeration of styles and peculiar angles which came to be St. Benedict’s House.   He did know that the little man regarded the house as his master work, that it eventually sent him mad.   He found some clue as to why in a letter from the richly embossed Lord Crowley dated 18th August 1825.

Sir,

I have received missives from you concerning your progress with the house at St. Benedict’s Rock, and I am disappointed that you should feel cause to repeatedly complain about, as you would have it, “constant importuning of tradesmen for payment”. I surely need not remind one such as yourself, sir, that tradesmen are incessant in their pursuit of money and it is a necessary duty to rebuff them.  I do, however, send a draft for a further one hundred and fifty guineas to settle the most necessary accounts, but kindly do not trouble too much with decorators and the like, of whom there are an almost unlimited supply.

You reprimand me for my absence from the project, sir, but I say to you that I placed my complete trust upon you when I gave you instructions, which I expected to be followed to the letter.  Reports which I have received suggesting that there are, in fact, substantial variations from my plans, are disturbing to me, sir.   I am hopeful for an improvement to my health which shall allow me to return to England to correct these matters, but for the meanwhile I must advise you that you should persist no further with extravagances which, I am persuaded, lend to the house a quite undignified appearance.  

 I intend to limit my further investment in the house to a further nine hundred and fifty guineas, which will follow at the commencement of next year. You should dispose of this in such manner as will finish the house to an acceptable standard of accommodation.  I enclose my plan for the finished building.

I am,

Lord Horace Crowley

In even those distant times, though riches beyond the wildest dreams of many nine hundred and fifty guineas for such a project was a completely unrealistic sum,  but Crowley was, of course, by this time stumbling down a dusty road towards bankruptcy.

         “A book of account, Ma’am,”  he said once to Lady Crowley, on one of the few occasions when he spoke to her;  “Is a dreadful devious foe.   Whichever way ye turn him there’s always another within his ranks to find the weakness on your flank.   Set me against an army of the Frenchie and I’ll take ‘im on and thrash ‘im for ye:  but this?   Ye can never beat him Ma’am.  Ye never can!”

In eighteen-twenty-five, after some three years during which he never returned to the seaside town, the old Lord was still battling the elusive book of account.  Now, however, he had a second enemy gathering in his lungs.

On the rainy morning when the messenger arrived bearing Quimple’s request for further funds, Crowley had just seen his doctor.   He was ordered abroad. He must stay a winter in the warmer climate of the south of France; take the waters regularly, rest as much as possible.   If he did not he would live for….a year – two?  Who could say?

So Quimple worked alone, with very little money, constantly battling his Patron’s amendments and alterations to a plan which was structurally unworkable.   This alone, Peter thought, might have driven him insane.  But there were other enticing snippets of history surrounding the rock and its new crowning glory, other pieces to a puzzle which intrigued him and helped, as he returned home this evening, to distract from memories of a bad history examination.

Contemporary accounts relate that a bright summer morning in the Year of Our Lord 1822, when one Matthew Brightley, master mason, laid the first stone of Crowley’s Great House, marked an ending as well as a beginning.  Quimple had hitherto been untroubled by the rock’s natural inhabitants, but from that morning on, as if some truce had been broken, the snake population of the rock  attacked remorselessly.  Viper venom was a constant hazard for all who laboured there.   Several were made very ill by it, and two older stonemasons died.  It was also the time when the seabirds’ yelling became ceaseless, their molestation unpredictable and vicious.  The old title of Devil’s Rock was resurrected more than once in the taverns of Levenport.

Joseph Quimple’s final entry in his diary had always fascinated Peter:

21st August 1825:

Today completed excavations to level the surface of the central courtyard.  Exposed a shelf of stone apparently intruding deep into rock – possibly a seam.  Not granite.  Warm to touch.  Suggests hot spring, or similar – investigate.

He never did investigate.

In the gathering darkness of evening on 22nd August, the very day after this entry, those who chanced to be looking seaward were just able to distinguish Joseph Quimple’s bent form running atop the rock, inexorably running towards the lip of the cliff and its three hundred foot plunge to the sea.  There were those at the subsequent inquest who testified that madness and obsession were the cause of the little man’s lonely end.  There was one townswoman who saw the event, and her evidence spoke of Quimple as being pursued by a large flock of gulls.

© Frederick Anderson 2021.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content

Featured Image: Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Satan’s Rock

Part One. Conversations: The Wild Sea

“It’s really blowing, yeah?”  The woman’s pale voice strove to be heard above a gale -whipped crash of waves. “Isn’t it perfect?” 

