Read [Roger the Chapman 02] - The Plymouth Cloak Online
Authors: Kate Sedley
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
We need to reach the safety of the Abbey before dusk, and it grows dark early this time of year. If there is another stranger staying at the Abbey, we shall know to be on our guard.'
'I doubt if they will have many visitors at this season.' Philip mounted his horse and settled himself in the saddle.
'As you say, the days are getting short, and only those who have to travel are still on the roads of Dartmoor.' As I struggled to mount my own horse, still placidly eating and completely undisturbed by my clumsy efforts, it occurred to me that my companion was more shaken by what had happened than he cared to admit. The bantering, sneering tone had gone, and in its place there was an edginess which betokened strain. Philip was growing worried, whatever impression he might wish to give to the contrary. I hoped it would last. The onus of overseeing his safety would not then fall entirely to me. I prayed that the Abbey guest-house would prove to be unoccupied on our arrival. That way we could have it all to ourselves.
My prayer was not destined to be answered. As we crossed Buckfast Bridge, it became apparent that the whole vicinity of the Abbey was awash with humanity. As we passed along the village street, I reined in the cob and called to a woman leaning from an upstairs window of one of the houses.
'What's going on? We were hoping to find lodging at the Abbey, but it looks as if we may be disappointed.'
'Strangers, are you?' The Devon burr was strong in her voice. 'Yesterday was the Feast of St Michael, and the Abbey has a licence to hold a fair on Brent Tor that day and the two days previous. A lot of people who came for it are still here, recovering from the effects of the Abbot's cider. Very potent stuff that be, my dear, as you'll find out soon though if you try any. Although a great lad like you should be able to hold his liquor.' Her bold eyes slid appreciatively from me to Philip Underdown. 'And that goes for you, too, my handsome.'
He laughed, the worry and tension of the past hour dropping from him as easily as a snake sloughs its skin. He raised himself in his stirrups and, reaching up, grasped the woman's hand, pulling her down towards him until he could plant a resounding kiss on her cheek. She laughed and returned it with interest.
As we pushed our way through the crowds of people, I remarked: 'She was a bit old for you, wasn't she? She had more than a few wrinkles, and what I could see of her hair beneath her cap was turning grey.'
Philip turned his head and grinned. 'When you know me better - which Heaven forbid! - you'll discover that I like women of all ages. A woman would have to be in her dotage, or extremely ugly, to repel me. Thin, fat, tall, short, young, old - I'll lay them all if they'll let me. And most of them will.' I didn't doubt it. He was a man who took what he wanted, without scruple; ruthless in his determination to get his own way. Human life and dignity was cheap in his eyes, as he had already demonstrated. I said nothing and urged my horse forward to the Abbey gates, where one of the lay brothers was on duty.
'We're on the King's business,' I said. 'My friend here will show you his letter of credence. We need asylum for the night.'
'You and half a dozen others,' he grumbled, but he let us in without asking for any identification. 'You'd best see Father Abbot if you're who you say you are. Wait here and I'll go and find out if he's at liberty. The guest-house is full, but he'll accommodate you somewhere. Probably in his own quarters. '
While he bustled away, Philip and I dismounted. As I stooped to unfasten my saddle-bag, I experienced a strong sense of being watched, but when I turned my head, everyone seemed intent on his own business. Nevertheless, the feeling persisted and my uneasiness returned.
Abbot John Kyng was a pleasant, courteous man. At least he seemed so to me, and I cannot recall ever having heard anyone speak ill of him, although I suppose there may have been those who disliked him. At that time, in the year 1473, he had been Abbot of Buckfast for almost nine years and was to remain so for another quarter of a century. A distinguished scholar, he had formerly been Proctor of St Bernard's College, Oxford, and had written several theological treatises which had found favour in Rome.
He rose to greet us as Philip and I entered his cell, the white Cistercian robes hanging loosely on his spare frame. 'I am informed you are on the King's business and need a bed for the night.'
