I thought you might be interested to hear about The Case of the Bishop’s Missing Head. Some years ago I came across the fact that Cardinal John Morton’s fine tomb in Canterbury was empty. I haven’t much time for Morton, who was one of King Henry VII’s advisors, and he wasn’t particularly flavour of the month among his contemporaries either. His policy was: if you flaunt your wealth, you can pay more tax, and if you are going round looking poor than you must be a miser and you can also pay more tax. It was nicknamed ‘Morton’s Fork’.
So why was the tomb empty? Well, Morton had been buried in a shallow grave in the cathedral crypt. During the English Civil War, the metal plate marking his grave was taken by the Roundheads for recycling as munitions, and the unprotected flagstones began to crack. By the reign of Charles II, people were pilfering Morton’s bones and the Archbishop of Canterbury’s’s nephew, Ralph Sheldon, suggested to his uncle that the skull should be removed and placed in a leaden box for safekeeping. By the 1680s, it had become a Sheldon family heirloom.
The skull seems to have ended up with a Jesuit college in Liège. The Sheldons, like many Roman Catholic families, had sent their sons overseas to be educated because Roman Catholic schools were not permitted in England and maybe one of them donated the skull to the college. During the French Revolution, the school shifted to England and took up permanent residence in an Elizabethan mansion in Stonyhurst, Lancashire, courtesy of an old pupil, Thomas Weld of Dorset, who had inherited the property.
When I wrote to Stonyhurst College inquiring if they did indeed have Morton’s head, the school authorities were wondering the same question. Feeling a duty of care, they had just sent off the skull for analysis to the Regius Professor of Forensic Science at Edinburgh University.
Professor Busuttil in his unpublished report concluded that the skull belonged to ‘an elderly well-nourished Caucasian male who died five centuries ago’. The skull showed that the man had not suffered from any protein or vitamin deficiency and therefore it was ‘likely that he lived in the higher socio-economic strata of his society’. The professor found there was no evidence of ‘osteoporosis or osteroarthrosis in the tempero-mandible joint sockets’ and this suggested that the skull belonged to a man not older than sixty-five to seventy years old.
I did some research on the Weld family in the Dorset archives. They were Roman Catholic and family members had collected memorabilia and relics but there was no mention of this particular item being donated to Stonyhurst. The college did, however, at various times, have memorabilia of other famous Roman Catholics such as Sir Thomas More, so it was all quite feasible that the Sheldons might have donated the skull to the college collection.
Morton was reputed to have been well into his seventies when he died in 1500. I have been unable to find out the year of his birth but examining his career indicates that he must have been born before 1430. The fact that his head is actually missing from his grave also supports the tradition that the skull may well be his.
Morton was the great enemy of King Richard III and seduced the king’s greatest supporter, the Duke of Buckingham, to rebel against Richard.
What an ending for the three of them! Richard’s bones under a Leicester car park, Buckingham’s ghost is reputed to haunt Debenham’s department store in Salisbury and Morton has been decapitated by posterity.
Update September 2012
And the end of the story? Archaeologists have found Richard’s skeleton in the carpark site!
I don’t know if Stonyhurst College decided to send the skull back to Canterbury Cathedral advising them to take better care of it this time, or whether the school authorities buried the skull with an inscription stating its history. Presumably, after centuries of adventure, the head is now at peace.
I was really very excited about this. Those of you who have read The Knight and the Rose may recall the horrible fate of King Edward II’s adviser (and possibly his gay lover), Hugh Despenser the younger, who was hanged, drawn and quartered in Hereford in 1326. So you can imagine how fascinating it was to read Laura Clout’s article on the discovery of his body (well, parts of it) in the UK Telegraph.
Apparently, investigations of the remains found at Hulton Abbey in Staffordshire in the 1970s show that the man’s body was decapitated, chopped up in a manner related to the punishment of quartering plus there was evidence of a wounding in the stomach, all consistent with the manner of Hugh’s death. It is known that his head and a few bones were given to his wife for burial and these are the parts that are missing from the Hulton remains. The carbon dating and other evidence, according to anthropologist Mary Lewis, points to the remains being that of Hugh Dispenser.
Here’s a quick run through the background to Hugh’s downfall:
King Edward II was famous for his male favourites. After Piers Gaveston was executed by the barons in 1312, the vacuum in Edward’s affection was gradually filled by the two Hugh Le Despensers – father and son. An ignominious defeat at Bannockburn in 1314 (when the Scots led by Robert the Bruce not only routed the English army but seized all their valuables) was a disaster for Edward and his close supporters. He and Hugh the younger fled for their lives. The queen was abandoned at Tynemouth and left to fend for herself.
For a while after the battle, the Despensers’ enemies among the barons held sway and both Hughs were banished from the court, but then in 1322 the King’s army won a victory against the rebel lords at Boroughbridge in Yorkshire (the beginning of The Knight and the Rose) and the leader of the rebels, the King’s cousin, the Earl of Lancaster was beheaded.
Edward was able to restore his friends’ fortunes. Hugh the elder became Earl of Winchester. Hugh the younger, now in his late thirties, sought to consolidate his power base in Wales. He also supervised the reform of the English Exchequer, made the King’s Chamber into an efficient department of state and reorganised the English wool industry.
Nemesis was waiting. The man who was to finally bring about the Despenser’s downfall was the handsome and capable Sir Roger Mortimer. He was a prisoner in the Tower of London but with the help of the rebel Bishop of Hereford, he managed to escape to France and there he bided his time.
High Dispenser’s greatest enemy was Edward’s neglected queen, Isabella, sister to the King of France, and in 1325, he and Edward permitted her to go across the Channel to negotiate with her brother. The big mistake was that they made was to let thirteen-year-old son, Prince Edward, the heir to the throne, go with her. Of course, Isabella met up again with Mortimer and they became lovers. Isabella was no longer a meek young princess but an assertive woman in her mid-thirties bent on revenge and she had an alternative king in mind.
She arranged a marriage for her son with Philippa, the daughter of the Count of Hainault and Holland, and with help from the new in-laws, she amassed an army to invade England in Prince Edward’s name.
They landed near Walton in Kent in September and the majority of the English barons joined their force. Isabella achieved extraordinary success or a woman. Her army seized London and drove the King and his supporters westward. Sixty-four year old Hugh the elder bravely made a stand at Bristol to give his son and King Edward time to escape. The castle garrison rebelled against him, he was forced to surrender and executed as a traitor. His head was sent for display in Winchester and his body was thrown to the dogs.
Edward and Hugh the younger fled into Wales and several times tried to sail to the Island of Lundy but adverse winds drove them back. Eventually they were captured and High was bought to Hereford for trial. One account, that I came across when I was writing The Knight and the Rose, said that when Hugh was brought to the scaffold, his captors had crowned his head with nettles and covered his body with religious writings. He was hanged on a 50 feet high ladder before the Queen, Mortimer and the Prince. Parts of his body were sent all over England for display and his head was stuck on a pole on London Bridge.
Edward II was forced to abdicate and died in Berkley Castle, probably murdered on the orders of Mortimer. Mortimer got too big for his boots and started to treat the young King Edward III in a less than respectful manner. He was arrested and executed. Isabella went into comfortable retirement.
Edward II, the play by Christopher Marlowe tells the story of this unpopular king and is worth seeing if you ever have the opportunity. I saw Ian McKellen play King Edward in London in 1970 and it was the most powerful stage acting I have ever seen. And if you want to get a sense of Hugh the Younger’s wealth and power, stand in the great hall of Caerphilly castle. Yes, this immense castle is in ruins now, but imagine it in all its glory.
One cannot help feeling a sense of tragedy in the horrible punishment meted out to Hugh the Younger. If only he had not been so acquisitive and high handed. Both he and his father had great administrative talent. Perhaps if he had served a king of more even temperament with better leadership skills and a dedication to serving England in a more responsible manner, he might have earned himself a better epitaph.
IT should have been a perfect evening for Estelle, wife of the new Governor of the Colony of Victoria. There was no talk of rabbits, Mr Lalor had been charming and none of the men had made foolish jokes about the university’s decision to permit female students. The world seemed to be making progress. And then with utter spitefulness, a haughty, loud voice had exclaimed:
‘Good family! Pfaugh, nonsense. Married beneath him, didn’t he! An old man’s fancy, that’s what that gal is!’. It was spoken just behind Estelle.
