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THE CRYSTAL QUEEN by M J SAXTON

© M J SAXTON

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This story was first published in book form in the anthology GREAT SHORT STORIES BY YOUWRITEON.COM WRITERS.

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THE CRYSTAL QUEEN
by M.J.SAXTON


Two years after my retirement I enjoyed a holiday with my wife and some friends in the northwest of England. Not for me the troubles of driving anymore. Although I still have a car at home, we only use it to run around and visit friends or the occasional shopping. The thought of undertaking a long journey on today’s busy roads would disturb my nerves so much, likely as not it would ruin the holiday before it began.

A coach holiday does admittedly restrict one’s freedom to choose a destination, but a professional company should know through experience what the customers enjoy or dislike. On the third day of the trip our coach driver took us through the beautiful valleys known as the Trough of Bowland, situated in the heart of the picturesque Forest of Bowland; although the old forest it must be said is all but gone.

It was the first time since Christmas 1938 I had visited the area, and when the driver called out the name of the place I felt a shudder tease my ageing bones. My mind raced with a myriad of emotions long buried, raising to the surface as a shark closes up on a swimmer. It may seem strange that so beautiful a place can harbour such disturbing memories for one, but for me that is precisely what the area does. Not moments of horror or disgust that must be locked away to preserve sanity, but something far stranger. I recalled memories of an event so unfathomable and disturbing in the face of my trusted understanding of the workings of the world, that only through their submersion was I able for many years to function as a normal person. You will see why I maintained for so long my vow never to willingly set forth on the soils of the Forest of Bowland again.

It took place the year before I, like so many of my countrymen, were required to swap the shirt and tie of civilian life for the khaki of the Second World War. My job at the time entailed working as a representative for a large national company, and I was forced to spend many days out on the road. Christmas was only a few days off when I travelled up to the northwest, my employer wishing for me to make a visit to two of our customers in the area, one in Lancaster and the other in Clitheroe.

My first stop I made in the old city of Lancaster, home to the famous witch trials a couple of centuries before. I had no interest in visiting the castle or hearing stories regarding the strange goings on up Pendle Hill, that led to the execution of several innocent women. My plan was to spend the night in the city and then travel across to the much smaller but equally ancient town of Clitheroe on the following day. The business was concluded much quicker than I thought would be the case. With some time to spare and eager to return home as quickly as possible to spend time with my family at Christmas, I decided to make the journey that very evening. I hoped in so doing I would be able to find a cheap room for the night, thus giving me a very early start the following morning. That would allow at the conclusion of business time to make it back home before the end of the day, rather than the day after.

A stranger to the county, I consulted my map and calculated the shortest route was to cross through the open countryside of the Forest of Bowland. There was no main carriageway to jump on those days or quick and powerful cars. To run down to Preston and then take the north-easterly main road back up towards Clitheroe in my 1937 Morris would put several hours on my journey. You cannot really tell from a map how bumpy a road is, but I managed to choose such a route. A rally driver would have found it pleasurable, but I did not.

After an excellent early dinner I set forth with a couple of hours of daylight left and soon found myself driving through open countryside. I discovered it to be very beautiful in its own way, bit nonetheless a lonely and bleak area. Certainly there were houses and farms scattered about but most villages were little more than hamlets and in the cold grey afternoon there were very few souls to be seen. Nevertheless, the afternoon wasn’t unpleasant and as I was driving a fairly new car I continued without too much concern, being the type who after making a resolution feels inclined to see it through.

For the first hour or so, I was happy with the progress over the twisty bumpy roads, although I did realise that with the rather slow going there was little chance of me reaching Clitheroe before it went dark. Still there was no point in turning back so after taking a quick stop for nature’s call at the side of the road and a quick slug of brandy from my hip flask, I set my sights on being there before six o’clock and continued with confidence and determination.
Only a few miles later when deep in the Lancashire countryside, the night beginning to draw in and the headlights of the car switched on, my senses gradually became aware of a problem. At first I was inclined to believe the headlamps on the vehicle were failing, forcing me to sit forwards and peer through the windscreen. Either that or I was suddenly losing my eyesight. It was some time before my tired mind realised my eyes and headlamps were fine, it was the road ahead of me that was the problem; a thick mist was falling.

