Ellie Barton has spent her young life living in the dilapidated manor house with her elderly father. Her duty is to her aristocratic lineage, something of which she is often reminded by those few people around her. But Marlford, the local village founded by her grandfather, is in decay—subsidence from the old salt mines is destroying the buildings, the books in the memorial library are moldering, and old loyalties and assumptions are shifting. When two idealistic young men decide to squat in the closed wing of the house, they show her a world much wider than Marlford, and Ellie begins to feel trapped beneath the unbearable weight of history and expectation.
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By Jacqueline Yallop
Atlantic Books LtdCopyright © 2014 Jacqueline Yallop
All rights reserved.
Seven summers previously, the mere had been full, overflowing at one end into a marsh of flag iris and kingcups. The grass grew high and thick; the path was boggy.
Throughout the district, there were rumblings underground and, when Oscar Quersley walked up into the village, he noticed that one side of the Barton Arms had slipped again, the land beneath it slumping: several workmen were busy trying to buttress a tilting wall. A little further on, there was a sharp fissure in the pavement; a section of the cobbled roadway, too, was split, and a wooden barrier had been erected with a notice warning pedestrians of the dangerous ground. He quickened his pace, anxious, but the library was untouched by the subsidence. Everything there was stable.
By the time Ellie arrived, the library looked exactly as it had always done: the front doors were open, the steps swept. Inside, the striplights were buzzing and Oscar was seated at the desk, a book open in front of him and the wooden drawer of catalogue cards pushed to one side.
Ellie put a hand to her head to check the pins in her hair and looked past the desk to the stacks of books beyond, the musk of rotting paper and old leather already drawing her in. The tiny burst of disappointment inside her was almost imperceptible, a soap-sud bubble popping unspectacularly into air.
'I'm sorry ... am I ... am I late, Mr Quersley? I thought I left on time. I thought I heard the clock strike.'
She could not be sure.
'The stable clock runs forty-three minutes late, Ellie,' Oscar pointed out.
'Does it? Again? But I thought you'd had it fixed.'
'The mechanism is fragile. It's difficult to adjust these days.'
'Yes, well, I suppose so. I suppose it must be running late again – but, you see, I lost track of time. I had to call at the hutments with some clean linen and the men had a complaint and then I dawdled on the avenue because it's such a fine evening.' She let out a long breath. 'I'm sorry.'
'Well, I was going over something ... "The Knight's Tale".' She blinked, puzzled by the solidity of the library furniture, floundering still in the shallows of her fantasy.
Oscar closed his book. He looked at Ellie sternly for a moment, and then smiled. 'It's of no matter. You're here now.'
He moved from the stool so that she could sit down. As she made her way behind the desk, she noticed that the rain from the previous night had filled the tin buckets to overflowing; a slop of dusty water ran away along the back wall towards the book stacks.
He caught her glance. 'Now that you're here, I'll empty them and mop round,' he said. 'I heard a forecast on the radio for more showers.'
Ellie picked at the darned fingers of her light gloves, then removed them carefully, folding them to one side on the desk.
'I'll just – sort the tickets then, shall I?'
'If you would.'
The pink readers' tickets were stacked in a thick-sided wooden box, their top edges faded to the colour of sucked candy but the card still vibrant below. Ellie checked their order, arranged alphabetically by surname. There were no aberrations. She placed the box carefully alongside the drawer of catalogue cards and reached underneath the desk, pulling a heavy ledger from the shelf. She opened it at the page marked by a length of blue ribbon.
'There are no loans out, Mr Quersley.'
He was on his knees wiping the floor. When he stood, he was red-faced and flustered, his hair flopping forward over his brow, his shirt-sleeves coming unrolled – emphasising the crook of his spindly wrists – the thick tweed of his trousers stained with damp and sagging. It gave him the appearance of a bow-legged horse trader.
'No,' he replied. 'I imagine not.' He wrung the cloth into the bucket and brushed flecks of peeled paint from his clothes.
Ellie began a new line in the ledger and slowly wrote the date in her looping copperplate hand: 19th July 1969. She allowed the ink to dry. For several months she had inscribed the paper in the same way without any need to record loans below: line upon line of dates peeled back through the pages, rhythmic, a meditation of days passing without incident. She shut the ledger and returned it to the shelf under the desk. There were no more duties to be done.
'Well, then.' Oscar had smartened his appearance again, as far as he could; he looked like the man Ellie was accustomed to, only slightly shabby and worn, his anxiety little more than the faintest of impressions. 'It's almost eight thirty. We have an hour and a half. Shall we take up the Enneads again – or would you prefer Dante? La Vita Nuova, perhaps?'
'Oh ... I thought perhaps you didn't like ...' She hesitated, blushing. 'We've never re-read La Vita Nuova. Not after that first time.'
'It's your choice, Ellie.' He could not look at her. He heard the clank of his words, not as he had rehearsed them.
'Dante then. Please,' she said.
