Authors: Kate Sedley
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #General
The horses, after two days without exercise, were at first inclined to be frisky, even my staid rouneey, but they soon quietened down, quickly sensing, as animals do, the mood of the people around them. By the time their hoofs had been muffled in tom-up strips of rags, they were growing docile, and they both behaved with almost perfect propriety as Philip and I led them through the maze of narrow alleys leading to the outskirts of the town. There was only one small incident as we passed a stable. The grey suddenly raised his head, nostrils flaring, and whinnied loudly. Philip cursed and tugged sharply on the reins, restoring silence, but not before the shutters of a house a little way ahead of us were thrown wide and a woman's head and shoulders were clearly visible, framed by the open window.
She leaned forward and called: 'Who's there?' Philip hissed in my ear: 'Don't answer. Just keep moving.' John Penryn nodded in agreement. 'She won't make trouble,' he whispered, 'whoever she is. This is not a law-abiding part of the town.'
Within ten minutes, we were free of Plymouth, emerging into the fields beyond and well clear of any of the gates and their custodians. Here the landlord and his men took leave of us, wishing us good luck, and returned the way they had come. Philip and I mounted our horses and rode west towards the ferryman's cottage at the edge of the Tamar. It was a still, dry night, the sky spangled with stars, and the crescent moon which I had observed in the small hours of this morning hanging low in the heavens. I felt again the prickle of fear along my spine and experienced once more the sense of foreboding.
All went as Philip had predicted at the ferry. The ferryman, roused from sleep, was at first angry and abusive, calling us all the insulting names he could lay his tongue to and throwing doubts on our parentage. This stream of abuse was halted abruptly by the sight of Philip's full purse and the promise of a shilling if he would take us and our horses across the river. As a shilling was worth several days' work to him, the man disappeared inside his cottage, emerging a few minutes later fully clothed.
By my reckoning it was already past midnight, for we must have ridden north-west of the town by some six or seven miles. And the ferryman's insistence that we go one at a time delayed us even further.
'One-man, one horse,' he announced in his gruff, surly tones. 'It's for your own safety.'
We agreed reluctantly. ‘I’ll go first, with the cob,' I said. 'Waiting will only make me nervous.'
Philip laughed. 'You mean you don't trust me to wait for you if I go first. Don't worry. I've no intention of making a bolt for it. I've grown used to having you around.' I wasn't sure that I believed him, and in any ease there was some truth in what I had said. I had crossed on ferries many times, but never before in the company of a horse; and although the animal was firmly secured, I was nevertheless extremely nervous. My relief at standing once more on dry ground was considerable, and I fancied the cob felt the same way. He nuzzled my face affectionately as we watched the ferry depart on its return journey for Philip and his mount. I glanced about me.
As far as I could tell in the darkness, we were standing on a spit of sand running some few yards out into the water.
Behind us lay a little beach, and beyond that the land rose gently to a belt of trees, the edge of the forests covering this part of Cornwall. The river, which narrowed at this particular point, but which was still too wide for the horses to swim across, rippled between the banks on an outgoing tide. The opposite shore rose steeply to a cliff-top where stunted trees and bushes clung precariously in the teeth of the gales which must surely batter that coast each winter. Even on such a calm night, they swayed slightly to the rhythm of a refreshing breeze, dipping and curtseying; fiat, black shapes silhouetted against the faintly luminous skyline.
I stiffened suddenly and my fingers tightened on the cob's reins. Surely there had been someone up there, on the clifftop, standing perfectly still, looking down on the scene below him. I screwed up my eyes, straining to see through the enveloping darkness. But there was nothing there except the bushes and wind-bitten trees. I stared long and hard, searching for a telltale movement, until forced to give up by the irritation of trying not to blink. I upbraided myself that I was getting jumpy, beginning to imagine danger where none existed. Yet I continued to peer at the distant cliff-top, not entirely convinced that I had been mistaken.
