Evil behind the mask – curse or fate?

Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy…

                 Be grateful for what you have!

 

“Behind the Noble Mask Lurks Evil?” 

By Stephen James

 

                We all love a juicy tale of tyrants or martinets and their downfalls, don’t we? Well, if the fingers of your mind are well lubricated – slip your mental hand into this five-pronged glove of an anecdote! The theme is in fact based upon the skeleton of a true story, but I have nitro-injected it somewhat for your folk-law reading pleasure…

Commodore Richard Connachtie stood watching as the last remaining vines were being judiciously planted in their soldier-like rows. Each gnarly-looking trunk had already felt the sun’s glare for well over one-hundred and fifty summers, albeit in the south-eastern French valley of the northern Rhône district. Carefully removed and transported to the ideal stony granite soils which surrounded his newly-erected castle, overlooking the Hawkes Bay cliffs of New Zealand’s north island, here and now, in 1861, they could flourish and yield him his premier wine of choice. That deep rich red being Syrah or Shiraz to some. The bay was named by Captain James Cook in honour of Admiral Edward Hawke who decisively defeated the French at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759. The irony of a British ex-naval statesman planting French grapevines here was simply a coincidence, but the outcome of Richard’s story is far from a simple one. His elaborate twenty-four bedroom castle had taken fifteen years and a crew of thirty-five skilled tradesmen to erect. This massive acreage had been secured for a song, via the fledgeling country’s Native Settler and Land Purchase Commissioner Sir Donald McLean. (The land alone would be worth very many millions of dollars in today’s money). Richard turned his gaze to his castle’s reaching solid stone walls, complete with battlements, and stroked the goatee section of the bold musketeer moustache which bridled his weak lower jaw. Nature had exchanged him a handsome face for a plain uneventful one; the trade had left him with courage. This valour had left him with a slight limp. Time had made him wealthy. He felt good inside…

In an act of chivalrous ego during October of 1861, Commodore Connachtie carried his new young bride of just twenty-one years across the castle’s threshold, much to her delight. A wedding of Biblical proportions had just eclipsed in the grounds of Connachtie Castle. He was at the maturing age of forty-seven years and desperately required a sired male offspring to carry on the family name, along with the inheritance of his fortune – gathered from astute investments throughout his peppered and well-travelled life. The young woman glared up at the towering vaulted ceilings as her piercing green eyes swept through the massive structure’s confines en route to his boudoir. Her name was Beth Murdoch, eldest daughter of a politician from the capital city Napier and she had never before set eyes inside the Gothic-styled building until now. The one-hundred and eighty-five guests were left drinking at their tables as the long shadows of dusk settled on the exterior stone walls. Beth’s two younger sisters, all still virgins, just as she was, sat amongst the gentry pondering their own futures.

Within seven years the Connachtie clan had swollen to become a family of eight. All was good except for one factor– the Scottish descendant had become surrounded by seven females. Frustration had eked its way into Richard’s heart from Beth’s failure to bare him a son. Though the ruddy-faced landowner loved his six daughters immensely, especially the twins, his once-gallant shoulder-length Cavalier locks and facial hair were now greying with despair. Richard began spending long hours locked high up in the turret which enjoyed captivating views over his vineyard – an area of the castle forbidden to Beth’s audience. From here, through his trusted brass spyglass, the retired seadog could observe his bulging Syrah vines, plump from regular seasonal rain and painstakingly groomed by Jônuet Du Mauriér, his Belgian wine-master. The servants became concerned about Connachtie’s health and his General Practitioner began to make more frequent unannounced visits. Dr Royce Chancellor was as much a family friend as their doctor, having delivered all the offspring as well as saving Beth’s life when a bout of pneumonia threatened to take her away. The foolish fair-skinned young woman had wandered off to the property’s far end to search for solace at her favourite viewing spot near the cliff-faces of Hawkes Bay to watch the hordes of nesting gannets. There, clad in little other than a silken dress, her flesh and raven tresses had quickly become saturated from an unleashing freak storm which chanced upon her as she wept incessantly from the wounds of her husband’s invectives. His tirades bore deep scars into her soul…

Another non-pregnant year evaporated, leaving the couple passionless other than during their workmanlike endeavours to fulfil his dream.

At last… a son was born late in the year of 1870. Jubilant Richard seemed to become reinvigorated with his zest for life. A huge garden-party was organized to celebrate the occasion, drawing guests from all parts of New Zealand’s north island. Dignitaries funnelled in to share copious goblets of Connachtie Castle Gold-label Hermitage Syrah and view the newborn brat. Unfortunately, with them came a dreaded strain of influenza, taking the three-month-old baby’s lifeblood within four days. The Commodore was struck with desolation and sank into a depression lasting nine months. He spoke only at mealtimes to Beth throughout this period, during which she hardly ate from the lavish spread of food their staff had prepared on a daily basis. As the days ground away, her weight diminished. Beth’s next eldest sister, Jean, was summoned in to care for her nieces. Having been close to the family, she was the obvious choice to play the role of surrogate mother. On Friday 2nd December 1871 Lady Bethania Connachtie drew her terminal breath – she was just thirty-one years and four months of age. Dr Royce Chancellor assessed her body but found no diseases, infections or illness, declaring that she had perished from a besotted broken heart.

