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Authors: Priscilla Masters

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He made a wry face and chose to talk about the easiest subject. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without Maria – and Jenkins, the chauffeur and Elijah Hobson, the man who lives in the Lodge and does the garden. They run the house – and my life – for me.’ He smiled and something in that smile made me catch my breath. He did not strike me as a man prone to sentiment yet the affection in that smile was warm.

We talked of other matters then, and finished our food while all the time I was thinking that I did not want the evening to end.

Ever.

And we did not mention the jug. It lay between us, cold and threatening, a dark side to this wonderful evening. We did not need to speak of it but it was still there.

Jenkins drove us home at the same sedate pace as our
outward journey. Richard was quiet for most of the drive. A few times I felt his eyes on me and wondered what he was thinking. As we turned off the Leek road onto the narrow lane that led towards Horton he suddenly looked straight at me. ‘How old are you, Susie?’

I said something fatuous about never asking a lady her age then answered him. ‘Twenty-six.’

‘I have a son of the same age.’

I tried to make a joke of it. ‘Let me guess his name. Is he called Richard too?’

‘No.’ He caught my mood and tossed it back. ‘He’s called Michael. As I said – Julia – my ex-wife – did not care for tradition. She insisted he was not called Richard and I capitulated.’ He bit his lip. ‘I was still at that stage in our marriage when I was prepared to try compromise. It was a waste of time.’ He stared out of the window again even though now it was dark.

It broke the moment and we were both quiet again.

When we reached the cottage Jenkins again reversed the car into the track at the side and then switched the engine off.

I asked Richard if he would like a coffee and he accepted. He muttered something to Jenkins while I opened my front door and put the kettle on. I felt the draught as the door swung open again and then heard it close behind him. When I brought the coffee into the sitting room he was standing in front of the portrait of the Tudor woman, staring up at her.

I put the tray down on the coffee table, next to the jug, turned and met her black eyes suspiciously. Was I imagining it or did they warm when they rested on him?

‘That’s quite a painting,’ he remarked before moving on.

I told him the history of my Tudor friend but I could tell he wasn’t really listening. His mind was not on my story. Possibly it was on his.

He was prowling around the room, picking things up, asking me about them, hardly listening when I spoke, and putting them back down again. He was like this until he reached the oak coffer. Then he bent and picked the jug up.

‘It’s even more perfect than I had thought,’ he remarked, turning it around. ‘I knew the picture of the house was detailed and faithful from the photo in the magazine. But this…’ he indicated the hanged man. ‘This is horrible. Quite horrible.’

‘I imagine,’ I said carefully, ‘that the story behind it must be gruesome?’

‘Hmm,’ he said and set it down.

He was giving nothing away and again I was full of doubts.

Perhaps this night had been a set-up. Whatever he had said it was the jug which connected us. Nothing else.

But surely all that conversation, I argued, his attitude…? Had I been so deceived? Kidding myself? Whatever he had promised would he now offer me a profit on the jug, write out a cheque and vanish from my life?

He smiled at me politely.

I have a natural suspicion of polite men. Their politeness can hide so many things – boredom, manipulation, connivance. Determination.

He looked back at the jug and I caught a tightening of his mouth and remembered the fury he had vented on the cashier at Sotheby’s. I was uncomfortable. I knew how very much he wanted it.

‘When did it leave your family?’ I asked. ‘Surely it was at one time at Hall o’th’Wood?’

‘I don’t know that it ever was in my family,’ he said curtly.

I realised that even if he knew the history of the jug he would not share it with me but bury it.

I also knew that it shed some ugly light on his forbears. I could have argued that what our grandparents do does not necessarily reflect on our own character but perhaps even then I knew that this charming and polished man concealed a flaw which had been present in his great-great-great-grandfather.

His eyes flickered away from me. ‘I’ve never heard it mentioned,’ he said. ‘I didn’t even know it existed until that friend of mine saw it pictured in the magazine and rang me up. The minute I saw the picture I knew without doubt that it was authentic. There is no mistaking Hall o‘th’Wood.’

There was no mistaking the pride in his voice either.

‘I strongly suspect if it ever was in the family that it would have been my grandfather who would have sold
it.’ He smiled but it was not at me. ‘He was a very sticky Victorian gentleman who had a penchant for gambling. Stories go that he all but gambled Hall o’th’Wood away.’ His eyes moved across to the jug. ‘I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he would have gambled this away if it ever came to the Oliver family.’ He said no more, except, tersely, ‘I should be going, Susie.’

