In the winter of 19–, having newly arrived in England, and still recovering from the nervous indisposition which had afflicted me greatly ever since my circumstances during the war, I responded to an advertisement placed in the Yorkshire Post, for the position of caretaker in an old, near-abandoned Elizabethan mansion called Wildfell Hall.
Who in truth owned it, I did not know. I was met at the train station of the nearby village by a young London solicitor, who informed me cheerfully that I was the only applicant.
“It is a bit unusual to hire a woman for the job,” he said, then shrugged, dismissing the matter. “But in truth your duties will not be too onerous.”
He took me for the short drive up to the Hall in his red Triumph Roadster, speaking all the while, and I got the distinct impression that he had partaken of a large quantity of that powder which we used to call “snow”.
“There is a housekeeper as well as a gardener,” he said, “and guests of the proprietor may sometimes come and go at odd times. You may not even notice them, in truth, for the house is rather large. Your pay will be four pounds and a threepence a week, which I trust is sufficient—?”
I indicated that, indeed, it was more than generous, and mentioned that my personal needs were meagre.
The young solicitor nodded pleasantly enough but seemed barely to hear me. We came round a bend in the road, past a flock of sheep in a field, and I beheld the Hall.
It had seen better days. Its architecture, I suppose, would have been in the old Gothic style, though I myself preferred the newer Modernist structures that were coming up everywhere after the war. We drove in through the gates and along the path to the house.
The solicitor pressed the horn of the car several times. A stooped and elderly man with a big bushy beard and eyebrows as thick as branches ambled over holding garden shears.
“You’re making a nuisance to the birds,” he said.
The solicitor, taken aback, laughed nervously. The old man ignored him and shook my hand with his rough, calloused hand.
“Name’s Acton,” he said. “You will be taking over from old Thorp, I take it?”
“I…I suppose so,” I said. I had not given a thought to my predecessor, though naturally enough there would have been one.
Acton grunted. “You will do well not to wander the grounds by yourself after dark, Miss,” he told me. “On account of the animals.”
“What animals?” I asked, mildly alarmed at the prospect. He merely grunted again.
“I shall leave you to it,” he said. He nodded to me pleasantly enough and wandered off, shears in hand.
“A curious fellow,” the solicitor said, “but harmless. Now, shall we go in?”
I followed him through the large doors into a gloomy hallway, where an aproned woman with flour on her hands rushed to meet us.
“Hello, hello!” she said. She dusted her hands on her apron. “You must be the new girl. I’m Mrs. Robinson, but you can call me Agnes. You must be full of questions!”
It occurred to me I had none to offer. The war had taught me not to ponder or to ask. I showed no curiosity of the outside world. I followed only that which was directly in front of me.
“Oh,” Mrs. Robinson said. “Well, that’s easy, then. There are only really three rules. No smoking in bed, no disturbing the proprietor’s guests if any are present, and you must never go into the North Tower.”
I offered in return that I did not smoke.
“Well,” the solicitor said, “when can you start?”
I hefted my small portmanteau and said that now would be as good a time as any.
The solicitor looked pleased at this news. He seemed eager to return to London and with plenty of daylight yet. He bid me farewell, tipped his hat to Mrs Robinson, and soon we heard the roar of the engine as he drove away.
“Let me show you to your room,” Mrs. Robinson said.
I quickly settled into my new life. As the solicitor had indicated, my duties were indeed far from onerous. The groundskeeper, old Acton, ably took care of the extensive grounds. He kept strictly outdoors and never came into the Hall. He lived in a small cottage in the village and always departed promptly before nightfall.
Mrs. Robinson, too, lived in the village. She arrived every morning and left around the same time as Acton. Mostly, she occupied herself in the kitchen, cooking pies and roasts and great big feasts, though who they were all for I didn’t find out until much later. She maintained an air of good cheer and listened to the Light Programme on the wireless, and was an avid follower of a new radio drama broadcast there called the Archers. She kept a running commentary on the doings of these fictional people whenever I ran into her.
