By David R Graham. 05.02.15
Charlotte tucked her hands into the deep pockets of her winter cardigan and looked down on the forecourt from the mullioned window of the fourth floor storeroom. She sighed heavily and fought back the tears that tried to squeeze from the corners of her eyes. Such tears would not help now. The battle was lost, the library was finished, Stonemarke House was to be razed to the ground: to be replaced by a shopping arcade and flats. After thirtytwo years as librarian, it was a bitter pill for Charlotte to swallow.
Back then, the house had stood abandoned. Nobody wanted it—hemmed in as it was by adjoining shops. No one even knew who owned it. Numerous town records had been lost during the wartime bombing raids. So the County Council had taken it over, and—having failed to find buyers or tenants—gave into the sterling pressure of Miss Bingham, the Headmistress of King Charles school, and turned the building into a community library.
One look at the inside of the old building put off all candidates for the position of librarian. Then Miss Bingham had suggest that Charlotte consider the role. She had been a secretary for three years back then—since leaving King Charles’. It had been a comfortable, safe job, but quite dull. So she had decided to go and have a look at Stonemarke Hall.
The memory of the feelings that had overwhelmed Charlotte when she entered the old building and closed the big front door, came flooding back to her as strong as they had on that first day. She gave herself a comfort hug, and allowed a faint smile to push at her melancholy. She never returned the keys to her new kingdom. Their familiar weight hung in the left hand pocket of her cardigan. She would keep them: as a memento of the best part of her singular life.
A fire engine went past the forecourt. Its blue lights roused Charlotte from her sad musings. The sounds of the town once again penetrated the quietness of the old building. She turned from the window and reluctantly left the room, that over the years it had become her bolthole. Her sanctuary, when the burden of running the library had become too much to bear.
Post local elections had always been the worst of times; particularly when the Conservatives won the majority, Charlotte recalled with a trace of bitterness in her mouth. They had always pleaded penury, whenever she had asked for money for the upkeep of the library. Fortunately, the community had always been marvellously enthusiastic in their support. Charlotte smiled as she carefully made her way down the darkened stairs. There had always been fundraising events on the go; sometimes two or three at the same time. Miss Bingham was usually the powerhouse behind such moneymaking schemes. But many of locals had volunteered their time and their energy, supporting the library on a daily basis. Its demise had nothing to do with the community. It was due entirely to the regular lack of support from the local Council—particularly the Conservatives, who won power with annoying regularity—they had always been fixated on selling off the land for redevelopment. Well, in spite of community opposition, the Council had finally got their way.
Charlotte sighed when she reached the last flight of stairs. She knew that from the bottom of these last eight treads, she only had to walk twenty-three paces to the front door. Once outside, she would lock the door. The builders would just have to break their way in. It was a small act of defiance, Charlotte knew as she placed her right foot on the third thread of the stairs. But it would let them know that they were not invited in, she thought and heard again the very familiar squeak of the tread beneath her foot. She stopped, knowing that she was putting off the inevitable, and look down at the tread. Will had never gotten round to dealing with it. But then, he had seldom gotten round to dealing with any of the jobs that constantly need doing round the place. Charlotte smiled at the memory. She knew, that although Will had volunteered his time and his tools as unofficial odd job man, his real role was a people welcomer: a meeter and greeter. He had known the names of just about everyone in the town.
Charlotte tested the stair tread. It squeaked loudly. She was about to smile; but her expression quickly changed into one of curiosity, when she thought she saw a glow of faint light. It seemed to have come from just behind the heel of her right foot. She placed her hands on the walls of the stairwell and tested the tread. Yes. There it was. A thin bar of orange light, where the tread joined the riser. But all the power is off, she thought. Besides. There are no lights under the…‘Oh my goodness!’ she whisper in alarm. It might be a fire!’ Good! She immediately thought. Let the place burn down! That will show them. She quickly reconsidered. They will think I did it. Out of vindictiveness, she thought. I had better check it out. If it is a fire. I will call the Fire Brigade.
Charlotte jerked the stair tread. It was fairly loose, but it was wedged against the walls on either side. She went away and quickly returned with a brass poker. Anxious to find the source of the yellow light, she jammed the head of the poker into the joint between the riser and the thread, and pushed against it. The gap widened. The light grew stronger. Charlotte pause, and peered into the pencil thin gap.