A second, albeit somewhat smaller wedding saw the coming together of Jean and Richard, within six months of Beth’s passing. The retired Commodore justified it as a natural progression of events, warning the rumour-mongers to hush their mouths or be subsequently waylaid. He’d overheard several kitchen-staff members talking of discriminate observations, including Jean’s frequent visits to the turret to share his appreciation for the grapes, for many years. Fair-haired Jean, although four years her junior, had stood three inches taller than her sister, Beth. She was a high-spirited woman whose good-looks spurred her outgoing nature like paraffin on a fire. Within two years of marriage to the ageing Richard, she had him wrapped tightly around her contriving ring finger. No longer did she pay lengthy visits to his observation turret – much to the dismay of the now silent, however, still uncertain about her loyalties, castle staff members. Much of their discussion revolved around night-time eeriness and strange sightings. Many claimed that they could hear noises along the castle walls resembling the cries of a distressed woman. Little did Jean realize that in her haste to cocoon her wealthy prey, she had inadvertently signed a prenuptial agreement, along with her certificate of marriage. The cleverly worded clause, compiled in a text way beyond her scholarly abilities spoke of disqualifying her from any part of his fortune, if she failed to produce a son. He had told her it was the deeds to his land and her name needed to be added. Betrayed by her own captivating-looks, the beauteous young woman had signed with a scramble. Time moved on…

In a bizarre turn of events, despite the expectations of the proud Jônuet Du Mauriér, the vintages of 1872, 1873 and 1874 were disastrous. Unfit for bottling, barrel after barrel of the repulsive, shellac-tasting, burgundy vinegar had to be hauled off to be donated to the wharf workers down at the Port of Napier. Many fell ill from their own greed.

For exasperated Richard Connachtie, the year of 1874 turned from black to gold, when at long last he stared into the eyes of a baby boy on 16th August. Little did the self-proclaimed ‘Sovereign of Hawkes Bay’ realize that this child was not of his blood-line. The elusive golden-haired Jean had begun an illicit affair with the ruggedly handsome gatekeeper, Morris Hokkapinni Johnson. Johnson was a half-cast Māori with exquisite horsemanship skills, whose job it was to escort Lady Jean into town down the winding mountain roads of gravel. He steered her private single-horse-drawn-vehicle with the precision of a surgeon. Trusted by Richard, the broad-shouldered, coffee-coloured, mild-mannered employee fell victim to her advances. So pale were the features of the immoral wench that the newborn’s complexion bore little evidence to suggest it not to be of Connachtie’s spawn. The ingratiated nobleman’s ego powered him on to splurge gifts of opulence for his fair young wife. Her crocodilian cheating smile eluded any inkling of suspicion. Until once again disaster struck the estate, when, during the harsh winter of 1875, a rare-for-the-area snowfall dumped sufficient deposits in the higher country to cause a mini-avalanche. At the time, her Ladyship was travelling to the secret lodgings in town, where her romantic interlude with Johnson continued. Over a million tons of freezing snow swept her sulky off the side of the twisting road, killing her and her lover. At the time, Morris’s hands were clutching the reins and her arms were draped around his waist. The horse miraculously survived, pulled to freedom by a witnessing passer-by. Coincidentally, Lady Jean was also thirty-one at the time. When word reached the castle, the Connachtie children bore unsympathetic grins, as did many of the estate’s workforce. Sixty-one-year-old Richard felt the strangling arms of a gremlin’s choke around his throat and convinced himself that a back-up heir was necessary. He had begun to take notice after overhearing some parlour-gossip, that Richard II, whose one-year-old eyes were nothing like his own, also the boy’s flesh was smooth and olive in hue, also not like his own. A replacement wife had to be found – one not from the blood-stock of Beth Murdoch or her sister Jean, these women he proclaimed as the jinx to his welfare. After climbing the narrow spiral staircase upward to his turret, where he brooded in selfish pity, Commodore Connachtie, head muddled with embarrassment, decided that the search for a suitable match must begin at once…

Richard sent his daughters across the Tasman Sea to gain an elite education in the thriving colony of Australia. There they would be safe and out of his way. By 1876 his plight was in full swing. Far too vain to accept anything other than a beautiful virgin, all his energy became devoted to the sub-thirty-year-old aristocratic ladies-in-waiting, who had frequented his previous garden-parties. Care of Richard II was palmed off to Eliza Murdoch, the third-in-line sister, and still a spinster. This selfless woman had offered her services, along with permitting him to be as promiscuous as he pleased, and was more than agreeable to any prenuptial agreement but Richard would hear nothing of it, for fear of the Murdoch scourge. Pressure resulting from the express rising costs of the building’s upkeep mounted like pigeon poop. This, coupled with the children’s schooling costs affected his mind. Assets began to be sold off to offset living costs. Months drifted by without the addled ex-Naval officer being able to select a suitable life-partner. Before any had the chance to offer him anything that remotely resembled love, he had them plotting to get their hands on what remained of his rapidly-shrinking finances.

