Lena ran through the forest as the rain poured. The trees were like a blur as she ran barefoot through the thicket. Her ruffled, white dress stuck to her body and her dark hair was plastered on her dark skin. She was drawn to a mysterious sound that bashed a haunting melody through the cloudy night. Lena headed in the direction of the eerie composition until she saw where it was coming from. She stopped and listened. It was the harmony of a pipe organ coming from an imposing, gothic manor on a windswept peninsula high above the bellowing sea in the distance. It was then that Lena saw a glowing light. Without hesitation, Lena sped towards it until she reached the entrance. The music had stopped and the light was out. She looked behind her before opening the door and stepping inside.
The young woman wandered through the hallway leaving a damp trail of water behind her. Her cold feet sunk into the red carpet as she walked into the living room. She was drawn to the fireplace, which crackled and spat orange and red flames. There was a chair facing the fire. It was an enormous, wooden chair. Lena could hear steady breathing coming from the other side of the chair. She paused before creeping around and taking a peak of who was sitting on it.
It was a man. And the man was asleep. She moved so that she was facing him. He was dressed in a black suit with a white cravat. His translucent skin glowed from the fire and his dark hair shimmered from the light of the chandeliers. Lena yawned and stretched out her arms before she got another chair and moved it in front of the fireplace. She curled up and fell asleep.
Hours later she woke to the sound of crashing thunder. The rain pelted against the windows and the wind howled. Presently, she heard the sound of the fire being kindled. She turned and saw the large chair was empty. Instead, the nobleman was kindling the fire with his back to her. She rubbed her eyes and saw that she was now covered with a thick, white quilt decorated with an assortment of hand-stitched roses. Lena watched as the gentleman turned slowly and sat back down in his chair. She sat up and faced him. Her brown eyes were wide open and her eyebrows rose while the man’s eyes remained vacant and his lips formed a thin line.
“Who are you my dear?” he asked.
“My name is Lena,” she replied.
“And whom were you running from?”
Lena simply stared at him. His deep-set eyes suddenly lit up like the flames from the fireplace. “You had to be running from somewhere. Why else would a fair one such as you be out in the middle of the night?”
“From no one, sir,” she replied. She was afraid of telling the truth in case he decided to cast her back outside in the rain.
“Do you know who I am?” he asked. Lena shook her head. “I am Lord George Astley. No, no!” he added as she made a move to stand up. “There is no need for such formalities now that we have become… acquainted.”
Lena was speechless. Lord Astley spoke again. “Well, Lena from nowhere, I supposed you must be hungry from your travels?”
The young lady nodded. Lord Astley got up and walked over to a large table on which there was a silver tea set. Lena watched him as he brought the tray over and set it on a little table in front of them. He poured the tea carefully into tiny cups. She eyed some pastries on a china plate and he gestured for her to take one. She quickly grabbed one and bit into it. Jam spilled onto her fingers, which she licked off before taking another bite. He smiled as he watched her chomping on another piece.
After a while, he suggested they retire for the night. “Come,” he said. “I will show you where you can sleep.
He led her up a spiral staircase to the next floor. “My room is on the above floor. This however,” he said as he opened the door and turned back towards her. “Is where you can stay…” His voice trailed off as he looked at her. He smiled before adding, “You will find some clothes that you may change into in the cupboard if you wish. They belonged to my… ah, you are a welcome guest here. Good night.”
* * *
She awoke in the afternoon the next day. She got out of bed and walked over to the window from which she could see the roaring ocean. Something caught her eye and she looked closer at the highest rock only to realize it was the Lord Astley! He was wearing dark clothes again with a coal-black cloak that flapped in the wind. She gazed at him in wonder and became lost in her own private world until he suddenly turned around and looked up at the window. Lena jumped back and her cheeks reddened. She went to the cupboard and found a long, grey dress. She also grabbed a shawl of similar color. When she went back to look out the window again, she saw that he had gone.