Turning to retrieve the book, Oscar grinned. He looked momentarily younger than his forty years, boyish even, mischievous, his eyes sparkling blue, his skin pricked with fleeting colour. If Ellie had seen him in that moment, she might have thought of him differently but, by the time he was seated beside her, with the text between them, he had been overtaken again by the abiding beige and khaki of his tweed, his demeanour studious and his expression drawn in concentration.
Ellie glanced at him then, and wished he was not so stern with her.
No readers came that evening to the library. Once or twice people passed the open doors, their chatter seeming loud; occasionally cars drove by, filling the air with a liquorice syrup of fumes. The click of beetles in the wooden beams became insistent as dusk fell. But that was all; they were alone in a chivalric world where knights roamed on majestic steeds, veils and flags fluttered stiffly in the breeze, fires burned brightly, skies shone an azure blue and everything was intense and jewel-like, uncomplicated by the demands of accurate perspective or three dimensions.
At ten, precisely, Oscar sat back and closed the text. 'We must finish, Ellie.'
'Can't we just read on a little?' She frowned at the surprising proximity of the library, its gloom.
'Ellie, you might not appreciate the lateness of the hour – you know I cannot continue, or I'll be late for the frogs. Next time, perhaps, we can read on.'
Ellie had her hand on the book. 'But could I – I could continue at home; I could take out a loan and read it myself.'
'I'm not sure that's wise. It's just as I always say, Ellie – you might lose it. Or damage it, perhaps.'
'No – I wouldn't. I'd take good care of it.'
'Even so, we've managed perfectly well up until now with the existing arrangement.' He pulled the library keys from his pocket and selected one with care, giving the process enough of his attention to prevent him having to look at her.
'But I wasn't even eight years old when we started reading together – it's been twelve years and, well, I'm ... I'm grown up now. It's not the same. I can take care of a book, can't I?'
Oscar picked up the ledger and the box of readers' tickets and locked them in one of the wooden cupboards behind them.
'Quite possibly. That may be so. But, still, a loan seems unnecessary.' He regretted that he had given her the choice of such a text, knew with absolute certainty that she could not be allowed to read the Dante alone. He came back to the desk and took the book from her. 'I believe I'll replace it in the stacks for another time – or another reader.'
'But no one else will ever want to read La Vita Nuova – not in Marlford. You know that.'
It sounded like praise. But Oscar just sniffed sharply and shook his head. 'Enough, Ellie. It's not for discussion. I'll be late.'
She conceded defeat. She had read enough already; she felt the bulge of the story in her head, as yet too new to be completely contained, a fresh bruise rising.
'You're probably right,' she said.
When Ellie stepped out onto Victoria Street she felt a momentary queasiness. The dark was not yet steady below the streetlights and, across from the library, the bank appeared to shift within its shadows. Shop windows rippled unreliable reflections. At the top of the village, she could just make out the statue of her grandfather, Braithwaite Barton, rising from the clipped gardens around the Assembly Rooms. In the dusk, his expression was ambiguous.
She turned her back on him and walked with Oscar down towards the almshouses, where the ground was firmer, the road and pavements even. The village was little more than a single street which looped with a final flourish around a circular stone fountain. The nymph at its centre, untroubled by nightfall, poured water with unerring precision into a basin of blue tiles; short terraces splayed away briefly on either side, a few cottages grudgingly suggesting some kind of suburbia. Beyond the houses, wasteland fell away and disappeared into the dark; beyond that, abruptly, was the flare of the chemical works, illuminated with intimidating brilliance, consuming itself in piles of white light, flames spurting from sheer chimneys.
They skirted the unnatural brightness, following a narrow path that edged along the side of the almshouses, leading through a kissing gate that marked the boundary to the estate. They cut across to the drive, a stately avenue of overgrown lime trees, the scents of the day still trapped in the heavy dusk under the canopy. They did not speak. Ellie felt the evening only loosely. She suspected that Oscar might be angry with her: he seemed stiff and preoccupied; there was something demanding about his gaunt profile. He approached the manor steadily, as if it were a trial of some kind, his rigidity either an accusation against her or a defence. She did not know which. She feared that the men had been talking about her again, but she did not dare ask.
She put the thought aside, too old and frayed, conjuring instead the evening's poems, skipping to their rhythm, kicking through leaves, drifted husks and fallen blossom. In the settled quiet, her steps seemed loud, as though echoing back from the polished surface of the mere, which could be seen here and there slicing through the foliage to their side. Her youthful movement was extravagant; it yanked at the dense fabric of summer growth, tugging at the marshy air, dragging the dappled dark, seeds and burrs, the mushroom smell of the soil and centuries of trapped memories, into the uneven rise and fall of her stride.
But if he felt any of this, Oscar showed no sign of it. He paused. 'Well. Good night, Ellie.'
She checked and held out her gloved hand. It hovered, disembodied, the start of a magic trick.
