Friday, May 26, 2017

The Ruin

The Ruin
Bobby Derie

There is in England a certain respect for age which goes beyond mere tradition. Respect is perhaps not the right word for it, because it is as though a touch of antiquity is bound up within the British character, and though it may be chased away from the thoughts of those in great cities like London, yet it is never far from the surface, and many an Englishman and woman has turned up a bit of Rome with a spade, or gone into a cellar and found a fragment from some ancient war, or coatbuttons that shone bright when Shakespeare set down his sonnets, or else flints from some dimmer age of habitation. History was crowded thick on the island, and it moved in the blood and minds of its people.

All of this greatly vexed Stephen Hawkmoor, for after some years of excellence and luck in business, he had obtained a private ambition: the purchase of a mock castle. Now, some would look down at Hawkmoor for this, but only those as who look down on wealth that is won rather than inherited or found by fortune. Hawkmoor as much as he loved history, which was as much as any Englishman, was yet cognizant of possibilities: that is, while it is honest and good to inherit a grandfather's sword or a mother's patch of land, for ages and ages those selfsame bits had been honestly traded for good hard cash.

The mock castle was itself no gauche thing; for if it was less than three hundred years old, and its turrets and barbican no more than cosmetic affections, it was still a thing of generations, with trees on the grounds two hundred years old, and window glass warped by time. It had odd creaks in the floor, and graffiti in the servant's passages, doorways that had been bricked up, rooms whose original use had been lost to time, and a wine cellar that was dark and damp and cobwebbed, that gave the impression that you could pull down any wall and find there a leering skeleton.

Yet it had no ruin.

This vexed Hawkmoor greatly, for he had dearly wished to have a proper ruin on the grounds, to wander through on cold nights with his dog, or to read poetry on a heavy summer evening, and to forbid his daughters to play in during spring and autumn. Nor was the lack of ruin do to effort; he had called forth archaeologists and antiquarians, and scoured maps and charters back to the Magna Carta. The scientists came with their ground-penetrating radar, and the bookmen searched their archives, and yet they all came back with empty hands: Hawkmoor had, in some fluke, happened upon the one corner of the island that had never been so much as an over-night camp for wandering Saxons. It had been farmland to back before the Norman Conquest, and the farmhouse itself had been torn down and carted away when the foundations of the current house has been laid.

So, Hawkmoor resolved that if there was no ruin, there would be one. It was a little folly, he knew, but not without precedent; many such ruins had been constructed by romantic peers with more money than sense and who cared nothing for the strange glances of the local folk.

Now before just throwing money at such a folly, Hawkmoor resolved that if he was going to do a ruin, he would do a proper one. So he toured the ruins that were extant, a series of vacations that lasted the better part of two years - for there are few places in England or Wales that cannot be visited on a week-end, and he did not wish to neglect either his family or his business - and marked the broken pillars and the low grey walls, the buried mounds and vaults, the stones piled and toppled. Then he hired an architect, and put the matter before him. What he wanted, was not too ostentatious or ridiculous, yet in his research an image of it had fixed in his mind, and he gave forth a proper history of how such a place would have been, if it had been, and how it had become like that.

The architect took many notes, and smiled. He surveyed the whole of the grounds around the house, and they found a little patch clear of trees, not too far from the house, and away from all the pipes and other subterranean architecture. There he built the crypt.

For it was a crypt, though Hawksmoor had not thought of it in quite that way. The cellar of an old Roman house, with its bare altar to Mithras with its half-effaced characters, which had been repurposed by some family in Elizabethan times, and then buried and half-uncovered in the Victorian era, where they added a superstructure of red brick and ivy, where the chunks of Roman masonry were embedded in the brickwork, and the whole enclosed in a kind of simple garden with a low wall and shallow ha-ha all the way around, like a moat. It was built in layers, starting with the lowest level, and filled in gradually over three summers, and cost Hawksmoor a great deal. Yet at the end he shook his architect's hand, and thanked him heartily.

In the spring and summer it was a secret garden, which he chased the children out of; in the autumn it was a solemn place of dead leaves and dead vines, and in winter the snow laid on it like it had been there a hundred years. Hawksmoor did not entertain guests in the ruin - they all, he knew, must have known it was but a folly, and one did not brag on follies; a very few who were unfamiliar sometimes mistook it, and that gave him a slight glow, though he never failed to tell them it was not a real ruin, but a later addition - how much later, he did not tell them, for a touch of mystery did not hurt. In his office, he had framed a blueprint of the ruin, done by hand in brown inks by the steady hand of his architect, who was likewise a good draughtsman, and the paper on which it was sketched was no less than a hundred years old, for one can find hundred-year-old paper readily if there is money enough.

Then one solstice, Hawksmoor was out in his ruin. The night was dark and crisp and clear, and the party insufferable; his wife had insisted on having a Chinese buffet, and had invited certain relatives he would gladly have walled up in the wine cellar that they were intent on draining. So a little walk to clear his head, and a glass of whiskey to keep him warm, out to his ruin. It was then, in the moonlight and beneath the Christmas star, that he saw the ghost.

It was a wisp of a figure, a sketch of deeper darkness against the shadows of snow-covered ivy on red brick and white "Roman" masonry.

"Merry Christmas," Hawksmoor said, unsure of what else to say.

The spirit said nothing for a time, but seemed to gain a bit of substance. "This is a good crypt," it said at last. "I have wandered for quite some time...there is a lack of such places. Too many are too crowded. I wandered through churchyards and priories, and the dark places in the woods, and all the ghosts chase me out, saying 'No room, no room.' But this is a good place. It is...quiet."

Perhaps it was the whiskey, or the way the cold brought tears to his eyes, but the spirit's little speech touched Hawksmoor. "Well, you are welcome to stay. We would be happy to have you. Although I must admit..." he coughed politely "...this is, perhaps, not quite so old as it first appears."

"All places were young once." The spirit said, and then the shadow flitted - Hawksmoor could swear he saw it move - and seemed to spread. The whole of the ruin took on a new aspect now, and he felt it in every breath, which despite the whiskey seemed to chill the lungs. Now there was a presence in the ruins, a terrible potential charged within the very stones. Hawksmoor smiled and took his leave, retracing his footsteps in the snow. Whatever its age, he knew now it was a proper ruin.


No comments:

Post a Comment