Philip glared at me. 'It is not supposed to be generally known, Father. My companion here was over-zealous in his desire to make certain of our accommodation.' I had the grace to blush. My tongue had indeed run away with me and I had forgotten the need for caution. We should of course have taken our chance with the rest of the travellers and revellers besieging the Abbey for shelter and not drawn attention to ourselves in this manner.
The Abbot, sensing my discomfiture, gave me a reassuring smile. 'The lay brother who brought you to me finishes his present spell of duty at the Abbey tonight and is returning to his farmhouse at first light tomorrow. He is extremely trustworthy and keeps his own counsel. You need have no fear that he will repeat what you told him. As far as anyone else is concerned, you have delivered a message to me from Bishop Bothe, and it will therefore not be thought remarkable if I ensure you have a bed for the night. The Infirmary is unoccupied at present. I will speak to our Brother Infirmarian about your sleeping there. But it will be advisable for you to eat with our other guests. It will give you the necessary opportunity to allay any suspicions which may have been aroused by your preferential treatment. No irreparable harm has been done.'
'No thanks to you,' Philip hissed in my ear as we made our way to the refectory, where the monks were starting to dispense the evening meal. 'I knew I'd have done better on my own.'
I said nothing; partly because there was no real excuse I could offer - I had been careless and that was all there was to it - and partly because I still found it disconcerting to discover that not all churchmen felt themselves bound by the rule of strict truth. They bowed the knee to expediency far oftener than they would like you to think. I suppose I was very green in those days to have expected otherwise. We stood in line to collect our bowl of broth, slice of black bread and wedge of pale, goat’s milk cheese, before going to sit down at one of the long trestle tables. To my relief, no one seemed interested in us or commented on the fact that we had been granted an interview by the Abbot, and I was forced to the conclusion then, as I have been many times since, that generally people are too wrapped up in their own concerns to be fully aware of what is going on around them.
My companion was grumbling morosely about the quality of the food and cursing the Duke's insistence that we started our journey that afternoon instead of waiting for daybreak tomorrow. 'With hard riding,' he added, 'we could have reached Plymouth by nightfall.'
'I couldn't,' I retorted. 'And maybe His Grace thought you were safer out of Exeter. Besides, there's nothing wrong with this broth. It's excellent.'
It was fish soup, hardly surprising with the River Dart so close at hand and plentifully stocked with freshwater fish.
The brothers could take their rods and lines to the banks every day.
Philip Underdown snorted but made no further comment, merely shovelling the food into his mouth as fast as possible.
He was growing bad-tempered again, my presence proving a constant source of irritation to him. I decided to say as little as I could for the rest of the meal and contented myself with looking about me at my fellow diners. Most of them, as the village woman had said, were revellers left over from St Michael's fair, recovering from the effects of too much cider.
Tomorrow, they would wend their way home, north, south, east and west, to various parts of the moor, even as far afield as Plymouth or Exeter, to tell those unfortunate enough to be left behind what an enjoyable time they had had. The drunken stupor of today, the headaches, the blurred vision, would all be forgotten. There were, however, a few bonafide travellers, like ourselves: a couple of mendicant friars - Franciscans, judging by their grey habits - and a soberly dressed, middle aged man sitting at the end of a table near us, saying nothing to his neighbours and keeping his eyes fixed on his plate. I stared at him long and hard, but there was no possible way of knowing if this was the man I had seen on the moor earlier in the day. Once, as though conscious of my scrutiny, he half turned his head and raised his eyes fleetingly to mine, but his features remained expressionless. If he had any interest in me and my companion, he gave no sign.
We had almost finished our meal, when there was a sudden commotion behind us, as of someone swearing and rising clumsily to his feet. A moment later, a hand descended on Philip Underdown's shoulder and a voice rasped, 'I thought it was you!'
Philip, who was cleaning out his bowl with the last of his bread, slewed round and glanced up. The man standing over him was short and stocky, with light sandy hair and lashes, a straggling beard slightly more reddish in colour, and a leathery, weather-beaten countenance in which the most striking feature was a pair of very bright blue eyes. His tunic of rough wool was patched and dirty, the brown faded in places nearly to white. A strip of grubby linen wound about his neck served him in place of a shirt and the hand gripping my companion's shoulder was roughened with callouses.
