The House of Lanyon by Valerie Anand by Valerie Anand - Read Online

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The House of Lanyon - Valerie Anand

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LANYON

PART ONE

FOUNDATIONS 1458

CHAPTER ONE

QUIET AND DIGNIFIED

Allerbrook House is a manor house with charm. Three attractive gables look out from its slate roof, echoed by the smaller, matching gable over its porch, and two wings, with a secluded courtyard between them, stretch back toward the moorland hillside which shelters the house from northeast winds. In front the land drops away gently, but to the right the slope plunges steeply into the wooded, green-shadowed combe where the Allerbrook River purls over its pebbly bed, flowing down from its moorland source toward the village of Clicket in the valley.

Allerbrook is far from being a great house such as Chatsworth or Hatfield, but its charm apart, it has unusual features of its own, such as a mysterious stained glass window in its chapel—no one is sure of its significance—and the Tudor roses, which nowadays are painted red-and-white as when they were first made, which are carved into the hall panelling and the window seats.

The place is a rarity, standing as it does out on Exmoor, between the towns of Withypool and Dulverton. There is no other house of its type on the moor. It is also unique because of its origins. The truth—as its creator Richard Lanyon once admitted—is that it probably wouldn’t be there at all, if one autumn day in 1458 Sir Humphrey Sweetwater and his twin sons, Reginald and Walter, had not ridden out to hunt a stag and had a most distressing encounter with a funeral.

There was no manor house there when, in the fourteenth century, the Lanyons came from Cornwall and took over Allerbrook farm. Then, the only dwelling was a farmhouse, so ancient even at that time that no one knew how long it had stood there.

Sturdily built of pinkish-grey local stone and roofed with shaggy thatch, it looked more like a natural outcrop than a construction. Around it spread a haphazard collection of fields and pastures, and its farmyard was encircled by a clutter of barns, byres, stables and assorted sheds. Inside, the main rooms were the kitchen and the big all-purpose living room. There was an impressive oak front door, but it was never used except for wedding and funeral processions and the hinges were regrettably rusty. It was a workaday place.

On a fine late September evening, though, with a golden haze softening the heathery heights of the moors and gilding the Bristol Channel to the north, there was a mellowness. That mellowness seemed even to have entered the soul of the man whose life was now drawing to a close in one of the upper bedchambers.

This was remarkable, because George Lanyon’s sixty-one years of life had scarcely been serene. He had been an aggressive child, apt to bully his two older sisters and his younger brother, for as long as they were there to bully. The Lanyons had never, for some reason, been good at raising healthy families. All George’s siblings had ailed and died before they were twenty. Only George flourished, as though he possessed all the vitality that should have been shared equally among the four of them.

As an adult, he had quarrelled with his parents, dominated his wife, Alice, and shouted at his fragile younger son, Stephen, until the boy died of lung-rot at the age of eleven. The grieving Alice, in her one solitary fit of rebellion, accused him of driving Stephen into his grave, and she herself faded out of life the following year.

Only Richard, his elder son, had been strong enough to survive and at times to stand up to him or, if necessary, stand by him. George also quarrelled with their landlord, Sir Humphrey Sweetwater, when he raised their rent. George had refused to see that this was dangerous.

The Sweetwaters won’t throw us off our land. They know we look after it. They were glad enough to have us take it on when Granddad Petroc came here, looking for a place, back in the days of the plague when everyone who’d lived here before was dead.

That was then. This is now, and I don’t trust them, said Richard. He was well aware that the Sweetwaters, although only minor gentry, were on social if not intimate terms with Thomas Courtenay, Earl of Devon, which was a double-edged blade. On the one hand, they considered themselves so far above their tenants that they could scarcely even see them. But on the other hand, if the said tenants tilled the land badly or wrangled over a rise in the rent, they were as capable of throwing the offenders out as they were capable of drowning unwanted kittens. You never knew. Richard loathed the Sweetwaters as much as George, but he was also wary.

The quarrel passed over. George gave in and paid the increase, and the Sweetwaters continued to regard the Lanyon family with disdain. Quietly the Lanyons began to prosper, though Richard considered that they could have done better still if only his father hadn’t in so many ways been so pigheaded.

But now…

Extraordinary, Richard thought as he stood looking down at his father’s sunken face and half-shut eyes. Extraordinary. All his life he had fought this man, argued with him and usually given in to him. And now, would you believe it, George was making a good Christian end.

Betsy and Kat, the two middle-aged sisters who cooked and cleaned and looked after the dairy and were so alike in their fair plumpness that people often mixed them up, were on their knees on the other side of the bed, praying quietly. At the foot stood Father Bernard, the elderly parish priest. He’s safe enough, Father Bernard said with some acidity. He knew George well. He’s had the last rites. Luckily you fetched me while he was still conscious. Lucky you had that horse of yours, too, whatever your father thought!

