A READING EXPERIENCE
By Ben Kesp
Copyright © 2020 Ben Kesp
All rights reserved. No part of this serial may be reproduced in any form without the permission in writing from the author.
The silence of the night is broken by the oncoming beating hooves of two horses galloping under the forceful hand of their driver. Dusk slowly envelopes what is left of the fading day, casting its shadowy reach onto the brown carriage as it swerves sharply onto a dark tree-line avenue of pebble stone. The wheels race over the stones continuing to disturb the silence of the on-coming night sending an owl into the sky away from the din.
Placing her head outside the window she urges the driver, her coachman to go faster as she clasps her hands together in silent prayer. Exiting the heavy tree lined avenue, Edenwood Manor, her home appears in view and Charlotte’s eyes are drawn immediately to the plume of smoke rising upwards from behind the building of grey stone. The carriage stops abruptly outside the front door of the house and she alights.
“Is the house on fire?” she shouts, facing Michael Walsh as he jumps onto the pebbled driveway.
“It’s not the house but it’s comin’ from the rear of it,” is his reply.
“Fetch the water hose and follow around back,” she instructs, lifting her skirts and racing towards the rear of the house. Passing through the narrow passage at the gable end of the manor, she enters the back garden, with its plants and ornaments still visible in the falling of the night. Smoke billows upwards behind the apple orchard and instantly Charlotte knows it is the loft, an outbuilding that was once used as a barn now converted to a storeroom. Fear takes over as she exits the garden under an arch of roses to the back yard where the stables and sheds are situated. Charlotte spies her brother and she pauses, her chest heaving from the exertion.
“Frederick, what are you doing?” she inhales moving closer to him as he stands, staring on as the flames engulf the small barn.
“If urns! If urns!” he mumbles through his twisted lips, his deformed face turning into a smile.
Grabbing him by the arms she faces him. “Did you do this!? Tell me, Frederick, did you do this?”
“Nof. Nof. If urns.”
Moving towards the barn the heat from the flames warm her cheeks and she pulls back.
“Stand back Ms. Summers,” came Michael’s voice from behind her as he turns on the hose in attempts to put out the flames. “We will not be able to save it but I can stop the flames from spreading.”
Charlotte moves her gaze onto the blackened walls of the building now fighting against the enraged flames. She nods in agreement knowing there is nothing else she can do. Ignoring her brother’s giddy responses with the fire, she moves towards the garden and faces the back door of Edenwood Manor. She finds it strange that the fire has not brought her mother to the door or perhaps she is standing by the upstairs window. In the failing light, Charlotte has little visibility.
Entering the house, she steps into the hallway to be greeted by darkness. The hall of Edenwood runs the width of the house leading to the front door with an ornate wooden staircase situated halfway between both doors. Lighting an oil lamp she pauses and listens. The house is silent, blocking out all the external happenings.
Moving to step towards the stairs, Charlotte’s eyes fall onto a pair of legs suspending in front of her situated halfway along the hall. Fear roots her to the floor momentarily until she pushes her feet forward fighting the urge to run out of the house. Her trembling hand holds the oil lamp. Closing her eyes, Charlotte places her back against the wall and moves past the legs. Lifting her eyes upward they fall onto her mother’s distorted face, staring down on her. The moment overwhelms and her legs buckle, dropping to the floor, she emits a short low scream. The horror of the moment hits her knowing that darkness will soon overtake her physically and spiritually.
Sitting on top of his large black stallion, the cool morning breeze caresses his face. From his viewpoint on a circular hill, he casts his gaze over the expanse of Featherson Estate. The tall chimneys of Featherson House protrude upwards from the mass of mature trees encircling the building that lies in the centre of the estate next to a large manmade lake. The land of the estate is vast, split between grasslands and mature woodlands developed and designed for hunting.
The sound of the bugle breaks the morning silence and Henry Carson moves his eyes in the direction of the sounds. The dogs have been quiet. Their barks and yelps rise again with the bugle and their excitement spreads out across the land. His stallion paws the ground, shaking its head, knowing it is time to rejoin the hunt. Pulling on the reins, he turns the animal and allows it to gallop down the sloping hill towards the trees to join its comrades in the hunt. He broke formation to spy their target - a cunning grey-tailed red fox that had outmanoeuvred them at every turn and slipped past the hounds. Its slippery trail had led to confusion among the dogs.
