Stumbling out of the darkness of a stormy night at the end of two terrible days during which my boat, irresistibly swept out of its true course, had finally been flung by the breakers onto an unknown shore; a broken toy thrown away by a wilful child. I looked around in confusion and bewilderment. Where on earth was I?
Struggling up over the rocks I’d finally found my feet on a path, and wanting to be well away from the thundering waves, chose to follow it upward until I found myself here. . .
High, wrought-iron gates of marvellous workmanship closed the way to a house beyond. I’d never seen anything to compare with them; leaves, flowers, birds and beasts were all part of the design, which though delicate and finely detailed in every part, was yet undoubtedly strong. Then I realised that if I could see all this the gates must be lit in some way, but I could see no moon, the starlight was too weak to show their intricacy, and despite peering all around I couldn’t find a light source. Giving up, I next looked for a porter, guard, or watchman but there was no one to be seen, nor could I hear anything – not even the roaring of the wind and the crashing waves, only a light breeze touched my cheek. What had happened to the storm?
Hoping they weren’t electrified, I touched the gates very cautiously, and they swung open. I saw the shape of the great house some distance away, its roof-line dark against the sky. The driveway ran towards it between the mown grass and trees of an ornate garden, where a fountain’s fall glittered like a silver rainbow in the sudden and unexpected glow of moonlight. In a ground-floor room to the right of the entrance one light was shining.
Since I had seen no other signs of habitation, either while I was struggling with the breakers, or after I was flung ashore, I could think of nothing else to do but enter and ask for help.
I walked through the gateway and slowly and uneasily up the drive to the door, where after a moment’s searching I found a bell-pull upon which I hauled. I didn’t hear the bell ring deep within the house, but in a very short time the door was opened by a man of middle age and stature. Although he wasn’t in uniform I had a feeling from his manner that he might be a manservant. A house of this size and magnificence would surely have servants, I thought.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you after dark,’ I stammered, suddenly aware of how dreadfully wet and bedraggled I must look. ‘My boat’s been wrecked on the beach back there,’ and I pointed towards the distant sea. ‘I wonder if you could tell me where I am, and summon some help for me?’
A spasm of unease passed over his face, but it vanished again so swiftly that I couldn’t be sure I hadn’t imagined it. Then he spoke.
‘Please come in,’ he said, holding the door wide, I will speak to the master. In the meantime come through to the back hall, and we will make you more comfortable.’
He led the way across a spacious hall with a marble floor and a sweeping stairway. I followed, being careful not to tread on any of the expensive rugs, for fear of leaving damp stains behind me. Passing through a door at the rear, he led me down a short corridor into a room which seemed to be a combination of a servants’ dining and sitting room warmed by a large fire burning in a handsome stone fireplace.
The manservant paused, and asked, ‘Whom shall I say has asked for aid, my Lord?’
‘Oh, er. . .Mr Frederick Singer. Though I’m not a lord, and I’m sure the name won’t mean anything to . . er . .to your master.’ I realised he hadn’t told me who the master of the house was, and I felt increasingly uncomfortable.
‘Lord Robert will not be discommoded by that, sir,’ he replied, accommodating himself immediately to my more humble status. ‘I shall return shortly,’ and he left swiftly and silently.
A housekeeper (or at least, so I assumed her to be) appeared and bustling around, brought me a large pot of strong tea; and in short order a chair, two large towels, warm pyjamas and a dressing-gown were also provided.
Mrs Roberts, as she informed me she was, (odd that her name was the same as her master’s,) showed me to a small, neat ground-floor bedroom, where she left me to climb out of my wet clothes, and once I was dry and decent took me back into the servants’ hall and poured out the tea for me with an admonishment to sit by the fire and warm myself, before carrying my garments away ‘to be sorted.’
Although she was friendly and helpful, she was not a great talker, asking no questions, and giving out no further information. So as I sat by the fire soaking up its warmth, and feeling myself beginning to relax, I still had no idea where I was, nor who Lord Robert could be. Lord Robert who? Lord Robert of where? And why, in this remote part of the world had I found an estate (for so it must be, given the size of the house and the stretch of gardens I had glimpsed between the gates and the door) and servants so eminently and unmistakeably English?
I thought back over the last two days, trying to work out approximately where I might be. I’d been sailing south down the coast of Brazil, having crossed the Atlantic from the Canaries, when the storm had blown up without any warning. If I were further north among the islands of the Caribbean I would expect to find estates of this kind, but I was fairly sure I hadn’t been blown that far, nor in that direction, though all my instruments had failed – even my trusty compass, given to me by my father years ago, had been whirling madly round and round. Of course Spanish estates existed in many parts of South America, but there was not a sign of Spain here, this was resolutely English. Reluctantly I concluded I hadn’t the vaguest idea where I was, and so must wait in patience for Lord Robert to enlighten my ignorance.
