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Dark Souls 12
Lord Poole screeched up outside, the Land Rover skidding on the gravel. He clambered out of the car, calling to a man — checked cap, cocked gun, three dogs — walking up from another part of the garden.
“This looks amazing.” Jeff sounded as impressed as Miranda felt. He opened his door, almost hitting one of the dogs running in wild figure eights around the car. Miranda slid out, her boots crunching when they hit the gravel. The air smelled sweet and clean, though it was even colder up here than it was in York. One of the dogs (a yellow Labrador: She could have bet money that Lord Poole would have an entire litter of Labradors) hurled itself at her legs, lapping at her hands. Miranda braced herself, waiting for a jet of cold, but no: This appeared to be an actual dog, not a ghost.
Lord Poole finished his chat and shouted at the dogs in some impenetrable British shorthand, sending them reeling away.
“Just had to check something with the gamekeeper,” he said. Miranda and her father exchanged glances: a gamekeeper! Who would they meet next — a butler? A lady’s maid? Although she’d resisted today’s visit, and although she’d never concede this particular point, Miranda was kind of glad her father had made her come along. There was only one thing that made her hesitate before crossing the threshold.
“Lord Poole,” she said quickly, watching him swing the great door open. “You don’t have any … any ghosts here, do you? That you know of, I mean. That someone’s seen.”
“Well … ah, I don’t think so.” He looked at her — almost suspiciously, Miranda thought. “Of course, this house has only been in the family — my wife’s family, I should say — for the past two hundred years.”
“Only!” said Jeff, who was — to Miranda’s embarrassment — pulling his camera out of his jacket pocket. If they stayed out here much longer, he’d be lying on his stomach in the gravel, trying to get a good angle, or making her pose with a hunting rifle and/or dog.
“There are ghosts over in Richmond Castle, I hear. And the house where I grew up, just outside Northallerton — well, that’s a different story. But I’ve never heard any accounts of hauntings here at Lambert. All the deaths here have been peaceful, or so it would seem. I hope that doesn’t … disappoint you too much.”
“Not at all,” said Miranda, smiling, and she walked through the open door with a much lighter heart. It would be a relief to get away from ghosts, even if it was just for a few hours. For the first time in a few days, she could pretend to be normal.
Inside, the house was as drafty and eccentric as Lord Poole had threatened, but Miranda and her father agreed that this was essential to its charm. It was all dark wood, looming furniture, and, up the creaking stairs, tiny angled landings leading off to dark hallways and closed doors. The kitchen had last been renovated somewhere around World War II, Miranda suspected, with dish towels hanging on a rack suspended from the ceiling, and a big range — an Aga, Lord Poole called it — throwing off a very welcome heat. A red-faced woman named June bustled in from the vegetable garden, smiling and nodding at them. She wasn’t Lady Poole, Miranda knew: Her father had whispered that Mabel, Lord Poole’s wife, had died a year ago. June was a sort of part-time housekeeper. She offered them tea and had a lengthy conversation with Lord Poole, during which the only words Miranda could decipher were “potatoes” and “rot.” She also said something, translated by Lord Poole, about a meat pie ready to go in the Aga whenever they wanted lunch.
“Probably one of the old Labradors,” Jeff whispered to Miranda, on their way out to resume the tour. Miranda couldn’t help laughing, though she and Rob had agreed years ago not to do anything to encourage their father’s lame jokes. “No, really! They don’t waste anything out here in the country.”
The best part of all was the library. This was on the ground floor of the house, and Miranda wondered if Lord Poole spent more time in here than in the dark, dusty living room — or drawing room, as he called it — where they’d poked their heads in for just a moment. In the library, tall shelves lined almost every part of every wall; there were even shelves above the doors, crammed with books. Many were first editions, Lord Poole told them, including three of the novels of Sir Walter Scott.
