Sunday 1st October 1747
Dungragh House: twentythree miles outside the hamlet of Dungragh in Wicklow, southern Ireland
From the hands of the dead
Lord Frederick was lounging abstractedly in a high-backed, green leather, George 11 chair behind the desk in his father’s wainscoted office. Despite the early hour of the day he was nursing a glass of claret in his right hand. The air in the cold, spacious, high-ceilinged room was heavy with the smell of waxed wood and old books. On entering the room, Lord Frederick had dropped his cane, his gloves, his hat and his cloak onto an ornately brocaded Meridienne and helped himself to the wine.
Now, lost in thought, he sat staring into the purple contents of the crystal glass. He was hungry, thirsty and tired; but he knew he would not stop to address his physical needs until he had taken care of his monetary ones. With that thought in mind he raised his eyes and looked about the room that had always been out of bounds to him as a child. Now, seated in his father’s chair, at his father’s desk, drinking his father’s wine, he felt a cold and hollow sense of defeat. His father was beyond ridicule now: beyond derision and hurting.
Lord Frederick felt an unfamiliar cold shaft of abandonment and loneliness, which roused again a very familiar and very potent urge to run: to get as far away from the house and all else that reminded him of his childhood days within its forbidding walls. His mind flashed back in an instant and he found himself on the swaying foredeck of the Harbinger as she entered the deep-water harbour of Port Royal laden with plundered English and Spanish cargo and he experienced an almost overwhelming sense of freedom and longing. With an effort he wrenched his mind from a past that he knew mean certain death to resurrect. ‘What other staff are here’? he asked reluctantly dragging his mind back to the present and couching his question in an offensive tone in order to vent his inner feelings on the old servant. With whom he did not deign to make eye contact. But instead busied himself adjusting the ruffs of his voluminous blouse.
When he did lift his gaze, Lord Frederick found his mother, the late Lady Geraldine Amelia Cairncross, smiling down at him from her gilt-framed portrait above the room’s imposing marble fireplace. The gentle expression in mother’s eyes and the soft smile on her full lips, rendered perfectly by the young Joshua Reynolds, hit his senses like an unexpected blast of cold air. He was keenly aware that when his parents had been alive he had given little thought to them other than as a source of money. Now that they were both dead he felt their loss like a mortal wound that he instinctively knew would never heal.
Unable to hold his mother’s lifeless gaze, Lord Frederick surreptitiously averted his eyes and looked instead at a giant Kodiak bear standing to his left in the far corner of the room. The inert beast’s crimson painted maw was agape and its painted wooden eyes stared lifelessly up at the ornately gilded cornice on the opposite side of the room as though perpetually mortified by the ignominy of bearing a variegated Wandering Jew in a Spode tureen on a papier mache breakfast tray balanced across its huge forearms.
Standing in front of the desk with his hat tucked beneath his right arm Patrick was in too much physical discomfort to be offended by Lord Frederick’s tone of voice. To which he had become inured during the many years he had served as butler to his late father. He drew his eyes away from the view of the library garden he could see through one of the tall windows either side of a large bookcase behind Lord Frederick.
What’ll become a d’gardin’s now, he thought sadly and shifted his weight off his right hip. Bloody bowels, he exclaimed in silent exasperation and clenched his buttocks tighter. ‘Can’t even hold a drop a porridge for five bloody minutes!
The knowledge that but for the unexpected arrival of his lordship he would have been warming his old bones by the cooking range in Missis Moody’s kitchen did little to improve Patrick’s present disposition. He had discovered over the years that heat was the only sure remedy against the discomfort of his old war wound. ‘Eh, well’, he said pulling his thoughts back to the present, ‘d’ere’s Missis Moody, d’cook, is here. She’s got one a d’girls with her, me’lord. Then there’s d’one housemaid here, me’lord’, he said leaning further to his left in an attempt to relieve the pain in his right hip which had degenerated from niggling to nagging, whilst at the same time contracting his lower abdominal muscles in his effort to prevent his bladder from attempting to empty itself.
Having to list the members of staff reminded Patrick that none of them had been paid for several weeks. Even as he sought to maintain his balance and his sphincter control he pondered whether or not to mention the matter.
Observing Lord Fredrick’s cold unfriendly countenance, he decided against it. His clothes have seen better days, he thought critically reassessing the slightly frayed and worn condition of Lord Frederick’s attire, ‘eh, then…there’s d’gardener Mich…Mr Cullen’, Patrick said quickly refocusing on the question, ‘He has…had six men when yer father was… now he has two a d’stableboys comes in if he needs them. Then there’s meself, me’lord’, he added almost as an afterthought.
