The morning mist that was customary for a late October morning settled softly on the well-kept lawns of Chastleton House, dancing between the Marble statues of forgotten Gods and Kings. The Corinthian pillars, more at home on the Acropolis than in the South of England, sported their faultless render with a kind of Grecian lightness and grace, listening fixedly to the first whispers of sunlight through the broken clouds. As the stars took their final bows and retreated from the view of their mother flame, the view of the world became less rooted in fleeting shadows, as the vaulted sky painted the picture of dawn upon the canvas of deepest, darkest blue.
The house itself became immediately less ethereal, and as it faded into the gaining light of a midwinter’s morning, its features began to lose their immortality. The high Jacobean windows began to loose their secrets to the world, as one could only guess in the moments immediately preceding what wonders they guarded behind their stalwart, weathered panes. The steps leading to the Eastern Portico, which only moments before seemed able to bear the footsteps of Gods, were now quite plain, and led only to a set of tall wooden doors, locked tight to fend off against the dangers of a ruthless sun. The main hall, for that was the precinct that the wooden doors were responsible for guarding, had two wings branching from its North and South-facing edges, each housing innumerable rooms, studies, libraries, parlours and hallways. These wings were appropriately modelled on their forbear’s architecture, and were similarly adorned in lavish rendered carvings, elegant cut glass windows and the frozen faces of a lost age.
Below the wind-swept Grecian friezes and towering walls sat a sliver of the Gothic. A stunted but incredibly long room sat stubbornly at the base of the Northern wing, cutting awkwardly into the otherwise beautifully maintained façade. Its detailing was of dark, knotted wood and delicate glass, its eventual effect being one of consummate menace. This was the study of Dr. Lesley Rendall, headmaster of Chastleton House.
The study’s interior was decorated in much the same fashion as its exterior. The walls were covered in carved wooden panels from floor to ceiling, each producing shapes and sightless demons that haunted, concealed, bargained and deceived. Visions of torture, death and demonic debauchery were depicted with vivid frankness on the few paintings hung in deliberate prominence around the otherwise sparsely populated room. It was into this space that Dennis Bainbridge was summoned every morning for an entire academic year. He was head boy, and was thusly obliged to spar with the headmaster on a regular basis, far beyond the normal demands of social intercourse between pupil and master. The record player in the corner of the room, perched upon an antique marble side table, was producing an elegant emotional echo of an Italian romantic aria, fashioned lovingly by a composer now long dead.
On the headmaster’s beautifully carved Oak desk, leaning against a pile of First Edition Dickens’, was Bainbridge’s hip flask. It was a humble sterling affair that bore the Bainbridge arms and the Latin inscription ‘Vires in Veritate’, and contained a modest tumblers worth of Lamb’s Navy Rum. Dr. Rendall, dressed in his three-piece tweed, and sporting a beard as carefully managed as the lawns outside his study window, sat in his green leather chair, examining through his tortoiseshell glasses a withered but incredibly large copy of Milton. He was halfway through savouring a Habana Punch, sending plumes of quicksilver smoke to their airy freedoms in the warm, stale air of the poorly ventilated study.
As a headmaster, he was rather unremarkable in most respects. Although he was not a cruel man, he was subject to outbursts of unjustified rage, that were not uncommonly tempered by a few swigs of vintage port, that he kept religiously stuffed inside the jetted pocket of his blazer, the flaps of which, in accordance with endangered tradition, he always kept tucked when indoors. However the man was a staunch academic, and had been a reputed athlete in his day. At Oxford, he had also been a member of the infamous Viceroys, where he had been appointed the moniker ‘Madras’, which remained with him all his life, well into his days at the East India, where he maintained an active membership.
The headmaster saw the boys eyes flit between the flask and the record player, as though they were two vestiges of his life beyond that room, each vying for his attention. Being a man of prudent academic nature, and possessing a fondness for music, the headmaster resolved to turn his attention to the sounds rather than the sights of the stirring room.
“This is my favourite aria, you know” said Rendall, laboriously closing the substantial volume of Milton and setting it to rest on the edge of the large desk that dominated the room. Bainbridge sat in silence. “It tells the story of a young Parisian girl, Mimi, who one night has a run in with a poet, Rodolfo. They’re in the hallway when their candles blow out, and they hold hands, beginning one of the greatest love stories of romantic Opera”. He tapped the ash from the end of his cigar with practiced nonchalance into the beautiful crystal tray on the corner of the desk. He inhaled a deep yet stunted breath, evidencing in an efficient singular motion his lifelong habitual love of tobacco. “It always makes me think you know, sometimes it’s in the darkest of places that we find our greatest loves.”
