Celia Marsdon, young, rich and unhappy, sat huddled in a lounge chair at the far end of the new swimming pool vaguely listening to the chatter of their weekend guests.
Across the pool, above the privet hedge and the rose-laden pergola, sprawled the cluttered roof line of the Sussex manor house, Medfield Place. Richard’s home. Her home, now. “Lady of the manor,” a manor which had seen centuries of these ladies.
In the 1200’s some Marsdon—Ralph, was it?—had built himself a small stone keep close by the River Cuckmere. The stones he used were still incorporated in the walls of what looked to be a Tudor mansion of gables, twisted chimney pots, blackened oak half-timbering amongst peach-toned bricks. But there were later touches, too, a Georgian bay window added to the dining room, improbable fanlights cut over doorways, and—most shocking of all to the humorless young architect who had come down from London to supervise repairs—two crassly Victorian additions. Sir Thomas, the only Marsdon baronet who could be called wealthy, had prospered during Queen Victoria’s reign owing to his wife’s inheritance of collieries in County Durham. During this brief period of affluence, Sir Thomas had tacked on a large pseudo-Gothic library wing, as well as a glass garden room which the young architect had wished removed at once.
Richard had been adamant. No matter the period, every brick and beam of Medfield Place was dear to him, and, indeed, the house triumphed over any architectural incongruity. It nestled placidly, as it always had, between two spurs of the South Downs—those quiet, awesome hills looming purplish-green against the East Sussex skies.
Celia, who was wearing a discreetly cut turquoise bikini, took off her dark glasses, shut her eyes and tried to relax in the sunlight while fighting off a fresh attack of anxiety.
Why should one be frightened? Why again, as often of late, a lump in her throat which could not be swallowed, and also a sense of suffocation?
This was one of England’s rare perfect June days, fluffy clouds scudding across the blue, a faint breeze riffling the leaves, and, said Celia to herself, You have everything a woman could ask for.
She had been told this a hundred times, especially by her mother, Lily. Celia opened her eyes and glanced along the pool-side towards her mother, who was rapt in conversation with one of those exotic characters she was always finding.
Yet, this particular find was different. True, he was a Hindu and practiced Yoga, but he had firmly refused to allow Lily to introduce him as a guru; he was a doctor of medicine and wished no other title. He had pleasant, modest manners unlike that dreadful, lecherous swami Lily had briefly lionized in the States. This Hindu, whose name was Jiddu Akananda, did not wear bunchy robes; his English clothes were well tailored; he had studied at Oxford and then at Guy’s Hospital, so long ago that he must be sixty. Yet his brown face was ageless, and his lean, supple body as now revealed by swimming trunks was like that of a young man. Celia had had little chance to talk with Dr. Akananda after his arrival the night before at the manor, but she had noted wise, kindly eyes and a sense of humor.
I rather admire him, Celia thought in astonishment. She had not admired most of her mother’s collection of swamis, numerologists, astrologers and mediums. Lily was given to sudden enthusiasms and had a certain naivete which her daughter regarded with indulgence.
Lily Taylor was past fifty and did not look it. Expert tinting kept her hair blond, while constant dieting kept her natural plumpness from spreading to fat.
When excited, Lily lost her unconscious attempt at an English accent, and her Midwestern voice rose now in emphatic agreement with something the Hindu said. “But, of course,” Lily cried. “Every intelligent person believes in reincarnation!”
“Well, I don’t,” remarked the elegant Duchess of Drewton, fitting a slim cigarette into a white jade holder. “Lot of nonsense,” she added with her usual smiling assurance.
Celia felt suddenly chilly. She shivered and pulled on her gold beach robe while examining the Duchess. Dowager Duchess, actually, though Myra was barely thirty; her old Duke had recently died of a coronary and the title had passed to a nephew. Myra’s willingness to combat anyone’s statement, as she had Lily’s, was one of her ways of being provocative. And she was provocative, Celia admitted, that long gleaming auburn hair caught back in an amber clasp, and the wide sensual mouth. Celia noted that Myra glanced often towards Richard.
Celia, too, with an indrawn breath looked at her husband. He had just executed a perfect swan dive and was toweling himself while blandly ignoring the guests’ applause.
Yet, perhaps, with a sidelong glance he did respond to Myra?
One never knew with Richard any more. He had stopped showing any emotions, especially towards her. The world, and Lily, who had come over on an extended visit, thought Richard a model of charming courtesy. He also had a beautiful smile. It seemed to occur to nobody but Celia that the smile never reached his long-lashed hazel eyes, which remained aloof, a trifle wary.
I love him so desperately. Celia’s hands clenched on the chromium armrests. I think he still loves me, though something has gone wrong, very wrong.
