Authors: Kate Riordan
“The oldest part of the house was built during the Wars of the Roses. Did you do them at school?”
A pair of stylised roses opened up in my mind, red and white: the houses of Lancaster and York. It wasn't a period I knew well,
and it was much too early for Elizabeth. Feeling slightly disappointed but not wanting Nan to see it, I nodded again.
“Margaret of Anjou led the Lancastrians,” said Nan. “She was French. I don't know how a French woman got herself mixed up in it, but she did, and her son fought for them too. On the way to the battle of Tewkesbury it's said that she stayed here a night or two, in the manor, when it was half the size it is now. She didn't know it then, while she was here, but the Yorkists would win, and her son, the Prince of Wales, would be killed in the battle. He was her only son, and it broke her heart.
“The thing I like best is that she's supposed to return about this time each year. She walks the corridor upstairs in the oldest part of the house, dressed in her fur-trimmed gown.”
Though I didn't believe a word of the haunting part of it, I shuddered slightly. I felt it again: the weight of the past pressing in around me, almost tangible.
“What was the year?” I said. “I never was very good at dates. It must have been the late 1400s.”
“1471,” said Nan proudly. “That and 1066 are the only ones I can ever remember.”
I smiled. “So I suppose I should be rather alarmed then. I haven't timed my arrival very well, have I?”
“I must admit, I've never seen anything,” said Nan reluctantly, “and I've been on my own upstairs in that part of the house plenty of times. Mind you, it's said that you don't always see her.”
“Let me guess,” I said. “You suddenly feel cold?”
Nan looked up from her cup of tea. “No, it's not that. They say that you know when she's been there because there's a smell of flowers in the air.”
At those words I felt my stomach tighten, just a little, before I dismissed the coincidence. Last night's episode was nothing but a
combination of the heightened senses of pregnancy and the vivid imagination I'd had since I was a little girl. But then I remembered how Mrs. Jelphs's lavender scent had made me think of my grandmother the day before, and I wondered .Â .Â . Could it have been her prowling the corridors at night, making sure I was where I should be? It wasn't just the past that seemed to crowd in on me; something about Mrs. Jelphs weighed on me too. It wasn't just that she had gone into my room the day before, though that had unsettled me; it was her manner towards meâone minute solicitous, the next closed and rather cold. The latter I could understand in someone who was naturally reservedâI was an interloper in her quiet domain, after allâit was the former, those occasional bursts of intense scrutiny that unnerved me. Her sense of responsibility to my mother wasn't enough to explain them.
Nan looked over towards the door and then leant closer towards me, her apron front soaking up a spill of tea on the table.
“I tell you who you ought to talk to, if you're interested in the past,” she said. “Mr. Morton is a historian in the village. He's got books, ever so many books. My mother does for him each week, dusts and takes his washing, and she says she's never seen anything like it. Stacked to the ceiling in some rooms, they are. She says that one of these days she's going to knock a pile of them over, and no one will ever find her.”
Before I could ask where in the village he lived, Mrs. Jelphs came in with a trug full of cut flowers. Nan had jumped to her feet at the sudden arrival.
“Are the pair of you still talking?” she said, a mild reproof in her tone. She raised her eyebrows and then gestured towards the flowers. “I saw these and thought they would brighten the place up. They'll only die on the stem otherwise. Nan, if you could find some vases for them .Â .Â .” She looked over at me. “I can take you around now, if you're ready.”
I scraped back my chair. It was probably no bad thing that I had to leave the kitchen and Nan then. I knew I would have been tempted to prise out of her anything she might know about the valley's more recent past, and it would have been awful if Mrs. Jelphs had overheard any mention of Elizabeth. I already knew it was important to tread carefully with her there, which ironically made me all the more intrigued about her onetime mistress. Mr. Morton was another matter, however.
“It's well worth seeing the chapel,” said Mrs. Jelphs, as we threaded our way through the Tudor garden. “It has some very unusual interior features. Not quite what you'd expect in such a remote little place.”
