As soon as Kerstin Kvist arrives at remote, ivy-covered Lydstep Old Hall in Essex, she feels like a character in a gothic novel. A young nurse fresh out of school, Kerstin has been hired for a position with the Cosway family, residents of the Hall for generations. She is soon introduced to her “charge,” John Cosway, a thirty-nine-year-old man whose strange behavior is vaguely explained by his mother and sisters as part of the madness that runs in the family.
Weeks go by at Lydstep with little to mark the passage of time beyond John’s daily walks and the amusingly provincial happenings that engross the Cosway women, and Kerstin occupies her many free hours at the Hall reading or making entries into her diary. Meanwhile, bitter wrangling among Julia Cosway and her four grown daughters becomes increasingly evident. But this is just the most obvious of the tensions that charge the old remote estate, with its sealed rooms full of mystery. Soon Kerstin will find herself in possession of knowledge she will wish she’d never attained, secrets that will propel the occupants of Lydstep Old Hall headlong into sexual obsession, betrayal, and, finally, murder.
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Barbara Vine is the author of such acclaimed novels as A Dark-Adapted Eye, Anna’s Book, Grasshopper, and The Blood Doctor. She has won many awards for literary accomplishment, including three Edgar Awards and four Gold Daggers.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I am a cartoonist. We are thin on the ground, we women cartoonists; it’s still thought of as a man’s job, and there are even fewer of my sort who aren’t English and never went to art school. Over the close-on thirty years that I have been contributing a couple of cartoons to each issue of a weekly news magazine, I have drawn Harold Wilson and Willy Brandt, Mao Zedong and Margaret Thatcher (hundreds of times), John Major, Neil Kinnock, David Beckham, and Tony Blair (nearly sixty times). People say I can catch a likeness with a few strokes and squiggles; they know who it’s supposed to be before they read the caption or the balloon coming out of a character’s mouth. But I was no child artist prodigy, I don’t remember learning anything about art at school and for years all I ever drew was a Dog Growing for my small niece and nephew.
I’ll tell you about the Dog Growing because you may want to make one for your own children. You take a sheet of paper; a letter-sized sheet, cut vertically in half, will do very well. Then you fold it in half again and fold the folded-over piece back on itself to make an inch-wide pleat. Flatten it out again and draw a dog across the folds. It’s best to make it a dachshund or a basset hound because it should have a long stretch of body between forelegs and hindlegs. Then refold your paper into its pleat. The dog now has a short body but when the child opens the pleat the dog grows into a dachshund. Of course, when you get practiced at it, you can make a Giraffe’s Neck Growing or a Turkey Growing into an Ostrich. Children love it and that was all I ever drew all through my teens and when I was at university.
I was going to be a nurse and then I was going to teach English. I never considered drawing as a career because you can’t make a living out of a Dog Growing. It was in the late sixties when I came to England, fresh from the University of Lund and my English degree and with a fairly humble nursing qualification. I had a job lined up and a place to live, but my real motive in coming was to renew my love affair with Mark Douglas.
We had met at Lund, but when he graduated he had to go home and all his letters urged me to follow him. Get a job in London, get a room. Everyone in London, he wrote, lives in a bedsitter. I did the next best thing and got a job in Essex, near the main line from Liverpool Street to Norwich. The family who was employing me was called Cosway, and the house they lived in, Lydstep Old Hall. I had never in my life seen anything like that house.
It was very large yet it hardly looked like a house at all, more a great bush or huge piece of topiary work. When I first saw it in June it was entirely covered, from end to end and from foundation to the line of the roof, in intensely green Virginia creeper. I could see it was oblong and that its roof was almost flat but if there were architectural features such as balconies, railings, recessed columns, stonework, none showed through the mass of glossy green. Windows alone peeped out of this leafy wrapping. It was a rather windy day and, because the breeze set all the hundreds of thousands of leaves shivering, there was an illusion that the house itself moved, shrank, expanded, and subsided again.
“Be like living inside a tree,” said the taxi man as I was paying him. “You’d think all that stuff would damage the brickwork. I wouldn’t fancy it. Friends of yours, are they?”
“Not yet,” I said.
Lydstep Old Hall was the first thing I ever drew. Apart from Dogs Growing, that is. I drew it that night, from memory as I was inside the house, and that is how I have drawn everything ever since.
DE Mark’s sister-in-law Isabel Croft got me the job. She had been at school with the youngest Cosway girl. “Zorah won’t be living at home any longer,” she said when I asked her to tell me about the family. “I don’t really know who will. Ida, certainly. She housekeeps for them. Her other two sisters I never knew well. They may have married or gone to live elsewhere. The house actually belongs to John.”