She thought about what to do next. Should she go and find him or should she sit and wait for him to come back inside? She finally decided on the latter as she headed for the sitting room where she had seen him for the first time the night before. Now the chair was empty and she sat alone by the fire and pondered the many questions that were on her mind. What had he been gazing at so intently as he looked out into the cold sea? Lena was again lost in her thoughts that she did not hear him when he entered the room. She almost jumped out of her skin when she looked up and saw him looking down at her. Again, he had that vacant look in his eyes and his countenance was autographed with a frown. He sat opposite her and looked at her as her gaze shifted to the fire. Her face shone as the flames hiccupped and spat within the fireplace.
It was Lord Astley who finally broke the silence.
“So, my dear, where are you from?”
“From the wilderness.”
“Who were your parents? Did no one raise you?”
“My parents died when I was young... My father was a poet, my mother was a dancer, she…” Lena’s voice trailed off and she turned away.
“Do go on,” he said. “Nothing you say will change anything.”
She turned back towards him and searched his face. His eyes had softened and were illuminated by the flickering flames. Yet, she remained silent.
“Very well,” he said. “But do tell me, how did you survive in the wilderness – who raised you there?”
She looked at him. Her eyes seemed misty as she reminisced. “The sun, the moon, the wind, the trees, the stars… the wolves…”
“Yes, they became my allies, my only friends…”
* * *
That night Lena was woken in the middle of the night to the haunting sound of the pipe organ that she had heard only the night before. She sat up in bed, haunted by the notes spilling out and piercing through the darkness.
She got up and decided to investigate. Though she had come nearer to where the sound was coming from, Lena lost her way through a maze of corridors. She wandered around aimlessly through several hallways and flights of stairs until she found that she was running around in circles. Suddenly, she heard something as it crept through the hallway and she stopped dead in her tracks. Then, from out of nowhere, something jumped out of the darkness and onto her shoulder. She screamed until she discovered that the mysterious creature was only a cat! It hissed at her before the little beast leapt from her shoulder and scurried off down the hallway. She ran after it and hoped it would lead her out of the labyrinth of halls and staircases.
She followed the black cat all the way down to the sitting room where she stopped and watched the animal as it scurried into the room and jumped up onto the Lord Astley’s chair. She had not noticed that the music had ceased and a strange feeling encompassed her entire being as she wondered if he was actually sitting in the chair. Slowly, she crept into the room and approached the chair as quietly as possible. She trembled slightly and her hands shook as she thought about what she was going to discover.
She touched the back of the chair like she was touching something sharp. She walked around and saw him in his chair as he gently stroked his cat. She looked at him, half filled with fear and half with relief as he gazed back at her. His long lashes drooped and his lips were a thin line.
Lena yearned to ask where the disturbing music came from but dared not for there was something in his eyes that made her think twice. Instead, she decided to tell him once and for all who she was and why she had sought refuge in his manor. Lord Astley’s eyes widened and he cocked his head to one side as he listened to her story.
“I lived in a small village with my parents and little sister – her name is Rosa. But the other villagers despised us because my mother was a gypsy. So, they burned our house down…” Lena turned away for she did not want him to see the tears in her eyes.
He did not say a word. Instead, he simply nodded and his eyes were filled with warmth. He continued to stroke the cat for some time before he got up, touched her cheek gently and walked quietly out of the room. Too tired to go back to her room, Lena simply curled up on the chair with the cat and fell asleep by the fire.
* * *
The next morning, she decided to try and discover who he was. She had told him her story. Why then, had he not told her his and revealed the hidden secrets that she could tell were troubling him?
She wandered up the stairs to the third floor and as she walked through the hallway. She stopped at the last door on the left and was amazed at what she discovered behind the door. By the far wall was a four-poster bed of royal purple and blue. There was a painting of a young woman with a long, flowing dress. Lena wondered who she was. Lena was so engrossed in her little discovery that she did not notice the presence of another behind her. As she looked up into the mirror, she saw the imposing figure of Lord Astley and wondered how long he had been standing there for as she whirled around and faced him.
“Did your parents not raise you to keep out of other people’s affairs?” he shouted.
Lena gasped in shock before she gathered her skirts and fled from the room.
“Wait! Lena! Wait! I beg you – do not leave! Lena! Lena!”
