Magis quam versandum’
– Ruthven Family motto.
‘Who are these coming to the sacrifice?
To what green altar, O mysterious priest,
Lead’st thou that heifer lowing at the skies…?’
It was sometime in the winter of 1919 – early November if my memory serves me quite as well as it once did – that I accepted an invitation on the part of Country Life to photograph, in addition to providing in brief outline the history of, Netherwood House in —–shire. My adherence to that now dead, but even then moribund, convention by which authors locate their narratives in a hypothetical ‘Hyphenshire’ is out of deference to the name of an ancient family and my deference extends only so far as the name since the line is now effectively extinct.
The possessor of the title and house had fallen in the same bloodletting exercise, which saw me invalided out a matter of three years before. Tragically, his parents and an elder brother had perished in some unspecified way in Cairo in 1904. You may wonder that my reticence in identifying the part of England in which Netherwood House is to be found should be accompanied by the ostensible candour with which I so brazenly and incongruously proclaim its name. But you will, dear reader, look to your gazetteer in vain: for if houses as well as individuals may havenoms de plume conferred upon them then such is Netherwood House, an alias of that kind and one which, I may say, offers no clue as to its true identity. There are entirely private reasons why I so name it and those procedures which might be employed when reading a roman a clef to unlock its secret parallels will prove entirely fruitless. For this is not, I must insist, a fiction with some oblique but discoverable relation to reality but a narrative in every respect true; save for the suggestio falsi of the house’s name (and that of other names featured) and suppressio veri of that tantalising, but I repeat necessary, hyphenation.
This present narrative, I may say at the outset, is quite distinct from the one I had hoped to present to the editor of that particular journal at the end of my visit to Netherwood House. Indeed, as events fell out, I failed to produce anything of any interest to the burgeoning readership of an organ that now existed to detail a world both worth fighting for but also irrecoverably lost by war. Had I been able to put pen to paper and produce at the time anything more than incoherent scribbling I might, I suppose, have offered up something for the Christmas issue. A tale of terror is derigeur for the festive season (is it not?) but I could not have done so then and am not tempted to do so now. For such stories are perforce fictional and the chill they provide does not go through to the bone. With a cordiality which may be traced both to the fact of the editor having been a close friend of my father and on account of the medical condition to which I previously alluded, I was relieved of the task. Another man, not necessarily much younger, but more youthful as a consequence of having missed out on the call to arms, retraced my steps a matter of a year later.
I see him now (that is, I see myself) leaving the branch line station and resolving to walk the five miles to the house, there being no conveyances in evidence. An abandoned lodge in need of considerable repair to its roof constituted the sole evidence that I was leaving common land behind and entering the domain of the earls of Ruthven: the manicured lawns I had anticipated in my mind’s eye were not to be seen outside of it and poppies grew in a profusion the pre-war gardener would have dealt with sharpish – did he wish to keep his position. “Those scarlet mouths needed laying to waste,” was the bizarre phrase which flitted unbidden into my mind: from whence I cannot say. The glasshouses to the south of the estate might have been the target of a tenantry with a grudge for so few panes remained intact; no fruit was to be hurried into ripeness, no flowers precipitated into bloom here.
Striding north from the dilapidated glasshouses my doppelganger and I, independently of one another and with a year in between, noted the sorry state of the orchard. In previous years it must have assuaged the thirst of cider presses deprived all year of liquor and subsequently those in service – pre-war rations of alcohol to those below stairs now appearing as liberal as their annual wages seem pitifully parsimonious.
The aged retainer (whom I had been led to believe alone remained at the house) was clearly overstretched. The windfalls of two previous years (I should judge) proved a treacherous carpet for the unprepared traveller though a viscous last resting place for scores of wasps that had seemingly drunk of the ichor and been content thereafter to lie down and die. Everywhere gnarled and arthritic branches strained by venerable age and the burden of unpicked fruit hung low requiring of me circuitous strategies to make my way through the coppice and out onto the cinder path. This dank orchard would not be gracing the pages of Country Life, I resolved. Other prospects would have to be found giving the lie to the adage that the camera never does.
But what was this? An icehouse to the immediate north of the estate: architecturally impressive enough an example of its kind to warrant further investigation I decided. But in the fading light and with contact still to be made with Mrs. Beeston it would have to wait.
