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'I don't believe it!'
Suzie's cry of delighted astonishment burst from the study, where she had settled for an evening's session of family history.
Not long ago, the family history website she subscribed to had added the British Newspaper Archive to its resources. It held huge and potentially exciting possibilities for news of her ancestors, stretching right back to 1710. It would be an enormous job to trawl through it, keying in the names and dates of all her forebears who had lived in the intervening three centuries. So far, she had turned up a few fragments of stories. An ancestor fined for letting his trees overgrow the highway. Obituary notices for another pair of great-great-grandparents. The sad inventory for the sale of a family farm. It all added colour, even if it wasn't sensational.
She hadn't tried it until this evening for her great-great-grandparents Richard and Charlotte Day. Which should she try first? Richard's name? Or Charlotte's? But the latter involved two surnames: her maiden name, Taverner, and her married name, Day.
She took the simpler choice and typed in Richard Day with his birth and death dates.
Two hundred and forty-three entries. He was clearly not the only man with that name. Quickly she scrolled through the abstracts. Most were in the wrong part of the county, or a different occupation.
Suddenly, one name leaped out at her: 'Aggett Cottages'. Swiftly she checked her files. Yes! St Nectan. That major nineteenth-century move from the country to the edge of the city, after all those centuries of tilling the land: 9 Aggett Cottages.
With growing excitement she struggled to read what came next in the brief extract from the article. The optical character recognition wasn't great. The digitized form of the newsprint came across sadly mangled.
'Aug 2&8364;, Aggett Cottages. Richard Day, dockqard lakourev, was ^oken by breâfhul cries from the £ouse ne^t door.'
But the meaning was clear.
She was leaning forward eagerly now. This was better than she had expected. What was the cause of those dreadful cries?
She clicked on VIEW to read the full newspaper entry.
This time, the image of the original newsprint sprang up before her, clearly legible. All she needed to do was to enlarge it. She clicked on the + symbol and watched the highlighted column zoom towards her. Now she could read the whole story.
Richard Day, dockyard labourer, asleep with Charlotte and their children, had been woken by those dreadful cries in the night. Richard had run next door to find his neighbour, Maud Locke, dead on the kitchen floor with her throat cut. There was no sign of her husband.
Suzie sat back, shocked by this unexpected drama.
Hurriedly, she set up a new search for 'Maud Locke'. Only three hits. First was the article she had already seen. The second reported that Anthony Locke, also a dockyard labourer, had been apprehended at his brother's house and would be sent to the Assizes on trial for murder.
The third recorded his execution by hanging.
Suzie's first instinct was to run into the garden, to share the colourful story with Nick. Her great-great-grandfather, coming across the horrific scene, the woman next door lying in her kitchen in a pool of blood. Gruesome, but the kind of story that was like gold dust to family historians.
Yet now she sat there, imagining the reality. This had happened to real people. To her people. Murderer and victim were a couple like Richard and Charlotte. Living in the same conditions, doing the same work. Subject to the same difficulties and privations. How nearly might what had happened to Anthony and Maud Locke have been the fate of Richard and Charlotte Day? She shivered. Had their children woken in the night? Her great-grandmother Elizabeth Day had been six years old.
She ran off copies, snatched the last sheet from the printer and sped in search of someone to share this with.
Millie had spread her teenage limbs over the flowered cushions of the cane settee in the conservatory. She had been flipping through the pages of a magazine, but let it fall with the amused tolerance that only fifteen-year-old daughters, going on sixteen, can show to their parents.
'Don't tell me. You've discovered that we're descended from Lord Nelson and Emma Hamilton.'
'Well, no. But what would you say to murder?'
Millie swung her feet to the floor. 'Do tell!'
But Suzie stepped past her through the open doors of the conservatory into the summer garden. Nick was mowing the lawn. Suzie knew that this was not a chore, as it would be to her, but a source of satisfaction to his architect's mind to see the stripes of cut grass laid out with geometrical precision.
She waited till he neared the edge of the flower bed and waved the papers at him. She thought how youthful he still looked, with his wavy black hair and shorts, as he switched off the motor and came across the lawn towards her.
Suddenly Suzie felt a little foolish. Was it really right to get so excited over something that had happened a hundred years ago, to someone she was descended from, but whom she had never met?
The smile in Nick's deep blue eyes reassured her. 'Go on, then. What have you found this time?'
'I was searching through the newspaper archives and I found that my great-great-grandparents in St Nectan were living next door to a house where a murder took place. Richard Day heard screams and found the body.'
Millie was standing behind Suzie, her face now bright with enthusiasm. 'A real murder! Fantastic!' Then her face stilled. 'Except that it isn't, is it? I mean, like, it was real. Great-great-great-granddaddy walking in and finding that. Gross.'