The ferocity of his gaze was sufficient to make me flinch, but Philip Underdown, after a single brief glance, calmly resumed his supper.
'What do you want.'?' he demanded.
'You know damn well what I want!' The man lowered his head until it was on a level with Philip's and I could smell his sour breath. 'I want what's due to me.'
'You got what was due to you two years ago. I paid you off, Silas Bywater, the same as I paid off the others.' 'You promised us more. You said that if we got that rotting hulk of yours safely into port, you'd give every man aboard two gold angels apiece. All we got was a shilling.'
'And lucky to get that.' Philip spoke roughly, his patience wearing thin. 'How could I pay you more until I sold the cargo?' He was anxious now to be shot of this unwelcome acquaintance. They were beginning to attract attention. Heads were craning at adjacent tables in an attempt to see what was going on. He tried to shrug off the hand on his shoulder, but without success. 'Leave me alone!'
The man addressed as Silas Bywater hissed: 'You appointed a time and date and place for us to meet you, so you could give us our share of the proceeds, but you never turned up. The other poor sods decided to make the best of a bad job and went off home to Plymouth. Some of 'em even believed you hadn't been able to get rid of the cargo, but I knew you better than that. I stayed on in London a while and made inquiries. And it was just as I thought. You'd made a nice little profit. Done very well for yourself, and then you'd vanished. You never intended paying me and the rest of the Speedwell's crew any more, did you, you lying bastard?'
One of the brothers hurried across, attracted by the raised voices, his round-cheeked face pink with anxiety, his manner flustered. 'Please cease this bickering immediately,' he said. 'Remember that you are in the House of God.'
'Then get this idiot off my back,' Philip protested. 'The argument's none of my making. I just want to be left alone.'
'I'm not going until I get what's due to me,' Silas Bywater snarled. 'Two years I've been dreaming of this meeting and now, quite by chance, it's here. And to think I nearly didn't come up to the fair! Don't plead poverty, either! You look prosperous enough.'
'I've told you!' Philip roared, losing his temper. 'You'll get nothing from me, not ever! So slink back to whatever kennel you've crawled out of and let me be!'
I decided it was time to take a hand. The little monk was making ineffectual noises and looking around him for reinforcements, but none was forthcoming. His fellows were either in their cells preparing for Compline or about their allotted tasks, and no one else seemed inclined to interfere. I swung my legs over the bench and rose slowly to my feet, pulling myself up to my full height as I did so. Reaching out, I forced Silas Bywater's hand from my companion's shoulder, gripped both his wrists and spun him round to face me.
'Leave my friend alone," I told him quietly, 'or you'll have to deal with me as well.'
He swore furiously and tried to free himself, but in my youth I had enormous strength in my hands. No matter how much he writhed and squirmed, I was still able to hold him without much difficulty. In the end, he had to admit defeat and stared up at me, panting from his exertions. Philip had also risen and was standing beside me, a look of such contempt on his face that I was not surprised when my captive made one last effort to break away. In his shoes, the object of such scorn, I, too, would have wanted to lash out with my fists. I tightened my grip until I heard one of his bones crack. Silas shrieked with pain and I let him go, to sink down on a bench, nursing his injured wrist and pouring forth a flood of imprecations. The little monk pressed both hands over his ears in horror.
I turned to Philip Underdown. 'Let's get out of this. We're attracting too much attention. We've an early start in the morning. It's time we were asleep.'
He nodded, and I gathered my black-handled knife from the table and my bundle and cudgel from beneath the bench, where I had placed them at the start of the meal. In silence, but uncomfortably aware of everyone's eyes upon us, we made our way to the refectory door. As we reached it, Silas Bywater shouted: 'Don't think you've heard the last of this, Master Underdown! I know things about you that you wouldn't want made common knowledge, and don't forget that! I'll get you yet, you hell-hound!'