The relative warmth of the room was the product of three antique-looking electric heaters, strategically placed to radiate feeble heat across the threadbare Turkish rug. An impressively large desk, longer than their dining table at home, was stacked with folios, books, and what looked like the printout of a very hefty typed manuscript. A map was spread out across the center of the desk, littered with pens, a magnifying glass — which Miranda couldn’t resist playing with — and at least six empty coffee cups.
“June will tell me off if she spots those,” said Lord Poole, looking guilty. “Maybe we should smuggle them back into the kitchen later.”
Before long, her father and Lord Poole were deep in a discussion of some article in the Ricardian — something about new evidence on Edward IV’s alleged premarriage contract to Lady Eleanor Butler blah blah blah — and Miranda was free to roam. Lord Poole had said she could take anything down from the shelves; he’d pointed out the sliding ladder she could use for higher shelves, warning her of its tendency to roll at a quick speed along the uneven floor. He’d also gestured to a cozy window seat, a nook built into the walls, with squashy tapestry cushions.
“That’s where my children liked to read, and my grandchildren,” he said with a forlorn smile. “A long time ago.”
He stared into space for a moment, lost in some personal reverie, and then recovered himself, urging Miranda to take her boots off, put her feet up, and generally make herself at home.
Miranda didn’t know where to start. So many of the books looked very old and fragile, and a number of them seemed to be in Latin. She sat for a while reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, which she recognized only because one of the characters in Northanger Abbey had mentioned it. After lunch — the pie was steak, Lord Poole reassured them, not Labrador — the decided to go looking for a really old copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The men were sitting across from each other at the giant desk, spilling coffee on the map and jawing about something — the second wife of John of Gaunt — which was of interest to practically nobody but themselves. Miranda paced along a section of shelves she hadn’t examined yet, at the far end of the room. Shelves towered on either side of a fireplace that was clearly never lit: Paperback books were stacked on the hearth. Above the mantel hung an enormous black-and-white print of some apocalyptic scene. In the foreground, people were huddling, wailing, and lamenting. In the background, their city was on fire. A great swirl of flame was devouring walls and columns and some kind of tower.
“Ah!” said Lord Poole, slowly getting up from his torn leather chair. “I see you’re taken with the John Martin.”
“The what?” Miranda stood with her hands clasped behind her back, a habit from childhood when her parents used to take them to the Art Institute of Chicago, with strict instructions not to even think about touching anything. Jeff came and stood next to her, giving Miranda an affectionate pat on the shoulder.
“The engraving — it’s a mezzotint,” Lord Poole said. “Early nineteenth century. Round 1819, I believe. Very impressive, don’t you think? The artist is John Martin. Wildly popular in his day. The Brontës had one of his engravings in their parlor at Haworth Parsonage, you know.”
“What’s it … about?” Miranda knew this was a stupid-sounding question, but the city in the picture looked like something out of a sci-fi epic.
“It’s called The Fall of Babylon,” Lord Poole told them. “The way it was predicted in the Bible — God’s wrath, and all that — rather than what actually happened. I believe the Persian invasion was a fairly bloodless coup, and Babylon was never burned to the ground in the way it’s depicted here.”
“Just faded away,” mused her father. Miranda shook her head. Did he know something on every historical topic? “The greatest city of antiquity, lost.”
“The interesting thing about this engraving,” Lord Poole said, giving the elaborate frame an unceremonious tap, “is the artist’s connection with York.”
“Really?” Jeff and Miranda said at the same time.
“He was from the north, but most of his career was spent in London. His older brother, Jonathan, moved to York sometime in the 1820s, though I’ve never been able to find out exactly where he lived.”
“Oh,” said Miranda. The story wasn’t turning out to be quite as interesting as she’d hoped. But Lord Poole was still talking.
“There was a lot of instability in that family. Emotional instability. Mental illness, I’d suppose we’d call it today. John Martin was a volatile character, but Jonathan — well, he was mad as a hatter. He started hearing voices in his head, or some such thing, and decided to burn York Minster down.”