The raft made its slow return across the fiver, the ferryman steering skilfully to allow for the swiftly running current and eventually depositing Philip Underdown and his grey safely on Cornish soil. The man held out his hand for his money, and when this had been paid, we mounted and turned the horses' heads inshore.
Philip looked over his shoulder. 'Remember! If anyone asks, you haven't seen us. No one has crossed during the night. Is that understood?'
The ferryman muttered something which might have been assent and which seemed to satisfy my companion. For my own part, I was doubtful, conjecturing that if he were offered enough to betray us, the man would do so without any qualm of conscience. I said as much to Philip as we rode inland from the strand towards the belt of trees.
He shrugged. 'It's a chance we have to take. He may be afraid of retribution should we return this way. It was worth giving him a warning.'
I wondered if I should tell him that I thought our crossing had already been overlooked, but I was so unsure of whether or not I had really seen anything at all that ! decided to remain silent. Just in case my eyes had not deceived me, I would be extra vigilant.
Before we reached the edge of the woods, we turned off along a track which skirted the river for a while, then turned inland where the trees receded. I was deeply relieved, having been afraid that Philip's intention was to use the forest paths which, however great their concealment, were likely to be infested with outlaws and robbers. I had contemplated remonstration, expecting to be informed that he knew this countryside like the back of his hand and that he had no fear of a few cut-throats and footpads; but, as it turned out, I was thankful I had not laid myself open to ridicule. As it was, I was uneasy enough and frequently touched my 'Plymouth cloak', where it lay across my saddle-bow, for reassurance.
We made a steady pace, avoiding wherever possible any hamlets or straggling clusters of cottages in our path. The river flowed seawards on our fight, while to our left, the dimly seen fields and ploughed strips belonging to the smaller settlements were lapped about, and often encroached upon, by the billowing forest. This was a land of abundant vegetation; in daylight, opulent, intrusive upon the eye like neighbouring Devon. We stopped twice to rest and refresh ourselves with the food provided for the journey by John Penryn; once under a brake of gorse, the second time in a deserted stone hut, long abandoned by some goatherd or shepherd. Our conversation, when we talked at all, was desultory, speculating on the King's reaction to events on St Michael's Mount.
'Couldn't you have waited and found another ship to carry you to Brittany?' I asked at one point.
Philip Underdown was scathing. 'And fallen into the hands of Lancastrians posing as good, honest fishermen or merchants? No! I'll wait for the
I caught his response with only half an ear, listening as I was for the quiet clop of a horse's hoofs, carrying our pursuer. But all I could hear was the soughing of the breeze through the distant trees and the soothing murmur of running water.
We were, according to Philip, about a mile from Trenowth when we stopped for the third and final time, dismounting and leading our horses down to the river's edge to wash our faces in the ice-cold water. The two animals drank thirstily while we attempted to rid ourselves of the night's growth of beard and brushed down our crumpled and travel-stained clothing. It was already light with the promise of a beautiful day. The early morning mist lifted and swam about us like spun silk; drifting, billowing folds, beaded here and there with trembling pendants of gold. Then the sun rose, gilding the clouds, and the mist dispersed, leaving the damp earth gently steaming.
Philip yawned and stretched. 'I shan't be sorry to get breakfast inside me,' he said. 'Let's hope it's hot and there's plenty of it.'
I agreed. My stomach was rumbling with hunger in spite of the cold meat pasties we had consumed less than two hours previously. I led the cob to the top of the bank and stood staring back the way we had come, the track barred with stripes of sunshine and dappled shadow. I remained perfectly still and quiet, but again there was nothing to hear except the singing of the birds, nothing to see except their fluttering in and out of the trees.
Trenowth Manor stood high above the Tamar, on a wide plateau of land overlooking the river's thickly wooded banks.
