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Authors: Jean Rowden

Death at Knytte

BOOK: Death at Knytte
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Death at Knytte

Jean Rowden

I
t was time. The huge house was silent, wrapped in that deep somnolence that came when the doors were locked and the last footman had been dismissed. Even the lowly scullery maid had crept wearily to her blanket, to snatch a few hours of precious sleep; only his lordship’s gamekeepers would be awake at such an hour, and they would be far away, stalking the coverts to protect the estate’s game.

Lucille, Lady Pickhurst, slid from her bed and tiptoed into the dressing room which separated her bed chamber from her husband’s room. Bending to the keyhole, she listened for a moment to the loud rhythmic snores from beyond the door, while her lips curved into a smile. His lordship had been disappointed when his two guests, pleading exhaustion after their journey, had withdrawn early after dinner, so it had seemed a natural enough gesture to appease him by sitting on his lap to ply him with brandy as soon as they were alone. He had been so distracted by her attentions that he failed to notice how many times she refilled his glass.

Lucille straightened, laughing softly, her eyes sparkling. She had learnt a great deal in the few short months of her marriage; it was unwise to show any interest in other men, particularly if they were young. On this occasion she had kept her attention fixed on her meal. Laidlaw, who had sparse hair and watery eyes, had presented no temptation; he talked
exclusively to her husband, and spoke of nothing but
architecture
. As for Mortleigh, who looked elegant as always with his carefully tended moustache, and dark good looks, she’d been piqued by his lack of interest. He had kept his taciturn gaze upon the portraits which adorned the wall of the dining hall whenever he lifted it from his meal; their eyes had met only once, when Lord Pickhurst had asked his guests their opinion of summer houses and gothic follies.

Mortleigh had raised his eyebrows, but before he could speak, Laidlaw was in full flow, averring that the old monastery which stood at one side of Knytte was surely more romantic than any folly.

‘I have no great fondness for follies, but a summer house enhances any garden,’ Mortleigh had said quietly, addressing his hostess as the other two men continued their
conversation
. ‘And such places have a charm of their own by moonlight, when the rest of the world is asleep. Don’t you agree, Lady Pickhurst?’ Something in his eyes had made her flush a little, and she had given the briefest nod, before dropping her gaze and returning her attention to the roast duck on her plate.

Satisfied that her husband was soundly asleep, Lucille grasped the key. It turned smoothly and silently. She smiled, admiring her forethought. When the key to the old library had proved difficult to turn she had requested that a locksmith be sent for; every lock in the house was oiled and in perfect working order. Although his lordship’s planned renovations to the library had been abandoned at her suggestion, he hadn’t commented upon her interest in that particular room; as far as he was concerned she could do no wrong.

Flushed with his success in winning such a prize as Miss Lucille Gayne in the face of competition from many younger opponents, Lord Pickhurst hadn’t noticed how, little by little, she was wresting the control of the household from his
grasp. For her part, from the moment of their engagement she had acted the model of modesty and devotion; like many foolish old men before him, he had come to trust his
beautiful
young wife.

Lucille knew she must give her husband no cause for
jealousy
if she wanted to enjoy some occasional freedoms. Being a devious person herself, she suspected that his invitation to Laidlaw and Mortleigh was intended to test her affections; Laidlaw’s youthful intensity, and Mortleigh’s slightly rakish good looks, might tempt any young wife who was tiring of an elderly spouse. As she trod quietly down the corridor, a light robe over her nightdress, Lucille was well satisfied with herself; she had acted her part to perfection, expressing delight when their guests retired so early, and flouting convention by perching provocatively upon his lordship’s lap before the last of the servants had been dismissed.

By any measure Knytte was large. It had been a monastery, until Henry VIII drove out the monks and gave the estate to one of his favourites; there were still hundreds of acres attached, with farms, mills and villages providing for its owners. Each generation had made alterations, and now the rambling mansion was like a rabbit warren, with many unexpected passageways and staircases. The creaking timbers and moving shadows stirred by her lantern held no fears for its new chatelaine; she was a creature of the flesh, not the spirit; she didn’t believe in ghosts.