Galloping into the woodlands, Henry spies the group of horsemen surrounded by frantic dogs encircling a large earthen mound. The enemy has been cornered, but experience tells him it is not going to be the end of the fox today, and it would provide another morning of joyous pursuit. Returning to Featherson House, the black stallion canters into the courtyard leading the group of hunters and dogs.
Dismounting, Henry passes the reins to the stable boy who rushes to his side. At thirty-two years of age, he manages and owns Featherson House following the death of his father Captain Carson two years earlier. The estate has not been his complete commitment, as his interest turned to the world of investigating after setting up his own private investigation agency two years ago. Many thought him mad for following the pursuit and that it is an idle pastime but it became more to him than even the management of Featherson Estate.
His only family is his sister, Abigail who married Benjamin Williams, son of the magistrate, Sir Alfred Williams, of the local city legal affairs three years earlier. She is adamant that he marry from a selection of suitable suitors, which he always declines. He is against the idea of marrying someone because it is arranged and suitable for all concerned. Henry entertains his sister’s plans most of the time.
He cannot deny that he enjoys his lifestyle at Featherson and his pursuits into the world of investigating. Returning to the matters at hand, he ensures all his guests are taken care of and are enjoying a splendid spread laid out in the grand dining room before beckoning his close friend and confidant Edmond Doherty to join him in the library, the one room in the house that allows him the peace to contemplate the many finer details on the cases he agrees to take on.
Seating himself by the large white marble fireplace, Edmond sits opposite him. Smiling at Edmond he picks up the letter that he has opened earlier that morning, a new case that has caught his interest. Edmond has joined him on many cases and he is the one person Henry likes confiding in and a worthy opponent for debate.
The letter is from a woman by the name of Ms. Charlotte Summers who resides at Edenwood Manor some twenty miles away. After thoroughly reading through the letter, his interest is in finding out more about Ms Summer’s dilemma has piqued.
“So Mr. Carson I know by that smile that something has pulled your interest,” Edmond replies crossing his legs waiting for his friend to divulge his secret.
“Ah, you know me too well Edmond. Here is I believe our new case.”
“Another land dispute or missing jewellery no doubt.”
“Have they become that predictable? But alas, I fear this is not so simple,” Henry replies handing the letter and case file to Edmond.
Edmond quickly glances through the file before placing his gaze onto Henry. “This is certainly not your general run of the mill issues.”
“Certainly is not and there are a number of things that do not add up. Firstly, why such a delay before reporting this incident? If it had not been for the local police putting pressure on Ms. Summers, I believe she never would have contacted me.”
“At first glance, it does not seem like much of a case. A mysteriously burned down barn and the suicide of an elderly woman.”
“All on the one night. At the same time.”
“Edenwood Manor, it is the residence of the Summer family.”
Henry stands. “The estate now has fallen to Ms. Charlotte Summers. Her grandfather Victor Wescott had the manor built in the 1780s. He earned his money from the business of wine, brandy and seaweed, much of his work was done in Spain. Victor had no son so the estate fell to his daughter Harriet, who married George Summers, Charlotte’s father, who died several years ago and the house was left to Harriet. George’s son, Frederick, is a simpleton but living at Edenwood Manor.”
“Why is he is not in an asylum?”
“I do not know his severity or perhaps the family did not wish to have a scandal. I cannot speak much about the Summers’ or claim to know anything about the family. As part of our investigation, we will need to try and get an understanding of who they are?” Henry replies.
“Oh now, this is interesting. Here in the local police file, there is a letter from Mrs. Harriet Summers, the mother.”
“Yes, and written on the night of her death, her suspected suicide. She writes about an evil lurking on the grounds of Edenwood and it needed to be wiped out.”
“Evil. What a harsh word,” Edmond notes.
“I believe that Ms. Charlotte Summers has no knowledge of this note from her mother as it has been recorded by local police that it was handed in by the family coachman, a man by the name of Michael Walsh.”