Richard Lanyon grinned, fleetingly. Father Bernard lived down in Clicket village, in a cottage beside St. Anne’s, the elegant little church built of pale Caen stone imported from France for the purpose by some pious bygone Sweetwater.

There was a long, sloping mile of Allerbrook combe between the farm and the priest, but George had asked for Father Bernard with pleading in his eyes and begged his son to hurry, and Richard had been able to do so, because he had a good horse at his command. George always said he had lost only three battles in his lifetime. One was the squabble over the rent. Another, a very long-running one, was the way Richard, once widowed, kept on refusing to remarry and make another attempt to raise a family. The third was over Richard’s purchase of Splash.

Why can’t you ride a local pony like everyone else? George raged when Richard went off to a horse fair miles away and came back leading a two-year-old colt with a most remarkable dappled coat. The dapples were dark iron-grey and much bigger than dapples usually were, overlapping and running into each other so that he looked as though someone had splashed liquid iron all over him. "The ponies round here can carry a grown man all day and never tire or put their feet in bogs by mistake. What did you spend good money on that for?" Master Lanyon senior demanded.

He’s well made. I’m going to break him for riding and call him Splash, said Richard.

I give you your cut from any profits we make, George bellowed at his unrepentant son, but I don’t expect you to throw it away on something as ought to be in a freak show!

But Splash, with his long legs and his undoubted dash of Arab blood, had proved his worth. He was as clever as any moorland pony at avoiding bogs and he could outdistance every horse in the parish and beyond, including the bloodstock owned by the Sweetwaters. He had got Richard down to the village and to the priest’s house so quickly that by the time Richard was hammering on Father Bernard’s door, the dust he had kicked up as he tore out of the farmyard still hung in the air.

Get up behind me, Richard said when the priest opened the door. Don’t stop to saddle your mare. It’s my father. We think he’s going.

And Splash, head lowered and nostrils wide, brought them both back up the combe nearly as fast as he had carried Richard down it, and before he drifted into his last dream, George Lanyon received the sacrament and was shriven of his sins and given, thereby, his passport into paradise.

I couldn’t have done it without Splash, Richard said, and glanced at his father, wondering if George could hear and secretly hoping so.

But if he did, he made no sign and when Peter, Richard’s nineteen-year-old son, came quietly into the room asking whether the patient was better, Richard could only shake his head.

Keep your voice down now, Master Peter. Betsy, the older of the two sisters, looked up from her prayers. Don’t ’ee be disturbing ’un. Your granddad’s made his peace and he’s startin’ on his journey.

Peter nervously came closer to the bed. As a child, he had seen two small brothers die, and at the age of eleven he had been taken to his parents’ bedchamber to say farewell to his mother, Joan, and the girl-child who never breathed, and every time he had been stricken with a sense of dreadful mystery, and with pity.

The pity this time was made worse by the change in his grandfather. Petroc, the Cornishman who was George’s own grandfather, had died before George was born, but his description had been handed down. He had been short and dark, a very typical Cornishman. He had, however, married a local girl, said to be big and brown haired and clear skinned. The combination had produced good-looking descendants, dark of hair and eye like Petroc, but with tall strong bodies and excellent facial bones. In life, George had been not only loud voiced and argumentative; he had also been unusually handsome.

Now his good looks had faded with his vitality. He had been getting thinner for months, and complaining of pains inside, though no one knew what ailed him, but the final collapse, into this shrunken husk, had come suddenly, taking them all by surprise. To Peter it seemed that the man on the bed was melting before their eyes.

George himself had been drifting in a misty world where nothing had substance. He could hear voices nearby, but could make no sense of what they said. His body no longer seemed to matter. For a change, nothing was hurting. He was comfortable. He was content to surrender to whatever or wherever lay before him. But in him, life had always been a powerful force. Like a candle flame just before it gutters out, it flared once more. For a few moments the mist withdrew and the voices made sense again and his eyes opened, to focus, frowningly, on the faces around him.

Father Bernard. Sharp-tongued old wretch. But he’d provided the last rites. No need to fear hell now. With difficulty he turned his head, and there was young Peter, his only surviving grandson, looking miserable. Why did the Lanyons never produce big healthy families? As for Richard…

Wayward boy. Been widowed for years; should have married again long ago. Should have listened to his father. I kept telling him. Obstinate, that’s what he is. Big ideas. Always thinks he knows better than me. Always wanting to try new things out.

Oh, well. Richard would soon be able to please himself. His father wouldn’t be able to stop him. Didn’t even want to, not now. Too tired…

Weakly he turned his head the other way, and saw the white-capped heads of Betsy and Kat. Beyond them was the window. It was shut, its leaded panes with their squares of thick, greenish glass denying him a view of the world outside. He’d had the windows glazed long ago, at more expense than he liked, but he’d always detested the fact that Sweetwater House was the only dwelling for miles that could have daylight without draughts. Yet even with glazing, the daylight was partly obscured and the view scarcely visible. Open…window, he said thickly. Now. Quick.