“I remember this!” Miranda thought about Tales of Old York and the caption The Madman’s Fire. “In the book you lent me. I haven’t read it all yet. But someone was telling me —” She glanced at her father. “I mean, I heard about the fire. When I was in the Minster yesterday. It destroyed the Quire completely, didn’t it?”
Lord Poole nodded. “If the roof hadn’t collapsed, the entire Minster would have burned to the ground. People watching the fire said it looked just like one of John Martin’s pictures — the huge flames engulfing the building at night. Not realizing, of course, that the arsonist was his brother.”
“Did they hang him?” Jeff asked matter-of-factly. Away from Miranda’s mother, he’d obviously forgotten the don’t-mention-death rule. “Jonathan Martin?”
“The people of York wanted him to hang,” Lord Poole said. “But at his trial he was judged to be insane. So they locked him in Bedlam for the rest of his life.”
“Bedlam — that was an asylum, right?” Miranda asked. Another thing she didn’t realize she knew.
“That’s right. A lunatic asylum, as they called them in those days. The fire was in 1829 and Jonathan Martin died — let me think — about nine or ten years later.”
Jeff gave a low whistle.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Hanging doesn’t sound so bad compared with ten years in Bedlam.”
“Those places,” said Lord Poole. “They were terrible then. Not much better now, I have to say.”
The grandfather clock by the door chimed, and Jeff checked his watch.
“He that hides a dark soul and foul thoughts, benighted walks under the midday sun,” said Lord Poole in a quavery voice, and it took a second for Miranda to realize he was quoting from something, rather than just waxing lyrical. “Himself is his own dungeon.”
Even Jeff looked puzzled at this.
“Milton,” said Lord Poole. “It’s a passage from Milton, from his poem Comus. Jonathan Martin quoted it at his trial, though no one was quite sure why. I think he felt that the fire had cleansed him in some way. So even though he would be imprisoned in Bedlam, he’d be free.”
“As you said, crazy,” said Jeff. He tapped his watch. “I’m wondering if we should be getting back soon. I feel terrible asking you to make another two-hour round trip, especially in weather like this. And it’ll be getting dark by the time you’re driving back.”
Lord Poole protested, but although she could have happily stayed in this library — despite the fading light and lack of heat — for hours and hours, Miranda knew her father was right. These weren’t great roads to be driving along after dark. She picked up her discarded boots and followed the others into the high-ceilinged hall, where Lord Poole had lain their jackets and bags on an enormous coffinlike chest. There were more pictures on the wall here, ones she hadn’t noticed on the way in, small family photographs in black frames, hanging askew.
One old picture was of a man in military uniform who looked exactly like Lord Poole, including the beard: He had to be Lord Poole Senior, Miranda decided, wrapping her scarf around her neck. The next photo was much more recent — a snapshot of a skinny teenaged boy leading a horse, a grinning younger kid perched on it. Both boys were dark-haired and barefoot, and the older boy was holding his hand up to the camera, as though he was protesting having his photo taken. Next were several photos of floppy-eared spaniels, presumably the pet predecessors of the Labradors racing around outside.
And then there was a photo that made Miranda gasp out loud and press a hand against the wall to steady herself. A photo of a lanky teenage boy: an older version of the little boy who’d sat on the horse. His dark hair was tousled and he was dressed in a school uniform. He was smiling at the camera in an uncertain, almost sardonic way.
On the car ride back to York, Miranda thought she was going to explode with curiosity. She had to ask Lord Poole about the picture in his hallway. But how could she, without revealing that she knew Nick? Finally, her father made some remark about the holidays, and Miranda grabbed her chance.
“Does your family come home to Lambert House for Christmas?” she asked, her voice trembling with excitement. “I mean, your children and grandchildren?”
“My daughter lives abroad now,” Lord Poole said, his tone neutral. “She rarely returns to England.”
“That’s too bad,” said Jeff. “How about your grandsons?”
