[ I’m working on a new book at the moment – well, the idea for it is very old, but all books are new when written – and I thought I’d drop a draft of the first chapter for feedback and to start generating interest. Enjoy! ]
“Pause you who read this, and think for the moment of the long chain of iron or gold, of thorns or flowers, that would never have bound you, but for the formation of the first link on one memorable day.”
-Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
It all began with a kiss.
The place was the top of the hill overlooking Sangral House, a magnificent old manor in Kent. The time was a fine spring morning in April 1914. And the principles were a fourteen-year-old boy and a girl of the same age.
The girl belonged to the house, being none other than Lady Elizabeth Darrow. The boy’s name, rather absurdly, was Perseus Corbett, and his being there at all requires a little explanation.
His mother, Antigone Brown, was the daughter of a classics instructor at an obscure college in Wales. She had married below her station to a would-be inventor named Kenneth Corbett whose subsequent failures to revolutionize the world eventually left him working in a London garage. Their only child was sickly from infancy, suffering a chronic cough and shortness of breath, the care of which served as a continual drain on the little family’s scanty resources. By the time he turned twelve, his condition was indisputably growing worse and it was plain that new measures were needed if he were to survive.
Kenneth Corbett had originally come from Kent, where his brother Roger was head gardener at Sangral, the country seat of the illustrious Darrow family. Hoping that the country air would work the boy’s cure, Kenneth wrote to his brother to beg him to take the him on for a time to see if his health improved. Having obtained permission from the family, Roger agreed, and so little Perseus was packed off out of London for the first time in his life.
The journey was a wonder to him. The green, rolling hills, the open places, and trees! More trees than he had ever thought possible! And flowers, horses, cattle, all whirling by the train windows like flashing picture cards.
More wondrous still was the noble brick and stone edifice of Sangral itself. It stood back all by itself, nestled among the hills, with great old trees standing about it like attendants upon some venerable king. It was a very ancient house and had been added to and pulled about many, many times over the centuries. The east wing drove out before the front entrance like a defensive arm, ending in a conical tower, while the west wing retreated back, as though seeking the quiet shelter of the trees. It was a house with character, a house that one remembered, and which might have been (and indeed had been) the inspiration for many a romance, many a history, many a ghost story. Its somber brown bricks rested upon one another as sturdily today as when the first of them had been laid back in the fifteenth century, and its many windows flared like bonfires in the evening sun.
The plan was that Perseus should earn his keep by working as an apprentice undergardener, and so the next morning he was set to weed the flowerbeds along the mansion’s western front (this being a job it was judged he would have a great deal of trouble messing up). It was hard work, and his back ached, but the sight of the great house, not to mention the beautiful, fragrant flowers made it impossible to care much. His greatest difficulty was the temptation to stop work and simply gaze at the great house, lost in a daydream. He felt almost like he were back in the middle ages, or the time of the cavaliers; some dutiful servant laboring on behalf of a noble knight, or some great lady. Sangral House was just shy of a castle, after all, he thought. All it needed was a princess.
Then, while hard at work in between these reveries, something fell out of the sky and landed with a soft thud in the dirt beside him, making him jump. The thing had come within a foot or so of landing on his head. It was, he saw upon examination, a round silver medal, with the image of a man’s head on one side and an oak tree on the other.
“You there! Boy!”
Perseus looked up to see a girl’s head with a lot of tangled red hair sticking out of an upstairs window.
“I’ve dropped my medal. Will you bring it back up to me please?”
“What’d you want to drop it for?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose!” she answered. “Could you just bring up, please?”
He felt the sudden thrill of exultation, as boys do feel when they’re asked to do something important. His imagination, already travelling along such lines, conjured images of himself as a knight errant, retrieving the princess’s lost treasure.
“All right, then!” he called back, which was not a very knightly thing to say, but it was his first attempt. Forgetting all about his work, he got up, dusted himself off a bit, and ran for the kitchen door, which was nearest. It seemed very dim after the bright sunlight outside, and he had a fleeting impression of a large, smoky kind of room full of delightful smells and a lot of activity. He darted through before anyone had time to realize he wasn’t supposed to be there and hurtled up the servants’ stairs.
“Here now!” said a commanding voice that caused him to stop. A tall, stern-looking butler stood before him, glaring down on him like an imperious judge.
“What do you think you’re doing in here?” he said.
“The girl upstairs dropped this out the window,” said Perseus, holding up the medal. “She asked me to bring it up to her.”
The butler grunted, as though to say that he was not surprised.