“I like it.”   Arthur responded.   It was all he could do to speak.  They were thieves of words, these giant flumes of white-spray that crashed repeatedly upon the rocks below, so confounding that down the years they had drawn him to this spot at the foot of the lighthouse time and again.  The years were honest, though:  they had stolen none of this magic.  

“Me too!”  The woman tucked her pretty chin into her cape.  “It’s real!” 

Her eyes widened and her hand flew to her mouth in embarrassed surprise:  “My goodness!  Whatever made me say such a thing?!” 

“What did you say, Mama?”  Asked the little boy, taking her hand anxiously.  “Did you use a bad word?” 

“Why no, Samuel, not bad, exactly:  just very odd.”  She replied, as if coming to herself, as  though returning from a far place:  her words seemed full of sadness, of a longing so profound that, despite his curiosity concerning his own part in this innovative little conversation, Arthur felt his heart quite moved.  She hastened to recover herself:  “And I fear brazen, sir.  I beg your forgiveness.” She dropped her gaze demurely. 

”A novel turn of phrase, but forgiveness is quite unnecessary,” Arthur assured her.  “May I have the honour of introducing myself, ma’am?   I am Arthur Herritt , of Mountchester. 

“Oh,Mr Herritt , you must think me very rude.  This is Samuel, my son.   And I am Francine Delisle.   Please forgive my informality – but who would introduce us in this wild place?” 

‘Should we need to be introduced’, he thought.  “Who indeed?” He cried , raising his voice once more above the sea’s renewed onslaught, “I had thought to be alone here.  I commend you for your wild choice!”

Wild it truly was.

Few ventured to Beacon Head in winter, when ocean rollers, compressed into the shallow conduit of the Channel, thundered purposefully against granite cliffs, their spray carried in on the wind like volleys of icy grapeshot.  Arthur, who loved the fury of the seas, gladly suffered whatever dangers the road offered to escape his busy life, but he had been surprised when he saw these two lonely figures standing in a space he often occupied by himself, by the rail of the lighthouse plinth, the red banded light tower at their backs, staring betimes down at the white cauldron of foam, or out towards the ocean.  The place they had chosen was the stormiest – a pulpit over the waters he adored, and his first thoughts were resentful of company but then, when he had drawn closer to the pair, seen the way the woman drew her cape about her, clung to her bonnet while her skirts flew unregarded above her delicate little ankles, it was as if a slumbering place in his soul had reawakened.   He must know her – he did know her.  Surely? 

Her presence might mean his prize of solitude was forfeit, yet he could not regret such a chance encounter.  Anyway, as fortune would have it the skies were becoming ever more leaden.  Rain would soon add to the storm’s torment. 

“Do you like the sea, Samuel?”   Arthur asked the child, raising his gruffest voice above another assault of surf. 

The boy considered this, sagely.  “I do, sir.  I would like to be a sailor, I think.” 

The woman, Francine , laughed.   “That is a severe vocation!  Samuel is full of such notions, Mr Herritt .  Why, only last week he was ready to sign up for the military.  Have a care, my darling boy.  Mr Herritt  has the bearing of an officer about him.  He might recruit you!” 

Smiling, Arthur found he could not avoid the woman’s eyes.  They were, he thought, the deepest, deepest blue.  A familiar blue. 

Francine ’s cheeks flared.  “Sir, you stare at me!” 

He demurred immediately.   “My turn to apologise, ma’am.  I must admit I may not look you in the eyes, lest I lose myself.   You remind me so remarkably of someone I have known.” 

“Well, that is kind, I think.  And flattering too, I must believe?   Tell me, do you come far?” 

“From Mountchester, ma’am.   Although not in a day.  I am passing a night at the Rifleman’s Arms in Bleansted.  And dare I venture to ask?”

“The same, Mr Herritt.   We are visiting in Bleanstead ourselves.  A very good friend has been kind enough to tolerate us for the sennight – a relief from the City, as cholera is so active there.  I confess I am surprised.  If you go about in City Society, I cannot think how we have never met”

 “Nor I.  My club is Frobisher’s, in the town.  I attend there whenever I can.  Does your husband..?”   

He stumbled into silence, seeing Francine ’s instant discomfiture.  “I apologise once again.  I am insensitive.  There is some circumstance?  Forgive me.”  Conducting a normal conversation in these conditions was difficult, the more so because Arthur’s mind was demanding answers to some difficult questions.  He glanced heavenwards.   “It will rain soon.  Have you somewhere to shelter?” 

