Chapter One – Stephen
Standing on tiptoe, Marie confronted the demon mask of Lopcombe Manor’s doorknocker. She raised the bronze serpent it held between its teeth and let it thud against the old, bruised oak. After a time there was a shuffling within and the door swung open to reveal the face of Mrs. Briggs, nearly the knocker’s twin without the horns and serpent.
“He’s in the library. I suppose you know the way,” said Mrs. Briggs as she went scuffing back towards the kitchen.
Marie entered a dim, broad, musty hall. At the far end a crack of light cut a long slit through heavy, threadbare draperies, casting a diagonal beam luminous with motes of dust. There was the slightest glimmer up above. Old heraldic flags, descending through the shadows, shifted in a feeble gesture of their gallant, fluttering past as the open door let in a billow of fresh air.
Two large oak chairs their gabled backs carved with a trim of knobby Brussels sprouts, a quantity of ancient chests, and a prie-deux with a moldered velvet knee-cushion stood in a group like loitering courtiers forgotten in a court that long since had been abdicated. Dominating this forlorn cluster, a massive staircase rose up from the centre of the room to a gallery, its treads and balustrades, though centuries newer than the furniture, was also old and worn.
The little girl ran up the stairs and along the gallery, where suits of armor stood attentive, paunch by paunch. From the wall behind them darkened portraits gazed upon the cuirasses and helms as so many shucked oysters might regard their shells.
Marie knew every face and suit. Here was Godfrey, and there was Hugh, who dueled with Lord Minton. There was George who built the Manor. And there, Robin, Marie’s favorite for he looked just like Stephen.
The child opened a massive door. “I’ve brought you flowers!” she announced, holding out a wild bouquet plucked from the wayside. She blinked in the room’s sunlight.
“Well! Wildlings in their best bloom. You’ve brought springtime to Badonhill,” Stephen grinned merrily.
He had renamed all the rooms of Lopcombe Manor after battlegrounds of English history. The library was Badonhill, the garden Tewkesbury for its hopelessness, the kitchen Agincourt for there was an old belief that Eddington cuisine was certain death to the French.
Lopcombe Manor was one of three houses jotting the fortunes of the Eddingtons upon the county’s countryside. The newest and grandest was Ellandun Hall, an eighteenth century domed rotunda flanked by double-columned wings. The oldest, Castle Eddington, was now a pile of stones. The Tudor Lopcombe Manor lay geographically and temporally between the castle ruin and the hall.
Stephen’s older brother, Lord Geoffrey Eddington, had lived with his wife, a son and a daughter at the hall although the maintenance of the house was crushingly costly. But Geoffrey was a man of pride and energy. He speculated wildly on Exchange and, being lucky, he did well. He was also an earnest, passionate politician, active in the House of Lords, and in all matters local. The glitter of his social whirl provided gossip for those who lived vicariously upon the doings of the prominent. Geoffrey was respected and well liked.
No two brothers could have been more different.
Stephen’s existence for most of his life was virtually unknown to his closest neighbors. He lived quietly at Lopcombe Manor without ambition, without anything in fact except a small annuity and a love of English history. Geoffrey traveled widely. Stephen never left his door. His travels were in time and through his books.
Then, in one snip of Fate’s scissors, Geoffrey, his wife, his son and daughter were killed in an auto crash and Stephen, at age fifty-three, became Lord Eddington.
Willfully he changed his life not a bit, remaining at the Manor as secluded as an anchorite. Ellandon Hall deteriorated from neglect. There were no funds to keep it up in any case as nearly every other asset Geoffrey held had gone in taxes.
The only difference in Stephen’s life was now he was of interest to his neighbors. Brows knit, heads shook disapprovingly in pubs and kitchens all the way from Edgebourne to Market Leet. The people of the county, who had liked his brother’s style, his strong, firm way in politics, though they’d not always agreed with the specifics of his views, felt cheated by the recluse, bookish brother who never took a hand in anything. Learning what they could of him, detractors soon found ample evidence and dubbed the disappointing younger brother, “Mad Lord Eddington.”
Indeed, as Stephen came from behind his desk to take the bunch of flowers Marie thrust towards him, one couldn’t overlook that he was different from other Englishmen, tall, plump and fifty-ish. For Stephen’s tailor was the Royal Opera.
It had come about simply enough. In the course of his historical researches he had bought some costumes, and found that he so liked wearing them that he bought more and more. Over the years his entire wardrobe had been taken over by costumes, without a single ordinary suit or shirt remaining that would fit him. As he never left the house, he didn’t suffer any inconvenience in this circumstance.
Today Stephen was mostly Don Carlo in a gored velvet doublet of deep blue with puffy trunk hose to match. His stockings were vertically striped blue and white, just visible above Tamino’s soft blue leather boots. The sword of Edgar Ravenswood hung by his side.
Marie, unlike local adults, had grasped the simple truth. Stephen’s taste in clothing extended only to the seventeenth century. He wasn’t mad, he simply had no reason to do other than exactly as he pleased. And business suits are awfully dull.
“You’re just in time. I’ve made a discovery today,” Stephen was saying. “I found this little book done up in a bundle in one of the old chests downstairs.”
He held in his palm a book no larger than a postage stamp, it was as thick as it was wide. Marie took it and turned it over in her hand. Its covers seemed to be of tree bark, its pages thinner than the pages of her uncle’s pocket bible.
“I had some furniture moved over from the attic of the Hall. Briggs says the roof is leaking. Originally it must have been in the castle. Look at this.” From a tattered heap of old Chinese brocade and fur wrapped up in faded linen Stephen picked out a crude amber ring and a strip of ancient parchment.
He spread the parchment on his desk and read aloud, translating from Old French: “Goods of Simon d’Aix, Sorcerer. Prisoner in my care, Osbert Eddington.”