Such spite from an elderly woman hard of hearing could have been aimed at several ladies at the reception, but what set this slanderous bullet straight on target was the foolishness of the woman’s daughter, who tried with the best of intentions to send her mother a silent message.
‘What?’ yelled the ninety-year-old in tones that would have reached the Dandenong Hills. ‘Why are you waving at me like that, Sybil? What, what? Speak up, gal, I can’t hear a blessed thing you are saying.’
Ladies at such times have no control over their skin and poor Estelle turned an ill red against her low cut vieux rose satin. This proclaimed to everyone within earshot that the words had wounded her and an embarrassed hush eddied out from the ladies behind her.
Now what could she do with her face burning so? Graciously pretend she hadn’t heard when everyone in the ballroom at Government House had turned their faces towards her? They were waiting for her to decide whether to rebuke the old lady or withdraw in a huff. She was still uncertain what to do when suddenly, across by the fireplace, one of the gentlemen exclaimed, ‘Good Lord, weren’t there two vases just now?’
‘WHEN that gallant young man drew the attention from you, you should have let the matter drop, Estelle,’ her new friend, Cassie, the Attorney-General’s daughter, commented as they rode together next afternoon.
‘Take it on the chin, Cassie? No, why should I? That vindictive old shrew said it deliberately.’
‘But Estelle, it’s the price we pay for being part of the beau monde. I know some people’s vulgar manners were bequeathed by convict ancestors but you should not have said so. Not in Melbourne. Your words were repeated across the bridge tables this morning, I can tell you.’
‘Never mind, Cassie. I’m learning my lesson. Edward has suggested I disappear from the city for a few weeks until the tabbies stopped miaowing. I’m to be exiled to Queenscliff.’
‘STAYING long, ma’am?’
‘I am not certain.’ Estelle stepped off the ferry from Sorrento and smoothed her black skirts against the skittish wind. The solid broad timbers felt comfortably solid beneath her leather soles and she took a deep breath of air — of freedom! Freedom from the envious eyes that watched for the unfastened button, and the carelessly dropped phrase. Except she had not dropped her phrases, she had hurled them at the old trout, and now she was here to lick her wounds. Of course, it was just a storm in a colonial teacup, but even her husband had wanted her forgotten for a few weeks while society swept up the feathers.
Carrying her one portmanteau, she walked, veiled and resolute, through the straggle of passengers waiting to board. A few fishermen untidied the jetty but only one observed her passing. His smile, the happiness of a gentleman stripped to his shirt enjoying the sun, curiously stayed with her as she crossed the bare sand that gartered the jetty. Already the salty air was working its cleansing enchantment.
‘Mrs Bramshall,’ she wrote in the hotel register, delighting in the glimpse of open fire, the profusion of flowers in the hall. It was a relief not to be recognised for the genteel jet jewellery, the merest touch of white, the black silk jacket with weeper cuffs, and the crape veil, all borrowed from Cassie (now in her second marriage) proclaimed Estelle at least a two-year widow. She sensed the clerk’s stare at her bustle and hem as she mounted the staircase; he was looking for the lack of black frilled underskirts and plain black stockings which usually hinted at some seaside assignation but Estelle’s mourning clothes left nothing to chance.
The maid showing her up to the turret room with its high brass bed and iron bedstep asked:
‘Staying long, ma’am?’
‘I’m not sure yet.’
THE fisherman from yesterday was out walking next morning as Estelle stood in solitude watching the wading birds. She had thrown the tiresome veil back but there was no time to drag it down. Below the oblique lift of straw hat, the gentleman’s smile ebbed suddenly.
There had been talk at the hotel of a hack from the city visiting the resort but although this gentleman did not look like a journalist, neither the Governor’s Lady nor the pretend widow could take the risk, so next morning, she set out earlier and was careful to observe the birds utterly.
‘Would you look at the black swans grazing out there,’ his voice remarked from behind her — assertive and perilous. ‘Not a care in the world. Not even a Russian invasion fleet in sight.’
‘They are most fortunate. The swans, I mean.’ Estelle straightened, bosom high, profile straight and stony, not turning to look at him. The row of birds adorning the distant spit could have been anything in the feather line but that was not what concerned her.
‘And there’s one black swan out there that has been pecked. Do you see her cleaning her feathers not far from the pelicans?’
‘No, I am afraid I don’t,’ Estelle replied coolly. ‘You must have phenomenal eyesight, sir.’
‘I notice a lot of things other people don’t. Part of my work, Mrs Bramshall. And what a good Staffordshire name that is.’ So he was a hack.
‘Good day to you, sir.’ It was a mistake to meet the observant blue eyes. Eyes like lapis.
THE third morning she saw him coming towards her on the beach below the new fort. A skitter of joyful children trailed him like happy piglets, scurrying to show him shells, she supposed, observing him covertly now. He was younger than her, perhaps by a year or so, with dark, curling hair and a friendly, betraying mouth.
He bent and whispered to the children and suddenly they were rushing towards her, thrusting treasures out on sandy palms, while he passed her by, like a slow comet, distant but lighting her dark, cowardly soul.
In the afternoon, lured by the tinkling sound of a dulcimer, she peered over a bungalow's back fence and through the open door. It was him playing.
He stopped, sensing her, as if he had known his music would draw her to him, and came out to stand above the back steps beneath the verandah, waiting for her to speak.
‘Why did you send them?’ she asked.
‘The children? I thought you needed shells in your life. Silver, rose, like your ballgown.’ He turned back to his dulcimer.
The musical assault on her senses resumed, its medieval lilt threading out across the grass. She was dismissed.
IN her hired bedchamber, she stared at the angled looking-glass. An old man’s fancy? Yes, there was some truth in that, she thought and wandered across to the nearest window of her turret with a sigh. Through each pane she glimpsed offers of sands and paths, but south towards the estuary where the birds fished in their mirror images, she saw the house, his house.
The following day, she stole out after she had seen him leave his gate, and went to stare like a reckless burglar across the back fence. The dulcimer was put away but upon the table stood the vase from Government House.
‘I HAVE been waiting for you,’ he told her, closing the front door later against the twilight of meddling wind and spit of rain. The tiled hall smelt of polish and lemon. She followed him into the parlour. The central gasolier had not been lit. Instead, a pillared table lamp lent the room a warm glow.
He took two fine cups from the cupboard. Gold edged cups. The spoons were silver.
‘Did you fish today, sir?’ Her calm tone gave lie to the excitement building in her soul.
While the kettle whistled between its teeth upon the hob in the kitchen, her gaze was free to make an inventory, to note the wallpaper, the choice of books. He had some nice pieces but her gaze was drawn to the vase, now on the mantle shelf.
He carried the tray through.
‘Over there,’ he said, pointing to a newspaper. ‘I read a great deal.’
‘I daresay you write, too?’ She stared with loathing at the page waiting for her upon the fringed tablecloth, the column of words that at last had been able to dedicate itself to an overripe victim. This was dangerous. He knew exactly who she was.
‘The news is later here. Let us observe the niceties, Mrs Bramshall. Let me introduce myself. I’m Jack Tomlinson.’ The name was new to her. It was the way he kissed her hand that shifted the cogs and wheels into alignment. His moustache and long side-whiskers were gone now and the spectacles he had worn at Government House had been folded away.
‘Why, you are the gentleman who was by the mantle shelf that evening,’ she exclaimed, her thoughts springing outward.
He smiled, merely gestured her to sit and pour the tea.
‘But it was you, sir, who noticed the vase was sto ...’ She stared anew at the vase upon the shelf, recognising it now as almost identical. The teapot shook in her hand and it took all her concentration not to stain the cloth. Good manners demanded that she should not accuse him.
‘Yes,’ he said, as if she had spoken aloud.
‘That’s why you noticed the vases,’ she exclaimed wearing cheerfulness like a veil. ‘Because you have one yourself.’
‘How very charitable of you to assume that,’ he murmured, accepting the cup and saucer (it rattled slightly), ‘but I’m afraid that is the same vase. Do have some cake.’
‘I ... I’m sure you had good reason to … to … remove the vase.’ She accepted a slice of seed cake, trying to keep her increasing panic hidden beneath a patina of politeness.
‘Yes.’ He watched her over the rim of his cup.
She took a bite of cake and then gazed at him in horror. ‘Are you going to blackmail me then?’
‘Lord, no. I only let the people round here deduce that I’m with The Age. And I’m not going to write some sordid little piece for the gossip columns, if that’s what you think.’
