Friday, February 26, 2016

Fiction Friday: The Road to Blackwell

This matter was brought to my attention by a close friend of mine; Ms. Bracken's manuscript was written as a memoire and was only published in a few very narrow circles. She was embarrassed by the quality of her writing, and besides, by the time she was ready to go to press the Brontë sisters already dominated the scene. However, a handful of her books are still in circulation—the Book Trader Cafe luckily had a singular weather-worn copy of her work on their shelves and little knew what they possessed. I have here set forth Ms. Bracken's work as deserving of a wider audience, and I will continue to post a chapter from her memoire (entitled Blackwell Hall) each week until either my audience shrinks away or it is complete.

It should be noted that I have added the chapter names myself, and they are not original with the work.

Everything began, as it were, on that damnable walk. Others, friends, had implored me to hire a coach up to Blackwell, or at least to take a steed up all the way. I, however, was (and am) remarkably stubborn. Firstly, one cannot let the desires of others overwhelm one's own, and secondly the air up by Blackwell Park is quite bracing. I thought it might do my condition some good. It was with some eagerness that I set out that morning from Thrushford. The walk was meant to take something like six hours, but I have never shied away from such exercise. Of course, that was when the omens began. Shall I say omens? Yes, I think I shall.

The first was the discovery of a queer stone that had undoubtedly been put in place in some pagan age. It stood just a little taller than my head, and had carved into its chalky surface something eerily approaching a face. There were three men on the road in that place, guiding an ox toward Thrushford. "Oh, my lady, never should ye stop here," said one.

"And whyever not?" asked I, piqued. I have never found it amusing to be coddled with male attention. They certainly may find it very funny indeed to pretend that one is a flimsy thing of crepe-paper, but I do not.

The man grabbed his cap and chewed the cud he kept behind his bulging cheek, but said nothing more. Just to show them I wasn't afraid of their silly country superstitions, I ran my fingers over the rough pagan stone and gave them a wicked smile.

But that was only the first omen. The second was when I stumbled climbing a steep grade and found myself tumbled to the foot of a precipitous slope. There, at its base, sat a trio of old crows like witches plotting over their cauldron. Yes, they were the witches, save that their cauldron was a half-devoured fawn. Its rib cage was splayed open like the fingers of a grasping hand. At that, I merely wrinkled my nose, regained my composure, and went deeper into the hills.

Then there came the third sign. I am not one to put credence in idle bedside fairy stories, you understand. I find it to be insulting in the highest degree, and my intellect is not leashed and chained to the dance of any piper. But here, when one sees not one but three omens in an afternoon, it becomes time to reconsider one's position.

The third sign was the calf. This I found not far from the gate of Blackwell Park. It was hurt, poor beast, and I heard its pitiful cries from the road. They were haunting and feeble. The mewling drew me to it and I saw at once, under leaves half-matted with rain and blood, that the thing had been attacked by wolves of the heath. That was not what startled me, for I am used to morbid sights. I am no shrinking violet who will see blood and draw back. But the mauling was not the worst of it—no, no matter the pitiful nature of its injuries. I could see that it must have wandered from its safe pen and been near-devoured by those that stalk to the high moor. Worse, far worse, was its natural condition. For the calf had one pair of eyes that stared askance and rolled in fright, glazed with terror, and yet a second set. You see, the thing had been born with a vestigial skull emerging from the base of its neck and there was the sound redoubled through a second throat. I should have destroyed it and put it from its misery, but the awfulness of the sight so shocked me that instead I hastened on to Blackwell Park, little heeding the beast's pain.

The Park, as it was known in those parts, for it was the only such establishment for many many miles about Thrushford, was a vast acreage of wilderland hemmed in by the stark hills of that country. I will not say quite where it is about, for if my reader does not know of Thrushford, it is perhaps better that you never learn of its precise locale. Suffice to say, then, that it is high in the lonesome country where wholesome things do not stray. All about the Park there runs a chest-high wall adorned with iron spines. The grounds include forest and hill, all dark and knotty. It is a place of thorns, and dust, and choking bramble.

When I arrived at the gate, there was no one in the little cottage to let me in. I was tired and thirsty from long travel, and did not expect to find the groundskeeper's house unattended. Though the air was chill and wintry, I was all prickled with sweat from my exertions. At once, the fear ran through me that I would not find my way in, that I would be stranded without the Park until nightfall, or later; that the wolves of the moors would find me, as they had found that unfortunate calf, and that I would sooner join it. I must admit, I had not eaten much since my abbreviated lunch upon the road and I feared as well that my strength was failing me, draining through my limbs.

I rattled the gates as hard as I might. My limbs were filled with fevered strength. The chain wrapped about them strained and groaned, but came nowhere near to breaking. I nearly slumped against the wall in my anger. By then my stomach was sick with fear—they were right, those nosy friends who'd told me not to walk along the high roads alone to Blackwell Park. I should have been in a coach— but then, how would the coachman would have sorted anything differently?

