Their cat, Jasper will never go upstairs in the dark and there is one place, a grassy mound overlooking the grounds at the front of the house which he always avoids. I see that the children have noticed this peculiarity and tease him, leaving treats in places where they know he feels frightened.
But the bread oven, alongside the huge stone inglenook fireplace in the great hall, is one of his favourite places and he stays close beside it for hours on end. Flagstones can be cold and he prefers to walk on the ashes, leaving his footprints all over the house.
At night, the beams creak and there are all sorts of scuttlings behind wainscotings which never trouble him at all, although they do frighten the children. During the day they catch hold of him and carry him up the stairs or across the grass to the mound, he leaps out of their arms and runs for his life. Scaredy cat.
Anyway Jasper isn’t the only one who’s scared. Walkers find their dogs pull away from mound beneath the great oak tree growing against the old granite wall.The dogs whine nervously, dropping their tails low between hind quarters.
That’s because the Manor House is four hundred years old and has seen events which frightened more than family pets. Once the property of Sir Walter de Woodland, servant of the Black Prince, it was always a landmark, a staging post on the road between Exeter and Plymouth .The nearby forge still stands, a bit dilapidated but I can recognise it. I’m sad to see that ivy grows now along the walls, it’s swinging overhead sign no longer gleams brightly when the sun shines and the colours announcing its purpose are faded.
We used to have Sir Walter’s men, knights and soldiers alike, calling here to have their horses shod and then our house served as an overnight lodging when the weather closed in, or when repairs were needed. You can easily find it, in Ivybridge,surrounded by those granite-grey stone outbuildings. Barns and pigsty no longer house our animals and people live there now. They’re not called serfs or peasants anymore and everyone seems to eat well. The girls aren’t put to work like we were and I see them sometimes when they don’t know I’m watching. They sit on the five- barred gate at the top of the lane, laughing and calling out to the boys.
Sir Walter had many estates across Devon, so we didn’t see him often and my father was only his tenant but in Sir Walter’s absence I think my father believed he was the Lord of the Manor.
He kept my mother and us girls under observation at all times. Mother was a beauty. Slim and fair, a member of the favoured Corteney family and my father, not her social equal,was a jealous man.
He kept Mother close to home, sometimes I think she may as well have been in a convent, taken the veil as they say. No excursions for her, just the expectation that she would run our household and make sure he and the men had all they needed.All.
Father liked to believe that the women of his family just worked and prayed. I expected him to find me a good husband and I was looking forward to running my own household. While we were waiting for husbands my sister and I learned housekeeping skills. Supervising the maids and checking the household expenses.
The daughters of serfs were our maids and it was really they who kept the household running, making up the fires and food in the larders and on the table.
When there was company we girls were washed and dressed and trussed up like the Christmas goose to provide decoration and entertainment for the guests. That was our life, guests and company, knights visiting, the powerful and wealthy, well connected with the court and speaking French amongst themselves, although we were not taught. Only the boys. My father could converse with them though, he was well respected and favoured by the knights.
How everyone’s life changed the night Esme went missing.
She had been a favourite with us all. Her sweet, dimple face charming and friendly.She’d been our maid for several years and was fifteen on that bad night.
Father and my brothers often asked for her to tend them and about that time they had been asking for her more often, in their upstairs apartments, which I thought was strange as most of the heat and comfort was downstairs, particularly during the long dark months. Something else was strange too, Esme stopped smiling that winter.Those dimples were almost never seen and although my brothers brought her ribbons and took her away from her distaff for hours on end, releasing her from the tiresome chore of spinning, She didn’t look well.
Anyway, that particular evening a number of Sir Walter’s men arrived at the Manor House and one man stood out from all the rest. He was dark, mysterious and beautiful. He was all I could imagine a man to be. I hoped he might notice me , but he noticed Esme straight away and called for her to take off his boots and bring him some mead. They were together when I was taken upstairs by Frances,mother’s maid, to be dressed for the evening.
Much later, I came down, in best gown and kirtle. My hair discreetly hidden underneath a stiff veil.There in the great hall a long table was laid out. Both fires were burning and there were musicians strumming their lutes over at one side of the room, under the window. I knew our table would seat twenty and I had seen them preparing a great variety of meats fish vegetables and stews in the kitchens.I was looking forward to an evening of entertainment and hoped the dark man would be there too.I couldn’t see him though.And I was a bit surprised when I realised Esme wasn’t there before me. She should have been helping with the food. I stood in the shadows for awhile before lifting the hem of my long gown and running quietly back up the stairs. If Esme was with Him then I wanted to know, and if not then where was He?
Turning left and then right down the long corridor which led to the guest accommodation I heard voices coming from behind a curtained doorway. There they were, Esme and my beautiful Knight and they didn’t look as though she was helping him with his boots any more.
I was shocked to see them, his hands were on her bare breasts and she was smiling. Something she hadn’t done for months. He lowered his lovely head, black curls tumbling forward over her bare skin and when I saw him kissing her I couldn’t contain my anger any longer.
Rushing downstairs I called for my father. “Quickly, come and see, the Knight , with Esme. He has betrayed our trust andshe is… she is…” I couldn’t speak I was so choked with jealousy that all I wanted wasfor them to be discovered and disgraced. .
I followed as my father approached and I heard raised voices, some French I couldn’t understand .Although Father was host and the beautiful man guest, his status as a Knight far outweighed Father’sBut Father could do whatever he wanted with Esme .
Dragging her by the hair on her head, he pulled her from the room,even though she was naked to the waist. As I ran back down the stairs her screams could be heard throughout the house.Mother ordered the shutters to be closed.
The beautiful man appeared at the table and feasted that night, never a mention was made of Esme.
He wasn’t aware of me either, no matter how I tried to attract his attention.
We saw Esme again, in the spring. Her body was found bloated and swollen lying on the bank of the river Erme. They thought she might have been strangled but by then it was impossible to tell.
And me? Well,I was never to wed.I only ever wanted the beautiful man and he never visited again. My father didn’t care what happened to us after that night. He acted like a haunted man and said there were cold spirits on the top floor. He couldn’t sleep upstairs and moved his quarters down to sleep in the hall by the fire.
Over the years I often saw Esme peering down from the top floor and, just like Jasper,I never went upstairs in the dark either.
And the mound? You must be aware that suicides can never be buried in hallowed ground, and my anguish at betraying Esme never quite went away.
In the end I took the only way out. That’s me there in the mound, and now Esme and me,we both haunt the Manor. Only Jasper knows.