Christian Maxwell is used to being alone. A delicate and over-imaginative young man, he’s abandoned to his own devices and company in his family’s Wiltshire country home. When his aunt, concerned for his well-being, insists he accompany her to the Welsh Borders for a country house party in the autumn of 1816, Christian is resigned to being surrounded by people for the duration.
One particular guest, Sam Gillespie, is a handsome amateur scientist of a similar age to Christian who is determined to befriend him. When Sam persuades Christian to join him on an expedition to the scenic ruins of Tintern Abbey, they stumble across an isolated valley that contains a long-dead and sinister monastic force.
Their dreams are haunted by the spirit of the place, so the pair band together to find out the valley’s dark history, kindling their romance along the way. But their ghostly foe is more tenacious than they imagine. Can Christian and Sam manage to defeat the black monk and find lasting happiness?
“I was informed that there are visible remains of the Elizabethan wireworks and marks of quarrying around these hills,” Sam said with zeal.
Christian was entertained by Sam’s constant thirst for knowledge. Rather than feeling diminished or drained by Sam’s more forceful character, he fancied his endless energy was a positive influence.
“Are you up to carrying on a while further?” The hope in Sam’s voice was irresistible. Christian was only glad of his regular rambles on his family’s land, although the South Wiltshire countryside was not as dramatic or steeply inclined as the Welsh borders.
They carried on until the road dwindled into a lane. Eventually, it forked, the upper reach climbing towards a collection of scattered cottages, while the other branch skirted the hill on a more even gradient. They decided on the more level option, walking until Sam espied a rough path leading downhill.
“I’m sure we’ll find something interesting around here,” he said, thrashing ahead through the undergrowth. “Harris informed me that there are several abbey granges hereabouts. But I reckon that by now, I can distinguish monastic medieval from industrial Tudor.”
Rambling with such purpose might not be Christian’s first choice of spending a clement afternoon. But it would be churlish to complain since Sam had shown him every consideration. He also found Sam’s brand of enthusiasm hard to resist, even when dampened with temporary frustration that his goal proved elusive.
Then there was Sam’s unfailing civility. Instead of forging ahead, he constantly paused to hold a branch to stop it from springing back into Christian’s face or warned him of an approaching patch of slippery ground.
As a result, Christian was disposed to enjoy their interlude. Venturing on a quest with a gallant young man was an activity he usually pursued between the pages of a book.
He was unable to pinpoint exactly when his optimism started to wane. They headed downhill on the increasingly overgrown path into a small cleft that Sam was convinced held buried treasure or at least the remains of past industry. At first, Christian enjoyed his surroundings. The dappled sunshine through the sheltering trees, their leaves still green and plentiful, was a welcome accompaniment to the faint breeze that cooled their progress.
Similar to a headache or nausea, the unease came gradually as they descended the slope, unremarkable until it became a definable presence. The equivalent of a whiff of something foul, a forewarning of a nearby corpse of a recently dead animal. Christian hesitated, wondering if his imagination was playing tricks. Then he became conscious of the unearthly silence around him. An ominous heaviness now filled the air, unalleviated by birdsong or a breath of wind.
Christian’s senses were on high alert, telling him to stop, to turn back, to leave this place at once. Not wanting to lose sight of Sam through the scarcely visible track, clogged by the summer’s growth of grass, nettles and brambles, he continued reluctantly until his premonition reached screaming pitch. Every instinct forbade him to trespass further.
“Sam, stop. I think we’re heading the wrong way,” he called urgently, hoping his voice didn’t betray the extent of his desperation.
Obediently, Sam came tramping back towards him, wiping his brow with his shirt sleeve. Christian was so occupied with his searing panic that he barely noted how dashing his companion appeared, his coat removed and tied by its arms around his slim waist, his sleeves rolled up to reveal strong forearms, lightly dusted with dark hair.
“You’re probably right,” Sam said. “I reckon we’ve come too far downhill. If there is anything to be discovered, it’s probably an outpost of the old abbey rather than anything worthwhile.”
Christian’s trepidation started to abate at Sam’s willingness to concede. Seizing the initiative, Christian led the way uphill. At least their advance was eased by the path they had already trampled.
Sam’s words lingered in his mind. They had instantly summoned an image of the disused grange in the depths of the small valley. Unlike Tintern, which had filled Christian with peace, this emanation held disquiet, even menace.