‘Oddly enough, I was aware of your presence’, Lord Fredrick said coldly. ‘Where is the housekeeper, Mrs’? After over two years of absence from the estate Lord Frederick was unable to recall the name of his late father’s housekeeper.
‘Missis Cass…idy, me’lord’, Patrick said relieved now that he had not mentioned the staffs pay. ‘I’m af…raid Berna…eh Missis Cassidy left…, me’lord. Soon…after yer fah’der…eh…past…’.
‘Yes’, Lord Frederick interjected brusquely. He took a sip of wine, placed the glass carefully on the desk, shifted the heavy chair and placed his forearms on the desk. He wanted to remove his wig. But he would not do so whilst a servant was present. Instead, he reached across the desk, picked up a Georgian silver inkwell from its silver tray and noted the JR over SJ hallmark of Judah Rosenthal and Samuel Jacob’s of London. He was acquainted with the company. ‘Listen to me’, he said carefully replacing the inkwell back on its tray. ‘I shall be returning to London at the earliest possible convenience. Before I do however, I intend to make a complete inventory of everything of value on this estate. Starting this very morning. You will assist me. Nothing will be left out. Do you understand’?
‘Yes, me’lord’, Patrick replied his tone of voice concealing his urgent need to get to the privy and his twofold sense of dread at the painful prospect of having to walk the entire estate with his bad hip and having to do so in the company of his new master. ‘Would ye like…me…t’get…Mr Cullen’s lad’s t’go with ye, me’lord’? he suggested hopefully, ‘They’re…very goo…’.
‘No I would not’! Lord Frederick snapped irritably and sat back in the chair. ‘You will follow me and you will not speak of this to any of the staff. Is that understood’?
‘Yes, me’lord’, Patrick said awkwardly. Whilst he derived a crumb of comfort from the news that Lord Frederick wished to return to London as soon as possible and resolved there and then to do everything he could to hasten such a welcome event; he was nonetheless anxious to know what plans if any Lord Frederick had for the future of the estate and, more importantly, the future of the remaining staff.
What’s t’become of us all? Patrick wondered anxiously. Our lives are in d’hands a this godless man, he thought pursing his thin bloodless lips and clenching his buttocks to deny release to his bladder and bowel. The unpredictability of which dictated much of his daily routine.
‘Yes, me’lord, yes, me’lord’, Lord Frederick mimicked somewhat churlishly. ‘Can you not think of anything else to say’?
‘No…me’lord. I’m sorry, me’lord’, Patrick answered narrowing his rheumy eyes and clenching his buttocks a bit tighter.
Lord Frederick picked up his glass, drank the remainder of his wine with evident relish and placed the glass on the desk. ‘Go and tell the cook to prepare luncheon for my return’, he ordered in a moderate tone that was calculated to throw others off guard. ‘Meet me at the front of the house as soon as you have done so’.
‘I’m… sorry, me’lord’, Patrick said with a trace of embarrassment on his pallid features. ‘I’m af…raid there’s very little in d’way a…food, me’lord’, he added as though it was his fault that the estate had fallen into disorder. ‘We’ve been livin’ off…d’stuff Mr Cull…en’s been…’.
‘Just do it’! Lord Frederick shouted with an angry and dismissive wave of his left hand. The old man oppressed him. The room oppressed him. The house oppressed him. Ireland oppressed him.
I must get away from here! Quickly, he thought to himself his cold expression unaltered by his weakening resolve.
Confound this place. It was a mistake to come back here!
I should not have allowed myself to be swayed!
But I need money!
I shall gather whatever items of value I can find today, preferably portable and I shall leave for London as soon as possible, he thought looking into the empty wine glass.
What will I do in London? he thought in a moment of uncharacteristically honest self appraisal.
What will I do when my money is spent?
What life is there for me in London?
Perhaps I might go to the Americas.
To do what, exactly? I am Eton educated; but I know only piracy. I dare not return to that occupation.
The Americas are a hellhole.
The East Indies perhaps.
‘Yes, me’lord’, Patrick said hesitantly and, in spite of his pressing predicament, made no move to leave the room.
Lord Frederick paused in the act of getting to his feet. ‘Well’? he asked dismissing his familiar thoughts and glaring at Patrick with barely contained distain. For the first time since his arrival he made very brief eye contact with the old servant.
‘I’m sorry, me’lord. I’m af…raid I was not…able t’pay d’driver… me’lord. D’fare was…twenty…four shillin’s an’ sixpence, me’lord’, Patrick explained with evident embarrassment. ‘D’cabby says he’ll not leav…’.