“Very well,” he said. “I shall take it from here.”
He held out a hand for it. He was such a commanding presence that Perseus, who had always been used to obeying his elders anyway, nearly handed it over without thinking. But the fantasy that had taken root in his mind was strong, and he hesitated.
“No,” he said. “She asked me to do it.”
“That is no part of your duties,” he said. “Now hand it over.”
Perseus hesitated a moment later, then borne by a sudden reckless courage that came from he knew not where, he darted past the butler, ducking under his arm, and raced up the stairs two at a time while the old man shouted after him.
He reached the third floor landing and burst out into the corridor. The girl was standing by a bannister overlooking the main staircase, but she turned a smiling face on him as he ran down the hall toward her. Now that he saw her up close, he found that she was about his own age (though being a girl she of course conveyed the impression of being older). She was tall and lanky, with a good-natured, freckled face that had clearly seen a lot of sun, and bright hazel-green eyes. There was something of the air of a young colt about her, in her long, bony limbs and the restless, rather awkward energy of her movements.
“Here…it is…” he gasped, holding the medal out to her. His bad lungs were rebelling against the sudden burst of energy he had demanded of them.
“Thank you so much,” she said, taking it. “But are you all right?”
He nodded, still breathing hard. Meanwhile the butler appeared behind him in an icy rage.
“My apologies, Lady Elizabeth,” he said. “He has no business here…”
“It’s alright, Tredwell,” she said. “I asked him to bring my medal back up. I dropped it, you see.”
Tredwell’s stern face grew a trifle sterner.
“He has no business forcing his way up here,” he said.
“Oh, never mind that now,” she said. “Look, boy, are you sure you’re all right? Here, you must sit down.”
There was a large bay window with a velvet covered seat nearby and she urged Perseus to sit down and catch his breath. Tredwell frowned upon them.
“Could you get him a glass of water, Tredwell?” she asked.
“Very well, your ladyship,” he said with a stiff bow that spoke volumes of what he thought of the arrangement. He retreated, and Peseus slowly got his breath back.
“You’re not very strong for a gardener,” she said after he had his drink and Tredwell ahd been sent about his duties.
“I’m strong enough,” he said defensively. “It’s only that my lungs aren’t quite right. That’s why I’m here with Uncle Roger; they say the country air will make me better.”
“Oh, I see; that explains it. What’s your name, boy?”
“I say, what a funny name!” she said, laughing.
“It is not! It’s the name of a great hero who chopped a gorgon’s head off and used it to kill a sea monster and save a princess.”
“I know all that, but I’ve never met a ‘Perseus’ before,” she said. “Have you killed any sea monsters lately?”
“No,” he admitted grudgingly. “Has anyone chained you to a rock lately?”
“I’d like to see them try!” she answered, throwing her head back and laughing with the careless ease of one who was used to being able to have her own way.
“What’s important about that medal, anyway?” he asked, feeling he ought to take the offensive.
“What’s important about it?” she exclaimed. “It’s only from King Charles the First is all. He made a collection of these during the Civil War and handed them out as gifts to people who’d done him particular service, like my great-great-great…oh, I forget how many greats grandfather, Lord John Darrow.”
“You’re joking!” said Perseus, suddenly interested. He knew a bit of history, and the idea that he had been carrying something that once belonged to the unhappy king filled him with awe. “Shouldn’t that be in a museum, then?”
“No, because it’s mine,” she said. “My grandfather gave it to me personally.”
“So why did you drop it out the window?”
“I told you, that was an accident! I was just leaning out the window, looking at it and thinking about those days and it just slipped.”
“I’ve never met anyone related to a real-life cavalier,” he said.
“Oh, yes; we’re a very old family, didn’t you know? Lords and ladies all the way down. If you like that, we’ve got plenty more like it. I’ll show you them, if you like.”
That, however, had to wait, for at that point Uncle Roger, no doubt alerted by Tredwell, came to demand that he return to work.
“Later, then,” she said. “And don’t you dare be hard on him, Roger,” she added. “It’s my fault.”
Her orders commuted his sentence for a whipping to a stern talking to before he returned to his duties. But punishment or no, it hardly mattered compared with the fact that he had become friends with the young lady of the manor.
