Chapter 2 of my debut novel, available to buy on Amazon and Kindle.
A pale winter sun glinted on the snow as the car drew slowly to a halt by an ancient stone bridge. I sat hunched on the back seat, hugging myself in a doomed attempt to keep warm and trying not to curse my father for sending me to this godforsaken tundra. There was nothing I wanted more than to instruct the driver to take me straight back to the station, but instead I climbed reluctantly out, my breath misting in front of my face in the chilly air. I had maintained my habitual cheery disposition throughout the train journey, cocooned as I was in the warmth of a first class carriage, but my spirits had sagged a little as I’d climbed into the unheated car that waited for me at Stoke Rookeham station. The three miles between the village and the castle had taken so long to cover that I felt certain I could have walked it in half the time, and I had grown increasingly gloomy as we wound our way through the treacherously icy lanes. Now, stranded in an unfamiliar location with the snow seeping through my trousers, I was feeling more than a little sorry for myself. I stamped my feet and chafed my hands together to bring some warmth into them, but I couldn’t help but think longingly of my cosy flat back in Hampstead. The rational part of my brain was telling me that I was no colder now than I would have been in London, but my extremities were telling an altogether different story. This, I thought with a mutinous scowl, was going to be the hardest five hundred pounds I had ever had to earn.
With a heavy sigh, I took stock of my surroundings. Mandrake Castle stood before me, rising from the centre of a frozen lake like a frosted castle from a fairy tale. It was built of grey stone blocks to form a square around a courtyard, at one corner of which there rose a crenulated tower. The stone bridge led over to an ornate gatehouse, sealed shut by two huge oaken doors, iron-studded and impassable. There was no other way into the castle that I could see, apart from a narrow door at the base of the tower, which opened onto a tiny stone jetty. Tied to this was a small rowing boat, stuck fast in the surrounding ice. Leaded windows reflected the weak sunlight, which even now was fading behind a bank of fast-approaching clouds, heavy and black with yet more snow. Behind the castle I could just make out an arrangement of formal gardens, hidden by the thick flurry of falling snow. Further back, almost completely encircling the grounds, lay a dense wood, black and skeletal against the green-grey sky.
A muffled silence hung over the place, and I felt the castle brooding and watching me with blank, sightless eyes. Looking around, I felt myself overcome by a most peculiar sensation. As I hesitated in the snow it seemed to me that this strange and frosty landscape was as insubstantial as a dream, illuminated by a pale light which filtered through the overhanging clouds as if through a sheet of ice. I felt that if I were to so much as blink then the fabric of that dream would tear and the scene before me would melt away to nothing. I shivered suddenly, and shook my head to break the spell. I wouldn’t describe myself as being much of a romantic, but I had to admit that I found the place hauntingly lovely. A few flakes of fresh snow began to fall from the now leaden sky, and I turned away and began to help the chauffeur take my luggage from the car.
I jumped like a scalded cat and cracked my skull on the roof of the car. The thick snow had muffled the man’s footsteps so well that he was bellowing in my ear before I even realized he was there. Rubbing the bump on my head, I turned and found myself face to face with Edward Albert Horatio De Rooke, the twelfth Earl of Rookeham.
He was short, considerably more so than me, so that I had to peer down at him like a scientist studying bacteria in a Petri dish. He was blessed with a luxuriant shock of white hair slicked back from his forehead, and an elegant tweed suit concealed a figure that had expanded somewhat with age. His face was criss-crossed with a network of tiny wrinkles, and his little conker eyes peered out at me from behind a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. I knew that he was the same age as my father and yet he gave the impression of being much younger, perhaps by a decade or so. He gave me an impish smile, and extended his hand languidly.
“Sorry about that, didn’t mean to startle you. That looks painful.”
He nodded at my head, but he didn’t appear to be particularly repentant. A more suspicious man than I might have wondered if he didn’t find it rather funny.
“Yes, it is a little” I agreed with weak smile. The pain was making me feel light-headed. “You must be Lord De Rooke?” I shook his hand with rather more firmness than was strictly necessary.
“Please, call me Edward. We don’t stand on ceremony here.”
“Thank you, Edward. And thank you for offering me this job. It really was very kind of you, considering we’ve never met.”
