Nicholas Darrow is a strong-willed and independent-minded man, full of the energy and assurance of his age and his moment in time—he is twenty-five in 1968. A magnet for attention and attraction, Nicholas is already beset by a troubled past, and expert at ignoring the grip it has on his life. But as he follows his father into the Anglican priesthood, his fascination with his own psychic powers results near-tragedy. It will only be by facing the truth about his relationship with his father that Nicholas can find his way out of the seemingly impenetrable darkness that engulfs him. . . .
Told with all the drama, intelligence, and emotional depth we have come to expect from Susan Howatch, Mystical Paths is a breathtaking novel about the powerful, often painful, but finally indestructible ties between parent and child. And like its four highly praised predecessors in the Church of England series, it is a novel that celebrates the redeeming power of self-knowledge and faith.
“Intelligent, compelling, and fascinating.”—The Cleveland Plain Dealer
About the Author
Susan Howatch was born in Surrey in 1940. After taking a degree in law she emigrated to America where she married, had a daughter and embarked on her career as a writer. When she eventually left the states, she lived in the Republic of Ireland for four years before returning to England. She spent time in Salisbury – the inspiration for her Starbridge sequence of novels – and now lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
“More than in the past, the young are striking out into intellectual independence and revolt against tradition.”
Archbishop of Canterbury, 1961–1974
I HAD JUST RETURNED FROM AN EXORCISM AND WAS FLINGING some shirts into the washing-machine when my colleague entered the kitchen. He was wearing his cassock and carrying a bottle of whisky. Beyond the window caked in city grime, sunlight blazed upon the battered dustbins in the backyard.
“How was the Gothic mansion haunted by the ravishing young ghost?”
“Non-existent. The trouble was in a council house where the previous occupant had overdosed on heroin in the lavatory.”
“Ah well, that’s 1988 for you … Drink?”
I declined but passed him a glass from the draining-board rack before I set the dials on the washing-machine. Meanwhile the electric kettle was coming to the boil. Absent-mindedly I reached for the teapot. “What’s new?”
“Absolutely nothing. A drunk disrupted the lunch-time Eucharist, the Gay Christians demanded that we stock their literature on AIDS, and some neurotic female from the Movement for the Ordination of Women threatened to picket the church unless you sacked me—oh, and talking of neurotic women, someone called Venetia telephoned twice to say she had to talk to you. She sounded like a nymphomaniac.” He drank deeply from his whisky before adding: “Now why should the name Venetia remind me of the 1960s?”
There was a silence broken only by the click of the kettle as it switched itself off. Then I said: “She was a friend of Christian Aysgarth’s.”
“Ah yes,” said my colleague, suddenly motionless. “The Christian Aysgarth affair. 1968. Crisis, chaos and the Devil on the loose.”
The phone rang. Moving to the extension, which hung on the wall by the dresser, I unhooked the receiver and said neutrally: “St. Benet’s Rectory.”
“Darling!” It was Venetia. “I thought I’d never get past that crusty old curate you keep!”
“He’s not my curate. He’s my colleague at the Healing Centre.”
“Well, chain him up somewhere—I can’t bear misogynists. Now darling, I know you were terribly sweet and madly keen that I should visit you for a little professional chat, but—”
“—you’ve got cold feet.”
“Slightly shivery, yes. When I awoke this morning I began to wonder if a Healing Centre was really quite my scene, and—”
“Nobody’s asking you to fall in love with it. Just think of it as a backdrop. I’m the scene.”
“Oh yes, lovely, simply too thrilling—but I can’t bear that word ‘counselling’—quite ruined by the 1980s—all those wild-eyed social workers descending like vultures on disaster-victims—”
“I’m neither wild-eyed, nor a social worker, nor a vulture, and I’m not going to counsel. I’m going to listen.”
“Oh, but I shall make a mess of talking—I make a mess of everything—I shall wind up totally speechless—”
“Fine. Then we can sit in silence and soak up the vibes.”
“Soak up the vibes! Oh Nick, how that phrase takes me back! Do you know it’s twenty years now—twenty years—since you came to see me about Christian? That mysterious quest of yours! You never did tell me the whole story, did you?”
“ ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’ ”
“No, don’t try and wriggle off the hook by quoting Wittgenstein! Look, let’s forget my visit to the Healing Centre—come and dine with me instead and tell me exactly what happened in 1968. I always found that official version curiously unsatisfactory.”
I realised it was time to take a firm line. “Sorry,” I said, “but I don’t dine out during the week and I’ve no intention of forgetting your promise to visit the Healing Centre. I’ll see you on Thursday at eleven as we arranged yesterday in Starbridge.”
“My dear, how masterful! Why is it I always find you so utterly impossible to resist?” said Venetia crossly, and hung up.
Turning my back on the phone I found that my colleague had made the tea for me. “That’s the only woman I’ve ever met,” I said, sitting down opposite him at the kitchen table, “who can instantly recognise a quotation from Wittgenstein.”
“She sounds extremely dangerous. Do be careful, Nicholas.”
I smiled at him. Then I drank my tea, stared, into space and mentally turned back the clock to 1968, that demonic year when I had become so obsessed by Christian Aysgarth.
