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Private Universe

By bstudholme All Rights Reserved ©

Drama / Mystery

Blurb

Who is Jack? He might be just what he seems – a handsome, mature teenage boy recuperating from scarlet fever at Wentbridge Castle in 1915. Then again, he might be Jack the Ripper, reincarnated and possibly about to kill the women there. Who would be interested to find out? Fans of Downtown Abbey might like the WW1setting in a stately home struggling with lack of staff. Some might be interested in the effect Jack has on the ladies of the house, left without their men who have all gone to the war. Others might find the women themselves, released for the first time from control and in a world that they command an interesting insight. Lovers of the supernatural might warm to Turing and Jane Mason, the two ghostly figures who observe Jack and his ‘recovery’, or the lurching, white skinned figures who haunt the house, waiting for a chance to attack Jack. Those who like a mystery might enjoy trying to work out what exactly is going on here, why London floods and millions die and what part Jack has in all of it.

Chapter 1

Wentbridge Castle, Devon - Wednesday June 2nd, 1915

Welcome. Since my sister’s visit, I have been expecting you, well, someone like you. Ah, I see from your expression that you don’t know my sister. No, I didn’t expect that she would have done this directly. It’s not her way. But rest assured, you are here because of her. It was her idea that I should be judged, so you are here as my judge. You will need to see what I did and have done.

See it as it happened, though. See them as I saw them and see my actions as they did. See what I gave to them, and what I took away. Only then can you judge with a complete understanding.

See the castle as it was on that day. I cannot claim it was the day when this all began, for the roots of this tale go deep, but see this beginning. It will suffice.

See it now.

The moon shines on the castle and the river flowing by it. The day of unusual heat charged the very walls with an uncomfortable warmth and the windows gape wide now to let the night's breezes cool the interior. Those inside fall from sheet-tangling turning to more peaceful slumber as the building exhales and sweat dries from bodies.

Outside, the air turning cool and sweet, the moonlight makes slow dancing patterns on the river. Owls fly; small animals flee them; trees in the surrounding woods sway like graceful women attempting the steps of the moonlight’s dance.

From out of those trees, walking on the gravel path to the castle entrance, come two figures. Look at them and tell me what you see.

One a man; the other a woman. True, but you must look closer; there is more to them than that. Pay attention here - you know things are not what they seem.

Wearing clothes the silver white of the moonlight? Yes, yes. And do you see? No bustle on her, no bowler on him? Yes, these two are not from this time. Now look more carefully. There is something else.

You have it now, don’t you? Subtle, isn’t it, the way the moonlight shines not on these two, but through them?

Allow me to introduce them. She is Jane Mason, who must be here, but whose presence disturbs me. He is Turing, whom my masters think of as my voice.

At the edge of the castle's gravel courtyard, both pause while Jane gazes around. She looks down the small hill on which the castle sits at the view of the river, the bridge and the distant mill. The hill forms a natural amphitheatre; a grass-covered lap of earth leading away to the line of the woods.

She nods. Is she pleased by the prospect? I think so. Turing stands, arms akimbo like a slender Henry VIII, proprietorial pride written on him. It is understandable. He was on this hill before the building started, ordered the design of the castle, oversaw its furnishing, was the force behind it becoming a beautiful stately home, watched as it acquired a patina of age and is well pleased with what he's wrought. I know. I share his pride.

He turns to her, makes a slight bow and extends his hand towards the castle in a gesture of formal invitation. We are nothing if not civil, he and I. She gives him a smile, drops a playful curtsy and walks on towards the entrance. They enter through the door, but do so by walking through its timbers. Constrained we might be by the mores of polite society, the laws of physics we feel we may disdain.

Inside, they survey the bedrooms. War has taken the men away and only women and girls remain; nary a dream troubled by the spectral forms moving amongst them.

After careful perusal, the two stop. She nods again, her face slightly pensive, but overall looking content.

He addresses her. ‘And, Miss Mason?’

‘Perfect, Turing. They told me about this to get me to sign the contract...’

‘But seeing it is different. Yes, I understand. Seeing is believing.’

She looks askance at that, but asks him, ‘Jack. Will he remember...?’ She seems unwilling to finish her sentence. But Turing and I, we know what she means, and why it is difficult for her to put her question into words. I know what the answer is, but how will he express it?

He hesitates as if looking for the right words. It is hard. What will she understand? What will reassure her? How much of the truth can he tell?

‘Some things will be lost. He may never remember actions from the last few months. Some things he may not wish to recall - they are painful to him.’

He pauses again, preparing her for what he will say.

‘You may see changes in him. Forgetting what he was last, he may remember what he was before. And he will be changed by this place. We must fill some of his gaps with a story that will help him heal. He will believe he is what they tell him he is. It is in the nature of the cure.’

