Chapter Forty Three
Veronica Day narrowed her eyes, watched Gibbings panting and saw him lower his hands to his knees. ‘Once more you hurry to my aid, I thank you. How am I going to manage without you?’
Gibbings fixed her with his brooding stare. ‘You will manage well enough.’
Veronica inclined her head and watched Rothman disappear around the volcanic mound that formed the castle’s base. ‘However you need not have bothered, I could have fought him off.’
Gibbings looked derisively. ‘From what I saw that looked bloody unlikely.’
‘There is no need to swear.’ Veronica brushed her windswept hair from her eyes and gazed back to him. ‘I was complacent, that is all.’
Gibbings bit his lip, but it failed to stem his irritation. ‘You are the most ignorant, arrogant woman I have ever met. The island will be well rid of you.’
Veronica placed her hands on hips. ‘Is that what you truly think? Is that your heart speaking now, John Gibbings? Well at least there is some fire in your belly.’
‘Go back to your concert halls Veronica, to your privileged existence and then this island can return to peace again.’ Gibbings swung away angrily but she caught his arm and pulled him round to face her.
‘You speak of ignorance and arrogance, but is that not what you display now, that you presume these things to be uppermost in my desires? You cast aside my feelings for you, my willingness to help you provide for your daughter, whose interests you hold so close.’ She raised her voice above the wind that buffeted them both. ‘Answer me John; is that not what you accuse me of?’
‘That’s enough, Veronica; this island has been besieged by madness, by violence, since your arrival here.’
‘Oh, has it, indeed?’ Veronica let go of his arm. It was her turn to let out a dismissive laugh. ‘Are you trying so hard to find cause to refute your feelings for me?’
He was heading for the cottage but she kept pace, her voice relentless in his ear. ‘Was it my fault I was shipwrecked? Was it my fault that Dorothea and Llewellyn shared an inherent madness? That this madness coincided with his obsession for me, an obsession I didn’t realise until too late – or that Mr. Rothman would return pursuing his own lust?’
Veronica fought back her rising emotions. ‘I want to spend my life with the man who saved it – is that ignorance – is that arrogance, answer me!’ She reached across, grabbed Gibbings shirt and shook him – answer me, damn you, is it?’
‘I cannot leave this island Veronica, can’t you see?’ Gibbings’ voice became hoarse. ‘There is nothing for me on the mainland…’
‘In effect John, you have lost your livelihood here – what else is there?’
‘Perhaps nothing, but I cannot face the mainland, I have been too longseparated from it. I stay.’
Veronica shivered and hugged her waist. ‘Are you going to shut the door on me John, or allow me inside? I cannot bear to go back to the castle at the moment – not with that wretched man there – I shall wait until he has left.’
Gibbings turned, his hand gripping the knob. ‘And yet only recently you were so reluctant to leave it that you sent that “wretched man” to deliver your farewell message.’
Veronica frowned. ‘What on earth are you talking about?’
‘You know full well.’ But Gibbings relented, pushed the door open, and without facing her added, ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t know he called on your behalf.’ He strode into the washroom, produced a towel, ‘Here, dry your hair…’
Veronica snatched at it and glared at him. ‘If you mean Mr. Rothman I had no knowledge. I was too weary to be aware of anything. Do you really believe I could allow somebody else to pay my respects to you?’
Gibbings swallowed, her green eyes had a fire in them, an intensity that unsettled him. She finished toweling her hair, flung the fabric back at him. He caught it and sighed, indicated the couch. ‘You can sit if you want.’
‘It isn’t only my hair that’s wet, John Gibbings, I’ll soak it through.’
Gibbings lowered his eyes. ‘A lady like you should not be in such a condition, you should dry yourself fully in the washroom – I can provide fresh clothes until yours are dried out.’
‘And what of you?’
‘I am used to the wet. Do as I say, dry yourself. I will find you something to wear – and when your clothes are dry you will be able to leave this place for good…’
Veronica raised her brows, took steps towards him. ‘Such authority, and what I ask do we do in the meantime, exchange not so pleasantries? We make a fine couple do we not? You with your gashed throat, and I with my hacked leg. And none of this would have happened if I hadn’t come here – none of this disruption – none of this violence – all would have been peace and serenity, that’s what you believe isn’t it? Do I frighten you, John? Am I some wicked witch who has cast her spell over the island?’