The pewter fruit bowl must have dented on impact with the terracotta tiles of the scullery for as I approached the kitchens beyond the neglected vegetable garden I heard the clatter of metal on stone and saw Mrs. Beeston turn a sepulchral white, the blood quite gone from her.
Her mouth opened wide in wonder.
In the wake of the percussive effect I heard bolts withdrawn and keys unlocked. Neither of these actions was accomplished so fluently as to lead me to believe that they were everyday occurrences and I prepared a speech to the effect that it was entirely praiseworthy of her to take such precautions in the light of the remoteness of the house and the singleness of its staff. This speech, which was intended to provide an ingratiating lubricant in my dealings with the housekeeper (who as a species can be difficult, even obstreperous) was promptly forgotten as a consequence of the singularity of her greeting:
“I thought you were the Master come home.”
All young men, I imagined, must from a distance resemble the fallen Master until their features resolved themselves into a forlorn unfamiliarity. But this was not the opening conversational gambit I was looking for and I remained tongue-tied in the fading light. It would have been a brutally dealt kindness to disenchant her of the prospect of the Master returning almost a year to the day after the Armistice but I did not feel the equal of this charge and mumbled something to the effect that such mistakes at twilight were easily made. How to impress upon her, I found myself wondering, that I was entirely undeserving of the white feather she was probably mentally conferring upon me without generating in her a resentment that I had conspired to walk out of the bloody, muddy maw of death, physically unscathed at the very least, when the Master had not? Unable to find an answer to this vexing question, I contented myself with pointing to my Kodak, the subtext of which gesture was intended to signal that I intended to take nothing but photographs at Netherwood.
To the greater glory of that house.
“You were not expected,” constituted her second attempt at pleasantry, confirming the up–hill struggle I faced with the formidable Mrs. Beeston. Quite how formidable I was to learn. “But I will show you to a room you may regard as yours for the length of your stay at Netherwood. It is not yet prepared for visitors but it is the best I can offer for it was the Master’s.”
This last phrase was delivered in a tone of the utmost solemnity. I mumbled my gratitude as she swept past me and I followed her through a series of narrow, dimly lit corridors into the main part of the house; the journey was labyrinthine enough for me to doubt that I could possibly retrace my steps without her help or access to silken thread. Nonetheless, we arrived at our destination and the door was unlocked. Mrs. Beeston was certainly very security-conscious it struck me as she busied herself with a set of keys which she carried, prison-warder like, about her waist: what did she wish to keep out, I wondered idly to myself, or indeed keep in? Furniture ghosts resolved themselves into non-wraith like forms as, one by one, Mrs. Beeston pulled the dustsheets from them.
The room when we entered it had the inevitable musty damp smell that accompanies a long period of non–use but it was spacious enough and contained a fine writing desk of which I intended to make some use during the course of my stay. Positioned in front of the room’s main window it commanded an excellent view of the grounds and even took account (to the extreme left of its frame) of the icehouse of which I had promised myself a closer inspection the following day. Mrs. Beeston had retreated by this point with the vague promise of potted shrimps for supper. I opened the window to air the room, awaiting that moment when the cold of a November evening would prove less palatable than the mustiness of the Master’s chamber. The fine view I had made out moments before was gone for darkness had fallen with its customary, but yet always unanticipated, suddenness.
I cannot be the only one for whom sleep proves especially elusive in an unfamiliar bed; my sleep had been broken and whether to regard the dreams I awoke from or the fact that I awoke as the more vexing was a hard question. With no special intention of resolving it I decided to rise, wash hurriedly in what I anticipated would be water on the brink of solidification and engage in reconnoitre of the grounds of Netherwood.
As I begun my walk I began to call to mind the strange dreams which had assailed me the previous night. Mrs. Beeston, perhaps inevitably, featured in them and I remembered with the vividness of something experienced and not dreamt that the Master had returned; that my presence in his room was a source of anger to him but that my attempts to vacate his room seemed to defeat me for whichever corridor I blundered down returned me to his room. In my dream I could find no room in which to sleep and in sleep I could find no rest. I awoke at the moment the housekeeper and the faceless Master tried to put a dustsheet over my face. Frenziedly disentangling myself from my coverlet until another form of disentanglement, that of dream from reality intervened, I lay for a moment breathless and disorientated.