The two melt into the air.

I remember my thoughts from that time.

Jane Mason would talk to my masters. Alone of all here, her mind was the one I could not see into. That limitation grated. Turing? He was and is the glove for which I am the hand. He has no thought which I do not. The women of the house? Even now I can listen to their hearts’ desires more easily than a physician could to those same hearts beating.

Jack would be the same. He had been damaged and had forgotten himself and, until made whole, would accept the stories told him as better than any Gospel’s truth. My job was to make him whole. I wanted my family back and freedom from this gaol and my gaolers. If he was the price I had to pay, then, I had already decided, so be it. I would wash the blood from his hands and beg to be judged with mercy for doing it.

And I did so beg. And in answer to my begging comes you. And what will you decide of me? Jane Mason thinks me inhuman. Well, that I understand, but she did not hear what was inside his head. You will hear some of it and you will know. I will tell you his tale and show you the inside of his mind. Remember. Whatever I have done, I am not guilty of his deeds.

So, let me not deny it. I played them like cards in a game. And you will watch and decide how fair a hand I played. I will be with you ever through this tale. It is in my nature that I cannot go away.

# # #


Part One -Jack - The Train to Coventry

‘Wentbridge, Wentbridge. All passengers for Wentbridge. Excuse me? Young sir? You're getting off here, aren't you?’

Jack heard the voice and felt it was dragging him up from the bottom of a black lake. Exhaustion crushed him like a weight of water. The surface was an impossible distance above his head and he wanted only to sink back into the darkness. But the voice came again, injecting unwanted buoyancy.

‘Are you alright, sir? You're looking very peaky. You are getting off here, aren't you?’

A sudden banging came from beside Jack's head. Glass, he thought. Someone’s rapping their knuckles against a window. He'd been asleep with his head resting against it and now someone was knocking from outside. He started and his eyes twitched, lids almost parting.

‘William! William! He's mine, darling. Can you be getting him up for me? I've to drive him to the house.’

A woman's voice; Irish. Muffled by the glass, but still with a bubbling huskiness almost enough to make Jack prise open his eyes.

‘Trying, Mrs Maguire, but I've seen slaughtered sheep faster to move than this one. He alright, is he?’

‘Ah, the poor love's been ill with the scarlet fever, so he has. Can you give him a hand up, darling?’

‘For you, Mrs Maguire, the shirt off me back.’

‘A thousand thanks, William, but the boy's what I'm after and not your laundry. Yer mammy can do your shirts for ye.’

William chuckled and hands slipped under Jack's armpits from behind. His arm was raised and wrapped around skinny shoulders.

‘Upsidaisy. Up you come now, sir, can't be keeping Mrs Maguire waiting now, can we?’

Half lifted by the young conductor, Jack pushed legs like dead meat against the floor to help raise himself. His eyes fluttered open and colours danced for a moment before shapes coalesced. An old, old lady, clothed in something last fashionable when Queen Victoria was single, sat facing him. She looked on with concern.

‘Can someone fetch this young gentleman a glass of water? He looks faint. I fear the heat has been too much for him.’

Cut-glass accent, Jack thought. Home Counties? William sounded West Country. Mrs Maguire Irish. Where the Hell was he? Jack, lost in a mental fog, only knew he had to get off this train he was holding up. He reached out a free hand and grasped the seat top. Steadied between it and William, he tried to pull his mind to the jobs at hand: standing, walking, getting off the train. Luggage? Did he have luggage? He couldn't cope with luggage.

‘My bags?’ His voice croaked; his mouth dry. ‘Where are my bags, please?’

‘Oh, don't you go worrying yourself over them, sir. They're in the guard's van and he'll get them off for you. Now, can you just come this way?’

William was Jack's height, but a skinny youth, and Jack's weight unbalanced him. Jack, ashamed of his weakness, marshalled his will and directed his legs to walk. They staggered instead. He and William lurched across the carriage to the door and the brightness of the sun beyond. He half fell into the arms of Mrs Maguire. Like falling into a warm bed; fresh laundered linen brushed his face and calmed his nerves. The flesh beneath smelled of lemons and sweet, summer sweat. He got an impression of red hair, strong arms and a generous hourglass of a figure soft in all the nice places.

William climbed down from the carriage and helped Mrs Maguire steer Jack to a small, horse-drawn ... buggy? Has a name, thought city boy Jack, one I know, but it's hiding somewhere. He tried to pull himself up to the passenger seat, but had to be wrestled aboard like a sack of onions. He slumped forward, elbows on knees, head in hands, fighting the fog and a wave of nausea. Why so sick?

Like an actor responding to a cue, a voice came out of the back of his mind.

