What potions have I drunk of Siren tears,
Distill’d from limbecks foul as hell within,
Applying fears to hopes and hopes to fears,
Still losing when I saw myself to win!
Contessa Adelina Lupita Serpa Cantabria swayed in sympathy with the movements of the tall ship, her senses alive to every sound and smell. She stood beneath the night, gripping the rails close to her cabin, the lambent, flickering yellow of swinging oil lamps barely acknowledging her presence. This was the only light in her world; all was black beyond their reach but Adelina was comfortable with the darkness.
Groan. The sound of timber, weathered and battered by the sea for a score of years, moving to the rhythm of the ship as the vessel ploughed a line through rough water.
Snap. The whip of canvas in a bucking, salty squall, promissory vanguard to a storm.
Shout. A cry in the curious tongue of sailors understood only by those who shared their maritime calling.
Spray found a way around Adelina’s hood to lash obliquely across her skin as she gazed forward, straining for a sight of land. There was no point in looking aft. Many days of sailing separated her from the southern territories of home. In fact, there was no point in looking anywhere beyond the boundary of the ship – safe anchorage was still a moonless, starless night away, yet she felt the compulsion of all travellers to seek ahead for the first sign of journey’s end.
“Come back inside, niña.” The words were spoken by a tall, aristocratic woman. Señorita Constanza Cantabria was the Contessa’s travelling companion and surrogate mother. She placed a hand on the shoulder of her charge but the girl shrugged it off.
“I like the sea. I like the dark and the raw cut of the wind. It’s in my blood.”
“But the wind will strengthen, Adelina. Already the ship pitches and rolls. Your blood will be no saviour if you should slip between the waves this night; and where then would the future lie? It is foolish for you to risk…”
Adelina whirled sharply, lamplight sparking hotly in her eyes. “¡no me eche sermones! I am not a child and you will not call me foolish. You forget yourself.”
Her companion inclined her head. “Your pardon, Condesa.”
“You may have been permitted to use my father’s name but your blood is not mine! And I do not need reminding of purpose, Dama de Compañía. Hasn’t it been drummed into my every waking moment? Who should be more aware of destiny than I? You would do well to remember that.”
“This I do not forget.” There was pride in Constanza’s voice, pride and steel. “I have served your family for a lifetime. Have I not been with you since birth? Have I not cared for and waited on you these eighteen years, watched you grow, guided you to this present? Shared the dreams of your forebears that you would not be the last? I remember the glad heart I felt when we learned there was another, when fading hope for the future was reborn. And now, as we stand on the brink of fulfilment, do you think I should say nothing while you taunt fate, heedless of consequence? No, child. It is I that bears the burden of your destiny. I am the one entrusted with your safety. I am the one charged with bringing you to a distant shore for the sake of hope. And it is I who will bear the guilt if that hope is brought to ruin because a child ignores her duty to survive!”
Adelina stared back defiantly, a fiery retort on her tongue; but the words remained unsaid as the ship bucked violently, adding weight to the older woman’s message. Her balance thrown, the Contessa felt the rails press against her back as her feet slipped on the deck. For one long moment her vision was filled with a mass of black, churning sea, a roar of water that urged her to relinquish her life and plunge into the abyss. Death was something she understood, something she knew very well – but this time it was her own demise that threatened. It wasn’t a sense of destiny that called her to resist; it was the threat of personal extinction. Instinctively she reached out a clutching hand in desperation before finding safety in her companion’s arms.
“Now will you do as I say?”
This time Adelina obeyed.
Even monsters will recognise how fragile is their existence when confronted by their own mortality, Constanza thought as she followed future’s hope back inside.
The early February sky still simmered with the remnants of the night’s fury, clouds describing angry wild legends that masked the dawn. If the sun did manage to break through that day there would still be no warmth. A bitter wind blew inland from the sea, bringing with it the tang of brine and freshly chopped seaweed.
Joseph Harrow, butler to the household and personal valet to the Marquis, hurried across the cobbles to the mews where Arnold Cullip had a ride saddled and waiting.
“Morning, sir. Reckon it’ll be a cold ’un today.”
Harrow regarded the ostler. He remembered him as a boy, a snot-nosed lad who’d cleaned boots, fetched firewood, swept the flues, and did all the dirty or heavy jobs that the serving girls didn’t have the stomach or strength for. All tasks to which Harrow himself had once been assigned many years ago, before eventually stepping into his father’s old boots. He was, therefore, born to his position but still he remembered the hard graft he’d endured before the older Harrow’s death. With no son of his own he wondered if, perhaps, it would be this young stable-hand who one day would ride out on a master’s errand.
“Isn’t it always?” Harrow replied, favouring Cullip with a sober expression. The youth looked away but Harrow wasn’t surprised. There were few that could return his gaze. My eyes are witness to a lifetime of evil – who wouldn’t turn away?
“I’ll, er… I’ll just get…” Cullip turned hastily and dragged wide the stable door.
Harrow mounted a bay mare and pressed his heels to the horse’s belly. He looked neither left nor right as the horse crossed the courtyard and trotted down the cinder driveway that led to the gates.
