I’m very excited to be bringing you all an exclusive extract of The Secret Combe, published by Scribe and now available to buy! Here’s a teaser of Thomas Maloney’s exquisite new novel to whet your appetites and pique your curiosities! First, let me set the scene:
Samuel Browne’s wife has left him suddenly after three years of marriage. She invites him to ‘go and live a better life without me’. He must start again, and alone. And so it is that Sam finds himself deep in the English countryside in a cold but characterful old house, remote and encircled by hills, in the employment and company of an older, wiser man, a man as fond of mystery as he is of enlightenment. What is the purpose of the seemingly hopeless task set for Sam in the house’s ancient library? What is the secret of the unused room? And where does a life lose its way or gain its meaning?
The combe is home to a truth born of fraud, a building made of light, and a family wrecked by recklessness: loss and love reverberate around the house and around the novel, providing pleasure, pain and purpose. Combe Hall is a house designed to honour and to enthral. And this very fine debut novel does exactly the same… So enjoy your exclusive extract, here!
“The smooth slabs of the bridge were slippery, and it was not until I reached the other side that I looked up into the mist before me: I drew an arrow of sharp air into my lungs as the first of my revelations of place found its mark.
The track ended at two stout columns that marked an opening in a very low, curved wall. Beyond this reared the front of a beautiful and ancient house, seen obliquely: I could faintly distinguish vast, mullioned windows of many lights, and three high gables loomed against the sky. In front of the house, to the left as I looked, there towered an enormous beech whose highest branches were lost in the mist. One mighty silver bough, a yard wide at its base, reached low towards the house for a great distance over a bare and moss-darkened expanse of gravel.
I walked through the gateway (there was no gate), gazing always up at the house as I approached. It was not as large as that first glance had painted it: two great windows to the left of the door and one even greater to the right, and these three repeated above with slightly reduced height, and again in a trio of much smaller windows in the gables.
The single oak door was fantastically wide though of modest height, shaped at the top in a low gothic arch that the branches over the bridge had neatly prefigured. Beside it grew the twisted trunk of an ancient Virginia creeper, whose tendrils spread a vast leafless web over the pale yellow stone, around the door and the window high above it. The doorstep was worn into a shallow curve, as though sagging under the weight of years.
I stopped before the step. The air carried a damp, mossy, wintry smell. The silence was broken by the long, hoarse scream of some unfamiliar bird in a distant treetop. The house, the beech and Sam Browne stood together in the mist: substantial in that otherwise ethereal morning — but they were ancient and majestic beside my clumsy insignificance, sure of themselves beside my doubt. With the reluctance of an intruder, I lifted the heavy iron knocker and let it fall twice. The sound seemed to wake me from my bewilderment: I stepped back, straightened myself and attempted an enthusiastic smile. After a long pause I heard a heavy latch being lifted and the door swung back to reveal the welcoming but unexpected figure of Miss Synder herself, whom I thought I had left in her cottage just a few minutes before.
‘Hello again,’ she said, now serious and businesslike, ‘and welcome to the combe.’ She ushered me into a large, dim entrance hall with a chequered stone floor that rang and swished beneath our feet like the floor of a church. The cold air was filled with the rich, sweet scent of pine, and, glancing upward, I saw a huge branch of that tree hanging in space above our heads. It was suspended from the banisters, slightly tilted from the horizontal like a huge hand raised in blessing (or warning, you are thinking, but it seemed optimistic). The only light was from a rectangular lantern window in the distant ceiling, which the branch largely obscured.
Miss Synder laid my coat over her arm and stepped into a deep, shadowy alcove on the left, which, from the sound of her softly knocking on it, evidently contained a door. A man’s voice said, ‘Come in,’ faintly, and Miss Synder stepped back into the hall, motioned me forward with a reassuring smile, and walked away across the flagstones to another door, through which she disappeared. With a flutter of apprehension in my stomach I stepped forward, felt around in the darkness for the round doorknob, turned it and entered the room beyond.
It was a square room, a study, with a towering ceiling and one of those spectacular front windows filling almost the whole of one wall and admitting a flood of pale light. There was a busy, newly-lit fire in the grate behind a heavy brass guard, and the wall facing me was a wall of books: several thousand, I suppose, on shelves that reached to the ceiling and to which a long, slender ladder was fixed on rails. A man rose from his chair behind a desk on which a few books and papers were neatly arranged, advanced round it and stood before me, gazing at me intently: this was Arnold Comberbache.
He was a man of about seventy, with smooth, taut skin, finely lined only around his eyes, and faintly speckled here and there with liver spots, like an autumn leaf that has turned gold but is still sound. The slightly drawn-back set of his mouth gave him a pained expression that, I was to discover, rarely left him — not physical pain, perhaps, but the pain of having made a mistake, of having to start some task over again. His white hair was combed neatly back, darkening to a steely grey at his collar. He wore a thick herringbone jacket over a pullover, shirt and tie — the fire could not hope to warm that absurdly high space.
I introduced myself and he seemed pleased, perhaps because I had a deceptively scholarly look, with my slim, angular face, steel spectacles and tightly curled hair, and the bulky green jumper knitted by my aunt.
I told him about finding his advertisement in Gibbon. ‘It had probably been on quite an adventure before it reached the Charing Cross Road,’ he said, chuckling, ‘since I left it, along with all the others, outside a charity shop not twenty miles from here. You will better appreciate my ruse, I hope, once I have explained the precise nature of the work.’
He rubbed his hands, in anticipation, perhaps, or to warm them. ‘M’Synder had her doubts,’ he added, wryly. ‘Did you not M’Synder?’ That industrious lady, who had just stumped in through the open door carrying a full coal scuttle, set it down by the fire, gave a sardonic smile without turning to her employer, and walked out, closing the door behind her.
‘You have an impressive library,’ I said. The doctor narrowed his eyes for a moment as if confused, then followed my gaze up to the packed shelves behind him, and smiled.
‘Yes, I’ve developed a rather acquisitive habit with books over the years,’ he said, and turned towards a second door opposite the window. ‘Unfortunately for you, all my ancestors did the same. Let me show you the seat of your labours.’ He pulled open the heavy door slowly and motioned me forward. So occurred the second of my revelations of place.”
I hope you enjoy the extract! Keep an eye out for my review of The Sacred Combe, coming as soon as I’ve finished it!