Mrs. Beeston’s potted shrimps were perhaps best avoided in future. I had approached the house the night before rather circuitously, it having been proposed by my editor that since the housekeeper was now the sole inhabitant of the house (for how long I found myself wondering?) I should direct my steps towards the servants’ quarters. This I had done and had therefore been deprived until now, that is to say, the following morning of my stay, of a view of the southwest prospect of the house.
I exited through the main doors and looked back at the imposing façade of Netherwood. The circular and grand gravel drive, which needed weeding if nature was not to triumph over culture, enclosed a lawn, though I am using that word with a latitude it is not usually granted. Centrally within the area so loosely described was a fountain in need of water and the removal of leaves; the parched wyvern looked morose for lack of water, as if somehow aware of its own redundancy. The Wyvern is an uncommon enough heraldic beast to warrant description and this particularly given the fact that I lighted that day on enough of the species in thankfully petrified form at Netherwood to confirm its status as the Ruthven family emblem; its, as it were, household god. The Wyvern has a serpent’s tail and a dragon’s head and body; it is in addition dipterous. The word is old French but derives from the Latin, vipere; the pronounced reptilian qualities of the creature making the etymology of the word more than usually unproblematic. Such facts, I thought, might constitute a useful background for the article that I assumed, rather blithely as events were to transpire, would be written at and about Netherwood.
But I was immediately assailed by other thoughts of a more arcane nature: why is it, I wondered, that landed gentry should choose to assert their identity through the deployment of the stone representatives of fearsome, often chimerical beasts? As a full time gazetteer and part time contributor to Country Life, it seemed absurd that I had never thought to query the implications, whatever they were, of this tradition by which the aristocracy identified itself with grotesque, mythical beings. The singleness, the peculiarity of this thought process stopped me in my tracks. I lit a Woodbine, turned from the gargoyle leaving it to its arid agony and decided to investigate the Icehouse: given the centrality of this location to this narrative I make no apologies for the upper case.
That unfailing sense one can have of being watched led me, perhaps rather childishly, to turn on my heels in the direction of the house. Sure enough from an upper window Mrs. Beeston regarded my progress across the grass towards the Icehouse with something approaching keen interest. She neither acknowledged me when I looked up towards her nor did she seem particularly discountenanced to be caught spying on her sole guest. I turned, walked on, but could not resist the temptation as I neared the Icehouse to see just how idle, or otherwise, her curiosity might be: she was still standing at the window. Very much the Lady of the House, it struck me at the time. But then who else was there? Prior to breakfast I resolved to investigate the Icehouse, which had so fascinated me the night before. Like others of its kind, it had been sited on low ground and North West of the main buildings.
My first impression upon entering the dank structure was that the pantry boy, or whoever oversaw the running of the Icehouse, had a novel way of recording receipt of the ice blocks being stored there. Cut into the brickwork in a neat enough hand were (what appeared to be) a series of calculations in which the predominance of what looked like astrological signs seemed to denote that someone below stairs had something of an arcane bent. Closer analysis revealed both the extent of the inscriptions (they covered most of the walls) and the degree of erudition, however misplaced in the context of our scientific age. A stone structure comprising two verticals upon which had been propped a slab was momentarily suggestive of a primitive makeshift altar. The idea was fanciful in the extreme I decided, but I was pleased to leave the building behind in addition to the strange thoughts the inscriptions and ‘altar’, between them, had invoked in me. I would have to find a way of asking Mrs. Beeston about these peculiar features of the building and return to photograph them.
The complementary and enticing odours of bacon and coffee assailed me even before I had gained the kitchen.
“The grocer’s boy has been,” said Mrs. Beeston by way of explanation. “But it’s the same for lunch as you had last night I’m afraid; there has been a war on, you know.”
It would have been a very great pleasure to inform this most cantankerous of chatelaines that my awareness of that fact had extended to my volunteering in the late summer of 1914 but in order to keep the peace between us I decided to remain silent on the subject of my participation in recent hostilities. I contented myself with proposing that as to luncheon she need not worry; I had espied a hostelry on my walk from the station and intended to lunch there.