‘I don’t know what to think.’ Estelle rose.
Out of politeness he was forced to put his tea down and stand also. She did not storm to the hall but paced behind the sofa. ‘I don’t understand how you were fishing when I arrived by ferry. If you have been following me …’
‘That’s just it. I wasn’t following you.’ He grinned.
‘Oh, don’t tell me we are talking about destiny.’
‘Coincidence. Destiny has such a hard ring about it, don’t you think?’ He picked up the vase and slid a hand lovingly across its perfect curves. ‘I’d say ninety per cent of theft is opportunism.’
‘Then what is this about?’
‘Nothing at all,’ he said with a sigh. ‘Or something.’ The smile that serifed his mouth was sad. ‘Opportunism, if it needs a name. Or some quaint need for honesty and company.’ He reluctantly replaced the ornament and turned, his blue eyes troubled now. ‘I beg you not to bring in the local constable. It’s not just that he’s not very bright but I really am doing quite well at the moment and I had rather we became friends.’ The sophistication crept back roguishly. ‘It will make your sojourn far less tedious.’
‘But you are a self-confessed thief.’
‘Is that really important? Do you want the vase back? It will take some explaining on your part. I thought you might enjoy an adventure but if not perhaps you had better leave now.’
Estelle’s fingers tapped the back of the sofa. ‘I will stay a little longer,’ she said huskily. ‘But no more cake. I hope, Mr…’
‘I hope, Mr Tomlinson, that you are a better thief than you are a cook.’
‘Oh, believe me, I am.’ He already had the Waterford crystal flute in his hand. ‘Champagne, I think. Champagne for the Governor’s Lady.’
‘BUT why did you steal the vase and then draw attention to its disappearance?’ she asked, as they strolled next day arm in arm along the loneliest path they could find.
‘To save you of course.’
She had hoped that was the answer. ‘You took that risk?’
‘It worked, didn’t it? I was rather proud of that. Besides, you deserved the favour. You had been so gracious to me on other occasions.’
‘Other occasions? I don’t remember you.’
He drew her arm tighter through his. ‘You were not meant to. I’ve collected quite a lot from Government House over the last months.’
She did not applaud him. ‘My husband was very angry about that vase. It was one of his favourite pieces.’
Her companion hit out at the bushes with his walking cane and laughed. ‘I know. I’m going to steal the other one as well. Not all at once, of course.’
‘No, please, it is far too dangerous.’ Estelle forced him to stop so they were facing one another. ‘Why must you steal?’
‘The danger, the adventure, the planning. My grandfather owned the manufactory that made that vase.’ He drew her on.
She caught her breath. ‘What at Whiston?’
‘But the factory failed when I was a boy. My papa sold what was left and I came out to the colonies to make my fortune. I regret to say I started thieving Whiston porcelain, piece by piece, and then I progressed to selecting other items too.’
‘Do you steal hearts as well?’ she teased.
‘Not usually.’ The blue gaze drowned her. ‘Would you like me to?’
‘From the governor’s lady!’
‘Believe me, I take only the best.’
AND seduce her he did. But it was subtle and slow and irresistible. For a month, she became a creature of fiction with her own forbidden hero. But adventures end in the bedside lamp being turned out, the wick lowered. Children know that day is different. That by day the musician and shepherdess ornaments return to their lonely separate ends of the shelf.
Jack Tomlinson was shot by a detective of police a year later as he made his escape from a mansion in Melbourne's Emerald Hill, and he died that night in custody while his guards watched uncaring. The wealthy in Victoria read the news and let out a unison breath of relief.
‘STAYING long, ma’am?’
This time the mourning clothes were no disguise; the hotel was honoured by the widow of his late excellency the governor. She arrived with her maidservant and valises, but she had no interest in the hotel; at the edge of the shore the house that had stood empty was waiting, beckoning her.
For months Estelle sought her lover along the sands and where the seabirds drilled for worms. Finally, she found him in words, spinning stories from her memory, the pillow tales he had told her, the anecdotes while they had waited for the whiting to take the bait. And then the public began to buy her books, little guessing that she was the Governor’s widow and the thief had been her lover.
In her final novel, she broke the vase at Government House so it could never be stolen and she jammed the revolver before it could shoot her fictional hero dead at Emerald Hill.
IF you have the sight to see her, you can glimpse the ghost of the woman who was once the Governor’s Lady walking along the Queenscliff sands below the fort, as she once did before she died, day after day, so lonely and so long ago.
Be happy for her, for the spirit of her lover walks with her and the sands blows through them as they laugh together.
Copyright Isolde Martyn – first published in Woman’s Day, Australia.
A damsel in distress meets a chivalrous knight in this medieval tale, originally commissioned for St Valentine's Day by The Australian Women's Weekly.
Demoiselle Madeleine de Bellegarde-sur-Cher took a deep breath and stepped up onto the cart that the villagers had overturned to block the bridge.
‘My lady, the English!’ exclaimed one of her doughtier fellows, as the enemy troop rode into sight. ‘God have mercy on us!’
‘Be brave, all of you,’ she said with a calm she did not feel.
Ever since their victory over France at Poitiers, the English had been laying waste to the lands of the neighbouring lords; now it was her turn. She shivered, trying not to imagine the horror that might engulf them. God grant that the English brigands would be sober enough to listen to her.
‘BY Jesu, sir, look at that!'
The English company of knights slewed to a halt behind their leader, Sir Robert Knollys, as the road sloped down to a river. The young man on Knollys' right, Sir Raoul de Whitacre, had never seen anything so defiantly wonderful in his entire life; beneath a fluttering pennon, a slender noblewoman stood like a warrior princess on the narrow bridge.
In her right hand glinted a longsword, its tip resting upon the upturned cart. In the curve of her left arm she supported the pole of the banner. The icy February wind batted at her silken skirts and she was keeping her footing with difficulty. Did the small turreted castle in the distance belong to her?
‘Some ruse to delay us while they hide their valuables,’ muttered Knollys.
‘At least hear what she has to say,’ warned Raoul. He was sick of the devastation. The English had vanquished the French, but did they have to ravage northern France daily in the name of a king who had gone back across the Channel and did not give a damn what lawlessness raged behind his back?
Knollys fumbled for his leather flask and took a swig. ‘You go and parley then. Tell her to get down and grovel or we will raze her paltry little castle to the ground.’
‘Willingly,’ Raoul's smile was tight, the leash of obedience at straining point as he kneed his stallion forward.
The noblewoman was beautiful and young, scarce twenty, he guessed.
‘You are the leader?’ she asked. Presumptuous of her to speak first!
‘No, I answer for him. Step down and let us pass, lady! We claim your goods and livestock in the name of England. Defy us and you and your people will wish you had never been born.
‘The lovely lips trembled. Raoul felt pity and admiration for her. Dear God, she must be frozen, tricked out in her finery to awe them. He observed the jewels glittering on the beauteous skin and the tempting cleavage below. She must be insane to flaunt herself so.
Reluctantly his gaze rose to the glossy dark braids that framed her delicate, face, and he tried to listen to what she was saying, wondering how he could prevent this courageous girl being stripped and violated.
‘I do not wish my peasants slain and my goods stolen. I will not have it so!
‘The sword rose, so long, so weighty that she had trouble raising it with but a single hand. Such courage!
‘Lady, tell that to your fine French overlord. You are fortunate that your valley has been forgotten until now. Now stand aside!’
‘I will strike a bargain with you.’
Raoul was hard put not to give a shout of bitter laughter. She thought she could bargain with Knollys!
‘Well, tell me!’ he ordered, his voice grim. He could sense the impatience mustering behind him.
MADELEINE understood his edginess. She could see better than him the horses of the English fidgeting impatiently.
‘Sir, I am a widow,’ she told him swiftly. ‘I am willing to marry one of your company to save my land.’ Interest grew in the blue eyes studying her, and she continued, ‘I will feast your company here and set up a contest and wed the winner. In return. I will have your oaths under the law of arms that no one will be harmed nor anything stolen and the rest of you will ride away afterwards.’
‘Save for your new husband.’
‘Yes.’ Madeleine dreaded placing her castle and her person in the hands of an enemy stranger, but she loved this valley and, as her father's heir it was her duty to protect her people.