Mostly, though, I saw no one. At night the Hall was all but deserted. I took to wandering the old corridors with the aid of a lantern, and my main purpose seemed to be to deter any vandals, or more likely bored youth, from breaking in. It was an old building and the wooden boards creaked when you stepped on them. There were sudden cold spots, and mysterious breezes where there were no windows. Old portraits done in oils stared down from the walls in stern disapproval with eyes that seemed alive with malice. And the place could be very quiet.
I did not mind it. There was nothing very scary about a creak in the night, not after the horrors I’d experienced in Europe during the war. The portraits were just paintings and the cold spots and the draughts no doubt owed their existence to the eccentricity of Elizabethan architecture.
Nevertheless, that is not to say there were no strange going-ons. At certain times I became aware of distant sounds, as though of many feet coming and going. I heard men—they were mostly men—talking, and the clink of cutlery and glasses, and from time to time they would break into song.
These events coincided with the times Mrs. Robinson prepared her feasts, and so I surmised that these must be those guests of the proprietor of whom I’d been told. I tried in vain to locate their accommodations, but whenever I believed I came close I would turn the corridor and the sound would grow faint and then vanish altogether. The voices were indistinct, but from time to time I could make out some repeated words, though they made no sense to me: Angria, Gondal, Verdopolis. And the song they sang was always the same, a mournful yet defiant marching song, of the sort the soldiers in the army used to sing.
It was a soldiers’ song, I was sure of it.
As the months passed I grew more accustomed to the Hall and its little eccentricities. I passed through vast dining rooms where the furniture was covered in white sheets; small bedrooms with unlit fireplaces where no guest had slept for a hundred years or more; curious display rooms where some ancients’ long-forgotten collections were put behind glass. In one room it was stuffed reptiles, another was filled with endless oil paintings of fantastical lands, yet another showed nothing but foreign coins.
Only gradually did I begin to pay attention to the details. The coins, for instance, were from no realm that I knew. Some were from Northangerland, and bore the profile of its duke, Alexander Percy. Others were from The Glass Town Federation, and others still came from the island-nation of Gondal, curious blackened discs with a hole in their centre and a strange cursive script on their sides.
Once, just when I had given up searching for the mysterious strangers who came and went from the Hall at all hours, I was doing my rounds when I stumbled into a room I had never seen before, and much to my surprise it was filled almost to capacity by young people.
They looked up at me in some surprise, and I looked back with an equal bemusement, for I had not heard a sound until I stumbled right into them.
They were young, as I said, dressed in a bewildering array of clothing, and numbered both men and women amongst them. They sat at long, communal tables, where I could discern some leftovers of Mrs. Robinson’s sumptuous food, but what drew my attention, even more so than the military-style maps spread out on the tables, and which they were perusing, were the guns.
They had all manners of side arms and rifles, freshly-oiled, and these young people looked like nothing other than soldiers preparing to go into war.
“Hello, there,” I said.
“Hello yourself,” said a young man.
“Did not mean to bother you,” I said, for I remembered Mrs. Robinson’s instructions.
“No harm done,” he said pleasantly. “You are a friend of the cause?”
“I am merely the caretaker.”
He nodded at that.
“Is that an Enfield rifle?” I said.
“And I see you have a Sten machine gun.”
“You know your arms,” he said, surprised.
“I had seen them used,” I said. “The war—”
“That was only the start,” he said. “Now we must fight for liberation. Too long have the Zamorna clan ruled Angria. The occupation must end.”
“I see,” I said; though of course I didn”t. “Will you be staying long?”
“We will be on our way soon,” he said, though he did not elaborate.
“Then I shall bid you good night,” I said. “And—good luck?”
“We make our own luck,” he said, but he smiled as he said it. “Thank you, Miss.”
