Return to Cressingham Hall
I had known she was dead before I opened the telegram. The telegram which had returned with me across the Atlantic, folded inside my wallet. I did not need to take it out to read it. I knew it word by word.
“Luke. (STOP) Please come home immediately (STOP).
Sybil. (STOP) Died after short illness (STOP).
Funeral Thursday. (STOP) Alex. (STOP)”
So here I was, several days later, stood on the gravel drive outside Cressingham Hall. The time on my wrist watch showed just after eleven in the morning. The day displayed was Wednesday. Yes, a day early. There would be no one to welcome me with open arms, but I needed some time in that house alone; time to make my peace with it.
Tomorrow... Yes, tomorrow I would confront my hidden demons, today though, was for me. I walked slowly up the sandstone steps and through the open door into the grand hall, the light cascading down from the ornate stained glass windows. There were several people in front of me. I joined the end of the queue, to await my turn.
‘One please,’ I asked the girl sat behind the kiosk. She smiled politely back as I placed the coins in front of her.
‘Oh, that’s lovely, exact to the penny. Would you like a guide, they are only a shilling extra, it gives all the details of the family history and a map of the house and gardens?’ I smiled at her she was a pretty young thing perhaps nineteen or twenty years old with big hazel eyes and an innocent smile.
‘No thank you, I’ve been before many years ago, and just felt like coming one more time.’ We both smiled courteously I took my ticket from her hand, and turned from her moving into the grand hall. I could hear her voice trailing off as if in the distance behind me, as I fell deep into my memories.
‘Have a good time Sir, and remember to come back again.’ I smiled to myself; it must have been close to thirty years since I had first walked into this grand house. That first time I had also used the front door, not that I should have, but that was my life, never quite what I had expected.
There were several other visitors congregated in a group and I followed them, looking at the various rooms which were open to the public. I walked slowly, holding back, allowing the throng to charge on, while I savoured each area; memories flooded back. Not much had changed in the physical appearance, other than the roped off areas, and guides in each room to explain the history. I moved on feeling an empty pang in my stomach, my hope was for the years to roll back. They did not, my memories remained that, just memories.
On the first floor I stood in the long gallery; for an instant, I... could hear the music in my ears, of a weekend all those years ago. I closed my eyes and thought of the people filling that room, the men in white tie, the young ladies in their gowns, even myself as a young man.
Opening my eyes, I looked out of one of the long Georgian windows; past the ornamental fountain, over the sweeping well-trimmed lawns to the artificial lake. There were no young things chasing each other around the fountain; no one picnicking by the lake. The light seemed to be stark now, not the soft glow held in my memories.
The voices of the other visitors were now muffled. I walked alone, stopping at the end of the long gallery I looked back. No.... all was shadows; all was gone. I turned and made my way through several of the ornate rooms; bedrooms, dining rooms, sitting rooms, ante rooms. I knew each well, but did not stop to look, lest my memories of each be taken from me and spoilt. I felt as if the house was a thief, trying to prise each precious memory away from me. Replacing it with these impersonal cheap prints of what it was now.
In each room I spent less time. The muffled voices of the large group ahead of me became clearer, as my stride lengthened and I soon rejoined them. I needed their company, the noise of each reminding me of the noise and bustle that had once been. We navigated the building till once more we were at the point of entry in the great hall, with all the paraphernalia of centuries around us: the oak panels, ornate carvings and marble all lending itself to the opulence. One side of the upper gallery was closed to the public, it was used to connect the private apartments of the family.
As we stood buying our postcards and mementoes, two figures emerged onto it, both dressed in black. The first being a middle aged man, the older of the two being perhaps five years older than myself, but walking with the aid of a stick, slightly stooped, his dress was elegant. The other was a younger man walking by his side, in his early twenties with jet black hair and striking good looks. One of the guides in the hall interrupted the group, and with due deference informed us.
‘That’s the Marquess of Cressingham and his eldest son the Earl of Hersden, Lord James.’ We all stopped and looked up as if the exhibits had been brought out for our perusal. There were several whispered compliments, from some younger ladies in the group, directed in the whole to Lord James. I stared up, hoping that the ground would swallow me up. The Marquess stopped briefly and talked to his son, the noise of the group below would not allow his conversation to travel further.
‘We appear to be here at the wrong moment, but we must do our bit for the paying public’. He took a step towards the balustrade and placing his arm on it, he leant slightly forward.
‘Thank you all for coming, it is a most beautiful day, you must all go and see the gardens before you leave, they are at their most beautiful at this time of year.’ He gave a small gestured wave, and looked round the group, as though bestowing his personal approval on each. His eyes became transfixed on me, for a moment, he seemed dumbfounded as if he had seen a ghost from the past.