By the time Harrow reached them old Charlie Straughan had already left the warmth of his cottage and was heaving at the heavy iron; ancient though he was, his ears were still alert to the sound of an approaching horse.
The gatekeeper proffered an arthritic and unacknowledged salute. His joints ached, his neck was stiff, and the muffler and greatcoat he’d donned couldn’t keep the cold from his bones. The wind had veered last night, coming in hard from the east, and there had been a storm. Such things were portents but he didn’t allow himself to consider of what. Whatever was to happen was not his affair. After the rider had passed on through, Charlie returned to his fire and considered nothing but if his log-pile was high enough to last out the remainder of the winter.
The fishing village of Hook was an easy journey on foot, let alone on hoof, but against the thrusting wind Harrow knew it would take longer than usual; yet he made no attempt to speed his passage. This trip was merely to confirm that a ship had arrived. If so, then a further outing would be called for, when the sun had set; if not, then the last of the Vaskapu, the master of Shun House, would resume his vigil, dreaming, waiting on a day when the future might be assured.
Harrow wrapped his cape tighter against the cold. The wind had lessened from the gale of the night but was still strong. By the time he reached the harbour he could feel his cheeks burning. The tips of his fingers were numb despite thick, fur-lined gloves. He dismounted stiffly and made his way to the wharf. The sea was still rough and heavy; low clouds and high spray merged to occlude his view but there, safely anchored in the bay with her sails furled, was a tri-masted clipper, slewing side to side in the still energetic swell. Harrow noted bow and stern lights before walking the short distance to the Black Sail. The proprietor looked up as he entered.
This man’s face was tough, hardy, a face happy to deal with arguments and brawls, well used to keeping order in his domain; yet his expression showed him wary and uncertain. Harrow faced such distrust every time he came to the village, but he knew it wasn’t himself that was the cause – that lay with the place he came from and, more precisely, the master who dwelt within.
No one else was in the room, just the telling remnants of those who had been: the reek of settled pipe-smoke, stale beer, sweat and piss, dark stains in old sawdust that was still waiting for a broom to stir some freshness into the mix.
“When did the ship heave to, Mackay?” Harrow asked. There was no need for greeting or pleasantries, and nor were any wanted.
The innkeeper picked up a mug and threw away the dregs before spitting in the glass and wiping the inside with a grimy, discoloured rag. “Early,” he answered with no attempt at civility, though he was careful enough to curb any tone that might be construed as insolent.
Harrow regarded the barkeep but his review was not returned. The man from Shun House wasn’t wanted here and that was fine: he’d no desire to stay longer than needed. “Has anyone come ashore yet?”
Mackay just shook his head.
“You’ve kept rooms free for when they do?”
“Aye.” The barman put the glass down on an upturned barrel and picked up another. “A brace. As I was bid.”
Nothing remained to say. Maybe the rooms would be used, maybe they wouldn’t. Harrow had reserved them in case they were needed but it didn’t matter either way. He couldn’t imagine the ship’s ‘cargo’ would be content to rest in this hovel, but possibly the ship’s captain or officers would welcome time ashore before they sailed again. Why do I care about that? he wondered. Men he might never speak with, perhaps not even see: why should their welfare concern him? Yet somehow it was important to offer something, some token of comfort, some reward beyond the purse they’d have received for the hire of the vessel. Were they aware of who their passengers really were? Did they understand the nature of their journey?
“I’ll return with a carriage this evening,” he told Mackay as he left. “Should anyone come from the ship, advise them of that.”
The innkeeper said nothing. He merely spat into the next glass and paid further lip service to cleanliness with his rag.
In the kitchens of the great house, Mistress Honoria Hartley, Cook and Housekeeper, was fretting over her preparations. Guests were due and that called for production on a grand scale. No matter how many were expected, so far as she was concerned you planned for either one or many – there was nothing in-between. So it wasn’t the number of visitors that was vexing her; it was the fact that they were ‘foreign’, people with strange habits and probably even stranger tastes. Mistress Hartley had spent last night and before dawn this morning thumbing through bundles of recipes by candlelight, sheaves of instructions she’d not looked at since – well, not since before she could remember, practically; certainly not since she’d learned her trade hanging onto the skirts of her mother. It was too long ago.
No, the point was that ‘foreigners’ were an unknown. Traditional foodstuffs, heavy meats and roasted vegetables she could conjure with until the cows came home. But now she was faced with mysterious words taunting her from yellowed pages: basmati, crouton, goulash – what could you do with such words? Spices? What was wrong with pickled onions, mustard and cress, or beetroot? Parsley. Borage. Clary. Rocket or southernwood. Generations had been raised on such flavoursome victuals, and raised well.
Get on with it, woman. She packed away the recipes with determination. Whatever these foreigners might be used to in their own heathen lands they’d make do with decent, honest, home-grown sustenance while they ate from her kitchen or… well, it wouldn’t be down to her if their bellies remained empty. Mind settled at last, Mistress Hartley straightened her back. She cast an experienced eye over the pots and pans hanging from strong nails hammered into stout beams, then towards the larder. Now then, what’s to prepare for the dinner tonight…?