“Nonsense! It was the very least I could do for George’s boy. He didn’t really go into too much detail about why you needed the job …”
I gave an embarrassed splutter.
“Well, you know, circumstances arose …”
Edward gave me an indulgent smile and patted my arm.
“Say no more, Marcus, say no more. I’m sure we’ve all fallen victim to circumstance at some point or another. We’ll leave all that for another time. How is George anyway? I haven’t seen him for years. I keep meaning to come up to London and look him up, but I never quite seem to find the time.”
“He’s well enough”, I replied a little sourly, for I still hadn’t quite forgiven him for landing me in this predicament in the first place. “A little set in his ways, perhaps, but he certainly seems happy. He sends his regards.”
“Yes, well that’s what old age and comfort does to a man. Helps if you have a good woman behind you, of course. Speaking of which, how is your mother?”
“Extremely well, as it happens. Terrorizing family and servants alike.”
Edward gave a short bark of a laugh.
“That sounds like Eugenia. Good lord, but she always was a fine specimen of womanhood!”
“She has only improved with age.” Like all well-bred gentlemen, I believed that there was no woman finer than my own mater, and I’d had to look jolly hard to find her equal in Maria. They both shared the same flashing eyes and stern countenance when crossed. My mother had, in fact, looked fairly stern when she’d learnt of my plans for the next few weeks. “Funny thing, though, she seemed rather dubious when we told her I was coming here. She seemed to be under the impression that I might find myself being …” I paused, searching for the right words, “led astray.”
“I expect she can still remember some of things your father and I got up to when we were younger”, Edward replied with a wide smile. “But she needn’t worry on that score. I’ll take good care of you, and you’ll be back in London in no time. I wager she’ll hardly even notice your absence. Did you have a pleasant journey, by the way?”
“It was lovely, thanks. If the weather had been a little better I would have driven down, but I don’t really trust the roads at this time of year.”
“Very wise of you, Marcus. You can drive for miles around these parts without seeing another soul, so the last thing you need is to find yourself stuck in a snowdrift with no one to lend a hand digging you out.”
He gave a sudden, impatient sigh and turned his head to call over his shoulder.
“Bingham!” He swivelled back to face me. “Come along now, let’s get your bags inside or you’ll catch your death standing around in the snow all day. What you need is a warm fire and a glass of brandy. That’ll restore your spirits, eh?”
“Absolutely”, I agreed, with perhaps more enthusiasm than I’d intended to show.
He gave a short laugh, and turned again to face the open doorway.
“Bingham, will you get out here and help fetch these trunks.” Turning back to me, he continued. “Bingham’s been with the family for years, since he was a boy. A bit too long if you ask me. He seems to think he’s one of us. Does as he pleases and never listens to a word I have to say. He could stand to be taken down a peg or two.”
He rolled his eyes as a rather pompous-looking butler made his way at a slow and stately pace through the door and across the bridge to where we stood. A forlorn young footman trailed in his wake, shivering visibly in the arctic chill.
“You certainly took your time!” Edward exclaimed in a friendly manner when Bingham finally reached us. “I could have sworn you were right behind me, hanging on my every word, but when I turn around you’re nowhere to be found. He always manages to make himself scarce when there’s heavy lifting to be done”, he muttered to me.
Bingham eased himself forward into a stiff bow of welcome and, with nothing more than a slightly murderous glance in Edward’s direction to show that he had heard, proceeded to direct the footman in carrying my large trunk inside. He then picked up the two smaller trunks and followed him back across the bridge.
I gaped in surprise.
“Does he always behave like that?”
Edward chuckled happily as we headed indoors.
“Always! Damned arrogant of him, I know, but I can’t seem to bring myself to pull him up on the matter, and I don’t suppose he’d pay me the slightest notice if I tried. That fellow needs putting in his place, he really does. Perhaps then he might start acting like a butler instead of Lord of the Manor.”
As we neared the gatehouse a slight movement distracted me, just above my head. I glanced up and found myself looking at a window that sat directly above the doors, which would provide an unobstructed view of anyone entering the castle. For the briefest of moments I felt sure that I had seen a pale face staring down at me, before it drew back and vanished from sight. I had an impression of fabric falling back into place, as if someone had been peeking at me from behind a curtain. I paused for a moment to stare at the now blank window, which gazed impassively back at me, giving me the uncomfortable sensation that I was still being watched. I felt an involuntary shudder run down my spine, and I chuckled inwardly at my irrational fit of nerves. I had stayed in enough country houses to know that the maids were forever poking about and prying into people’s affairs. Other people’s servants always made me uncomfortable, because I’d never been able to pretend that they weren’t there. I knew well enough how they gossiped amongst themselves, and so always felt obliged to be on my best behavior in case the scullery maid was taking notes.