Maybe I should have repeated then that I would not sell the jug to anyone else, that I had already decided that it would return, one day, to its rightful place and rightful owner, that I simply wanted to possess it for a little while longer. Perhaps the next few weeks would have been different. But I said nothing and he walked towards the door, I with him, when quite suddenly he turned around, put one arm around my head, pulled me towards him and kissed me on the mouth. It wasn’t a hard kiss, more exploratory, almost a brush, a hint, velvety and soft but even so I caught the first indication of the full passion that I had already guessed at. When I did not pull away he put his hands either side of my face and this time the kiss was different. It was hard and lingering, his body bent in towards mine.

My aunt told me once, when I was about fourteen and curious about such things as love, that you know when you are falling in love because when they kiss you it is a little like drowning. You do not lose consciousness or hear bells and yet all sensation is altered. I did not know whether she had ever felt like this. I never asked her but I felt like that now. I knew that I was being sucked into
this man’s life and love and was unsteadied by it. My perception of the world was altered for ever.

‘Susie,’ he murmured, his lips brushing my cheek, my hair and finding my mouth again.

Then he broke away and stared at me. ‘Will you come and spend a day with me at Hall o’th’Wood?’

‘Yes.’ There was nothing in this world I wanted more.

‘Saturday?’

I nodded.

‘I’ll ring you first thing in the morning,’ he said, ‘and tell you how to find it. My darling,’ he said, pushing my hair away from my face and kissing me again, ‘come early and stay late.’

Then he was gone. I heard the door close behind him, the car pull away and stood for a while in the same spot, not moving from the air which he had breathed. In it I caught again the faint tang of a cigar and an even fainter tang of aftershave, scents which now would always mean him.

I took the coffee cups back into the kitchen, switched the lights off and went to bed knowing my dreams would be all of him. I wouldn’t sleep but would touch my lips and recall the feel of him against me.

I couldn’t wait for Saturday.

I was wakened early the next morning by the telephone and Richard’s voice. ‘Morning, Susie,’ he said and I sensed he was smiling. ‘I hope I haven’t woken you up.’

I said no and he laughed and I knew that he knew I was lying. I felt warm, comfortable, intimate and snuggled down under the blankets.

‘Have you got a pen handy? And some paper?’

I fumbled around and found some.

‘Fire away,’ I said.

‘Right. Take the A525,’ he said, ‘from Newcastle towards Balterley. As you reach the village look up to your right and you’ll see the house on a small hill.’ He gave a short laugh. ‘You should recognise it. Come as early as you like,’ he said again, ‘and stay late.’ I promised I would.

‘I’ll see you tomorrow then.’

The last day of the week dragged and more than once I caught Joanne watching me, curiosity
sharpening her features but I said nothing. And later I was glad of that.

Sara rang me on Friday evening and asked me to spend Saturday with her and the children. ‘John’s away,’ she said, ‘playing golf. We could do with the company. Maybe go to the pictures, Susie.’

‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘I’m busy.’

I should have remembered that no corner of my life was ever safe from my sister’s prying.

‘What are you doing?’ she asked suspiciously. ‘Surely Joanne can manage the shop and there aren’t any auctions on a Saturday, are there?’

‘I’m spending the day with a client.’ The words were out before I could think and they invited her curiosity.

‘What for? Who is he?’

‘How do you know it is a he?’

‘Because you’re being evasive, little sister.’

‘Well – it is a he. I bought a jug he’s anxious to buy and we’ll discuss it tomorrow.’ It was probably the truth anyway. Any feelings I thought he had for me were probably imagined. Taking me to Hall o’th’Wood was likely to be simply a clever ploy.

‘All day?’ she asked incredulously.

‘He’s asked me to spend the day at his house.’

‘The evening too?’

‘Well, I don’t know how the day will pan out,’ I said desperately. ‘But I can’t make arrangements.’

‘Hmm,’ she said suspiciously. ‘You’re up to something, Susie. I shall ring you first thing Sunday morning.’

I made a half-promise to see her on the Sunday then put the phone down.

Others, it seemed, were also sensing something different about me. David rang later that evening and asked me to have dinner with him, also on the Saturday night. ‘I’ve done a bit of digging,’ he said. ‘I haven’t got the full story behind the jug. It seems some details are missing from church records and such but I can shed a bit of light.’

‘I’m sorry, David,’ I said. ‘I’ve made arrangements.’

‘Oh.’ I knew from the hurt in his tone that he was offended.

‘Sunday lunch,’ he said brightly. ‘We could go to the pub.’

Again I refused. ‘I’ve promised to see Sara,’ I said.

‘But I had something special planned, Susie,’ he said.

This was unusual. We more often shared lunchtime drinks than dinners. I made another half-promise – to have dinner with him one night during the following week.

‘Suit yourself, Suse,’ he said. ‘I just had something to celebrate, that’s all.’ Which immediately made me feel guilty. For having a prior engagement?

‘Next week,’ I said. ‘I will be in touch. I promise.’

I was destined to break all my promises.

