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There was the sound of bitter weeping in the heavy air. Young Charles Radcliffe heard it as he rode down the hill from Dilston Castle towards the Devil Water. Those wild despairing sobs came only from a kitchen wench whose lover—a scurvy Hexham beggar—had four days since stolen a cow from the Dilston byre. The rogue had soon been caught with the cow, hidden in a copse. The castle steward said the thief had protested that his mother was starving—some such tale. But the thief was very properly hanged forthwith. The kitchen wench might think herself lucky that no more had happened to her than a good tongue-lashing from Mrs. Busby, the castle housekeeper. And yet the stupid girl, half crazed, they said, wept on and on. “Greeting,” they idiotically called weeping up here in their barbarous tongue, which was partly Scottish and partly the English of five hundred years ago, or so said Mr. Brown, the chaplain.
The unseen girl gave a louder wail and the noise aggravated all Charles’s pent-up boredom. The dripping mists lifted at last, and he rode aimlessly off in search of amusement.
The stream called Devil Water roared over cascades at the foot of the castle hill. It was in spate this September morning. There had been heavy rain on the moors to swell the burns with rushing brown water. Charles yanked at his mare’s bridle when they ambled across the stone bridge. He dismounted and peered down into the torrent wondering if there might be any salmon running—fighting from the Tyne up the rushing stream. If not salmon there would certainly be trout in the black pool beneath the Linnel Rocks.
Charles thought of shouting for a servant to bring his fishing gear, but then decided that the feckless knaves would not hear him up at the castle. Or if they did, would not bother to come. Undisciplined and sullen they were—these Northumbrians—silent when commanded, or muttering among themselves in their gobble-mouthed dialect.
It would be different when James came home from France. He’d beat manners into his servants and tenants. They’d have to obey their feudal lord, albeit they’d never yet seen him. Aye, thought Charles, sighing, nor have I seen him since I was nine. He turned abruptly and mounted his mare, having lost interest in fishing. The mare trotted across the bridge, and downstream towards the mill where the miller’s children often fed her apples. Charles let her pick her own way while wondering, not for the first time, nor without uneasiness, about the brother who was soon coming home.
Brother James. The Heir. The most noble Earl of Derwentwater, Viscount Radcliffe and Langley, Baron Tyndale. All that and yet but twenty. Owner too of estates in Northumberland, Cumberland, and other counties, a landed heritage so vast that Sir Marmaduke said there was no other nobleman in England’s North could surpass it. James’ll be proud as Lucifer, Charles thought, and play the master over me—the frenchified popinjay!
At once Charles felt familiar stabs of envy and guilt. James had not been in France these seven years for trivial reasons. He had been sent there in 1702 to companion his cousin, James Stuart, in exile. “James the Third of England,” this cousin should have been now, had not that fat old frump of a Queen Anne proved an unnatural daughter, and allowed the scurvy Protestants to hoist her on the throne. May she rot! Charles thought, but without much heat. During his childhood in London he had never seen Queen Anne. Nor were the long-ago wrongs suffered by the deposed James the Second very real to Charles, despite the occasional harpings of Sir Marmaduke and Cousin Maud. Charles clicked his tongue impatiently as he thought of these two good people who had taken him into their Yorkshire home when his father died four years since. Sir Marmaduke Constable was a wispy, earnest man, cousin to the Radcliffes through his mother. When the second Earl died Sir Marmaduke had been appointed Charles’s guardian. Cousin Maud was his faded spinsterish wife, who often lamented the loss of the vocation she had felt as a girl, when many of her friends had professed as nuns in Belgium. But she was a conscientious woman, and anxiously performed all her duties—except the production of an heir to Sir Marmaduke. They were both up at the castle now, fussing over the shabby dusty rooms, empty so many years, worrying over the dilapidations James would find when he came home to claim his patrimony. And doubtless they were irritably asking the housekeeper and the new priest they’d just taken as chaplain, where Master Charles could have gone off to in such damp unhealthy weather?
