I’ve hit the halfway point on my new novel, Morwood, so I thought I’d share the first chapter and the piece of art that inspired the story. This painting is by Ruth Sanderson and I first saw it at WFC in Washington in 2014, I think.
by Angela Slatter
My previous three weeks had featured a long series of carriages; conveyances of varied age, cleanliness and distinction, much like my fellow passengers. From Whitebarrow to Briarton, from Lelant’s Bridge to Angharad’s Breach, from decaying Lodellan where fires still smouldered to Cwen’s Ruin, from Bellsholm to Ceridwen’s Landing, and all the tiny loveless places in between. A circuitous route, certainly, but then I have my reasons. And this afternoon, the very last of those carriages finally deposited me at my goal before trundling off to the village of Morwood Tarn.
Or rather, at the gateway to my goal, and there now remains a rather longer walk than I would have wished at such a late hour and with such luggage as I carry. Yet, having waited with some foolish hope for someone to come collect me, in the end I accept that I’ve no better choice than shanks’ pony. My steamer case I push beneath some bushes just inside the tall black iron gates with the curlicued M at their apex (as if anyone might wander past and take it into their heads to rifle through my meagre possessions). The satchel with my notebooks is draped across my back, and the carpet bag with its preciously cargo I carry in one hand, then the other for it weighs more than is comfortable. I’m heartily sick of hefting it, but remain careful as always, solicitous of the thing that has kept me going for two years (some before that, if I am to be honest).
The rough and rutted track leads off between trees, oak and yew and ash, so tall and old that they meet above me in a canopy. I might have appreciated their beauty more if it had been earlier in the day, had there been more light, had it been summer rather than autumn, and had my coat been of better quality. And certainly if I’d not, soon after setting off deeper into the estate, begun to hear noises in the undergrowth by the side of the drive.
I do not walk faster, though it almost kills me to maintain the same steady pace. I do not call out in fear, demanding to know who is there. I do, however, pat the deep right-hand pocket of my skirt to make sure the long knife is there. I have walked enough darkened streets in dreadful towns to know that fear will kill you faster than a blade to the gut or a garrotte to the throat.
Whatever it is has stealth, but somehow I sense it makes just enough noise on purpose that I might be aware of its presence. Occasional snuffles and wuffles that must seem quite benign, but which are not when their source is defiantly out of sight. Some moments I catch a scent on the breeze, a musky rich odour like an animal given to feeding on young meat and sleeping in dens, and that threatens to turn my belly to water. I lift my chin as if the sky is not darkening with storm clouds, as if I am not being stalked, as if my heart is not pounding so hard anyone within a mile of me can hear it. But I keep my steady, steady pace.
At last, I step out from beneath the twisting, turning canopied road and get my first sight of the manor house spread out before me. I pause on the gravel drive and stare, despite the knowledge that something remains behind me, somewhere in the trees. I take a deep breath, give a sigh I didn’t know was waiting in me.
It might have appeared quite simple, the structure, if approached from the front: almost slender-looking, two storeys of pale grey almost silver stone and an attic, but I’m coming at it on an angle and can see that the manor is deeper than it is wide. It digs back into the landscape and I wonder how many rooms there might be. There are banks of diamond-paned windows of coloured glass: a strange and expensive adornment. Whatever candles are lit inside on this drear day make the windows glow, an eldritch rainbow; I was not expecting that. In front are flowering tiered gardens, three, leading up to ten steps and a small porch, and thence to a door of honey-coloured wood set beneath a pointed stone arch. A duck pond lies to the left, and to the right flows a stream, too broad too jump but too narrow to count as a river. I wonder if it ever floods.
Lighting flashes, great white streaks of fire casting themselves across the vault of the world.
Behind the house itself is a smallish building, charcoal coloured, of such a size as might contain four rooms. It has a tall chimney, and I can make out a lightning rod affixed there too. I wonder at that, but am more hopeful it might be to my advantage. A waterwheel is attached to the side, fed by the not-quite-stream-not-quite-river, yet the place does not appear to be a mill.