‘Lu, Luke....Luke Burns,’ he stuttered, his self control now cut in, overriding his surprise. ‘Is that Mr Burns?’ The pitch of his voice had changed, it was now more inquisitive.
‘Yes my Lord,’ I answered. The feeling of a thief that had been caught in the act came over me. I felt the colour rising to my cheeks, all those around stood and stared, who was this well-dressed man with the confusing accent in their midst.
‘Come up, come up.’ His voice was insistent, he gestured towards me the way. The Marquess now addressed the young Lord.
‘James go down, I would like Mr Burns to join us.’ I felt self-conscious, leaving the group and the anonymity it had afforded me. But nevertheless, I proceeded up the stairs lifting the “Staff Only” sign which barred all outsiders to the families’ wing of the building; behind me I could hear the whispers.
‘Who is he.....how does he know the Marquess?’ for those in the hall, those questions would not be answered. Lord James met me half way down the staircase, as I approached the shadows of the staircase and the glare of light through the windows played tricks with my eyes, they did not focus as quickly as they had, the boy who came down the stairs to greet me, might have been the boy I had known thirty years earlier. He extended his hand in greeting to me with the same warm welcoming smile.
‘I’m James, my father has told me all about you, and the devilish fun you all had. It really is an honour for me to meet you, sir.’ I climbed the staircase listening to the young man, as I did so, I heard the same voice in my head of thirty years ago. We walked along the gallery to the Marquess standing as if waiting for the prodigal son’s return. We shook hands, clasping each other’s as we did. I believe we both wanted to embrace each other, but English formality and reserve dictated otherwise.
‘I am so glad that you could come, we would consider it an honour if you would sit with the family tomorrow?’ I looked at the boy and the Marquess, what good was it now.
‘Of course,’ I replied, ‘it would be an honour.’
‘Thank you,’ he replied, as he sounded those two words, it was as if a great burden had been lifted from him. I had come to the house that day, not for sightseeing and most certainly not to meet the Marquess or as he had been; Alexander or Alex to me all those years ago, the best friend I had ever had. I had just needed to see the house for one last time. It was now that the Marquess gestured towards the upstairs sitting room.
‘Why don’t we sit down for a while and catch up? It has been a long time since we’ve talked.’ I nodded and smiled, he placed his hand on my shoulder and led me to his private sitting room, talking as we went.
‘It’s a warm day for the time of year, I believe it’s a false spring, it seems only right for Sybil, after all, she always made everything last to the fullest.’ The upstairs sitting room was a pleasant room, well-furnished, a room I had sat in many years ago, on several other fine days.
‘James, please call down and let them know, there is one extra for tea.’ the young Lord obliged lifting the receiver and calling down to the pantry.′ I looked at Alexander. He laughed and quipped back.
‘That is technology for you, we now have an intercom, rather than a system of bells, I suppose it’s more practical, but it can be very chaotic, I mean sometimes I haven’t quite decided what I want when they answer; the old bells used to give me time to think.’ We both exchanged a wry smile.
‘Are you staying at the Fox and Hounds in town?’ I nodded at the same time as answering.
‘Yes, it seems to be remarkably unchanged. I have a room booked until the day after tomorrow.’ I couldn’t bring myself to mention the funeral, my gaze went around the room rather than look at Alexander at that moment. Behind the sofa, I noticed several of the newer Kodacolour and various older black and white pictures in their gilt frames. Alexander, noticed my gaze and turning on the sofa reached back and picked up a large framed black and white photo, which had been hand coloured in the laboratory and handed it to me.
‘It’s you and me... It was taken in that rather lugubrious studio in North London. You remember, it was the first time you met my mother. Oh, she bossed the poor man around awfully. Father had insisted that a photograph was taken of me in uniform, so he could show it off to his old chums down at the war office. I remember thinking to myself, thank god for photography, else, I would be sat for hours being painted in that infernal red uniform. I remember mother telling the photographer how the pose should be arranged, it was funny thinking back on it, the only staging for a photograph she knew was from family gatherings and weddings. She kept rearranging the photographer’s settings, to the poses she liked much to the consternation of the photographer and father when he saw the end result.’ Alexander pointed at the picture.
‘Mother loved that picture, I don’t believe that she ever thought of me, as a soldier, and the picture she always thought made us both look like Greek gods. Though father said it made us look as if we were just married!’ I looked at the picture, it was one of several that had been commissioned that day in the studio in London. The idea was, that I was meant to be handing Alexander his sword, as his batman. But the angle made it look as if we were holding hands and gazing into each other’s eyes. I had not seen the picture for perhaps thirty years and stared deep into it; it was very theatrical and perhaps his father had not been too short of the mark.
