The Black Book of Llys y Garn
Rooks wheel over the deep valley of the Arian. Below them, tangled oak forests cloak the slopes, from the high crags to the glinting flash of the river as it gathers, fed by the gullies pouring down from the hills, heading for the thundering ocean.
The rooks are the real owners of these forests. Their nests cluster in the trees and have done so from time beyond time. To them, the great house, Llys y Garn, is a passing thing, intrusive, shape-shifting, of interest for the occasional perch it offers, the food it discards. But it isn’t permanent, like them.
They see it from above, a mess of slate and cobbles, gable ends and chimney pots and mossy urns on terraces.
They saw it when there was nothing here but round houses, women squatting over querns and wolves howling in the deep woods.
They saw it when, below the Devil’s stones of Bedd y Blaidd, a nobleman held court for poets, in a timber hall under sooty thatch, and men quarrelled over family feuds.
They saw it when gatehouse, stables, kitchen and stores clustered round a great stone hall and tower, and kings fought for sovereignty.
They saw it when Tudor wings embraced the hall and people battled over the sanctity of bread and wine.
They saw the dismantling and remodelling as Queen Anne breathed her last.
They saw the slow decay, the arrival of Victorian affluence and the building of a house that dreamed of King Arthur and croquet on the lawn.
They saw the fitful restoration work and an Elizabethan fayre, and archaeological excavations and police tape.
They’ll still be here when… what? When it becomes a film location? A residential nursing home? An obscure religious retreat? Or perhaps just a burnt-out shell. Whatever becomes of it, the rooks will still be here. They have seen it all.
They know all its secrets.
The Good Servant
The darkness of the afternoon flashed brilliant for a moment, painting the landscape livid, as the carriage rolled up to the door. The lady of the house, Agnes Merrick-Jones, stood motionless. A lady did not succumb to small terrors like thunderstorms, but the housemaid could see her knuckles were white as her fists clenched, in the shadow of her skirts. At her side, her son James, eight years old, was steady as a rock. He hadn’t shown fear of anything, since he was two.
A little to their left, on the terrace, out of the shelter of the porch’s lead canopy, Skeel, the housemaid, stood waiting Mrs. Markham, the housekeeper and Charles the footman, to add proper dignity to the occasion.
Skeel watched the dark clouds, silently counting until the expectant hush erupted into the vibrating growl of thunder. It was miles away still, beyond the hills, but closing in. Lightning flashes didn’t terrify her but she had no wish to stand there getting soaked. She willed the footman on, as he stepped forward to open the carriage door.
Mr. Edward Merrick-Jones, esquire, master of Llys y Garn, peered out, scowling his displeasure at the churning clouds, as fat raindrops began to splatter.
‘Well then, don’t keep me waiting, boy. Out, before we both get a soaking.’
In his wake, a child appeared at the coach door. Six years old, with girlish curls and tear-streaked face. He was too small to tackle the drop to the drive easily, and stood staring down with tragic eyes.
‘Hand him out, East,’ snapped the master, and his valet plucked up the boy under the armpits and dropped him unceremoniously on the gravel, where the boy stumbled, the chippings biting into his hands and knees. The valet stepped out, ostentatiously wiping his hands.
‘Come on, up, boy.’ The master plucked him by the collar and thrust him at the slate steps, where his wife was waiting. ‘So here he is. And just as sorry a piece of work as you’d expect of Alfred Lawson’s son. Take him, Agnes, and make what you can of him.’
The boy peered up at the figures looming over him. His lip quivered and then stilled, as his eyes darted from one face to another, assessing the enemy.
Another lightning flash.
Young Master James studied the newcomer with silent contempt, the lift of his lip already the image of his father’s.
The mistress folded her hands hastily over her belly, fending contamination off the baby within. ‘Well, Cyril. So you are to live with us. I trust you’ll be a good boy and a credit to your uncle, who has so kindly taken you in.’ She half-turned to the housekeeper. ‘Mrs Markham. See to it that he’s…’ She waved a hand vaguely. ‘Washed and fed.’
And that was that. The mistress guided James into the house, her belly bulging out in counterbalance to the purple swathes of her bustle, so that she seemed twisted out of womanhood, into a grotesque, pantomime creature. The master shrugged up his collar and hurried up the steps, handing his hat to the housekeeper, leaving footman and valet to see to the luggage.
Mrs. Markham beckoned the housemaid, irritably. ‘Skeel, take the boy. See to the mistress’s wishes.’
Valet, to master, to mistress, to housekeeper, to maid. There was no one else for the child to be passed on to. Skeel surveyed the scrap of child at her feet.
‘Master Cyril Lawson.’
He sniffed, face in balance, waiting to swing from submission to belligerence, whichever seemed appropriate.
She pitied him.
She didn’t know why she wasted pity on him. He had no natural claim to any compassion she might be capable of feeling. He belonged, if he belonged anywhere, with Them, her “betters,” the masters and mistresses who paid her small wages and commanded her unstinting service, who addressed her as if she were a sub-human species. She understood her obligation to feel respect and loyalty, but affection was neither expected nor given. She fully intended to serve and care for Master James, as the heir who would one day be her future employer, but it had never occurred to her to think fondly of him. He was simply the Heir.
