Sir Shackleton Huntswick is feeling out of sorts. The last council meeting had been perfectly satisfactory although there was worry that the planned housebuilding on Jacob’s Acres would do untold damage to the fabric of the village. Fifty new houses was a lot to absorb. The open pasture and burial mound held a special place in Brakehall’s way of life. The pasture held fairs and the village show, and in ancient times it was believed to have been a place of worship. A stone sarcophagus had been unearthed by some amateur archaeologists in the nineteenth century who claimed it was the site of a long barrow. Since then there had been no professional archaeology to verify this theory. The villagers regarded it as sacred.
The Parish Council had raised objections with the County but he felt central government pressure on new house building would take precedent and construction would go ahead. The developers, Padfoot Construction, were aggressive in pursuing their aims and would not hesitate going to the Secretary of State to get their way. He wondered what his ancestors would think about this intrusion into the quiet life of their rural community. Sir Shackleton felt powerless and weak, perhaps it was his old age. If he had been younger he would have been more vigorous in his objections, pulling strings with the planning authority and heritage bodies and using his connections with the Lord Lieutenant and other influencers in the county.
He was also disturbed by the strange visitor to the last council meeting. There was something familiar about him. The ragged figure had never taken his eyes off him, but did not utter a word during the meeting. The silent way in which he arrived and departed was equally odd, as well as his old fashioned attire.
His late wife, Lady Priscilla, would have told him to pull himself together; he badly missed her nagging company and acerbic wit. She would have been horrified about closing off the East wing of the old rectory, it was sad to see the furniture covered in dust sheets but he had no need for the space. It was expensive heating unused rooms for the sake of it, and long gone were the good old days when they entertained.
He had to face it, the old rectory was an empty shell without his wife. The house’s prestige masked its deadliness, the gardens had lost their panache, the old gardener, Benson, did the bare minimum, he really should be put out to grass but he had not the heart.
Marjorie, the live in housekeeper and cook, was his only ray of sunshine that kept him going with her no nonsense cooking and attention to cleanliness. If only one of his children had been interested in taking on the place, but there was little hope of that occurring. The only option looming was to sell up, he could barely think about it without feeling ill.
After dinner, which he takes in the morning room on a tray, Marjorie retires to her quarters for the evening. Just recently, he thinks he can hear voices coming from the closed-up East wing but he pushes the notion to the back of his mind. His unmoored existence fooled him into thinking the sounds were background blurb from the radio which he turned up loud most of the day. During the evenings he is inclined to doze off with a glass of whisky listening to the evening concert on Radio 3.
Shortly after breakfast on the following day, he hears the sound of a horse’s hooves and the crunch of carriage wheels on gravel. Putting down his newspaper, he gets up and peers out of the morning room window, there is nobody there. He rings the servant’s bell for Marjorie, she is in the kitchen washing up. ‘Did you hear the sound of a horse outside?’
‘No, Sir Shackleton,’ she replies. ‘I’ll pop out and see if there is anyone on the driveway.’
‘Don’t bother, Marjorie, I must have been mistaken.’
‘I’ll bring your coffee in a moment.’
‘Please put a tot of whisky in it for me.’
‘Are you feeling unwell?’
‘No, I am perfectly fine, but I think I need something to sharpen up my wits this morning.’
Marjorie worries the old boy is ill as he has been acting strangely recently. She wonders if she should have a quiet word with nice Dr Daventry to see if she can pop in for an unscheduled visit. Over the years, the doctor has been a regular visitor, nursing Priscilla through her last illness, and she occasionally drops in on her rounds for a a cup of coffee.
Thinking of the doctor reminds her that a few days ago she had glimpsed Dr Daventry in St Mary’s graveyard. She cut a rather lonely figure since her divorce and Marjorie wondered why was studying the gravestones. She didn’t think the doctor’s family were from these parts, so why the interest? Perhaps she was just passing the time while her little dog scampered about.
Marjorie wishes that Sir Shackleton’s older son would come and live with them instead of being rooted in London. She doesn’t think his wife is keen about living in the countryside or in the old rectory for that matter. If they reopened the east wing there would more than enough room for James and his wife and two children. He will inherit the house in due course but Marjorie worries what will become of her, after thirty years. She has become a fixed part of the family, and since Priscilla’s passing, she is Sir Shackleton’s anchor.
