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Bristol House

A Novel

Beverly Swerling - Author

Paperback | $16.00 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9780142180808 | 416 pages | 28 Jan 2014 | Plume | 7.99 x 5.31in | 18 - AND UP
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A riveting dual-period narrative that blends a haunting supernatural thriller with the vivid history of Tudor London

Historian Annie Kendall arrives at London’s Bristol House on an assignment to research ancient artifacts from the Holy Land. She’s desperate to escape her troubled past with the help of the shadowy employer who has hired her for an unusual, but well-paid, mission. So Annie is determined to ignore the strange manifestations in her flat—including the appearance of a ghostly Carthusian monk. When she crosses paths with Geoff Harris, a well-known TV journalist and a dead ringer for the strange apparition, they are called upon to crack an enigmatic code, still unbroken after five hundred years.

Widely acclaimed for her historical fiction, Beverly Swerling delivers an enchanting and epic tale of a historian and a monk half a millennium apart—and the unsolved mysteries of Tudor London that bring them together.


1

The apartment was seven rooms, much bigger than Annie needed. But it was a four-minute walk to the British Museum, where she would be working frequently, and in the heart of Holborn, the London district that was the focus of much of her research. Not to mention the appeal of high ceilings and fireplaces and tall windows that overlooked busy Southampton Row, where double-decker buses went north and south to places called Chalk Farm and Covent Garden.

“I suggest,” Mrs. Walton said, “you have a wander on your own. You must have been too jet-lagged to see it properly yesterday.”

In her sixties, Annie thought. Fair, still pretty—no doubt an English rose in her day. Possibly a family resemblance to her niece, Sheila MacPherson, secretary to the director of the Shalom Foundation, the organization that had sent Annie Kendall to England. My Auntie Bea’s off to Singapore to visit her son, Dr. Kendall, just when you arrive, as it happens. I know she’d love to let her flat and have that bit of extra income, as long as she was sure the tenant would look after her things.

There was a certified check drawn on Shalom’s account in the bag slung over Annie’s shoulder. She was here to sign the furnishings inventory, hand over the payment, collect the receipt, and pick up the keys. Mrs. Walton was leaving early the next morning, Tuesday, the first of May. It was agreed Annie could move in as soon after as she liked.

“Go on.” Her soon-to-be landlady pressed into Annie’s hand the list of the contents of each room. “Take this with you and have a look round without me peering over your shoulder.”

“Well, if you don’t mind . . .”

“I do not. Off you go. I’ll be in my office if you have any questions.” According to her niece, Bea Walton managed property for absentee owners. Her office was at the far end of the apartment and could be reached by a separate door from the outside corridor—lofty ceiling, broad stairs, and a creaking old elevator—or from what she referred to as the drawing room. Imagine, Annie Kendall from Brooklyn living in a place with a drawing room. Not that there was anything particularly grand about the flat. Shabby chic, more like, with an air of things having been in place for many years. Settled. Sturdy. Comfortable. In other words, perfect. She took the papers from the onetime English rose and turned left, starting down the long hall that formed the apartment’s spine.

Old sketches and drawings lined the walls, along with two nineteenth-century gilt-framed mirrors that reflected wavy, mercurous images. A mahogany half-moon table held a vase of vivid yellow tulips; another, a few feet farther along, a lighted lamp. Each formed a small oasis of brightness in the dim passage. Annie’s trained eye—she was an architectural historian—made it fifty-two feet, give or take six inches. Except for a big old-fashioned bathroom, all the rooms opened off the Southampton Row side. The first door led to Mrs. Walton’s bedroom. Annie peeked inside. Two suitcases were open on the bed, and an ironing board had been set up in front of a small TV.

Next came the second bedroom, the one that would be hers. The day before—fresh off the plane from New York—she’d registered little other than a remarkable black and white mural made up of tiny overlapping pen and ink scenes of London, a helter-skelter riot that covered one entire wall. “Painted by a man named Stephen Fox,” Mrs. Walton said. “He lived here alone until he died. Got run over in one of London’s last pea-souper fogs, poor thing. I know his art is a bit odd, but we liked it, so we always decorated around it.” Annie liked it too, but the amount of detail was dizzying, like a Where’s Waldo? illustration.

She turned her back on the mural and looked at the rest of the bedroom. There was a bed covered in an old-fashioned crewelwork spread, a night table, a chest of drawers, an armoire, and a chair. Everything was pleasant and comfortable and inviting. Soothing enough, she decided, so she should be able to sleep despite facing the frenzied mural. She stepped back into the hall, closing the door firmly behind her.

A small dining room came next, and off it, a recently modernized kitchen. The apartment’s long passage then made a sharply angled left turn and extended another eight or so feet to a small bedroom that had probably originally been intended as a maid’s room.

She really must still be jet-lagged. She’d been wandering and gawking, trying to imagine herself living in these spaces, and forgotten she was meant to be checking the inventory. She’d have to do a second pass.

Annie opened the door to the small back bedroom. Double bed, six-drawer chest, desk, two lamps, and assorted books and decorative objects, according to the list.

She was looking at none of that.