From then on, whenever Perseus wasn’t working (and sometimes when he ought to have been), he and Elizabeth would be off exploring the grounds in fine weather and the house in bad. She showed him all the treasures of her ancestral home, telling him what she knew of their history. He saw the portraits of her ancestors and heard what each one had done. He saw the landscapes and miniatures painted by famous artists, the furniture that had been in use for longer than the oldest servant had been alive. He saw the secret passages and the marks on the wall showing where some long-dead relative had thrown something in a fit of temper. He saw the woods and ponds that had been cultivated by generations of gardeners. He saw the stables with their fine horses, the kennels with their barking dogs, the pseudo-Greek folly down by the pond that Elizabeth’s grandfather had built.
Most importantly, the very day after their chance meeting, he saw the library, with its hundreds upon hundreds of books gathered across many generations; books of the kind the creaked when you opened them and breathed forth a wonderfully musty smell, so that even if you didn’t read them, you like to pull them down and page through them anyway. He had loved to read at home; being a sickly child with a mother both anxious and well-educated, it had been the chief source of amusement open to him, and the sight of this infinitude of words filled him with the same feeling as if he had found Aladdin’s cave.
Elizabeth, he found, was not a great reader. Or rather, she was not at all fond of being made to read. She had shown him the library mostly on account of some suits of armor that stood by the library fireplace and the portrait of an ancestor who had been a famous poet in his day. Perseus’s accounts of The Jungle Book, Treasure Island, and The Count of Monte Cristo, however, could not fail to pique her interest, and after they had explored the house from top to bottom and back again, their favorite pastime became finding a book to share. They would then race about the park, imagining themselves as part of the stories, or making plans for going on their own adventures; of voyaging in the West Indes like Robinson Crusoe, or trekking in darkest Africa like Allan Quatermain, or travelling in India like Mr. Kipling.
And so two years passed away at Sangral House. Perseus’s lungs recovered and his body grew strong under the stern direction of his uncle. He learned to ride, to fish, to shoot, and to climb trees. He learned more about history, about art, about music. Two years of almost unmitigated happiness and wonder, broken only by occasional visits home, where the dust and grime and squalor of the London neighborhood – so different from the romantic images of the city that he found in his books – seemed almost like a bad dream. Or, what is worse, like the coming from a good dream into a sad awakening.
The only other check to his happiness was Lady Darrow, Elizabeth’s mother. At first she paid little heed to the friendship between her daughter and the gardener’s nephew. They were children, and children would have their escapades. She didn’t much care for her daughter’s climbing trees or catching snakes, but Elizabeth had been doing those sorts of things long before Perseus showed up, and at least now she was reading more. But as time went on, Lady Darrow began to disrupt their escapades more and more. They would be having a great game in the conservatory and she would look in to say, “It is time for your music lessons, Elizabeth,” or they would be sitting reading together on the hillside and she would send to say he was wanted in the garden. More and more it seemed their time together was being curtailed, and there was nothing they could do but make the best of it.
Then came the end of it, the final awakening. A letter arrived from home to inform him that, as his health had so clearly improved, his mother wanted him to come home to stay. It was, she said, unthinkable that a son should remain so far from his family without due cause. Moreover, his father had found him a job, and a good one too, at a shop in London, which would bring in twice what he was making as an apprentice undergardener, money the family sorely needed.
Perseus was prepared to argue the matter out, that though the money was not very good, he was on his way to having a perfectly suitable job right here. He would be a full undergardener before long, and had a chance of being head gardener in the end. But then Uncle Roger put the final stop to his wishes.
“Fact is,” he said. “I think Lady Darrow had a hand in asking your mother to have you home. She’s not too keen on the way you and Lady Elizabeth are so familiar, as I’ve warned you time and time again.”
So it was settled. He would be going home to London for good. Home, where there would be no armor, no paintings, no old books, no secret passages, no ponies, no lake, and no woods.
Worst of all, there would be no Elizabeth.
Shortly after the summons home had arrived, Elizabeth learned that her parents were making plans to go on holiday to America, an extended stay of some months’ duration at least. That meant that on top of everything else, they would now be separated by a whole ocean.
The decision was made, the bags were packed, and the tickets purchased. All that now remained were the last few precious hours at Sangral Manor. Lady Darrow, though she did not approve of their friendship, was at least softhearted enough to allow them to spend those last hours in uninterrupted company.
Perseus and Elizabeth sat side by side on the hill, overlooking the house and grounds. They had spent many a happy hour there over the years, reading or dreaming or playing. But now there didn’t seem anything to be done except to be together while they could.
Elizabeth sat with her knees drawn up, resting her chin upon them, idly watching a rabbit grazing by its burrow.
“It’s not fair,” she grumbled. “Why couldn’t you have come with us to America?”