We passed through the gatehouse, across a cobbled courtyard, and followed Bingham through a small door and into a splendidly baronial hall. If the exterior of the castle had raised my expectations, then the interior did not disappoint.
“Good lord!” I exclaimed, staring around at an expanse of flagstones, polished panels, and what appeared to be a genuine antique suit of armour, which stood aggressively in one corner. In another corner there stood an old grandfather clock, whose pendulum swung back and forth with a sonorous tick. An elaborate oak staircase rose from the centre of the hall and branched out onto a wide gallery above.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Edward said with a chuckle. “Every now and then someone comes up with plans to modernize the place, but somehow it never amounts to anything. You find us pretty much as we have always been.”
“It’s all very … mediaeval”, I replied.
“Fifteenth century, for the most part. The tower’s original, built in 1326, but the rest of the place was built a hundred years or so later. It might not be the height of fashion, but it’s comfortable enough and, well, it’s home.”
“I think it’s wonderful”, I said decisively. “It’s every small boy’s idea of Heaven.”
“Well it was certainly mine!” Edward said, “And your father’s too. He used to come and stay almost every holiday. He much preferred it to London. It might seem like a quiet backwater, but to a twelve year old boy it really doesn’t get much better than this.”
“I can well believe it.”
“I’ll show you around a little later, but why don’t we start with that brandy?”
“Marvelous!” I stretched my back to ease a stubborn ache that had set in around noon. “I’m feeling a little stiff after being cooped up in that train carriage for hours. A small glass of brandy would be just the thing to lubricate the joints.”
“You’re a man after my own heart, Marcus”, he said as I followed him into a rather grand sitting room. “My dear wife, may she rest in peace, was never one for the demon drink, and she could give me a hell of a time of it if I overindulged, but personally I’ve always been rather fond of a tipple or two. I don’t feel quite myself until I’ve had my first drink of the day.”
He had opened up a wonderfully well-stocked drinks cabinet as he spoke, and was busily pouring me a generous measure of brandy. I don’t mind admitting that my heart soared to hear his words, and it soared again when he backed his words up with actions. Perhaps, I thought as I took my first sip of what turned out to be an excellent cognac, coming here would not turn out to be quite the chore that I’d been expecting. As the liquid burned its way down my throat and collected in a warm pool in my stomach, I reflected that so far things had gone rather well. My feet were sodden and chilled, of course, and my head still throbbed from where I’d cracked it on the car roof. I missed Maria dreadfully already, and I wasn’t really looking forward to the prospect of having to spend the next few weeks working. But apart from these minor quibbles, the immediate future was looking rather rosy. We sat down in two comfortably over-stuffed armchairs in front of a crackling fire and sipped our drinks in companionable silence for a moment or two.
“Feeling better?” Edward enquired, when I’d drained my glass.
“Very much so!”
“Do you think you could manage a second?”
My smile was so wide that it rendered words unnecessary.
“I thought as much. This is by far the best brandy I’ve ever come across. I have it shipped over from France once a year. Nothing keeps the cold at bay quite like it.”
“It’s certainly working wonders for me”, I agreed. “I feel quite restored.”
“Yes, I imagine it’s been quite a taxing day for you, when all’s said and done.”
“I don’t travel well”, I admitted with a rueful smile. “And I tend to find the countryside a little … unnerving. There’s so much open space, so much sky. It makes me feel rather insignificant.”
“I think that’s quite common in people who’ve lived their whole lives in the city”, Edward said kindly. “I’m just the opposite – I get terrible claustrophobia when I’m in town, even if I’m outside. There’s never enough sky for me.”
“Do you go up to town much?”
“Not if I can help it. I haven’t been for years. I always seem to find some excuse to put it off even though, as I said, I would rather like to see your father again.”
“Perhaps he could be persuaded to visit here?” I suggested.
Edward gave a snort of laughter.