‘You’re beginning to sound like Dorothea...’
‘Then perhaps it’s the island, not the people who reside on it, that is root cause of the problem – perhaps it would be better if we both left as was our intention...’
‘I’ve already told you – no.’ Gibbings strode into his bedroom, a few minutes later returning with a pile of clothes, thrusting them at her and pushing open the washroom door. ‘There is no future for us.'
‘Very well, shield your heart with your stubbornness, there is nothing more to be said...’ Veronica flung the clothes on the couch. ‘Goodbye then, John Gibbings.’
Without looking back she marched out. It was a waste of time talking to Gibbings – in fact the whole episode had been a waste of time; she should never have returned to the island. It had been for Gibbings’ benefit, though not wholly a question of that. No matter what she felt for Gibbings and it could no longer be denied that she felt plenty, the call of the north east coastline had played its part, until the shadow of the castle had engulfed everything.
And in truth was that what had happened? Had she, Gibbings, Llewellyn, Dorothea, Hambleton, even the departed Dawson been sucked into its grip? It sounded absurd, but did malevolence exist within its cold walls that absorbed and manipulated the personalities of the characters within?
But it mattered not now; she would be returning to recitals she had no desire to perform, and despite it all, outside of the castle walls there would be emptiness in leaving the island that would not be filled by returning to her world of music. She’d made up her mind not to return to the castle, that the policeman Taylor could come searching for her – her time within its walls had expired.
To her left the fields ran down to the sea, beyond that were the distant islands she’d seen through the castle windows. She wondered what she’d find there – perhaps somewhere within their confines another hulking castle – or perhaps something more pleasant – something remote but peaceful.
This part of the coastline was strewn with boulders, her normal energy absorbed by her tribulations Veronica had no desire to venture further. She climbed one, perched upon it and clasping her hands around her knees looked back at the castle, stark in the gloom as ever, dominating the island, brooding, soon to be empty of all inhabitants not knowing what its future held or what future incumbents would be unfortunate enough to dwell within its walls.
She turned, stared straight ahead and focused on the islands. Even from a distance she could see white crested waves lapping around them, the foam and froth. In spite of the stormy conditions there seemed a peace about the place. She wondered whether John Gibbings had ever been there, surely he had –
John Gibbings – she would miss him.
Footsteps on the shingles behind made Veronica turn, surely not Rothman again – she couldn’t face that –
‘Haven’t you had enough of the rain today?’
Veronica crooked her head, smiled. ‘I had until I saw you.’ She placed a hand on the boulder and withdrew it. ‘I, like you John, am not afraid of the wet.’
Chapter Forty Four
Veronica clasped her hands together, placed her elbows on her knees. 'Those islands in the distance, what do you know of them John?'
Gibbings shrugged, sighed, 'What do you want to know?'
'Tell me what I might find there, they look so peaceful, if a little rain-swept.'
'You'll find nothing there to interest you, only a few ramshackle cottages – derelict now, an old lighthouse and a load of puffins. Nobody lives on them anymore.'
'How lovely it sounds.' Veronica slapped his thigh, jumped to her feet. 'Take me there.'
Gibbings followed the line of her eye across to a trio of motorboats anchored at the water's edge. 'Too rough to sail in these conditions.'
Veronica shook her head and smiled at him. 'Where's your sense of adventure, John? The wind is slackening and the rain lessens.'
He glanced at the boats, scratched the back of his head. 'But the sea remains rough, and the boats belong to old Tom Higgins. Shouldn't be taking them without his permission…'
Veronica walked over to them. 'Well he isn't here to ask, I'm sure he wouldn't mind.'
'You don't know him,' Gibbings scoffed but he followed her, one eye on the turbulent sea. He blew out his cheeks. 'I could get called to the lifeboat…'
'Yes, you could in which case I could go alone.' Veronica selected a boat, prodded it with her foot and swung to face him. 'I could sail this, and if by chance I get into distress you'll need to rescue me, all over again.’
Gibbings placed a hand on his brow, drew it down slowly. 'That's blackmail.'
'Perhaps, but your sense of duty would induce you to come to my aid.'
Gibbings caught her quiet smile, the flash of amusement in her eyes; he shook his head. 'This is no laughing matter, I will never understand you.'
Veronica grabbed his hand, held it tight. 'You understand me well enough John Gibbings; you choose to hide the fact behind a mask.'
