Castle In The Clouds, Chapters 13 & 14 By Brian E Cross
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Rated "PG13" by the Author.
In the grounds of a ruined abbey, a clandestine meeting takes place between a renowned violinist and a gardner, but what does it signify?
Continuation of my completed story
Veronica left her room shortly after sunrise, quietly making her way down to the entrance hall where she found the main doorway bolted. She was about to draw the bolt back when she heard footsteps behind. 'Allow me Miss Veronica, it is a trifle stiff.' She watched the silver-haired figure of Hambleton emerge from the shadows, eyebrows raised as he drew back the bolt, 'You are an early riser this morning.'
Preferring to have left the castle unnoticed Veronica masked any embarrassment behind a smile. 'I habitually rise early Mr. Hambleton, normally I do not like to disturb the household but the gulls and the sea have enticed me into taking an early walk.' His fixed, quizzical smile as he opened the door seemed intended as encouragement to elaborate, but she said simply, 'Do you never sleep, Mr. Hambleton?'
'About as much as you, it seems Miss Veronica; do enjoy your walk -'
'Thank you, I shall -' she skipped down the castle slope with the distinct feeling that he hadn't closed the door, but it wouldn't matter if he had, with the views the castle afforded he could chart her course for some way if he had a mind to.
She knew now why Gibbings had chosen the priory, its vast ruins provided privacy even from the castle's all-seeing eyes – and now as she approached from a rough pathway running between the coarse grass, she'd no idea whether Gibbings would be there – whether in the cold light of day he'd backtrack on his decision. She'd broken some ice last evening but achieving it had been hard work.
Veronica climbed a low stone wall on the perimeter of the priory grounds and saw the figure lurking between the cloisters close to the monastery walls. The gloom produced by the brooding arches in the early light obscured its identity until Gibbings stepped forward, hands deep in the pockets of his trousers, shoulders hunched with the chill of the morning.
'Sunrise I said,' he called across. 'Sun's been up an hour or more.'
'Has it really?' She crossed her arms, stared him in the eye before scouring the heavens. 'I don't see much sun.'
'You're not funny Veronica,' Gibbings scowled, then pointing to the stone wall, 'and you climb like a boy – there's a gate the ladies use -'
She cocked her head at him, narrowed her eyes. 'If you knew me better, John Gibbings, you'd know how much of a lady I am – now then – you have something to tell me, such as what hold the dark witch of the castle has got over you.'
He turned away, 'I don’t know that I can say.'
'Oh yes you can,' she said, her voice raised above the cry of the gulls, then gently clasping his shoulder, 'I haven't made this journey to pay my respect to the departed monks.'
He shook his head, 'I don't know you well at all – and you seem different now to when you talk to the castle folk – I can't take no chances, if you tell Mr. Llewellyn -'
'If I tell him what?'
Gibbings gritted his teeth. 'One moment you're refined and posh like – the next you're kind of saucy. I'd like to know the real you before I say things -'
'John, this is the real me, the one you see before you now – the one the dark witch thinks is something of a flirt.'
'No – does she?'
Veronica laughed at his intrigued smile. 'She does, she told me so the last time I was here, warned me off practically.'
'But you came back; for Mr. Llewellyn?'
'Perhaps – who knows?' She skipped around him, her long dress swirling around her legs, then stopped; placing both hands on his shoulders she drew close and whispered in his ear, 'Or perhaps for you John Gibbings – after all, you are quite good looking and I am a flirt -'
She saw a flare in his eyes, resentment – he didn't know how to take her. She quickly withdrew her hands, thrusting them on her hips. 'Right, let's get serious, I'm here because I want to help, John – here in a windswept, deserted monastery at Lord knows what time in the morning, now please tell me.'
He led her through an archway, into a recess which housed a wooden bench. As they sat he said, 'I was caught in bed with a woman in the cottage I rent from Mr. Llewellyn.'
'Is that all?'
She saw the incredulity on his face and added, 'Well, sex is hardly a new concept.'
'You're mocking me,' he glared, 'I'm going – I'm not sitting here.'
'John, please stay -' her hand was on his arm, he pulled but she resisted. 'It's just that it hardly seems a crime -'
'Not to you, perhaps, but here – on this island – damn.'He sat back down, thrust his chin into the cup of his hand and met her eyes. 'Look, the dark witch as you call her walked in on us the day they bought the castle – she threw Rose out, called me a disgusting wretch and made it clear Mr. Llewellyn would dismiss me straight away if he knew about it – well he would, he's fair but he don't have time for things like that.'
'You mean immoral behaviour.'
Gibbings lowered his eyes, 'Aye.'