Betsy got up at once. Kat murmured a protest, but Betsy said, No cold wind’s a’goin’ to hurt ’un now, silly. We’d be doing this anyway, soon. She clicked the window latch and flung the casement back, letting cool air stream into the room.

She meant that, once he was gone, someone would open the window anyway, because people always did, to let the departing soul go free. George knew that quite well. He wanted to see where he was going.

The window gave him a glimpse of Slade, the barley field, all stubble now, because the summer had been good and they’d got all the corn in and threshed, as well. The names of his fields told themselves over in his head: Long Meadow, Slade, Quillet, Three Corner Mead…

He had been proud of them, all the more so because they were really his. He knew that in many places fields were communal, with each farmer cultivating just a strip, or perhaps more than one, but compelled to plant the same crop as everyone else and changing strips each year. Here in the southwest, it was different. Here, a man’s fields were his own.

Beyond the farmland was a dark green line, the trees of Allerbrook combe, and in the distance strode the skyline of the moorland’s highest ridge, swimming in lemon light. There were strange mounds on the hilltops of Exmoor, said to be the graves of pagan people who had lived here long, long ago. He’d like to be buried in a mound on high ground, but he’d have to be content with a grave in the churchyard of St. Anne’s. He wouldn’t even be able to hear the sound of the Allerbrook…well, no, he wouldn’t be able to hear anything, near or far, but…

He was growing confused and things were fading again. But how lovely was the light on those moors. He’d never attended to it in life. Been too damn busy trying to control that awkward son of his. Now he wanted to float away into that glorious sky, to dissolve into it, to be part of it….

His eyes closed. The voices around him became irrelevant once more and then were gone. Father Bernard, gentle now, spoke a final prayer and Richard, also gently, kissed his father’s brow and drew up the sheet.

It was a good passing, he said.

The priest nodded. Yes, it was. I will make arrangements for the burial. Will you decide when the best day would be, and let me know?

Of course, Richard said. I shall have much to do.

And organising the funeral would be only part of that. To Richard—and though he didn’t speak of it aloud, he didn’t conceal it from himself, either—the golden light of the descending sun was a sign of golden opportunity. He would give his father a respectful farewell, as a good son should. But his mental list of the people he would invite included some with whom he particularly wanted to talk, and the sooner the better. He had plans, and now, at last, he was free to put them into action.

But certainly the funeral itself would, he trusted, be long remembered as an example of well-organised, quiet dignity.

In the event, George Lanyon’s funeral was unquestionably memorable and parts of it even dignified. But from that day onward, the conflict between Richard Lanyon and the Sweetwater family was more than a simple matter of dislike. That was the day when what had been merely dislike and resentment escalated into a feud.

CHAPTER TWO

SHAPING THE FUTURE

In the village of Dunster, a dozen or so miles away on the coast of the Bristol Channel, Liza Weaver, suitably grave of face, stood among other members of the extensive Weaver family and bade farewell to her father, Nicholas, the head of the house, and her mother, Margaret, as they set off on the long ride to Allerbrook for the funeral of George Lanyon.

She was a strongly built girl with warm brown eyes and hair that matched, although at the moment it was hidden under a neat white cap. Her big, florid father said cheerfully, I’m sorry about George, and his family will miss him, but we’ll likely bring back some good fresh bacon from the farm. It’s an ill wind, as they say, and he leaned down from his saddle to kiss his eldest daughter. Be a good wench. Help your little sister and— he dropped his voice —don’t mind Aunt Cecy’s tongue. She means no harm. He straightened up in his saddle, took off his hat and waved it to them all. See you all soon! he cried. Margaret smiled and turned her sturdy pony to follow him as he set off.

So there they went, thought Liza. Off to the funeral of George Lanyon. The two families were mostly linked by business, but there had been some social contacts, too. She had been to Allerbrook now and then—to Christmas and Easter gatherings as a rule—and she had met George. She had also found him rather alarming. She felt dutifully sorry for anyone who was ill, or had died, but she was young and the passing of Master Lanyon did not mean so very much to her.

On the other hand, the departure of her parents did mean something, of which they had no inkling. She had since childhood had a habit sometimes of going for walks on her own. Here in Dunster where everyone knew everyone else, it was safe enough and no one had ever stopped her, unless there was so much to do that she couldn’t be spared. Aunt Cecy would probably say that with Nicholas and Margaret absent, there’d be too much to do just now, but it shouldn’t be too difficult to give Aunt Cecy the slip after dinner.

And in the dell beyond the mill, where bluebells had been out the first time they met there, back in the springtime, a young man called Christopher would be waiting.