The yew pylons towered over us, and I put out a hand to feel the springy foliage, as I'd imagined doing from my bedroom window the previous afternoon.
“I'll take you along the stream. It's prettier that way.”
Elizabeth had mentioned a stream in her note; there was a good chance it was the same one. I felt the fingertip brush of the past again, and something else tooâa tiny alteration in the valley's atmosphere, as though it had heard my thoughts and was now listening more attentively.
We passed close to what looked to me like a miniature house of three floors, and I wondered if it was the building I'd spotted from my bedroom. Up close, it was smaller than the average cottage, but there was nothing rustic about the carved stone flourishes around the windows and the intricate sundial of blue and gold that had been set into the stone above the door's lintel. This strange dwellingâif that was what it wasâteetered right on the edge of the stream, where the water ran clear and fast, the smooth pebbles at the bottom easily visible. I knew it would be bone cold.
“What's that place, Mrs. Jelphs?” I called ahead to her.
“It has always been referred to as a summerhouse, though of course it seems rather too ornate for the job. No one is sure what its original purpose was. One theory is that the accounts of the estate were dealt with there, with the tenants going there each month rather than to the manor. It seems plausible.”
She paused to look at the diminutive building. “It was also something of a refuge, I think,” she said softly.
“To who?” I asked.
As though I hadn't spoken, she pointed to the stream that rushed on below us. “It runs west down the valley towards the long barrow there. Be careful: it doesn't look deep, but the current is strong.”
She turned and continued to pick her way neatly towards the chapel, through the mulch close to the bank.
At that moment, I remembered once reading the phrase “steeped in history” and liking it. I thought it was in a guidebook about Bath; that seemed likely enough. Just as I had said to Nan, I loved the image of a place being saturated by the past, as though some essence of the years it had witnessed seeped out of its ancient stones.
A friend from school had once invited me to stay at her grandparents' house during the summer holidays. They lived in a sprawling red-brick rectory in Hampshire. There wasn't much money left, and they wore their shabby gentility lightlyâthe black-and-white photos of Oxford rowing teams from the last century hanging in dusty frames, the grand piano's lid scratched and strewn with moth-eaten piles of sheet music that betrayed generations of accomplished playing. On the day I arrived, they had been opening up the cellar to check for damp after the river at the bottom of the garden had flooded its banks. For reasons that weren't clear, the inside door to the cellar had been bricked up in
the 1870s, and so they were going to try getting in by a window set low in the wall at the side of the house instead. As the smallest there, I was persuaded to clamber down first. Perhaps half a century of stagnant air hit me like a melancholy wave. I reached out to touch a glass medicine bottle half full of brackish liquid on a shelf. The person who had placed it there was probably dead. I held on to it tightly.
“Are you still alive down there?” my friend's older brother shouted down to me. I looked up at him and nodded, shielding my eyes against the bright sunshine outside, in the present. I think I fell in love with that family and their house in that moment. For the rest of that week I even wondered if I might fall in love with the brother, too.
Now I had the same feeling, intensified many times over, at Fiercombe. The place was alive with the past. People had been here for thousands of yearsâhere, in this remote valley. From the Saxons to Margaret of Anjou's Lancastrians, massed on the ridge before the march to Tewkesbury, they had been here, and perhaps they still were, in some sense. There was nothing but the sound of the water below us, but the air crackled and vibrated as if some remnant of their presence echoed down through the centuries, an empty valley crowded with ghosts.
We reached the chapel, the oldest parts of which had been built with the manor, with additions in the mid-nineteenth century. According to Mrs. Jelphs, who sounded as if she was reciting by heart from a book, the stained glass and elaborate tiling was a little-known but superlative example of the early Arts and Crafts style. Birds, flowers, and vines were intricately entwined, creating an overall impression that was much more pagan than Christian. The theme of nature ran throughout the church, which was hewn from the same soft golden stone as the manor, and whose bare surface
had been painted with stylised leaves in silver, green, and gold. The air was completely still. I felt as though I was disturbing each slumbering molecule as I wandered around.