The headmaster ran his fingers along the crest of his leather blotter as he said this, and when he’d finished, lay his glasses on the desk, and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I just don’t know. These boys, Bainbridge” He gestured with his hand towards the dormitories up above his head “They’re lost, and that’s the truth of it. Twenty-seven years I’ve run this place, it’s stood as a school for three hundred more, two hundred as a house before that. For all my years, I’ve produced young men of quality, and now it looks like this lot will be leaving still as boys.” He gestured again, as though in despair. “I just can’t bear to watch it all collapse”.
The boy, approaching his eighteenth birthday, looked down in solemn reflection. He thought of his friends, and their recent unsavoury encounters with the School’s policies on alcohol and cigarettes. The latest flourishes in the now exponentially growing problem of slipping morals.
“Mind you” resumed the headmaster “this new award from the Duke of Edinburgh is an absolute Godsend. We’re sending out our first practice expedition tomorrow morning.”
“Do you believe in the Six Declines, Sir?” It was the first question that Dennis could muster the wherewithal to ask that morning. Usually the daily meetings consisted of Bainbridge indulging the headmaster’s academic musings for an hour, pretending to listen, and nodding at appropriate intervals.
“I believe that there is a problem, the specifics of which I am not inclined to dispute, but what I can get behind is what’s in front of me, here.” He produced an opened letter from under a pile of other papers and waved it lightly to illustrate his point. Bainbridge noticed the insignia of the Duke on the torn leaf of the envelope. “This, Bainbridge, this initiative is what will start the recovery. A country without war is a beautiful thing, until the youth grow complacent in their tepid peacetime revelries.” He shot a glance at the magnificent Grandfather clock at the other end of the study “Good grief Bainbridge, ever at my back I hear, and all that – let’s to Chapel”
The two rose, buttoning their blazers, the old man’s golden East India Club buttons glinting playfully in the light being cast by the room’s central chandelier. After moving toward the door and lumbering the ancient wooden block across its hinges, Rendall sighed and cast back a mournful look into his study, strode across its carpet, and removed the needle from the record that he had forgotten was playing.
The boundaries of the Carmentian woods, the only woodland project exacted to completion by the Earl of Chastleton a few centuries before, were made more imposing by the regiments of nettles that now curtailed its immediate beauty. Towering deciduous natives, black of bark and bearing deep green leaves, heralded the entrance to an entirely ethereal realm – one that hadn’t known the wistful scent of rose or the jubilant buzzing of a bee in many lifetimes. The dense canopy of the woods, for the most part, policed too rigorously the sun’s rays, and so the forest floor lay bare, adorned only with long-dead leaves and the branches of trees cast down in some great storm of the past.
As he made his way across the lawns of the House and towards the wilderness of the grounds, Dennis re-read the letter that had awaited him upon his return from Rendall’s study. It struck him that the hand seemed more rushed than normal. Fiona had sent him love letters, and he had returned the sentiment, but always with careful, considered handwriting. The two had exchanged words meant only for the mouths and ears of life-long lovers, and in their short but passionate time together, they had discovered themselves, truly and completely, for the first time. He remembered their first meeting, in the Michaelmas term of the same year. They had met at a Village fete, and arranged to meet that evening. He recalled the blissful memory. In his mind’s eye, he saw her at the foot of a particularly proud Sycamore. She was breathtaking in the tremulous light of a midwinter’s moon: long blonde hair that danced in seductive twists before falling softly over her shoulders, a modest dress that mirrored the blackness of the sky above, eyes deep and green, playing eager host to the wild fantasies of the suffocating darkness, and pale silken skin that quietly shone with Hellenic purity. Indeed, everything about her slight, supple frame seemed entirely devoid of malice, formed in the eye of a loving artist, etched into history by the masterful labour of a thousand chisel strokes. In that moment, held in a rapturous trance by her beauty, he couldn’t remember ever being happier. The flowers beside her delicate legs bowed their brilliant heads in deference to her beauty. And as he approached, the shadows lifted their veil, and the deified silhouette became real, revealing her features in a fresh display of reverent loveliness. The soul beneath her body, lovelier still, made itself known in the delicate gaze that she now fixed on him through eyes unmarred by sorrow or pain. Her presence, her touch, her melodic voice was to him a wild, passionate harmony of being that gripped his universe in an ecstasy of desire.