The first tremors of panic then began to infiltrate. I did not want to be out in the middle of nowhere in a fog, on such a dangerous, bumpy and winding road. What was I to do for the best? I considered turning about and heading back for Lancaster but then there was likelihood of the fog being as dense behind as it was becoming in front. Besides, I could not with any surety estimate whether I was closer to my destination than my departure.

I continued for another mile or so by which time the area was cloaked with an impenetrable, icy December fog. I could no longer see the road signs and the low stone walls that lined the route were just shadows against the dark. Most of the houses out in that rural area back in the thirties relied on oil lamps and candles for their light, dim at the best of times, so through the fog I wasn’t even able to make out any buildings. My vision seriously impaired, more than once my heart beat against my chest as the wheels wandered over the edge of the road, rattling the car ferociously. Occasionally I misjudged the steering and clipped a corner, the car feeling as if it would be happy to tip over. I considered pulling the Morris to a halt and waiting, hoping to sit it out, but opening the window revealed that although the vehicle was warm within, it was truly freezing without. In view of such I decided not to stop, fearing the invisible touch of the cold might steal upon me, ending with a slumber from which I would never awaken.

I therefore continued slowly and carefully. At first all appeared well, nothing untoward blighted my path and I sensed hope, although the six o’clock deadline was out of the equation.

Then, because of my confidence I think, the inevitable happened. The car wandered too closely towards the edge of the country road, a wheel dropped down into a rut and before any correction could be made as the car bounced up and down on the jagged verge, the near side front tyre punctured.

Cursing my luck and believing that things could not possibly get worse, I stepped out of the vehicle and after viewing the deflated Dunlop, saw quickly to the retrieval of the spare wheel. As I unbolted it, to my furious disbelief my hand sank into the rubber.

The spare tyre was as flat as a fluke and I had never noticed.

Carefully pondering over my dilemma, I concluded the only choice was wrapping myself up then setting off in search of a house in possession of a suitable fitting wheel or a puncture repair kit and an air pump. After convincing myself for a few minutes I did so, but after a very short distance with the cold biting at my flesh, I realised I had made a poor decision.

Fortune however seemed to be smiling my way when after what seemed many miles but was probably not as far as the cold made it feel, I stumbled upon a couple of stone entrance pillars supporting a fine pair of gates. It was obviously the entrance to a large house and I prayed the building would still be there. One of the aftermaths of the depression was the unpopularity of big old country mansions with their crippling running costs. Many had been abandoned or ripped down, and just because the entrance gates survived didn’t mean the house did. I slipped through the ironwork and continued my walk along a lengthy tree lined drive until, like a sheer cliff out of the fog loomed the Flemish brick façade of a large Jacobean mansion, one light dimly showing in a bay window.

Climbing the steps between carved lions, I reached the front door and banged on it with all my diminishing strength until the sound of footsteps across a stone flagged floor could be heard, a bolt was drawn with a great clank and the portal slowly opened.

Standing before me was a curious little bald man in a black jacket. He naturally eyed me inquisitively and spoke with a trimmed, educated voice. “Yes? Can I be of assistance?” I thought he was the butler and explained my dilemma through my chattering teeth, to which he replied; “The air pump is kept in my Rolls, I’m afraid, and my chauffeur has borrowed it to visit a relative. He should be back around dawn if this fog lifts. Please, step into my home and wait. There isn’t another motorcar owned within miles of this house and you look quite frozen.”

I had no option but to graciously accept and allowed myself to be led into the drawing room, realising that my saviour was in fact the owner of the splendid property. It was a magnificently decorated chamber in the seventeenth century style with later Victorian additions, with a fire blazing in the grate. The man fetched me a glass if very fine port. I noticed there was no sign of any servants but it came as no surprise, for since the terrible losses of the Great War few of the men who returned wanted employment in a country house, and most young women had set their sights far higher than domestic service.

I discovered the man’s name was Lord Arthur Briggman and his home was known as Briggman Old Hall. He was a splendid fellow, eager to please and indulged in a lengthy conversation with me about everything from politics to the state of English cricket. He gave me the impression he seldom received guests and was a very lonely soul, but never once did he allow the conversing to dwell on himself and he concentrated the talking on me, my wife and our two young children.

As the evening wore on we chatted like old friends, and I felt it right to compliment Arthur on his splendid home and its fine furnishings. My admiration of the house seemed to please him greatly, but just for a few moments he let down his guard as said how such places had become dinosaurs in which nobody wanted to live or work.