As planned, Dr. Daventry had taken her dog, Jack, for a follow up visit to the graveyard at St Mary’s. Jack was put out by missing his normal morning riverside walk and pulls on the lead to go left towards the river. No matter how hard he pulls he is marched cross the village green, and passing the old rectory, mistress and dog go through the lychgate.
This morning the sun is shining, a perfect late autumn day if a little cold, the mist has cleared and the dreary dampness has been replaced by a heart-warming brightness. The churchyard seems no longer threatening and the doctor lets Jack off the lead to allow him to run about and chase grey squirrels. She retraces her footsteps and tries to remember where she saw the stooped figure. The doctor paces around and peers at a number of gravestones and tries to read the names. Many inscriptions are faded but three do catch her eye: Joshua Bartrop, died 1849 age sixty two years; Abraham Cranswick, died 1847, age fifty nine; and Eugene Steele died 1853; the doctor is unable to decipher age of death but there were names of a several infants on the stone who had all died very young. It reminded her how far medicine had progressed since those days of common infant mortality.
The names she had identified were familiar as she has patients with the same surname and presumed they must be related. The doctor looks at the large memorial stone and mausoleum for the Hunstwick family. The prominent tomb did not appear to have interested the shadow figure, maybe he had already looked at it before she spotted him.
Her fears of the previous evening had dissipated and she was glad she had not burst into the pub and made a fool of herself. ‘Jack, Jack,’ she calls the dog. He returns with a bound and runs around her feet with a scrap of material firmly clenched in his jaws.
‘What is it, you clever boy.’ She orders the dog to sit which he does obediently, but he’s reluctant to let go of the rag in his mouth. ‘Drop it, good boy.’ Eventually, she gets hold of a piece roughly woven green fabric and tugs it out of his mouth. It looks like the material from an old coat. She puts it into her own coat pocket and decides to look at it more closely once back at home. Putting Jack back on his lead she is heading out of the churchyard when she meets the Rector.
‘Not exactly, just trying to identify the gravestones I thought the strange figure was looking at.’
‘The names Bartrop, Cranswick and Steele are the ones I think he was looking at.’
‘Those names are all local councillors if I remember correctly, probably family relatives from the past.
‘The same families have been in this village for generations.’
‘Did you hear the Sexton’s bell ringing last night.’
‘What time would that be?’
‘We finished about nine thirty.’
‘I was home by then, so no.’
‘Very mysterious, Roger Cranswick, the Sexton, was with me and he’s the only one with key to the belfry. Peter Houseman told the meeting he had seen an apparition on his allotment the other evening. He described it as a hooded figure in a long green drover’s coat who came out of Roger’s allotment shed. For a moment, he thought it was the grim reaper calling time, gave him an awful fright.’
They both laughed nervously. The doctor digs into her coat pocket and shows the torn green fabric. ‘Look what Jack found in the graveyard.’
‘Can I take it to show Peter and see if it is a match?’
‘Of course, let me know what he says. It’s all getting rather spooky.’
‘Puts me a bit at odds with my Christian beliefs, they can’t all be the Messiah.’
They both giggle at the joke but secretly wonder what is happening in their quiet little village.
‘By the way what do you think about these plans for the houses on Jacob’s Acre?’
‘I must say I am torn. It is my Christian duty to welcome new people into the village, and more housing would be good for primary school numbers. They have been dropping in recent years. But losing the recreational space and beauty of Jacob’s Acre would be a real blow. It is ancient pasture land and part of the fabric of the village. I can see both sides of the argument and I know feelings are running high in the parish.’
‘It is a constant theme with my patients too, most seem to be against it. There is bound to be a lot of nimbies; people resent change, even if it might do the community good in the long run. There is also antipathy towards greedy property developers exploiting ‘their’ village. Padfoot Construction does not have good reputation in these parts, particularly after the houses he built in Lower Wibbenham-in-the-Marshes that are always flooding.’
‘There’s a clue to the name,’ says the Rector.
‘We’ll just have to wait the County Council’s decision.
The disgraced Reverend Fairfax never to Australia as the villager’s of Brakehall were led to believe. Instead he bolted to Carlisle on the Scottish border to put as much distance from his south west parish as he could in the hope he would never be discovered.