The woman smiled; a radiant, electric smile.  “Truly we are both so wet already it would be hard to distinguish rain.” 

“Nevertheless I would not see you drowned.  May I offer my chaise?  It waits at the crossway.”

Francine ’s cape and bonnet veiled her frown.  “I do not know you, Mr. Herritt .  We are strangers!”

“Yet we have been introduced, if only one to  the other,”  Arthur protested.  “I can assure you of your safety, and if I should prove to be a scoundrel I am sure Master Samuel would defend you most ably!”

“I would, sir, never fear!”  Cried the boy, adopting his sternest falsetto;  “I give you notice, whoever affronts my mother shall have me to deal with!”

As if anxious Francine  should make the right decision, the clouds delivered their first flurry of raindrops, stirred to needles by the gale.  She relented gracefully.  “Then I thank you, Mr Herritt .  Your kindness is most warmly welcomed!” 

With some reluctance, the pair turned away from their high perch on the cliffs, and their audience with the sea’s relentless fury. A path which, though free of mud by its rocky nature, was nonetheless slick from spray and the advancing rain, led their descent for some four hundred yards while young Samuel gambolled fearlessly ahead of them.  When at last the way levelled out it had a further distance through a beechwood copse before reaching a crossing of two tracks, the wider being the way to the village of Bleanstead.  While they walked with their backs to the wind, Francine ’s skirts billowing before her, his one hand firmly on his hat, Arthur probed gently.  “I have to concede that we have never encountered one another going about in Mountchester, yet I feel strongly that we have met before.  Do we have associations elsewhere, perhaps?  Are you much travelled, Mrs Delisle?  Do you visit London, for example?”

“Indeed no.  In fact, I have very little in my history that could pass for experience of the wider world.  Scarcely any history at all.  I am truly most uninteresting.”

Francine,  as she climbed into the sanctuary of the chaise, accepting the firm support of Arthur’s hand, answered it with a clasp of her own and although her fingers were cold, he was reminded again of a familiar flame.  In the jolting enclosure of the post-chaise cabin young Samuel, securely ensconced upon a footstool, gazed up at him so intently as to rob him of conversation.  Francine , too, seemed preoccupied, watching the passing scenery so fixedly he felt almost as though she was avoiding further conversation.   Perhaps, he considered, she was feeling the chill of her mass of wet clothing: in truth she did look a little like a moth newly emerged from its pupae, but then, as he imagined, once dried and spread, what beauty might those wings reveal?

At Francine ’s request, the post-chaise drew up outside a long, low-eaved cottage, the lime-washed walls of which were a spider-web of virginia creeper tendrils that spoke of splendour in the Spring.  As Arthur’s passengers thanked him and prepared to depart, he decided upon boldness.

“The Rifleman’s Arms belies its title by providing a very good table, Mrs Delisle.  Would you do me the honour of dining with me there; perhaps on the ‘morrow?  I have a feeling there is more to be said.”

Francine  returned him a puzzled smile.  “Indeed?  Now whose is an unusual turn of phrase?”  She addressed her son,  “What shall we do about this, my darling?  Will you wait at home with your Aunt Maud while I dine with Mr Herritt ?”

The boy Samuel made a great show of considering his answer:  “I shall be intolerably bored, Mama, but if you wish it, I agree.”

“Thank you, Sam.  Then I will readily, Mr Herritt . Thank you.”

“Shall I send my carriage for you at seven?”

“You shall.”

Arthur would long agonize over the propriety of this invitation:  the woman clearly moved freely in City society and must, therefore, be respectable; this implied the presence of a husband somewhere.  But then she hinted at no compromise of her sacred vows, nor had her little boy spoken of his father at any time during their encounter.  Was she widowed then, as so many were by the conclusion of the Coalition Wars, or by the ravages of epidemic?  In the end he justified his precipitate behaviour to himself with the defence that he had merely suggested a friendly engagement in a public place.  There was nothing improper in new acquaintances cementing their friendship over dinner!

The Francine Delisle who sat against him at dinner the following evening certainly conveyed no hint of guilt at her flouting of convention.  She had modestly dressed herself in a warm frock of lilac twill that followed the wide-necked style so popular this year, exposing no more than a glimpse of pale shoulder to Arthur’s rasher instincts.  Her smiles conveyed the frankness of friendship.  She was intent upon acting with perfect propriety.  