To myself, even then, I had to confess that none of these arrangements seemed real. The fact was I could not see beyond tomorrow and my day at Hall o’th’Wood. I was excited that I would be finally seeing the place and
for the umpteenth time that evening I picked the jug up from the table and stared at it, turning it around in my hand and read the words, again and again, and wondered when I would understand the significance of the names and the pictures so carefully painted on it.

I awoke at seven on the Saturday morning and wondered how early was Richard’s early. Not this early. Not before ten, surely?

I bathed and washed my hair, ate the smallest of breakfasts, a bowl of Shreddies and milk, two cups of coffee, and found I could not even contemplate the piece of toast which popped out of the toaster. I drank a glass of orange juice and asked myself the question again.

How early is early? How late is late?

I dressed with care in white, bell-bottomed, linen trousers, a striped skinny-rib jumper and a navy jacket, wedge-heeled shoes and sat for a while, trying to touch my face up invisibly with make-up. At nine o’clock I drove slowly through Newcastle then turned along the A525 towards Balterly, in Cheshire.

As long as I live I shall never forget my first sighting of Hall o’th’Wood. It has burnt itself into my memory now but on that day I could only think that the house was even more beautiful than its picture on my jug. No mere picture even executed by the most skilled artist could ever do it justice. It stood, timeless and proud, on the top of a small hill, nestling in a few trees, walls crooked, black and white, just as I had seen on the jug. It had been truly portrayed by that unknown potter. No artist’s
licence but an accurate picture – but I had been unprepared for its sheer grace. I turned into the
daffodil-lined
drive, pulled up and stopped the car to stare at it for a moment, absorbing its beauty, thinking I had never in my life seen a house which seemed to hold history so completely in its grasp.

I would have stopped for longer but a man who had been trimming the verges crossed over to me and leant in through the window. ‘Morning,’ he said politely. ‘Is it Mr Michael you’re wanting to see?’

I shook my head. ‘No, Mr Richard.’

‘Right then. Up you go.’ He tipped his cap and stepped back smartly while I drove towards the house leaving Elijah Hobson standing, staring after me. There – I knew his name already.

The main entrance was reached at the side, under a wide archway which led into a square, cobbled courtyard. To my right two huge doorways marked the old coach houses, beyond those various gardener’s sheds and stables. But straight ahead were the crooked, intricate walls of the old house, casement windows reflecting the gold sunshine of the morning and black beams which stood out starkly against the old, white walls. I climbed out of the car, looked up and saw the window Richard had spoken about, the crusader. Bewitched, I stood still and stared at the house until the studded, black, oak door opened and Richard was walking towards me. ‘Susie,’ he said, gladness making his voice rich and welcoming. ‘Welcome to Hall
o’th’Wood.’ He bent and kissed my cheek. ‘Welcome,’ he said again. ‘It’s so good to see you here.’ He dropped an arm casually around my shoulder. ‘So,’ he said, standing alongside me and staring up, with me, at the house. ‘What do you think?’

I chuckled. ‘Need you ask?’

We entered the hallway, still laughing, and I gazed around, speechless, absorbing it all, from the wide, polished oak floorboards scattered with Turkish rugs, to the huge, stone fireplace, the gleaming panelled walls hung with portraits, and Carolean stump work. The staircase swept majestically upwards, splitting in front of the huge window, the crusader staring down benevolently, as though protecting the people who lived here. I scanned the minstrels’ gallery and finally tipped my head right back to stare at the high ceilings with their plaster mouldings.

I turned towards Richard and said nothing. I had no words to describe the emotion this place aroused in me. But by his silence I had the feeling that he knew just how much I appreciated the antiquity of the place.

Elizabeth herself might just have stepped out into the garden. I caught a waft of a rose petal nosegay and beeswax polish mingled with lavender and a tinge of rosemary.

He watched me for a moment then led me into the kitchen with a ‘Come and meet Maria. Let’s see if she approves of you too.’

The kitchen was long with a low-beamed ceiling and
scrubbed pine cupboards all around. The floor was red quarry tiles, polished to a dull sheen. On the rack, over a cream-coloured Aga cooker, clothes were drying filling the room with a warm, steamy scent.

I could smell onions and garlic being fried gently in olive oil.

A stout woman in a black dress was silhouetted against the window. She turned around as I walked in and stared at me with dark, hostile eyes. Richard did the introductions. ‘So,’ she said. ‘You are the Susie he has been talking about.’ She had a strong Spanish accent.

‘Buenos días, Maria,’ I said. ‘Hola. ¿Cómo está?’

She faced me with astonishment. ‘¿Habla español?’

‘Sí,’ I answered. ‘Crecí en Mallorca.’

She hugged me then, and chattered in a mixture of Spanish and Mallorquí while Richard watched with an indulgent expression on his face.

