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He was a sizzler, was my grandfather.
I am aware that this modern term "Sizzler" might seem to lack something of the veneration we are taught to accord grandfathers in general. The memories we retain of our own grandsire, as a rule, are few. To a child he occupies the awesome and unaccountable position of being father to our father, and therefore presumably capable of twice as hard a caning.
We regard him, in fact, as something between a saint and a bad dream. His white hair and beard confuse him in our minds with a mysterious personage out of the Bible, who is always stalking about very excitedly in a species of nightshirt, and preaching something to somebody. Though he seems a more sedentary sort of being than this, he has a shrewd taste for asking questions; besides, we are forever offending him. We somehow contrive to land a cricket ball in his cup as he sits down to tea, and all the aunts seem turned to stone when he swears. Then the aunts look sorrowfully at us. They convey the impression that it hurts them beyond words to hear a boy cursing so viciously at the tea table.
This, I gather, is the sort of cloudy memory most young people retain. I do not think, however, that you can regard me in such fashion. And if you think I am tolerably active for my age, and an unpardonable old rip of a grandfather into the bargain, then, Lord love us, you should have seen your great-great-grandsire as I saw him all those years ago.
Ah, yes. Yes, indeed!
I remember the night I heard him tell how he fought Captain Harker in the dark at the old Devil and St. Dunstan tavern in Fleet Street. He recounted the tale in 'forty-two, seventeen-forty-two; I am sure of it because they were sending me away from the Hall to school in the same week, and they had let me sit up at table with the gentlemen when the port went round after supper. The vicar was there that night, and Squire Redlands from Cyston Court down Gloucestershire way, and Major McCartney of the Life Guards; I remember Major McCartney's red coat and fine gold epaulets.
"'Twas thus, mark you now!" says Rowdy Kinsmere.
For my grandfather not only told that rousing story of the fight in the dark; he borrowed Squire Redland's sword and illustrated it all over the dining room, with the sword in one hand and a glass of port in the other, whooping out comments as he did so. When old Silver came in to suggest that it was bedtime, he was so excited that he fired the cut-glass decanter at Silver's head, and very nearly hit it at that.
(Indeed, considering the length of our dining room here, I do not think I have ever seen a better shot: except perhaps when Scrope Wiley wagered two thousand pounds he could throw a toasting fork and spear the Lord Mayor of London exactly in the seat of the breeches at a distance of sixty feet; and did it, too, during the Procession of 1756. In Parliament it was called attempted assassination.)
Anyway, on this night I was telling you of, they sent me up to bed after I had drunk all a boy of nine years can conveniently carry. I went to bed, but I was awakened by some noise just as the stable clock was striking four, and I crept out and peeped over the banisters into the main hall.
In the main hall (which was paved with flagstones at that time) there stood my grandfather, and Squire Redlands, and Major McCartney, and the vicar, with their arms round each other's shoulders, singing Macheath's song from the Beggar's Opera. Squire Redlands and the vicar, of course, were put to bed in the house, but Major McCartney had to ride to Bristol that night. So my grandfather propped him up on his horse, and saw that he was pointed in the right direction, and then stood out on the drive in the autumn mist and hallo'd him out of sight.
"Poor fellow, being obliged to leave us," says Rowdy Kinsmere. "Ah, poor fellow!"
Upon my solemn oath, he was up drinking his ale at the breakfast table next morning, no whit the worse for it. And he had celebrated his ninety-second birthday on the previous 15th of May. Later he came to help them pack my box, which was to be put on the London coach for school. My mother had forbidden me any pocket money beyond the four shillings a term prescribed by the school; but he roared, "Hell alive, woman!" and crammed my pockets full of gold sovereigns, telling me to be sure not to spend 'em for anything sensible or he would birch me when I came back. He also made out a list, and showed it to me, of things at school for which I should receive a bonus. One, I remember, was for a prize in fencing and riding competitions; one for any completely new cheat or bubble I could devise to devil my housemaster; but the others I cannot call to mind.
Yet I can still see him in the room I occupied then: the little panelled room up under the eaves of the west wing, which Edward's son has now. To the end of his life he would never wear anything except the clothes that were fashionable in his youth. So I see him standing by the window, in his great black periwig of Charles the Second's time, his black camlet coat and the lace at his throat, reading that list through his spectacles, and the ilex tree throwing a shadow on the floor.
Now when I say to you that he was, in the language of 1815, a Sizzler, I do not refer to him in his old age. I would tell you of him as he went up to London in those distant days when the throne of England was graced or disgraced by a king whom some called Old Rowley. For you may be assured that, even in a family whose most conspicuous talent lies in its spontaneous ability to become embroiled in devilment, nobody ever had such a taste for it, or experienced so much of it, as your great-great-grandfather.
