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 – Continuing the Experiment

In a manner of speaking, I’ve been here before – approaching my blog as a platform for a book in serial form. The method, too, is well-tried. I start a story without knowing how it will end, and with none but the loosest of plans. Search my blog history and you will find ‘A Place That was Ours’, ‘Hallbury Summer’, ‘Nowhere Lane’, and ‘Continuum’. In one sense, ‘Satan’s Rock’ is in the same mould as these, because the finished entity will be book-length, but it will also have a much broader and less linear story to tell, a series of episodes coming together by mutual consent and at first appearance, nothing else. But I write for pleasure, so I hope it will be pleasurable to read – a voyage for us to take together. It begins here!

A Faery Tale

Again, from the dusty archives! This is just a bit of fun, really!  Oh, and quite long again, so bring sandwiches.

“There were tales told of a girl, in the days before imagining, when wild people lived deep in the wild wood, and wild deer danced in sunlit glades.  It is said those blessed by the sight of this girl described an apparition so beautiful the raindrops about her turned to diamonds as they fell.  They spoke of auburn hair, of a dress gossamer-white that flowed about her graceful limbs as freely as the waters of a mountain stream; and light would shine in their eyes at just the memory of her.  It is said that old men from their beds could see her, and young men riding by on their steeds might desire her, but she was of the faery people, and none may touch her if they wished to live.

“Those were old tales.  This was long, long ago.”

Anna poked experimentally at a willow frond.  “You make it sound so real.  I thought I could see her for a moment there, among the trees.”

“If you see her, she will bring you good fortune.”  Callum replied. 

“But not if I touch her.”  Anna wound the frond about her finger.

“No.  You must never touch her.”

“I won’t, then – if I see her.  What was her name?”  

Callum watched Anna as she walked before him, and he thought her as beautiful as any spirit of the woods.   “Legend had it that her name was a riddle.  Whosoever solved it would marry her.”

“Ah, so there’s a story, isn’t there?”  Anna called back over her shoulder.  “What happened to

her?” 

“These are old, old tales.  Some say she passed as all the faeries did, into the Land of the Forgotten.  Others that she still walks here, among these trees, but will only appear to a very few who are specially blessed. Me, I like the story most often told, in those far gone days, of a young man from Halverton.”

Callum stopped talking, lost for a moment in his rapture of Anna.  She turned to see the far-off  look in his eyes and laughed her music, saying:  “Go on, then!  Who was this ‘young man from

Halverton’?”

“Halverton was just a village in those days, not the town it is now.  A collection of mean peasant huts huddled in the river valley, fearful of the wild wood; but it was a place where the river might be crossed, so there was a living for a few.

“According to legend a tyrannical merchant controlled the only route across the river, taking tolls from all who used it.  This merchant made a slave of a young man, working him all hours of night and day, then getting drunk and beating him mercilessly.  Now one morning, gathering firewood for his master in the deep dark forest this young man he met with the faery.  When she saw the blood that evidenced his beating she took pity on him.  She led him to her home deep in the forest, where she cared for him, healing his wounds.  There they fell in love.  They made a home together in the root bole of an old oak tree, and its ancient roots wrapped them in their warm embrace.  And so they lived, in happiness.”

“He must have solved the riddle?”

“I suppose.”  Callum smiled.  “Or maybe she cheated and told him her name.  It’s only a story!”

“Oh, but it’s so sweet!”  Anna enthused.  “Happy ever after, Callum.  Isn’t that sweet?”

“Well, not so happy, no.”

“Now, Callum!  Don’t spoil the story!”  Together, Callum and Anna stood at a place where their path divided into two; one of which would lead across open fields, the other into the cool shade of the trees.   “Which way?”  Anna asked.

“You choose.”  Callum said, but he held his breath while she made her choice.

Anna grinned meaningfully, deciding.  “Let’s hide in the deep dark forest, Callum.  Perhaps we can find an oak tree, do you think?”  She took his hand.  Then, as they strolled together on their new path into the darker recesses of the wood, she said:  “Why not a happy ending?”

Callum did not reply immediately, for the moment Anna placed her cool hand in his he forgot everything that had gone before.  Her presence, her soft breathing next to him, the way dappled sunlight found its way through the treetops to play in her hair enraptured him, and all else was lost.

At last, when they were already far from the open light of day, he said:   “There was a king who ruled this land.  Although he was a fair, just ruler, so too was he powerful and hot-blooded. For many years, years before the slave-boy met her, this king had heard tales, brought to him by his courtiers, of the forest maiden.  His palace echoed to accounts of her loveliness, and he was determined to take her hand in marriage. He sent his courtiers to the forest to find her; but even if they saw her once in a while, they could never get close enough to capture her.  Oh, they tried.  They contrived to bind her with nets, they dug pits that they covered with leaves, they laid traps; but she was wise in forest ways, and nothing that was made by man could hold her.”

“She was meant to be free.”  Anna murmured, half to herself.  “It’s so quiet in here, isn’t it?  So peaceful.  I can picture her, you know, Callum?  I can feel her close to me.”

Callum smiled.  “Can you?   Could it be possible you are one of the blessed?  But first you must hear the end of the legend.

“At last, the king grew angry.  He sent his herald to the forest with a proclamation, that the faery girl was to be his bride and she was to go to him, by his command.  He was king, after all.  He was not to be disobeyed.”

“Oh no!  What happened?”

