“Alright?” I placed my hands on the doorway casing as I looked in to the girls’ room, both of them sitting on their beds, still chatting away constantly, briefly interrupted by my question.
“Yep.” Tia replied contently, before resuming her conversation with Hannah.
I waltzed along the landing, across to the doorway to Scarlett’s room, before which I heard the faint sound of her voice, reading from one of the books she had found:
“I had four blak arrows under my belt,
Four for the greefs that I have felt,
Four for the nomber of ill menne,
That have opressid me now and then.
One is gone; one is wele sped;
Old Apulyaird is ded.
One is for Maister Bennet Hatch,
That burned Grimstone, walls and thatch.
One for Sir Oliver Oates,
That cut Sir Harry Shelton’s throat.
Sir Daniel, ye shull have the fourt;
We shall think it fair sport.
Ye shull each have your own part,
A blak arrow in each blak heart.
Get ye to your knees for to pray:”
As soon as the words rang through the hall, I knew the passage instantly: The Back Arrow, A Tale of Two Roses, it was. From one of my favorite writers: Robert Louis Stevenson.
Along with Treasure Island and Kidnapped, this was among the top of my list of not only the best of his works, but the best books I had ever spent my time reading. Each one was filled with fleshed characters, stunning locations, and like what she was reading at that moment, beautiful passages.
There was no stopping me, I had to finish it.
Running into the room, pretending to wield a sword in my left hand, I charged towards Scarlett, exclaiming:
“Ye are ded theeves, by yea and nay!”
There was no disbelieving the extent at which I had startled my own daughter. She was completely stiff, holding the book open on her lap as she merely stared at me.
“Jon Amend-all, of the Green Wood, and his jolly fellaweship.” I continued, further resuming the passage of which she was enjoying.
“How did you know that?” She questioned, still rather shocked at the sudden unexpected outburst that she had just witnessed.
“Stevenson always did write the best stories.” I replied, sitting on the end of the bed, “When I was your age, I enjoyed nothing more than reading adventure books.”
“And you’ve read this one?” She held up the book and handed it to me, making sure to slot the old leather bookmark in the page she had made it to.
It was the original, 1888 (The first year of its publication) Cassel and Co. edition, complete with illustrations from a so-called H.M Paget.
It even smelled beautiful. Just brushing through the dog-eared pages brought me back to my youth, scanning through the aged books and encyclopedias of the local library.
After a few seconds, I handed the book back to her, “Actually, I’ve come to give you a few things.”
“What are they?” She asked sweetly, as suddenly her muscles strengthened, allowing her to move closer towards me.
“Well…” I nervously continued, thumbling around in my pocket, “They belong to the house, so I’m afraid you can’t keep them.” I took out the gold coins, and showed them to Scarlett, “They’re guilders.” Shining in the sunlight, Scarlett was astonished by the color they gave off, “Florins, all the way from Medieval Florence.” I explained.
“Wow.” As I placed one into her open hand, she examined and scrutinized every part of the coin, taking time to inspect every aspect of the piece.
“People used to believe that they warded off bad spirits.” I tried to make up some sort of tale, something to re-assure Scarlett, “They believe, that if you placed a few on your bedside table, it would bring good dreams, and any nasties would be scared away.”
“Thanks Dad.” She hugged me, causing a warm sensation to pump through my veins, “I hope they do the trick.” She said cheerfully as I placed the others on the table beside the bed, in front of the window.
“You’re very welcome.” I replied, getting back up to my feet, “I think me and your mother are about to make tea in a few minutes, so we’ll call you and the others to the table soon, alright?” I asked.
“Okay.” She responded happily, before opening the book as I exited through the doorway.
Upon departing from the bullnose step once more, I immediately turned into a full spin to my left, going down the dark corridor towards the kitchen.
The walls were too dark to see their original colors, but the stained glass windows persevered to give a painted tint on the peeling paper, creating a murky rainbow of colors and shades, lining the wall along on my right.
The kitchen/dining room was probably the only surviving structure of the original castle on which the house was built upon.
The pure stone was exposed along with the timber beams, and old wooden counters ran along the wall joining the two corridors, while the other wall was lined with French windows, and a pair of doors – from the height of Victorian splendor.
A large bench, much like a picnic bench of today, sat in the center of the room, and still dirt and dust was everywhere.
A few of the candles had been lit, as the windows were on the wrong side to allow the light to flood in during the evening hours, and Elly had also lit the cast-iron coal-heated stove – much like the later AGA that came to be known worldwide.
Upon the table of the bench lay a few baskets, with carefully selected local produce placed into each of them, a few of which had been scattered around the surface for Elly’s ease.