“I had thought you were going to return to Mountchester today, Mr Herritt .  Did the weather deter you?”

“I admit the weather played its part, Mrs Delisle.”  Arthur chuckled apologetically,  “There were other factors.  I decided to indulge myself.”  

Francine , who liked a man with the ability to laugh at himself, saw through his subterfuge immediately.  She knew one of his ‘factors’ would have to be herself.  Her eyes surveyed him in mock seriousness,  “Should we be friends?  If we are to cultivate this familiarity, you might call me Francine .  Mrs Delisle is such a chore.”

“Willingly.  Therefore I must reciprocate.  I am, henceforward, Arthur.”

“You returned to the lighthouse today, then?”  she asked.  “So much rain!  I couldn’t countenance it.”

“No, nor I.  Although I spent a part of the morning walking, notwithstanding the inclement weather. I had cause.”

“Indeed, Arthur?  Is your mind troubled?”

He nodded, “Perhaps, a little.  I find I am locked in a struggle with an absent memory – but no matter; I shall take the Mail Coach to return to the city tomorrow, for I must conclude some business there, then retire to my home until the disease has run its course.  I am in no need of a fight which I cannot win.”

By degrees the pair fell into familiar conversation and the evening passed amicably enough, though without any suggestion of deeper intimacy.  Francine  proved an easy friend whose wit would sparkle once and again, and Arthur a taciturn but willing listener.   Before they parted, quite close to midnight, they exchanged cards.  

“We have summer to look forward to,” He said.  “Perhaps, when the weather is more friendly, we may run across each other again.”   And then, after the pause he needed for courage, he added:  “In happier times, might I call upon you?”

Francine’s brow took on a serious caste;  “I believe it would be better not to promise,”  she answered.

They would not meet again before Arthur’s departure for the City.  Nevertheless, as the coach and four bumped heavily past that low, lime-washed cottage in the early morning Arthur could not resist a stolen glance at its windows, wondering who was the companion he had heard spoken of as ‘Aunt Maud’ who lived within, and whether Francine was yet in the process of rising?  And he reflected that, apart from his insistent conviction that he had met her somewhere before, he had learned little more of Mrs Delisle from the time they spent together. In all of their evening she had told him nothing about herself.  In matters of the heart, as in most matters, Arthur Beaufort prided himself on his clear-sighted realism.  However gently, the intriguing Francine had rejected his offer of a deeper friendship, and so he must treat her as yet another of his many casual acquaintances who he might chance upon some day, in some other situation, and put all thoughts of her aside.  

Arthur might have been more intrigued, being a man of an inquisitive nature, if he had witnessed Francine’s return to Maud Reybath’s cottage in that late evening; if he had known that Maud Reybath, although she had a year or two on Francine, was not young Samuel Delisle’s aunt in anything but name.  He might have found the conversation between the two women interesting.

Francine discovered Maud snoring gently by a fire in her snug parlour, a book opened and inverted on her lap.  She wakened immediately to watch as  her returning guest briskly removed her gloves, hopeful for certain expected signs.

Maud had a voice that was surprisingly deep for her petite form.   “Well, my dear?”  She asked, letting her words bear weight.  

“I can’t be sure.”

“No definite negative, then,”   Maud rejoined sharply;  “Francine, we have to know soon.  The matter is one of urgency, my dear.  I fear you fail to appreciate…”

“I do, Maud, I truly do.  I understand.  It could be him.  It could be, but in some ways could not.  And so I may not answer you – not yet.”

#

The mail coach had taken all of a day and snow was falling steadily when it reached its Mountchester destination.  Arthur, thoroughly chilled, finally emerged onto the white-carpeted yard at The Royal Oak and collected his valise from the coachman.   He was still adjusting his eyes to the darkness when he descried a tall, gaunt figure in black greatcoat and top hat dismountinging from a burgundy-liveried Brougham that waited at the gates – a carriage he recognised as his own.

The figure belonged to a man well advanced in years, whose progress on the snow was perilously unsteady.  Arthur hastened to support him.  “Edkins?  You shouldn’t have come for me personally, my dear man!  This weather is…”  His words faded into silence.  The craggy features that opposed his own were creased with tears.  “Edkins, whatever ails you, dear chap?  What is the matter?”

“The master, sir.  I’m afraid he is very ill.  I resolved to find you and bring you home, sir.  At once, sir, I beg you.  At once!”

© 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.