The fairy-like Stella Deverell is a girl of many gifts. Not only can she vanish into thin in air, she can turn rocks into gold and predict the future, including the deaths of several inhabitants of the village of Pickering, who are all plucked off cliffs by the wind, close to where her own father committed suicide.
Meanwhile, why does the mysterious Mr. Usher, who lives in the manor on a steep hill where Stella once lived, avoid all contact with the villagers? And why did many of the previous inhabitants, including her own mother, throw themselves off the hill when the wind was at its height?
Twist and Hurst investigate the apparent miracles, past and present, and reach an astonishing conclusion.
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Read an Excerpt
A transparent silhouette
A gust of wind blew Mark Reeder's hat off as he entered The Black Swan in Pickering, a small coastal village in Somerset. He looked quickly around to his left, to his right, and even up in the direction of the squeaking inn sign, where the black palmiped appeared to be mocking him. He shrugged his shoulders. Turning round, he was able to locate the source of his torment, which had already travelled some distance and was showing no signs of slowing down, barrelling along the high street at great speed.
The red-headed young man, athletic and of medium build, sprinted after it. It was pure reflex, for the effort far exceeded the importance he attached to the headpiece. And pointless to boot, for he had completely lost sight of it since it had turned down a side street. He now appeared to be running after an invisible object, and the local inhabitants he passed on the way doubtless thought he was mad.
After a few minutes of futile chase, he stopped, breathless, then retraced his steps, telling himself that things hadn't turned out so badly after all. Normally, when he took a trip — he had just come from London — something serious went wrong: mechanical breakdown, or turning back for papers he had forgotten to bring. All that had happened this time is he had lost a hat he hadn't particularly cared for. Fate must be smiling on him, for once. But it obviously couldn't last.
Making his way back through the narrow streets, he was amazed at the distance he had run in such a short time. He was obliged to stop at several intersections, because all the houses and gardens looked the same, but nevertheless found his way back to The Black Swan in less than ten minutes. The imposing half-timbered structure was separated from a vegetable garden by a wide grass path, which is where he had parked his elegant Delage convertible. Looking around, he told himself that Pickering was not much different from dozens of other picturesque English villages, with their pretty rustic cottages.
That was when he saw her....
She couldn't have been more than twenty. She was standing next to his car, twisting his hat around nervously in her hands. Tall and slender, she was wearing a white cotton dress with a wide belt which accentuated her sylph-like waist. Her pale, delicate face was partly hidden by long, blonde, wind-blown locks. Everything about her was soft and gentle, which he first attributed to the distance between them, but which — curiously — did not diminish as he approached her, his heart in his mouth. His emotions were such that he could not recall later exactly what was said in their brief conversation. He could only remember her explanations.
On her way to the inn, the young woman had gathered up a brown felt hat which was rolling along the pavement. Then, noticing Mark's car, which she had never before seen in Pickering, she wondered whether the two objects had a common owner. Mark stammered that it was in fact the case, thanked her profusely, and withdrew to the inn, blushing with confusion.
His hat under his arm, he took a table at the rear of the dining room.
At that hour, mid-morning, the number of customers could be counted on the fingers of one hand. It was a very large room, darkened by oak panelling and thick beams supporting the low ceiling. By contrast, the light from the wide bay window was almost blinding, like a hole in the darkness, throwing reflections from the highly-polished copper fittings over the bar.
But Mark paid little attention to such details. The image of the ravishing creature remained imprinted in his mind, albeit imprecisely, as if seen through a misty window. Realising that he didn't even know her name, he kicked himself for his gawkish, adolescent behaviour — all the more inexcusable because Mark Reeder himself was a journalist.
At that moment, a man sitting not far from him came over and, introducing himself as Charles Trent, asked Mark if he would join him in a drink.
At first sight, the man had a certain class, with his proud bearing and his long, carefully groomed grey hair matching his grey jacket. His long, aristocratic nose and regular features completed the picture. But a closer inspection revealed that his hands were shaking slightly, there were tiny veins in his nose and cheeks, and his clothes — although originally of good quality — were threadbare. His breath betrayed him as a regular customer of the establishment.
Nevertheless, Mark didn't refuse, and Trent was soon seated opposite him with a pint of beer for each of them, observing that it was indeed a windy day.
'It must be the sea air,' said Mark, turning towards the bay window.
'I haven't seen any water yet, but I know from the map that we're not far from the coast.'