Lord Frederick stood upright. He was acutely aware that his present worldly wealth amounted to the fifty eight guineas remaining in his purse. His passage, which has included a cabin, across the Irish Sea had cost him a guinea. The departure of the Grenville from Holyhead had been delayed by foul weather, forcing him to pay a further two guineas for board and lodgings at Welsh’s and, on his arrival in Dun Laoghaire, he had boarded the coach that now stood on the forecourt.
He was loathed to hand over the fare. But he reasoned that if he did not, the cabby would undoubtedly return with the County Constable. ‘Pay the fellow’, he said tossing his purse on the desk in a manner designed to convey the impression that the sum was too trifling to warrant mentioning. ‘Whilst you are about it, you might suggest to the fellow that he devote some time and energy to cleaning the interior of his uncomfortable conveyance. I shudder to think what manner of creature his previous passenger was. Now get out’.
Patrick picked up the purse. ‘Very good, me’lord’, he said and left the room as quickly as his old war wound would allow. Sucking and puffing in response to the ache in his hip, he made his way out to the forecourt and, omitted any mention of the state of his cab, wordlessly paid off the belligerent cabby and limped back into the house.
Fully aware that he was going to need some sustenance to get him through the next few hours, Patrick had every intension of taking advantage of this opportunity to get a cup of tea and a large piece of Missis Moody’s fruitcake. Before he did so however, he had to eliminate waste. So, moving at a most ungainly gait through the old house, he mentally mapped out his quickest route to the servants privy.
A little over three hours later Patrick and Lord Frederick stopped by a wrought iron gate at the head of a wide, cobblestoned laneway formed by a high, buttressed, red-brick wall that ran parallel with the entire breadth of the east gable of the house and provided access to the stable yard where they had just completed an inventory. Far off to their left, a flight of balustraded steps led down from the north terrace onto the east lawn.
Warmed by the wintery midday sun, Lord Frederick turned from the gate, handed his cane to Patrick, removed his gloves and cloak, handed the garments to Patrick, retrieved his cane and unhurriedly adjusted his hat and frock coat.
Uncomfortably hot under his own winter coat, Patrick folded the heavy cloak across his right arm and placed the gloves in his coat pocket. He was heartily hoping that Lord Frederick was about to return to the house.
‘Are there any other buildings’? Lord Frederick asked in a preoccupied tone as he recalled the several items his ‘inventory’ had unearthed in the house. Foremost among which were two cartoons by the younger Holbein and a portrait of Elspeth, the artist’s wife. A sixteen fifteen edition of Cervantes original Spanish Don Quixote, an original Dante’s Divine Comedy; two thirteenth century Italian icons of the Virgin Mary, a sixteenth century English timepiece and the sterling silver inkwell and tray on his father’s desk. These items, along with some lesser finds, he felt certain he could conveniently transport to London.
His excitement at the prospect of putting his plan into operation was exceeded only by the prospect of acquiring a respectable sum of money for his efforts and he felt better in himself. The last few hours however, had convinced him beyond all doubt that he had not one jot of desire to remain on the estate a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. None of these thoughts however, were revealed on his gamblers stony face.
‘I think that’s all, me’lord’, Patrick answered lethargically. His thin, ashen, features were etched with
pain and fatigue after having accompanied Lord Frederick around the estate for the best part of three hours.
They had been through the house from top to bottom, spent nearly an hour in the basement, during which time he had had to hold a lantern aloft in order that Lord Frederick could conduct a very quick and thorough inventory of all of the cavernous room’s contents. From there they had moved on to the kitchen garden, where Lord Frederick almost reduced poor old Mr Cullen to tears by demanding a detailed inventory of all the garden’s annual produce and, more particularly, its meagre income. They had then moved on to the empty coach house and from there to the equally empty stable yard, by which time the sustenance Patrick had gotten from Missis Moody’s pantry had long since been dissipated and he was very hungry, very hot, very discomfited and very tired.
Lord Frederick turned his head to his right without making eye contact with Patrick, ‘What do you mean, You think that is all’? he mimicked cruelly, ‘Is it all. Or is it not all’?
Patrick ignored the mimicry. ‘There’s a little chap’il in d’birch wood down by d’river meadow, me’lord’, he answered in a decidedly sombre tone. ‘But no one’s been in there for years, me’lord’, he added quietly.
Although the prospect of walking down to the chapel was not a pleasant one. It in itself, was only partially responsible for the sudden and unnoticed change in Patrick’s demeanour. During the past eleven years, since the death of Lady Cairncross, neither Lord Cairncross nor any other member of the household had ventured to return to her private chapel.
