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 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?”
“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.
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