The subject appeared to distress him, so I attempted to lift it by standing up and looking around the room at all the pieces or furniture, art and ornaments. A keen chess player since childhood, I noticed a superb chess table of solid carved rosewood inlaid with ivory, the pieces beautifully crafted in deep black marble and shimmering cut glass.
“Now this is magnificent,” I said.

Arthur joined my side. “Indeed it is, a great favourite of mine I must say. It was made in the eighteenth century in India for the third Lord Briggman, a great art collector with an eye for the very special.” It was Arthur’s eyes which then sparkled. “I say, would you care for a game?”

“By all means,” I said. “I can think of few things better.”

Soon we were locked in mortal combat as the pieces slid across the fine inlaid surface. The game lasted for an age, lengthened by the endless chatter of the two of us. It was the early hours of the morning before I made my final move and announced; “Checkmate.”

Lord Briggman stared in disbelief at the chess set. “Goodness me,” he said after a few minutes of trying to work his way out of my trap. “I do believe it is!”

He began to chuckle to himself as he shook his head in disbelief, but I recall little more. The weariness of the eventful day and long night, with the terrific heat from the roaring fire, finally got the better of me. Soon I was snoring in my armchair before the chess table, and dreaming of my own home.

A while later I sluggishly awoke. For a moment the room about me seemed to blur and quiver, as if I were dead drunk. I was quite sober, just dreadfully tired. All of a sudden the cheery Lord Briggman was at my side. “Good morning. Did you sleep well? You looked so settled in that chair it seemed a shame to try and move you.”

“Thank you, yes I did.” I yawned. “What time is it?”

“Still early,” he replied. “Can I fetch you some breakfast? What would you like?”

“Thank you, but no. I must see to the car.”

“Nothing to be seen to, it’s all been done,” he announced. “My chauffeur arrived back very early. He’s been to your vehicle, pumped up the spare and replaced the puncture.”

I was flabbergasted by such treatment. “Sir, you’re far too kind. I hope I can repay you?”

“You have, sir. It was lovely to have a guest and the chess was marvellous. You are a fine player.”

He showed me across the great hall to the front door and to my surprise the Morris was waiting for me on the drive, all ready to go. I tried to thank him again, but he dismissed it, patting me on the back. As I motioned to shake his hand in a final farewell, he placed an object in my palm. It was a glass chess piece.

“I want you to take this,” he demanded, “and promise me one day you’ll come back to these parts and return it to its rightful place.”

I was very embarrassed. The acceptance of the piece was a challenge to return to a part of the country I seldom visited, a journey for which I could fix no date. I tried to tell him it was impossible and the chess set would be ruined if it lacked a piece, but he was very insistent and besides he said, nobody else in the house ever played chess with him. After a while, just to keep the peace and get away, I was forced to concede and shortly afterwards was back on the road and on my way to Clitheroe.

In the town centre I dropped the car off at a small garage and asked them to thoroughly check out and repair or replace the tyres, for I had a long journey ahead and didn’t want to run into tyre problems again. The mechanic cheerily agreed and I left it with him and went about my business. With my visit to the customer satisfactorily concluded in less than one hour I revisited the garage. On my return, the mechanic looked at me strangely. “All the tyres are fine,” he said. “I’ve double checked all of them. Not a puncture in sight and no sign of one having been recently repaired.”

Utterly perplexed by it all I dropped him a couple of shillings, thanked him and drove off. I could only assume the chauffeur had replaced the suspect tyres. Even though it was probably Lord Briggman who had paid, tyres were not cheap and I thought it only right I should drop him a few pounds for his trouble and their cost.

I headed back onto the road in the direction I had travelled that morning and drove for what seemed many miles, but for all my searching I could not find the mansion. Out there on the tiny country roads, few of which were marked, it was easy to get lost or turn the wrong way, so eventually I stopped in a little town and asked directions to Briggman Hall. The first few people I spoke to had evidently not heard of the place. Finally a young woman, looking at me rather curiously, chirped up with a soft voice; "Oh, you mean the school on Briggman Lane."

"It's not a school," I said, feeling like a school teacher myself in my method of correction. "It’s a large Jacobean house, in Flemish brick with Dutch gables."