I am not religious, but I have always loved churches, especially those with coloured glass, cut and leaded, the light streaming through. One summer my parents had the idea to spend the day in Oxford, and we ended up visiting the cathedral of Christ Church, probably out of duty. Outside it was hot, the streets thronged with day-trippers determinedly enjoying their escape from routine. By contrast, the interior of the church was dark, cool, and almost empty that day. My mother's court shoes clacked loudly on the smooth, worn tiles of the aisle, and I moved away from her and my father, feeling that trio of adolescent emotions: humiliation, fury, and guilt. Outside, a high wind not felt on the ground jostled along stout white clouds, revealing and then covering the sun again and again.
It came out just as I approached the largest window, making the glass sing. Shards of colourâdusky pink, amber, and chartreuse greenâlit the dark tiles and my own white T-bar shoes. I was thirteen and thought I was too old for them, but there, just for a few minutes, I found I didn't mind as I waggled them about, the colours bright against the pale leather. So many moments in childhood are forgotten, even those we think we recognise as significant at the time. That one stayed with me, the glass finding its way into my heart like the little boy in Hans Christian Andersen's story about the Snow Queen. Except that my glassâthat rainbow-coloured Pre-Raphaelite glassâwarmed me right through.
Lost in that recollection, I had almost forgotten that Mrs. Jelphs was there, and when she spoke, I jumped.
“As I said earlier, you're welcome to come here, if you ever wish to. But I must ask you to lock up carefully. I will show you where I hang the key when we go back to the manor.”
“I wouldn't have thought there was much risk of anyone stealing anything round here,” I said lightly.
Mrs. Jelphs remained serious. “It seems very cautious to you, perhaps, but the Stantons are particular about keeping the chapel locked. The pews, altar furniture, and the rest are not worth a great deal, but the wall decorations, the tiles, and of course the glass are quite unique.”
I wandered over to a small stained-glass window off to the side that I hadn't noticed at first. It depicted a dark-haired woman in a long pale green dress. Twisting over her were branches laden with golden fruit, while brambles tangled around her bare feet. Even my untutored eye could see that it was very fine work. Over the pieces of coloured glass, extra detail had been etched in, giving it greater depth and shadow. While her dark brown hair rippled out around her as if she were underwater, one tendril had been cut so it appeared to blow across her face, leaving only a portion of her mouth and a small nose showing.
I took a breath. “Is this supposed to be .Â .Â . ?”
Mrs. Jelphs didn't reply.
We stood there, looking up, while the air grew stuffier, the smell of dust and prayer books and warm stone growing heady. I found myself rocking slightly on my feet, as though I was on the edge of sleep. Blinking a few times, I forced myself to wake up.
It was then that Mrs. Jelphs began to speak, her voice far away.
“It was thought by some to be rather shocking. Elemental, it was called, and in a church too.”
With a visible effort, she straightened her shoulders and smiled determinedly.
“I like to come and spend a few quiet moments here during the week, and I always come on Sunday eveningsâI find it more peaceful than the morning service up in Stanwick.”
I smiled back and realised that something in the air had shifted, a veil of sadness lifted away.
“We really must get on now,” she said, her hand on my arm. “I have things to do, and they won't keep all day.”
Outside, the fresh air tasted delicious.
“It's going to be a beautiful day,” I said.
“Yes, I think you're right,” said Mrs. Jelphs. “Perhaps we're in for a settled spell.”
We went back the other way, this time going through the little graveyard to reach a gate that would take us round the back of the manor instead of back through the squeezebelly stile and along the stream to the front of it. I wanted to stop and read the stones' inscriptions that hadn't been obscured by ivy or weathering, but Mrs. Jelphs held the gate open for me in such a way that I didn't think I could linger.
“The rhododendrons are late this year,” she said as we walked. “They were once as famous as the bluebells here, but they've been allowed to run a little wild.”
The bushes of dark, glossy leaves grew impressively high and dense on both sides, taller than the hedgerows I'd seen on the journey from the station. Only at the top did they grow unchecked, the very highest boughs reaching out towards each other in a bid to blot out the sky.