“Interesting. So according to Ms. Summers, she is only concerned with us investigating who destroyed a collection of valuable paintings that were being stored in the barn,” Edmond adds scanning the notes of the file before him.
“This incident would not have even been brought to our attention if it were not for the circles Ms. Summers associates herself with. The local peerage wants answers and of her occupation as a playwright, it has also drawn some questions.”
“A socialite or philanthropist,” Edmond muses at the thought.
Henry responds with a smile. “That is the part you and I have to find out.”
Edmond Stands. “So let’s not put it off. Let’s pay a visit to Edenwood Manor.”
“First thing in the morning my good man,” Henry replies with a nod. “Now let’s return to eat our fill before everything is gone.”
“You mean before the Roche brothers eat the table out from under them.”
“They are always an enjoyable duo for a hunt,” Henry smiles leading his friend out of the library and towards the dining room.
Henry waves off the carriage that places him and Edmond standing at the avenue entrance leading to Edenwood Manor. Henry notices there is no entrance gate, only two stone piers that nature is gradually reclaiming. A dark avenue stretches out before them, heavily covered in hanging tree branches blocking out all light from hitting the pebble stones. Stepping inwards it is obvious little upkeep is being done on the avenue. What once appears to have been hedging and shaped shrubs are now wild and tangled with briars lining each side of the avenue. They soon exit the canopy of heavy trees and their view falls onto a simple lawn spreading towards a large two-story square house. The house boasts little architectural features except for its main door. It has two pillars on either side with a large fanlight overhead forming at the base of the family crest of the Wescott family. Approaching the house, Henry casts his eyes upwards to the upper floor to see many of the windows have their drapes drawn.
Remaining in silence, the two men step to the side of the house, entering the backyard of the house, their eyes falling onto the row of stables and eventually they eye the burnt shell of the barn.
“Carry out an inspection of the yard and buildings and see what you can find,” Henry directs his friend. “I will return to the house and chat with Ms. Summers.”
Edmond nods in agreement and Henry returns to the house, glancing briefly along the narrow path covered in flowers and ivy that runs parallel to the side gable leading to a garden. He intends to explore that later when he does a more detailed inspection but for now, he must meet with Ms. Summers. Moving to the front door he knocks and the door is opened by a tall elegant woman, perhaps a few years younger than him but with her serious demeanour, he can be sure.
“Good day. My name is Henry Carson, P.I. I have been sent here on request from Ms. Charlotte Summers, whom I believe is expecting me.”
“Mr. Carson. Please come in. Shall I take your coat?”
Henry allows Charlotte to take his coat and he follows her into drawing room, the smell of the musty air hitting him on entering.”
“Thank you for coming to see me.”
“Yes. Were you expecting someone else, Mr. Carson?”
“No…. I had not expected you to have greeted me personally at the door.”
“There are no hired hands here only, Michael Walsh, the coachman and estate labourer. Would you like refreshments?”
“No, thank you, Ms. Summers,” Henry replies, taking a seat noticing the house is not in a position of luxury or the wealth that it may once have been accustomed to.
“Let me get down to the business of my meeting.”
“I have been reading the details of the letter you sent me and the local police case file and I do have some questions which I hope you might be able to clear up for me. Firstly, you believe that someone intentionally burned down your barn which contained valuable paintings and artefacts that your father had acquired during his operations overseas.”
“That is correct.”
“But you are not including the connection here with the death of your mother.”
“I am not seeing that there is any connection. My mother ended her own life, she had not been well. The local police are making an issue out of it, so I informed them that I would look into these matters myself. They do not seem interested in pursuing the burning of many valuable collectibles.”
“But within the case file is a note from your mother that surely should strike you as odd.”
“Odd! In what way Mr. Carson?”
“How can you ignore the note that your mother wrote where she states, an evil is lurking within Edenwood estate.”
Charlotte maintains her stoic composure and locks her eyes with the inspector.
“My mother was not well, the note you speak of should confirm that.”
“Had she been seeking medical guidance? On medication? Who was her attending physician?” Henry throws the questions at her unable to penetrate through the emotions of the woman sitting before him, now slightly agitating him.