The young man was smiling. Desire curled his lip. He was imagining himself already her bedfellow. Madeleine felt the hot blood rise unbidden to stain her chill skin, but she haughtily held his gaze and was surprised to find compassion not mockery in the blue eyes.
‘Madame, I salute your courage. I hope this works.’
‘SHE suggests what!’ Knollys, astonishingly, roared with laughter as Raoul repeated the girl's terms.
‘Heroes' sport. Bid her feast us then!’
‘You will honour your word?’
Getting Knollys to keep an oath was like expecting the Devil to forswear soul-collecting.
‘Aye, for the next hour maybe.’
It was better than could be hoped for, thought Raoul. In other circumstances, his companions would have tumbled the cart into the river by now and set fire to the hovels. He rode back across the bridge and dismounted. ‘Our company agrees, madame. But I warn you that there will be no mercy for you if you are lying to us.’
In a bound, he sprang up onto the cart. The lady thrust away the banner and clutched the sword with both hands.
‘Your husband's sword?’
‘Yes,’ she lied, facing him suspiciously, her cheeks sucked in with concentration, but laughing he sprang down among her peasants, scattering them like sheep, and held out a hand to her to descend.
‘Move the cart!’ he ordered ...
‘MORE!’ The English knights seated in the great hall at Bellegarde were like ugly, monstrous fledglings forever calling for liquor to be tipped down their gullets. Insatiable and dangerous, thought Madeleine, anxious for this nightmare to be over. More of this and these drunkards would forget the bargain altogether. At least the young man she had parleyed with and a couple of others drank more cautiously.
‘So, pretty putain ...’ Their leader slammed down the leather jack upon the wooden board. ‘What is this contest?’
Suggestions bombarded her, English words with meaning she dared not guess.
‘This way, Sir Robert,’ she invited them.
They lurched from the hall behind her while her servants looked on helplessly. There was no-one able-bodied enough to help her if her plan went awry. The men-at-arms had never returned from the battlefield; only the horseboy had survived to bring her father's body home.
In the courtyard an archery target had been set up against the far wall. One of her elderly retainers was waiting with a primed crossbow.
‘We fight with swords not bows,’ snarled Knollys with knightly disdain. Madeleine ignored him, hoping that she could trick him into compliance by distracting him. She took the crossbow, being careful not to point it in Knollys' direction although she longed to send a bolt into that black fiend's heart, then she gracefully raised it at the target.
The English, bloated with goat meat and high as kites, looked on open-mouthed in fascination as she checked the distance and wind direction. The little rabbit tails on the bow stirred, and she adjusted her aim accordingly. Holding her breath, she tried to keep a steady hand. The bolt hurtled from the bow and slammed into the centre of the innermost whitewashed circle.
Lowering the crossbow to her skirts, she declared: ‘Whoever can shoot a bolt closest to mine, I shall marry.’
THE girl had done it again, applauded Raoul silently. With that grasp of spectacle and timing, with that beauty and allure, she had these bullies captivated,
‘Well, I'm free to enter,’ guffawed Knollys' cousin, belching. ‘Shall I be first?’
Eight of the knights stepped forward as eligible. Raoul saw how Lady Madeleine's gaze slid along the queue of faces, estimating their sobriety and moving in dread past those that showed grossness of manners; she must be praying whoever won her would be just. God forbid she should fall to the foulest amongst them!
Folding his arms, Raoul grimly watched his opponents almost as tensely as Lady Madeleine did. He wanted her land and he wanted her like he had never wanted a woman in his life. His gaze locked with hers, telling her plainly of his appreciation and intent to win. For an instant, defiance flashed at him. The winner would not have so easy a task at the bedchamber sport. To win would not be a victory – yet.
He watched the girl's shoulders shake and the relief in her face as she saw the first contestant's bolt strike the target's edge.
Out of the next five knights, three shot badly, eyes glazed, fingers fumbling. But two sent shafts into the second circle. Lady Madeleine's bolt with its scarlet leather feathering alone held the centre. But it was whoever shot closest who would win, no matter how blundering or accidental the shot.
Sir John de Boroughbridge was next, rocking on his feet like a ship at anchor, not fit to shoot a crossbow, but curse his luck, the bolt landed a thumb's breadth from the lady's. Sir Gregory, last but one, gave the girl a leer before he primed the bow. His shot fell best so far, a grain seed's width from Madeleine's. She looked in panic to Raoul.
Last of the contestants, Raoul stripped off his gauntlets, and strode forward with a prayer upon his lips. The yard grew silent. He primed the bow, but before he took aim, he reverently touched the small leather drawstring bag that hung upon a chain around his neck. Within it was the charm he always carried. Then, closing his mind to all else, he steadied the bow, determined to win. This was his hunt.
He let fly the bolt.
For an instant he thought the shout of those closest to the target meant a second round with Sir Gregory, and then an awed hush settled on the crowd.
‘Let me see !’ They stood back to let him through. His bolt had sheared straight up the centre of the lady's arrow.
Knollys' buffet upon the shoulder nearly sent him sprawling across the target, ‘Behold the new Sieur de Bellegarde!
‘His companions hoisted him shoulder high and set him before his frozen bride, then they all traipsed across the snowy grass to the church, where the frightened priest stammered his way through the Latin as Raoul and his prize knelt.
‘I want you to leave now,’ Raoul told his companions as they returned to the castle.
‘Nay, we need to see the task is truly done,’ Sir Gregory wrapped an arm about his shoulders.
‘You want proof of consummation, Gregory? She is a widow, remember. Leave me with my destiny.’
‘But, lad, we can amuse ourselves with the serving wenches while you ...’
‘You gave your word, sir,’ Raoul swung round to confront his leader and watched Knollys' moustache twitch sulkily. ‘The law of arms, remember. If there is any man here that would gainsay me, I will fight.’
He was the best swordsman. save for their leader, and they knew it. ‘Enough! Mount up!’ Knollys jerked his head, dismissing them. ‘You mount up too, de Whitacre,’ he muttered, glancing in Lady Madeleine's direction. ‘That is too clever a bitch you have on the leash. Be careful!’
MADELEINE let out a breath of relief as the last of the company galloped beneath the gatehouse, and sank down exhausted onto the cushions in the window recess. She had done it. Knollys and his men had gone. Then she heard the footsteps.
‘My lady.’ The hand holding the wine cup out to her was authoritative, the nails clean, the fingers well-formed, graceful, strong. She accepted, hugging the vessel within the bowl of her fingers, realising that she had eaten and drunk little. Nor she suspected had he. She had watched Sir Raoul de Whitacre appear to drink with his comrades and stay sober. Too clever by half.
She rose, not obediently but warily, shyly. What choice had she?
‘Your maidservant tells me you are a liar, my lady.’ She lifted her chin at his words. ‘You told me you were a widow.’
‘Does it matter, sir? I thought it would give me more authority.’
‘And so it did, but tonight is different.’
The new master of Bellegarde-sur-Cher led her into her father's bedchamber, lifted the door bar and slid it with ease across the rungs, closing out her tiring women.
‘How so?’ She moistened her lips nervously.
‘I thought to give us time to be better acquainted, but it seems that I have to take measures to protect my prize against insult and theft, and certainly human vermin. In short, the winner must take all.
‘Her new lord's blue eyes, warm and caressing, implied the rest. His fingertips slid sensually down her cheek and he held her face up to him, rubbing his thumb across her lips. ‘No more lies, Madeleine. There shall be no war between us. Besides, I have a peace offering.’
‘Stolen?’ Instantly she regretted having spoken so.
‘No!’ he said sharply. It was the token that he wore about his neck.
‘For you. It was my mother's and I have carried it with me as a charm.’ He lifted her hand and shook out onto her palm a golden heart-shaped brooch set with river pearls and amethysts. A golden arrow winged with tiny seed pearls lay across it. This inexplicable trust offered so generously moved her more than the whisper of words.
‘My father gave it to my mother on the Feast of St Valentine in the first year of their marriage.’ he was saying.
‘But today,’ she danced away and spun back, ‘today is St Valentine's Day.
‘So it is, thought Raoul, glimpsing the joyful girl within her, his heart lifting, and who would have believed this day would end with such a blessing?
‘Then today it is a fitting gift for a lady of great courage. Stand still!’ He solemnly pinned the heart onto her surcote and kissed her on each cheek in the fashion of her country.
Her voice was husky. ‘I rejoice your arrow found the mark. If it had not ... ‘ Her lovely, dark eyes filled with tears, but a slight smile touched her lips, like a rainbow promise.