“I think your mother might have something to say about that! We always did rather lead each other astray.”
“Somehow I can’t picture my father being led astray, by you or anyone else. He’s always been rather stuffy and straight-laced.”
“Don’t you believe it! That man was a terror when he was a boy. I could tell you some stories about him that would make you blush, and maybe I will one day. But for now, why I don’t I show you to your room? You can change into a dry pair of trousers”, he added, nodding at my damp trouser bottoms.
“Splendid!” I said, getting to my feet. I was sorry to leave the cheerful fire, and even sorrier to leave the brandy, but my socks were wet and decidedly uncomfortable, and I looked forward to a clean, dry pair with definite relish.
I followed him back to the entrance hall, and we climbed up to the first floor. At the top of the stairs the gallery branched off on both sides and disappeared into opposite wings of the castle. We turned left, and several minutes later we arrived at what was to be my room.
“Here we go”, said Edward as we walked inside. “This will be your home for the next few weeks.” He gestured around the room. “I hope it will do for you. We had to fix it up at rather short notice, but I’ve made sure you’ll have just about everything you should need. You should be quite comfortable, I hope.”
“It’s lovely, thank you”.
An ornate four-poster bed dominated the room. It was carved from a beautiful dark oak and hung with rich green velvet curtains, matching those at the windows. The walls were bare plaster, without any pictures or decoration except for a faded tapestry that hung on the wall opposite the bed. The floorboards, shiny with the passing of hundreds of years of stockinged feet, were covered with brightly coloured rugs. A large wardrobe stood against the wall, and over the fireplace there hung a gilt-framed mirror. A comfortable-looking chair had been drawn up to the hearth, where a fire blazed merrily away. The cheerful flames provided the only light in the room, which had been thrown into an early twilight gloom by the weather outside, but I could see enough to know that I would be very comfortable during my stay at Mandrake.
“I think I’ll be more than happy here”, I remarked as I walked over to the window and looked outside. I paused, taken aback once again by just how lovely the view was. The lake lay beneath me, its frozen surface reflecting the slate grey of the sky, while the gardens and woods lay hidden beneath the veil of snow.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Edward said softly, coming to stand beside me.
“Yes, it is”, I agreed.
“I never get tired of the view, even after all these years.”
I would have replied, but at that moment the tapestry stirred, and Bingham stepped out from behind it. I was momentarily startled, but I quickly realized that the wall hanging hid a connecting door that led to a small bathroom.
“I’ve taken the liberty of drawing you some hot water, sir”, Bingham said with a stiff bow. “In view of your long journey I thought you might find this agreeable.”
I opened my mouth to thank him, but before I could speak Edward broke in.
“Splendid idea, Bingham, old boy, absolutely splendid. By Jove! You’re worth your weight in gold sometimes, do you know that? No wonder that old scoundrel Lord Grantham is always trying to poach you off me. I’m just surprised you never took him up on the offer. He would have paid you twice as much as I do, you know that, don’t you? But he would never have appreciated you like I do, Bingham. I wouldn’t part with you for the King’s own butler.”
“Thank you, milord.”
Bingham’s voice was as dry as the desert.
Now I consider myself a fairly confident chap on the whole, and I’ve always been comfortably aware of my place in society, but I don’t mind admitting that at this point I was a little scared of Bingham. My father’s servants were terrified of him, and that was the sort of deference I had come to expect in a butler. It was rapidly becoming apparent, however, that Bingham was accustomed to taking liberties with the earl that most masters would not tolerate for a moment, and yet Edward accepted his thinly-veiled sarcasm with such indifferent good humour that I had to stifle my laughter as I listened. Only Edward speaking again stopped me from chuckling out loud.
“Well Marcus, why don’t you have a bit of a freshen up and settle in for a while. Take as long as you like, there’s no rush. I’ll be downstairs whenever you’re ready, and then I’ll show you the library. Don’t worry, I won’t put you to work straight away, but it should at least give you a feel for the place. So, I’ll see you in an hour or so.”
He gave me a satisfied smile as he left, and Bingham bowed silently in my direction and followed him out.
