The easterly wind that hurried in on that spring morning of 1921 still had the taste of winter on its breath. It was a further reminder that Mill Hill had yet to be woken by the warm golden hues of an English summer. Single shafts of faint cool sunlight daggered pointlessly across the grey-green landscape as the three girls walked cautiously, and with some purpose, in the direction of the old convent that rested majestically between the tall rows of elderly Beech trees. They had kept a watchful eye for anyone who might know them. There seemed little point in circling the fields. Those meadows of long winter grasses curtained high and dark woods, thick and frightening, and somehow were quite beyond the line of perfect reason, and anyway the road was quiet enough, aside from a trundling omnibus, empty of its passengers, and an unobservant bike-straddled butcher’s boy. When sudden spots of icy rain, hard and driven, like rivulets of steel pressed into their faces, and stung, and ran away down their cheeks, they had wished for their umbrellas. It has always been understood, that girls from Wentworth school were not permitted to pester or pry into the activities of The Sisters. Their order was hermetic and they shunned most forms of outside contact. Miss Dyson had said so, many times. Therefore, three seventeen year old’s, now in their last term of prep and despite the diversions of afforded comforts provided by their expensive tutoring were now suffering from the malaise of having done ‘this and that’ from the boredom which can strike at the heart of any restless teenager. A planned snoop of The Sisters had provided itself that Saturday morning with the timely decision by Miss Dyson to visit her brother in Hampstead. That was to mean, she would be away until the early evening meal.
Thick grey woolen coats had been pulled over black pleated skirts. Red toes pushed into leather browned boots and pink chins tied trustingly with gold-crested bonnets. It was Celia who kept up their spirits. She would often talk quite pointlessly on no particular subject. In fact, she was famous for her lack of concentration. A position she seemed to take great pleasure in, cherish, and even boast of at most times! Now her mind wandered with a new excitement and dribbled incessantly.
‘I suppose we have the reputation of being well off.’ She explored this thought with a great deal of degree. ‘Mother say’s the working class will never improve their minds because they simply don’t have the inclination to learn. She say’s their only penchant is towards the ale houses!’ She sniffed the air resolutely and looked at her two companions with dark brooding eyes. Celia Teakle’s view of the world had become a cynical one. Esme and Bridget were not listening. Their attention had been drawn to a smartly dressed young man walking quickly towards them. As he drew close he raised his brown bowler hat, smiled, then said in a cultivated voice: ‘Good morning ladies!’ The girls grinned foolishly and looked about in all directions with a certain youthful embarrassment. He was good looking; with a matching brown suit and glistening shoes; and in his right hand he held a Malacca cane that sprouted an ivory carved wolf’s head for its handle. The heels of his leather shoes snapped a sharp salute as he passed. Out of earshot; they giggled, which turned to laughs, then quieted to a murmur. ‘That’s Samuel Deans!’ whispered Bridget. The story-telling Irish of her manner was far more realized in village gossip than lessons and all too often her snippets of parley were somewhat less than interesting. A theme Miss Dyson had frequently pointed out. But for once she held the others firm and relished in the potency of it.
She proceeded at their curiosity. ‘His father’s got pots of money! You know; a magistrate and all that! They’ve a pony trap and two servants, perhaps more!’ She took a deep intake of air much pleased in their watchful interest. ‘Well, there is housekeeper too.’ She added carefully. Then considered: ‘I think I would marry for money…poverty is so boring.’ She hunched her shoulders a little; fired by the claim, then relaxed. She often did this when making a profound statement. Esme glided her pink lips into a half moon smile and looked at her two dear friends as one might reflect upon a judgment of thought. Her crystal blue eyes looked at them both with attachment, and in that moment, that fleeting second of time, she wondered how their lives would change in the coming years. She resolved there and then; that they must remain lifetime friends…come what may.
The reckless stone convent stood in assessment of itself, like some long forgotten relic from a underbred faith. Its uncertainness groaned in a bleak agony and rested on a meadow of flattened grasses and half dead nettles. A small narrow path ran between its high glacial beeches, weedy and unkempt, barely able to give the width of passage to a spreading coat or pair of boots. The path ended by a heavy worm-holed wooden door set within a crumbling porch of ancient masonry that seemed to have no presence to opening. Nearby, leaning stone slabs announced the names of long-dead sisters like a triumphal necessity.