Some targets were invisible. One day soon, very soon, Raoul vowed, he would tell her that her arrow had found a second mark as well.
Copyright Isolde Martyn
Georgiana Roe swiftly put up a gloved hand to check that her bonnet plume had not been blown askew by the brisk breeze from Sydney Cove and stepped into the offices of Blackthorne & Paris.
‘I'm Miss Euphegenia Arbuthnott here to see Mr Richard Paris.’
With a sniff, a bald-headed clerk left his ledger to rap upon the inner door and escort her through.
She caught her breath as Richard Paris rose from behind his desk to greet her. There surely could be no man in Sydney who could best him for style. The London coat spoke of Bond Street tailoring, not a wrinkle or speck marred the cream pantaloons, and his cravat created the right impression. Neither too loose for a braggart nor too high for a dandy.
For a brief instant, surprise seemed to hinder Mr Paris’ manners. So, he had been anticipating a spinster of less tender years not two and twenty. His gaze lingered upon his client’s face and swept over appreciatively her before he seemed to remember the courtesy due and gestured her to be seated.
‘Miss ...’ he frowned and tapped the diary askew to check her name afresh. ‘Arbuthnott?’ Tossing his blue coat tails back, he seated himself, leaning back in his chair with the utter confidence of a man who knew his profession. His silver-grey eyes smiled across at her and a swift grin showed her that he felt himself in full control again. ‘How may I serve you, Miss Arbuthnott? Is it some worthy mission? Perhaps you wish Blackthorne & Paris to donate ....’
‘I wish to engage a lawyer, Mr Paris.’
Mr Paris frowned. ‘For what purpose, Miss Arbuthnott?’
‘I wish to serve a summons for breach of promise.’
He sat forward in astonishment, his cuff knocking a quill to the floor. By the time he had retrieved it, she was not sure whether he was amused or irritated.
‘Excuse me.’ He laid it carefully beside the blotter and rested his chin upon intermeshed fingers thoughtfully. ‘You realise that this is a very serious charge if it is not settled out of court. One that is likely to be expensive and arouse a great deal of scandal. Indeed, I am puzzled, Miss Arbuthnot, as to why did you not seek out Mr William Wentworth as your attorney? He has more experience in cases of this nature.’
‘Oh, such squinty looks and he is… oh … no, indeed, I could never speak with him on so delicate a matter.’ Her cheeks flamed. ‘Mr Paris, believe me, it has taken a great deal of courage to come here today.’ Her glance fell to her gloved hands upon her lap.’ No doubt you think me frivolous but it is no light matter, I assure you.’
‘Indeed, I begin to appreciate that. Then let us get down to details. Has this gentleman toyed with your affections?’
Her blue eyes met his gravely. ‘I believe him to be sincere.’
‘He is not an adventurer, a fortune-hunter?’
‘Indeed not, Mr Paris, he is of good parentage and earns his living honestly.’
‘Do you suspect he is already married or that his heart is given to another?’
Georgiana frowned. ‘No, I do not believe so. I think he merely lacks courage and ...’
‘Courage!’ he exclaimed. ‘You astound me, Miss Arbuthnott.’ Male indignation laced his tone.
‘Hush, Mr Paris, I pray you let me finish. My Papa is most wealthy and, well, ambitious, I daresay, and I believe my fiancé may feel he must live up to Papa’s expectations. To be honest, I would be happy to live with him on far less income.’
‘Have you actually discussed the date of your marriage with this gentleman?’
‘He skirts around the issue every time I raise it.’ She lifted her chin defiantly.
‘But do you love the gentleman?’
Georgiana met his gaze. ‘Yes,’ she answered truthfully. ‘With all my heart.’
The bell in the outer office sounded, and she rose, smoothing her skirts. ‘Your next appointment, I believe.’ She held out her hand to him with a businesslike smile. ‘Good day to you, Mr Paris. Pray write and tell me if you will take the case.’
Richard Paris came round the desk to her. His eyes were serious as he took the little gloved hand and kept it within his.
‘It seems, Miss Arbuthnott, we shall need another appointment.’ Not letting go her hand, he pulled the diary round. ‘The 6th June at 3 pm?’
She peeped up at him mischievously from beneath the creamy brim. ‘Where, Mr Paris?’
‘St John’s.’ He went down on one knee. ‘Marry me then and there, dearest Georgie.’
Her laughing eyes above him sparkled and forgave.
‘Indeed, yes!’ murmured Miss Georgiana Roe. ‘I thought you’d never ask.’
First published in Woman's Day, Australia
Copyright Isolde Martyn
Bill helped Phyllis off the ferryboat to Fig Tree and onto the wharf. He'd thought about taking her to one of the pleasure gardens in Middle Harbour, but this place, tucked up the Lane Cove river, was less showy, so with luck none of her family's highfalutin friends would be around. The gossips would have a field day. The daughter of one of Sydney's wealthiest men seen on the arm of a larrikin gardener!
‘Welcome to Fairyland, Phyl.’ Damn silly name, but never mind. Just seeing Phyllis's face as she glimpsed the people picnicking beyond the paperbarks was a delight.
‘Ooh Bill, I've heard about this place,’ she exclaimed as he led her up the grassy bank. ‘How wicked I feel! lf my parents ever find out I'm not at Joan's.’
Bill kissed the tip of her nose. Phyl was such a sweetheart. Every time she peeped up at him with those soulful eyes of hers from beneath her parasol, he felt he could die out of sheer love for her.
‘Mum's the word, eh? Thought you deserved a treat.’ Feeling like a real toff with her on his arm, they joined the other couples heading for the pavilion. He'd not been here before either. Must have taken some work, cutting back the mangroves, clearing the thick bush for the strawberry farm and later getting the lawns started. Strewth, he mustn't think like a gardener today. Today he was Phyllis's beau.
She gazed at the wooden dance floor as though she'd never seen one before, and maybe she hadn't. Her hoity-toity parents were so blessed strict. He would make sure that today was real special. He hadn't told her yet, but he'd got his call-up, Tomorrow he had to report to the barracks and could be on a troopship, off to the war in France in no time, Yes, today was really special.
Sydney, November 1938
JEAN left the passenger ship at Circular Quay, and by the time she had caught a tram to the YWCA, unpacked her few belongings, then had a little walk along George Street - so different from St George's Terrace and the quieter pace of Perth - to the Town Hall, she was pleased she'd saved up to come. Sydney was exciting. Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was showing and some of the girls at the YWCA said they'd take her dancing at the Trocadero.
And Sydney had trains that went underground! The young ticket clerk at Town Hall Station had said Jean would need to catch one of those to go to Mrs Dalrymple's. Turramurra was ‘out in the sticks’, he said. ‘Lah-di-bloomin-dah,’ he added with a grin and a glance over his shoulder in case his supervisor was listening. The thought of catching a train all the way out there made Jean's insides a bit queasy, but the young man had said it wasn't difficult and she wouldn't have to change trains or anything like that.
With only ten days in Sydney, Jean decided she'd better get the hardest part over first, so cranking up her courage, she made the phone call she was dreading. A posh voice at the other end invited her to morning tea the next day to talk about ‘dear Phyl’. Dear Phyl, the mother Jean had never heard of until three months ago.
Next morning, with an Agatha Christie book to read on the way, she descended down to the platform. The train roared into the cavernous station. Wait until she told her friends about this and the terrifying hurtle through the darkness. And she could have wept for sheer delight when the train came out into the sunshine and she found they were not only actually crossing the Harbour Bridge, but the city lay spread out on either side of her.
The Agatha Christie lay forgotten in her bag as the terraces of North Sydney gave way to tree-lined avenues. Purple was everywhere in the gardens, frontiers of agapanthus and so many jacaranda trees.
Nearly every station featured a high street of shops and one or two even had a movie theatre. Allotments and orchards dappled the slopes and Jean could glimpse the Blue Mountains to the west, but to the north and east, the horizon was now thick with trees and the houses were fewer.
It took half an hour before they drew up at the platform at Turramurra, and to Jean it really did feel like being out in the sticks. Scary really, but then she saw there were homes, well, mansions, among the trees.
She found Mrs D's house all right, but didn't know Mrs D from a bar of proverbial soap. The lady had written to her mum last year, telling her that Jean's mother had died. Her real mother! Lord, that had been a shock, to discover she'd been adopted.