At five o’clock Harrow accompanied Dora, the upstairs maid, to inspect the rooms prepared for their visitors. All was well. Everything was tidy and free of dust; mirrors polished and correctly aligned, beds properly made, towels and soap flakes in the bathrooms. He dismissed the girl. The sight of her scampering quickly back downstairs brought an image to mind, a picture of another girl, an orphaned waif brought into the house ten years since.
He remembered the way she had moved as she went about her business. He remembered her that night she’d taken a meal to the young Marquis Raphael in his secret rooms below the foundations of the house – and he remembered the following morning, when he’d been tasked with the disposal of the few poor, gnawed bones that remained. That vision was a stabbing thorn that was always with him, images that too often garnished his already dark dreams in the dead of night.
And that memory was but one… how many others saw him waken to a bed sodden with guilt? There had been so many. Some taken in to service the Vaskapu dream, the hope for a future not yet realised. But some had come who were not in service to noble expectation. He shuddered, unable to deny them. Death was far from a stranger to his own hands.
They had never left, those… children. None of them. They were still here, their bodies gone but their spirits chained, enthralled, mounting contributions to the overbearing atmosphere of this grim great house.
Harrow’s eyes roamed: the cracked-plaster walls, the high ceilings – but those were not in the focus of his eye. Even now he could see them floating, haunting, aimless, pitiful; and not just those which Harrow had personally known. The Vaskapu had lived here for many generations; how many souls had been brought within their reach and then lost to the outside world? The fisher-folk of Hook whispered their fear, cursing the monsters that dwelt on the hill, the house that cast long shadows over the once-whitewashed now salt-crusted stone cottages cowering by the shores of the bay; cottages where old and young whimpered in corners, fearful of some dread visitation that would steal them away to feed animal desires.
Harrow was no innocent. He had played his part. He’d followed in his father’s footsteps. He’d served the needs of Shun House, obeyed without question so that they might continue his own warped existence. Like his father before him, Harrow had prostituted himself, exchanged loyalty towards his fellow man for the corruption of his own, personal treasure.
A long ago memory pushed to the front of Harrow’s thoughts, a day when Marquis Gergõ Vaskapu, the old master, had spoken with him, just days after the passing of Harrow’s own father. He’d been taken beneath the House to a cavern, a lair where dragons slept. And played. And dreamed.
“Thy time for true service is upon thee,” the old master had said, his voice like broken eggshells. “My strength fades, a cold and silent rest beckons. Soon I shall depart – but I leave behind a seed and if that seed is vital, a child shall be born. It must be cared for, nurtured, protected. The compact that existed between thy father and House Vaskapu must continue. Art thou prepared?”
The younger Harrow had understood: his father had served and now the time had come for his son, a man approaching his twenty-fifth year, to stand in his place. Of course he was prepared. This had always been his destiny. Born into service, allegiance to the family was intrinsic, and so it would continue. But this was more than an inheritance of obligation – it was a votive charge, a contract where each party understood the needs of the other and fulfilled them without question or judgement.
Like his father before him, Joseph Harrow was a warped creation, a man with particular predilections, especial desires for which the family would provide as payment for his especial service. Rewards are not always pecuniary, treasure need not always be gold. Oh yes: Harrow was a sinner in his own right.
The child was born on the day of the old master’s death. The mother, a once-serving girl herself, was spent in the process and the Lady Ilka, sister of Gergõ, came to Benediction House. She took charge of the infant and retained Harrow, trusting in him as had her brother.
The world turned, the child grew, and everything remained the same. And as the years advanced, for Harrow the rapacious desires of youth retreated. Never lost entirely but at least watered down, so much less intense. He aged along with the House, a home to any number of hapless and helpless ghosts, lost from the moment they’d passed within; but not all were taken by the masters of the place. Harrow’s own appetites, his own shrouded indulgences, accounted for their share.
Harrow believed his own soul lost. His physical existence was forfeit to the future of his benefactors, but his spirit was in thrall to his personal sins. His own father was still here, he was certain, denied the release of salvation, a phantom like the others. In time the two would be reunited and drift through a bleak eternity together. Harrow shuddered at those thoughts of his own, personal destiny…
And now another was approaching, fetched by ship from a distant land. This time there was a blood relationship. Diluted, perhaps, separated by both centuries and the sea, but nonetheless rekindling a hope in the future. Harrow recalled how intensely the young Marquis had read the first letter to arrive, those months ago.
“Perhaps,” he had overheard the nobleman murmur, “I am not alone.”
With a shake of his head, Harrow brushed aside the phantasms that were trying to smother him with their horrid, fleshless forms and followed the maid downstairs. The sun had remained hidden all day, and now there was only night. It was time to fetch the guests.
I hope you enjoyed this taster chapter, and that it has inspired you to want to read the whole novel when it is published, hopefully in the summer of 2015. Nigel.