“Too many questions inspector that I am unable to answer.”
“Unable to answer? Surely you knew if your mother was not well and on medication.”
“I spend much of my time away.”
“Yes, as a playwright. I want to know more about that later.”
“Why is that of interest to you? You are here to investigate who burned down my barn.”
“Ms. Summers this investigation will require investigating into all areas that might be connected. Now returning to your mother and her letter, can you please be a little more open with me Ms. Summers,” Henry continues increasing his tone slightly.
Charlotte stands and moves towards the window. “The death of my mother has nothing to do with your business here.”
“I disagree!” Henry replies standing and facing her. “My reason for believing this at the moment is that your mother wrote a letter that was not meant to be found by you or any other family member. Do not lie to me Ms. Summers, the truth is you never knew of this letter until now?”
Charlotte remains silent.
“It was found my Michael Walsh, your family coachman, a very close confidant of your mother and he reported it to the local authorities. While you are away for long periods, your mother only had Michael by her side and of course your brother but what could she say to him being in the state that he is. That is why you brought the case to me so you can show the local police that you are taking action with the possibility of misleading them. So I question what it is you are hiding?”
Charlotte remains quiet and returns to her seat and sits.
“I believe your mother knew that something was happening here at Edenwood and you may or may not have knowledge of Ms. Summers. Perhaps you are protecting something or someone. I will now join my colleague, Mr. Doherty outside and we will carry out a thorough inspection of the barn and grounds. I do hope that at our next meeting you will be more forthcoming with information. Good day Ms. Summers, I shall see myself out.”
Charlotte remains seated until she hears the front door click shut. Standing she moves to the window and observes Henry disappear from her view. Stepping out of the drawing room she moves to the staircase.
“Frederick you can come out now he is gone, but stay in the house,” she shouts before moving towards the kitchen. Frederick appears at the top of the landing peering over the banister railing. Smiling slightly he slowly descends the stairs.
Returning to the burnt shell of the barn, Henry pushes his discussion with Charlotte out of his thoughts. He is not sure why she agitated him so much. It was never his intention to jump straight into a line of questioning and his actions for doing so have left him slightly confused. Joining Edmond by the barn he observes his comrade standing and inspecting the entrance to the forest leading up to the rear of the property.
“There is a trail leading in from the rear of this property. I wonder where it goes to.”
“Into the woods, I would surmise.”
“State the obvious. That is something I discovered for myself,” Edmond chides.
“While you are looking into the depths of darkness in those trees, this former barn is the purpose of our investigation,” Henry replies stepping onto the floor, now covered in galvanised sheets.
The charred walls still emit a burning odour. Bending he grabs the sheets to find they are nailed to the floor. Stepping into the centre of the barn he surveys the empty space. Turning he sees a man standing in the doorway.
“You must be Michael Walsh, the coachman.”
“That I am. Can I help you, sir?”
“I am Henry Carson, a private investigator hired by Ms. Summers to investigate the burning of this shed which has been remarkably cleaned,” Henry replies glancing around the blackened walls before him. “Did you clean it out?”
“I did, under the orders of Ms. Charlotte.”
“I see. It is not easy to investigate a scene when all remaining evidence has been brushed away.”
“Only ashes, that’s all that was left.”
“And on the floor?” Henry taps his boot onto the galvanised sheets. Michael remains silent. Henry holds his gaze onto the man before him.
“You have no answer. The thing is Mr. Walsh, I need answers. I know some time passed before Ms. Charlotte reported the incident. Perhaps it was never her intention to even report it so she would not have been expecting anyone to be here.” Henry steps closer to Michael. “Why do you believe Mrs. Harriet Summers gave you a letter before she hung herself?”
“I have been a close friend to Mr. and Mrs. Summers for many a year. Old Mrs. Summers spent much of her time alone. Her daughter was away, her son now a lunatic so I was the only one besides her doctor that she spoke to.”
“What did you speak about?”
“I don’t believe I can say.”
Henry holds his gaze on Michael without replying before moving his attention to his comrade who joins him in the centre of the charred building.