Esme shivered from her place by the road. It was clear they would not go that way. They must approach from the woods. It was Celia who found the little lane of leafless crab apple trees and stirring hawthorn bushes that opened to a rising plateau and a dismal dark wood. But from here they could overlook the convent, with its raked clean vegetable plots and neat mounds of newly exhilarated brown earth that closed upon a dry wisteria kitchen door. A man stood erect upon two stout firm legs. He tied canes in the middle of the crow-pecked earth with a primitiveness and determination of his one solitary spirit. He formed them into small wigwam shapes over the innocent ground. His hands were huge, his body trunk-like, his exposed arms held muscle and hair, his face was ruddied and his lips muttered. He wiped his forehead with a grubby handkerchief and returned to his obligation.
‘I suppose they keep him for all the rough and heavy work,’ whispered Bridget, ‘and I bet he provides game for the pot too! He might see us?’
The girls remained crouched; half hidden by a large spreading cypress. Turning, the man looked up towards a darkening sky. Far off to the east black clouds had formed as if waiting for their own moment of glory. He shook his head. Then walked slowly in the direction of the doorway.
‘Come on, let’s have a look around.’ Bridget raised her hunched body with lesser ease than she had got down, but in that moment the door opened heavily and a plump middle age woman stood for a few seconds within its creaking frame. She was head to toe with a fierce black dress and a tied-tight bonnet. Of the man now approaching her she took no notice, brushed past him silently and began breaking small pieces of bread from a partly consumed brown loaf held rather dumbly within her very narrow fingers. She threw the pieces, like rampant snowflakes over a patchy area of ground, suddenly speckled with a dozen or more fat brown hens. The girls crushed themselves once more. Their hearts pumping noiselessly above the quiet grass.
‘She must have seen us!’ gasped Esme. She pushed herself to the cold earth for what seemed like minutes. At last the woman turned from the satisfied birds and went inside behind the man.
‘That was close!’ Esme found her throat suddenly without moisture and swallowed hard. ‘Come on, lets climb that rise on the edge of the woods…it must overlook the whole place.’ She pointed to where the plateau rose sharply up, forming a staid starch crest, before a staid starch oak. She neatly retied the bonnet that warmed her ashen hair and eyed the other two with a steady resolution.
The convent was really larger than they had thought. Much larger than it appeared from the road. Here and there, on sloping surrounding grassland, running down from the black woods to its dismal stone walls, groups of seasoned silver-white birches stood upright like well ordered footmen. Somehow they looked out of place to the diminishing dwelling. They sat with some reluctance under the great oak. Not braving to stand lest they be spotted and hoping their coats would resist the wet grass for as long as possible. They looked upon the ancient building of weather-claimed gaps of missing slates in its hardly-able roof and below them their hill drained away to a narrow path that wound itself like the silver trail of a passing midnight snail through the beeches and on to the distant roadway. Two figures of equal black were sauntering towards them from some distance and it was clear they would pass that way.
‘We had better hide…in the woods,’ declared Bridget, with some alarm. She swirled her body awkwardly towards the groping leaflessness behind them, and her fingers pointed to a patch of blue just beyond its edge. ‘We could pick bluebells…after they’ve gone of course. Might brighten up the dorm!
‘…I don’t know…’ replied Esme. She looked at Celia, who shrugged her shoulders and said nothing. She seemed a little frightened.
But they walked with a swift uncertainty across the awakening grass, glancing back only once for some assurance to their plight, their beautiful young toes making decided shapes upon the wormy earth behind them. They stashed themselves behind a thick and spreading hawthorn bush, its blossom bristling like a thousand crowns of sparkling ivory. They stood breathless. Stood watching. Stood waiting. At some half distance the figures quickly turned with a combined serenity toward a small door in the failing and crumbling stone of that celestial dwelling. The three girls sighed a quiet chorus. Then separated. Searching first with thirsty eyes and inclined hands for further patches of ripe for picking bluebells, and upon Bridget’s urging remained close and within earshot of each other. In each of their directions; they called to one another, across the dullness of those primitive woods. It was Celia’s voice that first paled and when she could no longer hear a sound from Bridget; Esme became frightened. The stillness of the woods and her sudden loss of direction became all too real. Her eyes strained in the saturnine light. She called; gently at first, quite unsure of herself. Scared for any resounding echo. There was none. Now an unmeasured isolation and unrelenting terror came over her.
