Monday, February 11, 2013

Wuthering Nights (One)

Chapter One
Hareton Hall
From the notes of Mr Tom Bennett (lawyer) and visitor to Hampstead Heath, London, Present Day
    When I saw the house in the fragile light, I could barely make out the lines of gothic architecture in the morning mist. I’d heard whispers about the strangeness of the place. I was told that I risked my life going there; that the owner brandished a gun and roamed the heath looking for his lost love. Music and chatter, laughter and screams could be heard miles away in the night. Neighbours said the lovers who’d inhabited Hareton Hall lived there still, as young and beautiful as they ever were; haunted.
     The family, the Spencers, originated in Yorkshire and could trace their lineage back a thousand years. Their secrets wove through history and time and family portraits. I held in my hand a photograph of Mr Spencer, an aristocrat with an interest in archaeology, returning from a trip to Spain with a small child. Among other documents, there was a photograph of the entire family, arriving to greet Mr Spencer and his newly adopted son at the airport. The family were generationally wealthy. Mr Spencer had an interest in Botany. According to my documents, he kept to himself and his study. Within the file, I also retained the marriage notice of the daughter, Kate. This was long before the family feud that had ignited decades of dispute.
    In the picture was a beautiful mother with ink black curls. The older teenage boy, Harrison, had a scowl on his face and headphones on his ears. He appeared tuned out from the proceedings. The girl, her dark curls tied with an unruly red ribbon, revealed an adorable cherub face. Aged six, she peeked out from behind her mother and stole the picture. It was this child’s face I remembered long after I’d set the image aside.
    As I walked along the winding road that led from Hampstead Heath towards Hareton Hall, I passed another magnificent home, The Grange. This was a Georgian mansion hidden behind a maze of orange trees as opposed to The Hall where photographs showed gargoyles at its entrance. The signatures I was required to collect involved the ownership of both properties. 
    I’d been advised not to try to park along the icy road that connected the houses on opposite sides of the heath. Instead, I’d driven to a spot along the frosty lane which meant I had to walk the rest of the way in the rain. Late afternoon seemed to be losing light but then all the days were dark now as London turned rapidly into winter. It was not a good time to walk about the borough. A man had recently gone missing and was yet to be found. As I was surrounded by street crime in my first position as junior solicitor at a criminal law firm, I was not perturbed. 
     I pushed the family photograph, covered in plastic, deep inside my briefcase along with some handwritten journals kept by Kate Spencer, the only daughter of the house, and one by the housekeeper, Greta Gardner. Greta’s journal contained a collection of various yearly expenses with some alarming family details written in the margins. Both contained valuable information entrusted to me. I noticed The Grange to my right, a well-kept home, built not far from a local landmark, Kenwood House. The Grange held some of the allure, yet I suspected hosted none of the secrets, of Hareton Hall. 
     The history of the Spencer family haunted me as I walked. I remembered words and snippets from the bizarre journals. For example, Heath was described as, “a pale little boy with sharp milk teeth!” This journal scribble was mixed with the photographs I resolved to return to their rightful owner. As I rounded the corner, I was almost as keen to talk to Greta Gardner, the housekeeper and keeper of secrets, as I was to speak with the owner of The Hall. 
     The heath was silent and stark in bare winter.  
     I’d visited during summer as a child but never with such purpose in my step. To my right and to my great relief, I saw the entrance to a pub. I’d been there with my family once, just after I’d graduated from university. I decided to warm myself and ask for directions.  
The Horse and Ale used to serve delicious roast dinners and hot toddies. I hoped it hadn’t changed too much in the intervening years.
    I settled in front of the fire, grateful for the familiarity as I drank my hot, strong mulled wine. When the waiter asked me if I needed anything extra, I asked him for directions to Hareton Hall.
   ‘Who wants to know?’ The low, gruff voice of a man, perhaps in his thirties, spoke to me from behind one of the many sofas. He had a plate of what appeared to be lamb, dipped in gravy and a large pint of dark ale in his hand. His dog lay lovingly, sleeping at his feet, apparently unbothered by the smell of roasted meat. 
   ‘Ah, I do.’
   ‘Really? And who might you be?’
   To say he was unfriendly would be an understatement.
   ‘I’m…well, who are you?’
    He almost laughed.
   ‘I asked you first.’
   ‘I’m Tom Bennett, the junior partner from Bennett & Sons. I have an appointment at Hareton Hall.’
  ‘To see the owner?’
  ‘Yes, and…who might you be?’
  ‘I am the owner.’
   He didn’t smile. He rose slowly. For a youngish man, he seemed to carry the weight of the world on his broad shoulders. He looked like a hard partying insomniac. I offered him my hand and he took it obligingly. If I was trained to comment on such things, which I suppose I am, I’d say he was tall and fairly handsome. The air of sleeplessness hung over him like a cloud. He was polite yet unfriendly; he did not smile. He was unshaven; his dark shirt was unironed but expensive. He stared at me coldly.
     The publican scurried off to some far flung corner of the establishment. One of the lights overhead flickered as the man moved closer to me. He picked up an implement from the fireside and stoked the flame.
    I took another sip of my drink and waited for him to speak.
    ‘Well then, it’s me you’ve come to see. Place is empty, except for my housekeeper Greta, a few horses in the stables and the dogs.
    ‘Perhaps I could come to Hareton Hall?’
    ‘What for?’
    ‘It would help if I sighted the property and it may be easier to talk there.’
    ‘I am busy this evening. If you had come earlier as arranged…
     ‘I was detained. It was further away from Hampstead than I expected.’
    ‘Even so…I don’t have visitors at night. I shall arrange for you to come tomorrow morning. Twenty minutes.’
    ‘It may take more than twenty minutes…’    
    The rain poured down overhead and with it the darkness of early winter. For once, I was glad as a young man, not to have to hurry back to a wife and family. 
    The man shrugged.
    ‘Well, it’s getting late. You can stay here tonight - for free; I own the pub. I’ll send my driver to get you at nine in the morning. We can finalize the matter then.’
    He smiled for the first time at the blonde, middle-aged woman who entered the room and moved softly behind the bar.
     ‘This is Greta; she used to be the housekeeper at Hareton Hall; raised me as a child; she’ll fill you in on the story.  Look after him Greta and see he gets a comfortable bed.’
   Greta looked at me warily.
    He whistled to his dog, a large amiable Labrador who obviously worshipped his master.
    The dog sat up and barked. I think his owner was used to people behaving in a similar manner.
     It turned out Greta had quite a tale to tell as she chatted to me by the fireside that evening. I asked her to identify her household journal and she was pleased to do so. I marked it as “Exhibit A” in my head; it was to be a wealth of information. I had the journal open on my knee as we talked. The Spencer crest hovered above us as Greta spoke in detail about the family she’d once served. Before I retired to bed, I could not resist writing down what she said as I did not want to forget what she told me. As I offered to pay for my drinks, I was more intrigued than ever about the legends of Hareton Hall and the fate of the Spencer children who lived there, more than thirty years ago…

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*Please note UK spelling and punctuation is used throughout Wuthering Nights!