“Is it a Book of Spells?” Marie asked, setting the little book down carefully. “Why is it so small?”
Stephen was rummaging among the shelves that lined the room and muttering, “Now where did I see Osbert’s record-book?”
“Why is it so small?” the child repeated.
“Old Simon must have had a jeweler’s eye to read it.” Stephen retired from his shelf-prowling to pick up a magnify glass and look at the book again. “There weren’t lenses like this in Osbert’s time.” He squinted hard, his eye, in the glass’s distortion appearing enormous to Marie. “I still can’t make out the writing…”
“Could it be spells?”
“Can’t tell… can’t see…”
Just then there was a bumping noise as Mrs. Briggs toed the library door open wider and bore in a huge tray of tea things, cakes and crumpets. Stephen, selecting from the past whatever pleased him, observed the custom of afternoon tea. The tray was set down with a crash that made the cups jump on their saucers.
Stephen went on peering through his magnifying glass. “We’ll have to tear a page out and look at it under the microscope.” He glanced up, “Oh, Mrs. Briggs, could you fetch the microscope, the tweezers and slides. I left them in the Bosworth Room.”
Mrs. Briggs departed. Stephen poured tea and he and his young guest sat on his cushioned oak chairs to eat and drink and ponder his new find.
“Its smallness is a puzzle. Saint Thomas thought angels were so small that several could dance on a pinhead.”
“So it might have been written for angels?” Marie asked.
“People have done stranger things than write little books for little angels. But the book’s owner was supposed to have been a sorcerer…”
“Perhaps it was for little devils!” the child offered eagerly.
“I’d like to find that book of records. Osbert was lord of the castle and kept a daily account, a sort of journal. He might mention something of this Simon d’Aix.” Stephen never talked to Marie as if she were a child. That was one reason she liked him.
Mrs. Briggs returned, setting the microscope, tweezers and slides on the desk and departing as noisily and wordlessly as she had come.
“Thank you Mrs. Briggs,” Stephen called politely after her, oblivious of her rudeness and the prickly boredom from which it sprang. He lived too much within his studies to be aware of what went on around him.
With the tweezers he pulled a single random page out of the book and placed it on a glass slide. Positioning the slide beneath the microscope, he looked through the eyepiece, then adjusted the focus for what seemed to Marie a very long time.
“Ha!” he said at last. “It’s a dictionary! Something-or-other into French, Langue d’Oc mind you, but French in any case. The other language looks as though it might be Arabic spelt phonetically… d z h ou… Let’s try a stronger lens.”
He switched lenses, then was silent for a time. When he spoke, his tone was changed. “This is peculiar…” he muttered. “The page appears to be a flower petal of some sort. And the ink. It isn’t on or in the page like ordinary ink, but seems to float above it. Marie, come have a look at this and tell me how it seems to you.”
The child set down her teacup and ran to the desk. On tiptoe, she squinted down the microscope. “It looks like jewelry! It shines!”
Above the deeply veined white flower-petal page a filigree of Gothic script was traced. The letters seemed suspended, like twigs floating on clear water above a brook’s rough bed. But this odd space between the letters and the page was not what caught the child’s attention. She was fascinated by the substance of the script; it was deep blue, glossy and translucent, as if a sapphire had been spun like sugar syrup from a spoon.
Marie stood back, her eyes wide, waiting for a sensible explanation.
But Stephen offered none. Returning to the microscope, he moved the slide about until a different section of the page was visible. On the page he had selected, the little dictionary passed from D to E. There was a large, illuminated letter E now in the middle of his view and it was on this E he sharpened focus.
He looked up from the microscope with a curious, strained frown, then bent to look again. When he arose a second time his demeanor was quite altered. He motioned for Marie to look into the eyepiece. “Tell me what you see.”
She looked into the microscope. “I see mountains!” she exclaimed. Then, “I see the ocean too!”
Between the upper and the middle bar of the illuminated E a vista opened, not an illustration but a view within, beyond the page. Towering crag after snowy crag receded to the farthest distance. Below were clouds. The sun was blindingly bright and snow blew up in swirling gusts. The clouds, the snow, all moved.
Between the middle and the lowest bar of the E was utter darkness. A flickering light moved now and then. Slowly the oppressive blackness clarified and a dim waterscape of sea chimneys, tall spikes of basalt, emerged through the gloom. Fluorescent schools of fish swam amid the columns like bursts of fireworks.
“The ocean?” Stephen asked.
“Oh, yes! And there are fish swimming about.”
“That’s what I saw too,” Stephen said. “Did you notice what the word is there?
“E a,” Marie spelledout. “L a t e r r e.”
“The earth,” said Stephen. “From its highest peak to its deepest depth.”
Now Stephen, known to everyone as “Mad Lord Eddington,” knew he was in a poor position to announce this find to The Royal Society. What to do? The inscription Marco Polo read above the Great Khan’s throne sprang to his mind: When in doubt, do nothing. So he did what any sane man would. He removed the slide, tweezed off the tiny page and put it back into the little book.
But Marie was not about to let the subject drop. “How does it move?” she asked.
“I’ve no idea.”
“How can we see so far?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is the page really a flower petal? Could it be like Robin’s flower petals?” In her favorite of Stephen’s tales about his intrepid ancestor, strange flower petals played a major part.
“I’d rather not talk about the book.”
Marie sulked. How could he not talk about the book! Adults were so contrary. She would never be like that when she grew up. But it was clear it was no use pursuing the subject further now. So she said, “Will you tell me the story of Robin and the White Flower Petals again?”
Stephen, always glad to tell a family tale, and now especially as it seemed well off the topic of the disturbing little book, poured fresh tea for Marie and for himself. Sitting in his oak chair, with Marie sitting across from him, he began the story of Robin.