Thanks, Dad, Miranda thought, relieved that her father was inadvertently helping out.
“My grandsons?” Lord Poole sounded startled.
“The ones in the photos — sorry, I just assumed they were your grandsons.” When Miranda was standing staring at the photo of Nick, Jeff had walked over to look as well. She’d managed to keep calm — on the outside at least — and not give anything away, even though she wanted to scream and point and jump up and down.
“Yes, you’re quite right. My grandsons.” Miranda felt a little sorry for Lord Poole. Part of her hoped he would say more, to confirm or refute the story Nick had told her. But she liked Lord Poole: He was kind, and generous, and probably a bit lonely as well, rattling around in that big cold house by himself. It would be hard for him to have to disclose his sad family history to people who were, basically, strangers.
“Unfortunately,” he said, negotiating a particularly tight corner, “my grandsons … well, it’s a long story.”
“Say no more,” Jeff said quickly. “I know how family relationships can change, especially as kids get older.”
“Alan Bennett, the playwright — do you know his work?” Lord Poole asked, and Jeff mumbled a vague assent. “He has a very good line about this. Every family has a secret, he says, and that secret is that they’re not quite like other families.”
“Very true,” said Jeff, with an overly hearty laugh. Miranda sat quietly in the back. It would be rude to ask any more questions. More than rude: It would be cruel. But Lord Poole wasn’t changing the subject.
“I’m afraid our family, rather like that of John Martin, has had more than its share of unhappiness. We saw a lot of the boys when they were young. They spent large parts of every summer at our house. But my eldest grandson — he died seven years ago.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” said Jeff. He glanced over his shoulder at Miranda, a wary look in his eyes. She wasn’t sure if he was concerned that the forbidden subject had come up again or if he was trying to tell her not to ask any more nosy questions.
“Yes — it was terribly hard on the whole family, but especially on his younger brother. Richard — that was my eldest grandson’s name — he’d had a very troubled adolescence. Let’s just say … well, when I was talking about mental institutions earlier today, we were unfortunate to have a lot of experience of them.”
“Ah,” said Jeff. Miranda was rigid with tension. Richard — that was Nick’s older brother, the one who had killed himself seven years earlier. Nick was telling the truth.
“Yes, well — he was away in one hospital or institution of one kind or another from the age of seventeen, when his brother was only nine or ten. They never saw each other again.
Mabel and I believed that was a terrible mistake, but their parents thought it best at the time.”
“Well, you never know whether you’re doing the right thing,” Jeff said evenly.
“He idolized his older brother, I suppose,” said Lord Poole. He sounded tired now. Old and tired. Miranda felt bad knowing that after he dropped them off he’d have to turn around and make this drive again, in the dusk, with fog swirling in, maybe even snow. “He was very upset. Very upset with all of us. He has very little to do with any of us now. The last time I heard anything, he was living in London. I hope he’s all right.”
Miranda resisted the impulse to tell him that Nick was alive and well and staying in York. If Nick wanted his presence there to be a secret, that was his decision. But she did feel terribly sorry for Lord Poole.
“What about last year, when Mabel died?” Jeff asked.
“His mother got some kind of word to him, I believe. But he didn’t attend the funeral. He was very close to his grandmother — to both of us, when he was a child.”
“Very sad,” Jeff said, and then there was silence in the car for quite a while, in a way that made Miranda incredibly tense. Women, she thought, would have changed the subject and talked about something — or someone — else. She wished her mother were there.
It was awful to think of Nick all alone and bitter and saying he had no family when Lord Poole was right here, desperate to see his grandson again. Lord Poole had nobody now: His wife and one of his grandsons were dead, his daughter lived overseas, and Nick was AWOL. It wasn’t fair that Lord Poole had to spend Christmas alone; Nick had to forgive him for what happened all those years ago. It wasn’t Lord Poole’s fault that Nick hadn’t been allowed to see Richard, or that Richard had committed suicide.