Authors: Geoffrey Household
Tags: #Thriller & Suspense
I have returned. Now that the forest has again closed over me I feel that I am welcome, that under the dense mysteries of vegetation must be the answer – well, not the answer but a readiness to sense what it should be. One cannot live here without the genes of far-distant ancestors responding. I see in myself some resemblance to a werewolf. When I have to appear by day I am a good and reputable citizen whose name is not unknown in learned circles; by night I am a prowler under the oaks, determined to find out why I was worth killing. Why was I so important? Which of his precious secrets, mostly bogus but one undeniably solid, did he suspect I might discover?
And discover where it is, what is its date and what its source I will. Meanwhile, I wish to prepare a record of events which will explain my own actions and serve as the basis of my defence if I am run in on a charge of murder and, perhaps, of burglary.
When I was safely on the bank after the fight with the Severn for my life and wondering why Simeon Marrin should have encouraged me in what he must have known was sheer suicide, I remembered having told him that nobody knew where I was. So it was safe to kill me. But instead of storming back to him in justifiable fury I chose to remain dead. That decision – so far as I can analyse myself in this dark shelter of dead twigs and broken brick, to which I have now returned, was due to indignant curiosity. I had a better chance of discovering the truth if I didn’t exist.
My dear policeman, if my movements begin to demand investigation – unlikely, but one never knows – no doubt you will first enquire how I earn my living and will be told that I am an economic historian. My specialty is the study of ancient economies. That is a side-line which will not interest you. It should, and I will go into it later at more length.
The first cause of my being in the Forest of Dean when I was supposed to be in Spain was sheer exasperation. I was about to fly to Seville. When the plane was ready to take off, one engine started to flame. The aircraft was removed to workshops and the passengers to a foul hotel of computerised luxury. Most of the following day was spent fuming in the passenger lounges of Heathrow. In the evening we were told with the usual self-righteousness that the flight was cancelled and that another night would have to be spent at that imperial caravanserai of the damned. I cleared out and returned to my flat. Instead of exploring the banks of the Guadalquivir, decently dressed and equipped, I decided to explore those of the Severn in marching order with a pack on my back, my feet being more reliable than airline timetables. I had long wanted to see for myself whether there was any possible site for a Roman port on the east of the estuary, though I did not intend a serious investigation, only a solitary, enjoyable walk with a good excuse for it.
And so, you see, if by bad luck you have become interested in the name of Piers Colet, all his friends will have told you he is in Seville. I must admit it looks like meticulous planning, but it was not.
As you know – or would know if you belong to the Gloucester or Bristol police – the roads on the east of the Severn Sea are for the most part a mile or two away from the water, and little can be seen but the meadows and the sea wall. The only way to carry out a close examination of the sands and channels is to walk along the embankment until stopped by a muddy pill (as Gloucestershire calls the outlet of a stream), to strike back to the nearest bridge, jumping or failing to jump the drainage ditches, and then return to the estuary and repeat the process. On the face of it a boat would seem more practical, but the channels are not easy. Set out on the flood after the Severn bore has passed up river, and you will see no more than a full and swirling estuary. To the eye it is as majestic as the great seaway of the Thames, yet there may be less than a fathom of water under the keel, and it is said to be possible – though not advisable – to walk across from bank to bank at low tide and stay dry above the knees.
No, the only course for a historian seeking a worked block of stone which might once have belonged to a quay is to walk, to wade and to call for advice at a village pub or the isolated cottage of a salmon fisherman. I have no doubt that navigation was just as tricky two thousand years ago, let alone the fact that a port on the east bank would have served no known purpose.
After crossing the Severn Bridge, I spent the night at Beachley and next day started up the west bank where Romans loaded the iron from the Forest of Dean in their ports of Woolaston and Lydney, already well known and partly excavated. So I was more sightseer than explorer, but again I left the road to follow the river where it was possible. That was not often, for the lanes down to the tideway are few and the embankment is pierced by deeper pills than on the east, fed by streams running down from the dark line of the forest.
Outside Blakeney, when I must have covered all of twenty miles, I stopped at a pub and drank a pint of excellent perry, tempted to try this product of the orchards of ancient pear trees between the road and the Severn. The pub did not let rooms and I asked the landlord if he could recommend anywhere else, not too far away, where I could stay the night. True disaster can only spring from such natural questions which lead so innocently to the unforeseen. I wish to God that I had never asked that question. Well do I? If I hadn’t I should never have met Elsa.
‘There’s the guest house at Broom Lodge,’ he replied. I detected a slight note of doubt in his voice. It married with my own doubts. I do not like places called guest houses. The food is usually awful and the proprietor either discourteous or painfully hearty.
‘What’s it like?’ I asked.
‘It’s a farm,’ he said. ‘Communist they calls it.’
‘Communal, Dad,’ his daughter corrected him.
‘Aye. Sort of monastery, like. And they run a guest house where anyone is welcome if he’s presentable.’
‘A Catholic monastery?’
‘Not they. Not church nor chapel neither. But I hear it’s bloody religious one way or another.’