As I left them, closing the doors carefully behind me, they broke into that song again, and this time I heard it clearly:
Through Jibble Kumri, the Mountains of the Moon
We march to serve our queen
We sail from Gondal, past the sandy plains of Etrei
We laugh at Gaaldine!
To Sneaky’s Land!
And through the Howard Moors
to Glass Town! To Verdopolis!
We’ll burn Northangria to the ground
To serve our rebel queen
I could hear the song for a long time after that. And then there was silence, and the next night and the next I saw and heard nothing more.
One Sunday, I wandered down to the village for a fête that took place on the green. It was a pleasant day, with nary a cloud in the sky. Laughing children darted here and there like mayflies. I saw old Acton by the cider tent, having a merry old time, and he waved to me cheerfully but we did not engage in talk. I stood on my own awhile, enjoying the relative warmth of the sun.
A band played “Comes A-Long A-Love”, and old and young flocked to dance before the bandstand. It was then that I felt a tap on my shoulder and, turning, saw a young man in a somewhat threadbare suit smiling at me.
“You seem all alone and I’m in need of a partner,” he said.
I said, “I do not dance,” but he merely laughed and took my hand in his.
“Come on,” he said. He led me to the front of the bandstand and before I knew it I was dancing, and enjoying myself, too. I had not danced like that since before the war broke out. I thought I had forgotten how to.
“That was fun,” the young man said when the song ended. He shook my hand, very formally. “I’m Edward.”
I introduced myself and we talked for a long while, very naturally. Edward laughed often, and seemed delighted at the idea that I was up at the old Hall.
“They say it’s haunted,” he said. “And strange lights can be seen moving inside at night.”
“I’m afraid that’s just me,” I said. “Doing my rounds. There’s no great mystery.”
“What happened to the old caretaker?” he said. “Thorp?”
“I…” It occurred to me I had no idea. “I assumed he’d retired.”
Then the band struck again and Edward, laughing, dragged me along for another dance, and then another.
I saw Edward frequently after that, for a while. We took long walks together through the peaceful countryside, and once, on my day off, rode the train to the nearby town to a picture house, where we saw Moulin Rouge with Zsa Zsa Gabor. That film, so full of vivid Technicolor, was a reminder for me once and for all that the grey, oppressive old world I had lived in for so long was gone. It was a new age, with new music, new architecture, a world of the imagination made manifest.
Edward and I rode the train back to the village late that evening, and when we parted ways we kissed.
Usually I remained well within the building in the night-time; but now, as I came in through the side gate after my evening with Edward, I was reminded suddenly and uncomfortably of the groundskeeper’s warning.
While in the daytime the grounds seemed pleasant and well-manicured, I had to admit they had a different aura at night. The Hall seemed distant; an owl cooed disconcertingly and took flight above my head, startling me; the roots seemed to want to trip me as I wandered ahead, half-blind in the moonless dark.
Of course, I knew there was nothing to fear. One should not be scared of an owl. Only children fear the dark. And roots are just the sort of thing you find where there are trees.
But knowing and feeling are not always compatible. I resolved to walk carefully, aiming for the grand silhouette of the Hall that I could see, ahead of me, in the distance. And it was in this manner, quite absorbed, that I proceeded, until I came face to face with the panther.
It was suddenly there, and I froze.
Yellow eyes measured me. The panther was black, almost invisible in the darkness. It opened its jaw and yawned.
I didn’t dare move.
The panther regarded me for a long moment more. I stood there frozen, barely daring to breathe. Then it licked its maw, lost interest in me, and in another moment vanished altogether.
I ran the rest of the way back to the Hall and did not rest until the doors were locked shut behind me.
I continued to see Edward for a while, and we grew close. He, however, was soon offered a position with a large accounting firm in the capital. It was a sad day when we parted ways at the train station, though we continued to exchange letters.