It was only moments, I am sure, that I sat at the base of that brick wall with my head lowered between my hands, but it seemed to me that an entire hour or more passed. The sun was a bleary nail in the sky, moving not an inch, which is how I know it was fear that exaggerated my distress.

A man in a cap with a short hunting jacket, marsh boots, and gaiters came upon me. He had slung over his arm a pellet gun of some ancient make, and his teeth clenched a fuming pipe. "Well, mistress, yer seem to have fallen. Allow me to help ye."

He hauled me to my feet and drew from one of his pockets a key. This, he fitted into the gate and undid the chain. At the same moment, I saw him take a slug of liquor from his flask. I wrapped my hand around it as he attempted to return it to his pocket and took it for myself. "'Ere now," he complained as the stuff passed my lips. I thrust it back to him, staggering the man. His fantastic whiskers bristled. "Unladylike!" he declared to no one.

"I take it you're the groundskeeper here," I accused. He nodded. We walked beyond the girdling gate into the Park itself. The trees were darker within the wall, I noticed, and the thickets deeper. All grew more twisted and twined about than even on the headland by the sea, where noisome groves once housed midnight ceremonies and meetings between conspirators against the Crown. "Well, an abominable time for you to be away. I am Miss Emily. You were certainly informed of my coming."

Well, he was informed; the man was a brute called Allan. He went only by one name, and all the time I spent at Blackwell Hall I never heard him given another. Simply Groundskeeper Allan, who stalked the Park with his antiquated gun and beetling brows. The glow of his pipe was ever present to give him a hellish demeanor, lighting up his tangled whiskers with its sizzling embers.

We came to the house after a few moment's walking. The spirits I took from Allan had restored mine, lifting them again after my unpleasant journey from Thrushford. Blackwell Hall is a magnificent manor of gutrock stone. Both at once grotesque and beautiful, choked by antiquity and blessed with deep roots. It was—no, it is—the embodiment of all that is ancient and stultified, but also the stately grandeur of our shared past. It is all of this, and more. Gazing upon it, one is at once moved to awe and repulsion in equal measure. This, then, is Blackwell.

It is a great horseshoe of graven stone. Its has a leaded roof well-grown with mosses, as though the earth itself crawled up upon the tile. Its namesake, the deep-sunken well, stood all fraught with ironwork, its bucket hanging from a rusted chain. Allan the groundsman glared at me and gestured to the heavy oaken door. He would not touch it, as though for fear of the lash. "Here, mistress, is the hall."

He said no more. I glared at him across my shoulder, and went then to the door.

It opened at once into the hall where a smoky fire was blazing in the hearth. My aunt was there, as she had promised, and so was Blackwell Park's master and mistress. Everything I knew about Blackwell until that point was related to me by my aunt. She told me that the squire was a perfectly commendable man, and his wife was a fine specimen of her sex. I found them to be quite up to her description as I came into Blackwell Hall, but it was not to last.

Jacob Finch, of whom I'm certain you shall never have heard, bore the air of a once-dashing fellow. Quite leonine was he in appearance, and possessed of a great mane of graying hair. I could tell that, in his youth, he must have been quite the thunderer; he had the mien of a scholar. I could see him as a young prefect causing absolute chaos, and being quite liberal in the defence of his peers when it came to the whalloping stick.

The woman who stood behind him, Miss Finch, was clearly devoted to him, but I could also see the curl of a sneer coming into her face as he spoke. He was an object of deep feelings that were inextricably intertwined.

"Ah, my dear Miss Emily," he said when he laid eyes upon me. How he knew my name, I do not know. Perhaps my aunt had warned him of my desire to walk up from Thrushing, and after all it could not have been quite so common for young women to show up on his doorstep. "Forgive me for not sending after you. I had assumed you would leave tomorrow. My, but you look tired. Come in and have a seat."

There were a number of seats to be had, all very mannish in their upholstered leather and brass buttons. Big claw-feet clutched at the carpet before the fireplace. I obeyed Mr. Finch and found myself being attended by his domestics. My aunt was fluttering around me, and a handful of other folk of gentle breeding also appeared. "This is quite a welcome," I said, flattered. I fancied that Mr. Finch paid somewhat more attention to me than he cared to—once or twice he lifted his eyes above the half-rims of his glasses and his gaze wandered from the book he was so valiantly endeavoring to read.

That was the most singular thing about Mr. Finch, I believe: all throughout the interview that followed, the probing questions from my aunt and Mrs. Finch and all the rest, he pretended to keep his eyes upon the page. As an avid reader and avoider of conversation of my own,  I could see his ears perking like a curious cat's. He was listening to us, not reading at all! I was confirmed in this suspicion when I found that he never once turned the page. This intrigued me, I must admit, as did the occasional sidelong glances from his wife.

As for the conversation... but it grows late now and I must put down my pen. Perhaps next I take it up, my dear reader, I will illumine you as to my position at Blackwell.

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