It sounded as if it might be a refuge for some crazy Christian sect or Zen Buddhists or one of the offshoots of Hinduism involving meditation and milk, but my curiosity was aroused. I am always eager to understand how a commune of inefficient farmers can produce enough food to feed themselves and their families. The usual answer is that they can’t, and consequently return to the rat-race. But when they can, an analysis of their organisation often has something to teach us of the past and possible future.
The landlord gave me exact directions for a short cut to Broom Lodge. After a mile of road through scattered cottages, never grouped into anything one could call a village, I came to a green bridle path through the Forest. The great oaks shut out most of the sky and all the activities, themselves silent enough, of the grasslands. There was no undergrowth but the miniature jungle of young shoots of bracken, from which sheep once appeared and crossed the path, apparently unattended and unconfined by any fence.
Reaching a road, I turned left as directed and arrived at the drive leading to Broom Lodge. It was a long, white house of two storeys built in the early nineteenth century, with many modern outbuildings, and shut in by the Forest on three sides. The front faced open country to the south-west and commanded a distant view across the river to Sharpness Docks, where little ships bound for Gloucester thankfully abandoned the estuary and entered a canal.
There was no one about but a young man who was digging up the tulips and putting in bedding plants. He was very pink and white, bare to the waist of his muddy corduroy trousers and did not look as if gardening was his normal task. His clean-shaven, demure face and unsteady blue eyes suggested a curate attending to the vicarage garden. When I told him that I had heard that travellers could be put up for the night, he agreed fervently that they could. Yes, yes they could. Indeed they could. Someone would come out shortly to receive me. At the moment the management was in conference.
This unexpected echo from the commercial world amused me; it also suggested that here might be a commune efficiently run. A home-made bench of oak on the well-kept lawn faced the front door and there I sat waiting for the religion to turn up.
It came out, slender, tall and commanding. She looked just right for an abbess in spite of sweater and slacks, with large eyes and a full-lipped mouth in a serene oval face. She might, I thought, lack piety, but not discipline.
I introduced myself, explaining that I was on a walking tour of the tidal Severn and so had no more baggage than the small pack on my back. She was kind enough to say that I was just the sort of person they liked to entertain, and led me off to a recently built annexe, extending from the main house into the Forest, to show me the visitors’ accommodation.
It was simple: a white-washed cell with a comfortable bed, a table and an armchair. There were four or five other cells opening out of the passage, and at the end of it a fine, tiled washroom with showers and lavatories. She hoped I would join the community for supper. I should come along to the bar when I was ready.
I was glad to hear that there was a bar. The atmosphere of mixed simplicity and affluence puzzled me. It did not fit the pattern of a large farm which ran a guest house on the side. Monastic rule must come in somewhere. Indeed I might have dropped in at a medieval abbey famed for its hospitality. The handsome young abbess had mentioned no charge for bed and breakfast.
Having made myself as presentable as I could, I returned to the entrance hall of the main building. Double doors wide open gave me a sight of the refectory, arranged like a school or college hall with a high table and two short wings. Across the way was the so-called bar, which more resembled a small party in a country house with the host serving drinks from a white-clothed sideboard and his guests scattered about. The abbess, who had changed into a black robe with a curiously heavy gold brooch beneath one shoulder, came forward to greet me and led me to the dispenser of alcohol and wisdom.
‘This is my uncle, Simeon Marrin, and this is Major Denzil Matravers-Drummond, another of our guests.’
This first meeting with Marrin failed to give me any clear impression of the man. Tall and thin, but with chest and arms well developed, he could have been a somewhat ascetic clergyman in his forties who, say, had rowed for his college in youth. His grey eyes were large and far apart, like those of his niece though not as calm. Power, yes. I cannot be sure, but I think I sensed that. In any case it was not long before I did.
The major was of a very different species – older, preoccupied and with a nervous trick of raising his hand to pull at a moustache which no longer existed. One could hazard a guess that, like many retired military men, he was busy catching up with obscure intellectual interests – a likely type to fall for whatever Broom Lodgism was. The odd score of colonists sitting or standing about the room were mostly young men and women, healthy and attractive. But among them was a minority who fitted my expectations, satisfied with their own salvation and looking as if they had just returned from a psychiatrist who had successfully excised another piece of individual character. It seemed odd that all these were bald.
We trooped into supper. I had been placed between Simeon Marrin and his niece Elsa. On Marrin’s other side was the major who, I gathered, had visited Broom Lodge on several occasions. The rule seemed to be that one stiff drink or a sherry was permissible before the meal. At table one was offered a soft drink or a mug of cider or perry from the Severnside orchards.
‘How did you hear of us, Mr Colet?’ Marrin asked.
‘From the landlord of the inn at Blakeney.’ I told him how I had been walking down the left bank and up the right bank of the Severn Sea with a vague interest in Roman ports.
‘Are you an archaeologist?’ Elsa asked.
‘No, an economist specialising in ancient history. Archaeologists find and uncover the buildings. I want to know how the people who lived in them had enough to eat.’