'That's right. There's even a small port in Pickering, although it's not directly adjacent to the village. But there's not normally as much wind as today. We're sheltered by a hill, which seems to attract all the breezes.'
Trent emptied half his glass and smiled:
'I'm exaggerating. But there is a spot up there where the wind blows all the time, even in calm weather. Which didn't prevent someone from building a manor there. But I digress ... What brings you here, my dear sir?'
After a short hesitation, Mark, his eyes still fixed on the bay window, replied:
'I beg your pardon?'
'Yes, I love clouds. To excess, even. I could spend hours watching them. In a sense, that's what brought me to Pickering.'
'Are you an artist?'
'No, I'm a journalist, but my editor often says I've got my head in the clouds.' Taking his glass in both hands, he added:
'And he's right. I'm hopelessly absent-minded. Not a day goes by without me forgetting my car keys, my papers, a letter, or who-knows-what else. The other day, I couldn't find an article which was due to go to the printers. My editor told me to quit ... or to take my annual leave and come back with a sensational article.'
His companion took another swig of beer and nodded understandingly:
'What did you do?'
'I packed my bags, jumped in my car, and followed the clouds. I stopped here because the map said the sea was nearby.'
'So you're planning to stay here?'
'For three weeks.'
'Well, welcome! This calls for a celebration. A refill? But I'm afraid Pickering might not be the best spot for a sensational article on anything, given that nothing ever happens here. Nothing,' he repeated glumly ... 'Why do you keep staring at that chair? Because of the hat?'
'Yes,' admitted Mark. 'My hat, which I shall guard carefully from now on, because it's what introduced me to the most exquisite creature I've ever seen. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask her name.'
So saying, Mark went over to the bar and brought back two refills.
'I might be able to help,' said his new-found friend. 'Try me.'
Mark had hardly begun his description when Trent interrupted him:
'No need to go on. It must be little Stella, the daughter of the late lamented John Deverell.'
'D-do you know her?'
'Of course. John was a friend, a regular here. He was an artist.
Unfortunately, he died two years ago. How time flies!'
His companion shook his head sadly:
'No, he committed suicide. He was ruined, despite the fact that he'd inherited a thriving business near the Welsh border. But John was no businessman. As I said, he was an artist. The death of his wife at a very young age didn't help. Little by little his business collapsed and he was obliged to sell off his assets. But not for the world did he want to be separated from his beloved manor, which is probably why he chose to end his life.'
'Is that the manor you were talking about, where the wind always blows?'
'Yes, that's where John lived. He was a bit strange, it must be said, but he was a real brick, who never forgot his friends when they were in need. God rest his soul....'
He raised his glass in silence and took a large sip.
'It was a terrible shock for everyone,' he continued, with a tear in his eye. 'But above all for his little girl. In fact, all he left her were debts. She was twenty, and hadn't yet found her wings. It was her godmother who took her in, Miss Patience Walsh, a second-cousin on her mother's side. A single schoolteacher who loved the violin but lacked the virtuosity to play professionally. If you want to see Stella again, that's where you should go.'
'And where would that be located?'
'The last cottage on the north end of the high street.'
Mark nodded in appreciation.
'Not that she's unhappy,' continued Charles Trent. 'She's carefree by nature ... to the point I have to ask myself questions,' he concluded, frowning.
'What do you mean?'
The other ran his fingers through his hair in a sign of embarrassment:
'What I'm trying to say is that Stella seems to be living above her means. Not a life of luxury, but fairly extravagantly nonetheless.'
'Do you mean her godmother is too generous?'
'I don't think she can afford it. But it's just my opinion, and Stella is a bit special anyway, not like the others.'
Mark nodded dreamily:
'Not like the other girls ... I agree! I only saw her briefly but everything about her seemed soft and gentle ... and vague.'
'Like those clouds you love so much?' teased Trent.
'I know, my judgment was clouded by my emotion. Nevertheless, my impression is of an unreal, transparent, creature.'
Trent nodded and added smilingly:
'You never spoke a truer word. Sometimes Stella does become transparent.'
Mark stared questioningly at his companion, who, despite beginning to look under the weather, still appeared to be lucid.
Just at that moment, the wind whistled against the bay window, causing Mark to turn and observe:
'Transparent ... as transparent as glass?' Still smiling, Trent agreed:
'In a manner of speaking, yes. For she sometimes disappears suddenly, as if carried away by the wind.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Man Who Loved Clouds"
Copyright © 2006 Paul Halter.
Excerpted by permission of Locked Room International.
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