Author of the Dido Kent mysteries
A Tale of Midwinter
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…
Kate – a tall girl with features more suggestive of health and vigour than beauty – was in the icy cold long gallery at the top of the house, honestly and straightforwardly considering Elizabethan chairs and an intricately carved old harp with broken strings.
'I must tell Dorothy to put all this part of the house into dust sheets.' She said. 'The few servants we have, have not time to clean here. And, besides, we are so often away, visiting Bath and Tunbridge and other places for the sake of my mother's health, we have little time for company. These rooms are never used.'
Snow was once more falling, filling the corner of each pane in the old casement windows with an elegant grey-white curve. There was no fire in either of the gallery's huge fireplaces – their hearths were black and cold under ponderous coats of arms. Even the suits of armour that flanked them looked chilly and Dido's teeth were on edge with cold. But Kate seemed inured to the icy atmosphere.
'Yes,' she said when Dido introduced the subject which most interested her, 'the story of the Treasure of Monkswood is old – it goes back to the days of Sir Dunstan himself.' She stopped and looked in despair at a great patch of grey-green damp on the fine vaulted ceiling. 'It is all written in the chronicles.' She shook her head sadly at the damp. 'Let me see now, what is it they say – ' She narrowed her eyes with the effort of remembering. 'Sir Dunstan – that was called Crookshanks – had found in those lands a vast treasure, such a jewel as he was determined to lay hands upon, so that he harried and discomfited the holy men of Monkswood until he had all their demesne for his own possession. Or something like that. It is very likely longer. The writers of these old chronicles were great wasters of ink, were they not, Miss Kent?'
'Oh! Yes,' agreed Dido – who had never read such a document in her life. 'But your father believed the tale was true.'
'Yes, Papa was determined to find the treasure, though, to my mind, it would have been more to the purpose if he had applied himself to the management of the estate. Robert of course believes that Papa had found something, and the discovery disordered his nerves so much it brought on a seizure. But I do not know…' She turned aside to inspect a patch of rust on the breastplate of one of the fireside knights.
Dido shivered. The snow gathering on the windows was making the gallery dark and she was quite longing for a good fire and hot tea. 'Mr Carew has told me that there were documents still in your father's hands when he was taken ill,' she said. 'Do you know what they were – could it have been they that caused his distress? Could they have revealed the whereabouts of this treasure?'
'I doubt that very much, Miss Kent. We examined them closely – as closely as the natural shock and grief of the moment would allow – and found them to be of very little consequence. Nothing but the agreements drawn up with Mr Boyd – a tenant on the estate.'
Chilled to the bone now, Dido was preparing to leave her friend to her inspection of decay when the girl suddenly turned around with a strange smile and stood for a moment with her hand resting on the knight's arm. 'Miss Kent, my brother misinformed you yesterday, but I did not say anything – Robert does not like to be contradicted!'
'In what respect did he misinform me?'
'He told you that Sir Dunstan's stealing this land from the monks was the cause of the curse that is said to lie on it. But that story is in fact much older – the curse is supposed to have been put upon the land when the monks stole it from a lady called Olwen. It is all written in the chronicles.'
'I see. And you think that is of some consequence?'
'Oh! but of course it is!' she cried with mock gravity. 'For it means that Monkswood is under the strongest kind of curse there is – a woman's curse.'
She turned back to look at another damp patch on the chimney breast where the plaster appeared to be rotting away entirely.
But Dido, unable to bear the cold any longer, retreated to the warmest place in Monkswood – the hall fireside – where she found Mr Carew shaking snow from his coat and prodding the reluctant logs into flame with the toe of his boot. She spread her hands to the heat, watched a drop of melted snow run from his hair down the elegant angle of his cheek, and resumed her enquiries.
'Boyd? Yes he's a decent enough fellow.' said Mr Carew. 'He works Bridge Farm – very snug little property just across the river. There's been Boyds at Bridge Farm almost as long as there's been Carews at Monkswood; but that may have to change. Charles Boyd is more than a little in arrears with his rent.'
'Across the river,' mused Dido – recalling her sight of the valley as the carriage approached. 'Then Bridge Farm is close to the abbey ruins.'
'Yes, they stand in Boyd's water meadow. But damn me, Miss Kent, why should that please you so much?'
She was on her feet, smiling broadly. 'Because,' she said, 'if the monks did indeed hide treasure here, they would probably have hidden it close to the abbey – on land that is now occupied by Mr Boyd.'
'Well, I suppose…'
'Mr Carew, we must look again at those documents your father was studying – and we must go to Bridge Farm and talk to Mr Boyd.'
'Go to Bridge Farm? But you cannot walk there on such a day!'
'Oh but the snow has stopped now,' she cried with all the enthusiasm that youth and love – and an unsolved mystery – could supply. 'And I daresay your sister will be kind enough to lend me a pair of pattens.'