“You’ll find The Wyvern Arms plain but clean enough,” she said. “Or so I am told…” was the rather barbed addendum that took with one hand what had been given by the other.
We settled down to breakfast, the blood puddings being particularly fine, as I told her. This was an observation none the less true for being advanced by me as a prelude to asking her about the Icehouse. With uncanny instinct she pre-empted me by saying,
“I saw you walking towards the Icehouse earlier. Will your readers be very much interested in that, would you think?”
“It is a fine example of its kind,” I said. “But just now I find myself more fascinated by the inscriptions and the stone structure in the centre of the room. Have you seen them?” I asked.
“Oh I’ve seen them, of course, but I’ve not bothered my head about them. And nor perhaps should you.”
This last proposition coincided with her swift clearing of the table and retirement to the scullery. I had been dismissed and my thanks for breakfast fell on deaf ears. I returned to my room for the Kodak and resolved to spend the morning photographing from the grounds; my steps would then tend towards The Wyvern Arms, of which in the light of Mrs. Beeston’s proposed lunch menu, not to speak of her frostiness as a dining companion, I had high hopes.
Mrs. Beeston had described The Wyvern Arms as plain but clean enough and so it proved; despite her claim to be reliant for her knowledge on hearsay there was no quibbling with her choice of adjectives. I entered the saloon bar anticipating quite rightly that the sight of a stranger would momentarily arrest conversation before the clearing of a dozen throats began it again. The cheery landlord immediately turned his attention from the occupant of a bar stool to me:
“What can I get you sir?” he queried. “A pint of ale, if you please.” “And to eat?” Resisting the temptation to say “Anything but Mrs. Beeston’s potted shrimps -” I contented myself with asking for a beef sandwich.
The girl’s name was Amy Wythran and that disquieting past tense was universally deployed by landlord, tenant farmers, farm labourers and out of work topers of The Wyvern Arms, all of whom were only too happy to forgo feudal loyalties to share with me their half-knowledge when I told them where I was staying. The young Amy had gone missing sometime in late October 1916 and had not been seen since.
It would be something of an understatement to say that the reverential attitude to the Master displayed by Mrs. Beeston was not shared by the frequenters of The Wyvern Arms and there was a general consensus that he had had something to do with her disappearance. There was a universal belief, though it was not quite phrased in this way, that the young Master had taken the droit de seigneur that much further than his medieval forebears had been wont to do, shedding more blood in the process than is customary under these circumstances.
However refreshing I found their very different perception of the Master and however it uncannily tallied with my dream of the man the night before, they could in truth advance very little proof of his involvement. I was tempted to put down their suspicions to an incipient bolshevism in their class that, I had noted, seemed to coincide with the outbreak of peace; if they wished to make cameo appearances in my Country Life article they were not going the right way about it! I was not, after all, at Netherwood at the request of some scurrilous newspaper proprietor to uncover scandal; to the contrary, the journal for which I then worked, though I do so no longer, had diametrical intentions to the grubbier gentlemen of the daily press. Professional considerations that might impel me to leave the hostelry having bolted my food conflicted, however, with a personal curiosity that led me to take a more leisurely approach to luncheon. Their degree of animosity to the Master, and it appeared, the Chatelaine, began to explain why the latter’s knowledge of The Wyvern Arms was limited to hearsay at the very least; it might also, I found myself wondering, provide an explanation for the sorry state of the glasshouses.
As I retraced my steps fragments of their dark mutterings proved difficult to shake off: “Hellfire Club – membership of one” had opined the landlord; “Maybe two,” muttered another. “Odd but not harmlessly so…” had proposed a third. A spate of animal rustling the year before Amy’s disappearance was blamed on the Master, though I parted company with the men as to the likelihood of this for I could imagine no purpose behind it. As to the fate of Amy I could advance no explanation beyond the fact that there are a variety of unsavoury reasons why young women go missing and that so far as any interested parties are concerned their young men should be the first port of call. Blaming the feudal lord whose mouth had been stopped in one of Flanders’ fields from defending himself was hardly fair play. It was clear to me that the content of my lunchtime conversation with the frequenters of The Wyvern Arms was not to be broached at dinner with Mrs. Beeston; it was equally evident to me that my decision to lunch at that hostelry and imbibe local gossip could only add to her animosity towards me. I resolved to complete my tasks during the course of the remains of the day and be away tomorrow; photographs could be taken in the afternoon and copy could be composed that evening. With this in mind my steps were directed to the Icehouse; its sigils and symbols, of which I could make neither head nor tail, would little interest the subscriber to Country Life but at least its exterior had a historical importance worthy of recording.