“So…” I sidled up to Elly, wrapping my arms around her waist as she sorted through one of the many cookbooks upon the shelves, “What’s for tea then, chef?” I asked.
“Well,” She pointed to one of the pages within the book, “You’ll be pleased to know it’s going to be your favorite tonight….” She replied, “Cottage Pie.” She used her hands to display the ingredients on the counter, before turning to me, her alluring smile infiltrating my veins.
“Do you want me to help?” I questioned, though I was never a cooking man myself.
“Oh, Robert.” She sighed, laughing slightly, “If – for whatever reason – I need the kitchen set aflame, I will call for your culinary skills,” She chuckled, “But I’m afraid I’ll be alright for the time being.”
“No problem.” I replied, giving her a quick peck on the cheek, “I think I’ll chop some firewood for this evening.” I retreated back to the corridor, giving a quick salute as I disappeared behind the wall.
To my surprise, as I approached the main hall, looking for my boots by the living room doors, I caught sight of Scarlett handling the candles upon the table, before she saw me.
“Are these to light tonight?” she asked nervously. Neither of us liked the flicker of the candlelight when we tried to sleep. Years of numerous power-cuts had taught us that.
“Not if the power works.” I replied cheerfully, pulling my feet into the boots as I buttressed myself against the wall, “Why don’t you come too? We can chop some wood and check the fusebox.” I offered my hand to Elly, and even in her adolescence, she gratefully accepted after donning her long claret coat, before we made our way out of the door.
As detailed in the note, sure enough the barn building was situated just a short walk east of the house, nestled in amongst a clump of pine trees, scarce considering the ash and spruce which plagued the estate.
Though specified as a barn, it appeared more of a set of stables, or a livery. It was a U-shaped structure, which curved around its small courtyard, joined by a timber fence and gate, complete with padlock and chains.
The left half of the structure seemed to be entirely open, meaning that horses and carriages could be parked during the night, and were kept in good condition.
The right section was more of the contrary. Brick walls lined the sides, and only one oak door and a latticed window – though the panes were cracked beyond transparency – struggled to remain.
The roof on both sides had caved in on their centers, and the timber struts which held the left section had started to rot, some already showing signs of breaking.
No matter how much we wanted to explore, we didn’t want to spend too much time under any part of the dipping shingles.
“Well, there’s the axe.” Scarlett pointed out the long-handled chopper, leaning propped up against one of the timber supports, third from the closest to us, “And there must be some firewood around here somewhere.”
I brushed off the shackle and deadbolt, and pushed the gate open, doubling it back against its own fence, before scouting the porches for any sorts of wood, Scarlett following closely behind me.
Soft flurries of snow started to fall as the temperature dipped near freezing once more, causing me to shiver violently for a second, before I noticed the pile of lumber in the far left corner of the structure.
It was about seven foot high, and the same in its width, and was covered by an old tarpaulin, battered and withered by the cold weather.
It seemed mainly to be piles of both ash and beech, the best types of wood to burn in my experience.
Seasoned well, there was easily enough to last us at least a fortnight, and maybe another week after that.
Standing next to it was an old cart. Seemingly a minecart in its former days, it was of wooden composition, and was held together with a cast iron frame. It had couplings at each end, and the wheels seemed to have been designed to be used on a sort of track. Handles were also fitted on either end, so on the face of it this had been converted, so to speak, into a transport for firewood, just as we would use it.
“We might as well use that to take the wood to the front door.” I pointed to the old cart as I took the axe in both hands, and walked towards the piles of wood, ripping the covering off before examining the contents of the pile.
Scarlett watched with content, her hands in her coat pockets, as I pulled a few logs from the tower, and gently placed them in the open, on the old stump which bore the marks of the chops of times gone by.
“Can I help, Dad?” Within seconds, she became restless, and wanted to help. It was that sudden urge to become involved. That feeling, that at the end of the day, she was part of the duo keeping us warm.
“Of course.” I replied, glancing around the area for something smaller, as slowly the snow began to increase in density, “Do you want to use the axe, or something easier?” I asked.
“What about this?” From under the shelter of the tiled roof, she picked up an old billhook. The sun glistened off the polished metal, and the tool looked as if it were new – or not used for a good time at least, “Can I cut wood with this?” She asked for approval.
“You can make some kindling with that.” I replied, grabbing one of the chopped pieces of lumber, small enough to be split into kindling pieces, and showed her the simple chopping action of the bill, “Like that, see?” I told her, and a gleaming smile of participation shined throughout her features as I passed her the utensil.
