Author of the Dido Kent mysteries
A Tale of Midwinter
Monkswood 21st December 1789
My Dear Eliza
Here we are at last at Mr Carew's home. And when I tell you that the name of the housekeeper here is Dorothy you will comprehend immediately that the house is a very proper setting for the mystery I have come determined to solve. There will be little need to describe to you the dreadful scene which greeted our arrival yesterday. It will all be before your eyes– the dying fire in the hall with the great logs crumbling into dull ashes between the vast fire dogs (yes truly, fire dogs, there is not a convenient modern grate in the house), the long draughty corridors along which Dorothy with a single guttering candle conducted us, the cavernous bed chamber from which I now write to you: the ancient tapestries with figures as large as life, and the high bed which has a frightful funereal appearance…
Dido Kent laid aside her pen and, with tilted head and wide assessing eyes, wondered whether she had exaggerated just a little. She could not be quite sure that the housekeeper's candle had actually guttered: candles so seldom did gutter, except in stories. But there was certainly an air of the dreadful novel about this chamber. There was, among its furnishings, a chest of ancient oak hooped with iron such as a novelist must surely have described as massy. And the tapestries were perfectly frightful: their figures truly life-sized – or very little short of it; their colours faded to greasy greys and browns; their subjects unintelligible. In one place a group of monks seemed to be making a table flower-arrangement; in another a man was, apparently, being attacked by a hoard of snakes under a grinning full moon, and defending himself with an upraised mallet, which gave him the appearance of a man playing a very vigorous game of pall-mall.
'My late master was main fond of they tapestries,' Dorothy had informed her last night as she set down the (possibly guttering) candle on the massy chest. 'This was his favourite room.'
'He died here.'
Dido looked with alarm at the carved oak posts and dark green hangings of the bed. 'But there is no need… I mean a smaller chamber… somewhere less grand would suffice…'
'Nay!' Dorothy's long features gathered themselves into an expression of deep offence under her severe bone hairpins and the wilting lace of her cap. 'Tis the best chamber at Monkswood,' she said, 'and with you being such a particular friend of young Mr Robert, I thought it only proper you should have it. I was sure Mrs Carew would wish it.'
Dido blushed at the 'particular'. 'That is very kind of you, I am sure; but…'
'Though I think it only proper to warn you Miss Kent. You're a mighty long way from the family rooms out in this wing.' And then she was off – presumably to find her way back to the kitchens in darkness, for she had left the dubious candle on the chest.
But, thought Dido now as she resumed her letter, Dorothy had the look of a woman who could find her way about the old manor house blindfolded if required to do so.
I am suspicious of Dorothy, she wrote, I cannot determine whether her ghastly manner is a kind of birth-right or whether she is as keen a reader of novels as I am myself, and has determined upon acting the part of a gothic housekeeper for her own amusement. And, what is she about? Has she placed me in this grand but horrid room as a mark of respect: because she approves my attachment to her young master? Or is she in hopes that the tapestries and the draughts and the bed will frighten me away?
Well if that is her intention, thought Dido, laying aside her pen, she will most certainly not succeed. It will take a great deal more than a belligerent housekeeper to separate me from my dear Robert Carew. And, besides, I have come here in the expectation of mystery and suspicion.
'Monkswood is a damned odd place,' Mr Carew had confided to her three weeks ago. 'That's the long and the short of it and I'm afraid you won't like it, Miss Kent. I'm very much afraid you won't like it at all.'
The look of anxiety in his fine brown eyes as he spoke, the distinguished jaw lit to such advantage by the candles of the public rooms, and the conviction that he wished her to approve his home, were all so delicious that it had been a moment before native curiosity got the better of love – but only a moment. Even in love Dido could not resist such an opening…
'What, exactly, is odd about Monkswood, Mr Carew?' she asked.
And so – since the sitting down together was now even more delightful than the dancing – he told her all about it. They sat in a quiet corner of Bath's Upper Rooms while couples waltzed and galloped and, sometimes – for this was late in the evening – stumbled past them.
'Well, you must know it's a very old place,' he began.
'But its being old is not sufficient explanation of its oddness.'
'Is it not? Well, Miss Kent, you aint met some of my revered female relations!'
