by Arthur Davis
I was alone in my study sorting through papers that hadn’t received adequate attention. I am not usually so inconsistent, though recently I had been avoiding my work and responsibilities, having been overcome by a persistent lethargy that had hampered even my most conspicuous intentions.
I do not know when this debilitating miasma overtook me, though on this uncommonly calm night I had become so distracted that even the trivial had become arduous. It was late, after supper. I had enjoyed my brandy self-indulgently, but it was my only sin, unless you consider recent flights of fantasy.
In addition to preparing a treatise on my most recent travels during the Winter and Spring of 1868 for the British Historical Society, I was to compose a short response in the form of a commentary to my solicitor, Brian Ashford of Harley Gate, London, regarding the end of the First Disraeli Ministry with the election of William Gladstone last year.
Brian was an avowed Peelite and convert to Gladstone and not simply because they were distant cousins. Brian had written extensively of his political sentiment. Several of his letters had been recently published in the London news. His peerage may have influenced the editors, but I would have liked to believe he had drawn their attention from the forthright clarity of his opinion.
I had known Brian Ashford, a goodly friend and confidant for eighteen years, since we were installed together at Christ Church, Oxford. A wise, tolerant solicitor whose only mission is to serve his clients, even if, as is in my case, they do not always subscribe to his advice. The purchase of this modest estate was the only thing upon which we had disagreed, though not because of the legend.
Brian felt that a man of my character and experience would be better served by being closer to a large city than ‘marooned’ in what he considered to be an isolated, melancholy countryside.
Brian arrived on a bright autumn day last year with an architect who had served his clients before. After a rigorous inspection, he pronounced the manor house stable and habitable, though there was some lingering question as to the vagueness of pertinent title records in the county courthouse.
I do not believe in legends. Brian was more disrespectful of the stories of the manor house that had stood unoccupied for nearly a decade. Brian made contact with the land agent’s London solicitor who was quietly amenable to a price that eased my apprehension, an opportunity that Brian was reluctant to pass up, and the deal was struck.
After that, we trooped off to celebrate in a local pub. Brian dusted the pipe ashes from his waistcoat, sipped at his ale, waited for the unfriendly barmaid to leave, and contemplated the merit of my grand intentions.
“You’ve spent the better part of your life thrashing about the jungles, paddling up uncharted waters, cavorting with hostile natives, and chasing evil-smelling animals. Don’t you think it’s time you rejoined civilization?”
“Possibly, but I am not ready to go back yet.”
“Your brain is addled from the jungle heat, my boy. You need good wine and better company. You need parties and receptions, so you can tell your tales of daring-do and bewitch all the young ladies.”
The air was thick with tobacco and tales. I was relieved that the transaction was inked in ways Brian might not have understood. I felt fortunate to have the bulwark of his sanity so close at hand.
“Right now I prefer the solitude of Dunsmoor to the specter of your intimidating friends.”
I was interested in broadening my social involvement, that was true, and Brian regarded only my best interests. But I felt I belonged here, and had finally returned to a place I had known long ago. It was some time before I knew what had taken hold of me on this land and could recount the length of my story to Brian.
* * *
I have been ensconced here since June and have been most pleased — captivated to the point of enchantment — by my new surroundings. Brian has been here and indeed was delighted with his stay. And after a while, he commented upon the serenity that pervaded the slopes of Dunsmoor. We walked the lawn and stood steeped in conversation next to the small pond until we were chased away by my geese.
“Squawking little ruffians,” Brian claimed in dismay as they nipped at his fine riding boots. We dined on squab that night, which gave him some sense of satisfaction. He was pleased with the household help that I’d found in the nearby village. We toasted my new Scottish home.
“To Dunsmoor, the house of warriors. May they lead their nation to peace.”
I thought Brian’s toast both generous and original, as is his approach to life, though it was doubtful my missive on the election of William Gladstone would transform the nation.
I renewed my efforts and filled my inkwell and stared at my sheet of paper this lonely, weeping night. The windows rattled relentlessly. I had been warned about the ‘tilting’ winds that swept through the village upending the security of every twig in the valley. Nevertheless, after living life as I had, traveling the world, exploring new lands, and escorting others into territories even the natives avoided, the wind was a welcome and predictable companion.
Melinda, my housemaid, first noticed I had not been finishing breakfast, and cautiously asked if she had not been preparing the porridge as I preferred. I tried to allay her fears then recalled that I had not taken lunch twice in the week.
And I was late for an appointment with the mayor of the village, who wanted to introduce himself and, I think, learn more about my rationale for acquiring Dunsmoor.
I found myself waking from a sitting position at my desk well past midnight. My supper remained cold in the plate at my side. I had fallen asleep and dreamed of places I had been and then of details of horizons I had never experienced.
Then, one evening, or perhaps I should say morning, as it was well past two when I opened my eyes, I knew something unexplainable had occurred.
There was a stain on my waistcoat that could not have been there when I sat down. I had put it on to protect against the chill in the house before having supper which was again untouched and which I had dispatched to a corner of my desk. The stain was still damp and smelled of humus. Another dampened my right arm.
Brian might well joke and accuse me of being one-in-league with the devil, as are all those rascals persuaded to favor their left hand. Perhaps I was. Perhaps the devil had taken hold of my spirit and was punishing me for whatever he judged were my past transgressions, or those of my ancestors.
I would have confided in Brian were he accessible, but I became increasingly withdrawn. Knowing I was caught up in a fit of derangement, there was no place for me to turn and still, being of the nature of my own taskmaster, I felt I could ride out the storm that had taken me along a suspect path. I felt safe and welcome here, possibly as no other soul might.