‘Jean, is it? Do come in, child,’ A little woman in an elegant black dress came towards her and extended a hand. It was all so proper. The maid wheeled in a trolley with teacups and plates of dainty sandwiches, Jean nearly spilt her tea she was so nervous, but her hostess soon abandoned small talk. A framed photo was removed from the piano and passed to her, followed by an album of snapshots.
‘That's Phyllis when she was younger, and that was last year before she got ill.’
‘How did you know who my par...foster parents were, Mrs Dalrymple?’
‘Phyllis found the adoption details in her parents' papers after her father passed away. She made me promise if anything ever happened, I should write to your adopted parents.
‘We go back a long way, Phyl and I. We were friends as children, then she married Harry, a friend of my husband's. Harry's overseas at the moment so you can't meet him. In any case, it wouldn't be appropriate. He wasn't your father.’
‘Do you know who was?’ There, it was out, easier than she'd thought.
‘Oh lord, I knew you'd ask that.’ Mrs D sighed. ‘Phyl once mentioned a man called Bill O'Dea. Handsome fellow. Used to do her parents' garden until he was called up for the war. I don't think he made it back. He always made her laugh, she said. She must have been fond of him because I remember looking at photos with her some years later, and there were tears in her eyes as she showed me one. 'There's Bill,' she said. It was really a snap of her parents, but he was in the background. He looked a nice sort.’
BILL was halfway through engraving the morning's job when he noticed a girl watching him from across the road. He set down his chisel and stared back. There was something sweet about her as she looked at his name above the door.
People were mostly sad when they came to see him, when they had lost someone they'd loved. He stopped whistling, wondering if the kid had ever done this before, ordered a headstone.
‘Can I show you around, luv?’ he called out as she came in.
‘Mr O'Dea?’ Such bright, beautiful eyes she had. How he wished he were twenty years younger.
‘Certainly am,’ he replied.
There was a plucky edge to her smile. ‘It took me a while to find you.’
She trotted after him as he showed her the sandstone, granite and marble and the choice of lettering. ‘For your mum, is it?’
‘Yes, sort of.’ It was the breathless way she said it that plucked some forgotten chord in him. His friends said he was a good listener and sometimes his customers needed to talk. Like now. ‘I've just come from her grave.’
Brave little thing. He didn't ask if she wanted tea, just lit the gas stove. ‘What's on your mind then?’
He expected her to say, ‘granite or ...’, but she raised her eyes to his, searching his face. ‘I think you're my father.’ It was Bill who needed the cuppa'. In fact, he also needed the slug of gin he poured into it.
The names she - Jean, her name was - babbled out before he even asked. Oh, he knew them. Names he hadn't heard for the last twenty or so years. He couldn't find words straight away, just looked at her. She had made a real effort to find him.
She waited for his answer, gazing with eyes that could have been those of his beloved Phyllis. Phyl's daughter. His daughter! Bill could have wept. Instead, he somehow reached the door where, shakily, he stood for a moment, collecting himself, before he turned the open sign to ‘closed’.
Then he came back to the questioning young face and for the first time told his side of it. How Phyl's parents had been so toffee-nosed, wanting her to make a ‘good’ marriage. With rusty love, he began to speak about Phyl, trying in these few precious minutes to make her more than a name on a birth certificate. He'd been able to make Phyl laugh, taken her to a few places, like the day out at Fairyland. But for this child of his who looked at him with her soulful eyes, the memories weren't enough. Phyllis's daughter, who Phyllis would never know. Oh, how could he give Jean back her mother?
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I've a couple of places to show you.’
It was hard to find where Fairyland had been. There was a path of sorts, but the jetty was gone and the bush had grown back. Hard to believe there'd been anything there, but he found the tree carved with their initials and Jean stroked her fingertips across her mother's and listened as Bill told about the only afternoon he'd spent with the woman he loved.
‘This is the first place,’ he said. ‘I still daydream about that day. But there's somewhere else just for you, but we need to go back to the harbour to find it.’
THE jacaranda tree stood in full glory, like the queen of trees that she was, beaming out at the glassy water between the bridge and Kirribilli, Behind the tree was a flight of garden steps and up there Phyllis's family had lived with their expensive view, their sulks, their snobbery and their servants. The mansion was divided into apartments now.
‘She lived here?’ Jean spoke in awe.
‘Until she was married. And that,’ Bill smiled towards the jacaranda, ‘that's your tree, Jean.’
‘Mine?’ She stared at it in puzzlement.
‘The hospital where your mother went used to give each new mum a little jacaranda seedling. The north shore is full of jacarandas now. The people at the hospital wouldn't let your mum have one because you were being adopted. So when Phyl was well again, what does she do but go to a plant nursery. She bought the seedling and planted it. She said that as she watched it grow, she would think of you and that as long as the tree was all right, she knew you were. Just her fancy, see. But it helped with the grievin' for you.’
‘So you saw her again?’
‘Just the once, but she didn't see me. They had married her to some toff by the time I got back from the war. She was standing just here. So unhappy. Strewth, I longed to speak to her, God knows I did. But what was the use? Divorce? No, I couldn't bear the thought of her name in the headlines. They'd have called her a slut who liked a bit of rough. Me, who loved her.’ The phrases were harder to find now.
‘Maybe I should have asked her what she wanted instead of making the decision for both of us. It seemed kinder that she thought I was gone for ever, that's all.’
‘That took a great deal of courage,’ said Jean.
‘My word, it did.’ His voice faltered for an instant. ‘So I kept away, but Sal, her parents' cook, used to tell me how your mother was. An' the years went by. I married and set up as a stonemason. Found I had a real feel for it. I didn't know Phyl had passed away until her husband commissioned me to do her stone. I gave her the best an' put my own line on it – love changeth not.
‘What did you do that for, you idiot’ says her snooty husband. ‘I ain't changin' it,’ I tell him. And I let him think it was just an error.
‘It's beautiful, You did love her.’
‘Like there was no tomorrow, but I didn't mean to give her grief like a baby coming along, But looking at you, lass, I don't regret it.’
His daughter stood and stared up at the beautiful tree. Its splendour almost filled the garden. She reached out, touched the bark-with reverence, then wrapped her arms around it and wept.
Her real mother hadn't given her up. All through the years she had cared. She had truly cared.
And Bill smiled at the steps where Phyl once used to sit with a book open on her lap, pretending to read while he raked the leaves. ‘Our girl, Phyl,’ he said. ‘Meet our girl.’
Copyright Isolde Martyn
Port Jackson, Australia, 1796
Robert hitched himself over the fence before the soldiers turned the corner, and landed clumsily on all fours in someone’s shrubbery. He froze, crouching within the shadow of a stocky, low-spreading banksia, head down, his lungs protesting mightily and heard the shouts as His Britannic Majesty’s human hounds came baying.
The small cough did not alert him at first. Rather, he noticed small feet within a kicking distance of his face. Inside one of the silken slippers, a tiny toe wriggled as if in thought. So all was lost!
Beyond words, Robert despairingly raised his face to know the little magistrate’s verdict and watched, incredulous, as the child lifted a finger to her lips and pointed. Shifting, he glimpsed a rope ladder and above it a treehouse set amiably some twelve feet up, across two sturdy branches of a paperbark. Without another thought, he hurled himself across the space, grabbed the ladder and sprung up it.
The playhouse’s door was narrow, the roof low. He crawled in and then cursed his impulsive nature. D—n it, he was caught now, like a brainless leg of mutton in a meat safe. The child only had to shriek for her nursemaid and he would be snared, flogged and sent in irons to the hell of Norfolk Island.
Crammed Gulliver-like between a doll’s high chair and a gingham-covered table set with tiny porcelain cups, he trembled in the intense heat but there was no wail from below. The cicadas resumed their chorus and, humming, his little hostess reached the platform and gravely anchored in the ladder.
‘Do you entertain often?’ he asked absurdly as she joined him.
The child couldn’t be more than seven. Ringlets bunched with blue velvet bows shook in silent laughter as she knelt opposite and lifted a Lilliputian teapot with the grace of a governor’s lady. The buttonhole mouth unravelled into a glorious smile.
‘Will you take tea, sir?’
The girl’s kindness almost devastated Robert. His thumb and finger rattled the tiny cup so much as he lifted the saucer that he set it down again abruptly, nudging it across the cloth instead, close to unmanly tears as he watched the water from the neat spout fill the cup.