Eliza would stand for hour upon hour in the main foyer – arms clasped around her nephew, listening to the haunting whispers of her sisters. At the end of another arduous day of potential wooing, frustrated Richard would storm in through the enormous double-entry doors; after which, he would verbally abuse her and then covertly persuade her into his four-posted brass bed. To keep the peace, humble-natured Eliza forestalled his autocratic desires with little objection. On a sexual basis, the hobbling, maladroit, Scottish descendent repulsed her but her sense of moral responsibility overrode her personal tastes. Eliza’s eyes were on the young son of her deceased sister, and she was privy to Jean and Morris’s love-affair, right from the beginning. All three sisters had been very close. Eliza had no need for gold-digging either, her ailing father, Senator Horace Murdoch had already told her that he had bequeathed his family estate to her – his sole remaining heir. She would be well taken care of when he passed. The politician had squirrelled his adequate salary away in stocks and bonds after sadly losing his own wife, Jayne, to a heart attack at the age of fifty-two. Eliza’s time was shared between toing-and-froing between her father’s upmarket house in Napier and Connachtie Castle.

By the time Richard’s sixty-third birthday had slipped by without so much as a formal evening dinner, he had given up his attempts to secure a new bride. His state of mental stability was on the rocks and he preferred chasing wildfowl with a shotgun around his surrounding estate, to chasing women forty years his junior around town. Eliza fit the role of secretly applying sexual gratification (along with a procession of the town’s well-paid prostitutes) without threatening his dwindling fortune. They had a convenient agreement, whereby the boy was kept at the opposite end of the castle, told how busy the man whom he believed to be his father always was, and only permitted to visit when formally asked.

One summer’s day in February, three-year-old Richard II climbed the spiralling hardwood stairs and entered the private turret. He wanted to get closer to his maligned father. This was a terrible mistake. Just tall enough to reach the unbolted brass door handle, he pulled the lever down. When the oak door slammed against the wall, the toddler was confronted by an angry Richard senior, in a very embarrassing pose with one of his ladies-of-the-night. In a flash of demented rage, he swooped upon the child and cast the infant down the winding hardwood timber staircase which led to the turret – killing him instantly. The naked whore ran down to try to save the boy but his skull was in disarray. Panic-stricken Richard leapt from the turret window to his own death. A very black day in the castle’s history. He left behind his seed in Eliza’s womb without knowledge. In September of that year, a baby boy was born to her. She named him Morris and blessed him with the Murdoch surname…

The freshly-educated children returned from Australia, having still never soiled their hands from hard work, only to find a very different Connachtie Castle awaiting them. The sprawling vineyards were like a hundred acres of unkempt hair. Many staff members had left. The building had fallen into a state of disrepair and steadily the magnificent furnishings had been auctioned to cover running costs. A bitter succession of legal battles for the rights of ownership wrangled for decades. The lawyer’s fees began to cripple the Connachtie siblings. Having been supported totally by their father’s dowry all of their lives, the daughters were clueless to the workforce’s requirements. Finally, after the turning of the century, a compromise was settled upon with the sale of the estate to none other than Eliza Murdoch. The aspiring middle-aged woman had managed to educate herself after the sad passing of her father, Horace. She had prospered magnificently with his handed-down shares and real estate portfolio. Now as a fully-fledged geothermal engineer, she became highly acclaimed in the scientific research department, helping map and predict earthquakes on both the north and south islands. Eliza opened the castle up to care for orphans and mistreated children. Generously financing the entire operation personally, she left its organization in the very capable hands of her one and only son, Morris, sired by Richard. Our story does not end there…

Eliza had taken the uneducated jezebel under her wing after the black day in February 1877. She sent the woman off to a succession of special mature learning classes where she developed accounting skills with honours. After meeting a dapper young man from Auckland in 1880, she married and gave birth to five successive sons. Young Morris ended up marrying the prostitute’s only daughter who had been born several years later. Together they ran the orphanage. By the turn of the next century, the much-seasoned stone structure had more stories to tell than William Shakespeare.

In 2004, the Murdoch family’s progenies donated the entire estate to the New Zealand national Trust and it is now simply a tourist attraction – with a female ghost called Beth, who skirts its cold sandstone walls in the evenings, calling for Richard…

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