Autumn had declared itself. On the moors the bracken was bronzing and the higher hillcrests were veiled in cloud. It had rained overnight and there were puddles in the farmyard at Allerbrook. In the kitchen Betsy and Kat were busy by daybreak, preparing the food which must be served to the guests. When Richard came downstairs, the stockpot was already bubbling and there were chickens on the spit. The poultry population of Allerbrook had gone down considerably in George’s honour.

Out in the byre Betsy’s husband, Higg, was milking the cows while Kat’s husband, Roger, fetched water from the well for the benefit of the kitchen and the plough oxen in their stalls. It should have been the other way around, since Higg was as broad chested as any ox while Roger was skinny and stoop backed from a lifetime of carrying full buckets and laden sacks. He carried buckets so lopsidedly that they usually slopped, but the cows, perversely, responded better to Higg.

Upstairs, guests who had had a long way to come and had arrived the previous day were still abed, but Peter was up ahead of his father and snatching a quick breakfast of small ale and bread smeared with honey. Richard sat down next to him. Sleep all right? It’ll be a long day.

I didn’t sleep much, no. It’s strange without Granddad. Nothing’s ever going to be the same again, is it? Peter said.

Richard was silent, because to him, the fact that nothing was ever going to be the same again was a matter for rejoicing, but it would be quite improper to say so.

Under George’s rule, life at Allerbrook had been the same for far too long. There were so many things that Richard would have liked to try, new ideas which he had seen put into practice on other farms, but his father was set against innovations.

It was always Take it from me—I know best. No, I don’t want to try another breed of sheep. Ours do well on the moorland grazing, so what do you want to go making experiments for? No, what’s the point of renting more valley grazing? Got enough, haven’t we? Nonsense, I never heard of anyone growing wheat on Exmoor, even if Quillet field does face south and the soil’s deep.

There were going to be changes now, and that was nothing to grieve about. He glanced at Peter again, and saw that the boy was hurrying his meal. Take your time, he said. Our guests’ll be a while yet. Ned Crowham’s never been one for early rising, I’ve noticed.

For a short time, Peter had been to school in the east of the county and Ned had been one of his fellow pupils. They had become friends, although they had little in common. A complete contrast to the Lanyons to look at, Ned was short, plump, pink skinned and fair as a newly hatched chick. He was also the son of a man as wealthy as Sir Humphrey, owner of several Somerset farms and a manor house twenty miles away, toward the town of Bridgwater. At home, young Ned was indulged. He had spent nights at Allerbrook before and shown himself to be a terrible layabed.

And the Weavers didn’t get here till after dark last night, Richard added. Mistress Margaret was tired. It’s only twelve miles from Dunster as the crow flies, but it’s a heck of a lot more as a pony plods and she’s not young. It was good of her to come. I hoped Nicholas Weaver would, for I’ve business with him, but I’m touched that his wife came, too.

We’ll have a crowd here soon, Peter said, swallowing his final mouthful. Just as well Master Nicholas didn’t bring his whole family! Poor Granddad used to envy the Weavers, didn’t he, because of their big families? Father, why did you never marry again after my mother died? I’ve often wondered. Richard frowned and Peter hastily added, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say anything I shouldn’t.

I’m not offended, boy. I was just wondering what the answer was, that’s all. I tell you, said Richard, man-to-man, about three-quarters of the reason was that your granddad wanted me to marry again so badly! He kept on and on and the more he kept on, the less I felt like obliging him. So time went on, and it never happened. You’ll gain! You won’t have to share with others when you inherit the tenancy.

Another reason, although he was fond enough of Peter not to say this to him, was that he hadn’t been very happy in marriage. Joan had been a good woman; that he wouldn’t deny. Too good, perhaps, too gentle. He sometimes glimpsed the same gentleness in Peter and didn’t like it. Peter was a Lanyon in looks but he had his mother’s temperament, and that wasn’t fitting for a man. It had even been irritating in a woman! He’d have liked Joan better if she’d spoken up more, the way Margaret Weaver sometimes argued with Nicholas: good-naturedly—there was no spite in it—but clearly, and often with very sensible things to say.

Joan was timid, scared of him and scared of George. She always had a bad time in childbirth and she was terrified of that, too. The fact that her last pregnancy had killed her had left Richard feeling guilt stricken. For some years now he had had a comfortable arrangement with a widow down in Clicket, a woman who’d buried two husbands and never borne a child. She did him good and he had done her no harm. He never discussed her with his family, though they all knew about Deb Archer.

I don’t think you’ll be inheriting yet awhile, he said jovially to Peter. I’ve a good few years in me yet, I hope. Do you want to see your grandfather again, for a last goodbye?

George was in his coffin on the table in the big living room. After the funeral, the room would come back into use, with a white cloth over the table and the best pewter dishes brought down off the sideboard, but until then, the room was only for George.

Peter shook his head. No. I…I’d rather not. I saw him yesterday but he doesn’t look like himself anymore, does he? He shivered. I can’t believe that what’s in that box ever walked or talked…or shouted!