There are others, of course. You will perhaps have heard of my uncle Charles, his second son, who used to go to those private theatricals Queen Anne loved, and once hired a conjuror to find three gold watches and the Duchess of Marlborough's garters in Dean Swift's hat. But they didn't know the man was a conjuror, you see, so that my uncle Charles was compelled to depart for the colonies in some haste.
And so I would tell you my grandfather's story, young ladies and gentlemen, partly to beguile the time for you while your elder brothers are away in Belgium with Lord Wellington, and partly so that you may tell your grandchildren you have heard the true things out of a century and a half gone by: of what manner of men they really were who diced and jested, and fought and bussed wenches, at the court of Our Sovereign Liege Charles the Second.
It is very real to me. I heard it all, being Rowdy Kinsmere's favourite. At my first duel he insisted on standing by with the surgeon, holding the cloths and the water basin. I had the good luck to run my man through the shoulder during the first minute of play. Afterwards my grandfather escaped from those who were supposed to keep an eye on the old reprobate; he was inviting the whole village to take beer at his expense in the taproom of the local tavern, and singing a duet with the blacksmith, when they found him.
His first name being Roderick, it was shortened to "Rod," or "Roddy," and became, almost inevitably, "Rowdy." By my parents—a somewhat sanctimonious pair, though worthy people—he was regarded as a fierce old villain, past comprehension and damned as well. In actuality, a kinder-hearted or more muddleheaded person never lived. He made much of that little pinprick of a duel, and afterwards (I was fifteen) treated me as a man grown.
"You are blooded," declared he. "It is better so."
But was it?
The quarrel leading to the duel, I recall now, was with poor Bunny Whipstead, Squire Whipstead's son, who never did anybody the least harm. The last time I saw Bunny must have been close on forty years ago, at Alexandre Man's Coffee-House behind Charing Cross. We got drunk with a pair of actresses from Covent Garden, and I cannot call to mind whether or not he married one of 'em; but, anyway, a few weeks later he went off with Johnny Burgoyne to fight the Americans, and got killed somewhere.
However, speaking of tippling with actresses in taverns reminds me of my grandfather again, and of the time they discovered the dead man in a cupboard: the question as to the identity of the skulker with the bone-handled knife, and the relationship borne by such events to the Secret Treaty of Dover.
In order to understand all this from the beginning—especially a small matter of piracy in the English Channel—I must tell you first of the ring. It is the ring which explains the whole affair.
Fetch the lamp, now, and hold it up to his portrait over the mantelpiece. This is Rowdy Kinsmere as he looked when Kneller painted him in 1678. You see the heavy peruke falling to his shoulders, the dark-grey velvet coat and silver-grey waistcoat, his pleased expression as he seems to open one eye and say, "Damme, sir, did you mention a cup of wine? Why, hang me, sir, I don't mind if I do."
You have seen it a thousand times, but I wonder if you have ever observed that ring he wears on the left hand resting on his sword hilt?
The painter shows it as a vague blue stone. It was actually a very fine sapphire, almost (as you shall hear) a unique sapphire. King Charles the First, of Glorious Memory, gave it to his aide-de-camp, Roderick Kinsmere's father, after Newbury fight in the Great Rebellion. The sapphire was cut into the likeness of the king's head, an astonishing piece of craftsmanship, some dozen years before the king's real head fell under the axe outside the Banqueting House at Whitehall. But that ring is not in the possession of our family now, though "Buck" Kinsmere, whose true name was Alan, handed it down to his son. It is buried in the coffin of the woman ... no matter. Set down the lamp again.
Buck Kinsmere, my great-grandfather, was in no great danger of persecution by Cromwell's Protectorate. Still, he followed Charles the Second into exile two years after his own son was born and his wife died here at Blackthorn. You might have thought he had done enough already, having fought in every major engagement since Edgehill, lost an arm at Naseby, and flung away his fortune in the king's cause; but he only did what many another gentleman did, quietly, in the mysterious ways of faithfulness. After the Restoration he returned here and presently died. He was weary, and always a trifle puzzled that the oak trees should look the same on the lawns, and the summer rains still whisper, whether a Stuart sat on the throne or no.
Meanwhile my grandfather had been brought up (with casual proddings, now and then, as you would doze before a fire and give it an occasional poke to make sure it doesn't go out) by his uncle Godfrey and a tutor named Dr. Harrison.
This Harrison was a great scholar, and also a notorious toper. He used to get fuddled every night at dinner, and then go down the south meadow to the Avon and recite Virgil by moonlight. One night in the sixteen-sixties he was ripping out something especially noble, Dido's funeral pyre or the like, and thrashing his arms above his head, when he fell into the river and was drowned.