Soon after I came to this resolution, Mrs Roberts re-appeared and brought me hot broth, bread and cheese, and some fruit. When I’d hungrily demolished everything she’d provided, she returned my clothes, dried and invisibly mended, and I changed back into them in the little bedroom, pondering on yet another mystery – she couldn’t possibly have done mending of that calibre in the time – so how many other as-yet-unseen servants were tucked away in this house?
Almost as soon as I returned to the fireside, fully clothed and feeling much more myself, though no less bewildered, the manservant (was he the butler?) came back and announced that Lord Robert would receive me in his study. In some apprehension I followed him back into the grand entrance hall, through a luxuriously appointed library, and was ushered into Lord Robert’s presence.
‘Mr Singer, my Lord,’ the manservant intoned, as he held open the door.
‘Thank you, Roberts,’ (what? Another one?) a soft, deep voice spoke from the end of the room beyond the door and out of my sight.
As I stepped forward the door quietly closed behind me and I turned to face the owner of the house and estate. To say I was startled is a gross understatement.
Standing beside another grand fireplace in which a sizeable fire was burning, was a tall person in full early-nineteenth-century garb, complete with embroidered waistcoat, silver-grey pantaloons, silk stockings, black pumps, ruffles, cravat and a tight-fitting coat of mulberry red. However the clothing was not the most startling aspect of the person who stood there. I say person, because I was uncertain who or what he was! His face was covered in a fine, dense, silvery-grey fur, and was distinctly cat-like, with a small nose, golden eyes, and neat upstanding ears. It only lacked whiskers to be entirely feline!
I took a step backwards, reaching for the door behind me, but his voice cut through my panic; deep and calm it was inexplicably reassuring.
‘Please do not be afraid, Mr Singer – may I call you Frederick? I promise you will come to no harm here. I am only sorry I was obliged to remain hidden from you when you arrived.’
He stepped away from the fire and half sat on the front edge of the large desk which stood before the curtained windows. ‘Please, come and take a seat. May I offer you a drink? Whisky? Brandy?’
Hesitantly I moved to the armchair beside the fire and sank into its enveloping cushions. ‘Whisky, please,’ I stammered, and then hastily added, ‘my Lord.’
I confess I stared at him as he turned to a small table to fix the drink – I wanted to see whether he had a tail. But he hadn’t, although I saw, as he handed me my whisky, that the backs of his fully human shaped hands were covered in the same fur as his face. Panic again threatened to overwhelm me, and I somewhat rudely gulped at my drink.
Once more he spoke, and once more his voice had a calming effect, enabling me to pull myself together and pay attention to what he was saying.
‘I would tell you my true name, Frederick, if it would mean anything to you, and if there were any chance of your being able to pronounce it. But since neither of these is a possibility in your world, I have taken the liberty of borrowing a name from my faithful servants, Mr & Mrs Roberts.’
Well that explained one thing at any rate.
‘As you will have guessed,’ he continued, ‘I do not originate from your solar system, nor even from this part of the galaxy. In fact I was deposited here in much the same way as you were unfortunately thrown onto my shores tonight. While exploring this arm of the galaxy I was caught up in a violent ion storm, and thrown down through your atmosphere to land on this erstwhile uninhabited island.
‘Thanks to the undamaged equipment aboard my transport, I was able to create this home for myself, after researching your history for a style which I would find comfortable and commodious.’ He smiled a slightly wry, feline smile, and paused to sip his drink, which I now realised contained sprigs of mint – possibly catmint? I hastily smothered a smile of my own, but very soon lost all desire to smile as he continued, quietly and seriously.
‘Unfortunately I was unable to leave again, nor to make contact with any other of my species – I was a lone explorer, and far from my home – and so I have been stranded here for some thirty of your years.’
Seeing I was about to break out with one of the many questions now seething in my mind, he held up a hand restrainingly. ‘Let me finish, Frederick, please, and then you may ask your questions and we can go on to discuss your future.’
I didn’t like the sound of that at all!
‘As swiftly as possible I set myself to learn about your world, and soon understood enough about its people to guess at their possible reactions to my presence,’ I nodded slowly, guessing all too well to what he referred. ‘I set protections round the island so if anyone came within a certain radius of it they would be caught in a storm and be thrown out and away from here. I also made it invisible to radar and satellites.
‘Unfortunately in very rare situations a storm of the world blows up and combines with mine in such a way that anyone caught in it is drawn in instead of being blown outwards. That is how Mr & Mrs Roberts come to be here. They were the only survivors of a luxury yacht which was smashed on the coast.’ He paused, and looked gently and sorrowfully at me, ‘And I’m sorry to say, Frederick, that is what has happened to you.’