“Oh!,” Henry breaks the silence and spins in the direction of Michael. “You mentioned that her son is now a lunatic, so are you implying that he was not born one?”
“No. Something happened to him on his sixteenth birthday and he was deformed ever since.”
“Deformed. In what way?”
“He was an educated boy. Smart. After whatever happened, he became silly as if he lost all sense of who he was and he only spoke like a simpleton.”
“What is it, Henry?” Edmonds asks.
“Just complicating the web of the Summers family.”
Henry steps across the sheets of galvanise giving them his attention. It would make no sense for someone to nail sheets of galvanise onto the floor of a burnt out barn. He contemplates his thoughts. No ash, no trace of picture frames or even blackened glass. This could easily be a case to dismiss as nothing to investigate, tick the boxes and move on leaving Ms. Charlotte Summers with a report to show local authorities in the hope they would leave all alone. That is why this case piqued his attention from the minute he read it. The more he thinks about it, the barn he is standing in, he believes is a ruse, a deception. His thoughts are interrupted by Edmond.
“What is your next move?”
Henry moves his eyes from Edmond to Michael. “Fetch some tools. I need to see what is hiding under my feet.
The sunlight falls onto the blank page resting under her outstretched hand. Charlotte sits quietly at her writing desk, staring blankly onto the paper. Her thoughts are on Henry Carson. She cannot deny his handsome looks and dashing smile, despite how frustrated she made him on their first encounter. She must not allow these thoughts to develop. He will only become a distraction at a time when she needs her full attention on the matter at hand. A shadow crosses the page in front of her returning her attention to the moment. Placing her nib onto the desk she stands and listens. She may ignore her calling but she recognises what the shadows are. She has seen too many of them during her youth at Edenwood Manor. Stepping out of the room she enters the kitchen and her eyes fall on a middle aged woman standing outside, her grey hair tied up in a bun. Charlotte has been waiting for her visit. Moving to the door she opens it, facing Mrs. Woodridge.
“Ms. Summers, you know why I am here,” Mrs. Woodridge’s firm tone states holding her strong gaze onto Charlotte.
“I would be foolish to say no.”
“Sort out the issue at once with the private inspector. We do not want his kind around here snooping. It is beyond me why you did not focus his attention elsewhere than on the barn.”
“Would you prefer I focus his attention on my mother?”
“It would be easier to divert his focus if you had.”
“I will handle Mr. Carson,” Charlotte replies remaining stoic.
Mrs. Woodridge makes an attempt to leave but stops, placing her gaze once more onto Charlotte. “Tomorrow night, it is the thirteenth. We expect to see you.” Mrs. Woodridge left, disappearing around the side of the house.
No matter how she churned the ideas over and over in her head, she could not find an escape route. Her mother had ensured Charlotte is committing to her responsibilities and to Edenwood Manor. The sudden hammering breaks the silence of the morning. Glancing towards the rear of the garden the hammering continues in the direction of the burnt barn. Fear roots her momentarily before lifting her dress, she exits the house in haste towards the outbuildings.
Arriving at the scene, Charlotte’s eyes fall on Henry Carson, now stripped off his coat and in a white shirt as he throws galvanise sheets onto the ground outside the burnt shell. Michael stands nearby and another man she does not recognise. She quickly places her eyes on Michael who remains silent and lowers his head to the exposed barn floor.
“What are you doing Mr. Carson? Did I give you the authorisation to do this?
“Ms. Summers, you have requested an investigation and that is what I am doing. You have already tampered with evidence by having this barn swept clean. Not a trace of an artefact or painting is left. Do you want an investigation or not?”
Charlotte remains silent allowing Henry to remain in control. He scans the floor of the barn, his eyes falling on the outline of a trap door near one of the corners of the building.
“Mr. Carson, I beg of you to leave at once. Perhaps I do not wish to find the culprit for the burning of the shed and my father’s valuables.”
Henry glances in her direction before moving to the door, grabbing the handles and pulling it open. He places his shirt sleeve to his face and steps back in disgust, his eyes falling onto skeletal and animal remains.
Part IV 25.02.20