‘Show me’, Lord Frederick ordered determined not to miss anything on the estate that might yield further saleable items.
‘Yes, me’lord’, Patrick said stoically masking his disappointment and silently braced himself for the long walk down to the point where the Slaney entered the estate.
Walking at his laboured pace and with the cumbersome cloak slowing him even further, it took Patrick and. Lord Frederick nearly twenty minutes to reach their destination. This far from the house the close proximity of the cesspit was unpleasantly evident on the temperate air.
Several minutes later Patrick led Lord Frederick slowly through a silver birch wood and stopped on the edge of a green glade. Several adolescent rabbits feeding on the meagre winter grass bolted for cover at their sudden appearance.
In the centre of the glade—with its sagging, terracotta-tiled roof carpeted in green folios and orange crustose lichen—stood an abandoned and neglected chapel.
‘Here we are…me’lord’, Patrick said breathlessly. His pulse was racing and his heart was pounding but he was relieved that here among the trees they were effectively shielded from the worst of the effluvium from the cesspit.
Lord Frederick stopped just ahead of Patrick, placed the ferrule of his cane on the ground, placed his hands on the head of the cane and stood looking at the small building.
A pair of blackbirds called briefly to each other and then the glade fell silent.
Lord Frederick’s head was hot and itchy beneath his wig and his feet were damp and uncomfortable in his court shoes. But, other than a rivulet of perspiration that ran down behind his right ear, he gave no outward sign that he was in any way discomfited by the exertions of his ‘inventory’ of the estate, or by the faint odour that wafted on the air. His mind was on other things.
As a consequence of his chosen way of life Lord Frederick had cultivated and honed his powers of observation and recall. Wherever he found himself, whether it be court or common; or whomsoever he found himself with, whether it be count or commoner; he noted everything about the person the place and the time and was able to recall such details at a later date should the need arise. His ability to do so had saved his life on more than one occasion.
He observed that the granite stone chapel had been quite cleverly constructed as a scaled down model. He gauged its height to be no more than twenty feet to its sagging ridge tiles and its length and breadth to be thirty feet by fifteen feet respectively. There were four small Gothic style recto arched windows on the visible elevation. He assumed that its apse pointed east. The granite walls were clothed with the powdery patina of age and the small building showed every sign of having fallen into disuse. Over the entrance a spire topped with a golden crucifix, rose ten feet above the roof.
‘Who used this place’? he asked his baritone voice breaking the silence of the glade and rousing Patrick from his semi-somnambulant state.
Patrick shifted the burdensome cloak to his left arm and made a concerted effort to remove the tiredness from his voice. Every muscle and bone in his old body ached with fatigue and he longed to rest. ‘It was yer dear…it was yer mother’s, me’lord, God res…’, Patrick said with a barely discernible catch in his voice. He missed his mistress terribly and recalled her like a warm spring day in the depth of a bitter winter. ‘Me’lady’, he said in a barely audible whisper as he recalled the peaceful summer afternoons when tables and chairs had been brought to the glade and his mistress and her friends had sat drinking chilled fruit juices beneath the dappled shade of the birch trees.
‘I want to see inside’, Lord Frederick said abruptly cutting off any further mention of his mother. ‘Then I shall return to the house. I shall bath for thirty minutes and then I shall take luncheon’.
‘Very good, me’lord’, Patrick responded in a barely audible tone. Although he was somewhat relieved that they would shortly be returning to the house, he was dreading the thought of the labour required to prepare a hot bath. I’ll see if Michael can get his lad’s t’help me. I hope t’God they’re not all gone home before we get back, he thought anxiously as he shifted the cloak back to his aching right arm, crossed the glade as quickly as he could and slowly pushed open the chapel door.
The sounds of the door latch and rusted hinges brought to Patrick’s mind the many times he had accompanied Lord and Lady Cairncross to this private sanctuary. He lowered his head and clenched his grizzly jaw to cut off the tears that welled in his red-rimmed eyes. Those had been the golden years of life on the estate. The years when the young Sir Fredrick had been out of sight and out of mind. Grateful for a brief moment to compose himself Patrick stepped aside.
Lord Frederick was forced to bow his head in order to enter the chapel. Inside the small building, the heels of his shoes and the silver ferrule of his cane rang loud on the bare, flagstoned floor. He stopped several paces beyond the threshold, placed the ferrule of his cane on the floor, placed his hands on the head of the cane and silently surveyed his surroundings. The air was cold and musty and heavy with the cloying commingled smells of old damp stone and decaying wood.
