The Master of Rampling Gate
Rampling Gate. It was so real to us in the old pictures, rising like a fairy-tale castle out of its own dark wood. A wilderness of gables and chimneys between those two immense towers, grey stone walls mantled in ivy, mullioned windows reflecting the drifting clouds.
But why had Father never taken us there? And why, on his deathbed, had he told my brother that Rampling Gate must be torn down, stone by stone? 'I should have done it, Richard,' he said. 'But I was born in that house, as my father was, and his father before him. You must do it now, Richard. It has no claim on you. Tear it down.'
Was it any wonder that not two months after Father's passing, Richard and I were on the noon train headed south for the mysterious mansion that had stood upon the rise above the village of Rampling for 400 years? Surely Father would have understood. How could we destroy the old place when we had never seen it?
But, as the train moved slowly through the outskirts of London I can't say we were very sure of ourselves, no matter how curious and excited we were.
Richard had just finished four years at Oxford. Two whirlwind social seasons in London had proved me something of a shy success. I still preferred scribbling poems and stories in my room to dancing the night away, but I'd kept that a good secret. And though we had lost our mother when we were little, Father had given us the best of everything. Now the carefree years were ended. We had to be independent and wise.
The evening before, we had pored over all the old pictures of Rampling Gate, recalling in hushed, tentative voices the night Father had taken those pictures down from the walls.
I couldn't have been more than six and Richard eight when it happened, yet we remembered well the strange incident in Victoria Station that had precipitated Father's uncharacteristic rage. We had gone there after supper to say farewell to a school friend of Richard's, and Father had caught a glimpse, quite unexpectedly, of a young man at the lighted window of an incoming train. I could remember the young man's face clearly to this day: remarkably handsome, with a head of lustrous brown hair, his large black eyes regarding Father with the saddest expression as Father drew back. 'Unspeakable horror!' Father had whispered. Richard and I had been too amazed to speak a word.
Later that night, Father and Mother quarrelled, and we crept out of our rooms to listen on the stairs.
'That he should dare to come to London!' Father said over and over. 'Is it not enough for him to be the undisputed master of Rampling Gate?'
How we puzzled over it as little ones! Who was this stranger, and how could he be master of a house that belonged to our father, a house that had been left in the care of an old, blind housekeeper for years?
But now after looking at the pictures again, it was too dreadful to think of Father's exhortation. And too exhilarating to think of the house itself. I'd packed my manuscripts, for — who knew? — maybe in that melancholy and exquisite setting I'd find exactly the inspiration I needed for the story I'd been writing in my head.
Yet there was something almost illicit about the excitement I felt. I saw in my mind's eye the pale young man again, with his black greatcoat and red woollen cravat. Like bone china, his complexion had been.
Strange to remember so vividly. And I realized now that in those few remarkable moments, he had created for me an ideal of masculine beauty that I had never questioned since. But Father had been so angry. I felt an unmistakable pang of guilt.
It was late afternoon when the old trap carried us up the gentle slope from the little railway station and we had our first real look at the house. The sky had paled to a deep rose hue beyond a bank of softly gilded clouds, and the last rays of the sun struck the uppermost panes of the leaded windows and filled them with solid gold.
'Oh, but it's too majestic,' I whispered, 'too like a great cathedral, and to think that it belongs to us!'
Richard gave me the smallest kiss on the cheek.
I wanted with all my heart to jump down from the trap and draw near on foot, letting those towers slowly grow larger and larger above me, but our old horse was gaining speed.
When we reached the massive front door Richard and I were spirited into the great hall by the tiny figure of the blind housekeeper Mrs Blessington, our footfalls echoing loudly on the marble tile, and our eyes dazzled by the dusty shafts of light that fell on the long oak table and its heavily carved chairs, on the sombre tapestries that stirred ever so slightly against the soaring walls.
'Richard, it is an enchanted place!' I cried, unable to contain myself.
Mrs Blessington laughed gaily, her dry hand closing tightly on mine.
We found our bedchambers well aired, with snow-white linen on the beds and fires blazing cosily on the hearths. The small, diamond-paned windows opened on a glorious view of the lake and the oaks that enclosed it and the few scattered lights that marked the village beyond.
That night we laughed like children as we supped at the great oak table, our candles giving only a feeble light. And afterwards we had a fierce battle of pocket billiards in the games room and a little too much brandy, I fear.
It was just before I went to bed that I asked Mrs Blessington if there had been anyone in this house since my father left it, years before.
'No, my dear,' she said quickly, fluffing the feather pillows. 'When your father went away to Oxford, he never came back.'
'There was never a young intruder after that?…' I pressed her, though in truth I had little appetite for anything that would disturb the happiness I felt. How I loved the spartan cleanliness of this bedchamber, the walls bare of paper and ornament, the high lustre of the walnut-panelled bed.
'A young intruder?' With an unerring certainty about her surroundings, she lifted the poker and stirred the fire. 'No, dear. Whatever made you think there was?'
'Are there no ghost stories, Mrs Blessington?' I asked suddenly, startling myself.
But what was I thinking — that that young man had not been real?
'Oh, no, darling,' she said, smiling. 'No ghost would ever dare to trouble Rampling Gate.'
Nothing, in fact, troubled the serenity of the days that followed — long walks through the overgrown gardens, trips in the little skiff to and fro across the lake, tea under the hot glass of the empty conservatory. Early evening found us reading and writing by the library fire.
All our enquiries in the village met with the same answers: the villagers cherished the house. There was not a single disquieting legend or tale.
How were we going to tell them of Father's edict? How were we going to remind ourselves?
Richard was finding a wealth of classical material on the library shelves and I had the desk in the corner entirely to myself.
Never had I known such quiet. It seemed the atmosphere of Rampling Gate permeated my simplest written descriptions and wove its way richly into the plots and characters I created. The Monday after our arrival I finished my first real short story, and after copying out a fresh draft, I went off to the village on foot to post it boldly to the editors of
It was a warm afternoon, and I took my time as I came back. What had disturbed our father so about this lovely corner of England? What had so darkened his last hours that he laid his curse upon this spot?
My heart opened to his unearthly stillness, to an indisputable magnificence that caused me utterly to forget myself. There were times here when I felt I was a disembodied intellect drifting through a fathomless silence, up and down garden paths and stone corridors that had witnessed too much to take cognizance of one small and fragile young woman who in random moments actually talked aloud to the suits of armour around her, to the broken statues in the garden, the fountain cherubs who had had no water to pour from their conches for years and years.
But was there in this loveliness some malignant force that was eluding us still, some untold story?
As I came slowly up the slope I saw Richard walking lazily along the uneven shore of the lake. Now and then he glanced up at the distant battlements, his expression dreamy, almost blissfully contented.
Rampling Gate had him. And I understood perfectly because it also had me.