“The one I’m to have charge of? He’s schizophrenic, is that right?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “ ‘Charge’ is rather a strange word to use.”
“Mrs. Cosway’s,” I said, “not mine.”
“I never heard a name for what’s wrong with John,” Isabel said. “It rather puzzles me—but there, I expect Mrs. Cosway knows what she’s talking about. There’s a trust to administer the estate. It’s a strange business, something to do with the way Mr. Cosway left things in his will. I don’t suppose you want to know the details. His marriage had gone wrong, I think, and he and Mrs. Cosway hardly spoke to each other in his last years. Mrs. Cosway was always nice to me, but she is rather a difficult woman. Well, you’ll see. The house is very big, but they keep some of the rooms shut up.”
I asked her what she was going to say about being puzzled. She hadn’t finished her sentence.
“I was going to say I wouldn’t have thought John needed looking after. You’ve been a nurse and he didn’t need a nurse when I knew him. Of course he sometimes behaved strangely, but he never did any harm. But I don’t really know.”
There were so many things she didn’t say. Most of them she simply knew nothing about. The Cosways were good at keeping things hidden—from other people and one another.
DE In the novels of the nineteenth century which I had read while studying English, girls taking posts in country families are always met at the nearest station by some old retainer with a pony and trap. No such offer had been made to me. The Cosways had neither retainer nor pony and the one car they possessed was used by Ella Cosway to go to work. I took a taxi. There were always taxis outside Colchester station and still are for all I know. The route it followed has been much built up since then and the old road has become a three-lane highway. We drove along winding lanes, some of them narrow, for part of the way following the valley of the River Colne, passing the gates of several great houses. I had read a little about the architecture of Essex and knew that the county lacked building stone. Wood, brick, chalk, and flint were the materials used and another material called pudding stone, oblong and rounded pebbles of flint, much used in the construction of churches and of some walls. But the most important material of all was timber and I gazed out of the taxi window, happy to see the information I had read of confirmed in mansions and farmhouses built of tiny Tudor bricks with weatherboarding and half-timbering. Of course it aroused my expectations of what the house I was going to would be like, for Isabel had never described it. It might have a moat, as some did, part of its roof might be thatched, its windows mullioned and its woodwork bare and unstained. And then there was the maze.
“In the grounds, do you mean?” I’d said to her. “Made of hedges?”
But she only laughed and said, “You’ll see.”
My excited anticipation made me ask the driver how much farther it was, and when he said two miles, I had to restrain myself from telling him to hurry up. We bypassed the village but no matter where you were within five miles of Windrose you could hardly fail to see the church, All Saints, its tall rose-red tower a landmark which drew and held your eyes. The Great Red Tower of Windrose, people called it, and some said the name of the village came from its color. Lydstep Old Hall was about half a mile farther on, at the top of a long hill. We approached it along a cart track which the taxi man called a “drive” and which had been graveled over where it opened out and the house was reached. There was no sign of a maze in this part of the grounds, only grass and ancient oak trees and holly.
The front door, of weathered oak, was of course set back, a rectangular hole deep in the green canopy. Now they were close to my eyes, I saw how large each shiny leaf was and, when one brushed my face, felt how cool it was to the touch. You can sometimes only tell an artificial houseplant from a real one by touching its leaves, and then there’s no doubt. The imitation one feels stiff and dead while the real seems to breathe and yield under your fingers. The leaf that touched my cheek was like that.
I rang the bell and a woman came to the door. You may have seen her picture in the papers and on the television, though there weren’t many of these and it was so long ago. None of the photographs of family members were good likenesses. The drawing I made of her was nearer, though perhaps it’s vain of me to say so. At first I thought she must be an employee. She looked about fifty and wore one of those crossover overalls, the staple of sitcom dailies.
She held out her hand and said, “I am Ida Cosway. How do you do?”
The hand she gave me was hard and callused, red and work- damaged.
“Kerstin Kvist,” I said and followed her into the hallway, humping my two suitcases.
No description of the inside of that house appeared in the papers and I shan’t describe it now. Later on I will give some idea of how it was. I shall just say now that this hallway was the oldest part, an ancient vestige of a house which may have dated back to before Tudor times and which Ella Cosway told me had stood on this spot when the Battle of Agincourt was fought. The fine timbering I hoped to see showed on the plastered walls and low ceilin...
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