"Yes, that's the one," she answered with a nod and gentle smile, and directed me carefully on the route destined to take me there.

I was a little perplexed by her reference to the old place as a school, and came to the conclusion that part of the building must be used by someone for educational purposes. I knew well enough in the previous century certainly, it was not unusual for the lady of a household to take on a few fee paying pupils, although the position of Lord Briggman hardly struck me as being in want of some extra revenue. Certainly not the pittance a few scraggy children would bring. I guessed the establishment would be a far cry from Dotheboys Hall. Lord Briggman was hardly a budding Wackford Squeers.

The young woman's directions were true and direct. Soon I recognised the two stone entrance pillars and swung the nose of the car between them. The iron gates were open and a gardener lopping away at some hedgerows watched me drive by and speed up to the house. How different my approach on that bright morning to the one of the previous evening.

Pulling the vehicle to a halt before the stone steps and carved lions, I noticed how different the mansion appeared to look in the bright of day. I could not for the life of me put my finger on it. Something felt different, brighter, cleaner, fresher. Though I stared I could fathom no discernable changes in the noble facade. It was just a curious sensation that niggled the root of my mind.

Quickly I was up the stone steps and rapping on the heavy timber door. The door too looked strangely different. Its design was slightly wrong for the architecture; too plain and modern somehow. I had not noticed the discrepancy on my previous visit. Whatever its design there appeared to be nobody about to answer it. I knocked again and pulled at a chain which rang a far off bell. Still only silence was my reply.

"The school's closed up, sir" a voice shouted from close by.

I spun around and saw the gardener had approached and was standing slightly lop-sided on his rake, peering up at me from beneath a beaten cap that matched his beaten face. "I beg your pardon?" I said.

"Christmas term," he answered, his accent very broad Lancashire. "All at home with their families. Place is shut up but for me and my Bessie."

None of it was sinking in. "Who?" I asked.

As if to answer with a clank the front door opened and an elderly, dusty lady in an apron peered out. "Yes?" she said to me, her face ruffled. She looked over at the gardener. "What is it Jack?"

"I just told him Bess," the man answered, pointing at me. "School's closed up for the term."

"Look I'm sorry," I said feeling rather perplexed and sensing a severing of my patience. "May I just have a quick word with Lord Briggman."

"With who?" Bessie whinnied, looking at me as if I were mad, although I was beginning to feel it was me who was in the presence of lunatics.

"Lord Arthur Briggman," I replied firmly. "This is his house. May I speak with him please?"

I caught sight of the gardener called Jack rubbing the side of his temple, or perhaps he was tapping it in an offensive way. Bessie wrinkled up her face like a great pink toad. "Pubs opened early, my dear?" she said. "P'haps you'd better be off home."

It was a dreadful way to treat a visitor and I told her so. She wasn't impressed by my harshness and found a granite edge to her own local tone.

"Listen to me young man. I don't know what your game is but it isn't funny. Now be off with you."

"I'm playing no game with you madam," I retorted. "I'm here on a genuine errand."

"If you was genuine," she answered, putting her hands on her barrel sized hips, "then you'd now that Lord Briggman has been dead twenty years this Christmas. I know 'cause I worked here ten years before he passed on. And I've stayed 'ere for the nineteen years since this old place was turned into a finishing school for rich young ladies."

My mouth was moving up and down like a fish pulled from a pond and left on the bank. A thunderstorm of confusion was whirling about my head. "Finishing school?" I muttered. I could think of nothing else to say.

"Well His Lordship had no close family. The estate went to a cousin and he didn't want the old place, especially after the fire."

"The fire?"

"Yes the fire. Sold the lot off by auction and the school bought it. Fortunately for me and Jack 'ere, they kept us on to look after the place, though heaven knows it's a lot for two."

No. This was impossible. She was playing a trick on me. Some strange northern humour I supposed. Or she was confusing the man I sought with another. His father perhaps? What she was saying to me was senseless.

"Listen, I don't know what type of a game this is, and I'm not finding it amusing I assure you," I admitted wagging my finger. "But I called here last night and met Lord Arthur Briggman. We sat together in that front room and talked for hours."

"How can you speak so of a poor man long in his grave? You're sick, you are." It was obvious Bessie was furious.