Padding quietly past the nursery, Lucille checked her pace. She dragged her fingernails softly across one of the doors. A slow catlike smile lifted the corners of her mouth, and a low throaty chuckle escaped her, quite unlike her usual coquettish laugh. A slight sound, a whimper or a hushed moan, came from within the room, and she darted away, a hand pressed over her lips in case amusement got the better of her.

She entered the long gallery. The light from her lamp shone briefly on portraits of her husband’s ancestors. Lucille stuck out her tongue at one particularly repulsive old man who reminded her of her spouse. A large French clock, gleaming faintly as she passed showed that it was ten minutes past midnight. She had the first chill frisson of doubt. This rendezvous was not like all the others. Was she being unwise? Shaking the thought away, she increased her pace a little.

A flight of stairs at the far end of the room took her into the oldest surviving part of the house; she was beyond any possibility of discovery. At the bottom of the stairs she turned right, passing the old library. Behind its locked door the ancient books lay collecting dust; Lord Pickhurst had planned to turn the library into a ballroom, a luxury few local houses could boast. To Lucille this intended gift spoke not of his love, but of his sense of acquisition; she was a chattel of great value and beauty, and her husband had intended to use the new room to exhibit her to his friends. However, he’d allowed her to veto the suggestion; that was when she realized the potential power of her position.

At the end of the corridor was a heavy oak door, scarred and black with age. It gave entry to the monk’s refectory, the most complete surviving part of the monastery. This must have been a grand apartment in its day, with its wide vaulted ceiling and huge fireplace. Another door, just as ancient, led her to the cloisters, ruined now and lit only by the stars; she left her lantern hidden inside the first carrel, where a monk had once sat labouring over his manuscripts. During the day Jonah Jackman would be at work here, for Lord Pickhurst didn’t find the ruins sufficiently romantic, and the stonemason was charged with making what was left of the monastery more appealing to the eye.

Lucille suppressed a shiver, far more in excitement than fear. Warm anticipation began to spread from within her, a
wicked glow growing below her belly as if that part of her had an independent life of its own; she licked her lips as her breath came fast and shallow. Once through the cloisters and the ruins beyond she would skirt the lawn to reach the summer house. Her night-time ventures had become almost commonplace, the escape from Knytte too easily accomplished, but tonight would be different. No clumsy rustic lover awaited her this time. Unless she had grossly misread him,
he
would be there.

Hearing something scrape across the nursery door, Phoebe Drake sat straight in her chair and stared at the handle, waiting for it to turn and wishing the door had a key. Her heart began to beat uncomfortably fast, but then the boy in the bed stirred and whimpered in his sleep. Dismissing her own fears the young woman rose and hurried to his side, laying a gentle hand on his shoulder and murmuring a quiet reassurance. Her words drowned out the low laugh and the sound of retreating footsteps.

Rodney Pengoar turned over and settled back into sleep. Phoebe smiled down at him. She had been governess to the Pengoar children for only four months, but she had soon grown attached to the little boy; at ten years old he was already aware of his dignity as the heir to the Pickhurst estate, but the knowledge gave him an old-fashioned generosity, and he was not in the least bit spoilt. It was just as well he expected little, for his uncle paid him scant attention, being wholly concerned with his new wife. Phoebe didn’t care for gossip, but the nursery maid chattered artlessly about the days before the new mistress arrived. It seemed Lord Pickhurst had once taken great pleasure in the child’s company, even going so far as to allow the boy to join him for dinner once a week.

Sighing, Phoebe went through to the room where Eliza slept. Three years younger than her brother, she was a bright and cheerful child, easy to love, and not given to her sibling’s night-time fears. She lay with her arms flung wide, her chubby cheeks flushed. Eliza at least was untroubled by her uncle’s neglect, and unaware of her aunt’s dislike.

Concerned for Rodney’s health, a few days earlier Phoebe had overcome her natural timidity and approached his previous governess when she happened to see her at Trembury market. Miss Hissop was over fifty, and wore a permanently sour expression, but once Phoebe explained her errand she had been pleasant enough. ‘The cause isn’t far to seek,’ the older woman said, ‘but it’s not my place, nor yours, to speak of it. If Master Rodney’s nightmares are troublesome, Miss Drake, why not move into his room?’