You’re getting morbid, boy. Well, maybe before long I’ll turn your mind in a happier direction. You just wait and see.

In another hour Father Bernard had ridden in on his mare, and shortly after that, Tilly and Gilbert Lowe arrived from the farm on the other side of the combe, accompanied by Martha, the plain and downtrodden daughter who was virtually their servant. The Lowes were followed by the Rixons and Hannacombes from the other two farms on the Sweetwater estate, and then a number of folk from Clicket village straggled in, all soberly dressed, some on foot, some on ponies, to pay their last respects and escort George down to the churchyard and his final place of rest.

Among them came Mistress Deborah Archer, forty-nine now but still buxom and brown haired. Richard kissed her without embarrassment and Father Bernard greeted her politely. Like nearly everyone in the parish, he knew of the arrangement but accepted it without comment, just as he accepted the fact that neither Richard nor Deborah ever mentioned it in his confessional. He had had a lapse or two of his own. It was even possible that Geoffrey Baker, steward to the Sweetwaters, was his son. No one knew for certain.

The Sweetwaters didn’t come and no one expected them, though some of their employees arrived, including their shepherd Edward Searle, along with his son Toby. Edward Searle was a local personality. Tall, gaunt, dignified as a king and able to tell every one of his sheep apart, he was one of the few in the district whose baptismal names had never, unless they were already short enough, been chopped into nicknames. In a world where Elizabeth usually became Liza or Betsy and most Edwards became Ned or Ed, Master Searle remained Edward and no one would have dreamed of shortening it.

The other exceptions included the Sweetwaters themselves, Richard Lanyon (who refused to answer to Dick or Dickon and had long since squelched any attempts to make him) and Geoffrey Baker, who arrived on a roan mare and gave his master’s apologies with great civility though Richard knew, and Baker knew he knew, that Sir Humphrey Sweetwater hadn’t actually sent any apologies at all.

Sir Humphrey, said Baker solemnly, had guests, connections of Thomas Courtenay, the Earl of Devon. The Sweetwaters had promised to show them some sport today. They were all going hunting.

Sir Humphrey’s showing off, as usual, Richard growled to Peter.

Friendship with the Courtenays had brought one very marked benefit to the Sweetwaters, since Sir Thomas was the warden of Exmoor Forest. Clicket was outside the forest boundary, but only just. All deer belonged to the crown and no one hunted them except by royal permission, but a Sweetwater had distinguished himself so valiantly at the Battle of Crécy that he and his descendants had been granted the right to hunt deer on their own land.

Normally, they would not have been allowed to pursue them into the forest, which was inconvenient because the deer, oblivious of human boundaries, very often fled that way. Sir Thomas, however, had used his own considerable powers and granted permission for the Sweetwater hounds to follow quarry across the boundary. Sir Humphrey never missed a chance of demonstrating his privilege to his guests.

By ten o’clock all was ready at the farmhouse. The Clicket carpenter, who had made the coffin and brought it up the combe strapped to the back of a packhorse, had solemnly nailed it shut while Father Bernard recited a prayer. The Lanyon dogs—Peter’s long-legged, grey-blue lurcher Blue, Silky the black sheepdog bitch who had belonged to George, and Silky’s black-and-white son Ruff, who was Richard’s special companion—knew that they were not invited on this outing and lay down by the fire. How much animals sensed, no one could guess, but Silky had been pining since George died.

The six bearers, Richard, Peter, Higg, Roger, Nicholas Weaver and Geoffrey Baker, lifted the coffin onto their shoulders. They would be replaced halfway by a second team of volunteers, since the mile-long Allerbrook combe which must be traversed to reach Clicket was a long way to carry their burden, but to put a laden coffin on a pack pony would be risky. Ponies could stumble, or take fright. Nicholas, whose hair and beard were halfway between sandy and grey and who had grown hefty with the years, grunted as he took the weight, and cheeky Ned Crowham, who was one of the relief bearers—he had been got out of bed only just in time to join the procession—said that at least Nicholas’s pony could now have a rest.

True enough, Nicholas said amiably. My pony’s stout, but I reckon the poor brute still sags in the middle when I get astride him. That’s why Margaret’s got her own nag. Not fair to any animal to put me on him and then add someone else.

Father Bernard smiled, but Margaret said seriously, Oh, Nicholas. We shouldn’t make jokes, surely.

Richard, however, easing his shoulder under the weight of the coffin, said, Oh, my father liked a laugh as much as any man and he wouldn’t grudge it to us now. Are we all ready? Then let’s start.

The bearers carried George ceremonially through the front door—the hinges, as usual, had had to be oiled to make sure it would open—and took the downhill path into the combe. They trod with care. The sun was out now, but the ground was soft from last night’s rain.