Mrs. Beeston had claimed not to bother her head about the arcane inscriptions carved into the brickwork of the Icehouse but I, to the contrary, could not erase them from my mind so easily. Having fulfilled my official duties by photographing the structure from a variety of different angles, I descended once more the steps that led into its cool, not to say chilly, partially subterranean, interior in order to engage in a more thorough investigation of it.
It is in the order of things that one should become acclimatised to locations or experiences that have had an initially disquieting effect upon one but the opposite was proving to be the case where the Icehouse was concerned. I had in this respect to remind myself more than once that the temperature drop, which I noticed more forcibly this time than hitherto, merely indicated that the building was fulfilling the very function it had had in a pre-refrigerated age.
This time around I decided to turn my attention away from the wall with its stenographic material and pay closer attention to the floor and to the makeshift stone structure, which had so troubled me on my first visit.
I lit a Lucifer in an effort to shed light on the dark stains which I now realised covered the floor but were concentrated in the vicinity of what I had fancifully taken to calling ‘the altar’. There might of course be an entirely innocent explanation but this was an ice not a slaughter house, and unless it doubled as such the degree of what looked to be dried blood was both difficult to explain and impossible, I now realised, to query with Mrs. Beeston. I would for now, I resolved, pending further thought in the relative comfort of my room, tell myself that the delicious black pudding I had enjoyed that same morning might have had its origin in just such a makeshift factory as the one I had just visited.
Nonetheless, I was (I make no secret of it) very pleased to leave, regaining the cold but more wholesome November air with a feeling of considerable relief. I returned to my room in the fading light and sat at the desk to compose a text to accompany the photographs I had taken but I could neither put pen to paper nor word on page and I stared at the Icehouse until, perhaps long after, it had melted into the darkness. I decided to eschew the dubious contents of Mrs. Beeston’s larder, which I held largely responsible for the disordered dreams of the night before, and turn in early.
The Master had come home.
To speak more plainly, that is the way it seemed to me in my dream. Accompanied by Mrs. Beeston he entered his room none too pleased (as was the case the night before) to find me there. Again, as before, there followed an attempt on their part to stifle me but this time I did not awake and the scene changed to the interior of the Icehouse where a peculiar rite seemed to be taking place. The candlelight which played on the walls made the sigils and symbols that much more uncanny and barbarous. Its participants were, of course, The Master and his loyal housekeeper, and there was also a third figure whose lack of struggle seemed explicable only in terms of her drugged state. She lay prone upon the altar while Mrs. Beeston, in my dream transformed from crotchety chatelaine into imperious high priestess, busied herself with a knife of surgical sharpness and sacrificial intent: the dreadful tool of a maleficent trade.
What followed it is not good to describe.
I will say simply that what I saw resembled a scene common enough in slaughter houses where bulls and heifers are concerned but, it is to be fervently hoped, exceptional given the human status of the victim in this instance. As is always the case the body jolted into vivid life as the blade severed an artery and as quickly slumped into torpor. This was grisly enough but what exceeded it in horror and impelled sleep to give way to wakefulness was the positioning of The Master: supine beneath the altar, naked and positioned in such wise that the blood now covered him from head to foot, giving him an uncanny resemblance to the new-born. At the same time, he resembled to me a Dionysian imbiber of the warm south’s full beaker: the liberality of the libation leading to the ichor’s spillage down his chin. I left them there as calm replaced frenzy and their breathing came more naturally. It was I, who upon waking was reduced to a breathlessness that impelled me to open the window to get air. What I saw led me to wonder if I was still dreaming: the Icehouse was glowing unnaturally in the dark as though it was on fire.
I packed my bag, still not convinced entirely that this was not part of my dream and made to leave. As I looked back at the house I could make out Mrs. Beeston standing on the stone steps; her hands on her hips in a hieroglyph of triumph: I had been seen off the property.