'Be serious! Or I shall not listen to you,' she said. (Their attachment having attained that footing on which the lady is allowed to admonish.)
And he continued, because they had not yet got to the point where the gentleman may resent admonishment. 'The oddest thing is the way my father died. That was last summer the poor old fellow popped off and – though I wouldn't say this to anyone else, Miss Kent – we've all been at sixes and sevens ever since. And I don't know what's to become of us.'
'I understand that Mr Carew's death was rather sudden.'
'It certainly was. One minute he's as fit as a flea, reading away at his old papers; the next he's had a fit of apoplexy and is stone cold dead. It was a mighty odd business.'
'And the papers he was reading, what were they?'
'Old family papers – he'd been searching through them for years. He was determined, you see, to find the Secret Treasure of Monkswood. He said it was the only thing that could save us from our difficulties.'
'Difficulties?' Dido drew back her skirts as a clumsy dancer fell over her feet.
Mr Carew's eyes met hers with heart-stopping honesty. 'We're all to pieces, that's the truth of it Miss Kent. The estate will likely have to be broke up and sold. But, you see, there's always been a story there's treasure hid at Monkswood. And the long and the short of it is…' He lowered his voice and leaned a little closer – she noticed how the dark curls of his hair fell forward on his brow. 'I think my father had discovered the secret. You see, when he was took ill he rang the bell for the housekeeper; but by the time the old girl had summoned us he was all but gone.'
'It must have been very distressing.'
'God's blood! It was horrid distressing! We could get no sense out of the old fellow! He was lying there with the last papers he'd been reading still in his hands, and he said "Robert, I understand now. I've seen it all."'
'Oh! Indeed! And did you ask what he meant?'
'I did. But damn me, it was too late. There was no time.'
And neither had there had been time for Dido to ask more questions just then. They were interrupted, not by death, but by a force as inexorable – her Grandmama telling her that she had spent enough time with Mr Carew and must get another partner.
Old Mrs Kent, was, in fact, divided between admiration for the ancient lineage and large estates of the Carews, and alarm at the rumours circulating in Bath about their debts. Consequently she was rather undecided whether to allow the attachment that was forming between her granddaughter and the new proprietor of those large estates. But, after that intriguing interview in the Upper Rooms, Dido had gone to work, rapidly developing an intimacy with the young man's sister, Kate, and getting herself the invitation to Monkswood when the Carews left Bath for Shropshire.
It was as she caught her first glimpse of the house from the carriage window – saw it lying below in the dying light of a winter's day, hemmed in by woods and the dark crook of the river's embrace, backed by the hills of Wales – that she enquired about its history.
'It's damned old,' Mr Carew assured her.
'There was an establishment of Benedictine monks here as early as 943,' said Kate briskly – but speaking low so as not to rouse her mother who was dozing against her shoulder. 'Our ancestor Sir Dunstan Crookshanks took the land from them and built his house here early in the thirteenth century.'
'As I said, damned old! And it was all on account of Sir Dunstan stealing the land from those old monks that there's a curse on us. A curse on the whole Carew family.'
By now the carriage had begun its descent into the valley; a few snowflakes, grey in the dusk, had begun to drift across the shadowy woods and the house that crouched like a cowering animal in the elbow of the river. As they came closer, Dido could make out – across the river from the house – the broken arches and shattered walls of the ruined abbey. Altogether, it had the look of a place accursed…
'Oh Robert!' said Kate mildly. 'This family has prospered for centuries and ought still to prosper. If you seek a cause for our present difficulties, I think you will find our grandfather's love of the card table more to the purpose than the revenge of long-dead monks.'
In fact, wrote Dido as she resumed her letter, the family are all such pleasant, modern kind of people that one cannot help wondering why they live in an atmosphere of decay and oddness. Perhaps it is the influence of history – or else the influence of the late Mr Carew who was, by all accounts, very much attached to that history. Or perhaps Mrs Carew's ill-health has allowed the sepulchral Dorothy to assume power over them all.
But I must set about my quest for the Secret Treasure of Monkswood. I shall begin with Kate. For she is a true Kate – not a Catherine or a Kitty or any such high minded and sensitive creature, but a plain, straightforward Kate who will answer my questions honestly…