The light was moving: flicking. ‘It is a fire’, Charlotte breathed apprehensively. Suddenly, a dark shadow pass before her eyes. Her ears picked up at the faint sound of movement. She jerked her head back in fright. ‘What on earth…?’ she whispered. She laid a hand on her chest and smiled wryly. ‘A mouse.’ She reinserted the poker into the gap and renew her effort.
The gap had widened to a least an inch. Then Charlotte heard the voice.
‘Stop! There are women, and a child in here! Put up your swords! We are coming out!’
The effect of the voice acted like a tremendous electric shock. Charlotte’s eyes bulged, her mouth opened wide, and her body flew several feet backwards. She landed on her backside and her elbows, and stared in utter disbelief as several of the stair treads moved forward.
When a head appear in a wide gap in the stairs, Charlotte fainted.
‘She is waking.’
At the sound of the concerned voice, Charlotte opened her eyes. She found herself surrounded by a small group of people. The were dressed in strange clothes. Charlotte blinked uncertainly.
‘We are sorry we startled you’, a man’s voice said.
Charlotte stared at the man. He had shoulder length gray hair. He was dressed in black and had a white scarf round his neck. He looked anxious.
‘Who are you?’, Charlotte stuttered, ‘Why are you dressed like that? ‘What were you doing under the stairs?’
‘I am Jacob Stonemarke,’ the man said, ‘This is my wife Margaret, my daughter Virginia, my son-in-law Francis, and my granddaughter, Gracie.’
Charlotte looked at each person in turn. The two woman were wearing dark dresses with ruched sleeves and white, wide collars, that covered their shoulders. The second man was also dressed in black. The child that the younger woman clutched to her chest, was wearing a long, white dress and bonnet.
‘Stonemarke?’ Charlotte said to the man. ‘I am Charlotte Stonemarke. Who are you? What are you doing in here?’
‘We live here,’ the man said, ‘This is our home. I am lord of Stonemarke,’ the man added helping Charlotte to her feet.
‘But they are going to pull this building down! You can’t stay here. I was just about to leave.’ Her words produced a collective gasp of horror from the strange group.
‘Who, are going to pull this building down?’
‘Why the local Council…the Conservatives.’
‘I know nothing of these conservatives. I do know, that they cannot pull this building down. I am its rightful owner. I have the deeps. This estate and all its lands were given to my great grandfather in perpetuity. They bear the seal of King James 1. These conservatives you speak of, cannot defy the king.’
‘Deeds,’ Charlotte whispered, ‘You have deeds, to this building?’
‘Why yes. This building, and all of the land for one mile in any direction.’
‘One mile,’ Charlotte said. ‘You own all the land, for one mile around here?’
‘Where are they?’
‘Where are who?’
‘They are concealed.’
‘In a safe place.’
‘Here? In the Hall?’
‘You must get them! I can show them to the Council! We can stop them pulling down the place!’
‘They are valuable documents. If they should fall into the wrong hands, my family would be…’
‘But don’t you see!’ Charlotte cried, ‘We can stop them!’
‘Very well,’ the man said after a long pause, ‘Follow me.’
‘The deeds are buried beneath the central stone of the hearth.’ The man said, when they stood in front of the library’s huge fireplace.
‘Wait here. I will get the poker. I left it by the stairs. Charlotte said,’ and hurried away.
‘Here it…’ Charlotte said striding quickly back into the Hall a moment later…’is.’ Her words faltered. The room was empty.
‘Hello?’ Charlotte called. ‘Hello! Where are you?!’
The echo of her words were replaced by a cold silence. Charlotte gripped the poker and felt a strong urge to flee. Then she thought of the deeds.
Twenty minutes later, Charlotte knelt before a stout, iron bound, wooden box. The iron lock soon gave way to her determined use of the poker. She opened the box. It contained several rolled parchments. Charlotte unfurled the topmost one. She could barely read its script. But there was no doubting the large, wax seal, of King James 1.
Charlotte got out her mobile phone.
‘Yes. I am.’
‘That’s what I want to talk to you about.’
‘I have found some documents.’
‘Not just the Hall, Peter. The whole of Stonemarke.’