The fantasy was broken by a shuffling in the bushes beside the forest path he had taken to their rendezvous. He dismissed the startling snap of branches as the scuffling of a fox. When he finally reached the meeting spot beside a crumbling stone Grotto, she stood beneath the gentle flame of an ancient lamp, and he saw fear in the eyes that he had grown to idolise. Her shoes were scuffed and dulled by the long walk from Lillingstone, and her hair was unkempt, throwing off wild strands into the whispering moonlight. After a short embrace, she shrank from his touch like a withering flower. Her mouth was dry as she brought up the words from her chest. Their medium was flawed, and thus their message decayed and wretched. Her nervousness was certainly apparent, even obvious. She fidgeted, her hands barely being able to keep hold of an ear lobe, an earring, a thread, a pocket, a lock of hair, for longer than a moment. After what seemed an age, she summoned the words that had eluded her tongue for days:
“Dennis” she began, as a tear erupted from the corner of her eye. But she did not continue. She brought a quivering hand to her stomach, and in a gentle stroke and lingering, maternal touch, he knew.
There was a long, sterile silence. Dennis rebalanced himself as though he were about to fall. His body quickly numbed as the trees swayed listlessly in the vanishing midnight wind. The ruinous strokes of time’s hammer fell cruelly on his head, their echo rallying in his brain like the stamping of a proud stallion. And as he realized his world, in its grand formality, was subsiding beneath the weight of his actions, he caught his breath on an offbeat, shocking his lungs into a frenzied spasm of noise. He stumbled toward her in a daze, and brought up a crooked, sinister arm that had been forged into being by hundreds of hours of rowing, rugby and sailing. The anvil devoid of emotion. The hammer charged with expectation. His callous grip clasped her cheeks and wrenched them close, as his face contorted into a twisted, perverse nightmare of gaunt fear. His other arm made a reach for hers, and caught a limp, pale wrist.
“No one would believe you” he snarled, “In fact, I don’t think I do. Who are you going to run to? That senile old fucking crone? You think she can help you?” He tightened his hold yet further “You’re just a shitty little peasant. And you are trespassing” he tore her eyes away from his and pressed his lips into her ear. Every word travelled into her conscience like a visceral drumbeat. He finished his display with a mandate told through quivering, gnashing teeth “Don’t. You. Fucking. Dare. Come here. Ever.” He spat each syllable, spots of spittle accompanying each of them, landing in her ear, burning hot. She writhed beneath his grip, digging her nails into his wrist to draw whatever blood she could, and as the two conjoined in a moment of pure hatred, the creatures of night continued to toot and hoot and buzz and creak with a practiced nonchalance all of their own.
Bainbridge threw her to the forest floor, and as she collapsed in resignation, the impatient colt inside his mind continued to stamp, and stamp, and stamp. He obeyed its primal urge, and ran. Trying to escape the woods and reach the vengeful hills in the less landscaped portion of the House’s grounds. Her protests and implorations faded, and faded, and became indistinct, merging with the sounds of the sleeping Forest, that now seemed to awaken as he stumbled and sprinted through its eerie hallways. His blood coursed as boiling water in his veins, his breath became laboured and riddled with sorrowful gasps of infantile despair. He came to an eventual stop beside a still stream, and collapsed on its bank, his heart now anchored irrevocably to a ruptured soul.
“Come on, Ponsonby!” The harsh cry of the expedition leader broke the peaceful din of the frosty morning. The rotund boy at the rear of the contingent quickened his pace to catch up to the other boys. The unforgiving route was a gruelling hike around the perimeter of the Chastleton grounds, circling and then returning by way of a winding forest path to the main House.
The boys had set out at dawn, and were now looking for a suitable spot to take their eleven o’clock halt and rest.
“Wait! Wait!” The cry broke out from the chubby boy, who had just that morning been branded with the nickname “Squatter”, owing to his rather inconveniently timed requirement for a visit to the lavatory. A visit to the undergrowth, where some of the boys had gone to find suitable walking sticks, and subsequently spotted him in a questionable pose, had given rise to the name that would no doubt cling to him, like an unwelcome rash, even beyond his mortal coil.
“Warbs! Squatter needs another visit to the bog!” Screamed one of the boys, in a tone typical of the back-and-forth, erudite banter that formed a sizeable proportion of schoolboy humour
“Another?! Don’t tell me he’s nabbed all the Tunnock’s? The cheeky bugger!” countered the other boy, shrugging his bag to re-adjust its weight on his shoulders.