The voice of the Allerbrook came up to them as they went. It was a swift, brown-tinged peat stream which rose in a bog at the top of the long, smooth moorland ridge above and the rain had swollen it. Some feet above the water, the track turned to parallel the river’s course down to Clicket. The trees met overhead and the light on the path was a confusing mixture of greenish shade and dazzling interruptions where the sun shone through. There was no other track to the village. The combe was thickly grown with trees and tangled undergrowth and on the far side, the few paths did not lead to Clicket. The track was wide but in places it was also steep, and in any case the coffin lurched somewhat because Higg and Roger were among the first team of bearers at their own insistence, and Higg’s broad shoulders were four inches higher than Roger’s bent ones.

Father Bernard led the way on his mare. The bearers followed him and the crowd formed a rough and ready procession on foot behind the coffin. They talked among themselves as they went, for funerals were not such rare events, after all. Death was part of life. Father Bernard, in church on Sundays, often spoke of the next world and told them to be ready for it.

Halfway down, a steep path descended the slope to the right, met the track, crossed it and continued down to a ford. Water was draining down the path from the side of the combe and the crossing was extremely muddy. Carefully now! Father Bernard called over his shoulder, and steadied his mare as one of her hooves skidded. The rain’s made this a proper quagmire. Mind you don’t slip.

Keep in step! said Nicholas. And take it steadily.

Somewhere on the other side of the combe they heard a hunting horn and the voices of hounds, but, being concerned with their uncertain footing, no one paid much heed to it. The horn sounded again, nearer. And then, out of the trees on the other side of the river, came the stag.

There were two ways of hunting deer. If the purpose was simply venison, the hunt could drive the quarry into a ring of archers who would mow them down like corn. But if the huntsmen wanted sport and the pleasure of the chase and maybe a fresh pair of fine antlers to decorate a hall, then they would look for a grown stag and bring him to bay after a chase. Sir Humphrey preferred the chase. The hall in his manor house bristled with antlers and he employed not only a huntsman to care for his hounds but also a harbourer to keep track of likely stags and lead the hunt to them on request.

The harbourer had found them a fine beast this time. The animal which burst out of the woods, splashed headlong across the stream and came up to the crossways like a four-footed hurricane was in full breeding array. He had twelve points to his crown, six each side, tipped white as if with pearl. His nostrils flared red with the effort of running and his eyes were rolling. The horrified bearers were passing the top of the slippery path down to the river when he hurtled up toward them, fleeing in such panic from the hounds on his trail that he was not aware of them until the last moment.

Then he swerved, with a huge sideways leap, sprang past the nose of Father Bernard’s startled mare, which reared in alarm, and was gone, into the trees and on up the hill, and at the same moment the hounds, brown and black and patch-coated, giving tongue like wolves, poured out of the woods opposite, and hard behind them came Sir Humphrey’s huntsman and then Sir Humphrey himself and his twin sons, Reginald and Walter, on their big horses, closely followed by three riders who were presumably their guests, all hallooing nearly loud enough to drown the hounds and the horn.

Hounds and horses crashed through the ford, water spraying up around them. They scrambled for footholds on the path and tore upward. The cortege had stopped where it was as if paralysed, everyone having unanimously decided to keep still and let the uproar flow around them as it would around a line of trees. Most of the hounds veered as the stag had done, but three of them took the shortest route and went straight under the coffin and between the legs of the bearers. One collided with Richard’s ankles and another bounced off Nicholas Weaver’s shins. Both Richard and Nicholas lurched and their burden shifted.

The lurches were small and the shift in the weight was minor, but feet slipped on the perilous ground and the uneven weight of the tilting coffin made them slip still more. There were shouts of alarm. The riders, coming hard after the hounds, swerved their mounts around the head of the cortege, but one of them came too close. His horse saw the coffin, shied to avoid it and kicked out, catching Higg’s hip.

Higg, knocked sideways, held on but stumbled, and the tilt of the coffin became dangerous. Then Richard, who was one of the foremost bearers, lost his footing altogether and sat down, still holding on but pulling the front of the coffin down farther still. The tilt became a slide toward the ground, tearing the other bearers’ hands and breaking their hold. There were more cries of alarm. Margaret Weaver and Betsy called aloud on God, and people crossed themselves. Kat and Deborah screamed.

In a shaft of sunlight through the leaves, the funeral party had a fleeting glimpse of tall horses, reins with ornate dagged edges, spurred boots, richly coloured saddlecloths and tunics, bearded faces, one with a hunting horn held to its lips, velvet cloaks and exotic headgear, twisted liripipes bouncing on their owners’ shoulders, and then they were gone, leaping over the path and crashing up the hillside.

As they went, the coffin slithered right out of the bearers’ grasp, came down slowly but inexorably onto the path to the ford and then, gliding on the mud churned by the hunt, set off on its own, straight toward the river.