Out in the lane, the sergeant bellowed, ‘D—n his eyes! The scoundrel can’t be far.’
Robert accepted the tepid mouthful gratefully. God’s Truth, he could have drunk the Tank Stream dry, for the merciless February sun was nowhere near the yardarm and he had just run a quarter mile from the farm.
Young eyes, grey as Scottish weather, smiled across at him. The teapot waited, poised to pour him a second cup.
‘They’ll search the garden,’ she stated softly, glancing out through the treehouse’s only window. It faced her home. To close the hooked back shutters in this heat would rouse suspicion. ‘I suppose I should introduce myself since I have invited you for tea. Caroline Kent.’
Captain Kent’s daughter? he wondered. Amused, he took the solemnly proffered hand and gallantly raised it to his lips. ‘Your humble servant, Miss Kent. Robert Berwick at your service.’
‘Caro,’ she corrected. ‘You are not wearing irons, Mr Berwick? Why are they after you?’ She ignored the voices coming from the house.
‘I’m a political prisoner not a thief or a murderer.’ He edged back as far as he could from the window.
‘Of course not! One can always tell,’ she whispered. ‘Mama says that ‘Manners maketh man’.’
‘Hush, they’re coming. Now you must be quiet.’ Grabbing her doll, the child blocked the window space with her body and brandished the teapot. ‘Isabella and I are having tea, Mama.’
‘Oh, Caroline.’ Relief laced a lady’s voice. ‘Darling, this is Sergeant Russell. He’s looking for an escaped prisoner? Have you seen any strangers?’
‘Isabella is very hungry, aren’t you, Isabella?’ The doll waggled.
‘A young man, Miss Caroline.’ The sergeant’s tone sweetened hopefully. ‘Dark hair, brown breeches, tallish.’
Behind Caro, Robert, his limbs growing more cramped by the instant, held his breath. A bushfly crawled upon his lower lip, lured by the moisture.
‘Did you seen any stranger, Isabella?’ Caro asked and then her childish voice pitched higher. ‘No, I haven’t seen anyone.’ The doll jiggled from side to side. Don’t overdo it, little one!
‘Are you certain no one came over the fence, miss?’ persisted the sergeant.
‘Dearest, you must tell the sergeant the truth if you did see anyone.’
‘I heard some feet and then lots. They all went that way.’
‘House is clear, sir,’ shouted another voice.
‘Search the grounds,’ bawled the sergeant, and stated as a courtesy: ‘With your permission, ma’am? Over there, lads! Check the bushes.’
Had he broken any stems? God in Heaven, Robert almost wished his fellow convict, Thomas Muir, had not held out the lure of freedom to him. Governor Hunter would slap another two years on his fourteen year sentence for this.
‘I wish you would come down, sweetheart, and into the house. The convict may still be lurking.’
‘We are quite safe, Mama. I shall keep the ladder up.’
‘But it is so hot out here, dearest.’
‘Oh, but we can watch the soldiers better from here. Isn’t it exciting, Isabella?’
Caro’s mother must have wearied of craning her neck for no more was said and the child stayed in her watchtower. Robert’s heart pounded, if Russell demanded the ladder to be dropped. The child's small hand slunk back in, forefinger gesturing to the floor. The bastard must be standing beneath them listening.
Blinding sweat trickled from Robert’s brow, and time crawled on its hands and knees as more heavy feet bruised the grass below them and stamped off irritably down the gravel path. It would be just like Russell to set a redcoat to watch from the shadows but in this temperature might the alehouse beckon? Tom Muir should be at the Otter’s longboat by now. God willing, he would tell the Americans to pull off. One of them had to make it to freedom and Tom, clever, eloquent, deserved that chance.
‘They have all gone back to the house,’ whispered Caro at last, wriggling backwards and studying Robert’s demeanour as if estimating his chance of staying uncaught.
‘I owe you a great debt, Caro. You’re a canny lass.’
‘‘Canny’? I don’t know what that means or ‘poli-whatever’.’
‘I’m a Scot. Canny means clever. ‘Political’, well, that’s a harder one. Have you heard of parliament and elections?’ The heart-shaped face looked doubtful. What were the Rights of Man or Trees of Liberty to her? ‘I believe in everyone having the right to vote, lass.’ Sedition, the judge had called it. Fourteen years for sedition!
‘Me as well?’ But it was definitely beyond her precocious understanding.
‘You, lass?’ Robert swallowed. ‘If I was God, I’d make you the Queen of England.’
Weymouth, Dorset, England, 1815
CARO drew rein on the ridgetop where the ancient wood halted and the ploughed fields began. Always she stopped here, loving the wild unembellished hills to east and west and the sea rolled out before her before her like a vast canvas of light and colour. A merchant vessel, snowy sails full-breasted, was swanning coastward, bound for the river mouth and a harbourage at Weymouth or maybe it would join the flock of ships already clustered in the lee of Portland.
Sadly, Caro turned her horse’s head back towards the town. She could no longer afford this pleasure. Now her horse must be sold too to meet her husband’s debtors. Already she had given Phoebe, her maidservant, notice, and within a week she would relinquish the house on the esplanade for some shabby backstreet rooms.
It was hard to keep her head high above despair. Even the wind hurling a nuisance of withered leaves at her heels as she stepped through her front door reminded her of the misery of winter stretching ahead. Then she saw the small card with one corner turned down waiting on the hall tray.
‘Oh, ma’am. I never saw such polish on a gentleman’s boots,’ Phoebe told her breathlessly.
Such news would need to last a year. No one else called on Caro now. Word of her husband’s suicide had eddied down from London through the tributaries of gossip and there were no more invitations. ‘Poor Mrs Lancaster’ had become the common term of reference over the genteel card tables.
The name on the card was unfamiliar. French-sounding. Laurence Charlon.
‘The gentleman is putting up at the Black Dog in St Mary’s Street and will call again at three tomorrow.’
And call he did. She was expecting a younger man, someone her late husband’s age, not the stylish man with silvering hair who followed Phoebe in.
‘Mrs Caroline Lancaster?’
She inclined her head graciously. The stranger waited for her to be seated and tossing his coat tails back sat down upon the chair opposite. ‘I have come from London, Mrs Lancaster. You are a difficult lady to find.’
‘I suppose you are a friend of my late husband’s,’ she remarked dryly. It was amazing the circling round that her husband’s debtors had performed in London before they swooped.
‘Indeed, no, ma’am, although I did learn of his unfortunate demise.’ Definitely a debt collector!
‘Forgive me for asking, sir, but I cannot place your accent.’
‘My drawl, you mean, ma’am? Guess you would call it Philidalphian though my home is in Columbia now. And I spent some years in Paris before that.’
‘And now you find yourself in Weymouth.’ The irony in her voice was not lost upon him.
‘Indeed, ma’am.’ The blue eyes missed nothing--the lack of ornaments on the mantleshelf, the worn hem of her mourning gown. ‘I am not here for payment.’
Absurdly, she wanted to believe that his perceptive smile was honest.
‘In that case, may I offer you some tea, sir?’
‘I was hoping you would, ma’am.’ He was observing her with a Robinson Crusoe fascination as she rose and tugged the bellrope.
‘The truth is that I am here for a friend who cannot perform the errand for himself. Mr Robert Berwick. Does the name mean anything to you, ma’am?’
‘Yes,’ she answered carefully. ‘We once took tea together. I was seven.’
‘My friend did not tell me that.’ He recovered his astonishment. ‘That you were as young as that. I understand you rendered him some assistance at Botany Bay?’
Caro shook her head modestly. ‘It was a very brief acquaintance.’
‘Unhappily, Mr Berwick passed away last year but before he died he begged me that if ever I came to England I would seek you out, ma’am. It has not been an easy commission I might tell you.’
‘He escaped?’ An hour earlier she would have sworn she had no tears left, but they rose now to choke her. Tears for the past. For Mama and Papa, and for the joy to discover after all these years that Mr Berwick had reached America and freedom. And for what might have been, a happy correspondence had she known he was alive.
‘My dear lady, I am sorry to have upset you.’
‘No, no,’ she whispered. ‘My-my nurse told me that he had been hanged and I was to think no more on him. All these years. And now it is too late. I cannot write to him. Did he prosper? Oh, I hope he found much happiness in America.’
‘Yes, ma’am, and he left you a bequest. Two thousand pounds! You do not answer, Mrs Lancaster. I understand that your husband left huge debts.’ So he had already heard the tittle-tattle. ‘I trust this will see an end to your difficulties.’