'So why didn't the dark witch just tell him and be done with it?'
Gibbings threw his hands in the air. 'She's a strange woman, she acts like she hates me but I reckon she's not that sure – she keeps giving me looks – as if she owns me. She started doing weird things like inspecting my hands, finding me jobs to do in her quarters that hardly needed doing, now she's getting randy like – she came into the cottage the night before last like she wanted sex – I had to force her away.' Gibbings thumped his fist into the palm of his hand, ' I nearly lost my temper – but it's getting to the point where if I don't do what she wants she'll push me that hard I'll have to get tough. And what happens then eh? I'll lose my job.'
Veronica leaned towards him. 'It sounds like a love - hate complex kind of a thing. If she'sattracted to you, why not give her what she wants, life might be easier for you.'
Gibbings' jaw clenched. 'I don't desire her, how could you suggest such a thing?'
'But she found you in bed with Rose, so she might be thinking, why not me? Is or was Rose special, John Gibbings?'
'Is that important?'
Veronica shook her head. 'Not to me, but I sense you have more to tell – no, no -' she raised her hand, 'we'll not dwell on that now, can you not find work elsewhere, is your job that important?'
'It's all I know, gardening, odd jobs – apart from manning the lifeboat of course, but I'm not happy at sea.'
Veronica lifted her brows, 'I would have thought -'
But Gibbings was on his feet, 'I've talked enough and I've work to do, besides Miss Llewellyn will be really mad if she knows I've been talking to you. Like I say there's nothing you can do – nothing anyone can do until the dark witch goes over the top and I get the sack.'
'I'm going to try to help you John,' Veronica said, extending her hand and grasping his. 'I won't pretend at the moment that I know how but I promise you I'm going to try.'
Gibbings nodded and went on his way. Veronica watched him go, his predicament under Dorothea's auspices was severe but she didn't understand why he had to endure it. Why was he so dependent on the job? There had to be something he could find, if not on the island then inland. But as long as he was in this position she'd vowed to help, and now making her way back to the castle she was hardly aware of the lashing rain.
How could she deal with Dorothea, solve Gibbings' problem and yet retain the respect of the household when Dorothea was hell bent on ruining that respect?
Veronica climbed the castle slope to find Dorothea waiting in the hall. 'Why Miss Day, you are drenched – what on earth possessed you to journey out in conditions such as these – and without so much as a coat?'
But it wasn't really a question, Dorothea knew there was more to it than a walk in the rain, the set of her sharp features told Veronica that.
'It really isn't a problem, Dorothea.' Veronica brushed Dorothea's shoulder, stopped a pace away from her, 'But I must get out of these wet clothes.' She swept her fingers across the top of her dress and rainwater swept into Dorothea's face. Dorothea squinted as it struck her eyes, coughed as she breathed in the droplets. Veronica placed her hand to her mouth, 'Oh I am so sorry, how careless of me – it is, as you say, very wet out there.'
Dorothea twitched with anger, her eyes wide, darker than ever. Veronica expected a lash from her hand but the movement was curtailed. 'Whatever you're plotting here Miss Day, it won't
work you know – you are foolish crossing swords with me. I always have my way – you will not be returning to the castle a third time, mark my words.'
'We shall see whether your spells are strong enough to prevent it,' Veronica whispered in Dorothea's ear, provoking renewed animosity. 'Why, I think you'd quite like to strike me, wouldn't you?'
'Grant me with more intelligence than to resort to such an action in the face of your insults.' Dorothea managed a bitter smile. 'In two days time you will be gone, never to return. That is my response and my victory.'
'I prefer not to talk in terms of victory Miss Llewellyn, but in terms of what is moral, and immoral.'
'Just what are you inferring?'
Veronica smiled, chewed her lip. 'I'll leave you to dwell on the answer to that, you most certainly know it.'
'It was gracious – most gracious of you to devote your time to familiarising Gibbings with theviolin,' Llewellyn said with the trace of a smile, 'though the infernal noise I heard which must surely have derived from his playing prompts me to suggest your good intentions were wasted.'
'Let us simply say he tried, - come in, won't you, Thomas?' Veronica had barely bathed and changed before Llewellyn had knocked on her door.
'If it is convenient.' Llewellyn followed her through looking uncomfortable. 'It is not generally my custom to enter ladies' rooms. I merely came to request your company at breakfast.'
'You were invited, Thomas. I shall make myself presentable and then we will breakfast together.'
'Presentable?' Llewellyn protested. 'Oh come now Veronica, you are never less than presentable.'