Father Bernard was off his horse on the instant. He threw himself after the coffin, clutching at it as he landed facedown in the mud, but its weight dragged it out of his grasp. Others scrambled frantically down through the trees to help. Deborah Archer, exclaiming with horror, got there first, tearing her dark skirts on the underbrush. She flung herself on top of the coffin as it went into the water and somehow succeeded in hooking one foot around the trunk of an alder at the brink. Held by her weight, the coffin sank where it was, and grounded in the shallow water of the ford, Deb lying on its lid and spluttering with her face in the stream and her skirts floating to each side of her.

Roger, rushing after her, waded into the water to get to the other end of the coffin and push it back toward land. Other helping hands were there. They picked Father Bernard up, lifted Deb and grabbed the coffin, dragging it ashore and hoisting it up again.

Richard, white-faced, had got to his feet and reached them in time to help with carrying his father’s casket back up the slope to the shocked procession on the path. It’s all right. It hasn’t broken open. Deb saved it. If the water had moved it off the shallows…

It could have done. The Allerbrook had a strong current and downstream of the ford it became quite deep. No one wanted to imagine what could have happened next.

Father Bernard, you’re covered in mud! Richard looked at the priest in distress. You must brush it off. You must call at your house and put on something clean before the service. Can you find Roger here some dry things, too? He’s drenched to the knees. And Deb, oh Deb, I can’t be more grateful, but you’re wet through and shivering. Here! He pulled off his cloak and threw it around her. "That’ll keep some warmth in. You can hardly strip your wet things off just here, so go home, Deb, run, to keep some heat in you, and put on dry things. We’ll wait for you in the churchyard. But you must get dry or you’ll take a chill. Go on—now!"

I’m past the age for running and it’s over half a mile! said Deb through chattering teeth as she wrung out her skirts and clutched the cloak to her. But I’ll get home fast-like and see ’ee in the churchyard. Holding her wet gown clear of the ground, she scurried off and Richard turned his attention to Betsy’s husband, Higg, who was flexing his right wrist and rubbing his hip, a pained expression on his seamed brown face. What’s the matter, Higg? You’ve hurt yourself?

One of their damned hosses well-nigh kicked me off my feet and then my wrist went when I was tryin’ to keep a’hold of the coffin, Higg said. Hip don’t matter—that’s just a bruise—but it feels like my wrist’s been twisted half off. Don’t think I can go on as bearer. T’wouldn’t be safe, and we’ve had trouble enough for one day.

It’s time for the relief bearers, anyhow, Richard said, and raised his voice to call the volunteers forward: Ned Crowham, the Searles, Gilbert Lowe, Sim Hannacombe and Harry Rixon. Far away in the distance the hunting horn spoke again and the baying of the hounds once more drifted through the trees.

Bloody Sweetwaters, said Richard through his teeth. I hope they all fall off their damned horses and break their necks and I hope the hounds bring that stag to bay and it gores every single one of them to death!

It went well enough in the end, Nicholas Weaver said to Richard later that day as they stood together, partaking of the generous food and the excellent cider that was Kat’s speciality, and yet very conscious of the space in the household, the empty niche in the air which once had been filled by George. That accident could have been much worse!

I daresay, said Richard. But I’ll never forgive the Sweetwaters. Never!

Likely enough they hardly realised what had happened, said Nicholas. It was all so fast. By the time they’d seen us, it was too late.

They had time enough! Had to get across the ford, didn’t they? And all of us up there on the path. Couldn’t miss us!

Ah, well. The light under the trees is always dim and we were all in dark clothes. Can’t come to a funeral in festive red and tawny!

You’re a good-natured soul, Nicholas, Richard said. I’m not so even tempered as you. The Sweetwaters behave as if this were still the days of serfs and villeins and we were nothing but animals with no human feelings. Before I’m done, I swear I’ll teach them different. I’d like to kill every last man of them. It would be a pleasure to see every Sweetwater head on a chopping block.

You’re so fierce! said Nicholas, and adroitly turned the subject. Well, there’s talk of war these days. Plenty of people will get chopped up if that happens!

A good many of the gathering were talking about the accident to the coffin, some of them with amusement, some with anxiety for the health of Mistress Archer, who had been soaked to the skin and had had to go a good half mile like that in order to get home and dry herself. For others, however, talking about the Sweetwaters and their connections had led to conversation about the wider world in general. Here in this quiet corner of the southwest, the power struggles of kings and lords didn’t often impinge, but it had been known to happen, and for years the news had been disturbing. King Henry VI was said to be ailing in his mind, and his relative, Richard, Duke of York, who like the king was a descendant of Edward III, had been made regent for a while, but it was an uneasy state of affairs.

Ambitious, that’s what I hear. He didn’t much care for it when the king got better. Could lead to trouble…

Some say all that’s a tale put about by the queen. She don’t like him. They say he’s sworn his loyalty but she don’t believe it. I’ve heard no good of her. When I were in Lynmouth and there were a ship in from London way, the men aboard said folk in the eastern parts are calling her Queen She-Wolf, ever since her French friends burned Sandwich port last year. Bloodthirsty, they say she is.