This occurred just at the curve of the valley where we have put the stone bridge now: where the Avon is narrow and very still, and dark green with the reflection of its banks. So they buried Dr. Harrison in Keynsham churchyard, and all his scholarly cronies staggered to the funeral. I remember my grandfather telling me that one of them read a fine Latin oration over the doctor's grave, which brought tears to everybody's eyes. But it concluded my grandfather's classical education just at the point where all he could remember was that virgo does not necessarily mean "virgin," and some complicated business about the movements of the sun and the earth—he could never remember exactly what, or anything about it, except that you demonstrated it by means of oranges.
Of religious education he had, I regret to say, little. This was partly due to a curious circumstance which nobody has ever explained. The land, it is true, was under the domination of the Puritan clergy. And these Puritans, although sour enough fellows, were either not so tyrannical as we suppose nowadays, or else they had a suspicion it was not altogether safe to cross a Kinsmere; in any event, they made few attempts to enforce their form of worship on the people at Blackthorn. But they would send missionaries, in steeple hats and grey worsted stockings, to exhort with the godless. Being a hospitable sort of man, my grandfather's uncle Godfrey would at least have admitted and fed them, except for the circumstance I was telling you of.
Uncle Godfrey had a favourite bull terrier named Goblin. Now Goblin, everybody agreed, was a tolerably mild-mannered dog, as dogs go. Yet it so happened that the very sight of a clergyman of any sort seemed to drive him into a frenzy. Nobody could control him. No sooner would he see a steeple hat coming through the lodge gates and up the hill than down he would streak after it in a fury of cannibal glee.
"Eh, Goblin," they would all cry. "Parson, Goblin! Go it, boy!"
And Goblin took that advice to the letter. He chased one nimble Man of God across two meadows, a cornfield, and the river, and finally treed him in the apple orchard; and the stablemen had to go down with pitchforks to get him off. My grandfather told me that this particular divine must have been the fastest sprinter in holy orders, because so fine a performance never occurred again. Anyhow, what with Goblin pursuing clergymen at the first sight or sniff of a square-toed shoe, and a standing bet with the head gardener as to which portion of each one's anatomy would receive the most damage, I regret to say that Roderick Kinsmere was accorded no vast amount of ghostly counsel.
Indeed, you will perceive that even for those times Blackthorn was considered a somewhat careless and demon-infested place. The village hanged a witch or two among our tenantry; but at Blackthorn they believed in witches, and regarded this as fair enough. Otherwise it was a lazy life. Nobody paid great heed to the weeds or nettles, or the fact that pigs would escape through the kitchens into the house; I can remember this occurring in my own time.
When Buck Kinsmere returned after the Restoration, of course, they made some attempt to put a better face on it, because Buck Kinsmere was a great diplomat, and a fine soldier, and polished with the airs of court. Yet, beyond the few duties he would hold to, he seemed to take little interest.
Sometimes he would assemble his household in the great oak library, which later was so much damaged by fire in sixteen-ninety-one, and he would offer up thanks for the safe return of Charles the Second, confusion to his enemies, and prayers for the soul of Charles the Martyr. The morning sun would just be touching the mullioned windows of the room, not lighting it greatly. My grandfather remembered him standing with his back to the hood of the tall stone fireplace, in his long curling hair and lace collar. His eyes would be shut, with one hand extended towards the windows, the gilt-edged prayer-book under his empty left sleeve; and the household all kneeling, silent, around him.
Then sometimes he would take my grandfather into the main hall, to show him his pistols hung up on the wall, and his old breastplate with the rusty bloodstains upon it He would bid my grandfather never to forget two things: the loyalty he must bear to his king, and the memory of his mother who was dead. Buck Kinsmere said quietly that, when his son came of age, the boy must at length go to court among the noblemen, and that the inheritance from Roderick's mother had made this possible.
She must have been a clear-headed little lady, Mathilda Kinsmere. She had been Mathilda Depping, the shipman's daughter; her father owned a stout fleet of merchant vessels which put out from the port of Bristol to trade in rum and slaves. When Edward Depping died, and she married my great-grandfather, Mathilda Kinsmere had the fleet sold so that there should be no taint of trade in the family; but she would not allow her husband to throw all her fortune as well as his own into the royal cause. Thus it came about that a part of this fortune, approximating ninety thousand pounds, was put into trust for my grandfather with Buck Kinsmere's friend Roger Stainley, the head of the great Stainley banking house, which is known all over the world nowadays.
Their destinies were to cross in singular fashion, because ... but no matter for that, now. This inheritance was the precaution Mathilda Kinsmere took. You have seen her portrait in the Long Gallery, all stiff with lace after the Dutch style, with her red cheeks and merry eyes. But she died notwithstanding, of rust that got into a cut finger: she and Buck Kinsmere still loving each other so much that his was the worse heartbreak when he knew she had to go.
Excerpted from Most Secret by John Dickson Carr. Copyright © 1964 John Dickson Carr. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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