“The faery girl emerged from the forest; something so unexpected and amazing all who saw her were frozen to the spot, because this was the first, the only time anyone from the outer world would hear her speak.  In a voice as soft and as pure as a thousand caroling bells she told the royal party she was wed already, and the lonely slave-boy was her husband.  She would never come to the king.”

“So the king wasn’t happy?”

“He was furious!  He sent soldiers to arrest her, but they were lowly paid and not as courageous as the courtiers.   They had heard it was fatal to touch her so they didn’t look very hard before they told the king she could not be found.  Now the king himself, who ruled by divine right, was not so fearful of her touch, or troubled by faery riddles, but he was wary of the forest people, and he had long sought an excuse to drive them out.  So in his passion he swore if he could not possess the faery girl no-one would.  He accused the forest people of hiding the girl and ordered their forest to be razed to the ground. 

“They set fire to the forest?”

“They came with torches in the first light of dawn.   They set fires along the forest edge and by sunset all the trees were well alight.  They say a thousand woodland people died.  Those who survived scattered and fled.   But Nature is stronger than any king, and they were not gone for long.”

“The girl, Callum!  What happened to the girl?  Oh, stop.  I already know.”  

“Yes, she died in the fire.  It was said she never left the old oak that gave her shelter, but curled up with her lover in her arms beneath its mighty trunk and waited for the fire to come.   When the forest people returned they discovered two bodies lying there, and left them while they conjured the rebirth of the forest with their magical husbandry.  With time, the greenwood swallowed up the faery girl, and so she rests.   For a while her memory died with her.”

Anna had walked a few paces in front of Callum so she might hide her face from him, in case her tears spilled.  “Only for a while?”

“Of course.  Isn’t it always so?  When one legend dies another is born?    This one tells how the faery girl wore a ring as symbol of her love, which she kept with her when she died.  Well, many claim to have found her ring as they walked through the forest, but none could recover it, for the legend says she holds it on her finger until one person of true virtue passes by, and only if they are as pure of mind as she will she release the ring into their care.”

“You mean, like the sword in the stone thing.  Like King Arthur?”

“Yes.  And here the riddle story comes in again. Whoever lifts the ring will learn the answer.  They will learn her name and the power it gives.”  Seeing Anna’s wide-eyed look, Callum laughed.  “It is only a legend.”  He assured her gently.  “There are thousands of old folk-tales like it in early history.  One version even says that if someone evil tries to pick the ring up, the faery will drag them down into the earth with her.  Like I said – only a legend.”

“Wow!”  The pair walked together silently for a while, lost in their thoughts, and they walked deeper and deeper into the wood.

Anna said:  “What if…?”   And she stopped.

“What if?”  Callum questioned her with his eyes, but she was staring at something far off among the trees.  “What, Anna?”

“Callum, what sort of tree is that?”

Callum tried to follow the direction of her stare, towards the knarled old tree that stood perhaps a hundred yards ahead of them.  “That?  I believe it’s an oak.  Why?”

“Because there’s something shining – there in the leaves at the bottom of it.”

“Oh, Anna!  I’m sorry I told you now!  It’s a folk tale – a story!”

But Anna was running.  “No!  No, it isn’t.  I can see it.  I can see it, Callum!”

Laughing, Callum ran in pursuit, but she was a young hind, fast and light of foot beyond his means to catch her.  He only did so when she had stopped before the old tree.  

“Callum, this is the tree.  I know it.  I can feel it!”  

Callum tried to catch his breath.  “It’s certainly old.”  

“She died here.  She’s laying here, the faery girl!  And this…”  Anna stooped to brush away leaves from the forest floor:  “Callum – oh, Callum – this must be her ring.”

Together, they stared down at a ring of gold all but buried in the black soil, its single stone flashing in rivulets of sunlight from the canopy of trees above their head.

“Could it be you?”  Callum murmured, overcome.  “Could you be the one to take the ring from her?”

“Well, it’s certainly a very beautiful ring, but I’m not worthy of it.”  Anna said.  “I hate to break this to you, Callum, but my soul really isn’t that pure.”

“It is in my eyes.”  Callum said.  “At least you should try.”

“No.  Should I?”

“Yes.  But as you do it, say a prayer for the faery girl.  I don’t know.  Maybe she will hear you.  Maybe you’re about to solve the riddle at last.”

“Oh, stop it!  I have to try, though, don’t I?”  Hesitantly, and trying to drive all thoughts of avarice from her mind, Anna crouched beside the ring.  With shaking fingers she grasped the gold band gently, making a prayer as Callum had suggested, right from the very essence of her being, a prayer of hope and love.  So, so carefully, she pulled the ring upwards.

The soil released it.   

Anna held it there, for seconds, for a minute perhaps, disbelieving.  When at last she found her feet, the ring nestled in the palm of her hand as though that was where it had always belonged.

“Oh, Callum!  It’s so lovely!”

“Almost as lovely as the hand that holds it.”

“But how do I find the answer to the riddle?  How do I learn her name?”  Anna cried.  Then:  “Wait!  There’s something written on the inside of the band.  It’s so small I can hardly read it.  It says…”

“What does it say?”  Callum prompted.

Anna squinted to pick out the words.  “It says:  ‘Anna’.  It says, ‘Anna with love’!”  Then, as the truth dawned, she glared at him in mock fury.  “Callum, you bastard!”

Callum grinned.  “I am, aren’t I?  Anna, will you marry me?”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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

Photo Credit: Header photo by Anastacia Cooper at Pixabay