Once in Carlisle, Fairfax set about reinventing himself. He established a usury business using money he had stolen from church funds and raiding his wife’s cash savings and jewels. He changed his name to Ezra van de Porter, and traded as Equitable Usury, “Fair Loans for Fair-Minded People.” His rates were far from fair-minded but it did not stop him finding customers.
At first he lent small sums for short periods to farmers and local businesses, but as the industrial revolution took hold his lending business expanded. Entrepreneurs were keen to buy property and equipment for the booming textile mills of the city. Ezra cut his long hair short grew an expansive beard and forgot about religion altogether. He occasionally attended the cathedral and adopted a pious, respectable air. He liked to claim ancestry from the low countries which lent him more legitimacy to his new identity as a shrewd money expert.
It took some time before his grudge against Sir Arum Huntswick’s family faded away. In his twisted logic it was Hunstwick who had caused his downfall. He conveniently forgot that he had been caught sequestering church funds to maintain his excessive lifestyle as well as nearly poisoning the Lord of the Manor, the major church benefactor. His reformation was a gradual process but he succeeded in avoiding strong drink and unsavoury female company and instead devoted his energies to building his lending business. His flight before the judiciary could lay hands on him, certainly saved him from hanging for his crimes.
Fifteen years pass since the thieving priest had fled the west country and the born again Ezra van de Porter’s business prospers. His company is now renamed, The Equitable People’s Society. Several offices are opened around the country and he marries again. His bride is a young woman, twenty two years his junior, the elder daughter of a wealthy Cumbrian land owning family, the Graham’s. Suitors were not plentiful in those days as many men of rank had been recruited to the British Army to support the East India Company’s Sikh war in 1846, followed by the opium wars in China. Ezra provided loans for his bride’s father, Walter Graham, a heavy investor in railways. Graham was delighted about the marriage. He feared Rosemary, his dowdy elder daughter, then aged twenty seven, was heading for spinsterhood. Ezra shrewdly saw an opportunity to complete his disguise and gain the respectability afforded to the land owning classes. Meanwhile, Walter Graham was happy to overlook any misgivings he had about his future son-in-law being a usurer, it more than compensated getting his daughter married off to someone rich enough to care for her very need.
Rosemary wasted no time in procreating two children and enjoyed her union to the wealthy but now ageing Ezra. Their age differences soon began to show as the demands of his business meant he spent more time away negotiating ever larger loans. As a distraction, Rosemary took her coachman, as a lover.
For the first time in Fairfax’s life there appeared to be a form of legitimacy surrounding his business and marriage, even if the latter was bigamous. The thought of Sir Aram Huntswick no longer sent his pulses racing. Occasionally he would pine for his unseen children and once, when visiting his Bath office, he did promenade outside his ex father-in-laws’s house. He glimpsed through a high privet hedge what he presumed was his wife and some teenage children playing tennis, he was unable to identify any of them
after so much time had elapsed. In his new persona, Ezra van de Porter, felt a deep pang of conscience at the way he had treated them. As he hurried away from the house he passed a young man dressed as a clergyman.
‘Good day to you sir, on this fine day,’ says the clergyman.
‘Goo…d d…y,’ Ezra stuttered, and quickened his pace. The young man turned around to see the expensively dressed, bearded gentleman disappearing down the road. There was something familiar about the man, his upright gait and particularly the mild west country stutter. For a brief moment he wondered, no, it could not be, his father went to Australia didn’t he?
Ezra hurried on, flustered by the encounter with his eldest son, and was filled with regret. He vowed never to return to the house again.
Ezra van de Porter’s funeral in 1866 was well attended by the great and the good of Carlisle. The many employees of the Equitable People’s Society came to say farewell to one of the city’s most prosperous merchants, a man whose philanthropy in later life had marked him as a generous citizen. This transformation, unbeknown to his second wife and business associates, was all the more remarkable. You might think he was making amends for his past misdemeanours, returning to the spiritual roots that had made him study for the priesthood as a young man.
Some months after the funeral, Mrs Fairfax in Bath, was surprised to receive through lawyers in Carlisle, a substantial bequest from an anonymous person residing in that city.