FOR MOST OF 1968 I WAS TWENTY-FIVE; MY TWENTY-SIXTH BIRTHDAY fell on Christmas Eve. Buried in that first quarter-century of my life were the time-bombs which exploded in 1968—or perhaps it would be more accurate, though less colourful, to write: weaving through those first twenty-five years were the paths which eventually converged to lead me into the Christian Aysgarth mystery. The first path followed my convoluted relationship with my father. The second path followed my disastrous career as a psychic. And the third path followed my friendship with Marina Markhampton. By 1968 all three paths were running side by side—in fact they had become a three-lane motorway where the words “to hell” came up on all the signboards—but in the beginning hell was a long way off and Path Number One led through the idyllic landscape of my childhood.
I was brought up in the country near the city of Starbridge where my father worked at the Theological College in the Cathedral Close. When I was still in the nursery he had been appointed Principal, but he had not been required to live on the premises and I can remember watching him ride off on his bicycle to the station where he would take the train to Star-bridge, twelve miles away. If the weather was wet my mother insisted on giving him a lift in the Rolls, but he preferred to be independent. Born in the last century, he had never learnt to drive and he regarded travelling by Rolls-Royce as an inexcusable luxury for a priest. But then he became busier as the College Principal; soon the inexcusable luxury transformed itself into a time-saving necessity, and he stopped talking about the corrupting influence of the motor car.
I can just remember my mother’s old chauffeur, who died in 1946. The Rolls, which I can remember clearly, died—or rather, was retired with honour—in 1947. Those were the days of the Labour Government when the rich had to tighten their belts, so my mother economised by replacing the Rolls with a Bentley and not replacing the chauffeur at all.
My mother worked. That was very unusual in those days for someone of her class. She ran the Home Farm which formed part of her estate at Starrington Magna, and every morning she would drive away to her office. I would stand on the doorstep of our manor house with Nanny and wave goodbye. Naturally I had no idea what a privileged childhood I was having, and naturally I took my doting parents and my beautiful home for granted. Nanny tried to bring me up sensibly but I soon mastered Nanny. By the time I was five I had evolved into a miniature tyrant.
This unpleasant phase of my development was brought to an end when I was nearly expelled from kindergarten for fighting over a boiled sweet. I remember it as the first time my father actively intervened in my life. Before that he had merely appeared at intervals and enfolded me in unqualified approval. But now the approval was withdrawn.
All he said was: “This won’t do, Nicholas,” and when he looked me straight in the eyes I suddenly realised that no, it wouldn’t do at all because nothing was more important than that he should remain pleased with me. This insight in turn enabled me to articulate a truth which it seemed I had always known but had never been able to put into words. I said: “You’re magic. You keep the bad things away,” and as I spoke I knew that if he withdrew the protection of his magic anything might happen, anything, hobgoblins could haunt me, a witch could kidnap me, a monster could come down the nursery chimney and swallow me up. So I clutched the pectoral cross which my father always wore and I cried: “Save me from the Dark!”—a plea bizarre enough to alarm my mother, but my father merely wrapped his mind around mine to keep me safe, patted me on the head and said: “The word you want isn’t ‘magic’. It’s ‘psychic’ .”
I liked this word but my mother didn’t. She said sharply to my father: “Don’t put ideas into his head!” but my father answered: “They’re already there.”
“Nonsense!” said my mother, and when she abruptly walked out of the room I realised that “psychic” could be a dangerous word, risky, not acceptable by some people, definitely not a word to be used with no thought for the consequences.
I tried the word out on Nanny and received the firm response: “That’s not a nice word, dear, that’s peculiar, and we don’t have peculiar things in this nursery.”
At kindergarten we were asked to write a sentence about our parents, and burning with curiosity to test my teacher I wrote: “Mummy is a farmer and Father is a sykick who saves me from the Dark.” My teacher was appalled. In fact she was so disturbed that she even sent the composition to my mother, but my mother only commented briskly to me: “Silly woman! She might at least have taught you to spell ‘psychic’ correctly before she had hysterics.” And to my father she said: “I refuse to let Nicholas go peculiar. What’s all this rubbish about the Dark?”
“It’s his way of referring to malign psychic forces.”
“Well, I won’t have it, it’s bad for him, it’ll give him nightmares.”
“But my dear Anne, you can’t alter the way he sees and senses the world!”
A flash of intuition lit up my juvenile brain. “I’m psychic too,” I said triumphantly. “I’m just like Father!”
“Oh no, you’re not!” said my mother, magnificently normal, superbly sane. “One Jon Darrow is all I can cope with. Two would finish me off altogether!” Then before we could get upset she kissed him, hugged me and declared: “You’re Nicholas. You’re not ‘just like’ anyone. You’re you, your special self.” And to my father she concluded sternly: “No replicas.”
“I asked what a replica was, and after he had given me the definition my father said: “But of course your mother’s quite right and you must become not my replica but the special person God’s designed you to be.”
“Supposing God’s designed me to be exactly like you?”
“Impossible!” said my mother robustly. “That would be very boring for God—much more fun for him to create someone different. And Nicholas, while we’re talking of peculiar ideas, I think it would be very clever of you and much more grown up if you kept all psychic talk specially for your father, who understands such things. Other people don’t understand, you see, with the result that they become uncomfortable, and a true gentleman must always do everything he can to lessen the discomfort of others.”
I resolved to be a true gentleman.
And that was the beginning of my tortuous relationship with my father.