‘You probably, don’t remember it, why don’t you keep it, as a memento of your visit; I have a copy in my study?’ I thanked Alexander and placed it down next to me.
‘It will remind you of the happy and reckless days of our youth.’ An idea was now beginning to form in Alex’s mind. I knew him far too well, even if many years had stalked by since our last meeting, he had not changed.
‘Why not stay up at the house for a few days, we still have a driver... I’ll send him down to the Fox and Hounds to get your things, what do you say?’ He continued without pausing for breath.
‘We would love to have your company, and it would make everything so convenient for tomorrow.’ I did not want to do it, but how could I refuse. I did not want to offend my old friend, his offer, was as always more generous than I deserved. In fact rather than friendship, I would not have blamed him one iota if he had not spoken to me and asked me to leave.
‘That would be good of you.’ I replied.
‘Well that’s settled,’ he now turned to James. ‘After tea take Mr Burns up to the lake view room.’ He looked at me.
‘You’ll remember that room well...’ He hesitated for a brief second, ‘the one where you used to stay, when you came down.’ Yes, the rooms we used. My role was different in those days, I should have been in the servants’ quarters, but Alex had forbidden it and moved me into an adjoining room. It was there, that we talked all those summers ago; looking out across the grounds and lake out onto the beauty that was Cressingham Hall.
‘Yes, I remember it well.’ I answered.
‘You will find it hardly changed, I dare say, we haven’t been too extravagant with refurbishment since the war, but at least there is hot water now; well, most of the time.’ Tea was served, and though everything was polite, I was still tense. I had so feared our meeting again, after all these years, that I had used this afternoon’s paid excursion to Cressingham Hall, as a trial, to see if I, the coward, could face finally up to my responsibility and attend Sybil’s funeral the following morning. Finally facing Alex and their children. And oh, the shame I felt for Alex to have seen me and welcomed me with open arms. I could have wished for the floor to swallow me up. I was glad when we finished tea, the strain I believe was evident on my face, as Alex motioned to James, that it was time to show me to my room and arrange for my luggage to be brought.
It was quite fortunate in that every room in the house had been prepared, in case some of tomorrow’s mourners, might require overnight accommodation. I noticed on entering that the room was fully aired.
‘I’ll show you where everything is.’
‘There really is no need,’ I responded ‘I know this room very well.’
‘I quite understand, you must have had quite a long day,’
‘Well actually... week, since I heard...’ I chose not to go further.
‘Did you sail, I understand the France is a magnificent liner?’ I smiled at the boy, he was trying to be pleasant and make small talk; he did not carry the baggage of the past.
‘No, I used the new jet service, the last time I sailed was when I went back to Canada after the war. With the Atlantic weather, flying is far more civilised.’
He concurred, ‘Yes, I think you are right and far quicker.’
The boy looked relieved that he had caused no offence and turned before leaving the room.
‘Dinner is at eight’,
‘Yes, thank you.’
The late afternoon sun was casting its warm rays in the room, the room looked as I had left it all those years before. I walked to the window and gazed down at our fountain, the fountain where Alex and myself would sit for hours, watching the sunsets over the valley, talking of nothing and everything. The door to the bathroom was closed. I wandered over to it and placed my hand on the handle and imagined myself to be young again. I opened it to reveal the dressing room and bath for this and the adjoining room. Alex’s old room. It was all as I had left it, the only difference being the promise of hot water. The dressing area contained the same plush upholstered chairs and the mirror on the dresser, reflecting back to the bath.
I now drew a deep breath, I had no idea why, as I went to the final door which used to be Alexander’s room. A feeling of apprehension enveloped me, I was scared, if I opened this door and anything had changed, all my memories would be shattered. I hesitated and then opened the door and walked in. It was as before an empty room, furnished as I remembered it, with the sun smiling through the windows. I half expected Alex as he had been to rush in. I looked back to the bathroom, but no one was there. I felt no emotion, just the sense of loss, not of Sybil, but of my youth.
I turned back to the window, unlatching the sash, I pushed the window up until the sounds of summer pervaded the room, the light wind billowed the nets which were pushed to one side. The chaise-long on which Alex would sit after his bath with his knees tucked under his chin was next to the fireplace. I arranged the cushions, laying my head back and closed my eyes. It had been a long day, it would be good to rest, if just for a moment until the luggage arrived. The soft warm breeze from the open window cosseted me with the familiar scents of the estate, I began to think where it had all began, this road that had taken me so far.