When the door had closed behind them I turned back to the window and stared out over the grounds. From here I could see that a second, smaller bridge led off from the rear of the castle into the gardens. I had never really been one for admiring a pretty view – having lived all my life in London there had never been much of a view to admire – but I now found myself quite dazzled, and I wondered how I had never noticed before how beautiful the countryside could be. In the distant garden I could see an ornate pagoda rising from the deep carpet of snow, as if it had sprouted up from the frozen earth like a fragile winter flower. As I looked I caught the sudden movement of a young stag, his antlered outline stark against the snow, stepping out from underneath the shelter. The creature paused for a moment, his head raised, his nostrils quivering in the ice-cold air, and then he leapt gracefully away across the garden.
As the stag disappeared into a distant clump of trees I realized that I had been holding my breath as I watched, captivated by the almost unearthly beauty of the animal. I exhaled slowly now, feeling more and more with every passing moment that I had stepped into an enchantment, and that beyond the borders of this landscape the real world did not exist at all. What, I wondered briefly, was happening to me? I had told Edward that I found the countryside unsettling, but that was nothing compared to the strange, dream-like quality that seemed to pervade the castle and its grounds. Whereas I usually felt bored and insignificant, here I felt that every wild creature and falling snowflake had a significance that I couldn’t quite understand. It was more than unsettling – it was almost frightening. But for all that, it was also undeniably beautiful, and I began to think that I might very easily get used to life here. Particularly, I thought with a sudden lifting of my spirits, if Edward continued to be so generous with his brandy.
With that happy thought, I shook myself out of my trance and headed into the bathroom.
Half an hour later, clean, refreshed and with my feet clad in a pair of dry socks, I shut my bedroom door behind me and started on my way back down to the sitting room. I ambled along the passage, whistling as I went, and feeling that I really didn’t have too much to complain about on the whole. Mandrake Castle didn’t seem like too bad a place to spend my exile. A little odd, perhaps. A little more atmospheric than I was generally used to, but very pleasant all the same.
At the end of the passage I stopped to admire a vivid tapestry which hung from ceiling to floor. I studied it for a moment. It showed a stylized castle sitting in a lake, with green and blue hills rolling into the distance. In the foreground the figure of young woman stooped to feed a pair of foxes. I stepped back to get a better look, and realized with a start that the castle was Mandrake, sitting in its lake on a bright summer day. I tilted my head to the side. I was no expert, but the workmanship seemed extremely well done. The colours flowed together like paint, and the scene was so lifelike that if I let my eyes slide ever so slightly out of focus, then it seemed that the girl was just on the verge of straightening up and walking away, that the foxes were poised on the very edge of flight …
A slight breeze blew from somewhere, and the tapestry billowed out towards me. I raised a quizzical eyebrow and glanced around. There were no windows nearby, and no open doorways. Castles have a reputation for being draughty places, but so far I’d found Mandrake to be as solid and cosy as a castle can be. I glanced around again, just to check that no one was looking, and then lifted a corner of the tapestry and peered behind it.
The wall behind curved out at an odd angle, and a crooked little door was set neatly into it. The wooden boards were old and warped, and a heavy iron handle sat above the keyhole. It didn’t take much to work out that this must be the tower I had seen, and suddenly I very much wanted to see what was at the top. It might not have been the behaviour of the perfect guest, but my natural inquisitiveness overruled my manners and I reached out to try the handle. It was, rather disappointingly, locked. I rattled the handle, as if that might somehow magically unpick the lock but, as even I could have predicted, the door remained closed. I should have left it at that, I should have remembered my manners and walked away, but instead I bent down and peered through the keyhole.
It was as black as night on the other side of the door. I couldn’t see anything at all, not even the vague outline of the stairs. I’m not sure what else I expected, and yet I was still laughably disappointed.
A slight movement, possibly no more than a trick of the darkness, caused me to start and pull away, my heart pounding with a sudden fear. I must have been mistaken, I told myself, yet I was certain that I had sensed a passing, soft and stealthy behind the door, as if someone were climbing the stairway. I moved closer and put my ear to the keyhole. Yes, I could definitely hear soft footsteps receding into the distance as someone climbed up the stairwell in the dark. I stared at the door with a bewildered frown. I was perfectly sure of what I’d heard, but who would be foolish enough to try to climb a flight of stone steps in complete darkness without even a candle to guide their way? It was stupidity on a level with betting against Knuckles McGraw, with much the same chance of physical injury. Without a light, whoever it was would surely break their neck.