The home of Sir Peveril and Lady Trenowth was built around an' inner quadrangle, its grey granite walls presenting narrow apertures and a frowning aspect to the outside world, with more gracious doors and windows opening upon the courtyard. As we rode up the steep slope to the gatehouse, we could see that the servants were already abroad, the gate standing wide and two men unloading sacks of flour which had been brought up by cart from the corn mill. Philip approached them.
'Is your master at home? Tell him his old friend Philip Underdown wishes to see him.'
I could almost have believed myself that he was a friend of Sir Peveril, he spoke with such confidence, and it was not at all surprising that both men immediately stopped what they were doing and came to attend to his wants.
'Master's from home, sir,' one of them said, pulling at his forelock.
'Mistress, too,' the other man put in, thus confirming what Simon Whitehead had told us.
'Up London,' the first one went on, obviously irritated by his companion's intervention and frowning him down. 'King's business,' he added importantly. 'Said 'e won' be back for a long time.'
I had been half afraid that we should find they spoke nothing but Cornish, but the broad, flat vowels were reminiscent of speech across the Tamar, in Devon, and English was plainly their native language.
'Ah!' Philip did his best to look nonplussed, as though sizing up an unexpected situation. 'This is awkward. My man and I have been on the road for several days and were looking to rest for a while at Trenowth, but in the circumstances . . .' He completed the sentence with an eloquent little shrug and lapsed into silence.
'Wait there, sir,' the second obliging fellow instructed. ‘I’ll fetch Alwyn Steward to you directly.'
He hurried off, returning after some four or five minutes with the steward, a tall, thin, slightly balding man who stooped, as though permanently bent to listen to other people's inquiries. His watery blue eyes passed over me to rest on Philip, thereby demonstrating how right my companion had been to designate us man and master.
Philip repeated his story with even more confidence, now that he was absolutely certain there was no chance of Sir Peveril returning home to gainsay it. The steward frowned a little in an effort to recall his name. 'You say, sir, you're a friend of my master's?'
'In London. He and Lady Trenowth have often urged me to stay with them if ever I found myself in this part of Cornwall.' He dismounted and drew Alwyn to one side. I saw the flash of silver as, presumably, he showed the man his own token of credence, such as the one Simon Whitehead had been carrying, and heard him mutter the words, 'King's business.'
The steward looked impressed and, I guessed, would be even more so later, when Philip swore him to secrecy.
'You must come in, sir, and rest here as many days as you wish. My master and mistress would never forgive me if I failed to offer hospitality to their friends. Sir Peveril will be sorry to have missed you.'
He led the way beneath the arch of the gatehouse, the horse's hoofs echoing hollowly on the cobbles, and requested us to wait while he went in search of the housekeeper. During his absence, I took stock of my surroundings.
Two sides of the quadrangle, the one facing us and to our left, were the family living quarters, demonstrated by the fact that the buildings were two-storeyed. There was ample room for a large brood of children, but I learned later from the housekeeper that Sir Peveril and Lady Trenowth had not been so blessed. The laundry and dairy lay to one side of the gateway, the bakehouse to the other, the doors standing open to reveal the inmates hard at work. There seemed to be no slacking because the master and mistress were from home, a fact which argued for contented and well treated servants. The savoury and mouth-watering smells drifting out of an open doorway in the right-hand comer of the courtyard told me that the kitchens could not be far away.
And they were probably, as is usual, flanked by the buttery.
The low building to our right must therefore be the servants' quarters.
The steward came fussing back, with apologies for keeping us waiting. In the absence of Sir Peveril and Lady Trenowth he was assuming full responsibility for the day-to-day running of the manor.
'I have spoken to Janet Overy,' he said, 'and she will prepare beds for you. You will have the guest chamber next to Sir Peveril's, Master Underdown, and a truckle-bed will be set up for your man. Unless, of course, you wish him to sleep in the servants' quarters or the kitchen.'
I sent Philip a warning glance which dared him to choose either of the latter. I could see that he was tempted, and had he not been so shaken by recent events, he might have done so out of a perverted sense of humour. As it was, he said quietly: 'My man will sleep with me.'