‘You're very lucky to be alive and have no serious complications, young man. Scarlet fever is easier to treat nowadays with Dr. Moser's horse serum, but still drags most sufferers to an early grave. You'll need weeks to recover and somewhere better than this wen, but you'll heal in good time, have no fear.’

Eyes closed again, Jack saw a face from another century, with a beard to rival Darwin's, come out of the dark. The stethoscope around his neck confirmed the bedside manner. A doctor. His name? No, lost in the fog. Finders? Something like. The face was familiar; known from early childhood perhaps, but not seen for a long time. Gruff voice. A Lowlands Scot, with a reassuring aura of competence - someone to trust.

‘His father's message came just this morning, doctor. His friend will put Master Jack up for the summer at his place in Devon while he recovers.’ The woman (a housekeeper?) looked at Jack. ‘You'll stay at the castle and can roam the grounds until you are well. It'll be an awful adventure for you. They say Wentbridge is a beautiful place. Quiet, but very lovely.’

She smiled at Jack. Accent's from the Hebrides, he thought, face from an angel's grandmother. I've seen her before, somewhere. Grey hair, tightly bunned, grey eyes, lightly smiling; covering, barely, a worry. Not a woman to fret, said instinct, but concerned over him. He'd been, and surely still was, worse than they wanted him to know.

‘Marvellous, Janet, marvellous. Arrangements have been made, I take, for his travel?’

‘Indeed, Doctor Cameron. He'll go by the morning train and be met at the station.’

‘Excellent, excellent. So, we'll see you when you get back then, Jack.’

Memory closed there like a curtain, leaving nothing else but fog until he'd woken on the train. Before? Injections, hospital beds, pain and confusion. Darkness, coldness and people moving him around - getting him aboard the train? Shards of a story he'd rather forget and I would not allow him to remember.

‘ 'At's right, Mrs Maguire. Eighteen tomorrow.’ Jack snapped back to the world and opened his eyes.

She opened her mouth, but before she could speak, William blurted out.

‘An' I'm joining the regiment on the weekend. They wouldn't take me before. Knew me proper age, see, and told me the railways needed men too. Can't stop me now, though.’

Jack caught, though William clearly missed, the pain flashing across Mrs Maguire's face. She wiped it off almost before it registered, replacing it with a smile like the sun rising.

‘And isn't Seamus there as well? You must be looking out for him. Both in the same regiment, he'll look after you, sure an' he will. Tell him, when you see him, the odd letter will never be taken as an insult now, won't ye?’

‘Well, I will if I do, but they're saying the fightin' won't last much longer now. Probably all..’

‘...over at Christmas, I know. God willing it will.’

William's flushed face darkened a moment and Jack guessed his thoughts. It wasn't hard. Jack had seen the newspaper reports. So, he thought, by her eyes, had Mrs Maguire. Well, yes. I had made sure of that.

‘Ah, but you'll look the very devil of a handsome young buck in your uniform, an' you will so. Sure an' the girls will all be after ye. Well, never let anyone say Bridie Maguire got left at the back of the line. Come here an' give me a kiss now, for yer birthday an' going away an' all.’

William blushed red to the tips of his ears. He looked around. To note who was watching, Jack wondered, or for a place to run? A skinny, pimply, pasty-faced youth, the weight of rifle and pack would probably topple him. If this wasn't his first kiss... No, surely this was.

Bridie Maguire struck Jack, even through his clouded mind, as a woman who knew about fun, and how to have it. Early thirties, maybe. Late twenties, more probably. Old enough William has to call her missus, said the voice, but young enough he'd like to call her Bridie. Whisper it in her ear, maybe.

She grabbed the youth by the shoulders and pulled him to her. He stood like a beast about to be slaughtered, not sure where to put hands and face. Bridie looked him coolly in the eye.

‘Now ye'll need to be taking more of a grip on things, me lad. Try like this.’

She took his hands and slapped them to her rump. The boy's eyes widened further than Jack thought possible, but before he had the chance to say anything, she had his face between her hands and had plastered his mouth to hers.

A kiss, the voice in Jack's head said, to pour lust into the loins of a bronze statue.

Can't argue, thought Jack. If eyes on train or platform missed it, William surely burned every one of the heartbeats it lasted into his memory forever.

Jack remembered reading about a Confederate soldier who had survived a tremendous battlefield blast to find himself utterly unharmed, though stripped of every scrap of clothing. Yes, he thought, William's expression in front of him, that's how he must have looked.

Bridie released the boy with a hesitation, a near reluctance, not looking part of an act. Husband at the war, came the voice from the back of his mind, hasn't in a while, I'll be bound.

‘Woah, missus! I'll have a one o' them too an' you've got any to spare.’