'Thomas,' Veronica began, ignoring the intended compliment, 'I must tell you, I fear I may have provoked further animosity in your sister.'
'Oh.' Llewellyn brushed his moustache and then gave a lop-sided smile. 'That is hardly difficult to achieve – when did you encounter -'
'I'd been for an early morning walk,' Veronica said, examining herself in the mirror.Satisfied, she swung back to face him. 'Rather foolishly as it turned out, you see I got soaked and encountering Dorothea in the hall, I accidentally splashed her with rainwater from my coat. Needless to say she was not happy and did not accept my apology. Thomas,' Veronica outstretched an arm, easing him closer, 'she has some kind of misguided conception that I am a troublemaker, a bad influence; I am here as your guest, and can assure you this is not the case.'
'Good Lord no.' Llewellyn clasped Veronica's arms, 'I will hear of no such accusation – I will put an end to such behaviour forthwith -'
Llewellyn, his lips twisted in anger turned to the door, but Veronica, as she had out on the terrace stretched out an arm and held him back. 'No, Thomas, please do not admonish her on my account, I seek only to reassure you of my good intentions in the face of such accusations. Your understanding of that is all I desire -'
Llewellyn took a deep breath, adjusted his yellow waistcoat. 'Very well Veronica. Your generosity is as always, overwhelming, though I will not have you upset in any way – please tell me, have you put thought to my offer of a permanent room here?'
'No.' Veronica shook her head, 'Not fully Thomas. I will advise you before I leave, have no doubt of that.'
'I urge -'
'Thomas, there are but two days remaining before I depart the island, once I have considered fully I will advise you.' She looked out the window and sighed, 'I was wondering whether we might journey out this morning in your trap.'
Llewellyn threw out his hands, 'But it is a wild morning -'
'I am not afraid of a little rain, unless such a prospect disturbs you?'
'Indeed not.' Llewellyn rocked on his heels, clasping his hands together, 'I am only too happy to oblige. Your welfare is my only concern.'
'I am deeply touched.' Veronica stepped forward, took his hand between hers, breaking away as he brought his head forward. 'Come, let us hope for a peaceful breakfast.'
Dorothea was nowhere to be seen at breakfast that morning and Llewellyn was grateful for that. That she could perceive Veronica conceiving some kind of plot was outrageous and beyond his comprehension. Only Veronica's firm intervention had prevented him storming into Dorothea's quarters demanding she make full apology. It was the second time in as many days that she had prevented him creating a scene and it struck him for the first time that she must possess considerable strength to restrain his weight with a single arm and with such apparent ease.
Entering the gallery en route to his room he encountered Hambleton carefully dusting the paintings. 'Hambleton, Miss Veronica has requested a ride in the trap; we shall be gone for much of the morning.'
Hambleton paused from his task, raising his brows and gesturing through the window towards the sea. 'The conditions are somewhat inclement -'
'Yes, I am aware of that,' Llewellyn snapped impatiently. 'However it is what Miss Veronica requests -'
Hambleton traced a forefinger across his upper lip, 'She is certainly one for the conditions sir, why early this morning -'
'Yes, I know Hambleton, Miss Veronica informed me she'd taken an early walk.'
'I believe she had an appointment sir -'
Llewellyn narrowed his eyes, 'An appointment? What are you talking about?
Hambleton, please elaborate -'
'A pre-arranged meeting, sir.'
Llewellyn clenched his jaw. 'Please spare me a dictionary definition, Hambleton – I was merely expressing surprise at such an unlikely occurrence; who might she have been seeing at such an unlikely hour?' He widened his brows, waiting with exaggerated patience for enlightenment.
'There is only one name which springs to mind, that of Gibbings sir -'
Llewellyn shook his head. 'I fail to see what could possibly transpire to induce such an early morning event. What brings you to such a conclusion – not that it is the slightest business of ours-'
Hambleton outstretched his hands. 'As you know sir, I am a habitually early riser; I was simply going about my business when I encountered Miss Veronica just after dawn. Shortly afterwards, while drawing the curtains in the gallery I noticed her walking towards the priory grounds, a direction I saw Gibbings returning from some twenty minutes later. I naturally drew the conclusion they had cause to meet.'
'There is nothing natural about it, Hambleton; it appears you have engaged in a deliberate act of spying,' then noticing his butler's rare look of indignation, he added, 'why should you surmise such a clandestine meeting should take place?'
Hambleton shrugged, said quietly, 'I have no idea sir; all I can say is that whilst closing the castle windows last evening I heard hushed conversation between Gibbings and Miss Veronica that I was unable to distinguish the nature of. I only know she shares an interest in Gibbings as does your sister. I believe it my duty sir, to advise you that developments are afoot which are not healthy to the smooth running of the castle, or indeed, your good self. It is my belief that you should reconsider your invitation to Miss Veronica, of a room here.'