"No, my good woman," I said. "The man with whom I sat was very much alive. We even," I continued, reaching into my pocket and fumbling for the glass piece, "played chess together. He gave me this as a token, look."

As I held the piece out in my hand I swear the woman turned white. She threw her hands up to her mouth to stifle a gasp that never came, whilst behind me a sullen Jack climbed the steps.

"It's the crystal queen," he mumbled, evidently quite flabbergasted. "Where on earth did you get that?"

"I've been telling you, but it appears you haven't been listening," I said firmly.

"It cannot be, surely," Bessie mumbled. "After all these years."

"What is it?" I asked fiercely. "For goodness sake what is going on?"

"Please step inside, sir" Jack said, ushering me with his leathery palm. "Bessie, make us a pot of tea, my dear."
We entered the hallway and how different it felt to the previous evening. All the dark panelling had been removed and the walls and ceilings were painted white. Gone also was the carved staircase, a modern, sweeping one in its place. What few bits of furniture were there were covered in dust sheets. The antique paintings were gone, but a few modern works had been hung in their place. The night before the house had felt as if untouched by the years, but the hallway in which I found myself, although in a Jacobean house, had a decidedly modern feel to it with clean lines and bright colours.

On my left was a large carved cabinet I recognised from the night before as belonging to the drawing room. It was inlaid with lighter woods but they seemed to have darkened somehow, almost as if a smoky coloured varnish had tinted the wood. Next to the cabinet hung an original painting of Briggman Hall in all its Jacobean glory. I recognised it instantly. The gold plaque under it mentioned its build date, the architect, and the many people who had lived there.

It was not until I reached the bottom of the writing that the wind was kicked out of me. I staggered, my legs unsteady and unsure of what I had read. Jack put a hand out to steady me.

Gutted by fire in 1918, the sign said.

The words swirled about my mind. "It can't be so," I murmured.

"It's true, my lad," the aged gardener said, firm and steady beside me. "Old Lord Briggman died in the drawing room from breathing in smoke during the blaze. It started in the dining hall up behind the main parlour. I was here on the night. I heard the screams and cries, so rushed in to see what I could do. I found His Lordship slumped over his chess board, but I was too late to save him."

"No, no!"

"Sure as I'm standing here. We tried to rescue a few things but the fire was raging. Fortunately a heavy rain fell that evening and although a lot of the timber went up the building stayed fairly solid. It's good Flemish brick, it is. When the school owners bought it all up they repaired it on the cheap. That's why it's all so modern and plain. Never used to be like this."

"I know," I sighed, holding my head. "I know just what it was like." I had seen it in its prime just the night before, a prime lost in the spitting embers of twenty years earlier.

Neither Jack nor Bessie spoke for a moment, then the gardener squeezed me on the shoulder and pointed me at the cabinet.

"The new owners kept a few knick-knacks to show the history of the place. I suppose they thought it would impress the parents of the pupils. Make them dig deeper in their pockets for that bit of history. They're all on show in the glass case."

I stared into the depths of the fine piece of furniture, and one by one the objects stirred in my memory; a mantle clock, a pair of silver candlesticks, a decanter and then in pride of place...

I ran to the door a moment later, I needed fresh air. When Jack joined me outside he furnished me with the final details. I slumped down on the cold front step, ready to faint from it all.

The prize exhibit was a chess set, the one over which the nobleman had been found. It was a fine example crafted in eighteenth century India with unusual glass and marble pieces. A true treasure. Yet, despite all efforts and the endless searching after the fire, one piece could not be found.

Somehow, I pulled my wits together. I had to be strong. In my head was a distant voice, begging me to allow the piece to again find its rightful place.

I held out the beautiful cut-glass figurine. I looked at it briefly then handed it over to Jack. "I think this is for you," I said. "It belongs here."

Jack didn't answer but took it softly in his leathery hand. Saying no more and never looking back, I returned to my car and drove from the grounds quietly, promising myself never to return. Until that coach trip a lifetime later, I never broke my vow.

Whether the hall stands, if it is a school still and if it continues to display the ornaments of a lost age, I know not. When the scenery became too familiar I choose to put on my soft black blindfold, the one I keep in my pocket to help me sleep during the afternoon when the day is too bright.

Some questions can drive a man insane if he thinks about them hard enough, and I had tried to banish those questions from my mind half a century before.

I'm too old to make myself ill pondering them again.

...

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