“Just be sure to watch out for sea monsters,” he said, making an effort to be cheerful. “I’d hate for you to be gobbled up while I’m not around.”
“That’s sweet of you,” she answered, smiling at what had become a long-running joke between them. “But I keep telling you I’m not going to need it; no one’s chaining me to a rock!”
They laughed, but not as wholeheartedly as they were used to. It was a faint flicker of something that was dying.
“You’re not going to forget about me, are you?” she asked after a pause.
“Of course not!” he said. “I’m going to be working in a bloody shop; thinking about you and Sangral is probably going to be the only thing that’ll make it tolerable. You’re the one who’s going to be having parties and meeting interesting people and having adventures and all that.”
“Well, just to make sure you don’t, I got you a present,” she said, reaching into the pocket of her frock and handing him a small box.
He opened it, and to his astonishment found the Charles the First medal that he had retrieved for her when they first met.
“You can’t give me this!” he said. “It was your grandfather’s! It’s a historical treasure.”
“Yes, and now it’s mine and I can do what I like with it,” she said. “Since I know you like it so much, I thought I should give it to you. Besides, you earned it; heroically risking the wrath of Tredwell to bring it to me, when any sensible boy would have just given it to him. I thought if I gave it to you, then you’d stay gallant and delightfully silly even working in some dreary old shop.”
Hesitantly, he put the medal about his neck.
“Thanks so much,” he said, fingering the ancient silver with affection and awe. “I’ll never, never take it off.”
“Don’t never take it off; you’ll spoil the silver. Just take good care of it; I don’t want to have to explain to either grandfather or Lord John that I gave their medal to someone who went and lost it.”
Perseus laughed, but again it soon faded, like a small fire in a cold stove. Their time was almost up.
“I didn’t even think to get you anything,” he said. “And you’re by far the more likely to forget about me.”
He didn’t add that he wouldn’t have known what to get her, even if he had.
“Oh, I don’t think that’s likely,” she said.
“Still, I should give you something. Something important. But I don’t have anything like that.”
Elizabeth thought a moment.
“Well,” she said slowly, looking away as though embarrassed. “There is something you could give me.”
“What?” he asked eagerly.
“It’s not really much, of course,” she said. “Though I think it is important. And I don’t know if I really ought to ask, but since you’re so eager…”
“Well? What is it?”
She swallowed and fixed her eyes on a bit of grass by his feet. Her face was as red as her hair.
Perseus felt as though the bottom had dropped out of his stomach.
“My first kiss,” she said, playing with the grass. “It’s a special thing. Ought to be, at least, I think. Something I can always take with me. That way I’d be sure never to forget you.”
Perseus felt himself going red as well. He had never yet seriously thought of kissing anyone; it was the sort of thing one read about in books and imagined doing, but which existed totally apart from the real world. It was as if she had told him that there was a dragon that needed slaying or pirate treasure to be dug up.
Yet, he certainly didn’t dislike the idea.
“I suppose so,” he said.
Judging by the way they focused on it, one would have thought that there was something infinitely fascinating about the grass about their feet.
“So…will you?” she asked after a moment.
He forced himself to look at her, and she forced herself to look at him, and he nodded. He had no real idea what he was doing, and it seemed far more complicated in real life that it had sounded in books. But there wasn’t anything for it but to simply try their best. Elizabeth shut her eyes tight and learned forward a little. Perseus thrust his face forward and their lips met.
It was wetter than he had expected. But really, quite nice.
They broke apart, both breathing rather fast. Then they both began to giggle uncontrollably.
A moment later, Uncle Roger came stumping up the hill to tell them it was time, and they walked back down together. At the gate, the moment of parting came. They shook hands and said their goodbyes.
“Have a good time in America,” he said.
“Have a good time in London,” she answered. “Or at least, not too frightful of one.”
He smiled, and just like that, they parted, him walking away beside his uncle to the train station for the last time.
“I’ll send for you if that sea monster shows up!” she called after him as a parting shot.
“See that you do!” he called back.
As the train rode away back to London, Perseus found his mind kept going back to that kiss. That first and only kiss. He felt different for it; stronger, bolder, more sure of himself. And all at once, he seemed to see his path clear before him.
In that moment, Perseus Corbett made a vow. He had no idea how he would do it, but he swore he would or die trying. He swore to himself that, some day, he would become a gentleman. He would have a house like that, beautiful grounds, horses, servants, fine old objects, all of it.
Most of all, he would marry Elizabeth Darrow.