Once again, the lightning flashes, in quick succession striking the ground in two places in front of me, and hitting a third time on an old yew tree not far away. It stands on its own, a lone sentinel by the side of the drive, and it burns so quickly that I’m astonished rather than afraid. I’d stay to watch, too, except the heavens open at last and thick angry drops fall hard and inescapable. In spite of everything, I smile: the storms of the region will serve me well. From the undergrowth behind me there comes a definite growl, all trace of sneakery and concealment gone.
Finally, I run.
I leave the drive, which meanders back forth down a gentle slope to the manor house, and take the shortest route over the rolling lawn. The journey would have been less fraught had I not been concerned with rolling an ankle and clutching the carpet bag so tightly that my ribs bruised against its contents. I arrive at the entrance no less wet than if I’d simply strolled. My progress has obviously been noted as the door is pulled open before I set foot on the first step.
Inside that door, a blaze of light and a tall man waiting there, attired in black, a long pale face, and thinning blond hair scraped back over his scalp. For all his skeletal demeanour he wears a gentle smile and his eyes, deep-set, are kind. His hands are raised, gesturing for me to hurry, hurry.
Just before I enter beneath the archway, I glance over my shoulder, at the lawn and gardens across which I’ve come. Lightning flares yet again and illuminates the grounds, silvering a strange hunched silhouette back up on the curve of the drive, and I think of … something. Something large but of indeterminate shape, something I cannot quite place, nor does its colour even remain in my memory; there’s only the recollection of red eyes. Resolute though shivering with more than cold, I cross the threshold.
The entry hall is surprisingly small, not grand at all, but well-lit; a silken rug like a field of flowers takes up part of the floor space and I make a point not to step on it with my muddy shoes. There are small pieces of furniture, plain occasional tables, a single cherry wood chair, an umbrella stand hollowed from a sparkling rock of some sort, a rosewood hallstand bearing scarves and a parasol, but little else. Closed doors with ornate knobs lead left and right. The burnished staircase to the upper levels is quite narrow, its carved newel posts are the heads of girls with nascent antlers on their foreheads; on the landing partway up there’s an enormous stained-glass window.
‘Miss Todd,’ said the man with certainty; no surprise, really, unless the Hall is frequented by random young women on a daily basis. He waves his hands as if doing so might squeeze the moisture from my thin jacket and thick skirts. I catch sight of my reflection in the enormous mirror that is the centrepiece of the hallstand. My tiny green silk hat appears to have melted, and I can feel the extra weight of the rain in the thick braided bun of my mousy hair. It will take hours to dry. My face is pale and I appear ghostly, although I’ve never felt so triumphant in my life. I glance away before I can examine too closely the look in my own eyes, and blink, hold the closure for a few moments to compose myself so the man cannot see inside me either.
‘Yes,’ I say and it feels not enough. ‘I’m Asher Todd.’
‘I am Burdon. We did not expect you until tomorrow, my dear Miss Todd.’ His hands clasp together like penitent wings. ‘I do apologise, we’d have had Eli meet you with the caleche. Although given the current weather perhaps the caleche would not have offered much protection.’
‘Ah, the walk was refreshing, Mr Burdon, I’ve been trapped in coaches and carriages for days’ ? weeks ? ‘the open air did me good.’ I twist the ring on the middle finger of my right hand, which is slippery from the rain. I dab at it ineffectually with the least soaked part of my skirt, trying to make it less slippery for I cannot afford to lose it.
‘Just Burdon, Miss Todd. Well, I hope you don’t take a chill, the family would not be best pleased were you to fall ill from our neglect.’ He gives a little bow, strangely sweet. ‘Come along, I shall take you to your rooms.’ He eyes the carpet bag clutched to my side, the satchel dripping noisily on the flagstones. ‘Is that everything?’
‘Oh no. My trunk.’ I frown. ‘I left it by the gate.’
Burdon looks over my shoulder and juts his chin. I turn to see a figure stooped to pass beneath the stone arch of the door, my steamer trunk nestled on a broad shoulder as if it were no more than a box of kindling.
The figure gently puts the trunk on the fine rug as if it weren’t gushing with rain, then shakes like a dog. An oilskin cloak and a broad-brimmed hat are removed with a great cascade of droplets, and the shape resolves into a tall young man with ruddy hair, blue eyes and stubbled chin. He glances at me, then away as if I hold no interest.