My racing heart gradually slowed to a steady thud, and I took a deep and shaky breath. No reason to be so scared, I told myself sternly. Whoever they are, it’s their business if they want to risk life and limb like that. It makes no difference to me. And yet I still felt vaguely unsettled by the incident, and as I headed downstairs to find Edward I couldn’t quite shake off the feeling that there was something slightly wrong about the whole affair. I couldn’t decide whether I oughtn’t to mention it to Edward. Heaven knows, I didn’t want to start causing trouble for the servants (of which, I supposed, I was technically one), but I felt that he would rather know about it than not. He didn’t seem the type of man to risk anyone’s safety for the sake of a few drops of lamp oil. Better a telling off, I argued, than a broken leg.
I put the matter to the back of my mind as I made my way downstairs, where I met Bingham in the hallway. He gave a sharp cough.
“Ah, Mr. Reid, I was just on my up to accompany you to the library.” He paused, and I knew at once that he was displeased to find me wandering the halls alone, as if it reflected poorly on his competence as a butler. “If you’ll follow me, sir, his Lordship is waiting for you.”
He led the way through the nearest door and through a short passage, at the end of which of which stood an open doorway. So this is the library, I thought, as we stepped inside. I was a little daunted, to be frank. It was larger than I’d expected, and was wreathed in the unmistakable scent of beeswax and old paper. The walls were lined floor to ceiling with books, and beneath the window stood a large desk spread with a chaotic mess of papers. Edward was sitting in a battered high-backed chair by the fire, peering through his glasses at an old leather-bound book. He looked up as Bingham announced me.
“Mr. Reid, milord.”
“Hello Marcus, how are you settled?”
“Very well, thank you”, I replied. “Everything seems perfectly splendid. I think I’ll be very comfortable.”
“Excellent, excellent!” He gestured to the chair opposite him. “Sit down, won’t you. Bingham, could you have a pot of tea sent up, please?”
Bingham bowed, and glided silently out.
So, Marcus, this is the library.” He gestured around the room. “You’ll be spending quite a bit of time in here, so I thought I’d help you familiarize yourself with it.”
“Thank you”, I said, with as much enthusiasm as I could muster. “It’s quite large, then?”
“Yes, well, we’re a family of book lovers, I’m afraid. Unashamedly so, in my case. Some of these books are over two hundred years old, and quite fragile.”
I smiled a little queasily. I had no idea what I was doing to begin with, and now I found myself picturing the look of horror on Edward’s face if I managed to ruin a priceless heirloom as well as making a hash of the actual cataloguing. I wondered if this might be the time to admit that I hadn’t the faintest idea what I was doing. It was conceivable that my father might have exaggerated my intellect when pitching me for the post, and I didn’t want the ensuing chaos to come as too much of a shock to Edward.
“So”, I began cautiously, “what exactly were you looking for in terms of cataloguing these books? I haven’t really done anything like this before, I don’t know if my father told you …” I tailed off.
“Yes, he did mention something of the sort”, Edward agreed cheerfully. “He said you were a lazy young layabout who needed a firm boot up the backside, if you want the truth of it.”
“Oh, now that’s a bit harsh!” I was more than a little hurt by my father’s blistering critique, however close to the truth it may have been. “I’m no different to any other chap in my situation. I don’t claim to be the bounciest bean in the box, but I’m sure I can do a competent enough job for you.”
This sounded lukewarm even to me, but I was wary of raising his expectations too high. Edward laughed happily. He didn’t appear to be even vaguely concerned about the future of his library.
“I have every faith in you, Marcus, I really do. It’s the nature of father’s to be a little hard on their sons, and George is no exception there. Hard as this might be to believe, I happen to know that he’s actually very proud of you.
“He is?” I’ll admit I was touched. I teetered on the brink of medium strength emotion.
“Of course he is. He told me so himself. He said that most of your friends were idiots of the highest order, but that you still retained a modicum of common sense, even if you refused to apply it.”
The strength of my emotion was somewhat diluted by such faint praise.
“Hmm, well, it’s not quite the high praise I was hoping for, but coming from my father it’s certainly a good deal kinder than anything he’s said to my face recently.”
Edward leaned forward and patted my arm.