Oscar touched her fingers, bowing over them as he always did, an old-fashioned habit. 'Perhaps we have worked too hard.' He studied her for a moment. 'You should rest.'
But she hardly heard him. She glanced behind, to the familiar, wide façade of the manor house, a mottled backdrop of greying stone, and she felt for a moment that she held all kinds of possibilities poised in the iridescence of her imagination, like a raindrop on a holly leaf.
He did not know what else to say. He bowed again, slightly, and went away.
It was some time before Ellie pulled herself back, feeling her skin thicken, her weight returning to anchor her, a momentary chill. She went quickly then, forcing herself to inhabit the place. But, in the avenue behind her, she knew, another girl remained, not quite out of reach, leading some other life.CHAPTER 2
Shortly after the death of Ellie's mother, much of the manor had been closed up, the long corridor on the first floor blocked off, the servants' quarters and back kitchens abandoned. The doors on the far side of the magnificent square hallway were locked and, in one case, barricaded with old furniture. The wing that remained open consisted of a breakfast room, a large study and, adjacent, a small, windowless den in which there was nothing except a billiard table, its baize faded. A dining room poked out beyond the breakfast room, an incongruous Victorian extension with fine windows affording views across the gardens and park, towards the mere. There was also a reasonably modern kitchen and scullery, packed with Formica cupboards in an unappealing shade of olive green, reached by a short corridor leading directly from the hallway; two bedrooms perched above.
Despite the closures, there remained a luxurious amount of space: high ceilings, wide passages, generous perspectives. What they were left with felt in no way meagre; in fact, Ellie often had the impression that their rooms were somehow stretching, expanding, their proportions growing even more voluptuous, she and her father shrinking more and more within them. Sitting at breakfast the next morning, she had the momentary sense of the building pitching away from her, bucking and groaning like an enormous old sailing ship in a storm.
Ernest Barton did not seem to notice her unease. He was grumpy. 'I heard the frogs.' He buttered his toast with precision.
Ellie did not look up. She poured her tea very carefully, blowing across the top of the chipped cup to cool it.
Her father tried complaining again. 'After ten thirty, I should not hear the frogs.'
She said nothing.
'And I heard them twice, Ellie, perhaps three times. Like damn banshees wailing in the park. I couldn't sleep, not a wink, not after that.'
It was mournful as much as angry, the unconvincing bluster of a cracked bell. She continued to ignore it, as she always did.
He began on his toast, frowned at the crust and ate around it. Then he looked at her with such solicitousness that the butter dripping from his lips might have been the thick fall of tears.
'Did you sleep? Ellie? Did you hear them? You look pale.'
'No, Papa, I didn't hear them.'
'Are you sure? I can't believe that.' He shook his head, as though it were all incomprehensible. 'It was a racket, all night.'
'It seemed perfectly quiet to me. I didn't hear anything. I presumed Mr Quersley was on duty.'
'Well, yes, exactly – he should have been. That's my point. I shouldn't have heard the frogs at all. Not once.'
He dropped his hands to the table. He had a way of looking at her, as though he could not see her properly, as though she were far away from him, too far, slipping into the distance; as though this might be the last glance he ever had of her.
She braced against it. 'Perhaps you were mistaken, Papa.'
Disappointment tightened in his face. 'I was not mistaken. I know the sound of a frog when I hear one. And it cannot be too much to ask, too simple a thing to —'
'It was a warm night.'
'Well, really, Ellie – when it comes to stating the obvious ... Of course it was a warm night! Hence, I had all the casements open in my bedroom; hence the importance of Mr Quersley attending to his duties with at least a modicum of diligence.' He stared fiercely at the long breakfast-room window, as though it might have been in some way to blame for the nocturnal disturbance. 'I cannot conceive how it might be too difficult a task. All I'm asking for is a peaceful night. Ellie, really – it's the slightest of courtesies.'
Ellie looked at him steadily. He had been old for as long as she could remember – she supposed he had already been old when she was born – but he seemed gaunt now, haggard even, the bones of his face pushing through where the skin was wearing thin.
His unconcealed age irritated her.
'More tea, Papa? There's more tea, if you would like some.'
Her words grated, stone on stone.
'No, I do not want more tea, Ellie.'
'Very well. Then I'll clear the things.'
She collected their plates with perfect equanimity. Only when she picked up Ernest's knife did she pause in the rhythm of her work. The handle was still warm, her father's grasp retained in the yellowing bone, and she let it drop quickly, drawing back as though she had been stung. Then, without looking at him, she made a neat stack of dishes, balanced it across one arm, and slipped away.
Ernest waited for the men in his study, a room now completely without books, the shelves collapsing. He paced between the door and the narrow windows, the tattered length of his silk robe de chambre flapping around him, its jaded colours momentarily unequivocal again, jewel-like in the morning sun.
Excerpted from Marlford by Jacqueline Yallop. Copyright © 2014 Jacqueline Yallop. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Books Ltd.
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