After a few minutes Maria shooed us out of the kitchen, scolding Richard. ‘How you think I make you deener when you make me to talk talk talk? How I get things done?’

He took me then through the rest of the house. From the long dining hall, with its oak refectory table and the coat of arms over a fireplace big enough to roast a pig in, and the library, to the pretty sitting room with its casement windows which overlooked a knot garden, then the lawns and the trees beyond – the very wood from where the timbers of the house must surely have come? When we walked up the wide, carved staircase I
stopped in front of the stained-glass window and turned to Richard. ‘You were going to say something about the window when we were at the restaurant the other night, weren’t you?’

He was staring at it as he spoke, dropped his arm around my shoulders. ‘Yes.’ He laughed and pulled me closer to him. ‘Silly really, only a silly confidence about pretending the crusader was asking me to join him in the Holy War.’ He was smiling, looking relaxed and happy and I reflected how different he seemed from the angry man at the saleroom who had been thwarted by the system. Here, surrounded by the portraits of his ancestors, he was not an enigma at all but someone who knew exactly where he belonged in the order of things. And that was here, in this house. I could not imagine him anywhere else. As he led me up the stairs I understood then that this man could not exist outside these ancient walls. Here, all at the same time, he was the small boy, the child, the grave-eyed lad, the young man, the son and the father.

It was a powerful thought.

We walked along the galleried landing hung with portraits of his ancestors. I studied each one and found what I had searched for, a strong family resemblance. Here the grave, grey eyes with their steady, unflinching gaze, there the full mouth – the tightening of the lips leaking an impatience with the sitting, as though they urged the artist to work quicker. As I looked at each one I found elements of Richard’s face mirrored here and
there throughout the generations. It pleased me.

He stopped in front of one, on the upper landing – a rakish-looking fellow, with the same eyes, but an even harder line to his mouth. He was wearing tight trousers and bent forward, leaning on a walking stick. In the background was a coach and horses. Peering out of the coach was the frightened face of a young woman. It was a curious subject for a family portrait. I peered closer. His eyes stared out at me with a lascivious look and I stepped back.

‘Before you ask, Susie,’ he said, ‘this is the Rychard Oliver who was murdered. I don’t know the story – not anything about it. I understand he was in his late thirties when he was killed. What do you think?’

 

‘What did he do,’ I mused, ‘that Matthew Grindall painted gallows on the back of the jug? He wasn’t hanged, was he?’

‘Perhaps it was Matthew Grindall who was hanged and threw this pot anticipating his fate.’

‘Perhaps.’

Richard’s mouth tightened. ‘Not all families,’ he began, ‘are perfect. Some families are fatally flawed, Susie,’ he said softly.

I looked at him and he gazed beyond me.

‘I suppose I’m trying to explain that there are skeletons in cupboards. This man had the very worst of the Oliver tendency.’

‘To what?’ I looked at the face again and felt troubled.
No man is really perfect. What did Richard hide behind his urbane and charming exterior?

‘It might have been a duel,’ I said lightly, ‘over the woman in the coach.’

He touched my hair. ‘I really don’t know,’ he said softly.

I remember wondering then what story David had turned up.

The bedrooms were all huge with four-poster beds draped with thick, brocade hangings. Maria had opened the windows to each one to air it and there was here and there a strong scent of lavender and rose petal potpourri combined with the beeswax polish which made every piece gleam. I wondered which one was his bedroom, the one whose window had been faithfully copied onto my jug. Then I caught the lingering scent of aftershave and cigars and knew the room with the wine-coloured bedspread was his. The room with a huge key in the door.

I loved the place. Everything seemed to have sat in the same position for years. The silver-backed brushes on the dressing table, the paintings, even the books on the side table by the bed. It all belonged so perfectly.

Studying the objects made me share an understanding with him that the jug too belonged back here. It had no business being in my cottage. I would have to sell it to him. Now that I had come here I shared that moral obligation, to return what was rightfully his. Whatever the story it was his story – not mine. I made a vow not
to be greedy with my profit. At the time I felt his friendship was of more value than a few pounds.

‘Show me your grandfather,’ I said suddenly, ‘the gambler.’

He stopped in front of a portrait of a heavily whiskered man in Victorian dress, a pack of cards scattered across the table in front of him. I stared at the background of the portrait, wondering if I might see some evidence of the jug – its spout, a portion of handle, something – anything – but it was not there. Perhaps the old scoundrel had already sold it. Or perhaps the jug had been secreted by the potter and never had found a place here.

It was the only time throughout the entire day that the jug was mentioned – and that obliquely.

He pointed to a door at the very end of the corridor. ‘Through there,’ he finished, ‘are Maria’s rooms. And that, my dear, is that.’

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