One night, on my rounds, I heard the distant noise of camaraderie and song which signalled the arrival of more guests. As usual, they were in some part of the Hall which I could not reach, however much I tried. As I wandered the corridors I found myself staring at a door I had not seen before and, pushing it open, found myself in an old library.
It was dark inside and when I raised my lantern up I thought, for just a moment, that I could see a human shape, stooped with age and dressed all in black, near a bookcase halfway across the room. As I approached, however, I could see no one, and once more felt myself entirely alone. I moved the light along the shelves all the same, and found row upon row of miniature manuscripts. When I opened one I saw that it was written in a dense, tiny script which was entirely unintelligible to me. There were drawings and maps inside, however, and these I recognised. Here was the Glass Town Republic again, somewhere in an Africa which never, to my knowledge, existed. Here was the South Pacific island of Gaaldine, and here was Sneaky’s Land. There were portraits, too, of Zamorna, King of Angria, and his enemy the Duke of Northangerland.
And for the first time I saw a portrait of that rebel queen, Quashia Quamina, princess of the Ashantee.
Who wrote and drew in these notebooks I didn’t know. They were old, at least a century old. It felt wrong to disturb them. I replaced the volumes carefully on the shelves and departed the library, shutting the door gently behind me. That night, unable to sleep, I stared for a long time out of my window and saw, in the grounds, a herd of lions stalking an elephant in the distance, besides the vanity water feature that was built in the Gertrude Jekyll style.
That night, for the first time since the war, I lit a cigarette, and smoked it reclining in my bed. I soon put it out, and carefully, but still. It occurred to me then that I had now broken two of the three strictures Mrs. Robinson had handed me.
A few weeks later a missive arrived from the solicitors in London. A female scholar was to arrive at the Hall momentarily, and I was to extend her all courtesy. Mrs. Robinson bustled about in the kitchen, and old Acton trimmed the hedges as though preparing for a royal visit. The truth was we never received visitors, other than those mysterious guests of the proprietor’s.
The scholar, a Mrs. Ellis, arrived promptly on the due date. She carried herself with an almost military bearing, but was pleasant enough. Her research, she explained, concerned a family of authors, the Brontës of Haworth. I confessed to not having read them.
“There were three sisters, all quite famous,” she said. “A brother too, but he didn’t publish anything of substance. But I am interested not in their adult work.” She looked at me sternly, as though imparting some great and secret knowledge. “Rather, their juvenilia. As children they developed an extraordinary imaginary world, peopled with the most fantastical creations.”
“I see,” I said, though in truth I didn’t.
“I was hoping I may find some trace of it here,” she said. “One of their notebooks or even a letter. I did discover a map of it that they drew. It is the most charming thing, with place names such as Monkeys’ Island and Gondal and the Forests of Hawkscliff and, well, so on.”
I nodded numbly, but could offer no words of my own. Mrs. Ellis, no doubt dismissing me as something of an imbecile, was perfectly capable of occupying herself. She spent several days in and around the Hall, poking about in the dusty old rooms, then returned reluctantly to London, having found, she told Mrs. Robinson, nothing of interest.
The letters from Edward continued to arrive. He wrote that he enjoyed his work, that his duties weren’t onerous, that the capital thrummed with the sound of rebuilding and that powdered eggs were not so bad once you got used to them. He enquired gently if I would consider coming up to London.
But my duties at Wildfell Hall kept me busy. Each night I wandered the long corridors, tracing endless patterns throughout the empty halls, my feet silent on the threadbare carpets. Several times I heard a commotion in the distance, the shouts of men and the firing of rifles, running feet, the sound of heavy objects being dragged. Then it would all fall silent again.
One night, I turned a corner and found myself again in that long gallery where I had previously encountered the rebels. There was no one there, but the chairs were upturned and there was dried blood on the tables. I saw discarded ammunition and blood-soaked bandages on the floor, and an embroidered banner of Quashia Quamina, the rebel queen, but torn and soiled.