Lord Frederick observed that, as with the south facing wall he had looked at from outside, there were four small, arched windows in the north wall and, in the apse, a larger version, above a very plain, rectangular, granite altar. There was much evidence that generations of spiders had colonized the safe and secluded habitat.
Behind the altar a low stone seat curved around the wall of the apse.
Apart from the altar, the room was empty.
Lord Frederick’s keen eyes saw the crucifix half hidden behind thick cobwebs on the windowsill above the altar. Even from where he stood he knew with a certainty borne of experience that the object was solid gold. He maintained his outward composure as avaricious excitement flushed through his veins.
The noise of his shoes and cane punctuated the silence as he strode the length of the room with practiced casualness, moved behind the altar and looked up at the crucifix. ‘Close the door’, he commanded without turning
‘Yes, me’lord’, Patrick said gratefully.
When he heard the door latch drop, Lord Frederick, without taking his eyes off the crucifix, laid his cane on the thick slab of the altar, placed his left foot on the edge of the stone seat, pushed off with his right foot and reached up with his right hand in one fluid movement. The moment his fingers closed about the golden legs of the crucified Christ, the flagstone under his left foot tipped forward and cantilevered on the riser of the seat.
Lord Frederick’s hat and wig flew off and his mouth flew opened in shock as he fell backwards. In the blink of an eye, his duelists’ reflexes reacted instinctively. He dropped the crucifix, twisted his torso to the left and stuck his hands out in front of him to prevent himself falling against the sharp edge of the altar. His hands caught the over-lapping edge of the altar slab a hard blow that sent a shockwave of pain through his arms and into his shoulder blades. Under the impetus of his body weight, the slab jerked sharply away from him. His cane rolled off the slab and clattered onto the floor.
Lord Frederick cried out in pain as the sharp edge of the alter base pushed the sleeves of his coat and the cuffs of his blouse up his arms and cut into the soft flesh of his wrists. The tension went out of his arms and his cry was cut off abruptly when his jaw impacted with the top of the slab. The blow jarred his teeth and his eyeballs. His face contorted in pain as he collapsed to the floor and stared in slack-jawed disbelief at the deep, bloodied, abrasions on his wrists. He heard the sound of the door latch and the shrill squeal of the rusted hinges as the door was slowly pushed open.
‘Forgive me, me’lord’, Patrick called tentatively from beyond the door. ‘Is every…thing al…right, me’lord’?
‘Out’! Lord Frederick managed to grunt loudly through a haze of pain that pulsated through his skull and coursed like quicklime through his lacerated wrists.
‘Very good, me’lord’.
The door squeaked shut.
Barely conscious of the ice-cold stone beneath him, Lord Frederick shifted his back against the altar, carefully laid the backs of his hands on his thighs, rested his head gently against the altar and closed his eyes.
When after several minutes the red hot pain in his wrists and the throbbing in his head had subsided to a bearable level Lord Frederick opened his eyes, rolled gingerly onto his knees, got to his feet without the aid of his hands and glared angrily at the altar.
The thick slab had shifted several inches under the impact of his bodyweight and Lord Frederick realized that it had formed a lid over the interior of the altar base. With his mouth hanging open and his teeth exposed, he glanced with fleeting curiosity at the dark, tapering gap created by the shifted slab. Then he turned away, carefully replaced his wig and hat and retrieved the crucifix and his cane.
He was about to leave the chapel when his curiosity won out over his pain and anger. He placed the crucifix on the floor with his cane, moved round to the back of the altar, braced his hands on the edge of the slab, let his jaw go slack in anticipation of the pain and pushed with all his anger-fuelled strength. The slab shifted several more inches.
He stood back and tried to blow cool air on his wounded wrists, but was unable to purse his lips. He gave up and turned his attention to the tantalizing dark interior of the altar. The slab was now an obstruction now: an opponent. He always met opponents head on. He placed his hands on the slab, set his face like a flint and pushed with all his strength and weight. The slab shifted again.
Pain induced tears ran down his cheeks, but he kept up the momentum until finally the slab teetered on the outer edge of the altar. Ignoring the pain in his wrists and his jaw, he placed his hands beneath the edge of the slab and heaved it upward. His face contorted in pain, he released a loud triumphant grunt as the slab toppled over the side of the altar and crashed to the floor.
Bent across the altar; with his hands braced on the outer edge, Lord Frederick barely registered the thunderous noise. He was staring at the face of a corpse.
He recoiled in disbelief.
The altar contained a human skeleton.
The altar was a sarcophagus.