“You’ll do an excellent job, Marcus. I know you will. To be honest there really isn’t that much that can go wrong. The old catalogue system is still in place, but it hasn’t been updated since my father’s time. There’s been a good few additions since then, and half the books are out of place on the shelves. I just need you to make sure that everything is listed correctly, and put away in the right order. “
“Oh? Well that doesn’t sound too difficult. I should be able to manage that without too much trouble.” It also, I thought to myself, didn’t sound like anywhere near five hundred pounds worth of work, but I certainly wasn’t going to quibble on that score.
The door opened, and Bingham glided back in with a tray of tea. He placed it on the table between us and busied himself with pouring.
“I’ll show you the old card system tomorrow, and you can take it from there”, Edward continued. “But let’s not worry about that for now. You should take as much time as you need to familiarize yourself with the castle and grounds. I’ve no intention of making you work all the hours of the day and night, so you’ll have plenty of time to yourself.”
“Really? In that case I think I’d like to explore the grounds, if I may?”
“Certainly. In fact I highly recommend it. I’d show you around myself, but it’s far too cold for my old bones. They’re not as strong as they used to be, and the cold gets into them terribly if I take them tramping about in the snow.”
“I don’t mind, really”, I assured him. “Although I don’t have the keenest sense of direction, so if I’m gone too long then send a search party out for me.”
I laughed, but a sudden image of me lying frozen to death in a snowdrift flashed into my mind, and I felt a quiver of fear in my stomach. This sort of thing was exactly why I generally stayed away from rural areas.
“There’s not much chance of you getting lost” he replied. “There are plenty of landmarks to go by. You can see the castle most of the time anyway, unless you’re in the woods. But even then you just need to follow the path to the chapel. You can see the castle quite clearly from there.”
“There’s a chapel in the woods?”
“Yes, the family vault. It’s where all our old bones go when we die. Mine will end up there in a year or two, I daresay.”
He stood up and gestured for me to follow him over to the window. I pulled back the heavy curtain to get a better look, and a sleek black cat shot out from between the folds and stalked haughtily away, casting an indignant look over its shoulder at me as it went.
“Don’t mind Figaro there”, Edward said with a laugh. “He’s always hiding in corners and popping up when you least expect him.”
The cat settled himself comfortably on the rug in front of the fire and promptly fell asleep. Edward turned back to the window and wiped away a mist of condensation with the sleeve of his jumper.
“You can’t see it from here, but it’s directly in line with that old yew tree, in a sort of hollow in the woods.” He pointed through the window to a rather crabby looking yew tree which stood surrounded by several eerie white shapes, which would later turn out to be statues which had been buried in a snow drift.
“I’m sure I’ll find it easily enough”, I said uncertainly.
We turned away from the window and sat back down to our tea. Edward continued to tell me about the gardens.
“They were all laid out in the seventeenth century by Lord Elijah. They were the height of fashion at the time, and the envy of all the nobility for miles around. The woods were stocked with the best game in the county back then – pheasants, deer, they’d shoot anything that moved. Even the odd gamekeeper, I believe.”
“Yes, I saw a deer myself earlier”, I replied, the memory still fresh in my mind. “A stag. It was quite breathtaking.”
Edward glanced in my direction.
“Yes, they often hang about on the edge of the wood. That’ll be where you saw it, I suppose?”
“No, it was coming out of the pagoda. It must have gone in to shelter from the snow.”
“Hmm … yes, you’re probably right.” He seemed deep in thought, a vague smile playing on his lips. “Well, brave creature! They hardly ever venture out of the woods, let alone as far as the pagoda.”
We sipped our tea in silence for a moment, the crackling flames the only sounds as Bingham fed fresh logs into the hearth.
“Of course, the best view of the gardens is from the top of the tower. You can see for at least ten miles in every direction from up there.”
I was reminded of the odd little incident earlier, when I’d been so sure that someone was climbing the tower in the dark. I wasn’t sure if I ought to mention it to Edward, but I couldn’t shake the image of a maid lying sprawled at the bottom of the steps.
“Look, I don’t want to cause any trouble”, I began, “but I’m fairly sure that I heard someone climbing the staircase in the tower earlier. I happened to be passing the door on my landing” I added hastily when Edward raised a skeptical eyebrow, “and I heard footsteps. The door was locked, but it was pitch black on the other side and whoever was there hadn’t bothered with a light. It’s probably nothing, but it did strike me as a bit dangerous. I thought you might like to know, in case someone has a nasty accident.”