Her heart gave one of its unpleasant thumps as she forced herself to examine what had happened.
It seemed to begin with a visit to Midhurst last fall. Hallowe’en it was; in the woodlands, the leaves had turned yellow and russet—so much quieter than the blaze of American maples—and the roads were dappled with fallen leaves and rolling acorns. A smoky violet haze drifted through the folds of the Downs; there was a tang in the air. She and Richard had been so happy that afternoon as they set forth in the new Jaguar to meet acquaintances of his at the Spread Eagle Inn.
They had made love the night before, with ecstatic fulfillment even more joyous than during their honeymoon in Portugal, where for all her inexperience Celia sensed something withheld in Richard, the faintest lack of total involvement. But their mutual love last night had been flawless. Especially the aftermath, when she lay naked in his arms, her head on his shoulder, both of them murmuring contentment and watching the starlight filter through the mullioned window.
The glow still enclosed them as they left Medfield and started towards Lewes. Richard drove slowly, for him, and after a while remarked lazily, “I’ll be glad to see old Holloway again, friend of my father’s, and your romantic little American heart will be charmed by the Spread Eagle.” He swerved into a hedge-lined byway to avoid the main road. “It’s frightfully ancient, all half-timbering, dim passages and smugglers’ hideaways.”
“My romantic heart is charmed by Sussex, by England, and especially by my husband,” Celia said, laughing. She cuddled against him.
He rested his cheek against the top of her curly brown hair for a second. “Foolish poppet,” he said. “It’s not quite the thing to be in love with a husband, not done, my dear.”
“Too bad,” she murmured. “Oh, look, darling, there’s a bonfire on that hill. Is it for Hallowe’en?”
“I suppose so,” he said, “though we usually reserve those for Guy Fawkes Day. ‘Pray you remember the fifth of November, with gunpowder, treason and plot; The King and his train were like to be slain; I hope this day’ll ne’er be forgot.’”
“Who did what to whom?” asked Celia eagerly. “Was it the ‘wicked’ Catholics again?”
Richard did not speak for a moment, then he said, “It was. The papists, led by one Guy Fawkes, tried to blow up Parliament. They were foiled. Then, beheadings and hangings all around. We’ve been celebrating the happy outcome ever since.”
“You sound a bit ironic.” She looked up at his dark profile.
“Atavism, no doubt.” He lit a cigarette and turned the car into another byway. “The Marsdons were staunch Roman Catholics in those days. We didn’t become meekly Protestant until the eighteenth century—the age of reason.”
“And you regret the conversion?”
“Good Lord no! Who bothers one way or the other nowadays? Though sometimes I’ve had strange—well, dreams.”
She pounced on this, for he rarely made a personal admission. “Dreams? What kind of dreams?”
He withdrew a trifle. “Lunatic fancies, not worth recalling.”
She sighed, always the door slammed shut before she could quite get inside.
“You make rather a fuss over Hallowe’en in the States,” he continued conversationally. “It’s odd how many of our old customs were exported by the Puritans, and linger on across the water.”
“Yes, I guess so,” Celia answered. “The kids dress up in costumes; they go trick-or-treating; there are pumpkins carved for Jack-o’-lanterns—cider and apple-bobbing.”
“On All Hallow’s Eve,” said Richard slowly, “when wicked witches ride their broomsticks, and the grave gives forth its wormy dead.”
“Ugh,” she said, “how gruesome. In the States, we just have fun.”
“Yes, new and careless race.” Richard sighed. Her head was on his shoulder and she could feel the sigh. “I envy you. You’re almost untouched by the ancient Evil, which yet casts its shadow on us all.”
She was silent, never knowing quite what he meant when he talked this way.
At dusk they were driving through the village of Easebourne, and Richard said, “That building to your left was a nunnery in early Tudor times. The church has some rather good effigies of Cowdray Castle’s former owners.”
“Oh,” she said, “who were they?” English history had always interested her, but now that passionate love had made her part of England and its past, she had begun fascinated research, particularly on Sussex, which had become her home.
“Sir Davy Owen,” answered Richard, “bastard son of Owen Tudor. He married a Bohun, the knightly owners of Midhurst in the fifteenth century. There is also an imposing marble effigy of Anthony Browne, the first Lord Montagu, kneeling above his two wives; one wife I don’t remember, but the other was a Lady Magdalen Dacre, who must have been remarkably tall to judge by her statue.”
“Do you go around like an American tourist exploring churches?” she asked laughing. “I’d never have guessed it.”
Richard’s answering laugh held a shade of constraint. “In general, no. But I’ve played polo at Cowdray, and it is referred to in the Marsdon Chronicle. I was curious.”