‘No,’ she said slowly. ‘I cannot accept. That would not be right, sir. My husband was a fool, led into gambling by unkind friends. I should not want Mr Berwick’s hard-earned money to end in their pockets. Please tell Mr Berwick’s solicitors to distribute the money among his wife and children or some charity—orphans of gamblers perhaps.’
‘Your feelings do you credit, ma’am. Then we shall say no more on the matter.’
‘AND what happened to Muir, the man Mr Berwick escaped with?’ Caro asked two days later as she strolled eastward with the American along the curve of beach.
‘He was accorded a hero’s welcome in Paris but they soon forgot about him and he died in penury.’ Laurence Chalon’s eyes narrowed at the distant image of old King George that the local people had created on the chalk hillside.
‘Oh, how tragic,’ murmured Caro, ‘and after all those misadventures. And was Mr Berwick with him then?’
‘He was still in France at the time but in the south. It’s my understanding that he left for America in 1802 during the peace of Amiens and never returned to Europe.’
She nodded. ‘I suppose it would have been too dangerous for him to return to England?’
‘I fear so.’
They walked on in companionable silence to where the town dwindled beyond the shingle to a few scattered cottages skirting the brackish moor, and then they turned about to face the rain clouds louring from the west.
Caro had begun to enjoy Laurence Chalon’s company too much, to appreciate the hand beneath her elbow on the steps, the conversation of a man who had glimpsed Red Indian encampments, and who could comment on Emperor Bonaparte’s antics with humour rather than partisan loathing.
‘We shall be most dull when you are gone, sir,’ she lamented as the wet weather drove in, and they returned to her house.
‘That is something we must discuss, Mrs Lancaster. You cannot fail to observe that in the few days since I arrived, we have struck up a most excellent friendship.’ He carried her hand to his lips. ‘You exchanged one shire for another. Have you ever considered leaving these shores?’
‘For somewhere like America or Australia? Had I the means, maybe.’
‘Two thousand pounds.’
She swept before him into the drawing room and turned laughing. ‘No, I pray you, stop rattling Mr Berwick’s money at me. I will not change my mind on that.’
‘What would change your mind, ma’am?’
‘If—I had the chance to see Mr Berwick again.’
The air was quiet between them and then he said: ‘When did you guess, Caro?’
‘Oh,’ she paced away and swung round. ‘Only a second ago. The way you kissed my hand. Why, you unkind creature, you let me sit and weep tears over you and you were still alive and—what happened to the Scots accent?’
‘Carefully erased. You remembered that?’
‘I’m a canny lass, remember. And I even have Isabella still.’ She lifted her hand, wanting to touch his face. ‘So sad and worse for wear.’
‘I think not,’ he answered, knowing it was of herself she spoke, and taking her hand, lifted it to his cheek. ‘My dear Caro, would you settle for Mrs Berwick instead of Queen of England, do you think?’
And in answer, she wound her arms about his neck and kissed him soundly.
‘You shall not escape a second time, ‘ she vowed.
Copyright Isolde Martyn
Some years ago one of my husband’s family in England inherited an escritoire, which is a writing desk with a sloping lift up lid, rather like the old school desks. It originally came from the family home in Teignmouth, Devon.
However, for anyone who loves the novels of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, it was the contents of the escritoire that were so exciting.
So here with the kind permission of their owner are the photographs of three bodices, which I believe date from the 1820s, around the time the Prince Regent became King George IV.
Sadly, I don’t think any of these garments were ever worn and I wonder if something tragic happened.
Ivory silk bodice with fine lace decorating the neckline and capping the shoulders. This was clearly made for a lady to wear at a ball or a formal gathering, and it is the largest of the three bodices. It was fastened at the back by ribbons.
This is a far smaller bodice, made for a girl just out the schoolroom or else a young woman who did not have much of a bosom. Just like the white silk bodice, it is in high-waisted, Empire style and very ‘Regency’ with its pink stripes. It fastened with a simple hook, I’m pretty sure the bow would have been at the back but I could be wrong.
I thought you might be interested to see the stitching and fabric close up.
I don’t think this bodice was made to be worn on the outside. It looks like underwear and the stitching is not so good. I’m not sure whether the running stitch is the tacking left in. I guess it’s possible it might be here to make some gathers.
A bride’s mementoes: two little silver shoes that may have adorned a wedding cake; a little spray of artificial lily-of-the valley; and some braiding with pendant flowers woven with metallic threads through them. I do not know who this lady was but I hope her married life was very happy.
Among these things were some lace samples sent from Pennsylvania, probably in the 1840s, and made at a girls’ boarding school.
There was also a piece of paper with Miss Keat written on it. Members of the family have tried to follow this up and speculated as to whether the poet Keats’s sister could have been a friend of the lady who owned the escritoire.
The sad aspect of this story is that the escritoire was stolen when the owner was on holiday overseas. Fortunately she gave the contents to a relative for safe-keeping and so the family still has them safe and sound.
Whether you are writing a historical novel or historical romance (or, like me, something between the two), getting the background and atmosphere right makes it more interesting for your readers and adds to your integrity as an author. However, some aspiring novelists find the prospect of research extremely daunting.
With the internet these days, there is a vast field of information you can harvest and it’s a matter of sifting out the bits that will be useful, and in the process you may find extra inspiration, either for the book you are working on or a future novel.
Here’s something you can practise with. It’s a short extract from the diary of Samuel Pepys. Try reading it through with the following in mind:
- ideas for the beginning of a story
- ideas for characters
And what can you glean about:
- class differences in England in the mid-seventeenth century
- attitudes towards women
- social life
- use of language
Taken from the The Illustrated Pepys (Penguin Classic History) ed. Robert Latham
3 February 1664
This night late, coming in my coach coming up at Ludgate Hill, I saw two gallants and their footmen taking a pretty wench which I have eyed much lately, set up shop upon the hill, a seller of ribband and gloves. They seem to drag her by some force, but the wench went and I believe had her turn served; but God forgive me, what thoughts and wishes I had of being in their place. In Convent Garden tonight, going to fetch home my wife, I stopped at the great coffee-house there, where I never was before – where Draydon the poet (I knew at Cambridge) and all the wits of the town, and Harris the player …; and had I time then or could at other times, it will be good coming thither, for there I perceive is very witty and pleasant discourse.
If you enjoyed having a go at that, but you are wanting to write a Regency novel, perhaps you may get something useful from the following.
Extract from Thomas Creevey's Papers (Penguin Books) ed. John Gore
1837 Lady Louisa Molyneux writes to Creevey
We have not much profited by our friends at Court … but we have one great feature in Lady Foley. She called here yesterday, and finding Maria at home alone, she took her out driving. She was dressed in the finest white muslin gown, with a blue satin spencer, a man’s shirt, full-collar and neck, cloth, over which a white domino, a man’s hat, and a double thick green veil which she never raised even in the room. She desired her coachman to drive wherever the fashion was, and in this attire Maria accompanied her up and down the Parade. She was in the highest spirits, and with all her finery she drove to a stableman’s to look for ponies to drive, declaring she was the best whip in England; … when Maria suggested the possibility of her being asked to dine at the Pavilion, she flourished her smelling bottle and said, 'I suppose one need not go if one is dangerously ill.'
Lord Melbourne has just called … He complains very much of having a 'washy' set of ladies, and says they are always ill.
We had a splendid arrival of Germans at Byam House last night. The Princess Augusta of Saxony, who required so many beds no hotel could take her in. She refused to marry the Emperor of Austria twice, and Napoleon once; has a hundred thousand a year, and finer pearls and diamonds than any lady in the world.
The John Russells are at the Bedford, and dine every day at the Pavilion. He has such a bad cold that there is not even his voice left of him.
First, we have a cameo of a lively and wealthy woman who is either eccentric, outrageous or perhaps a lesbian, plus details of her clothing. Then we have a mention of a woman who turned down two emperors!
The slang ‘washy’ is a great word and could be used easily in dialogue in your novel.
The ‘Pavilion’ is maybe the Brighton Pavilion, beloved of the Prince Regent.
The writer’s use of language, name-dropping and mention of social activities provides the sort of material that Georgette Heyer delved into when she was researching the background for her wonderful novels. Thomas Creevey’s Papers were one of her sources.
Isn’t it amazing how many details you can pick up from just a small extract!