This child, though – this unprepossessing and unwanted nephew of the house, tugged at something within her that she didn’t know was there. His brows knit. Belligerence was winning out and she admired it. Admired that a six-year-old orphan, thrust unwillingly on disapproving strangers, could find a spirit of resistance somewhere deep within him.
Skeel smiled. It was a rare event. She’d studied to keep a mien of respectful subservience for so long that she’d almost forgotten how to smile. She could feel untried muscles twitching.
The boy’s frown froze, softened, ready to surrender.
‘Come.’ She held out her hand. He slipped his sticky paw into her grasp and let her lead him in, as another lightning bolt seared the sky and almost instantly, thunder roared, rolling, rumbling up and down the valley, and the rain came down in torrents.
She bathed him, before the fire in the servant’s hall. It was a task she should have passed to Mary Ann, the nursemaid, who was doubtless sitting idle in the nursery, warming her toes, with little enough to do until the arrival of the new baby. But hadn’t Mrs Markham instructed her to see it done? Skeel perversely chose to take the instruction literally.
The task conjured up all but forgotten memories, of a dimly lit cottage and her, a child no bigger than this one, tending to a sister while her mother, in limp exhaustion, nursed a baby. Had she bathed the child then? She had no memory of a tin bath in the cottage, but she could remember little arms around her neck, and a head of soft hair nestled into her shoulder…
But that was all quarter of a century ago. Another world. Here at Llys y Garn, she had never thought to care for any child. Was she too rough? It seemed not. Little Cyril didn’t mind the exercise in the least. She supposed the warm water was welcome after the long, tiring train journey and the jolting, draughty coach-ride.
‘There. You’ll do. Fit enough, I think.’ She wrapped him in a towel she’d set warming before the flames, tousling his hair dry.
She felt an odd knot in her stomach at the sound of that laugh.
‘So then. Supper for you. What would you like? Bread and jam?’
‘Yes please.’ He was eying her through folds of the towel, any initial shyness dispelled. ‘What’s your name?’ He had an impish grin.
‘That’s not a name. Just Skeel?’
‘I’m a housemaid. I’m Skeel, just as you are Master Lawson.’
‘No I’m not. I’m Cyril. What’s your proper name?’
What was she expected to do? Chide him for his familiarity and help to bolster in him a proper gentleman’s contempt for the lower orders? She chose not to chide. But she didn’t know how to answer. Mostly, here, they called her Skeel. It had become her name when she was judged a mature and steady member of the household. When she’d been young, a raw and undernourished shrimp, tossed back and forth between the upper servants, they used to call her Nelly. A servant’s name. Nelly, take this. Nelly, do that. Nelly, what’s keeping you, girl?
‘My mother called me…’ Eluned. She couldn’t say it. It was a foreign language, a name that hadn’t been spoken for years. It belonged to someone else. Someone who was rubbed out, when she’d come to this house to start a second life as servant. ‘I’m just Skeel.’
She cut bread, buttered it, spooned out a dollop of raspberry jam and watched him wolf it down with gusto. Again, that twist of undefined pleasure.
‘Didn’t you eat on the journey, with your uncle?’
He was silent, looking at her with suddenly swimming eyes. He managed a nod.
She remembered – he was a child who had just lost his mother.
She squeezed his hand, crouching beside him. ‘If you ever need—’
‘Skeel!’ Mrs. Markham, the housekeeper, bustled into the hall, frowning at the boy. ‘What are you doing? You were to pass him on to the nursery. His bed is prepared. You have no business giving him bread and jam down here. Empty that bath, silly woman, then take him up to Nurse.’
‘Yes, Mrs. Markham.’
‘Don’t know what she’ll make of him. A milksop with all his father’s vices, Mr. Merrick-Jones says. And he should know. At least Master James will set him a good example. Let’s hope he chooses to follow it. I haven’t got time for naughty, whining children running around this house, with all that I’ve got to do. The shoot starts tomorrow. Warn Nurse to keep him well out of reach of the guns. Though truth be told, it might solve everyone’s problems…’
‘I’ll take him up, Mrs. Markham.’
The boy allowed himself to be led, up to the top of the house. He was silent after the housekeeper’s tirade, face blank.
Skeel didn’t want to relinquish him, but it didn’t occur to her to challenge commands. Her function in life was to serve, to obey and keep silent.
But she would at least win one more smile from him, before she handed him over.
‘You’ll like it here, at Llys y Garn.’ She held his hand as they turned for the second flight of stairs.
‘No I won’t.’
‘Then we shall be very disappointed.’
‘No you won’t. Nobody wants me. I want Mama, but she’s dead.’ Tears squeezed from his eyes. ‘Nobody wants me here.’
He surveyed her, doubtfully. ‘You don’t, really, though.’
‘Yes, I do. I like you best of anyone here.’
He hugged her, impulsively, as she opened the nursery door.