Virtually a prisoner in my own domain, I satisfied my need to explore within the manor itself. The estate had undergone numerous incarnations throughout its existence; the ordered grandeur of its Neoclassical architecture succeeded the Stuart period’s simplicity, which itself replaced a grim and austere Tudor castle. Evidence for this process of destruction and reconstruction can be traced back to a 1st century Roman fortress whose brickwork still stands as the manor’s foundation. Only those long-dead legionnaires know what came before but I’m certain the tribal Demetre or Silures made effective use of this land prior to their subjugation.
This history of consistent occupation had a perfectly logical explanation. The horizon was wholly visible in every direction due to its high elevation and the ocean surrounded the estate on three of four sides. Unscalable cliffsides prevented access from the shore, save for a single narrow path. Thanks to these and other geographical features, it was the most naturally defensible location in the region.
There is one place older than the foundation, a place so genuinely ancient that any speculation regarding its age was pointless.
I discovered it by accident while in the basement, hiding from Ms. Bradshaw and her vacuous lessons. Lantern in hand and my afternoon reclaimed, I spent the time in search of the skittering vermin that so naturally congregated in the damp and inky blackness. Cobwebs formed congruous patterns across the ceiling, merging the silken domains of many a spider. I remember how it twinkled before my light, its surface bejewelled by drops of moisture that no doubt lured prey as diamonds would a thief.
At the far end of the chamber, behind the furthest cask, the web grew dense and layered, littered with the desiccated remains of winged insects better suited for the wide outdoors than a lightless cellar. Spiders are of an inherently unsociable disposition and I wondered what brought about their atypical assemblage. Intrigued, I brushed aside the web and forced my way through.
Beyond the viscid threshold was a wall – ordinary and not unexpected, save for the presence of a gaping vertical fissure. Despite its advanced state of deterioration, the structure was relatively modern compared to adjacent architecture. It was undoubtedly the stonework of an amateur, someone other than the master masons responsible for Caeruchel Hall or any of its previous iterations. Proof of this was how one strong push was all I needed to send it toppling.
The dust settled and revealed a timeworn stairwell. After a period of hesitation, I swallowed my fear and descended. The spiralling passage delivered me to a labyrinthine network of megalithic tunnels. Underground structures could be found throughout the world and Britain was no exception. Mediaeval crypts, Anglo-Saxon barrows, and even Roman Mithraea were hidden across the Isles.
The walls bore singular engravings – pictograms, possibly even hieroglyphics – which failed to coincide with any known culture. Aeons ago, a cult carved this complex from solid bedrock. I could only imagine that these were the creations of the Demetae or Silures or perhaps some other forgotten Celtic tribe unknown to the historians and archaeologists of our age. These depictions ranged from the familiar, such as waves, fish, rain, and whales, to the utterly abstract, if not alien. Abstruse as they were, these symbols and their configurations invoked a particular aesthetic or theme – one that, like the songs of the merrows, seem to embody all things thalassic.
Though devoid of life, these ruins were not silent. There had been a faint droning since the moment of my arrival and the volume only amplified the deeper I travelled. By the time I recognized the steady burble of running water, I had already reached its source, where a confluence of subterranean tributaries fed into a large central basin. Steam emanated off the surface of the water and I knelt at the edge of the pool before dipping a finger, finding it warm to the touch but not scalding.
Just how much of this grotto was a product of nature or human artifice, I cannot say, but what I did know was that this was a sacred place.
Five monoliths encircled the basin like the outstretched fingers of a buried giant. Jutting from the centre of the pool was a statue depicting a menacing amalgamation of serpent, octopus, fish, and woman. The chimeric goddess displayed the plump breasts and distended abdomen of late pregnancy, leaving little doubt of an association with fertility. It had the head of a devil-fish, a hideous species known for its enormous mouth of needle-like fangs and bait-like cranial appendage. Long, sharp spikes protruded from the shoulders and back like the spines of a sea-urchin while the lower-half was an anarchic skein of snakes and tentacles with a strangely chitinous texture.
Within the shallow gouges that constituted its eye sockets were a pair of large pearls, their perfectly spherical bodies appearing jet black with green-blue overtones – a rare coloration that has, to the best of my knowledge, never been harvested from British waters; indeed, my research on the subject suggests that such pearls are typically only produced by the black-lipped oysters of the exotic South Seas. I cannot say for certain how they came to be on the other side of the world but it stands to reason that the merrows were at the root of it.
I stared in awe, in horror, so great and terrible were the gods of old.
Mother Ocean, Her Undulating Vastness.
Low on kerosene, I retraced my steps and returned to the manor. I told no one of these ruins and hid the entrance through the strategic arrangement of wine racks. As I wrote before, this was a sacred place, and I would not have it profaned. It would serve as my lifelong sanctuary, my truest refuge from civilization. Ms. Bradshaw would berate me for my sudden and inexplicable absence but proved otherwise ignorant of my whereabouts.
By the age of eighteen, I was free of Ms. Bradshaw, who had fulfilled her contractual obligations and left our home without fanfare or farewells. I do not know how common it is for a governess to feel fondness towards her ward but there was certainly no love to lose between us. In retrospect, I must admit that I did not make her position any less tolerable. One might expect that I would have sought to extract some sliver of affection from her – to find in Ms. Bradshaw a maternal surrogate. Alas, I simply regarded her as an extension of Mother’s will, if I regarded her at all.
It is a terrible thing when tutelage merely distracts from one’s true vocation. My governess was but an obstacle, though through no fault of her own.
As I neared marriageable age, Mother organised the visitation and courtship of several suitors. She often insinuated that the bloodline would end with me if left to my own devices. Though her goal was to insult me, Mother spoke the truth – I was terribly shy, barely speaking more than a few words.
But do not mistake my diffidence for bashful simpering. I felt nothing for these men.
It became increasingly apparent that these suitors weren’t invited for my benefit alone. Mother would parade herself through the parlour and devise excuses to join us. I saw how she positioned herself, how it would further exaggerate her natural curvaceousness. She knew how to look at them, how to smile and laugh, and when to be coquettish or coy. As she feasted on their adoration, her ego bloomed.
I do not pretend to understand the reasons for her endless cruelty. At the cusp of my development, time would begin to take its toll on the woman to which it had previously been so kind but this was not the fault of envy. No, it was instinctive – an emotional form of filial cannibalism, like beasts who consume their brood at the first sign of weakness. Mother was a predatory creature, a witch wielding insidious glamours, and who she hurt was inconsequential. Whatever Mother desired, she received.