I spent the rest of that night at The Wyvern Arms. The Landlord’s lack of surprise as to my appearance at his hostelry in the early hours of the morning and incuriosity as to my dishevelled state were themselves a species of the uncanny. Nothing was said. Everything was understood.
In London my editor performed the same charade of incuriosity with equal credibility, though its limits must have been sorely tested by the fact that lack of copy was accompanied by paucity of photographs. It is possible, I suppose, that the Kodak mechanism could have jammed but how to explain that all the photographs taken of the Icehouse disclosed merely the vistas of untended heath land beyond? Better to give the impression, I resolved, that for reasons best known to myself I had become fixated on this unprepossessing and barren landscape to the detriment of the journal’s interests.
It was to be many years before excavation of the Icehouse, that is to say, of the area it stood upon and surrounded it, led to the dual discovery of the remains of a young women and that of a Mithraic temple. There was no connection between these two discoveries so far as the archaeologists were concerned because whereas the temple could be dated to late antiquity, the bones themselves argued for a death and burial sometime in the early part of the current century.
Such is the wonder of forensics.
I alone suspect a connection. For is it not possible that the religion brought back by Roman soldiers serving in the Far East of the Empire was carried into battle by the Master? It is said that the initiate who undergoes the baptism of blood has conferred upon him prosperity and longevity: such as all those young men conscripted in 1916 might have wished for, though few could imagine taking the steps likely to obtain these things. If such was the case, and I am of course reliant only on dream-derived evidence, it is the less strange to me now that Mrs. Beeston should imagine that I was the Master returning a year after Armistice; for the ritual, if ritual there were, promised such an outcome. It is possible, I suppose, that the Master assumed the greater efficacy of human sacrifice; Mithraism, of course, contents itself with the shedding of the blood of the bull.
I do not think (I should say I have resolved not to think) that this was a case of ‘mortal vampirism’ though I am aware that such a category exists.
For what it is worth, and the reader must judge precisely what it is worth, my counterpart a year later experienced similar dreams of stifling and sacrificial rite and failed to produce anything of much use to a journal intent on extolling the virtues of the aristocracy and the beauties of their properties. I should perhaps put on record that I did not share the contents of my dreams with anyone else: least of all my eminently sane, unshell-shocked colleague – prior at least to his stay at Netherwood.
Netherwood, which successfully avoided the first generation of seekers after heritage, went on to elude the next for whom sepia photographs of faded grandeur were not enough to assuage its insatiable thirst for vicarious pleasures. For this generation TheNational Trust provided the possibility of making pilgrimages to the very sites the immediate ancestors of these enthusiasts would have paid good money – had they had any – from which to escape. It is a strange thought, is it not? These days the guided tour that begins in the great hall ends in a visit to the kitchens. The fluidity with which the weekend visitors move between above and below stairs must be wondrous to the ghosts of either station from the previous century.
One mystery remains and that concerns the ontological status of the Icehouse. There is a school of thought that denies its existence and adduces a date for its demolition that precedes my sojourn by a decade or so. The seemingly incontestable evidence produced for this ludicrous claim is the fact that no photographs exist of it into the new century. Indeed it is particularly galling to me that my own photographs (taken from the archive by unknown hands) have been used to discredit my testimony, and indeed that of my counterpart of a year later. The latter distinctly remembers the building as a consequence both of the two visits he paid to it and his subsequent dreams of it in which it functioned as the grisliest of venues. These photographs, as I have noted, disclose only the bleak view I saw from the building’s window but stubbornly refuse to record the existence of the structure itself. It can scarcely do our case much good, I suppose, that the inmates of the secure unit also insist that they can see it from the window that are now perforce barred: a claim dismissed by their keepers as a collective hallucination.
Secure unit? Barred windows? Keepers?
Your confusion, dear reader, is entirely warranted and these things stand in need of explanation: Netherwood House, seat of the earls of Ruthven has become Renfield Asylum for the criminally insane. Things are perhaps finally as they should be. Its scowling wyverns now occupy reclamation yards and have fallen prey to those who wish to imbue their own properties with ‘a touch of class’.
As to the fate of Mrs. Beeston, housekeeper of Netherwood and high priestess of a Mithraic temple (albeit in a corrupted form) – I have no certain knowledge.
NOVEMBER 2018 by Richard Martin MONK