Llewellyn raised a finger to Hambleton in a rare show of incivility. 'I will have an end to this preposterous warmongering and indeed, spying. You appear to be in collusion with my sister over Miss Veronica, for what purpose I do not know.' Through grating teeth he hissed, 'My offer is not retractable, you will do well to remember as much.'
Llewellyn marched to his room, seething. Slamming the door he breathed heavily, struggling to control his anger. Just what had possessed Hambleton to side with Dorothea, and then to develop his own ridiculous assumption that Veronica had some desire towards Gibbings? That was what he seemed to be implying and such a suggestion was as absurd as it was unthinkable.
Nonetheless, at the back of his mind just the tiniest grain of doubt had lodged. The previous evening Veronica had offered Gibbings instruction on the violin, an offer that required them to be alone. According to Hambleton, hushed conversation had ensued, could that have led to an early morning meeting, and had Hambleton heard more than he was saying?
Could Dorothea be right? Was Veronica's presence here not on account of him, did she have other desires or motives?
Almost certainly not. The delightful Miss Day enjoyed his company; he could sense it. He would probe most sensitively during their trap ride for confirmation of that.
Veronica, waiting in the hallway, heard the echoing step of Llewellyn as he approached along the passage, then noticing his heated expression she asked, 'Is anything the matter Thomas? You appear somewhat flushed.'
'No, certainly not.' Llewellyn stopped beside her, fastened his raincoat and raised his large umbrella. 'I forgot this, that is all. I thought we might need protection from the rain.'
'I think not, Thomas,' Veronica ran her eyes quickly over his face, then gestured through the open doorway. 'The rain has stopped and the sun is breaking through, surprising how the weather changes so quickly in the north east, is it not?'
'It certainly is.' Llewellyn led the way down the slope, to the pony and trap that Hambleton had tethered to the railings. 'The island will not be the same without you,' he said, guiding the trap onto the road, 'though I leave but a day after you, your company will be sorely missed.'
'As will yours, Thomas.' She felt his eyes linger as she stared towards the priory, its brooding arches drawing closer.
'Truthfully, will you miss me Veronica?'
Disturbed by the question Veronica ran her teeth along her upper lip; seeds of doubt were developing in his mind, planted no doubt by Dorothea or Hambleton, perhaps both. They needed eradicating.
'I shall miss you Thomas, as I shall miss this island, why do you seek to question me?'
Llewellyn coughed, raising a hand from the reins and tweaking his moustache. 'I -' he swallowed, she heard him sigh, 'there seems to be some foolish notion within the castle – I cannot mention the source from which it derives – that you are involved in some kind of scheming – that it involves Gibbings -'
'Huh!' Veronica threw her head back and laughed. 'Preposterous, now who shall we suppose is behind this? Your sister we have spoken of – therefore I deduce Hambleton as the likely cause of such mischief – is he not? Whatever brings him to such a conclusion?'
'It matters not, my dear Veronica.' Llewellyn pulled the pony to a halt. 'It is my earnest wish that you become a frequent visitor to the castle; I pay such vindictive notions no heed -'
Yet you were concerned enough to mention it. Veronica turned her head away, bit her lip, looked back at him. 'It seems I have enemies here, people who doubt my good intentions, under such circumstances I doubt that I can accept -'
'I swear to you Veronica,' Llewellyn grabbed her hands, 'that I have put a stop to such hostile accusations.'
Veronica shook her head, raised it towards the sky. 'It seems that at the very least I have brought disharmony to the castle -'
'No – I implore you, do not let that thought influence your reasoning.' Llewellyn's grip on her hand tightened, 'It is my sister who is the main source of disunity. I am sorely regretting her presence. Her departure would dispel the gloom that has descended over this place.'
Veronica slowly removed her hands from his grasp. 'Would such an event be possible?'
Llewellyn puffed his cheeks. 'Difficult. She is co-owner of the castle, she provided me with the necessary funds to secure its purchase. Her stake is small in comparison to mine, but without it I could not have achieved its acquisition.' He cupped his chin, 'Nonetheless, there might be a way -'
'I have business associates, wealthy ones, who might possibly fund me if I were to approach them. I fear my sister is restless here and would readily agree to relinquish her share for appropriate compensation – would such a prospect enable you to consider my offer favourably?'
Veronica smiled, looked out to sea. 'I feel I am close to a decision already, Thomas – might I take control of the trap?'