Gibbings grunted and inspected the craft Veronica had probed with her foot. 'I suppose with good fortune this will serve our purpose.'
It had been tied to an iron post. Gibbings undid the strap and pushed the vessel away from shore as Veronica leapt aboard, and soon its small bow began plunging into heaving waves which sent their angry froth cascading into the boat's hull.
Gibbings removed a hand from the vessel's steering arm and reached down to a grey pot which he flung in her direction. 'Bail it out,' he yelled, 'or we'll submerge before we're midway!'
Veronica needed little telling. She'd clawed the pot out of mid air beginning to scoop from the gathering pool with a clinical rapidity.
As Gibbings guided the boat closer to the islands Veronica turned, fixing them with her gaze before swinging back to him with a coy smile. 'I do believe we're going to make it, John, we make a fine couple do we not?’
But Gibbings had spotted the sudden tidal surge; he thrust out an urgent finger. 'We won't if we can't shift the water. Bail woman, bail.'
Veronica followed his line and saw the swell approaching, whipping the tide into a frenzy. She applied herself with renewed vigour but at that instant a voluminous wave struck the boat broadside, all but lifting it from the water. 'It's no use!' Gibbings shouted, his voice hoarse. 'the waves will turn us over…’
Veronica flung the pot into the sea and crouched forward. 'Then we'll have to swim John, we're almost there, don't fret so.'
'Then how do we get back?'
Veronica shrugged, then raising her voice above the roar of the sea, 'Don't concern yourself with that now …'
Another big wave caught the vessel, whipping it sideways. Veronica saw the sea swelling up on her, caught Gibbings' eye and on his beckoning flung herself over the side. She began her strenuous battle with the tide knowing that land lay only fifty metres distant but not knowing whether Gibbings had followed suit, and although every ounce of her being willed him alongside her, a strange emptiness told her he wasn't.
Veronica wanted to turn, to check his whereabouts but the frenzied conditions forbade it, all of her energies were channelled into the fight to reach land. She reached the shingle, crawled ashore and heaved herself up. Breathing deeply she swung round, heart pounding in her ears she scanned the angry waves, but of Gibbings there was no sign. Only the harrowing sight of an empty boat tossing in the storm met her eyes.
Her despair grew by the second as she wiped moisture from her eyes; amidst the dawning realism that produced an all-encompassing sadness came the ultimate irony – she was left to face the fact that she hadn't saved him the way he had her. If she hadn't have insisted on this foolhardy journey in such atrocious conditions this would never have happened. John would not have been swept away by the tide – he who had saved her life and in return for which, because of her own stupidity, had lost his.
Veronica Day lost track of the time she'd spent on the shore; in the distance across the sea the spectre of the castle lay before her, darkly brooding, though it might merely have been an impression on a canvas – her mind had become a void through which no thoughts or feelings could travel.
She began wandering aimlessly, scrambling up grey cliffs before reaching coarse grass where she came upon a long abandoned single storey dwelling standing on the edge of a gully. Its neglected state was reflected in the condition where the few remaining tiles lay in the broken guttering, and in the once white-washed walls, now a forlorn grey. The drab frontage was dissected by a rotting timber door hanging from a single rusty hinge to reveal a rain-soaked and time ravaged interior with debris and fallen masonry strewn over an eroded slate floor. Her soaked clothes seemed to weigh as heavily as her spirits as she wandered into the shell of the building and slumped on a rotting window ledge, head in hands. The rain that poured through the dilapidated roof gradually reduced to occasional droplets before any sound of it was replaced by that of footsteps.
She was afraid to glance up for fear that it wasn't him – until a voice, tired and relieved filled her ears, rejuvenating her tired mind, her spirits rising and seeming to float on the moist air –
'Thank God you're all right, Veronica, I searched the coastline …'
'Oh John, I'm so thankful you're safe!’' She was on her feet, drawing his lithe body into an embrace, cradling his face in her hands. 'I thought – oh my – I thought you'd drowned. She drew her head back, searched his dark eyes. 'I thought I'd lost you.'
'I never thought I'd see you again.' Gibbings placed an arm around her shoulders, drew her out of the tumbledown dwelling, across the gully and up onto the rocks overlooking the sea. 'The tide carried me across the bay, I was fortunate I wasn't thrown against the rocks and killed, the force with which the waves swept me.' He hugged her against him. 'Anyway we both made it, now all we have to do is get back – the boat, luckily, was washed ashore, I managed to secure it to some old moorings.'