‘Eli Bligh,’ he says and at first I think the use of a full name is an introduction, but no: a reprimand. ‘Mrs Charlton’ll not be pleased at that.’ Mr Burdon nods meaningfully at the small lake that has collected on the floor.
Eli shrugs. ‘To the lilac room?’
‘If you please.’
Eli hefts my trunk once more, as if it contains more burdensome than feathers, not books and boots and frocks and carefully wrapped bottles and a basalt mortar and pestle blessed by the Witches of Whitebarrow. He turns on a heel and is gone up the polished staircase before Burdon and I even take a step to follow; as he passes I catch a scent of port-wine pipe smoke and something I cannot quite place. The butler’s hand touches my shoulder but lightly, to direct me upwards.
‘It’s a good thing you got to us before evening fell, the estate can be a dangerous place for those unfamiliar with the lay of the land.’ He smiles to take away any suggestion of fear mongering. ‘I daresay you’ll be an old hand soon enough and learn our ways.’
‘Thank you, Burdon.’ Using a person’s last name thus, speaking as if he were my servant is not natural to me; it isn’t the way I was raised. ‘And the family …?’
‘At a fete in Morwood Tarn,’ he says, then glances through the great stained-glass window as we step onto the landing; closer, I can see it’s a battle scene between angels and wolves, now brilliant as the lightning sparks outside, now dull as it dies. ‘Although I daresay they’ll have taken sheltered somewhere to avoid the storm.’
‘Just between me and thee, Miss Todd, if I were you I would take the opportunity to rest this evening. You’ll be earning your coin soon enough with those three children. Time enough to meet everyone on the morrow.’ He smiles fondly to let me know they’re not entirely monsters, then the expression stales. ‘And I’ve no doubt Master Luther will put you through your paces as well.’
I look askance at him, but he merely smiles again and presses my elbow: Go left.
Up on the first floor is a small pretty room (so, no attic servants’ hideaway for me); it’s cold but there’s a hastily-lit fire fresh in the grate but no sign of who set it. . The armoire, dressing table and secretaire are all in a pale coloured wood; by the fire are an armchair and a small table with a tray on it: a bowl of steaming stew, a plate of bread, a single small cake, a glass of what looks like tokay await, and my stomach rumbles. The curtains are a washed-out purple, as are the draperies around the bed. And there is a small crystal bowl of dried lilac on the bedside table with mother-of-pearl inlay, so the air is lightly scented. My trunk is at the foot of the bed, and Eli is gone but for that hint of pipe smoke.
I enter the room but Burdon does not follow. Turning, I look at him and he bows, a sweet courtly gesture.
‘I trust you will be comfortable here, and perhaps even happy with us.’ He smiles again. ‘Should you need anything, the cord by the fireplace will bring someone to you. Sleep well, Miss Todd.’
‘Thank you, Burdon,’ I say, thinking I won’t sleep for an age; then I glance out the windows and see that night has fallen whilst I paid no attention. I’m aware of the door closing behind him as I stare at the rain throwing itself against the glass as if it would burst into the room if it could. As I hear the click of the snib I’m overcome with exhaustion. There is an armchair by the fire and I stumble to it, a shaking overtaking my entire body and I think I will sick, right here in this pretty room. I let the carpet bag slide to the floor, there’s the gentle thud of the contents on the rug, not too much of a protest, and I slump.
After a while, the shaking subsides, the roar in my head subsides, but my stomach is still all-at-sea, so I break off a piece of bread and stuff it into my mouth like an urchin. It’s salty and sweet, and soon I’ve eaten it all too quickly. Then the stew, which is delicious, meaty and rich with red wine. The tokay and the seed cake I leave for later so as not to make myself sick.
I’m drowsing in the chair, one side of me dried by the fire, the other still sodden and cold, when there’s a knock at the door. I call out, ‘Yes?’ but there is no answer, so I heave myself upward and go to answer.
No one is there.
I step into the long corridor ? unlike the ground floor, the first is but dimly lit ? and looked left and right. Another door was open, partway along, so I tiptoed towards it. Inside there was a bathtub, clawfooted, steam rising from it.
But again, no sign of who drew it.
I shrug; I will take it.
Such a beginning is mine at Morwood Grange.