She did not pay any attention to his calls as she ran down the flight of stairs and out of the castle. She ran back to the thicket, sought shelter under some shrubbery and fell asleep in exhaustion. She awoke at dusk to the familiar sound of the pipe organ that once again came from the manor. Lena felt as though her heart was being torn in two, yet she knew that she had to return, not only because she was alone and cold but also because of another feeling in her heart that was new to her, an emotion that she did not understand. She ran back to the castle and dashed back up to her room. She then crawled into bed and listened to the ghoulish music until it ceased around midnight.
* * *
She rose slowly the next morning, exhausted from the events of the previous day. Once she was dressed, she crept down the stairs and wandered outside the enormous courtyard with its massive garden and elaborate statues. From where she stood in the center of the stone path, she could view the ocean with waves that roared and lashed against the shore. Straight ahead of her she saw a majestic monument with an angel at its pinnacle. She wanted to weep as she read the engraved script that she saw at the base of the statue which read: In loving memory of Lord Gabriel and Lady Serena Astley and their daughter Lady Mary-Alice. Beloved parents and sister of Lord George Astley.
She looked up slowly as she came to fit the missing pieces of the puzzle in her mind. He had lost his entire family! It was then that she again felt the presence of another and as she whirled around she came face to face again with Lord Astley. He looked down at her, this time his visage revealed all the pain that had tormented his soul since he had experienced this terrible loss.
“Picture this my dear… a dark and stormy night… we were at sea my entire family and I. Only hours before the weather was calm and mild and it seemed like a pleasant day for sailing. My father had reservations about going – he was good at sensing things. But I insisted! Oh, I was but an arrogant youth of one and twenty! My own stubbornness was my family’s downfall! Now I know that I have been cursed for I survived and they were lost at sea. Oh, how I have suffered here all alone for a decade in my tormented, empty abode! I sent the servants away for I could not face anyone… everyone and everything reminded me of my folly…”
Lena looked at him for some time before she spoke. “You were only a young man, sir,” she whispered. “It was a miracle that you survived – not a curse.”
Lord Astley looked at her for a moment and he held out his hand, which she took before he stood up and gently led her back inside. There was something in his touch that caused a new sensation to stir within her. Yet, both said little more that day. What more was there to say now that both of their secrets had been revealed? Yet, neither could deny their growing attraction for each other as the weeks went on and as such they made sure to carefully avoid each other for neither could face losing another loved one again.
As Lena lay in bed one night and listened to his skilful playing which drowned out the sound of the rain that pelted against the bedroom window, she pondered the question of whether or not she should remain with him in the manor. She could not bring herself to leave him and yet she knew that she could not stay here forever! Lena waited until the music stopped playing before she changed back into her frilly, black dress and crept out of the room, down the stairs and out of the manor. The rain had stopped and she crept along the peninsula like a nun only to be met at the end by Lord Astley himself! It was as though he had anticipated her departure.
“You were going to leave me?” he cried. “You were going to leave on this wretched, wretched night without… saying goodbye?”
Lena stood before him motionless. The ocean crashed mercilessly and the wild and gusty wind blew through her thin dress and long, dark tresses. She was unable speak because he was right. She had intended on leaving him without telling him for she did not want to reveal the yearning for him from her heart.
“Lena, do not leave… please my dear – I entreat you to stay…”
“I cannot stay, sir… I must go…”
She turned away but he took her by the arm and went on. “The music… I gather you have already guessed… it was I. I had not played a note since my family’s death until several nights ago when you came upon my doorstep… my music – it brought you to me! Lena!” he exclaimed and took her in his arms. “Lena… I dream about you every moment of the day and every moment of the night. You are like the sun, the moon and the stars… I entreat you to stay. I beseech you! Stay! Become my wife and stay with me forever…With all that I have and all that I am I promise to give to you my little friend.”
She looked up at him and saw that he was in earnest. His eyes were no longer filled with despair but love and passion.
“I loved you from the first moment that I saw you opposite me in that chair by the fire… you are everything that I have longed for and believed that I would never be allowed to have… because… because of…” His voice trailed off and he could not go on. Instead, he cupped her tiny face in his hands and stroked her hair softly. She did not stop him or try to stop him when he took her in his arms. “Lena,” he whispered. “Lena, I implore you… my beloved, my darling, accept me as your husband. I shall give you and your family refuge. Just say you will be mine!”
Lena looked up at him and nodded. “Yes, George,” she said.
George kissed her before taking her hand and leading her back to the castle.