'Back, John? I'm not so sure.' Veronica gazed across the water to the castle, dominating the island from its rocky base. Somehow the place doesn't look so foreboding from here.' She swung round, clutching his hand, the skies had broken, rays of sunshine swept the coastline in waves, while the breeze, still stiff, ruffled her long red hair.
He was regarding her quizzically. 'What do you mean – not so sure?'
'You never really wanted to leave, did you John? So we have a compromise. We'll leave the island and live here – together.'
Gibbings screwed his eyes, shook his head and repeated her words. 'Live here – where?'
Veronica tightened her grip on his hand, led him back up the cliff and from the summit pointed to the derelict cottage with her free hand. 'There…'
'But it's a ruin for God's sake.'
'Exactly, obviously nobody wants it. I am not without funds John, as you are aware; renovated, it will make a fine home with our own small garden at the side. I cannot imagine how it was allowed to fall into such disrepair.'
Gibbings pulled her to him, his arms tight around her body. 'Because people grow old and when they're gone there's nobody wants to live on islands such as this anymore. The lure of the mainland and all that…'
She placed her arms round his waist, hugged him. 'But I do, John – and you belong in these parts…'
'Why Veronica? Your career, your music…'
'I have told you. I might love playing the music but it was a career I was born into. I feel neither compulsion nor desire to return to it.'
She drew a deep breath, taking in the return of warm summer air. 'Perhaps the occasional performance, but oh John, we can be so happy here. Meanwhile, I can ensure your daughter's education, and what a respite from her studies a haven like this would provide. I look forward to meeting her.' She held him at arm's length, widened her eyes. 'John, please say you'll agree.'
He met her appealing gaze with a solemnity that told her he'd say no – that her idea was much too preposterous, that she possessed too much imagination, not enough practicality.
'We'll need help, plenty of it,' he said at length, cuffing his hand around his jaw before breaking into a smile, 'but no doubt we can find it – alright, yes.'
She clung to his neck in delight, kicked her legs in the air. 'Just you, me, the puffins and the sea breeze – that's all I want, John Gibbings.'
Gibbings hugged her to him, kissed her softly on the lips; she felt the warmth of his body and then as he drew away watched his face stiffen. 'What is it John?'
'You'll be going away.'
Veronica nodded slowly. 'Yes, people to tell, things to arrange, but you'll be accompanying me, will you not?'
He drew back, shaking his head. 'I'll need to arrange for help if we're going to rebuild the bungalow. I can remain at the cottage while you're gone, there's nothing to stop me now, and when you return we can remain there until our home is ready.' He clutched her hands. 'Are you sure you really want this Veronica?'
'With all my heart, and when I return it will be with the funding for our home – and we will create our own bliss. I shall not be long away John Gibbings…'
Gibbings led her across the cliffs down to the bay, where the boat stood glistening in the
afternoon sunlight. ‘It'll be alright, the vessel's taken a soaking, but she's seaworthy.’
'I have only your word for that, but what difference will another soaking make?'
She paused before stepping inside, giving the castle a long, lingering gaze.
To Thomas Llewellyn's strained eyes, the inside of his castle seemed to have shrunk. The windows were higher, smaller and barred. He couldn't smell the sea air, he couldn't hear the waves, and he could barely see the sky through the thick, glazed windows.
But such matters were of secondary consideration, for his world had shrunk in relation to the size of his castle – gone was his precious princess, banished from his presence for being disloyal – not worthy of his consideration. She had betrayed his love and devotion; an evil presence and so he had cast her out, along with his scheming butler, the name of whom he could no longer remember – and most significantly of all, that despicable gardener – a treacherous fellow he'd felled with a blade for daring to entice his chosen one from his side.
Damn them all, they were gone now, let their bodies rot. He would survive alone in his castle, a stronghold of strongholds –
He heard a click, the turn of a key. How could his key be on the outside of the door? And how dare his servant enter without his consent – but ah, at least he'd brought his food –
'Put it down man,' he snapped, 'and then leave me in peace.'
He thought he saw his servant snigger, damn the man for his incivility, he would have him replaced forthwith.
Llewellyn ignored the knife and fork provided him and thrust his supper into his mouth with both hands.