You form a picture of your ancestors in your mind, Suzie thought. And then something else turns up and the picture changes. Richard would never have been the same person after that discovery.
A tiny voice at the edge of her imagination whispered, 'Is there the remotest possibility that Anthony Locke's murdering his wife might have anything to do with Richard living next door?'
She would never know.
'So I suppose we're off to St Nectan today?' Nick looked enquiringly at her over Saturday breakfast. 'See the scene of crime.'
'Well, no, actually.' Suzie stirred honey into her porridge. 'I mean, I would like to go back there. Have another look at the house where it happened. But we did that a couple of years ago. Richard and Charlotte's house, I mean. You took some photos. And it's an eighty-mile round trip. I was thinking of something nearer home. Richard Day started out as an agricultural labourer. We've tracked down the farm where he was apprenticed by the Overseers of the Poor when he was eight. We've seen the farm above Moortown where he was working when he met Charlotte. And we know a lot about where her family lived when they moved to the city. But the one place we've never been to is the last farm he was working at, before they took off to St Nectan and he ended up labouring in the city dockyard.'
'Fine. So it's a pub lunch in Moortown. How about the Angel?'
'Great. Then we have to find Saddlers Wood.'
Nick looked up as Tom sauntered into the kitchen. Millie was already pouring herself fruit juice.
'I don't suppose either of you want to come? Fit one more piece into the family jigsaw?'
'No thanks,' Millie sighed. 'Honestly, Mum, can't you think of anything else to do on a Saturday afternoon?'
'Well, actually, yes,' Tom smiled. 'I wouldn't mind a pub lunch and a spot of exploration. Count me in. Is there any more of that porridge?'
Suzie felt a glow of affection as he settled into a place at the table beside her. She couldn't really expect her teenage children to share the same passion for family history. She was lucky that Nick was so willing a companion on these expeditions, driving her to remote villages all over the county, exploring farms and churches where her forebears had worked and worshipped, where they had been baptized, married and buried. But it was a particular joy when one of the children indulged her enthusiasm and came too.
Millie put down the carton of fruit juice. 'Fine. So that's me left on my own.'
'You can usually find plenty to do on a Saturday. Won't you be going into town with Tamara?'
'Not today. She's got to go to a family wedding ... Oh, all right, then. If Tom's going to go ...'
'It's not compulsory,' Suzie pointed out.
'Mum, I said, I'm coming.'
They left the Angel after an enjoyable lunch. Millie had said nothing about dieting, and tucked into fish and chips with gusto.
'What now?' Nick asked. 'Is this farm near enough to ditch the car and walk?'
Suzie consulted the map, measuring half miles with her thumb joint. 'Probably not. Saddlers Wood is off the road that goes south out of Moortown. It looks a bit remote. Right at the parish boundary.'
The car took them down the narrow country road. Suzie leaned forward, scanning the fields and woods on the left-hand side.
'There!' she cried. 'You've passed it.'
Nick brought the car to a halt. He reversed to where a cart track led uphill between bramble-grown hedges. A weathered board at the roadside read: Saddlers Wood.
Tom got out of the car. 'I can't see a thing. You say somebody lives up there?'
Some way up the track, the open fields ended. Woods rolled down from the ridge to meet them. The summer foliage was dense with many shades of green.
'Do you want me to drive up the track?' Nick asked.
Suzie hesitated. 'I'm not sure. It's not very welcoming, is it? Not even a surfaced drive. Maybe we'll walk. We'll get more of a feel of the place that way. I'm sure it's the way Richard and Charlotte would have come and gone.'
'Yes, like, I can imagine her having to walk all the way into Moortown to do her shopping,' Millie said. 'And I don't suppose she was much older than me.'
'As a matter of fact,' Suzie said, 'farm girls didn't usually marry young. That was more the upper-class girls, who could afford servants to do the heavy work. Twenty-three was actually a typical age for a young woman to get married. She needed to be fully grown and tough to do her share of the farm work and have half a dozen kids as well.'
They started to walk.
'Lucky there's been no rain for a week,' Nick said, as he negotiated the deep, hard ruts of tractor tyres. 'This will be thick with mud in the winter.'
'If Richard and Charlotte lived here, they'll have been used to walking through mud.'
'They'll have a Land Rover nowadays,' Tom said.
'More importantly, there won't be any farm labourers,' Suzie told them as they climbed higher. 'They're a dying breed. It's a big social problem. Farmers these days are working on their own. No one to talk to. Not even the cows and horses there used to be. Their children don't want to stay on the land. And then all the worry of prices not keeping up with costs. There's a real risk of suicide.'
'Cheerful,' said Millie. 'Not exactly your rural idyll.'
As if in answer to their thoughts, a gunshot rang out across the hillside.CHAPTER 2
They froze. Tom was the first to laugh.