Yes, I’ve heard that. Ned Crowham was unwontedly grave. We had a queen over a century ago, a French-born one, that used to be called the She-Wolf of France. They must have named this one after her and it’s hardly a compliment. You could be right. I can see war coming.

Pray God and the saints it don’t come near us or call any of us away. If the Sweetwaters go to war…

Nicholas had heard things, too. If war does come, he said to Richard, then the Luttrells in Dunster Castle will go, for sure, and they’ll take some of the young fellows in my family. We’re their tenants.

And I’m a Sweetwater tenant! The last thing I want to do is die nobly fighting at their orders! Richard said angrily. Oh, well, it hasn’t happened yet. My friend, there’s something else I want to discuss. He took Nicholas’s elbow and steered him into a quieter corner. I’ve something in mind that could do both of us a bit of good. You might think a funeral’s no place for fixing up a marriage, but nothing’ll bring my father back and this talk of war’s unsettling. I’d sooner think of things that can be settled by you and me, here and now, and might give all our thoughts a happier turn. Your eldest daughter’s still not betrothed. I’ve been thinking…

The Sweetwaters lived at the eastern end of the village on a knoll, in a house with a battlemented lookout tower. The Allerbrook, running close by on its way to join the River Barle, provided the house with a half moat in front, and there was a good ford for the packhorse trains carrying wool to market, and a set of stepping stones maintained by the Sweetwaters for the convenience of travellers in and out of the village.

Richard envied the house and approved of the stepping stones, but his father had been sour. They put all the village rents up when they put in the stones, George had said. Lucky they didn’t put the farm rents up again and all!

In the great hall Reginald Sweetwater, the elder by twenty minutes of Sir Humphrey’s twin sons, helped his father off with his boots while Walter did the same office for their guests, and Geoffrey Baker, who had returned to his duties immediately after the funeral, came in with two young pages and served mulled wine. He did not let the women servants wait on all-male gatherings. Sir Humphrey and Reginald were both widowers, and Walter’s wife, Mary, preferred to remain in her solar with her young daughter when male guests visited without their own wives.

That was a good run, said Thomas Carew, one of the guests—and an illustrious one, since his mother had been a Courtenay. You’ll have a fine new set of antlers for your wall, Sir Humphrey. He looked appreciatively around at the remarkable collection already there. Twelve pointer, wasn’t he? Not bad. They hardly ever go over fourteen points in England.

That one did. Sir Humphrey, a heavily built man, stretched a large pair of feet toward the warmth of the hearth and pointed to the impressive trophy just above it. My grandfather killed him. Eighteen points. Almost unheard of for this part of the world.

It was a sixteen pointer that chased a friend of mine up a tree one September, said Thomas.

Damned lucky to find a tree on these moors, said Walter Sweetwater.

It was on the edge of Cloutsham vale, over beyond Dunkery hill. Plenty of tree cover there. Up there two hours he was, with the old stag parading around and going for the tree with his antlers every now and again. It was in the rut. Stag must have thought he was a rival. Do you reckon a male deer can tell male and female humans from each other?

The conversation went on an excursion around remarkable hunting stories and anecdotes about animal sagacity, and an argument between Walter and his father about the intelligence of sheep, Walter maintaining that according to the Sweetwater shepherd, Edward Searle, they weren’t as stupid as most people believed, and Sir Humphrey complaining that Walter spent too much time in the company of the shepherd and should concentrate on practicing his swordplay instead. Edward Searle may look like a prophet out of the Old Testament and stalk about among his sheep with his head in the air as though he were royalty, but he’s only a shepherd and ought to remember it, and so ought you, said Sir Humphrey, who was himself slightly intimidated by Edward Searle, though he would have died before he admitted as much.

Thomas’s young son, whose mind seemed to have been elsewhere all this time, suddenly asked, Who were those people we almost crashed into after we crossed the river? I could hardly see them in that bad light under the trees. What were they doing there?

George Lanyon of Allerbrook’s funeral party, said Reginald contemptuously. Our steward, Baker, attended it. He looked around, but the steward had withdrawn and was out of hearing. Reginald laughed. He said they dropped the coffin and it almost went into the river. But they got it up and it was all right. There was no harm done.

George Lanyon’s no loss. Maybe deer know men from women, but George Lanyon never knew gentle from simple, said Sir Humphrey. His eyes, which were grey and always inclined to be cold, became positively icy at the thought of the departed George. Had the presumption to argue when his rent went up, as if rents don’t have to go up now and then—it’s the course of nature. Let’s hope the son—what’s his name…?

Richard Lanyon, Grandfather. Walter’s eleven-year-old son, Baldwin, was also in the company.

"That’s it. Richard. Bigheaded peasant who won’t let anyone call him Dickon. We can hope he’s less bloody-minded than George, but I doubt it. There’s something about him. He doesn’t like taking his cap off to me. He’ll very