She repeated her words. ‘Celia!’…Bridget!’ So loudly, it seemed to wrap the grove of closing oaks with a dying willingness. Her throat was dry and became a crimson drawn hoarseness. Yet there was only the parching silence. She took a few steps, first in one direction, then in another. The faint and chilling light made every dark scrap of wood, every fragment of puny undergrowth dissolve into a senseless mass of blackness.
Something caught her eye in a brief second of unraveling. Then it was gone. A shape unnatural in the shapes of shapeliness that surrounded her. Perhaps it was nothing. But saneness told her. Kept telling her: it should not be so! In her deep isolated soul there was more sparking fear!
Suddenly there was a sharp crack. The sound made by an ill-advised foot placed over dry wood. Someone was there. In that moist obscurity someone was watching her!
‘Bridget!…Celia! Is that you?’ She called weakly in that cold, killing light. Trying to body some essence to her voice. Anger raised her spirit.
‘If this is some sort of game?…’ her voice broke away. Someone had moved by the black oak…those few feet in front of her.
‘Come out! Whoever you are. Come out…stop playing silly games.’ The fear in her voice raised a renewal, but would not stop the aching ridged-ness that had seized her. The twig strewn floor cracked once more. There was no mistake. In that slackness of eternity the figure of a man had moved towards her.
‘Well, well. What have we here then? A fine young lady from the school.’ The voice had an education about it that owned a vitriolic laugh. She had heard it on the road!
Samuel Deans stepped into a stone-grey patch of light. The smile on his face ran across his mouth like the crack in a crumbling wall. She heaved in those seconds. Scarlet blood pumped and screamed in her restricting arteries. Her throat creased like dried sandpaper. Her spine stiffened and her left foot trod down weakly against the spluttering earth of rotting leaf and oak wood splinters. She said nothing in her fear. She stared open-blue, water-eyed. Watching him as one might watch a ready-coiled cobra.
‘Want me to show you the way out, ducky?’ He took his cow-brown bowler hat from his smug held head; gripping to his side in a toad-tight embrace.
‘Yes, please.’ She breathed only with a murmur. The words seem to stay on her lips, stuck there like putty to a window pane. The tip of her tongue touched the dry flaking feel of her mouth. He moved closer now; only a stretch to her face. ‘Yes…’ she forced her words again, trying to make their emptiness sound convincing. ‘…please show me the way back to the road…I’ve lost my friends.’ But her voice was odd and frail, and very frightened.
‘Cost yer!’ He leered at her from a destructive face. His breath smelt of stale whisky and his black hair reeked of brilliantine and hurried combing, and his mouth opened on to cultured teeth and a razored grin. ‘Just a little,’ he added. His eyes rose like red fired moons in the simple light. ‘Just a little attention…that’s all I want.’ Suddenly his hand flashed out catching her arm with surprise.
‘Let go!’ she screamed the words, almost threatened to an instant. But his grip bruised her like a falling child. A stunning, searing thud settled the side of her head from the prime orderly lacquered Malacca cane; its wolf’s head ivory dullness against her soft receiving young skin. Blood ran from its bite, and darkness swirled in on her drooping, clumping uselessness. Down to the dead earth of dead root, dead leaf lifelessness.
His eyes watched her with a primeval glint of self-pity and greed. Then his body weight was on her. His thin, spidery-hands pulled away her grey coat with ease; its buttons fell to the soft earth and dug in, scattered. His mouth sucked at her neck. Then sucked at her mouth. When she cried weakly; he hit her again on her blood-run head.
‘Don’t you like me?’ he mocked. Then rocked his body over her.
His energy pinned her snapped body to the squashed earth with a snickery-lickery laugh.
In a moment her cleaved, bloused-bra was tight to her neck and her firm breasts suckled upright in scalding mouthfuls of air. His assertion over her ragged knickers became a searing penis of poker-pushed pain. He heaved, done, spent. Hit her for measure. Got up slow, and pulled on pants and trousers from his reedy ankles. He tucked in his blood stained completed limb and kicked her thigh, and shouted loudly – ‘Fucking Tart!’ He then laughed once more; that snickery-lickery laugh, and stumbled, and fumbled, and was gone in the crisp-cold unhanding woods with his facet-celebrated self-pleasured head!