'As you were. Somebody's shooting pheasants.'
'It's July. It's not the pheasant season,' Suzie said.
Suzie relaxed. Tom was right, of course. Shotguns were part of the way of life on a farm. It had just been a startling coincidence that they were talking about the suicide risk for farmers just when that gunshot had shattered the rural peace.
They walked on. They were nearing the edge of the woods. Still there was no sign of human habitation up ahead.
The tree covering closed over them. Their feet sank deeper in the litter of last year's leaves. Suzie began to think she could see a clearing near the brow of the hill.
'How much further?' asked Millie. 'You didn't tell me we were going mountaineering.'
'Nearly there,' Nick said. 'I hope.'
From a narrow path at the side of the track, a man came stumbling hastily. He wore a shapeless green waxed jacket that had seen better days, over muddy brown trousers. His fairish hair looked dishevelled. He was about Nick's age.
But what caught the eyes of the Fewings family was the shotgun clenched in his hand.
He looked startled when he saw them and stopped dead on the path. Though his lean, tightly drawn face was turned towards them, Suzie had the feeling that he hardly saw them.
The Fewings were forced to stop too. They could hardly walk straight past him.
Nick took charge of the situation.
'Hi, there. Are you from Saddlers Wood Barton? I hope we're not trespassing. Just out on a family history quest.'
'My great-great-grandparents,' Suzie supplied. 'Back in the 1850s. They lived here. Well, maybe not at the farm itself. Richard was an agricultural labourer. But we thought maybe there might be a cottage. Somewhere where a farm employee might live?'
The man looked at them blankly. Suzie wondered if he had taken in what they had said.
At last a long shudder ran through him. He seemed to relax a little. He looked down at the shotgun he was holding, almost in surprise. Then he broke it and folded it over his arm.
He held out an awkward hand, saw the earth on it and thought better of it. Suzie scolded herself for the start of surprise that there was no blood on it. Farmers were no strangers to dirt and blood.
'Yes, I farm up at Saddlers Wood. For now. My family's been there for generations. And likely as not I'll be the last.'
Suzie wanted to ask him why, but it seemed too intrusive. Nick evidently thought so too.
They stood indecisively. Philip Caseley had made no attempt to answer Suzie's question.
It was Tom who took the initiative. 'Is it OK if we go on? Take a look around? My mother's a family history nut. Likes to ferret out where they lived, so she can get the whole picture.'
'Yes,' Suzie found her voice. 'Richard Day was a pivotal generation in our family. Before him, they'd been agricultural labourers or husbandmen for centuries, in a fairly small area around here. But he was the one who upped sticks and moved off to the city, or a village on the edge of it. He still worked as a farm labourer at first, but soon he was down at the dockyard, labouring there. Suddenly, we were an urban family. That part of the nineteenth century was a hard time for farming.'
'Like now.' There was bitterness in the brief reply.
'So. It's OK?' Tom turned on his most winning smile.
The man stood back a pace. 'My wife's up at the farm,' he said shortly. 'You can ask her.'
Abruptly, he strode across the track in front of them and disappeared along the path on the other side into the wood.
The Fewings looked at each other.
'Rabbits, did you say?' Millie's voice was high with tension. 'I don't know what he was shooting at, but I don't see why a rabbit should get him that upset.'
'Still.' Tom shrugged. 'We've got the go-ahead. Lead on, Mum.'
Suzie had been right about the clearing. In only a few steps, the view opened out. The farm was sited just under the brow of the hill. Just low enough to be sheltered from the northerly winds, Suzie reflected. The farmhouse and its barns made an L-shape around the yard, with an old covered well in one corner. The cob walls, on their stone base, had been whitewashed, but here and there the raw red earth showed through on the barn. The house was in rather better trim, but the window frames had not been painted for years. The black paint was peeling. Moss grew thick on the battered thatch.
'There's no sign of life,' Suzie said.
No chickens scratched in the yard. There was no contented moan of cows. No one was at work out of doors.
Her words came back to her with an ominous echo she had not intended.
'Oh, come on, then!' Millie stalked up to the front door, elegantly casual in her jeans and ankle boots. She rapped the heavy knocker.
There was a moment's silence. Then a dog barked frantically. Simultaneously, a door Suzie had not noticed opened at the end of the long building. A woman in a floral wrap-around apron came out, overtaken by a noisy black-and-white collie. She was smaller than Millie. Her pale hair straggled around her shoulders in limp curls, a sad contrast to Millie's white-blonde haircut, yet beneath the apron, her silk shirt and linen skirt looked unexpectedly stylish for this rural setting. Her thin face looked scared.
Excerpted from Beneath the Soil by Fay Sampson. Copyright © 2014 Fay Sampson. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Ltd..
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