Gloria Patri, et Filio, et Spiritui Sancto.” A monk intoned the words while bent over in profound reverence. “Sicut erat in principio,” he chanted as he stood upright and looked, not at the book in his hands, but at the crucifix on the wall in front of him. “Et nunc, et semper, et in saecula saeculorum. Amen.” Bright sun shone through the window at his side, illuminating him in a broad shaft of light. His habit was pure white; everything around him neutral. The only contrast was the ruff of dark hair that circled his shaved head in the ancient cut known as tonsure.

The monk closed the book and swung around to face her. He smiled.

Annie slammed the door.

She turned, instinctively searching for a witness. The short length of hall was empty. She walked to the corner and looked down the long corridor all the way to the drawing room, or living room, or whatever it was to be called. Nothing. No one. The only sound was a radio playing softly, apparently from Bea Walton’s office at the flat’s far end.

Annie turned, walked back to the little bedroom, and pressed her ear against the door. Total silence. She reached for the doorknob.

Double bed, six-drawer chest, desk, two lamps, and assorted books and decorative objects—precisely as promised. Small, but two windows, so nice cross ventilation. The light they afforded was dim. It was late afternoon, cloudy, threatening rain, as it had been when she arrived. No sunlight.

And no monk.

For a fleeting moment, she considered backing out of everything. The job, the apartment. The whole deal.

Absurd. This assignment was—at least for her—the chance of a lifetime. Besides, she didn’t believe in ghosts.

Mrs. Walton took the check. Both women signed the inventory and the rental agreement. The keys to number eight Bristol House changed hands. As of the next day, the flat was Annie’s for three months.



The Two Princes Hotel on Gower Street was a stone’s throw from Bristol House on Southampton Row. It boasted charming and tasteful rooms designed to appeal to the sort of tourists who wanted to be close to nearby London University or the British Museum. In New York, looking at the pictures on the hotel’s Web site, Annie had thought the rooms likely to be claustrophobically small, but it hadn’t seemed to matter, since she was only going to be there for two nights. Now, given that her two large bags took up much of the tiny amount of floor space, there was no room to dispel her nervous energy by pacing. She stood instead in the narrow gap between the bed and her luggage, hearing still the ancient Latin words, and her heart seemed to be beating in time to rhythms she’d first heard kneeling beside her father in some monastery he’d taken his family to visit.

Such excursions were a feature of her childhood. John Kendall had been a noted scholar of church history. Maybe that’s why Annie’s academic specialty became late Renaissance England, specifically the vernacular buildings of London in the time of the Tudors. Her doctoral dissertation had been titled The Effect of Protestant Iconoclasm on Sacred Doorway Decoration in Tudor England, 1537–1559. It was an investigation of the almost-instant disappearance of crucifixes and pictures of saints and the Virgin Mary from outside private houses after Henry VIII broke with Rome. The examining committee had accepted her work with “special commendation.”

Gloria Patri, et Filio . . .

She remembered pressing her face against the scratchy tweed of her father’s jacket, and the way he always smelled of tobacco. And she was quite sure he was the first person ever to put a pencil in her hand. “Draw something, Annie. Draw whatever you see.”

She unzipped the outside pocket of one of the cases, withdrew a pad of paper and a pencil, and began to sketch. As a historian of architecture rather than a practitioner, Annie didn’t require meticulous draftsman’s skills. Her talent was for quick sketches, workmanlike and accurate. They conveyed the whole picture, mood rather than infinite detail of cornices and lintels. And as so often happened, once she began to draw, she remembered more than she recalled having observed.

In quick, sure strokes, a world took shape on the page—three views of the white-robed monk bathed in sunshine. In the first, he bowed before the crucifix; in the second, she drew what she’d seen after he stood up. His back was to her in both of those. The third sketch was her last sight of him, the most unsettling, the one where he turned to face her and beamed a smile of welcome. The background was the same in all three, a room simple to the point of austerity. A prie-dieu—one of those individual kneelers frequently seen in churches—stood beneath the crucifix. To the monk’s left was a small stool, beside a table holding an open book, as if he’d been studying before he broke off to say his prayers. His cowl, the hood typical of so many monastic habits, was thrown back, and he was bare-headed.

Then, in another series of quick sketches on a separate page, where once more her pencil seemed to know more than she did, Annie caught his features. In profile first, so the shaved top of his head, the tonsure, showed. Another, straight on. Thin face, high chiseled cheekbones, the nose maybe a bit too large. Definitely good-looking, but kept from being too much the pretty boy by a strong chin with a sharp cleft.

She finished the last drawing and flipped through all of them, trying to see what exactly she had created. Pictures of a monk who appeared, then disappeared, in a place that did not look in the least like where she’d seen him.

She shivered. The commonsense explanation, that she’d imagined the entire episode, that her mind manufactured the details in her drawings, was terrifying.

Annie put down the pencil and returned the sketchbook to the suitcase. Four hours later—when according to her internal clock it was eight p.m., though it was one in the morning London time—she got up, dug out the sketchbook, and put the date and time on each drawing.



Praise for Bristol House
 
“An intricately woven plot with voices from the past give Swerling’s latest historical thriller an otherworldly aura.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“Swerling adds a paranormal dimension to her latest novel, interweaving narratives set in contemporary and Tudor London. . . . Elements of romance, religious mythology, cultism, and the supernatural abound as this genre-blending thriller stretches back and forth through time to a suitably dramatic denouement.”
—Booklist
 



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