Edward and Bingham exchanged a cryptic glance.
“Really?” Edward said. “Well in that case you were quite right to tell me. I’ll see to it, of course. The stairs can be quite tricky, if you’re not used to them, as you’ll no doubt see.” He paused, apparently deep in thought. “It might be best if we took you up there before you head out into the grounds, let you get the lay of the land. Still, we’d best not go up today. I’ll have to make sure no one minds first. We don’t want to intrude.”
“Does someone have a room up there?”
“No”, Edward replied, shaking his head, “not anymore. The tower room hasn’t been used for years. No one ever goes up there.”
I was confused, and let it show.
“Then why would anyone mind? It’s your castle, isn’t it? Surely you can go up there whenever you like?”
“Ah! … Umm …”
He appeared momentarily flustered, and looked helplessly at Bingham for assistance.
“Servants”, Bingham said smoothly. “The maids, you know, they go up there to clean. They don’t like people getting under their feet and interfering with their work.”
Edward nodded vigorously in agreement.
“Yes, that’s it, servants. They can be remarkably territorial at times. I mean, take old Bingham here.” He slapped his quietly infuriated butler on the back. “He’s a prime example. They seem to think that they run this house. I sometimes wonder if I’m master of my own castle. Still, not to worry. I’ll find out when they’re up there, see if they don’t mind us taking a little peek when we won’t be in the way. I can’t say fairer than that, can I?”
“I suppose not, no”, I replied dubiously.
I felt obliged to agree with him, but privately it didn’t seem very fair at all. I was all for developing a good relationship with your servants, but even I would have drawn the line at letting them dictate to me when I could and couldn’t go about my own business, in my own home. Certainly my father would never have stood for it. There didn’t seem to be any discipline here at all. It was a decidedly peculiar way to run a castle, I thought.
The light was beginning to fade, and Bingham moved silently around the room lighting the lamps.
“Will there be anything else, milord?”
“No thank you, Bingham. I’ll call you if I need you.”
Bingham left the room, and Edward settled back in his chair and gave a deep, happy sigh.
“I’m really very glad to have you here, you know, Marcus. I’ve never minded my own company, but it does get a little lonely sometimes, since my wife died.”
“I’m happy to be here”, I replied, and found to my surprise that I meant it. Considering how reluctant I’d been to make the trip out here, I found that I was enjoying myself immensely. Edward was proving to be excellent company, and Mandrake itself was in no way short of creature comforts (again, my thoughts turned towards that excellent cognac). I was feeling decidedly optimistic about my immediate future. London, Knuckles McGraw, and even Maria, seemed very far away at that moment.
“It’s almost dark”, Edward commented, glancing over to the window.
“So it is! Today’s just flown by.”
Dusk was quickly turning to night outside, and the soft glow of the lamps gave the library a cosiness that belied its size. I felt suddenly glad that I would be spending so much of my time in this room, with its soft, polished wood and slightly musty air. It would make a pleasant change, I thought, to have no worries other than the proper placement of several thousand books.
“You’ve certainly crammed a lot in today. You must be quite worn out with it all.” I smiled and nodded my agreement. “Dinner will be in about an hour” he continued, “so why don’t you rest yourself and freshen up a little. I’ll send Bingham up to show you the way to the dining room make. Don’t dress up though, will you? I do so hate all this ridiculous formality that people go in for. There’s no call for it amongst friends.”
“If you say so”, I agreed, glad to avoid the fuss of dressing. The day had been more tiring than I’d expected, and I was overcome with longing for a hot bath. I stood up and stretched.
“Can you find your way back to your room, do you think?”
“I should think so. Don’t worry, I’ll start screaming if get lost.”
“Make sure you do.” Edward gave me a cheerful smile. “Have a hot bath to ease your muscles, and I’ll see you in an hour or so.”
With that, I headed back upstairs to find that, to my immense pleasure, Bingham had been there before me. The bath was full almost to the rim with steaming hot water, and fresh bath towels had been laid out in preparation. I gave a sigh of pure joy, and heaped silent but heartfelt blessings upon my father for having the presence of mind to turn me away when I came begging at his door, and sending me to this little corner of Heaven instead.