I wiped off the stains and went upstairs to bed. It was nearly noon when Melinda summoned up the courage to knock unforgivingly at my chamber door. I told her in a somewhat defensive manner, which was not in keeping with our relationship and my general appreciation of her housekeeping, that I was fine and needed no assistance.
I went to wash in the basin set on my cabinet the night before. In the mirror, I saw that my face and hands were smudged with dirt, my nightshirt torn at the shoulder.
I changed my clothing and in so doing picked a small, roughhewn, gold amulet with a ruby at its heart out of the pocket of my nightshirt. There was unexpected warmth to the yellow orb. The gold was burnished to an exceptional brightness, the tug of its heft reassuring in my grasp. There was either an inscription or message in a foreign tongue on the back. And it was old, very old. From my travels, I had a well-developed sense of what was authentic and what passed for deceit.
I was alone in my home and yet knew, spiritually, that I had crossed a boundary that had left me with tailings of my participation in another dimension. A small cut on the outside of my right palm also attested to my involvement. I didn’t even bother to set a bandage to it. There were faces and forms I couldn’t identify, beyond the reach of my recall, and yet I knew I was as much part of that world as I was anchored in mine.
A woman’s countenance challenged my memory as none other. A bow and well-stocked quiver was lashed to her back. Her dark hair swept up by the wind and the fire of the mare on which she rode.
A shutter slammed into the window frame outside my study. There was a thick warm mist in the air. It was refreshing and tempting and clung heavily, expectantly. The mist rolled along the lawn obscuring the small pond. I searched the perimeter of my world and the forest of oak beyond.
Finally, my patience was rewarded, though until the figure drew closer I wasn’t certain of my own safety. At first, I thought it an aberration. Only when I understood the specter of the headdress and the ennobled posture was I relieved.
He was now within speaking distance, and yet we stood there tethered by the sanctified shadow of our respective conventions. He wore full tribal tunic similar to what I had seen in academic journals describing chieftains from Africa to the Americas. His dark leather leggings and red rolled canvas neckpiece were distinctively similar to those who had cultivated this island a thousand years ago. A small gold amulet hung from a metal chain draped from his neck. A small ruby radiated from its center.
I have encountered chieftains and witchdoctors, as many tribes refer to the one who is responsible for healing and soothsaying. They are notably untrustworthy and manipulative, as their preference runs to chicanery. They can be indifferent and, if they feel threatened or intimidated, will rouse their camp to open aggression. Though from the time this warrior of an unknown world broke through the haze, I experienced no such fear or apprehension. There was a part of me that was waiting, not for this man, but for a connection to a past that had drawn me to this land and this valley: to Dunsmoor.
“I have come for your help,” he said moving closer, and speaking in a language that was as familiar as it was unrecognizable.
“Who are you?”
“I am Ambrick, chief of my people. We share this land as we do each other’s desire for peace.”
I was surprised when he spoke again, certain that the first time was more from the heart of my dementia, than the reality of any corporeal encounter.
I did not respond at first. Then, when I was more composed. “You have come a long way?”
“We are at war. We have been for much of my time.”
“What do you want of me?”
“I have come to guide you back.”
I was consumed with curiosity, though a peculiar sense of kinship already rattled my bones. “How will that help you?”
“You possess powerful spirits. Once they are released, we will overcome our enemies and live in peace.”
“How do you know this about me?”
“You have seen us suffer. Your sympathies are clear. We welcome you by our side in battle and in our tents and ask that you counsel us in ways to secure our safety for all generations.”
“What else do you know about me?”
“Your forefathers were at the sides of those who settled this land. You are familiar to us.”
I was taken by the certainty of his claim and reference to my forefathers and of my serving at the side of his people. And I was consumed by the idea he could help me answer the questions and doubts that had driven me to Dunsmoor.
“Come into my home. Sit at my fire.”
Knowing the customs of so many people, trust was the most sacred possession you had to offer. And the symbol of that extension began at the hearth. Still, either I would be resurrected from this fantasy or redeemed by it, or found to be a greater fool than I cared to admit.
Ambrick stepped back. “My ancestors told me of your lodge, your stronghold. The land on which it sits is sacred. Holy. We hold our religious dances over there,” he said nodding toward the lake.
We sat at the fire in my study. Ambrick was bigger than I, taller and thick around the chest and neck. He was possessed of eyes dark as coal and a steadfastness of purpose in his description of how his tribe had suffered over these many years of unrelenting warfare.
“Why do you call me to your side now?” I asked, unable to take my eyes from the ruby as it swung to the rhythm of his agitation.
For the first time I considered the isolation I had chosen in Dunsmoor as a possible disadvantage. But I am a steadfast fellow, having more than once placed myself in danger at the insistence of my instincts. And it was this determination, not reckless abandon, that brought me to this harbor. I believed in Dunsmoor. I believed spes anchora tuta, hope is a safe harbor.
He spoke of the battles, the dying, the terrors that plagued his women and children.
“You’re confident my presence will secure peace for your tribe, and bring an end to war?”
“With you at our side we will finally overcome the tyranny of our enemies.”
I had seen tribal retribution. I had seen men captured and tortured. Woman abused, broken, and sold into slavery. Even children were not immune to savage vengeance. “And what will you do with the vanquished?”
I wanted him to speak of the woman in my vision. Who was she, and was he at war with her tribe too?
Copyright © 2016 by Arthur Davis