‘Lady Pickhurst refused to allow it,’ Phoebe replied. ‘She says it’s wrong to cosset him.’

‘Does Miss Eliza hear these noises in the night?’

‘I think not. She sleeps more soundly. On the occasions when I’ve found her quiet and pensive, she tells me it’s because she misses you.’ Phoebe had dropped her gaze at this point. ‘She doesn’t blame me for the change,’ she added, after a moment’s thought. ‘I hope you are as fair.’

She had been rewarded by a smile that transformed the thin lined face. ‘We are all of us helpless before a more powerful influence, Miss Drake. The whims of a lady far outweigh the happiness of children and mere servants. I trust you may find a way to comfort the boy.’ With another shrewd look she went on. ‘The armchair in Master Rodney’s room is not particularly uncomfortable.’

Miss Hissop’s comment about the chair had been ironical, but with an added cushion or two it was bearable, and Phoebe was about to return to it when some whim made her walk on
into her own room instead. The bed, untouched since it was made that morning, looked inviting. She halted by the window and pulled aside the heavy curtain. The dim glow from the nightlight cast a faint reflection and she looked briefly at the slender figure in its sensible nightgown, with its concealing folds, and buttons high to the neck. A thick plait hung over one shoulder; her hair was her only vanity and she was reluctant to have it cut, although it was difficult to keep up and out of sight during the day.

Phoebe pulled a wry face. It was best for a governess to be plain. Suddenly feeling heated, she rested her cheek against the cool glass. She was grateful to be at Knytte; she’d taken the post to escape from a dangerous situation in her previous employment. She was glad that his lordship was old, and totally engrossed in his young wife. Lady Pickhurst was arrogant and ill-mannered towards those she considered inferior, but that wasn’t much out of the common way. A governess had a difficult part to play, being neither fish nor fowl; aloof from the servants, she was far below the notice of her betters. For the present the isolation suited Phoebe; she was content to feel safe. That thought was enough to put a smile on her face. Looking inward and not out upon the garden, she didn’t see the dark shape that followed the shadows beneath the yew hedge.

Some distance from Knytte’s eastern boundary, in wild moorland where only those who knew it well dared venture at night, a desolate crossroads was marked by a tall wooden stake. There had been a gibbet on this post; in the rough grass to one side of the northern road, the bones of the last man left hanging from it lay half buried and forgotten in their rusty metal cage.

The moon escaped from the clutches of a cloud to shed light upon the crooked figure leaning his back against the ancient
post. Flinching as if the light was too bright for his eyes, the man ducked his head further between shoulders that were hunched to the point of deformity. He hardly looked like a member of the human race. The clothes he wore would disgrace a scarecrow, and the hair and beard which haloed his head were as wild and tangled as a crow’s nest. It was not his back alone that declared him to be a cripple; both legs were bent at awkward angles, as if the joints were incapable of straightening, and the single hand that was visible outside his tatters clung to the front of his rags, crooked into a claw. Odd boots adorned the man’s feet, one almost decent in thick brown leather, the other made of dry scuffed scraps flapping apart, sole and uppers bound in place by threadbare strips of sacking.

The crossroads had an evil reputation. Propped against the stained wooden stake, the vagrant might have been no more than somebody’s idea of a joke, a dummy left to frighten passers-by of a nervous disposition, if it hadn’t been for the occasional flicker as he blinked, and moonlight reflected from his eyes. In the distance a church clock struck one. He had stood immobile in that exact spot for over two hours, and still he didn’t move.

As the last stroke faded to silence, another noise sounded on the breeze. There was a horse on the road. Turning his head an inch or two, the ragged figure seemed to be stretching his ears to catch the sound. The horse was not coming from the west, along the main road, but from the south. It was being ridden fast. Despite the giveaway clink of steel on stone that warned of its approach, the rider appeared suddenly, a shadow against the sky.

The horse shied violently at the gibbet post, but the rider mastered it, pulling up at the side of the road, where an ancient attempt to tame the moor had left a low bank and a
remnant of ditch. He dismounted, a slight figure who seemed oblivious of the man standing so still and silent below the gibbet. When he spoke, he addressed the straggle of thorn bushes that topped the dyke. ‘Sir Martin? Are you there, sir?’

BOOK: Death at Knytte
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