She took the tool, and endeavoring not to use both her hands, swung it down onto the next piece of wood, placed there by myself once more.
The log split into two nicely sized chunks, easy enough to light on the starter of a fire, and once more the glint in her eyes sparkled.
We continued for a good half an hour or so, me chopping the larger pieces with the axe, and her splitting the smaller ones to make kindling and tinder.
We pulled the tumbril out into the open after a while, and piled the logs in neat towers, before returning to the task ahead.
But after a while, the feeble muscles within Scarlett’s arms grew tired, and she resorted to sitting upon one of the stumps under shelter of the gable, watching her old man tirelessly chop the logs for the night ahead.
“Right…” I dropped the axe after a lengthy while, and let it teeter against the stump, before gathering up the loose pieces of wood, and placing them in the wagon. I wiped the sweat which persisted to form, even in minus conditions, “I think we’re done for the evening.” I checked my watch: five o’clock, it read. Nearly time for tea, I thought as I picked up the bill.
The soft crunch of a footstep broke the murmur of the falling snow and the rustling of the trees, and both I and Scarlett stood still for a moment.
A figure, as dark as the night, stood stark against the backdrop of the whiteout fast approaching.
Thick-built and tall, it seemed to be a man, and an old man at that. A top hat atop his head was rimmed with snow, and a chain dangled from his chest, barely visible as we could only see his side.
He wore a long coat which dangled over the snow, which his boots trudged through as he began to walk past the fence, not taking any time to notice the two of us.
“Oi!” I took no chances, but I dared not to approach him either. With the bill in hand, I stood a good distance away from him, with the fence separating us further, “What do you think you’re doing?” I demanded, as Scarlett froze still.
The man refused to turn, or even acknowledge the fact that the two of us were present. He just stood, facing the house, though it couldn’t have been visible through the thick snow which, like a marching column of soldiers, hastened to advance towards us.
“Scarlett!” Keeping my eyes firmly placed on the gentleman in front of me, I pointed at my daughter, “Don’t move…at all.”
Now, I was sacred, not only for my own life, but for that of my family.
This man, whatever eccentric clothes he wore, could have been anyone. A burglar maybe, or perhaps an escapee from the local asylum. He could just have easily have been a local hooligan, but the thought of anything else scared me, and Scarlett for that same fact.
The poor girl just stood there, her fingers physically trembling s I edged further to the fence, firmly watching the man as he still didn’t acknowledge my presence, even in such a close vicinity.
“Hey!” I called again, this time much more sincere and commanding, “I’m talking to you!”
He turned, and the fire in his eyes pierced me to the heart. They were black as coal, and contrasted with the whiteness which surrounded the two of us.
Without speaking, nor making any kind of facial expression, he walked. Slowly, and crunching the snow as he did so, he turned the corner around to the west wall of the barns, and disappeared out of sight.
Giving a quick glance to Scarlett to confirm her position, I trudged to the gate, and swung it back open violently, before trying to race around to where the man was last seen.
The footprints stopped at the corner, and all that was left were the Grimm-style breadcrumb trail of impressions, which by now had already became filled through with snow.
I didn’t want to dwell on the thought for too long. By now, Scarlett would be terrified, and I would need a calm mind for her in turn to become composed. As nasty as it was, the thought crept like a slow worm through all my brain.
As much as I knew he wasn’t my imagination, every instance of what he could have been played on my mind, and with that, I trudged back through the snow to join my daughter.
As expected, she was a ghostly pale when I returned. So pale, in fact, that it had seemed she had merged in with the backdrop of the snow-laden ground, an icy figure among the monotonous white.
She dared not to move, as snow began to form small piles on her shoulders, her hands snuggled into the pockets of the jacket.
“What was that?” She shivered, as a fatigued, lusterless air fell over the two of us. We felt as caged creatures, that we could do nothing to aid the horrors we had just witnessed.
“I’m not quite sure myself.” I tried to soothe the imbroglio which had just taken place, but to be honest, even I was starting to feel a little paranoid.
I picked up the axe, and slung it into the wagon filled with the wood. “Come on,” I held out my left hand as my right gripped the handle of the surprisingly maneuverable cart, “Let’s get back and have some tea, hey?”
Scarlett skipped with a graceful gambol, and took my hand in grateful certitude, trying to beam a smile, yet only managing a solemn grin.
“When we get back,” I continued as we turned onto the road, her eyes blazing with anxiousness like bright stars, “We’ll keep this a secret from the others, okay?” I smiled to her, and she nervously nodded back, “It’ll only worry the twins.”
And with that, we trundled off back to the house, under the rising twilight.