“Boys!” The expedition leader interrupted “If we don’t reach the house by 4:00 o’clock, we may as well just–”
“Wait!” Screamed Ponsonby once more, this time with a force that was enough to brew concern in the older boys. They turned and saw Ponsonby, a boy of no more than fourteen, kneeling at the foot of a tree, looking up at a hanging corpse. The entire expedition of seven boys ran to the scene.
The girl looked young. Too young for this fate. Her body hung limply at the end of a damp, moss-riddled rope that she had tied crudely around a branch which had slumped upon impact, no doubt softening the fall and thus failing to break the neck. It had been a slow passing. Her neck was bloated and concealed what were once a slender pair of shoulders, her tongue poked out through a blackened and congealed pair of lips that still sported their lipstick, hurriedly applied for some occasion the night before.
“My God.” Spluttered one of the tall older boys “H-help me get her down… Calvert and Warburton, go and fetch a Master. Now.” The two thirteen year old boys, unable to wrench their gaze from the dead girl, received a sharp blow to the back of the head from the older boy. “Go!” he shouted, and as they ran toward the house, he returned his eyes to the task.
The main dining hall was a room full of unutterable contradictions. Owing to the high amount of traffic it sustained, its former glory was now but a distant memory, verging on the mythological. The windows were warped and had endured the impossible brunt of two hundred years’ worth of schoolboy food fights. Homeless stains dotted the white-washed walls, that covered spaces designed to be filled with portraits, pastoral landscapes and gold leaf detailing.
Bainbridge walked through from the Kitchen, pulled the dining chair out from under its resting place beneath the heavy oak dining table, and sat down, opposite his two closest friends: Tristan Bentley, the young and remarkably handsome son of a wealthy tobacco magnate based out of Eastern Africa, where he was able to keep a string of polo ponies and a slew of broken-hearted young women funnelling in and out of his cornered-off section of that arid land. And Hamish Robinson, an Academic Scholar from Northern Scotland, where his Father’s estate provided plenty of land to practice his batting skills, which he regularly called upon in his spot on the 1st IX side for Chastleton.
As Bainbridge sat and set to work on his bowl of Tomato soup, Tristan and Hamish exchanged a puzzled glance, and as they waited for their friend to finish scooping his spoon into his mouth and meet their gaze, the silence mounted, and became the trigger for Hamish’s outburst:
“Good grief, Bains you must have heard” said Robinson, with an imperviously facetious inflection
“Heard what?” replied Bainbridge with a mouthful of scalding hot soup, his vowels drowned in the boiling red liquid.
“The girl from the village, Fiona, She was found by the DofE expedition this morning. She hanged herself”
“Fiona?” interjected Tristan, inadvertently distracting Hamish’s eye contact with Bainbridge long enough for the latter to conceal his sudden start of fear. Tristan leant back and pushed the front two legs of his chair off the ground in doing so. Teetering to flaunt his gifted sense of balance, he continued “Isn’t that the girl who was serving drinks at Speech Day?” There was a momentary pause before his eyes lit up in remembrance and he continued “It was!” He shook his head in whimsical nostalgia “One of my first little projects at Chastleton, that one!”
“Well, I think that’s case closed as to the cause” Bainbridge joked, recovering as the blood returned to his face “Well done, Tris, you’ve finally got your Juliet” said Bainbridge, unable to conceal the relief in his voice, as he sighed and took a long, satisfying draw on his hip flask.
“Shame we don’t have a friar here, that would make quite the dinner story!” Said Tristan, sipping at his Peppermint Tea and shooting a sharp eye at the two others in playful jest
“Oh, bugger that, she probably just got a rampant case of clap from you!” Shouted Robinson, causing a good deal of the dining room to turn their attention to the three older boys.
“Hilarious. You’re just jealous of my folio, young Robinson!” Retorted Tristan, wagging a petulant finger at the Cricket player.
The trio continued to eat their lunch. Dressed in tailored pinstripe suits. They discussed what they usually did – the news from London, the approaching Housemaster’s assembly, Tristan’s most recent romantic engagements, Hamish’s cricket, Bainbridge’s amusing anecdotes from the Headmaster’s meeting that morning, and their future careers, their applications to Oxford and the Clubs. And as they discussed, debated, joked, jibed, smiled, laughed, scowled, guffawed, raised and lowered the level of table they looked for all the world like young gentlemen, ready to face the world and its infinite tests.
‘Night Owl’ is a short story by Thomas A. C. Colebrooke.