The door at the end of the galley had been left half-open. I walked through that silent, cavernous room, remembering the young, cheerfully determined women and men I had last seen inside it. Now it felt like a tomb.
There was light behind the door. I pulled it open then and stepped through into the city that lay beyond.
For what seemed like hours I walked the deserted avenues of Verdopolis. What must have once been a prosperous, bustling city was now entirely empty. Not even feral cats lived there. The signs on the shops were faded, as though they had hung in the hot African sunshine for far too long, perhaps a century or more. Many of the windows were broken and dust gathered everywhere. Here and there hung framed pictures of Zamorna, the king of Angria, too faint now to even make out his face. In one shop I went to I found mouldy books, the paper rotting to the touch. In the offices of a long-vanished shipping company I found ancient manifestos for commercial cargo destined to Gondal, Monkey’s Island, Sneaky’s Land. The city must have once been vibrant, full of colour, music and light. Now it had the quiet calm of a cemetery.
As I crossed one major avenue I thought I saw a human figure up ahead. Stooped and old and dressed in black, she stood quietly in the shadow of a colonial building. She turned at the sound of my footsteps. I could not make out her face clearly, for she was in the shade. She walked inside. I followed, for she was the first living thing I had seen in all that time there. I followed her in through the door and found myself back in Wildfell Hall.
“I still go there, sometimes,” she said. “In the evening of the evening of my life I think of all that could have been and wasn’t. You should have seen it in its heyday. All the people coming and going, and the festivities and the intrigue…oh, how we loved it there. In England we were girls, then women, but in both cases little more than chattel. Only there, in Angria and Gondal, could we be free.”
“You’re her,” I said. “You’re Quashia Quamina.”
The old woman laughed. “I’m Anne,” she said.
I looked around me, at the oak panelled walls, the deep carpet, the high ceiling, and only then realised I had entered the North Tower—and that I had, however inadvertently, now broken all three of Mrs. Robinson’s rules.
“There was my brother, too, of course,” Anne said. “As the rest of us grew and spent more and more time in the world as it was, he retreated further into the world as we dreamed it to be. In his own way he was as much a prisoner as we were. He might be there, still, though I never found him, no matter how much I look.”
“It is pretty, there,” I said.
“Pretty,” she said, “was never the point.”
“The ones who came here,” I said. “The ones who went, did they…?”
She shrugged. “Dreamers,” she said. “But it is no use. That place is gone.”
“Juvenilia,” I said, remembering Mrs. Ellis’ words.
Anne looked at me sharply.
“It was something that—” I left it trailing.
“Listen,” the old woman said. “Do you have anyone? Someone who loves you?”
I thought of Edward, up in London.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I heard there was a war, outside,” she said.
“Is that why you are here? You are hiding from the outside?”
My silence was all the admission she needed.
“We never hid,” she said. “We never had the luxury. The world was what it was and we were in it fully, in the short time we had. What we made for ourselves, it wasn’t an escape. It was illumination.”
“Yes,” I said, because I didn’t know what else to say.
She shook her head at me. “This Hall has stood for a long time, and it can weather the years well enough with or without you. Go into the world. Live your life. The world isn’t nice and living isn’t easy, but it is all we have. And if it grows harsh and the lights dim, there is still Gondal, or places like it. They are in your mind and in your heart, and when you need them, they will be there for you.”
She looked at me kindly.
“Go,” she said.
It took me a moment to realise she had dismissed me.
I remained at Wildfell Hall a few months more. I never went back into the North Tower. Then, one crisp morning in the summer of 19–, I made my way to the village on foot, with my meagre belongings in hand, and when the next train came I boarded it.
I did not know where I would go and what I would do; but in the time I still had, I was determined now to find out.
(Editors’ Note: Lavie Tidhar is interviewed by Caroline M. Yoachim in this issue.)
© 2020 Lavie Tidhar