‘Away wit ye,’ Maguire shouted to the driver. That grin, said the voice in his head, is one the devil'd buy at auction and keep for his Sunday best. ‘The lad's off to the wars and needs something to keep him warm of a night-time.’

‘Well, I'm off to Coventry tonight an' I've all the same needs, darling. If you've done with him, can I have him back? I've a train to run an' we're late already.’

William regained the train with a curiously crouched shuffle. Bridie stayed on the platform to wave him off and give him a wink. She mouthed something Jack thought was: 'Come back for more'.

Jack watched the youth's face and read the thought on it as the train pulled out. 'I did that, me. It was me did that, I did.' They'd likely need cold water to get his mind to anything else for the rest of the day. It's like watching Charlie Chaplin at the kinema, isn't it? said the voice from the back of Jack's mind. Words pop up occasionally, but the rest of the time, your eyes tell you the story.

Bridie stayed on the platform, waving, till the train rounded a bend, her radiant smile fading. She walked to the buggy, hitched skirts and swung herself up with athletic grace. She took the reins, shook the brown horse into movement and sank back into herself.

‘That was kind.’

Her look immediately conveyed a servant’s careful neutrality.

‘I'm sorry, young master, what was?’

‘He's worried about the fighting. You took his mind off it. That was kind.’

She shrugged. ‘Ah, it's nothing. These boys are all after running off to the war, so they won't look like cowards. William's not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but even he can read. He knows how many are coming back with bits shot off them, or not coming back at all. I pray it's over before he finishes the training and gets shipped off to France.’

Jack nodded. Dates and figures and names of battlefields hid somewhere in the fog, but he agreed with a line he'd read. The Western Front was a maw chewing up the Empire’s young men and leaving them to fertilise the ground they battled over.

‘And Seamus? He's your...?’

‘Husband.’

Jack had been raised by an army of aunts, so had heard the title pronounced as a curse before, but never such as Bridie Maguire made it. She'd slapped the word down like a fish full of lead weights on a filleting board.

‘He's at the front?’

‘Not yet, still at Aldershot going through his basic training.’

‘How long has he to do?’

‘Not sure. He's been gone a month and thinks he's eight weeks more before they'll ship to France, but says it's a terrible mess and not one of them knows how to find his arse with both hands... ah, excuse my French. God willing they'll never see the trenches.’

‘Volunteered?’

Bridie laughed. ‘God bless you no, young sir. The magistrate did the necessary for him when he punched a copper. Said if he’d such a taste for fighting men in uniform, he'd accommodate him with pleasure. Catch Seamus Maguire volunteering for anything more than another man's whiskey, an' it'd only be 'cos he'd another man's whiskey already inside him.’

Jack looked sideways at her and his eye caught on the smooth swell of a breast half released by the opening of her blouse's top buttons.

Oh look, came the voice in his head, Moby Dick to the starboard side.

Her eyes flicked sideways to his gaze and she smiled a small, knowing smile.

‘Sorry,’ he said, catching her eye on him, ‘but isn't a young man supposed to admire the beauty of the hills and dales when he comes to the countryside?’

She snorted a laugh. She thinks you're a bold one, said the voice from the back of his mind, she'll have heard better lines, but she'll keep an eye on you now.

The movement of the shay lulled Jack back to sleep. His head sank to his chest. Only dimly aware of the ride to the castle, he missed the village entirely.

***

Sick, thought Bridie, looking at the dozing boy, but sharp and... strange. She was used to young guests to the house being confident past their years. You got that way, after all, when you'd been raised as gentry. And though some were thick as pig shite, you did get them bright as buttons too. Well, you can buy the best teachers when you've the money.

Usually you could rely on the boys to be interested, but put a brazen face on it. There were them as knew the likes of Bridie were made only for their pleasure and knew you were in the wrong should you disagree. Shy ones pretended they didn't have any interest while sneaking looks they didn't think you'd see. This lad... there'd been honest appreciation in his look; no sign he thought himself on forbidden or dangerous ground. That was a look a man gave to a woman when he was interested and thought she might be too. How old was he? She'd met young ones who'd tumbled a daft young maid or two, but still they didn't have that much cop on.

She had to admit to being powerful curious. Where'd he come from and how'd he get to be like this? Handsome, sure and he was. Another few years and he might be getting his look back and her confessor a story as could curl his hair.

God, she thought, Maguire hadn't been gone so long for her to be itching like this. Him and her had been in more rows before he went than she'd been able to count. Her saint's name, Helena, patron of troubled marriages, had been starting to look like a sign of her old mam having the second sight. Still, her bed was too wide and too cold of a night without the bugger. Ah, naught to do about it, Bridie, she thought, drive on.

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