I was on my feet before he had finished, striding round the room in great distress. ‘But if you set up the storm, can’t you switch it off, or reverse it?’ I demanded. No, pleaded would be more accurate. I wanted to throw myself on my knees in front of him. ‘There must be something you can do! I’ll promise never to tell anyone about you – I swear it! Please! I must be able to go home! I’ve got a wife and family, I must go home, I must!’ By this time I was almost in tears as the shocking implications of what he had said sank in.
‘My dear Frederick,’ he replied, ‘I believe your promise, and if I could I would indeed let you go. You might not feel inclined to believe me; but perhaps you will, if I tell you that I too have a wife and family – or did thirty years ago. I dare not begin to think what their situation might be now.’ He gazed down at the carpet, and his voice dropped almost to a whisper as his golden eyes dimmed to dusky brown.
I did believe him, his sorrow could be felt as something almost tangible, it couldn’t have been faked. I sat down again, but remained upright and alert, paying close attention to his every word and movement.
He raised his head again, took a deep breath and continued, ‘It is just possible that I could turn off the storm. The rear portion of this house hides my transport, and the weather is controlled by its on-ship computers. However, our power source is limited, we rely on it for our food and many other commodities, and it powers the laboratories which enable us to maintain our home in comfort.
‘I do not know how long it will last at the current rate of usage, but not more than seven or eight years. Then we will be without protection from the outside world and without most of our food. In those years I hope to discover some other source of power, and adapt it to our needs, but if I were to use the computers to turn the storm off, and then attempt to restart it, the time we have could be cut to less than a year.
‘Frederick, at present I have to choose between the protection which enables me to continue this work, and the inevitable results of discovery by outsiders.’
He took my glass from my nerveless fingers and refilled it for me. I muttered a word of thanks and drank half of it down at one go. This time he came and sat in the chair at the other side of the fire.
‘I grieve for you and your family, as I grieve for myself and my mate and kits, but to speak honestly, you have more hope than I of eventually finding your way home. In the meantime we shall do our utmost to help you settle and adjust, to integrate into our small community so that you may begin to play your part in our life here.
‘I, for one, shall be glad of your company, for no matter how good and willing they are, Mr & Mrs Roberts are servants, and think and act as servants. Should I attempt to be a friend to them they would be shocked and most uncomfortable. I believe you and I could share more intellectual and instructive discourse.’
He paused again and looked interrogatively at me; I nodded slowly, but couldn’t put my thoughts into speech.
With a swift grace he stood and moved to the desk where he rang a small bell. Then, looking down at me he said, ‘You are exhausted, confused and grief-stricken. I’ve said enough for tonight. Roberts will show you to a room which has been prepared for you, and we shall meet and talk again when you are rested. For tonight, let go of your anxieties and sleep.’
At that moment Roberts opened the door, and soon he was leading me upstairs to a comfortable suite, where the bed had been prepared for me and the familiar pyjamas and dressing-gown were lying across a chair by the window.
For a while after I changed I sat on the side of the bed trying to muster my thoughts into some kind of order, but I kept hearing Lord Robert’s gentle voice repeating, ‘Let go and sleep. Let go and sleep.’
Before I finally got into bed something made me reach into the pocket of my windcheater, and my fingers found a folded scrap of paper in the corner. I pulled it out and unfolded it – it was the Fortune Cookie from the Chinese Restaurant in the Canaries, where I’d had my final meal before setting out. It had caused some hilarity and teasing from those who knew my boat, for it said, ‘Elegant surroundings will soon be yours.’
I broke down and wept for a long time before putting out the light and falling into the deep sleep of exhaustion.
However that was not the last of the strange events of that night. In the early hours I was awoken by the sound of singing – a strange, unearthly, melancholy sound wafting up from the garden. I crept to the window and peeped through a gap in the curtains.
Below me I saw Lord Robert – but it was not the suavely dressed aristocrat I had met earlier. He had discarded his European clothing and was walking the paths clad only in his own softly glinting coat. Lifting his head towards the stars, and reaching up with his arms as if to climb the skies, he was singing a song of love, of yearning and lament which, for all I couldn’t understand the words, or its alien tones, made the tears flow down my cheeks, and my heart ache for his loss and loneliness, which were immeasurably greater than mine.
Then, feeling I was looking at something far too private, I went back to bed. A few moments later the song ceased, and silence fell over the island again.
I had no choice about whether I would stay or not, but in that moment I resolved to be whatever I could for him in the time before our protective shield collapsed, and then to do my utmost to protect him from the cruelties of the outside world.