Charles’s young face tightened. He rubbed his dirty forefinger tenderly over his chin, feeling the golden prickles which had lately begun to sprout. He straightened his shoulders. They were broad enough for a man’s. He felt manhood surging in him, manhood and the need for mastery. But Cousin Maud clucked over him as though he were a child, never letting him forget that he was scarce sixteen and a younger brother. The youngest brother—for there was Francis, too, coming back with James from the exiled Court at St. Germain.
Charles slapped his horse’s rump and turning the startled mare spurred her to a gallop. Back over the bridge they clattered, up the castle hill and past Dilston village, along the muddy road which led northward to the Tyne. As they entered a gloomy wood the mare snorted and shied.
“Saint Mary! You jade, what ails you!” Charles cried angrily, for he almost lost his seat. Then he saw. From the stout limb of a beech tree there hung a gibbet—an iron cage slowly turning in the wind. In the cage was the chained and bloated corpse of a naked man. The tongue lolled from a black mouth hole, the cut rope still dangled from the livid neck down the matted black curls on the chest. The stench, which the trembling mare had first caught, made Charles retch.
It was the corpse of the thief for whom the kitchen wench was wailing. As the custom was, he had been hanged here where he had been caught.
Charles swallowed and made the sign of the cross. He had seen no dead man before. The chained thing that hung there in the iron gibbet frightened and shamed him. It had been only a lad by the look of the twisted body. And to end like this—inhuman, evil, hanging with no shred of decent covering while the ravens tore off gobbets of flesh and the bones rotted and crumbled throughout the years.
A peculiar feeling came over Charles as he tried to look away and could not, and he thought of the kitchen wench. He did not recognize the sensation as pity, but he muttered, “I’ll make them cut it down. She can bury it properly.”
In voicing this resolve he lost it, knowing what Sir Marmaduke and the steward would say. These were wild lawless parts up near the Border. Thievery must be punished at once. The thing in the gibbet hung there as a deterrent. And the lad—not a Catholic of course—had been damned anyway. To brood over the disgusting sight had in it something of the mollycoddle, the chickenhearted.
Charles shook himself, and backing the mare up the road guided her through the woods far around the gibbet.
When he reached the bridge over the Tyne he paused. He had meant to cross to Corbridge, an ancient market town first settled by the Romans. It offered modest entertainment, which Charles had managed to sample during his month at Dilston. The “Angel” served good arrack punch, and the barmaid was not averse to a bit of cuddling behind the taproom door.
Today the Angel did not appeal. Charles decided to ride into Newcastle by the south bank of the Tyne, which he had never explored. As he cantered along the riverbank his mood lightened. Action and new sights were ever a cure for megrims. He did not slacken pace for the village of Riding Mill, where two giggling girls jumped off the road to safety as he galloped by. Charles heard one of them cry out, “I’ fakins, ’tis young Radcliffe o’ Dilston! Oh, but he seems a canny-looking lad!”
Charles tossed his head and gave the girls a grin over his shoulder. Up here “canny” was a compliment, already he had learned that.
Charles had no interest in his appearance. His straight fair hair was clubbed back with a greasy black ribbon, his blue plush coat had once been fashionable, but he had outgrown it; his broad shoulders strained the seams, his young bony wrists protruded. The reddened hands were slender, long-fingered, and according to Cousin Maud proclaimed his Stuart blood, as did the thin nose set between large heavy-lidded gray eyes. His grandfather, Charles the Second, had been a swarthy Stuart; Charles was a fair Stuart, but the resemblance was unmistakable, they said. Always, however, managing to ignore the other side, about which Charles had once dared to twit Sir Marmaduke. “Yes, sir, to be sure I’m proud of royal blood—but what of my grandmother? Tell me of her, a play actress was she not, like Nell Gwynn?”