She felt a quiver of delight. After a rootless girlhood, what joy it was to belong to an ancient established family, though this consideration had never occurred to her until after their precipitate marriage; nor had she grown accustomed to being a baronet’s Lady; an elevation brought about some weeks ago when old Sir Charles finally died in a nursing home. Before her marriage she had not even been sure what a baronet was.
“There are the ruins of Cowdray Castle,” observed Richard. “I think we’ve time for a quick look.”
They turned left through a gate and down an avenue of horse chestnuts towards the fire-gutted shell of a Tudor castle. They passed a fourteenth-century granary, mounted high on toadstool legs to discourage rats; past a row of cottages where yellow light shone through small windows, to the entrance of the ruin.
“It’s getting too dark for seeing much, but do you want to have a look? We’ve got a torch.” Richard stopped the car.
Celia followed her husband into shadowy roofless rooms. Floorless, too, and they groped their way over lumpy grass.
“The chapel was here to the right, as I remember,” said Richard, leading her by the hand. “And here, the remnants of the Great Hall. Mind the fallen stones!”
She stepped over a threshold and stood in the ruined Hall looking up at a huge stone window of sixty lights—but the glass had long ago vanished.
Her hand clutched Richard’s. “I feel sort of queer,” she said, “as though I’d been here before. Is that the minstrels’ gallery up there? And see those wooden stags—bucks, I mean—high on the walls?”
He did not answer as he shifted the flashlight beam hastily. There were no figures now on the ruined walls, but during a previous visit the caretaker had told him that this used to be called the Great Buck Hall, from the eleven statues of bucks representing Sir Anthony Browne’s crest.
Richard spoke reprovingly from the darkness. “One gets queer feelings from old places. Strong vibrations of the past, or I suppose your mother would say that you had been here before, in another life. Actually, the psychologists explain it as déjà vu, the illusion of having already experienced something.”
She was not listening.”I’ve been here before,” she repeated, in a dreamy voice. “The Hall is crowded with people dressed in silks and velvets. There’s music from viols and lutes. The smell of flowers, thyme and new green rushes. We are waiting for someone, waiting for the young King.”
“You’re too suggestible, Celia,” he said, shaking her arm. “And you devour too many historical romances. Come along, the Holloways will be wondering.”
“I’m very unhappy because you aren’t here,” said Celia unhearing. “You’re nearby, in hiding. I’m afraid for you.”
Richard made a sharp sound. “Come along!” he cried. “I don’t know what’s the matter with you!” He dragged her from the castle and out to the car. At once the impression of a dream which was not a dream evaporated. She felt dazed and a little foolish. She settled on the front seat and fished a cigarette out of her handbag.
“That was funny,” she said laughing shakily. “For a moment in there I felt . . .”
“Never mind,” he snapped. “Forget it!”
She was puzzled, a trifle hurt by his vehemence, which was almost like fear. The odd experience seemed important to her, though she scarcely remembered what she had said.
They entered Midhurst through winding shop-lined streets, crossed the market square, and parked in the courtyard of the Spread Eagle Inn. Celia was interested in the polished black-oak staircase, the passage with a man-sized armored knight standing near an entrance; but as she entered the low-beamed bar and greeted the Holloways, she was again conscious of something. A twitch, a prick of awareness. Nothing as marked as her feelings in the Cowdray ruins, yet she had to give it momentary attention before shaking hands with John and Bertha Holloway.
“Frightfully sorry we kept you waiting,” said Richard. “We stopped at Cowdray to show Celia the ruins. She doesn’t know this part of Sussex, of course.”
I feel as though I do, Celia thought, knowing that even that trite remark would mysteriously annoy Richard.
“Oh, my dear Lady Marsdon,” cried Bertha Holloway, her plump, earnest face beaming, “John and I have been so eager to meet you. I can’t tell you how startled we were when we heard that Sir Richard had married an American.” She gulped, apparently feeling that this remark needed amending. “I mean . . .” she pushed back a straggling strand of mousy hair—“I mean, not so surprising that he married an American, lots of people do, but that he married at all, he always seemed a confirmed bachelor, though that’s silly since he’s still quite young, but so many girls have tried . . .”
Her husband removed his pipe from his mouth, put down his Scotch, and said, “Bertha . . .” in a tired voice.
She flushed and subsided, her pink silk bosom heaving. John had told her not to talk too much. Not in any way to put her foot in it. Now that Sir Richard had a rich American wife he was gradually buying back the heirlooms old Sir Charles had been forced to sell.
John Holloway was a prosperous antique dealer who had, over the years, acquired several of the Marsdon treasures, and who had also been a friend of the late Baronet’s. In the Holloway showrooms on Church Street a splendid Elizabethan court cupboard from Medfield Place remained unsold. John had sent a tentative letter of inquiry; Sir Richard had replied, showing interest. A thumping big price might be got, particularly as an American museum was angling for the gorgeously carved piece.
John Holloway glanced at Celia, who was gulping her martini very fast and smiling absently as though she had not heard Bertha.
Somehow not the type one would expect Sir Richard to settle for, John thought. Rather plain little thing. Small and dark, nice eyes of a shining crystal gray, smart rose wool frock but no curves to fill it out. Good ankles, though, like most American women, yet nothing striking or impressive. Of course, there was the money. John shook his head imperceptibly; his business had made him an excellent, judge of character, and he knew that Richard was no fortune hunter.
Marriages were ever inexplicable. His sharp gaze rested a moment on his wife, who had recovered and was chattering away about church bazaars, garden clubs and the Woman’s Institute to a vaguely attentive Celia.
“Another round before we feed?” John asked Richard, who shook his head, smiling.
Celia started. “I’d like one,” she said in her low voice with its slight American tinge. “A real martini, plenty of gin. After all, it’s Hallowe’en, we ought to celebrate or something.”
Richard’s heavy black eyebrows rose a trifle as he laughed. “I assure you that this is unusual,” he said to the Holloways. “I’m not really wedded to a tosspot. This round’s mine, please.” He went to the bar, and presently returned with the drinks.
“I’ve taken the liberty of ordering dinner,” remarked John, who had not wanted another Scotch. “Dover sole and Aylesbury duckling. They do them rather well here. I hope that’s all right, Lady Marsdon?”
Celia jumped again, her gray eyes slowly focused on her host. “Oh, of course,” she said. “I simply adore . . . uh . . . sole and duck.” She drained her glass and lit another cigarette.
What’s the girl so nervy about? John thought. Have those two had a row? If so, the time was not auspicious for bargaining about the court cupboard. He prodded Bertha, who obediently rose. They all filed into the dining room where the Italian waiter bowed them to a table and produced a vintage Chablis.
Once out of the bar, Celia’s unease began to fade. She listened politely to Bertha’s breathless account of a committee on which she had served with Lady Cowdray; she listened to a general discussion of antiques between Richard and Mr. Holloway. Finally, during a lull, she remarked that Midhurst seemed a charming town, obviously of great historical interest.
“Oh, yes, indeed,” agreed Bertha rather blankly. “I’m a Londoner, myself, but John knows all about the old days here. There’s a funny hill, just past the church—the locals think it’s haunted, and I admit I shouldn’t care to go up there myself on a dark night.”
“A funny haunted hill?” Celia asked. “That sounds exciting.”
Did she feel or imagine a sudden strangeness in Richard. Across the table he was skillfully dismembering his half duckling, but she thought that the long sensitive hands which she so loved grew tense. She ignored a faint interior warning and said, “Oh, do tell me about the haunted hill, Mrs. Holloway!”
Bertha nodded towards her husband. “John knows all that sort of thing. I’d get it muddled.”
Holloway smiled, pleased that his guest had come to life. “You Americans do love a ghost story, don’t you! As a matter of fact. St. Ann’s Hill has a rather peculiar atmosphere. I’ve trudged up and over it many times when I was a boy. The footpath’s a short cut from the town, down to the River Rother, and thus to Cowdray Castle.”
“Was there once a castle on that hill, too?” Celia asked involuntarily, still ignoring the prohibition which came partly from inside herself, partly from Richard who kept his intent gaze fixed on the duckling.
“Oh, yes,” answered Holloway, faintly surprised. “What a clever guess. Though I suppose there’s hardly a place in England which hasn’t seen human habitation. For centuries, until early Tudor times, an ancient family called the de Bohuns had a stronghold on Tan’s Hill,’ nothing left now but rubble and bits of wall. And they say that long before the Romans came there was a Druid temple up there, too.”
“Fascinating,” said Celia, gulping down her Chablis. “And what about the ghost?”
John Holloway laughed. “Several have been reported by frightened kids and credulous old women. The most popular one is the ‘black monk.’ My great-aunt claimed that when she was a girl she saw the monk gliding down the hill into the town on a mid-summer’s eve.”
“Why black monk?” asked Celia, smiling.
Holloway shrugged. “The Benedictine habit, I suppose. There’s some theory that this ghost was once private chaplain at Cowdray, and got tangled up with a village wench. Sort of scandal folks love to hand down through generations.”
Richard pushed aside his knife and fork. He raised his head and said sharply, “England abounds in ghostly black monks and gray ladies. They come sixpence the dozen. Holloway—if I’m to examine the court cupboard, I think that after coffee we should go directly to your showroom.”